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...


Harvey Dent's multiple personality disorder was handled terrifically and sensibly on Batman: The Animated Series and was given the two-parter treatment in "Two-Face," one of B:TAS' best episodes. In the Avengers comics, which I've never read, former Ant-Man Hank Pym (Wally Wingert) also suffered from MPD, but The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes' clumsily written "Yellowjacket" episode (which Man of Action also scripted), botches its handling of Hank's sudden MPD by trying to shoehorn the embattled scientist's mental collapse, his faked death, his re-emergence as the much less pacifistic Yellowjacket, his identity crisis and his return to normalcy all into one episode.

Hank Pym now suits up as Yellowjacket, whose mission is to fight crime using the sounds of smooth jazz.
This would have been better handled as a two-parter like Two-Face's origin. But Marvel Animation apparently hates the serialized format now (the studio wanted EMH to do more standalone episodes in its second and final season), so we're stuck with this rushed mess of an episode. And why isn't Scott Lang, the civilian who succeeded Hank as Ant-Man in "To Steal an Ant-Man," present at the presumed-dead Hank's funeral early on in "Yellowjacket"? It's a rare misstep for a cartoon that's been previously so careful and meticulous about world-building and continuity.


There wasn't a lot of first-run material from the non-Adult Swim cable cartoons again this week, hence the inclusion of The Amazing World of Gumball, which aired two first-run shorts back-to-back instead of its usual practice of only one first-run short. Frankly, the adult cartoons have been way more entertaining than the younger-skewing ones this week. Adult Swim's Black Dynamite cleverly race-reversed King Kong to mock how effed-up and badly dated those Kong movies are. My favorite Michael Jai White lines during this animated spinoff of the 2009 cult favorite are any moment when Dynamite earnestly notes that "I used to be a children."

Meanwhile, Robot Chicken's much-buzzed-about "DC Universe Special" built an entire sketch around Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew!, an obscure but memorable funny-animal comic from my childhood, and then followed around a bunch of male DC heroes on a guys' night out that brought to mind the most inspired moments of superhero parodies like the animated Tick, the live-action Tick, The Venture Bros. and No Heroics. I feel sorry for those viewers who aren't allowed to watch TV-MA-rated fare and were stuck with just Disney XD's underwhelming "Marvel Universe" block for their first-run cable animation fix on Sunday.

Nah, wait a minute, I don't feel sorry for them. Insert Nelson Muntz-style laugh here.

If somebody updates Casper for the 21st century and reimagines him as an emo ghost like Carrie... aw, who cares? I never gave a shit about Casper. His cartoons were always so goddamn sappy.
(Photo source: The Amazing World of Gumball Wiki)
Anyway, in the first new Gumball short, "The Flower," the 12-year-old cat becomes jealous of his classmate Leslie (Kerry Shale), an ambiguously gay flower, because of the time Leslie's been spending with Gumball's crush Penny Fitzgerald (Jessica McDonald), a peanut with antlers, but Gumball isn't aware that Leslie is Penny's cousin. (Yeah, the cast of characters on Gumball is weird. It's a cartoon where a goldfish--Gumball's adopted brother Darwin--is able to breathe without water, so just play along.) The jealousy that's consuming Gumball is actually a green demon named Jealousy that's trying to take possession of his body, so it's up to Carrie (also McDonald), an emo ghost and the school's resident expert in the paranormal, to exorcise Jealousy from Gumball. Carrie has the cleverest character design out of everyone on Gumball. The animators have drawn her as an anaglyph to enhance her ghostly appearance and pay tribute to old 3-D haunted house movies.

'I will now shove this pen up my nose because I'm 12.'
The second new Gumball short, "The Banana," is slightly more amusing. That's mostly because right in the middle of its story of a feud that erupts between the Watterson brothers and Banana Joe (Rupert Degas) after the brothers accuse Joe of chewing Darwin's pen, "The Banana" inserts an unexpected reference to Kill Bill: Vol. 1, a movie none of Gumball's youngest viewers have probably ever seen (and I recommend that parents expose their kids to Kill Bill at such an early age because nothing says heartwarming family entertainment like a little kid watching her mama get stabbed to death by Uma Thurman). While Gumball and Darwin race through the school halls to stop Joe from discovering that Darwin chewed his pen, which turns out to be a precious Banana family heirloom, the banana channels the Daryl Hannah character from Kill Bill and whistles a tune reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann's Twisted Nerve theme, which Hannah whistled in a hospital hallway for her entrance scene in Kill Bill.

Like almost everything else on Gumball, the Kill Bill shout-out makes little sense (I'm aware that this episode is going for a revenge movie vibe, but of all the revenge movie bits Gumball could have referenced, why did the show pick Hannah's entrance scene from the nine-year-old Kill Bill, which most of Gumball's audience has most likely never been allowed by their parents to watch?). But I'm glad the kinds of cartoons preteens watch these days are mostly offbeat shows like this British-made oddity that contains Tarantino references and LGBT characters that they're too young to understand--instead of any of the banal and crappy cartoons that the A.V. Club's current "1992 Week" series of think pieces referred to as "the cheaply produced, disposable network fare that had populated weekend schedules since the ’60s"--because back when I used to be a children, the pre-1992, pre-B:TAS/Timmverse days of Hanna-Barbera and Filmation were the Dark Ages, children.


Small-screen animation really ought to be less talky. Younger viewers are smarter than the producers of Ultimate Spider-Man think. They don't need nonstop, fourth wall-breaking narration and chunks of expository dialogue to guide them through the story. That's why Dragons: Riders of Berk, DreamWorks Animation's How to Train Your Dragon sequel series, is such a relief from the talkiness and ham-fistedness of USM. Jay Baruchel's voiceover narration as Hiccup is kept to a minimum. Notice how his voiceovers appear only during the opening and closing scenes of each episode. And I'm especially glad that DreamWorks chose not to have the dragons speak.

I love how the villagers are so scared shitless of the dragons that nobody wants to join the dragon training academy, so the academy still consists of just these six kids.
(Photo source: Berk's Grapevine)
During "The Terrible Twos," in which Hiccup's dragon sidekick Toothless becomes jealous of Hiccup's attentions towards an injured and volatile baby "Typhoomerang" that's named "Torch" by Stoick (Nolan North), the show follows around Toothless for a couple of scenes as he does some investigating of his own and discovers that Torch has a ginormous and very intimidating mother. The absence of dialogue and the reliance on visuals to advance the story are delightful to watch. How to Train Your Dragon stood out from other DreamWorks Animation features because it would go for long stretches without dialogue, and the bold storytelling choice also elevates the small-screen version.

The muteness of the dragons also enhances the dangerousness of these creatures and the difficulty of understanding them, and it keeps them from becoming too cutesy. As DreamWorks Animation exec Peter Gal noted to the L.A. Times, the relationship between Vikings and dragons on the show is far from an owner-pet relationship, so "Even though [the dragons are] friendly now, they can still be really destructive and dangerous." In "The Terrible Twos," Torch is shown to be quite destructive to have around the village, but he's also afraid of his real mother and considers Hiccup his new mom. If Ruby-Spears produced Dragons in the '80s, the studio would have had Torch confess to the other dragons in a cutesy voice that "I'm weawwy scawwed of her." Again, the years before '92 were dark times back when I used to be a children, children.

Batman's new plane is a bit of a bitch to steer.
(Photo source: Berk's Grapevine)

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