Tuesday, July 24, 2012

5-Piece Cartoon Dinner (07/24/2012): Motorcity, Gravity Falls, Ultimate Spider-Man, The Avengers and Regular Show

'Are you accusing me of phone hacking, Stark? I don't like phone hacking. I LOVE phone hacking!'
A typically serene moment in J. Jonah Jameson's office
Each Tuesday 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.

According to an angry asian man post last week, at the recent 2012 San Diego Comic-Con, the Hasbro-owned Hub family channel, the home of the surprise hit My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, passed out fortune cookies with racist "Ching chong a-ling long" messages inside (a Hub network exec later publicly apologized for the racist cookies). Isn't the hero of The Hub's Kaijudo: Rise of the Duel Masters, a cartoon I've sometimes covered in this column, a half-Asian kid who has to put up with racist bullying?

I've seen the message inside one of the fortune cookies that's intended for The Hub. It says, 'You're a shitty channel, and you'll get only one fucking hit: My Little Pony.'
Way to be as tolerant as one of your own original shows, Hub. If the channel formerly known as Discovery Kids disappeared tomorrow from my DirecTV channel roster like all the Viacom channels temporarily did during the carriage dispute between Viacom and DirecTV last week, I wouldn't bat an eye, even though legendary voice actor and current Motorcity big bad Mark Hamill is now one of the station announcers. The Hub is now that inessential to me.

Open your fortune cookie, Hub. The message inside says, "In two years, you'll end up being a 24-hour infomercial channel and then totally falter." In bed.


Jen's sleeves. That's what first caught my eye during Downtown when the animated sitcom aired too briefly on MTV in 1999.

'Hey, Kool Aid!'
Jen from Downtown
The baggy sweater-wearing Asian American tomboy's overlong sleeves also happened to be the first bit of character business that made me take notice of the distinctive animation style of the studio I later learned was called Titmouse, when studio co-founder Shannon Prynoski wrote on my guestbook (aw, guestbooks--remember those?) in 2004 to tell me she's a fan of my radio station A Fistful of Soundtracks. I e-mailed her back to say I enjoyed Downtown, as well as the hallucination sequence her studio animated for Beavis and Butt-head Do America, and she said she tuned into AFOS late at night while working on a then-upcoming Cartoon Network show called Megas XLR.

After first learning about Megas from her, I became a fan of Titmouse's work and have followed most of the studio's output since Megas, from the occasional Metalocalypse rerun to Freaknik: The Musical and now, the animated version of Black Dynamite and Motorcity. I haven't watched an entire Downtown episode in 13 years (I know that the show can be YouTubed, and its creator, Shannon's husband Chris, found a clever way to make the entire series available to its fans, but I keep putting off re-watching it), and I've forgotten all the dialogue from Downtown since then, but I've never forgotten Jen's sleeves because that's the inventiveness of Titmouse in a nutshell.

Subtle character animation has always been Titmouse's forte, and Motorcity's "Off the Rack" episode is filled with plenty of it, which is why I'm kind of frustrated that Disney XD delayed the episode until last Thursday night. If "Off the Rack" feels like an episode from earlier in Motorcity's run, that's because it's the sixth one produced by Titmouse (we're 11 episodes into Motorcity's 20-episode season), and Disney XD has been airing Motorcity episodes out of order.

Shuffling the episode order is a network business decision I don't always understand. The practice, which I first noticed back when Fox unveiled Batman: The Animated Series' first few episodes in 1992 (the first episode that ever aired, a Catwoman story, was actually the 13th one produced), makes less and less sense in an age when time-shifted viewing is making both the Nielsen ratings system and ratings-driven business decisions increasingly irrelevant. NBC did it with Homicide: Life on the Street in its first season because they didn't think the bottle episode "Night of the Dead Living," one of the earliest episodes that was filmed, would hook viewers like the season's slightly more higher-stakes episodes (like the "Gone for Goode" pilot or "Three Men and Adena") would, so they banished it to later in the season.

Delaying "Night of the Dead Living" was an odd move because I ended up finding that bottle episode (an abandoned baby at the precinct brings out sides of the cop characters we'd never seen before) to be more fascinating and rewatchable than most of the first season's other higher-stakes episodes. This wasn't the last time NBC would eff around with Homicide's episode order. Two seasons later, a similar airdate shuffle resulted in the death of a major character (Jon Polito's conspiracy-theory-obsessed Steve Crosetti) being inadvertently spoiled a few weeks before NBC aired the episode that revealed his demise.

In a less older example, Fox shuffled Firefly's intended order because they wanted to make the Joss Whedon show more appealing to the kinds of viewers they wanted to attract. The network wasn't satisfied with the Firefly pilot as a premiere episode (Fox felt the pilot had too much woe-is-me and not enough derring-do, according to the A.V. Club), so they asked Whedon to come up with a more action-packed premiere. The episode switch didn't pay off. Fox cancelled Firefly a few weeks later due to low ratings, and the show ended up becoming more popular on DVD.

Motorcity isn't serialized like Homicide was, so when Disney XD shuffles episodes around, it's not as disastrous as the Crosetti mishap, but it's still noticeable, like in "Blond Thunder" and "Off the Rack," which throws an intriguing monkey wrench into Julie Kane's efforts to hide her parentage from the Burners while also hiding her allegiance to her freedom fighter friends from her evil businessman father Abraham Kane. Julie's jeopardized double life is the kind of dramatic predicament that usually pops up early on in an action show's run to basically say to the viewers, "And these are the stakes! Stake it up! Stake it up! Stake it up!" (her parentage was revealed in the first episode, and as I said before, "Off the Rack" was sixth in Titmouse's production order). So it's bizarre and off-putting to see Disney XD delay that kind of story (which was written by George Krstic, who, as we saw in "Power Trip" and "Going Dutch," is great at raising the show's stakes) to a point in the season that's later than when Titmouse intended.

The monkey wrench into Julie's balancing act is the new Safe-T-Suit that Kane has implemented on each of his KaneCo employees, including Julie, who works as an intern for her father and is using her access to spy on his plans. The Safe-T-Suit is the latest advancement in protective wear ("Stability magnets, collar side airbags, safety form parachute pants!"). With just a push of a button on a special ring that's similar to that ring the Flash carries around his red costume in, the suit self-inflates from out of the ring and completely covers the wearer, and then it can easily fold itself back into the ring when the wearer wants to deactivate it.

The T is for tyranny.
(Photo source: Hair Nets and Dog Food)
But because this is Abraham Kane we're talking about here, he's secretly designed the suit so that he can hack into any suit and manipulate via Minority Report-style interfaces the movements of whichever employee is wearing a suit ring, mainly to prevent disgruntled employees from defecting Detroit Deluxe. Kane's external control is like bloodbending on The Legend of Korra, but without the creepy bone-grinding sound FX and the anguished faces in which the victims look like they're on the toilet, taking the world's most painful deuce. When his scanners alert him that a suit has been deployed outside of Detroit Deluxe and inside Motorcity, Kane deduces from the suit's hidden camera footage that a Burner has stolen it, and he activates the external control.

The tyrannical tycoon forcibly summons the Burner back to KaneCo Tower for punishment without realizing that the Burner inside the suit is his own daughter (the camera is--rather conveniently--unable to adjust its own lens so that Kane can see her face). Julie feels guilty over missing out on a recent Burners battle against her evil dad's Sector Enforcer Drones because of the duties that her cover at KaneCo entails. She bristles when Texas questions her loyalty to the Burners and calls her "Miss Deluxe" again like he did in "Ride the Lightning." So she attempts to make up for her absence by heading off to attack the Enforcer Drone factory on her own with the help of her suit's abilities, right when her dad unknowingly bloodbends her.

Claire does her best impression of Missy Elliott in the 'Supa Dupa Fly' video.

'Dude. Calm down, Chuck. It's just a bunch of my fans saying whattup in an unusually clingy way.'
(Photo source: Hair Nets and Dog Food)
The technobabble-heavy resolution to the suit crisis is a bit convoluted. After Chuck helps Texas rescue from external control mode Julie's best friend Claire (the animators somehow work into the mayhem a hilarious, how-did-this-make-it-onto-Disney-XD? shot of Chuck accidentally sitting on Texas' face), Chuck eagerly hugs the girl he's had a crush on, and the hug's disabling of the suit makes him realize the suit can be shut down if its "protection threshold" is overloaded. Wouldn't it be easier to just slip the rings off the workers' fingers and shut down the suits that way? However, the visuals before and after the resolution are some of the most amazing shots this series has ever done. Mike Chilton may despise the sterile city he used to work in, but Detroit Deluxe looks mighty spiffy during the moment when Kane hijacks hundreds of his employees' suits all at once and activates "dive mode" to unleash a swarm of these frightened-looking human missiles on Mike's car Mutt. And then just when I thought the "dive mode" shot of the red flood of KaneCo workers swarming on Mutt was the episode's visual highlight, "Off the Rack" immediately tops it with shots of a Katamari Damacy-style "human ball" that Kane forms out of the workers' bodies to squash the Burners' rides.

Julie tries to steal the NOC list or some shit.
(Photo source: Hair Nets and Dog Food)
Another visual highlight in "Off the Rack" is the aforementioned subtle character animation, especially for Julie (and Claire too, when she expresses her enthusiasm over receiving the suit). Because this is her spotlight episode, Julie does a lot of running around and spying here (she gets to reenact the "Tom Cruise dangles from a wire" heist scene from the first Mission: Impossible movie). I don't know if it's because it's cable and not Saturday morning network TV--so cartoon studios aren't forced to work under production schedules that were stricter back when ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC were in charge of cartoons, and the animation work back then was really cookie-cutter as a result--but this series, particularly during "Off the Rack," is loaded with stunning feature film-quality animation, which was such a rarity to see on the small screen back when I was a Batman: The Animated Series-watching teen.

Claire and Julie are apparently at a Hype Williams video shoot.
(Photo source: Hair Nets and Dog Food)
The Ovation channel has lately been repeating Frank and Ollie, director Theodore Thomas' 1995 documentary about the legendary Disney studio partnership between his father Frank Thomas and his fellow animator Ollie Johnston, and though I'm not a Disney fan, the doc has made me better appreciate the subtle character animation that the duo was known for. Thomas and Johnston's animation style lives on in amusing tics that the Titmouse animators have given to the Motorcity characters, like the self-confident and headstrong Julie's frequent tic of resting her hand on her hip, even when she's in multiple-hologram form when she uses her trusty holographic gadget to confuse adversaries.

"I really dug animating Julie doing spy stuff... and it's made all the sweeter when the action ramps up later ([animator] Ben Li is amazing)," posted Titmouse animator Parker Simmons on Tumblr about "Off the Rack." He added, "Julie is definitely one of my favorite characters to animate when she's in confident sweetheart mode, not schoolmarm mode."

And that's another thing I enjoyed about "Off the Rack." In several episodes, Julie, whose secret double life I've been waiting to get more of a glimpse of ever since the premiere, has done nothing more than act as a schoolmarm to Mike or Texas when she's not engaged in battle or tossing her boomerang at Kanebots, so it's great to see her intensely driven character fleshed out a bit more. We've never seen Julie look frightened before. Kanebots don't scare her. What scares her more is losing control over her double life.

She's also not the screamy type--that would be Chuck--so it's surprising to see her scream for the first time in the series, when her dad hijacks her suit to make her steal Mutt from Mike and drive away to KaneCo Tower at a speed so insanely high it would make David Letterman piss his pants. But Julie quickly learns to keep her cool, and she regains her smile when Mike busts into his own car to help her out and her dad makes her repeatedly punch Mike in the shoulder. Both Julie's nicely drawn expressions while she's trapped inside the suit and the suit design itself made me think of Jen's overlong sleeves.

I didn't figure Julie to be a fan of Balki and the 'Dance of Joy.'
(Photo source: Hair Nets and Dog Food)
It all amazingly ties back to Jen's sleeves.


"Dipper vs. Manliness" is Gravity Falls' least paranormal-related and least interesting episode so far. Mabel gives Grunkle Stan pointers on how to impress a blue-haired waitress he's attracted to, while Dipper wants to be manlier--wasn't this dealt with last week in "The Inconveniencing"?--and gets lessons in manliness from a pack of tough half-human/half-bull creatures known as manotaurs. But a drab installment of Gravity Falls is more entertaining than most cartoons.

'Me want food!'
The episode spotlights the comedic skills of Kevin Michael Richardson. He juggles three characters: the lazy Sheriff Blubs and two of Dipper's manotaur friends, Leaderaur and the amusingly named Chutzpaur, which the writers must have come up with just to hear Richardson say a Yiddish word, the most paranormal moment of this episode. The guest voice actors on this show continue to impress. Will Forte is immediately recognizable as an indecisive Mystery Shack customer who tests Stan's patience during the cold open. Jennifer Coolidge voices Stan's favorite waitress Lazy Susan, and Alfred Molina lends his voice to an eight-headed "Multi-Bear" that the manotaurs want Dipper to kill to complete his mansformation. Of course, Dipper isn't the killing type. Maybe he should find other ways to speed up his passage to manhood, like becoming a Jew like Arnold Jackson almost did in the bar mitzvah episode of Diff'rent Strokes.

Composer Brad Breeck, who wrote the show's chirpy-but-with-a-slightly-ominous-edge theme music, must have had a ball during "Dipper vs. Manliness." He spoofs '80s training montages in one scene (although it's a bit reminiscent of Trey Parker's "Montage" number from both South Park and Team America: World Police) while also coming up with a great fake '70s song that's crucial to the plot. Dipper is ashamed of liking "Disco Girl," an alternate-universe "Dancing Queen" by an ABBA soundalike called BABBA. The Multi-Bear is also captivated by "Disco Girl," and their shared weakness for girly Icelandic pop causes Dipper to spare the beast's life and question the manotaurs' ideas of manliness.

Breeck's opening theme is actually a rearrangement of "Made Me Realize," a tune he wrote for MTV's Awkward. Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack composer Dan Cantrell submitted a bunch of theme ideas for the Gravity Falls opening titles, and though neither of them made the final cut, Cantrell posted them together on Vimeo. Rejected theme songs are always interesting to hear because listening to them is like visiting an alternate universe where the show sounds completely different (speaking of alternate realities, I wonder if Gravity Falls will do a parallel-universe episode at some point):

I just realized Aoshima, the dolphin with muscular human arms from Mabel's "Inconveniencing" hallucination sequence who was also mentioned in that episode's hidden message, is named after John Aoshima, one of the show's directors. This week's hidden message has nothing to do with the episode and will probably make more sense on August 10, when Gravity Falls returns after a brief hiatus: "pu. fdhvduldq zloo eh rxw qhaw zhhn. pu. dwedvk zloo vxevwlwxwh." ("Mr. Caesarian will be out next week. Mr. Atbash will substitute.")


Heli-lousy security up there.
(Photo source: Marvel Animation Age)
We've had Die Hard on an aircraft carrier (Under Siege), Die Hard on an airliner (Passenger 57), Die Hard on a bus (Speed), Die Hard in a hockey stadium (Sudden Death), Die Hard in a supermarket (The Marshal, Jeff Fahey's awesome but largely forgotten Justified-like procedural from the '90s) and Die Hard in a Philly bar (It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia). Now thanks to Ultimate Spider-Man's cleverly titled and Brian Michael Bendis-scripted "For Your Eye Only" episode, we've got Die Hard on a high-tech helicarrier that's as well-guarded as a 7-Eleven.

On both this show and The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes, the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier is outfitted with a security system that's probably a perky 81-year-old Walmart greeter named Ruth, so it's constantly invaded by supervillains. This week on board everybody's favorite penetrable helicarrier, Spidey arrives late to a training session at Nick Fury's flying homebase and discovers it's been attacked and Fury is being held hostage by the evil organization Zodiac and its leader Scorpio (Phil Morris)--no relation to Hank Scorpio, the Bond villain-style criminal mastermind from The Simpsons.

Speaking of Bond, "For Your Eye Only" is Ultimate Spider-Man's homage to classic action movie franchises (but because this is Disney XD, the machine guns are replaced by G.I. Joe laser guns and state-of-the-art S.H.I.E.L.D. gadgets like spinning arachni-disks and impact force bubbles imported from Black Panther's home turf of Wakanda). The episode contains references to Goldfinger (Fury is threatened with a laser beam to the S.H.L.O.N.G., and then a self-destruct clock is stopped at 007 seconds before obliteration, just like at the end of that film) and of course, the seminal 1988 Bruce Willis blockbuster that was like one long swipe at Bond (Spidey quotes a little John McClane while crawling through a duct).

Nick Fury almost says goodbye to his impact force balls.
(Photo source: Marvel Animation Age)
The difference between this Die Hard knockoff and other Die Hard knockoffs like Speed and that old Marshal episode (which was called "Buy Hard") is that I was invested in the hostage characters. Because the helicarrier on this show is often underpopulated and devoid of agents--the only personnel we've seen on board the helicarrier have been Fury, Agent Coulson and the five teen trainees, and in "For Your Eye Only," only Spidey and Fury are aboard--there's nothing to be invested about. Spidey has only Fury to save instead of hundreds of people? That's rather low-stakes for an episode that wants to channel Die Hard. It's too bad "For Your Eye Only" forgot to populate the story with people because Fury's solution to overpowering Zodiac (he plunges the helicarrier into the ocean) is one of the most badass action sequences the show has staged so far. "For Your Eye Only"'s climax is far better than the boring sequences that concluded the last two actual Die Hard movies.


Spidey carries along with him an outdated, irrelevant relic, or as some people call it, a newspaper.
Ultimate Spider-Man haters have been up in arms on Twitter and Tumblr over The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes' Spidey episode, the Christopher Yost-scripted "Along Came a Spider...," because Marvel Animation replaced the voice of Josh Keaton, who played Spidey on the much better-received Spectacular Spider-Man and originally reprised his role in this episode, with the voice of Ultimate's Drake Bell. Yeah, it sucks to be Keaton in this situation, but Bell does a pretty good job voicing Spidey in "Along Came a Spider...", which pairs up the web-slinger with Captain America as they both try to regain the trust of New York civilians after the Skrull invasion made the public turn against the superhero community.

Bell's voice is far less grating on Earth's Mightiest Heroes than it is on Ultimate. That's because Yost, a Spidey fan who tweeted that this was the first time he ever wrote a Spidey story for animation, doesn't supply Spidey with lines straight out of a '90s Mountain Dew extreme sports ad or have him act so self-satisfied about his own wisecracks or have him butt in with cutaway gags that were better executed on Teen Titans. Spidey is more likable and genuinely funny here than on his own current show. One of the best gags has Spidey attempting to lower his not-so-guttural voice while introducing himself to an injured Agent Quartermain (Troy Baker), and the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent asks, "What's wrong with your voice?"

Betty Brant is apparently now a major character in Marvel's Venom comic starring Flash Thompson. Unless you're a porn star, it's kind of pathetic to still go by 'Flash' when you're approaching your 30s.
Yost has Peter Parker retain his Daily Bugle webmaster job from the Ultimate Spider-Man comic (in fact, I had a job like Peter's for a few years, and although I got along with everybody, it's a job I'd rather forget about--I'd like to go ahead right now and erase the last nine years of my life). So the episode spends some time early on at the Bugle, with J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons, who, like Bell, re-recorded a role that was originally voiced by someone else in this episode: in Jameson's case, Daran Norris) doing his "Arrrgh, superheroes!" shtick in front of an unamused Tony Stark and Bugle staffers Robbie "I'm Not with The Band" Robertson (also Baker) and Betty Brant (Grey DeLisle). I miss seeing the Bugle on-screen. The Ultimate cartoon doesn't involve the Bugle, and the only times we hear Simmons as Jameson on that show is when Spidey swings past some giant Times Square screen that's streaming Jameson's vlog rants about Spidey. I miss the screwball dialogue between Jameson and his staffers. I miss the hotness of Betty despite her hasn't-been-changed-since-the-'60s hairdo.

"Along Came a Spider..." gives us a glimpse of what the Ultimate cartoon would be like under Yost's control. I'd rather tune into that show each week than the more juvenile one we're currently stuck with.


I'm a newcomer to Regular Show, so I don't know if the cartoon has done anything more nutso than "Diary," this week's mystical new Regular Show short. Mordecai and Rigby drop by Margaret's house to water her plants as a favor for her while she's out of town, and they somehow wind up accidentally burning her diary--which, to their credit, neither of them peeked into--after a series of mishaps involving the diary cover's broken lock, model glue, tissues, a barbecue grill and lighter fluid. (When Mordecai considers using the microwave to remove a puddle of glue that Rigby damaged the diary cover with, I love how Mordecai flashes back to the mayhem of "It's Time"--the episode where he melted a bunch of clocks inside his microwave, which transformed it into a time machine--and then nixes the microwave.)

Mordecai and Rigby turn to their raspy-voiced Yeti friend Skips (Mark Hamill) for help. (If you're not familiar with Hamill's animation voice work, hearing him as Skips will make you go, "Whoa, that's Luke?!" The voice Hamill chose for Skips is brilliant. It's basically a clichéd Native American wise man if he sounded like a Jersey plumber.) The wise Yeti knows only one way to rectify the diary situation: he must be present inside Margaret's house, and with the use of a magic quill pen he has in his possession, he can transfer all of Margaret's secrets from the burnt diary to a new diary--as if they're data files that can be transferred from Flash drive to laptop. Apparently, Skips is also Doctor Strange. Before he proceeds with the magical transfer of Margaret's private thoughts, Skips gives a Raiders of the Lost Ark-like warning to Mordecai and Rigby to keep their eyes closed during the dangerous procedure. So what does a great listener like Rigby do during the transfer? He opens his eyes.

'And now, back to Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate, starring Skips and Sam Waterston.'
(Photo source: This is a "Fuck Ash Ketchum" blog)
Instead of his flesh being melted off, Rigby is left unharmed, but his mistake disrupts the transfer and releases "the Guardian of Margaret's Secrets," a giant doppleganger of Margaret that chases after Mordecai, Rigby and Skips because of Rigby's attempt to peek at the real Margaret's floating secrets. Skips says the only way to ward off the flaming monster is to say aloud a deep, dark secret of their own. So the immortal beast reveals the reason why he skips all the time: he and his soulmate used to frequently skip together, and after she died, he vowed to skip forever to honor her memory (if I were a female viewer, this is the part where I'd be letting out an Annie Edison-style "Awwww").

Attack of the 50-foot Margaret
(Photo source: This is a "Fuck Ash Ketchum" blog)
The mute Guardian lets Skips off the hook, so then it's Mordecai and Rigby's turn. What ensues is an amusing outpouring of secrets from them that's reminiscent of the Almost Famous scene where an extremely turbulent plane ride that the Stillwater band members think will be their last moment alive causes them to confess their secrets. At one point, Mordecai admits, "I like to sing along to really bad pop music!" He and Dipper from Gravity Falls ought to start a Facebook discussion group about bad pop songs they crave.

The Guardian doesn't leave the trio alone until Rigby finally lets out a meaningful secret, and it involves Margaret's mole friend and fellow waitress ("I think Eileen is hot without her glasses on!!"), which leads to the successful restoration of the diary--and a surprise outcome for Rigby. "Diary" is yet another inventive and funny short from Regular Show, which I've caught more of lately, thanks to Cartoon Network's frequent marathons of the show. I've noticed during the marathons that almost all of its voice actors aren't seasoned performers like Hamill (J.G. Quintel, who voices Mordecai and Hi Five Ghost and created Regular Show, is mainly an animator, while Margaret is the first cartoon voice gig for actress Janie Haddad, Paul F. Tompkins' wife). Their amateurish-sounding voices--particularly storyboarder Minty Lewis' voice for Eileen--lend the show a Peanuts-special-but-for-slightly-older-viewers-ish charm.

"Diary" proves that Regular Show skews a bit older than Charlie Brown when Rigby kids Mordecai about being Margaret's "friend without benefits." Plus, in a clip from "It's Time" that's reprised in "Diary," Rigby is seen dying and decomposing through time after Mordecai angrily kicks him off the time-traveling microwave. Now that's something you'll never see on This Is America, Charlie Brown.

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