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.


Why is Margaret shocked by Mordecai's bad breath? Shouldn't birds be used to bad breath because of all those meals that they regurgitate into each others' mouths?
(Photo source: Well, This Is Me ^-^)
"Bad Kiss," the Regular Show season finale, has been viewed as a cop-out by viewers who have been "shipping" Mordecai and his waitress friend Margaret for a while (God, I hate that word "shipping") because it tosses yet another obstacle into Mordecai's attraction to Margaret. But for viewers like myself who don't tune in to Regular Show to see how the characters are faring romance-wise, the episode is a clever and amusing piece of time-travel comedy elevated by a welcome role-reversal (Rigby, who's usually the immature and selfish screw-up, becomes helpful for once to Mordecai, who's the screw-up in this episode) and some nice callbacks to past Regular Show shorts.

Like Dipper in Gravity Falls' recent "Time Traveler's Pig" episode, Mordecai gets his hands on a time machine, which Rigby bought for $15, and uses it to correct a mistake he made while trying to woo his crush (in this case, bad breath while kissing Margaret). But Mordecai's plan goes awry when his past self steals the time machine to make out with Margaret, and with the help of an additional time machine that Rigby snapped up in a time machine sale, present-day Mordecai and Rigby chase after Mordecai's past self through time (and wind up in the backgrounds of previous episodes like last season's Evil Dead homage "Grave Sights," which pit the gang against actual zombies at an outdoor screening of a 3-D zombie movie starring a Bruce Campbell lookalike).

Because this is Mordecai, he'll forget to mint up after he shares that Morde-Shake with Margaret, and like Molotov Cocktease when Hank kissed her, she'll be totally repulsed by his milk breath.
(Photo source: Kat Morris)
Who wants to see Mordecai succeed with Margaret anyway? Regular Show is a cartoon about 20-something ennui and the mistakes we continually make when we're no longer children but not quite adults yet. If you want romance that goes smoothly, go watch a supercouple on a daytime soap. Happy romantic relationships can be such a buzzkill in comedy, and Regular Show seems to be aware that maybe the moment when Mordecai and Margaret become a couple is the moment when this cartoon should call it a day.


The dearth of first-run programming--whether animated or live-action--during Labor Day Weekend forced me to check out Cartoon Network's The Amazing World of Gumball, the creation of French-born British animator Ben Bocquelet, for the first time. The younger-skewing show, about a preteen cat named Gumball (Logan Grove), his suburban family, led by domineering mom Nicole Watterson (Teresa Gallagher), and his junior high classmates, which include his adopted brother and former pet goldfish Darwin (Kwesi Boakye), a robot named Bobert and a banana named Joe, isn't my kind of cartoon.

Sure, the fact that Gumball goes to school with a banana as a classmate automatically makes this show weird, but it's not delightfully nutso and surreal like Adventure Time, and very little of Gumball interests me as an older viewer, not like how the stories about workplace boredom or the adult predicaments of characters who are closer to my age (the recent "Trucker Hall of Fame" episode was a really good example of this) frequently capture my attention on Regular Show. Fortunately, Gumball's predicament in "The Fridge," this week's first-run Gumball episode--his mom's Type A personality and competitive streak begin to interfere with his enjoyment of being a regular kid--is something I can relate to, although the annoying Type A personalities I've had to put up with were found not in my family but in school and in my professional life.

The Great Ma'am-tini
(Photo source: The Amazing World of Gumball Wiki)
Okay, there's one thing I appreciate about Gumball. It's the fact that it has cast actual kid actors as kids instead of, for example, casting actresses in their 30s and 40s like Tara Strong, Pamela Adlon or Regina King as boys. At one point during "The Fridge," Darwin shrieks in terror while firing paintball pellets at Gumball, and Boakye's pre-pube voice amusingly cracks like Johnny Rotten's voice often did in his Sex Pistols days or when Merry Clayton's voice did so twice during The Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter." Despite the valiant efforts of Strong, Adlon or King whenever they reshape their voices so that they sound like boys, they'll never be able to capture the way that boys' voices like Boakye's sometimes crack when they yell.


Of the three Dragons: Riders of Berk episodes that have aired so far, "Animal House," the first episode to air in the show's regular Tuesday night time slot of 7:30 on Cartoon Network, is the closest the show has gotten to recapturing the mystical and often dialogue-less feel of How to Train Your Dragon. The outstanding 2010 DreamWorks animated feature spawned Dragons and proved to the studio that their CG films don't need to be talky and loaded with pointless pop-culture references to hold the audience's attention.

Bucket facepalms himself after realizing he hasn't finished checking off the items on his bucket list.
(Photo source: Berk's Grapevine)
"Animal House" centers on Hiccup's attempts at being a farm animal whisperer when the livestock's inability to increase Berk's food supply due to their fear of dragons threatens to bring about a winter drought to the island village. "How to Start a Dragon Academy" and "Viking for Hire," the two Dragons episodes that Cartoon Network sneak-previewed last month, were a little talkier than I'd like as excursions into Hiccup's world, while "Animal House" is bolstered by a lengthy climactic sequence between the dragons and the livestock that ditches the dialogue and gets back to what the 2010 film did best: conveying the mystique of the dragons and their personalities solely through visuals and music score. Superman/Batman: Apocalypse composer John Paesano does a good job here channeling the epicness of John Powell's How to Train Your Dragon score--the highlight of Powell's career--and like the rest of the show, Paesano's score helps keep us satiated while we wait for perhaps the only DreamWorks Animation sequel that's worth a damn. (It drops in 2014?! Ridah, please!)

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