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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 End” and “The Dress”


The Amazing World of Gumball S01E03 The End… by nexusdog1997

“The End” – B

It’s still very early in the show’s run, but The Amazing World of Gumball is starting to show early signs of the kind of confidence and cleverness that it will use to eventually become one of the sharpest and smartest shows on TV. After its introductory episodes, it’s starting to embrace its role as “cartoons about cartoons,” in a way, still focusing on its characters within an animated space and forced into animated plotting. In “The End,” we deal with a classic trope – the belief that the character(s) will be dead within twenty-four hours, so they end up doing all the things that they’ve always wanted to do. Unlike other cartoons, which goes through hoops to “justify” the misunderstanding, or go overboard with those bucket list goals, The Amazing World of Gumball just leans into the sheer stupidity of it all.

I mean, Gumball and Darwin ultimately fall for the mistake by flicking some channels, mistaking a sale sign that says “The End is Near,” and learning about what ancient Mayans thought about solar eclipses. Thus begins their venture into “end of world” fire sale actions, but there’s a number of unique twists to their endeavor – complete with 24-hour countdown clock (and this won’t be the first time they have to deal with that). Darwin wants to actually do good deeds, which is the show’s way ribbing plotlines like this and the selfishness of these characters, particularly with Gumball constant putdowns of Darwin’s selfless desires. Instead, the blue cat finds himself on the verge of going all out, but always being cut short: badmouthing and splashing his teacher with water, for example, forces him to waste three hours of detention. He tries to marry Penny, but she quickly puts short work to that dream. He gets a perm. That’s… it. And there’s something hilarious low-key in how the episode portrays all this – refusing to escalate the intensity of everything Gumball wants to do, it’s creates the opposite affect of what you’d expect. You’d think Gumball and Darwin would be rushing to complete their lives, but everything gets caught in the way.

This even happens when they bring in Richard. Of course he’d believe the boys’ ridiculous claims, but still, the show pulls back from rushing things on purpose. They “need to go faster” in the car but the handbrake is on, and then they crash it, and have to hustle to the store on foot. They’re not even allowed to run in the grocery story! Speedwalking like loons, “The End” just has fun with the idiocy, including a prolonged bit involving a self-checkout machine, and it’s just solid jokes all the way through, even with a porta-potty in the end. There’s a sweet layer to Gumball and Darwin’s final moment on the roof, undercut by the moon literally mooning the sun, in which the two learn the lesson of living life to the fullest. Later in the show, it’ll take that lesson into deeper, more significant places, but here, and in the next episode, Gumball is starting to toy a bit more with its sincerity, its irony, its timing, and its satire.

“The Dress” – B+

Particularly in “The Dress,” The Amazing World of Gumball is really aiming to work on it’s satirical prowess, using a “fame going to one’s head” and pushing it to some wild and hilarious degrees. It never gets personal, nor does it hone in on a specific target like its later episodes, but it does utilize the ol’ “mob crowd” to ridicule how easily people get caught up in… well, anything. “The Dress” leans on a relatively dumb concept – somehow Gumball in a dress is beautiful enough to fool everyone he’s a cute girl from Europe – but the show has so much confidence and commitment to this premise that ends up being kind of weird and wonderful and hilarious. It’s one thing for Gumball to exploit his new-found popularity by forcing his friends to do stuff for them. It’s a whole ‘nother thing to have Darwin fall madly in love with him. His own brother. He’s adopted, sure. But it’s still freaking weird and a bit disturbing.

That “The Dress” invests so heavily in this storyline is part of Gumball’s slow, overall build into something juicier than “funny takes on cartoon tropes.” This feels almost South Park-ian or American Dad-ian in scope. Gumball can’t wear his regular clothes since they’ve been shrunk in the wash by Richard, so he begs Gumball to wear his wife’s wedding dress. Here, there are two growing implications that will build over time: 1) the family’s difficulty with money is implied here (or else, why wouldn’t they just buy new clothing?), and 2) the weird, heighten, psychotic desire for the parents to prove to themselves, and to others, that they are “good” parents in a “wholesome” family and are absolutely normal. Both these points will be so, so important to the overal narrative of Gumball, especially as the show delves into the raw, intense feelings and truths that both those points will expose. Right now, they’re just quiet undercurrents to the show. In the future, they will become immensely significant, so it’s good to see the early bits of that showing up here.

Back to the episode at hand, “The Dress” mostly contorts its weird dumbness into a hilarious story that’s told in a straight-forward, low-key way, just like “The End.” Nothing too over-the-top occurs, in terms of pacing, but Darwin’s growing obsession with fake-Gumball does enter into full-on creep territory. It’s also the funniest part of the episode, although Gumball’s growing awareness of his power as a cute girl – as well as the realization that its gone too far – is also a highlight. I think it’s arguable that Gumball is attempting to make a gendered point about how the world will bend over backwards for attractive women – how his classmates treat him, how his teachers treat him, how Darwin treats him – and I love that at first, Gumball can’t even grasp that concept until Anais points it out to him. That’s when Gumball decides to exploit it, up until Darwin makes a move on the roller coaster, which is so messed up in so many ways, incestuous implications aside. Gumball ends up going through so many things that women have to deal with when it comes to creeps (particularly young women, who find themselves so concerned with “their feelings” instead of their own), and yet in true Gumball fashion, he comes up with an insane plan that gets out of hand.

After a pretty wild fantasy (Gumball trapped in domestic hell with cat/fish surrounding him, with Darwin-as-breadmaker bursting in, demanding more kids), Gumball fakes leaving forever by bus, but his balloon counterpart escapes, flies into the sun, and pops, right in front of everyone. Explaining it doesn’t do the scene justice, but it is such a comical visual that it sort of overcomes the lack of bite the episode has towards it overall thematic point towards the end. That’s okay, though. It’s still testing the waters there, and Darwin immediately falling for a fire hydrant wearing the same dress shows how overwrought the whole venture is in his mind. Gumball is eventually caught with his pants down (or gone, in this case), so he gets his karmic payback in the end as well. “The Dress” is both a play on a classic cartoon trope AND a light dip into blunter satire. It does the former better than the latter, but it’s overall still quite funny, and it’ll get even more confident over time.

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Dexter’s Laboratory took a simple phrase, and trope, to its logically dark conclusion


Dexter’s Laboratory (S1E9) – Doll House Drama… by ClassicCartoonChannel

Dexter’s Laboratory staked its claim in the animation landscape with one simple phrase. It wasn’t a meaningful phrase, and by itself, it wasn’t particularly funny. It’s a phrase that’s pretty innocuous, a nothing of a phrase that nevertheless feels like the culmination of everything the show was trying (and managed) to be. That phrase, you may have guessed, is cheese omelet, or as you would say in French: “omelette du fromage.”

Dexter’s Laboratory is perhaps one of the most important cartoons of the mid 90s, a bold, stark, animated show defined by the direct, specific use of simple shapes, harsh editing, and dramatic visual irony. It’s a show comfortable with a certain “throwaway approach” to character design consistency: characters could change size, even shape, as long as the gags would hit, and hit hard. Dexter’s lab itself always changed, never once looking the same from episode to episode – even how you entered the lab changed through the series (shades of the various, comical ways Perry the Platypus would enter his own underground hideout in Phineas and Ferb). Most animated shows in the post-Dexter’s Laboratory world will mimic or copy the look but not the style, and certainly not the subject, creating a lot of basic, sharp-angled, sloppy shows that more or less were done as a cost-cutting maneuver. Dexter’s Laboratory was (one of the) first, and Genndy Tartakovsky honed his skills here, sharping his timing, pacing, and framing to create iconic sensibilities in the more critically-known Samurai Jack.

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We cannot dismiss what Dexter’s Laboratory was doing when hit CN all those years ago. It’s difficult to think about it now, with so many cartoons on the air these days, but even back then the show was playing smart and coy with what kids animation was doing, and could do. It played into a lot of animation tropes, both Western and Eastern, only to undercut them with a narrative twist, a comically sudden beat, or with something so average, so anti-climatic, that you found yourself wondering if you somehow missed the actual ending. Even back then, cartoons were doing some interesting and crazy things, mostly in terms of narrative commitment, but Dexter’s Laboratory looked backwards towards classic cartoon formatting and style for inspiration. Episodes will be split between several shorts, most about Dexter and his family, but other character and show types, including “The Justice Friends” and “Dial M for Monkey.” The rhythms of the entire show will move somewhat like Rocky & Bullwinkle, an assortment of short animated bits, a format mimicked and copied all throughout the Hanna-Barbera era.

Watching the entire episode – which includes “Doll House Drama,” “Krunk’s Date,” and a brief sequence parodying comic book ads disguised as actual comics – I’m struck by the degree in which Dexter’s Laboratory really engages in that classic format. Not just in the ideas of each episode, but even in the stunted movements and somewhat off-kilter edits. The rhythms would definitely be familiar to those who grew up watching something like The Banana Splits or Yogi’s Gang. “Krunk’s Date,” in particular, utilizes a lazy, “limited laugh track” to ostensibly shore up the comedy, but is obviously used ironically here. Dexter’s Laboratory is more committed to its comic beats here than those shows would ever be, and those first two episodes ends on somewhat odd, downbeat gags that feel different than the “sad trombone” gags of its predecessors.

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Then we get to “The Big Cheese,” an episode that hilariously steers into its one-note gag to an insane degree – only to snatch it away, hard and without warning. Rewatching this episode, I’m also struck with how patient Tartakovsky builds the gag. Dexter puts off his French homework to work on other, “more important” scientific pursuits, although some are really generic chores with complicated names. There’s no “panic” when Dexter realizes he still has to study – he just decides on a fairly normal trope – overnight osmosis. Playing a record that pipes French-lessons into his ears while he sleeps, the record skips over and over when it hits one central phrase: omelette du fromage. By the 90s, we were well in the CD/cassette era, so Dexter using a record for this feels silly, but it is central to the joke, and Dexter has been shown to disregard a lot of basic ideas for the pursuit of higher intelligence. Obviously his arrogance will prove to be his downfall, but “The Big Cheese’s” idea of a downfall is brutal.

Tartakovsky is fully aware of the trope in play, in how most shows would have its main character work around his situation to avoid being caught in one-phras-only mode. So Tarakovsky immediately has Dexter get caught. It’s by his sister, Dee-Dee, and she begins a comic repetition of her own: “That’s all you can say!” she sing-shouts, over and over, and at this point, it’s amusing. There is also a forewarning nature to it, specifically when she pops up during the montage, a sign of bad things to come. But before that point, that montage is a doozy. Montages are a dime a dozen in cartoons, but here, Tartakovsky escalates the absurdity of the situation with some impressive decision. He even starts the absurdity with a test with one single question, then ramps things up in more and more ridiculous ways. Some are a bit obvious, like omelette du fromage being a French town somehow, and the girls in the class being smitten by his use of French. The potential bullies suddenly being scared off by Dexter’s use of the phrase, however, is such a random development, precisely because unlike the previous gags, this one completely lacks any reason to have occurred.

The combination of “maybe this could happen?” and “no way this could happen” results fill up the rest of the montage. Dexter brings world peace. He becomes TIMES Man of the Year. Parades are thrown in his honor. He has a number one hit song that’s composed of, one assumes, just that phrase. It’s so dumb, but there’s a perverse comic value in seeing all the ways Tartakovsky takes this singular bit, pushing and pushing and pushing it to hilarious lengths. And it’s all pretty fantastic… up until the final moments. (I do want to point out that before Dexter enters his home, he kisses a baby, then drops it, as cameras flash. I feel like that’s a key visual sign for the next scene, but I think I’m really over-reading what amounts to a simple, hilarious joke-within-a-joke).

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It’s in those final moments though that things turn against Dexter – the karmic, schadenfreude moment that takes thing perhaps too far. Outside his lab, the young scientist learns that his solitary word usage isn’t the password to enter his lab. His computer not only locks the lab up tighter, it begins a self-destruct sequence. Dexter, panicking and in literal tears, shouts in desperation, but only “omelette du fromage” can escape his lips. And then his sister pops up. She begins reciting in comically dark fashion the very phrase she’s been repeating all day, “That’s all you can say.” Unhelpful and useless.  And if you were expecting a saving grace, a final reprieve that saves Dexter’s lab and allows the child to learn a lesson in the relative clear… it does not come. The computer says “one.” The lab completely explodes. Dexter and Dee-Dee are visible through a massive hole in their house. Fade to black. THE END pop on screen, “That’s all you can say” echoing silently in the background.

It’s pretty ridiculous in a sense. It’s a cartoon, and developing sympathy for Dexter and his lab, particularly after an episode where he skates by on a French phrase through success after success, comes across as a little weird. Dexter doesn’t really hurt anyone (except that baby, which maybe is worth discussing), and other than his hubris, there’s the question of whether the karmic destruction of his life’s work is proportional punishment to his behavior. It really isn’t his fault that he got famous off the phrase. There’s a lot to be said about the public’s infatuation over such a dumb, singular concept – and I should remind you that this episode took places years before social media and “going viral” was a thing. [I really want to do a piece about how cartoons portray crowds and public reactions; there’s a difference between mob mentality and blindly following a large group for gag purposes.] This is reminiscent of The Simpsons’ “Bart Gets Famous,” in which Bart experiences the highs and lows of success brought about by his own oft-repeated motto “I didn’t do it,” but that show had the time to draw into the reluctance and complexity of Bart’s feelings towards his entire “fifteen minutes.” With “The Big Cheese,” Tartakovsky had three minutes to get to his point, and he focused on the perfect visual display of the rise and fall of success – the fall embodied in a dark, destructive moment that shocked a young generation.

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Perhaps “proportional punishment” isn’t really a thing. Sometimes you find yourself so caught up in something that you fail to realize how far you are from the things you once held dear – and they’re gone in an instant. Tartakovsky made his point clear, and it left many people with only “omelette du fromage” and “that’s all you can say” dancing in their heads, in the midst of a dark, music-less void. The very premise of the show, Dexter’s Laboratory, was gone in an instant, leaving kids to wonder if, and why, such a bleakness was warranted. As an adult, we wonder about it still.

NEXT: Rescue Rangers’ uses a badass Gadget Hackwrench to contemplate the value of religion in “The Case of the Cola Cult.”

 

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