Wednesday, December 12, 2012

5-Piece Cartoon Dinner (12/12/2012): Dragons: Riders of Berk, Kaijudo, Dan Vs., Tron: Uprising and Motorcity

Dan vs. dehydration
"Forget it, dude. I'm not going back to Romney to shake his hand backstage. You saw what happened to Pacquiao."
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.

How to Train Your Dragon fans who have been bored lately with Dragons: Riders of Berk have complained on Toonzone about the character of dragon-hating Mildew (Stephen Root) and have found him to be an underwhelming antagonist compared to Mark Hamill's Alvin ("[Mildew] makes for a terrible villain," "very flat and uninteresting"). As for me, I like how the other major antagonist on Dragons isn't a mustache-twirling thug like Alvin and is more like most of the Republican Party: old, hateful and afraid of change.

Mildew is basically the Viking version of Mrs. Carmody from Stephen King's novella The Mist, the terribly written radio drama-style Mist audiobook from the '80s that starred Bill Sadler (that's the version of The Mist I'm most familiar with) and Frank Darabont's 2007 film version (which also featured Sadler, but in a different role). Both Mildew and Carmody are crazy old zealots who use religion to brainwash neighbors and bully those who don't share their beliefs. In "When Lightning Strikes," Berk is being ravaged by a wave of lightning storms, which Mildew believes to be the thunder god Thor's angry response to Toothless' "unholy" presence after the lightning seems to follow Toothless wherever the dragon goes, and this provides Mildew with another excuse to call for Toothless' banishment. Meanwhile, Hiccup discovers that the reason for the storms has something to do with a concept that's completely foreign to the Vikings and their polytheistic Norse culture: science.

'I am the God of Hellfire, and I bring yeeeeeeew...'
(Photo source: Berk's Grapevine)
Those viewers who despise Mildew's appearances (however, they might be right about these "villagers having difficulty trusting the dragons" episodes becoming tiresome) have said they wish he were thrown off the island, which "When Lightning Strikes" chickens out of doing. The fate I wish for Mildew is far worse than him getting evicted from Berk or getting electrocuted inside his house like at the end of "When Lightning Strikes": the villagers chain him to a chair and force him to listen to the radio drama version of The Mist.


"I think Saguru is Ray's presumed-dead father," I wrote back in July, when Kaijudo: Rise of the Duel Masters first introduced the mysterious bounty hunter (Andrew Kishino). "Mr. Okamoto must have used the memory-wiping Cyber Virus creatures on his family to protect them from his life as a Duel Master (what good that did because his son is now part of the Order of the Duel Masters) and then had a Cyber Virus erase his own memories of Earth."

The show's recent confirmation that the one-eyed amnesiac is indeed Ray's long-missing dad was far from shocking. But the additional revelation that Ray's mom Janet (Grey DeLisle) knew all along about the Duel Masters and learned how to use a gauntlet from her husband--whose real name is Ken--came out of nowhere and was the first genuine surprise to emerge from a cartoon that's rolled out one predictable twist after another (Ken and the Choten, the Order's nemesis, used to be friends… a long time ago! Ken is a former Duel Master! Master Brightmore, who was never comfortable with Ray's unorthodox approach to dueling and the changes the kid has brought to the old ways of the Order, switched sides and now works for the Choten!).

Ex-Party of Five star Scott Wolf voices the half-Asian hero of Kaijudo and doesn't have to put on fucking offensive Cloud Atlas makeup to play an Asian guy!
However, the reasons why Ken lost both his memory and his right eye and became Saguru remain a mystery, and the fast-paced first half of "The Rising," Kaijudo's two-part season finale (the best part of this first half, by the way, is Bob the half-dragon's discovery that he can fly), doesn't delve into them. I won't be surprised if the Choten was responsible for mind-wiping Ken and gouging out his eye. I also won't be surprised if the Choten bites the heads off baby pandas for dinner and is a Chris Brown fan.

I've made fun of Kaijudo's occasionally clunky dialogue (particularly when the show has dealt with the hot-button issue of bullying) or its unsurprising twists like I did just now, but to its credit, the show hasn't shied away from depicting how cruel and destructive the Choten has been to Ray's family. This isn't some half-assed villain who makes very little of an impact like any of the heavily watered-down rogues gallery on the frequently underwhelming Ultimate Spider-Man, and Oded Fehr helps make the Choten such an intimidating figure by underplaying him and delivering his lines with nary a shout or Snidely Whiplash-style laugh. Screw the TV-Y7 rating. I want Ray and his dad to dismember and kill this cold and unfeeling bastard by the end of part 2.


If you've ever been ripped off by a mechanic before, Dan Vs. has come up with a clever explanation for why many mechanics are unreliable: it's because they steal components of your car to build giant robots for underground robot fights. As a viewer who loved Megas XLR, the entertaining giant-robot-sci-fi spoof that Titmouse has lately been attempting to bring back to TV, I got a kick out of the underground robot fight club scenes in "Dan vs. the Mechanic," even though the robots are much tinier than Megas and equipped with far less weaponry. The casting of RoboCop heavy Kurtwood Smith--who currently voices Gene the ruthless vending machine on Regular Show--as Dan's sloppy mechanic Mike is an inspired choice, as is the ED-209-from-RoboCop-style design for The Widowmaker, the robot that Elise pilots to take down Dan in the ring after she's had enough of his bossiness.

This is how President Obama should solve all his disagreements with the haters from the Republican Party.
At times on Dan Vs., Elise can come across as a total Mary Sue--she's a badass super-spy, she always knows best, she rescues Dan and her husband Chris whenever they're in a tight spot--so it's nice to see her lose both her composure and her patience with Dan and transform from someone who barely puts up with him each week to his main antagonist in "Dan vs. the Mechanic" (this episode is actually more like "Dan vs. Elise" than "Dan vs. the Mechanic"). No wonder Paget Brewster quit Criminal Minds last year: she's more at home in absurdist comedies like this show and the two-season wonder Andy Richter Controls the Universe than in the world of glum and monotonous CBS procedurals, plus she never got to tear the limbs off serial killers like she gets to do here to Dan's robot.


On Tron: Uprising, the recent revelation that Able (Reginald VelJohnson) knows about his garage mechanic Beck's off-hours as the heroic Renegade and has been helping to keep the Renegade's identity a secret was a nice development in a show that's been lacking in surprises lately, despite its sumptuous techno-noir look and well-crafted action sequences. I've been so enjoying Able's sudden involvement in the uprising that it's all I cared about during "We Both Know How This Ends," which splits its time between Able's attempt to dissuade Tron from continuing to send the not-so-seasoned Beck to fight Clu's forces and the mishaps inside Able's garage, where Mara (Mandy Moore) has been temporarily promoted by Able to acting boss so that he could head off to the Outlands to secretly meet with the reclusive Tron.

It's hard to think of Mara as attractive when she has the same hairdo as the blue-haired old lady on Are You Being Served?
The garage hijinks give the underdeveloped Mara more to do than just run away from General Tesler's minions or wind up in some other situation where she and Zed (Nate Corddry) have to be rescued by the Renegade. But even with the ample screen time Mara receives in "We Both Know How This Ends," she remains a less compelling female character than Tesler's long-suffering underling Paige (who's nowhere to be found in this episode). However, the garage storyline ties in quite well to the Able/Tron storyline's implication that Tron's actions can sometimes be detrimental to Beck and his friends at the garage. Tron's mission to send Beck to sabotage the tanks at Tesler's base by infecting them with a virus ends up placing Mara, a tied-up-in-garage-work Beck and the other mechanics in danger of either being sent to die in the games or derezzed on the spot when Pavel (Paul Reubens) threatens to punish everyone in the garage if they don't rid his tanks of the virus that was implanted by Beck.

Able's protectiveness of Beck raises intriguing questions about Tron's behavior after Dyson betrayed him: is Tron's PTSD causing him to make irrational choices and is it irrational for him to send out such a young program to do his dirty work (rarely do you ever see "PTSD" and "Disney cartoon" in the same sentence)? It's remarkable how in just a few episodes, Tron has turned from a noble (and rather uninteresting) hero to an imperfect and broken one. Able's concerns about Beck suiting up as the new Tron also raise questions about the connection between Tron's previous ally Cyrus and Beck, which was indicated during "Scars" (I bet Beck is actually a repurposed version of Cyrus). What exactly are these mistakes of Tron's that Able is referring to? Able's cryptic warning to Tron that "we both know how this ends" suggests that Cyrus' involvement in the uprising didn't end well for him, and Able doesn't want history to repeat itself with this program who's become like a son to him at the garage. In an episode that's supposed to be a showcase for Mara and her heroism as a mechanic, Able and Tron oddly end up being the more fascinating figures.


Towards the end of Motorcity's "Julie and the Amazons" episode, one of the Duke of Detroit's minions attempts to run over a defenseless Mike inside the Duke's mansion with her car, and the terrifically animated chase proves how much of a mistake it is for Disney XD to cancel Motorcity, which was originally supposed to be an MTV show eons ago. Disney XD's decision to burn off first-run episodes of Motorcity and Tron: Uprising during Adult Swim hours on Sunday indicates that these shows ended up skewing a lot older than Disney expected. What Disney needs to do is create a Touchstone Pictures-style channel for viewers who have outgrown both the enjoyable (but a bit too show tune-heavy for my tastes) Phineas and Ferb and the hardly-as-enjoyable live-action sitcoms that are ratings hits on Disney Channel and Disney XD, so that well-made action cartoons like Motorcity and Tron: Uprising that have clearly been difficult to market to younger viewers and are more popular with older ones can survive.

The chase inside the Duke's mansion also must have driven the Disney XD execs crazy and is pretty dark for a Disney XD show. You'd never see a bunch of cars try to mow down the two brothers on Pair of Kings. I wish MTV never said no to this show because I would have loved to have seen what Titmouse would have been able to get away with on an MTV version of Motorcity.

Is the name of Foxy's underling Lizzie a reference to the lesbian gang from The Warriors? If so, that's fucking awesome.
(Photo source: MotorCity Disney XD Wiki)
As for "Julie and the Amazons" itself, the episode revisits the various gangs of Motorcity--always an entertaining part of the show and another element that must have made Disney nervous--while fleshing out Julie's unlikely friendship with the more shopping-obsessed Claire and delving into why they've remained friends despite recent changes in Julie's life, like her allegiance to the Burners and her awareness that not all is great about the city her corrupt dad Abraham built. Motorcity, the city that Julie prefers, isn't really all that great either. It's beset by mutant rats and street gang beefs, as we're reminded while Julie and Texas infiltrate several gangs' compounds to find out which gang set up the Burners as the culprit behind a series of attacks on different gangs.

At the compound that the too-sexy-for-Disney-XD Foxy (Jennifer Hale) and her all-female Amazon gang call home, Julie pretends to have split from the Burners after feuding with Mike, but she also uses the mission as an excuse to keep an eye on her BFF Claire, whose new friendship with Foxy is beginning to worry her. While Julie is competent undercover, Texas is the world's worst spy (Jess Harnell excels at voicing dumb behavior, especially during a moment of earpiece miscommunication that turns into a mini-Abbott and Costello routine), and he clearly learned nothing about undercover work from the "getaway gang movies" he was obsessed with during "The Duke of Detroit Presents..."

Antonio presents Mike with 'Iron Mike,' his mash-up of Mike and Iron Man: 'You're a dick and an unfeeling egotist, just like-ah Tony Stark!'
There's also an equally amusing bit of business early on in "Julie and the Amazons" where Mike discovers that pizzeria owner Antonio (Fred Tatasciore) has immortalized him in cheese, and all of Antonio's other cheese replicas of the heads of heroic figures ("Georges Washington! Christopher Columbus! Dees is my cousin Silvio!") on his "Shelf of Fame" look exactly the same and oddly creepy. This scene would have been disastrous with a lame Disney sitcom laugh track. Maybe that's why this show couldn't attract the Disney XD audience. It was missing the sounds of a studio audience guffawing every other second.

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