Wednesday, November 21, 2012

5-Piece Cartoon Dinner (11/21/2012): Dragons: Riders of Berk, Kaijudo, Dan Vs., Adventure Time and Regular Show

Nice to see that San Francisco ban on public nudity paying off.
The theme of this episode is "five things I wouldn't expect to see under someone's skirt."
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.

On Dragons: Riders of Berk, Snotlout (Zach Pearlman), the overly confident alpha male of the group, and his dragon Hookfang stumble upon a pretty girl (Mae Whitman) who's lying in a shipwreck on Berk's beach and looks like Meg from Disney's Hercules. The girl, who's named Heather, claims to have been attacked by pirates who killed her parents and laid siege to her island.

'I brand all my bitches with this.'
All the guys, including Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), are immediately smitten with Heather, and they each try to impress her, in ways that range from Hiccup's bashful approach of "You can stay at me and my dad the chief's house!" to straight-up spitting game. In the funniest moment in "Heather Report, Part 1," Snotlout tries to show off Hookfang to Heather and orders Hookfang to "get your butt over here!," but the dragon flies away, which proves that either Snotlout is a terrible dragon trainer or Hookfang simply doesn't like Snotlout. Animals that don't listen to trainers always makes for great comedy--or captivating YouTube videos.

Astrid (America Ferrera) is the only teen who isn't drinking the Heather Kool-Aid because she sees Heather sneaking around near her house at night and catches her leafing through the Book of Dragons, plus the girl is suspiciously always asking everyone in the group about their dragon training techniques. Her suspicions about Heather are confirmed when she sees her conferring at night with the Outcasts, the enemies of the island who had previously attempted to invade it in "Alvin and the Outcasts." The gang realizes Astrid has been right about Heather when this girl who's been spying on them for the Outcasts steals both Astrid's dragon Stormfly and the Book of Dragons.

After failing to capture Hiccup so that he could gain control of the gang's dragons, Outcasts leader Alvin (Mark Hamill) wants to capture the next best thing: the book. Alvin, a character who wasn't in How to Train Your Dragon, is always a welcome presence on Dragons: Riders of Berk because his presence means both impressively staged and animated Outcasts-vs.-dragons battles and Hamill doing what he does best: absolute villainy.

***

C3P0's looked a lot different since he's had that sex change.
(Photo source: Kaijudo Wiki)
Kaijudo: Rise of the Duel Masters takes on cyber-bullying--an especially timely issue after all the details of Paula Broadwell's threatening e-mails to Jill Kelley--when the Light Civilization sends Princess Sasha (Kari Wahlgren) to study human behavior, and she experiences the worst of it while disguised as a human girl at the middle school attended by her new human friends Ray, Allie and the smitten-with-Sasha Gabe. A simple misunderstanding about the human invention of toilets, which is reminiscent of what Chiana went through when she first discovered a toilet while on Earth on Farscape, gets caught on several students' camera phones and immediately goes viral.

In a shout-out to a movie none of Kaijudo's kid viewers are likely to have ever seen, the original Carrie, Sasha finally loses her patience with humanity at a school dance when the viral video of her mistaking a "throne" for an actual throne is shown in the auditorium as a prank, and she attacks the attendees, but it's a TV-Y7-rated rampage on the decorations in the auditorium. No one gets hurt, of course, because you can't electrocute and incinerate a crowd full of people on a TV-Y7-rated cartoon like you could in Carrie.

The episode's other shout-out to a movie that kid viewers have no knowledge of and are most likely not allowed by their parents to watch is the title itself: "The Unbareable Being of Lightness," a play on The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I'm looking forward to seeing My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic become the next Hasbro Studios cartoon to reference steamy and hot-as-hell Lena Olin movies (maybe Romeo Is Bleeding?).

"The Unbareable Being" script's attempt to tackle cyber-bullying can be clunky at times--is it really necessary for Gabe to explain cyber-bullying to the tech-savvy audience?--but luckily, the episode doesn't try to find solutions to this problem through lame speechifying. All that Kaijudo can do is throw up its hands in befuddlement and say cyber-bullying is here, it sucks and there's nothing we can do about it, which is the same reaction most of us adults have to this bizarre form of bullying that's permeated everything from the Star Wars Kid phenomenon to the Asian-bashing UCLA skank's video and now Petraeusgate.

***

I had no prior knowledge of who the guest stars were going to be in the Dan Vs. third-season premiere, so I was surprised when I recognized Jenna Fischer's voice in the role of Amber, a prim and proper anger management class instructor who turns out to be even more unstable than her new student Dan (Curtis Armstrong), the poster child for anger mismanagement. I'd like to see Fischer do more guest shots in animation, although I'd rather see her voicing absurdist characters (like her sexed-up Darlene Madison country singer character from one of my favorite movies, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story) or unhinged ones like Amber because in the scenes where Amber hasn't gone over the edge yet to seek Dan-style revenge on all her enemies, Fischer comes off as a rather wooden voice actor.

The characters on Dan Vs. get to play around with chainsaws, something you usually don't see on My Little Pony--except for that time when Twilight Sparkle dressed up as Leatherface to scare some pony who was stealing her sugarcubes.
(Photo source: ComicBook.com)
It's not that she's a wooden actor in general, but some actors just come off wooden when they're voicing sane or inherently mundane characters in animation. For instance, Tim Daly, a really good actor (remember Diner and his classic "I'll hit you so hard I'll kill your whole family" scene?), was more entertaining as the voice of third-rate Superman clone Bizarro than as the voice of Superman on Superman: The Animated Series (those Bizarro episodes were among my favorite S:TAS episodes, mostly because they allowed Daly to cut loose). "Dan vs. Anger Management" doesn't really take off until Amber snaps--after Dan incites the other students to take their anger out on a car that he doesn't realize is Amber's--and Fischer gets to unleash sides of herself we don't see when she stars as Pam on The Office, except when Pam gets plastered (I'm more of a fan of Drunk Pam than Everyday Pam).



In this time when the media obsession with Paula Broadwell's nutso behavior must currently frustrate feminists who were just coming off the high of seeing all those female Democrats win Senate seats and basically stick it to the Republican war on women, some female viewers might not care for "Dan vs. Anger Management" because it presents yet another Fatal Attraction-style psycho chick in pop culture. They're probably unaware that Dan Vs. isn't "those damn crazy women are always helping to ruin Dan's life" all the time, thanks to the presence of the show's most lovable character, Elise (Paget Brewster), the wife of Dan's slacker-ish best friend Chris (Dave Foley, who's voicing an animated version of "Dan vs. Anger Management" writer and series co-creator Chris Pearson, while Dan is modeled after Pearson's writing partner Dan Mandel). Elise also happens to be a superspy who's been masquerading as an unassuming suburban housewife and is more mature than either Dan or Chris. As I've said before, Elise is a real human being and the show's real hero.

***

Last season's "Five Short Graybles," an anthology of stories about the five senses introduced by a storyteller named Cuber (Emo Phillips) who refers to his stories as "Graybles," was the second or third Adventure Time episode I ever saw, so it led to lots of head-scratching by me and questions like "Why is this princess a mad scientist?" or "Why are mad scientists on this show obsessed with building the perfect sandwich instead of robots that can transform into planes while attacking other kingdoms?" "Five Short Graybles" was probably not a great second or third installment to watch because it requires prior knowledge of the characters in Ooo who aren't Finn and Jake and is exemplary of Adventure Time's weirdness.

But after taking in nearly an entire season of Adventure Time and adjusting to the show's Fleischer Studios-like vibe, "Five Short Graybles" is a much more enjoyable installment and exemplary not just of the show's weirdness but its rich universe. The "five whatsits" theme is actually an excuse to take a peek at various characters' everyday lives, the Adventure Time equivalent of "22 Short Films About Springfield."

Anthology time with Finn and Jake
(Photo source: Adventure Time Wiki)
"Five More Short Graybles," the second Graybles anthology hosted by Cuber, is even more fun than the first because this time, it plays around with the themes that tie the stories together and leaves the stories open to interpretation. Once again, Cuber asks the viewers to guess the theme of all five segments: Finn and Jake mistake a collection of Mother Goose rhymes for a book of warlock spells; Marceline goes looking for a guitar that can play the savoriest licks in Ooo; Tree Trunks takes action when she's offended by what she thinks is an obscene gesture; the Ice King falls in love with a girl who's actually his own foot; and BMO and Football, his "friend" in the mirror, sample some tea.

At the end of the episode, Cuber reveals the theme to be "the five tastes" because Jake ate a "Little Jack Horner"-style sweet plum, Marceline played savory licks, Tree Trunks had a sour taste in her mouth, Gunther wanted to drink the Ice King's salty tears and Football sipped bitter tea. Then Cuber giggles and says to the viewers, "You thought the theme was 'the five fingers'? Don't be silly! Nobody's had five fingers for 20 blabillion glaybels. Five telepathy glands maybe." But he's essentially indicating these stories are indeed also about the five fingers.

'Pull my finger!'
(Photo source: Adventure Time Wiki)
They're also about something more than tastes or fingers. Someone in the A.V. Club comments section thought the real theme in "Five More Short Graybles" was a profound one about searching for the meaning of life, but I think the real theme is far less profound and is simply that old Three's Company trope of misunderstandings, from Finn and Jake's misinterpretation of "Little Jack Horner" as black magic to BMO mistaking his reflection in the mirror for another robot. Marceline's segment, my favorite of the segments simply because of its imaginative visuals of the Rock Giant playing drums with his fingers and Marceline riding the giant's finger as he points her to her destination, might seem like the odd one out because it doesn't contain as much comedic misunderstanding as the other segments, but Marceline's inability to find the music shop with her map counts as a misunderstanding.

The strangest thing about "Five More Short Graybles"--and it's even stranger than a guy so in love with his own foot that he proposes marriage to it--is the vocal cameo by Marc Maron, who's listed in the episode's end credits as the voice of a squirrel. The host of WTF is like the last person I'd expect to guest on a cartoon because of his open disdain for animation and his admission to other stand-ups on WTF that he doesn't "get it," which would make for a great segment in a future Graybles episode about "five clueless dismissals."

Like cockroaches, Guitar Center survived the apocalypse.
(Photo source: Adventure Time Wiki)

***

Regular Show introduced a new generation of viewers to the pleasures of Mountain's "Mississippi Queen" in "Weekend at Benson's," the show's Weekend at Bernie's homage. I'm not sure if those same viewers who rocked out to "Mississippi Queen" for the first time while watching Mordecai, Rigby and an unconscious Benson become the life of the party will be as taken with Eddie Murphy's cheesy 1985 hit "Party All the Time" during the first couple of minutes of "Guy's Night," but the episode crafts an enjoyable montage out of that Rick James-produced earworm just like it did with "Mississippi Queen" (although I always thought Jermaine Stewart's Weekend at Bernie's theme "Hot and Cold" would have been better suited for the "Weekend at Benson's" montage than "Mississippi Queen").

The sounds of "Party All the Time" pump up Mordecai, Rigby, Muscle Man and Hi-Five Ghost for a wild evening or rather, a teetotaling (or weed-deprived) slacker's idea of a wild evening: a night of chips, soda, pizza, poker, muscle car mag ogling and a rental of the awesomely titled Rambo knockoff Sergeant AWOL. Pops walks in on guy's night (the guys never invited their old-timey friend to their monthly night of blowing off steam because he's, well, old-timey) and wants to prove he can be a guy's guy like the rest of them, so he attempts to conquer a favorite quasi-Jackass dare of theirs, the Milk Challenge, in which an entire gallon of milk must be consumed in one hour.

Pops does his best impression of Stefon from SNL.
(Photo source: Regular Show Wiki)
It takes the squeamish man-child with a lollipop head several tries and many trips to the toilet to retch, but Pops eventually manages to become a master chugger. However, he immediately slips into a coma after chugging his first entire gallon without puking and wakes up in a strange all-white lounge inhabited by guys who say they had beaten the Milk Challenge (they include a couple of bikers and a mandaled frat boy). I love the synthy score cue by the Mark Mothersbaugh-led Regular Show composing team that accompanies Pops' entrance into the milk world: it evokes both Tangerine Dream's work on Thief and Daft Punk's moodier side during their dope Tron: Legacy score.

The guests at this lounge are being served glasses of milk by silent, Jawa-like waiters with heads shaped like the Real Seal droplet logo that's stamped on American-made dairy products. Pops is surprised that he wound up in this paradisiacal world because he didn't win the challenge yet--he has to lift the jug of milk over his head to officially win it, which he was about to do before he passed out--and the challengers realize that they didn't lift the jug either and that this so-called paradise is a trap. The waiters are evil milk creatures who are trying to prevent the challengers from leaving to finish the contest by biting them, which transforms them into one of them. In the climax, "Guy's Night" basically turns into a zombie movie, but in an atypical setting of a Kubrick-esque, all-white limbo and with willpower as the weapon against these milk zombies instead of guns, bows or Michonne swords.

"Guy's Night" doesn't have anything particularly deep to say about conquering the impossible, but then again, Regular Show doesn't always have to be deep. It just has to be funny and inventive each week, and "Guy's Night" accomplishes that pretty solidly, especially in its "Party All the Time" montage and its scenes with Pops, a manly man despite his childlike demeanor.

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