Beauty and the Beast Shows That Reality is, Like, Overrated

By ‘eck, I wasn’t a fan of outlandish RPG settings when I were a young(er) lad. The likes of Morrowind – complete with crazy mushroom infestations and giant fleas – were all well and good, but I preferred more down-to-earth landscapes that didn’t stretch suspension of disbelief quite so much. Yes, I appreciate the hypocrisy of this when I’d spend most of the time spamming fireballs out of my hands.

Beauty-and-the-Beast-Concept-Art-Disney-Karlsimon-Ballroom_magic_02_L
Look at the sparkles. LOOK AT THEM (concept art for Beauty and the Beast by Karl Simon)

Anyway. It wasn’t until I heard a 15 year-old complaining about the same thing that I realised how much of a 180 I’d done. These days I’m less interested in realism: an immersive, enjoyable experience is far more important to me (not that the two are mutually exclusive, of course). There’s a lot to be said for sheer wonder, and a project that really epitomised that recently was Disney’s Beauty and the Beast remake.

Musical numbers aside, the screen burst with a colour and vitality that you rarely see in cinema now. Overrun with a blush of green and warm orange sunsets, the contrast was amped up until it popped in a loud, primary-coloured firework. The cottages in Belle’s village were also brilliantly wonky, leaning at awkward angles as if they’d been plucked directly from the fairy tales that inspired this story. It was a place bursting with magic and joy, and that’s exactly the kind of place I’d want to hang out in. As with The Lord of the Ring’s Hobbiton, you’d have to drag me away by my ear.

The same could be said of Themyscira, Wonder Woman’s Mediterranean paradise. A scattering of romantic Grecian architecture that blossomed up the side of wooded mountains, it was full of hidden corners and powerful artefacts atop thundering waterfalls. This contrasted fantastically with the dingy reality of WWI. It made Diana’s home a place I’d book flights to without thinking, too. That’s a notable departure from Batman v Superman’s landscapes: they were a hodgepodge of miserable urban jungles that can be best described as ‘damn grey’.

In short, it’s the kind of approach you can only get in fantasy. I’m glad I’ve broadened my horizons enough to see it. While realistic and dour settings are grand, we don’t always champion pure delight as much anymore.

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Fantasy Could Learn Something From Films Like Moana

It’s all Tolkien’s fault. After writing The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings and a tough but rewarding slog that became The Silmarillion, he’s squarely responsible for fantasy as it is today. There are few works in the genre that don’t owe Middle-earth a significant debt, be it The Wheel of Time or Warhammer. From its elves of the woodland realm to inexplicably cockney orcs, his world left such a stamp on this branch of fiction that the two became inseparable. Countless franchises now rely on the template he left behind.

Exploring an ocean of possibility – concept art by Disney.

Such dependence can result in a feeling of déjà vu, however. Evocative though they may be, these stories often follow the same road-map until they become interchangeable with one another. That’s what makes Moana special. Despite relying on a well-worn quest to save the world, it draws inspiration from an ancient society we don’t always see in Hollywood – Polynesia. While this makes for a charming yet traditional odyssey, the setting and culture give it a uniquely powerful voice with which to stand apart. By doing so, Disney’s musical hints at what might be if sword-and-sorcery looked for inspiration outside medieval Europe once in a while.

I’m baffled by this reluctance, especially when there’s such an invigorating and diverse range of nations to draw a world from. It’d be like refusing to paint with anything but green, brown and yellow. The genre relies too heavily on enjoyable yet tired clichés, digging its heels into one small corner of the globe instead. By contrast, the likes of Pacific Island mythology is driven by a very different perspective. This in turn offers fresh and exciting narratives including animal reincarnation, a mother earth who forms the land beneath our feet, ocean exploration and demi-gods that shape the kingdom as we know it.

Although Moana faces accusations of cultural appropriation, we can at least be grateful it celebrates a society which sometimes goes unnoticed in entertainment. I hope it inspires someone to push the boat out and see what’s waiting for them over the horizon, as the film’s eponymous hero does.

Make Attitude Your B**ch – Just Like Zootropolis Did

There’s something about motivational quotes on Facebook which make me cringe. Despite sounding meaningful at first blush, there’s not always anything substantial (never mind practical) underneath. It’s the advice of an armchair critic; they’re cobbled together with what I assume must be good intentions, but there’s the whiff of an ivory tower about them nonetheless. This photo of GamesRadar’s Iain Wilson sums up my thoughts on the matter.

Of course, credit goes to the genius who put this together

That said, I recently stumbled across an exception tacked to the wall of our staffroom. It’s exactly the sort of thing which plasters itself across your social-media newsfeed, all positivity and assurances we are (to misquote Fight Club) ‘beautiful and unique snowflakes’. For some reason, its words struck a chord. Here you go:

“The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than failure, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness or skill. It will make or break a company… a church… a home. The remarkable thing is we have a choice everyday regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past… we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude. I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it. And so it is with you… we are in charge of our attitudes.”

The guru in question is Charles ‘Chuck’ Swindoll, a senior pastor from Texas. In case this makes you wary, focus for a moment on what he’s saying. It’s an expansion of the glass half-full argument. If you go into a situation thinking the worst, that’s probably what you’ll find.

For context, I’d recently been feeling overwhelmed by work and/or life in general. This transformed me into something of a misery. I left every morning expecting the day to be difficult, setting off a snowball effect where minor setbacks just contributed to my bad mood. Being realistic, it didn’t matter how justified my cynicism was – it hadn’t helped in the slightest.

That’s why Disney and Pixar movies are like concentrated hits of hot-chocolate. They’re simultaneously life-affirming and optimistic, warm in all the right ways without being unrealistic where it counts. Saying this might come across as odd when you consider how many of their films feature anthropomorphic animals, yet the heroes wrestle with universal struggles anyone can relate to. Better still, these stories champion self-reflection and development as a person.

Artwork created by Cory Loftis for Zootropolis
A leopard can never change its spots – artwork by Cory Loftis

Zootropolis is surprisingly astute not only in its representation of racial stereotyping, for instance, but also the difficulty with overcoming our own presumptions. The film’s protagonist, Judy Hopps, naively buys into the notion that her world’s creatures have advanced beyond their baser instincts; both predator and prey co-exist in peace. Obviously, this isn’t the case. Even she isn’t immune to thinking the worst of predators based solely upon their reputation. It’s not a twist of fate that helps her, though. It’s Judy’s can-do attitude.

Although this may seem painfully sentimental, there’s a lot to be said for focusing on what goes right rather than wrong (if purely to keep us from becoming depressed). A small kindness can make someone’s day. Staying optimistic can make ours.