Archive for August, 2017

The Lion Guard Barely Covers Up Its Naturally Oppressive World on Purpose


The setting in The Lion Guard – a gorgeous, detailed, lush savannah of forests, grasslands, plains, and mountains – is at once both wondrous and dangerous. In fact, it’s downright oppressive. The Lion Guard takes from its source – The Lion King – its central ethos, The Circle of Life, and culls a deeply uncomfortable caste system and social regulatory system of control and power. The Lion King already had problems with its weird-to-examine politics. Hyenas were always just an evil, and once they were in power food and water magically disappeared (I don’t know how to parse the Hitler imagery either, but that’s a topic for another day). The Lion Guard doubles down on that. The Circle of Life suggests that all animals should have access to the food they need, but in particular carnivores can only eat what (or in this case, who) they need. The implication is that the various villains in the show are (meat)eating more than their fare share, which is why they need to be stopped, but also, they have to do so in their clearly demarcated regions. And anyway, after the first few episodes, the show just portrayed the carnivorous animals as a net bad.

This leads to a lot of problems in terms of what clear lessons that The Lion Guard tries to espouse. But I wonder if The Lion Guard is even trying to espouse any lessons at all – or more accurately, I wonder if the show is trying to espouse the kinds of lessons we’re used to seeing in our pre-school, toddler-aimed, animated programs. The show will play lip service to lesson-learning for sure.  There’s episodes about acceptance and tolerance, not judging books by their cover, trusting one another, lies that go too far, recognizing and acknowledging that you’re overworked and need help, thinking things through, etc. Nothing you’ve never seen before in preschool-demo animation. But there’s a clear paradox at play. How can an episode of The Lion Guard espouse a lesson of love, tolerance, and acceptance, when the very existence and adherence to The Circle of Life mandates a pretty uncomfortable segregationist policy? Those core lessons and overall worldview can’t really co-exist. I’m somewhat reminded of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, how its ponies are branded for life with a singular lot, and how that show has to jump through hoops to justify its natural world forcing its characters into specific roles for life. (The show mostly skates by this by suggesting ponies cutie marks are their best, most natural talent, and in sharing it with others, it fulfills them one hundred percent. No pony seems to regret or detest their mark/life’s position. It doesn’t really work for the most part – the show is better off avoiding the issue – but the scant few episodes that do question this tend to be the most interesting. Sorry for the aside.)

Unlike My Little Pony though, The Lion Guard has the savagery of the natural world to content with. It doesn’t really play coy with the nature of the animals in this show, other than avoiding any and all visuals of the carnivorous animals eating one another. It’ll spout facts about various unique creatures indigenous to Africa, which is pretty cool and greatly informative. But it’s hard to tell if the writers are aware of how incompatible it is to teach basic lessons while butting up against its Circle of Life natural philosophy and nature’s blunt cruelty. The Circle of Life is the show’s strained way of injecting a sense of a “civilized order” to its nature-based characters, the way through which it can channel its lessons in some sort of narrative form, but the contradictions and paradoxes and outright failures of the combination of the two are too hard to ignore (and a few critics I know have noticed this). And honestly? I think the writers are distinctly aware of it too.

Think about it like this. The Disney execs saw an episode in which the Guard, a bunch of young kids essentially, constantly beat up a family of jackals who just needed to eat. They violently prevented them from eating in the still-lush regions of the Pridelands, forcing them back into the food-starved Outlands as a looming dry season approaches, and that includes the jackal family’s kids, too – kids who aren’t portrayed as evil, soulless creeps, but innocent, endearing, passionate easily swayed moppets. The Disney execs saw all this, wiped their hands, and gave it their stamp of approval. If this was American Dad, it would’ve been a dark, but exaggeratedly hilarious, bit. If it was Rick and Morty, it would have been an extremely bleak, highly disturbing bit that resulted in laughs solely to wall off against the cruelty. In The Lion Guard, it’s just all so matter-of-fact, so normal, just part of the world and the rules in which everyone follows. No one seems even hint at the moral grayness of this situation.

The Lion Guard doesn’t let its characters, and by proxy, its young audience, change or even question the ecosystem, the environment in which their placed. It instead portrays them as characters who can simply manage, or survive, or enforce, that system. The Lion Guard isn’t going to ask Kion, Ono, Fuji, Beshte, or especially Bunga, to question their worldview, and all the problems in it. Why should they? They’re fucking kids. Looking at a problematic world and finding solutions should be the parents’ job. But the adults in the world are locked in their ways, refusing to even bat an eye at the idea of, let’s say, a family of seemingly-poor (however you’d define this in animal terms) jackals searching for ways to feed their kids. If that sounds disturbing to you, which includes scenes of very young jackals conniving to feed themselves, only to actually get their asses kicked, well, don’t expect the show to comment it. This is your world, out world, and the savannah only reflect that.

Instead, The Lion Guard basically refuses to showoff concrete lessons about sharing or tolerance (they’re there, but there’s always an asterisk on those stories). In the wilds of the Pridelands, the show prefers emphasizing the rules of civilized survival and managed control, and, in its most surprising truth, is one hundred percent okay with the utilization of violence for that goal. It pretty much has to be. Nature is savage, and try as they might, no amount of glossing over it will hide its objective harshness. That the show tries to “justify” it with The Circle of Life is questionable at best and laughable at worst, and as these episodes pass by, it’s a bit clearer that the writers are questioning and laughing along side of us. If you had to combine the savagery of nature, the hierarchy of the food chain, and the nonsensical animal stereotypes that The Lion King traffics into something digestible and manageable, The Circle of Life is the grossest but easiest thing you could come up with.

And in the macro sense, there’s something deeply serious worth discussing here – if The Circle of Life is the defacto rule of this world, then the Guard are a special police squad out to enforce a level of control at the state level (handed down by so-called (super)natural, spiritual forces, as per Rafiki’s magic paintings, and authorized by Simba, the king), which is deeply troubling, but admittedly an extreme reading of things. The more likely reading is that The Pridelands and The Circle of Life are clearly problematic in combination, and the show is presenting it all in its full, uncomfortable glory. If you’re troubled by the the contradictions at play, at how the episodic lessons seem to not-at-all reflect the world’s rules-by-decree, it’s simply just a reflection our our world and our society, a society that espouses lessons of love, tolerance, acceptance, and all those things claimed by a “civilized, orderly” world, only to contradict itself with violence, segregation, war, and discrimination. If you’re looking for the young kids of the Guard to question this… why? That should be Simba’s job, or Nala’s, or Zazu’s. Not one adult who should know better is self-reflective enough to call The Circle of Life to task, so looking to mere children to do so is even more asinine. The Lion Guard’s “positive lessons” are contradictions are hard to parse, until you think about it in terms of our so-called civilized society as a whole, and the show is really a reflection of that —

— and the abject violence that The Lion Guard is all to willing to engage in.

And I think we should talk about violence, and violence in cartoons, and The Lion Guard (and Disney as a whole, natch) is a good jumping off spot. This is going to take an extremely long time to parse and will be continued in another essay. For now, it’s good enough to simply reflect on The Lion Guard and its contradictions, and how the discomfort it causes is probably more satirical and allegorical of how human society works, more than we’d like to admit. It’s a show with a society of birds that engage in elaborate bureaucracy only to rarely get anything done. It’s maybe more knowing than you think. It’s just weird that Disney Junior cartoon.


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The Amazing World of Gumball Recaps: “The Quest” and “The Spoon”

The Amazing World of Gumball Season 1 Episode… by gumball-amazing

“The Quest” – A-

This may be the first episode of The Amazing World of Gumball where the show brings in that raw emotional honesty that I’ve been harping about for the past few reviews. It’s not the full, jaw-dropping dramatic revelations that will come later, but “The Quest” seems like the first episode to explore its characters a bit deeper than a bunch of computer-animated figures in a ridiculous cartoon world. A lot of Gumball’s narrative strengths really come together here – its jokes, its pacing, its slick, smart visuals, and its heart. The first time you saw Tina the dinosaur, it was a joke – a giant, female dinosaur as the school bully, literally and metaphorically (at least at this point in the show). In a surprising move, we get a bit of insight into her and her life. I don’t know how many people were expecting to then see Tina sleeping on a literal pile of trash in the middle of a dumpster; Anais says it’s really sad, but “sad” really doesn’t cover it.

It takes a bit of set up to get to that point, but it’s endearing to watch. A few kids tease Anais by tossing her beloved doll, Daisy, around, and Anais demands/guilts Gumball into getting it back for her (for good reason – Gumball brought the toy onto the bus in the first place!). The Amazing World of Gumball will deal with this sibling interplay quite a bit. The Gumball/Darwin bond will always be front and center, but the Gumball/Anais relationship is a prickly one, bouncing between affection, neglect, manipulation, altercations, and forgiveness. It’s in effect a deeply exaggerated form of older brother/younger sister relationships, heightened even more by Gumball’s selfishness and determination, and Anais’ brilliance and loneliness. But “The Quest” shows that it’s a relationship that’s, underneath all that, built on love and family loyalty: Gumball yelling out “That’s why you don’t mess with the Wattersons!” at the end is truer and more significant than we realize at this point.

Gumball reluctantly agrees to help his sister, which has him running around the school trying to get Daisy back. We get some quick introductions to some other classmates: Hector, the giant, and Juke, the walking boombox (the future episodes involving these two are something, particularly Juke’s episode, but we’ll get to that). The build up during the early scenes are just so good – just an easy confidence that makes everything seem so effortless. I have to admit, rewatching these episodes make me kind of miss the low-key narrative build-ups that the more recent batch of episodes lack. And throughout it all are all the kind of sibling manipulations and control techniques that we’ve seen before, given a bit of heft that only Gumball can muster. Gumball and Anais battle over using big-cute-eyes faces and guilt-trapping passive-aggressiveness. Gumball provides a fake Daisy doll only for it to explode. Gumball tries to use his inability to catch against himself, only for him to actually catch the doll, to which he immediately tosses off to Darwin (I also love how his inability to catch is telegraphed early as a weird visual gag when he’s unable to snag the doll in the air after Hector flicks it of his buttock). Gumball is a dick of a brother. But he is committed to his sister (and, in the overall scheme of the show, whatever’s on his mind) in a way that keeps him from being intolerable. And the show itself is keenly away of his awfulness (unlike some other shows).

The entire final section is worth talking about though. From the reveal of Tina literally sleeping on trash, to the hilarious attempts to getting the doll from her grasp, to the phenomenal Jurassic Park-esque chase sequence that follows, “The Quest” takes a big step forward in its commitment to the visuals and aesthetics of a scene versus just establishing various signifiers of the parody. The slow fade in and camera dolly that opens up with the kids staring into Tina’s room/warehouse; the bleak, dreary atmosphere in which the scant lighting only adds to the horror; the dynamic camera angles and change-of-directions of the characters as they give chase and get chased – the level of details is a step further than the already great chase back in “The DVD” (and props to the physical interaction between the 2D-flat Watterson characters and the 3D-rendered dinosaur; that in itself is impressive gold). The parody is clear but “The Quest” is clearer that the kids are in real danger. And despite all that, when they finally stop Tina and gloat, the show pulls back and reveal Tina to be a broken, poor bully who never had a toy before. It’s a sudden switch, especially since you don’t expect Gumball to “go there,” but it’s heart-breaking even this early in the show’s run. There’s more to the Tina story, and we’ll definitely get to that, but we now know that Gumball will bring more to its cast of characters than stock tropes, and what they reveal about Tina will allow them to explore its cast and world even more, and believe me, it’s a trip.

“The Spoon” – B

Right of the bat, you can tell the animation in “The Spoon” is different. I don’t know if the animation studio was different, or if a different director was in charge here, but there’s an intense exaggeration to the expressions and the energy that isn’t as specifically channelled through something familiar – like a parody or what we’ve seen before. Once again, Gumball is utilizing a cartoon trope to springboard into a different story – but like “The End,” it’s just another cartoon trope. In this case, it’s the father forgetting his wife’s birthday and needing to find a gift, but it’s tossed aside for a nutty adventure involving Gumball and Darwin mistaking a thief for a CEO for charity for bald people. “The Spoon” undercuts all of that by more or less ditching that first trope (once Nicole comes home, Richard comes clean about the forgotten gift almost immediately), by contextualizing the second trope in a dangerous way (Gumball and Darwin are sent to a gas station in what is implied is a dangerous part of town), and by bringing in a heavily over-the-top animation style for most of the episode. When Richard hilariously reminds the kids of their mother’s birthday, only to realize he forgot her gift, his expressions and body language goes absolutely bonkers, in a way never quite matched in previous episodes, and we’re off to the races.

Really, “The Spoon” is a B- episode in overall quality. The jokes are kind of bland, being as trapped as it is in those tropes, and no amount of undercutting or subverting can overcome it. The only thing that stands out is the animation, with some impressive movements and facial expressions being pushed in wildly insane ways, and a final chase sequence that goes all over the place (Gumball just does chase sequences and action so well, I would love to see this team do an action series at some point). Gumball, Darwin, and the fingerprint thief make as many ridiculous expressions as Richard does, there’s some judicious use of emoticon faces throughout (Gumball doesn’t use them often), and even that final sequenced with Gumball and Darwin riding a flying air tank was fantastically well done, if not exactly a new, original, or inspired animated bit.

But it’s a funny bit, and really just a lot of fun to watch. At this point, Gumball and Darwin are still functionally, mentally children, clueless to the kind of world they live in and the kind of nasty characters that populate it. The Amazing World of Gumball in some ways will revisit the idea of the playful, innocent children suddenly brushing up a real threat and dealing with the fall out – that episode ends with Nicole exacting delicious revenge on the culprit as well – but while that episode is a bit more… existential, “The Spoon” caters to a Nickelodeon, “kids rules” approach. Once Darwin and Gumball realizes they’re in trouble, they manage to run and escape the spoon-wielding criminal, while also besting with a series of Home Alone-esque traps. This episode also introduces Doughnut Sheriff, a stereotypical baffoonish cop who is literally a doughnut, but like all the other characters, he too will be contextualized and explored more than the ineffectual goofball he is here. “The Spoon” is a fine episode, propped up by its visual silliness, but it is a slight in the overall flow of the show.


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We Bare Bears’ Cuteness Masks a Shockingly Cynical View of Humanity

In “$100,” a friend that often visits the young bears’ home dons a ski mask and tries to rob them of their new-found $100 bill. In “The Road,” the bears share their box-home with a hitchhiker, only for the hitchhiker to steal their box the following morning. In “The Fair,” a loser carny exploits the bears’ cuteness to earn more customers to his rigged game. In “Pet Shop,” after failing to attract potential owners, the pet store cashier boxes up the bears and puts them in the trash. In “The Island,” a potential island friendship is ruined when we learn the dude has been gaslighting and manipulating the living fuck out of the woman also stuck on said island. These episodes involve the bears as young, even cuter versions of themselves as hapless, adorable, orphan wanderers, and perhaps the show finds amusement in their constant struggles. But, damn, those struggles really come off vicious and bleak, a pretty cynically dark take on humanity.

The episodes that focus on the bears as adults aren’t much more optimistic. The last new episode that aired on Friday, August 11, (“Summer Love”) contained a scene in which Panda was forced to pay a bribe to some bubble tea cashier to get information on a girl that left her phone behind. Later in the episode, he runs into trouble with some guy who goes crazy when a girl he liked became an astronaut. (The portrayal of dudes being obsessed over women, which includes Panda here, is an issue all on its own.) There’s an episode where the bears go to a crowded beach but for some reason every human there is some form of shit stain – a litterer, a loud music player, some woman who brought ribs (“Private Lake”). At the beginning of the show’s run, there was a chance that the show was attempting to channel that human behavior towards something specific, in their behavior towards the bears themselves, in treating them differently or aloof because they were bears (I weirdly got pushback for mentioning this, only for the very creator to more or less post a confirmation on Twitter). Basically, if you were to watch an episode of We Bare Bears with the thinking that, thematically, the show is about how subtly but clearly awful humanity is, you might be horrified by how distinctly the show believes this.

There’s the episodes with Nom-Nom, voiced by Patton Oswalt, who hates the bears and only cares about his social media following, and any moment that showcases a smidge of humanity from the cute koala is undercut; lessons are rarely learned. There’s Charlie, the show’s worst character, who’s pretty annoying by default and whom the bears only hang out with because they either feel sorry for him, or he has something they want (I find it remarkable that the show never realizes how insanely shallow this make the bears seem). Chloe is the only character that feels like she genuinely likes the bears, and whom the bears like in kind. Her early approach towards the bears, which was entirely academic and aloof, became something genuine, something shared between her and the bears. Both understood what it felt like to be outcasts, and their connections (and episodes) feel like the rare time the show exhibits some hope.

There’s a “but” coming, though.

Before that, though, I do think that episodes with Chloe suggest that We Bare Bears is not actively trying to be nihilistic. It’s a brightly colorful show with soft, cute character models by design, and it utilizes a light touch with a good amount of its narrative beats – its song cues and montages, its portrayals of its emotional moments, its honest depiction of its central brotherly bond. The issue is that, to get to the ultimate point of those latter two, it has to chart a streak of abject meanness and callousness in its world and its cast of characters. We Bare Bears hides its harshness well, and there’s a chance that it’s intentional; perhaps Daniel Chong finds humor in the contrasts of its characters’ awful, self-centered behavior and the lowkey, soft aesthetics of the show. But Chong isn’t Dan Harmon or Raphael Bob-Waksberg, or even a Ben Bocquelet. His show doesn’t seem to have a larger thematic point beyond that contrast. If he’s aiming to say that despite a hopeful sensibility about the world, the only people who can really trust are family, then… fine, I guess. It’s a bleak outlook for sure, but I don’t think he actually wants to say that, which is why We Bare Bears is a really muddled claptrap of a show.

Really, most episodes place the bears in a situation where each bear has to deal with some inane, contrived obstacle – a person being obtuse, a machine that fails to work, a thing in the way of progress. These episodes aren’t particularly funny or noteworthy, although Ice Bear’s blunt, contrite statements are good for solid laughs. Grizz’s heart tends to be in the right place but will most likely go overboard. Panda writhes between being hapless and pathetic, but he remains endearing enough so he rarely gets annoying. The bears’ problems are mostly situational, almost like bits in a sketch show, escalating problems that come together at the resolution. And that’s fine; at its best, the show’s escalation tinge with pastiches of a clear love of style, like Ice Bear’s vengeful mission in the very good “Icy Nights.” A sweet two-part episode called “Captain Craboo” also indicates a very clear understanding of the kind bittersweet storytelling that warms the cockles of one’s heart. See, also, “Yuri and the Bear,” a story in which Ice Bear and a tough Russian man named Yuri start as mismatched enemies but end up as friends.

But (there it is) there’s the sense that while Chong and his crew understand story structure, they don’t really have much stake in the characters and/or world that supports that story. Chong knows the proper beats to tug at the heartstrings, but fails to apply actual heart or meaning to anything outside that storytelling modus operandi. It’s all mechanical, which results in an assortment of characters who are one-note and dickish, until they aren’t, and that’s only when the story needs the emotional heel-turn. Outside of that, characters are mostly some form of asshole, indirectly or directly, masked behind millennial trappings like gourmet coffee, vegan food options, and excessive-to-obsessive mobile/social usage. (The show, to be fair, nails that modern sensibility but offers little to no exploration of why people are so engaged in those sensibilities, which makes them come off bubbled; Panda orders a fairly over-wrought drink (a gluten-free, chai-coconut milk boba tea) but I’m not sure if we’re supposed to laugh at that or understand it as a reflection of who Panda is.)

I look back at Daniel Chong’s tweet, and I look back at my own AVClub review, and I think about the show’s very early interest in maybe, sort of, exploring the uncomfortable treatment between the bears and the humans, in the very human world surrounding them. I think that, had the show kept that as an undercurrent, the sheer cynical approach to said humans (and to the bears) would have had context, something rich and consistent to better reflect Chong’s vision and thematic approach. We Bare Bears eventually dropped that human/bear tension (which I why I got shit for mentioning it in the pilot), but kept the broad sense of hostility, which results in a show that may understand story structure but has a deeply dim view towards humanity. Watching We Bare Bears is pleasant until its over; the aftermath leaves a weird taste in your mouth. That taste? A darkly negative view, underneath a tasty boba tea.


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