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.