While watching Disney’s 2012 Motorcity, I was immediately stuck by the show’s theme. Heavy on the aggressive drums and angry electric guitar, I wondered out loud, “Damn, it’s as if Deathklok themselves were scoring this show.” And sure enough:
Brandon Small, if you weren’t aware, also produced Metalocalypse, the Adult Swim show starting the infamous fictional metal band Deathklok, a bunch of goth-driven meatheads with amazing musical talents and even more amazing mystical abilities. Deathklok is loved by millions, even as their heavy metal melodies and viciously ludicrous stage shows kills thousands of people. To fans of that type of music, Deathklok is a genuine cult favorite, which the fake band’s music filling the playlists of many people. To non-fans, it’s a different story. Heavy metal is not a genre for everyone, and it must be acknowledged that it’s a type of music that is inherently alienating. To be clear, a lot of music is, but when you lean on that music as a premise and a narrative device, it becomes important to push the characters and story beyond that; otherwise, you’re essentially admitting that this show is only for a select crowd. There’s making entertainment for a niche audience, and there’s making entertainment for an exclusive audience. Metalocalypse, an 11-minute show on a channel defined by niche, could get away with it. Motorcity, on a heavily watched network driven by appealing to as broad an audience as possible, could not.
There’s a lot wrong with Motorcity at the premise/narrative/character level, and I’ll get into that, but most of those problems are triggered right at the start with the very inherent aesthetic thrust of the show. Motorcity has no qualms about its mission: to be relentless. It gives one hundred percent into its visual acumen, making racing, action, and high-octane excitement its fundamental purpose of existence. Every single thing on the show is defined by speed and power; it is the blood of a million Poochies surging together at once, high on cocaine and masturbating to the final act of the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer. Right at the start, Motorcity draws its line in the sand, declaring itself exclusive entertainment – strictly in the imaginative realm of young, white, 7-11 year-old boys. (Not to say that there isn’t a subset of girls or non-white kids who wouldn’t like it, but by the nature of our cultural signifiers, it’s clear that the show had one primary demo in mind.)
Motorcity is careless about its carelessness. It’s knows exactly what it wants to be, but it commits to doing just that with a shocking lack of insight or inclusivity. How could I make such a claim? Well, let’s consider that the show takes place in Detroit – a city that’s been going through a social/financial crisis for the last twenty-five years. Even as the show was pitched to Disney (which, considering the development process of cartoons, had to have been somewhere between 2007-2009), Detroit was struggling with its debts and crime rate, its unemployment and its reputation. And to be fair, there is a certain bold vision in taking that massive, systemic brokenness and re-contextualizing it as a tale of two worlds – the glorious, cultish, oppressive perfection of Detroit Deluxe, and the messy, chaotic, tumultuous environment of Detroit. But Detroit is a real city, with real problems, and there’s a certain callousness in taking that and marketing it as a world yearning to race freely in order to sell new Hot Wheel miniatures.
Motorcity cares so little for the real Detroit (imagine living in actual Detroit and watching this show), but cares even less about the people who live in their fictional Motor City. It’s actually surprising, almost absurdly offensive, how indifferent the show is to anyone outside of the Burners – the main group of five age-indeterminate characters tasked with protecting Detroit from Kane, the leader-tyrant of Detroit Deluxe. Certainly Motorcity has no obligation to explore the struggles of real-world Detroit and its people in any way, but it certainly should have explored its own duel-Detroit conception, and asked, exactly, what are the pros and cons of each version of Detroit, and how the citizenry is thriving or struggling within it. (For all its faults, Project GEEKER handled that pretty well.)
Not only does the show fail to engage in its own world-buidling, the ways in which it fails to do so are baffling. Nothing exemplifies this like “Vendetta,” an episode that is supposed to give history and nuance to Burner leader Mike Chilton, but instead turns the people of Detroit into utter useless zombies. Mike, who formally worked for Kane, was assigned to destroy a building in Detroit. On the eve of the destruction, Mike just notices that there are actual citizens still living in the building. The episode tries to play this as a crisis of conscious for Mike – the up-and-coming young soldier who has to question his morals and the various lines he’d have to cross towards his career – but the actual scene comes off completely tasteless. The people inside the building just sit there, staring wide-eyed like helpless animals. There’s not a single sense of civic protestation or argument. The people don’t even bother to flee the building until Mike has his change of heart and heroically leads the people out of the demolished building, the young Pied Piper leading the hive-minded rats out of the destroyed complex. There’s a million ways this scene could have played out (if the people were all asleep, for example: it still has issues, but at the very least the idea of taking them surprise provides a tighter context for lack of civil action). Motorcity opts for a lazy out, an out that suggests the people of Detroit (and Detroit Deluxe, for that matter) are useless sheep, inherently broken and useless unless a (white, male) leader guides them to their perceived safety.
And that’s just fucking gross.
Yet it’s the shockingly core thrust of the show’s entire run. The surface-level appeal, with its charismatic cast, seemingly complex structure, and violently intense animation, does its best mask a show so hollow that it defies expectation. Motorcity practically goes out of its way to make it less interesting than it should be, and when it finds itself in a narrative hole, it literally bullshits its way to a conclusion. After twenty episodes, I have no idea how Julie’s holographic powers work. I’m not clear if she’s actually in Detroit Deluxe or Motorcity and simply is projecting her holographic self elsewhere. Another example: the pilot suggests large scale gates block Kane’s infinite supplies of robots from entering regular Detroit; in subsequent episodes, robots come and go as they please. Even the action scenes – the very thing that Motorcity was noted for (and the very reason Titmouse was chosen to animate Turbo FAST), are purposely chaotic to hide their sheer lack of logic. The racing and fight scenes are structured in a hyper-energetic, anime-driven way, but (in what may be the most ironic thing of all of 2012) the animation is too good for it. Millions of lasers and explosions that constantly miss the protagonists only serve to lower their stakes. The few times where danger seems inevitable, the solution is either: 1) make it bigger, 2) make it faster, 3) stall until you can make it bigger or faster. When that doesn’t work? Throw lights and colors at the screen as a distraction, then say they won. Or hell, just ignore it completely. “The Duke of Detroit Presents…” straight-up insults its viewers when it places the Burners in a literal “can’t escape” situation and cuts to them later on, all alive and well. There’s a “jokey” reason for this, but it fails mainly because it’s representative of a show that attempted to slickly cut corners when it needed to drive straight.
And that may be the answer in the end: Motorcity is a joke, a flaccid excuse for a visionary animation reel, not a premise for a viable show. The penultimate episode, “Threat Level: Texas!” is an admission of sorts, retelling the previous episodes as viewed through the comic perspective of Texas, a character whose comic relief persona is not only unfunny but borderline sexist (he keeps confusing Julie’s name). None of the other characters mattered much more, really: Dutch just wants to paint and Chuck is a wussy hacker who doesn’t even know how to drive (his desire to keep that a secret is remarkable dangerous). That just leaves Mike, who is a borderline Mary Sue, and whose personal stakes fluctuate with each episode. But he’s there as the teenage icon upon which that remarkably narrow demo of white young boys would cling to, a demo predicted to be satisfied with speed, action, movements, and racing. Motorcity does little to give any incentive to court viewers outside that demographic, embracing its exclusivity with an uncomfortable, misguided sense of aplomb, but no amount of action intensity could overcome the changing demographic yearning for inclusivity. Motorcity courted its specific audience with as much high-octane hoopla as possible but only succeed in driving itself into the ground.
With Turbo FAST’s second season debuting on Netflix on Friday, I had the chance to do a quick email interview with Mike Roush, an animator for Titmouse Animation. Titmouse’s work on the show is visually exemplary, and I personally an advocate for it (I even got the chance to throw my support over it here). Check out the interview below:
Total Media Bridge: How is it working overall on Turbo FAST?
Mike Roush: Turbo was fun to work on. The show had really great animators working on it and it was a pleasure going to dailies and seeing all that they came up with.
TMB: Did Dreamworks have an overall vision of the show when they approached you or did they mostly leave you to your own devices? Were they basically like “do it like Motorcity“?
MR: I did hear that they came to us to make Turbo in part because of the work we did on MOTORCITY. I also heard that they gave us quite a lot of leeway in how the show looked. I am really happen with all the design that went into the show. Here at Titmouse we have super super SUPER talented designers for both BG and character. They should really make a making of this show.
TMB: How does the general workflow work? Are scripts just sent to you and you execute the animation from there? Is the Dreamworks/Netflix workflow any different than the Disney workflow (on Motorcity)? How closely is Titmouse working with the Dreamworks Animation TV studio?
MR: The workflow is different on every show we make whether it be for Disney, Dreamworks or whomever. There are some basic structures that stay the say. Most shows start with a script that gets boarded into an animatic which is the blue print for the rest of production. The animatic is used to design, animate, and composite all the shots to. As for how closely is Dreamworks working with Titmouse I don’t think I would be a good person to ask as I am in the trenches at titmouse and rarely have the time to see the interaction.
TMB: How much freedom are you provided? I definitely noticed some visual gags in the show that seem to be beyond the pages of a script. I’m particularly intrigued by the various graphical pop-ups, like the character-stats graphics. How did ideas like that come about? Was that a collaboration between Titmouse and the Dreamworks writers/producers?
MR: Us animators at Titmouse are give a bit [of] freedom to explore the acting in the shots we are given. [W]e are encouraged to find the humor in the scene and make it stronger as long as it is supportive to the story. Some time an animator will add a joke that we have to cut, not because it is not funny but because it confuses the story tell. When ever that happens it is sad because the jokes normally make us laugh. Once we start animating it is all up to the animators at Titmouse to decide on the animation acting and timing. This will later be looked at by the directors and Dreamworks but they for the most part love what we do.
TMB: Was it tricky to translate the 3D, “grounded” nature of the Turbo movie to the 2D, more elastic nature of the series? Particularly with the snails and the all-purpose usage of their eyestalks – how did that come about?
MR: We love the really cool graphic designs of classic cartoons. We wanted to make a show that continued the story of Turbo but gave the viewer something new visually. We also expanded and developed new locations and characters that using the new style helps make the show [its] own thing. We didn’t want to reinvent what the movie did so well. I think over time we just looser and looser with the models especially with the eyestalks as the show evolved into its current wackier version.
TMB: I noticed that the show perfectly manages to shift in tone quite a bit, say the Super Mario Kart-inspired episode “Mall is Well” to the “The Birds” parody “Turbo Stinks”. Was there any particular episode that proved challenging to work on? Will we be expecting more of that in future episodes?
MR: Yeah we are really looking anywhere and everywhere for story ideas and adventures to put these characters into. One of the [trickier] shows to do was the one you mentioned with the birds. There was a big size difference between a bird and a snail so having Turbo race down a freeway chased by a flock of birds was more difficult to do then we though going into the episode.
TMB: As a follow-up, video game influences are all over this show, from the intensity of the race scenes, to the lighting effects, to the occasional use of pixelation. Is there a fear that that those kinds of influences might be putting audiences off or has that been assisting you in a way that allows you to stand out?
MR: I’m not sure if we thought about it that deeply. I think we just love video games and that 80’s pixelly look so we put it in the show. We try to just make what we think is cool and hope the audiences think it is cool too.
TMB: How much attention has Turbo FAST been getting, from a marketing perspective? And from an audience perspective? Neflix has been notoriously quiet on things like ratings so any insight in that world would be helpful.
MR: You know it [isn’t] pretty quiet from my point of view too. I’d love to see how the show is doing and what kind of products are out there. Every once in a while someone at the studio will bring in a TURBO toy or stuffed animal for us all to see.
TMB: Favorite episode? Favorite character? Favorite moment or gag that particularly stood out for you?
MR: Favorite episode The one from season 1 beyond bummer dome. Favorite character Mel Shellmen the racing announcer. I liked the gag where the Clamsquatch comes out of the swamp to eat Cajun Cliche.
TMB: What kind of insanity should we be expecting from the Turbo FAST crew in the future?
MR: Oh man I wish I could tell ya. All I can tell you is toward the end of season two things get more and more wild. It seems like we are just finding our stride and we are just starting to push these characters to where we want them. Prepare for more crazy.
In an unexpected way, Aladdin may possibly be the Disney Afternoon’s best work. Better than Ducktales? Better than Darkwing Duck? Even better than Gargoyles? That’s a deeper question than you’d might think.
The animation bubble was just starting to test its limits by 1994. At this point Disney sought to control pretty much every direction that animation could go. It snatched up the compilation Saturday morning theme with Raw Toonage and Marsupilami, it gobbled up the action genre with Gargoyles, and it began exploiting its hit films by pushing a TV-adaptation agenda with Aladdin and Timon & Pumbaa (not to mention continuing with original afterschool programming with the problematic Bonkers show). It’s easy to roll one’s eyes at the very concept of television adaptations – particularly now, with everything being adapted or given a sequel – but people forget that it was done pretty regularly in the late 90s as well. But if given a solid handle on the material, along with minimal interference with executives, an adapted work can be incredible.
I definitely had my doubts when coming into the Aladdin TV show. The original movie is fun if slight, its Bonkers contemporary is full of problems, and I remember distinctly not being particularly enamored by the show as a kid. I’d certainly watched it, but it lacked the lunacy or wackiness of earlier Disney Afternoon works (this is a significant point which I’ll get into later). I had reservations when starting this re-watch, as anyone would when attempting to dive in into a show that’s clearly a knockoff cash-grab. What I found was something fascinating: an highly entertaining, exciting 86-episode run that was way better than it should’ve been. In fact, it might be the Disney Afternoon’s best show.
What I wrote on Facebook: “It’s not the best objective cartoon of them all, per se, but the Aladdin TV feels like the purest distillation of the Disney Afternoon aesthetic, culling the best aspects of its previous shows and placing them here. I sort of had low expectations, being an adaptation of a film, but it’s so organic and entertaining, and the storytelling is almost perfect, rarely wasting its 22 minutes with obvious animated padding. It takes the core storytelling engine of Ducktales, the great character work of TaleSpin, the sharp cartoon lunacy of Darkwing Duck, the tight group dynamics of Rescue Rangers, the adventurous spirit of Gargoyles – hell, even the grounded-wacky ratio of Bonkers – and reworks them into a solid bit of animated entertainment. I’ll get into more detail when the official review comes, but basically I love it.”
It’s true, and it’s tricky to get into exactly why the show works so well, but I’m going to try. It primary has to do with its storytelling. Aladdin just tells really good stories really, really well. Animated shows often get caught up in their visuals (as they should), using the medium to mess around with the form a lot, with extended wacky scenes or song cues or elongated chase sequences, all centered around comedic attempts. These are not inherently bad things, but they’re most effective when they prop up a fun, tight story. Often they’re used as bridges between scenes or excuses to prolong a moment, and not quite used to buffer the actual plot. Aladdin is different. Aladdin builds its stories through all 22 minutes, with significant plot shifts before act breaks, complex narratives, and a willingness to keep the mystery of a story hidden up until the climax.
A perfect example is “Strike Up the Sand.” It’s just a fully complete episode, in which newcomer Sadira, a female analogue of Aladdin, falls head over heels in love with the show’s lead. But after his rejection, she falls into a mysterious hole and discovers the power to control sand-based magic. This sounds forced, but the episode handles it extremely well, taking the time to establish the discovery of the hole and Sadira’s exploration of her new-found ability. It gives her and the magic itself a sense of depth and history (and imbues it with a comic aside in the form of a talking worm who’s “so done”), building up the events to the point that she creates what seems to be a typical one-note henchman. And yet, in a shocking bit of cleverness, that one-note henchman is revealed to be Sadira’s (and the cast’s) main antagonist, turning the “smash-first” brainless badguy into the episode’s true villain. It’s such a brilliant switch-up that I’m shocked this hasn’t been done before:
That thin layer of self-awareness, that basic understanding of its storytelling tropes and expectations is one of the many things that keep Aladdin on point. It doesn’t lean on that self-awareness as a driving factor for its comedy or narratives – unlike a lot of today’s current films – but there’s a very keen understanding of how classic cartoon narratives work, and the show plays into them without them being overbearing. It focuses one hundred percent on the story, and the characters within it, using that self-awareness sparingly and to pointed effect – primarily through Iago and Genie.
In fact, how Aladdin uses Iago and Genie should be studied by animation writers everywhere. Iago and Genie are both primarily the comic relief and the outlet through which the writers mess around with meta-commentary, but the show never alienates them. Not only does Aladdin keep these two tightly engaged in the story (while calling out the generic tropes of the story), the other characters accept their antics, and sometimes even embrace them. Unlike Lucky from Bonkers, who spent all his time being utterly disgusted by his toon partner, Aladdin is comfortable with letting these two fuck around, and even encourages them. When Iago complains about Aladdin constantly rushing headlong into danger with a weary sigh, Aladdin chuckles at this, shrugs, and agrees (then rushes into danger). When Genie unloads a heap of anachronistic magic tricks and meta-verbiage, the show and the characters go along with it a casualness that’s both endearing and appealing. This allows for the team dynamics to stay in tact as well as keep the audience engaged. Watch how effortlessly Iago and Genie comically but eventually deduce where Aladdin and Jasmine disappeared to (by around 1:30) – note Iago’s passion towards Aladdin’s typical behavior and Genie’s not-so-subtle method of figuring it out via a winking plot hole:
It’s such a small thing but it’s incredible how often cartoons screw this up. Group dynamics are so, so important, the idea that a team of characters, despite distinct differences, are actively working together towards a common goal – and aren’t just a loose compilation of cliched personalities (I’m looking at you, Motorcity). Aladdin is having fun with itself, letting its characters loose within a tightly-controlled, often-clever plot, and that isn’t regulated to the good guys. The villains are also fun and diverse, and while they don’t quite match up to Darkwing Duck’s delightfully twisted rogue gallery, they do hold their own. They’re genuine threats (particularly the big guns like Mirage and Mozenrath) but have strong and/or goofy personalities to make them feel multi-dimensional.
Then there’s the setting itself. Agrabah and the surrounding locations, like Odiferous and Getzistan, feel like real places populated by real people with a real social structure in place. While a place like Odiferous feels more like a joke (centered around smelly cheese), the show commits to that joke, making it real enough that they even go to war over it. Agrabah itself is vibrant and diverse, with good/bad areas, an economy that’s an actual source for a few storylines, and a class division that Aladdin isn’t shy about discussing. The writers certainly aren’t getting into a in-depth exploration of Middle Eastern socioeconomic issues but Aladdin does acknowledge the struggles of its poorer citizens and keeps Jasmine and the Sultan abreast of the plight of its lower-class people. Again, way too many shows, even today, ignore the people of its locales, making them into quick joke machines that somewhat lean a bit on the insulting side (I love Star Vs. but I do hope that show fixes that issue soon).
And as much as I love the show, I do have to bring up the inevitable weaker elements. The female characters, up until the appearance of Mirage, don’t really get their due. There’s a lot of talk about Jasmine being the cliched sweet-but-spunky adventurous princess, but the execution of that doesn’t quite gel – not until the third season (and even then, the third season is an unfortunate disappointment overall, as the clever storytelling falls prey to weird amounts of exposition and tedious executions). Sadira and Saleen are mostly driven by weak “pining for Aladdin” stories, but at least Sadira gets a pretty good redemption arc in her third appearance. Anything involving Odiferous is inherently off-kilter, as the village is portrayed too jokingly, despite the show being aware of it. And while the show tempers Genie most obnoxious behavior perfectly for 90% of the time, he does go overboard in a few episodes, making them particularly unbearable. “The Game” and “Night of the Living Mud” should be avoided.
Yet when Genie is tempered properly, especially tied to storylines and plots that rival the more complex and audacious plotting one gets from Doctor Who, Aladdin works in ways that surpasses every Disney Afternoon show before and after it. Most episodes are so fun and so involved that you’d find yourself failing to question the extent of Genie’s powers, or examining the minute details of the more intricate plotting (the episode “Lost and Founded” rips through a time-travel story so quickly and effortlessly that you don’t even have time to examine potential paradoxes!).
As such, the inevitable question will arise: “You thought this show was better than Gargoyles?” Which is a valid question, but also more complex than you’d think. As I tackle Timon & Pumbaa in the next few weeks, I am going to attempt to explore an overall view of the Disney Afternoon in general, its expectations and its limits, and why Disney seems so reluctant in re-introducing perhaps its greatest era in animation history. For the record, I do think Aladdin is a stronger show than Gargoyles; part of that is personal preference, but part of that is Disney’s ultimate visionary goal, which was more strongly realized in desert sands of Mesopotamia than it was in the urban sprawl of New York City.