Wednesday, October 31, 2012

5-Piece Cartoon Dinner (10/31/2012): Tron: Uprising, Motorcity, Kaijudo, Ultimate Spider-Man and Regular Show

Mayhem Night: That's that Emilio Estevez movie where the soundtrack was full of collabos between rappers and '90s indie rock bands and was way more popular than the movie itself, right?
Motorcity, Michigan's hottest Halloween costume of 2162 is the Slutty Eco-Terrorist.
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.

One of Batman: The Animated Series' best episodes was the emotional "Robin's Reckoning" two-parter. It used Robin's origin story to delve into why Batman adheres to a code of never killing criminals (unless he's directed and partially written by Tim Burton) and to present a great dramatic dilemma: should such a code be broken when the man who ruined your life resurfaces to ruin more lives?

The two-part "Scars" episode is the Tron: Uprising equivalent of "Robin's Reckoning," except instead of Batman attempting to stop Robin from killing the gangster who murdered his family, it's Beck who's trying to keep his mentor Tron from going too far in his pursuit of Dyson (John Glover), the turncoat soldier who Tron vaguely referred to in "Identity" as the reason for his trust issues (I originally thought the former ally Tron was referring to in that episode was Clu, who makes his first series appearance here since the premiere episode and is voiced by Fred Tatasciore instead of Jeff Bridges). And instead of a compelling protagonist like the B:TAS reimagining of Batman, "Scars" is stuck with the less compelling Beck, whose dullness as a hero sheds light on the fundamental problem with the Tron franchise: so many of its characters, who are nothing more than pixels in a hard drive, are about as deep as, well, pixels in a hard drive.

'I don't get this Real Housewives of Argon City crap.'
(Photo source: What.Jane.Says)
However, Tron: Uprising has been making an effort to bring depth to the character who was previously the dullest element of the franchise: Tron himself. Most of the fun of part 1 of "Scars" comes from watching this previously noble hero lose his cool and badly hide how mentally and physically damaged he has been from both Dyson's betrayal and Clu's maiming of him. At the end of part 1, the mentor, who assaults his own protégé to keep him from getting in the way of his plan to derezz Dyson, has become the loose cannon, and the protégé is now the level-headed one. Will this character switch help to make Beck more interesting or will he continue to be such a colorless bore?


This has been an insane week of news: Hurricane Sandy, the election, the San Francisco Giants' World Series win and now another Bay Area-based shocker, the Disney/Lucasfilm merger, a surprise wedding in the entertainment industry that came out of nowhere, like the surprise nuptials of Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel. We all knew JT and JB were going to get hitched someday, but not this quickly. The same goes for Disney and Lucasfilm. For a long time, George Lucas has positioned himself as a Walt Disney for the 21st century, so his ties with Disney ever since the Star Tours rides aren't surprising. But his decision to suddenly cede control to Disney is unexpected. Or was it hinted at as early as last January?

"I'm retiring," said Lucas to the New York Times in a profile that the paper published shortly before the Black History Month release of what the profile described as Lucas' final film project, Red Tails, which he produced but didn't direct. "I'm moving away from the business, from the company, from all this kind of stuff."

In another surprise move, Lucas is also ceding control of the Star Wars film franchise to "a new generation of filmmakers" and Disney, which will release the next three Star Wars films. Whether it's the current Clone Wars animated series (which I don't watch, even though it's well-animated and it has been better received than the much-maligned live-action prequels, because--except for that Chewbacca guest shot that I really enjoyed last year--it focuses on the prequel characters, who are hardly as interesting to me as Han, Leia, Lando and Luke) or 1988's Willow, Lucasfilm will not rest until it recaptures the magic of the first three Star Wars films.

'You call this shit a haunted house? I've seen Botox injection instructional videos that were scarier!'
(Photo source: MotorCity Disney XD Wiki)
To me, the next Star Wars--or rather, the closest someone has gotten to channeling the spirit of the Han/Leia/Lando/Luke era of that franchise--is actually a little-known animated series that Lucasfilm's future new owner introduced on iTunes and cable a few months ago. Like the original Star Wars trilogy, Disney XD's dazzling Motorcity is about a plucky band of freedom fighters who battle an evil empire, and it stars Mark Hamill, who plays the Darth Vader figure here--a corporate bully who dresses like a douchey gym manager--instead of one of the heroes. (In another link between Motorcity and Star Wars, one of Motorcity's most frequent writers is Clone Wars scribe George Krstic.)

The show has always felt more like a Lucasfilm joint than a Disney production, from the dizzying action sequences, which are like a post-apocalyptic, instrumental metal-scored and earthbound variation on Star Wars' dogfights in space, to the fetish for fast rides that's reminiscent of Lucas' fetish for hot rods and muscle cars in American Graffiti and both Star Wars trilogies. Even both the hot dog stand run by Jacob (Brian Doyle-Murray), the show's resident health food nut, and Antonio's, the pizzeria where the Burners frequently hang out, bring back memories of Mel's Drive-In from American Graffiti. But there's none of the ponderousness (or woodenly delivered dialogue) that marred the live-action Star Wars prequels.

Antonio's: The one place in Motorcity where the Burners are safe from Jacob's health food dishes.
Motorcity takes its action seriously, but it bears the irreverent touches of series creator Chris Prynoski's Titmouse studio. So while the show channels the original Star Wars, RoboCop, The Warriors, Escape from New York and the Macross arc of Robotech (the subterranean Motorcity setting owes so much visually to Macross City, the one that was erected inside the hull of the SDF-1, not the original city), it also has bits and pieces of past Titmouse cult favorites like Downtown and Megas XLR in its DNA. Motorcity's teen freedom fighters are as brash, fun-loving and sometimes self-centered as the 20-something New Yorkers on Downtown and the gamers and gearheads on Megas. The threats the Burners face on Motorcity are sometimes as comical as the Captain Harlock and Battle of the Planets analogs that Coop encountered on Megas, like the unwanted reality show the Burners are forced to participate in during "The Duke of Detroit Presents..." or the Halloween candy that emits fear gas in "Mayhem Night," the latest Motorcity episode.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot about "Mayhem Night." This is the show's Halloween episode, and while we aren't treated to seeing any of the Burners getting their cosplay on--you'll have to click through tons of Motorcity fan art on Tumblr and Deviantart for that--we get to see what sorts of phobias paralyze Julie, Texas, Claire (Dana Davis) and Mike, who hinted at such phobias last week in "Fearless" when he admitted to the constantly fear-stricken Chuck that a brave leader like him isn't immune to fear, just like everybody else. The Terra Dwellers, the eco-terrorist tribesmen from "Texas-ify It!," want to topple KaneCo by collapsing Motorcity's ceiling--an insane plan that would destroy both Detroit Deluxe and Motorcity in the process--so they've tainted Halloween candy with fear gas to distract the Burners and prevent them from getting in their way.

Exposure to the gas causes Julie to relive the terror she felt when her father Abraham Kane (Hamill) nearly discovered her allegiance to the Burners in "Off the Rack." Mike has nightmares of being attacked by himself, or rather, his past self as a cadet in Kane's army, which means he continues to be racked with guilt over not being able to save a tenement building full of Motorcity residents from being demolished by KaneCo, a moment that was glimpsed in flashbacks in "Vendetta." Claire and Texas' nightmares are far more comical. Julie's class-conscious friend, who finds both Motorcity and Chuck to be repulsive, thinks she's trapped in Motorcity and married to Chuck (their baby girl looks more like Chuck than Claire), while Texas, who has a habit of binging on candy every Halloween, hallucinates that his candy is attacking him and trying to eat him. Chuck and Dutch--who has just started dating Tennie (Aimee Garcia), a resourceful mechanic from the Cabler settlement in Motorcity--are the only Burners who aren't poisoned, but we know that Dutch fears the wrath of Tennie's tough mechanic dad Bracket (Carlos Alazraqui).

Bracket and his daughter are Cablers, which must mean they're experts at hooking up Motorcity residents with pirated porn channels.
So while "Mayhem Night" isn't really disturbing, it might be difficult to watch for hypochondriacs who have issues with Halloween candy. The most unsettling image in "Mayhem Night" isn't the demonic vision Julie has of her evil father's face while he taunts her on the road. It's the sight of an unconscious Texas from a previous Halloween, sprawled on the ground in his red-and-black boxers with his chocolate-smeared mouth open and the word "candy" scrawled in some sort of melted red candy on a belly that's distended from too many treats. Distended bellies aren't disturbing, but when they're seen on someone who's shirtless? Yikes.

Many lapsed Star Wars fans have said Star Wars is dead, and it'll continue to be a shell of itself when Lucasfilm drops Episodes VII, VIII and IX. I don't believe it's dead because I think the spirit of the original trilogy lives on. Well, sometimes it does on The Clone Wars--especially when Chewie resurfaced--but it's much more present on Motorcity. Now if only more people out there--not just kids--would just watch this damn show.


Thanks again, Cartoon Network, for yanking the Saturday morning "DC Nation" block off the schedule and delaying it until 2013. I was really looking forward to resuming Young Justice: Invasion, but noooo, you had to remove it without warning or valid explanation, after only two weeks into the new half-season. How do these Cartoon Network viewers put up with this uncommunicative shit every year? The Adult Swim half of the network is never this uncommunicative, as we Adult Swim viewers are always aware of from the very chatty and constantly updated network bumpers that Adult Swim staffers post during commercial breaks.

Without those first-run episodes of Young Justice or Green Lantern: The Animated Series, it's been difficult to find not-so-cringeworthy cable cartoons that can fill the fifth slot in the always-changing "5-Piece Cartoon Dinner" roster. One of the least cringeworthy is The Hub's Kaijudo: Rise of the Duel Masters. Though it's basically a 22-minute commercial for a Hasbro trading card game, it's decently written (it's even got an Asian American kid as the lead hero, and luckily, Scott Wolf's biracial Ray Pierce-Okamoto is no Ensign Harry Kim-style dork) and pretty gorgeously animated for a small-screen cartoon. But despite those qualities, I always feel too old to be watching it.

Kaijudo creature Squeaky was named after Squeaky Fromme.
(Photo source: Kaijudo Wiki)
Kaijudo is the kind of younger-skewing cartoon where the title heroes summon their creature sidekicks by cheesily shouting aloud their creatures' full names ("Scaradorable of Gloom Hollow!") while performing martial arts moves, just like how the Power Rangers would shout aloud their power or form of armor to make it enlarge their peen or give them bigger breastses or something. That kind of writing may have been fine and tolerable when I was 10, but how do I feel about it at my age now? Any time there's an animated or live-action kids' show with reverbed I-have-the-power catchphrases like "Saber-Toothed Tiger!," I usually reach for my remote.

Sometimes, Kaijudo can be pretty dull and not worth discussing in the fifth slot. But on other weeks, particularly when Kaijudo addresses bullying or ventures into epic territory like in the current two-parter "Heart of Darkness," the show will impress in the action department or contain one or two moments that grab my attention, either because the creature design is nifty and reminiscent of Guillermo del Toro flicks or because the mute and deceptively demure giant female koala known as Squeaky, a.k.a. the aforementioned Scaradorable of Gloom Hollow, does a bit of character business that makes me say, "Aww. I'm too old for this shit, but that little heroic gesture of hers to protect Allie was kind of endearing."

I love action sequences that take place atop speeding trains, and the centerpiece of "Heart of Darkness, Part 1," which centers on a rescue mission to track down Allie's missing father Artie (Dee Bradley Baker) in the Darkness Civilization, is a genuinely exciting battle between the Duel Masters and skeletal Darkness beasties atop Locomotivator, a part-machine, part-flesh Darkness creature that Allie summons to take her and her friends safely through the haunted realm. Kaijudo is always full of brilliant creature designs (I'm not familiar with the original card game, but it appears as if the designs are exact re-creations of the ones on the cards), and Locomotivator, a non-verbal creature who's shaped exactly like a locomotive, is no exception.

C'mon baby, do the Locomotivator with me.
Allie is usually the snarkiest of the show's three middle-schooler heroes, but "Heart of Darkness" finds her in a much less lighthearted mood. She's way too stressed out to turn to humor as her usual defense mechanism because her dad's disappearance is forcing her to deal with unresolved abandonment issues that stem from her mother Piper's abandonment of both her and Artie right when she was about to celebrate her 10th birthday (a helluva time to go out for a pack of cigs and run out on your kid). And if Allie isn't careful, she might also lose Squeaky to Empress Megaria (Rachel Robinson), a collector of rare creatures who first appears to Allie as Piper (Kari Wahlgren, pulling double duty as both Piper and her daughter)--a shape-shifting trick that fails to fool Allie--and whom the not-so-endearing Gloom Hollow koalas offered Squeaky to as a sacrifice intended for consumption.

Part 1 ends with Allie appearing to have given up. She offers herself as a hostage to Megaria (the evil collector, who speaks in lots of Antiques Roadshow-ese, enthusiastically adds her to her "collection") and then uses her Duel Master gauntlet to send both Ray and Squeaky away to keep them safe. Of course, Ray and Squeaky will find a way to get back to Allie in Part 2, but what will it be? Will it involve the services of Locomotivator again? I hope so because that train creature is one badass ride.


'Next time on Fame: Green Goblin invades the school and challenges Leroy to a dancing contest.'
Time to check in on Ultimate Spider-Man after losing patience with it a few weeks ago. Peter Parker continues to over-explain everything to the audience. The animation remains top-notch, but the writing still leaves a lot to be desired. Chibi Spidey continues to be funny only to six-year-olds.

Steven Weber does a decent Green Goblin--the updated Goblin that's introduced in "Revealed" and "Rise of the Goblin" is a pompous and slightly erudite thug instead of a cackling maniac a la Willem Dafoe's Goblin in Sam Raimi's first Spidey movie--but otherwise, the show, which wrapped up its first season this week, is still often unfunny as hell. I won't see you next season!


On a very bitchin' Regular Show, an unknown part of park manager Benson's past is unveiled when Hair to the Throne, a metal act that's legendary for featuring "the most epic drum solo in history" on their first album, comes to perform at the park. Because Mordecai and Rigby view their uptight and temperamental boss as a terminally uncool gumball machine, they don't buy a single word of Benson's insistence that he was the uncredited drummer who performed that famous solo, which required 150 pieces of percussion (including a gamelan) and is impossible to re-create. "I heard some guy in Denmark tried," says Rigby, "and his skeleton caught on fire!"

The scummy members of Hair to the Throne have instead given credit for the solo to a drum machine called the Drumotron VI, a move that--what else?--pisses off Benson and spurs him to challenge the Drumotron to a drumming duel on the night of their park concert. Benson could have taken the hair band to court, where many of these musician credit disputes are handled, but that doesn't usually make for engaging animation. When Mordecai and Rigby catch the musicians sabotaging Benson's drum kit, the duo changes their tune about these ex-colleagues of Benson's they once idolized.

The Keith Moon of Cartoon Network
(Photo source: Regular Show Wiki)
Mordecai and Rigby will always view Benson as a dweeb, but like on any live-action workplace comedy where a circle of friends sees an insufferable co-worker getting mistreated by outsiders, they think of Benson as their dweeb and leap to his defense. The duo and the other park workers help Benson to defeat the Drumotron, which, at one point, unleashes spider legs like an evil robot from the 1984 Tom Selleck sci-fi turkey Runaway and leaps onto Benson to try to screw up his solo. Benson's attempt to prove to the concertgoers and the world that the legendary solo was all him, is, of course, the centerpiece of "150 Piece Kit" (why isn't there a hyphen in the episode title?). Mark Mothersbaugh and his able staff of Regular Show composers are the MVPs of "150 Piece Kit," which is filled with enjoyable but not-too-celeb-specific rock industry in-jokes like Mordecai and Rigby's ability to remember the names of everyone in their favorite metal band--except for the bass player's name.

Benson's solo is amusingly absurd ("360-degree ascending sky cage?!," says the Hair to the Throne frontman in disbelief as Benson continues soloing in that very cage) and cosmic in scope. It concludes, of course, with a giant cymbal strike emanating a Star Trek VI Praxis explosion-style shockwave that sweeps through the park and knocks the toupees off the heads of the Hair to the Throne bandmates.

Too bad John Henry didn't have any six-foot-tall bluejays, raccoons or albino Yetis as his friends because they would have totally had his back when he was trying to beat that steel-driving machine.

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