This was another disappointing Malayalam film. Not because of bad politics or misogyny, just because of a kind of rambling plot and characters that changed direction too quickly. Still happy catchy songs and pretty pretty places, but overall not great.
This movie features a main character who mindlessly idealizes Walt Disney and Steve Jobs without seeming to really understand who they were and where they came from. But she also emulates them, both their worst and best qualities. Either the film is saying something really clever by showing us the way the main character unquestionably believes in the simple version of the person and yet shows how even the best that they did is poisoned with the worst, or the film is just stupid and doesn’t realize that there was more to these famous men than the surface parts, and coincidentally had some of those less than steller and less than surface parts in their script.
Let’s start with Walt Disney! He did a lot of things that weren’t great. For one thing, the idea of Mickey Mouse and most of his most famous characters came from his worker Ub Iwerks, not him. Disney took the ideas and the profit and paid his workers a pittance. Disney animators, once the company was up and running, were forced to work terrible hours for little pay, it was more of a sweat shop than a dream factory.
But then, Disney was able to see the bigger picture, to have a vision for what could be done with those characters. Right from the start, he was inventive with the idea of cartoons combined with live action in his “Alice” series of films, which made Virginia Davis a star. After he convinced her and her family to move from Kansas to Hollywood. And he took Ub Iwerks’ idea for a cartoon mouse and turned it into popular series, and was the first to do a full length cartoon film when everyone said he was crazy. And he understood the importance of merchandising, and of branding, before anyone else did. And he was, overall, a nice man. Not to his employees, and not to Jewish people, but he was kind to children and did seem to care about them and understand them and put structures in place that would keep his company always a “magical” place for them.
And then there’s Steve Jobs. The quote that our heroine in this, Manju Warrier, keeps looking at is “Creativity is Connecting Things”. Which she finds inspiring, but in the context of Steve Jobs who was known for driving his employees ever farther, pulling together talented collaborators to do the real imagining, it sounds more like “creativity is connecting other people’s ideas and taking the credit”. Again, an interesting man in many ways, a great ability to market, to imagine what the public wants and how to sell it to them, and to add those finishing touches to products that made them really magical, but not known for creating the things himself.
(This. This is meaningless. This has nothing to do with electronics. And yet, it sold computers and an idea of computers)
What’s really odd with this film is that there is a character in it, the villain Sudheer Karamana, who has much in common with both Disney and Jobs. Buying other people’s creativity and taking credit for it, driving his employees hard, having no margin for error, etc. etc. And yet our heroine hates him and idolizes Jobs and Disney. I want this to be a clever commentary, that she doesn’t realize the value of the man she knows in real life/doesn’t realize the villainy of the people she dreams of. But I think it is just lazy. They created a cartoon villain (HA! A pun!) without realizing that the features of the evil corporate head they put on him came originally from the real people that they have our heroine follow, the quotes and memes attributed to Disney and Jobs somehow overtaking and become separate from their real life corporate behavior. Neither man was as “evil” as Sudheer’s character here, but certainly neither man was as “good” as Manju Warrier seems to think they were.
Oh, and the other very specific thing I find VERY VERY STRANGE is that Disney got his first big break when he found a real world little girl, Virginia Davis, and inserted her into an animated world. Which is exactly what happens in the plot of this movie, only no character, or the film itself, every seems to say “hey! you want to be like Walt Disney, and you are also starting your studio with a series of cartoons based on a real small child!” There are many possible reasons for this coincidence, but I think I am going to go with them being too lazy to do even 5 minutes of Disney research, which is very depressing considering they obviously had animators working on the film. Does no one know animation history any more? Just me, who had to do a 3 week section on Disney studios as part of my film history class in grad school? Followed by another week on Jobs and Pixar?
(Disney and Virginia Davis)
Let’s see, what else in the No Spoilers section? Oh right, it was very interesting to have a heroine who was clearly adult and progressed in her career and whose storyline had everything to do with her career and nothing to do with romance. And Manju Warrier was wonderful, thank goodness she is working again, she seems to be able to get films built around her in a way other actresses can’t, whether it is because of her enormous popularity with the fans or intelligence in how she has handled her career I don’t know, but I appreciate the result.
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Like I said, the plot is confused. Or, more accurately, the narrative is confused. The plot is straight forward. Manju Warrier is an animator who is dreaming of her big break meets the little boy who moves in next door to her parents. She realizes that he could be her break out character, designs a cartoon series based on him and convinces his guardian to let him stay with her and her new team of animators working on the series. The series becomes a hit and, after a bumpy start, the concept of the cartoon celebrity being based on a real kid leads to the Sanoop Santhush, the kid, becoming a star too. Only the fame goes to his head, the evil cartoon company owner Sudhar Karameena sets up Manju to be embarrassed during a big presentation by pointing out that Sanoop has gone “bad”, in creating a cartoon character and her own success, she has forgotten the real child. Manju gives up the series to save Sanoop, but it works out in the end, he manages to forgive her, and the series restarts, Happy Ending.
The plot would be straight forward if it was presented like I just told it. But, it isn’t. Part of it is the usual Malayalam thing of starting by getting us really really familiar with the situation and characters. We get to know that Manju always dreamed of being an animator and creating a character like Mickey Mouse like Walt Disney did. We see how she and her parents live in a beautiful guest house in a beautiful resort town where her father makes wonderful meals for their guests. And we see that Manju is in a strange almost-but-not-quite-successful phase of her life. She is making movies and getting them accepted to festivals, and she has a following on Facebook. But she can’t get a regular contract for a regular job, she is still living at home and struggling to make it with her little at home work room.
This part I find fascinating! The idea of being trapped at a career plateau. It’s not that she is trying to get started, or learning from her mistakes, or waiting for her big break. She had the big break, she knows how to do things, she is started. She just can’t seem to level up out of where she is at.
But where the film struggles is where to go from there. Because the thing is, the process of getting out of that career plateau isn’t usually triumphal and exciting. There’s no training montage required, no big dramatic speech. You just get that one contract that is slightly better than the contract you already have, you do a good job because it is stuff you already know how to do, and then you deliver your work and get another contract. And that’s all there is.
So the script has to create excitement. And that’s where it gets silly and clumsy. I was with them when Manju got her first contract from Sudheer thanks to a random meeting with an old school friend at a film festival. Because that’s the point of festivals, you go and make connections and get job offers. And I was even with them when Sudheer disrespected Manju’s film and didn’t even sit through to the end and then didn’t give her a contract. Because that’s an interesting idea, to get that break and then have another set back. And what would be really interesting would be, eventually, to show that Sudheer was right, Manju wasn’t ready and could be better.
But the film doesn’t go there. It loses itself at this point, which is the point when it should be finding itself. The title is “Jo and the Boy” and this is when the “and the Boy” part starts being important. In order to get Manju to her next big idea and big break, they bring in the idea of this magical cheerful little boy who inspires her to create a new lead character. But, he never feels like a real character. He just exists to be whatever the plot needs him to be to get Manju to the next step in her journey.
It’s unpleasant on multiple levels. Bad characterization for one thing, he goes from perky and magical to shy and unable to handle attention, to charming and enjoying the fame, to damaged and angry with fame, in no time at all. And then back to perky and magical just in time for the happy ending. It’s like punching air, as soon as it feels like the plot is going to grapple with one problem presented by Sanoop, he completely changes personality and presents a different problem.
For another, it makes Sanoop’s character feel disposable in a very unpleasant way. He is an orphan who Manu’s neighbor agreed to take care of so she would have “companionship”. Not for him, the little boy, but for her. And Manju treats him the same way, throws herself into using his image and his personality for her character. And gleefully takes guardianship of him just to help her animation company. And truly doesn’t seem to have thought about how difficult any of this might be, if he actually wants any of it, until it all comes crashing down around her. Even at the end of the film, it is still about her, she is worried over her sick father, she needs him to forgive her, and so he does. All her faults are swept under the rug.
Most of all it just makes the film feel very stop and start. As soon as it feels like we are going somewhere, she has a cartoon series with Sudheer and it is a massive hit (for instance), suddenly Sanoop is used as a plot device to randomly make that stop working and the plot goes somewhere else.
The film just didn’t know where to go. It set up this interesting woman who was trying to get started somehow, and then it couldn’t think of any interesting conflicts once she got started. Partly because it refused to look directly at the obvious conflict that was there. Like Steve Jobs and Walt Disney, Manju was taking ideas from others, building a group of talented people around her to help create her vision, building a cult of personality, practicing her interviews for the camera, looking for the image and brand as much as the product. The film made Sandoop go bad with fame because it couldn’t acknowledge that Manju was the one with the real problem.
I suppose that’s the most “feminist” thing about it. Manju Warrier gets her own male hero film. In the worst possible way. All the other characters just exist to support her journey and be a reflection of her, and none of the problems are ever her fault.