Kulipari: An Army of Frogs REVIEW: Lord of the Rings But With Frogs

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Haven’t you heard? Last week Netflix dropped a brand new animated series, Kulipari: An Army of Frogs and it’s actually pretty good!

Although normally I’m willing to give any animated show a chance, this particular series struck me as something special even from the very first teaser that came out months ago. A group of warrior frogs tasked with saving the world? Now that’s something I got to see.

Having slowly making my way through the 13 available episodes the past week, I can confirm that this show is a must see for fans of fantasy as well as family friendly animation. Although nominally based in the Australian Outback, it really is more of an otherworldly adventure where clans of different species struggle for survival, dabble in strange magic, and gear up for epic battles.

The best way I can describe this series is Lord of the Rings with Frogs. In fact many scenes have direct parallels to The Hobbit and LOTR. Whether it’s a group of outnumbered frogs defending their homeland from hordes of enemies from behind a hastily constructed wall in a Helms Deep-like situation or two young frogs traversing enemy territory disguised in armor like Sam and Frodo in Mordor, the similarities are numerous. Despite the use of familiar fantasy tropes, the show does feel rather fresh in a few key areas.

Whereas some animated shows feel rather aimless and lethargic in terms of plot, Kulipari keeps the stakes high and aside from some great character-centric early episodes the conflict between the Scorpions and Frogs looms large over the span of episodes. It helps a lot that the lead protagonist, a homely wood frog named Darel, exemplifies the traits of the likeable underdog. He desires to be a Kulipari, a legendary breed of warrior frogs, despite the fact that he was born to be ordinary.

kulipari-3At the core of the first season revolves this mystery of the Kulipari. These titular soft-skinned warriors who glow with brilliant colors and draw their strength from a powerful poison once saved the Amphibilands from annihilation. They have long since vanished. Do they still exist? Will they come back to fight once more? Can any frog become a Kulipari if they try hard enough? The show keeps you guessing as the truth is gradually revealed.

Perhaps the most brilliant decision the series makes is to create an interesting set of villains for the poor frogs to face. Lord Marmoo, general of the Scorpion Army, provides the primary antagonist. Voiced by the always reliable Keith David, the arachnid leader’s simple desire for conquest is compounded only by his complex alliance with the odious Spider Queen who has plans of her own. This shaky relationship is compounded further by their reliance on a group of fearsome but not-always-reliable reptile mercenaries. Each villain faction contains their own standout characters which make them fascinating to watch avoiding the normal villainous slog that animated series often struggle with.

Speaking of animation, clearly this is more of an independent production than a well-oiled machine. The fluid animation is often interrupted by wooden movement and poorly detailed close ups. It’s not terribly distracting and hopefully the animation will continue to improve in future seasons much as Clone Wars did. I’m sure if it gets enough viewers Netflix might pour more money into improving the quality.

The frog designs themselves are excellent, featuring vaguely humanoid bodies with versatile eyes that react to different situations with expressive features. In fact, all the creatures of this world seem to possess these special eye-shifting ability which adds great depth to the emotions of each scene. And while the juvenile humor may or may not work for you at times, you will find yourself surprised by the sheer amount of characters which inhabit this world and which ones earn your affection.

Originally planned as a set of animated films, the first season of Kulipari: An Army of Frogs fits neatly into the Netflix-style episodic format. Clearly a labor of love from creator Trevor Pryce, the story behind the story is certainly interesting enough. After two Super Bowl wins with the Denver Broncos, the former defensive end created a trilogy of books based on heroic frogs under attack by deadly scorpion soldiers. Pryce went on to self-fund this series claiming in Variety to have spent more money per episode than comparable offerings from Marvel animation. Each episode appears to be written and directed by the same team, a notable rarity in television.

Much like Star Wars: The Clone Wars, this ostensibly “for children” program is full of some rather dark themes and bloodless death and violence. I lost count how many times I heard the words “Bring me the head of the Turtle King!” And yes, some characters on both sides don’t make it out alive. This is not the type of show you put on for your young impressionable child while you go to the other room, but for younger kids it might work as something you watch and discuss together.

While the worldbuilding is plentiful, it also feels like merely a foretaste of things to come in later seasons. Although we don’t see much of civilization beyond the wretched wastelands belonging to the Arachnid Empire, the time we do spend in the Amphibilands (home of the frogs) and Turtle Cove (home of the Turtle King) is enough to whet our appetite for more. Plus who isn’t curious about anthropomorphic amphibian cuisine? I certainly am.

If you watched Disney’s Zootopia this year and wondered where all the reptiles, amphibians, and arachnids were hanging out, Kulipari: An Army of Frogs  answers that question for you: they’re right here battling for the fate of the world. Heroes, villains, allies, sorcerer, and warriors, this show has them all.

Check it out only on Netflix.

Brother Review

brother.pngOakland-based filmmaker Alrik Bursell just released his new short film Brother at the Oakland International Film Festival. It’s about a lying cheating boyfriend who gets in trouble when his girlfriend’s brother comes to visit.
 
Genre: Horror
Time: 10 minutes
Parental Guide: Rated “R” for language, sexual images, and gore

 

 

Review:

Undoubtedly one of Brother‘s key strengths is its excellent cast. Each of the three lead actors bring a strong sense of character and personality to their role. David O’Donnell’s Australian loser boyfriend carries the right amount of sleaze and smug egotism. Dezi Soley plays a believable and seemingly innocent woman who thinks she’s found true love. And last but not least, Capone Lee is captivating as Lou, the overly protective brother who harbors dark impulses underneath his rapidly shrinking composure.
 
In one scene O’Donnell lounges on the couch playing video games on an impossibly large TV mounted on the wall. The television fills the center of the frame and remains there, glowing in the background even as things, well, escalate. It’s a simple visual reminder that yes, this character is a lazy moron more interested in playing games who doesn’t see how deeply undeserving he is of his woman.
 
Horror is a punitive genre. We know from the outset that the loser boyfriend can be no match for Lou’s intimidating physical presence. The eventual scene of punishment is brutal and surprising, transporting us from the realm of realism straight over the edge into the stuff of nightmares. Oh yeah, and the special effects aren’t half bad either.
 
The opening shot (which appears to be filmed at the always beautiful Lake Merritt) helps establish this as a distinctly Oakland-based story. This is reinforced by the interiors which convey the unique charm of the East Bay’s cosy older buildings. There is something powerful about watching a film shot in your backyard rather than a generic LA stand in. I’m reminded of the show Parenthood, which takes place in Berkeley yet features huge spacious houses and evokes none of the feel of the actual Bay Area. It’s great to see places you know and recognize up on screen.
 
Congratulations to Alrik and his collaborators for creating another spooky little gem. From all appearances, he’s quite ready to make his feature debut with The Alternate. I can’t wait.
 
Check out other links to his work below:

Based On A True Story

 Today on Story Punch we’re talking about true stories.

What is the responsibility of the storyteller when it comes to adapting real events into an exciting, dramatic, and audience-friendly narrative? What liberties are you allowed to take and what is simply too far?

We’ll look at several popular movies based on true stories and see how well they hold up.

Thanks for listening!

Listen to Episode 34 below – iTunesStitchermp3

Batman v Superman, Star Wars & the Age of Reboots

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It’s been a little while since I’ve had a new episode on the podcast, but fear not. I hope to squeeze out a few more before the end of the calendar year.

In the meantime, I have a couple new articles I’ve written for Panel & Frame over on Medium. Feel free to check them out:

Is There Any Hope for Batman v Superman?

One of Batman v Superman’s greatest challenges is in balancing the need to set up its extended universe with the more important task of telling a complete and satisfying story. It needs to stand on its own.

The Age of Reboots Is Better Than We Thought

Perhaps reboots don’t have to be bad after all. The myth that sequels, prequels, and remakes require less creativity to make is just that: a desperate miscalculation.

Sick of Star Wars? It Hasn’t Even Begun

Star Wars is now on the threshold of becoming more than just a nerdy franchise with a passionate fanbase. It’s about to become the dominant cultural force on the planet.

Two Short Film Projects You Should Check Out

I’m constantly amazed by the sheer amount of creativity on display here in the Bay Area. Seems like everyone I meet is working on some incredible project or the other. It’s a little intimidating at times!

But today I want to highlight two short films that are absolutely worth your time and your attention.

Over My Dead Body

Just when you thought the zombie genre had been beaten to death, here comes a heartwarming story tinged with horror about two people trying to connect in the aftermath of the apocalypse. And one of them just happens to be a zombie.

I recently watched this film with a live audience and it was so cool to experience their laughter and the feedback afterward. I also got a chance to meet the filmmakers, Timothy Plain and Alrik Bursell, who are both really cool guys. Every Monday they put out a very informative podcast about the daily challenges of making movies.

Take 5 minutes, watch their film, and share it with a friend!

Neighbor

This short film is currently raising funds, but it tells the story of a homeless man who witnesses a kidnapping. Director Tony Gapastione hopes the film will raise awareness about human trafficking and highlight real ways people can make a difference.

Tony is the real deal, a swell guy with a big heart for enabling people and their creative pursuits. Let’s spread the word and help him out!

You can watch the promo for the video below and learn more about how to support the project here.

Star Wars Rebels: Season 2 Trailer Analysis

SPOILERS for Star Wars Rebels Season 2 as shown in the trailer!

I was not super impressed with the first season of Star Wars Rebels. The animation was a dip in quality from the far superior (and more expensive) Clone Wars series. The characters were much more cartoony than their more serious Clone, Jedi, and Sith counterparts. But I stuck with it believing that they had formed a solid creative team in Dave Filoni (Avatar: The Last Airbender, Clone Wars), Simon Kinberg (the X-Men films), and Greg Weissman (Gargoyles, Young Justice).

It is, after all, more Star Wars. Who could complain about that? Most television shows need a season or two before they really kick into gear and find their sweet spot. And as it turns out, it seems like Rebels was trying super hard to hold back and establish its main cast before letting loose with a ton of new characters and cameos for Season 2. Hopefully this will be a good new direction for the show. Personally I am sick of Lothal and will be glad if we can get out of there and start exploring new corners of the galaxy much like Clone Wars was prone to do.

I want to go through the trailer chronologically and point out some of the major new developments and speculate on what season 2 (and beyond) might hold for us.

The Voice of Emperor Palpatine

The new trailer opens with what appears to be Darth Vader receiving instructions from Palpatine. I’m excited to hear the always excellent Sam Witwer as the voice of the Sith Master. After the sad death of Ian Abercrombie toward the end of Clone Wars’ run, the character was jarringly replaced by Tim Curry. I’m very glad the Rebels team recruited Sam Witwer (voice of Darth Maul and Starkiller) because it seems like his Darth Sideous voice is a huge step up from Tim Curry.

I doubt we’ll see much of Palpatine on the show because again these rebels are still fairly minor in the overall scheme of things. The fact that they have a Jedi (make that two with the addition of Ahsoka) does elevate their threat level a bit but it still seems like they are not yet a major military concern to the emperor, more a nuisance than anything else. I wouldn’t expect this series to showcase Palpatine like they did every other week on Clone Wars.

Much More Darth Vader

rebelsDarth Vader made a little cameo or two in Season One but now it seems like he is going to be a much bigger player. The fact that they were able to get James Earl Jones, the original voice from the films, is pretty wonderful and unexpected. I would temper your expectations though. From a storytelling point-of-view, you really can’t use Vader very much.

We know Vader could pretty much kill any character on the show without breaking a sweat and if the rebels kept escaping him it would diminish the threat he poses. I predict he will pop up briefly in a few episodes but he will continue to be more of a behind-the-scenes character. If they do give him much to do, I doubt he will interact much with the main rebels. The show needs to maintain Vader’s status as an unstoppable and deadly villain, the top force-user in the galaxy. Expect him primarily in a cameo role.

Multiple Inquistors!

I don’t know why I never thought of it before but of course the Sith would have more than one inquisitor roaming the galaxy carrying out their bidding. I guess the whole idea of the Rule of Two made me think that other lightsaber-wielding subordinates would be too much of a threat to their masters. They could too easily become usurpers.

But we have seen Dooku training up Asajj Ventress and a tolerance with the wannabe General Grievous. Sideous himself decided to keep the reborn Darth Maul for his own insidious purposes. The fact that there are more Inquistors out there is a really good sign that Kanan and Ezra will have some mid-level threats to go up against that will allow for some balanced lightsaber battles.

Force Sensitive Children

I keep forgetting that Luke and Leia are not the only force-sensitive kids in the galaxy. In fact, children would naturally be great candidates for future inquisitors. It seems like we already went over this plotline in Clone Wars but we’ll just have to wait and see if they actually want to go there or if this line from the trailer is misleading us. Remember, last time we saw Vader with a bunch of force-sensitive children, it didn’t turn out so good.

Return of the Clones

Now they’re just messing with our emotions. They cancel Clone Wars. They make us believe we will never see our beloved Ahsoka and Rex again. They create a show with entirely new characters and then they pull this on us!

Yes, old Captain Rex is back and it looks like Gregor and Wolffe have survived as well. After the heartbreaking Order 66 arc in season 6 of Clone Wars, I’m really happy to see a few clones not only survive all the way until the events of Rebels but somehow manage to resist their programming and stand up to the Empire. Well, they are probably more in hiding than anything else but it looks like they might finally be ready to take on the Empire along with the crew of the Ghost and their favorite ex-Jedi.

Captain Rex of course is the most developed clone character from the first show. He was Anakin’s right-hand man. But look who else is with him. Wolffe is from Plo Koon’s squad, nicknamed the Wolfpack. He is the one-eyed clone who showed up in a couple different arcs. Notably he was one of the clones who tried to arrest Ahsoka when she was a fugitive.

The other clone with them is Gregor who you might remember as the commando from the Droid Arc that featured R2-D2 and the rather annoying Colonel Gascon. Gregor ended up sacrificing himself in an awesome one-man showdown that allowed the droids to complete their mission. I don’t think anyone thought Gregor was still alive so it’s pretty interesting that he avoided Order 66 and found his way to Rex.

I have a bad feeling that these clones are not going to survive their decision to help the rebels, but I’m excited that the writers have found a way to revisit some of these wonderful clone characters that often times were the best part of Clone Wars.

The Empire Strikes Back

Briefly in the trailer we see an AT-AT in action, which reminds me. The creators have said that they are going for an Empire Strikes Back tone, which is what everybody says when they want something to be awesome. In this case, they might actually be able to do it since the rebels are in a very similar place to how Luke and the gang were after they blew up the Death Star.

The Ghost crew has struck some minor but effective blows against the Empire and it makes total sense that Vader is going to respond with decisive action. I’m sure the Emperor is not going to tolerate a resurgent Jedi presence anywhere in his galaxy and I think that means people are going to die this season. Maybe even a main cast member. RIP Kanan Surely some side characters like the clones, a crewmember of the Ghost, a rebel ally, or possibly Ahsoka herself.

The thing to keep in mind is that this series is not open-ended. It’s heading toward some very dark days. All the Jedi except for Kenobi and Yoda presumably need to be extinguished by the time of A New Hope. Kanan, Ezra, and Ahsoka can’t really succeed at their mission beyond helping set up a viable rebel alliance. There is no room for non-dead Jedi in this time period unless they self-banish themselves to permanent exile on a crappy planet like Tatooine or Dagobah. This is the part of the story where the Sith are still large and in charge.

It makes sense that Kanan in this trailer still doesn’t want to fight. To join an organized rebellion as a Jedi means imminent torture and death.

Ezra’s Parents

Not sure why they felt the need to spoil this in the trailer. Ezra is one of the weak links of the series so far. His slingshot and tough street kid attitude is not as endearing as the writers hoped it would be. If anything, Ezra seems to be the entry point for younger kids to connect with the show.

Ezra’s parents are still alive. I assume he is going to want to rescue them and that other crew members are going to argue that it is too dangerous and that someone will say that they have to do it because Ezra is a good kid and he is part of their family now and that it totally makes sense to risk everyone’s life and the fate of the galaxy because they’re his parents, right? Not looking forward to this subplot, but oh well.

Ahsoka Has Questions

Questions that need answering. Yeah that feels like a direct quote from Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring right before he abandons Frodo to certain death by Ringwraith. The Grey Wizard discovered that Sauron was still alive and kicking. This makes me feel pretty sure that the many questions that Ahsoka has is really just one question: Where did my old master go and he didn’t turn into an evil Sith lord, did he?

There is really only one way this ends. Ahsoka figures out Darth Vader is Anakin Skywalker. Then they fight each other. After that, I actually don’t know how it ends. Everything is better with Ahsoka so I think it would be much smarter to keep her alive assuming this series is going to keep having more seasons after this. But again, it would be kind of boring if every time Darth Vader shows up, Ahsoka simply duels him to a stalemate.

At this point I just have to believe these writers know what they are doing and how to milk this story for all its worth. Dave Filoni usually knows what to do in these situations. Intriguingly they broke one of ironclad rules of the Star Wars universe (well rules that apply to everyone except Samuel L. Jackson and Jon Favreau): no new lightsaber colors.

Actually Ahsoka sort of broke this rule with her barely green-yellowish lightsaber at the end of Clone Wars. Anyway she wields the color white now because she is neither Jedi or Sith. Get it? More impressively she has two of these weapons, which is pretty incredible especially considering how hard it is to find lightsabers these days. We’ll see how this rivalry/reunion/confrontation/fan-favorite-character-death between Ahsoka and Vader goes. It would also be nice to see how Vader feels about his old apprentice stirring up trouble from him after all these years, most notable because they actually ended on a really good note when she quit the Jedi. Is Darth Vader really so evil that he would hurt his little Snips?

Other Random Mentions

Hondo is also back, creating the perfect triumvirate of Clone Wars heroes along with Ahsoka and Rex. It’ll be interesting to go back and see exactly how their past together affects where they are now in Rebels.

Sabine evidently is being hunted by an old friend. Her sister? Her best friend? Anywho there is an imperial bounty on her head and that means she will have to resort to that age old Mandalorian custom, the one-on-one duel. Also I forget. Is she related to Pre Vizsla? Is she his daughter or niece or something?

Vader mentions that Ahsoka can lead them to other lost Jedi. I am going to speculate here and say that these lost Jedi have to be some of the Younglings from Clone Wars. Star Wars can be super dark sometimes but I can’t see them not bringing back at least two of the Younglings to make up for that horrific temple scene in Revenge of the Sith. They already had a relationship with Ahsoka so it is only natural that when Order 66 went down that she would go back and try to save her relatively helpless padawan friends.

This year is the year of Star Wars. I think Rebels is going to do all it can to up the ante and reclaim some of the glory that got lost during the unfortunate cancellation of Clone Wars. If Season One was putting the pieces in place and proving that it didn’t need the Clone Wars cast to survive, here’s hoping that Season Two grows up a bit and earns its own deserved spot in the Star Wars pantheon.

The Hobbit Trilogy Is Almost Over

hobbitI’ve written tens of thousands of words on the Hobbit trilogy. It truly appears that there is nothing left for me to say about it. But it’s not over. Not yet.

As all True Hobbit Fans know, the movies aren’t official over until the extended edition comes out and we are nearing the release date of Peter Jackson’s last Middle Earth extended edition. (The digital edition arrive October 20 while the Blu Ray arrives November 17).

What does this mean?

I don’t know. A lot of the narrative weight of the trilogy rests on the last film. The first two films in the series raised a ton of questions about the questionable nature of Thorin’s quest, the significance of the Arkenstone, possible necromancy in Dol Guldur, and Smaug’s political alliance with Sauron. Many of those questions got left behind as the tension between the different armies kicked into high gear. Characters were slain, including dwarves we had known for three movies, but their deaths didn’t quite resonate with the emotional impact many were expecting. It ended almost too soon.

The theatrical version did give us one final spectacular battle but curiously removed the main heroes from the heat of battle and had them split up to get killed off one by one.

The Dol Guldur subplot that has been years in the making resulted a cameo-filled battle that was both visually stunning battle and painfully short.

Even the signature Peter Jackson length was trimmed down to neat 2 hours and 24 minutes, instead of his trademark 3 hours.

The biggest issue however is that the third film was juggling way too many balls. It didn’t quite figure out how to integrate Tauriel, Legolas, Radagast, and Alfrid into the story naturally. It didn’t solve the mystery of the dwarven rings of power. It didn’t explain Thorin’s dragon sickness or even give him a heroic death. And it didn’t quite set up a satisfying link to the next trilogy.

I’m not saying the trilogy is a failure. I wouldn’t have spent literally days of my life watching, rewatching, and analyzing the films if I didn’t have an inordinate love toward them. But I have to wonder if there’s any way the extended edition could rehabilitate the parts of the installment that didn’t work out. Could the extended edition redeem the film? Will it sufficiently answer all our questions?

Probably not. What’s done is done. An extended edition will most likely be just a longer version of what we already have, not an actual reworking of material. We’ll get a little more here and there, an extra action set piece involving the dwarves, and hopefully a little more resolution for Thorin’s death in the form of an actual funeral, but it is what it is.

The Hobbit is an ambitious trilogy that had a lot of potential and actually turned out pretty great considering the conditions under which it was made (a stalled production that was suddenly rushed into existence with a reluctant substitute director with only three months to prepare), but those limitations really show up most in this third film. Although it’s a minor miracle that it got made at all, that doesn’t make the loose ends easier to swallow.

Even though the creative decision to split the films into a trilogy at the last minute didn’t result with a powerful conclusion to the story, it did give us more time with a stellar cast of memorable characters in a stunning fantasy world, three beautifully haunting scores, and 27 hours of behind-the-scenes features that are a masterclass in blockbuster filmmaking all by themselves.

I eagerly await the final extended edition and will be watching as soon as it hits digital shelves. The Hobbit Trilogy for all its flaws is still leaps and bound above most fantasy films and an enthralling ride back to Middle Earth. Even if the plot is shaky from time to time, the characters and the world they inhabit will continue to hold up for years to come. What will our final 20 minutes with The Hobbit be like? I can’t wait.