Wednesday, December 5, 2012

5-Piece Cartoon Dinner (12/05/2012): Dragons: Riders of Berk, Tron: Uprising, Motorcity, Adventure Time and Regular Show

I speak for everybody when I say it's a good thing this didn't veer into Women in Love nude wrestling territory.
"Coca-Cola tastes like donkey piss, bitch!," says Pops. (Photo source: Regular Show 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.

After voicing a droid for a couple of episodes of Star Wars: The Clone Wars, former Doctor Who star David Tennant turns up on another Cartoon Network show, Dragons: Riders of Berk, as the voice of Spitelout Jorgenson in "Thawfest." Spitelout's longtime rivalry with Stoick has been carried on by his overly confident son Snotlout and his competitive attitude towards Stoick's son Hiccup during Berk's annual Thawfest Games, the Viking equivalent of the Highland Games in Scottish culture (in writers' meetings, the Dragons showrunners must have said, "The movie turned the Vikings into Scotsmen, so which Scottish sporting events should we have them do? Neither soccer nor rugby have been invented yet, so let's give them the Highland Games, only we can't call it that because they're Vikings.").

'Ha-ha,' says Nelson Mu--er, I mean, Snotlout.
(Photo source: Riders of Berk)
Tennant, who had a blink-and-you'll-miss-hearing-it cameo as Spitelout in How to Train Your Dragon, gets to speak in his normal Scottish accent here. His Doctor was the cockiest Doctor since Colin Baker's Sixth Doctor (but he was more likable than Baker's Herb Tarlek-y coat-wearing asshole of a Doctor, who always looked like a box of Crayola crayons exploded), so as a Doctor Who viewer, I enjoyed seeing Tennant take that cocksure attitude he brought to a larger-than-life, heroic alien time-traveler and infuse it into a much smaller kind of character, a lowlife stage dad.

After so many kids' cartoons where the main characters are great athletes or superheroes, Hiccup's lack of athletic prowess is refreshing and so welcome, as we see early on in "Thawfest" when the more athletic Snotlout repeatedly trounces Hiccup during competition. But when the athletes are allowed to compete with dragons for the first time in Thawfest history, Hiccup, who's a far more skilled dragon trainer than Snotlout, finally has a series of events where he can triumph over Snotlout. However, the dragon portion of the games brings out the worst in Hiccup, who's never experienced this much success in sports before, so he never learned how to control the ego one can develop from so many wins.

"Thawfest" is a good winning-isn't-everything story and even more impressive as a series of comedic sports set pieces. I'm no fan of 3D, but I wish Cartoon Network found some way to broadcast Dragons in 3D like how DreamWorks released How to Train Your Dragon in that format because the episode's climactic race between Hiccup/Toothless and Snotlout/Hookfang would have looked even more amazing and immersive in 3D. But if Cartoon Network issued 3D glasses, the channel's people will probably neglect to tell you where to obtain a pair because they're so terrific with their communication skills.


For a news organization full of tenacious journalists, the Daily Planet staff--from younger reporters like Lois Lane and Cat Grant to world-weary veterans like Perry White--has such shitty eyesight. This is one reason why I don't care for Superman (the All-Star Superman comic excepted, of course, partly because it came up with an inventive explanation for how Superman is able to keep his secret identity from being revealed). I have to buy that these perceptive journos are unable to notice that their co-worker Clark Kent is the not-exactly-well-disguised Man of Steel? Hee-ro please.

So during Tron: Uprising's "Grounded" episode, when Beck's garage boss Able (Reginald VelJohnson) becomes frustrated with his mechanic's frequent absences from work and puts two and two together and finally realizes it's because Beck is busy being The Renegade, I loved seeing a superhero show where one of the good guys is perceptive for a change and correctly guesses the main hero's secret identity early on in the show's run (or halfway through the run if Disney XD doesn't renew Tron: Uprising). Fortunately, "Grounded" doesn't cop out and immediately kill off Able because he knows about Beck's double life.

In his den, Mr. Winslow reads that little prick Urkel the riot act.
Able also reveals himself to Beck as the black-suited lightcycle rider who saved his life when a rebooted, powered-up General Tesler nearly derezzed The Renegade in front of millions of Argonian programs. The surprise turn in Able's working relationship with Beck raises the stakes of the show and creates the feeling that the uprising is finally getting somewhere and spreading, even though in the end, as Tron: Legacy foreshadowed, the uprising won't last--unless Disney somehow intervenes and forces the series to end on a positive note. It's called a downbeat ending, Disney. Don't tinker with it. Downbeat endings aren't just dogs dying, you know.


I've never been a fan of the irritating sounds of Chuck whimpering (courtesy of Nate Torrence, who played a slightly similar but not-as-shrieky genius in the 2008 Get Smart and its spinoff movie Bruce and Lloyd Out of Control), but for the first time in Motorcity's haphazardly scheduled run on Disney XD, I'm actually glad to hear the cowardly Burner's mewls and girlie screams again after yet another long hiatus. Okay, by the climax of "Reunion," Chuck's screams start to get old, but I've kind of missed the panicky guy.

Not even the fanciest hotel room I stayed in has as nice a view of the city as Dar Gordy's bedroom does. I'd get rid of all those Abraham Kane posters though. He looks like a pedo.
While Chuck continues to be the Jamie Lee Curtis of Motorcity (as in Jamie Lee Curtis the scream queen, not Jamie Lee Curtis the spokeswoman for yogurt that helps you fart, although the latter would be amusing too), "Reunion" reveals more of the backstory of Dutch, Chuck's much less fearful fellow Burner, which "Going Dutch" remarkably hinted at earlier this season without any dialogue. We learned Dutch left behind his parents (Gary Anthony Williams, Kimberly Brooks) and younger brother Dar (Shake It Up's Roshon Fegan) in Detroit Deluxe because of his frustrations with Abraham Kane's fascist hold over Deluxe and his desire to pursue a life of painting street art in Motorcity, and now in "Reunion," we find out that his biggest reason for leaving was to keep his political activism from endangering the lives of his family.

We also get a last name for Dutch and his family (they're the Gordys, which appears to be a shout-out to Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, like how Chilton, Burners leader Mike's last name, is a reference to Chilton auto repair manuals). Dar, who used to worship Dutch, resents him for leaving, so he's moved on to a different idol now--Kane--and joined KaneCo as a junior cadet. He doesn't know that his brother is a Burner, so when he does finally learn what Dutch has really been up to in Motorcity, will he seize the opportunity to turn in his own brother?

Dar is giving off some serious Nazi youth vibes when Dutch is reunited with him. His Nazi-ish phase isn't played for laughs (although the blue beret, combined with the uniform, makes him look like a cross between a Cadet Org member and Donald Duck). It's an interesting tonal choice from both episode writer George Krstic and the animators who came up with the somber lighting for the scenes between Dutch and his family. It keeps "Reunion" from being a completely light romp and lends some suspense to the proceedings when we're left to wonder how Dar will react when he finds out his brother is one of Kane's most wanted.

Meanwhile, "Reunion" doesn't disappoint in the action department, and Motorcity, a show that I've always felt has captured quite well the spirit of old Star Wars, stages a set piece straight out of the classic trilogy when Julie and Texas are assigned the task of blasting KaneCo's power hub with their cars' cannons and Julie winds up having to destroy the hub by herself. Disney XD is clearly mucking up the order of the episodes again because after the series started to hint that Julie is feeling conflicted over the cause against her father in "Like Father, Like Daughter," the last episode that XD aired, we're back to an earlier point in the series when Julie had no qualms about blasting cannons at her dad's work projects. Airing the episodes out of order wrecks the momentum of Julie's arc that was kicked off by "Like Father, Like Daughter." I'm starting to believe that XD actually stands for "Xtra Ditzy."


On Adventure Time, Magic Man (Tom Kenny) overhears Finn asking Jake if it's better to date someone who's exactly like you or someone who's your complete opposite (Jake's answer: "It's not about personality matrixels and charts, it's all about the b-bumps in your heart"), so the trickster decides to mess with Finn's head by leaving him an unusual present that's bound to drive Finn insane as he uses it to try to figure out that question he asked Jake. The gift is a sack full of walking and talking figurines of Finn, Jake and their friends, who speak unsubtitled gibberish to each other.

Insert playing-with-wood joke here.
(Photo source: Adventure Time Wiki)
A typical 14-year-old would be obsessed with stripping mini-Marceline and mini-Princess Bubblegum naked and having them act out scripts from various Cinemax original series. But because Finn isn't a typical 14-year-old and is growing up in a bizarre, post-apocalyptic fantasyland without either any other humans around or Cinemax (and also because, as evidenced by his chat with Jake about compatibility, he must be wondering lately if Flame Princess is truly his soulmate and worth experiencing "Tier 15" with), he uses these little alternate versions of himself and his friends to test out various different romantic relationship scenarios (like what if mini-himself dated mini-Lady Rainicorn?). He ends up going mad while playing God, to the point where he doesn't sleep and shower, just like anybody who suffers from Internet addiction or Sims addiction.

The figurines are clearly a riff on The Sims--they even speak in Sims-like gibberish--but they're also a comment on the madness of running a scripted TV show and creating its storylines. Finn is basically being a showrunner planning love triangle storylines when he meddles with the pairing of mini-Choose Goose and mini-Lollipop Girl by adding mini-Abracadaniel (which ends up turning into a threesome) and then tries to create what he couldn't accomplish in real life by making mini-PB fall in love with mini-himself. "All the Little People" suggests that taking on the arduous task of showrunning leaves you a little bonkers. Finn's unkempt state 16 weeks after first discovering the figurines also contains parallels to recent studies that have shown that Facebook causes its most addicted users to be lonely and depressed.

Then in a great twist where it's revealed that these figurines are avatars for the Oooians' counterparts in another dimensional plane and Finn has ended up becoming the supreme being that's been controlling their every move in that plane, the clever "All the Little People" remarkably morphs from being a joke about three simultaneous things--The Sims, the TV industry and social media addiction--to an exploration of the lifelong question of "Are we alone in the universe or are all those religions right on the money about the presence of a supreme being that controls us all?" If there is a God, could he be nothing more than a 14-year-old kid from another dimensional plane who views us all as playthings? "All the Little People" addresses spirituality in a humorous and thoughtful way I haven't seen in an unabashedly secular cartoon since the "Godfellas" episode of Futurama, Adventure Time star John DiMaggio's other signature cartoon, and in my favorite bit of irreverence, it does so with the help of a masturbation joke that somehow got past the Cartoon Network censors. Not even "Godfellas" whipped such a thing out.


Regular Show's enormously entertaining half-hour Christmas special, creatively titled "The Christmas Special," ranks somewhere below South Park's introduction of Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo, John Goodman's controversial Futurama guest shot as the psychotic Robot Santa, NewsRadio's Christmas episode about Bill McNeal's Santa-suited stalker and Lee Majors' The Night the Reindeer Died as a great piece of unsentimental and irreverent alt-Yuletide TV. Okay, The Night the Reindeer Died wasn't an actual Christmas special, but those two minutes that poked fun at Christmas special excess right at the start of the otherwise not-so-great Scrooged were glorious.

I'm not sure if the Regular Show writers/storyboarders have ever seen Scrooged, but their Christmas special feels like the result of them asking each other, "What if we made a silly, over-the-top Christmas action movie like The Night the Reindeer Died?" As someone who finds the sentimental tone of most holiday TV shows and commercials to be overbearing and lame (and prefers either The Ref, the original Die Hard or any Shane Black-written holiday movie--especially Kiss Kiss Bang Bang--over It's a Wonderful Life as holiday viewing), the unsentimental Regular Show Christmas special is right up my alley. And luckily, the one moment where "The Christmas Special" gets heartfelt is played understatedly: Benson's rival Gene (Kurtwood Smith) glances at a Christmas portrait of himself with his wife and kid--aw, so the ruthless bastard does have a heart after all--while trying to decide whether or not to put aside his differences with Benson and his employees to save both them and Christmas from Quillgin (Thomas Haden Church!), the episode's villain.

What kind of sick bastard would want to pump ZZ Top full of lead?
(Photo source: Regular Show Wiki)
In addition to bringing back Smith as Gene, the anthropomorphic vending machine who manages East Pines Park and waged a prank war against Benson and his park in "Prankless," "The Christmas Special" features Ed Asner reprising his role from the Will Ferrell vehicle Elf as Santa, but here, he plays Kringle as a hoverboard-riding action hero. It's not exactly a new riff on Santa, but Asner, an animation veteran who especially shined during his villainous Superman: The Animated Series and Boondocks guest shots and his starring role in Up, kills it.

The "Christmas Special" plot has an injured Santa turning to Mordecai and Rigby for help after he and an important item he's been carrying both fall from the sky and crash through their garage. St. Nick has been trying to stop Quillgin, a disgruntled elf who used to design toys for his workshop, from getting his hands on the item, an invention Quillgin created and Santa rejected for being too unsafe. It's an empty red gift box that can conjure up anything that's desired most by whoever opens the box, and Quillgin invented it to eliminate the need for Santa and destroy Christmas forever. He used dark magic to build the box, which turns whoever opens it evil, and in a plot point straight out of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Santa entrusts Mordecai and Rigby with the task of destroying the evil box once and for all. Skips tells the duo that the only way to destroy the impervious box is to throw it into a lava pit that happens to be located inside an abandoned mine shaft on the other side of East Pines Park (I've always wondered which big city Regular Show takes place in, and the amount of snow that covers both parks during this episode automatically disqualifies it from being a coastal California city).

Cue the Inception 'BRAAAAHM' music.
(Photo source: Regular Show Wiki)
The gang's quest for the lava pit allows Regular Show to riff on Inception's snow-based action sequences (which, in turn, were riffs on the ski chases in On Her Majesty's Secret Service) and the climactic tests of wisdom in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. When Pops volunteers to wrestle a bear as part of the series of booby traps the gang must conquer to reach the lava pit, that's where you know this Christmas special is a keeper. I also like Mordecai's growing frustration with the Last Crusade-style obstacles as he groans, "Aw, what? Another slide?"

The amount of Indy and Back to the Future references that series creator and "Christmas Special" co-director J.G. Quintel and his crew inserted into the episode signifies their love for '80s Spielberg--but not the usual highlights of that era of Spielberg. The quest for the lava pit marks the second time Quintel's crew has referenced the Last Crusade climax. As the Topless Robot blog noted in their "11 Nerdiest References in Regular Show" list while praising the show's Last Crusade-inspired gags during the "Eggscellent" episode, "As far as Indiana Jones parodies go, most writers have the tendency to parody the opening from Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indy is running away from the boulder, as comedically hackneyed as it is... But it takes a real nerd to find humor in the last scene of The Last Crusade when Indy must choose and drink from the true Holy Grail."

Here we see Jennifer Love Hewitt about to work her handsy magic on a snowman in a special Christmas episode of The Client List.
(Photo source: Regular Show Wiki)
Regular Show is rated TV-PG--that's like between a PG-13 and an R during the hours of Cartoon Network programming before Adult Swim takes over--so the Regular Show crew often toys with the censors, trying to see how far they can go in terms of cartoon violence and references in the dialogue to sexuality. At one point in "The Christmas Special," you can sense the crew's delight at toying with Standards and Practices when Rigby considers pulling a prank on East Pines where he would mess around with the carrot nose of one of the rival park's snowmen. Rigby's prank is disrupted by the alarm he tripped by grabbing the carrot, but we all know where he was about to place that carrot. So "The Christmas Special" isn't quite as filthy as South Park's Mr. Hankey episodes or as dark as Futurama's Robot Santa stories, but it's a lot of fun. All that's missing is the presence of a certain action icon who's become a favorite go-to guest star in recent years on shows ranging from Community to Human Target: The Night the Reindeer Died star Lee Majors. Otherwise, to borrow the words of The Night the Reindeer Died's network promos, Yule love it.

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