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What to watch: Raya's Inside Shadow
Hey there! The Pop Culture Brain newsletter is currently on holiday hiatus. It’ll be back soon with regular news, trailers, and recommendation emails — but for now please enjoy highlights from the what to watch segment! And watch any of these if you missed ‘em!
You’ll be hard pressed to find something as creative, soul-bearing, and sardonic as Bo Burnham’s new “comedy” special Inside, now on Netflix. I put comedy in quotes because while it’s often very funny, it’s also tragic, introspective, and thought-provoking. The basic conceit is that Burnham created a new musical comedy special over the course of the pandemic inside one room. Not only is it the special itself, including comedic songs, sad songs, etc — but it is also a documentary style confessional of making the thing itself. It also might just be the defining work of the pandemic and beyond.
The singular room setting harkens back to Burnham’s early YouTube days behind the keyboard in his bedroom, but it also fully embraces the next logical step in his progression as an artist willing to expose everything, everyone, and himself. Bo proves that restraints (in this case the one room) can lead to massive creativity. The amount of beautiful, evocative cinematography and clever special effects he achieves through lighting, camera, projection, editing, and sound is downright impressive.
And then there’s the content itself. Bo Burnham’s career took a turning point with “Art Is Dead,” the 14th song of his 2010 special Words, Words, Words. With “Art Is Dead” Burnham started to evolve from musical comedian ripping off Stephen Lynch to an artist all his own, looking to topple and confront the very systems that led him to success and fame. Inside is an examination of social isolation—not just the obvious pandemic isolation that forced us all apart—but the isolation that’s been creeping in for 30 years due to the internet. Social media, misinformation, alienation and how it wreaks havoc on our psyches is all fair game for Bo. He’s clearly been obsessed with these issues for years (see Eighth Grade, Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous, Make Happy) but here he honestly and vulnerably turns it on himself and that’s where Inside will really punch you in the gut — and make you cry laughing. It’s quite an achievement.
I thought the fantasy YA genre was done. After peaking in the mid 2010s, much of the screen attempts at it in recent years have been wrote and derivative. It seemed the best source material had already been picked over, repackaged, and often ruined. Leave it to Netflix to prove me wrong. Shadow and Bone might just be your next fantasy obsession.
Sure, there are echoes of Potter and Twilight in the series adaptation of Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse novels, but there are also plenty of original ideas here to make it feel fresh. Its blend of familiar tropes, new inventions, and subversions of expectations is exactly what makes Shadow and Bone so compelling. Bardugo and series creator Eric Heisserer do an expert job in world building (it’s the kind of show where you need to google its map) and deep character crafting.
Fun fact: The show combines two book series set in the same universe. Heisserer smartly combines elements of the Shadow and Bone trilogy and the Six of Crows duology. This creates a more sprawling story that’s especially rewarding when characters come together in the end. It’s sort of like a Game of Thrones-light. Not to mention, this union gives us Freddy Carter as Kaz Brekker, Amita Suman as Inej Ghafa, and scene-stealer Kit Young as Jesper Fahey. The show would be far worse without them.
As with all great Netflix series, Shadow and Bone is propulsive. Each episode will grip you and leave you hungry to dive into the next one. The streamer also spent the money on sets, costumes, special effects, and stunts to make the thing look great. Leave your preconceptions about fantasy YA at the door and step into the Fold.
Raya and the Last Dragon, now available for free with Disney+, is far from perfect. It doesn’t soar to the heights of recent Disney Animation studio films like Frozen, Wreck-It Ralph, or even Big Hero 6, but it does come with enough Disney magic to delight on a Saturday afternoon, let‘s say. This pan Asian-inspired fantasy adventure packs tons of stunning design, eye-popping visuals, and heart-pulsing action sequences. Its all Asian-American voice cast sparkles, led by the grounded and emotional Kelly Marie Tran and the zany Awkwafina, who seems to be channelling Robin Williams’ Genie in some ways. While some of the pacing feels off and a few emotional beats are missing (maybe due to Disney finishing the movie remotely?), Raya makes up for it with meaningful morality. Behind all the shrine robbing and dragon dancing, the magic orbs and flexible swords, Raya and the Last Dragon teaches us that kindness and peace will always win out over hostility and division. You know, you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. It’s an important message to hear right now and it comes in an enjoyable, colorful package. Raya and the Last Dragon might not be an instant Disney Animation classic, but it’s another formidable entry in its modern era.