Tuesday, July 31, 2012

5-Piece Cartoon Dinner (07/31/2012): Iron Man, Ultimate Spider-Man, Scooby-Doo!, Adventure Time and Regular Show

In a deleted scene, Fred is seen eating Scooby Snacks out of an alley trash bin.
All Hipster Fred can think about right now is where he could score some PBR.
Each Tuesday in "5-Piece Cartoon Dinner," I dine on five of the week's most noteworthy animated cable shows that are found outside my Adult Swim comfort zone. The episodes are reviewed in the order of when they first aired.

Iron Man: Armored Adventures, which centered on a teenage version of inventor/superhero Tony Stark (Adrian Petriw), quietly ended its two-season run on Nicktoons last Wednesday. The animation on this Canadian-made show isn't bad for a CG-animated show. I like how at the end of the Rooney-soundtracked opening titles--nice original theme, by the way, from Dweezil Schwartzman or whatever his name is--Iron Man quivers like Buzz Lightyear pressing his wrist laser button while he activates his suit's repulsor ray from his palm, which makes it look as if this much younger Tony is still adjusting to the power of his repulsor rays. But the show's human character designs and lighting look cheap and low-res compared to what we see on other CG shows like Disney's noir-tinged Tron: Uprising and Bruce Timm's strikingly lit Green Lantern: The Animated Series.


While I find the look of Armored Adventures to be on the undernourished side, the writing, supervised by story editor Brandon Auman, is pretty decent. Though Armored Adventures is made for an audience that's younger than, say, Young Justice's--hence the de-aging of Tony, James Rhodes (Daniel Bacon) and Pepper Potts (Anna Cummer), who, instead of being Tony's assistant, is Tony and Rhodey's classmate on this show--it isn't as juvenile as I often find the writing on Ultimate Spider-Man to be. In other words, there aren't any anvillicious voiceovers from Tony or forced cutaway gags. I particularly liked Armored Adventures' recent crossover with the X-Men characters, the Auman-scripted "X-Factor," which had Tony and Rhodey coming to the aid of their mutant classmate Annie, who was on the run from Magneto and was revealed at the end of the episode to be a young Jean Grey.

In "The Makluan Invasion, Part 2: Unite!," Armored Adventures' series finale, the battle between Iron Man's allies and the Makluan forces for the coveted 10 Rings resembles the climax of Joss Whedon's The Avengers (this two-parter's team of heroes is the same as Whedon's roster, except it's missing Captain America, Thor and Maria Hill, who's Russian-accented on this show for some odd reason, and in their place is Black Panther), but Auman actually wrote the finale before Whedon began work on his movie. Hulk (Mark Gibbon) surprises his friends by joining them late in battle like in Whedon's movie, but he's a lot different here. He experienced an intelligence boost during his last appearance on the show, so he talks in full sentences (just like on The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes) and would be able to land a job as an ESL teacher. (The most physical side effect of Hulk's added brainpower was a change in skin color from green to '60s comics-era gray.)

Missing from this team are Captain America, who's still a Popsicle, and Thor, who's still trying to pass shop class back on Asgard.
A couple of other major differences between "The Makluan Invasion" and the Whedon movie are the involvement of War Machine and Rescue, Pepper's armored alter ego (which probably pleases female viewers who are campaigning for Gwyneth Paltrow's Pepper to suit up as Rescue in Iron Man 3), and due to the low budget, a reduced sense of scale. The Manhattan streets on this show are often empty. Where did all the bystanders go? Without those civilians, the battle between Team Stark/S.H.I.E.L.D. and the title aliens isn't as high-stakes as the one between the Avengers and the Chitauri. Maybe that's also due to the fact that I'm in TV-Y7-land here instead of the PG-13-level alien-invasion drama of the Whedon film or the more morbid turf of a celeb-slaughtering Irwin Allen disaster flick, so I shouldn't be expecting Robert Wagner running around on fire like Richard Pryor or something.

Auman wrote "The Makluan Invasion" as both a season finale and series finale in case the series didn't get renewed. So because Nicktoons has basically cancelled Armored Adventures, the series concludes with Iron Man, War Machine and Rescue flying off into the sunset and eagerly looking forward to their new lives as superheroes whose secret identities are now known to the public, which learns of their unmasked selves after Tony accidentally loses his helmet while escaping the destruction of the Makluan mothership, and Rhodey and Pepper happen to be be unmasked when they retrieve him. Rhodey and Pepper's parents also learn of their children's secret lives and are unusually understanding about their new jobs. I'm surprised that Rhodey's lawyer mother Roberta (Catherine Haggquist) doesn't ask her son something like, "Hey, remember that internship at Matt Murdock's firm? Because in case the superheroing thing doesn't work out... Also, they've got dental."

***

The comedic material on Ultimate Spider-Man is much less cringe-inducing than usual this week. I don't know if it's because Scott Mosier--the Kevin Smith crony and SModcast network co-founder who co-wrote this week's "Beetle Mania" episode and had a hand in several other upcoming episodes--has something to do with it (I don't listen to Mosier and Smith's podcasts, so I can't tell which lines in "Beetle Mania" are ones Mosier would come up with). I actually laughed during one gag (Peter imagines the ambitious, Tara Strong-voiced Mary Jane as the new boss of the Bugle and pictures her with J. Jonah Jameson hair) and enjoyed another that requires the pause button in order to see it (a Bugle news channel ticker posts items like "Snow in July? Storm refuses to comment" and "Alison Blaire's new album goes platinum in the first week," a reference to Dazzler, the mutant pop singer from the X-Men comics).

This green-eyed bandit may be difficult for S.H.I.E.L.D. to defeat, but he doesn't speak, so he'd definitely lose in a battle with that other green-eyed bandit, Erick Sermon.
Again, the C-list villain in the show's cold open, the recurring, bad glue pun-loving nuisance known as the Trapster (Steven Weber), is more memorable than the main heavy, the nearly mute Beetle (Steve Blum), whom Spidey and the S.H.I.E.L.D. trainees must protect both MJ and Jameson from when the armored assassin attempts to attack the outspoken Bugle editor-in-chief at his office building, just when MJ happens to be there to be interviewed by Jameson for a Bugle internship. The main villains on Ultimate Spider-Man have tended to be on the boring and easy-to-defeat side, including this week's uninteresting title foe and the one-note Venom, although the Mark Hamill-voiced Nightmare from the Doctor Strange episode had, for once, some personality and formidableness (he kept everyone in New York imprisoned in their nightmares, which makes that small-town menace Freddy Krueger look like a pussy) and required more than just webbing and brute strength from Spidey in order to be defeated.

Series composer Kevin Manthei's half-orchestral/half-punk score music really stands out this week. He gives MJ a memorable and charming leitmotif for strings that perfectly suits the aspiring journo's persistent yet relaxed demeanor. And then someone in the Disney XD control room apparently got his drank on all Saturday night and was asleep at the wheel because he forgot to squeeze out the Ultimate Spider-Man end credits with one of Chi McBride's "Fury Files" segments for the "Marvel Universe" block, so we got to hear all of Manthei's end credits theme, which Manthei has referred to as a punk tune that "continues the tradition of the classic animated Spider-Man song in terms of being catchy." Manthei wrote it so that someone can easily sing "Spider-Man, Spider-Man" repeatedly over it, much like the late, great Shirley Walker's theme for the Man of Steel on Superman: The Animated Series. I may not always agree with Ultimate Spider-Man's comedic or narrative choices, but it's nice to hear an animated Marvel series step its game up in terms of score music for a change.

***

Cartoon Network posted "The Night the Clown Cried," the second-season premiere of Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated, on its site back in March but didn't air it on broadcast TV until yesterday. When the show last left Crystal Cove, "the Most Hauntedest Place on Earth," the titular detective agency wound up disbanded, Fred (Frank Welker) broke off his engagement to Daphne (Grey DeLisle) and hit the road to find his birth parents and Mr. and Mrs. Rogers (Casey Kasem and DeLisle) enrolled their son Shaggy (Matthew Lillard) in military school and sent Scooby (Welker) away to a puppy farm.

That was a surprisingly downbeat cliffhanger for a kids' show, but Mystery Incorporated isn't your standard kids' show. It's written not just for kids but also for adults like myself who grew up watching any one of Hanna-Barbera's countless incarnations of Scooby-Doo and have long outgrown Scoob (the only one of the Hanna-Barbera productions that's at least tolerable in reruns is A Pup Named Scooby-Doo, a late '80s prequel series that poked fun at the rigid formula of the previous Scoob shows).

After it absorbed Hanna-Barbera, Warner Bros. Animation has kept the talking Great Dane and his teen detective friends alive in animation, in both series form and made-for-DVD feature film form. The studio's Mystery Incorporated is the first incarnation of Scoob to attempt to lure back older viewers by doubling up on the eye candy, classing up the character designs (I like how the show both preserves and updates the ascot-and-sideburns-heavy late '60s/early '70s look of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! and The New Scooby-Doo Movies), smartening up the writing, serializing the stories and darkening the mood while also making the proceedings somehow funnier. Besides the standard Shaggy and Scoob slapstick for the littlest viewers, there are also jabs at the old franchise itself, in-jokes referring to other cartoons like an infamous '80s Mighty Mouse short that parodied Scoob and gags about fantasy authors like H.P. Lovecraft, Twilight creator Stephenie Meyer and Harlan Ellison, who's appeared in animated form on this show as a younger-looking but still outspoken version of himself.

'I can totally see my awesome lantern jaw in those eyes of yours. Can you see it too?'
Most of the status quo that was undone at the end of last season is restored in "The Night the Clown Cried" (dig that title--it's not every day you see a Cartoon Network show reference a controversial and unreleased Jerry Lewis movie about the Holocaust). Velma (Mindy Cohn) is able to get Scoob, a disheveled-looking Fred and a clean-shaven Shaggy to return to Crystal Cove and resume their old task of protecting the town from costumed troublemakers. But Daphne, still upset over how Fred broke it off with her, refuses to rejoin her friends and would rather spend time with her new boo Baylor Hotner (Matt Lanter), the self-absorbed himbo best known for playing the were-turtle in the Dusk movies, the show's recurring jab at the Twilight franchise.

Daphne's absence further depresses Fred, who's irritated by Baylor's lack of an ascot and is also bummed that her absence has made it difficult for him and his friends to take down Crybaby Clown, the criminal who's been terrorizing Crystal Cove with bombs encased in baby bottles and ruining the town's tourism-based economy ever since Mystery Incorporated split up. In a brilliant casting move, Crybaby Clown is voiced by none other than former Joker Mark Hamill, who differentiates this underdressed and disgusting-looking clown from the Batman nemesis by giving him a Baby Herman-style dem-dese-dose voice.

He's like Baby Huey meets John Wayne Gacy.
(Photo source: Scoobypedia)
In another nice move, Crybaby Clown isn't caught at the end of the premiere and is bound to reappear again, which means more of Hamill spoofing his most famous animated role. I wouldn't be surprised if Crybaby Clown is actually Baylor, who tells Daphne he's flying off to Africa to shoot an ad for a line of eco-friendly skinny jeans ("It's compost on your behind/Fits like a glove as you start to grind"). While Daphne has completely given up on Mystery Incorporated, I'm glad to be reunited with this amusing reboot of an animated franchise that, before this current incarnation, I've ignored since 1990.

***

Earlier this season on Adventure Time, Finn (Jeremy Shada) fell in love with Flame Princess (Jessica DiCicco) despite the fact that hugging her leaves his skin singed. In "Burning Low," Princess Bubblegum (Hynden Walch), whom the much younger Finn used to be romantically interested in before her disinterest in him drove him into the flaming arms of FP, learns that Finn's been dating FP. She wants Jake (John DiMaggio) to put an end to his best friend's relationship with FP not because she's jealous but for strictly rational reasons. "Her elemental matrix can't handle extreme romance" and her physical instability can have disastrous consequences on the post-apocalyptic land of Ooo (FP's unstable state is why PB had the Flame King, FP's father, lock his own daughter up).

PB's bubble has just been burst.
PB attempts to tell Jake about why it's dangerous to date FP via a lecture about relationships that she delivers in the best way she knows--scientific terms--but all the jargon puts Jake to sleep. Jake, who's no stranger to forbidden romances (he's dating the Korean-speaking Lady Rainicorn and used to be afraid of her not-so-intimidating parents), is totally supportive of his friend's relationship with FP--that is until he learns of all the technobabble that he didn't hear when he dozed off.

Viewers who can shave will get a kick out of the episode's STD double entendres, which are bound to sail over the youngest viewers' heads. Viewers of any age whose past or present romantic relationship with someone else has led them to deal with naysayers (whether it's because of obstacles like an age difference, a class difference, a racial difference, the same sex or an allergy to something their boo is extremely fond of) will identify with Finn's situation. And they'll love how it's implied that Jake will continue sticking up for Finn's forbidden romance with FP even after he rescues Finn from the chaos that results when he takes his relationship with FP from Tier 1 ("Hugging") to Tier 2 ("Smooching").

Even the seemingly irrelevant but catchy little song that Jake sings to himself while making breakfast ("Bacon pancakes, makin' bacon pancakes/Take some bacon and I'll put it in a pancake…") ties into the episode's themes of unlikely couplings, love's irrational nature, loving something that isn't good for you and of course, playing with fire. You can't make bacon pancakes without some fire.

***

Regular Show's love for outdated technology--and out-and-out weirdness--continues with "The Best VHS in the World," which finds Mordecai and Rigby, the only movie geeks in the world who haven't made the jump from VHS to DVD, in trouble with their favorite video store. The clerk (Roger Craig Smith) considers cutting up their membership card because they haven't returned an overdue movie, The Best VHS in the World, an odd piece of crap that resembles the 1988 E.T. ripoff/feature-length McDonald's ad Mac and Me (instead of an alien kid, the star of the fake film is a bulldog from another planet that can drive a car). But the clerk likes Mordo and Rigs because he shares their appreciation for "superior video formats," so he gives them a few hours to find the missing video before he cancels their membership and charges them with an $1,000 fee.

I don't know what the Bestvhs in the World are, but I'm sure a Bestvh sounds dandy.
(Photo source: Toby Jones)
Mordecai and Rigby thought the misleadingly titled Best VHS in the World sucked as a film, and they can't remember where they last left the tape, which is encased in a golden plastic shell, so they comb through their messy house for it. It turns out that Buttonwillow McButtonwillow (Armin Shimerman), an evil, antisocial gnome who lives below Mordecai and Rigby's house, stole the tape from them and refuses to give it back because he worships the movie and can't stop rewatching it. He's written a fanzine about the movie and decorated his cave with artwork he's drawn of the golden tape in various settings ("And here's one of it in what I think Kauai looks like!"). Buttonwillow is basically a hoarder, except his life revolves around just this one movie instead of a house full of scraps.

The duo talks Buttonwillow into handing over the tape by luring him to a world outside the cave where there are other movies just like The Best VHS in the World, but they're of much better quality. They further entice Buttonwillow by telling him that the world outside the cave is just like the one that captivated him in his favorite movie: the dogs in their world can also drive cars, and the skies are also peppered with UFOs. Regular Show always ends with terrific episode-concluding punchlines, and this week's last gag is no exception. In a funny acknowledgement of how difficult it is for compulsive behavior to be changed, the episode concludes with Buttonwillow, who's been given a membership card by the video store clerk and is delighted by the amount of selections at the store, deciding on his first-ever video store rental: The Best VHS in the World.

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