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CHILDHOOD REVISITED – Men in Black: The Series

Men in Black: The Series combined X-Files with Doctor Who, by way of a… 1970s crime procedural? The stranger thing is that it mostly succeeds. Until…

Cast of Men in Black: The Series.

The Men in Black live action film was released in 1997, pulling in almost $600 million at the box office. The film, like the animated series, was based on a comic written by Lowell Cunningham and illustrated bu Sandy Carruthers, published by Aircel Comics back in 1990. On the off-chance that no one knows the details by now, Men in Black focuses on a team of suited agents dedicated to controlling and regulating the flow of aliens and alien technology that makes its way to earth. The comics, in particular, were more broad, dealing with all sorts of paranormal activity. Think of the original Men in Black as Doctor Who’s Unit team as run by Constantine-clones, which also implies the original comic was not afraid to go to dark, creepier places.

Of course the movie would be family friendly, and there’s nothing really wrong with that. The animated series, which by all accounts was based on the movie, ultimately had a choice – to cull the tone of the movie, or maybe reach for something larger. Creators Duane Capizzi, Jeff Kline, and Richard Raynis were able to develop a slightly more richer, heavier adaptation. While the show has a typical lightness to it to appeal to kids, there is a surprising weight and pathos to this series early on, a dramatic tinge to the adventures of Agents J and K (and L), particularly in the first season, which I will get to. Men in Black: The Series only has a passing resemblance to the film, instead opting to weave its own intrigue tales of rogue aliens, culling from well-known series such as X-Files, Doctor Who, and 70s cop dramas like The Rockford Files, Dragnet, and Cannon. Even though it gets silly, the show maintains an underlying commitment to its plots, keeping the tension and mystery moving to the very end – at least at first.

But first, I want to talk about that intro.

What surprises me here is how both stylistic and aloof it is. It kind of cuts into the nature of the show yet doesn’t showcase the content of the show, more the feel of it. The harsh, visual cuts coupled with the surreal-but-insanely-catchy hip-hop theme is purposely unworldly, but not off-putting. It’s very 90s, but it’s a “good” 90s. There’s only vague reference to what the show is about, alluding audience to the show’s mysterious aesthetics over the specifics of the show’s premise. It’s a ballsy theme, with the “narrative” not even concluding, as the giant, grotesque alien surges above them, with K only giving a quirky look at J and his “cricket” gun. What happens? That’s irrelevant; it’s about the calm and cool (and comedy) within the extraterrestrial chaos.

Speaking of aesthetics, the show’s entire look, particularly in the first season, is hyper-stylized, reminiscent of the MTV cult cartoon Aeon Flux. Lots of sharp, angular points on characters make everyone look alien by default, which gives the show an extra layer of creepiness, but allows the alien menaces, in particularly, look truly terrifying. The style doesn’t allow for aggressive movements, which is to the show’s benefit and determinant. It’s forced to emphasize mysteries and mood with its plotting, keeping the tension and suspense moving up until the very end reveal, which is a great development, but it leaves any character-action sequences flat and stilted. There’s a lot of stationary stand-offs and quick-thinking reactions to end action sequences quicker than they begin, but this allows MIB: The Series to emphasize their clandestine organization as a secret working behind the scenes and not an army prepped for urban warfare.

MIB: The Series attempts to balance their secrecy by culling the mysterious, “trust no one” sensibility of the X-Files through the universal, dangerous/goofy conception of Doctor Who. It’s an obvious combination that works well enough by default (and the series does it better than Torchwood ever could), but it needs a template through which to filter the characters; Mulder and Scully are too dour and “romantically” linked; the Doctor is a god. The show opts to channel 60s-70s police procedural, where Agent K is the monotone, “just-the-facts” lead, with Agent J as the audience surrogate, through which the MIB organization is explored. It may surprise you to note that MIB, in fact, views itself as a policing unit, not like the FBI or the CIA or the DOD. They use typical cop terminology and enforce the “law” with stuff like stakeouts, investigations, following clues, etc.

All of this is distinctly prominent in the first season, which builds the MIB organization and its “world” beautifully and darkly. It’s obvious there is a distinct plan in place, that the writers are building towards something. The line “not everything is as it seems” gets tossed around too frequently for that to be a coincidence, used mostly as a theme about mystery and secrecy but also gearing up as some foreshadowing to some big internal revelations. Even in the pilot, “The Long Goodbye Syndrome,” there are hints at something beneath the surface. The hilariously stoic reactions MIB give to the hit place on J by an alien race is telling – Agent L (more on her in a second) tells him that it’s due to everyone knowing 100% that K will save him, but there’s an implication that the agents are easily expendable and that death happens so often that they joke about it. We’re even given a moment where J, not in on the “joke,” contemplates his life and his decision to join MIB. “Regrets?” Agent K asks him. Agent J doesn’t answer. It’s a small moment, but one that resonates throughout the show’s season of withholding data, of disinformation and privacy. (Apropos of nothing, the day is saved pretty much the exact way the Doctor saves the day in “The Wedding of River Song.”)

The first season indeed bounces back and forth between revelations and mystery, between doling out bits and pieces of characters and MIB lore while touching upon the kind of sacrifice this line of work leads to. The show’s biggest and strongest story arc begins with “The Alpha Syndrome,” where we learn of the first agent and founder of the MIB, Alpha, and how he became corrupt with the powers and promises of alien technology – so much so that he literally changes his body, stealing body parts and grafting them onto himself to “evolve”. It’s real, grotesque stuff, and Alpha’s VO artist, David Warner, oozes the perfect amount of slim as he reads his lines. There’s history between him and Agent K, and even though K tries to make it personal, J showcases his value as an asset as he saves the day. The movie emphasized that J outside of the MIB was particularly talented enough to join the MIB ranks; here, we’re shown why.

The first season continues to play around with secrecy and history, and the darkness of involving oneself in this world. “The Neuralyzer Syndrome” uses an accident to take a sad look into K’s ill-mentioned past; that K would rather say his father died rather than face the fact he can never see him again speaks volumes (even sadder – when K’s memory is restored, Zed wipes J’s memory of the whole incident, adding a scarier layer of secrecy to the organization, a la S.H.I.E.L.D.). “The Inanimate Syndrome” plays with a potential alien romantic relationship between K and Eileen, a relationship that is doomed from the start. “The Head Trip Syndrome” is a favorite, culling the most “Doctor Who-esque” plotting, where a deranged, paranoid human blames the MIB for the existence of aliens, and begins to systematically take out the five original founders of the MIB one-by-one via time travel. (The psychological toll of such work is another theme strongly presented in the first season, like in “The Psychic Link Syndrome,” where a deranged alien attacks humans taking his pictures because he believes cameras drain him of his essence, a dark reference to Dr. Strangelove.) Then there’s “The Take No Prisoners Syndrome,” where a sinister alien named Dr. Lupo uses a clone to stage a riot at the MIB prison. Dr. Lupo, who also has history with Zed, is eventually captured, but the real story behind Lupo and Zed is kept to secrecy.

It’s clear there’s a lot going on, with a lot of potentially-rich stories building up between J, K, Zed, Alpha, and Eileen. Even the side characters like Agent L, U, the Worms, Frank, and Jeebs, while mostly there for comic relief, serve a purpose and possess their own agencies. I could easily imagine there being episodes delving into the various characters backstories, explaining more about the full history of the MIB (particularly how Alpha could be K’s mentor when K was one of the founding members of MIB), and examining how an organization like MIB can change/destroy you from the inside, in how it leaves you so removed from any form of a social existence. Then the second season starts.

The second and third seasons are active give-and-plays between creative forces and executive demands. You can tell there were issues behind the scenes, and while the writers more or less acquiesced to those demands – more use of the Worms! less complicated plotting! fewer references to killing and death! – I will give them credit for retooling it in such a way to tell a different kind of story. The X-Files/Doctor Who elements are toned down, while the Dragnet-by-way-of-Scooby-Doo is toned up (action sequences are even scored with a old school, heavy bass-and-drum cue). So while any chance of learning about the history of the MIB is gone, and the theme sacrifice and the psychology of secrecy is moot, MIB: The Series does start to have a little fun with itself. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – the movies are a far cry from The Americans. But, as the case with most cartoons, there’s a line between silly and stupid, and MIB: The Series terrifyingly walks it.

The heavier use of the Worms isn’t the main problem, although they are as annoying as you’d expect. It isn’t that they’re overly goofy, it’s that they’re useless, and are just there for coffee jokes (and the same exact kinds of coffee jokes – no one seems to bother to explore the world of coffee to mine that humor). At least Jeebs and Frank are better characters as comic relief, as they represent two sides of the same stool pigeon coin, and at least offer the core MIB cast information. No, the biggest and most uncomfortable change is with J. First season J had a slight awkward streak but was attempting to maintain his social humanity within a world defined by self-privacy, and at the very least he was growing as an agent. Now he’s just an arrogant caricature of his former self. He’s still a capable agent, but the show now works to put J into goofy scenarios instead of maturing him. Again, this isn’t so bad, but as the show progresses, particularly in the dire fourth season, there’s an uncomfortable social stigma that arises from it.

I will say that a good 70% of the second and third season works really well though. The return of the bugs from the first Men in Black movie make for a dangerous set of villains, especially when they go after L for killing their brother in the film. There’s a pretty great “we work as a team” moment in “The Big Bad Bug Syndrome” among J, K, and L as they confront the various bugs who are attempting to capture them to bring them to their queen. Speaking of which, we get to see her in “The Mine, Mine, Mine Syndrome,” who is ready to give birth to a swarm of bugs to take over the world, and it’s a particularly good one to see the entire MIB team in action (an element that unfortunately gets swallowed up by K, J, and the worms). Villains continue to be a highlight, as they continue to be threatening and sinister – alien terrorists, mobsters, and all-around monsters, like the fire-spewing Drekk and the sonic-energy-powered alien Aldoosi. Alpha also makes sporadic appearances, continuing his hunt for body parts in delicious fashion, always staying one step ahead of J and K until the last minute. “The Out to Pasture Syndrome” is a great Alpha episode in its own right, and tight give-and-play between the agents and Alpha himself, with J as the pawn – who steps into his own at the end.

Yet you can see the writing on the wall. The plotting is broader – more of the various victim characters are silly, and a lot of the stories are really elaborate ways to place the characters in goofy situations. “The Little Big Man Syndrome” shrinks J down to a tiny size. “The Bad Seed Syndrome” jams J with a truth serum. “The Baby Kay Syndrome” transforms K into a fighting baby! K and J, who used to use their wits and skills in a specific, protocol-like context, become almost magically, karate-master fighters, leaping improbably into the air and performing backflips. More strained attempts at humor as well, although not every joke fails.

Despite these silly situation, the actual plots are still… well, not great, but strong enough to maintain a bit of tension and intriguing ambiguity. “The Worm-Guy Guy Syndrome” has Jay changing into a Worm via ridiculous plotting, but the villains as Judge Dredd-like galactic policemen capturing “criminal” aliens outside their jurisdiction shows kids the danger of vigilantism (so suck it, Batman). “The Baby Kay Syndrome” has the titular “baby K,” but the episode has a kidnapped daughter of a clearly dangerous extraterrestrial alien who did indeed wipe out the kidnappers’ planet. Not justifying the kidnappers’ actions by any means, but the fact that the episode even plotted that angle makes it worth mentioning. Even the most ridiculous elements – like the Fmecks, a species of six-inch sized aliens – have a well-developed undercurrent – they tried to eradicate their rivals, the Arquillians. My favorite “silly but tense” episode is “The Star System Syndrome,” where we learn the MIB agency in Los Angeles just casts aliens into horror films. It’s a dumb idea but it works because the show has fun with it, and even though the plot is predictable (is the hideous, played-out alien behind it all, or is it the cutesy, innocent alien team? Have you seen cartoons?), I can imagine younger audience being shocked by the twist.

Then the fourth season arrives.

It’s as if the full force of the executive meddling has come crashing down on the show. All of the tension, stakes, and mystery that were in even the more superficial episodes are gone. Villains are now mustache-twirling antagonists instead of the nuanced, motivated creatures of before. Large swaths of episodes are spent explaining things instead of building up the plot. There’s an interesting idea of Zed having to appease a council of aliens concerned about their image and representation (I like that Zed, like a typical police chief, is more of a diplomat than an agent), but that leads to the introduction of two new, throwaway characters, Dr. Zeeltor and Agent X (X is particularly shitty, not only because he’s a “loose cannon” bigoted alien disguised as a human, but the show has to write around L, changing her from an awesome, brilliant scientist into a babysitter. I’m not sure what’s up with the “I want to be in the field” angle with L, since she sure sees a hell of a lot of action even in her scientific position). The Worms, of course, are turned up to eleven. But worse is how utterly, utterly stupid J becomes. He starts to perform acts that endanger MIB and others, for petty reasons. Like in “The Virtual Crossfire Syndrome,” where he enters a “fake” video game (which is now real because of PLOT) just to prove a point. Note there are no real stakes here, just Jay’s ego. (I don’t want to get into how easily Alpha manipulates J in “The Opening Gambit Syndrome.” Seriously, at this point it becomes a klutzy black guy screwing things up while white people “who know better” look at him funny, and it’s not cool, especially with the kinda character he was in the first season.)

By the time the two part series finale rolls around, “The Endgame Syndrome,” it’s a mitigated disaster. It’s JUST an invasion. That’s it. No big revelations, no final twists, no major character reveals, no game-changing occurrences (MIB headquarters is eradicated, bu MIB just moves to a baseball stadium, because whatever). Nothing comes together, as various characters just chart on their own lame paths (Frank does stuff with puppies, after someone randomly drops a box of pups in front of him with no explanation). Even the mastermind Alpha has barely a line in it, let alone a clever scheme. Nothing is earned, which leaves the immensely promising MIB: The Series to end as a former shelf of itself. (I’m positive that this show would be better remembered if the dire fourth season didn’t fail so miserably.)

The first season of MIB: The Series is among the best DCAU episodes. The second and third episodes have issues but I’m willing to defend them as a mix of fun, excitement, and intrigue. The fourth season? Well, let’s just say I finally can understand why the neualyzer was invented.

 

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CHILDHOOD REVISITED – The Mighty Ducks

Disney tried to market action, comedy, self-awareness, and its mediocre hockey team into a cartoon for kids. The result is nothing short of disastrous.

The Mighty Ducks

What the hell is going on with this show?

By the time Bonkers hit the airwaves, the TV animation bubble was about to burst. Saturday mornings and weekdays afternoons were filled with cartoons, and Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network were adding their own original animated content to the mix. There were so many cartoons out there now – wacky ones, serious ones, self-aware ones, action ones, compilations – and Disney wanted their hands in all of it. Before, the company was comfortable with creating a single fully-fledged, developed cartoon, one right after the other. Now, not only did they want a piece of the action cartoon market (Gargoyles), they wanted to exploit the easy money of the compilation set (Raw Toonage) as well as double down on their movie properties (Aladdin, Timon & Pumbaa). I guess they wanted a piece of the self-aware goofiness that made Animaniacs and Freakzoid popular as well, for from that thinking sprang forth the mess that is The Mighty Ducks.

The Mighty Ducks is a hell of a reach. To say it was based on The Mighty Ducks movie franchise would be right only in pure connotation. Instead of a cartoon about plucky, smartass kids learning about life and teamwork through the rigors of playing hockey, we’re given a crazy tale about six anthropomorphic ducks who followed some evil reptiles through a portal to Earth, who end up playing professional hockey while, in their spare time, hunt for these villainous Saurians. Sure, this SOUNDS crazy, but in pure cartoon terms, this isn’t much crazier than, let’s say, Herculoids, Space Ghost, Transformers, Dinosaucers, Dino-Riders, Extreme Dinosaurs, and so on. It’s all in the execution. And the execution is excruciating.

Hey, do you like hockey? I mean, do you really, really, really love hockey? Of course you do. That’s why The Mighty Ducks was made, to satisfy your inner blood lust and sexual proclivities for hockey. The Mighty Ducks live, eat, breath, and masturbate to hockey, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. When they’re not saving the world, they’re playing hockey, and they know for a goddamn fact you are going to be enamored watching them play hockey. The Mighty Ducks doesn’t even entertain the thought that, god forbid, there may be two or three people on the planet that may have a mere passing interest in hockey, or worse – not even be interested in hockey. People like that are clearly the scum of the earth, and should be beaten every day within an inch of their lives. Life is not worth living unless you embrace everything that is hockey.

That is the philosophy that the show seems to be working under. The Mighty Ducks is an uncomfortable, in-your-face, affirmation of hockey, a cult-like assault of the sport on the viewer’s senses. The very premise of the show is as if L. Ron Hubbard decided he took all he could from Scientology and wanted to take a whack at this hockey thing. In the pilot “The First Face-Off,” the characters originate from Puckworld, which looks like hell but is actually a world where all the ducks play hockey everyday. I presume their systems of laws, education, philosophies, religions, governments, and other various institutions are all based on the foundation of hockey’s rules. Certainly their warfare – their weapons include ice shields, puck blasters, and mystical goalie masks. So it shouldn’t really come as a surprise that Lord Dragaunus and his minions EASILY conquer Puckworld in about twenty minutes (see what happens when you don’t think about hockey for once?).

Despite a massive, all-encompassing takeover, three of the ducks manage to escape and cull together a resistance, which only maxes out to seven ducks. How this is accomplished is wildly contrived, but after a lazy montage that introduces the audience to every character within the Mighty Ducks core group, they somehow manage to overtake the entire reptilian army, chase the leader and his minions through a portal, and land into our world. Upon arrival, they simply walk into a mall, check out comics books, and release what must have been an exponentially high level of sexual tension in an impromptu game of hockey. Even though these ducks found themselves in a brand new, inexplicable world while chasing a tyrannical alien, they made sure to take the time to play hockey; this is done with such an antagonistic approach that for a brief moment, I wondered if they were truly the villains. All of this is portrayed in the pilot, which is told to the audience via a nonsensical exchange between the police chief Captain Klegghorn and the Duck’s manager, Phil Palmfeather. (Phil is voiced by Jim Belushi, a clear sign we’re in dangerous territory.) By the end of all this, Wildwing is the reluctant leader (after a hilariously unnecessary sacrifice by the resistance leader Canard) of a group of professional hockey playing ducks in the human world, who also – when they can squeeze in the time – search for and attempt to defeat Lord Dragaunus and his henchmen.

Thing one.

I wondered the degree with which this show connected with the actual National Hockey League. Well, according to Wikipedia, an actual Mighty Ducks professional team was founded in 1992, based on the original live-action film. The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim (their official name) was the property of Disney up until 2005, but I guess there was some attempt to draw in a new, younger audience to the franchise, which is ultimately why this cartoon was made – hell, “Wildwing” is technically the official mascot. It’s telling, though, that the cartoon actually has no legal access to any other official team’s name within the NHL: all of the Duck’s opponents are fabricated. Not even the NHL wanted anything to do with this show, and pro-sports aren’t exactly reluctant to engage in embarrassing expenditures to appeal to the youths (NBA Jam! NFL Rush Zone!).

Thing two.

The head writer for The Mighty Ducks was David Wise. Now, I normally would never express a direct opinion on a creator – for whatever issues I may have with the animation, writing, or direction, I try to express them in an even-handed, level-headed state of mind. For this show, I have to make an exception: David Wise is a terrible, terrible writer. Lazy, hacky, and indifferent to his work, David Wise either is under the deluded idea that he is a quality writer, or knows he’s a terrible writer and simply is coasting on his terribleness to cash a paycheck. The first choice implies that Disney was conned into hiring him due to Wise (or his agents) hyping him up as some voice of a generation. The latter implies that Disney KNEW about his awfulness and hired him anyway, assuming that hockey, malls, comics, “attitude,” and blowing stuff up would bring kids running, at the expense of character or plot development. Honestly, I don’t know what’s worse.

Thing three.

For a show that stars alien ducks obsessed with playing hockey, The Mighty Ducks has absolutely no idea how hockey is actually played. There’s a lot talk about hockey being played fair and right – you know, the sport filled with violent glass checks, egregious tripping fouls, and legally-allowed fights. The show doesn’t bother to explain any hockey rules or regulations, never bothering to draw its audience into the interesting world of hockey, which splits a line between sportsmanship and ruthlessness. Either David Wise never bothered to research hockey or they assumed that the audience would know everything there is to know about hockey, or both, which makes things even worse.

Buzzfeed rated The Mighty Ducks number eight on their list of the best Disney Afternoon shows, above Aladdin, Timon & Pumbaa, Bonkers, and Quack Pack. They claim that The Mighty Ducks managed to amass a following because its so strange. I know for a fact this is bullshit. Aladdin and Bonkers have their issues but at least have promise; Timon & Pumbaa draws from classic cartoon inanity through its own unique worldview, and Quack Pack smartly undercuts its Poochie-fication to reveal in its own absurdity (essay coming soon). It’s clear that Buzzfeed didn’t even pay lip service to watching these shows. For a cartoon, The Mighty Ducks isn’t strange, not more so than the absurd animation that came out of the 70s or 80s. The Mighty Ducks is just actively stupid, terribly scripting with average animation and awful, awful comedy.

Bonkers was disappointing because of its aggressively failed potential. The Mighty Ducks is disappointing because it sucks. Terrible premise, terrible execution, terrible stories, terrible characters – there’s not a single redeeming element to this show. There’s no direction here. No one seems to know, or care, how to approach the show or put its absurd concepts into any context. Lord Dragaunus and his minions can teleport in and out of every single place in Anaheim. The limits of teleportation are never defined, so why they don’t appear when one of the ducks is in public and shoot him in the head? Dragaunus makes deals left and right with various businessmen and scientists, but the details of such deals are rarely made clear. The Ducks’ interplay between fighting various threats and playing pro hockey is never portrayed within the utter self-aware, ridiculous frame that it should be – like how the PowerPuff Girls are both pre-school children and world-saving heroines (more on this later).

I could excuse all of these failures if the characters themselves were interesting, fun, or exciting, but they are not. Despite the show’s half-assed introduction scene, the core group of crime-fighting ducks seems sound. They’re cliche, sure, but of the good kind – they aren’t all muscle-bound dudes mixed with one female piece of eye candy. Besides Wildwing, you have Grin, the Zen-following strong man; Duke, the former thief turned suave hero; Mallory, the by-the-book military tactician; Tanya, the geeky but proficient mechanic/explosive expert; and Nosedive, the wise-cracking, youth-demo-oriented representative. Nosedive gets all the “cool” lines, read in some bastardization of a surfer-dude vernacular, and approaches every dangerous situation geared to find the AWESOME in it. He is plucked right out of the worst of what 80s cartoons have to offer. Buzzfeed claimed Bonkers was too annoying, but Nosedive makes the bobcat feel like a monk in comparison.

Still, the grouping has potential. Two female characters, who can be awesome as well as vulnerable! They aren’t defined by being women, either, but by being essential. Mallory is both a great soldier as well as capable of showing off her femininity, and Tanya enjoys her more geekier pursuits without anyone giving her gruff. Duke seemed geared to be the writers’ favorite, what with the whole shady past and slick lines out of his beak. But David Wise can’t be bothered to do the bare minimum. There is a dumbness, a superficiality to the whole affair that ruins these characters. Attempts at development somehow make the characters worse. In “Power Play,” we’re offered a glimpse into Grin’s past as a reckless, angry youth who ended up studying, uh, “Zen-hockey” under Tai Quack Do, an Asian stereotype who doubles as a Jewish stereotype. “To Catch a Duck” has Mallory questioning Duke’s loyalty after a thief from Puckworld turns up and offers Duke a partnership. I understand that in syndication, episodes would be aired randomly, but why would Mallory think Duke was thinking about betraying the team after everything they’ve been through? What would he have to gain joining some dumb-shit thief on a crime-spree in a world they don’t even know? Why would this suddenly come up now?

That gets to the biggest problem with The Mighty Ducks. No one thought this show through. At all. They literally went to series with no idea what they wanted to DO. There are so many plot holes, so many irregularities, so many inconsistencies and random occurrences that it’s embarrassing. I’m not sure if they wanted to play the action straight, comedic, goofy, or self-aware. It feels like they’re trying to be some gross mishmash of Gargoyles, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Freakazoid, but there is no agreement on tone. The whole concept of “hockey-playing alien ducks coming to earth to play hockey and also fight other aliens” is played in this nonsensical space of cheese and indifference, of a laziness so apparent that it becomes physically painful to watch. The Mighty Ducks is a trainwreck, and the “can’t take my eyes away” kind. It’s a vicious, bloody, chaotic mess – quite possible the worst cartoon I ever saw.

The villains represent the show’s tonal disconnect and lack of professionalism in this show’s production. Lord Dragaunus does little else but overread his exposition without any comic flair. The guy is voiced by Tim Curry! If you can’t bring the requisite campiness to a character played by Tim Curry, you fucked up. I’m also not sure what Lord Dragaunus wants to do. Does he want to take over the planet, blow it up, or return to Puckworld (there’s no mention of what happened to Puckworld after his initial takeover). Also, Dragaunus and his henchmen is seemingly able to teleport anywhere, or create portals to other worlds with ease, so I don’t know why he doesn’t warp into a nuclear facility and blow it up, or send the ducks to a world with no air, or even pull an actual Ozymandias. Instead he seems content with making backroom deals with other humans/aliens to create pointless distractions for the ducks while he takes half-assed measures for his various, ill-conceived plans.

Speaking of his henchmen… so there’s this idea that Saurians sacrificed their magical ancestors’ history for science and technology, which is a weirdly complex idea worth developing. Wraith, a brown-noser warlock, constantly complains about this, but he also sucks at magic, so maybe the Saurians made the right call? (This seemed like something that would’ve been developed in a season two, but I seriously doubt David Wise would’ve bothered.) Then you have the Chameleon, who is just as annoying as Nosedive, who shapeshifts into classic 70s comedians/actors, regardless of the fact most kids wouldn’t get those references, nor would it explain how an alien from another planet even knows who these comedians/actors are. Also, when he shapeshifts, he’s supposed to keep the green skin, but sometimes he doesn’t, because plot. Siege is useless.

Characters like the Chameleon and Phil (who complains about the Ducks missing marketing events because they have to save the world, because it’s funny he has his priorities switched, right???) make me think that they WERE trying be more like Freakazoid, especially when they start being meta: referencing that they’re in a cartoon, mentioning sweeps week, commercial breaks, the lack of episode time, etc. The thing is, Freakazoid was committed to its meta-commentary – the show’s self-aware absurdity was built into the show’s DNA from the start. The Mighty Ducks tosses out such commentary haphazardly, making things more awkward than funny. It doesn’t help that various villains don’t seem to be in on the joke; hell, it doesn’t help that most characters aren’t in on the joke. (I’m not sure the writers, directors, or animators are either.)

There is one episode that kind of, sort of approaches something that seems to maybe represent the kind of cartoon The Mighty Ducks may have been striving to be. “Puck Fiction” is a not-great parody of Pulp Fiction, but it also has the kind of ridiculous, absurd, Freakazoid-esque jokes that a show like this really needs. From the inexplicable fear of the 1927 poem “Desiderata,” to self-aware gags involving a flashback and the show’s own title sequence, to the goofy gangsters, to the random Scooby-Doo reference involving Old Man Jenkins and a haunted amusement park, The Mighty Ducks starts to feel like a cartoon that’s just having fun. The PowerPuff Girls always had a tinge of comedy to it, a “sad trombone” aesthetic that always kept the show in a space where the creators enjoyed the silliness of the material. For a brief, shinning moment, viewers got the impression that The Mighty Ducks was in on the joke, an elaborate excuse to parody the macho-group-superhero formula and have fun with the bizarreness of the ludicrous premises that such formulas produce.

Yet that was not meant to be. The Mighty Ducks, for most of its run, resorts to the stupid, infantile action/comedy that marred action cartoons for years. The show is neither funny or entertaining, a random grab-bag of references and poorly-stages action sequence enacted by one-note, annoying characters. The animation is merely passable; nothing really stands out, but it isn’t egregiously embarrassing, except when they recycle scenes or frame action sequences with little tension. The only thing that works is the design of the Ducks’ battle costumes, and to be honest, they aren’t that great. The Mighty Ducks is an awful show, and it needs to be remembered as such.

There is one clever moment in an episode called “Dungeons and Ducks” where the ducks are warped to a parallel earth where magic exists. They watch a commercial on crystal ball of a bunch of magical creatures advertising cereal. It’s a smart, little gag, but it’s a gag that belongs in a better, more reliant cartoon. Disney tried to make hockey, ducks, action, and comedy cool without understanding any of them. I’d like to think that, in a parallel world, a goofy, entertaining version of The Mighty Ducks is airing its third season on a Jumbo-tron amidst a population of hockey-obsessed fans, but there’s no timeline that could possibly make that happen. The Mighty Ducks mightily sucks.

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Gargoyles “Grief/Kingdom”

Gargoyles_Kingdom_screenshot

Apologies for the sudden drop in recaps. To say work has swallowed me up would be an understatement. I’m getting a heck of a lot of OT though!

So would Goliath, Angela, Eliza, and Bronx if they were getting paid for their troubles (like my segue?). “Grief” and “Kingdom” are continuing the strong surge of episodes that the World Tour allows, and they also double down on my argument that this whole World Tour thing was, broadly speaking, unnecessary but established to dole out plotlines in easy, bite-sized chunks. Complexity gets a lot of love but it doesn’t quite work in Gargoyles’ favor, not because it’s hard to follow, but because it’s not a show that can give its various developments time to breathe. Now it can, and the show is better for it.

Gargoyles 2×30 – Grief

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I should be punished for not paying attention, for all that little banter between Xanatos and Owen pays off here – well, to be specific, one of their many discussions does. Specifically, their past talk of the Emir has to do with a well-versed sorcerer trying to find yet another spell granting immortality for Xanatos. I spoken about Xanatos desire to live forever; he fears dying, but not so much the exact prospect of death, but the inability to control and desire that death would bring. So the Emir was sent to discover an Egyptian spell and call forth the god of death, Anubis, to grant his benefactor that power.

“Grief” is about death and dying, up close and personal. This is not an easy episode to watch, more “disturbing” than Demona’s stone destruction back in “City of Stone.” But it’s an important one, I think. I can see people thinking its too intense for kids but there really isn’t nothing wrong with telling a story in which kids are confronted with their own mortality, as long as there’s an understanding as death as a real, unavoidable fact, and that there’s a dark but important value to it (as Hudson implied so long ago). Still, the scene where a bunch of alligators are turned into skeletons is a shock.

So we find the Emir dangerously close to finalizing the spell, under the protection watchful eye of the remaining members of the Pack – Coyote, Jackal, Wolf, and Hyena, all of whom have been transformed into robotic/monsters by Xanatos. Their role is to make sure that the Emir is following through, but the Emir has his own plans; namely, to demand that Anubis return his dead son to him. My nit-pick is that we learn nothing about the Emir except his dilemma, but Tony Shalhoub (yes, Monk!) sells his grief so expertly. I mean, the man is arguing with DEATH INCARNATE about how he will punish him unless he brings him back his son; obviously the guy has done nothing else with his life except focus on his child’s reincarnation.

The Emir’s purpose in life is clear, re-emphasizing the show’s theme of needing a purpose in life to live on, and nothing is stronger to base that theme on than death of a loved one. But what about the Pack? Coyote is just a robot, following orders. Hyena is… well, she’s attracted to Coyote. Sexually. I don’t know what to think about this. Coyote is just a program, and we ain’t working with Her material. I guess this is supposed to be a joke but I kinda feel like this is a disservice to a fairly strong female character. Wolf is kinda there, just doing what he has to do. It’s Jackal that’s the oddball out.

I never would’ve thought that the Pack were entering otherkin territory. I mean, the various names of the Pack were given to them for a TV show. Gargoyles doubling down on their names as a life-agenda was always a risk, but worked so far because they were just nicknames given to criminals. Jackal eying Anubis as “the original model” is taking it a step into an area that the show isn’t quite prepared for. The Jackal isn’t an Anubis worshiper. He isn’t modeling his combat skills to a jackal. He’s not a furry. Maybe the show is trying to establish Jackal as a guy obsessed with power. Yet he was the one more prone to having sadistic fun with his murderous behavior, so this doesn’t fly. Again, the strength of the VO work and the writing allows us to push through all this, but let’s be clear: there’s a definitive correlation gap here.

It works so well though, mainly because of the Emir/Anubis dialogue (I kinda don’t want to get into the part where the Pack leads a captured Elisa/Goliath/Angela/Bronx into another room to kill them, only for them to escape, when they could’ve easily killed them earlier. Kids cartoon… kids cartoon… kids cartoon…). Emir tries to channel Anubis’ power over life and death, but Jackal forcefully takes it from him, absorbing the power and kicking ass. It’s odd, again, that Jackal suddenly is lusting for power, and while his behavior in god-form is in-character, the lead up to it isn’t (nor was transforming his sister into a baby). Yet even though he ages Goliath and Angela, the two still manage to take him down long enough for the Emir to transfer the power from Jackal to him. The new ability gives the Emir the true perspective over life and death, realizing his desire for his dead son’s life is moot and inescapable. He brings the entire place crumbling down, not allowing anyone to derive this power ever again.

The Emir’s true purpose has been fulfilled; in some ways, he and Egypt are a snapshot of Goliath’s team and Avalon, figures on a journey of discovery and realization. Disney’s A-Team animation did this episode, although some of the visuals are a bit murky, particularly the fight scenes (I think the storyboards are what really what throws things off here). Still, “Grief” is powerful work due to the strength of the writing and the work of the actors. The Emir has found his peace. Here’s hoping the World Tour team can find their own.

BUT LET’S CHECK IN ON THE MANHATTAN  CLAN, HUH?

“Kingdom” returns us to New York as we check in on Hudson, Broadway, Brooklyn, and Lexington, all desperately looking for their compatriots. I was surprised to come back to these guys, but honestly, I did miss them a lot, and it’s great the show is taking the time to acknowledge they’re still trying to get along, even if things are in disarray.

Toon City took the mantle for animating this episode, and they kinda remind me of Startoons, particularly in how the characters talk. They do passable work, but they seem to approach a lot of the visuals and movements in a goofy, semi-jokey affair, particularly in a tonally-off scene where Claw has to pantomime the immediate events that occurred to Fang. Honestly, though, I think -everything- is off about that one scene: the character, the staging, the layout, and the music. In fact, there are a few things off about an otherwise exciting episode, which sucks as the writing tends to get away from itself from time to time.

We find the remaining gargoyles scouring the city to find their friends, to no avail. Brooklyn, the second in command, is in a panic, holding out hope that Goliath will turn up, but more worried that he isn’t ready for the leadership role he was given back in “Upgrade.” There are a lot of questions and angles to this, after all: how far and how long do you keep searching? Who do you look into, and much do you push it? How do you respond to the concerns of the people you command? Brooklyn isn’t up to the task. Luckily, Broadway and Lex are patient, and Hudson takes up the de-facto leader role until Brooklyn gets his head straight. I love how subtle they play Hudson here; he makes good suggestions slyly to Brooklyn can pounce upon them in “leader-ly” fashion, helping him out until he comes into his own.

Their search first leads them to the Labyrinth, a nondescript underground area that seems to be an abandoned subway station [note: it’s an Cybernetics lab, but it looks different – much bigger than the design of the place we see in “The Cage”] large enough to house some homeless people. But here we find the Mutates, who took up roost. Talon is dedicated to protecting the people, but Fang his planning his own bit of treason, exploiting the poor people of their goods and otherwise terrorizing the people that live below.

Part of the issue here is that Fang is voiced by Jim Belushi. I… don’t really want to get into a whole thing about the “lesser” Belushi, but while he was fine as a light-hearted, take-whatever-comes-his-way mutate back in “The Cage,” having him carry an episode is a mistake. His voice is way off from the Shakespearean intonation of the rest of the cast; maybe that’s why Toon City was chosen for the episode, to double down on his more cartoonish voice? Fang is a fine character and his traitorous motivations are sound, but Belushi really is all wrong here.

Basically, the remaining Manhattan clan along with Talon head off to Xanatos, assuming he has their missing friends, while Fang executes his uprising. After a bit of a shootout (and where Broadway continues to show that he’s the best fighter), they inadvertently tell Xanatos the news while searching the place, and we already see his mind reeling with ideas. We’ll probably be seeing him again. But they don’t find anything, and Brooklyn flies off double-frustrated and double-doubtful. Fang, down below, randomly finds some laser blasters, which is a little bit far-fetched, but it allows for some more shooty scenes. After a bit of a battle between Talon and Fang, Talon trades places with a captured Maggie, who rushes to the Manhattan Clan for help. Brooklyn, finally given the right motivation (the right purpose, if you will), orders his clan to assist.

And while we get a good ol’ fashioned battle, I do like the little trick Brooklyn and Maggie play to get the upper hand on Fang – play emotional while sneaking Talon out of his prison. There are some staging issues – I was kinda surprised they played the stolen keycard bit so long, showing where it was taken from (off Fang’s neck), and I think they’re were trying to show Claw as being conflicted about where to place his loyalties, but some scenes show him as a scared little wuss, which hasn’t never been the case for the silent Mutate. But the theme of leadership, and understanding the nature of that leadership, is what drives this episode, and it drives Brooklyn and Talon into a mutual understanding, as indicated by the handshake above. Never give up hope, but protect your people in the interim.

“Grief” A-/”Kingdom” B+

 

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