Stories can cause us to feel a wide range of human emotions, but they can also be strangely manipulative. If storytelling is designed to lead an audience into an emotional experience, how do we tell the difference between real emotions and fake ones? And how do we make sure to write the real stuff?
Every great movie has memorable moments. These are the scenes that end up on the poster and splashed all over the trailers. The ones you talk about for years to come.
Today we are talking about the other half. The parts of the story that don’t get the limelight but actually draw the audience into the characters and their situation. The human elements that actually make movies work and transform them into something larger than the sum of their parts.
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.
At 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.
I’ve been spending more time lately working on a few stories of my own. It seems like every day I’m learning the difference between picking apart and analyzing someone else’s story and the much harder task of writing something of your own.
When we critique someone else’s work, we usually forget the long process that went into bringing that narrative to life. All we see are the flaws and the mistakes and we overlook the fact that even a bad movie is still a finished movie. A poorly executed story that managed to actually get finished is still superior than a great idea that only exists in your head.
Everyone has an opinion on what makes a great story, but very few people have what it takes to create a compelling story of their own. Why is that?
Could it be that storytelling is actually much harder than we all assume?
Today we are talking about where stories come from, specifically how they emerge out of our personal experiences and unique authorial perspective. We’ll talk about the inspiration behind The Hunger Games, Spielberg’s aliens, and the critically panned Cars 2.
When I say that stories come from people, I mean that stories are also inseparable from their creators. In many ways, they must communicate the specific life experiences of their authors.
Oakland-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.
Time: 10 minutes
Parental Guide: Rated “R” for language, sexual images, and gore
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.