Saturday, 10 June 2023

Chocolateers by Frank Valenti – Graphic Novel Review

 

Originally published on Set The Tape


'Struggling musician Gilby Moss craves an audience for his songs and a reason to keep writing them. Cullen Cordial, ruler of Cocoa Kingdom, is seeking to upturn his down-streaking approval rating. The two cross paths when Gilby gains a spot in Cordial’s new boy band/special missions task force, the Chocolateers.'

Creating an independent comic isn’t easy. There are multiple things that can go wrong, from finding a reliable artist, to getting decent printing and distribution, and finding a space for your product on shelves. Having worked in the comic industry, and the indie scene, I’ve seen multiple creators try to make it in that industry, and struggle to do so. Frank Valenti, a writer and artist from New Jersey, is the latest creator to try and make their way in this competitive field with their new graphic novel Chocolateers.

Chocolateers, written and drawn by Valenti, tells a few stories within the same universe. The main story is about Gilby Moss, a guy in the latter part of his twenties who has been trying to make it as part of a band for the last decade. With his 30s looming, and no sign that his music career is going to be taking off anytime soon, he’s lost at sea. He doesn’t know what to do with his life if he can’t make it as a musician, and whiles away his spare time helping his best friend out with his pizza delivery job. One day when grabbing some lunch a ta local fast food restaurant, Gilby wins a free food for life competition; a competition that was never supposed to have a winner.

Meanwhile, his girlfriend Muffin and her best friend are working on their tiny food science channel, trying to have some fun and hopefully grab an audience. Things aren’t going so well for them, and the girls are considering whether or not to carry on, when their channel gets a shout-out on the nation’s most popular talk show, netting them hundreds of thousands of new viewers.

We also meet former TV game show host turned actor turned politician, King Cordial, who runs Cocoa Nation. Cordial’s approval ratings keep dropping, and he becomes desperate to find a way to win over public affection whilst he works on making the perfect chocolate flavoured beverage. He comes up with the plan to create a boy band; one that will become the most popular around, believing that having a connection to them will regain his standing with the public. In the neighbouring country of NillaNation, their leader Baron von Vanilla, a rival of Cordial’s who had an almost identical career path, is slipping into dementia, but vows to ruin his rival any way he can, including kidnapping their star TV personality. There’s also a sub-plot of a mob-run fast food restaurant manager trying to steal back Gilby’s free food card thrown in for good measure.

How do these plots all tie in together? Well, they don’t really; at least until the last few pages. It’s only at the end of the first volume that these seemingly unconnected stories start to finally come together. And that’s perhaps the main issue with this first volume: it’s all set-up. A lot happens in Chocolateers yet also very little happens. The plot simmers in the background as most of the scenes are given over to world building or developing the characters.

There are multiple scenes that go over three or four pages that are simply two or three characters sitting around talking. They discuss their lives, their goals, the people around them, and much of the book comes across as like listening in on someone’s conversations. The characters meander, they get distracted, they take a while to get to the point, and they have in-jokes and banter with each other. This kind of writing can be divisive; there are some that enjoy this kind of laid back approach to dialogue, and there’s definitely a niche for that in comics. If you enjoy films like Clerks, where characters stand around and shoot the breeze with each other, or your favourite parts of Tarantino movies are where the characters are chatting about unconnected stuff, this book will likely appeal for those same reasons. Thanks to some of the pages being heavy on the dialogue it also ends up feeling like you’re reading a much longer book, giving you more content for your cash.

As mentioned before, Valenti not only writes the script, but provides the art on the book too. The characters of Chocolateers are animals: anthropomorphic bears, lions, and goats, to name a few. Whilst the story of Chocolateers feels like a very human one, and the issues facing the characters could easily fit within a real-world setting, having the characters be animals people helps to add some colour and flair to the story. When the story is more grounded it helps to have something a bit different visually, and this book does just that. The artwork is simple and clean, with thick lines and bright colours, and looks decent throughout, with a lot of attention given to backgrounds and small details.

Why is the book called Chocolateers though? This volume doesn’t tell you. However, the trailer for the book does reveal a bit more about the story than in presented in this first volume, and does explain why it has that particular title. With the first volume spending a lot of time establishing the world and the characters there’s nothing stopping Valenti jumping straight into things with volume two.



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Friday, 9 June 2023

Star Wars: Hyperspace Stories #5 – Comic Review

 

Originally published on Set The Tape


It’s bee a while since we got the last issue of Star Wars: Hyperspace Stories, which told four tales from across the Star Wars timeline, that all seemed to have a very slight connection with each other. Those issues followed the heroes of the various trilogies, with characters like Obi-Wan Kenobi, Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker, Finn, and Rey Skywalker leading the stories. After a small break it looks like the series is back, and it’s letting the villains run things for a while.

The fifth issue focuses on fan favourite assassin, Asajj Ventress, and takes place during the very early days of the Clone Wars. Thanks to some context clues, this story has to be taking place very soon after the events of Star Wars: Attack of the Clones and before the events of Star Wars: The Clone Wars, though there does seem to be a few mistakes in the book that mess with placement a little.

The story begins on a remote base, one held by the Jedi and the Republic forces. Ventress, under orders from Count Dooku, infiltrates the facility, but is soon captured by a Jedi knight and her padawan. Locked in a cell for days, it’s revealed to have been part of her plan, and she eventually breaks out once the Jedi leave, taking over the facility for her master. Much like with Ventress as we see her in Star Wars: The Clone Wars, this is a Ventress very much under the thumb of Dooku, being used as an expendable resource who’s only useful as long as she’s getting results.

The rest of the book deals with Ventress being sent after a lost artefact, one powerful with the Force, that Dooku tells her will allow the two of them to overcome Sidious, and supplant him as the true Sith. Ventress is led a merry chase across a number of worlds as she searches for the artefact; a search that will bring her into conflict with more Republic forces.

It seems that this issue isn’t as disconnected from the previous four as it first appears. Thanks to the gap in publication, and the change from heroes to villains, it looked like perhaps the series would be going in a different direction, and would cover a different story for this second arc. However, it seems that the artefact Ventress is being sent after is the same thing hidden in the wookiee doll in the very first issue, as she comes across that same doll here.

This plot point was never fully explained in that first issue, and it seemed like characters with Force connections were being drawn to places this doll existed, so it makes sense that it has some connection to the Force. However, like with the previous issues, we don’t really get any explanation. What is the artefact? How will it help Dooku and Ventress beat Sidious? Why could Ventress sense it from different planets but the heroes couldn’t feel it right in front of them across the three trilogy timelines? None of these answers get given. As such, it seems like one of two things is going to happen: either this is the big plot for the entire series, or it’s simply a mcguffin and it doesn’t matter.

The art on the issue, by Riccardo Faccini and Dan Jackson, is good for the most part, and all of the returning characters look enough like their film and television counterparts to be instantly recognisable. There are some moments in the book that look really great too, with a couple of panels of both Dooku and Ventress being the best I’ve ever seen them look in comic form. However, there are a few moments that don’t land as well.

There’s a scene in which Ventress gets tripped into a cell by an unseen assailant. And this moment is conveyed by a panel simply showing a pair of feet. It’s the only part of this Jedi we see, and it feels really clunky and a bit of a let down. There are also some mistakes in the depiction of Anakin Skywalker in this issue too. This is set after Star Wars: Attack of the Clones as the Clone War is in full swing, and Anakin is a Jedi knight, yet he has two hands in this issue. The hand that he lost in the second film isn’t a robot hand, nor is it covered with a glove, and is a regular flesh and blood appendage. This is a pretty glaring mistake for anyone who knows the prequel era well.

Other than a few parts that don’t quite land that well, and a story that kind of fizzles out for a bit towards the end, this is a decent enough restart to the series. It’s not fantastic, but it’s not terrible either. It’s a perfectly serviceable story in a decent era of Star Wars. Hopefully, though, the quality will improve somewhat as the series continues.



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Thursday, 8 June 2023

Star Wars: Return of the Jedi – Throwback 40

 

Originally published on Set The Tape


Star Wars is a franchise with a lot of history, and not just in universe. Since the release of the very first movie in May 1977, the franchise secured its place in film history. It’s not hard to argue that the original trilogy is one of the most influential film series of all time, having inspired a multitude of imitations, as well as birthing a love for cinema and storytelling in thousands of fans and creatives. Even before the trilogy had come to a close it had become one of the biggest film series around; as such, bringing that story to a close in 1983 with Star Wars: Return of the Jedi must have been a daunting prospect.

After the runaway success of the first film, and the critical acclaim of the second, it seemed like series creator George Lucas would have to create the perfect film in order to please fans. Seeing what modern Star Wars fans are like, and how quickly fandom can turn into a rabid mob at even a slight dislike, it’s not hard to imagine that similar discourse was happening at the time, and that Lucas knew he had to create something special.

Star Wars: The Return of the Jedi picks up just a year after the events of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, a film that is still held up as one of the best sequels of all time. Thanks to Harrison Ford having only signed onto two movies, in contrast to his co-stars’ three, Han Solo was carefully put away into the closet at the end of the second film, his fate uncertain, so that he could either be written out for good, or brought back if a deal was made. It’s strange to think that there was very nearly a movie without Ford in it, and that the character would have been lost forever, but even with the success of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back there were no certainties for the final Star Wars film.



Those uncertainties also took place behind the scenes, with multiple directors being approached to helm the movie, including Steven Spielberg, David Cronenberg, and David Lynch. Not even the film’s name was safe, with the title changing to Revenge of the Jedi, with thousands of posters being distributed and a teaser trailer with that name being released (you can find it on YouTube if you’re interested in a bit of cinema history), before Lucas decided to change it back to the original title, stating that a Jedi wouldn’t be interested in revenge (a good decision that absolutely dodged a muddled legacy of fan discourse and disagreements). Despite these initial teething difficulties, the film was soon on track, with Ford returning.

Star Wars: Return of the Jedi was split across two parts, with the film’s opening having to deal with the issue of Han Solo’s capture at the end of the last movie. Having to get their friend back from gangster Jabba the Hutt, Luke (Mark Hamill), Leia (Carrie Fisher), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), Lando (Billy Dee Williams), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) hatch an intricate plot to infiltrate Jabba’s palace and free him.

The opening for the film becomes a swashbuckling adventure movie, complete with daring escapes, action and explosions, and a menagerie of new aliens and creatures to astonish the audience. The opening of Return of the Jedi is perhaps the best example from the original trilogy of the creativeness of Star Wars. The first film introduced the universe but kind of kept things small, the second was a darker tale about loss and the power of the Empire, but this movie opened with a showcase of special effects, creature design, and heroes being victorious. It set a tone for the film that would continue on to the conclusion.



The rest of the film would deal with the Rebel Alliance coming together to combat the threat of a second Death Star weapon, launching a two pronged assault against the half built facility in order to destroy it, and kill both the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) and Darth Vader (James Earl Jones/David Prowse), who are overseeing the final stages of construction. From here the film becomes part war story, with the Rebels fighting a guerrilla fight against ground forces, and the biggest space battle of the franchise to date, whilst Luke enters a final confrontation against his father.

I’ve seen it argued that Return of the Jedi is the worst film of the three original ones, though people will tend to say ‘least good’ as they still enjoy it. Some of the criticism that gets levelled against it is that it feels more like a ‘kids’ film thanks to the inclusion of the Ewoks, and some of the stuff at Jabba’s palace. I’m not going to try and argue that it’s not the least good of the three, or that it’s the second best, I’m going to suggest that it might be the best one. When looked at in the context of the entire franchise and where it is now, with several other films across different eras, live action and animated series, novels, comics, and games that have all added to and expanded the universe, I think that Return of the Jedi feels the most Star Wars of those original three.



A New Hope takes a relatively small look at the universe, having to establish everything brand new, and The Empire Strikes Back tells the story of a loss for the Rebels, but from the point of view of Luke and his friends. Those first two films feel small, insular, focused on just a handful of people. Return of the Jedi brings in the entire Rebel Alliance for the final fight, a fight that’s bigger than anything we’ve seen before. The Emperor is finally here in person, and we learn more about the Jedi and the Sith than before, and see the kind of evil that Palpatine embodies and how important Luke’s fight is. And when they win we see (thanks to the Special Editions) the galactic scope of that victory, with celebrations across the galaxy. Return of the Jedi turned this story into one that changed the entire Star Wars universe, and it felt grand in scale.

More importantly, it felt the most hopeful. The entire Rebellion came together for one last shot at winning, in a fight where a loss would have meant the loss of everything. People from dozens of races and hundreds of worlds stood up against fascism and evil and said enough is enough. When Luke fights his father he refuses to kill him, he refuses to give into his anger and fully embraces what it means to be a Jedi. And when all hope seems lost a father’s love for his son ultimately wins through. Return of the Jedi is the most hopeful of the original trilogy, and it makes the message of those films incredibly clear: that standing up against evil and hate is the right thing to do, and that that fight can be won. So yeah, it might have been more aimed towards younger audiences thanks to things like the Ewoks, but it taught those younger viewers a hell of an important lesson. Plus, the Ewoks are cool, and I won’t apologise for thinking that.

For almost two decades Star Wars: Return of the Jedi would be the last Star Wars film. It was how that story ended for a lot of people who didn’t explore the expanded universe, and it was a wonderful way to put a pause on that franchise for a while. Whilst the prequel trilogy would end up closing on an almost exact opposite note, with evil winning the day and hope seeming lost, the final film of The Skywalker Saga, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker would in many ways feel similar to Return of the Jedi; echoing similar sentiments, with ordinary people coming together to fight back evil, the embracing of Jedi ways to defeat the Sith, and scenes of celebration and hope across the galaxy. Return of the Jedi crafted the perfect end to the trilogy that it would be felt again decades later. Like George said, “It’s like poetry, it rhymes”.



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Tuesday, 6 June 2023

Restart the Earth – Film Review

 

Originally published on Set The Tape


Humanity is at a strange point in its history. We’re facing the point of no return in regards to the destruction we’ve caused to our planet, with less and less time to do something about it every single day. It feels almost certain that we’ve engineered our own end, and that our future generations are going to be living in every increasingly dire circumstances as the planet suffers.

As such, eco-disasters have slowly been on the rise. When you’re living in a time when forests are burning, the seas are rising, the ice-caps are melting, and entire species are going extinct, it’s hard not to incorporate the extreme shifts in our planet into fiction. Restart the Earth, written and directed by Chinese director Zhenzhao Lin, is the latest piece of fiction to cash in on this growing trend.

Restart the Earth begins a few years after the end of the world, but quickly catches us up through a series of flashbacks across the first fifteen minutes or so. Faced with increased global extremes, a group of scientists got together to try to improve the ability of various flora to survive in harsh conditions, hoping that it would help combat global warming. Unfortunately, the experiments resulted in the plants becoming both sentient, and hyper evolved. The now predatory, interconnected flora turned on every living thing it could find, using any animal (including humanity) as a food source.



Two years later, the world as we know it is gone, plants have run rampant, destroying entire cities and covering every inch of the planet. Those that have survived the initial ‘green wave’ are surviving in small pockets, using UV lights to keep the monstrous plants away, hoping that one day things can improve. One of these survivors is Yang Hao (Mickey He) and his young daughter YuanYuan (Zhang Mingcan). When YuanYaun is captured by one of the plant tendrils that breaks its way into their small home, Yang goes after her, and the two of them discover a special unit of soldiers from the Joint Command Centre who are part of a global mission to beat back the super plants before a second Green Wave hits and destroys the surviving members of the human race.

Restart the Earth is very much a B Movie, and I say that with the greatest of affection and respect. The plot is very ridiculous, and the set pieces that the characters go through feel like an attempt to out-do the previous ones, and to compete with the wildest big budget video games. There are a number of points in the movie that feel like they’ve been lifted out of other similar projects, and one of these in particular strikes me as the reason the film has been marketed as being similar to The Last of Us. Despite this, the actors play it completely seriously throughout, and it stops the film from veering too far into the ridiculous and keeps things feeling somewhat grounded.

That being said, the film absolutely has a propensity to embrace self sacrifice and heroic moments, as is popular in big blockbusters (and Chinese blockbusters especially). There’s more than one moment of ultimate sacrifice across the course of the film that you begin to suspect that every single character is going to throw themselves into a fiery explosion at some point. However, it is nice to see a global fight back against extinction where it’s not an American giving the stirring speech that gives humanity the push it needs to save the day.

The film’s effects are mostly decent, though there are a number of times when you can see where a bit more money could have been spent in order to bring certain moments up to scratch. These moments aren’t that common though, and the film sits nicely in the mid-budget range where you expect some shakiness, yet it can still pleasantly surprise you. For example, some of the monster plant designs are really pretty good.



For the most part the survivors are dealing with masses of vines that are tearing up the ground or bringing down buildings, but there are also snake-like tendrils that slither around the place hunting for humans to eat, that have a design that evokes images of dragons and fantasy serpents. There’s also a horrific plant creature at the start of the film that’s feeding on multiple people at once, which has a mass of vines that look almost like a hanging brain that evokes nightmarish imagery. Sadly, this level of creativity doesn’t appear all that often, and much of the plants end up being unmemorable.

It does manage to pace itself pretty decently though, and it manages to pack a decent amount into its relatively short run time. It sets up the entire scenario, and gives a few scenes of flashback character motivation for the central characters before most movies have even introduced the leads. It keeps things moving briskly from there, throwing the characters from one set piece to the next without much chance to stop and take a breather, and by the time the film reaches the point where it feels the finale will happen you realise there’s another twenty minutes or so to go, and the movie throws some even wilder stuff at you. It ends up feeling like you’ve had a two hour plus movie crammed into a smaller package, without feeling like you’ve missed out on anything.

Restart the Earth might not be the most creative movie around, and it borrows heavily from other places, but it at least tries to be a bit different. It might not succeed at being totally unique or memorable, but the attempt makes it enjoyable to watch, and there’s nothing hugely egregious here to put you off or stop you from recommending it. If you’re looking for something a little schlocky to pass the time this film will probably be entertaining enough to dedicate 90 minutes to.



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Monday, 5 June 2023

Hopping Mad: The Mr Vampire Sequels – Blu-ray Review

 

Originally published on Set The Tape


One of the things that movie fans seem to complain about a lot is the speed at which modern movies make sequels. Once a studio has a hit on their hands it seems like almost no time at all until another film is underway, and a franchise in the works.

And I guess compared to Hollywood of decades ago when it could take several years for big name franchises to bring out another film, a two or three year turn around can seem fast. But I don’t think I’ve seen anyone produce sequels faster than Hong Kong cinema in the 1980s; once they found a good thing that was a hit with audiences you were almost guaranteed to have another film before a year had passed. And the horror comedy series Mr Vampire was no exception to this, with five films being released over five years.

With Eureka Entertainment having previously released the first film in the series as a stand-alone Blu-ray, fans of the franchise were waiting for the other films to come out, preferably with the same speed and efficiency as their initial release schedule. But rather than releasing them one at a time, Eureka Entertainment have unveiled Hopping Mad: The Mr Vampire Sequels collection, which brings all four sequels together in one set to complete the collection. It’s never been a better time to be a fan.

The first film in this set is Mr Vampire II (1986), which is perhaps the most distinct of the bunch thanks to taking some bold story choices. Since the release of the first movie the popularity of the Jiangshi genre had exploded, and there were multiple knock-off movies all trying to cash in on the success, and brand themselves as the next Mr Vampire. This, in part, led to the choice to transport the action of the second movie from the turn of the century mainland China to modern day Hong Kong. Despite being set in a whole new era, with a new bunch of characters, the film saw the return of a number of actors from the first movie in new roles as a form of connective cohesion.

The film begins with an archaeologist and his two students stumbling across a burial site where they find three bodies perfectly preserved. This man, woman, and child, likely a family, all have Taoist talismans stuck to their heads. Thanks to the desire to sell the corpses and make money, the three men don’t bother researching into what they’ve found, and end up unleashing the three vampires. Luckily, a local doctor, played by series icon Lam Ching-ying is on hand to deal with the threat. Despite the change in location and era, Mr Vampire II does share a surprising similarity with the first film (and not just because of the cast). The first movie had a lot of subtext in regards to the clash of traditional values and culture with that of modernisation and western influence. This is even more prevalent in this movie, and is a theme that is explored in Hong Kong cinema a lot thanks to their unique circumstances.



The Chinese title for Mr Vampire II translates to ‘Vampire Family’, and the group of vampires at the centre of the film also make this a stand out movie amongst the others in the series. The vampires are very much presented as a family unit, and much of the carnage is caused by the two parent vampires trying to find their missing child. The child, who gets separated, ends up making friends with a couple of modern kids, who mistake him for an immigrant child and try to help him. The movie even gives you a cutesy montage of the vampire boy and his new human friends going on a day out, riding the bus, and playing in the park. It’s very jarring, and doesn’t fit completely with the tone of the rest of the movie, but this is a series that likes to mess with expectations and genres, so it’s not the oddest thing that a Mr Vampire movie has done.

Thankfully, much of the horror comedy and action of the first film has been included, and those that enjoyed the weird hi-jinks of the original will find a lot to enjoy here too. The scene in which one of the archaeologists assistants has to desperately switch talismans between two vampires trying to kill him is an incredibly well put together and choreographed scene that walks the line between horror and comedy perfectly.

Mr Vampire III (1987) is perhaps the oddest of the four films collected here for one very big reason: there are no vampires in it. It’s possible that the lack of vampires in this film is due in part to the proliferation of Jiangshi movies that were being made at the time, and that the series wanted to keep itself different and interesting. Whilst Mr Vampire III gave up on vampires, it did return to the series roots and went backwards in time to a more traditional setting. The film focuses on a dishonest priest, played by the hugely popular comedian Richard Ng (who sadly passed away just last month), who use two friendly ghosts to scam people out of money.

When the dishonest priest stumbles across a small community that is under attack from evil magic practitioners, he ends up getting dragged into the fight thanks to their village priest, played by Lam Ching-ying. Thus, spirits and evil wizards get the centre stage this time round. This leads to a neat expansion of the lore introduced in the other films. Western audiences are, more often than not, ignorant of other the traditions and beliefs of other parts of the world, and as such many of the rituals and traditions present in these films have little frame of reference for audiences outside of China and Hong Kong. As such, the new lore added in this film can be both surprising and baffling, as characters strip off and cover themselves in soot to become invisible to ghosts, and deep fry spirits in order to neutralise them.

Mr Vampire III is perhaps the strangest, most comedic of the films on offer here. This is in part down to the supernatural antics, but it’s also in large part thanks to the casting of Richard Ng, whose career became synonymous with comedic roles, and whose inclusion in a movie guaranteed ridiculous moments to come. Here he works perfectly alongside Lam Ching-ying’s straight laced priest, and the two of them develop a decent rapport as the film progresses, and they become the priestly equivalent of a buddy cop duo.



The third film in the collection is 1988’s Mr Vampire IV, and is the only film in the series that doesn’t feature Lam Ching-ying. Instead, the film has two lead priest characters, one a Taoist, the other a Buddhist. These two older masters live in houses set side by side in the middle of nowhere with their two students, and are constantly warring with each other. The first half of the movie becomes a slapstick comedy as the two priests play pranks on each other, even going so far as using magic to mess with the other and tormenting them to breaking point.

It’s at around the halfway point that the film finally introduces its vampire, and it’s a hell of an introduction. The vampires featured in the other films in the series have so far been presented as pale people with fangs, maybe a bit greenish in places. This movie’s vampire, in comparison, is much more frightening. The film uses heavy make-up to make him look more monstrous and aggressive, and the moment he’s let loose from his coffin he begins slaughtering people. The scene, accompanied by rain and lightning, feels like the closest the series gets to out and out horror, and it makes for an even more shocking scene as it’s set within a film that’s been a pure comedy up to this point.

The film isn’t just about the comedy, however, as once the action begins there are a number of really well done set-pieces and gags, such as the students dressing themselves up as vampires to try and get away from the undead, huge swords that would make Cloud Strife jealous, and sticky floor designed to trap the hopping monsters. However, it really does end up feeling like a film of two halves, one that might end up testing the patience of those wanting some vampire action.

The final film in the collection, 1989’s Vampire vs Vampire, is something of an oddity, as it’s not an official sequel. Thanks to the popularity of the series more and more supernatural comedy films were being made, and Lam Ching-ying appeared in a number of them. The booklet that comes with this set compares Vampire vs Vampire to Casino Royale and Never Say Never Again, and the way those films are mostly, kind of, included in the Bond series even though they’re not official. This film gets the same kind of treatment thanks in large part to Lam Ching-ying playing a similar role to the other films, and him directing the movie. It also hits upon several of the themes from the first movie.



As the title suggests, this film will pit vampires against each other, though likely not in the way you’d expect. The film deals with a Taoist priest, played by Lam Ching-ying, his two bumbling students, and the little boy vampire who lives with them. The priest ends up getting to know the head nun of a nearby Christian mission that’s being renovated, and ends up getting into a number of embarrassing situations with her that makes for a delightful change to the normally serious characters he plays in the series. However, when a vampire is freed from its imprisonment within the mission, the priest will have to battle against it.

The promised vampire fight doesn’t really come, and whilst the little vampire does come the priest’s aid once or twice this is still very much Lam Ching-ying fighting vampires. But, the second vampire is not a Jiangshi, but is a western vampire (and is even named Western Vampire in the credits). This makes for a delightfully jarring movie, where a very Dracula-like vampire is running around the Chinese countryside in a cape. It also means that a lot of the methods in which the Taoist priest would usually deal with vampires no longer work, as this vampire has different rules.

The clash of East and West that has been a theme in a number of these movies is very much pushed front and centre here, with a Toaist priest fighting the kind of vampire you’d expect to find in a Hammer Horror film, as well as the moments where the priest and the head nun are getting into odd, almost Carry On style scrapes and embarrassing situations. Previous movies in the series have very much treated traditional values as something that is needed to save the day when those pushing for advancement and westernisation come under attack from the supernatural, and whilst Lam Ching-ying isn’t able to save the day in the same way, with many of his traditional methods bearing no results, it does carry a message about traditional values adapting to find a place in an increasingly westernised society.

As previously mentioned, this new set comes with a booklet written by film critic, film maker and historian James Oliver, who delves into the franchise, and how each movie fits into it. Alongside that, each film has been given a new HD restoration, and is presented with the original Cantonese audio on all of the films, as well as an alternate English dub for the second movie. Each film comes with an audio commentary, and there are a couple of extra features that explore the rituals and practices used in the films, and the impact of the Jiangshi genre.

The Mr Vampire series is one that became hugely popular, especially outside of Hong Kong. The original movie did exceptionally well, and helped to introduce the concept of Chinese Hopping Vampires to the rest of the world. However, despite that popularity few of the sequels ever actually made it outside of Hong Kong. As such, this set is the perfect opportunity for fans to finally see the other films in the franchise, and to add them to their collection.



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Saturday, 3 June 2023

Nightjar by Katya Balen - Book Review

 


'When Noah’s dad visits from New York, he and Noah come across an injured nightjar during a walk in the countryside. Noah is determined to save the bird, but his dad believes they should leave it alone to let nature take its course. As father and son argue, it becomes clear that Noah is angry about more than just the bird. He feels abandoned and misunderstood by his dad, who has moved to the US and started a new family there that doesn’t seem to have room for Noah. Can they find a way to build a new relationship and rediscover the common ground between them?'

When I was a younger reader there seemed to be two types of lead characters in books, the confident, almost brash boys who were always up for adventure, and the girly girls who were the sensitive souls of the world. Obviously, this wasn't a hard and fast rule, and there were books that did things different, but a lot of the stories I was given when a kid were split this way, reinforcing rigid gender roles and stereotypes. One of the things that I love about Barrington Stoke's books is that they don't do this, and more often than not, end up going against the grain somewhat. Nightjar does this, and does it wonderfully, as it delivers a story about a kind, caring, and sensitive young boy.

Nightjar tells the story of Noah, a twelve year old boy living in London with his mother. Noah's father left a number of years ago, and has made a new life for himself in New York, along with a girlfriend and her kid. But, this doesn't bother Noah too much, as he's forged a good life for himself, with his best friend, his mother, and his passion for birds. Noah loves watching birds, and his room is covered in his drawings of birds that he's seen. But more than that, he also likes helping birds, finding sick and injured birds and nursing them back to health to be released into the wild.

Noah's carefully constructed life is thrown slightly off-kilter when his father arrives in the city for a week in order to spend some time with Noah leading up to his Bat Mitzvah. The two of them struggle to really fins common ground, and their relationship becomes strained. However, when the two of them come across an injured nightjar when out on a walk, and Noah insists on helping the bird, their relationship might just get pushed to breaking point. 

I really liked Noah as a protagonist. He's not your typical thirteen year old boy. He's quiet, has a love and passion for nature, a deeply caring side, and enjoys his own company a lot of the time. He's not the kind of protagonists I was used to seeing when I was growing up reading, but he's the kind of protagonists I'd have loved to have seen. His passion and his caring side are wonderful qualities, and it makes him into a boy willing to stand up for what he believes is right.

As someone who enjoys nature, and adores animals, I loved seeing that kind of passion in Noah. I'm the kind of person who would put myself out to try and help a sick and injured animal, and my own pets have cost me many of thousands in vet bills over the years, so I absolutely understand the drive to help that's at the heart of Noah's story here.

But the book isn't just about his love of birds, as it also deals with his relationship with his father. Noah and his father don't really get on very well; not because they don't like each other, but because they don't really understand each other, and don't know how to communicate well. This is something that I think a lot of readers will understand, and something that a lot of people are trying to correct for the next generation. Parents are trying harder to fix those old stereotypes of the detached father who doesn't know how to connect with his kids, and I've seen a lot better parents in my peers; but not every family is going to be like that, and kids can still feel isolated from a parent, especially if they're separated. 

Over the course of the book there are a few times where we see the relationship between Noah and his father going back and forth in a kind of tug of war as the two of them try to figure out how to be around each other. And whilst it would be easy to have the mostly absent father be the villain of the piece, to be unwilling to change or grow over the course of the book, Balen makes Noah somewhat at fault too. Noah sticks to his guns, refuses to shift his position or think about the point his father is making because he feels like his is the only right way; and Noah has to learn that that's not the way the world works, and that he's going to have to grow as a person.

Despite not being in the book as much, Noah's mother also plays an important role, and is a big figure in his life. Noah's mother is something of the neutral party between the two of them. She understands the kind of person Noah is, she loves his passions and encourages him, but she's also there to help him see that maybe he's not always as right as he thinks he is. She has a sense of serenity and calm to her that's very much needed in the book. She's also clearly a very creative and caring person too. Not only does she nurture Noah's connection to his Jewish heritage, spending time preparing him for his Bat Mitzvah and cooking Jewish food, but she also helps other too, with her business being carefully crafting funerary dresses for babies. There's a wonderful passage in the book, after she gives Noah is Bat Mitzvah suit that describes her beautifully, 'My mum can stitch life together and death and heartbreak and hope and beauty and the past and the future. She is brilliant.'.

The book also contains a number of illustrations, provided by Richard Johnson. These are often used at key moments in the narrative, such as Noah finding the nightjar, of him nursing it back to health, his big blow-up with his dad, the emotional ending; these moments are important parts of the book, and the illustrations help with their impact. It helps the younger readers to get into these moments more, to visualise them, and I think that these scenes, accompanied by these illustrations, will be the moments that stick out in young readers minds. The fact that they're beautifully done as well only helps with this impact.

Nightjar is a delightful read, one that feels like it has a lot of heart to it, that isn't afraid to show a teen boy as sensitive, caring, and kind, yet also flawed. It explores both strained parental relationships, and strong, well connected ones. It gives insight into the life of a wonderful young boy who is clearly going to go on to become an amazing man; and it just leaves the reader with this fantastic sense of hope and goodness.



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Friday, 2 June 2023

Masters of the Universe: Masterverse #4 – Comic Review

 

Originally published on Set The Tape


When Masters of the Universe: Masterverse was first announced it seemed like an interesting series. Having grown up watching the original cartoon, it’s a series that I have a passing familiarity with, and I thought exploring the world it had created and all of the various alternate versions could be quite fun.

And the series started decently enough, taking some bold creative decisions to show off some very different version of characters that fans will know. But over the course of the series it seems like the general creativity and overall quality have steadily been declining. Unfortunately, this holds true for the final issue of the mini-series, which proves to be the worst one yet.

As with the other issues, the book uses the framing device of the Sorceress and Zodak peering through portals into other universes so that the Sorceress can make her case that the world needs a He-Man, and that Prince Adam is a good choice of hero. This time, the conceit for the universes chosen is that Zodak has found a pair where the heroes are actually villains. Sadly, this falls apart almost instantly in both cases.

The first world we see is from the 2021 Masters of the Universe cartoon; a series that received criticism due to its very different design and animation style. Being passingly familiar with the He-Man mythos, I’ve been able to tell who characters are in these re-imagined worlds, but this is the first story where I honestly had no idea who some of the main characters are meant to be.

This is obviously something that this comic can’t control, as these designs were created for the TV series, but the fact that it doesn’t take a moment to really tell you who anyone is until towards the end makes it feel like a jumbled mess. It took me a while to figure out who one of the lead characters was, and I still don’t really know about another two of them.

Is this a deal-breaking thing? I can see it argued not, but the fact that there are two sets of the characters and they’re all fighting, with no visual distinction between the good and evil versions, doesn’t help you to figure out who characters are meant to be either. The dialogue also seems to constantly reference other events and people, which I can only guess are from the series. By the end of this particular story I was more than ready to move onto the next one.

That next one is also, sadly, a little confusing. The very first page of this story features the Skeletor, Man-At-Arms, and Teela of the 1987 live action movie. However, their hero isn’t a Dolph Lundgren He-Man, instead it’s a character called He-Sol. After fighting Skeletor, He-Sol jumps through a portal that lands him in another universe, in the middle of a huge battle where all red versions of heroes and villains are fighting against another He-Man-like character called Hi-Ra.

It’s slowly, very slowly, revealed that this story is dealing with a villain that’s trying to take over the universes of the multiverse by corrupting heroes and villains (making them red in a similar way to the Transformers animated series ‘Return of Optimus Prime’ story).

A lot happens in this story, and the reader is thrown from world to world and fight to fight with zero explanation, as more He-Man type characters turn up. You eventually get an explanation as to who they’re fighting and why, much too late into the story, but there’s still little explanation as to the other He-heroes. Context suggests it’s a Shazam film type situation where He-Man has shared his powers to empower his friends, but this is not confirmed in the book. The fact that this final story bleeds into the framing story makes the severe lack of explanations even more egregious, as it seems to be the most important one in the series.

The art on the book, provided by Eddie Nunez, Rico Renzi, Daniel Lopez, and Fico Ossio is really good throughout, and the art for the first story captures the look of the new television series very well. The action packs the pages for each story, and things certainly look exciting throughout. The art isn’t the issue on this book, as it all looks great. Sadly, it’s the quality of the writing that harms these tales, and drags appreciation for the artwork down.

This is the end of Masters of the Universe: Masterverse series, and it feels like a rushed one. This final issue felt like it had been created from a first draft, and that a bit more time spent on keeping the audience up to speed could have benefited the book greatly. I’m not one to normally get lost with comics, but this book seemed to expect me to keep up as the writer sped on ahead doing his own thing. It’s a shame, as the series started really well, and it would have been nice to have ended the same way. Sadly, I think that this book will be putting me off trying any further Masters of the Universe titles in the future.



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Thursday, 1 June 2023

Finding Her Feet by Eve Ainsworth - Book Review

 


'A shy but talented footballer navigates challenging friendships and anxiety at school in this touching tale from acclaimed author Eve Ainsworth. Lily always feels a little bit left out. Shy and anxious, she finds school really hard, particularly as most of the other girls all seem so confident. Most of the time, Lily wishes that she could just disappear. But during a game of football in PE, Lily's teacher spots her natural talent and invites Lily to join the local girls' team, where she starts to make friends with some of the other players. Finally, she thinks she's found a place where she fits in, but will a vicious argument with one of her teammates put all her progress in jeopardy?'

Anyone who's been through the upheaval of moving from primary school to senior school will be familiar with the themes and emotions of Finding Her Feet, as Lily finds herself drifting away from her best friend, Beth, who's started making new friends. Your carefully constructed world starts to crumble around you as you're in a new place, filled with new people, having to rediscover not only your place in the various friend groups and cliques that are forming, but your passions as you head into your teen years.

Lily is struggling to do this, and even with the help of her father, she's slipping into depression and isolation. Luckily for Lily, one of her teachers, Mr Allen, notices her growing isolation and anxiety, and invites her to come along to try out for football practice with the other girls in her year group. Whilst Lily is afraid to do so at first, she eventually plucks up the courage to go along, and discovers that she's better at the sport than she first thought, and that she really enjoys it. However, the relationships in the team are difficult for her to navigate, and even when she's trying to be nice to Beth it seems to be backfiring for her. Now Lily has to try to figure out how to navigate her teammates, as well as the pitch.

Finding Her Feet is a rather nice story about, as the title suggests, finding your feet in a difficult and scary world. Lily is a quiet girl, a character that most young readers will be able to project onto quite easily, and I think that more than a few will have similar thoughts and fears that she does thanks to how overwhelming school can sometimes be.

The book also has a really decent message that sport and games can help to bring people together. Over the course of the book Lily goes from quiet, reserved, and shy to being a valued member of the team with firm friendships forming. The fact that Lily is also reluctant to even try out for the team is a great choice too, as it will show young readers that often those situations that feel scary and off-putting can lead to decent things, to fun and friendship.

It's not just Lily's story that takes place throughout the book, however, as we also get breaks between chapters where Even Ainsworth imparts brief snippets of the history of women's football in England. We go right back to the very early days, exploring the sport in the 1800's, before taking a look at the sport during World War One, and the groundbreaking Dick, Kerr Ladies team. It's amazing to learn how these women became hugely popular, and how they had some of the firsts in football. Sadly, sexism and misogyny is rampant across history, and women's football was banned by the FA in order to 'protect women', though in reality it was done to make men's football look better. Thankfully, these segments end on a happier note, with discussion on modern women's football, and the increasing popularity of the sport. Even as an adult reader these parts of the book were hugely interesting and informative, and it sparked a real desire to go and learn more about the subject.

As with other releases from Barrington Stoke, Finding Her Feet comes with a number of illustrations, by artist Luna Valentine. Valentine's art is really nice, and all of the characters have clear and distinct looks that instantly make them stand out on the page. Valantine is also fantastic at drawing expressions, and the illustrations do a wonderful job at capturing the emotions of the moments that they're portraying. The artwork was a genuine delight, and it's a shame that there's not more of it (it would make for a brilliant graphic novel!), but what is there will definitely entertain.

Finding Her Feet might be a book about football at first glance, but there's a lot more here than you'd first think, and the story about a girl finding her confidence, in taking risks and making new friends, and figuring out what she enjoys doing are all important messages that kids need. 



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Wednesday, 31 May 2023

Navigator (John Bruno) – Graphic Novel Review

 

Originally published on Set The Tape


John Bruno is a name that might be familiar to some film buffs, especially those who have a thing for special effects and the work of James Cameron. Bruno has worked on films for decades, helping to provide the visual effects for films such as Poltergeist, Ghostbusters, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Titanic, Aliens vs. Predator, and Kingsman: The Secret Service. He’s also directed effects heavy pieces such as a few episodes of Star Trek: Voyager, the film Virus (which was based on a Dark Horse comic), and James Cameron’s dive down into the Titanic in Deepsea Challenge 3D. With that in mind, it’s not at all surprising that his new graphic novel, Navigator, would be the kind of story that would be a special effects extravaganza if it were on the big screen.

Navigator begins taking a little inspiration from Bruno’s time with Cameron in the depths of the ocean, with a team of scientists on Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter, taking a submersible down beneath the thick layers of ice to see if they can find life on this distant satellite. And they do, they discover that an entire ecosystem of plants and marine creatures exists beneath the surface, proving for the first time that humanity isn’t alone in the universe. However, when the submersible discovers a completely unknown ship under the ice, near a strange beacon-like object, their simple study gets thrown on its head. The beacon activates, and seems to summon alien life to it, as a ship appears in the skies over the Europa base. First contact does not go well, and several members of the expedition are killed before one of the aliens inside the ship turns against his compatriots and kills his fellow soldiers. With the mission ruined, personnel dead, and a living alien on their hands, the expedition packs up and starts to head home.

Along the way the alien wakes and tells them that he’s from a race that has been enslaved by parasitic creatures that attach themselves to beings’ necks and take control of them, and that the primary entity in control is looking for an ancient device that has long since been scattered across the known universe. Once gathered together, this device will give the parasite supreme, god-like powers. The beacon the Europa team found indicated that the device is near, likely on Earth, and that an alien armada will soon be coming for humanity. Agreeing to work with the humans, the Navigator gives them technology to help prepare for the coming invasion.

That’s the basic set-up for Navigator, and the bulk of the story will jump forward five years to the point when the promised alien invasion actually occurs, giving humanity time to use the technology and aid from the Navigator to jump their technology forward hundreds of years. When the aliens arrive the story becomes a mix of a race-against-time treasure hunt, and Independence Day, as the planet fights back against a technologically and numerically superior force bent on their destruction.

Once the time jump happens, and the alien invasion starts, the book moves at an incredibly brisk pace, almost not allowing the reader a chance to take a breather and collect their thoughts before the next disaster hits, or the next battle begins. The book tries to sell the scope of the invasion this way, by having an almost constant barrage of fighting and destruction that showcases how bloodthirsty and destructive the parasite’s forces are. Its goal of obtaining the lost device are all that compel it, and humanity are little more than insects beneath it ready to be crushed. This also means that there are several characters that the book will introduce you to along the journey, but thanks to the constant barrage of alien soldiers shooting at anything in their way there is a bit of turn over in the cast of characters as they die and get replaced.

There is, however, a core contingent of characters to follow over the course of the story. The Navigator, who gets named Roy, is there throughout, as is the leader of the Europa expedition; a grizzled solider who gave up on his wife and prematurely born daughter to head into space for five years. It’s when the invasion begins, eight years after he abandoned his family, that he gets reunited with both of them as his daughter, Amy, becomes a key player in the adventure.

Their family unit is the human heart of the story, and in bad Hollywood tradition the absent father who left his wife and sick child and never once tried to contact them, gets to be the romantic lead as he and his wife reconnect and become a couple again. It’s incredibly cliched, and it’s one of the weaker parts of the book. It’s like Cynthia is given no personality beyond mother and wife, and that without her husband around she’s been in a holding pattern, waiting for him to come back to her. The fact that she immediately falls back in love with the man who walked out on her and her sick baby really robs her of any kind of agency or character strength, and feels like a huge misstep.

Thanks in part to Bruno’s work on big budget sci-fi movies, the book has a blockbuster feel to it. Everything seems to be designed to look cool, from the aliens, to their ships, and even the human technology developed to fight them. A lot of attention has been given over to the design side of things, and as such the book does have several striking moments when the two opposing forces end up clashing in battle.

There are some issues, however, as sometimes it does feel like there’s a little too much going on, and some of the larger moments end up becoming a bit muddied and messy. There’s no real distinct ‘heroes’ to follow in these moments either, and we take a more removed overview of the battle. This results in us never really feeling attached to the fight as we follow a character, but just watch as cool looking ships fight other cool looking ships at a distance.

The feeling kind of echoes in the later stages of the story too. Things happen in Navigator because the story needs them to. Technology designed to counter the alien invaders won’t work as planned because it’s dramatic for it not to, until the right moment when it’s needed to turn the tide, then it just starts working right. The alien invaders need to get the upper hand, so they have technology that allows them to teleport their ships in, but only towards the end when it becomes dramatic, and not five years earlier when they started on their way to Earth. A group of characters look doomed to time, until a magical alien entity wishes them to safety because the book needs a happy ending. A lot of stuff just happens in Navigator. And in the moment, when things are fast paced and you’re moving from one plot point to another you don’t have time to think about it, but when looking back at it you realise there is a sore lack of explanations, and that the universe of Navigator seems to operate under ‘rule of cool’ rather than any kind of logic.

That being said, if you switch your brain off and just go with it Navigator is a fun enough book. The art, by Jordi Armengol, is really good throughout, and there were never really any moments where it felt like the book didn’t look right, or was off in any way. The story is a visual treat, even if the plot at times isn’t quite firing on all cylinders. So if you’re looking for the graphic novel equivalent of a big, bombastic, high budget sci-fi action movie, Navigator is probably one of the closest you’re ever going to get to capturing that feel.



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Tuesday, 30 May 2023

Pokemon Heroes – Throwback 20

 

Originally published on Set The Tape


There was a time when Pokemon was considered to be a world-wide juggernaut. The merchandise was on shop shelves, the trading cards were a hot commodity, the animated series was playing on TV, and the games were bestsellers.

The strange thing about the franchise is that that’s all still true. You can walk into most toy shops and find Pokemon toys and plushies; the cards are big business and are bought and sold for high prices; the TV show hasn’t been off air in twenty five years; and the franchise is one of the highest selling video game series of all time. Despite that, the feeling of Pokemania that swept through the UK when the series first landed has almost completely died down. Pokemon is still there, but it’s flying under the radar.

One of the ways in which the series slowly began to fall out of general public consciousness was with the films. The original Pokemon film, Pokemon: The First Movie, was a huge hit that included tie-in promotions with fast food restaurants, TV trailers, and media coverage. In comparison, the later films would receive more limited releases, and would have almost no advertisement at all.



2003’s Pokemon Heroes, the fifth film to be released, is one of these movies; one that slipped beneath the radar of the cultural zeitgeist to the point where a lot of people are still surprised that Pokemon movies are being made. Pokemon Heroes was the last Pokemon animated film to receive a cinema release outside of Japan until the 20th anniversary Pokemon: I Choose You! So with that in mind, is the final cinematic outing any good?

The story of Pokemon Heroes follows series regulars Ash (Veronica Taylor), Misty (Rachael Lillis), Brock (Eric Stuart), and Pikachu (Ikue Ōtani) as they visit the watery city of Alto Mare. Heavily inspired by Venice, the city is a warren of canals, bridges, and ancient architecture that Ash and his friends are enjoying exploring. Legend has it that Alto Mare was turned into the watery place it is when an evil trainer attacked the city centuries ago with his vicious fossil Pokemon. A Latios, a legendary dragon Pokemon, defeated the threat, and the city was forever transformed.

Since then, the city has built the Defence Mechanism of Alto Mare (D.M.A. for short), a device capable of protecting Alto Mare and its citizens using the Soul Dew, the remains of the Latios that died saving them. Of course, the villainous Team Rocket want the device; though not the ones you’d expect. New antagonists Annie (Megan Hollingshead) and Oakley (Lisa Ortiz) hatch a scheme to get their hands on the device. Luckily, Ash and his friends are ready to stop them, with the help of the children of the original Latios.

One of the things that immediately stands out about Pokemon Heroes is that it feels like it’s very much doing its own thing. The events of the movie are set in a completely new area not found in any of the games, and not mentioned in the television series. This is something that the show has done in the past, but thanks to Alto Mare taking such heavy inspiration from Venice it does feel quite jarring to watch, as this is one of the closest it’s ever felt to seeing Pokemon wandering around a place you recognise (until Detective Pikachu at least). Thanks to this choice, the animation feels slightly off throughout.



One of the things with the Pokemon movies, as with any animated series being made into a feature film, is that the animation has been given an upgrade and looks different from the show. In this case the result is a movie where things look much darker than normal. The film looks dull, and much of the colour and vibrancy that the series incorporates is replaced by darker tones and a drab set of colours. Part of this is down to the aforementioned desire to evoke images of Venice, as the film sticks pretty close to the look and feel of the real world location. Whilst it feels weird to see the show like this, it’s only heightened when you have Pikachu running around what is essentially the streets of Venice, chasing after a red and white dragon creature.

Another thing that the film does to its detriment is to side-line most of the main cast. Ash gets the focus here, and that’s not much of a surprise, but more often than not Misty and Brock are simply removed from the movie completely. Ash and Pikachu run off and leave them, or they get separated from Ash thanks to locked doors, leaving them absent for the majority of the film. Team Rocket, however, suffer the most. Whilst the new characters Annie and Oakley are part of the gang, they’re not the ones people think of when they hear the name. Iconic characters Jessie (Rachael Lillis), James (Eric Stuart), and Meowth (Maddie Blaustein) are in the film, but feature in less than a minute of the film’s total run time. Their presence feels almost pointless, and almost like they were included as some kind of box ticking exercise or contractual obligation.

The film didn’t do well upon release. It released in Japan a year earlier, the same week as Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, which resulted in it failing to make much of a dent at the box office. Similarly, it’s US theatrical release ended up being the lowest grossing release for the franchise, and was possibly a big reason why it was the final one for many years. Part of the failure may have come from the poor press the film received. Pokemon Heroes receiving a majority of negative reviews from outlets that was sure to have hurt its sales, though no response was as bad as the New York Post review, which gave it 0 stars and called it “a form of child abuse”.



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