Posts Tagged Cartoons
Tumblr Tuesday is back! The best of Tumblr is available here. I’m going through a small backlog, so it’ll take a few weeks to get this thing current.
After so many weeks of being absent, I have finally returned. Part of my disappearance was due to an increase in work (which has since died down, kind of). Some of it was due to the sheer number of TV shows finishing up their seasons, which of course I had to catch. Some of it was general fatigue – between work, television, and the gym, my body was beginning to wear itself down. I needed to mentally and physically rest. But now I’m back, and not only are essays on their way, but there should be some other things coming too.
But this isn’t about that – this is about the “World Tour” ventures that Goliath, Angela, Bronx, and Elisa are embarking on in the wake of the Avalon saga. As Tom yells to Elisa: “Avalon does not take you where you want to go, Avalon sends you where you need to be.” In other words, while we’re still in the midst of season two, this feels like a new season, or at least a reboot of some sort, a mystical way to create some breathing room between all those crazy, complex, wild events from before and the events coming up. While it’s bit early to tell how things will go, right now it feels like a good idea. Fewer characters, fewer schemes, fewer plotlines – not that Gargoyles was a particularly tough show to keep up with, it was just coming dangerously close to crushing itself under its massive complexity. With episodes like “Shadows of the Past,” the show gets some room to breathe.
“Shadows of the Past” is a unique episode not just of Gargoyles, but of animated TV in general. There’s no real action until late in the episode; instead, there’s a lot of pondering and rumination. It’s no coincidence Disney brought in their A-TEAM animation crew for this, to signify the “reboot” nature of this series and to give the necessary visual panache to an episode dedicated to thinking and talking existentially. It was the details I love most; Elisa almost tripping when she’s climbing a cliff, the wind blowing through her and Angela’s hair, Goliath panting in fear and fatigue – and the strong visuals match up to a strong character-driven episode.
Working with such few characters helps this show immensely, in particular how it focuses on Goliath’s attempt to keep his sanity and Elisa’s and Angela’s attempts to calm him now. Goliath taking stock on his past and his role in the events that happened in “Awakenings” is powerful stuff, and kudos to Michael and Brynne Chandler Reaves to really work and break down his mental state. Gargoyles are driven by both the need to protect and the need to avenge. Without the former, they’re aimless and lost; without the latter, they’re lacking and dishonored. “Shadows of the Past” brings up the latter point to great effect; by not being there for his clan when they were killed, and failing to adequately seek revenge on those who betrayed/killed his clan, has Goliath truly failed in his role as leader?
Essentially, the answer is yes, he failed, but it was far from his fault, and it’s true that Goliath has to come to terms with. But it’s hard, and the two mysterious energy spirits that grant Goliath his fevered visions aren’t helping. I love how the episode lets the weirdness drives the stakes here; it’s pretty obvious that everything he sees is fake, especially when the stone-versions of his former clan appears before him, but to Goliath, all of this is real. The tension isn’t in the audience trying to figure out what is real and what isn’t, but in hoping that Goliath can figure it out for himself. That’s a bold move, letting the audience root for Goliath and not the narrative.
The visions being perpetuated by two green spirit “things,” revealed to be Hakon (the leader of the Vikings which destroyed the gargoyles) and the Captain of the Guard (who betrayed the gargoyles to the Vikings). I’m not sure if the show will get into it, but the episode barely pays lip service to explaining how and why the two are in spirit form, and how they are generating the magic ability to cause such visions. It’s irrelevant thought, as the point is that these two are trapped souls driven by hate and revenge, working in tandem to draw Goliath’s life force out and apply it to themselves, restoring it to them. It doesn’t really make sense (the location where this all take place is nebulous at best), but it doesn’t have to. The point is that Goliath’s guilt is being exploited by Hakon and the Captain.
Once again, the theme of purpose and drives are full force and center, but here, the question of that drive is brought into focus. Gargoyles hasn’t really put a lot of stock into the thought of whether the ideas that drive a person to continue on is justified, at least not until this episode, and I’m curious if that something the show will explore later on. Here, though, as the Captain watches Hakon draw Goliath’s life force away, he too takes stock of his role in the gargoyles’ destruction, and realizes his own failures. He attempts to atone for this by attacking Hakon, and in a visually strong moment, the two spar within the strange, hieroglyphic-laden structure as everything glows and surges around them. Again, there’s no clarity as to exactly what’s going on, but the idea is clear. Everything explodes, and when the smoke clears, the Captain is finally granted the freedom to move on into the afterlife. He and Goliath, after thousands of years, finally come to, if not an understanding, then at least a peace.
Goliath and company head back out into the waters to try and head home, and Hakon is trapped in rock, and its telling that what upsets him the most is not being trapped, but not having anyone to hate. For you see, having nothing to drive you is a fate worse than being stuck somewhere for all eternity, a fate that, as Goliath mentions, he chose for himself. It’s a strong episode, one of the best since “Awakenings,” really. I kinda feel bad for Elisa at the end though, who has to wait by the stoned gargoyles all day before they can move on.
After such a great outing with “Shadows of the Past,” “Heritage” is a letdown. The A-TEAM animation is replaced with Sun Min, who do passable work, although I’m not sure they were given a strong script to work with. “Heritage” is a lot more episodic, attempting to be something like the really fun “Protection,” where the Elisa and the gargoyles appear in a random locale with problems, get involved, and fight their way into saving the day. With a little more work and time Gargoyles will most assuredly get better at this during this “reboot” period, but “Heritage,” comparatively speaking, feels sophomoric.
Part of the issue is that it kinda plays uncomfortably in the “Native Americans are all about their past and closeness to the earth!” cliche, with only a few moments of depth that allow it to surpass it. Adam Gilad, the episode’s writer, most likely meant well when writing this episode, but a lot of the developments border on generic stereotypes, like Natsilane (who’s Westernized nickname, Nick, is portrayed as being distancing from his heritage), who is so engaged in Western ideas (he graduated Harvard, ya’ll!) that he isn’t able to connect to his Haida history, and as a result the land is dying.
“Heritage” isn’t a bad episode per se, but it’s definitely lacking. After a weird sea monster attacks their boat and simply swims away (the gargoyles put up a good fight but there’s no way in hell they could’ve bested that beast), they find themselves separated from Elisa. Elisa, near-dead, is nursed back to health by Nick’s grandmother, who is referred to as Grandmother, while the gargoyles side with a creature-gargoyle named Raven. For a chunk of the episode, there is an interesting grey area, the story blurring the line of who’s the real villain: Raven claims Grandmother is persecuting his brethren, while Grandmother claims Raven is sucking the land dry and taking it for himself. The episode isn’t a moral quandary though. It’s clear that Raven is the true villain.
The episode doesn’t explain who he is outside of a dangerous evil being, and even though there’s always the chance we’ll see Raven in the future, the episode doesn’t hint at anything significant, or even why he’s wants the land in the first place. Part of me thought he was one of Oberon’s children, the dark elves that pop up from time to time to just cause trouble (like Puck), but it’s revealed that Grandmother is actually one of Oberon’s children. (SPOILER: some research revealed that Raven is a children of Oberon, which raises the question why Raven and Grandmother were fighting in the first place. I mean, we could get into a whole thing about Oberon’s relationship to the Haida history and the land, and I’m eager to see if Gargoyles will get into that, but I have my doubts).
There are some things I like about this episode. I like that Angela noticed what looked to be an animation error – a wing from a flying monster moving through one of Raven’s fake-gargoyle – as an illusion and played it cool, revealing it to her father later. It’s only been two episodes (not counting “Avalon”) and we don’t have a real sense of who Angela is, but she seems to be a bright, self-sufficient character who can kick ass. We haven’t passed the Bechdel test yet, since Elisa and Angela so far have talked mostly about Goliath and other males in the show, but I don’t think it can quite apply here. Still, I’m curious to see if they both move past that and grow as characters. Angela is still a blank slate, but any more development on Elisa is always welcome!
As for the episode… well, after Angela exposes Raven for the sham he is, all the layers come tumbling down. Grandmother exposes herself as a child of Oberon, the gargoyles reveal themselves to Nick, gaining his trust and restoring his belief in “the old ways,” and he gains all the necessary magic powers to defeat Raven, in a surprisingly anti-climatic fight scene. Again, it’s a bit unclear what Grandmother’s connection to the land is – the ending sequence, where Grandmother’s hair turns into water that restores life to the land is oddly not commented upon – and while the show’s commitment to accuracy is commendable, correctly placing the Haida tribe in western Canada, it isn’t exactly on point when it comes to clothing.
“Heritage” feels like a placeholder, an episode designed to given the whole “World Tour” premise some context – that is, to display the kind of episode adventures these core characters will find themselves in. I do hope things from a narrative perspective will improve though. The potential is there. Hell, I even enjoyed Raven, with his sassy remarks, he makes a for a entertaining villain who seems to enjoy himself, a nice addition to the self-serious badguys of Gargoyles’ rogue gallery. But “Heritage” focus on “Othering” without giving characters like Nick something to build on other than the “get in touch with your roots!” type of agency that he has in the entire episode makes it overall disappointing. I’m hoping we’ll see Nick, Grandmother, or Raven again, but I feel like, other than Raven, this is a narrative thread the show won’t be coming back to. It’s understandable – Avalon most likely have more significant events for our characters to deal with. I could be wrong though.
“Shadows of the Past” A / “Heritage” B-
Today’s animated feature films are somehow both wildly diverse and unfortunately repetitive. Pixar, Dreamworks, Blue Sky, and Disney have engaged in brand new and creative worlds that, to its detriment, often star protagonists with wild dreams that inevitably come true, or battle impossible odds wherein victory lies in being true to oneself. It’s limiting for sure, but that doesn’t mean the execution needs to be lacking. In this case, Pixar and Dreamworks focused on those themes through two similar stories of small, anthropomorphic animals that dreamed big and would do anything to achieve those dreams, god dammit. And while Ratatouille had the heart and the chutzpah to be memorable and deep, Turbo floundered like a $200 million dollar joke. Let’s not kid ourselves: both concepts (a rat that wants to cook, a snail that wants to go fast) are ridiculous. Yet Pixar’s film draws us in, while Dreamworks’ film just pissed us off. Here’s why:
1) Remy’s dream is improbable. Turbo’s dream is impossible. The “rat” is symbolic of a kitchen that should be shut down. So Remy’s desire to cook in a professional kitchen is essentially up against what we as humans would categorize as healthy or sanitary. Remy is fighting against an admittedly justified stigma. In addition, he is simple a small rat from nowhere. No one, human nor rat, thinks much of him or his desire. Remy’s core obstacles are both personal and social. This makes the odds of his success extremely slim – but plausible. All he needs is someone to vouch for him (personal) and a location loose enough to allow that opportunity to flourish (social). When he gets that chance, he succeeds.
Turbo’s dream, on the other hand, is fucking stupid. It goes against nature and physics. I mean, it’s a idealistic dream, but it’s a magical one, akin to daydreaming about flying or walking through walls. Turbo – although I should call him by his real name, Theo – is wishing for something that literally defies science. I know that, in a cartoon, one can stretch the limits of the imagination and physicality of what is possible within the show’s world. But we’re not watching a film where magic exists “if you just know where to look.” Theo’s achievement of speed was a goddamn mistake, a freak accident that should have killed him. But no! Instead, he’s given Sonic the Hedgehog speed. What makes this particularly problematic is that, despite completely redefining quantum mechanics, technically Theo has received his wish. He wanted to go fast, and by “magical” circumstance, he achieved it. Why exactly does he need to prove himself in the Indy 500?
2) Remy’s knowledge of cooking is presentable and informative. Turbo’s knowledge of racing is lacking and irrelevant. Ratatouille is not focused on a rat that just wants to cook. Remy shows that he knows and understand cooking. From the appeal of mixing flavors to his intimate knowledge of the roles of all the chefs in a kitchen, the movie shows that Remy has put in his “10,000 hours” of study. Ratatouille is more than a film about a rat with foodie aspirations – it is a film about the wonders and appeal of cooking, the majesty and intricate details of how the best cooks around the world achieve their status. It is a hands-on look on cooking (the idea that one has to bribe the delivery man to get the freshest fruits and vegetables will never cease to amaze me). Remy’s tale allows the audience to examine a new, unexplored world that is cuisine.
Turbo has no such aspirations. Turbo tells us nothing about snails, or shopping plazas, or racing (at least Cars had the decency to explore a dying slice of Americana during the Route 66 scenes). Theo’s knowledge is how to work a VCR (a VCR?) when watching old tapes of various races. He knows the names of various fabricated race car drivers, but seems to lack the knowledge of how racing rules work. If he knows, the movie doesn’t let us in on the sport’s arcane secrets. There’s a scene where Theo finds a race car and begins to point out various intricacies of the machine. Yet he doesn’t explain what any of these parts mean or do (to be clear – he doesn’t need to explain it, but the film does). Turbo just wants to go fast, but he doesn’t put in the time or practice or study needed to achieve any goal from it. He’s allowed to race in the Indy 500 because a video goes viral for god sake (and it seems like he’s only allowed in if only to quell a rising mob). His achievements are bullshit.
3) Remy connections to the cast around him is meaningful. Turbo’s connections to the cast around him are tossed aside. As Remy runs into various characters his journey (his brother Emile, his father Django, his “partner” Alfredo, his “mentor” Colette, his enemy Skinner), they become an intricate part of his life, whether he wants to or not. These character aid or distract him on his journey, showcasing that despite his desire for cooking, there are various lives that he’s affecting, from inadvertently forcing his rat family from his home to closing down the restaurant at the end. His life, his existence, and his dreams have an impact on those around him, and vice versa. The causes and effects of his actions have consequences. There may be a happy ending, and there may be a bit of heavy-handedness (Alfredo being Gusteau’s son is as “writerly” as it gets), but overall the film understands the full weight, impact, and meaning of his pursuit.
Turbo lacks all of that. The only real piece of dramatic weight here lies between Turbo and his brother, Chet. Turbo seeks to make that significant by paralleling it with the relationship between the Dos Tacos brothers, Tito and Angelo. If the film wasn’t so sadly sincere, Tito could be considered legally mentally challenged. The film wants their dreams to seem both outlandish and within their grasp, but the sheer insanity of it is hard to buy, even by cartoon standards. Chet and Angelo are correct. Turbo and Tito’s dreams are accomplished by magic, a con, and a near-riot. And you know what? That wouldn’t be too much of an issue if their failures were given real dramatic weight. I mean, Theo got Chet fired, the fallout of which feels like something worth exploring, but his kidnapping by the crow changed the moment into a generic chase scene. The various talks between the realists (Chet/Angelo) and the idealists (Theo/Tito) feel perfunctory instead of necessary. Tito never considers at least having Turbo race for a bit of time to earn a nice cash cushion before making extreme decisions – no, he manipulates his Starlight cronies into handing him the Indy entry fee (if there was any time that a movie needed a “earning-money-montage” scene, it here). Chet’s absolute real concerns about a tiny snail racing massive, accident-prone vehicles isn’t a legit fear but portrayed like it’s just a “bug up Chet’s ass”. The movie portrays Chet reluctance to potentially watch Turbo DIE as lack of sibling faith, and this is terrifyingly misconstrued.
4) Ratatoullie has a well-developed set of side characters. Turbo has the worst set of side character I’ve seen since the Rescuers Down Under. [This point actually surprised me the most, as the previews made it seem like Turbo’s goofy side characters would be at least somewhat important to Theo’s journey (and the surprisingly great Turbo FAST gave them a simple but notable depth that is completely absent from the film).]
Remile, Django, Alfredo, Colette, and Skinner, have roles to play within Remy’s journey. They also have dreams and desires of their own. Remy’s actions interfere and intervene with their lives, causing fear, jealousy, frustration, and anger – but also wonder, amazement, encouragement, and happiness. Every character has their own individual goals – Skinner wants to sell frozen foods, Colette wants to be a real chef and not contend with a bumbling Alfredo, etc. The side characters in Ratatouille are appealing and driven by their own aspirations. They feel like characters that existed beyond Remy’s life.
Turbo’s side characters are pathetic. Other then Chet (and, if we’re stretching, Tito), the various characters exist solely to either denounce Turbo’s dreams or shout “GO!” during the climax. These are not people or characters. These are props, objects that are just there to give or take away something from Theo’s journey. The various people in the Starlight Plaza, Bobby, Paz, and Kim-Ly, literally just exist to give Tito money to enter the Indy 500. And the BIG NAME CELEBRITY SNAILS, which include Samuel L. Jackson, Maya Rudolph, and Snoop Dog, add nooooooooothing. Like, I can’t even stress this enough. They aren’t even comic relief, let alone mentors or advice-givers, or even “shoulder-to-cry-on” devices. Jackson as “Whiplash” kinda gives a half-hearted speech in the end (although it’s really tossed to Chet, who gives the REAL speech), but every single other character, be it snail or human, offer nothing (Rudolph’s “Burn” is a particular embarrassment. How much was she paid to spout terrible romantic dialogue at Chet at exactly three points in the entire film?). Turbo FAST’s first few episodes are flat because they’re literally rebuilding the character development from scratch.
5) Pixar visuals added to Remy’s story. Dreamworks’ visuals subtracted from it. So neither film here really spends a tremendous amount of effort with their visuals, to be honest, but at the very least, Ratatouille makes cooking, as well as the actual cooked food, look appealing. Emphasizing the value and importance of the food works to present Remy’s desire as, well, desirable. The appeal of the cuisine and the wonders of cooking isn’t exactly an excuse to open the animation floodgates, but this does allow Pixar to focus on specific details of the dishes and of the kitchen, with appealing whites and golds as the scenic “rewards” compared to the black and greens of the sewers, literally the lowest point of Remy’s journey.
Dreamworks has pushed visual boundaries with Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon, utilizing frantic, fast-past action and breathtaking, soaring vistas respectively, in affect allowing audiences to re-examine what and how an animated film can showcase a particular scene (I think Dreamworks have been pushing this boundary more so than Pixar, but that’s a debate for another day). Unfortunately, the one thing that Turbo could have excelled at ended up leaving a lot to be desired. There’s not much going on with the designs of the snails (unless you find porn-staches the height of character design), and the humans are as flumpy and distorted as ever, which has become Dreamworks’ signature human design. But what about the racing scenes? Flat and perfunctory, lacking the panache and dynamics that fill practically every frame in KFP and HtTYD. Turbo’s final race, in particular, is surprisingly listless. The “marbles” appear only when Turbo has to drive through them. The camera is mostly static and eye-level, lacking intriguing swooping angles and dramatic pans and/or tilts. Nothing really emphasizes the threat Turbo is up against (although, to be fair, the film never bothers to suggest that a snail going against race cars is a horrifying ordeal). Everything is clean-cut and soft around the edges. Cars has more life to it.
Ratatouille focused on a degree of realism in the characters’ investment and succeeded. Turbo tried the same and failed. A movie like that would have been better served by emphasizing more ridiculous, goofier aesthetics, akin to Over the Hedge, The Emperor’s New Groove, or Pirates! A Band of Misfits (this is the approach that Turbo FAST is taking, to wondrous results). When it comes to small animals wanting to be like (rich, successful) people, you’re better off working with something that has some basis of personal connectivity, not idealistic miracles. For a movie about a speeding snail, Turbo is stuck between a rock and a hard place.
(Turbo’s tone-deaf mediocrity can be summed up by the fact that it mixed Tupac’s “Holla if You Hear Me” with Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger.” That is unfor-fucking-giveable.)