Sunday, March 31, 2013

"The Croods" Serves as the Missing Link Between Good and Bad Animated Movies

Dreamworks' newest animated feature The Croods is a really mixed bag of a movie.  As of last week, it was the number one movie in the country, with sales numbers on par with How to Train Your Dragon and well above Rise of the Guardians, the studio's last effort.  I did not have high hopes going into this movie.   After seeing it though I can say that while far from perfect, it was not as awful as I was expecting.

Nothing about the premise seemed particularly gripping.  Caveman girl Eep dreams about a world outside of her cave until one day a natural disaster forces her, her family, and the sexy new guy (named Guy for ease of character understanding) to journey across a vibrant prehistoric land and discover the true meaning of life and family.  That is literally the entire story.  No spoilers, plot twists, or anything else.  The story goes from Point A to Point B with a boring amount of predictability and the cliche emotional trappings.  Saucy grandma for laughs.  Check.  Funny baby.  Check.  Mute but amusing animal companion.  Check, check, check, and check.  Emotional moment that taps into basic and unoriginal triggers like loving a parent.  Big old check.

There are jokes, but good ones are few and far between.  Most of the writing feels a lot like a sitcom, with mother-in-law jokes, funny noises and voices, and gags at the father's expense.  I will give Dreamworks credit for not relying on their usual trick of slapping in pop culture references to get a chuckle or two.  In a movie like this, jokes like that would easily turn it into a bad imitation of The Flintstones.  The most fun parts of the movie for me were the 2-D intro sequence and the subsequent family hunting trip that introduces the characters.  It was great design followed by fun action.  Too bad the story had to show up.  The funniest bits after that were the ones that highlighted the bestial nature of the Croods, such as wearing shoes for the first time, beating up on one another almost constantly, or learning what a "brain" and "ideas" are.

The characters are also really hit and miss.  I did find Gran and Baby Sandy to be funny, if a bit old hat.  I would not be surprised at all to see some shorts starring Sandy and Belt, Guy's sloth companion, in the future.  Eep takes the concept of "strong" female protagonist a bit literally, but even though she is the driving force of the story early on, she kind of disappears halfway through.  It is then that the focus shifts to the conflict between protective Cavedad Grug and the innovative Guy.  I actually really enjoyed the dynamic between these two.  As a proper Homo sapiens (with pants and everything), Guy is desperate to get away from the brutish Croods who have effectively taken him hostage so that his "ideas" can help them find a new home.  Watching him squirm under Eep's girlish infatuation and Grug's ham-fistedness makes for some fun and fresh emotion.  It's just a shame that it had to vanish in the second act once everyone started to like each other.

Early on, emphasis was placed on how gorgeous the film looked.  On that count I really can't disagree.  While I'm still not sure how I feel about the main character designs, the set pieces and background creatures are like something straight out of Avatar if it had been designed by someone with more imagination. The bizarre animal fusions and lush backgrounds are pure eye candy that might actually make seeing it in 3-D worth it.  The Croods is easily one of Dreamworks best looking films, although I still prefer the magical fantasy of Rise of the Guardians in terms of sheer awe-factor.

While The Croods doesn't reinvent the wheel, it is a fun watch despite a wandering plot and inconsistent writing.  You don't need to club your date on the head and drag them by the hair to go see it, but there's no need to just let it go extinct either.*

*Note: the writers and admins of Cartoons for Breakfast do not condone head clubbing or hair-dragging...unless that's what you're into, you sick little monkey.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

"Fox ADHD" Hopes to Win Over Internet Crowd

Starting this July, Fox is launching a new late night animation block called Fox Animation Domination High-Def (ADHD).  Spearheaded by Nick Weidenfeld (formerly a developing executive at [adult swim] on Cartoon Network) the block will feature original programming that seems squarely aimed the young internet crowd.  The only confirmed series so far are an adaptation of 8-year old Malachai Nicolle's web comic Axe Cop, a series from  Dino Stamatopoulos (Moral Orel) called High School USA!, and an unnamed series based on twin comedians Kenny and Keith Lucas.  As part of a soft launch, ADHD has created a tumblr and a YouTube channel featuring some of the upcoming content as well as some original shorts to help drum up interest.  Go ahead and check them out, but be warned that most of it is pretty NSFW.  Also, if you are easily disturbed by bright colors and frantic movement, you should click with caution.

After pouring through everything, I have to say that I'm not a fan.  The animation itself looks like MAD and Robert Smigel's TV Funhouse had a baby that didn't get any of either parent's good genes.  More disconcerting however is that everything about the content smacks of shameless pandering to the internet-going audience.  The YouTube videos are full of 90's references, songs by (presumably) cute girls with ukuleles, and references to Reddit and Slender Man.  Anyone who does not spend at least half of their waking hours online is probably going to be baffled by much of what is being offered here.  Nick Weidenfeld even hosted an AMA ("Ask Me Anything") on Reddit to go right to the source of his audience.

Weidenfeld claims that Fox has given them a long-term deal to allow for growth, but I can't help but question how much faith the network actually has.  They don't exactly have a stellar track record for keeping programs on the air for very long.  Outside of the past-its-prime The Simpsons and the hit-and-miss animation empire of Seth MacFarlane, there aren't any options except for the surprisingly funny Bob's Burgers sandwiched in between.  Plus, with an airtime of  Saturday nights at 11 P.M. it isn't exactly prime TV viewing.  The only real competition ADHD will have is Saturday Night Live and the revived Toonami block on [adult swim] that just runs anime; not exactly ratings contenders.  Plus, unless they're too stoned to drive or operate a computer, is anyone in this demographic actually home on Saturday nights watching TV?

I'm glad to see a network trying to branch out in terms of animated programming, but the whole thing just feels half-baked to me.  ADHD is the MAD TV to [adult swim]'s SNL. It's cruder, employs less skill or wit, is geared towards an immature male audience, and will ultimately end up being compared to the reigning champion to its own detriment.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

"Croissant de Triomphe" Gives Hope to Disney Shorts

This past week Disney released Croissant de Triomphe, the first in a new series of animated shorts featuring Mickey and Minnie Mouse.  You can watch the short HERE on Disney's website.  This is part of a series of 19 shorts that are going to be produced and aired on TV and online starting this summer.

I love the short.  First off, it looks great.  It blends design elements from classic thirties Disney cartoons (the "sliced pie" eyes being the most obvious one), modern design and backgrounds, and fun cartoon action. The dialogue is in French, but that's alright because the action speaks for itself. Sometimes things get a little too hectic, but the character movement is loose, fun, and looks fantastic.

Secondly, it's entertaining; something that I wasn't sure that I'd ever say about a Disney short.  Walt and his band of merry men were early pioneers of many aspects of animation as we know it. Sound, color, feature length animated films, and using different planes to create the illusion of depth were all techniques that, if not started by the studio, were definitely perfected there. Unfortunately, many shorts and longer films produced by Disney were more about showing off this technology or the quality of the art itself rather than to be entertaining.  

Most people who claim to be "Disney fans" are really just fans of the animated feature films that have become the studio's hallmark, not the animated shorts that preceded them.  In fact, once Walt Disney saw the possibility of animated features, he started devoting less and less studio time and resources to shorts until they were eventually phased out entirely.  It's a shame that these shorts don't get more airplay.  They hearken back to an era when Mickey was much more impish (lecherous even!), Goofy went full retard, and Donald Duck was a straight-up (albeit hilarious) asshole.

It's refreshing to see the Disney characters go back to their roots rather than stay in the bizarre mixed roles of marketing icons and preschool kiddie fodder.  At around three and a half minutes in length, Croissant doesn't overstay its welcome, has some good gags and action, and should hopefully just be the beginning of things to come.  The shorts have some strong talent behind them with directors that have worked on Dexter's Laboratory, Syn-Bionic Titan, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, Chowder!, and SpongeBob SquarePants.  I'm hoping to see some of these shorts feature Donald and Goofy as well as some more of the other characters' personalities, but this is a fabulous inaugural effort and I can't wait for more.