Sunday, April 28, 2013

"Teen Titans Go!" and the Lighter Side of Superheroing

Every kid says they want to be a superhero when they grow up.  What they don't see are the strings that come attached; being stranded from your home world, being displaced from time, suffering profound personal losses, etc.  The life of a superhero is a bleak and lonely one where the hero must carry the burden of responsibility for the sake of the greater good, even at the cost of his/her own happiness or life.  Thank God we have Teen Titans Go!

The popular Teen Titans series has been revived in a sense with a new series, again on Cartoon Network.  For the uninitiated, Teen Titans focused on a team of five young superheroes who lived together in their headquarters.  The team was led by Robin (of Batman fame), then there was technically inclined "bro" Cyborg, super-strong and super-naive Starfire, dark and gothy Raven, and plucky but heartfelt Beast Boy.  Their adventures would range from the more typical arc and drama heavy episodes to ones that were lighthearted and downright funny.  The animation itself borrowed a lot from non-comic styles, especially anime, and it is most evident in the character expressions and the show's theme song by J-Pop band Puffy AmiYumi.  The show was cancelled after five seasons, and fans have been clamoring for a revival ever since.

Now their wish has been granted.  Teen Titans Go! features the same characters, voice cast, and same basic design and characterizations as the original show.  The biggest difference this time around is that they decided to cast off any pretense of serious business in favor of pure silliness.  In this series, fighting super villains takes a back seat to the hi-jinks that five super powered teenagers get into when they all live together and have downtime.  The first episode that aired this week focused on Raven sending the team on a wild goose chase to assemble a legendary sandwich so she can watch My Little Pony in peace (a clever joke given that Tara Strong voices both Raven and Twilight Sparkle on MLP: Friendship is Magic).  That then is followed up by Beast Boy getting a job at a pie shop so he can buy Cyborg a birthday present.  Crisis on Infinite Earths this is not.

My only real complaint about the show is the colors sometimes feel painfully bright and the Flash animation makes it look more like a web series than a show slated for TV, but that also isn't new to cartoons these days.  While I have mixed feelings about Young Justice getting the ax to make room for it, Teen Titans Go! is a welcome addition to the DC lineup.  Audiences and studios often get too wrapped up in the dark drama of comics and end up creating a pretty bleak picture of the genre.  I always like to see shows like this and Batman: The Brave and the Bold take a lighter approach to remind us how inherently ridiculous the concept of superheroes really are. It also reaches out to that inner child who deep down still wants to be able to fly and beat up bad guys.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Blue Streak Speeds By: Sonic the Hedgehog!

Today's post is brought to you by Andy Primm of The 8-Bit Vista. Take a look, and while you're at it check out Brian's post there on his favorite video game adaptation of cartoon films!

As a kid in 1993, nothing was cooler than Sonic the Hedgehog. The games had a pacing and attitude that Mario games, fun as they were, just couldn't compete with. So when Sonic got his own cartoon show – two of them, in fact – I was in nerd heaven. Here at last was a cartoon show (my second favorite pastime) based on a video game (my favorite pastime) that was actually really good.

For some strange reason, Sega chose to run two different American Sonic cartoon shows at the same time: The Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog, and Sonic the Hedgehog (fans often refer to the latter show as “SatAM” for clarity's sake, refering to the time slot it ran in , Saturday mornings). As if this wasn't confusing enough already, Jaleel “Steve Urkel” White provided the voice of Sonic in both shows. The similarities end there, however, with Adventures being a slapstick farce and SatAM being relatively dark and serious for a children's cartoon show. Oh – and that theme song. So much delicious cheese.

Some critics will tell you that neither show holds up well, and that's certainly true of Adventures. But something about SatAM made it stand out from lighter fare like The Super Mario Brothers Super Show or The Legend of Zelda. While those shows, and Adventures, made merry with the source material, SatAM transformed the pixelized characters into living, breathing creatures in a believable setting. Plots had consequences beyond a single episode. New characters came and went, villains rose and were defeated. The show had a continuity that most American cartoons of that time period lacked, especially ones based on video games.

Kids these days might not realize that Sonic didn't always battle Dr. Eggman. Well, okay, in a way he did. But back in 1993, the villain went by the name Dr. Ivo Robotnik, and he was awesome. See, in Japan, Sonic's nemesis was always called Dr. Eggman – a goofy, cartoonish mad scientist full of bluster. But in America the name “Eggman” was apparently deemed too silly, and he was given the less-insulting moniker “Robotnik” in the instruction manual for the original Sonic the Hedgehog. The name stuck in the West.

In SatAM, Robotnik evolved even further away from his Japanese self, retaining his portly appearance but gaining black and red robot eyes, high tech gauntlets, outrageous shoulder pads, and a classic supervillain cape. His demeanor changed as well. While Adventure's Robotnik was bumbling and over-the-top, similar to his Japanese incarnation, the Robotnik of SatAM was downright sinister, with a low-pitched growl for a voice provided by the prolific and talented Jim Cummings. This Robotnik was a ruthless, backstabbing oppressor of civilizations who knew just how evil he was and loved it.

SatAM came at a time when the boundaries of Sonic's universe hadn't been established. The Genesis games had little in the way of plot, no voice acting, and only crude pixels to convey emotion. This meant that as a kid, I had no idea that SatAM was straying away from Sega's original vision of Dr. Eggman. It wasn't until Sonic Adventure for the Sega Dreamcast that fans like me realized just how clownish Eggman was supposed to be – to us, he was that megalomaniacal genius with the cape and the robot eyes. The goofball in Sonic Adventure wasn't sinister. He was certainly amusing, but because of that you never feel truly threatened by him.

Another huge change SatAM made was giving Sonic a whole team of Freedom Fighters to help him battle Robotnik, such as Princess Sally, the rightful chipmunk monarch of Mobius, Rotor the mechanical genius walrus, half-roboticized Bunny Rabbot, and Antoine the rapier-wielding fox (and unflattering French stereotype). These characters were all memorable, even lovable, and made Sonic's world feel populated and vibrant. Instead of just being a lone wolf, Sonic now had to depend on others. This element of teamwork helped to show how the odds were stacked against the good guys: Robotnik had a city-sized fortress full of nightmarish robots, and even Sonic couldn't go it alone. The stakes were always high in SatAM, which is what kept me glued to my television set week after week.

SatAM unfortunately occupied a rather niche market of young kids who played video games, which meant that it couldn't last forever, especially up against powerhouse shows like Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. Only two seasons were ever made, and when it was canceled suddenly in 1994 it left several plots unresolved. The meager 26 episodes are as disappointing to the show's small army of stalwart fans as Firefly's cancellation is to the Whedonites. It's especially painful when you consider that Adventures has 65 pointlessly silly (but entertaining in their own way) episodes. Fortunately, the long-running Archie Comics Sonic the Hedgehog title largely followed the show while it was on, and went on to expand on and wrap up most of the main plots.

SatAM was added to Netflix last year, along with Adventures. For those of you who had fond memories of it as a kid, it's definitely worth returning to the world of Mobius. Sure, the show's a bit cheesier than you remember, but it definitely stands up better than Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And for those of you who've never seen it before, you should check it out. It's not fine art, but definitely blows every other video game cartoon show out of the water.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Better Know A Studio Part I: Walt Disney Studios

With animated features becoming more and more successful and prevalent, it can sometimes get confusing about who makes which movie.  In this recurring series I'll cast some light onto each studio, it's history, and where it stands in the landscape of animated films today.  My other, slightly more selfish purpose for this series of articles is to try and teach that not every animated film is done by Disney, nor is every CGI one from Pixar or Dreamworks.  It's a serious pet peeve of mine, and dammit if I'm not going to try and do my part to educate the public.  Now then, onto the first (ironically enough): Walt Disney Animation.

Started by brothers Walt and Roy O. Disney in Kansas City in 1923, Disney is the oldest, the largest, and for decades was THE standard by which all other works of animation were measured.  The studio pioneered many early technological and artistic breakthroughs, including sound, color, the multi-plane camera, and the so called, "imitation of life," school of animation.  It was this ambition that led to the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in 1937, the first cel-animated feature length film.  

Snow White was, of course, only the first in a long line of animated films produced by the studio. I have lumped the long history of the studio into three rough periods.  The first, and arguably the best artistically, extended from Snow White in 1937 to Sleeping Beauty in 1959.  This era contained some of the most beloved films (Alice in Wonderland, Cinderella, and Bambi) as well as some of the most experimental (Fantasia, Saludos Amigos).  These films had some of the best artists in the history of the medium working on them and they had no stifling limitations in regards to what was expected of them since they were the first.  The results were some of the best crafted and innovative films ever made.

The next era that I half-jokingly refer to as "The Disney Dark Ages" runs from One Hundred and One Dalmatians in 1961 all the way to Oliver & Company in 1988. Starting in the 60's, the quality of the films started to drop for a myriad of reasons. Walt's death in 1966 left the company and studio without his strong leadership and vision.  Additionally, the scores of talented animators who had worked on the earlier films had either moved on to other studios or were starting to get older and their skill had started to diminish. Finally the new, more efficient, method of xeroxing animation cels made production easier, but the image quality suffered, creating a signature look of slightly scratchy line work.  Not all of the movies produced in this time were not bad per se, and you definitely start to see an uptick in quality later on as the studio moved towards it's next big era.

The last major Disney epoch extends from The Little Mermaid in 1989 to the present. This is perhaps the most beloved era and contains some of the biggest and most popular Disney movies.  My generation was raised with these films.  Beauty and the BeastAladdin, The Lion King, Mulan...I could go on and on.  After Tarzan, the studio started playing around again with less conventional stories (Lilo & Stitch, The Emperor's New Groove), all-CGI films (Dinosaur, Chicken Litttle), and some that we have collectively chosen to forget (Home on the Range, Treasure Planet).

After a few real misses in the last few years, the studio seems to be headed back in the right direction with Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph.  Pixar founder John Lasseter (more on him in a later post) is now in charge of the studio, and I had high hopes for what else is coming.  However, recent news about Disney laying off hundreds of employees has me worried that the company may in fact be moving away from producing animated films, or even original films at all.

I could do a separate article about each of the studio's fifty-two animated films, but for now this is where the studio is today.  Aside from Mickey Mouse & Friends, animated films are still the company's hallmark even though it has grown to be one of the largest corporations in the world. While the playing field has grown and more teams are springing up, Disney continues to be the Yankees of animation.  Love 'em or hate 'em the House of Mouse earned its place on the top of the pile, now they just have to not fall off.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Bruce Timm Steps Down at Warner Bros. Animation

Bruce Timm, perhaps the first and last name in animated superheroes, is stepping down from his position as a supervising producer at Warner Bros. Animation.  It's important to note that he hasn't been fired, nor is he leaving the company at this time. As of now, he is simply handing over his responsibilities to  longtime collaborator James Tucker so that he can pursue his own projects.

Bruce Timm is best known for creating the DC Animated Universe ("DCAU" or "the Timmverse") that began with Batman: The Animated Series, Superman: The Animated Series, The New Batman Adventures, and then later included Justice League and Justice League Unlimited.  I think it is fair to say that when you have an entire fictional universe named after you, you have done something right with your career.  

For a generation, the works of Bruce Timm have been the face of some of the oldest and most beloved superheroes.  Batman: TAS continues to be not only one of my personal favorite animated shows, but also a defining entry in the look and mythology of the character.  Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill will forever be Batman and the Joker and, like her or not, Harley Quinn is here to stay.  While contemporary series done by Marvel were jerky looking and overly arc-heavy, the DCAU combined modern yet timeless animation with stories that created a universe that didn't feel overly burdensome to understand.

Even though Justice League Unlimited wrapped up the story of the DCAU, Timm has also supervised the highly successful line of standalone DVD titles featuring a myriad of DC heroes both famous and obscure.  He hasn't done much in TV lately, and it shows with Cartoon Network cancelling its current DC lineup in favor of a reworked version of Teen Titans and a radical new approach to the Dark Knight called Beware the Batman.  Young Justice got the ax after just two seasons, and despite Timm's supervision, the CGI Green Lantern never managed to pick up traction.  

While not intentional, I think that the DCAU may have set the bar too high, and new projects are struggling to compete with that level of quality.  The competition between DC and Marvel is as heated as ever, and DC is struggling to maintain its hold on having better animated programs.  I would be slightly interested to see Bruce Timm be given the opportunity to work on the live-action DC movies that are attempting to outdo The Avengers.  Like Joss Whedon, Timm brings a level of humor and humanity to superheroes and is capable of making them awesome, but believable and relatable; a tough trick for characters who have the power of gods and brandish their knickers on the outside.

In all likelihood though, Timm will pursue some other animated projects of his own.  He's done comics for so long, I would kind of like to see him try his hand at some other sort of project though.  With his sense of design and art style, I would love to see what he could do with a more traditional comedy cartoon.  Regardless of what happens next, I remain optimistic for the future.  Warner Bros. Animation is in good hands with James Tucker, and I anxiously await whatever Bruce Timm has up his sleeve next.  I wouldn't even mind waiting for a while.  He's earned a bit of a break.