CHILDHOOD REVISITED – Brandy and Mr. Whiskers

Brandy and Mr. Whiskers had the drive but never could quite get a firm handle on its characters or its comedy. Why such a funny show never could translate into an appealing one.

The mid-2000s was not really a great era of animated television. The cartoon bubble had burst, which led to the slow dismantling of Saturday morning cartoons on the prime TV networks. Cartoon Network was humming along awkwardly, Disney’s animation department was a bit cluttered, searching for “stylistic” shows (read: cheaply produced), and while Nickelodeon was kicking ratings ass with Spongebob and The Fairly Oddparents, it was becoming clear that those shows were all they had. It wasn’t exactly a dead period for animation, but it seemed like a direction-less era for the medium. Disney, in particular, seemed keen on culling stylistically from the past and aiming for strict gendered demographics (hence the Kim Possible/Proud Family divide). In the middle of that came Brandy and Mr. Whiskers, a two-season outlier that seemed to have no real demo at all.

brandy-and-mr-whiskers

Every so often Disney tries to “do” wacky, its own take on Looney Toons-esque insanity, to mostly failed results: Bonkers, Schnookums and Meat, Fish Hooks. (Arguably the most successful one was Timon and Pumbaa, mainly because the characters were strong enough to carry the craziness, but I digress.) As I mentioned before, Disney thrives on strong characters and strong settings, but according to this take on the pre-production on the show, the execs at the network wanted to “push” things, visually, which 1) confirms a lot of what I’ve heard about this era and 2) suggests strongly how lost the animation division was at this point. It’s clear that they wanted to “copy” Cartoon Network’s unique-looking shows like Dexter’s Laboratory and PowerPuff Girls without exploring exactly why those styles worked. “Style” brought nothing new to Kim Possible or The Proud Family, and it didn’t bring anything new to this show either.

Not to say it’s a poorly animated show. It’s easy to dismiss it as another Ren & Stimpy knockoff, yet another Spumco-wannabe, but that would be lazy. In action, Brandy and Mr. Whiskers resembles more of the 1920s-1930s animated works of Fleischer studios. Hell, some of the designs resembles Disney’s own style from that time period! Sure, some Spumco sensibilities are there, but the “always to the side” facial expressions with the sideways mouth is pure Fleischer, especially when you compare it something like Popeye or Felix the Cat. Depending on the animation studio, the movements and expressions could be fluid, even adorable, with unique bounces and shapes with eye and head positions. But some animation studios struggled with the style, with minimal movements, lazy repetition, and flat expressions, particularly during crowded scenes.

Yet animation studios weren’t the only entities that struggled with the cartoon. Brandy and Mr. Whiskers is a show that required a certain level of commitment to its premise and its characters; some writers got it, and some just didn’t. It’s not a weak premise – in fact, it’s pretty progressive, which I’ll get to – but it is pretty outlandish, which basically means you got to love it or leave it. A pretty, snobbish canine and an insane, nutty rabbit fall out of a plane and land in the Amazon jungle, where they interact with the wacky locals while they try to learn how they can live with each other. There’s no real substance here, especially since Whiskers drives Brandy crazy, which requires the writers to just have fun with it and its loose tether to even its own animated hyperreality. It’s the kind of freedom that not a lot of creatives can work with, and its obvious to see certain scripts awkwardly stretch ideas with no structure in place, especially in the second season, when it drops arguably its sole rule of Brandy instigating the plot by mentioning some broad concept to Whiskers.

Not to say that Brandy and Mr. Whiskers isn’t funny – it frequently is! In fact, it’s cruelly funny, the kind of nasty, mean-spirited comedy that’s present in Seinfeld, Archer, or Arrested Development. Brandy is exaggeratedly conceited and self-centered, treating Whiskers (and everyone else, although less so) like utter crap. Whiskers is the obvious hyperactive/moronic type, although he is a lot smarter and determined then you’d think, quite often calling out Brandy for her shit. The cast around them – Ed, Lola, Gaspar, Meryl and Cheryl, Margo – are fun in their own unique ways, and the show really picks up when they’re thrown in the mix. Whiskers annoying Brandy, only for them to make up and be friends, is nonsensical (and the show expressly acknowledges this in “Dog Play Afternoon”), so the show is at its best when it brings in the rest of the cast, or when Brandy and Whiskers actually team up:

Despite Brandy and Mr. Whiskers’ overall unevenness, it’s… arguably one of the more progressive animated shows I’ve seen in a while. It feels like a broad response to the wave of girl-powered cartoons (PowerPuff Girls, Totally Spies, Life as a Teenage Robot, The Proud Family) that hit in the early 00s, and in particular it feels like a direct response to Kim Possible itself. I wrote about how monstrously disingenuous Kim is in that show, how that kind of “character” hurts its feminist aspirations more than it advocates them. And while Brandy and Mr. Whiskers certainly isn’t a bastion of feminist progress, it does contextualize a “Kim” type way better than Kim Possible ever did. Plus, it has more female characters in the mix, of different backgrounds. Margo is the Bonnie to Brandy’s Kim, Lola is Hispanic, and Meryl and Cheryl are (coded) black. Most importantly, they all get into the wackiness with aplomb and aren’t regulated to “safe” or “straight man” status. Just listening to the show and its mix of voices is a revelation; even cartoons today are driven by male (white) voices, give or take a Steven Universe.

Yet even with that cast, Brandy and Mr. Whiskers never can quite expand past its basic rhythms. Brandy and Mr. Whiskers has the verve and comic chops in place, but struggles to push beyond that. While something like, say, The Penguins of Madagascar (a show that the executive producers of Brandy and Mr. Whiskers, Bill Motz and Bob Roth, worked on extensively) could build upon the goofy and silly layers of its characters and comedy, Brandy and Mr. Whiskers never seems willing or comfortable to take that extra step. Sure, it smartly moves away from the formulaic nature (Brandy says something that Whiskers ought to do, in which things hilariously fall apart from there) of its first season in the midst of its second season, but doesn’t know what to do given that new-found freedom. It falls back on elaborate crushes, boyfriend chases and more nonsensical premises, with only a few episodes actually possessing what could be construed as a real purpose. The clearest sign there are struggles? Some episodes possess unfulfilling, unsatisfactory end tags that are obviously undercooked. It’s not a thing that the show builds up on; they’re clearly placed on to pad the final minutes of episodes so they can fill the full eleven minutes:

Brandy and Mr. Whiskers is an eager, hungry show, committed to its silliness with plenty of loony, physical gags, absurd characters, and enough self-awareness to make Animaniacs blush. It’s also hurt by some weird, poorly utilized edits that seem as if they were done to avoid animation mistakes, and lack luster endings that seem to 1) kill the little dramatic momentum that the show actively possesses, or 2) double-down on its cruel nature. Cute families of animals are killed off; characters in which Brandy and Mr. Whiskers treat terribly are never given their proper due; hell, “The Tortoise and the Hare-Brain,” one of the funniest and most inspired episode of the show, ends with a wildly tone-deaf joke that implies interracial relationships as problematic.

Yet that’s the core issue with Brandy and Mr. Whiskers. It’s a hilarious show that is also often dark and brutal, a black comedy that often borders on exposing misguided values with little about it that was appealing. It’s smarter and more in-tuned with itself then you’d think, but it’d also hurt by uninspired scripts and thinly-pointed gags about the callous destruction of the rainforest with little to no insight. It utilizes some of current comedy’s most potent set-ups: cutaways, smarm, self-awareness, irony (particularly about how lame forced heart-warming moments are), but never offers anything new to take its place. At its core was the bizarre, tricky interplay between Brandy and Mr. Whiskers themselves, two characters who never clicked as friends nor enemies nor teammates – and with the core leads purposely “unconnectable,” so to is the show as a whole, despite its laughs and moments of cleverness.

Perhaps there’s a deeper meaning with Brandy and Mr. Whiskers: a show about two American figures – one arrogant, brash, and selfish, the other moronic and chaotic – literally dropping into a new, established culture that is forced to kowtow and submit to their behavior with begrudging reluctance. Sure, they may introduce Western concepts to this culture, such as fashion and currency (undercut, somewhat, with the introduction of the mall in the second season), but that introduction is portrayed as not at all wanted, a corrupting influence that’s more trouble than its worth. Brandy and Mr. Whiskers exemplifies that concept, a show that has the right ideas and attitude, but lacks the kind of heart needed to sustain itself. Like the show’s titular characters, Brandy and Mr. Whiskers is trapped in a comically nonsensical jungle with no real desire to escape.

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The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Isn’t Racist, But…

Promo for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is hilarious. Audiences and critics having been, for the most part, singing its praises. It’s not a huge show by any means (and Netflix’s refusal to disclose its numbers continues to make it difficult to truly quantify its success), but simply by paying attention to social atmosphere and various review sites, along with a guaranteed season two, you can easily surmise that the show’s cult audience is thriving.

Its success, however, is tainted somewhat by a wave of criticisms of its approach to racial humor (here’s just one of the many, many thinkpieces about it). It’s odd to hear so much criticism of a show that’s not Two Broke Girls and/or something from the mind of Daniel Tosh or Seth MacFarlane. I mean, Tiny Fey? The darling girl of 30 Rock and SNL’s more successful runs put to task about the show’s alleged racism? Never thought I’d see that day.

After binging through the show though, while I can certainly see why so many people are making this argument, I don’t think the show is racist at all. Or rather, I don’t think it’s “racist” in the way that such a loaded word tends to imply. Tiny Fey and Robert Carlock’s new show certainly isn’t intentionally racist, that’s for sure. The problem is that its unilateral focus on Kimmy Schmidt’s life has indirectly weakened its portrayal of the various characters around her. It’s not racist per se, it’s poor characterization, resulting in racist (and homophobic) impressions.

Personally, I’ve always had an issue with how Tiny Fey portrayed minorities. I’ve only seen a few episodes of 30 Rock, but of the ones I did see, they too had somewhat disingenuous racial connotations (specifically I’m talking about this episode), particularly when they’re all centered around a successful white woman who also happens to be neurotic (the pretty white people with problems syndrome, or PWPWP, pronounced “pwip-pwip”). I don’t think its necessarily Fey’s fault though. I think the general narrative that tells the story of a single character’s journey through a troublesome point in his or her life tends to lead to poorly structured characters around them. If you’re not careful, that can lead to a lot of uncomfortable moments.

Bojack Horseman, another cult-hit Netflix show, has a similar issue. What started out as a comic take on Hollywood excess through the eyes of the scene’s most failed misanthrope, turned into a dark character study of a broken former star. That’s fine, I suppose, although it’s hard for me to sympathize with an (ostensibly white) dude with a lot of money in the throes of interpersonal ennui. But that heavy focus really diminished other potentially rich characters like Todd, Mr. Peanut Butter, and, worst of all, Princess Carolyn, who, in the midst of her own depression, ends up dating two kids in a trenchcoat. The problem isn’t that she’s dating two children – clearly, that’s the joke; it’s that her crafty, confident, hilariously determined character became a sad sack who only felt her only worth was finding a figure worth dating before she got too old.

Contrary to most critics out there, I also find The Last Man on Earth, Fox’s newest hit show, problematic in its own way. It’s a trickier matter with this show, as there’s only been four episodes as of writing this, but so far its high-concept premise, in which a man struggles to survive within a world devoid of life, has essentially relied on a “Men are like THIS, but women are like THIS” template, just in an apocalyptic setting. I mean, I sort of see the show’s attempt to make Carol’s insistence on preserving a certain sense of humanity part of her character, but I disagree that the show makes it clear that it’s part of her personality, not necessarily her gender. Why is she so driven to marry before sex beyond the fact that this is what women do? The show doesn’t say.

These shows aren’t bad by any means, but they feel contrived, forced to fall victim to sitcomy tropes, gender cliches, and relationship woes, and no amount of animated animals or barren landscapes will hide them. What Bojack Horseman and The Last Man on Earth do with gender, the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt does with race. All three shows are so intrigued with their central lead characters (not in and of itself a bad thing) that they struggle to explore other characters outside of gender/racial stereotypes. In this post-Tumblr world, it’s easy to categorize that as sexist or racist but really, it’s just a form of laziness.

And that’s the crux of the racial problems with Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. There’s an… air of concern underlying the show that seems to exemplify Patricia’s Arquette’s misspoken post-Oscar comments, where white women should be propped up by minorities and LGBTQ people (that’s not what she meant, of course, but that’s how her words were (mis)interpreted as). In this case, it’s Kimmy Schmidt (and Jacqueline, which I’ll get into later) who is the white woman propped up by Titus, the gay and black man, and Dong, a Vietnamese character, so they claim. By propping up Kimmy’s journey towards autonomy and self-reliance, Titus and Dong are forced to go through generic storylines mostly defined by their race and/or sexuality.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is funny, and the storylines involving Titus, Dong, and Donna Maria are hilarious, yet I can see why so many people are having trouble with the show, despite disagreeing with them. Unlike 30 Rock, whose main character is successful and wealthy yet seems to be swamped by first-world problems, Kimmy is emerging from a darker, more complex place – fifteen years within a bunker at the behest of a controlling male figure. Kimmy is driven wonderfully by her desire to no longer be a victim, which is a stronger motivation than “lack of fulfillment” that drives Bojack or 30 Rock (and, implicitly, Last Man on Earth). Yet the show is so glowingly focused Kimmy’s success (witness how easily she succeeds at finding a home and a job in New York) that everyone around her, from a character perspective, feel like their playing catch-up; Titus is defined by his blackness and gayness; Dong thrives on a host of Asian-American stereotypes; Donna Marie ends her arc by selling mole sauce.

This all probably applies to Jacqueline’s character the most, whose Native American parentage has become the most decisive part of the show. There’s a difference between being absurd and being nonsensical: absurdity allows the satire to shine through cosmically massive hyperbole, while “nonsensical-ness” relies on sheer illogical connections for humor. Jacqueline’s Native American relations toe this line, which only comes off confusing. It isn’t clear if the show wants to satirize Jacqueline’s overwrought attempts at whiteness (at the expense of some easy Native American gags) or play it all ridiculous for the sake of being ridiculous (like a text-alerting banana). The result is, unfortunately, tone-deaf, especially with that wild season finale scenario at the gas station.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt doesn’t necessarily have to explore its racial (and sexual) caricatures with any real depth, but it may be in the show’s favor to do so, particularly in the second season, to make a richer, stronger, and more comically complex show. After all, this is the show that, just as lazily, implied a catcalling construction worker as a closeted gay person; Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt can do so much better (and has, frequently). Fey and Carlock can certainly continue their story into Kimmy’s world, but they’d be better off letting Titus, Dong, Donna Marie, and Jacqueline’s parents into it.

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Why I’m Okay with The Lego Movie’s Oscar Snub

The Lego Movie poster

The most talked-about Oscar snub was for Selma’s exclusion from the Best Director and Best Actor nominations. Surprisingly, talk over The Lego Movie’s Best Animated Picture snub seemed equally controversial, perhaps even more so, particularly over at The Dissolve. And while outrage continues to follow it around, with directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller tossing back-handed insults towards the Academy for their perceived neglect, I can’t help but think that, perhaps, the Oscar voters may have gotten this one right.

To be clear, award season has always been, and continues to be, an elaborate stroke-fest: self-servicing, brown-nosing, self-celebratory crap. Most people know that most of these awards are nonsense, and the outrage only really feeds into the season’s insatiable love for itself. That being said, some films are noted to be shoo-ins, particularly with the Academy increasing the number of films that could be nominated. The Lego Movie was a critical and commercial success, so it just seemed like a no-brainer that it would win Best Animated Picture, let alone be nominated for it. Yet the Academy chose: Big Hero Six, The Boxtrolls, How to Train Your Dragon 2, Song of the Sea, and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, leaving off The Lego Movie, much to the chagrin of many people.

Not so myself. While a majority of the world saw the film and loved its clever take on the Chosen One concept, along with its comical/thoughtful take on the Lego world, I saw just a perfectly fun, cute film that nevertheless fell for the same kind of tropes that Chosen One films tend to fall into, via animation that did exactly what it was supposed to do. The Lego Movie had fun with its premise but it’s difficult for me to agree that it did anything novel with it – save for an inspired climax. Beyond that, though, it possessed the kind of simplistic gags that often fill animated kids films, troubled with actors unsuited for voice over work, and the kind of average, Joe Campell-esque pacing that most critics would pan in other films, animated or otherwise.

Not to say it wasn’t a bad film at all! It reminded me, in fact, of Cats Don’t Dance and Over the Hedge: two animated films with comically clever group dynamics and fast-paced sequences. Yet while The Lego Movie wore its satire on its sleeve, Cats and Over were a lot more subtle about its commentary (the former’s endearing homage to 40s and 50s musical animated shorts; the latter to the encroaching suburban blight on the natural environment). I love those films but I would never say they deserved Oscars, and The Lego Movie was basically a trumped up version of those films. The Lego Movie is also built on a slightly recent batch of animated films which seek to “subvert” certain tropes of animation plots – only to lean into those tropes anyway. Shrek sought to break down the happily-ever-after ending of generic fairy tale stories, only to end with exactly that, albeit on the ugly-orge side of things. Frozen tried to break free of love-at-first-sight storytelling when it comes to princesses, only to suggest the second handsome guy you meet is totally fine. And The Lego Movie, while exposing everyone to be potential master-builders, still ended up with Chosen One Emmet to be the master-builder that saved the day.

I’ve said this before, but most modern critics tend to be terrible at analyzing animation as a whole. They’ll know the big names of animation –  your Brad Birds, Hayao Miyazakis, Chuck Jones, Tom Rueggers – and if you’re lucky, they might be aware of Genndy Tartakovsky, Lauren Faust, Henry Selick, or Pendleton Ward. Critics are not voracious viewers of cartoons – the insane work of Tex Avery, the character-focused oeuvre of Paul & Joe, the wacky excellence of Mark Dindal, or the brilliantly satircal cartoons of Jay Ward. The latter, in particular, was built upon satire and subversion, with the various bits introduced in Rocky & Bullwinkle utterly annihilating generic animation tropes, and this was back in the 60s. Watching a lot of cartoons is tricky – it’s time-consuming and requires a certain degree of patience – but I think to truly understand cartoons, the various approaches to visual representations, requires a certain commitment that many critics fail to take part in.

So of course The Lego Movie seems like some sort of top-notch brilliance to them. And, to be fair, there is a lot to like about it. But in the whole scheme of things, The Lego Movie, with its reliance on generic rhythms and faux-subversion, all within (and let’s be blunt here) an obvious toy-based corporate tie-in, is pretty ordinary. Some people point to the film’s animation as a celebratory selling point. I agree that the film’s visuals were perfectly tailored to The Lego Movie’s sensibility, but to be honest, the film did exactly what it was supposed to do. It committed to the “Lego” look, with the movements and pacing akin to the limited movements and pacings of the actual toys, but it actually didn’t do anything interesting with it. No sharp montages. No unique comic/dramatic visuals. Nothing about the animation pushed the film aesthetically.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 (the only nominated film I managed to see this year, an unfortunate blight due to financial issues) had its flaws, too. And while I don’t think it should win, I do think it’s a stronger film than its reputation, with its commitment to its central family unit (before its torn asunder), its unique dragon personalities (Toothless has never seemed less adorably playful), and its mastery over its visuals and art designs. Just the scene where Hiccups reunited father and mother singer their courting song to each other is powerful stuff, with its swooping camera angles and play on the area surrounding them. It’s an insular, personal film that struggled against its bombast, action-fest second half, but it understood the importance of look, feel, and meaning, in terms of the situation and the characters. In comparison, The Lego Movie was about the flair, the self-awareness, the subversion (that never was). It’s a movie that leaned hard on the idea of being a self-aware toy-product, and while it did do a fine job with that limitation, it still was a self-aware toy product. Of course, this allowed for a wonderfully strong, climactic third act, but that’s just the third act. Two-thirds of the film are still flat, generic, run-of-the-mill animation and pacing, with mediocre gags, less-than-average voice work, and exciting-if-passable action.

The next few weeks I’ll be working my way through the rest of the nominated film as they drop on DVD. With The Lego’s Movie snub, and the various flaws that How to Train Your Dragon 2, The Boxtrolls, and Big Hero Six reportedly possess, perhaps this will allow the outliers Song of the Sea and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya a larger chance to win (or maybe that this was just a weak year for animated films). But while The Lego Movie has strong moments, I can’t agree that it’s worth a nomination nor even the Oscar itself. It’s fun but slight, ambitious but generic, fun but fluff. Admittedly I do have issues concerning the “Lego-fication” of a lot of entertainment nowadays, but even still, I wonder why it takes a product-film to bluntly emphasize the power and wonder of unbridled creativity, even though, particularly with animated films, that should be the default mindset. (Perhaps it is the lack of openness when it comes to critics and their approaches to animation – film, TV or otherwise – but that’s an argument for another day.)

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