Tuesday, August 28, 2012

5-Piece Cartoon Dinner (08/28/2012): Transformers Prime, Gravity Falls, Kaijudo, Adventure Time and Regular Show

'We must break you.'
I'm looking forward to seeing Gravity Falls' other Time Paradox Avoidance Enforcement Squadron agents, Clean, Jaude, Dan and Vamme.
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.

After a couple of months of repeats, The Hub's Transformers Prime resumes its second season with "Hurt," an episode that's largely downbeat, aside from a silly reference to David Bowie's "TVC 15" that will sail over the kid viewers' heads and a comedic feud between the Insecticons and Knock Out (Daran Norris), a vain Decepticon reminiscent of Kevin Spacey's celebrity cop character in L.A. Confidential. In "Hurt," the Autobots and their human sidekicks keep vigil over the gruff Autobot soldier Bulkhead when he winds up comatose after the events of "Toxicity."

Bulkhead's two best friends, human tomboy Miko (Tania Gunadi) and wartime comrade Wheeljack (James Horan), aren't exactly fond of authority, and they defy the team's orders to stay put and not take revenge on Hardshell (David Kaye), the Insecticon who shot Bulkhead in the back while he transported back to the Autobot base. The shooting worsened an already-injured Bulkhead's condition after he was poisoned by the "Tox-En" inside the Iacon relic he was attempting to retrieve.

Miko and Wheeljack spy on some skinny-dipping teens who fuck each other in a lake and then get chopped into pieces by a masked killer.
"Hurt" proves how a bit sophisticated this show's writing is in comparison to the writing on other Transformers incarnations. In the last few episodes, we've seen the show play around with time in a manner reminiscent of the Bad Robot projects that Transformers Prime co-executive producers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman cut their teeth on. And now, we see once again--after the very first episode killed off the Dwayne Johnson-voiced Cliffjumper (who's actually reappearing in next week's episode)--that when Transformers Prime leaves an Autobot badly injured, he doesn't bounce back '80s G.I. Joe-style at the end of the story as if nothing happened. Transformers Prime really puts its protagonists through the wringer.

There's one great visual touch in the middle of "Hurt" where the camera follows Miko around a cavern as the tiny human runs for cover and nearly gets squashed by both Wheeljack and Hardshell as the giant warriors beat the crap out of each other. The sequence captures well both the thrills of a first-person shooter and the danger the reckless Miko has put herself into, and yet, it somehow manages to avoid becoming visually incoherent and confusing like Michael Bay's live-action Transformers movies, where you can hardly tell if you're looking at a close-up of a Transformer's elbow or--gaaah!--testicle.


A cartoon with even more sophisticated writing than Transformers Prime is Gravity Falls, which, in its latest episode "The Time Traveler's Pig," references in its title a popular novel that only the adult viewers are sure to be familiar with (The Time Traveler's Wife). In "The Time Traveler's Pig," Dipper once again takes advantage of a futuristic device to try to get Wendy to like him as more than just a friend. This time, it's a time machine in the form of a tape measure that, with the help of Mystery Shack employee Soos, he steals from a goggles-wearing figure we've briefly seen before in earlier episodes, Blendin Blandin (Justin Roiland, a.k.a. the Earl of Lemongrab from Adventure Time), a time traveler from the year 207̃012 (pronounced "20-snyevendy-12," and yes, that is indeed a tilde above the 7).

Dipper uses the tape measure to alter history so that the carnival game he plays to impress Wendy doesn't end with a baseball giving her a black eye, which causes her to wind up in the arms of douchey, skinny-jeaned Robbie. The kid's Groundhog Day-style attempts to change the game's outcome amusingly lead to one disastrous result after another (at one point, a bunch of baseballs land on Wendy's face). But when a particularly successful attempt to keep Wendy away from Robbie interferes with his twin sister Mabel's day of fun with Waddles, the carnival pig she won (the same pig Mabel cuddles with in the show's opening titles each week), so that Mabel's rival Pacifica ends up winning Waddles instead, Dipper must choose between what his heart wants and what Mabel's heart wants.

Like Bruce Jenner's face on Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Waddles the pig's expression never changes during the episode.
(Photo source: Gravity Falls Wiki)
I love the attention to detail in each different era the tape measure whisks Dipper and Mabel off to as they try to find their way back home to the present. My favorite "Time Traveler's Pig" sight gag is the little bandage on the face of a frontierswoman's baby when the twins are sent back to the Oregon Trail. Speaking of tough-ass babies, the twins' brief visit to a post-apocalyptic future introduces the Time Baby, the "enormous, evil, time-devouring baby from another dimension" that was mentioned in the text of a top-secret government document Dipper skimmed through in "Irrational Treasure." The Time Baby attacks future Oregon with laser rays from his eyes and reappears in the end credits, where he orders Blandin to travel to the past to fix the time anomalies caused by Dipper and Mabel, hence Blandin's cameos in the first few episodes (by the way, this week's end-credits cryptogram--"mlg s.t. dvooh zkkilevw"--is "Not H.G. Wells approved").

The inspired time travel humor and the clever connections to past episodes aren't the only remarkable elements of "The Time Traveler's Pig." The conflict over Blandin's time machine that episode writers Aury Wallington and Alex Hirsch bring into Dipper and Mabel's friendship--these two siblings who always look out for each other have never been seen fighting with each other until now--adds some dimension and heart to the timey-wimey hijinks. One thing Gravity Falls pulls off well in addition to absurdist humor is its melancholy side, and there are a couple of passage-of-time montages in "The Time Traveler's Pig"--one of them takes place while Dipper is heartbroken over Wendy agreeing to go out with Robbie--that are as beautifully drawn and animated as the Koyannisqatsi-esque fast-motion images in the opening titles. Gravity Falls just can't stop continuing to be impressive each week.


Two-part episodes are where The Hub's Kaijudo: Rise of the Duel Masters truly shines as an animated series because the extended story length gives the show a chance to go all-out in terms of scope and scale, particularly during the creature battles. The highlight of the two-part "Deep End" episode--in which Ray and his friends venture into the Water Civilization to try to restore Ray's missing memories, while Gargle the gadget-building Reef Prince tries to restore his damaged reputation--is the introduction of King Poseidon, an imaginatively designed Water Civilization creature that's as large as an Earth city. Ray and his team ride atop Poseidon to do battle with an underwater dragon, despite Ray's complaint that steering this giant fish is like steering an aircraft carrier.

This Poseidon adventure...

...is much less disaster-y...

... or Shelley Winters-y.
(Photo source: Wizards of the Coast/Hasbro Studios)
Although "The Deep End" has fun with the Water Civilization character designs (from Poseidon to the blue-skinned adult members of the unsurprisingly stuffy Council of Logos, whom Allie can't stop mocking and referring to as cute because they look like babies), "The Deep End" is a slightly less enjoyable two-parter than "Into the Fire." Maybe it's because "The Deep End" suffers from Thunderball Syndrome, where an action movie or show gets a little boring as it spends extended time in an underwater setting like Thunderball did (submarine movies like Crimson Tide, my favorite film directed by the late Tony Scott, are somehow immune to this syndrome). But at least Poseidon's battle with the dragon isn't a chore to watch like that endless Thunderball underwater speargun battle. Plus it's over before someone sappily sings that "There's got to be a morning after…"


While "Lady & Peebles" was about Princess Bubblegum's tough warrior woman side, "You Made Me," the latest Adventure Time short, focuses on PB's gentle and maternal side as she tries to help out her creation-gone-wrong, the Earl of Lemongrab (Justin Roiland, who, between this episode and his Gravity Falls guest shot, has been having a knockout week as a vocal presence on animated TV).

Lemongrab, being his usual laid-back self
(Photo source: The Adventure Time Wiki)
"Man, that guy's a real D-list!," grouses Finn as Lemongrab continues to alienate everybody with his shouty presence and lack of social skills. Nobody wants to live in Lemongrab's kingdom, so he's been creepily climbing into Candy Kingdom citizens' bedrooms while they sleep to look for subjects to keep him company in his kingdom.

One thing I've always hated about small-screen animation from the '60s to the '90s is the lack of variety in character designs, which would result in characters wearing the same clothes in every episode. Don't these toons ever reek of B.O.? (A rare exception to this was The Real Ghostbusters, which must have been the first American animated series where the heroes frequently changed clothes.) Because Adventure Time has emerged in a different time where standards in small-screen animation have been raised by technological advances, American viewers' changing attitudes towards animation (which are inching closer to how seriously Japan takes animation) and the openness of cable, the show's animators keep the proceedings from becoming stale by frequently playing around with PB's look or Marceline's look. The variety in the character designs for regulars like PB and Marceline is one of my favorite elements of Adventure Time.

Peebles got a big ol' butt...
(Photo source: The Adventure Time Wiki)
So while I like how "You Made Me" changes up PB's fashions, I keep getting distracted by her fugly-looking mom jeans. I guess the mom jeans are supposed to emphasize her maternal side. Hopefully, years from now, her high-waisted pants in "You Made Me" won't be as badly dated as anything Jerry Seinfeld wore on Seinfeld. Centuries from now, when aliens visit our deserted planet and rummage through the rubble of our vanished civilization, I wouldn't be surprised if those aliens unearth a DVD of Seinfeld episodes and then say, "A mock turtleneck tucked into high-waisted mom jeans? I mean, really, Jerry?!"


Like Gov. Chris Christie, Pops loves him some donuts. Unlike Gov. Christie, they apparently don't go to Pops' thighs.
(Photo source: Hilary Florido)
I don't eat donuts for breakfast anymore, which is why the brief moments of donut porn during Regular Show's "Sugar Rush" episode are a bit difficult to watch. I like how critical "Sugar Rush" is of the sugar content in donuts without getting all sanctimonious like a health-food hippie douchebag or Bill Maher whenever he goes off on one of his tangents about poisons inside food on Real Time. The cartoon's offbeat way of conveying how bad for your heart those damn things are is to take the Star Trek "Wink of an Eye" route and have Mordecai and Rigby discover that Pops' addiction to donut sugar causes the elderly man-child to experience time and space at a hyper-accelerated rate.

"We're on a higher sugar plane," explains Skips, after he, Mordecai and Rigby wolf down enough apple fritters to become as superhumanly fast as Pops so that they can rescue him from the higher sugar plane just in time for the park staffers' morning meeting with their uptight boss Benson. "[Everyone appears] to be moving slow because we're moving so fast."

Benson from Regular Show is exactly what white people and old Asian guys look like to me whenever I see them walk around in high-waisted pants.
The higher sugar plane leads to the inevitable and slightly disturbing slo-mo shot of the tubby Muscle Man doing his signature move of taking his shirt off and spinning it around. That kind of shot must have been one of the images Seinfeld had in mind when he delivered his adage of "There's good naked and bad naked." If too much sugar subjects you to the sight of blubber jiggling in a way that's hardly as sexy as bootydancing footage in an old Hype Williams video, then quitting donuts is worth it.

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