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."


In "Nightmare in Red," The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes introduced corrupt Secretary of Defense Dell Rusk (Steve Blum), who assembled his own team of evil Avengers to break the titular team apart. Rusk's agents include Red Hulk (Fred Tatasciore); The Winter Soldier (Jon Curry); Doc Samson (Cam Clarke), a psychiatrist who gained his super-strength from the same gamma radiation that created both Hulk and Red Hulk; and the winged Falcon (Lance Reddick), who's best known for being one of Marvel's first black superheroes but is working for the bad guys on this show because a brotha's gotta eat. Falcon is bound to turn against them sometime later this season (he'll be played by Anthony Mackie in the scheduled-for-2014 live-action sequel Captain America: The Winter Soldier).

Rusk--who's really Captain America's WWII arch-enemy Red Skull in disguise--reappears in "Code Red" to unleash on Manhattan a virus that saps people of their strength and transforms them into red-skinned Skeletors--much like Red Skull himself. He sends his agents to stop the Avengers from saving Manhattan with an antidote. But one by one, the Avengers succumb to the Code Red virus, leaving Iron Man and the immortal Thor as the only immune Avengers as Iron Man races against time to complete the antidote.

A very gaunt Captain America succumbs to Red Skull's virus.
While IGN found the desiccated state of the virus victims in "Code Red" to be "unusually creepy imagery for an animated superhero series"--and so did the Science Fiction site ("pretty disturbing for a kid's show")--the Code Red virus isn't all that terrifying. It's a typical kids' show virus where the symptoms never get more graphic than coughing fits, everyone's skin color turns into a silly rainbow color instead of a pallid and deathly color (when the Enterprise crew members were infected by an alien disease in the '70s Star Trek cartoon, their skin became blue like a Smurf) and a cure is found in less than 22 minutes.

Again, like with "Yellowjacket" a few weeks ago, the Man of Action-scripted "Code Red" feels rushed and would have been more effective as a two-parter, but Marvel Animation wanted EMH to drift away from its serialized structure and do more standalone episodes in the back half of its second and final season. The new non-serialized structure is sapping the show of its sense of danger. Alien invasions and similar global threats that used to take the Avengers a few episodes to thwart are now being resolved in less than 22 minutes, which is exactly how quickly supervillains used to be dispatched on '70s and '80s superhero cartoons like Super Friends and Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends. I don't want a return to that juvenile shit. I preferred the more ambitious Justice League Unlimited/Wolverine and the X-Men-style storytelling structure that EMH used to favor.


The 11-minutes-per-story format is an ideal length for a lighthearted and whimsical cartoon like Disney and Titmouse's Randy Cunningham: 9th Grade Ninja. That's the format the Man of Action quartet should have chosen for the equally lighthearted--but somehow more inconsequential--Ultimate Spider-Man, which, at 22 minutes per story, can be a tedious and repetitive cartoon.

Randy Cunningham is more confident and efficient than Ultimate Spider-Man about its storytelling. Instead of having its hero break the fourth wall to unnecessarily reiterate every plot point to the audience--the main reason for Ultimate Spider-Man's frequent tedium--Randy Cunningham is as fast on its feet as its hero and is aware that animation should be a visual medium, not an overly talky one. So instead of Peter's pointless hand-holding of the audience, Randy Cunningham explains its episodes' themes in mostly visual terms, through the sentient NinjaNomicon guidebook that Randy consults in every episode. The trippy visuals for the guidebook sequences--Randy literally goes inside the book as if he's Gumby--are among the highlights of Randy Cunningham, along with Invader Zim creator Jhonen Vasquez's offbeat and jazzy character designs for Randy's adversaries, like the amoeba monster that was mutated by nacho cheese in this week's "Monster Dump."

I wouldn't consider booger humor to be one of Randy Cunningham's other highlights, but the show has to please its target audience, which loves that shit. In one of this week's other first-run episodes, "House of 1,000 Boogers," egotistical businessman Hannibal McFist does what no Batman villain who's ever wanted to spill the Dark Knight's secret identity has ever done before. At his robo-ape-guarded mansion, Hannibal throws a huge waterslide birthday party for his equally conceited stepson Bash Johnson (Dave Wittenberg) as an excuse to take snot samples of all the teen guests--including an uninvited Randy and his best bud Howard (Andrew Caldwell)--so that with the help of the guests' moco, he and his Morris Day-voiced head R&D scientist Willem Viceroy III (Kevin Michael Richardson) can uncover the secret identity of Norrisville's mysterious ninja hero.

Randy and Howard played around with a choco-fountain in this episode, but they look like they're covered in dog poop.
Aside from a screening of The Notebook, no other place in the world is awash with as much snot as a waterslide park, which makes Hannibal and Willem's plan brilliant. Props to Disney XD for not flinching from all the nose nuggets that are being flung during "House of 1,000 Boogers," unlike Nickelodeon, which mistakenly assumed that kids would be traumatized by Stimpy's gallery of booger sculptures on Ren & Stimpy (an absurd assumption because nose gold is comedy gold to kids), so Nick censored it. Diz XD, I tip my hat that's flecked with nose piss to you.


"The audience response was deafening when Mark Hamill was announced as the voice of new villain Alvin, the leader of an outcast tribe of Vikings," said Spinoff Online while recapping a Comic-Con panel that promoted Dragons: Riders of Berk. Hamill's familiar-sounding pipes (which the aforementioned Kevin Michael Richardson did a great impression of during Talkin Toons with Rob Paulsen, by the way) help bolster "Alvin and the Outcasts," which introduces Alvin the Treacherous, who invades a weaponry-deprived Berk to capture the "Dragon Conqueror," a.k.a. Hiccup.

The teen's plan to bring the dragons back to Berk (after his father Stoick banished them for crimes they didn't commit, like the burning of Berk's armory) is complicated by the Outcasts' invasion, an attack that results in "Alvin and the Outcasts" turning into Dragons' most action-packed episode to date. Without his weapons, Stoick takes down Alvin's soldiers (and later, Alvin himself) with his fists. The animation for Stoick's fight scenes is quite impressive and indicates what Genndy Tartakovsky's planned Popeye feature film will probably look like in CG. Even Astrid (America Ferrera), who has the stomach for fighting that Hiccup lacks, gets to join in on the brawling when she punches out Mildew, the old villager who framed the dragons, and socks Alvin twice with a fighting stick.

Here we see O.J. Simpson throwing his blood-soaked gloves into the sea.
Hiccup saves the day by tricking Alvin into thinking the dragons fled in fear from his reign of terror as the "Dragon Conqueror," and the Captain Kirk-style ruse both diverts Alvin away from Berk and gives the dragons the opportunity to redeem their wrongly blamed selves by helping defeat the Outcasts. The one-footed, not-so-violent Viking may not be much of a fighter like Kirk, but he deserves a prize for original thinking, just like Kirk and this show.

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