Wednesday, October 17, 2012

5-Piece Cartoon Dinner (10/17/2012): Dragons: Riders of Berk, The Avengers, Randy Cunningham, Adventure Time and Regular Show

The hypochondriac version of this would be called Dawn of the Dristan.
Nice to see Macaulay Culkin getting some acting work again.
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.

Wow, those were really short seasons of Green Lantern: The Animated Series and Young Justice: Invasion. They must be going for a Sherlock "leave the viewers wanting more" thing.

Without warning last Saturday, Cartoon Network pulled both first-run episodes of GL:TAS and Young Justice off its schedule after only two weeks of new episodes. Viewers like me who DVR both cartoons were surprised to find back-to-back repeats of Dragons: Riders of Berk in their place while playing back the recordings of both later that morning. Adults and kids who are fans of the "DC Nation" block angrily took to Twitter and Facebook (Cartoon Network's "DC Nation" Facebook page asked viewers who their favorite supervillains were, and many of them snarked, "Cartoon Network execs"). In response, the channel hastily posted a two-sentence statement on Facebook that explained so much ("Fear not, DC NATION fans! Green Lantern: The Animated Series and Young Justice will return in January with new episodes, only on Cartoon Network!").

"Did anyone remind Cartoon Network that the end of the world is this December?," joked dissatisfied GL:TAS co-executive producer Giancarlo Volpe on Twitter.

I wouldn't be surprised if Green Lantern ends up being Giancarlo Volpe's last project with Cartoon Network.
This is stupid, NBC-removes-Community-days-before-its-fourth-season-premiere-level shit. It's also not surprising to see shady behavior like that from Cartoon Network, which moves first-run programs around the schedule--like it did with the short-lived Sym-Bionic Titan last year--without telling the programs' viewers where to find them and without explanation. I'm going to go with "contract dispute" as the reason why "DC Nation" kid viewers like this one are in a sour mood in their parents' Twitpics:

This is exactly how I looked when I found out FX cancelled Terriers.

***

Well, good thing Dragons: Riders of Berk is occupying the "DC Nation" block's slot, not Annoying Orange. If it were the latter, I would have put my fist through the wall.

While the How to Train Your Dragon sequel series isn't always the most original of cartoons, it's definitely a quality kids' show, and a solid episode like "Portrait of Hiccup as a Buff Man" is why I'm glad Dragons is in the "DC Nation" block's slot for the next three months. Like the best episodes of Young Justice, "Portrait of Hiccup" combines well-staged action with rich characterizations as it channels both the integrity and zest of How to Train Your Dragon.

Hiccup looks like the
(Photo source: How to Train Your Dragon Wiki)
Feeling inadequate after Bucket (Thomas F. Wilson) paints an official portrait of him with his father Stoick that inaccurately depicts him as a buffed-up teen, Hiccup embarks on a treasure hunt that Stoick and Gobber failed at to prove his mettle. How to Train Your Dragon stood out from other DreamWorks Animation feature films because it wasn't so reliant on pop-culture reference humor that has sometimes aged really badly in those other films. The treasure hunt in the caves leads to Dragons making what has to be its first-ever pop-culture reference gag when Hiccup does the exact same movements Indiana Jones did with his hands before grabbing the idol at the start of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The gag should have fallen flat, but "Portrait of Hiccup" somehow makes it work and not seem so out-of-place on a show that usually doesn't go for that kind of gag.

Overweight teen Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) is the resident coward in the group of dragon trainers and a frequent source of "what a wimp" humor on the show, but there's an intriguing moment in "Portrait of Hiccup" where Fishlegs rises to the occasion when Hiccup and Toothless' lives are in danger. He persuades a more-panicky-than-usual Astrid that leaving Hiccup and Toothless behind in the caves so that they can send for help is better for the team than being trapped along with Hiccup and Toothless. The usually hypersensitive kid puts aside his cowardice to make the kind of hard decisions the absent Hiccup--and no one else in the group--would have made.

It's as if Fishlegs and Astrid have briefly swapped personalities, but like with the Raiders shout-out, "Portrait of Hiccup" somehow makes the moment work and not feel like it's so out-of-character for Fishlegs to toughen up and Astrid to panic like Fishlegs would usually do. In fact, what that scene actually does is show that there are many sides to these characters, and that kind of rich character writing is an example of why Dragons is more enjoyable than the lame and corny Annoying Oranges of the world.


***

Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes story editor Christopher Yost should just write for all animated versions of Spider-Man from now on. In the Yost-scripted "New Avengers," Spidey (Drake Bell) is more likable, humble and entertaining than whoever that obnoxious future Mountain Dew ad campaign copywriter is who's borrowing Spidey's red-and-blue suit and over-narrating the forced wackiness of Man of Action's Ultimate Spider-Man each week. Man of Action doesn't seem to be aware that the inner monologuing that played so well in Spidey comics can be grating and heavy-handed on-screen, whereas Yost is aware of how such a device can come across as lazy TV writing when it's overused, so he keeps all that monologuing to a minimum.

In the climax of "New Avengers" (which marks Spidey's second guest appearance on EMH), the web-slinger frets over how to shut down the timey-wimey device that Kang the Conqueror (Jonathan Adams) built to wreak havoc on the space-time continuum and kill the Avengers in the process (their deaths activate the New Avengers protocol that calls on Spidey and other heroes to replace the deceased Avengers). If USM did this scene with Kang's machine, Spidey would break the fourth wall and badger the audience with "How do I shut down this thingamajig so that I don't destroy the world?" or "Which button should I press? Should I press this one or that one?" or "Do you ever get gassy in high-stakes situations like this?" But in "New Avengers," Yost cleverly has Spidey do most of that thinking out loud through dialogue with Iron Man's supercomputer JARVIS (Phil LaMarr), which is less obnoxious.

Ben Grimm is apparently hung like a Tic-Tac. It must be the steroids.
(Photo source: Thomas Perkins)
Despite being too much of a sausage fest, the New Avengers lineup of Spidey, Wolverine (Steve Blum), Thing (Fred Tatasciore), War Machine (Bumper Robinson), Power Man (Christopher B. Duncan) and Iron Fist (Loren Lester) is so intriguing that I wish "New Avengers" had been a two-parter instead of a standalone. Thing's introduction to War Machine is particularly amusing (he asks James Rhodes if there's any tech within his suit that can check in on the score of the televised football game he's forced to miss), as is Power Man's reminder to Iron Fist that "We're Heroes for Hire, not Heroes for Freebies," a moment we rarely see in superhero cartoons. Except for Spider-Man, I don't know of any superheroes who worry about money issues like Luke Cage briefly does in "New Avengers." The sight of Luke grumbling like Jim Rockford about not getting paid for such hard work is a nice example of that enjoyably off-kilter and down-to-earth sensibility that causes many superhero genre fans to continue to exclaim, "Make mine Marvel!"

***

Is it me or does Megan Mullally make out with everyone and everything in every show she does, like Parks and Rec and Party Down? On Childrens Hospital, she's had love scenes with both men and women, and now Randy Cunningham: 9th Grade Ninja has a Mullally-voiced character--in this case, Randy and Howard's nutso science teacher Mrs. Driscoll--make out twice with the inanimate skeleton of her late mad scientist husband Jerry (Andy Dick). It's one of several crazy moments in Randy Cunningham's double-header of Halloween shorts: "Dawn of the Driscoll," in which Jerry's skeleton is accidentally re-animated by the magic of Randy's ninja suit, and the zombie-themed "Night of the Living McFizzles."

This is why I don't care for furries. They frighten the shit out of me.
Randy Cunningham isn't my current favorite Titmouse cartoon (that would be either Motorcity, which is finally airing first-run episodes again beginning this week, or when Motorcity was in the middle of one of its many hiatuses, Black Dynamite), and at times, I feel a bit old to be watching it. The show often relies on gags about snot, farts or puke, which the climax of "McFizzles" is particularly awash in. I've outgrown bodily function humor, except when Adventure Time unleashes a well-timed fart from its rubbery, Fleischer Brothers-esque ass, and then I'm slapping my knee like an eight-year-old again. But I respect Randy Cunningham's commitment to that kind of humor, like in "House of 1,000 Boogers" (it's better to go all in with it than to be squeamish and prissy about it). Also, the show can be hard to resist with such inventive character designs and artwork and a vocal cast like Mullally, Ben Schwartz, John DiMaggio, Kevin Michael Richardson and Jim Rash ("McFizzles" features a guest shot by Modern Family's Sarah Hyland, who got to perform and record some zombified dialogue I would have liked to have seen behind-the-scenes footage of because all those Modern Family stars are good at physical humor).

When it's not relying on bodily function gags, Randy Cunningham can be pretty damn funny. In "McFizzles," a factory mishap causes candy made by DiMaggio's Hannibal McFist to turn people into zombies, and throughout the episode, there are amusing shout-outs to The Shining and Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video. An African American zombie clad in Jackson's red jacket from "Thriller" frequently turns up in the background. But I'm pretty sure that's no Jackson cosplayer and the writing staff intended the zombie to be Jackson himself, having emerged from the grave because, you know, his peeps are suddenly everywhere (and he's ready to lead a bunch of them in a Cebu prison-style "Thriller" flash mob). If that is indeed the late star of Disney's Captain EO, what an awesome gag about MJ that Titmouse snuck past Disney XD.

***

Someone in the A.V. Club comments section astutely noted that Adventure Time is basically "a bunch of fairy tales about mentally ill characters trying to find their way in the Land of Ooo." As a newcomer to Adventure Time this season, I've witnessed a buttload of material about mental illness since I first caught "Princess Monster Wife," the third Adventure Time episode I ever saw and the first one I wrote about. "Princess Monster Wife" had the Ice King behaving like a serial killer and cutting off body parts from princesses to create his new wife. In "BMO Noire," Finn and Jake's robot buddy BMO fabricated for himself a fantasy life straight out of a film noir to keep himself from being lonely. "Princess Cookie" centered on a Candy Kingdom citizen who lost his cool and held a bunch of convenience store customers hostage before finding peace in a mental institution with the guidance and help of Jake, while Princess Bubblegum similarly came to the aid of an equally unhinged character, the Earl of Lemongrab, and attempted to teach him how to improve his social skills in "You Made Me."

"I Remember You," Adventure Time's latest short, deals once again with the Ice King's mental instability. While there are funny bits of Ice King nuttiness like the ditty he sings to one of the Gunters to the tune of the "Daddy, why did you eat my fries?" song that Marceline the Vampire Queen (Olivia Olsen) created in "It Came from the Nightosphere," "I Remember You" also finds unexpected pathos in the old man's condition and presents a tragic side to these characters that the series somehow manages to pull off whenever it briefly hits pause on the kind of surreal comedy I've come to enjoy from Pendleton Ward's offbeat creation.

Adventure Time revives the lost art of title cards that Warner Bros. Animation abandoned 15 years ago. Bad NFL replacement ref-style call, Warner Bruhs.
(Photo source: Adventure Time Wiki)
The lunatic king was once archaeologist Simon Petrikov, a human who gained immortality and various other powers from a magic crown that also made him forever mentally imbalanced. As part of his obsession with finding a princess to marry, the king turns to an initially reluctant Marceline for help in composing a song that will make him irresistible to all the honeys. Marceline kindly helps out the king with her usual composing brilliance, but the songwriting session is also a painful experience for her because she's saddened by the king's crown-induced amnesia about his friendship with her when she was a little girl vampire and he was pre-magical--and pre-selfish-and-psychotic-asshole--Simon (who looks a bit like David Strathairn as Dr. Rosen on Alphas, but with longer hair). In the closing flashback where Simon consoles a distraught Marceline with a teddy bear he grabs from the wreckage of a toy store, the episode gives a rare glimpse into the immediate aftermath of the Mushroom War that destroyed Earth, and that morsel of Ooo's murky backstory is also what makes this episode such a season highlight.

Simon's amnesia may hit close to home for adult viewers who know a loved one or elderly friend who's succumbing to Alzheimer's, particularly during the off-putting joyfulness he expresses while singing aloud passages from a letter he doesn't remember writing to Marceline back when the crown was beginning to ravage his mind. "This magic keeps me alive/But it's making me crazy," sings the king, who's joined by a teary Marceline, "And I need to save you/But who's going to save me?"

Damn, Adventure Time, how do you do it? How does your often farty ass morph from absurdist fun (dig John DiMaggio's terrific impression of his former Batman: The Brave and the Bold co-star Diedrich Bader when Jake channels Batman: "Your constant harassment of the female gender makes me sick!") to genuine tragedy so smoothly and without coming off tonally as schizophrenic like a certain bearded king?

And I haven't even gotten to how peripheral Finn and Jake are in this episode yet. Some of Adventure Time's strongest shorts contain very little of Finn and Jake ("Thank You" and now this episode) or don't involve the duo at all (the gender-swapping fan favorite "Fionna and Cake"). With minimal dialogue, "Thank You" followed an unlikely friendship between a Snow Golem and a Fire Wolf Pup that the golem enjoys having around as a pet despite the danger of melting from the pup's touch. That holiday short so captivated Cartoon Network execs (they're not always jackasses, "DC Nation" block fans) that they released "Thank You" theatrically before it aired to make it eligible for the Oscars' animated shorts category that year, although in the end, it didn't make the final list of 10 nominees. Like "Thank You," "I Remember You" is a surprisingly affecting story about friendship that's worthy of being honored with some bling--just as long as it's not a crown that makes its wearer go crazy.

***

The first Regular Show Halloween episode I've ever watched is the second one the series has done. This week's half-hour, three-segmented "Terror Tales of the Park II" is reminiscent of The Simpsons' "Treehouse of Horror" episodes--it's structured as an anthology (consisting of scary stories that the characters tell to each other) and it places the cast members in horror scenarios that often end with them dead--but there's a timeless quality to "Terror II" that will make this episode play better in reruns than most of the more recent "Treehouse of Horror" installments, like that one with the Avatar parody that aired two years after the film's release (and how will that hold up 15 years from now?).

Skips is rocking the douchey, Paul Ryan-esque widow's peak.
The second and third scary stories in "Terror II" are particularly entertaining. I wouldn't call "Party Bus" scary. It's a goofy segment about a party bus that causes the revelers to rapidly age, and it comes from the mind of Mordecai's crush Margaret, so it reflects her idea of terror, which is more psychological and cerebral than the park guys' idea of terror, which tends to focus on monsters and (largely off-screen) carnage. But I love the idea of a demonic party bus (we all enjoy girls gone wild, but there was always something insidious about mega-douche Joe Francis and his camcorder-and-party-bus-driven vision of girls gone wild, and the 2010 version of Piranha memorably and gorily took aim at the insidiousness of that particular industry).

"Wallpaper Man," which comes from the mind of Mordecai and Rigby's uptight boss Benson, imagines the duo in a scenario where they end up paying for, of course, their laziness, the source of so much of Benson's frustration. Assigned by Benson to wallpaper the park staffers' house, Mordecai and Rigby hire an innocuous-looking "Wallpaper Man" from a local TV ad to do the task for them so that they can concentrate on something far less grueling, like their marathon video game sessions. They don't realize until way too late in the game that the title businessman is a giant spider creature that wants to snack on everyone in the house. "Wallpaper Man" might be too intense for the youngest viewers, but I got a kick out of the somewhat unsettling imagery of the wallpaper coming alive and transforming the house into a murky and constantly morphing maze and the nearly TV-14-level sight of Muscle Man getting impaled by a spider leg and eaten alive. Mitch Sorenstein is a source of a lot of funny lines on Regular Show, but he's also a bully, and I always enjoy seeing bullies meet a horrific end, whether it's Muscle Man, that racist cop played by Art Lund in Black Caesar, that John Cassavetes character in The Fury or Mitt Romney last night.

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