I will admit that there are a few things Netflix is good for. Stealing the food out of hard working video stores’ metaphorical mouths. Making presumptuous and often completely wrong assumptions about what I would enjoy watching. Reducing the experience of choosing and watching a movie to a cold, emotionless algorithm, devoid of any human connectivity or exchange. And documentaries, Netflix is good for documentaries. So good, in fact, that I’ve decided to devote this week’s FFR to a list of all the fine bits of cinematic FUN-ducation that can be streamed by anyone with a Netflix-ready device and a nail to drive into the coffin of the video rental industry, which by now is probably more nails than wood.
Turtle Power: The Definitive History of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
It honestly surprises me that it took this long for someone to film the chronicle of TMNT, arguably one of the cultural touchstones of my generation. But “coincidentally” just in time for that horrendous looking new movie, first time director Randall Lobb has crafted a film that examines the history and cultural impact of everyone’s favorite amphibian mad-libs, taking us from the foursome’s pairing by two struggling comic book creators to its meteoric ascent to popularity.
The doc has a lot of style and pazazz, with animated segments and flashy transitions to take us through its exhaustive collection of interviews with just about anyone who really matters when it comes to TMNT and its history. This isn’t some quick hack job with maybe one or two actually important interviewees and a bunch of commentators and critics who really have nothing to add. Almost everyone who gets major screen time feels like an important voice, and that makes for a doc that feels full of passion, energy and information.
It does occasionally feel padded out, especially towards the end, and I would point out that there’s plenty of Turtles media the film skips over entirely, making the “definitive” part of the title a bit of a misnomer. But it has a lot of heart and charm put into it, and that’s enough to carry it comfortably through its run time.
Wonder Woman! The Untold Story of American Superheroines
While Turtle Power focused solely on a history of the Ninja Turtles franchise, Wonder Women!, which was suggested to me afterward, takes a more interesting approach. From the beginning it seems like a mere history of Wonder Woman and her small but dedicated fanbase. However, as the film progresses, it widens its scope and reveals itself not really as a documentary about Wonder Woman, but rather American feminism as seen -through- Wonder Woman.
Because of this, Wonder Women! feels like a much tighter and more driven film than Turtle Power, and the hour or so run time doesn’t hurt in keeping things very concise and to the point. While Turtle Power sometimes felt a bit overly long and eschewed any kind of real thesis or drive in favor of a broad history, Wonder Women feels like a tightly packed analytical essay, with a point to make and a clear voice to say it with.
Of course, this doesn’t mean it’s dry or academic. Like Turtle Power it keeps things stylish with lots of animated segues and colorful montages, but I’d put it above many other, similar docs I’ve seen on comics and comic heroes for its clarity of purpose, and for how coherently and effectively it says what it wants to say.
From comic book superheroes back to amphibians, almost as though Netflix is growing self-aware and can recognize patterns and motifs. In this case, I won’t complain, as it presented me with a singularly fun and enjoyable doc. But don’t think I’m not sharpening my axe for when things get all Skynet on us.
Cane Toads focuses on, unsurprisingly, Cane Toads, a species of toad introduced into Australia shortly after the turn of the century in an attempt to control the spread of sugar-cane eating insects. Of course, the whole plan backfired and the toads entirely failed to stem the spread of insects and became an even worse problem themselves, breeding like mad and beginning a slow spread across Australia.
I went in to Cane Toads expecting a fairly dry but informative nature doc. Imagine my surprise when I was met by one of the funniest, most rigorously directed documentaries since Errol Morris’s Tabloid.
The film starts off as just an informative but highly amusing look at an ecological disaster in the making, but as we get further in the interviews and vignettes get more and more outlandish and off-the-wall, until the viewer begins to question more and more of what they’re seeing. In some ways, this may undercut Cane Toads‘ goal of shedding light on a very real problem, but given that it makes the film such an enjoyable experience, it doesn’t strike me as a problem personally.
I can’t remember a documentary actually made me laugh as much as Cane Toads did as it flew further and further into absurdism like some strange, toad-addled Icarus. But even though I still question a lot of what I saw, I feel like I learned a bit, and a documentary that can educate and entertain is hard enough to find that coming across one is like striking oil, or finding the Criterion Collection release of Flesh for Frankenstein for cheap.