Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Rainbow Brite Reboot Reviewed: Rewarding or Redundant?

You may find it hard to believe, but I, Thomas Fairfield, like Rainbow Brite.  I'm not the target demographic; I never have been.  It's something that I don't think I even knew existed until I saw Robot Chicken making fun of it; after which I decided to study up and watch much of the old series, along with the movie.  I was pleasantly surprised by at least some of it.  The pilot, which had Wisp (her real name) descending on a dark, apocalyptic land and going on a quest to save innocents and restore color, was pretentious in the way only the 1980s could manage, but it was still a compelling story.  The rest of the series was much more lighthearted, but still very pleasant and with a cast I could get behind.  Besides, the Star Stealer movie restored the sense of adventure missing since the pilot.  Through it all, I feel Rainbow Brite exuded a sense of genuine warmth in a way that heavily merchandized brands sometimes don't.  The Color Kids were an admirably multi-ethnic bunch, which lent a sense of progressive values to the incessant rainbow motif and prevented it from being just a fashion statement, Rainbow was a friendly girl, and the villain team of Murky and Lurky, though shallow, still managed to be funny.

You may think that here, I segue into how this reboot has ruined everything I held dear about this series.  Not really.  I always saw Rainbow Brite as a superheroine who could benefit from a somewhat more action-oriented take on her universe; especially since during her movie, it was her new male friend, Krys, doing much of the work.  The relaunches the series got up until this point, from what I've seen, had interesting designs but made it even tamer.  This reboot was a chance to instill some much needed vigor into the brand, and it actually succeeds in that...but does, in fact, lose some things in the process.

Before this goes any further, the way that Halmark chose to air this should be addressed.  Their reboot of Rainbow Brite debuted exclusively on their own video streaming site, Feeln.  This site, unlike some, which at least partially stream things paid by ads, requires a subscription to view things.  They heavily tout that they will give viewers a week free, but apparently this is at least slightly false advertizing, as credit card info is required in advance; the free week simply meaning no charges until it ends.  As children aren't generally known for their ability to provide credit card info, or, for that matter, pay for subscriptions by any means, it seems a very odd choice of venue.  Also, making this online means its promotion isn't necessarily reaching children where they can see it.  Hallmark has their own TV channel, so what's wrong with airing it there?  Finally, I know of no merchandizing tie-ins to this series, compared to plenty last few incarnations of the franchise. (Edit: I since discovered they've made some tie-in products, but I don't know what their distribution will be yet.)

All this might sound beside the point of the actual series, but it's a good bookend because, as it turns out, this reboot itself seems a bit confused as to whom it's targeting.  Though its content is of the sort appealing and appropriate to children, it almost never acts like it's a reboot, but rather assumes too much familiarity on behalf of what can only be adults who were fans of the original.  Brian, a boy from Earth who was only a bit part in the original, has been promoted to main character, and his meeting Rainbow Brite is one of the few things retold next to the original series.  Almost everything else is unexplained, and even his introduction is questionable at first.  Why exactly is this boy rocketing through a rainbow to meet this genki girl?  What's her story?  Who's this other girl attacking them?  Who does what here?

It should be mentioned: This show is short.  What counts as the first season was three thirteen-minute episodes.  Back when it was new, I considered reviewing them individually, but as I was busy and I usually review TV episodes individually longer than this whole series, I lumped these all together as one, and they're still highly questionable.  This short length means things are hyper-condensed into very busy, flashy affairs, which once again don't explain much.  The original Rainbow Brite cartoon's world may have been rather tame on average, but it was fleshed out.  We saw how the young heroine Wisp came in to become Rainbow Brite, saw how she established the land as her kingdom, how she battled to keep her kingdom, and saw the other denizens in detail. Here, no reason is given for why Rainbow Brite is here running Rainbowland, why the Dark Princess is trying to take her down, or why Murky, Lurky, and Stormy were helping her out.  Stormy was Rainbow Brite's friend in the original, and here, too, she was explained as being her friend once, before falling out; yet the show gives absolutely no explanation of why that falling out occurred.
Have you seen me?
Meanwhile, Rainbow Brite herself, instead of getting a backstory, is introduced to us (and Brian) in an aggressively passionate way.  From the get-go, she comes off as a mix between Unikitty from The Lego Movie, Deedee from Dexter's Laboratory, and even a little bit of Ducky from The Land Before Time (due to how many times and ways she restates Brian's name).  Somehow, Rainbow Brite instantly sees this strange boy as her new best friend; granted her old one betratyed her (maybe), but what about all the color kids, whom she knows better than him?  In truth, they don't play a lot of a role here.  The bottom line is that this new Rainbow Brite, though plenty friendly, is a bit annoying at the onset; insufficiently humorous to make her raving endearing--at least from an adult perspective; children may disagree.  However once again, how many of them actually were able to see this?

That all sounds very negative, but somehow, once the shock of the busy, confusing introduction wears off, the show does find a sense of fun that's both brimming with humor, and actually outdoes much of the widely-lauded My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic in the action department--even if it's pretty tame by many other cartoons' standards.  Though jarring at first, Rainbow Brite does end up very appealing due to her genuinely kind nature and sense of humor kicking in somewhere along the line.  Starlight the stallion has, to put it in the way all of us adults are thinking, gone from seeming "fairy" gay to seeming "bear" gay, being now buffer and bassier, but aside from this change, he's still the narcisstic steed we all knew and loved.  Murky and Lurky, though redesigned to look a bit more menacing, haven't really changed much at all personality-wise, and their bumbling antics deliver perhaps the best overt humor the series has to offer.  It's genuinely funny to see dated 1980s icons try to get into each other's computer accounts, and see Rainbow and her friends prattle in general about the technological workings of their rainbow-producing city.

Art-wise, this reboot tows the line on the basic requirement of a Rainbow Brite property--being colorful to a point that would embarrass most other shows.  Its deformed human character designs, with their big heads and comparably twiggy bodies, have been and will remain divisive.  They're much more expressive than the slightly Uncanny Valley designs of the originals, but still feel off at times; particularly when they crane their tiny necks forward.  Fortunately, when animation gets into the picture and lots of things start happening at once, this is fairly easy to overlook in favor of the spectacle.

The most notable thing about the show is that it actually delivers on the superhero/magical girl vibe many of us have envisioned a modernized Rainbow Brite having.  Predictably, Rainbow Brite fights by shooting out Rainbows to counter the villains' equally self-themed beams (Stormy's is lightning, for example), but it's far more interesting than the static, moral-powered dreck I keep ragging on My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic for having--and also Care Bears, from what I've seen of it.  Rainbow Brite here doesn't win the battles of the beams just because her being in the right makes her stronger than opponents by some quixotic made-up logic based on wishful thinking; instead she dips, dodges and cartwheels to dodge their attacks and shoots in her own, and sometimes chases them through the air with her powers; in something of a Dragonball Z style dogfight I could do without, but at least fights don't drag on the way they infamously did in that show.  The bottom line is that this Rainbow Brite is impressive to see in action, and more sugary girls' shows could learn from her example.
She ain't playing around...outside of playtime..which is pretty much every time that's not battletime.
 Things get pretty cool, but the real question is whether they'll be gone too soon.  With the final episode of the season already wrapped up with no concrete info on more, there's a risk that this revival, as passionate as it obviously is, could be a fluke.  This is mostly because, once again, I don't know how well it will reach the young audience it hopes to reach, and they might not have the point of reference to appreciate it if they do...unless I'm wrong, and this whole thing is more for adults, but if so, I don't know how they plan to get a lot of money from us.  Still, despite reservations, I give it my blessing to go ahead if it can.  Things improved pretty rapidly within the short span of its introduction; hopefully they will be allowed to continue improving.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Another Response to Video Game "Scholars"

I figured I'd post another response I have to what I consider to be unfair assessment of gaming from the eyes of cynical scholars.  Before going on, though, two things.  First, I link the article in question, which I warn you, is long

Second, I should note, my stance has changed a bit since writing the article.  I am now more vocally critical of the "gangsta" culture depicted in the games in question (mostly Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas); however, I still maintain my assertion in my pasted essay, that video games in particular are being unfairly singled out for what has become the accepted cultural norm, even among the race the writers claim are unfairly treated.  So there's a legitimate conversation to be had as to whether this set of values has sold society a brand of romanticized, commodified racism, but it supersedes video games to the point that they shouldn't even be part of it.  Now, my response, for those who read the original article:

Challenging the claims made in this article feels somewhat halfhearted to me, because I agree, on some level, that there is a legitimate point to be made here, and I believe that the writers were legitimately trying to make it.  There are some seedy aspects of our culture that manifest themselves emphatically in games, and that is regrettable—but I do take issue with the way Everett and Watkins classify it as “racist,” and I feel that some obviously pertinent points against that conclusion are being left out.
            That the label “racist” gets thrown around far too liberally in today’s culture is no secret to many observers.  Centuries of true racism have engendered an understandable resentment among minorities, but resentment can make people behave rashly, in this case by being too quick to hit anyone they perceive as mistreating them with a label that has become taboo.  Literally-defined, racism is the belief that certain races are inferior to others; the presence of racial stereotypes is not necessarily unrelated but also not necessarily related, as stereotypes can be positive.  While every person is an individual, races, nationalities, and groups in general have long taken pride in certain notable characteristics typical of them, and there is nothing inherently wrong with that.  Even so, the violent, thuggish nature depicted of black people in the “urban/street” games genre the article describes, would almost certainly qualify as negative, would it not?
            In fact, no it wouldn’t; not necessarily.  The article examines the aspects of these games on their own, compared to what they see as the white “norm” of video games, and from this angle, such games as Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and NBA Ballers can seem to take a negative, reductive view of black culture, but the more important angle is being ignored: The chain of events that brought society to this point.
            With regards to Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, the writers try to prove a point about how blacks are stereotyped as brutal and violent in games, by comparing it to the subsequently released Bully (Also by Rockstar Games), which stars an upper-class white character in a private school, and is comparatively tame.  In the process, the writers make some ridiculously unprofessional errors when pointing to visual figures spliced into their text, but although such mistakes are blatant and laughable, the real problem is that only Bully is being compared to GTA:SA; all of the GTA titles released up to that point are being completely ignored, and should not be.  Even a cursory look at the prior titles in the GTA series would demonstrate that they starred white protagonists, and were just as criminal and violent as San Andreas would become (although they did become more graphically-so with the jump to close third-person 3-D in Grand Theft Auto III), giving lie to the notion that the series portrays blacks as especially vicious.  In fact (and here I recall Soraya Murray’s article), the white protagonists had the more sinister motives; those of crime for either its own sake or for the sake of mere profit; whereas San Andreas’s C.J. is driven to crime based on his desperate poverty and alienation by a corrupt society.  The black protagonist is one of the more sympathetic characters; yes, his minority society is awash in crime and grunge, but it isn’t through any fault of their own.  To be sure, all of the GTA games are stereotypical, hyperbolic, and satirical, but to call them racist for this is missing the point they’re actually trying to get across: Black society isn’t inherently criminal; it has become that way out of mistreatment by white racist institutions.  San Andreas is an anti-racist game.
            Further indicative of the writers’ “born yesterday” outlook is the way they ignore the cultural evolution that precipitated many of the tropes that they now see in urban/street games.  Black culture has, over the past (roughly forty) decades it has played a distinctive role in the media, become very ironic.  Long shunned and looked down upon by the white majority, it is a culture that has come to embrace what white culture has derided.  The word, “bad” has long served as slang roughly interchangeable with “cool,” the “n word” has become acceptable; even endearing when used by one black man to describe another, and now the whole hard-knock life in the ghettos has become romanticized as a quintessential part of African-American culture.  Now, such originally-negative terms as “gangster” (or “gangsta”), “thug,” “pimp,” and “dope” (as in, the detractor name for drugs) are looked upon with affection, and not just by the African-American community but by society as a whole.  The whole criminal lifestyle associated with such key words, too, has become fetishized.  We see it in movies, in TV shows, and in rap music videos, and when we aren’t seeing it we are hearing about it in lyrics and even in modern lexicon.  This is not racist stereotyping, as Everett and Watkins accuse it of being; it is the identity that a large part of black culture has chosen for itself.
            Does such a choice of identity come with its own problems?  Of course it does.  Romanticizing crime is always a controversial and potentially-detrimental practice.  The gripe with this article’s commentary on the situation, however, lies with its failure to consider such romanticism in its actual context.  Not for the first time, video games are getting singled out for containing controversial elements, when the reason the games contain said elements is because they are reflecting our own society, a society that objects less when such motifs are being piped in via older forms of media. 
That is not to say that there isn’t a problem with the representation of race in video games, but the limited representation actually doesn’t have much to do with racism, because games do not hate African-Americans or their culture; on a certain level, they love both.  Rather, the problem is, as with many things relating to popular culture, the pressure to conform to what is “cool,” and right now, it is apparent that “gangsta” culture is cool.  Time will tell if games stay in this mode, but I doubt they will ever lapse into actual racism at this point.