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animation Tag

Anyone who felt that Eddie Murphy had lost his edge after the string of family friendly films he made in the mid to late 90’s should have taken a look at The PJ’s, the stop motion animated series Murphy co-created with Larry Wilmore (who went on to help create The Bernie Mac Show) and Steve Tompkins (whose credits include The Simpsons and In Living Color). Murphy starred in this prime time series that premiered in 1999 and ran for just two seasons. In in, the great comedian created one of his most hilarious and perhaps richest characters in nearly a decade. Season 1 of the show was unceremoniously released on DVD earlier this month, presenting a great opportunity for fans of Murphy, animation and comedy in general to give the show a second look.

The 90’s saw a resurgence in animation thanks in part to Nickelodeon’s rise in stature. The Nicktoons the network produced varied in style and content, but they were all quality shows with mass appeal. One of the underrated programs of that era was The Wild Thornberrys, an adventure show about an 12-year-old girl bestowed with the secret gift of being able to talk to animals. Fortunately for that girl, Eliza Thornberry, her parents were naturalist filmmakers on a never-ending journey around the world filming wildlife. This setup allowed Eliza to visit exotic locales and introduced the young viewers (and some older enthusiasts, too) to an array of animals.

Adult Swim in a Box 3D BoxThe holidays will have a lot to offer fans of all types of entertainment, including those of us who enjoy some pretty sick and twisted stuff. For those of you who enjoy grown-up animation, Adult Swim has released Adult Swim in a Box, a massive 12-DVD set that includes volumes of several of their classic series, as well as some of their more popular recent efforts. In all, six different programs are represented in the box, each a season’s worth of episodes. This collection is a decent mix of funny, bizarre and down right repulsive animation, the type of entertainment that has made the channel a big hit with stoners, college students and insomniacs.

Included in Adult Swim in a Box are: Space Ghost Coast to Coast, one of Adult Swim’s original hits. In it, the Saturday Morning super hero Space Ghost was re-imagined as a talk show host and the end result was often hilarious. Volume Three, the collection included here, contains 24 extended episodes including appearances by Beck, Rob Zombie and the always unpredictable Andy Dick. The success of Space Ghost in the late ’90s led to several spinoffs, one of which was Aqua Teen Hunger Force. I like Aqua Teen Hunger Force a lot. Despite its limited animation and strange setup (its heroes are an angry milkshake, a box of french fries and a mass of ground meat), I find the writing and performances biting and funny. Volume 2 contains 13 episodes, commentary, deleted scenes and a feature on the creation of the series.

Another one of the “classic” Adult Swim series included in the box set is Sealab 2021. Like Space Ghost Coast to Coast, Sealab 2021 incorporates stock animation footage (from a series called Sealab 2020) and new dialogue written for the old footage. The season 2 set has 13 episodes and several bonus features including commentary on all 13 episodes and a tribute to the late actor Harry Goz, voice of the show’s deranged “Captain Murphy.”

howbadcanitbe

It is a truth universally acknowledged that in popular culture, innovation engenders imitation. When something works, for whatever reason, elements of it will invariably show up in subsequent cultural product, sometimes as recontextualized bits and bobs, sometimes as entire setups with a fresh coat of paint and the names changed just enough to avoid a lawsuit.

What keeps the game fresh — what keeps the culture alive, really — is that the chain of antecedent is endless, and often indirect, and if you follow it long enough you come to some insight about the human condition. It’s easy, albeit reductive, to look at the current crop of vampires-in-high-school books and see them all as simply ganking Stephenie Meyer’s steez, for just so was Meyer influenced by Buffy, and Joss Whedon by the X-Men, and so on back into the mists of causality.

But the larger truth is that Meyer and Whedon and even Bram Stoker were all drinking from the same well, all telling the same human story — that our interpersonal relationships, the very thing that sustains us and gives our lives meaning, have always the potential to go horribly awry such that we use each other, we hurt each other, we drain each other dry; and that this horror is felt most keenly by the young, to whom it is new, and who have not yet mustered adequate defenses against it. In other words, nobody would have bothered ripping off the Twilight series had Meyer herself not been part of a larger cultural moment, if the books — their considerable flaws aside — didn’t strike some chord truer and purer than the brassy ka-ching of the cash register.

Here’s what this has to do with the new record by the UK group One Eskimo (their P.R. materials insist on spelling it One eskimO, but I have a rebel soul and will not be constrained by the orthographical conventions of The Man; also “One eskimO” looks really, really dumb); In itself, nothing. The eleven tracks on their debut are fair-to-middling triple-A singer-songwriter pop. It’s not particularly innovative, but neither does it derive so specifically from any single source as to constitute imitation per se. Frontman Kristian Leontiou, who hit the UK Top Ten with “Story of My Life” back in 2004, has the same package of sensitive-guy lyrics and steelwire voice as, say, James Blunt — though he never quite erupts into Blunt’s lethal honk — but that combination is common currency among a certain class of white Englishman, amongst whom it signifies something passing for “soul” (see also: Mick Hucknall), and does not in itself constitute evidence of a rip-off.

The music, though, is only half the story. Because One Eskimo is a full-on multimedia project, and the missing piece is the “visual album” that provides the band with cartoon stand-ins and the album with a storyline. And there, my friends, you’ve got the 800-pound Gorillaz in the room.

People love a contrast in proportions. That’s why so many great comedy teams consist of a fat guy and a skinny guy. And that’s why some entertainment stories have legs and some don’t. When a big-budget summer tentpole picture makes fistfuls of money, it’s of interest primarily only to the investors — it’s not a story of cultural importance. Same thing when a modest little indie movie underperforms at the box office; that’s business as usual. When your no-name indie quirkfest rakes in mad cash, though, it’s a heartwarming underdog story. And that’s nice. But when your super-ambitious would-be blockbuster goes down the hopper, maybe taking the studio with it — now that’s a story that people want to hear. Waterworld, Heaven’s Gate, Ishtar — these are films that have become legends, cited as cautionary tales by people who often haven’t seen a single frame of them.

Now, I have seen Delgo, to my sorrow — a movie which seems destined for a place in the same malefic pantheon — and while I have neither interest nor the expertise to discuss the financial implications of the movie, I do have to say: It’s ambitious, all right. Hugely so. You can see where all the money went. And you can also see exactly why it tanked. Delgo is a movie brimming with ideas, every one of them utterly boneheaded. It is that rare film whose aesthetic failure is nigh-absolute. There’s a horrified fascination to the spectacle, as you think of the smart, highly-skilled, well-intentioned people who made it, certain that they were leaving their mark on film history, that they were trailblazers, pioneers — and that the end result could be so fundamentally Wrong, in so many ways. All that hard work and talent, expended to create something so butt-ugly and unlikeable and morally dubious; forty million dollars to create a bold, exciting, immersive new world that looks like nothing so much as a series of screen caps from Fate. The sheer scale of the self-delusion is breathtaking.

howbadcanitbe

My usual modus operandi with this column — and the reason why its title is phrased as a question — is to look for signs of quality in cultural products for which I have no reasonable expectation of finding it. I’m not even necessarily expecting that Hannah Montana DVD to be bad — I’m just not expecting it to be very good. My hope is always to be pleasantly surprised. Oh, I hear the same word-of-mouth that you all do, and I know the received wisdom as well as anyone else; but usually I can shrug them off and try to approach the work with an open mind, hoping against hope for something good.

There are times, though, when my own prior experiences lead me to approach my subject with a pre-existing anticipation of its crapulence, and that shit is hard to shake. Such is the case with Star Trek: The Animated Series, released in 2006 in a handsome boxed edition, which I have just re-encountered for the first time since seeing it in its original run.

up-poster11The new Disney/Pixar collaboration, Up, has just opened to some of the best reviews the studio’s ever received. While it’s a very enjoyable film, I have to say it certainly isn’t among their best, in spite of the talent behind it.

As a child, Carl Fredricksen (at this point voiced by Jeremy Leary) is a huge fan of famed adventurer/explorer Charles Muntz (voiced by Christopher Plummer). Young Carl is a true devotee, keeping up with all of Muntz’ doings and is shocked to the core when one of his archaeological finds is disputed as a fraud. While Muntz sets off to clear his name, Carl happens to cross paths with Ellie (voiced by Elie Docter), who is just as much a fan of Muntz as Carl. The two become close, eventually falling in love, marrying and growing old together…all while keeping a coin jar in which they save whatever money they can to one day take a trip to Paradise Falls, the “land lost in time” for which Muntz set out. Carl makes the ultimate kids’ promise–crossing his heart–that he will one day take Ellie there, but before he can, she passes away.

gigantorGigantor: The Collection Volume 1 (2009, Koch Vision)
purchase from Amazon: DVD

Things my son said to me when I put on Gigantor to watch: “What is THAT? Is that a robot?” “I like the theme song! (singing) Gi-GAN-tor. GI-GAN-TOR!” “Daddy, not everything in black and white is silent.” When I informed him that I would be watching Gigantor: The Collection Volume 1 to review, he exclaimed, “Wait, I want to watch them with you!” So he did.

Gigantor is a black-and-white animated TV series about a boy who can control a giant needle-nosed robot and the adventures they have. Its origins date back to the early 1960s with the comic drawings of Japanese artist Mitsuteru Yokoyama. Then called Tetsujin 28-GO, the adventures of the boy and his robot first appeared in a Japanese boys’ magazine and spawned a Japanese animated TV series. Its popularity caught the eye of writer/director/producer Fred Ladd, then enjoying great success having brought Astro Boy to the U.S. He acquired Tetsujin 28-GO to produce 52 English dubbed episodes of the original show. New scripts were written in English and the characters were renamed.

The robot became Gigantor and the boy who controls him was named Jimmy Sparks. As soon as it premiered in the United States, the show became an instant smash hit.

Futurama: Into the Wild Green Yonder (2009, 20th Century Fox)
purchase this DVD (Amazon)

Anyone even remotely familiar with science fiction knows that the Star Trek films suffered from a quality curse. It seemed that every odd-numbered film (especially Star Trek V) was absolutely horrible, while the even-numbered movies (in particular Star Trek II) were great. It wasn’t until the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation began making their own films that the curse was broken, albeit in the worst way: Each of their films (especially Star Trek: Insurrection, which makes Trek V look like Apocalypse Now) –with the exception of First Contact–was exponentially worse than that which came before.

All of this is a roundabout way of stating that the original direct-to-DVD episodes of Futurama have become the equivalent of reverse Trek: The odd-numbered episodes are good, while the even-numbered episodes suck.

Unfortunately, the latest (and potentially last) installment, Futurama: Into The Wild Green Yonder, is unlucky number four.

As viewers of the last installment, Futurama: Bender’s Game will recall, that episode ended with Professor Farnsworth (voice of Billy West, who also performs as Fry, Zoidberg and others) activated a machine which destroyed all the dark matter fuel in the universe. Perhaps because a suitable followup story couldn’t be adequately broken by writer Michael Rowe (credited with part three of Bender’s Game) or for whatever reason, there is absolutely no mention or continuance of that particular major plot point in Wild Green Yonder, with the exception of a two-second tossaway closeup of a bridge monitor indicating that whale oil is the new fuel of the future. Instead the story begins with a highly amusing and well done faux Sinatra/Dean Martin song by Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane, as the Planet Express crew makes their way to Vegas on Mars, which is promptly blown up by mega-rich developer Leo Wong, who begins setting up his own New Vegas.