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Movie Review: Charade

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Connellsville

There's a world outside Odyssey. Occasionally I'll review other all-ages entertainment to see how it stacks up to Adventures in Odyssey.

10

The recent blockbuster Cowboys & Aliens showed how to do genre bending in the most predictable, generic way possible; the 1963 classic Charade demonstrates genre bending at its very best. I assure you I haven’t fallen for the myth of the golden age (i.e. something is better because it is older). I’m not one of those people who say, “They don’t make movies like they used to.”

That Charade is forty-eight years old does not automatically make it a classic, but that it is still watched and enjoyed nearly half a century after it was first released is a testament to how great it is. We get the mistaken impression that all old movies were great because the ones we still watch today are great. According to IMDB, there were 2,191 movies released. The majority of those were mediocre and forgettable. Probably only a fraction of them are even available on DVD. The ones that were worth watching again and again and the ones that have survived. When looking for all-ages movies for the whole family to enjoy, the classics are a great resource to turn to.

After an animated title sequence (and here I will indulge in a little nostalgia) of the type they don’t make anymore, a gloved hand emerges from behind an umbrella. It is gripping a pistol and extends toward the camera as it steadily aims. Then water squirts from the tip and sprays Audrey Hepburn’s character, Reggie. A little boy is playing with a water gun. Right off the bat it is apparent there are more layers to Charade than your average spy film.

Charade Still Current New York Times film critic A. O. Scott said in a video review, “The movie’s either a thriller masquerading as a comedy or a comedy disguised as a thriller.” While Charade is at times a comedy, Bosley Crowther, the New York Times film critic in 1963, declared that it “has so many grisly touches in it and runs to violence so many times the people bringing their youngsters…may blanch in horror.” The violence will barely elicit a reaction from audiences today, but there is no mistaking Charade for a spy spoof. While it is a comedy, it is also a spy film.

Genres are about formulas and conventions. Genre bending is about subverting those formulas. Where your expecting spy-fi, the director injects some romantic comedy. Since most movies of a genre follow the same basic patterns, mixing two genres can make both feel fresh. Striking a balance between the two genres can be tricky. It’s like a carefully choreographed dance. Appropriately, the director, Stanley Donen, was a director of musicals such as Singin’ in the Rain; Charade was his attempt to transition into other genres.

It’s an understatement to say Charade is filled with plot twists. Beginning with them water gun psych out, it is a movie about deception. Cary Grant’s character changes his name at least four times. Each time Reggie uncovers one of his lies, he comes up with a new back story. The screenwriter, Peter Stone, advises to “write as through you’re showing it to people for the second time and being scrupulously fair with parceling out the information and clues.” In my spoiler policy, I state that knowing the twist (or, in this case, twists) should not lessen my enjoyment of a movie. Charade was crafted to stand up to multiple viewings.

Charade Still According to an essay by Bruce Eder for Criterion, what sets Charade apart from other sixties spy films is that its main character is a woman. This is something Hollywood still struggles with. Salt, released just last year, was considered groundbreaking for Angelina Jolie playing a role originally scripted for a man. I like the James Bond franchise, but I must admit both the books and movies are often sexist. I’ve considered writing a spy spoof of my own in which all male spies are sued for sexual harassment because of their James Bond-like behavior. They are all subsequently fired leaving an all-female intelligence community.

While Cary Grant co-stars, Charade is Audrey Hepburn’s movie. In his video review, A. O. Scott observes that Hepburn’s character relies on her intuition. “Audrey Hepburn follows her instincts and lets the facts fall where they may.” Her character has a masculine nickname: Reggie. In the TV series Pushing Daisies, Anna Friel’s character had the masculine nickname Chuck. Giving female characters nicknames like this is an easy way to express that the character is supposed to be quirky and off-beat. Reggie also shows attributes of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a term coined by film critic Nathan Rabin to describe the archetype of the quirky, youthful, girlish female character who exists to teach men how to embrace life.

At the time of filming, Cary Grant was fifty-nine, and Audrey Hepburn was thirty-four. Cary Grant was afraid the romantic subplot would make him look like a “dirty old man” because of his and Hepburn’s age difference. Because of this, the writer and director made Hepburn the aggressor in the relationship. Unlike James Bond who uses his machismo to woo the ladies, it is Hepburn who employs here sensuality to attract Grant. She is stunning and gives a wonderfully comic performance.

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Connellsville

There's a world outside Odyssey. Occasionally I'll review other all-ages entertainment to see how it stacks up to Adventures in Odyssey.

5

Cowboys & Aliens isn’t a great work of art. It’s not creatively groundbreaking. It doesn’t impart a deep philosophical message.

But then those aren’t the reasons you watch a movie called Cowboys & Aliens. Like Alien vs. Predator and Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus, you watch it to have a good time. And at that it succeeds. Based on the title alone, most ten-year-old boys will want to see it. It would make a great weekend DVD rental for a father and son. It is PG-13, but that is mostly for violence, and the violence is of the sci-fi/comic book variety. There is a smattering of bad language, so as with all movies, use your discretion as to whether it is appropriate for your child or not.

If a high-concept movie is a movie that can be described in a sentence or less, then Cowboys & Aliens is sky high. Just two words tell you everything you need to know about the movie: cowboys and aliens. While that is enough for a weekend diversion, it’s not enough to make it memorable or to make you want to revisit it over and over again. High concept, as in the case of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, can be artistically and critically valuable when the filmmaker invests more in the story than just an eye-catching premise. The filmmakers behind Cowboys & Aliens weren’t interested in anything beyond that two-word moniker.

Cowboys & Aliens Still Cowboys & Aliens is another example of mass-produced filmmaking. There are five credited screenwriters with a sixth receiving a “story by” credit. A half dozen other screenwriters were associated with the project at one time or another. With that many hands in the pot, any possible distinct creative voice has been buffed out. Director Jon Favreau is tasked with little more than assembling the story elements as they come down the conveyor belt.

Favreau is most well known for directing Iron Man. I feel the critical accolades Iron Man received when it came out were undeserved. It, like Cowboys & Aliens, was no more than a weekend diversion. It had no real depth or creativity. Favreau’s directing style as workmanlike. He’s a competent filmmaker, but he lacks the creative vision that makes truly great directors great. He demonstrates his tone deafness in this quote from an interview he did with Entertainment Weekly:

I think people’s first response on hearing the title, which is a play on words, is that it’s going to be a comedy. They’ve been disappointed in the past when people have played with the Western genre, and not stuck to what’s bad-ass about it. When they throw that out the window, and play a pastiche of it, they don’t feel like they’re getting what they want. What you want is the grizzled warrior on the parched plains, and you want to see this iconic figure, who almost magical emerges from mirage of the horizon.

The very thing a movie titled Cowboys & Aliens should have been is a comedy. By removing that element any life the movie might have had is deflated. I know it sounds like I didn’t like the movie, but I did. But if you asked me if I wanted to watch it again, I’d answer, “Nah, let’s watch Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark again.

Connellsville

There's a world outside Odyssey. Occasionally I'll review other all-ages entertainment to see how it stacks up to Adventures in Odyssey.

1

Hollywood likes sequels because they come with a guaranteed audience. It’s assumed all the people who liked the first one will show up for the second one. Hollywood likes adaptations nearly as much as sequels. If a lot of people bought a book, then, it is assumed, all those people will dutifully buy a ticket to the movie version of the book. As in the case of Harry Potter and Diary of a Wimpy Kid, sometimes that assumption pays off. In this case it didn’t. Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer had a budget of $20 million but only made $15 million.

It may be that Judy Moody doesn’t have as much name recognition as Harry Potter or Diary of a Wimpy Kid. I hadn’t heard of the book series before. But there may be another reason why the latter two movies were so successful while Judy Moody bombed at the box office: The title characters are boys. This doesn’t mean boys are better than girls or even that movies with male leads are better than movies with female leads. It’s simply an economic fact that androcentric children’s movies do better at the box office. Whereas an eight-year-old girl usually has no problem watching a movie about a boy, an eight-year-old boy would likely throw a fit about being dragged to a movie with the name Judy in the title. Mom, Dad, son, and daughter may all go see Diary of a Wimpy Kid together, but Judy Moody is probably a Mom/daughter-only trip to the theatre.

Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer Still It doesn’t help that it’s not very good. The storytelling is hyperactive, but the story itself is inert. The title character is the least bit likable. She’s selfish, egotistical, takes her family and friends for granted, and I’m not sure she bathes regularly. While this may be an accurate description of a third grader, the character shows no signs of growth. There’s no evidence by the end of the movie that she’s learned to be a better person.

The universe of Judy Moody is hyper-stylized. When we speak about the universe of a fictional work, it means something different than when we use the word universe to describe the stars and planets around us and the atoms that make them up. It’s a term that encompasses the setting and tone of the work as well as the “rules” of that universe such as whether magic is real or Santa Claus exists in that universe. Sometimes, like in Adventures in Odyssey, it is almost indistinguishable from the real world. Other times, like in The Lord of the Rings, it may be an entirely different world.

Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer Still Some directors like Tim Burton are known for setting their movies in stylistic universes. The colors of Judy Moody are bright and bubbly. When someone turns their head, it makes a whooshing noise. The fashions and hairstyles are more Blondie than People magazine. For all its style, Judy Moody still looks generic. It doesn’t look too different from a Disney Channel or Nickelodeon sitcom.

The story is episodic. You have (1) Judy and her classmates searching for their teacher over the summer, (2) Judy and her friends trying to earn “thrill points,” (3) Judy’s aunt visiting for the summer, and (4) Judy’s brother’s and later (Judy’s) hunt for bigfoot. Any one of these four would have made a great premise for a movie, but in Judy Moody the disparate plot threads never intertwine into a coherent story. Judy’s aunt is introduced and then seemingly forgotten for large swaths of time. And the plot thread given the most screen time, the thrill points subplot, is the least interesting of the four.

Movie Review: Monte Carlo

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Connellsville

There's a world outside Odyssey. Occasionally I'll review other all-ages entertainment to see how it stacks up to Adventures in Odyssey.

2

It’s a sad truth that most children’s movies are awful. When reviewing a particularly terrible children’s movie, a critic often dismisses, “I didn’t like it, but then it wasn’t meant for me.” Yes, it’s a cop-out, but there is truth to the disclaimer. While the rare gem like The Incredibles has proved that a movie meant for children can appeal to all ages, a person who hates romantic comedies isn’t in a position to judge whether the hot new romcom is good or not.

With that said, Monte Carlo wasn’t meant for me. It’s target audience is ten to fourteen year-old girls, so-called tweens. I am neither a tween nor a girl. Except for the most insipid scenes, I surprisingly found myself enjoying most of Monte Carlo. Saying a movie is an enjoyable movie is a far cry from saying it is a good movie. I enjoy a lot of movies I know are just popcorn flicks; likewise, sitting through some movies I know are classics can be a chore.

Different screenwriting manuals have differing guidelines, but most insist the inciting incident must come within the first fifteen pages. The inciting incident is the event that sets the story in motion. In Monte Carlo the inciting incident is Grace being mistaken for an English heiress. It doesn’t come until the twenty-five minute mark. One page of screenplay equal approximately one minute of screen time. This means the inciting incident of Monte Carlo doesn’t happen until page twenty-five. The story should’ve started with them boarding the plane to Paris or even once they were already in Paris. Everything before that point added nothing to the story.

Monte Carlo Still You may be wondering, How does this happen? The screenwriters may be incompetent, but it seems unlikely that professional screenwriters would be unaware of this rule. It’s probably detritus. No less than five writers (though only three get credited) had a hand in this script. It started as four middle-aged women pretending to be wealthy heiresses in hopes of snagging rich husbands. It became three Midwestern teachers who pose as wealthy women. Then some studio executive decided he wanted to attract the tween audience and had it rewritten yet again. It’s an example of mass-produced filmmaking. Entire plots are considered interchangeable. It’s inevitable bits that are no longer relevant from previous drafts are going to accumulate in a process like that.

As a general rule, action movies and dramas should be no longer than two hours, but comedies should generally come in under ninety minutes. At 109 minutes Monte Carlo drags. As I’ve already mentioned, much of the beginning could have been jettisoned. There are not one—but three (one for each girl—supposedly deep conversations with their respective mates that bring the entire plot to a grinding halt.

There is a simple test to determine whether a movie has a gender bias called the Bechdel test. To pass the test, a movie must (1) have at least two women in it (2) who talk to each other (3) about something other than a man. Most people’s reaction when they first hear this rule is that surely most movies pass it. However, when you actually pay attention to movies, you’ll be amazed by how many movies—even romantic comedies—that fail this test.

Monte Carlo Still Monte Carlo, of course, passes the Bechdel test. The three main characters are all female and do talk about subjects other than men, yet still an inordinate amount of screen time is spent trying to pair each with a man. Grace with French Hunk, her sister Meg with Australian Guy, and her best friend Emma with Dumbo. I don’t know why the writers felt compelled to place each of the main characters in a relationship with a boy. The movie should have been about their relationships with each other. Had the movie been about three guys touring Europe, would they still have all been in a relationship with the opposite sex before the end?

Considering the target audience for movie is ten to fourteen year-old girls, do we really want to be sending the message that dating men you hardly know that you’ve just met overseas is a good idea? Have you seen Taken? Meg’s dalliance with Australian Guy is especially troubling. When she leaves with him, it’s evening. When he drops her off, it’s morning. Are we to assume only PG-rated activities happened during that span? Further, she announces she and this guy will travel Europe unchaperoned for the remainder of the summer without her father’s express permission. As a twentysomething she’s an adult who can make her own decisions, but you must keep in mind the movie’s target audience is much younger.

There are two types of plot holes: (1) logical inconsistencies embedded deep within the plot that canot be fixed without restructuring the entire movie and (2) minor plot holes that could have been fixed with a single line. The latter bother me more because they show the screenwriter was lazy—or worse, didn’t care. There is a celebrity who looks identical to Grace, yet both her and her friends seem oblivious to it. People love comparing themselves to celebrities—even when the likeness is much more tenuous. We’re to believe none of Grace’s friends have ever spotted Cordelia on a tabloid cover at the supermarket and pointed it out to her? This could have been solved by inserting “hey, Grace, there’s that celebrity who looks like you” into the script.

Monte Carlo Poster Then there’s Dumbo, Emma’s boyfriend. He has seemingly little money and sleeps on benches once he reaches Paris but somehow has the money to catch a last-minute flight to Paris and chase his girlfriend around Europe. And I’m not as sold on him as the movie is. During the (unnecessarily long) first act, he freaks out because his girlfriend is taking a week-long vacation to Paris. It’s not like she’s spending a semester abroad. It’s one week! If he’s that insecure, Emma should have dumped him right there. And that’s not mentioning his disingenuous marriage proposal.

Renowned film critic Roger Ebert repeatedly complains about plots that only work if the characters are dumb—characters who could easily extricate themselves from the complication if they had even a modicum of common sense or intelligence. The whole necklace subplot reeks of stupidity. If the girls showed even an ounce of responsibility, this subplot would never have happened.

Selena Gomez is a talented young actress. I don’t know if it was bad direction or if she was just uncomfortable with her fake English accent, but she seemed uncomfortable in her dual roles. She doesn’t bring any of the snark she lends her Wizards of Waverly Place character Alex to bear in either of her characters here. Grace’s alter ego Cordelia offered her the opportunity to let loose and vamp it up, yet she seemed oddly constrained.

Monte Carlo seems desperately to want to be farce, yet the writers don’t seem to know how to pull off farce. Mistakes pile upon mistakes, but it all peters out before culminating in anything interesting. There are no consequences for any involved. The girls are deceitful, irresponsible, and negligent yet get off without so much as a warning. In real life there would have been serious repercussions and probably at least a little jail time. I admired happythankyoumoreplease for showing the consequences of its protagonist’s actions. A young black boy gets separated from his foster family, follows the protagonist home, and the protagonist allows him to stay with him indefinitely. Although he de facto adopts the boy, he de jure kidnaps the boy. As would happen in real life, the protagonist ends up in the backseat of a squad car. Unfortunately, Monte Carlo doesn’t have the guts to follow through like that.

Movie Review: Courageous

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Connellsville

There's a world outside Odyssey. Occasionally I'll review other all-ages entertainment to see how it stacks up to Adventures in Odyssey.

5

The Kendrick brothers (the Christian Coen brothers?) have discovered how to effectively tap into a niche market. That niche market is the Church—or, to be specific, the Protestant, evangelical church. Their previous two films, Facing the Giants and Fireproof, grossed $10 million and $33 million, respectively. Impressive for two films with budgets well under a million dollars—combined.

As of November 1, 2011, Courageous has already grossed $28 million with a budget of just $2 million. The production budget isn’t the whole story though. It had an advertising budget of $9 million—over four times (!) its production budget. And most of that money probably went to advertising to churches who, in turn, bussed parishioners to the theatre opening day. So, is it any good, or was it just marketed well?

If asked to summarize Courageous, I would describe it as Promise Keepers: The Movie. It taps into the zeitgeist. Three network sitcoms about reclaiming manhood, How to Be a Gentleman, Last Man Standing, and Man Up! debuted this season (all, of course, from a secular perspective).

Some critics think the Kendricks are spot on with their message. Fatherlessness is an epidemic, and good Christian men need to stand up and be the fathers God called them to be. Steven D. Greydanus, my favorite film critic, writing for Christianity Today wrote:

All kinds of sociological factors contribute to the decline in fatherhood, but the makers of Courageous aren’t interested in blaming society. They want to address a clarion call to fathers—to husbands, to men—to buck the trend, to make a heroic commitment, in the teeth of an apathetic or hostile society, to do what is right, loving, and honorable by their children and their children’s mothers.

But he points out, “[A] crucial relationship plays no real role in the film: Where are the grownups’ own fathers?” He asks, “Why not show rather than tell how the legacy of one generation affects the next? More pointedly, isn’t how we relate to our aging parents part of how we teach our own children about honoring father and mother?”

Courageous Still Some critics (both Christian and secular) criticized the message of the film for marginalizing women. David Bruce, in his video review for Hollywood Jesus, said he felt the only weakness of the movie was that daughters seemed irrelevant in the pledge. Nathan Rabin of the A.V. Club calls the movie “predictably patriarchal” and writes, “Courageous pays lip service to the importance of mothers, but doesn’t have much use for women, except when they gaze admiringly at the men they love while those men fully embrace their roles as household spiritual leaders.”

Just because the wives and daughters have less screen time than the men in Courageous doesn’t mean the Kendricks view women as irrelevant. The movie is already over two hours long. I’m sure there are many themes they would have liked to include, but their main theme was fatherhood. All of the Bible’s teaching pertaining to the family cannot be included in a single movie. With Fireproof and now Courageous, the Kendricks seem to be building a series of movies that could. Courageous is the thematic sequel of Fireproof. Where Fireproof was about marriage, Courageous is about fatherhood. The protagonists in Fireproof are firemen; fire could be a metaphor for the passion in marriage. The protagonists in Courageous are policemen; police serve and protect just as fathers should serve and protect their family. But getting the message right isn’t the same as making a good movie.

Christian and secular critics alike seem to be united that Courageous is an improvement over Fireproof. Greydanus calls it a “step forward” and “their most ambitious and watchable film to date.” Joe Leydon for Variety says it is “easily the most polished production so far from brothers Alex and Stephen Kendrick, the prolific and increasingly accomplished filmmaking pastors.”

I’m not convinced that Courageous is an improvement over Fireproof—at least not that great of one. Greydanus also wrote, “[T]heir films aspire to the condition of Hollywood genre pictures, and while they’re not there yet, they’re moving in the right direction.” I felt the same way about Fireproof; I just wish that would have moved further in that direction with Courageous. Megan Basham of World magazine assessed the movie as following:

Christian audiences—starved for anything that speaks to them on a spiritual level—will continue to support Sherwood Baptist films for those elements that work while charitably overlooking those that don’t. But what a gift it would be to those same audiences, as well as to viewers who aren’t as likely to forgive shortcomings for the sake of message, for the Kendricks to build on their God-given talents and make a movie of such quality it requires no caveats.

Courageous Still To answer the question “Is is any good?”, I would borrow a phrase from earlier in Basham’s review, “good if deeply flawed,” and certainly not great. What is preventing it from from going from “good if deeply flawed” to merely good or even great?

The consensus of both secular and Christian critics seems to be lack of subtlety. Greydanus exhorted, “A lighter touch would have been more effective—more like a movie and less like a sermon illustration, or more precisely a church-produced drama.” Nick Schager wrote in the Village Voice, “”Courageous endlessly expounds on the importance of God in men’s lives but fails to answer the more pressing question of why religious sagas such as this treat subtlety as a sin” (emphasis added). In a section subtitled “Story subtleties,” E. Stephen Burnett expounds in an article on Speculative Faith, “As you practice better Story craft, consider trusting the power of Story. Trust it to do what it does best, without dragging seemingly federally required Churchy Content into it.”

What I don’t understand is when did subtlety become a virtue? When did subtlety become an attribute with which we judge art? That painting would be a better painting if the colors were more subtle. I would like that poem better if the rhymes were more subtle. Transformers wouldn’t have been such an awful movie if the robot-on-robot violence had been more subtle. I don’t think subtlety is Courageous’ problem; I think it’s more mundane than that. Courageous is afflicted with the same issues that afflict all movies—both Christian and secular.

For one, Courageous is far too long. I think many of the flaws that made it “good if deeply flawed” would have been eliminated had it been edited to under two hours. My general rule for movies over two hours (with rare exceptions such as The Lord of the Rings) is that a good over-two-hour movie would have probably been a great under-two-hour movie. The filmmakers would have been forced to cut all the average and subpar scenes leaving only the truly great scenes.

Courageous Still Greydanus thinks Courageous manages to be “watchable” despite “the tendency toward didactic, schematic storytelling.” There is nothing wrong with didactic storytelling. Bias against didacticism in narrative is a holdover of modernism. Both Fireproof and Courageous are postmodern movies. The The Love Dare book from the former and The Resolution book from the latter are a tangible extensions of the movies. In fact, the latter is available in two variations: The Resolution for Men and The Resolution for Women (re: discussion of the role of women in Courageous above, what the Kendricks did not have time for on screen they did expound on in text). This is not just merchandising like toys based on superhero movies. It is not unlike the graphic novel prologue Richard Kelly penned for his (also deeply flawed) movie Southland Tales.

If a movie is going to change hearts, you must be willing to think outside the screen. You must be willing to go beyond the traditional bounds of narrative. But if the movie is going to change hearts, it must also be good. Courageous could be much better, and for that, it can be criticized. But it should not be criticized for lack of subtlety.

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Connellsville

There's a world outside Odyssey. Occasionally I'll review other all-ages entertainment to see how it stacks up to Adventures in Odyssey.

9

I generally dislike talking animals stories. I fail to understand why most critics get so excited over Pixar releases. I’m decidedly not a Pixar fanboy. I think they have a couple truly great features (The Incredibles and Ratatouille), a few merely good ones (Toy Story and WALL-E), and the rest are just so-so (save Cars, which is simply awful). The talking dogs is one reason I group Up in the “just so-so” category instead of the “merely good” category. That in mind, I would probably be the last person you’d think would enjoy a comic about an anthropomorphic duck.

Like Adventures in Odyssey, Uncle Scrooge is a long-running series. It has been an ongoing comic series since 1952. Over that time, it has changed publishers several times (the series is currently published by Boom! Studios, which also publishes a number of other Disney comics). The series has published over 400 issues. Scrooge has never been extremely popular here in the United States where superheroes practically have a monopoly at the local comic book store, but he enjoys considerable popularity in Europe. The series has even been translated into several different languages.

I’ve never read any of the other issues of Uncle Scrooge, so The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck is my introduction to the Duck universe (what fans call the fictional world centering on stories about Donald Duck and Scrooge McDuck). The Life and Times was originally published as issues #285-296 of Uncle Scrooge in 1994-95. I don’t purchase individual issues of comic books. I prefer reading what the industry calls trade paperbacks or trades. They are bound like a normal book and collect several issues in one binding. The issues of The Life and Times had been collected before, but that collection has long been out of print. Boom! Studios, the current publisher of Uncle Scrooge, recently reissued the collection in two hardcover volumes. Volume 1 contains the first six issues.

Of course, I’m familiar with Scrooge from cartoons such as DuckTales (which, though I didn’t know this when I watched the series as a kid, is actually based on the Uncle Scrooge comic series, and many of the episodes are direct adaptations of issues of the comic book series). But I’ve never read any of the Duck universe comics, so I really wasn’t sure what to expect when I started The Life and Times. I decided to purchase it because it has won several awards. I’m happy to report you’ll easily be able to pick up the story even if you’re not familiar with the Duck universe.

I think a good trade not only collects issues from a comic book series but also includes essays about the series, behind-the-scenes info, and commentary on the collected issues. Although I’m buying them for the comic stories, I always feel a little cheated when a trade is nothing more than a reproduction of the already-published issues and maybe a short introduction (in this regard, I think IDW has done a much better job on the Angel trades than Dark Horse has with the Buffy trades). At the very least, it should include a gallery with alternative covers and sketches at the end. The Boom! collection features commentary by writer-artist Don Rosa after each issue.

Several times Rosa points out (sometimes significant) changes his editor suggested. Unlike what you might expect, he never complains about how much greater the story would have been if the publisher hadn’t tampered with it. Each time he explains how the story was actually improved by his editor. Artists are often fragile around criticism of their work. We’ve all heard the tale a million times: A director insists her movie would have been better if the studio hadn’t re-edited it, the author is convinced her novel would have been more well-received if the publisher hadn’t made certain edits, etc. While I’m sure in some of those situation the artist is right, most of the time she’s not. Look at Woody Allen:

His films used to be critically-acclaimed, but most of his more recent filmography has been harshly criticized. His directorial debut (if you exclude What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, which was really just a redub of a Japanese spy thriller), Take the Money and Run, simply wasn’t coming together, so the producers brought in editor Ralph Rosenblum to assist Allen. According to Turner Classic Movies, “Rosenblum found Allen to be reserved, despondent about the problems with his film, but not at all arrogant or demanding. He admitted to not knowing what he was doing and followed Rosenblum’s suggestions.” Rosenblum rearranged the sequences, had Allen write new narration to bridge the sequences, and even rescored the movie. Forty-two years and nearly as many films later, I’m sure Allen doesn’t have to go to other people for help with directing his films. I’m sure at this point he could direct a film in his sleep. And maybe that’s the problem. When an artist stops seeking assistance and criticism from others, her work will suffer for it.

A lot of artists also chafe against any kind of restriction, but it is restrictions that usually produce the art. They force the artist to hone her skills. Today it’s common for big blockbusters to run over two hours, but the greatest movies almost always clock in under 120 minutes. A good 150-minute movie can become a great movie if culled down 120 minutes. All the average segments have to be lost, and all that remain are the great segments. Each The Life and Times issue is only fifteen pages long. This forced Rosa to trim each issue down to its most essential parts. This resulted in quick-paced, tightly-plotted stories that are quick and fun to read. And these stories are not slight. Rosa packs an amazing amount of plot into fifteen pages.

The first chapter, “The Last of the Clan McDuck,” is the weakest. It feels like it’s mostly there to set the stage. Most of what we learn about Castle McDuck could have been revealed in the fifth chapter. Chapter two, “The Master of the Mississippi,” where Scrooge moves to America and becomes a riverboat captain, is where the story really picks up. Rosa even requested and was granted permission to make this chapter twenty-eight pages long. In the third chapter, “The Buckaroo of the Badlands,” Scrooge heads west and becomes a cowboy. In the commentary, Rosa states his editor rejected virtually the entire first draft of this chapter. He continues, “[My editor] was right, as usual, and though I wouldn’t say the rewrite was one of the better chapters of the series, it’s still a far cry better than the first version.” I must disagree with Rosa. It’s my favorite chapter from this volume. It has bandits, dinosaur bones, and a grizzly bear! Chapter four, “Raider of the Copper Hill,” sees Scrooge change occupations from cowboy to prospector. Things seem to slow down in chapter five, “The New Laird of Castle McDuck,” with Scrooge returning to Scotland. Plus there is an odd four page sequence that takes place in heaven (or the afterlife) that seems out of place. It ends on a strong note though with Scrooge taking his prospecting to South Africa in chapter six, “The Terror of the Transvaal.”