This post’s fill-in-the-blank title (given the “season” clue that we’re talking about television shows) might refer to any of at least three series, all coincidentally from Amazon Prime studios. In fact it refers to all three, although this post is only about two because I already wrote about Upload. As it turns out, I liked it best of the three U___ shows.
The other two are Undone and Utopia (the new one). I’d tried the former last year but wasn’t grabbed. This time I liked it better and binge-watched the whole season. The latter was dark and very murder-y. Both of them were… okay. I don’t quite recommend either, though.
What I do recommend (highly!) is the anime movie, Penguin Highway.
Undone is an Amazon Prime Original series that premiered back in 2019. As is common these days, there is a season arc and a series arc, so the season ends with a cliffhanger. The good news is the show is renewed for a second season.
The production uses the digital rotoscoping technique used in the movies Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly (2006). Both movies, and this series, tell surreal stories; the rotoscoping gives them a surreal look. It’s both eerily real with implicit detail, yet at the same time unreal and cartoonish. (It also makes some special effects cheaper because the rotoscoping can easily hide things.)
The story revolves around Alma Winograd-Diaz (Rosa Salazar), daughter of Camila Diaz (Constance Marie), sister of Becca (Angelique Cabral). Her father, Jacob Winograd (Bob Odenkirk) died in an auto accident one Halloween night when Alma was a kid.
When the story begins, Alma works at a daycare center and has a boyfriend, Sam, who lives with her. She is loved by those who know her, but Alma suffers from ennui and discontent. She’s never happy with anything. She does have some reason for her feelings, and she may be suffering from depression. But she can be alienating to those who love her.
The first episode starts with Alma driving fast and recklessly, crying and yelling. (We later learn she created a scene at her sister’s wedding.) She speeds through stop signs and stop lights, barely avoiding a crash. Then she sees a vision of her dead father standing in the road and loses control of the car. She crashes; loses consciousness.
She wakes in the hospital, seeing visions of her father (who wants her help in solving his murder), and embarks upon a strange and mystical journey. Her father’s death isn’t what anyone (including him) expected.
I give the show a strong Eh! rating. It was interesting enough to keep me engaged, and I kinda like the rotoscope look. It’s appropriate for the material. I didn’t much take to Alma, though. She’s a typical modern character — driven, self-centered, impatient, often prickly. I guess people find that interesting. I don’t particularly.
With only eight 23-minute episodes, season one isn’t much of an investment. It was easy to binge. I’ll definitely watch the second season.
That won’t be possible with Utopia (2020) because it’s already cancelled. Amazon seems quite willing to pull the plug on shows, so one should avoid getting attached too soon. Be warned this season ends with a even bigger cliffhanger (that will never be resolved).
It’s a dark and murder-y story. Children are killed. A number of characters I assumed would persist get killed early. One was especially surprising; someone I believed was part of the main cast. All the more reason not to get attached.
Almost oddly, the show isn’t based on a comic or graphic novel (so many shows today seem to be). However it is about a group of comic book fanatics and their love of a comic, Dystopia, which a small group of them believes contains messages about deadly viruses that have affected humankind in recent history (SARS, Ebola, Zika, etc). For years they’ve anticipated a sequel, Utopia.
The story begins when a husband and wife inherit a relative’s house and discover he was a hoarder. Going through massive piles of stuff, they discover the original artwork for Utopia. Once they discover what they have, with great ado, they put it up for private bidding at a comics convention.
This triggers a series of murderous events because that small group was right and there is a lot more going on. We very quickly find out that Kevin Christie (John Cusack), the supposedly benevolent CEO of an international company, has evil plans to create a utopia by ending over-population.
These plans involve first convincing the world there is a deadly virus sweeping through the USA — one that seems to affect mostly children. (Of course he’s behind that virus. It’s being spread via rabbits in a traveling petting zoo.) Then he’ll offer a vaccine that, despite FDA regulations, the public will clamor for. They will insist their children get that vaccine. (Although, as we’ve seen, that’s not a given in America.)
The thing is, the vaccine contains a genetic bomb that will end childbearing for three generations. The intent is to seriously reduce the world population and give humanity a fresh start.
Unfortunately, the show is about a viral outbreak and a suspect vaccine, which was pretty bad timing given COVID-19. That may account for why the show did badly enough to get cancelled.
Or it might be because it was kind of stupid in places. I found myself shaking my head a lot at it. Parts of it were engaging, but overall I have to give it a low Eh! or even a Meh! rating. Plus we’ll never know how it ends.
Penguin Highway is a magical delight, a breath of fresh air. There are no villains (just one fairly harmless child bully), no gun battles, no fist fights (just some kids tussling), no deaths, and no gore. It’s something of a coming-of-age story, but it’s also a science fiction fantasy.
It began as a 2010 novel by Tomihiko Morimi. It was serialized as a three-volume seinen manga in 2018–2019. At roughly the same time it was made into a full-length anime feature film (running time is 118 minutes).
I had seen it listed on Amazon Prime, but neither the name, the title graphic, nor the description, grabbed me. Then I was looking for information about a Serbian anime I’d watched, Technotise: Edit & I (2009), and stumbled over one of those “25 Best Anime Films Ever” lists. Penguin Highway was high up on that list.
Since every other film that I recognized on that list was a gem, I decided to give Penguin Highway a chance. I’m really glad I did. It’s the most delightful, whimsical, upbeat, creative magical fantasy I’ve seen in a long time.
I give it two thumbs up and a strong recommendation. I’ll even give it a Wow! rating with the mild caveat that it’s a dessert more than a full meal.
The main character is Aoyama, a precocious ten-year-old boy with an urbane and intelligent father who has instilled and encouraged a love of scientific investigation in his young son. Aoyama has a big interest in science, boobs (the geometry of), and the Lady, a woman who works at his dentist’s office. The Lady has become a friend and chess coach.
One day Aoyama and his friend, Uchida, see a flock of penguins in a field. It turns out that penguins are appearing all over the town. Many of them seem to be going somewhere (following a “penguin highway”). Aoyama and Uchida try to follow them, but lose them in the forest.
Then Aoyama has an encounter with the class bully and pals in which they deface his map of penguin sightings and leave him tied to a vending machine. The Lady was nearby watching (but she never interferes with children). She frees him, they talk, and Aoyama comes to discover that the Lady is creating the penguins (but doesn’t know why).
Following the penguin trail through the forest, Aoyama and Uchida encounter a vast open meadow, and — very much to their surprise — find classmate Hamamoto investigating her own mystery, a giant sphere of water hovering a few feet above the meadow. She refers to it as the “ocean.”
Distracted by this other mystery, Aoyama joins Hamamoto in studying the sphere. They spend several days observing it and trying various tests. They can’t approach too closely because, when they do, the sphere extends pointed arms towards them, and they fear contact from those arms. (Rightfully so, as it turns out.)
They create a probe, but the probe and its line are sucked into the sphere and vanish. Then the Lady shows up, and they begin to discover that the ocean sphere, the penguins, and the Lady, are all part of one mystery.
Later the sphere is discovered and the government moves in. Unfortunately they’re not as careful, and a team that includes Hamamoto’s meteorologist father is sucked into the sphere and vanishes like the kids’ probe did. (But this is an upbeat positive film, and they are later recovered.)
The sphere is a problem — a flaw, so to speak — and the Lady, who isn’t human, is the solution. So are the penguins (who do most of the work).
I enjoyed this on every level, and I’m sure I’ll watch it again to pick up the small details. The animation itself, especially the backgrounds, was gorgeous. I noticed the music, too. Some of the percussive tracks were so tasty I rewound to hear it again.
The story logic is a bit dream-like; things just are the way they are. It presents somewhat as science fiction, but I think plays better as magical realism. For some reason I was reminded, in story tone, of the old George Herriman comic Krazy Kat. Not visually, but in how the story plays. The surreal whimsy seems similar somehow.
In contrast, and very briefly, I also watched Fafner in the Azure: Heaven and Earth (2010), an anime film that’s part of a Japanese mecha anime franchise. I have to give it a resounding Meh! but that might be at least in part to having just been blown away by Penguin Highway (a hard act to follow). I’d also had three of these by then and was getting sleepy.
Long ago I enjoyed the Mobile Suit Gundam series, and I’ve thought I might get into watching the many modern versions. But watching Fafner made me think I might have moved beyond the notion of people piloting giant humanoid vehicles (why humanoid?) and often having giant fist fights.
Overall the thing to me had a Jonny-Quest-meets-JLA kind of feel. It has the richness of character Japanese anime usually has, but it was still a bit too young for my taste. Bottom line, I wouldn’t take my rating too seriously. It may be a matter of taste and malt.
Funny we still call them “seasons” — some have switched to calling each group a “series” (which is confusing, since that term can refer to multiple “seasons”). But except for the dying broadcast TV, there aren’t “seasons” anymore.
Stay seasoned, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.