Wednesday, November 14, 2012

5-Piece Cartoon Dinner (11/14/2012): Star Wars: The Clone Wars, The Avengers, Kung Fu Panda, Adventure Time and Regular Show

Only Hulk could get away with wearing biker shorts to a fight.
With that hairdo, Falcon looks like he's about to sing backup on "If I Ever Fall in Love" with Shai. (Photo source: Marvel Animation Age)
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.

These days, I'm more of a Doctor Who fan than a Star Wars fan. That's mainly because unlike Star Wars, Doctor Who took a huge leap in quality--ever since Queer as Folk creator Russell T. Davies revived the long-absent show in 2005. Instead of mistakenly thinking that visual effects and spectacle are the only elements that deserved an upgrade, Davies and his fellow writers, including his eventual replacement Steven Moffat, also worked on upgrading the writing and acting on Doctor Who. They added a new layer to The Doctor's character (in the form of the PTSD and survivor's guilt that Christopher Eccleston's Doctor suffered from due to the off-screen "Time War"), they frequently delved into why The Doctor is the way that he is and they made The Doctor's new companions fully realized characters instead of one-dimensional sounding boards for him like in most of the show's pre-Ace years (some hardcore fans might disagree and have dismissed most of the new female companions as lazily written Mary Sues, especially Billie Piper's Rose Tyler, who was in love with The Doctor and was clearly a stand-in for the openly gay Davies, even more so than omnisexual Captain Jack).

I've avoided watching Cartoon Network's CG-animated Star Wars: The Clone Wars because it focuses on the characters from the dreadful prequel trilogy--those three movies are among the greatest examples of when a style-over-substance approach goes wrong--and it's not supervised by animator Genndy Tartakovsky, whose cel-animated, nearly dialogue-less 2003 Clone Wars prequel to Revenge of the Sith was more satisfying than any of the three live-action prequels (why Lucasfilm didn't ask Tartakovsky back for another round of Clone Wars continues to boggle the mind). But when Peter Mayhew reprised his role as Chewbacca in the 2011 episode "Wookiee Hunt," I finally tuned in, out of love for the first two Star Wars flicks.

I ended up enjoying "Wookiee Hunt," not just because of Chewie's presence, which briefly helped turn The Clone Wars into the Star Wars I grew up with and remember fondly, but because the Clone Wars character Chewie interacted with, plucky Jedi trainee Ahsoka Tano (Ashley Eckstein), had a spark to her that was missing from the boring characters in the live-action prequels. Still, "Wookiee Hunt" wasn't enough to make me a regular viewer of The Clone Wars, which is spearheaded by supervising director Dave Filoni instead of Tartakovsky. I continued to be uninterested in the show until Lucasfilm announced that former Doctor Who star David Tennant was the guest star in this week's "Test of Strength" episode, which pits Ahsoka and a pack of Jedi younglings (the most badass of the youngling group?: the Wookiee kid) against Hondo Ohnaka (a Ricardo Montalban-inspired Jim Cummings), a space pirate who attempts to steal the younglings' lightsaber crystals.

Ahsoka is a John Woo fan, judging from the two-weaponed approach.
(Photo source: Wookieepedia)
What a casting coup, right? Some Doctor Who fans feel that Tennant is wasted in his role as Professor Huyang, a wise old droid who designs lightsabers for the Jedi (Tennant signed up for a three-episode arc, by the way, so yay, more Tennant), because the synth effects the show uses to transform Tennant into a droid obscure Tennant's voice too much. But I've had no problem recognizing Tennant's voice. I even had flashbacks to his days as The Doctor when Huyang instructed the younglings with "Reverse the polarity of the neutron flow"-esque technobabble like "You have inverted the emitter matrix, which will cause the power grid to backfire."

I'm still not sure yet if "A Test of Strength" and the two episodes that are left in this four-episode youngling arc will totally convert me to Filoni's Clone Wars (which is now in its fifth season and like M*A*S*H, it will end up lasting way longer than the three-year war it's been depicting, if recent speculation that the Disney/Lucasfilm deal will call for Lucasfilm to produce future Clone Wars episodes for Disney XD ends up becoming true). But because charismatic Ahsoka is the focus of this arc instead of stuffy young Obi-Wan Kenobi or Ahsoka's not-yet-corrupt master Blandakin Skywalker, I'm interested in how Ahsoka will pull herself out of her current predicament, in which she's captured by Hondo, whose plans for Ahsoka and her body are perhaps not-so-TV-PG-friendly. And if the action sequences continue to be as nifty and engaging as the engine momentum trick Ahsoka comes up with in "A Test of Strength" to eject the pirates from her ship Ellen Ripley-style, perhaps the reports from lapsed Star Wars fans that the franchise has been dead since Tartakovsky's Clone Wars have been greatly exaggerated.

'Droidel, droidel, droidel, I made you out of bling...'

***

After 52 episodes, the cartoon that began when "there came a day unlike any other" calls it a day. In "Avengers Assemble!" (also the title of Marvel Animation's next show featuring the Avengers team), The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes ends its two-season run by pitting the team--as well as the rest of the New York superhero community--against one of Marvel's most giant-sized adversaries, the planet-eating alien god Galactus, a threat Captain America was first warned about earlier this season in "Prisoner of War," an episode that was a series highlight. "Prisoner of War" was also a better-executed summation of the series' mission statement (disparate personalities who should have no business being in the same room together are forced to unite against threats bigger than themselves) than "Avengers Assemble!"

However, I like what "Avengers Assemble!" writer and series story editor Christopher Yost does here with Iron Man at the start of "Avengers Assemble!," and it's remarkable that Yost is able to insert a moment or two of character depth with Tony, considering how little time Yost has in this action-packed series finale. The Avengers leader has been feeling worn-out from the onslaught of recent villains and has lately been worried about how history will remember him and the rest of the team after they're gone (when one of those recent foes is a master of mind control who turned you into a fascist who used your inventions against the world, of course you'd start to undergo an existential crisis). Then Tony gets an answer to his question of "How will we be remembered?" in the form of heralds who represent a mute alien stranger named Galactus. They arrive to stir up lots of calamitous shit on Earth so that their ginormous master will be able to devour our planet like a barbecued rib.

Nobody seems to be feelin' Hulk's choice of Bon Iver as the plane ride music.
(Photo source: Marvel Animation Age)
While "Avengers Assemble!" plays to the series' two biggest strengths (efficient storytelling, which Yost often excels at, and action sequences that are even more epic than the ones in Joss Whedon's live-action version) and treats us to several strikingly animated mini-battles between smaller three-person teams of heroes and Galactus' heralds, I'm not so enamored with the way the episode rushes through the Galactus crisis. "Avengers Assemble!" is a victim of Marvel Animation's mistake of tinkering with Earth's Mightiest Heroes' preference for longer storylines and forcing the show to do more standalone episodes.

The choice of Galactus as the adversary is a great one for the series finale, but one can't help feeling throughout "Avengers Assemble!" that more could have been done with Galactus. "This isn't some supervillain or would-be conqueror. This is different. This is a force of nature," observes Mr. Fantastic (Dee Bradley Baker), and Galactus' calamitous assault on Earth would have been better suited for a two-or-three-part story instead of a standalone. The sense of danger is diminished when you try to cram the war against Galactus into a 22-minute finale. Justice League Unlimited, DC Animation's Earth's Mightiest Heroes counterpart, had a more satisfying series finale, simply because storylines like its series-ending Darkseid arc were allowed to take their time and breathe on that show (also, JLU's characters were a lot wittier, which is surprising because Marvel is often better at witticisms than DC).

Who has a better-looking skirt? Wasp or Hawkeye?
Pacing issues aside, "Avengers Assemble!" doesn't disappoint in the action department. I particularly like the "water team" of the Human Torch (David Kaufman), Thing (Fred Tatasciore) and Wolverine (Steve Blum) because Ben Grimm and Logan get to do a Fastball Special, and Thing throws him at Galactus' water-based herald Stardust with just one hand, which is pretty badass. And because this is an animated show where the writers can go as big as they want to, Galactus isn't stupidly rewritten as a cloud like in the live-action Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (I've never watched that film because I've never gotten past both that downsizing of Galactus and the crappy-looking, Cloud Atlas-esque makeup the sequel came up with to turn Jessica Alba into a white chick, which was somehow worse-looking than the makeup that was used on her in the first Fantastic Four, a film I did see).

The episode's re-creation of Galactus' appearance in the comics (with some subtle modern-day tweaks from Film Roman's character designers) highlights an aspect of Earth's Mightiest Heroes that Marvel fans especially loved: its faithfulness to the source material. But the series was also faithful without being overly reverent (it was particularly adept at compressing years of history from the Avengers comics and getting rid of material that wouldn't have worked on the screen). That's one reason why Earth's Mightiest Heroes will go down as a far better adaptation of a comic book property than a live-action misfire like Watchmen, which was so obsessed with re-creating every minute detail from the original miniseries that it ended up completely missing the point of the source material (Alan Moore's comic was anti-superhero and anti-establishment, two things that were ignored in the film version by right-leaning Zack Snyder). If history remembers Earth's Mightiest Heroes, the way the series understood how to adapt a comic to the screen will be the greatest thing the show will be remembered for.


***

Neither Tron: Uprising nor Motorcity aired this week, and Kaijudo: Rise of the Duel Masters didn't contain anything worth discussing (other than Ray gaining a better understanding of why racist bully Carny is the way he is, and of course, like everyone else on Kaijudo, it's due to issues with one of their parents). As for DreamWorks Animation's Dragons: Riders of Berk, it was still in repeats, so I checked out for the first time another DreamWorks show, Nickelodeon's Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness, which had a special extra-length episode, "Enter the Dragon."

The hour-long special features special guest star Alfred Molina as evil Ke-Pa, a dragon who's trapped in the body of a pig and whose invincibility to the powers of kung fu shakes Po the panda out of his recent hubris, which arose from seeing his likeness on a line of Po action figures. Though I've never seen either of the Kung Fu Panda movies and haven't previously sat through an entire episode of this small-screen version, how does it fare as a show--and without the voices of either Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, David Cross or Jack Black (who sang the show's theme song but relinquished the role of Po to Mick Wingert)?

School of sock
The animation isn't bad for a weekly TV version, and the presence of Big Trouble in Little China star James Hong, one of the few actors from the two movies who's reprising his role (he voices Po's avian dad Mr. Ping), is always a plus. But this isn't a show I'll be tuning in to again, unless it's an episode with a major guest star like "Enter the Dragon" (by the way, Molina has a ball here as Ke-Pa, so it's no surprise that animation has turned to him to voice giant monsters, and this is the second Molina guest shot I've seen where he plays a monster, after his guest shot on Gravity Falls as a multi-headed bear). I appreciate the artistry that goes into shows like this, but most present-day funny-animal cartoons bore me. Although Legends of Awesomeness takes its action side seriously (it hired a martial arts consultant to make sure the Furious Five's moves look genuine) and "Enter the Dragon" isn't all slapstick and farce (the episode temporarily takes a serious and non-comedic turn when the resurrected Ke-Pa becomes such a powerful threat that he leaves Po in a near-dead state), in the end, Legends of Awesomeness is just another funny-animal cartoon.

***

A butt-ugly Finn and an adorable, non-verbal Jake
Adventure Time's clever "Finn the Human"/"Jake the Dog" two-parter kicks off the show's fifth season with a visit to an alternate reality where the evil Lich (Ron Perlman) never existed. It's the result of a wish granted to Finn by the benevolent superbeing Prismo (comedian Kumail Nanjiani) so that Finn can undo the Lich's wish for the extinction of all life, which Prismo himself granted to the Lich. In this new reality Finn (but not Jake) disappeared into (and which we got to glimpse during the cliffhanger at the end of last season's finale "The Lich"), Finn has only one arm and a last name (Mertens), and he lives an impoverished life on a farm with his mother (Ming-Na, in an inspired bit of casting because of her past as the voice of Mulan, a sword-wielding hero much like Finn), father and baby brother.

If Marvel existed in the Adventure Time universe and Finn and Jake kept in their treehouse a stack of Marvel What If? comics that somehow survived the Mushroom War, Finn would have gleaned from What If? that no matter how drastic an alteration you make to the timeline, certain things will never change. There will still be bad guys who will make life difficult for everyone, and in Finn's Lich-less reality, they take the form of the Destiny Gang, a pack of local bullies that's like a mash-up of the scantily clad villains from The Road Warrior and the futuristic thugs led by Biff Tannen's descendant in Back to the Future Part II (there's even a thick-accented Asian guy, just like in Tannen's 21st-century gang). A mutagenic bomb from an unknown attacker will still detonate and destroy Earth, but in this reality, its detonation was delayed 1,000 years before by archaeologist Simon Petrikov (Tom Kenny), who had just discovered the magic crown that, like the ring in the Lord of the Rings books and movies, granted him immense power but is more evil than good, so in the reality we're more familiar with, it transformed him into the completely batty Ice King. Simon used the crown's magic to freeze the bomb, but it landed on top of him and killed him. The sentient crown grieved for its dead master and plunged the world into "400 boring years" of deep freeze out of anger.

The Lich's absence results in magic not being as prevalent, so Jake never got to roll around in a puddle of magic mud that would have given him powers of speech and shape-shifting, and the half-human, half-demon Marceline never got bitten by a vampire, so she never remains a teen and instead ages into an elderly ray gun-wielding frontierswoman (Cloris Leachman). There's widespread skepticism about the existence of magic, which alt-Finn has bought into because, according to one of the episode's best lines, his dad told him that "the false prophets of old used cheap parlor tricks to control the people and to get babes, like 10 or 12 hot babes each."

Ming-Na gets to play a white woman, a nice change from Asian roles always being hijacked by white people, a problem that continues to be kept alive by cinematic pieces of shit like Cloud Atlas.
(Photo source: Frederator)
Alt-Finn discovers Simon's crown and attempts to sell it to save his family from financial ruin and to keep from having to sell off his cherished mule Bertram, but the Destiny Gang steals from alt-Finn both the crown and Bertram. The gang also burns down alt-Finn's town, and in the first of many dark moments in this two-parter, they set fire to the Mertenses' house with alt-Finn's loved ones inside. Alt-Finn puts on the crown to use its magic to save his family and attack the D-Gang. But like it did to Simon, the crown causes alt-Finn to go insane (at one point, Jeremy Shada, who voices Finn, does a pretty good impression of Kenny-as-the Ice King), and his recklessness with his new freezing powers cracks open the icy shell that Simon created around the bomb, so it finally detonates.

Back in the "time room" where Prismo lives and where time stands still and is unaffected by Finn's wish, Jake watches on Prismo's giant plasma TV the chaos that Finn's alternate wish-world has fallen into, but he's confident that Finn will find his way out of trouble. Much to Prismo's surprise, Jake doesn't intervene and is instead distracted by his new surroundings. He spends his time becoming fixated on sandwiches (at one point, he tries to waste his wish on having a sandwich materialize, but Prismo discourages him) and kickin' it with both Prismo and the Cosmic Owl (M. Emmet Walsh!) in Prismo's jacuzzi.

The "Jake the Dog" half of the two-parter is the more enjoyable half, simply because Jake's laid-back personality takes center stage, and the stoner-style dialogue that's such an Adventure Time staple makes a return after being largely absent from "Finn the Human." Jake's antics with Prismo, who's kind of a slacker like Jake but is far less easily distracted by toys and stuff because he's a responsible superbeing, are a nice way of offsetting the apocalyptic goings-on in Finn's wish-world. In the jacuzzi, Jake gets into a discussion with Prismo about the opposite sex that must have been largely ad-libbed by Nanjiani, who's so amusing as Prismo that I hope he does more guest shots on cartoons, and then the dog entertains his new friend with a freestyle rap that calls for John DiMaggio to beatbox, and DiMaggio beatboxing is always a good thing.

Of course, Jake will eventually wise up and use his wish to save his best friend and restore the timeline, but having him immediately turn heroic would hardly be as entertaining as the sight of Jake stalling and getting too comfortable with the cosmic bachelor pad that is Prismo's time room. "Jake the Dog"'s messages that laziness won't get you anywhere and the world you wish for will be worse than the reality you leave behind are nothing new--the latter is very George-Bailey-in-Pottersville--but the messages take on a new life in the hands of the delightfully bizarre Adventure Time.

***

Speaking of delightfully bizarre, Regular Show has to be the first show in TV history where a character loses control of his pecs after flexing them too much to distract his girlfriend from seeing his bald spot, and the pecs hypnotize women everywhere into falling in love with him. That's exactly what happens in "Bald Spot," where a misunderstanding Muscle Man has about a bad haircut that he mistakes for a receding hairline leads to ladies wanting to jump his bones and then TV-PG-rated dismemberment and mayhem in the roller-skating rink where Muscle Man is celebrating with his girlfriend Starla (Courtenay Taylor) their one-year anniversary.

Just comb over it like Donald Trump, Muscle Man. Because everything that racist teabagger prick does is so convincing and sensible.
My one beef with "Bald Spot" is that we don't get to see the reactions of Margaret and Eileen (Minty Lewis) to Mitch's moobs before his confession to Starla about his new bald spot magically releases Margaret and Eileen and all the other female skaters from its spell (I wanted to see tiny Eileen literally throw herself at Mitch or something). I initially doubted "Bald Spot" would work as a Regular Show story because except for a series highlight like the surprisingly affecting "Trucker Hall of Fame," Mitch-centric episodes tend to be really one-note. But then Muscle Man unleashed his pig-like squeal while panicking over his upcoming night with Starla--Muscle Man squealing never fails to be hilarious--and like the girls in the rink who fall under the spell of movable moobs, I was in thrall to "Bald Spot."

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