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Zootopia’s Runaway Success, and the Disney Afternoon Connection

Zootopia/Disney Afternoon

Alan Young passed away on may 19, 2016. To many, he was the lead farmer who could communicate with talking horses on Mr. Ed. To others, he was the perennial voice of Scrooge McDuck in Ducktales, the irascible richest duck in the world who led the way for one hundred episodes, one theatrical film, a number of classic and modern shorts, and even in the Nintendo reboot of the Capcom game. Young’s passing was memorialized by many of those who worked with him in TV, film, and gaming, yet in terms of the animation community at large, both creators and critics were mostly silent. It was a widely mute, seemingly moot passing: a death of the lead of what could arguably be the most important, game-changing cartoon in the last twenty-five years. Yet it’s representative of the general malaise, it seems, of the pop cultural response and respect to Disney’s 1980s-1990s animated output, which we could call The Disney Afternoon*.

I mention the Disney Afternoon for a reason. The kinds of cartoons that Disney produced – from the two cutsey-yet-complex starters The Wuzzles and The Adventures of Gummi Bears, to the TV show versions of Aladdin and The Lion King – really weren’t what we think of cartoons these days, or even what we thought of cartoons back then. In our current culture, we think of cartoons in sort of broad categories: wacky, silly, and childish; action and (super)heroic; adult and poignant; adult and absurd. Disney’s cartoons, however much they leaned into any of those categories, were anything but. At their core, the Disney Afternoon lineup were driven by adventure, specifically by strong, specific, and non-human characters who sought items, emblems, villains, and icons across multiple locales that thrived with an unique locality and ecology all its own. They were truly their own thing: the cuddly Gummi Bears with their thriving, complex society; the talented-yet-lazy ursine pilot with a surrogate son and a fussy-yet-determined boss; the team of rodents who actively sought to help others as they struggled to help themselves. Even as the quality of the shows varied throughout the years, the core nature of these shows thrived with exaggerated characters who were never-the-less grounded with real emotions, in worlds that only touched upon what could be possible in their unique, respective universes.

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There’s been a lot of shock and surprise over Zootopia’s runaway success, the only original animated Disney film to gross over a billion dollars globally since Frozen, and it’s been admittedly a bit frustrating to see how people both misinterpret the movie and/or downplay its proven success. I’ve seen a lot of explanations and theories that I’ve disagree with (the “night-howlers as crack” being particularly insidious), but what prompted me to write this was this fairly dismissive piece. Mr. Spiegel is a fine writer, but the impression I get is that instead of praising Zootopia’s success and offering a credible theory as to why it’s been a global box-office draw, he dismisses the billion-dollar revenue as a new normal, a “non-event.” Which is… pretty disingenuous. As of this point, only Marvel properties have hit the billion dollar mark on their own, as well as a handful of Disney properties (give or take a Minions, which success is couched more in its universality and less in its quality). Not only has Zootopia resonated with audiences across the world, it has incredible rave reviews; yet, at the same time, those reviewers, along with Spiegel, seem flabbergasted to place the film’s success in any context. Spiegel mentions how Zootopia lacks any real Disney World or Disneyland presence, which mainly speaks to Disney’s surprise that the film did so well, not to the “perplexing” nature of the film not gaining much cultural permeation (although I would argue it has, particularly on social media).

Spiegel’s confusion is understandable. The creators and directors of Zootopia often cite Robin Hood as the example in which the film draws its inspiration, and no one could argue that. Yet I feel like Zootopia also draws a tremendous amount of inspiration from The Disney Afternoon, shows often staring talking animals of a various sort in vibrant environments, shows that were also surprisingly deep and complex and meaningful in small ways. And these shows also lack cultural permanence as well. They are rarely showcased at Disney World or Disneyland. They are not quoted on social media or often gif’d or cited as inspiration by many of today’s current batch of animators (I have yet to see an interview with Byron Howard or Rich Moore that brought up TaleSpin as an inspiration, a show that might have well have taken place in 1920-Zootopia.) These are shows that are regularly taken down from Youtube and, until recently, only had (semi-incomplete) DVD releases. Zootopia’s lack of cultural permanence mimics that of the Disney Afternoon’s cultural permanence.

Yet I would argue that Zootopia’s success is exactly due to an audience that’s craving that kind of entertainment – films and/or TV shows driven by an adventurous spirit, led by non-human characters who feel grounded, real, and relatable, all within out-sized worlds that connect to our worlds in more ways than one. The aesthetics and atmosphere of Zootopia fit squarely within the aesthetics and atmospheres of the various Disney Afternoon cartoons: they may not match one-to-one, but they all possess similar criteria: strong, flawed, non-human characters; bursts of silliness mixed with raw, poignant moments; adventure-driven stories that far surpass the need for excessive silliness or wackiness; strong, detailed visuals and proportional character designs; clever uses of pop cultural references that neither stop the flow of the story or interrupt the proceedings for the easy gag. And even though the elements of both the film and the classic animated line-up seem absent from all social cachet, I think audiences are craving it. Viewers are way more open to the kind of entertainment they can find solace in as nerd spaces open up: Steven Universe and My Little Pony and the myriad of superhero films have expanded fanbases considerably. Back in the 90s, small but dedicated fans wanted to live in Gummi Glen, Saint Canard, or Cape Suzette**. Today’s audiences can add Zootopia to that list.

I believe this is what Dreamworks attempted to do in the 2000s. As the less-respected studio began netting large scale success with Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon (another movie that seemed to have legs, financially), the studio sought to expand their visual worlds and rich characterizations onto the small screen. For a little while, it was a success, with Penguins of Madagascar a solid hit for Nickelodeon, which could be categorized as a wackier version of Rescue Rangers. Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness was a solid follow-up, and Dreamworks followed that up with the Dragons series and Monsters vs. Aliens. But it became clear that Nickelodeon interference, combined with the limitations of the TV CGI landscape, deeply held things back. Nick never established a full Dreamworks block (Dragons went to CN, which promptly burned off the show, which was egregiously boring anyway). Kung Fu Panda, potentially closer to Darkwing Duck’s sensibility (a few writers wrote for both shows!), squandered its potential by leaning way too hard on its lead’s silliness instead of adequately building up its cast and its Valley of Peace locale. Monsters Vs. Aliens just wasn’t good. Given the deal between Dreamworks and Netflix soon after, Nick basically decided to cut its loses and moved on. (And no, the Dreamworks shows on Netflix have not quite matched the aesthetics of the Disney Afternoon.)

I’m not even sure it would have mattered. Dreamworks’ shows have yet to capture cultural permeation either. Except for perhaps Shrek memes, not a single show, either one Netflix or Nickelodeon, seems particularly discussed anywhere, despite the accepted fact that Dreamworks’ television decision is apparently still financially viable. All Hail King Julian has gotten the occasional note in the media, and most recently, Voltron has gotten the social landscape talking. All Hail King Julian sort of resembles Marsupilami, in that it’s focused on the antics of forest-based critters, but with bursts of cultural/social commentary that’s extremely hit or miss. (It actually functions better the rare times it focuses on its characters and pushes them in unique, new, personal directions, but it’s unfortunately pretty rare). And Volton, despite its high quality, doesn’t adhere to any of the Disney Afternoon aesthetics. The other various Netflix Dreamworks shows: Puss in Boots, Turbo FAST, Dragons (which moved from CN a few years ago), arguably do adhere to those aesthetics, but vary in quality and lacks cultural permeation. The former point really smothers up the latter.

It’s that point, which leaves Dreamworks’ programs scattered, random, and unregulated, that seems to allow Disney the opportunity to return to the Disney Afternoon glory. Not only is Disney rebooting Ducktales, but they also are working on TV shows based on Tangled and Big Hero 6. The latter two shows are human based, but, as they are based on some of Disney’s more successful animated films, they most resemble the 90s television takes on The Little Mermaid and Aladdin. I also don’t think it’s no coincidence that Ducktales, Rescue Rangers, and TaleSpin were recently released on iTunes, in their entirety (except for one lone Ducktales episode). In addition, there’s the new Darkwing Duck comic that’s comic happening. In mostly all those cases, these shows and announcements lack cultural permeation, but it would be a grave mistake to assume that means they lack an audience or a fanbase. Zootopia and its success is not an outlier, or an excuse to toss aside the significance of a global billion dollar draw. It’s an opportunity to examine the very content and context of Zootopia itself, and realize that the world is craving a very specific type of cartoon, one that died out so many years ago.

 

* to clarify, many of the early cartoons within the Disney Afternoon lineup were originally Saturday morning network-syndicated cartoons, before they were re-packaged as an after-school lineup in the 90s.

** the stylistic nature of the Disney Afternoon show could be a bit more malleable – Darkwing Duck and Bonkers were “wackier” than Ducktales, which itself was looser than TaleSpin – but even in all those cases, fully-realized characters and fully-realized worlds were still firmly established.

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THE BEST FIVE KIDS CARTOON EPISODES OF 2015

5. All Hail King Julian – “Crimson and Clover”

All Hail King Julian attempting to mine observational commentary on the relationship between science and religion was a colossal failure, but that didn’t make the entire show from falling apart. In fact, it had a better (if not perfect) handle on more grounded topics, like the ridiculousness of fashion trends, or the absurdity of capitalism at its most callous. It’s difficult to cull that commentary out of something so wildly wacky, though; but character work is another matter.

What makes “Crimson and Clover” such a surprise is how it managed to explore and deepen the silly, but solid, relationship between two wacked-out characters: the nonsensical King Julian and his loose-cannon bodyguard, Clover. Crimson, Clover’s sister, arrives and hits it off with Julian (leading to a not-at-all subtle, off-camera sexcapade), whom Clover suspects is using for nefarious purposes. In a clever use of a narrative twist, Crimson and Julian’s relationship IS genuine (Julian’s unbounded energy matches Crimson’s constant need for entertainment), up until the the latter’s fear for commitment comes through. Sure, it ends with a cliche “men hate commitment!” climax, but the episode manages to delve into some real truths about its characters, from the broken bond between Crimson and Clover themselves, and the clear, friends-only (as in, non-loving) connection between Clover and Julian themselves. It’s the only episode with that level of emotion in the entire run so far, but it’s note-worthy.

4. The Mr. Peabody and Sherman Show – “Peabody’s Parents/Galileo”

Bet you didn’t expect this! Well, honestly, neither did I. The Mr. Peabody and Sherman Show, Netflix’s “updated” take on the original segment from Jay Ward’s Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, hardly had much of a marketing push, and to be clear it’s not really that great show. But it is fascinating, primarily how it establishes itself: as a late-night talk show with an assortment of insane characters, variety show bits, and mid-show shenanigans. It’s inspired, for sure, if not always effective, but it works better than it has any right to, especially if you factor in how it both matches and improves on the original show’s animation style.

“Peabody’s Parents/Galileo” takes all that into consideration with rich episode of visual niftiness and narrative intuitiveness. The normally confident Mr. Peabody becomes flustered when his parents – two regular, non-talking dogs – come to visit, their generic barks interpreted as a series of forceful, embarrassing comments. The seemingly “flat” visuals, culled from Ward’s original designs, get some delightfully clever upgrades, like a 360-camera shot around Mr. Peabody as the audience laughs at him, and some John K.-esque expressions as the normally-composed canine professor goes crazy. It’s funny and inventive, with a bit of character-study to boot. The entire show doesn’t match that level of sharpness, but it’s definitely an episode that showcases it at its full potential.

3. Gravity Falls – “Not What He Seems”

It’ll be sad to see this show go, but Gravity Falls has been such a funny, inviting show that, in its own way, going out on its second season feels like the right choice. Part of me is disappointing – for as great as this show is, it never really managed to reach its full potential (a lot of side characters never got past “cliched comic figure” and about forty percent of the episodes, while fun to watch, are mostly irrelevant). Still, nothing will take away from Alex Hirsch’s signature, influential show.

“Not What He Seems” is probably the show at its best, in which a shifty Grunkle Stan finally comes “clean” after a season and a half of secrecy. The full explanation of his actions occur in “A Tale of Two Stans,” but “Not What He Seems” has the smart-mouth senior citizen kicking ass and taking names (particularly in a fantastic animation fight sequence in a gravity-shifting interrogation room) as he desperately tries to convince his wards – Mabel in particular – that his behavior is all for a truly important reason. Stan’s sketchy antics all season are put to the test against genuine, familial trust, and viewers are the winners.

2. Steven Universe – “The Test”

I know this is going to turn some heads but hear me out. Steven Universe has been a revelation, not just in its massive, universe-expanding world-building, but in its exploration of gender/sexual identity and relationships. Choosing a “best” episode of Steven Universe is like choosing a “best” slice of pizza from a whole – it depends on the a host of personal reasons and really, it ultimately doesn’t matter. Still, I tend to be less interested in the overall storyline and more interested in the small, individual explorations of coping with new, unidentified feelings (Peridot’s story has been a highlight.)

So, yes, “Jail Break,” “Sworn to the Sword,” and “Cry For Help” are excellent, but “The Test” felt truly transitional, the moment the show acknowledged a lot of rich, bubbling tensions to the surface. Steven is sent on a mission by his Gem guardians only to realize it was a can’t-fail farce. Upset, he manages to sneak a view of the Gems discussing their actions, which dovetails into a honest, complex admission of their utter cluelessness on how to handle someone like Steven. These Gems are complete novices to raising a half-Gem, half-human kid, let alone the full concept of love itself, with Amethyst admitting in full honesty how terrible they are. Parenting is hard, a complicated act made all the more confusing with aliens involved – which Steven realizes when he plays into their farce in order to lift their spirits. It’s just a perfect moment, which, in its own way, leads to more trust, more missions, and more epicness.

1. The Amazing World of Gumball – “The Egg”

I’ve been singing my praises of The Amazing World of Gumball for ages now, as its pure, audacious animation, it’s pin-point humor, and its surprising forays into genuine emotional/social commentary are quite frankly some of the best narrative/visual choices on TV today. It takes its cues from The Simpsons and South Park, but channels them through its own unique, insane visions, unafraid to be cartoon-y and wacky, while thoroughly exploratory on its central family, lower-class living, the absurdity of suburbia, the inane school politics, the artifice of TV cliches, and so-on. It can do anything, which tends to clutter other shows, but Gumball has been, for the most part, on point.

“The Egg” is essentially everything I mentioned above distilled into one 11-minute episode of hilarity and pathos. Gumball can be as sad, depressive, and as dark as any other “Golden Age of TV” show can be, but not only does it keep one sure foot in the realm of positivity, it actively pushes back against those depressive forces. Nicole’s desperate acts to showcase her family as perfect to the eyes of a snooty mother named Felicity is immediately crushed by said mother’s pure, direct, vitriolic read of Nicole’s darkly sad life. The thing is, Felicity isn’t wrong, but instead of wallowing in the sad truth of questionable life choices, Nicole turns into a dragon and eats her. It’s pure cartoon aesthetics but representative of the family’s (and the show’s) refusal to reflect in regret, especially on the backs of one’s family. In other words, “Fuck that sad sack noise.” Add to it some genuinely great jokes and a sweet, if kind-of screwed up, connection between Anais and William, and you have a great episode that manages to say so much in so little a timeframe.

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THE WORST FIVE KIDS CARTOON EPISODES OF 2015

5. All Hail King Julian – “He Blinded Me with Science”

All Hail King Julian is a cluttered, messy show, but its commitment to its ridiculous cast and concept keeps it chugging along, even if not many of the jokes work. It struggles with any character beyond its main four (Julian, Mort, Maurice, and newcomer Clover), however, and it can be tough to support the show when an episode is working with a bad idea that it can’t completely wrap its narrative around. It’s also a show that seems to struggle with filling a full 23-minutes, with awkward pacing and clear narrative stumbling blocks.

Take for instance, “He Blinded Me with Science,” an episode that tries so hard to engage with the interplay between science and religious. Far be it from this show to attempt such a risky topic, but All Hail King Julian handles it so sloppily, especially considering how silly the show handles topics in the first place. Masikura, the religious-figure stand-in, is just not-compelling, and it’s clear from the onset the writers hardly take her proclamations with any type of seriousness – the kind of seriousness that would be needed to make this thing work. Timo isn’t a great character either but the show is a lot more sympathetic to him, and its ultimate thesis – that religion and science can indeed work together – barely holds up at the end, when it’s Timo’s scientific know-how that really saves the day, way more than Masikura’s prophetic visions. It’s the type of issue that needed some sense of nuance, and there’s no way King Julian would be equipped to handle it.

4. Dreamworks’ Dragons: Race to the Edge – “Reign of Fireworms”

Nothing is more disappointing, overall, that the TV show spinoff of the How to Train Your Dragon franchise. Cartoon Network was always sketchy, but even they had to know that Riders of Berk and Defenders of Berk were not good shows, what with barely advertising or airing them. Netflix picked up the slack with Race to the Edge, but it’s bizarre they also didn’t get the other two seasons for viewers to catch up. (Maybe they know it’s not a good show as well, as I expound upon all the problems here.)

Really, most if not all the episodes are fairly terrible and/or boring, but “Reign of Fireworms” is arguably the worst. The twins, Tuffnut and Ruffnut, are comic relief idiots as best, and at no point during all three seasons are they provided with much depth or nuance. (Which is fine if they were funny, but they’re not.) But to give them fake “real” power when they find themselves the rightful ruler of the island the riders find as their home base? It’s an exercise in patience, watching these two morons become assholes as they boss the others around and ruin everything until – surprise, surprise, they realize that they need help and shouldn’t be dicks. There’s nothing too this lesson or the episode: the twins don’t really grow from the experience, we don’t learn anything more about them, and the episode isn’t narratively or visually interesting. It’s just not good, which is representative of every issue this series has.

3. My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic – “Party Pooped”

My Little Pony has always, always struggled with how it handles groups outside its Mane6, and this season didn’t really do much to show it has gotten any better at it. There were some highlights in MLP’s fifth season (I think “The Cutie Map” two-parter is stronger than most people feel it is, especially when connected to “The Cutie Re-Mark” two-parter finale, and “Crusaders of the Lost Mark” is genuinely great), but some episode were just weirdly… random. Since when was Rarity such a bookish nerd?

“Party Pooped” is pretty much garbage, though. In an attempt to connect diplomatically to a new society of Yaks, the show pretty much portrays them as destructive, spoiled monsters. It’s gross to watch the ponies not only tolerate this behavior, but actively try to find a way to appease the Yaks’ nonsensical requests. Pinkie-Pie, who strangely received a heaping helping of development this season, bore the brunt of this task, and the episode opted to focus on her commitment to making people satisfied at the expense of their own health and well-being. The true lesson of the episode should have been to tell those Yaks to piss right off, but it’s yet another example of MLP’s weird self-satisfaction of being morally and knowledgeably right (and therefore superior) over everyone else.

2. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – “Turtles in Time”

Has any television show had a bigger drop in quality than Nickelodeon’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? It’s first season wasn’t great but it showed promise, but it squandered that promise with some of the laziest and dumbest episodes in a while. “Pizza Face” was a previous low point, and managed to make last year’s worst of list, but at no point did the show get better. The “April’s Farmhouse” episodes are some of the worse examples of television in a while. “The Croaking” is an awful parody of Napoleon Dynamite for some reason, and “Race of the Demon” is crappy knock-off of Christine. Arguably that latter episode would have definitely made the worst-off list this year if it wasn’t for the fact it aired in 2014 (“Pizza Face” was worse though). With its ambivalent use of “My ninja” jokes, it’s practically unwatchable. (Seriously, how did those “my ninja” jokes not get called out?)

2015 episodes were not better, and while “Meet Mondo Gecko” made a hell of a case with a terribly annoying portrayal of a teenage skateboarder weirdly cool with his horrifying transformation to a 90s-era, video game gecko mascot, “Turtles in Time” wins by ruining an intriguing premise (and, by proxy, the name of one TMNT’s best games). The 2003 version of TMNT handled Renet’s time-twisting screw-ups with an epic scope and an endearing wink; while Renet herself was annoying, it worked because she redeemed herself, especially against a truly terrifying, motivated Savanti Romero. “Turtles in Time’s” take on the story callously tosses Renet into the Turtles’ time on a whim, makes her annoying without a sense of redemption, completely makes Romero a stilted, unmotivated, weirdly-bored bad guy, and overall just tells a crappy story. (There’s a part where the Turtles ride horses into a skeleton army battle and the horses run off, scared. Then… the horse just come back.) It doesn’t lead to anything in the long term and it doesn’t really make for a good episode in and of itself. It has a potential romance between Mikey and Renet, which is shit because literally every female character is reduced to this dynamic (Donny and April, Leo and Karai, and apparently, Ralph and Mona). Instead of opening up knew avenues of storytelling, it does nothing with it, which probably why this fourth season is delving into an epic space venture. At least that’s something.

1. The Adventures of Puss and Boots – “Duchess”

I wrote here about how inessential The Adventures of Puss and Boots is. It’s kind of a strange show that didn’t even bother to cull much from its source (itself a spin-off of the mediocre Shrek franchise),  opting to focus its premise on a mysterious town that’s pretty much filled with jerks and idiots. Still, it could work if those jerks and idiots were compelling or interesting. They are not. Its biggest issue, though, is that it clearly struggled with filling a full 23 minute time frame, spending way too much time with clunky joke-telling, bad characterization, poor art direction, and, quite frankly, just bad writing.

“Duchess” exemplifies everything wrong with this show. First of all, The Duchess is voiced by Maria Bamford, a huge waste of a comedic actress and voice talent. Secondly, the episode spends an exorbitant amount of time explaining her plan in perhaps the worst, most exposition-filled scene in television history. Seriously. It’s long, it’s repetitive, and it’s bad. It’s almost shocking that they let it go. It’s not like the episode gets better from there, as the episode then pairs her up with Artephius, who is just too stupid a character to work. The two have a conflict but it’s pretty irrelevant and, once again, lasts way too long. Not a single character is compelling in anyway, and it’s not until the second half of the season do things get interesting, if not necessarily better. The season finale literally blew things up for the future, but “Duchess” was a hot mess from the past.

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