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On the Wave of the Recent CGI Announcements

If you haven’t heard by now, Disney is developing a CGI/live-action film of their classic Disney Afternoon series Chip n’ Dale Rescue Rangers. This happens to be on the heels of the recent announcement of a CGI film version of the video game Sly Cooper. This announcement came a couple of months after the first surprise announcement of a upcoming CGI Ratchet & Clank film. (The latter two are being animated by the same studio.)

Chip n' Dale Rescue Rangers

This is somewhat unexpected and unprecedented. Not because they’re adaptations of classic, well-known franchises, but because of the specific choices that were made here. In the case of Sony’s games, Ratchet and Clank and Sly Cooper seemed to be on their way out, the last bastion of an era of mascot-based games in a world of gritty, heavy shooters. The last two games were relatively well-reveiwed and probably made a decent amount of money, but it’s difficult to claim they did SO well as to spawn a movie. Yet, every film based on the big-hitter games – Uncharted, Halo, World of Warcraft – have all stalled and/or proven to be problematic. Both games have the potential to be interesting films (Ratchet and Clank moreso than Sly Cooper), but the idea always seemed lofty, the fandom’s unachievable wet dream. And yet, here we are.

Most likely, Sony saw Dreamworks’ heavy push into the animated franchise end of things, with its multiple films and TV shows and agreements with Netflix, and wanted a piece of that pie. If the films do well, most likely TV shows will follow (as for more games? Maybe, although that’s difficult to say right now). It helps that both films seem to be tied to those people who worked on the games, but films are a whole ‘nother ballgame with a less than stellar track record when it comes to video game adaptations. Still, I can’t help but hope – I have long wanted to see these iconic characters outside their gaming forms, reaching a broader audience. If this works out, perhaps more gaming companies (EA in particular – there isn’t a money-making scheme they WON’T try) will get back to creating mascot-based games, if the ultimate goal is to spawn a franchise across multiple media formats. Maybe, just maybe, those mascots will be pushed into next gen gaming mechanics, beyond idealized 3D platformers. Imagine playing a cute purple alien in a game with the sophistication of Deus Ex.

Disney’s take on a live-action Rescue Rangers somewhat fits along the same lines, but in many ways it’s wholly different. Disney is probably thinking more along the lines of Alvin and the Chipmunks and G-Force. This should give everyone pause. Rescue Rangers was quietly creative and clever, a fully realized miniature world that existed among the feet of humans. This live-action adaptations, which looks increasingly likely to avoid using anyone connected with the original show, may turn this group of flawed, complex rodents into comedic visual eye candy. (They also claim this will be an origin story – unless they basically do a CGI version of the “To The Rescue” five-parter, this probably will be terrible. They’ll also probably do that thing where the Rangers wear clothes but all the other talking animals don’t, which will be bullshit since the whole point is that the smaller animals DO where clothes. But I digress.)

The original Rangers were a tight-knit group of flawed critters – Dale was too scatterbrained, Chip was too stuck-up, Monty was conceited, Gadget was absent-minded, and Zipper was insecure. As silly as the show was, they were characters. They had desires and feelings and flaws, and the original writers put in the work to make the characters and world of the Rescue Rangers feel “real.” With the likelihood of the original creators not being involved, there’s a chance that the creatives chosen to take up this film will take the easy route – a simple story involving kids and some adult that needs to “believe” or some shit, with a cringe-worthy dance routine. (TO BE FAIR, the original show had cringe-worthy dance routines, too.) But there is potential with fresh crew, in particular if they’re fans of the old show. There’s a chance that they can be respectful of the original series while pushing it in an interesting direction. Gadget going overboard with internet-speak will be terrible; Gadget quickly getting the hang of the internet has potential.

The question on my mind is – how is Disney going to approach this film in relation to the original series? That is, will Disney, at any point, acknowledge its relationship with the original show? Will they air (or at least put on their Youtube page) the original show? Obviously there’s a huge nostalgia angle that Disney is exploiting here, but the question is how far will they go with it. Alvin and the Chipmunks didn’t exactly inspire legions of people to see the originals, but then again, the cartoons and songs are already readily accessible if you know where to look. Disney is notorious for keeping a certain sect of its past output under lock and key.  So, I’m not too sure they’d jump aboard tying the film to its Disney Afternoon ancestor. If they did, they’d have to also deal with the question of it’s other DA shows – Ducktales, TaleSpin, Darkwing Duck, and so on. How far would that go? I mean, their later output – Goof Troop, Bonkers, Mighty Ducks, Quack Pack – isn’t so hot (I purposely skipped the shows based on Disney films for obvious reasons).

The fact that these films are coming out is kind of a big deal, though. There’s been growing appeal among CGI creations, both ironic and unironic, and while many people roll their eyes at yet another batch of talking pixels, the technology, and the realistic approach to that technology (not to mention that sweet, sweet green) has a lot of people excited. Some of the best CGI creations in the last few years – Smeagol in Lord of the Rings, the Navi in Avatar, that big ol’ ape in Rise of the Planet of the Apes – only has audiences and executives alike eager for more. Hell, ninety percent of the talk over Marvel’s new Guardian of the Galaxy film was centered around their talking raccoon. The people who scoff at “how silly” such a character might be seem to be more in the minority as filmmakers finally take them seriously and not comic relief iconography. How can these people be taking seriously when they ridicule a talking animal with a gun while rooting for a god from a magical planet wielding a massive hammer? This argument is pretty much invalid.

What’s next is still up in the air, mostly dependent on how well these films do. While there are some reservations about these announcements, there’s definitely potential, which is hugely dependent on who’s involved and their dedication to the material being adapted. I’m reserving judgment of the films themselves until the release date, but I’m more curious about what talking creature comes next, and whether it’ll be sincere or cloying.

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The Disturbing Nature of the Love Potion Episode

In honor of Valentine’s Day, I thought it’d be good to talk about “love potion” episodes.

Rick and Morty screenshot

Love potion episodes are when a character grabs hold of a potion or device that causes another person, usually the person he or she is infatuated with, to fall in love with them. It may be almost impossible for these types of episodes to not come off extremely rapey. Love potion episodes are the animation equivalent of “mind control” stories in comics, where villains take over the hero’s mind and body, then have sex to the hero’s girlfriend. Most comics portray this as wrong, but, like their animation brethren, downplay the vile nature of the non-consent-by-ignorance implication of the story.

I had made this observation after watching the Lloyd in Space episode “Love Beam #9,” in which Lloyd uses his friend’s invention to make his crush fall in love with him. It was supposed to be funny in a cute, overbearing way, and, generally speaking, all love potion episodes end with the lesson about being unable to force relationships to happen and the falsehood of making someone like you. Generally speaking, these episodes tend to shrug off the darker undercurrents of the love potion, in particular with “Love Beam #9,” which used the excuse of a love beam to open up deeper feelings between the two characters, instead of the harrowing reality that someone altered your mind just so you can go on a date.

It’s fairly disturbing, brought to the forefront in the latest episode of Rick and Morty, “Rick Potion #9” in which Rick gives Morty a love potion to woo his own crush. This results in an absurd, frenzied, global disaster when the potion spreads and causes everyone to want to “bone down” the kid, male or female (and it gets increasingly surreal from there). Rick spells it out in the end, calling out Morty’s desire to essentially “roofie” his crush so he can go out with her. Really, though, it’s the underlying vibe for most love potion episodes, and it raises the question on whether a love potion episode can be done without coming off selfish, creepy, and all around horrible.

I don’t like speaking in absolutes. So a part of me thinks it is possible. But let’s break down the beats of a typical love potion episode. Character A crushes on Character B. Character A acquires the love potion and applies it to Character B, resulting in Character B, through absolute no will or consent of his/her own, to return the romantic desire, sans logic or reason. Nine times out of ten, Character B gets too obsessive over Character A, which then pushes Character A away, but Character B won’t accept Character’s A rejection. So an already non-consensual love story is made worse as the non-consent is return. It’s a rabbit hole of vileness, played off as silly game.

The worse love potion episode I’ve seen had to be Kim Possible’s “The Cupid Effect,” where Wade spends almost a third of the episode shooting Monique with a romantic ray gun so she stays smitten with him. It’s fairly bad because Wade is barely a character who’s never been really outside his room up until this point, and the first thing he does is lust after Monique. There’s also a thin racial undertone to the whole thing. While this might be the most extreme one I’ve seen, most love potion episodes tend to have the same sensibility, and in the era where the real concern of rape culture is front and center, love potion episodes represent the “lighter” dark side of this cultural issue.

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic tried its take on the love potion episode in “Hearts and Hooves Day.” Here, the writers try to overshadow the creepiness via the Cutie Mark Crusaders applying the love potion to two separate, seemingly lonely people. Er, ponies. It’s a somewhat admirable attempt, and not as awkward as the episodes listed above, but there’s definitely a fairly large issue in causing random people with to fall in love, which is, what, rape-by-proxy? The CMC learn this lesson, but not really in the sense that their actions are wrong, but in the sense that the love potion is so strong that the two lovebirds are so smitten that they forget to function. A fairly okay episode, and the core lesson is there, but again, the episode downplays the horrific nature of the element of non-consent. (This also applies to the trolls in the film Frozen. While no love potion is involved, they do uncomfortably try and force Anna into a marriage without any real say on her part.)

Rick and Morty also pointed out the sexual divide of the typical love potion episode. When applied to people of the opposite sex, the love potion episode emphasizes romance and sexual tension, but when applied to same sex characters, it’s always just an intense friendship, and it’s always bullshit. To be fair, any overt homosexual relationships in a kids cartoon is a no-no from a studio perspective. But there’s another element here. It implies that heterosexual relationships are “allowed” to instill this rape-like vibe, yet homosexual relationships aren’t (and that they can’t even exist), which is bad for both sides. Really, there’s nothing good that can come from the typical approach of the love potion episode, not in this day and age.

The best way to handle love potion episodes is to go big and go ridiculous, where the love potion isn’t based on someone’s perverted desire but just an obstacle to overcome, a distraction that’s in the way of a bigger, non-love-related objective. Ducktales’ love potion episode, “A Ducktales Valentine,” already has a bitter Scrooge rallying against Valentine’s Day. It involves vengeful Greek gods, and no one is forcing people to fall in love with anyone – everyone involved is accidentally stabbed with Cupid’s arrows. Darkwing Duck’s “My Valentine Ghoul” is a bit creepier – Gosalyn tries to use a love spray to rekindle Darkwing’s and Morgana’s relationship. Yet Gosalyn’s motivation isn’t about forcing love so much as it’s about not having Morgana kill the Caped Crusader and keeping Negaduck out of the way. It also helps that 1) the effects of the love potion are temporary, 2) it’s literally just only two minutes of the episode, and 3) it’s one of the funniest episodes of the run.

Overall though, if the protagonist actively uses the potion to force the person of his affection to fall for him or her, we’re already entering dangerous territory. While the lesson is worthwhile, the method to get there is inherently couched in a mentality that is uncomfortable. If a love potion has to be used, the lesson should not be a simple understanding that romance is something you can’t force and that one should be yourself. The real lesson should be that love potions are completely and utterly wrong, and the very use of them is damaging to both parties involved. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a crime, but there should be consequences that stem beyond a small speech about respect.

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That Terrible Episode of TMNT Was Terrible

We need to talk about how bad Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is right now.

TMNT screenshot

I watch a lot of cartoons. I watch a lot of TV in general, but cartoons tend to be the easiest for writers to bypass and push aside under the mistaken belief that, since their work is for kids, they don’t actively have to try. They can skirt by with an abundance of action scenes, physical comedy, and fart jokes. And I’ve certainly seen my share of cartoon episodes that just embarrassed me to watch, terrible episodes of an already mediocre animated show. When it comes to bad TV, there’s usually two kinds – it can be bad at a narrative level, and it can be bad at a technical level. It rarely is both, but for the most part, TV is usually competent technically. Narratives tend to be hit or miss. But bad TV is bad TV, and when an episode sucks, it sucks. At the very least, you can simply say, “That sucked.”

“The Kraang Conspiracy,” TMNT’s latest episode didn’t just suck though. It was bottom of the barrel terrible, an embarrassment to every single person involved. It’s the kind of episode that anyone else would have shelved immediately, hiding from the public. It’s just pure trash, with awful quips and horrendous timing and pathetic plotting and piss-poor pacing. The characters are suddenly extra dickish and shit kinda happens in this episode with NO explanation and then they gave April psychic powers, because what?

“The Kraang Conspiracy” is the epitome of a season that has been sliding downhill ever since the first episode, “The Mutation Situation.” In the first season, what made TMNT a delight was its sense of discovery and growth. It had a keen focus. It emphasized the turtles’ brotherly connection while maintaining each brother’s difference, all while they sought to understand the world around them and their growing list of enemies. Things were happening, and the turtles themselves were training, struggling, and working their way to face each new problem. It was amazing to actually see the turtles become better fighters over the course of the season, and yet fail miserably at taking on The Shredder. They smartly toned down Raph, who has always been portrayed as an emotional wrecking ball – in fact, they completely shut down his attitude in one single episode. They dealt with Leo’s leadership issues and Mikey’s silliness as an extension of wanting to make a real connection, and while Donny’s crush on April is not exactly narrative gold, it at least gave him something outside of his nerdiness to follow. The entire endeavor built to a pretty great (if not memorable) season one finale.

Then season two came.

Season two, frankly, is a mess. We were already in dangerous territory when it began as a tedious slog of mutagen canister fetch-quests, but then this plot goes away. Then Shredder leaves for Japan for unknown reasons. Karai’s in charge and she fucks up everything. This plot then goes away. Then the Foot is replace by robot-Foot, who’s abilities lie in the fact that they can immediately learn your moves and adapt. This should have made for truly intriguing, complicated enemies. It doesn’t, to the incredulous point that Casey Jones, who is only a half-assed hockey player, can take them out. This gets worse when somehow he can hold his own in a fight against Raph – you know, the turtle who has been training in martial arts since birth. Oh, the difficult robot-Foot plot? Completely irrelevant now. (Made so when, upon finding the turtles’ lair, only one robot-Foot soldier analyzed the location and ran off to report it.) Worst of all, they did two episodes in a row about emo Raph being a complaining baby, the very thing the first season actively worked to avoid (seriously, like, you can tell the first season went out of their way to make Raph likeable). Season two is random, jumbled, unfocused, out-of-character, and just not congealing at all.

Then came “The Kraang Conspiracy,” an episode so awful that it made me physically ill and forced me to move on from the show.

What makes this particularly problematic is that the second season represents the worse writer mentality. It misinterprets the first season, pooling together a group of writers who missed out that tight focus and saw nothing but a bunch of talking turtles that fought bad guys. Thinking that such a show could be and would be easy to write, they went off and just tossed the turtles into any situation they could think of and literally made up the crap as they went along. So why, for example, Casey Jones can fight off the learning robot-Foot Clan with ease? Because it would be cool, of course, barring all logic or reason. Bringing back emo Raph is just lazy, since you can’t think of anything better. Why is Shredder gone? Don’t bother to break it down. Just make it vague and useless, so Karai can be bratty on her own. And after you do all this stupid stuff, make “The Kraang Conspiracy.”

There is just so much awfulness here. I mean, we begin with the turtles running across the rooftops with ease, only to find a slow, inept April behind them. Why is she patrolling the rooftops with them? There is no reason. Like, they even say this. They literally are like, April, we trained years for this. But April is there, trying to keep up, and failing. They want to bring April along because the experience will help her learn faster. But this is just straight up reckless. Not even April should be down with this kind of danger (why isn’t she still training with Splinter?! Hell, why isn’t she at school?)

So they find out someone is talking pictures of them on the roofs (because of April’s psychic powers – more on this later) and they chase him down, and this makes no visual sense. There’s absolutely no sense of space, so the chase is muddled and confusing. They approach a gap between the roofs, and they pull out grappling hooks. Grappling hooks! When did they get grappling hooks? Oh, and April has one? Okay, fine. I suppose Donny (who I assumed made them) would have created a spare. So everyone crosses the gap except April, who is just sucking at grappling hook. Donny comes back and goes, “April, you can use my grappling hook!” Which is clearly a handjob joke. But the flaw is that the tension of the chase is complete gone, now that we’re spending a minute with Donny and his sad attempt to feel up April. It fails, of course, because Donny will perpetually have green blue balls and it’s important to run this gag into the ground.

Because of all this, the turtles should have lost track of this guy because of April. Yet somehow they catch up to him with easily. The logistics of this chase sequence is baffling. But they follow him into his creepy apartment and find out he’s a reporter who’s been tracking the Kraang for years. They’ve been around for millennia doing stuff with human DNA apparently, but failing. This development makes little sense. It makes less sense when the reporter mentioned they finally broke human genetics or something through April’s father, making April “Kraang special”.

Then the Kraang arrive. The reporter yells out, “They found me. I don’t know how they did it but they found me!” Well, this is a good question. How DID they find you? The show doesn’t answer this. The Kraang just ARRIVE because network notes demanded an action scene at this point. And it’s sloppy. Somehow the apartment changes sizes and the Kraang are really terrible shots at close range. Everyone escapes and because they need to cut to commercial on a tense moment, a Kraang arrives suddenly with a gattling laser gun! They manage to escape it because – randomly – they drive over it with their Turtles’ Van! Where the fuck did they get access to their van? This whole scene was just random and awful and pointless.

Oh, but here’s the best part.

The reporter goes, “We gotta check out TCRI.” And April goes, “Didn’t you guys blow that up?” Because they did. CUT TO the turtles staring at a BRAND NEW TCRI BUILDING. Not even in the middle of re-construction. Just fucking there! Raph yells out, “They rebuilt it? That fast?” The implication being, “Are the writers this fucking lazy?” You mean to tell me no one noticed that the home base of their fucking enemy got rebuilt? In maybe a month, tops? This fucking tower is HUGE and no one noticed it? And you mean to tell me you couldn’t just render another nondescript building to act as the Kraang’s new home base? Go the fuck home.

Oh, and now April is acting like a bitch. With both April and Raph being assholes this season, you’d think one of the writers is having issues at home. Leo tells April to wait outside because SHE’S UNTRAINED AND INEXPERIENCED and she’s pouts because she doesn’t want to wait on the sidelines anymore. What? Do you realize how insane and dangerous this is? This season is just filled with way too much stupidity, in particularly by doing that thing where kids do dangerous shit because they’re bored or because it would be cool, a thing that ruins so many fucking kids shows that it’s sickening. So of course, inept-ass April follows along, because what could she possibly add to their advantage?

No, she’s there because she needs to be able to LINK PSYCHICALLY TO THE KRAANG. Which is a whole different thing than simply having psychic fucking powers. Listen, if April could indeed connect to the Kraang because of the experiments done to her in the past, I can buy that. If she’s mentally noticing stalkers from afar and blowing up entire rooms of Kraang robots, that’s a whole different (ridiculous) ball game. See, in the first season, they kinda implied April could detect Kraang tech if she could concentrate and focus. That’s fine. But if she’s just going to be an adolescent Jean Grey, then just be a fucking different show. Because there’s no way this will end well.

Okay, so then the Kraang finds them and there’s a whole bunch of fighting, and they do too much standing around/talking in the middle of the fight because they need to get some jokes in there. They then find a whole bunch of April clones, because the Kraang wants to extract her DNA, but they can’t do it through the April clones (so why bother with them at all?) so they almost take it from April when they captured her, but Raph saves her. Oh, and when April sees Raph coming to rescue her, she goes, “Oh, great, Raph. He’s never gonna let me live this down.” Holy flying fuck of aces, what the hell are you talking about? Are you seriously being passive-aggressive with the guy who is about to save you? And since when has Raph given you shit about needing rescuing? How did you have the wherewithal to being snarky while you WERE ABOUT TO DIE? Oh, goddammit.

So Raph rescues her and they’re all about to escape, but the Kraang releases all of the April clones – but why? They’re not exactly fighters or useful. But then in an incredible bit of hilarity, the clones grab April and pull her into their masses. The turtles LITERALLY watch her get taken and, somehow, they get confused on which one is the real April! Like, they weren’t distracted or busy or blinded. They lose track of the real April without losing visual contact with her in SECONDS. I couldn’t believe that happened. How did no one on staff watch a screener of this episode, point to this moment of abject stupidity, and yell out, “What the fuck is this shit?” You couldn’t even spend three seconds to alter the turtles attention to make this moment comprehensible?

Don’t worry, they all escape and then Donny looks at April’s DNA and goes, “You’re a human/Kraang mutant, April. That’s why you’re acting like an annoying prat.” He didn’t say that last part, but I wish he did. But who cares, the episode from top to bottom was just an embarrassment, a shitty story told terribly and everyone – writers, storyboarders, animators, producers – should be ashamed of themselves to allow this to air. Just a lazy, lazy nonsensical episode that made the TMNT look pathetically inept. And if this is the direction the show is going, there’s no way I can continue to watch this without going insane.

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