Wednesday, November 28, 2012

5-Piece Cartoon Dinner (11/28/2012): Dragons: Riders of Berk, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Dan Vs., Adventure Time and Regular Show

'Splat.'--A dead squirrel's body, two minutes after realizing he can't fly.
Marc Maron chewed on orange-flavored Nicorette acorns for a few weeks in preparation for his role as a squirrel. (Photo source: Adventure Time 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.

In the solid conclusion of Dragons: Riders of Berk's espionage-filled "Heather Report" two-parter, Outcast spy Heather's motive for working for the evil Vikings turns out not to be because she's evil too, but because the Outcasts have held her parents prisoner and forced her to do their bidding in order to free them. Like Hiccup, Outcasts leader Alvin believes the dragon way is the way of the future, but he wants to use the dragons for selfish, WMD-minded purposes, which is much different from Hiccup's view of cooperating with the dragons to help improve Viking society and make Viking life easier. Alvin failed to capture Hiccup in "Alvin and the Outcasts," so he's moved on to trying to steal Hiccup's Book of Dragons to figure out how to control the dragons he's held captive on Outcast Island, and he sent Heather to Berk to snatch the book for him.

Heather admits to Astrid, who was jealous of the attention Heather received from Hiccup and the others before they found out she's been spying on them for the Outcasts, that she lied about being attacked by pirates in order to save her parents. To retrieve the book, Astrid volunteers to go off on her own to Outcast Island--disguised in dyed-black hair as Heather--and is surprised to find out over there that Heather isn't lying about Alvin holding her parents prisoner.

Look, it's Faux-Heather, or--if this show were more like Fringe--Feather.
(Photo source: Berk's Grapevine)
"Heather Report, Part II" features some great intentionally-bad voice acting by America Ferrera when Astrid first fools the Outcasts into thinking she's Heather, despite having a completely different eye color and sounding nothing like her. When she's posing as Heather, Astrid sounds more like the mocking and inaccurate imitation of Heather as a high-pitched and vapid seductress that she did in front of her dragon Stormfly in part 1. Astrid is a great warrior but a crappy impressionist.

Is it me or does Heather appear to be lesbian? I doubt Dragons: Riders of Berk will go there like Ugly Betty, Ferrera's LGBT-friendly old show, used to do, but I got an inkling that Heather plays for the other team--and I don't mean the Outcasts--after Astrid rescues her parents and recovers the book. When Heather says goodbye to the gang, she hugs Astrid but doesn't hug Hiccup, and when a still-smitten Snotlout whispers "Write me" to Heather as she sails off, she amusingly shuts Snotlout down with a Pussy Galore-style "I'm immune to your charms, James" headshake.

Snotlout's longing look at Heather at the end isn't the only longing glance during this episode at a female character while she sails away. In a nicely directed moment early on in "Heather Report, Part II," Hiccup stops himself from saying "I love you" to Astrid on Berk's beach when she heads off on her dangerous mission. It's the first time we've seen Hiccup view Astrid as more than a friend since his vision of her walking seductively in slo-mo with an explosion behind her at the start of How to Train Your Dragon. I've said before that both that movie and Dragons are about the challenges of limited communication, whether it's between humans and non-verbal dragons or teens and their inflexible parents. Now we can add to those challenges Hiccup's shyness about expressing his feelings for the girl he loves.

***

I was pleased with "A Necessary Bond," the conclusion of Star Wars: The Clone Wars' four-part Jedi younglings arc with special guest star David Tennant as a lightsaber-building droid named Huyang--up until when the Battle Droids showed up and started speaking in those grating Eddie Deezen-ish voices of theirs. Then I remembered why I was underwhelmed by the overtly kid-friendly Phantom Menace and why I've stayed away from The Clone Wars, which, like Genndy Tartakovsky's surprisingly good earlier spinoff of the same name, takes place between the events of Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. The Battle Droids and their "Roger, roger" catchphrase rank right below Jar Jar, the Asian-accented villains and child actor Jake Lloyd's inability to act as lowlights of The Phantom Menace. Those Deezen-ish droids are emblematic of how flat and not-so-menacing all the villains in The Phantom Menace were.

Fortunately, General Grievous (Matthew Wood, who also voices all the Battle Droids) is the main baddie in the younglings arc instead of the Battle Droids. His conquest of duplicitous intergalactic pirate Hondo Ohnaka (Jim Cummings) and his crew forces Hondo to team up with Ahsoka Tano (Ashley Eckstein) and her younger charges, whose lightsaber crystals Hondo's crew attempted to steal in "A Test of Strength." During "A Necessary Bond," the spider-like armor design of this asthmatic proto-Darth Vader (who made his first appearance in the franchise during Tartakovsky's Clone Wars), the Jedi knights' difficulties with stopping him and his Predator-like trait of collecting the knights' lightsabers as trophies are all reminders of how much of an improvement Grievous was over the Battle Droids as a prequel adversary. When Grievous wiped the floor with all those Jedi during his genuinely riveting introduction in Tartakovsky's Clone Wars, you got the sense that George Lucas realized how insipid the Battle Droids were and how boring Darth Maul was, so he came up with a threat who was more intimidating than either of them.

'Need a lozenge, General? Well I've got something better than that. My foot. Up your ass.'
(Photo source: Toonzone)
Yet Grievous doesn't hold a candle to Vader in the first two Star Wars films or Star Trek's Khan Noonien Singh, whose voice and charismatic personality Cummings channels in his portrayal of Hondo. Though I enjoyed a few elements of this "Young Jedi" arc (Wookiee youngling Gungi, whose growls are amusingly left unsubtitled like Chewbacca's, is an especially intriguing addition to the cast, and the Tenth Doctor does a nice job subbing for Anthony Daniels' C3P0 as a foil to R2D2), I'm still not ready to make The Clone Wars a regular viewing thing. The lack of personality in Grievous and the other prequel characters--except for Huyang, Gungi, Hondo and Ahsoka, who were all created for this show and are as close as the prequel projects have gotten to coming up with new characters on a par with the way more entertaining likes of Han, Leia, Chewie, Lando and yes, even whiny Luke--continues to draw me away.

***

Stalk like an Egyptian
"I remember pitching the cartoon version to [writing partner] Dan [Mandel], saying something like 'If it's a cartoon, we can do 'Dan vs. the Mailman' one week, and 'Dan vs. the Lost City of Atlantis' the next,'" said Dan Vs. co-creator Chris Pearson in a Toonzone Q&A. Mandel and Pearson's Hub cartoon (which was originally conceived by Mandel as a live-action sitcom where the ability to create worlds like Atlantis would have been held back by budget restrictions and the limits of live-action) has gone on to do exactly that at the start of its third and current season. The show pitted the title misanthrope against something very relatable last week (anger management classes) and then pitted him against something much more fantastical and I Dream of Jeannie-ish this week (an undead, 4,000-year-old Egyptian king who wanders off from a local museum exhibit).

But is the scenario of a mummy who steals all your toilet paper (and turns into the world's peskiest houseguest a la John Belushi's "The Thing That Wouldn't Leave" fake movie trailer from '70s SNL) as funny as everyday annoyances like telemarketers and inexplicably popular reality shows you don't care for? I'm not so sure. I like Seth Green in almost everything he does (however, he couldn't save Disney's Old Dogs--nobody could), and he's amusing in his guest shot as Ahkenrah, Dan and Chris' laid-back mummy nemesis who's fond of calling everyone "dude," but his character feels like a rehash of the stoner alien voiced by Seth Rogen in director Greg Mottola's Paul.

After the cleverness of "Dan vs. Anger Management," "Dan vs. the Mummy" is a rather meh Dan Vs. installment that sleepwalks--or rather, mummy-walks--through tropes like unwanted houseguests and sci-fi/fantasy creatures who speak like jaded party animals, which were written with slightly more imagination in that aforementioned SNL sketch and Paul, respectively. But it's not a complete dud. I chuckled over a throwaway gag of a depressed museum docent ("Did you know the ancient Mayans predicted the end of my marriage?"), and any excuse to see Chris' secret agent wife Elise armed with a weapon while clad only in a pajama top again is always welcome.

She's got blades. She knows how to use them.

***

The end credits of last week's Adventure Time listed Marc Maron--who has mentioned on both his Twitter feed and his immensely popular podcast WTF that he recorded an Adventure Time guest shot as a squirrel--as the actor who provided the grunts of a squirrel whose armpits were poked by Finn and Jake (don't ask). Casting Maron in the bit part of a squirrel who never spoke made little sense because you don't hire Maron just to have the guy grunt. Either that was an end credits mistake or Maron actually did voice two different squirrels: both the squirrel in "Five More Short Graybles" and the much more verbose squirrel in "Up a Tree."

Maron's turn as the nameless and neurotic squirrel who befriends Finn while Ooo's lone human climbs a tree to retrieve a Frisbee is one of several highlights in this week's Adventure Time installment, which appears at first to be a rather mundane, low-stakes story about a lost Frisbee but then takes a turn for the epic and surreal when Finn shrinks due to a cursed apple Maron's squirrel forces the human to eat. The shrunken Finn's prolonged climb up this tree that's now as large to him as a mountain results in some of my favorite epic visuals on Adventure Time since, well, last week, when Marceline hopped onto the Rock Giant's finger and his finger took her to a faraway music shop in an inventive sequence that continues to amaze even though I first saw it in Cartoon Network's constantly repeated promo for the show's new season.

UPA Tree is a new TV show that consists of nothing but UPA cartoons.
(Photo source: Adventure Time Wiki)
Finn encounters a group of woodland creatures who are as big-eyed and innocuous-looking as the porcupine (Jim Cummings, the other noteworthy guest star in "Up a Tree") and squirrel he befriended earlier. All the creatures in this tree are designed like animals from pre-Daffy Duck/Bugs Bunny '30s Warner Bros. cartoons--you know, back when producer Leon Schlesinger's animators preferred to have their characters sing show tunes like "Smile, Darn Ya, Smile!" and "I Love to Singa" to each other instead of blowing each other up with dynamite like in the much more anarchic Daffy and Bugs shorts that Warner Bros. became more famous for. But this animal civilization's innocuous appearance hides a devious agenda to collect the toys that land in their tree and imprison any outsider like Finn who loses their belongings in the tree. The animal council creepily chants, "In the tree, part of the tree."

The animals lock Finn up in a jail cell guarded by the squirrel, and Finn talks the squirrel into joining him in making a daring escape from this creepy and strict civilization during an exchange where Maron gets to be Maron. I know lots of WTF listeners complain about the first 10 minutes of Maron's podcast, where he rambles and kvetches about some insecurity or everyday dilemma, so they fast-forward through the intro and the Stamps.com ad to skip right to Maron's interview with his guest. I don't mind those stream-of-consciousness intros as much as those listeners do, so I love how the squirrel's discussion of the merits and drawbacks of life in the tree sounds exactly like the first 10 minutes of WTF (this is where listening to all those opening ramblings of his pays off). "Do I like the nuts and acorns? Yes. Do I like it when they put me down and say mean things like 'You're not a flying squirrel. You're just a regular squirrel. Nyah!'? No," says the squirrel. "Do I wanna fly away from this place now? Yes. Would I make a break for it if I had a buddy to break out of here with? Yes." The Adventure Time writers really nail Maron's neurotic and hypersensitive delivery from his WTF intros and stand-up act.

The secret of NERF: This is where all your footballs and baseballs wind up when you lose them.
(Photo source: Adventure Time Wiki)
I mentioned last week that Maron is like the last person I'd expect to record a guest shot on a cartoon because he's expressed a disdain for animation as an art form and doesn't understand the appeal of it. Maron's opinion is such a reductive view of an art form that happens to employ so many of his stand-up friends (like Maria Bamford, who voices various different characters on Adventure Time). I don't know if Maron's changed his tune since recording "Up a Tree," but that dismissal of cartoons is similar to how some Americans still haven't outgrown the stupid idea that cartoons are meant only for kids and adult viewers who watch cartoons are immature mouth-breathers, not knowing that many of the cartoons we watch are a little more sophisticated than they think and are actually made not for kids but for us, like the politically charged Boondocks and Adventure Time. Sure, Pendleton Ward's show has fans of all ages, but like the '30s and '40s Fleischer Studios shorts that influence it, it's really intended for adults, particularly the animators who work on the show. With their attitude of "Why do you still watch cartoons?," the haters are the ones who are behaving more like children than the grown-up viewers they've been dismissing as overgrown children.

Do I like Maron? Yes. Do I like it when he's put down animation and the people who work their asses off in a medium of comedy that's as vital as Maron's preferred medium of stand-up? No.

***

On Regular Show, lazy Mordecai and lazier Rigby are often faced with the specter of getting fired from their jobs as park groundskeepers, and the enjoyable "One Pull Up" introduces a new threat to their job security: a government fitness test they must pass to stay employed. The test is a breeze for everyone in the park--up until the pull-ups portion of the test, when Rigby discovers he can't do a single pull-up.

Even Demi Moore in G.I. Jane can do a goddamn pull-up.
(Photo source: Regular Show Wiki)
Even Eileen (the charmingly not-so-experienced-in-voice-acting Minty Lewis, a Regular Show storyboarder), the coffee shop waitress who's in love with Rigby, can do a pull-up, thanks to her experience as a pep squad member in high school. Everyone's favorite little mole trains Rigby to get in shape and visualize pleasant things like grilled cheese sandwiches and Muscle Man getting punched in the face to motivate himself, during another one of Regular Show's music montages, only this time the music isn't an '80s pop song. It's an original score cue Mark Mothersbaugh and his team of composers modeled after Bill Conti's "Going the Distance" from Rocky. That's not the only shout-out to the first Rocky training montage. Eileen feeds Rigby a glass full of raw eggs and has him punch giant slabs of beef like the Italian Stallion. All that's missing is Rigby running up the steps of a local museum.

But the hours of training still aren't enough to make Rigby capable of accomplishing a pull-up, so he resorts to "The Russian" (a reference to Ivan Drago?), a fitness gadget that enlarges muscles via electrotherapy. The fake Russian TV ad is so dead-on about the low-rent feel of fitness gadget ads--at one point, an actor is shown operating The Russian while using the can off-screen--that I'd like to see someone on YouTube include it in the inevitable supercut of Regular Show's fake ads. Because Rigby is fond of cutting corners and is never worried about the consequences of anything he does, he ignores the product warnings about misusing the machine, turns up its power level from 10 to 11 (always a great go-to number in comedy) and falls asleep while operating it. Rigby awakes from his nap to discover that his muscles are now so heavy that he's unable to stand up without breaking the floor and destroying everything he touches. Oh yeah, and he only has one minute left to perform the pull-up and keep his job.

I haven't felt this much sympathy for a lonely coffee shop waitress since Chrissie Hynde in the 'Brass in Pocket' video.
(Photo source: Regular Show Wiki)
Regular Show is one of the most anarchic and twisted cartoons on the air, but it's also occasionally capable of expressing a tender side, like in last season's "Trucker Hall of Fame," a standout installment about Muscle Man's discovery that his recently deceased dad was a fraud, and the ambiguous conclusion of "One Pull Up." Eileen takes off her glasses--a callback to Rigby's ashamed admission in "Diary" that he thinks Eileen looks hot without her glasses on--and hugs the exhausted raccoon, despite his warning that his ginormous arms will break Eileen's spine. She tears up, but the episode leaves it ambiguous so that we don't know whether she's crying from the pain of Rigby's bone-crushing embrace or from being genuinely moved by finally getting to hug the raccoon she loves. One thing's for sure though: I'd hate to see what the makers of The Russian have in store for erectile dysfunction.

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