Wednesday, October 10, 2012

5-Piece Cartoon Dinner (10/10/2012): Dragons: Riders of Berk, Gravity Falls, Young Justice, Adventure Time and Regular Show

Soos looks like he's cosplaying as Batman when he had that bare-chested swordfight with Ra's Al Ghul in the middle of the desert back in the '70s.
The Summerween came blowing een, from across the sea... (Photo source: Gravity Falls Wiki)
Every Wednesday 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.

Most family films put me to sleep, but How to Train Your Dragon didn't because it was so imaginatively directed and well-written, even during the "inflexible father learns to better understand his progressively minded son or daughter" trope that's present in so many family films. I'm a cold fish, so I don't get emotional during movies, but there's a quietly powerful moment involving that trope in How to Train Your Dragon that comes close to making me verklempt whenever I think back to it.

It takes place after Stoick the island chief lashes out at Hiccup because of his alliance with dragons and tells him he no longer considers him his son. Stoick walks away from Hiccup and has a moment to himself where, with just a pained and remorseful sigh from Gerard Butler and expressive facial animation by directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, we see how much it hurts Stoick to have said such dismissive words to his son. We've all experienced that shameful moment where we regretted saying or doing something so vicious and awful to a family member in the heat of an argument, and How to Train Your Dragon captured that pain so well without dialogue.

Except for a majestic flight sequence where Stoick is moved by his first aerial view of Berk, Dragons: Riders of Berk's lighthearted "How to Pick Your Dragon" episode doesn't contain a moment that's as dramatic as that non-verbal scene in the film where Stoick's hard-ass and macho authority figure demeanor briefly disappears, but it revisits in an equally effective manner Hiccup's difficulties in getting Stoick, who's so attached to "the Viking way," to better understand both him and "the dragon way." Hiccup is finally able to persuade Stoick that the dragon way simplifies and quickens arduous tasks and is relieved that his dad is now eager to take up dragon riding. However, he's not so pleased with Stoick using his dragon Toothless to practice his dragon riding, partly because carrying such a Chris Christie-sized Viking on his back for so long exhausts the undersized Night Fury (at one point, Toothless is so tired of dealing with Stoick that he hides away from him).

There's some great subdued character animation by "How to Pick Your Dragon" director Louie del Carmen during Toothless' scenes. Because Toothless' character design was based largely on cats, he's as emotionless as a feline, so del Carmen's ability to convey exasperated body language on a non-verbal and not-so-facially-expressive dragon is remarkable. He accomplishes it mostly through the animation of Toothless' eyes, which is fitting because as Hiccup attempts to point out to Stoick in this episode, eyes are one of the few tools in which humans and dragons can communicate with each other (is it me or does Hiccup sound like the world's first dating coach?).

'Sit, Ubu, sit. Good dog.'
(Photo source: Berk's Grapevine)
"It's a father's job to listen to his son without ever letting on that he's heard a word," explains Gobber to Hiccup, who's frustrated by his dad's stubbornness, especially after Stoick prefers to train his new dragon Thornado through Viking-style physical intimidation instead of the eye contact, patience and gentleness that Hiccup's trying to teach him. At the end of the episode, Stoick defies what Gobber says about fatherly communication when he does let on that he's absorbed his son's lessons. But in keeping with the refreshing economy of words and emotion in How to Train Your Dragon and now on Dragons, which are both basically about the challenges of limited communication, whether it's between human and animal or human and macho Viking dad, Stoick simply admits to Hiccup, "I listen."


Halloween episodes are obligatory for both sitcoms and paranormal shows, so how would Gravity Falls, a cartoon that's both a comedy and a paranormal show, be able to do a Halloween story when the timeframe the show takes place in is limited to the summertime? Gravity Falls cleverly works around that obstacle by establishing that the town celebrates Halloween twice a year, first on "Summerween" and again on October 31.

The best part of this closing-credits gag: that fucking Instagram tint that the animators added to Mabel's meme-style pics of Waddles.
(Photo source: Gravity Falls Wiki)
The last first-run episode of the series until November 2 December (booooo!), "Summerween" is Gravity Falls firing on all cylinders. Episode writers Zach Paez, Alex Hirsch and Michael Rianda come up with funny gags involving the rapping '90s teens from "The Inconveniencing," costumes for pets (dig the costume worn by Mabel's pig Waddles) and low-rent Halloween merchandise (speaking of which, the decoded result of this week's cryptogram--"yilftsg gl blf yb slnvdlip: gsv xzmwb"--is "Brought to you by Homework: The Candy").

Complementing those gags is a surprisingly affecting story about how Dipper's wish to grow up quickly and leave behind childhood activities like trick-or-treating (mainly due to his crush on the older Wendy) clashes with Mabel's preference to embrace her childhood before it ends someday. "We're getting older. There's not that many Halloweens left," says Mabel to her twin brother in an honest moment where Kristen Schaal gets to express a quietly dramatic side we've seen once before in the former Flight of the Conchords star's voiceover work (in the "Spaghetti Western and Meatballs" episode of Bob's Burgers, when a sad Louise feels like her dad's ignoring her) but never in live-action, whether it's The Daily Show or 30 Rock.

For their next Summerween episode, Gravity Falls ought to trap the townspeople in a Summerween time loop, just so that the episode can be titled '(500) Days of Summerween.'
(Photo source: Gravity Falls Wiki)
The giant spidery creature that menaces the twins during their first Summerween is a villain that's never been done before in a Halloween special: what if the least appealing pieces of candy that we threw out of our trick-or-treat bags--from black licorice to the show's fictional discount brand "Mr. Adequate-Bar"--came to life because of resentment at that rejection? And then what if those pieces of unwanted candy merged to form a monster that seeks his revenge by threatening to eat trick-or-treaters if they don't supply him with 500 pieces of candy by the end of the evening? I initially expected the Summerween Trickster (Jeff Bennett) to be the spirit of a teen who died on Summerween or some other vengeful madman. The reveal of the Trickster as candy that sucks is inspired, and clever moments like that are why Summerween episodes ought to be an annual tradition for Gravity Falls if Disney Channel renews it (a renewal is inevitable because of the show's popularity, but c'mon, Disney Channel, just renew the damn thing already!).


On Young Justice: Invasion, Wally begins to question Nightwing's elaborate plan to take down The Light and its still-unidentified partner in the approaching invasion, after Dick allows Kaldur, who's infiltrated his father Black Manta's criminal organization and assembled his own Young Justice-style team of villainous operatives, to blow up Mount Justice and abduct Blue Beetle, Beast Boy and Impulse to better sell his cover. The destruction of Mount Justice during the appropriately titled "Darkest" results in the team's homebase looking not too different from that bleak "Bloodlines" glimpse of Mount Justice as rubble in the future. The explosion also nearly kills Nightwing, Superboy, who's not in on the plan (and is bound to react calmly when he finds out about it), and Conner's pet Wolf.

Wally believes Kaldur is playing both sides for his own gain, and he's especially upset because his girlfriend Artemis is currently undercover in Kaldur's team as Tigress. He agreed to participate in Nightwing's ruse when he was assured that Artemis will be kept safe after faking her death, and now he doubts she'll be safe around Kaldur. The former Kid Flash has changed so much from the ineffectual joker we first encountered last season. He was so jaded by the dangerousness of Young Justice's missions that he retired, and it's clear that he doesn't want to experience the same kind of loss Kaldur had to go through when his love Aquagirl was killed while on duty--a loss that, if Wally is correct about his suspicions that Kaldur is a triple agent, sent the former Aqualad over the edge.

As the new Robin, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is finding these contacts that erase his eyeballs to be as much of a fucking bitch as that prosthetic schnozz he sported in Looper.
(Photo source: The World's Finest)
As the teen characters have matured, the series has become darker in ways that will remind Harry Potter fans of their favorite franchise--I won't be surprised if the season ends with a hero's actual death instead of a faked one like Artemis'--and "Darkest" leaves most of the team in such disarray after the explosion, whether it's situational disarray for Blue Beetle or emotional disarray for Wally. But how is the impassive Nightwing taking all this? Has he taken a cue from his icy mentor Batman and completely closed off his emotions to pull off the operation (which Wally is unable to do because of Artemis' involvement) or deep down, is he actually as much of a wreck as he must have been right after his family was murdered years ago? The former Robin is a DC character I've never cared for (Batman: The Animated Series' "Robin's Reckoning" two-parter aside), but thanks to this intriguing Wiseguy-meets-Christopher Nolan-era Batman storyline, Young Justice has made me interested in what makes him tick.


Finn, Jake and Princess Bubblegum must figure out how to stop Gunter, one of the Ice King's penguin servants (who are all named Gunter by the Ice King, by the way, because the king is mentally imbalanced), from conquering PB's Candy Kingdom in the sloppily resolved but still funny Adventure Time installment "Reign of Gunters." Like everybody else in Ooo, this particular Gunter hates the Ice King, so to get back at him, the penguin hides the king's demonic wishing eye from him. While the king goes off to Wizard City to buy a new wishing eye (and gets into a sorcery battle with the locals that I, um, wish wasn't kept off-screen), Gunter uses the eye's magic to create both giant and regular-sized clones of herself and invade other kingdoms.

Finn dandy to the rescue
(Photo source: Adventure Time Wiki)
Apparently, sleazy pick-up artists have survived the apocalypse on Earth because in an amusing gag that keeps "Reign of Gunters" from being a drab Finn and Jake-vs.-monsters episode even though it doesn't really have much to do with the central story (but it's sure to be more relevant later this season), Finn tells Jake he's picked up a technique for communicating with girls that's known as "future farming," in case his current relationship with Flame Princess doesn't work out. It comes from a book Jake left lying around the treehouse that's called Mind Games and was penned by a pick-up line guru named Jay T. Dawgzone. The author believes that playing your cards close to the vest around the ladies and leaving them in a state of confusion will make you have more control over them, so Finn has started applying future farming to all his dealings with girls, even princesses he's no longer attracted to like PB.

Because of the influence of Mind Games, which Jake kept around the treehouse for a few laughs even though he views Dawgzone's advice as dangerous and unreliable (he must be speaking from pre-Lady Rainicorn experience), Finn keeps PB in the dark for a while about his strategy to defeat Gunter and her troops. It involves gathering all the glass bottles in the kingdom to distract Gunter, whose favorite thing is to break bottles (the plan leads to a nice little gag where Jake hums a Tetris-y theme while piecing a broken bottle back together Tetris-style). It's too bad Finn doesn't use future farming on Gunter, who's also a girl even though she's far from feminine in appearance (she gave birth to a kitten, which she's been raising behind the Ice King's back), because a callback to that effed-up Dawgzone book would have been a better ending to Gunter's attack on the kingdom than the rather abrupt and tepid one chosen by the writing staff.

The amazing world of Gumball Guardians
(Photo source: Adventure Time Wiki)


"Starter Pack," the second episode of Regular Show's new season, feels like a rehash of the prank war episode "Prankless," which aired as recently as August and was part of the show's previous season. It's another Muscle-Man-goes-overboard-with-his-pranks story like "Prankless," but instead of feeling remorse after almost killing Pops, the park's resident prankster is anything but remorseful as he hazes Thomas (Roger Craig Smith), the new intern who was introduced in the extra-length season premiere. Even the twist ending is similar to the conclusion of "Prankless."

That gets a TV-PG? Why? Is it because he's not wearing underwear?
(Photo source: Regular Show Wiki)
Despite the repetition of the material and the flat ending (Regular Show endings aren't usually this flat), "Starter Pack" is bolstered by footage from a silly and increasingly macabre instructional videotape about workplace "overpranking" that Benson plays to shake up Muscle Man (but instead of teaching him to restrain his pranks, Benson's video ends up giving him ideas for new pranks). Plus Sam Marin's vocal performance whenever Mitch goes into a squealing rampage is never not funny. Here, Mitch unleashes his Incredible Hulk-style wrath--and piggy noises--on Thomas after finding out the 20-something man-goat pranked him and broke pranking protocol. "Interns gotta learn not to prank their superiors," growls Mitch while Mordecai and Rigby--who hated seeing the new guy let Mitch take advantage of him, so they secretly masterminded the prank they credited Thomas for--attempt to stop the green-skinned groundskeeper from killing the wrong culprit.

Otherwise, this is a rather meh Regular Show installment, after the epic hijinks of "Exit 9B" and before what appears to be an equally epic and twisted Halloween special next Monday. In the Halloween special's promo, Pops is scared shitless about something again. And if he gets to help out in enacting revenge on whatever villains are terrorizing the park, is he going to scare them away by simply reciting old-timey (and pretty awful) poetry, which Pops, Mordo and Rigs (implausibly) defeated guest stars Tyler the Creator and Childish Gambino with in "Rap It Up"? Because that was frightening.

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