Tuesday, July 31, 2012

What Defines Anime?

As I was perusing the internet yesterday, I ran a cross an article by Chris O'Brien that examined the question of whether or not Nickelodeon's The Legend of Korra is anime. He debates back and forth on whether or not anime must be exclusively produced in Japan or if it is more of a blanket term for a general artistic style.  While the author makes no final conclusion, the whole thing did force me to do some thinking.  My knee-jerk reaction to the question of, "Is Korra anime?" is, "Of course not, I like Korra."

I will elaborate on the status of Korra later, but first allow me to explain before I have hordes of anime fans ripping me apart in the comments.  I do not hate anime by any stretch of the imagination (I'm partial to Death Note and Afro Samurai especially), but I have two major complaints about it as a genre.  

First of all, I don't feel that there is enough variation in the art itself.  Granted, there are differences between various series (the works of Miyazaki, Cowboy Bebop, and Sailor Moon all look very different for example), but the fact is that it doesn't take much more than a fleeting glance to look at anime and recognize it as such.  We're over 50 years from Astro Boy and Gigantor and yet the influences of those early anime pioneers is still painfully obvious.  Is there a secret anime rule book somewhere that requires a certain number of tropes and graphical cliches that must be present?

(Video by Derek Lieu)

My next biggest concern is anime fans, at least in the United States.  Don't believe me that they can be problematic?  Post "ANIME SUCKS!" somewhere online and see if your house isn't on fire when you get home.  Many, indeed I'd venture to say most, anime fans are not theses waifu-obsessed weeaboos, and are in fact perfectly normal people. I'm friends with several in fact.  I wish I knew what it would take to get people that fired up about American animation; lord knows it could use the support.  More to the point, their blind obsession drowns out legitimate criticism of the industry, which is hurtful especially now with anime already dying on the vine due to harsh working conditions and loss of revenues from piracy.

Now, having said all of that, is Korra anime?  I would argue that no, it is not.  I would instead say that it is heavily inspired by anime, as are Ben 10, Teen Titans, and several other shows on TV in recent years.  What makes anime anime?  At this point, I think it is largely an argument of semantics.  If it's a style, then those shows are simply American-produced anime.  If you choose the Japanese argument, then no.  The important thing is not to try and define art, but letting artists create works drawn from various influences and enjoying the results of all of their hard work and dedication.  Korra is a fantastic series regardless of what you call it.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Help the Creator of "Ren & Stimpy" Make A Cartoon!

While I work on my next post, I thought I'd do a quick shameless plug for one of my favorite animators, John Kricfalusi.  You may not recognize his name, but anyone who was alive in the 90's will remember his Nickelodeon series Ren & Stimpy.  It pushed the boundaries both in artistic quality and taste, and left a mark on virtually everyone who watched it.

Since then John has stayed busy (most recently doing a few bumps for [adult swim] and a couch gag for The Simpsons), but his new project seeks to bring cartoons to the people like never before.  He has started a campaign through kickstarter.com to finance an independently produced cartoon titled "Cans Without Labels" starring his character George Liquor.

Here's the full rundown at the campaign's site:

The story is drawn from John's own experience growing up, and is full of authenticity and hilarity.  If you love great cartoons that make you laugh, then follow the link to the "Cans Without Labels" campaign and donate whatever you can.  You can get neat prizes for donating, plus a cartoon, so what are you waiting for?!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

"Finding Nemo 2" promising to be 20% Nemo-ier

Breaking news from Pixar:  the studio has announced plans to make Finding Nemo 2.  The film will be directed by Andrew Stanton, the director of hits Finding Nemo and Wall-E, as well as the already legendary flop John Carter.

Damn it, Pixar.  Is this what is has come to?  Cranking out sequels to already great stand-alone movies?  Finding Nemo, while not my favorite Pixar flick, was a perfect self-contained story.  Nemo gets lost, Nemo gets found, roll credits.  It was a sweet and entertaining story about love, freedom versus security, and the bond between parent and child.  What is supposed to happen next: Nemo gets lost again?  Marlin gets lost this time around and Nemo has to find HIM?  Nemo has an existential crisis and has to find himself?  If any of these scenarios turn out to be the actual story, I will personally write a letter to John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton pledging to be their in-office manservant.

I am really hoping that this is not the new direction for Pixar as a studio.  They've made some of the best original stories in Hollywood recently.  I'll grant them that the Toy Story sequels were pretty good, but that doesn't mean each film needs a sequel.  We just had Cars 2 and Monsters University is due out next year (although I'll admit the teaser trailer makes me chuckle).  Do we really need to keep this trend going?  They're even playing around with the possibility of Toy Story 4 again even though the third one ends on a perfect note of closure.  Pixar is now consistently ignoring its own stance of producing quality films with genuine, original story telling.  Brad Bird seems to be the last holdout since there isn't anything in the works yet about a sequel for The Incredibles.

It kind of feels like Pixar and Disney Animation are switching roles.  Tangled was the best animated picture to come out of there in years, and Wreck-It Ralph is showing promise as well.  All of these sequels and the lukewarm reception to Brave make me wonder where the creative energy is going these days.

Perhaps I'm being to cynical towards the house that toys built.  Maybe the Nemo sequel is recompense to Disney for John Carter.  They took a shot, lost (on a hilariously epic scale), and now they want a safe money-maker to try and recoup their losses.  With Finding Nemo 3-D out this fall and the film serving as a section of the new Art of Animation Resort in Florida, the fishy franchise is still a popular property for families.  

The endless sequels, coupled with the shameless amount of switching directors mid-production, really make me fear for the future of Pixar.  Maybe its just a phase that comes with the rapid growth they've enjoyed, or maybe they just need some new blood in the story department, but whatever the reason, they need to get it together if they don't want to become just another movie studio.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Comic Con 2012 Cartoon Roundup

Comic Con 2012 has come and gone, and once again I find myself wishing I had been able to go.  While I love comics and am quite the nerd in some circles, there is also a veritable treasure trove of animation goodies for the hungry cartoon fan.  Here are some of my favorite interesting bits picked off the grapevine:

There's no denying that Hollywood has pretty much co-opted Comic Con as a place to provide scintillating new details about upcoming movies and TV shows.  Disney was promoting its upcoming film Wreck-It Ralph and handed out Oswald the Lucky Rabbit ears for Epic Mickey 2 (due out this November).  The Ralph trailers look great, and as long as they improve the game mechanics for the first Epic Mickey, I can get excited about that too.

Nickelodeon announced that The Legend of Korra is being renewed for a second season, entitled "Spirit".  While not surprising, as the show's creators had always intended for it to be a two-season series, it was also announced that the show is now being planned for four "books" that will span 52 episodes in total.  This puts it at the same length as its predecessor, and while I don't doubt the talent behind the show, I hope they can keep the same magic in the subsequent books.

Fans of Fox's "Animation Domination" programming will be pleased that all shows were represented and hints were given about their upcoming seasons.  The Simpsons still aren't quitting any time soon, and with the success of The Longest Daycare playing before Ice Age: Continental Drift, I'm curious as to whether or not we'll see more Simpsons at the movies.  Seth MacFarlane also gave teasers about the upcoming seasons of Family Guy and American Dad!, so the reign of Emperor Seth I doesn't seem to be lightening up any time soon.

There was plenty more worth mentioning, but I could take up a whole shelf of books recounting everything that goes on at Comic Con.  Hopefully I'll actually be able to make my way one year, then I can bid on some of the rare cartoon collectibles they auction off every year.  Was there anything that got you really excited about Comic Con this year?  Let me know in the comments.

Monday, July 9, 2012

New "Rise of the Guardians" Trailer

Dreamworks just released the second trailer for their upcoming feature Rise of the Guardians.  It's set for release this November, and I could not be more excited.  The film is based on William Joyce's The Guardians of Childhood book series, and Joyce is serving as Executive Producer along with Guillermo del Toro.  Voice talents include Alec Baldwin, Hugh Jackman, Isla Fischer, and Chris Pine.  If you haven't seen the initial trailer, here is is:

And the new one:

I get goosebumps when I watch these.  Dreamworks continues to make good on their vow to not repeat visual styles, and this one looks like their best looking yet.  Jack Frost has just enough of a Rankin-Bass vibe to stir up childhood memories of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Santa Claus is Coming to Town.  My favorite part so far has to be the portrayal of Santa Claus.  The "Naughty" and "Nice" tattoos and the Russian accent are definitely what do it for me.  I haven't read the original books, but if these trailers are any indication, this will be a treat for the holidays.

Also:  In an unrelated bit of news, Ernest Borgnine died earlier this week.  He was a fantastic actor and the voices he lent to animation over the years will always be remembered.  Rest in Peace. 

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Breakdown of Pixar's "Brave"

Today wraps up the third weekend that Pixar's Brave has been at the box office, and if you haven't seen it yet, I highly recommend that you do.  So far it has grossed $131 million dollars, which puts it on par with most of Pixar's recent efforts.

First off, the visuals are simply astounding.  This is easily one of Pixar's best looking movies.  When you have the Scottish Highlands to work with, it's hard for the scenery to miss.  All the characters look great, and all of the features and praise about Merida's hair are well deserved.  Between Merida and Rapunzel from Tangled, Lasseter and his gang know how to make a head of hair look incredible.

I sincerely hope that the movie succeeds in its efforts to expand Pixar's horizons.  I had a lot riding on Brave since I see it as the studio's chance to redeem themselves for the shameless money maker that was Cars 2.  It's an original fairy tale, but you'd never know since the story elements feel right at home with the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen.  This doesn't mean the story is perfect however.  The longer you watch the movie, the more it simplifies until by the end we're left with a stereotypical Disney ending (sans Prince Charming).  The entire first act had me on the edge of my seat, but by the time the magical factor was introduced, especially once it entered Brother Bear meets Freaky Friday territory, I started to wonder, "What happened to the movie I was watching?"

The characters are a mixed bag.  Merida is the first fairy tale protagonist in a long time that actually feels like she is supposed to be a teenager.  She has strength and a lot of potential, but is still enough of a self-obsessed kid to not see the seriousness of her actions, especially when administering an unknown potion to her mother.  The enlightened speech she gave the clans when sneaking her mother into the castle was the last great moment before everything succumbed to cliche resolution.

Merida's father, played by Billy Connolly, is my favorite character and is the real heart of the family, even if he was a bit thick at times.  I also loved every moment of mischief from Harris, Hubert, and Hamish.  It made me want ginger triplets more than I ever thought possible.  Conversely, Merida's mother felt a bit flat, although I was impressed by how well they were able to implant her personality into a bear.  I also would have like to have seen more details about the three visiting clans.  Since the three suitors for Merida suddenly have opinions at the end, some background there would be both helpful and interesting.  More of Mor'du would have been great as well because he was just wonderful looking and reminded me of Glen Keane's bear from The Fox and the Hound.

I can't help but wonder how many of the hiccups in the movie were the result of its production history.  Brenda Chapman's vision shone through early on, but after she was removed from the project, it kind of felt like the boy's club at Pixar just ran with it without understanding the real heart of the narrative.  It could also just be that this is new territory for them.  At several points I even forgot that I was watching a Pixar movie.  It genuinely had more of a classic Disney feel with some occasional Pixar wit.  I hope Brave serves as a good learning opportunity for Lasseter & Co. about how to take what worked and what didn't.  They're at a crossroads right now: they can either turn into just another studio or they can make animated films the likes of which haven't been seen since in decades.