Saturday, June 21, 2008

Adventures in Geekery: Wii Homebrew and Panda edition

Yes, its true. Yesterday I decided to get rid of a couple of those AMC Silver tickets I had lying in my wallet and I went to see Kung Fu Panda. For those who follow my blog, you'd know I had less than favorable impressions of the movie. I had incredibly bad vibes after Dreamworks ran a PowerPoint presentation for Digital Arts students at Pratt, and the incredibly derivative looking trailer didn't help. I don't think there's ever been an American Martial Arts movie in the past 20 years that hasn't used the song "Kung Fu Fighting" somewhere in the trailer, and that "Battle Without Honor Or Humanity" track from Kill Bill has been used in every possible ironic sense since it first appeared in a film. Luckily, it was mostly void of the pop culture snarkiness and cheap gags that's a mainstay in most Dreamworks Animation movies but it still wasn't half of what I'd consider Pixar-quality.

Onward to the geekery:
Kung Fu Panda - to start things off, this movie gave off an incredibly great first impression with this 2-D animated opening from James Baxter Animation, who also worked on the opening 10 minutes or so of Enchanted. It looked absolutely incredible on the digital projection with details like a really subtle paper parchment texture showing through. It would be interesting to see if the film would be any different if they tried to make the entire thing in this style, or at least created some sort of cell-shading filter to mimic this simplicity with the control of 3D animation. When the actual movie started, I was fairly satisfied with the amount of squash and stretch they were able to pull off with the animation in this. They started using it in Madagascar but it was really pronounced in this movie. The lighting in this was quite good as well, with a fearless choice to go with red and blue lights in some of the scenes, its great to see Dreamworks finally playing around with the limitless amount of freedom CG gives them for their movie.

In a lot of ways Kung Fu Panda reminded me a lot of Over the Hedge in that it was a step above the Shrek movies and really entertaining, but not anything I'd go out of my way to see again. Like Over the Hedge's decision to have Bruce Willis play a cuddly raccoon and Avril Lavigne voice an angsty teen possum, it had a needlessly star studded cast which really only needed Jack Black at the end of the day. Some of the questionable choices included Knocked Up's Seth Rogan voicing a praying mantis, who only had a couple of snarky one-liners and an excuse to get his signature laugh somewhere into the movie. Angelina Jolie played a moderately big role as a cuddly tiger but she appeared alongside Jack Black in the Dreamworks's horrible Shark Tale movie, maybe Dreamworks is running out of marquee actors to pick from. It also had Lucy Liu and Jackie Chan in there, but only to collect a paycheck, all I can remember is that they played a Snake and a Baboon respectably and they said maybe two or three lines. You'd think they could have put a little money aside and gone with Saturday morning cartoon voice actors for those minor roles and put a little money towards the writing, which was easily the weakest thing in this movie.

While I remember at Pratt, Dreamworks touted this as an animator driven project and that's what really saved this movie in my mind. It seemed like they just let the animators have fun let it be through slapstick gags or a few ridiculously awesome action sequences that seemed a little out of place for the rest of the movie. The real problem with this movie was the fact that all the sequences that were supposed to convince us that Po (Jack Black) was not the dragon warrior were just played off as slapstick gags. I really wish there was just one scene, where you could legitimately see Jack Black get his ass handed to him and just get a look of desperation on his face. Yes, I know this is a "family movie" but they did it in a Bug's Life and it was EASILY the strongest moment in the entire movie. Instead, the scenes when Jack Black actually did give up we really had little reason to actually believe him where in most of the shows he had a "smile on his face" and it looked like he was having fun in the midst of those slapstick gags. While Kung Fu Panda had its share of flaws, you could certainly do a LOT worse when it comes to 3D animated movies.

Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro - the funny thing about Hayao Miyazaki is that even when you think you've seen all his films already, there's always one that you missed. I saw this at the library in the children's section and I was apparently the only one who's taken it out ever since they first got it a few months ago. I think this one was made before Studio Ghibli even existed and its quite odd because it still has a lot of the staples of a Miyazaki film (like flight, bad guys who are actually good) but it also has a humor and sensibility that I didn't know Miyazaki even had. I found this one pretty entertaining but I really feel like Miyazaki's style really evolved around the time they released My Neighbor Totoro, his early stuff like this and Nausicaa was good but they were fairly flawed. Only worth it if you haven't seen some of his more recent stuff yet.


This week I also installed the Homebrew Channel on my Wii, after hearing that the latest update will disable the Twilight Hack I figured that now was my only real chance to do it. I installed the hack mainly just so I could back up my 160 hours of data in Brawl. While my warranty expired last February (it was a launch Wii, extended for registering) I figured if my Wii ever bites the dust which I feel its getting pretty close to, I want to have a way to back up the titles that the Wii OS wouldn't let me like Mario Kart Wii, Brawl and Guitar Hero III.

Getting the Homebrew channel wasn't nearly as user friendly as I imagined it. After checking where my Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess disc was manufactured and reformatting an SD card with a very specific tree of folders. It seemed needlessly tense. Especially when I ran the Twilight Hack and this MS-DOS like bios started up and told me if my Wii doesn't work anymore that its no one's fault but my own. It was all a very nerve-wracking process and I doubt really anyone outside of maybe a half of a percent of Wii owners would ever want to go through it.

After installing the channel, it all ran kind of fine. The start-up logo for the channel was quite cool, it would be nice if you could access the Wii menu with through the Wii's bios from there and there's no way to get back to the channel's menu within any actual applications. Most of the homebrew apps were pretty much unplayable, this included a soundless version of Duck Hunt which was done much better in a Flash game before it and a version of Tetris with a fair bit of slow-down. The SNES emulator on the other hand worked without a hitch and supported the classic controller. As someone who's dropped more money than I'd like to think on Virtual Console downloads, this was quite novel. I spent most of the mod from there on playing EarthBound, which I'm actually enjoying quite a lot.

I might try to see Shakespeare on the Sound one of these days too...before it ends fairly momentarily.
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