Tuesday, August 14, 2012

5-Piece Cartoon Dinner (08/14/2012): Scooby-Doo!, Dragons: Riders of Berk, Gravity Falls, Adventure Time and Randy Cunningham

This new Petticoat Junction reboot looks dead sexy.
Mrs. Bjorkland and her bjorkable daughters
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.

I know using a phrase like "It's The Wire of lawyer shows" or "It's The Wire of space operas" to describe a serialized show's novelistic narrative structure has become a bit of a cliché lately. But Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated supervising producer Tony Cervone's recent tweet in which he asserts that his show "has always been a 52-chapter long story" and nothing more has made such a phrase unavoidable when describing why Mystery Incorporated is such a standout cartoon.

As much as I like Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated, I'd rather see another season of Terriers.
Cervone's tweet also confirms why there's no clamor from the show's staffers for another season of Mystery Incorporated. And I'm okay with the fact that after Chapter 52, this exceptional, Wire-esque-in-structure-if-not-in-scope incarnation of Scooby is dead and buried. I'd rather have Mystery Incorporated stick to its planned end date than wear out its welcome and turn into a shell of its former self a few years later (that is if it'll ever reach its final few episodes because after this week's batch of episodes, Cartoon Network is--*sigh*--putting the show on hiatus again).

The Subaru of dogs So what's happened in the last few episodes of the second season of Scooby-Doo! Burnoff Theater? Daphne is apparently a chocoholic. Hot Dog Water resurfaced as a perp--and Velma let her get away with it, as her feelings for Marcy were again carefully hidden by the show's producers. Sheriff Bronson Stone (Patrick Warburton) and Mayor Janet Nettles (Kate Higgins) are now an item. The show channeled a cartoon that's frequently parodied Scooby, The Venture Bros., and revealed that Fred's trap-building parents are the Doo-niverse's equivalent of Hart to Hart (I love how their butler sounds exactly like Lionel Stander). Rough winter weather forced the team to spend the night at a secluded mansion and experience freaky hallucinations (one of them causes Daphne to make out with Shaggy, which shocks the hell out of both Fred and Scooby) during one of the show's most eerie episodes so far, a Shining homage/parody.

It turns out that the Professor Pericles-era Mystery Incorporated team wasn't the first team of mystery-solvers that consisted of four teen sleuths and an animal mascot. There were other precursors to Scooby and his friends, starting with Burlington's Benevolent Lodge of Mystery in the 1880s. Remorseful Mystery Incorporated alum Cassidy Williams sacrificed her life while taking a stand in the sea against her former teammate Pericles. But we never saw her body after the explosion, and in live-action episodic TV, we know what that means.

His last name's Meanskrieg. Way to be subtle, Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated.
Count Evallo Von Meanskrieg
And finally, the series continues to sneak in amusing Easter eggs that are worth freeze-framing and perusing. From the "Gathering Gloom" episode, here's the complete text that was written on the rejected work permit that Velma read about Count Evallo Von Meanskrieg, the perp voiced by Chris Hardwick:

Previous job experiences
Scaring small children, being mean to the elderly, shaving kittens and painting them blue, building sewage treatment plants so they back up when used, driving busloads of innocent civilians into the middle of nowhere and then leaving them there, poking holes in the bottoms of all candies in a box to see what they are and then putting them back in the same box, wearing other people's socks and then putting them back in their drawers with extra foot stink on them.

References from old country
It is hereby stated that several individuals have come forward detailing that Count Evallo Von Meanskrieg is the meanest individual to ever walk the face of the earth. Too numerous to list here. The many complaints against his character have been added to this Work Permit application as an addendum. To summarize, Count Evallo Von Meanskrieg is one very mean and evil individual. One person testified that flowers wilt when he gets too close to them. The sky has been seen darkening as he approaches and it is said that his breath is most foul. The breath itself is due to the fact that Count Evallo Von Meanskrieg has never brushed his teeth since the day he was born. Several other references report that the applicant in question curdled milk by looking at it and made a cow climb a tree from sheer meanness.

Disposition of Applicant
Mean as an angry snake that has been hit by several rocks.

Appearance of Applicant
Mean and unpleasant. He has an aura of pure evil about him.

Overall Assessment of Applicant
It is hereby determined that Count Evallo Von Meanskrieg be denied this Work Permit on the grounds that he is too evil to properly perform any useful service in any possible position in the workforce. His sheer evil personality and dark disposition would only spread discontent and unhappiness to all his co-workers. This office hereby denies Count Evallo Von Meanskrieg. He is evil.

***

Based on a series of books by Cressida Cowell, the 2010 boy-and-his-pet tale How to Train Your Dragon is my favorite DreamWorks Animation film because of both the startling lack of lazy pop-culture reference humor that has made other DreamWorks Animation films instantly dated (the humor was more character-based in this film) and the chances it took with its storytelling. They included the initially controversial decision to end How to Train Your Dragon with its teenage hero Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) left disabled from battle (in a rare instance of test screenings actually being useful for a change, parents at the screenings requested that the film's producers leave the ending unchanged) and the clever way the film developed Hiccup's growing friendship with Toothless the dragon without any dialogue.

I'm so glad directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, who previously made Disney's above-average Lilo & Stitch, chose not to have the catlike Toothless speak at all. If DeBlois and Sanders weren't involved, I'm sure Toothless would have been voiced by Tracy Morgan or ugh, Carlos Mencia, and How to Train Your Dragon would have ended up being just another disposable and routine DreamWorks Animation film.

The choices DeBlois and Sanders made in departing from the DreamWorks Animation formula paid off immensely and have led to an in-the-works sequel and Dragons: Riders of Berk, a promising-looking Cartoon Network series that will bridge the two films and expand upon the Dragons universe, as well as explore the Viking villagers' difficult adjustment to co-existing with their new dragon allies. Last week, the channel sneak-previewed "How to Start a Dragon Academy" and "Viking for Hire," the first two episodes of Dragons, back-to-back, about a month before the series' official premiere on September 4.

Most of the voice actors from the 2010 film have returned for Dragons ("Jay didn't want anyone else to voice [his] character," said DreamWorks Animation exec Peter Gal at a Comic-Con panel for the series). Only Gerard Butler, Kristen Wiig, Jonah Hill and Craig Ferguson are absent for obvious reasons and have been replaced respectively by Nolan North, Julie Marcus, Zack Pearlman and Chris Edgerly, who does a passable CraigyFerg impression (it's passable enough that during "Viking for Hire," I keep expecting Edgerly's Gobber to say, "It's a great day for America Berk, everybody!"). Fortunately, the series has maintained the first film's sumptuous look, which was partly due to regular Coen Brothers collaborator (and now, Skyfall cinematographer) Roger Deakins, who served as the film's visual consultant, and its stunning dragon flight scenes, the result of the animators actually having done extensive research on aircraft physics and imbuing the dragons with aircraft-like movements.

'It's called Playboy, Toothless. This is the articles part of Playboy, which isn't the reason why you buy it...'
If there's one beef I've had with Dragons so far, it's that it's talkier than the film version. Baruchel's voiceover narration as Hiccup feels lengthier here, although his expository voiceovers turn up only during the opening and closing moments like in the film. Now that Dragons has gotten all the re-establishing of the island setting of Berk out of the way, here's hoping the series finds ways to recapture the mostly dialogue-less visual poetry that made the film such a unique beast in the DreamWorks canon.

***

After two weeks of reruns, The Disney Channel's Gravity Falls returns with an entertaining new episode that comes up with another use for copy machines besides taking snapshots of your naked badonk. At the start of "Double Dipper," Grunkle Stan assigns Dipper and Mabel the task of Xeroxing flyers for a party he's throwing for the town's youth to promote the Mystery Shack. Stan tells the siblings to use his office's copier, which he claims to have recently fixed, but of course, when Dipper removes the tarp from the copier, it clearly hasn't been used in decades and is covered in cobwebs and cockroaches.

Stan is also unaware that his copier can clone humans, and on the night of the party, Dipper finds that this magic copier comes in handy when he needs to be in two or more places at once. The nine clones Dipper creates of himself (not counting Paper Jam Dipper, a hilariously botched, gibberish-speaking version who's referenced in this week's cryptogram, "kzkvi qzn wrkkvi hzbh: 'zfftsdcjstzwhzwfs!'" ["Paper Jam Dipper says: 'AUUGHWXQHGADSADUH!'"]) all start out as willing participants in the 12-year-old kid's unnecessarily overcomplicated plan to woo his 15-year-old crush Wendy. They distract Soos (series creator Alex Hirsch), Stan's laid-back employee who's DJing the party, from his laptop so that they can sneak a "Wendy Mix" CD into the laptop. Then they pry Dipper's hypersensitive musician douchebag rival Robbie (T.J. Miller) away from Wendy by stealing his bike. But the clones grow jealous of "Dipper Classic"'s ability to make small talk with Wendy and turn against their leader.

Dipper's clone must be thinking, 'I'm number two? What a shit number.'
There's some nice attention to detail in the Dipper clones. The animators give the clones washed-out colors to distinguish them from "Dipper Classic." I hope the writers are as equally attentive towards the magic copier. It's too powerful a device to be treated as a one-off conceit that's ignored for the rest of the season. Are Dipper and Mabel the only ones in town who know of this magic copier? Are there elected officials or townspeople of equal cachet who used the copier in the past to keep themselves alive or maintain their power? Could every adult in Gravity Falls, including Stan, be a clone who was created from the machine by their "classic" selves? Ooh, I'm getting chills just from typing that. I'd love it if turns out that the copier was responsible for some nefarious doings in Gravity Falls.

Also, the Gravity Falls Wiki points out that after Dipper kills off his own clones with water (they originated from paper, so they melt away when they come into contact with any kind of liquid), the episode doesn't catch up with the two clones who stole Robbie's bike and rode off into the night. So that means there are now three different versions of Dipper running around in Gravity Falls.

"Double Dipper" doesn't give Mabel a chance to play around with the copier after she sees it clone Dipper's hand in the cold open. Aside from the episode's rather abrupt ending (although I like how the episode ends on a somewhat melancholy note of "you can't always get what you want, so just deal and move on with your life"), the lack of Mabel in most of the A-story is the only disappointing aspect of "Double Dipper" because some comedy gold could have been mined from Mabel cloning herself. Instead, the episode keeps Mabel busy in the B-story, which has her getting into a karaoke rivalry with a Mean Girls-style teen snob named Pacifica Northwest (Jackie Buscarino), a member of a wealthy local family that, as promos suggest, will play a huge role in the Pioneer Day episode.

Before Gravity Falls, I wasn't familiar with composer Brad Breeck, but he's quickly turned into this show's frequent MVP. The highlight of Mabel's B-story is a fake '80s power ballad Breeck came up with for Mabel to take down Pacifica with. Music clearance woes are an issue that must be a constant thorn in the side for showrunners, but sometimes the inability to pony up for expensive pop tunes results in original music that's funnier than the music it's substituting for. There was clearly no room in the show's budget for a Journey track, so Breeck wrote the Journey-style "Don't Start Un-Believing," which has Kristen Schaal singing the brilliant chorus of "Don't start un-believing/Never don't not feel your feelings."

The Internet is starting to sing the praises of Breeck's musical skills on Gravity Falls. One way the Internet shows its appreciation for something is to remix it, and nerdcore MC Adam WarRock, who's dropped odes to Parks and Recreation, Chew and the angry asian man blog, did just that a few weeks ago when he remixed Breeck's opening theme from his favorite new show and added verses to it. On his Twitter, Hirsch was over the moon about WarRock's sweet take on the Gravity Falls theme.



***

If you've never watched Adventure Time before, "King Worm" is a lousy place to start. First of all, it's a dream-sequence episode--rarely do these episodes make for easy viewing, especially The Sopranos' extended visits to Tony's subconscious--and second, it contains so many callbacks to earlier Adventure Time episodes. During "King Worm," Finn is trapped inside his dreams by the title creature and must conjure up phobias from past episodes like a fear of the ocean (which leaks out of his belly button in one of the episode's strangest visuals) and a fear of clowns in order to escape King Worm's trap. "Grunk up the dreamscape with your subconscious fears" is how a dream-world doppleganger of Jake describes to Finn what he must do to defeat King Worm.

Hello Dali.
(Photo source: The Adventure Time Wiki)
I didn't think much of "King Worm" when I first saw it. In fact, I fell asleep in the middle of the episode, but luckily, a giant worm didn't seize control of my subconscious and try to trap me in my three-minute slumber. I've grown to like the episode a little more as I've re-watched it. The most interesting of Finn's fears involves neither oceans nor clowns and carries the least surreal imagery: he imagines the Lich, one of the Land of Ooo's enemies, enjoying coffee with his former crush Princess Bubblegum, who once was possessed by the Lich and nearly killed by him. PB taunts Finn with three words for why he'll never understand the klatch she's having with an enemy. They're the same three words that have been thrown back at Finn whenever he's wanted to be more than just friends with PB: "You're too young."

***

Earlier this year, CollegeHumor replaced footage of Andrew Garfield in the Amazing Spider-Man trailer with footage of Ben Schwartz's Jean-Ralphio--the inept baller from Parks and Rec who's perhaps the greatest sitcom character who appears only once or twice per season--to imagine a version of Marc Webb's Spidey reboot with a lead who's even dorkier than the spindly Garfield as Peter Parker. The "Jean-Ralphio Is the Amazing Spider-Man" video is especially intriguing now because Schwartz is voicing a Spidey-like teen superhero on the upcoming Disney/Titmouse collabo Randy Cunningham: 9th Grade Ninja, which Disney XD previewed this week on video-on-demand and in prime-time before its official series premiere on September 17.

'I hope you brought a change of clothes because your eyes are about to piss tears.'
The creation of Jed Elinoff and Scott Thomas (with character designs by an uncredited Jhonen Vasquez of Invader Zim fame), Randy Cunningham arrives in a cable TV landscape where--and I couldn't imagine myself saying this 15 years ago because back then, I had a thing for Miami Vice reruns, especially the ones where Edward James Olmos would suit up as a ninja--there are way too many cartoon shows about ninjas. Yeah, the ninja thing is played out, but what sets apart Randy Cunningham from other ninja cartoons are a bumbling hero whose reliance on a mysterious suit for his powers is reminiscent of The Greatest American Hero, a voice cast that's every comedy nerd's dream (Schwartz! Jim Rash of Community and Angelina Jolie leg mockery fame! John Oliver! Neil Flynn channeling his old Scrubs Janitor character while voicing a surly teacher! John DiMaggio! Megan Mullally!) and a bunch of truly demented character designs from Vasquez.

For instance, DiMaggio's one-armed corporate villain Hannibal McFist walks around with a cybernetic right arm that appears to be powered by a disembodied brain with often sad eyes that's encased in liquid inside his wrist. I like how "Last Stall on the Left," the 15-minute premiere episode, doesn't bother to explain McFist's prosthesis and the frightened-looking brain inside it.

"Last Stall on the Left" devotes more time to explaining through a brief flashback how during a summer vacation of nonstop gaming with his lazy best friend Howard (Andrew Caldwell), Randy wound up with the NinjaNomicon, the ninja suit that transforms him into a super-agile warrior. One day, an orange-haired stranger in a hat snuck into Randy's room, left him the suit and a thick instruction manual and then ran off. Unlike Ralph Hinkley on The Greatest American Hero, Randy doesn't lose his manual, but he's confused by instructions like "Believe in the weapon that is in the suit." (And unlike Ralph, Randy isn't serenaded by a soundtrack of '80s soft rock anthems like "Believe It or Not." His theme music is much harder-rocking and is provided by Breeck, who's currently juggling this show, Gravity Falls and MTV's Awkward. But in what must be a tribute to Ralph and his alien suit, the NinjaNomicon's red and black color scheme is the same as Ralph's.)

Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors has clearly had some work done on her face since 1986.
At one point in "Last Stall on the Left," Randy forgets a crucial suit instruction and has to cut class to bike back to his house and double-check what the manual told him to do. I'm not sure if I'll be regularly checking out Randy Cunningham when it premieres next month (the slightly older-skewing Motorcity, Disney's other co-production with Titmouse, is more my speed), but I already like how Randy is prone to making little mistakes (as opposed to Batman never misplacing his keys to the Batmobile). Those mistakes make this ninth-grade ninja a little more endearing.

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