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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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Niko and the Sword of Light Proves Adventure Tales Still Have Merit

Niko_Sword_of_Light

Niko and his party (which include Princess Lyra, Mandok, and Flicker) run into a stranger in the middle of the first season of Niko and the Sword of Light. The stranger is a talented, effective fighter, a rogue-type mercenary, and he proves to be a better warrior than Mandok. So of course, Niko and Lyra heap praise on this stranger while Mandok stews in jealousy. This stranger makes an important and needed contribution to the team. Every time you think he’ll betray everyone, it turns out to be a red herring. Lulls viewers into a certain set of expectations. But we’re adults, and we’ve seen these kinds of long-term adventure tales before: Lord of the Rings, The Last Airbender, hell, even The Matrix. We know that this stranger will indeed turn out to be a traitor, right as the team is at its most vulnerable. We see it coming, but even still, it’s a striking moment.

It’s a simple moment, too: it’s devoid of any massive complication or overwrought details. There’s depth to the characters, and the world they inhabit, but that depth is important insomuch as it simply provides obstacles and/or methods to overcome them. In other words, don’t expect to delve deep into lore or culture in your fan theories or thinkpieces. But what this does prove is that the basic storytelling tropes of these large, globe-trotting adventure tales can still be effective and powerful and entertaining, especially to younger kids who are new to these kinds of tales. We often forget that there’s an entire demo that hasn’t seen, watched or read these kinds of stories, so they don’t know how to look for the tell-tale signs of betrayal, or homages to Westerns or horror tropes, or the various ways high-end fantasy portrays itself. The twists are obvious but still work, and it helps that the animation is gorgeous, with big, expansive backgrounds and some of the tightest, sharpest action sequences since The Legend of Korra. All to get you into a story that we have witnessed time and time again.

The core of such a story is still engaging though, and Niko and the Sword of Light commits to it in ways that keep it fun and light AND dark and mysterious at the same time. It keeps things moving, a consistent story that manages to keep up along thirteen entire episodes, finding small twists and story beats to maintain that momentum. To be clear, those twists and beats aren’t anything new – besides the aforementioned obvious traitor, there’s the “flawed former hero,” a rally-the-troops moment, temptations galore, and many, many low points before they become inspirationally high. Discerning viewers already on the fence about watching a low-key adventure tale may also be bothered by the show’s humor, which isn’t childish per se, but it is rather basic and simplistic, and at its worst, forced into moments where the dramatic tension is thusly ruined. But there’s a reason these adventure tales are told so often: the wonder, magic, mystery, and action still can delight an audience.

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The highest point of the show is its action scenes. Dynamic, vibrant, and engaging, Titmouse has always excelled at crisp, clear, and exciting action, and they bring it to the table here. Watching Niko and Lyra do battle with huge, grotesque monsters is a treat, and it’s both amusing and impressive to watch a ten-year old boy move like a skilled gymnast warrior to dodge massive tentacles or flailing tails. And as great as the monster battles are, the show’s most rewarding fight takes place in episode nine, “From the Cliffs of Catastrophe to the Pools of Destiny” (every location is named in such a fashion, and the show more or less lampshades this convention in many scenes in which characters spout out a series of locales with similar names). Not to spoil too much, but the action here is absolutely wild, arguably the best balls-out battle since the final episode of The Last Airbender. I should also mention that, in a way that’s kind of hard to describe, the action scenes feel very much like you’re actually playing a game – like you’re pressing the buttons to actually perform the specific combos, special “light” moves, and various slick-ass dodges you see on screen. Part of that is because, yes, Niko and the Sword of Light is based on a mobile game of the same name. But it’s also because of how specific Niko’s moveset is, how he moves in action, and how he engages in actual battle. Each swing, each attack, each shouted-out-loud special move feels like an input and has an… aesthetic tactile result and response while watching. I know that saying a show feels like a video game is often negative, but here, it’s absolutely a positive.

And even if Niko and the Sword of Light is mostly a barebones adventure tales with slightly-overwrought gags and tightly storyboard action, there is just enough backend details for those who prefer to read deeper into the world. The various characters that our heroes meet lean a bit on the silly end of their characterizations, but they still feel like a culture with a long history, like the “meercoons,” who have chronicled the failures of past champions over centuries. The central story itself, in which humanity froze itself in safety while guiding said champions over such a long history to fight the darkness, grows more unique and darker over the season, with episode four’s “From the Phantom Woods to the Mountains of Misery” an excellent portrayal of exposition. (It’s even explained why Niko himself is only ten, since the crystal from which he was born was shattered too early, but he still speaks/acts like an older hero, which explains the awkward-sounding dialogue – although I can’t say that Andre Robinson’s VO work isn’t flawless.) The monsters feel like the product of arbitrary “scary” design principles until the main villain, Nar Est, admits that his monstrous creations are just his artistic flourishes. My favorite detail occurs at the Pools of Destiny (episode nine is arguably the show’s best): vague spoilers, but the Pools aren’t what they seem, a product of hyped historical precedent.

And there’s Niko and Lyra themselves. The entire crew grows closer over the course of the adventure but there’s a clear thematic understanding that occurs between the champion and the princess, an understanding that underlies the entire season. Niko’s desire to help all the various groups of people they encounter runs counter to Lyra’s overall goal of reaching and defeating Nar Est. Centuries of failure stem from overall acts of kindness for even the smaller groups of people they meet. When Niko starts to help them, he is the first of a long line of champions to offer assistance for the common person, and it leads to some small but pronounced surprises towards the end. It’s an ending that perhaps culls too much from The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra – two obvious influences, along with Samurai Jack (Nar Est is basically Akku) – but it is satisfying nonetheless, the end result of an adventure story that excels in ways both small and large. I wish the show was deeper and, perhaps, darker, but I also worry that such a direction would force it into a “gritty, serious” state, and that is not a direction that would work for such a show. Still, a bit more depth to some of the specific characters are necessary – like the three “opposterums” whose desperation to stay as a combined, cursed monster really needed exploring – and a better control over the tonal dissonance between its dramatic and comedic moments. The core storytelling is still strong however, and adventure tales like Niko and the Sword of Light still can inspire imagination and wonder in children and adults like the various tales before it.

 

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