Tuesday, May 29, 2012

5-Piece Cartoon Dinner (05/29/2012): Green Lantern, Young Justice, Transformers Prime, Adventure Time and Regular Show

'Eat your heart out, Lassie, you non-stretchable bitch!'
Each Tuesday in "5-Piece Cartoon Dinner," I review five of the week's most noteworthy animated cable shows that are found outside my Adult Swim comfort zone and are on kids' networks that make you look like a child molester if you watch them for too long. Even though I'm older than the target audience for these shows, I watch a few of them because of my fondness for the past works of these shows' writers and animators (for instance, Ultimate Spider-Man is co-produced by Paul Dini, who wrote several of my favorite Batman: The Animated Series episodes, and Motorcity is made by writers and animators from the late '90s MTV cartoon Downtown and Megas XLR ).

Topless Robot recently posted a very funny one-hour-and-20-minute table read of the first Star Wars film's screenplay by cartoon voice actors at Seattle's Emerald City Comicon from a couple of months ago. Several of the actors at this read have worked on one or two of the shows I'm covering for "5-Piece Cartoon Dinner." Jess Harnell, the voice actor/musician at the read who looks like Rob Zombie, is the voice of Texas the reckless mechanic on Motorcity, while Futurama's John DiMaggio has voiced Thor's hammer forger Eitri on The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes and is currently roaming the Land of Ooo as Jake the shape-shifting yellow dog on Adventure Time. Tara Strong can be heard on Young Justice, Green Lantern: The Animated Series and Ultimate Spider-Man (she's voicing Mary Jane). She's also reprising both her B:TAS role as Batgirl and her Teen Titans role as Raven in the "DC Nation Superhero Shorts" that air between Green Lantern and Young Justice.

Here we see Tara Strong performing as Richard Nixon as Princess Leia.
Because these performers are cartoon voice actors, this read is no straightforward performance of the Star Wars script. Except for former B:TAS star Kevin Conroy, whose baritone is recruited for only narrative and non-comedic purposes, the voiceover artists shift back and forth between their most signature characters (I'm not familiar with several of these characters--I actually had to Google "Twilight Sparkle") or celebrity impressions.

Yeah, this read is basically an hour and 20 minutes of that old '80s stand-up trope "If Jack Nicholson were a flight attendant, it would go something like this," but it's much funnier because the voice actors frequently go off-script, and some of them pull dead-on impressions out of their asses that I never knew they were capable of. I didn't know Strong does the best Rosie Perez impression ever. DiMaggio's Tracy Morgan gives Jay Mohr's Tracy Morgan a run for its money. I wish the Emerald City Comicon moderator had DiMaggio do his funniest celebrity impression, blue-eyed soul artist Michael McDonald, which he busted out while sitting in the audience at Bar Lubitsch during the "McDonalds" episode of Greg Proops' Smartest Man in the World podcast (it led to DiMaggio and Proops hilariously doing dueling McDonalds).

Here are my favorite moments during the read:

34:45 to 39:31: Harnell doing double duty as Drawn Together's Captain Hero as Luke and Albert Brooks as Marlin from Finding Nemo as R2D2, Maurice LaMarche as Dudley Moore as Arthur as C3PO and DiMaggio as Tracy Morgan as Obi-Wan.

40:24 to 44:57: Harnell as Cartman as Obi-Wan, Billy West as the Professor from Futurama as Luke, DiMaggio as Obi-Wan's lightsaber and Strong as Rosie Perez as Princess Leia (42:44 to 43:29).

52:53 to 54:00: West as Porky Pig as Obi-Wan and DiMaggio as Bender as a Stormtrooper during Obi-Wan's Jedi mind-trick scene.

55:58 to 56:42: DiMaggio as Paul Lynde as Doctor Death (the alien in the cantina who says to Luke, "He doesn't like you") and Harnell as Rodney Dangerfield as Luke.

59:54 to 1:02:00: West as Tony Soprano as Greedo, Strong as My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic's Twilight Sparkle as Han--I love her expressions while Twilight Sparkle Han is unfazed by Tony Sogreedo's foul-mouthed threats--and DiMaggio as Paulie Walnuts during the Han/Greedo scene.

1:15:44 to 1:20:05: LaMarche as William Shatner as Luke, Rob Paulsen as Christopher Walken as Han, DiMaggio as Tracy Morgan as Obi-Wan and Harnell as Chewbacca during the "That's no moon, that's a space station!" scene.

For a table read that features quite a few characters of color, it's very lacking in actual actors of color. I would have loved this read even more if DiMaggio and West's Futurama co-star Phil LaMarr or one of animation's other busiest black voice actors--for example, Kevin Michael Richardson or Cree Summer--had been involved. It's also missing a certain legendary voice actor who got his big break from the first Star Wars. Where's Conroy's old B:TAS co-star Mark Hamill? I'm sure the former Luke Skywalker would have wanted to voice a character who's not Luke, and I'm sure it would have rocked the house.

***

Speaking of intergalactic warfare, "Homecoming," the Green Lantern: The Animated Series season finale, packs an hour's worth of it into a mere 20-something minutes. Red Lantern leader Atrocitus has been slaughtering Green Lantern Corps members throughout the season and is now summoning battleships to Guardian space--all in retaliation for earlier attacks by the Guardians' malfunctioned Manhunter robot army on his sector of space, which the Guardians labeled the Forgotten Zone to help bury a shameful early part of Guardian history before they founded the Green Lantern Corps. Hacked into by Atrocitus' technical genius accomplice Drusa (Juliet Landau) and forced to carry out Atrocitus' commands, Aya navigates her hijacked Interceptor ship to the Guardians' homeworld of Oa and sheds a tear while tricking Green Lantern Corps protocol officer Salaak (Tom Kenny) and the Guardians to their doom (the AI is developing emotions!).

'Alright, honey, I'll get you a falafel--if we could find a falafel food truck in this busy fucking town.'
Armed with a power ring that's fully recharged by the power battery he was lucky to take along with him before Atrocitus stole the Interceptor from him and Hal, Kilowog is fighting the fleet of battleships from the Forgotten Zone all by himself at the Maelstrom asteroid belt that Atrocitus blew apart with planet-killing Liberator bombs to bring the Red Armada into Guardian space. Meanwhile, in the middle of all this, Hal is back on Earth, enjoying a romantic lunch with his aircraft company exec girlfriend Carol Ferris (Jennifer Hale) at an outdoor bistro on a strangely underpopulated Coast City street--and with no memory of his duty as a Green Lantern and the events that led him back to Coast City.

I admire the work of Bruce Timm, but what is it with Timm projects and their occasional scenes on city streets with no people? The deserted street reminds me of the nighttime New York fight scene in Timm and Lauren Montgomery's 2009 Wonder Woman animated feature. The most unbelievable thing about that Wonder Woman scene? The city that never sleeps was empty while Diana Prince and her adversary Deimos were fighting each other.

You know what this scene in New York is missing? A homeless guy pissing on the sidewalk behind Wonder Woman.
You know right away that this is a fantasy movie because New York is devoid of people at this time of night. (Photo source: Lauren Montgomery)
The mystery surrounding Hal's sudden reunion with Carol briefly revisits Hal's conflict between his life with Carol and his duty as a space cop, a theme in both the series' "Beware My Power" premiere episode and "...In Love and War," the episode that introduced the Star Sapphire Corps. That mystery is the niftiest part of "Homecoming," but it's also way too rushed. It would have been more effective in an hour-long (or two-part) format.

The lack of people in Coast City (other than a moving car or two in the background) isn't because Hal is unconscious and trapped in some Matrix-like simulation of his hometown by an alien enemy, which is what I originally thought. It turns out that Hal and Razer asked the Star Sapphires to use their powers of teleportation to send the power battery-less Hal back to Earth so that he can get access to his battery and fully recharge his power ring for Atrocitus' attack on Oa. The Star Sapphires warned Hal that travel through their portal can result in side effects, so Hal is afflicted with amnesia after teleporting from the Star Sapphires' homeworld of Zamaron to Earth. With Carol's help, Hal regains his memory and powers and flies back to Oa just in time to save the Guardians from Atrocitus, as well as propose reparations to the Red Lanterns for the genocide that was committed on the planets of the Forgotten Zone by the malfunctioned creations of the now-remorseful Guardians.

Kilowog's dual cannons are the perfect weapon against all those New York bedbugs and cockroaches.
Speaking of exquisite timing, new Blue Lantern Saint Walker and Mogo, the Green Lantern Corps member who's an actual planet, arrive in time to aid Kilowog in fending off the Red Armada. Though Saint Walker's last-minute emergence isn't much of a surprise, it's still exhilarating, thanks in part to the majestic score music of series composer Frederik Wiedmann. The epic showdown that ensues between the trio and the armada is a stunning achievement in small-screen CG animation. Between this battle and the equally gargantuan wildfire explosion that tore apart Davos Seaworth's ship on Game of Thrones the following day, Saturday and Sunday made for one really dull Memorial Day Weekend of TV-watching.

***

"Beneath," this week's Young Justice: Invasion outing, is a great episode for the "DC Women Kicking Ass" crowd and an improvement over the "let's make this like an afternoon soap, except we'll sanitize the juiciest parts" feel of last week's "Salvage." The company that publishes the "DC Women Kicking Ass" folks' favorite characters may continually disappoint them with typical misogynistic superhero comic bullshit, despite some good female-centric titles by writers like Gail Simone, but fortunately, the animation division remains a little more progressive because of stories like "Beneath."

Still trying to track down the source of the alien bomb that decimated the Krolotean invaders in "Alienated," Nightwing theorizes that it must have been smuggled to Earth through boom tube technology, so he sends Young Justice's Alpha Squad to investigate an increase in boom tube activity on the soil of Bialya, which is ruled by supervillain Queen Bee (Marina Sirtis). But because the female dictator has the power to control men's minds, Nightwing selects an all-female Alpha Squad for this recon mission: Miss Martian, Batgirl, action figure-sized Bumblebee (Masasa Moyo) and easily excitable Wonder Girl, the least experienced member of the quartet (and her voice is provided by none other than Roxy Richter, a.k.a. Mae Whitman).

'Good morning, Angels!,' says Nightwing to Alpha Squad, who then plot via telepathic link to later give Nightwing a super-wedgie for the corny Charlie's Angels reference.
The mission has its bumps and bruises. Wonder Girl blames herself for getting spotted by the very butch female thug Devastation (the perfectly cast Diane Delano of Northern Exposure and Popular fame). Batgirl finds an underground chamber full of unconscious teen runaways encased in canisters--presumably for experimentation by the unidentified villain known only so far as "The Competitor" or "The Partner"--but she's discovered by Devastation's telepathic leader Psimon (Alan Tudyk) and thrown into a canister.

Bumblebee frees Batgirl, who then steals the cargo plane that Psimon and his team have loaded the abductees into. She loses control of the plane in a spectacular sequence where its wings are destroyed by the Hulk-like foe Mammoth, and Wonder Girl, who's redeemed herself by knocking out Devastation twice in the same episode, uses her super-strength to steady the falling plane. Miss Martian, who was the easily excitable girl on the team last season ("Hello Megan!") and has evolved during the five-year interim into a much more stoic and imposing heroine and a helpful mentor for Wonder Girl, telepathically sends her bio-ship to assist Wonder Girl and unleash its claws to pull the plane away from the ground.

'Eat your heart out, Debra Winger!'
Wonder Girl learns to be better at stealthiness and self-confidence, while over in El Paso, where we get an intriguing glimpse of its Apache community, another Young Justice rookie, Jaime Reyes, is having a rockier time dealing with what's been troubling him: the Scarab alien armor that bonded with him and transformed him into Blue Beetle. While investigating the whereabouts of his missing friend Tye Longshadow (Gregg Rainwater), who's run away from home because he's tired of being bullied by his mother's lowlife truant officer boyfriend Maurice (Robert Beltran), Jaime is continually tempted by the alien voice inside his head to draw his weapons on strangers that the Scarab finds suspicious, particularly Maurice.

Jaime's theory that Maurice abducted Tye because the teen is next in line to be tribal chief (is Tye going to become this show's updated version of the Superfriends hero Apache Chief like the Internets surmise?) is squashed when his Scarab tech uncovers a DVD bootleg ring that's run by Maurice, who's more concerned with profiting from pirated movies and games than being tribal chief. The search for Tye in El Paso is ultimately fruitless.

What Jaime doesn't know is that Tye is one of the abducted teen runaways who were being smuggled by Psimon before Alpha Squad freed several of them, but Tye wasn't one of the abductees they rescued, so he and the teens Alpha Squad didn't save are now being handed over from Queen Bee to The Partner for God-knows-what. I hope it's not a Falling Skies-type masterplan where Earth kids are brainwashed and mutated into becoming more like their alien captors because who needs another Falling Skies? C'mon, Turner channels, push the envelope and make your alien invasion shows do something grislier with these kids, like closing their favorite malls or separating them from their smartphones.

***

I don't watch The Hub's CG-animated Transformers Prime, and I have yet to listen to Brian Tyler's album of his score music from the show, which CineRadio directed me to download and use for station airplay (I'm sure it's a good album because Tyler's music is always top-notch). But because several of the shows I've been covering for "5-Piece Cartoon Dinner" are in repeats due to the holiday weekend, I checked in on Transformers Prime, which had a new episode this week. I had no idea Jeffrey Combs from Re-Animator and the Star Trek spinoffs--and a scene-stealer on Justice League Unlimited as the voice of The Question, the team's resident conspiracy theorist--was voicing Autobot medic Ratchet on Transformers Prime. I'll watch anything Combs lends his pipes to. He's that good a voice actor.

As a kid, I watched the '80s Transformers cartoon--which hasn't aged well, by the way--so I remember most of the characters, which made it easy for me to figure out who's who on Transformers Prime (although I don't remember Ratchet being an uptight bitch, which is how Combs plays him). The new show is made for younger Transformers fans who enjoy the much more famous live-action movies but don't care for Shia LaBeouf's constant shouting of "No! No! No! No! No!" or LaBeouf period.

In fact, two of Transformers Prime's showrunners are Fringe co-creators Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, who wrote Michael Bay's first two Transformers movies and helped reboot Star Trek and Hawaii Five-0. With this Hub show, it feels like Orci and Kurtzman listened to criticisms about the live-action version of the Hasbro franchise and are crafting Transformers stories that are less cringe-inducing.

"It felt like we left things undone [with the movies]," said Orci in a 2011 TV Guide article about Transformers Prime, which he and Kurtzman were particularly excited about developing because animation gives them the ability to focus more on the robot characters than the human ones. "You want to hang out with the characters from Cybertron (the fictional planet from which the Transformers hail) as much as possible."

Reading that TV Guide article makes me realize which parts of the live-action movies were all Orci and Kurtzman and which parts were all Michael Bay. The wack racial humor and constant drooling over Maxim pin-up girls were definitely not Orci and Kurtzman.

Transformers Prime doesn't have time for either of those Michael Bay things. It's more concerned with things like character development, storytelling clarity and action sequence clarity, things Bay hasn't cared about since, oh, I don't know, The Rock.

On this show, we have black actors lending their pipes to Autobot characters like in the Bay movies--Dwayne Johnson cameoed as an Autobot in the very first episode, while Kevin Michael Richardson plays burly soldier Bulkhead, who's the focus of "Toxicity," this week's episode--but it's not cringe-inducing here. Richardson isn't forced to deliver corny rapper-style slang or act out Stepin Fetchit-y tomfoolery.

Bulkhead is joining the cast of The Biggest Loser next season. He wants to get back to his fighting weight again.
Orci and Kurtzman are veterans of J.J. Abrams productions, so they play around with time on Transformers Prime like they did on those Abrams projects. The entire "Toxicity" episode, scripted by Steven Melching, is actually a flashback explaining what led to Bulkhead getting shot in the back when he returned to the Autobot base via ground bridge (this show's version of a Stargate) at the end of "Triage," the previous episode.

In "Toxicity," the show's current arc about a race between the Autobots and Decepticons to retrieve ancient Cybertronian artifacts that are buried all over Earth continues with Bulkhead's efforts to collect the fourth and final artifact on a volcanic island on the Equator. But the relic contains toxic material that's weakening Bulkhead, who's trying to dispose of the harmful material by hurling it into a volcano. At the same time, he must also deal with the scummy Insecticons and their leader Hardshell (David Kaye). Bulkhead is ready to give up on his grueling mission, but from the Autobot base, "bot-sitter" Agent Fowler (Ernie Hudson) pep-talks him into not quitting.

Unlike Bulkhead, I don't need Ernie Hudson to get me to not quit Transformers. I'm surprised by how decent the writing is on this show, and I'm actually curious about where its artifacts arc is headed.

***

On Memorial Day Weekend, most networks choose to air reruns of their original series, but not HBO and Cartoon Network! Over on Disney XD this week, Ultimate Spider-Man and Motorcity are in repeats, while The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes has apparently began a temporary hiatus (is this due to the possible transformation of Earth's Mightiest Heroes from a serialized show to a not-so-serialized one that I've been hearing about and somewhat dreading?). Meanwhile, Cartoon Network dropped new episodes of Green Lantern, Young Justice, Adventure Time, Regular Show and MAD (and Metalocalypse and The Eric Andre Show were new on Adult Swim).

The lack of new episodes of Ultimate, Motorcity and Earth's Mightiest for "5-Piece Cartoon Dinner" forced me to check out Adventure Time and Regular Show. I had never seen either Adventure Time or Regular Show before the weekend. Fortunately, Cartoon Network repeatedly marathoned a buttload of Adventure Time's 11-minute episodes over the weekend to get me better acquainted with lone human Finn (Jeremy Shada), his canine foster brother Jake, their Asian-accented--but luckily, not in a coonish way--robot buddy BMO (Niki Yang) and the other denizens of the Land of Ooo.

Title cards in cartoons are a lost art, so it's dope that Adventure Time has brought them back. Another lost art is closing voice actor credits I can actually fucking read and not have to freeze-frame or Google.
(Photo source: Fred Seibert)
I don't think I'll be making Adventure Time a regular thing, but this weird hit show, set in a post-apocalyptic world that's "sort of whimsical and fun instead of grim," as io9 noted during an interview with series creator Pendleton Ward, always contains a gag or two that makes me laugh. But so far, it's not the bodily function humor that's made me crack me up. What's cracked me up is the unexpected straight-out-of-modern-domestic-life dialogue that pops up in scenes involving the show's couples, whether it's the bickering married spiders (Bobcat Goldthwait and Susie Essman) in "Web Weirdos" or the Ice King (Tom Kenny) and his newly created "Princess Monster Wife" in this week's new episode of the same name (the Ice King to his grisly-looking wife while teaching her shortcuts for cleaning dirty dishes: "Let me show you a trick, my darling. See? You let it soak, and then we'll wash it in the morning.").

When Lumpy Space Princess mentions her lumps are missing, I'm glad it didn't turn into 'My Humps' spoofery, which was instantly dated even back when that song first dropped in 2005, Flight of the Conchords 'Sugalumps' aside.
(Photo source: Adventure Time Wiki)
In "Princess Monster Wife," each of Ooo's princesses wakes up with a body part stolen from her, and they seek Finn and Jake's help in recovering their parts. It takes only less than two minutes into the episode for Finn and Jake to identify the thief as the Ice King, who mashed together the half-faces and limbs he copped to build for himself a wife who's as repulsive as Helena Bonham Carter's Bride of Frankenstein in Kenneth Branagh's Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. She's so repulsive Finn and Jake amusingly faint every time they see her.

That triple mouth is fucking unsettling. And I don't want to know what the Ice King did to form her vag.
(Photo source: Adventure Time Wiki)
Princess Monster Wife is saddened that her badly stitched-together face terrifies everybody except the Ice King, so he tries to build up her self-esteem by sewing together a new dress for her during a random Project Runway spoof, but even that fails when one of the Ice King's penguins at the runway ralphs in her presence. The bride of the Ice King may be uglier than Betty, but the episode makes her a sympathetic creature, and she decides to save the day by sacrificing herself and returning each of her components to their rightful owners while they sleep, which elicits a great punchline from the Ice King: "She gave away all my stuff!"

On Twitter, do they call AT-ATs '@-@s' to save character space?
(Photo source: Topless Robot)
Last week, I noted that cartoons like the Jay Ward shows and DC Animation's Timmverse shows still hold up, even when you're an adult, because they were written for everybody, not just kids. Adventure Time belongs on that list too. "Princess Monster Wife" and the repeat from last season that aired after it, "Dad's Dungeon," exemplify how Adventure Time delivers puke and fart jokes and D&D-influenced action for the kids, while sneaking in some rich backstory about Ooo and clever, over-the-kids'-heads comedic dialogue for us adults--presumably stoned while watching the show.

***

I have no idea what Regular Show is, but like Adventure Time, it's an 11-minute ratings hit on Cartoon Network, and its premise isn't difficult to get into. All I know about Regular Show is that it comes from Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack creative director J.G. Quintel, and it centers on a six-foot-tall blue jay named Mordecai (Quintel) and a raccoon named Rigby (William Salyers) who work as groundskeepers at a city park. Their friends include an immortal Yeti named Skips (Mark Hamill) and a short-statured groundskeeper named Muscle Man (Sam Marin), who looks like the Lou Ferrigno version of The Hulk but with a beergut and the ability to speak in complete sentences.

He looks like he's about to munch on his own moobs as if they're cupcakes.
Muscle Man is also accident-prone. In the first Regular Show episode I've ever watched, this week's "Dead at Eight," Muscle Man's attempt to try out a waterslide he just built goes awry, and his near-dead state attracts the attention of Cockney-accented Death (Julian Holloway), who wants to claim Muscle Man's soul. On this show, Death isn't a creepy sourpuss in a cloak. He's a hip and easygoing suburbanite dad in a blazer and jeans who tools around on his Harley.

'This is like that Tiny Elvis sketch on SNL but even more fucking absurd.'
Mordecai and Rigby aren't ready to see their green friend go, so they bargain with Death, who will free Muscle Man's soul if they're willing to babysit his kid Thomas while he takes his wife out for dinner on their wedding anniversary. Thomas is, of course, a demanding and mischievous demon baby who telekinetically wolfs down sacks of sugar from the kitchen and brings to life soul-sucking death worms from his favorite pop-up books, but what makes "Dead at Eight" particularly amusing is that this demon baby has the voice of Michael Dorn.

Wow. What sort of drugs are these Regular Show staff writers on?

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