Thursday 22 November 2012

Wizards Vs Aliens - Rebel Magic

I’ve commented that I see a lot of potential in Wizards Vs Aliens. I enjoyed the opening story, “Dawn of the Nekross” immensely. Despite a few issues, it was fun and imaginative. I had a somewhat lower opinion of the following story, “Grazlax Attacks”. While I could still see the potential, it did a fairly typical second-story thing, which is to do nothing with that potential. I’m glad to say that with the third story, “Rebel Magic”, the show is starting to realize that potential. Oddly enough, the actual plot of “Rebel Magic” is quite unoriginal. It’s a pretty standard tale where the young hero is tempted down the wrong path by an irresponsible new arrival. Nonetheless, it manages to rise beyond this and present its oft-told tale in an engaging and satisfying way. It also looks a little more into the background of the principal characters, including some actual development of the individual Nekross characters, as well as new revelations about the nature of magic itself. There’s even a hint of darkness underlying the general fun style of the series. It’s not a perfect episode by any means, but the good in it certainly outweighs the bad, and it starts to provide the show with a direction as it starts to lay hints of thing to come (both subtle and in-your-face hints).


Rebel Magic” introduces us to Jackson Hawke, a young wizard about Tom’s age, who is considerably more powerful than any other wizard we’ve yet seen, capable of feats of magic so strong, the Nekross can detect him through the shrouding spell Tom, Ursula, and Randal Moon set up last story (it’s nice to see the Nekross reference that in this story, as they never did in “Grazlax Attacks”). From his very first scene, we see him actually affect Varg and two Nekross warriors with his magic by transporting them around the world. Until now, the Nekross have been completely immune to magic. This initial scene is actually handled very well, as viewers can’t be entirely sure yet whether Jackson’s magic really did affect the Nekross directly or if it was just a clever indirect effect. Using magic on things around the Nekross (such as to throw a heavy object at them) is clearly possible, so the viewers might interpret Jackson’s actions as simply opening a portal near the Nekross that they happened to fall into. I certainly considered this possibility on my first viewing. However, the scene also leaves enough of a question in the viewers’ minds to leave them wondering just who this mysterious Jackson Hawke, “slayer of Angry Birds”, is.

Jackson’s next appearance is to save Tom from a group of thugs who are trying to rob him. Although this scene and the first scene have him perform rather heroic actions, towards the end of this scene, we start to see how much of a jerk Jackson really is with his somewhat casual dismissal of Tom. Nonetheless, Tom is fascinated by him, and thus starts the tale of Tom’s brush with the Dark Side...err...grim magic.

Jackson fits perfectly into a role prevalent throughout a lot of fantasy, and pretty much any tale involving the Hero’s Journey—that of the tempter, not necessarily evil, but someone who leads the hero towards a path which could result in his own self-destruction (either literally or figuratively). In the process, the hero learns an important lesson and becomes a better person because of it. And sometimes, as is the case here, the hero even redeems the tempter. Even though Jackson may be a trope that has been done to death a thousand times, he’s handled well here. This is definitely due, in part, to actor Andy Rush, who sells the character very well, even if he does look a little old for the part. (I’m not sure of Rush’s actual age, but he looks somewhat more than the seventeen years his character is supposed to be. It’s even more egregious in the flashback sequences showing his parents, where he’s supposed to be an unspecified number of years younger and simply doesn’t look it. But then, Tom doesn’t really look his age either.) It’s also due, in part, to the fact that it gives Tom a chance to grow as a character, something the character needs. It’s still early in the series, so one can’t really expect a lot of character growth yet, but this story provides a necessary start.

There is actually quite a substantial amount of character development in this story. We get a bit more insight into Tom’s father, Michael (who was completely absent from “Grazlax Attacks”). We still don’t learn exactly what happened to Tom’s mother, but it is made all the more clear that Michael still very much mourns for her and his strictness with Tom is due partially to a fear that magic will take Tom away from him just like it took his wife away. It also helps explain his odd priorities regarding Tom’s schoolwork versus saving the world from the Nekross. As this is a children’s show, it obviously needs to teach its audience of the importance of school and learning. As an educator myself, I am certainly aware of just how important this is. Nonetheless, Tom is kind of right when he comments that the Nekross trying to drain the world of magic is probably more important. School may provide Tom with the means to have a secure future, but if the Nekross aren’t defeated, Tom won’t have a future at all. Indeed, there’s an odd lack of urgency in all the characters regarding stopping the Nekross. While it makes sense for Ursula and Michael to discourage Tom from trying to do it all himself (he is young and inexperienced after all), one does wonder why Ursula isn’t gathering together all the other wizards she can find to help stop the Nekross. In Michael’s case, at least, this can possibly be explained by an attempt to deny it all, spurred on by his mourning for his wife.

I really like that “Rebel Magic” starts to develop the individual Nekross characters. Until now, all we’ve really seen of them is a lot of bluster (particularly from the King) and a bit of rivalry between Varg and Lexi. This rivalry is certainly at the core of the relationship between these two siblings and it forms the focus of their character development here. But more than that, we start to see more of the individual traits they each have. Lexi is certainly the more intelligent one, who prefers to plot carefully and use stealth to achieve her goals, while Varg prefers the brute-strength approach. Despite their rivalry, however, there is an affection between the two, even though they may try to hide it through statements about needing to use the other. Lexi claims she saved her brother out of a desire for her own self-preservation, but we can see in her face that she did it because she actually cares about his fate. This helps elevate these two characters beyond just stock, blustering villains. While there’s not much development for the King at this point (he remains just as blustery as ever, and in a way, that’s kind of fun), the show does provide a bit of background for him, revealing that he killed his own brother to claim the throne. It’s not a lot of insight, but it does provide a hint that even this over-the-top, pantomime character may have a little something more to him.

Although not strictly a character, magic itself sees some development in this story. While “Dawn of the Nekross” introduced us to the basic rules of magic (wizards only get three spells per day, for example), “Rebel Magic” starts to provide more insight into how it works, which is important to keep it believable. There’s a temptation in fantasy to allow magic to do anything, simply because it’s magic. But the best fantasy has rules for how magic works. This doesn’t mean the rules need to be explicitly stated, just that they need to exist. There needs to be a consistency to how it works in order for the audience to suspend its disbelief. “Rebel Magic” introduces us to grim magic, the magic that would seem to ultimately be the source of all magic. It exists within everything, and wizards can tap into it, but shouldn’t, as it will gradually destroy them. The words and rituals that wizards use are what protect wizards from grim magic. In essence, grim magic is the “Dark Side” of magic in the Wizards Vs Aliens universe.

Although Wizards Vs Aliens is primarily a light-hearted and fun series, I do like that “Rebel Magic” starts to inject a little bit of darkness into it. This is particularly noticeable in the early scenes with Ursula, first when she’s talking to Tom and then when she’s talking to Michael about Tom. There’s a hint of worry and dread in her face and dialogue throughout these scenes. Although, as I said, I do find it a bit odd that she doesn’t seem to be doing much to combat the Nekross threat, she is definitely worried and concerned about it and the death and destruction that could result.

If I have one major complaint about the story, it’s that Jackson is redeemed a little too easily. His sudden decision to reveal his terrible secret (that he’s responsible for his parents’ disappearance) in front of the Nekross seems a little odd, although I suppose it could be explained by the stress of the situation. Nonetheless, it feels contrived rather than natural, especially as that scene involves lots of people just standing around making threats rather than actually doing anything. More than that though, I feel his redemption is somewhat cheapened by having him depart so that the show doesn’t actually need to deal with him for a while. Yes, there’s some very blatant foreshadowing that he’ll be back, but I can’t help feel that the show has missed out on an opportunity to develop in a more interesting way by keeping him around. He wants to find his parents yet he rather stereotypically refuses the help offered him even though he has no good reason to. While this is perhaps in character for him, what is more surprising is that the others make a very half-hearted attempt to convince him to stay. They’re suddenly willing to trust that he won’t ever use grim magic again, despite the fact that it’s supposed to be exceptionally hard to stop once you’ve started. While Jackson has shown a desire to stop, he hasn’t really given the others a reason to trust him so implicitly. What’s more, he then proceeds to use a (presumably) magical item to perform a feat of magic that surprises everyone else that it’s even possible. Yet other than a few gasps and exclamations of “How did he do that?”, they just shrug it off and return to life as normal. The ending just abandons the natural development the story has so far had and replaces it with a couple contrived scenes to redeem Jackson and then quickly write him out.

Overall, “Rebel Magic” is a good story. It doesn’t have a very original storyline, but it manages to rise above this by providing the first real instance of character development and progression for the series so far. It has its flaws, but despite these, I still found it a highly enjoyable pair of episodes, and it looks like a good sign of things to come.

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