Posts Tagged Cartoons

The Amazing World of Gumball Recaps: “The Laziest” and “The Ghost”


The Amazing World of Gumball S01E06 The Laziest… by Yu-Gi-Oh-the-offical

“The Laziest” – C+

I mentioned this in my last review, but The Amazing World of Gumball will struggle mightily with Richard, perhaps longer than it feels like it should. Richard is the early Homer Simpson, the proto-Peter Griffin: the fat, lazy slob who will only push himself when absolutely necessary or confronted with an absolute obstacle. One of Gumball’s smarted, most slyly cleaver developments will be an adjustment of gender roles. Nicole will lean more on the breadwinner, bill-paying, nine-to-five position, while Richard will be the caretaker and the stay-at-home dad (in incredibly broad terms; the show will blur these lines when the episode calls for it). Right now though, Richard is the laziest person in all of Elmore, and he’s willing to stake a WHOLE WEEK OF CHORES on it.

It’s a fine, if weak, character beat to lean on this early in the show’s run. There have been some bits of character ideas and depth even this early in, but “Richard as the lazy and whiny butt of all jokes” is how they defined the patriarchal pink rabbit, and they’ll utilize that characterization for… perhaps a few seasons longer than necessary. Here, after semi-conning Gumball and Darwin to taking out the trash – a responsibility that was given to him by Nicole – Richard begins a series of competition with his kids concerning the extent of his laziness. First they compete in keeping up with Richard’s unwillingness to move from the couch, then they try to recruit Larry to engage in his past laziness to take their father on. And it’s all fine, cute, and occasionally funny. Yet considering what the show will become – and even compared to the few episodes that we’ve seen so far – it feels all so unnecessary, just a series of gags in which The Amazing World of Gumball takes the lazy dad trope to its extreme.

Except it’s really not to any extreme at all (Gumball will try this idea multiple times throughout the run, and I’d be hard pressed to think of any of them that actually works). The only really inspired, and semi-dark, sequence is the extended scenes in which Gumball and Darwin continually berate and annoy Larry into engaging in their lazy-off with their father, if only due to the insane, wildly-cartoonish ways the episode handles it all. Gumball and Darwin appear in increasingly ridiculous places as their cries of “Please do it, Larry!” become a comically hellish mantra, triggering Larry to lash out at a costumer and his wife, costing him his job and his wife (he loses his car when he leaps out if, unable to escape the sights and sounds of the Watterson boys as well). Larry indeed goes back into his “Lazy Larry” state, but is so lazy that he doesn’t bother with helping the kids. It’s delightfully ironic, an entire bit that the show itself basically declare is a waste of time.

The ironic bits are the strongest elements in the episode – including the bit above, and the also the dick move that Richard pulls at the end. He jumps out of his lethargic state right before Nicole comes home, and she blames the kids for overworking the father while they’re the ones that seem lazy. And that’s… fine, but with no other narrative or thematic to hook that twist with, the end just feels like a mean ironic twist for the sake of it. It feels like the episode is just trying to see if they could get away with that kind of twist, but it doesn’t really add to anything, comedy or story-wise. There is one small bit that worth noting though – the two brief bits that “anthropomorphize” Gumball’s insides, when he’s hopped on sugar and when the subsequent crash hits. Gumball will use both anthropomorphism, exaggerated internal shots, and other cartoonishly perfect metaphors to represent the characters physical and mental states, and this is the first of a long line of brilliant visuals that the show will utilize. There’s elements in this episode that work, but beyond that it’s inessential.

The Ghost – A-

I’m surprised that something as wild and dynamic as “The Ghost” appeared so early in season one. I would have thought this was a late season one, early season two episode. The boldness and specificity of the episode is striking. Hints of body image and dysmorphia, of consent, insecurity, and lack of both underline this episode with quiet but startling clarity. It never quite hones in on any of those topics, but it does brush against them lightly, while also shedding some light into Carrie and exploring the extent of the specificities of the characters. It already did this with Tina, a poor girl who is a dinosaur and lives on garbage and lashes out via bullying, and now it’ll do something similar with Carrie, a young ghost girl who never tasted food or even had a body (the show won’t explain how she died, which is for the best). The show’s gradual development and focus on those classmates will continue with some fantastic episodes, but for now, we’re pretty much on Gumball’s second outing on this approach.

But back to the first point, about the body image and dysmorphia, consent, and insecurity: all those elements are there in the inciting incident of this episode. Carrie envies Gumball and Darwin’s ability to eat and enjoy food, so Gumball allows Carrie to possess his body so she can experience taste again. Well, that’s not quite what happens. Really, Darwin for some reason mentions that Gumball would be totally receptive to having his body possesses, and Gumball clearly is uncomfortable with it. This probably the most “antagonistic” Darwin will be portrayed as, in which his general kindness and naivety is forced upon others. It’s a bit of a manipulation, although one Darwin isn’t often aware of: since he’s nice, then listening to him will result in nice things too. Of course, that’s a clear problem here. Gumball doesn’t want to, you know, lose control of his whole sense of autonomy, but he reluctantly accepts under the guises of being Darwin-nice.

What results is some hilarious and wildly insane bedlam. Carrie’s possession of Gumball is both creepy and hilarious, resulting in a wild, Go-Pro-POV, sped-up shot of possessed-Gumball going on a vicious binge of eating endless amounts of food. It’s a remarkable series of animated bit, both exhilarating and disturbing, especially when it leaves Gumball waking up in a pile of trash with hazy recollections of what happened. The Amazing World of Gumball often skirts that perfect line between comedy and discomfort, and it’s fascinating to see the show really working to emphasize this – from Darwin’s misguided understanding of what it means to be nice, to the desperation Gumball goes to weasel out of it (per his father’s advice), and in particular how the most pointed advice – just saying no (per his mother) – grows into legit danger when Carrie doesn’t accept it.

“The Ghost” has a number of various lines that get hit the point with very little nuance. Richard laughing at a bloated Gumball, only to realize he himself rocks a muffintop, cries, “It’s only funny when it happens to someone else’s body!” which is a direct critique of easy weight-related jokes. Gumball voices a sincerity when he mentions Carrie having “a real problem,” and the loss of what to do about this creates a tension that in itself rivals the back and forth that occurs between Gumball and Carrie, both outside and inside his body. Yet as disturbing as all this is, “The Ghost” doesn’t seem to delve into the full, dark, volatile nature of what exactly is happening. It touches upon all the awkward ways people can manipulate and control others, and also how weight, body image, and dysmorphia can be damaging, but it keeps things on the comic side (which is fine, and preferable at this stage in season one), but it never quite brings those two points together. The ending, in which Carrie just possesses Richard instead, undercuts the depth of the topics in the wrong ways, and even though the show is aware of the irony of the ending (Darwin’s “Another happy ending” declaration is clear), the fleeting nature of the humor overpowers the seriousness of the events. No matter. The Amazing World of Gumball is still testing the waters. It’ll be diving into those topics with full force soon enough.

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The Amazing World of Gumball Recaps: “The Pressure” and “The Painting”


The Amazing World Of Gumball S01E05 The… by Yu-Gi-Oh-the-offical

“The Pressure” – B

In previous reviews, I mentioned missing the more low-key, easy-going pacing of the early seasons of The Amazing World of Gumball, but I have to admit that what I really miss is the childish interplay between the school kids. A lot. As The Amazing World of Gumball gets more satirical, poignant, direct, bold, and ambitious, it does begin to move away from this particular dynamic of its school kids being school kids – gossipy, confused, bossy, embarrassed, silly, immature, and awkward. Gumball will do a series of episodes that focus on each individual character in the class – a remarkably simple idea that not even The Simpsons has done – but it will sacrifice a lot of the specifics of the classroom setting as it reaches for loftier goals. Those goals are indeed worthwhile, and I wouldn’t have it any other way, but these straight-forward, low-key, classmates-being-classmates stories are pretty fun in themselves.

I somewhat get why the made the move away from it though: Masami is usually the progenitor for the conflict, who is introduced here as the stuck-up, manipulative “mean girl” who always wants to be the best and have everything go her way. I will have a lot to say about Masami in the future. For right now though, it’s good enough to notice that she’s the one who takes “control” of the treehouse situation, changing the topic of conversation from the design of the treehouse to boys, and, in order to one-up the various girls’ make-believe boyfriends, sets her sights on Darwin and “forces” him to be her boyfriend. It’s really because she knows he’s easy to work, using her feminine wiles and his panicky sensitivity to maintain an appearance of them dating, just to win that first kiss. It’s all silly, basic stuff, but it’s the show’s easy-going, confident nature that keeps the episode moving.

At this point in the show, the Gumball/Penny relationship (or, more accurately, burgeoning relationship) is a bit of a weak point. Gumball being goofy and nervous in front of Penny has been one thing – the generic awkwardness of a young crush – but here, it feels like a lot of that awkwardness is forced to the side, such that Gumball and Penny come together relatively easily (and, even weirder, without a single other person, girl or boy, really saying anything about their mutual crush). This is mainly done so that it can lead to the point where Gumball and Darwin kiss each other unknowingly, off-screen, but that’s a flat resolution, especially since we don’t see it, and especially after “The Dress,” which really up’d the grossness of a Gumball/Darwin “connection,” way beyond what a kiss would do.

There are some other flaws here too. Darwin needing to come up for air in the pool is just a straight-up writer’s mistake. That Gumball, Darwin, and Tobias are on some kind of friendly-speaking level feels sudden, and while The Amazing World of Gumball is generally on-and-off with how Tobias and Gumball relate, seeing this so soon after “The Third” creates a weird whiplash feeling. The show is still in an “episodic” mode, so there’s some leeway here (The Amazing World of Gumball actively subverts ideas of episodic vs. serialized storytelling; in fact, it subverts and deconstructs storytelling in a whole bunch of ways, but we’re not quite at that point), but it still feels a bit off. Still, “The Pressure” makes the ridiculousness of the situation clear: the whole boys vs. girls dilemma is portrayed as stupid as it is merely by having Tobias and Banana Joe the “villains”. The strained writing and lack of a bigger “point” really holds it back. (I should mention that there is one section that feels a bit sharp: when Rocky mentions how when he opens up to women, this causes them to runaway. It’s a pretty brief but dark reveal, a shade of Gumball’s cynicism skills, but it’s really set up to contrast how other shows uses simplistic “just tell her how you feel!” advice to solve its problems. Here, Musami just manipulates the situation further. Gumball can be, and will be, more sincere and optimistic, but it will not suffer fools lightly – characters will have to commit to that mindset for the show to accept it.)

The Painting – A

And that’s pretty much what they do in “The Painting,” the first fantastic, fully-committed episode of The Amazing World of Gumball’s first season. It’s not a perfect episode. It’s a bit clunky at times, and some of the individual stories feel a bit out of whack, but Gumball’s first season’s inconsistency is actually used to its advantage here. Underneath all the hemming and hawing, the insanity and wacky behavior, Gumball does believe in an authenticity – a true affection towards its central family, despite its broken, dysfunctional nature. And what makes this work is that Anais is indeed being honest here, but also that The Wattersons aren’t simply an anomaly of brokenness. The Amazing World of Gumball makes it clear that the various characters in the world of the show are just as broken, ridiculous, and shitty as our central family, so who the hell are these random people to say how this family should be? Everyone has to live through the same nutty, cartoony world that makes or breaks these characters, and that makes “right, wholesome living” impossible.

There’s quite a lot going on in this episode, and those depths are along the outskirts, just underneath the surface if you know where to look. You’ll notice how Principal Brown immediately comes to the worst conclusion of Anais’ home life after seeing her painting, perhaps a commentary on how school officials overreact to student’s artistic and creative outputs. You’ll notice the constant dismissals of Anais’ objections, which feels both ageist and sexist – that the very creator of the artwork is never given a chance to explain herself. This is also supported by the general idea that Anais is the gifted one in the family, the smartest one with the best chance of success, yet for some reason her work is “art-splained” by others. Yeah, there’s a sense that the environment that Anais lives in may not be the most supportive of her gifts, but honestly, neither is the Amazing World itself. Gumball will do a lot of great work developing Anais, and the reactions to her and her abilities, but the fact that the show is already doing great work this early on provides it a stable foundation to build upon.

For Anais to thrive, Brown more or less guilts The Watterson into becoming a better family, but while we know that’s doomed to fail, we get to see why and how. Not everything is The Wattersons’ fault. Take for instance Richard’s story, who can’t even get through the automated door. It causes him to be late, and he’s immediately fired. Richard has absolutely no desire to work – he screams at Brown for nearly a minute at the mere suggestion – but he will do it for his daughter. That he failed isn’t so much because he’s too stupid to do it; it’s because the “world” literally is preventing him. Think this is an exaggeration? They make this entirely literal in a future episode, and oh boy will we get to that – but for now, understand that despite Richard’s idiocy and laziness, he does try. (In all honestly, The Amazing World of Gumball will have some… problems in how to make Richard work a lot story-wise, and we’ll talk about that a lot too when that comes up.)

Nicole’s story is, admittedly, a bit bland. It makes sense for her as a character, at this point in the show at least, a reflection of her prowess as the homemaker and the breadmaker, although I don’t think it’s clear that Nicole is the only one paying the bills at this point. She destroys the house partly to give her something to do after cleaning it to a spit-shine, and partly because she’s going crazy after being so bored with her situation of domesticity. (Gumball will push that point further later on.) The Mr. Small/Gumball/Darwin storyline splits the middle, with a number of soft but amusing bits in which Small tries to get the boys to focus their anger energy into different outlets, despite them not making sense or actually hurting the kids. The interpretive dance stuff is nonsensical, although Darwin is won over by it, and the paint scene is hilarious if only because the paint actually gets into the boys’ eyes. Mr. Small is an overwrought, ridiculous hippie character, but at the very least a portion of what he teaches does work, so he’s not wholly useless. The entire endeavor is useless, though: Anais finally gets to speak her mind, and she reveals that while, yes, her family has serious issues, she loves them unconditionally. And it’s sappy, but it’s earnest, and even she gets to join in the chaos of dysfunction as part of the Wattersons unit. Principal Brown may not understand it, but it’s not up to him. Anais is happy, and the Wattersons are happy, and that’s what matters.

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The Lion Guard Barely Covers Up Its Naturally Oppressive World on Purpose

 

The setting in The Lion Guard – a gorgeous, detailed, lush savannah of forests, grasslands, plains, and mountains – is at once both wondrous and dangerous. In fact, it’s downright oppressive. The Lion Guard takes from its source – The Lion King – its central ethos, The Circle of Life, and culls a deeply uncomfortable caste system and social regulatory system of control and power. The Lion King already had problems with its weird-to-examine politics. Hyenas were always just an evil, and once they were in power food and water magically disappeared (I don’t know how to parse the Hitler imagery either, but that’s a topic for another day). The Lion Guard doubles down on that. The Circle of Life suggests that all animals should have access to the food they need, but in particular carnivores can only eat what (or in this case, who) they need. The implication is that the various villains in the show are (meat)eating more than their fare share, which is why they need to be stopped, but also, they have to do so in their clearly demarcated regions. And anyway, after the first few episodes, the show just portrayed the carnivorous animals as a net bad.

This leads to a lot of problems in terms of what clear lessons that The Lion Guard tries to espouse. But I wonder if The Lion Guard is even trying to espouse any lessons at all – or more accurately, I wonder if the show is trying to espouse the kinds of lessons we’re used to seeing in our pre-school, toddler-aimed, animated programs. The show will play lip service to lesson-learning for sure.  There’s episodes about acceptance and tolerance, not judging books by their cover, trusting one another, lies that go too far, recognizing and acknowledging that you’re overworked and need help, thinking things through, etc. Nothing you’ve never seen before in preschool-demo animation. But there’s a clear paradox at play. How can an episode of The Lion Guard espouse a lesson of love, tolerance, and acceptance, when the very existence and adherence to The Circle of Life mandates a pretty uncomfortable segregationist policy? Those core lessons and overall worldview can’t really co-exist. I’m somewhat reminded of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, how its ponies are branded for life with a singular lot, and how that show has to jump through hoops to justify its natural world forcing its characters into specific roles for life. (The show mostly skates by this by suggesting ponies cutie marks are their best, most natural talent, and in sharing it with others, it fulfills them one hundred percent. No pony seems to regret or detest their mark/life’s position. It doesn’t really work for the most part – the show is better off avoiding the issue – but the scant few episodes that do question this tend to be the most interesting. Sorry for the aside.)

Unlike My Little Pony though, The Lion Guard has the savagery of the natural world to content with. It doesn’t really play coy with the nature of the animals in this show, other than avoiding any and all visuals of the carnivorous animals eating one another. It’ll spout facts about various unique creatures indigenous to Africa, which is pretty cool and greatly informative. But it’s hard to tell if the writers are aware of how incompatible it is to teach basic lessons while butting up against its Circle of Life natural philosophy and nature’s blunt cruelty. The Circle of Life is the show’s strained way of injecting a sense of a “civilized order” to its nature-based characters, the way through which it can channel its lessons in some sort of narrative form, but the contradictions and paradoxes and outright failures of the combination of the two are too hard to ignore (and a few critics I know have noticed this). And honestly? I think the writers are distinctly aware of it too.

Think about it like this. The Disney execs saw an episode in which the Guard, a bunch of young kids essentially, constantly beat up a family of jackals who just needed to eat. They violently prevented them from eating in the still-lush regions of the Pridelands, forcing them back into the food-starved Outlands as a looming dry season approaches, and that includes the jackal family’s kids, too – kids who aren’t portrayed as evil, soulless creeps, but innocent, endearing, passionate easily swayed moppets. The Disney execs saw all this, wiped their hands, and gave it their stamp of approval. If this was American Dad, it would’ve been a dark, but exaggeratedly hilarious, bit. If it was Rick and Morty, it would have been an extremely bleak, highly disturbing bit that resulted in laughs solely to wall off against the cruelty. In The Lion Guard, it’s just all so matter-of-fact, so normal, just part of the world and the rules in which everyone follows. No one seems even hint at the moral grayness of this situation.

The Lion Guard doesn’t let its characters, and by proxy, its young audience, change or even question the ecosystem, the environment in which their placed. It instead portrays them as characters who can simply manage, or survive, or enforce, that system. The Lion Guard isn’t going to ask Kion, Ono, Fuji, Beshte, or especially Bunga, to question their worldview, and all the problems in it. Why should they? They’re fucking kids. Looking at a problematic world and finding solutions should be the parents’ job. But the adults in the world are locked in their ways, refusing to even bat an eye at the idea of, let’s say, a family of seemingly-poor (however you’d define this in animal terms) jackals searching for ways to feed their kids. If that sounds disturbing to you, which includes scenes of very young jackals conniving to feed themselves, only to actually get their asses kicked, well, don’t expect the show to comment it. This is your world, out world, and the savannah only reflect that.

Instead, The Lion Guard basically refuses to showoff concrete lessons about sharing or tolerance (they’re there, but there’s always an asterisk on those stories). In the wilds of the Pridelands, the show prefers emphasizing the rules of civilized survival and managed control, and, in its most surprising truth, is one hundred percent okay with the utilization of violence for that goal. It pretty much has to be. Nature is savage, and try as they might, no amount of glossing over it will hide its objective harshness. That the show tries to “justify” it with The Circle of Life is questionable at best and laughable at worst, and as these episodes pass by, it’s a bit clearer that the writers are questioning and laughing along side of us. If you had to combine the savagery of nature, the hierarchy of the food chain, and the nonsensical animal stereotypes that The Lion King traffics into something digestible and manageable, The Circle of Life is the grossest but easiest thing you could come up with.

And in the macro sense, there’s something deeply serious worth discussing here – if The Circle of Life is the defacto rule of this world, then the Guard are a special police squad out to enforce a level of control at the state level (handed down by so-called (super)natural, spiritual forces, as per Rafiki’s magic paintings, and authorized by Simba, the king), which is deeply troubling, but admittedly an extreme reading of things. The more likely reading is that The Pridelands and The Circle of Life are clearly problematic in combination, and the show is presenting it all in its full, uncomfortable glory. If you’re troubled by the the contradictions at play, at how the episodic lessons seem to not-at-all reflect the world’s rules-by-decree, it’s simply just a reflection our our world and our society, a society that espouses lessons of love, tolerance, acceptance, and all those things claimed by a “civilized, orderly” world, only to contradict itself with violence, segregation, war, and discrimination. If you’re looking for the young kids of the Guard to question this… why? That should be Simba’s job, or Nala’s, or Zazu’s. Not one adult who should know better is self-reflective enough to call The Circle of Life to task, so looking to mere children to do so is even more asinine. The Lion Guard’s “positive lessons” are contradictions are hard to parse, until you think about it in terms of our so-called civilized society as a whole, and the show is really a reflection of that —

— and the abject violence that The Lion Guard is all to willing to engage in.

And I think we should talk about violence, and violence in cartoons, and The Lion Guard (and Disney as a whole, natch) is a good jumping off spot. This is going to take an extremely long time to parse and will be continued in another essay. For now, it’s good enough to simply reflect on The Lion Guard and its contradictions, and how the discomfort it causes is probably more satirical and allegorical of how human society works, more than we’d like to admit. It’s a show with a society of birds that engage in elaborate bureaucracy only to rarely get anything done. It’s maybe more knowing than you think. It’s just weird that Disney Junior cartoon.

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