Wednesday, September 26, 2012

5-Piece Cartoon Dinner (09/26/2012): Transformers Prime, Kaijudo, The Avengers, Randy Cunningham and Dragons: Riders of Berk

'Set a course for Minnesota. Maximum warp.'
"I rocked a ginormous beard before everybody in Williamsburg started doing it. Whatever," says Alvin the Treacherous, the first hipster.
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 Transformers Prime, the Frank Welker-voiced Megatron's latest obsession is the Star Saber, an Excalibur-like sword from Cybertron that's stuck in a giant rock on Earth and can only be removed by Optimus Prime or any Cybertronian who's a Prime. While Megatron tries to get his dibs on the relic before Optimus can, Smokescreen has gotten into hot water with the Autobots for revealing his robot mode to scare the shit out of a human he argued with when the driver experienced road rage over Smokescreen's reckless driving. Too bad Google's driverless cars can't lash out at hostile and psychotic drivers and transform into intimidating robots to scare them away like Smokescreen does in "Legacy."

'Aw, I'm getting nowhere! Fuck this Excalibur-ish, creepy-clothed-sex-with-John-Boorman's-daughter shit!'
(Photo source: Comics Online)
The Autobots assign Jack to teach the callow Smokescreen how to blend in better with humans, obey traffic laws and not blow his cover, but in a nice acknowledgment that Jack is a 16-year-old, he shirks the assignment and is tempted by Smokescreen into staging pranks on bullies at school and other guys who have wronged him. Unfortunately, "Legacy" goes overboard in taking the sanctimonious Optimus' "Power must be used wisely" side and never shows any of Jack and Smokescreen's pranks, perhaps to prevent the littlest viewers from getting any ideas about how to punk others, like how Burn Notice skips a step or two in its fact-based spy tips to prevent deranged fans from hurting others.

The decision to keep the duo's pranks off-screen robs "Legacy" of some much-needed fun. It also keeps the show from making a grown-up and complex point about pranks, like how some pranks can be harmful and not worth staging, while other pranks can be beneficial and cathartic for the wronged prankster. A cop-out like that is why Transformers Prime is merely an okay cartoon, while Gravity Falls, which took a subversive "Revenge is underrated--that felt awesome!" stance in "Irrational Treasure" while also conveying how revenge can go too far in "Fight Fighters," and Regular Show, which did both those things in "Prankless," are great cartoons.


When a problem comes along, Bob must whip it.
Speaking of bullies, Kaijudo: Rise of the Duel Masters has distinguished itself for addressing the timely issue of bullying and the difficulties of having to put up with racist classmates (it's ironic how Kaijudo airs on a channel that recently indulged in a little racism at Comic-Con) and somehow seamlessly incorporating those problems into an escapist saga for kids that's mainly about monster battles. The show revisits bullying in "Night Moves," but this time, it focuses on girls who do the bullying--in this case, mean girls from Allie's circle of rich middle school friends who mistreat Lucy (Alanna Ubach, a.k.a. the It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia crack whore who memorably exclaimed, "Shut up, baby dick!"), an overalls-clad classmate from the impoverished side of town.

There's an interesting moment early on in "Night Moves" where Allie laughs along with her classmates at the insults directed at Lucy from mean girl Portia (also Ubach), while an upset Ray and Gabe, who are no strangers to being pushed around for being different, see no humor in Portia's remarks. Allie realizes her mistake, so in an attempt to get Portia and Lucy to make peace with each other, she invites Lucy to a sleepover with Portia and another friend, Maribel (Grey DeLisle), at her and her wealthy dad's beachside house. But the sleepover doesn't go smoothly, and the night gets worse when a ghost-story prank Ray and Gabe attempt to subject the four girls to--with the help of a creature from the Darkness Civilization--attracts the attention of evil Duelist Alakshmi Verma (also DeLisle) and her latest monstrous sidekick.

This new recession-era remake of Beach Blanket Bingo looks so fucking depressing.
Written by Ross Berger, "Night Moves" makes some dead-on observations about the cruelty of kids at a certain age where they're not quite teens yet. Because Ray and Gabe are middle-schoolers and their hormones haven't gone crazy yet, their way of relating to girls is to scare them instead of getting them to make out with them. Another nice touch is the way that the mean girls' treatment of Lucy is more class-related than race-related (although it's implied that Portia despises immigrants as well). The fact that Maribel is a rich Latina who's mistreating a poorer Latina brings class into this story of bullying and shows that wealth can sometimes be more complicated than race. A lesser cartoon would have made the mean girls all-white or ended the episode with Allie lecturing them about their cruelty. Because Kaijudo is a bit smarter than that, "Night Moves" ends with Allie wordlessly ditching the mean girls and dressing like Lucy as a show of solidarity. And because the dialogue on Kaijudo is remarkably never overwritten (aside from the occasional bit of exposition about kaiju), the John DiMaggio-voiced skater dude who compliments Allie and her new friend on their less ritzy threads dismisses Portia and Maribel with a great episode-closing line: "Pshaw."

Monday, September 24, 2012

The best of "Beat Box" on Spotify

The sliced-off-genitals-delivered-in-a-jar sequence is the main reason why Foxy Brown will never air on The Hallmark Channel.
Foxy Brown (Photo source: Denver Westword)
On A Fistful of Soundtracks, "Beat Box" airs Mondays at 6-9am and noon-3pm, Tuesdays through Thursdays at 6-9am and 1-4pm and Fridays at 7-9am and 1-3pm. The three-hour block, which is two hours long on Fridays, contains selections from '70s film scores that have been sampled by beatmakers in hip-hop and electronica (like the late Willie Hutch's music from Foxy Brown). If you find most film music to be too staid for your tastes, then "Beat Box" is most likely for you.

Also part of the block are selections from scores that hearken back to the blaxploitation era. One such score is the 2009 Black Dynamite score by Adrian Younge, who also wrote the original music for Titmouse's animated version of Black Dynamite (which concluded its first season on Adult Swim last night with special guest star Clifton Powell voicing the sleazy preacher dad who abandoned Dynamite when he was "a children").

Meanwhile, 'Soda and Pie' will make you feel like a coked-up '80s douchenozzle.
Although some listeners feel like they're '70s macks when they tune in to "Beat Box," the playlist isn't all-'70s all the time. There are also original themes that were performed by hip-hop artists (Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" from Do the Right Thing and The Roots' "What You Want" from The Best Man) and cuts from recent scores that appeal to beatheads, like Steven Price and Basement Jaxx's excellent 2011 Attack the Block score, which Talib Kweli and Z-Trip sampled in their new Attack the Block mixtape.

This ain't the best time to shit your pants, unless the presence of human excrement is what kills the gorilla wolf muthafuckas War of the Worlds-style.
Attack the Block
On Spotify, I was surprised to find that the service carries the entire Attack the Block soundtrack album, as well as 41 other tracks that are part of the "Beat Box" playlist. Here's a sampler of "Beat Box."

Complete tracklist after the jump...

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

5-Piece Cartoon Dinner (09/19/2012): Gravity Falls, The Avengers, Randy Cunningham, Adventure Time and Dragons: Riders of Berk

Dipper discovers that his favorite character's pixels are really sharp and his hair is really dated.
This week's Gravity Falls cryptogram is "hliib, wrkkvi, yfg blfi dvmwb rh rm zmlgsvi xzhgov." The decoded result is "Sorry, Dipper, but your Wendy is in another castle." The last time a Disney cable show contained this many hidden messages was that I'm in the Band episode you had to play back in reverse so that you could hear someone tell you that Satan is awesome. (Photo source: Gravity Falls 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.

Dipper's rivalry with Robbie for the attentions of Wendy is starting to wear thin on Gravity Falls. I enjoy the show mainly for its comedic take on the paranormal and the title Oregon town's loony and rich backstory and not so much for the love triangle storyline, which surfaces again in "Fight Fighters." There's no way this Disney Channel cartoon is going to romantically pair up a 12-year-old boy with a 15-year-old girl (who looks older than her age, as we saw in that family picture where she towers over her short-statured brothers), so why bother continuing with the triangle?

Hey, Grunkle Stan actually put on clothes for the character menu.
(Photo source: Gravity Falls Spoiled)
Despite the triangle stuff, "Fight Fighters" is a hilarious and dead-on parody of '80s and early '90s arcade games like Street Fighter II. In the Gravity Falls universe, Street Fighter II is known as Fight Fighters and is the game from which blond warrior Rumble McSkirmish (Brian Bloom) emerges to go beat up Robbie for Dipper, thanks to a hidden Contra-style code on the side of the Fight Fighters machine that allows Dipper to "Unleash Ultimate Power."

The Gravity Falls target audience might not understand the episode's references to Street Fighter II, Contra, Frogger, Pac-Man and Donkey Kong like those of us who grew up playing either of those games do, but they might get a kick out of the episode's swipe at the much more recent Tron: Legacy when Soos is seen playing Nort: The Game Based on the Movie: Based on the Game (no, that extra colon in the title is not a typo). Like Springfield on The Simpsons, the town of Gravity Falls is a great comedic creation where the games, TV shows and songs that the characters enjoy are all amusingly low-rent variations on the games, shows and songs we dig in real life. So in Nort, instead of light cycles, the players have to settle for racing the villains on much less cooler-looking Segways, and instead of The Wendy Williams Show as summertime afternoon viewing, Mabel is seen watching Why You Ackin' So Cray-Cray? It's not every day you see a Disney Channel show referencing the late '90s Mother Love talk show Forgive or Forget.

I'd TiVo this--and that daytime talk show hosted by Gentle Ben.
(Photo source: Panda bear)


After appearing to have been destroyed at the end of The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes' "Ultron Unlimited" episode, the Vision (Peter Jessop), a synthezoid that turned against his evil creator Ultron, re-emerges in "Emperor Stark" fully repaired after a 30-day sleep programmed by Tony Stark, but he notices there's something a little off about New York City. Maybe it's the strange purple energy beam from the sky that showers over the Stark Industries tower. Or maybe it's all the giant robots in red-and-yellow Iron Man armor that are now policing the unsettlingly empty city streets.

While the Vision slept, Stark launched a prototype satellite that generates and transmits free energy to the world, and then he persuaded the United Nations to install him as its new leader. Stark Industries basically runs this new fascist world, where the elimination of war is the corporation's #1 priority and each Avenger has been assigned the task of policing an entire continent with the assistance of remotely controlled Iron Men. This corporate-run society is like the Occupy movement's worst nightmare. But it's not really Stark's doing. He and the other Avengers have been under the mind control of the Purple Man.

Prince Rogers Nelson took over the world? Nope, this Purple Man has nothing to do with Paisley Park. He's an old Marvel villain I've never heard of before, a purple-skinned master manipulator named Zebediah Killgrave who can command the wills of others and prefers to dress like Steve Harvey instead of Doctor Doom. The purple skin and mind control powers are the result of a chemical refinery accident Killgrave experienced while working as a spy.

'I wanna kiss you all over, Tony.'
As the voice of the Purple Man, Brent Spiner is more alive here than in his guest shots as the current big bad on Warehouse 13. Writer Christopher Yost gives Spiner a juicy "deep down, you're just like me"-type monologue where his character tries to twist Stark, who's been attempting to separate his mind from Killgrave's control, into thinking this fascist world was his idea all along. "Everything I’ve made you do in the last few weeks, it all came from you," Killgrave says. "I just gave you the push you needed."

I wish Yost did a little more with the changes implemented by Killgrave-controlled Stark, like briefly showing how food is affected by the military-industrial complex or how this new world deals with poverty. Also, the Avenger-vs.-Avenger battle scenes are a device that's becoming overdone on Earth's Mightiest Heroes. However, it results in one of the show's craziest and most memorable visuals: the Vision increases his density to 500 tons to kick an airborne Thor into the earth, the best "a god gets his ass handed to him" scene since, well, that time Loki got repeatedly pounded into the ground like a rag doll by Hulk in the live-action Avengers.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Better than the live-action version, Green Lantern: The Animated Series shines in the music department, and now its score cues are part of "AFOS Prime"

Aya shows Razer how to make some green, and not in a Secret Diary of a Call Girl kind of way.
I've recapped Green Lantern: The Animated Series, Batman: The Animated Series producer Bruce Timm's latest series, a few times for "5-Piece Cartoon Dinner" during the series' first season, and though I'm not really a fan of the Green Lantern Corps space cop characters and I had a nice nap when I went to see the live-action version, I've found this Cartoon Network CG series to be surprisingly good. Aya, a heroic, Spock-like female AI who was created by Timm for the series (and is terrifically voiced by Grey DeLisle), is the breakout character on GL:TAS, as well as one of the reasons why the series is more enjoyable than the much-maligned Ryan Reynolds version (that movie was remarkable for somehow being both overstuffed and undernourished at the same time).

I don't own an iPhone because I currently can't afford one and because I don't care for smartphones. Like Greg Proops, I think smartphones are causing society to become douchier (at 39:57 of "Lobsters," Proops astutely likened iPhone addicts to the subjugated citizens in Brave New World as part of his reply to a Smartest Man in the World listener's question about aspects of 20th century dystopian novels that are pertinent to today). But if I did own an iPhone, I'd kick Siri's ass out and have her replaced with the super-reliable Aya. And at least Aya won't try to tell me jokes that are hilarious only to John Malkovich.

Even though I'm neither a machine like Aya nor a reformed alien thug like Razer, I have an easier time relating to Aya's arc of wanting to be taken seriously as a Green Lantern and Razer's shame over his past as a Red Lantern than I did trying to relate to Hal Jordan's hackneyed daddy issues during that inane movie. That's all due to Timm and his crew's knack for intriguing characters (which raises the question "Why doesn't Warner Bros. ever place the scripts of its non-Batman live-action DC films into the more capable hands of either Timm, Alan Burnett, Paul Dini or any of the other talents who have shepherded DC Animation's hit shows and made-for-video movies?"). Another reason why GL:TAS is superior to the Reynolds movie (which, by the way, was directed by Martin Campbell, who recently wiped out the stench of the live-action GL with the excellent pilot he directed for ABC's new action drama Last Resort) is the simple fact that it's animated. Animation, especially CG, is a more suitable medium for the Lanterns and their cartoony-looking powers than live-action, which was where the Lanterns looked unconvincing and inert.

GL:TAS airs on Saturday mornings, which is an unusual time period for an animated cable show's first-run episodes (because most of them tend to air first-run in the evenings), but it's the same time period where earlier Timm projects like The Adventures of Batman & Robin (a retitled, more Robin-centric version of B:TAS) and Superman: The Animated Series first aired back when network TV ran cartoons on Saturdays. Most of the cartoons I used to watch on Saturdays had terrible, colorless and frequently recycled score music, but GL:TAS doesn't. The crappy-sounding electric guitar work and T.J. Hooker drum machines that used to define Saturday morning score music in the '80s and early '90s are nowhere to be found on GL:TAS.

The show's score music, which comes from newcomer Frederik Wiedmann, is original from start to finish in every episode--"recycling" is a dirty word in the Warner Bros. Animation music department--and suitably majestic. There's lots of brass and choir, plus a motif for each major character (for instance, Razer is represented by an electric violin theme), just like how each hero and villain on B:TAS had a motif or instrument that defined him or her musically (I don't think Robin had his own theme on B:TAS though, and I don't remember if he did because I don't really care for that character). Because of Wiedmann's scores, I always feel like I'm watching an epic sci-fi movie whenever I play back an episode of GL:TAS.

Frederik Wiedmann at the Úbeda PlayFest with future composer Kyan Wiedmann (Photo source: BMI)
As work continues on GL:TAS' second season, La-La Land Records has released 36 of Wiedmann's first-season score cues on the GL:TAS soundtrack album, and I've added my favorite pieces from the album to the "AFOS Prime" and "New Cue Revue" blocks on A Fistful of Soundtracks. Wiedmann's GL:TAS music sounds even better live, as attested by the following footage of a 65-piece orchestra and a 40-piece choir performing a suite of Wiedmann's GL:TAS themes at the PlayFest animation/video game music festival in Úbeda, Spain back in July. At the end of the footage, the man who's pretending to get choked up over the emotional portion of the GL:TAS suite is GL:TAS co-executive producer Giancarlo Volpe:

Mystery Andre Theater 3000

Expect the next OutKast album to come out in the same year when Dr. Dre's Detox comes out.
Though I run a film and TV score music station, I don't listen to score albums all the time. In fact, 95 percent of my iTunes playlists is non-score music. When I open Spotify, I don't even listen to score music all that much (plus most of the score tracks that Spotify carries are craptastic re-recordings). On Spotify, I listen to hip-hop and R&B on the regular, plus a bit of indie.

A lot of the mixtapes in my iTunes playlists contain tracks with cameos by Andre 3000, whose flow is one of the most inventive in hip-hop, as well as one of the most ubiquitous. He's been guesting on a lot of artists' joints lately. Two of my favorite tracks from the summer contain cameos by the ATLien: Rick Ross' "Sixteen"--despite the guitar solo by Andre 3K that everyone's been hating on--and recent SNL musical guest Frank Ocean's "Pink Matter" (dig these Andre couplets: "She had the kind of body/That would probably intimidate/Any of 'em that were un-Southern/Not me, cousin"). Below are 10 of my favorite records with guest verses by one of the greatest MCs around, including, of course, "Sixteen," where Andre flashes back to a time when he was "Drawin' LL Cool J album covers with Crayolas on construction paper" and "Pink Matter," as well as last summer's "Party," which Kanye West and Consequence produced for Beyoncé.

I love the late '80s/early '90s sound of "Party." I grew up listening to that new jack sound on the radio. DJ Jazzy Jeff and Mick Boogie ought to include "Party" on their next Summertime mixtape. Like Dwele, I've been racking my brains trying to remember which exact tunes from that new jack era "Party" reminds me of (at times, it reminds me of the slow jams of Keith Sweat). UGK and OutKast's Mack soundtrack-sampling "International Players Anthem" is on the playlist too. Unfortunately, the version of the UGK/OutKast collabo that Spotify has is the censored-for-radio edit.

Does the song you just wrote suck royally? Maybe what it needs is an Andre 3000 cameo to salvage it.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

5-Piece Cartoon Dinner (09/12/2012): Transformers Prime, Ultimate Spider-Man, The Avengers, Gumball and Dragons: Riders of Berk

His favorite rap radio station to work out to is Bot 97.
"Let me tell you the story of Right Hand, Left Hand. It's a tale of good and evil. Hate: it was with this hand that Cain iced his brother. Love..."
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 Transformers Prime, Team Prime gets a new member: Smokescreen (Nolan North), who crash-landed on Earth in a Decepticon escape pod and is as reckless as Autobot soldier Wheeljack, but he's less experienced in combat and more deferential to Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen). Most of Team Prime is as skeptical of the new guy as the Baltimore homicide detectives were about wet-behind-the-ears Bayliss, the new transfer from the mayor's security team, in the first few episodes of Homicide: Life on the Street.

The only Autobots who don't give Smokescreen a hard time are Optimus (who trusts Smokescreen because the Autobot rookie says that before he fled to Earth, he served as a guard for one of Optimus' old Cybertronian mentors--shades of pre-homicide squad Bayliss) and the mute, communicates-only-in-chirps Bumblebee. The yellow guy's opinions are unknown because he doesn't express them in pop song samples and movie soundbites like he did in the live-action Transformers movies and because Transformers Prime isn't able to afford the clearance fees for those songs.

Arcee is annoyed by Smokescreen's lack of field experience. The stuffy Autobot medic Ratchet (Jeffrey Combs in anal-retentive Anthony Heald mode) doesn't like Smokescreen's ignorance of protocol. Bulkhead, who can barely walk due to his injuries and is far from combat-ready, feels like he's being replaced by Smokescreen. (Even the viewers at the Toonzone forums are suspicious of Smokescreen. One viewer theorized that he's a well-disguised Shockwave, who appeared in his one-eyed original form in Arcee's flashbacks last week.) But the jaded and pissy Autobots have no choice but to accept the newbie into the fold because they have to worry about stopping Starscream from getting his hands on a meteorite of Red Energon, which, when refined into fuel, is capable of making any Cybertronian faster and stronger.

She's teaching him Pi-bot-es.
Richard Simmons welcomes everyone into his Slimmons Studio, including plus-size robots. (Photo source: Transformers Wiki)
As usual, the action sequences on this show are well-animated, but the most interesting moment in "New Recruit" has nothing to do with combat. The moment is a nifty little scene I've never seen in either the '80s Transformers cartoon or the Michael Bay movies: together, Autobots sidekick Jack Darby (Josh Keaton) and Smokescreen look at trucks and cars passing through an underpopulated highway to decide which vehicular mode Smokescreen should use for his permanent disguise on Earth ("This is Jasper," grouses Jack about his sleepy Nevada hometown's lack of snazzy rides for Smokescreen to choose from). In Marvel's Transformers comics, the Autobots' Earth-based vehicular forms were chosen for them by their spacecraft computer, which scanned the shapes of present-day vehicles, but here, a human takes Smokescreen out to pick his disguise as if he's Mr. Witwicky helping his son Sam shop for his first car at the start of the first Bayformers movie.

When a slow and rickety pick-up truck appears on the highway, Smokescreen cracks to Jack, "Eh, it's more Ratchet's speed." If I were Smokescreen, I would have added, "Plus I don't wanna look like the hillbilly truck from that ponderous family film you humans love for some goddamn reason."


The A.V. Club's "TV Club" section recently stopped recapping Ultimate Spider-Man. Inessential and lamely scripted episodes like "Home Sick Hulk" must be a reason why the site quit covering the show (it's too bad they dumped USM because I want to know what their reviewer would say about USM's Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark-inspired high school musical episode later this month).

In "Home Sick Hulk," Hulk (Fred Tatasciore) winds up physically sick after a silver alien gadget with a blinking light attaches itself to his skin. Peter hides the green giant in his bedroom from both Aunt May (Misty Lee) and Nick Fury (Spidey's afraid of placing Hulk in the cold-blooded Fury's custody) while trying to treat his infection. Disney Channel sitcom-style chaos ensues as Peter tries to pretend to Aunt May that the tremors caused by Hulk's footsteps are a rare New York earthquake while making sure his aunt doesn't see the Spidey costume underneath his bathrobe. Peter must also deal with having an uncooperative and clumsy patient/temporary roommate in the form of Hulk, who's as graceful as a bull in a china shop. The episode is like one of Dexter's Laboratory's "Justice Friends" superhero roommates shorts, but without any good jokes (okay, maybe there's one chuckleworthy running gag: Hulk's bizarre and unexplained fixation on Peter's tighty-whities, which Hulk wears as a hat at one point).

Damn, with hands like those, the happy endings Hulk would give if he worked as a masseur for gay clients would probably... end up breaking their dicks in half.
My biggest beef with the '90s Spidey cartoon was how, as Manhattan's favorite web-slinger, Christopher Daniel Barnes, a.k.a. Greg Brady, wouldn't stop narrating. Spidey's habit of over-explaining the uncomplicated action is equally bad on USM. He sounds like a melodramatic character in a sci-fi radio drama describing out loud that "Oh no, a laser gun just blasted a hole into the wall behind me, and now I'm running down this corridor!," so if you watch USM with your eyes turned away from the screen or with your eyes closed, you'll never be lost, thanks to Spidey's descriptive video service. His habit is at its worst during "Home Sick Hulk," as he feels the need to explain to the audience that the alien gadget is stuck in Hulk's back and Aunt May mustn't know Hulk's in our house, in case we missed it the first three times.

Is the Man of Action collective, which co-wrote "Home Sick Hulk," under the impression that having Peter think out loud to the younger viewers like that is a great way of achieving storytelling clarity? I've caught a couple of episodes of Man of Action's earlier Ben 10 cartoons, which were made for the same younger target audience, and the quartet's writing was never as anvillicious as it frequently is on USM. I'm wondering if maybe Marvel Animation studio head Jeph Loeb is responsible for USM's anvillicious writing, not Man of Action. If so, Loeb needs a few lessons from Cartoon Network's Dragons: Riders of Berk on how to executive-produce a cartoon for the TV-Y7 crowd because that show--just like the movie it's based on--proves you don't need an overly talky script and wall-to-wall narration to advance the story for the littlest viewers. More on Dragons' visuals-driven approach to storytelling in a few grafs...

Friday, September 7, 2012

Batman: The Animated Series turns 20 this week, so "AFOS Prime" celebrates its Knightly brand of stylish action and dashing score music

Batman: The Goddamn Animated Series
I got so busy producing a weekly vlog that nobody watches and has become a little less fun to work on that I almost forgot that 20 years ago this week, Batman: The Animated Series debuted on Fox on September 5, 1992 with an episode about Catwoman ("The Cat and the Claw, Part I") to whet the appetites of viewers who had seen Batman tussle with a much kinkier version of Selina Kyle in Tim Burton's controversial Batman Returns over the summer.

The B:TAS crew was more subtle and clever than Burton about sneaking adult content into their version of Batman. Without attracting the attention of parents' groups and conservatives--the wet blankets of America--like Burton did in Batman Returns, the B:TAS crew got away with sneaking in elements like a giant vagina attacking Batman, which producer Bruce Timm claimed was unintentional, and a lesbian couple: Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy (maybe B:TAS got away with so much also because it was kind of under-the-radar compared to Burton's movies, which were exposed to a larger international audience).

B:TAS is a show I dug so much as a high-schooler and is one of the few shows I tried to collect DVD box sets of (and never finished doing so) back when I was employed, I could afford to buy DVD box sets and people actually bought DVDs. Because of its 20th anniversary, A Fistful of Soundtracks' "AFOS Prime" and "New Cue Revue" blocks will begin streaming several selections from La-La Land Records' recent second volume of B:TAS' well-crafted score cues next week.

I think I've spoken enough about the original music on the show ("Batman: The Animated Series soundtrack: A Walker to remember" from December 2008 and "A little Knight music: The second Batman: The Animated Series soundtrack from La-La Land is even better than the first" from a couple of months ago), so I want to say a few words about the show itself. Both B:TAS and another animated Fox show, The Simpsons, ignited my love for smartly written animation and made me want to write for animation or comics someday. On-screen, Doctor Who star David Tennant once memorably told '80s Doctor Who star Peter Davison--both in character and as a fan of the Davison era of the show--that "You were my Doctor." In a similar fashion, a certain generation of viewers considers Adam West to be their Batman. Though West was a great comedic Batman, Kevin Conroy's take on the Dark Knight remains my favorite on-screen incarnation of the character.

And as us admirers of B:TAS celebrate the show's 20th anniversary, we're not just celebrating two decades of terrific animated TV by the likes of Timm, Eric Radomski, Alan Burnett and Paul Dini and staffers who passed on after the show's run like composers Shirley Walker (whose B:TAS work Bear McCreary frequently cites as a major influence on his TV scoring career) and Harvey R. Cohen and director Boyd Kirkland. We're also celebrating two decades of Conroy's voice work as Batman. I never expected the Julliard-trained Conroy to continue to voice Batman about a decade and a half after B:TAS stopped production, but there he still is, pretending to rough up motherfuckers as the Dark Knight in DC Animated Universe feature films and video games.

'I am the goddamn Batman!--Kevin Conroy,' says Conroy aloud as he signs the shirt. 'Alrighty. Here you go, Sister Ethel.'
Kevin Conroy (Photo source: Esquire)
Though West underplayed his Batman quite well, and Michael Keaton managed to bring an interesting stamp to both the Bruce Wayne and Batman halves of the character despite the massive constraints of his difficult-to-walk-around-and-act-in costume, Conroy, who was far from a comics fan, outdid both West and Keaton by rethinking how the character spoke on-screen.

"As soon as [the producers] described his schizophrenic lifestyle, it bugged me," recalled Conroy to Esquire recently. "I thought, Wait a minute, he is the Bill Gates of Gotham. He is the most eligible bachelor. Everyone knows who he is. And he puts on a cape, and no one recognizes him? Come on."

Conroy, one of 75 actors who auditioned for the part, decided to give Batman two slightly different voices, "fundamentally altering the legacy of a comic book he had only passing knowledge of," as Ali Taylor Lange wrote in the Esquire piece on Conroy. As Batman, Conroy opted for raspy, mysterious and dashing--because of that badass voice, guys like me wanted to be like him, while many of the show's female viewers ended up wanting to do him--while in businessman/philanthropist mode as Bruce, he came up with a more relaxed voice, but without sounding too foppish or cartoony.

There's more to that dual-voiced reading than raspy-vs.-relaxed though. The psychological homework that Conroy did to distinguish his take on the character was as well-thought-out as all the other aspects of B:TAS that elevated it from standard Saturday morning superhero fare to an unconventional and sophisticated superhero cartoon that appealed to adults.

"If he sounds that different, where does the voice come from? It has to come from the pain," said Conroy to Esquire. "I decided that the Bruce Wayne persona, the public persona, is the performance, and the Batman character is who he is when he is most natural. When he's putting on the cape, he is becoming himself."

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

5-Piece Cartoon Dinner (09/05/2012): Transformers Prime, Adventure Time, Regular Show, Gumball and Dragons: Riders of Berk

Wrestles with Dogs must be Finn's Sioux name.
And then Jake floated an air biscuit right into Finn's mouth, which ruined Finn's date with Flame Princess later that night. (Photo source: The Adventure Time Wiki)
Every week 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. Beginning this week, "5-Piece Cartoon Dinner" is posted on Wednesdays instead of Tuesdays. The episodes are reviewed in the order of when they first aired.

Dwayne Johnson is too busy rescuing troubled action movie franchises these days to reprise his one-episode Transformers Prime role as the easygoing Autobot Cliffjumper. So Billy Brown--who played the only cop character during season 6 of Dexter whose scenes didn't put me to sleep because the show didn't saddle his character with a soapy and tedious storyline about his personal life--takes over for Johnson as the voice of the deceased Autobot in flashbacks during "Out of the Past," the latest Transformers Prime episode.

Brown does an adequate job subbing for The Arsekicker Formerly Known as The Rock when the Autobot warrior Arcee (Sumalee Montano) flashes back to her first encounter with Cliffjumper. She recalls her fallen comrade (and flunks the Bechdel Test) while trying to comfort her Earthling friend Miko, who's been feeling depressed over the slow recovery of her currently disabled partner Bulkhead (Kevin Michael Richardson).

If How to Train Your Dragon introduced us to Scottish Vikings, then Transformers Prime is all about black Vikings like Cliffjumper.
(Photo source: Draqua's pad)
The no-nonsense Arcee, who first encountered Cliffjumper when they were prisoners held captive by Starscream (Steve Blum) and Shockwave (David Sobolov) on a Decepticon ship, found Cliffjumper to be overly talkative and annoying but also helpful in both getting her off the ship and pulling her out of a funk similar to the funk Miko's currently experiencing. At the time of her imprisonment, Arcee was still bitter over the death of her partner Tailgate and had closed herself off from having another partner. But Cliffjumper's heroism during their prison breakout and his optimistic attitude restored her faith in humanity robotkind.

"Out of the Past" is basically filler, but it's decently written and surprisingly profound filler, with a nice little twist (for a kids' show, that is) in the mismatched partnership between Arcee and Cliffjumper. Here, it's the male who's the more frivolous half of the duo, while the female is the more sober-minded warrior type. The presence of Arcee (who's been part of the franchise since 1986's The Transformers: The Movie), the substantial writing for her character and the creative input of female staff writers like the ubiquitous Nicole Dubuc (although a man wrote this episode) are among the reasons why this show is superior to the craptastic live-action Transformers movies. The trilogy didn't feature Arcee and wasn't co-written by women, so just like how according to that line in The First Wives Club, the only ages for women in Hollywood are babe, district attorney and Driving Miss Daisy, the only kinds of roles for women in those Transformers movies (particularly the first two) were either "eye candy" or "Mom."


'Dream food goes in here!'
(Photo source: The Adventure Time Wiki)
If I were a world-famous actor, I'd want to be a guest voice on Adventure Time (or Regular Show or better yet, The Venture Bros.) just to see how really strange my role would be. Adventure Time had George Takei lending his baritone to an evil disembodied heart, it cast Donald Faison as a cookie and now, in "Who Would Win," it features Matthew Broderick as a long-haired, blue-skinned creature who speaks to Finn and Jake in their dreams and takes the form of a car salesman.

Through his Twin Peaks-esque dream-speak ("I have cheap cars. My cars are che-e-e-ap. But they drive bad when I turn out the lights!"), Broderick's Dream Warrior provides Finn and Jake with pointers on how to defeat The Farm (Tom Gammill), "the legendary fighter of the Shiny Isles" and a giant monster who wears a barn as a shirt and knocks his enemies unconscious by dumping farm animals on their heads. The Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Election star's vocal cameo is amusing (and I didn't realize it was Broderick until the end credits pointed it out), but the centerpiece of this episode isn't Finn and Jake's encounter with The Dream Warrior. It's actually an earlier scene: the epic fight that erupts between Finn and Jake while they train together to prepare for fighting The Farm.

On the next episode of Russell Crowe Fighting 'Round the World, Crowe gets his misnavigated-kayak ass handed to him by The Farm.
(Photo source: The Adventure Time Wiki)
Jake becomes lazy during training (the jerky and apathetic delivery of Futurama's Bender, John DiMaggio's signature character, seeps into DiMaggio's not-so-jerky voice for Jake) and focuses his attention on a handheld video game he secretly brought with him, which pisses off Finn. He slaps away Jake's video game and damages it, and the upset dog and his human pal proceed to pummel each other for what feels like an eternity, much like Roddy Piper and Keith David in They Live--except David didn't have the ability to assume the form of a giant, multiple-legged caterpillar and repeatedly kick Piper in the face with his endless legs in one of my favorite sight gags during "Who Would Win." That crazy visual is the episode's biggest reminder of how much of an influence the rubbery and surreal animation in '30s and '40s Fleischer Brothers cartoons has had on the Adventure Time animators.

The '30s and '40s East Coast street patois of the Fleischer cartoons may not have seeped into Adventure Time like the Fleischer studio's rubbery animation style has, but Finn and Jake's dialogue--despite the post-apocalyptic setting--is as contemporary-slangy as much of the dialogue in the Fleischer cartoons was when those shorts first dropped in movie theaters. When The Dream Warrior gives Finn and Jake a cryptic clue about the other name for sweatpants, Jake explains his disdain for what he calls "give-up-on-life pants" in that unmistakable Adventure Time delivery that's loaded with present-day slang and is sometimes peppered with post-apocalyptic Ooo-ese euphemisms like "Oh my Glob!"

"Peeps need to respect themselves when they leave the house," says Jake about the wackness of sweatpants in public, "even if it's just for ice cream or T.P. or whatevs." It's nice to know that Jake's opinions about fashion are similar to some of my own. I wonder if he's also as critical as I've always been about give-up-on-life shoes, or as some people call them, mandals.