Posts Tagged Comedy

INTERVIEW WITH TAD STONES – Darkwing Duck

Tad Stones, the creator of Darkwing Duck, took some time to answer some questions about his show. If you want to learn more, check out my review of Ducktales and the subsequent interview with Mr. Stones about the one cartoon that started it all.

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TMB: So it’s pretty much known that Darkwing Duck is a non-direct spin-off of Ducktales – specifically, the “Double-O-Duck” episode. Can we get a little rundown why the secret spy angle was replaced with the superhero angle?

TS: Simple, Jeffrey Katzenberg hated my spy take. Of course, I hated it too. He felt “Double-O Duck” was a super marketable name in search of a great show so he made me attack it again. So I went Doc Savage (the team), the Shadow/Green Hornet with it but still had the spy connection. Once Gosalyn was added we had a show with heart and personality at the center of it so when we found out we couldn’t use the name, it didn’t matter. The show stood on its own.

TMB: Darkwing Duck is a pretty great character, and Jim Cumming nails the voice. What’s interesting is how over the course of the season, he and the character starts to add more nuances and vocal tics – sarcastic impersonations, trailing off when flustered, hilarious stammering, and so on. Did Cummings himself add that to the mix? Was it tricky to animate around? It’s not something seen extensively in other Disney Afternoon cartoons.

TS: It was the partnership of Jim Cummings and Ginny McSwain, our voice director. Jim would explore different reactions while Ginny pinpointed the things that sounded unique and played them back to him. Then she’d remind him to use a certain reaction in another show. The two of them built a sonic vocabulary for Darkwing which help make him distinct. Ginny never got any publicity support or fans would really appreciate all the great work she did. She did most of the casting for the show.

TMB: Similarly, Darkwing Duck is particularly more slapstick and “wackier” than the other cartoons in Disney Afternoon. Was there a particular reason for this direction? Did it help to allow for episodes like “Darkwing Dabloon” and “Comic Book Capers,” where the episode is a bit different tone-wise, or blatantly self-aware?

TS: It was something I wanted to do but I had to sell it. The Disney tradition, pre-Genie, was all about sincerity and the audience losing themselves in the story. I remember a major discussion about whether Darkwing should ever address the camera. I love playing with the form of storytelling for any medium. “Comic Book Capers” excelled at that. I wish we had more experiments and less straight storytelling episodes. Back then we had very little oversight after the first three or four scripts except for an executive assigned to the show. I performed that role on DuckTales. For Darkwing we were lucky to get Greg Weisman who had edited at DC comics so was well versed in comic tropes. Greg also has a great sense of humor although fans connect him more with drama and overarching story lines because of Gargoyles and his adventure shows. One last thing that helped was the premiere of Tiny Toons while Darkwing was in mid-production. Sometimes, when the competition has a hit, our own execs might dissect it to see if anything can be applied to our shows… rarely with good results. With Darkwing we were already well down that road so we weren’t sent off course. So it’s not that we took anything from TT, it’s that we weren’t pushed to change the course we were on.

TMB: Gosalyn Mallard is a really fun character. What was your approach to her, and her relationship/connection to Darkwing? I particularly enjoy how much she becomes like him over the course of the show.

TS: I’m not sure I see that sort of change. They both started with huge egos but Darkwing has a huge streak of vanity running through him. Gosalyn is more an action junkie/ thrill seeker. As I mentioned before, we didn’t really have a show until Gosalyn. Just doing a goofy Batman wouldn’t have much substance but having the friction of a father and daughter at the core makes for great conflict, emotion and fresh gags. It’s like an overprotective Batman who doesn’t want a Robin but the kid refuses to stay at home.

TMB: Can you give a bit of some insight into NegaDuck? It was a bit odd to see NegaDuck as a “negatron” version of Darkwing Duck, then to suddenly make him his own, separate character.

TS: My philosophy was to go where the entertainment was. Once we saw how entertaining the Negatron version of Negaduck was, I wasn’t going to leave him on the sidelines. And I wanted him to face Darkwing not a limp Posiduck. So I told my story editors to do more stories with him and not to refer to that original story. The Negaverse didn’t come along until later.

TMB: Who was the most difficult villain to write for? Who was the most fun? In fact, a brief rundown on how villains like Megavolt, Quackerjack, Bushroot, Liquidator, Tuskernini, and Splatter Phoenix were created would be amazing.

TS: Tuskernini was the hardest because he just wasn’t that interesting. The best thing that came out of his first story was the idea of Darkwing always changing his “I am the blank that blanks your blank!” Originally DW was just going to say the same one over and over like the Shadow’s radio introduction. Different editors and writers took to certain villains. Google their names to see the various series they went onto later. Doug Langdale was the best at Megavolt. Duane Capezzi took a liking to Liquidator. I loved Bushroot because he was more misunderstood than evil which was interesting. Carter Crocker wrote the best Splatter Phoenix stuff.

TMB: Kind of a silly question, but is there any connection, metaphoric or otherwise, between Steelbeak and Tiny Toon’s Fowlmouth?

TS: Since I’m unfamiliar with Fowlmouth I’m going to say, “No.” Steelbeak was created around a voice that I heard Rob Paulsen doing while kidding around. That’s the fun of working with the actors we had.

TMB: Where and how did the development of Morgana come from? Was it simply, “Let’s give Darkwing Duck a girlfriend!”? Or was it a suggestion from above to have a strong female character in the mix? (That’s what happened with Rocko’s Modern Life, apparently).

TS: There were no suggestions from above. [Morgana] might have come from me. I’m pretty sure I named her. It was mostly about trying to do different things with different villains. We didn’t have a magical character and I loved the Addams Family. The romance came as the story developed.

TMB: Continuity and consistency was never a real concern with Darkwing Duck, which is perfectly fine. But, if given the chance to do it all again, would you go for more continuous plots and detail more concrete elements like DW’s origin and job as Drake Mallard?

TS: Continuity was not only a real concern, I specifically wrote against it. That’s why DW has around six origin stories in the series. Darkwing Duck was based on the Silver Age comics that I grew up with and the general status of most comic strips where characters and relationships don’t change. Darkwing was a COMEDY show first and foremost. Why on earth would I want to spend screen time with Darkwing doing some ordinary job? He’s a SUPERHERO, we want to see him do superhero things. That’s why it’s funny when Gosalyn messes things up by inserting herself in his adventures. Should we spend time with Gosalyn in school? I am content to let fans write stories where they try to connect the threads and create their own stories. If I were doing the show today I would try to make the action bigger and staged more dramatically and the comedy a little more off the wall. More “That Sinking Feeling” where Darkwing and the gang are suddenly dressed in baseball uniforms and get Moliarity in a pickle. More “Comic Book Capers” and “Hot Spells.”

TMB: Favorite episode? Least favorite?

TS: It’s been too long since I’ve watched many episodes. Favorites change along the way from script, to board to finish. I love almost all the episodes animated by the Disney Australia Studio because they got the spirit of the show and got the most out of the gags. When I watch episodes now I want to edit five minutes out of them because modern pacing is faster. But I think I had more favorites than stinkers.

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CHILDHOOD REVISITED – Darkwing Duck

Darkwing Duck toes the line between comic superhero farce and wacky cartoon comedy, to mixed but mostly positive results. How Darkwing Duck grounds the disparaging sensibilities with its amazing cast of characters and relationships.

Darkwing Duck, the indirect spin-off to the Disney Afternoon hit Ducktales, hit the airwaves in March of 1991. It was hugely popular, pushing itself to a solid 91 episodes of the bumbling beaked character of Drake Mallard, AKA, Darkwing Duck, as he battles his psychopathic enemies and his overwhelming ego. DW, as referred to by sidekick and holdover from Ducktales’ Launchpad McQuack, was nevertheless quite skilled, possessing a combination of unique physical prowess and intelligence, but extremely prone to self-satisfaction and self-hype, often leading to hilarious reactions, both physical and verbal.

Darkwing Duck, the show, however, happens to be a lot more complex and distinct, an anomaly out of the other shows within the Disney Afternoon line-up. Darkwing Duck, in some ways, is Disney’s version of the fourth-wall breaking animated shows like Animaniacs, Tiny Toons, and Sam and Max, yet produced in a very unique and controlled manner that makes it stands out from the others. Darkwing Duck comments not only on the absurdity of the superhero genre, but on the entire atmosphere in which superheros thrive. In the era of live-action superhero films and the rebirth of superhero comics, Darkwing Duck’s slick satire is surprisingly relevant. It wasn’t always a perfect show, as its multiple assault of ideas often did not gel together as well as intentioned, but for the most part the show managed to be endearingly smart, clever, and heart-warming, with ample amounts of comic ideas to boot.

Darkwing Duck screenshot

Darkwing Duck – (1991)

Director: Tad Stones, Alan Zaslove
Starring: Jim Cummings, Terence McGovern, Christine Cavanaugh
Screenplay(s) by: Dev Ross, Doug Langdale, Tad Stones

Darkwing Duck is, pun intended, an odd duck within the entire Disney Afternoon lineup. It’s arguably the closest that Disney has come to straight-up aping the Warner Brother wacky fare of Tiny Toons, Animaniacs, and Freakazoid. Specifically, Darkwing Duck is not simply a show about an egotistical superhero duck fighting an eccentric bunch of supervillains, it also is a show about a show about an egotistical superhero duck fighting an eccentric bunch of supervillains.

I had forgotten how distinctly self-aware a number of the episodes were. Darkwing Duck plays on a spectrum of self-awareness, from being completely straight-forward (Darkwing fighting a villain and stopping him) to skirting the edge of a Duck Amuck type of sensibility (in fact, a late episode transforms Darkwing Duck into a blob of green and blue, which resembles Daffy’s surreal transformation so distinctly that it couldn’t be a coincidence). Darkwing Duck plays with not only its stories, but how those stories are told, and bounces around between self-aware staples like breaking the fourth wall, “talking” with the studio heads, “discussing” ways to improve Darkwing’s image (and his appeal to multiple demographics), and knocking back and forth over artistic expression and comic books.

Ambitious with its wealth of ideas, Darkwing Duck, unfortunately doesn’t start off as strongly as one would imagine. For the first twenty episodes or so (sans the pilot, which is as a fine a pilot as you can get), I had worried that the rose-colored glasses effect had caught up to me, and that Darkwing Duck was not the great, funny, classic show I remembered it being. Fortunately that wasn’t the case, as two-thirds of the run was fantastic, matching and even beating out some of the best Ducktales episodes. But the rough patches were very rough, to say the least.

A friend of mine felt the same way; upon watching the above episode, he commented on how “kiddie” it was. Kiddie-ness, I believe, wasn’t necessarily the problem. Timing, pacing, and story beats were. Here we have a time travel episode (and Darkwing Duck uses the time travel conceit quite a bit), and it delves into one of Darkwing Duck’s origins (I say “one of” because the show plays around with this – which I’ll get into later.) The problem with episodes like this is that it simply isn’t a strong plot that’s sustainable for a full 22 minutes. What badguy should DW fight in the past? An Elvis parody, for some reason. This fills up seven minutes. What’s next? An OLDER Elvis parody. Then? Let’s go back to the younger parody! Darkwing doesn’t meld at all with the villain or the situation, and even more filler is placed in the show with some very not-good songs. All the while it fails to even do anything interesting with Darkwing confronting his younger self. There’s just too much randomness here, and there’s no reason, comic or otherwise, for it.

It’s a general problem that plagues these early episodes. It seems that the show doesn’t know what exactly to do. So there are a lot of gimmicks and filler happening to pass the time. The big filler technique is setting up frame stories – ie, Darkwing Duck “telling” the story that we see either to the audience or to some other characters. Then they can cut away to Darkwing-as-storyteller, soaking up precious minutes. Factor in the weird pacing and general sense of discomfort, and Darkwing Duck fizzles at the start.

But then, Darkwing Duck slowly grows into its own. While I started the series grimacing at the awkwardness of the early going, I found myself utterly hooked by the time the show hit its groove. The characters, both good and bad, become the focus a lot more instead of the various gimmicks. The plots have more stakes, especially as character themes and arcs become more pronounced. The storytelling conceits are purposeful now; frame stories have context and are presented in a unique way. Jim Cummings, the VO artist for Darkwing, REALLY comes into play, as he adds more of Darkwing Duck’s most notable tics – his sarcastic impersonations of other characters, his hilarious trailing off when things don’t go his way, his infamous “Yep, yep, yep,” when things DO go his way. Everything finally comes together as characters are fleshed out and stories are enriched with fun dialogue, character pairings are made, and the physical gags are timed perfectly.

The physical gag thing I wanted to point out, specifically, because it’s the show’s most difficult line to walk. Darkwing Duck is a cartoony show, so there’s no real threat to our hero. Segments will end with Darkwing Duck in some kind of physical danger, and when it returns from commercial, Darkwing will… well… be hurt by the thing that threatens him. It’s a weird choice, especially when Darkwing Duck uses physical gags as an advantage – like purposely crushing himself flat to slip underneath a door. The danger/not danger juxtaposition really works only if the physical gag works, rendering those two ideas moot. Again, this is really improved as the show goes along.

The key to all of this, however, is definitely Darkwing Duck himself, and his relations/interactions with everyone around him. When the show finally gets into the good stuff – his hatred of his neighbors The Muddlefoots, his relationship with his adopted daughter Gosalyn, his not-that-far-off-the-mark connection with the crazed villains he faces, his creepy girlfriend Morgana Macawber – the show, quite frankly, becomes excellent. Even the “stories about stories” become stronger, once the show itself becomes comfortable with the crazy plots they come up with. Character improvements and better storytelling make Darkwing Duck one of the best shows of the 90s era.

“Dances with Bigfoot” may be the first episode where the show is pretty much perfect through-out. A solid mystery in which Darkwing goes missing, which leaves Gosalyn and Honker to locate him. What’s great is how much Gosalyn becomes like Darkwing, a capable investigator who always misses the forest for the trees with all the clues she find, and slowly absorbs her father’s verbal tics as well. It also helps that the story is nice, long, and twisty, and beats back the stereotype of primitive natives by giving them hilariously up-to-date technology. Following it up with the excellent Twin Peaks parody, “Twin Beaks,” which is also big and meaty with a delicious creepy factor, and Darkwing Duck really comes into its own.

“Twin Beaks” isn’t Darkwing Duck’s only creepy episode; in “Duck Blind,” Darkwing goes blind and gets deeply depressed, and in “Dead Duck,” Darkwing not only dies, but he goes to hell first! It’s wonderfully dark and macabre stuff, but it’s not egregiously so. Darkwing Duck maintains its whimsy and comical nature to ease some of the more scary elements. Contrast them to the show’s more self-aware episodes. “Night of the Living Spud” is a boring, straight-up monster tale told by DW to some young scouts; the frame story is pointless. But “Inside Binkie’s Brain” gleefully enjoys visually delving into the mental headspace of various characters with its framestory, to enjoyable results (a monstrous representation of Darkwing’s ego trying to kill them is a nice touch). Then there’s what could ostensibly be a trilogy of self-aware, Animaniacs-like episodes – “Comic Book Capers,” “Twitching Channels,” and “A Star is Scorned” – where Darkwing deals with various ways he’s portrayed in comic books and/or TV. Then there are just straight-up, what-the-fuck episodes, like “The Secret Origins of Darkwing Duck” (a future episode that re-tells the Darkwing Duck mythos in a bizarre, surreal take), or “Darkwing Dabloon” (which tells a Darkwing Duck story where all the characters are pirates for some reason, way before pirates became a thing), or “Whirled History” (where Gosalyn sleepwalks through various moments of history, before Histeria! was a thing).

Episodes of Darkwing Duck are always strange and random, and you never know what kind of tone you will get, which can be both exciting and frustrating. But it’s the characters that keep the show grounded, even when the plot falls apart. Certain characters, like Comet Guy, never work as well as intended, but from scenery-chewing villains like Megavolt, Quackerjack, and Negaduck, to fun secondary heroes like Agent Grizzlikof, Morgana Macawber, and the Muddlefoots, you’re guaranteed at least some entertaining character dynamics. Disney Afternoon shows always had an excellent sense of character development – the concept of which I wrote about on my tumblr – and Darkwing Duck is no exception. The dynamics are the quintessential high points for the show, so of course we see episodes involving Megavolt and Quackerjack working together, hilarious interplays between Darkwing, Negaduck, and Morgana, excellent self-centered conflicts between Darkwing and Grizzlikof, Gizmoduck, and even Launchpad and Gosalyn. In fact, the series best episode in my opinion is “Quiverwing Quack.”

Like Scrooge McDuck’s conflict between being a family man and a business man, Darkwing is conflicted between raising a daughter away from danger, and perhaps raising her to be his successor. Gosalyn not only develops Darkwing’s mannerisms, but she also develops Darkwing’s superhero abilities – and flaws. She is a smart, brave, capable fighter, but is also prone to conceited fancies and self-important speeches. Darkwing clearly wants to keep her safe, but at the end of the episode it’s clear he not only needs her out in the field, but can genuinely depend on her. It’s a sweet, character-rich episode that’s also exciting and well-done. While no other episodes quite reach the heights of this one, they come wonderfully close – or at least two-thirds of them.

Darkwing Duck’s wackier, sillier sensibilities may be different from its surrounding Disney Afternoon family, but underneath the slapstick veneer is a entertaining show in its own right. After an awkward beginning, Darkwing Duck engages in its characters and world with such aplomb and boldness that one can’t help but fall in love with everything it does. For 91 episodes, Darkwing Duck would probably win the “Most Improved” award, and it’s an award it should be proud of – although Darkwing wouldn’t accept anything anything of the sort.

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The Amazing World of Gumball and the Deconstruction of Visual Information

The Amazing World of Gumball’s bizarre, multi-level visual style is intentional – leading to an out-and-out assault on your senses. How Gumball’s stylistic, relentless, incredible attack demands an new understanding on the kind of information we can receive from the screen.

Amazing World of Gumball

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Let’s talk about Drawn Together for a second.

Drawn Together

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Drawn Together was a three-season show on Comedy Central with the unique premise of putting various characters of animation tropes into one central location, all played as a ridiculous reality TV parody, and watching them play off each other. The characters themselves are different enough – the pretty princess, the black-and-white Betty Boop parody, a sleuthing black teen, a Spongebob knockoff, a stereotypical superhero, a Legends of Zelda Link-like elf, a Pokemon-ish monster, and a rude Internet mascot figure. These tropes-as-characters were fun start-off points for something that could have been interesting, potentially in relation to how affecting and/or limiting such tropes might have on the audience.

Drawn Together had no such aspirations. It’s a funny show, quite often hilarious – although it’s definitely humor in the Family Guy wheelhouse. Very little of the humor, however, actually reflected the specific animated nature of the characters. It did, broadly, like when Zander dies and keeps coming back, but for the most part, the humor was parodies galore, crass race-and-sex-and-violence based humor, and outlandish non-sequiturs, such as a scene where Toot intones that her life is flashing before her eyes – only to be treated to a picture montage of food and horrific Vietnam War imagery. Its premise is heavily invested in the world of animation, but says little about it.

It’s a tough sell, though, since most audiences and critics think little about animation and its impact on the screen. Cartoons, to many people, is a genre, not a medium, and they see and use the “genre” for family fare and adult contemporary satire. It’s extremely rare to see something akin to a cartoon directly (well, more indirectly) play around with the physical medium to various affects.  Yet, seemingly out of nowhere, The Amazing World of Gumball is doing just that.

Gumball didn’t start out that way. Created by Ben Bocquelet for Cartoon Network UK, Gumball, like Regular Show and Adventure Time, started out somewhere between being an Adult Swim show and being a bridge to the Adult Swim block, part of a failed line up of cartoons that aimed for a more teenage, non-stoned audience. It was retooled, no longer a retirement home for rejected cartoons (a bitter version of Drawn Together), but a school/suburban community of multiple-designed characters – like Doug filtered through a Kablaam! episode. The first few episodes didn’t seem comfortable with what it had, focusing on silly plots emphasizing the various degrees of dumbness of the central characters (save for Gumball’s mother, Nicole, who clearly was gearing to be a breakout character). But there was a low-key confidence that the visuals could be something more; a lot more daring and expansive, something that could bring fresh life into the most cliched of plots.

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There’s a scene in Who Framed Roger Rabbit where cartoon character Roger Rabbit is handcuffed to Eddie Valient, and Eddie starts to saw the cuffs apart. He yells “HOLD STILL!” to a fidgety Roger Rabbit. Roger slips out of the cuffs and responds. This ticks Eddie off. “You mean to tell me you could’ve gotten out of those cuffs at any time?” “Not at any time,” Roger replies, “only when it was funny.” This reveal ticks Eddie off even more, but Roger tells an important truth – a truth that Eddie probably knew but failed to remember due to his depression. Roger, as a toon, is forced to live by the comedy rules. His reveal is not just comical, it’s literal. Physically removing himself from the cuffs WOULD NOT WORK unless the moment presented itself in comic fashion. It’s why SHAVE AND A HAIRCUT was so powerful. Roger is beholden to the rules of cartoons as we are beholden to physics. In some ways, so is Gumball.

Cartoons have been calling attention to themselves for years now, from Sam & Max, The Wuzzles, Darkwing Duck, Tiny Toons, various Looney Toon shorts, and the epitome of self-awareness, Animaniacs and Freakazoid. These shows would comment to the audience via winks and nods to too-cool-for-school gags, as well as point out other behind-the-scenes foibles related to writing staffs, direction/production decisions, obvious plot holes, stupid moments, historical animation tropes, and other elements related to production. The actual ANIMATION was rarely talked about and commented upon, and even when it is, it’s played for erroneous gags, like when Freakazoid comments on a bad lip-syncing animation via the most ridiculous cutaway you will ever see. Gumball, however, surprises by using its animation not only for gags but for drama. The multiple animated elements are thoroughly ingrained in the show’s DNA, and it shows it off through novel and incredible ways.

Gumball is visually complex, disturbing, and fascinating all at one. The sets are filmed live. The main family, The Wattersons, are cats and rabbits designed in a chibi-anime/Powerpuff Girls style. The characters that dot this amazing world are puppets, paper-cut outs, CGI dinosaurs, pixel-art spider-like invaders, stop-motion bananas, toast, balloons, clouds, monkeys, and ghosts. Everyone looks and is designed completely differently (and yes, while in the end, a computer clearly put together all these elements, separately the characters are clearly representative of different forms of the medium).

But that’s what makes it so impressive. Gumball COMMITS to those differences, not only within the narrative, but into the visuals. It’s a show that passionately embraces the full, variable styles of the animation medium, lovingly putting them together, suggesting the moot point of even arguing one form over another. Characters are not only what they’re made of, they are the full manifestation of the animated style they are created with. Gumball is not just a cat, but specifically a chibi-anime/PPG cat. Tina is not just a dinosaur, but a 3D-animated dinosaur. That dedication to that level of detail allows Gumball to attack the screen with visual, thematic, and narrative ideas that you will just not see anywhere else. It’s the nature of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, if CGI, stop-motion, and pixelation were part of the same world.

“Halloween” is a good example. In this episode, Gumball and his brother, Darwin, sneak off to a Halloween party populated by ghosts. The scene plays with a myriad of styles of apparitions, giving the surreal moment a more darker and disturbing edge to it – akin to the bizarre monsters in the PowerPuff Girls episode “Boogie Frights”. The end of the episode, which has a set piece involving running through a zombie-infested graveyard and a massive, glowing wormhole into the underworld, is scary, exciting, and remarkably well done. “The Job” takes it a step further, a narrative red herring that begins in typical fashion, with Gumball and Darwin picking up the slack of their incompetent and moronic father, Richard, as he delivers pizza. The twist, to Nicole’s horror, is that the universe cannot allow perpetually lazy Richard to have a job. Time and space is torn asunder as the Wattersons race to stop Richard from delivery his first pie. It’s an incredible set piece, with floating cars and giant lights exploding from the swirling clouds from the void of existence, a power so great that with every step Richard takes, the fabric of their reality changes their stylistic forms – from paper mache to puppets to real-life kittens/rabbits. It’s honestly a breath-taking moment, and it’s rare to see something on animated TV that visually provocative.

The episode “The Words,” however, is a tour de force of not only the show, but of TV in general.

“The Words” is mind-blowing, a visual, comedic, and narrative of discordant yet delicious ideas and styles that come together in surprising and detailed ways. It’s exactly the fusion of elements that, in all ways, should not work, but it completely does. Animation, and animation tropes, come to the forefront, and its best moments take up only, maybe, six or seven minutes. It begins with Darwin, who has trouble speaking up when bothered by someone. Gumball, who is certainly okay with speaking his mind (which has gotten him in trouble in the past), teaches Darwin to be more assertive, and it works, but too well. In “The Words” first great moment, Darwin launches into a choreographed song about his new-found verbal freedom, complete with auto-tune (that’s used so subtly as not to over-play it), much to Gumball’s chagrin. In fact, in a random, wonderful moment, the entire school gets into the singing spirit, playing to the comically “run around the corner towards the screen” trope that most cartoons – hell, most musicals – use.

Of course, his verbal assertiveness immediately drives everyone away. Darwin gets so caught up in the power of telling it like it is that he enters another song, eyes red and deep-voiced, praising his decent into evil. Again, the visuals and editing is so tightly designed just like any “villain’s music cue” would be, and then Gumball snaps him out it. This is then immediately followed by, single-handedly, the greatest fighting game parody in the history of entertainment. Better than Scott Pilgrim. Better than that Family Guy bit where Peter Griffin fights E. Honda. Better than the entirety of Gravity Fall’s “Fight Fighters.” It has:

— Opening “Darwin vs. Gumball” graphic

— Repeating cheering crowd in the background

— Two different “entering the battle” animations

— Darwin representing a player spamming the same move

— Three rounds

— Breakable background objects

— Gumball pausing the screen (the pause screen lists “NEW CHARACTERS” and “COMBO LIST”)

— Darwin cheating and “unpausing” the game

— Gumball’s victory animation (complete with “Ya-tah!” victory cry)

— Gumball’s devastating final move

— Continue screen (complete with count down)

There’s no set up to this marvelous scene. Gumball takes the extremely bold move and just DOES it, and even in the comic momentum of the entire scene, Gumball takes it even a step further and contextualizes Gumball’s final move with a harsh, cruel statement – announcing that Darwin is NOT his brother, but a fish that grew legs. In those words, visually utilized as the ULTIMATE COMBO, Gumball hits the unspoken harsh truth. Darwin, technically, isn’t a blood relative of the Wattersons, but is indeed a fish that just grew legs. He IS (for lack of a better term) adopted, so Gumball’s final strike is indeed as painful as the ULTIMATE COMBO would imply. In effect, Gumball has not only used the “fighting game” mechanic as an over elaborate joke, it uses it to strike a chord at the conflict that divides the siblings.

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Gumball’s first season was all about putting the pieces into place, for the characters, the narratives, and the visuals. The second season has a much-needed focus, as each episode focuses on one character and their relationship to their world. We learn Hector, the hairy giant, coddled by his mother because of the very real concern that an upset giant could be dangerous. We learn Teri, the bear who is made of paper, is a hypochondriac BECAUSE she’s made of paper and is easily injured. Tina, the dinosaur, has no friends because she’s a genuinely a beast and monster, but incredibly lonely – like Hey Arnold’s Helga taken to the animated extreme. We learn Nicole struggles with anger and control issues, which mask a deep insecurity about her role as a mother. And we learn that Richard’s stupidity is a result of his mother’s own questionable parenting.

And through all these developments, the animation is as equal to these reveals and as important to the structure of the the expanding world in which Gumball resides. Teri has the luxury to draw a mask on her paper face to block incoming viruses; the act doesn’t work for Darwin. In the same episode, Gumball and Darwin ridicule Teri by not only impersonating her voice but by becoming flat-paper cutouts themselves, a la a Paper Mario video game. First-person POV rapid cutting is used when Gumball is possessed by Carrie, an emo ghost, who has an eating disorder compound by the fact, as a ghost, she can’t eat. Masami, a cloud, rains when she cries and fires lightening when upset. Gumball’s jealousy manifests into a demon that spreads among his friends, representing the jealousy and insecurities that lies inside them all. Hell, Gumball adds a spark to a typical freeze-frame gag by adding distortions at the top and bottom of the screen, simulating the old-school pausing of a VHS tape. I could continue all day, but the point is that Gumball’s brilliance is not only in its development of the characters and its world, but how the animation itself is part of that development, and not just a crutch.

There are still 21 episodes of the second season that have yet to air. They’re airing them throughout the summer. I am greatly looking forward to it and the very amazing ways that Bocquelet and his staff will really open up not only the great cast of characters this show has, but how they will use the actual animation styles as a significant part of that development. It’s in the little, subtle ways that Gumball deconstructs visual information, asking its audience to not only enjoy its visual spectacles, but embrace them as part of the show’s structure and aspect of its world.

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