Archive for category Childhood Revisited
Back in the early 2000s, game designer Warren Spector announced he was working on Epic Mickey, a new game from his brand new video game company, Junction Point Studios. Spector’s early remarks about this new venture included a lot of commentary about returning Mickey to his more mischievous roots, a comment that, not surprisingly, got taken out of hand by the most of the public. The term “mischievous” was, for some reason, interpreted as “dark and adult,” and it didn’t help that a lot of the early press about Mickey “controlling life and death” seemed to imply that Mickey was to be some Grim Reaper arbiter of mortality. Spector never quite denied the thrust of this out-of-control hype; an early idea included Mickey sporting an “angry” look when you made “bad” choices. Oh, that’s right – Epic Mickey included a morality system, a game design that, outside Mass Effect, Dragon Age, or Fallout, shouldn’t exist in any game ever.
And certainly Epic Mickey. While the first game did okay financially (while not being as dark or adult as the hype made it out to be), the second game did so poorly that Disney cancelled all future iterations of the game and closed down Spector’s studio. Part of that, of course, is due to the gameplay and camera issues being problematic and unfixed, but beyond that, there’s something blatantly disingenuous about that hype – the idea of Mickey Mouse, of all people, being some kind of tortured, complex anti-hero. What’s worse is the fact that so many people believe that this was part of Mickey’s identity before Disney “sanitized it,” an idea that completely misinterprets both Mickey Mouse and the company that birthed him; clearly, no one actually bothered to re-watch the old Mickey shorts. How the idea of mischievousness became some kind of hardcore miscreant is a perfect example of writers and creators struggling with bringing classic characters to modern audiences – your Supermans, your Bugs Bunnies, and, currently, your Muppets. It’s not the personalities, and the so-called dated ideals those personalities represent (an idea that’s overly-cited as to why these characters struggle to capture today’s audiences). The problem is one hundred percent in the execution, in the writers’ and creators’ unambitious, restrained settings and premises that prevent these characters from thriving.
The strangest thing I’ve read in the last year was when Erik Kuska, a producer on Cartoon Network’s new Bugs Bunny cartoon, Wabbit, wanted to avoid cliches like the anvil gag, preferring to utilize “modern heavy objects to cause pain.” I’m not even sure where to begin to respond to this. Should I start with the fact that anvils were dated even back in the 40s/50s, when they were first used as animated comic props? Should I emphasize their datedness even back then was part of the entire joke? Should I point out “modern objects” were always used to cause pain regardless? (Safes, cars, tanks, TVs, computers, and ships all have been used to flatten/hurt cartoon characters.) Or, perhaps most confusingly, should I mention that Wabbit doesn’t exactly use that many “modern heavy objects” in the first place?
Bugs Bunny has been going through a struggle himself. For all the problems in Space Jam – and there are a lot – that probably was the most accurate take on a modern Bugs in years. Bugs is passable in Back in Action but is drown out by the rest of the animated figures and an overly-frantic human cast. He spends too much time trying to figure out other people in The Looney Tunes Show, a cartoon that loved circuitous dialogue for some reason, the kind of dialogue where people would talk at each other and poke holes in the very exchange that was happening (whenever it broke from that, it was occasionally watchable). And in Wabbit, Bugs spends a bit too much time being confused, even, strangely enough, when he’s confidently in control of the situation.
The thing is, personality ticks aside, these modern takes on Bugs aren’t inherently a problem. Bugs’ original incarnation was a wacky loon, an instigator of chaos before being toned town into a more snarky, self-aware jerk whose power is defined by unleashing his comedic wrath at anyone who slights him. His more recognizable personality is a take on the Marx Brothers (with a smidgen of Clark Gable), so it makes sense to evolve it in a new perspective, particularly for an audience that isn’t familiar with 1950s Hollywood. (Yet, personally, I do question Bugs’ laid back, semi-pushover personality in The Looney Tunes Show, if only because he’s defined not by a specific personality but a complete lack of one.) But the bigger issue isn’t him; it’s the kind of stories he (and the rest of the cast) are involved in, which were no more then slightly elevated sitcom cliches. Pets that acted differently in front of various people. Annoying neighbors. Trouble with women and dating. The DMV being shitty. Only when the episode allowed its inherent cartoonness to do its thing did the show finally exhibit some life, something to stand out beyond its sitcoms cliches (which is odd, since The Simpsons, Family Guy, and American Dad managed to do what The Looney Tunes Show never bothered to embrace, and they came before that show).
That’s what makes it all the more baffling. The Looney Tunes characters were not only defined by their own personalities, but by their personalities as inserted within an insane, absurd, wacky plot, which The Looney Tunes Show lacked. Wabbit, god bless its soul, attempted to be more ambitious, but still seem to struggle with making its scenarios truly loony. It’s at this point I could get into a whole thing about basic animation principles, including exaggerations, anticipations, and squash-and-stretch techniques, but the gist of it is that Wabbit fails to really employ any of those techniques to full effect (a result of an overall industry adverseness to those kinda of visual tricks). But those tricks are paramount to what makes the Looney Tunes characters and scenarios work, and denying them will only lead to a bland, unambitious show – a show where its characters, no matter how you adjust them, can’t actually do anything to make them stand out.
It’s a lesson that ABC is learning with the sudden drop in ratings with their recent take on The Muppets, a drop so significant that one of the showrunners left the show in anticipation of a new-new reboot. There’s a lot of issues with the show, and there’s plenty of pieces out there attempting to point to the core problem: was Kermit/Piggy too mean? were the other characters wildly underused? was it too sitcom-y? did it need to be more variety-based, even though variety shows are no longer viable forms of entertainment? Part of that, again, has to do with how we (mis)interpret the original show. There’s a lot of arguments out there, for example, that Kermit was always mean, but there’s very distinct difference between “variety show” mean and “sitcom” mean. (There’s a very lengthy argument to be made about how “meanness” on TV has become this weird, confusing sticking point among audiences, but I digress).
But, again, personality changes to the Muppets isn’t the core problem. Pepe, Gonzo, and Rizzo had some minor tweaks, and they came out quite good. In fact, I’d argue that by the final three episodes, the show itself made just enough adjustments to right the ship: the weirdly controlling Kermit became a softer, more endearing frog, and the show overall had hit the right notes between its sitcom trappings and its more loony aesthetics, with more absurd situations and antics in the mix. Still, I feel as if it’s still a bit too sitcom-y, as forced through ABC’s primetime slot. Here, I would suggest they might take a cue from Mongrels, and open up the characters and their experiences outside of the central locale of the Miss Piggy show. Something that could allow the puppetry and the rich cast comprised of that puppetry to shine. The variety show may be dead, but the musical show is making a comeback, and it might help the show to push more puppet routines into the sitcom narratives, to really let the Muppets thrive. It’s not just the Muppet characters that people liked, it was the whole, whiz-bang showmanship of Jim Henson’s creations in action.
We can end this here by comparing the Epic Mickey failure to the success of the new batch of Mickey shorts. In fact, it might be good to look at the three rounds of these shows – the originals, the shorts culled from Mickey Mouse Works/House of Mouse, and the current batch that’s winning Youtube. (We could also examine the various ways in which Disney remixed, re-issued, and re-purposed its shorts for various generations). Each iteration worked very well, not only by placing Mickey (and the gang) into situations that connected to the current audience, but also by never losing sight of the gang as who they truly are (also, adjusting the look and designs to match current visual standards helped). It’s all of that, really: Mickey has always been loose and broad enough to fit within any template, but the truth is, so have the Muppets and the Looney Tunes characters. It’s just that certain templates have restraints that don’t always work in the characters’ best interests, like sitcoms or morality-based games. If current creators look past those restraints, they’d be able to combine what made these characters shine in the past, re-contextualize them in new situations for the present, and allow them to succeed in the future. I assure you that anvils are not the problem.
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.
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.
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.