Monday, December 24, 2012

Merry Christmas from Cartoons for Breakfast

Here's hoping this guy visits you and your loved ones today (this guy being an old man dressed up as Santa Claus).

Merry Christmas from everyone's favorite cartoon blog!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Peace on Earth and Good Will to Men

Every once in a while, independent forces come together to create a perfect storm of meaning.  That's why this week I'm featuring two classic shorts from the MGM cartoon studio.  The first is "Peace on Earth" from 1939, directed by Hugh Harman.  The themes of the end of mankind, anti-violence, and the joy of Christmas feel all too relevant right now in the wake of the tragic events in Connecticut and supposedly imminent Mayan apocalypse.  

You won't see me sing the praises of Hugh Harman or his partner Rudolph Ising very often.  Even though their careers spanned the length of the Golden Age of Animation, the majority of their work is little more than a pale imitation of what Disney was producing at the same time.  It was all cutesy stuff with little humor unless you count the over-the-top innocence of it all.  In 1939 however, Harman created "Peace on Earth," an inspired short recounting the self-destruction of mankind told against the backdrop of the Christmas season.  While some of the scenes come off as silly and typically Harman-esque, others are nothing short of chilling.  The deaths of the last two men on Earth was shocking in 1939 and still sends a chill up my spine to watch. 

In 1955, Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera (creators of Tom & Jerry, The Flintstones, and countless other classic characters) remade "Peace on Earth" and tilted it "Good Will to Men."  The new version featured modernized violence that incorporated Cold War fears and the increased arsenal of World War II.  The grander scope creates a much stronger short than the original for modern audiences, even if the ending is a little religious by today's standards.  The climax of nuclear annihilation however does not impact me as much as seeing the last man drown in a mixture of mud and his own blood.  

Both shorts were widely praised and were nominated for Academy Awards in their respective years.  The bittersweet message of both shorts reminds us to be mindful of ourselves and each other, especially in times when the almost comical juxtaposition of seasonal joy and unimaginable cruelty make us question who we are and what we are to become.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Perils of Fandom: A Case Study of "Adventure Time" Part Deux

In case you missed it last week, I began my two-part examination of some trends developing in the hit Cartoon Network show Adventure Time that, if left unchecked, may lead to an untimely demise.  I've already looked at the shows attempts to establish continuity, and now it's time to look at an even more insidious force at work:  the fandom.

The fact that "fan" derives from the word "fanatic" is not lost on me, and with the uniting efforts of the internet, fandom has reached an unparalleled level in popular culture.  This is not a bad thing unto itself; what other people choose to be enthusiastic about is their own business. This is not to say that they are a perfect bunch.  Fans are never completely satisfied with the thing they love and always crave more of it.  It's less about appreciating the product that is being produced, and getting the next hit of their popular life-blood.

Adventure Time's immense popularity has naturally spawned legions of fans that celebrate the show through fanart, fanfic, and fan-everything-else.  They love the show and the show loves them.  The best expression of this is the creation of characters Fiona and Cake, gender-swapped versions of Finn and Jake that feature in a fanfic written by the Ice King.  The single episode that stars these two has made them as popular as the two actual stars of the series.  Now, there is a second one in the coming weeks that feels like nothing less than fanservice with it coming out so soon after the first one.

The problem here is not that there are fans.  The show deserves fans because it is a great cartoon.  The problem is what happens when fans become the central focus and the core of the audience.  Too many in-jokes and other efforts to please fans is a surefire way to turn off the casual viewer, the most crucial demographic for keeping a show afloat.  Don't believe me?  Ask a fan of Doctor Who.  One of the reasons that the show's original run was cancelled back in the 80's is that it became more concerned with its own continuity and pleasing fans rather than staying in touch with contemporary issues and keeping a broad audience.  It's why the show's revival has only increased in popularity every year. Not every program gets that lucky though, and most simply fade away forever.

It seems though that the Adventure Time crew is aware of the perils of fandom.  A recent episode titled "All the Little People" is a deliberate jab at the obsessive and self-serving nature of many hardcore fans.  Finn discovers a bag of miniature sentient versions of himself and every other character from the show.  He then spends literally every waking moment manipulating each one into bizarre dramas featuring ridiculous and completely illogical pairings, ignorant of his own slow descent into madness.  "OTP" run amok much?

Pretty much sums it up.

My theory is that Pen Ward and the rest of the Adventure Time gang are acutely aware of what is going on, hence the making of "All the Little People."  We're starting to get a new generation of animators that are a part of the millennial generation.  They're just as into Twitter and internet memes as many of their fans, and it shows in their work.  YouTube is full of shorts that they make "just for the lulz." Need proof, check out this funny bit featuring Pokemon.  Maybe there's hope yet.  I just hope they don't overdo it.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Perils of Fandom: A Case Study of "Adventure Time"

There are two trends that are increasing in popularity that have me worried about one of the best animated shows on TV right now. I'm talking about Adventure Time, the zany, incredibly original series from the mind of Pendleton Ward. If you haven't seen it yet, do yourself a favor and check out one of the funniest, most unique animated shows in a long time. You'll probably want to do so sooner rather than later, because I fear that the show may be approaching the dreaded shark that many an acclaimed series have jumped.

Season three kicked off not too long ago, and I've seen some worrying trends start to occur.  The show is starting to flirt with two of the deadliest trends in popular storytelling: story arcs and fan service. There is nothing wrong with either of these devices per se, but all too often they spell doom. The Land of Ooo has not yet been fully overrun by these menaces, so hopefully my observations may nip things in the bud, or at least spread the awareness. This week I'll be discussing continuity and next week I'll conclude with catering to the fandom.

My concern here is not simply me complaining that a show I love has changed in a way that I don't like. These sorts of behaviors can lead down a slippery slope that slowly but surely turns away the casual viewer, which is the key demograhic for keeping a program on the air. My goal is to try and keep Adventure Time  on the air as long as possible, because shows like this need to stick around for a while.

Perhaps the lesser of these two evils is establishing a story arc. It works for several shows and is a startlingly effective way to keep viewers tuning in.  It's kind of an all-or-nothing game; either establish the arc early and stick with it (occasionally allowing a standalone episode is fine), or keep each episode unique. Adventure Time started out as the latter. Finn and Jake would just have random adventures involving manly minotaurs, crying mountains, and princesses of every imaginable shape and demeanor. There would be occasional flashbacks, but they were usually just a means to make a poop joke and not be taken too seriously.  

More recently, plot elements are introduced, and sometimes even retconned, to contribute to a larger story. There are cliff-hangers that create a backstory to the Land of Ooo, referred to in whispers as "The War." The Ice King, previously a ridiculous and incompetent foil/villain has become a tragic hero and popular subject of fanart.  

This shot has inspired more internet artists than that angry-looking cat.

Cartoons that are largely comic in nature don't need to worry about continuity. You don't need to know the chicken's backstory and prior relationships, all you need to know is why he's crossing the road. The argument can be made that these types of plots are aimed more towards the adult viewers, but my rebuttal is why not just enjoy the funny action and jokes without worrying about complex character relationships and why the world is the way it is?  

These are all of the ingredients of canon, the dirty word of continuity, and leads directly to...

The topic of next week's post. I'm not trying to create a cliffhanger, I just don't have the time or space to focus on both topics this week.  Stay tuned and share your thoughts!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

"Rise of the Guardians" Is A Holiday Treat

Last week, Dreamworks premiered its latest animated film, Rise of the Guardians, based on The Guardians of Childhood children's book series by William Joyce.  I've been excited since the studio first announced this one, and it really is a great movie to kick off the holidays.

The movie is clearly aimed at children, emotionally stunted millennials like myself, and the young at heart.  The plot can be boiled down to, "It's The Avengers, but with Santa Claus."  Anyone who is not tickled inside by that concept even just a little bit though either has no soul or did not grow up in the western world where these characters have a level of fame that any Hollywood star would do awful, awful things to attain.  I love superheroes, but I'm reasonably convinced that Santa could take Batman in a fight if he needed to throw down.

The film is a treat visually, and I love how each Guardian has unique look and feel.  My favorite was the mute Sandman, whose look, effects, and overall theme was absolutely breathtaking.  Santa (aka Nicolas St. North) is a close second, mostly because of his awesome gear and surprisingly funny Yeti workforce (the elves just think they do all the work).  The Tooth Fairy looks great and I love the hummingbird motif that they use for her and her adorable fairy helpers.  The Easter Bunny gets an honorable mention because Hugh Jackman gets to use his Australian accent and the artists manages to work in some Wolverine-like sideburns without looking overly ridiculous.  I was less impressed by the design of Pitch Black, the villain.  I get that fear is a simple concept, and therefore the Bogeyman should have a similarly spartan look, but he looks like he's wearing one of Voldemort's old robes from the ephemeral thrift store.  Similarly, Jack Frost has plenty of fun and style, but why does a 300-year old character wear a hoodie the whole time?

For a movie about defending the world, there is a surprisingly little amount of actual fighting, which is kind of a shame because watching St. Nick wield two huge sabers and slice at nightmares in the form of evil stallions made my inner child convulse with delight.  Most of the action seems to be reserved for each character's preferred means of travelling, whether it be flight, teleporting, or travelling through the Easter Bunny's rabbit holes.  The action comes so quickly and frantically that it is sometimes a little jarring, but not so much as to take you out of the moment.

There is a lot to focus on in this movie, and I think that is its biggest weak point.  Each Guardian could carry his or her own movie (much like the actual book series) so the audience just gets a little taste of each character's backstory, motivations, and personality.  With many of Dreamworks' other franchises coming to a close, it would seem that Guardians may be poised to start a new line of movies, hopefully with a bit more character exploration along the way.  I would especially like to see them in some shorts like the ones that usually roll out around the holidays, and this time it won't feel forced like Shrek the Halls because one of the characters this time is freakin' Santa Claus.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Happy Early Turducken Day!

No major breaking news or reviews this week, folks.  Just follow the example set here by ol' Huck back in the 1600's and enjoy your Thanksgiving.  I'll be back next week, so be thankful for that.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Cartoon Shorts On The Rise (Hopefully)

Last week, the Motion Picture Academy announced its short list for the Best Animated Short category.  The news got me thinking: how often do people these days think about animated shorts?  If you showed a copy of the nominees list this year to the average person, I'd wager that most people would not recognize more than one or two of the entries.  

Even as an aspiring animation professional, I haven't had the opportunity to see most of the nominees since they usually only make the rounds on film festivals and art house theaters, and Orlando is seriously lacking in both when compared to New York, Los Angeles, or Toronto.  This troubles me because I love animated shorts.  They are my favorite form of animation and the fact they they no longer occupy the same level of notoriety in the popular consciousness that they once did bothers me.  Back in the Golden Age of Animation, shorts were a staple for the movie-going audience.  Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Betty Boop, and Tom & Jerry, as well as many other classic cartoon characters, were born and reached their creative peak in theatrical shorts.

Disney and Pixar are perhaps the two best  places for quality shorts to be made and get a reasonable amount of exposure.  Both studios,  under the leadership of John Lasseter, have encouraged artists to come forward with their pet project ideas and to use studio resources to make them a reality.  Last year there was Enrico Casarosa's deeply personal La Luna from Pixar, and this year there is Disney's Paperman.  

The short, directed by John Kahrs and playing in theaters before Wreck-It Ralph, is a sweet little boy-meets-girl story, but where it really succeeds is the visuals.  A new blend of CG and traditional hand-drawn animation makes for a final product that has all of the expressiveness and artistry of traditional techniques, but also the depth and complexity of the new school.  Still images (like the one at the top of this post) do not do the film justice.  It must be seen on the big screen to truly appreciate its value.  It is truly remarkable to watch, and I sincerely hope that it breathes some new life into more classical ways of producing animation.

There has been a growing trend in playing animated shorts before films.  In the last year or so, it seems that most animated films have been preceded by some kind of short, be it Maggie Simpson in the Longest Daycare, I Tawt I Taw A Puddy Tat, or Paperman. Even TV seems to be gravitating towards shorter programming with many of Cartoon Network's shows now being broken up into 15-minute segments.  Maybe studios are starting to see the viability of making shorts, and while we will almost certainly not be able to get back to the state of cartoon shorts were in their heyday, it's at least nice to see that they are starting to come back.  Hopefully some of the wonderful shorts that were not released with major films will also one day find a way to reach a larger audience as well.  Now all we need to do is get out and watch them!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

"Wreck-It Ralph" Gets a High Score at the Box Office

As a modern twenty-something, naturally two of my loves are cartoons and video games.  While there has been the occasional Super Mario Brothers Super Show or Sonic the Hedgehog (SatAm version), those two things have generally remained separate but equal. Now Disney has smashed them together in Wreck-It Ralph, the studio's newest animated movie.  It's currently number one at the box office, so do yourself a favor and go see a fun cartoon of a movie.

The film is about Ralph, the Donkey Kong-like antagonist of the fictional arcade game, Felix Fix-It Jr.  Fed up with his lot in life, Ralph decides to leave his game to try and find recognition for something other than being a bad guy. The whole "villain proves himself to not be so bad," thing isn't new, but Ralph takes the idea and adds a level of freshness to it.  It does start to sag in the middle and the climax goes a little over the top, but the story as a whole works and manages to find a happy medium between "be your own person" and "accept your responsibilities."

My favorite part of this movie was the earnestness with which it approaches video games.  The movie goes to great lengths to maintain the feel of arcade games both old and new.  Characters move like they would in their respective games, various visual effects take on a pixelated quality, and there are cameos galore.  There are appearances from Street Fighter, Sonic the Hedgehog, and too many classic arcade games to mention here.  My personal favorite is a throwaway Metal Gear Solid gag that you might miss if you aren't paying attention.  The only truly notable absence is Mario, but even he gets a mention early on, even if he never actually shows up.  Even the fake first-person shooter Hero's Duty feels like an actual arcade shooter thanks to the way Jane Lynch narrates the play through as Calhoun, the tough-as-nails squad leader with, "the most tragic backstory ever."  It reminded me of the old days playing Area 51 and House of the Dead.

What true gamer doesn't get giddy from this scene alone?

Other characters that stand out for me are Ralph and the Candy King, ruler of the saccharine racing game, Sugar Rush.  John C. Reilly is one of those actors that I really love because of the diversity of his work.  He can go from a dramatic role in Gangs of New York to making stoners chuckle on Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!  If Donkey Kong had been as relatable as Ralph, I would have felt much worse about hitting him with hammers and locking him up in a cage.  Inversely, Alan Tudyk plays the Candy King like someone straight out of a Disney movie during the studio's animated heyday.  The whole character felt like a more twisted version of the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland, and I loved him for it.

Some viewers who are not as familiar with classic gaming may not be as engrossed as the younger crowd, but the movie is strong enough to stay enjoyable.  Plus, any movie that makes me like both Jane Lynch and Sarah Silverman has to be doing something right.  Between Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph, I'm really excited to see if next year's Frozen will keep the momentum going.

As a final note:  if you go see Ralph (and you should), get there on time so you can catch John Kahrs' wonderful fabulous short, Paperman.  Full analysis on that short (and possibly others) next week.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Walt Disney Company Buys Lucasfilm for $4 Billion

The nerd universe was shocked to its very core today with the announcement that George Lucas sold his film production company to the Walt Disney Company for $4 billion.  That last sentence was not a joke.  The House of Mouse now owns Star Wars lock-stock-and-barrel.  I'm not going to jump too far into detail or post a rant from a lifelong Star Wars nerd (since literally the rest of the internet will be doing that very same thing).  I do however have a few thoughts that I will share as it relates to animation and the two respective companies.

My primary concern is the fate of the Star wars franchise as a whole.  While the latest efforts to keep the galaxy rolling like Star Wars: The Clone Wars have been less than stellar, this acquisition was purely for financial gain.  Disney CFO Bob Iger stated in a press release that this is the culmination of an 18-month pursuit of George Lucas.  Some of the reasoning is that there is still untapped revenue to be wrung out of the 35 year-old franchise.  The most unsettling portion is the statement that Star Wars 7 will be released in 2015 and subsequent films released every two years.  While some fans have written off anything after Return of the Jedi, there was still some semblance of integrity and narrative merit left with the prequels.  Anything now simply feels like trying to squeeze out money rather than making an effort to expand the fictional universe.

I also worry slightly about the fate of the Star Wars fandom.  One of the neatest aspects of being a Star Wars fan has been how cool George Lucas has been about letting people use his characters, music, and films in fun, innovative, and completely unlicensed ways.  Can we expect the company that shut down pediatricians' offices for painting Mickey Mouse on their walls to be this cool about it?  Lucas is staying attached for now as a creative consultant, but at 68 he won't be around for much longer to keep an eye on his brainchild.

Pictured: Disney's Board of Directors

Ultimately, what I'm feeling is shock and strong bipolar feelings about the whole thing.  I wouldn't expect Leia to become a Disney Princess any time soon, and even though Disney bought Marvel a few years back, it has gone on to bigger and better heights that has culminated in The Avengers this summer.  With some of the creative talent over at Disney, we may even get some really cool projects out of it, especially on the animation side of things.  Still, the nerd in me just can't fully accept the scope of it and part of me wants the legions of Star Wars fans to rise up and protest this shameless cash grab.  

The most fascinating aspect of this is how Pixar fits into place and tracing its development.  Originally an offshoot of LucasArts and ILM, it was acquired by Apple and then Disney until developing into the animation studio we know today and being reabsorbed by Disney.  I guess the best I can hope for now is that Apple doesn't get into talks with Disney any time soon.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

"Young Justice" Saves DC Nation

This is a series that, even though it's been around since last year, I've just now gotten to watching. Young Justice is one of Cartoon Network's entries in its DC Nation programming block.  It centers on a team of young heroes as they work under the supervision of the Justice League to carry out missions and learn what it means to be a team and a hero.

The "Team" in the first season is comprised of Robin, Kid Flash, a new Aqualad, Superboy, Miss Martian, and Green Arrow's new protege Artemis.  New members eventually join up, but these six remain the focus of the series during the first season.

First off, what I like about the show.  It looks great, especially when compared to that god-awful looking Green Lantern.  I also like how each member of the team has some sort of relationship with their corresponding "senior" hero whether it be familial (Miss Martian and her uncle Martian Manhunter) or a bit strained (Superboy and Superman).  And even though normally I don't like characters who are invented purely for a show, I really like the new Aqualad and the gravitas he brings to the Team.  Plus, the fact that he is black actually serves a narrative purpose later on rather than just to make the roster politically correct (I'm looking at you John Stewart on Justice League and Justice League Unlimited).  Coming of age is a major theme, and it is executed rather well as each hero learns the full extent and limits of their powers and how to work with each other.  I particularly enjoyed Robin's struggles with leadership and his relationship with Batman.  The show feels less like and origin story and more of a proper tale unto itself.

There are some drawbacks however.  Many times the writing feels off or just plain bad.  Some little gimmicks, like Robin's fascination with prefixes, strike me as more annoying than clever.   The show may be geared for teens, but there is way too much crushing and relationship stuff going on for my liking.  Luckily though there isn't much in the way of the dreaded love triangle.  To further the "don't trust anyone under 30" vibe, many of the established members of the Justice League come off as cold and even downright harsh.  I can't help but scratch my head at the fact that the two most compassionate heroes are Red Tornado (an android) and Batman (The Goddamn Batman)!  Young Justice is in the middle of its second season, and the tone this time around has shifted drastically.  The whole season is now one long arc with each episode tying directly to the next one.  Season one was also guilty of this with its references to the Big Bad at the end of nearly every episode, but at least the first time around it was a bit looser and a viewer could enjoy an episode without feeling completely lost.

As I've pointed out before, the two main comic companies seem to have differing levels of success regarding their respective properties.  DC has always led the pack in animation, both for TV and their direct to DVD films.  Young Justice fits in nicely with DC's other successful TV shows, and while I don't think it will surpass the universe created by Bruce Timm, it is still a strong entry in the animated superhero genre.  All it needs now is more of this guy.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Classic Cartoon Lineup on TCM THIS WEEKEND!

This weekend features a truly awesome event for fans of classic animation.  On Sunday October 21, Turner Classic Movies will be airing an evening of rarely broadcast animation that spans the Golden Era of animation.  

Included in the lineup are Gulliver's Travels and Mr. Bug Goes to Town, a collection of Jolly Frolics from UPA, a selection of Silent Era cartoons from the collection of animation collector and historian Thomas Slathes, and finally the 1926 German film The Adventures of Prince Achmed.  The evening will be hosted by TCM's Robert Osborn and renowned animation historian Jerry Beck.  They'll discuss each piece of the evening in detail, but here is a preview  to whey your appetite:

Gulliver's Travels and Mr. Bug Goes to Town were the only two animated films produced by the Fleischer Studio, the creators of many great cartoons that include Betty Boop and Popeye.  This was the studio's attempt to compete with Disney in the animated feature game, and while the results are pleasing, they lacked both Disney's finer touch and the mature surrealism that made earlier Fleischer shorts so enjoyable. Regardless, they are still great films and important entries in the early days of animated feature films.

When UPA came onto the scene in the late 40's, they revolutionized the way cartoons could look.  Run by intellectuals and artists, the studio's Jolly Frolics integrated modern art and jazz into the cartoons, creating a look and feel that was unlike anything that had ever been done before or since.  There were several fantastic one-off characters and shorts, but the biggest star to come from this studio was the myopic Mr. Magoo.

Silent-Era cartoons are a delight to watch, and since many of them exist in the public domain, they are easy to find online and on bargain bin DVDs.  They deserve better though since characters like Farmer Al Falfa and Koko the Clown were some of the earliest cartoon stars, so it's fantastic to see them on TV.

Finally, there is The Adventures of Prince Achmed.  German filmmaker Lotte Reiniger's adaptation of an Arabian fairy tale is one of, if not THE oldest surviving animated feature films.  Done in a unique cut-out silhouette style, it is a visually striking movie and one that shouldn't be missed.

Each of these selections is a priceless installment in the history of cartoons and animation, and as soon as I heard that they were all going to air I had an absolute fit of joy.  There needs to be more classic animation on TV besides the scraps that Cartoon Network throws us.  Nothing against Looney Tunes or Tom & Jerry, but there is just so much more that can and should be shown to modern audiences.  If you have ever loved cartoons, then watch as much of this on Sunday as you can, and if you feel so inclined, let TCM know that there are people who want to see more of this type of thing on TV.  I know I will!  

Tune in starting at 8:00 EST on Sunday October 21.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Happy Birthday, Cartoon Network!

This month marks Cartoon Network's 20th birthday on the air.  Since it's a birthday, I'm going to celebrate its greatness and the impact of the network that started as an acquisition of classic cartoons and has grown to become a pillar of televised animation. I'm not going to devote time to any of the less forgettable series or the disturbing amount of live-action shows though.  It's a party, so let's celebrate!

Let's start out with this little video made to commemorate the event:

There is also a series of bumpers by studio Primal Screen that are all really fun to watch.

Many CN shows are ingrained into the psyches of an entire generation (like mine). From The Powerpuff Girls and Samurai Jack to Adventure Time and Young Justice, there have always been shows that I absolutely love.  They created a venue for adult-themed animation with the [adult swim] programming block.  Seth MacFarlane got his start animating on shows like Johnny Bravo.  Even today, the innovations continue with the network just recently announcing its first animated series to be run by a woman. Hopefully there will be at least twenty more years of fun, creator-driven programming to come.  What are some of your favorite Cartoon Network moments?  Let me know in the comments and party hard, cartoon friends!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

"Hotel Translyvania" Full of Monstrous Cartoon Fun

One of the great quandaries I have wrestled with for several years is whether or not it was possible to make a feature-length animated movie that contains the same level of hilarity and frantic energy as classic cartoon shorts.  After seeing Hotel Transylvania, I am happy to report that it is not only possible, but utterly fantastic to watch.

Any cartoon fan or kid who grew up in the 90's should recognize the name Genndy Tartakovsky.  Even if you don't recognize his deliciously Russian name, you'll know his work as director of Dexter's Laboratory, Samurai Jack, Star Wars: Clone Wars, and Sym-Bionic Titan on Cartoon Network.  In 2011, he moved on to Sony Pictures Animation and Hotel Transylvania is his debut directing animated features.

After initially hearing about this film, I had very mixed feelings.  On the one hand, I love the director's work, especially Samurai Jack since it is a nearly flawless example of storytelling and superb animation.  On the other hand, it is a movie starring Adam Sandler as Dracula and Andy Samberg as a human who wanders into his monsters-only hotel and ends up wooing the Count's daughter, played by Selena Gomez.  Not a great premise and a voice cast about whom I was less than enthusiastic. Even the contrived-looking trailers made me question whether or not it would be any good.

Yes, the story is sweet if a bit dull, and there is nothing really shocking or innovative in a narrative sense. That is not why you should go see this movie.  The reason you need to see it is because it is mind-blowingly cartoony.  Scroll back up and look at that picture of the supporting cast.  Rather than play up conventional monster designs, each of these guys has a unique look to match their personality.  My personal favorite is the Mummy.  He is basically a squashy pear wrapped in gauze, but that construction fits perfectly as he bounds around the screen like something out of a Bob Clampett cartoon.  I don't even mind that Ceelo Green does his voice because it works.  Every character design is striking and their actions feel animated.

Genndy comes from making cartoons for TV and he's not ashamed to show it.  Rather than ground itself in a sort of reality like Disney or Pixar, this film revels in the fact that it is animated.  Everything from the poses to the impossible sight gags show off the utter silliness on the screen.  I hesitate to call it a 90-minute cartoon because that sounds a bit derogatory, but that's really what it is.  You won't be moved to tears or blown away by the advancements in 3D rendering, but you will laugh.  Like a cartoon short, every scene is crammed with funny bits and characters.  Even the doors signs on the hotel rooms are sassy shrunken heads!

There need to be more animated movies like this.  I have nothing against the stuff that other studios are doing, but they all draw from the Disney tradition of classical art training and setting the work in a world with laws and rules.  There is a need for more movies that just chuck all of that and embrace the sheer comical impossibility of animation.  Now that Hotel Transylvania is done, Genndy is getting ready to tackle a proposed new Popeye film.  Hearing this should make me shudder, but knowing that it's in the hands of one of the best animation directors around, I'm able to rest easy.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Why the Emmys Don't Care About Animation

In case you missed it, the 64th Primetime Emmy Awards were Sunday night.  Before I narrowed my focus to animation, I used to really get into the Emmys.  I watch my fair share of TV, so I enjoyed whether or not my personal tastes coincided with the awards. The last few years however, I've started to see that I don't really care anymore.  It's not just because a handful of shows usually end up sweeping the categories (and at least one or two of them are always from either HBO or some BBC production), it's because I realized the state of animation at these awards.

If you watch the ceremony to see which of your favorite animated programs will win awards, don't waste your time.  Animated categories are relegated to the less prestigious Creative Arts Emmys.  Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of hard working technical people who deserve recognition, but animation deserves more respect than to be lumped in with makeup artists and  camera operators.  In case you're curious, Outstanding Animated Program went to The Penguins of Madagascar, Outstanding Short-Format Animated Program went to Regular Show, and Outstanding Voice-Over Performance went to Maurice LaMarche for his work on Futurama.  Aside from the last one there, I'm less than impressed.

Animated programs are a major force on television.  Fox's "Animation Domination" block is a major draw on Sunday nights.  Seth MacFarlane is one of the biggest names in the industry right now, but if he wants to win a televised award, he would have to submit Family Guy into the general Best Comedy category.  It's been done, but the animated contender always gets trounced by the "30 Rock" and "Modern Family" establishment.  The Simpsons has been on for 23 years and has not won any sort of award outside of the standard animated and musical categories.  There have been times where it was literally the best thing on TV, but no properly prestigious awards were given.

My thoughts exactly, Homer.

Just last week I mentioned that veteran voice actor June Foray had finally been awarded an Emmy, but even that was a Daytime Emmy for a part she played on The Garfield Show.  While she certainly deserves the recognition for a lifetime of wonderful performances, I'm flummoxed that it took Garfield to attain it.

The condescending stance of the Academy is maybe best illustrated by an incident that occurred when this year's nominations were announced earlier this summer.  The NBC series Commmunity submitted an episode that had been animated as an old-school 8-bit video game homage for consideration in the various animated categories.  This prompted a protest by 52 writers, directors, and producers of full-time animated programs, including Seth MacFarlane, Matt Groening, and David X. Cohen.  Trey Parker and Matt Stone were conspicuously absent, but given their history of saying "Screw You!" to the Hollywood establishment, it's not surprising.  The response from the Academy effectively said that non-animated shows can submit to the categories because they are treated as a, "special episode," and separate from the rest of the series.  Animated writers, directors, and producers are welcome to submit to other stand-alone categories, but they would have to suffer the slings and arrows of a group that has little regard or respect for animation.

Why does the simple fact that a program is animated mean that it must be subjected to such harsh double standards?  Over time, critics and audiences have consistently shown that animated shows are beloved, so why not give them a square shake?  I think the answer lies with the embedded establishment of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.  Despite the fact that primetime animation has been around since the 60's, it still seems to be regarded as cartoonish kids' stuff and not on the same level as other non-animated programming.  Maybe one or two more new smash-hit shows might change their way of thinking, but if The Simpsons or Family Guy can't do it, then I'm not holding my breath.  At least there are the Annie Awards thrown by ASIFA (Association Internationale du Film d'Animation) to give animated shows and films the recognition they deserve.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Two Big Milestones for Two Big Names in Animation

This week I'm giving a special two-for-one post.  Two big names in animation and voice acting:  one a current leader in prime time animation entertainment, and the other a legend that I almost feel bad including with the former.

First off is Seth MacFarlane's role as host on Saturday Night Live last weekend for their season opener.  It's neat in terms of animation landmarks because it was the first time that an animator has hosted the show.  I can't really imagine Walt Disney or Matt Groening doing such a thing, and I list those two because they are probably the only other animation producers that most people can name.  This really is a testament to the level of celebrity that MacFarlane has generated for himself.  Granted, I am not his biggest fan.  Family Guy has disappeared up its own rear end to become one giant meta joke and The Cleveland Show still struggles along, but  America Dad  continues to stay strong (and structured! *gasp*) and Ted  was surprisingly funny  with all of its crude jokes and Flash Gordon references.  I also am not thrilled that the shoddy animation and often lazy writing has become the face of modern animation.  Ralph Bakshi has more talent in his beard hair as far as I'm concerned, but regardless, the man has done an excellent job branding himself in a way that few animators do.

As for SNL itself, it was enjoyable enough.  Both the host and the show are loved for their quick pace, copious pop culture references, and questionable material that is sure to turn off some viewers.  In this way MacFarlane is an ideal host, although I did feel like his vocal range was not maximized to its fullest potential (barring his enjoyable, if self-promoting, opening monologue).  It was also nice to see him in a role where he wasn't calling all of the shots.  I'm sure the appearance will do plenty to build enthusiasm for the season premiere of all of his shows.

Secondly, today is June Foray's 95th birthday.  The First Lady of Voice Acting has provided some of the most memorable characters in animation history.  Her list of credits is far too long to include here, including virtually every major cartoon studio since the 40's, but some of my favorites include Witch Hazel from various Looney Tunes shorts, the Talky Tina doll from an episode of The Twilight Zone, and Natasha Fatale and Rocket J. "Rocky" Squirrel on The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.  In a career that has spanned more than six decades and still shows no signs of stopping, she has shown a passion for animation that is truly admirable.

The range and strength of her voice have led many to call her the female Mel Blanc, but as Chuck Jones once supposedly said, "June Foray is not the female Mel Blanc, Mel Blanc is the male June Foray."  Earlier this year, Foray was finally formally recognized when she was nominated and won her first Emmy award.  Even though it was for a role on The Garfield Show, for lifelong fans, it served as a thank you for all of the years of wonderful characters and unforgettable voices.  She is a truly remarkable person and I wish her the best of birthdays! 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

"6 Days to Air" Shows How "South Park" Stays Fresh

Just the other day I found 6 Days to Air: The Making of South Park on Netflix and gave it a watch.  I knew that South Park Studios produced episodes in only a week, but I hadn't realized how intense the process actually is until now.  It is truly a wonder to watch.

The documentary primarily follows creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone as they script, record, animate, and air an episode of South Park in only six days.  It is an ambitious schedule that is unlike any other animated show on television right now.  Other shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy take months to create and are shipped overseas to countries like South Korea for the actual animation.  In contrast, everything for South Park is done in house at South Park Studios in Los Angeles.  The result is a form of current events satire that is virtually unheard of in commercial animation.  A news story can break on Tuesday and it can be in the new episode that airs less than 24 hours later.  I'm simply fascinated with that degree of relevance in an industry where staying that up-to-date is virtually impossible.

It also gave insight into the relationship between Parker and Stone.  Often, the image seems to be that Parker is the bigger "face" of the series and does much of the writing and directing.  Stone has often been labeled the "Garfunkel" of the duo, but I don't really see it that way.  For one, the documentary indicates that Matt is much better at the PR side of things and helps prevent Trey from spinning off too far into his own inherent weirdness.  While he does provide many voices for characters, Matt seems to be more in a producer role rather than writer or director, although he is always present in the writers' room to act as a sounding board for jokes.  It's a fascinating dynamic, and one that works and works well.

I also gained a realization as to the evolution both of the show itself and Parker and Stone.  Back when South Park premiered, it was groundbreaking for its content and how far it was willing to push taste and what was acceptable to air on television.  Now, it is the standard by which all other "crude" animated shows are judged.  Even though copious swearing and poop jokes are still its trademark, it remains fresh and willing to go after any topic without fear.  The rabid First Amendment fan in me still squeals with delight to see the juxtaposition of discussing issues related to terrorism and freedom of speech with queefing and world-record setting craps.  Perhaps my favorite moment in the entire 42 minute documentary was Executive Producer Anne Garefino on the phone with Comedy Central Standards & Practices regarding the content of the episode in production, "HumancentiPad":

"We're not going to see feces in the iteration that I've seen so far, but, I don't know what's going to happen at the end yet.  We haven't written the end.  Maybe...yes...maybe we see them being sewn together.  Yeah...thanks...Happy Easter to you too."

Matt and Trey are a fascinating duo to watch.  They've gone from dressing in drag and dropping acid at the Oscars to writing and producing a smash hit Broadway musical, The Book of Mormon, that has received accolade after accolade.  Yet even though they're now in their 40's, they still appear to be the same pair of young guys who just don't give a damn about pissing people off.  Because of their intimate control over the production of South Park, it is hard to imagine the show being able to continue without one or both of them.  I could see Matt Groening or Seth MacFarlane completely taking their hands off of their shows and their legions of writers could keep the machine running (voice acting not withstanding in the case of Mr. MacFarlane), but that's not the case with Matt and Trey.  After seeing the emotion and the turmoil that goes into creating each episode of the show, I kind of worry for their health/sanity and wonder how much longer they can keep up this pace.  I hope it is still for a while, because despite its age, South Park continues to stay fresh and very rarely has it made an episode that is a flat-out disappointment.  After seeing 6 Days to Air, I definitely will keep my mouth shut the next time I feel like being overly critical, if that ever happens.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

VFX Company Shows How NOT To Do Business

Well, I'm a year older, so now it's time for a more serious post.  In case you haven't been following it, Digital Domain is a digital effects company that has a long track record with providing digital special effects for films.  More recently however, the company has been in the spotlight regarding some controversial new actions to further the company's growth.  I won't go super in-depth into the issue because there are plenty of people more qualified than me who have been investigating for months, but here is the gist of the problem:

Digital Domain recently opened a new studio in Port St. Lucie, FL in an effort to try and break into the animated feature film game.  Possibly fueled by the success of Rango by LucasArts, they decided that it's time they tried to get a piece of the pie that only a few major animation studios have enjoyed.  For their first film, they settled on a, "family film," titled The Legend of Tembo starring a young African Elephant who is captured and taken to India.

The problem is the method of how the studio plans on making the film.  Using Florida state funds, they have created an in-studio education program where upper class animation students pay to work on projects like The Legend of Tembo.  Oh yeah, and they won't be paid for their work.  Here is a direct quote from Digital Domain CEO John Textor:

Classes starting in the education space, what’s interesting is the relationship between the digital studio and the college. Not only is this a first in a number of ways that we’ve talked about, but 30% of the workforce at our digital studio down in Florida, is not only going to be free, with student labor, it’s going to be labor that’s actually paying us for the privilege of working on our films.

Thirty percent of the workforce would be unpaid!  People like Amid Amidi have been covering the gross abuses of unpaid internship programs in the animation industry for a while now, but this takes the cake.  Textor has since gone on and tried to backpeddle, but it sounds more like he's just trying to spin the situation in his favor rather than actually apologizing or trying to change the program. 

The more John Textor is investigated, the worse he looks.  He has a 24% stake in Digital Domain, but the loan used to buy those shares was provided by Palm Beach Capital, the company's largest shareholder.  DD stock has fallen 75% in the last four months and now Textor is talking about buying the company to keep it afloat.  Putting yourself further in debt to buy the company to which you are already indebted doesn't exactly sound like a solid business model.  Then again, this is the same man who believes that DD can expand rapidly by attempting to, "tie up the real estate," of creating virtual performers like the Tupac "hologram" that DD made for Coachella back in April.  Never mind that the gimmick itself is an old one and there are plenty of VFX companies that are capable of achieving similar results.

If this is how he chooses to dress as a pirate, surely you can trust him 
to run a multi-million dollar company

This subject is close to my heart because these for-profit animation programs are rife with questionable behavior and only make life harder for VFX artists who are already treated like crap compared to other artists involved in film making.  Digital Domain and John Textor have been getting a lot of heat lately over this, and hopefully the attention will change things for the better.  I don't want to see all the artists who have worked so hard on Tembo and other projects end up out of a job, but I certainly wouldn't mind someone showing John Textor the door and letting someone who knows and cares about the business of animation take over the company, if there is still one to save when all is said and done.

Update: Cartoon Brew posted a story late last night detailing Digital Domain's default on a $35 million loan, plus another $16 million in interest and penalties, plus an additional 32% drop in stock price.  Click the link and watch the embedded news story where John Textor tries to claim that $51 million isn't a lot of money.

Update #2 (09/07): It has been announced that Digital Domain is shuttering its Port St. Lucie studio, laying off 300 employees and shutting down production on The Legend of Tembo.  Furthermore, John Textor has resigned as CEO, handing control over to DD Executive Ed Ulbrich.  A sad day for all of the artists who were victims of this debacle. has more coverage and interviews with some of the laid off workers if you want to read more.

For more information about the state of the VFX industry check out the VFX Soldier blog and head over to Defending Axl Rose to read my guest column on using animation to bring dead celebrities back to life.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Laika Scares Up A Success With "ParaNorman"

Mix together The Sixth Sense, Scooby-Doo, and just a pinch of Six Feet Under to get Studio Laika's newest stop-motion feature, ParaNorman.  As of the beginning of this week, the film has grossed just under $36 million, earning less than the studio's premiere effort Coraline despite opening in more theaters.  This baffles me because ParaNorman is a delightful film that has a little something for everyone.

The plot is simple enough:  Norman is a boy who can see and talk to ghosts, but one day a centuries-old witch's curse brings the dead back to life and threatens to destroy Norman's town and it's up to him to set things right.  There seems to be something about stop motion films that seems to attract this simple, fairy-tale quality.  Coraline was a modern fairy-tale from the mind of Neil Gaiman, and Tim Burton's body of work also has a certain primal, back-to-basics appeal.  ParaNorman seems to recognize this and even makes it a MacGuffin of sorts in the form of a book of bedtime stories.   

There is more than a passing similarity to Scooby-Doo On Zombie Island and Scooby-Doo and the Witch's Ghost, but even if you know what is going to happen next, you'll still want to see it.  I found the climax to be incredibly well done, but the ending wraps things up in an almost too-perfect bow.  The moral of accepting yourself and others even if they're weird is not new, but the film delivers it with plenty of honesty and heart to make it feel genuine.

The gang that gathers around Norman to help him solve the mystery is where most of the humor is.  I particularly liked his chubby friend, Neil, and his soft but firm confidence. I also loved Neil's beefcake older brother Mitch because I think he is my mental idealization of Fred Jones from Scooby-Doo.  The ghosts that inhabit the town were also a lot of fun to watch, but sadly they kind of disappear once the main conflict shows up.  I really would have like to see them interact with the zombies (who were simultaneously creepy, funny, and sympathetic).

The strongest part of the movie was the design.  As I already wrote about here, Laika has developed some truly breathtaking techniques for the stop-motion medium.  At times the effects were so good that they bordered on looking like CGI, and there was plenty of that mixed in for comparison.  The visuals are creepy enough to fit the setting, but corny enough to not overwhelm the kids or people with delicate constitutions.  There are several nods to retro horror movies and comics from the 1950's and it creates the feeling that this movie could have been made just as easily back then as now.

So why hasn't everyone flocked to go see it (for the record, I think you should)?  I know we've all had a busy summer at the movies, so maybe the ticket buying audience is a bit pooped.  This past weekend was the slowest of the year at the box office.  It could also be prejudice against stop-motion.  There are probably folks out there who just think ParaNorman is the next in a long line of creepy Tim Burton puppet movies.  It's not. Laika has a voice that is unique to them, and while it may share some superficial qualities with Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride, they feel completely different once you sit down to watch them.  Save the, "Tim Burton is so old hat except for Hot Topic scene kids," for Frankenweenie in October.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

"Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1" May Show Some Promise

While all of you fine folks wait for my review of ParaNorman, here's something that touches on another of my nerd facets: comics.  Plus, it does relate to animation, so away we go!

It's been a few weeks, but Warner Home Video released their first trailer for the animated film adaptation of Frank Miller's seminal "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns."  In case you haven't seen the trailer, here it is:

It does seem to have a lot going for it.  The story seems to be pretty much intact, but certainly some of the violence (particularly the Joker's stunt of poisoning an amusement park full of kids) will almost certainly be toned down to get the PG-13 rating.  They also have Peter Weller voicing old Bats, and what's a gritty, futuristic, urban crime drama without RoboCop himself?

The art seems to work a little too hard to look like every other DC animated movie of the last few years with only some passing references to Frank Miller's original styling.  I also have general reservations about adapting a work such as this in its entirety to a film.  

TDKR came out in the 80's when writers like Frank Miller and Alan Moore were reclaiming comics from the edge of the mediocre kids'-stuff abyss.  They were dark, mature, and intense, but they were also designed to be comic books.  It's the primary reason Alan Moore throws a fit every time one of his works is made into a movie.  It is virtually impossible to properly adapt those types of graphic techniques into a linear narrative for film.  The closest they came was Watchmen a few years ago, but they still failed to capture the book's true essence.  My guess is that the pages of vox populi reactions to Batman's return will be the most telling aspect missing from this version.

Warner Home Video has been doing a pretty good job with their DC animated DVD features lately, so consider me a hopeful skeptic for this one.  An episode of The New Batman Adventures called "Legends of the Dark Knight" featured a segment taken out of TDKR and did a pretty solid job at recreating a few key scenes from the graphic novel.  We'll see if this version can do it equal justice when it comes out September 25.