Cartoon Network

September 29, 2014

Simply TV: Star Wars Rebels…And Inexplicably Star Wars: The Clone Wars

POSSIBILITIES

I am one of the few people who stuck with Cartoon Network’s Clone Wars series.  All the way from its lackluster backdoor film pilot to its neatly completed Netflix series ender.  If you did as well, you got to see the series actually grow and change for the better.  You got to see a character who you thought would be nothing more than a sidekick that called Anakin Skywalker annoying nicknames like “Sky Guy”, turn into probably the most compelling character of them all.  You got to see Darth Maul fleshed out…somewhat.   You got to see Obi-Wan and Anakin’s much alluded to friendship.  You got to see a good villainous become an even better anti-hero.  And yes, you unfortunately got to see more Jar-Jar.  However, The Clone Wars is easily the best thing to come out of the George Lucas prequels.  And yet, it was still missing something.  It was missing that Star Wars feel.  What is the Star Wars feel you ask?  It’s that excitement, tension and enjoyment you get from watching a rag tag group of unlikely heroes realizing their greater potential and taking on something much bigger than themselves.  That, to me, is Star Wars in  a nutshell.  David versus Goliath.  The Colonists versus The British.  The US versus the Nazis.  Pepsi versus Coke.  It’s a feeling that Guardians Of The Galaxy had.  It’s a feeling that even 2009’s Star Trek had.  But regrettably, it’s a feeling that Clone Wars and the Prequels never had.

RAG TAG EXPLORERS
RAG TAG BAD ASSES

I appreciate that both were trying to tell the story of the fall of the Republic.  However, the enjoyment and tension I had watching Han, Luke and Leia just trying to escape the Death Star or Jabba’s palace was infinitely more enjoyable and tension filled than any prequel film or Clone Wars episode where dozens of nearly invincible Jedi Knights leap into battle with the support of millions of stormtroopers behind them.   It didn’t feel like Star Wars to me.  Then thankfully the takeover happened.  Disney, on it’s eerily unpublicized quest for world domination, bought out Star Wars from Lucas.  This opened the door for a new film trilogy and a new animated series to fill in the gaps toward Episode IV.  And this animated series, Star Wars Rebels, appears to at least be trying to get that Star Wars feel back.

Taking place only a few short years after Order 66 and the new Galactic Empire wiped out the Jedi and  consumed the Galaxy, Star Wars Rebels follows a street tough kid strong in the force named Ezra Bridger.  Ezra winds up stumbling upon a group of rag tag mercenaries who appear to be mounting a rebellion to fight back against the Empire.  This set up and story is better suited for episodic Star Wars tales than Clone Wars was, I believe.  Clone Wars fell prey to the “Lesson Of The Week” motif and really didn’t have a strong overall story.  Mainly, because it was hamstrung as to where it could go since it had to tie in to the events of Revenge Of The Sith. (Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. had this same problem earlier in its run.)  The creation of the Rebel Alliance has never really been something fleshed out, and its growth is pretty much unrelated to Luke and Han’s meeting and journey in A New Hope.  This gives Rebels a lot more freedom in my opinion.  The other thing that gives it freedom are its characters.

I’m sorry for the continuous comparison to Clone Wars, but I think that it is an inescapable comparison which really illustrates the POSSIBILITIES Rebels has by explaining what it does differently.  With that said, Clone Wars’ main characters Obi-Wan and Anakin and possibly Padme were the weakest characters on the show in my opinion.  Where Clone Wars really thrived was its introduction of new or previously unexplored characters from Star Wars lore.  Characters like…

 Cad Bane

 and Rex

 and The Nightsisters

and Asajj Ventress(Yes, I know Genndy Tartakovski created her first, but she really grew on Clone Wars)

and the character with the strongest and most enjoyable character arc, Ahsoka Tano.

These new characters were free from expectations and restraints to where they could go, making them much more enjoyable than mainstays like Obi-Wan, Anakin, Padme, Palpatine, and Dooku.  Rebels gets to start from scratch as well with a slew of  new and interesting characters.  There is the female Mandalorian explosive expert/graffiti artist named Sabine. (My personal favorite)  There is the muscle and hot head of the group, Zeb, who also has the distinction of being famed artist Ralph Mcquarrie’s original visual concept for Chewbacca.  There is the Twi’lek pilot and moral center of the team named Hera.  There is the meaner R2-D2-esque droid named Chopper.  The co-lead is the aforementioned Ezra, who serves as the show’s adolescent Anakin redo.  However, the wayward Jedi Kanan Jarrus will be the main reason the team and the series makes it or breaks it.  And that’s primarily because he’s voiced by Freddie Prinze Jr.

From Left To Right: Chopper, Hera, Kanan, Ezra, Zeb, and Sabine

Wait a second!!!  Just hold on!  I know Prinze Jr. isn’t a particularly popular actor or celebrity for that matter.  I mean, the guy romantically reigned in Buffy Summers.  How can you not hate him just a little?  Although, I do see what creators Simon Kinberg, Carrie Beck, and David Filoni might have been going for when they cast him as Kanan Jarrus.  Kanan has the smugness and temperament of a Kyle Katarn with the tragic history of a Quinlan Vos.  For the basic Star Wars observer who has no idea of whom I’m speaking of…let’s just say Kanan is Han Solo mashed together with a seasoned Luke Skywalker.  Playing a mouthy space scoundrel is not a hard thing for Prinze Jr. to do.  However, when he has to deliver the familiar Jedi platitudes, you can’t help but cringe a bit.  Admittedly, it is hard to make Jedi philosophies sound natural. (Unless you’re Sir Alec Guinness or Frank Oz)  I just hope Prinze Jr. can get the hang of it, as he’ll be the one advising Ezra in the ways of the Force throughout the series.

The pilot episode only gives us a taste of the two main villains, but the talent behind their voices is top notch.  David Oyelowo plays the relentless Agent Kallus.  Oyelowo, who has starred in everything from Jack Reacher to the Butler, gives the typically effeminate Galactic officers a much meaner edge.   Playing the big heavy in the series, The Inquisitor, will be the excellently evil Jason Isaacs.  The Inquisitor’s story might possibly be as interesting as Kanan’s, seeing as he is an instrument of Darth Vader himself but not necessarily a Sith Lord. 

Aesthetically, the animation is a little more humanized than the blockier Clone Wars.  That visual change is good in some places but not so good in others.  You are always walking that uncanny valley tightrope with digital animation.  Though, I have no doubt that they’ll lean more toward the cartoonish side as things go along.  The action scenes were some of the best things Clone Wars got right.  The fights and battles were well choreographed, with no punches pulled.  Rebels continues this aspect with three terrific action set pieces in the pilot, and some fights previewed for later on that you’ll be dying to see.  An unfortunate hindrance to Clone Wars was its inability to use the musical score and familiar musical stingers of the legendary John Williams until the end of the series.  Rebels gets to fully use and play with those great themes now, which goes a long way to giving the series that Star Wars feel I keep harping on.

Star Wars Rebels is a welcome addition to the Star Wars universe and a series that seems to understand and want to explore its numerous POSSIBILITIES.  How did the Rebel Alliance grow?  How did Leia get caught up with them?  How did Mara Jade become the Emperor’s Hand?  What was Obi-Wan doing all that time on Tatooine?  Why is Lando now the only black guy in space?  Sorry, that one’s just for me.  Open up your holocrons…fasten your lightsabers…put on your Mandalorian helmet…watch it…then tell me I’m wrong.

January 28, 2014

Simply Anime: Cartoon Network PRIME TIME

CONSISTENT

For my second offering of Simply Anime, I wanted to tackle a different brand of animation.  American cartoons, and in particular Cartoon Network’s prime time line up of animated shows. I can already hear the groans and complaints about how this particular review is supposed to be dedicated to anime and not cartoons, or some rubbish like that. Well folks, these reviews are about animation, so be prepared to sample my insight into a wide variety of shows that the medium offers. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, here’s a little history or my crib notes version of how we got to where we are in regard to Cartoon Network’s current prime time lineup. It all started in 1993 with Donovan Cook’s 2 Stupid Dogs. This show would signify the rebirth of Hanna-Barbera.  An animation studio of using homegrown creators who produced original animated shorts the likes of which hadn’t been seen since 1984’s the Snorks. Then, two years later in 1995, the first ever “What a Cartoon” debuted on television and changed the game. The brainchild of Fred Seibert, this revolutionary show and format gave birth to and was the launching pad for not only shows that many of us grew up watching, but for their creators as well. Such shows included The Powerpuff Girls (Craig McCracken), Dexter’s Laboratory(Genndy Tartakovsky), Johnny Bravo (Van Partible), Codename: KidsNext Door (Tom “Mr.” Warburton), Cow and Chicken (David Feiss), Courage the Cowardly Dog (John R. Dilworth), Whatever Happened to Robot Jones (Greg Miller), the Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy(Maxwell Atoms), and a show called Larry and Steve (Seth MacFarlane) which would ironically become the format for a little show called Family Guy.

Even if the names of those creators are lost on you, their shows most certainly are not. The Looney Tunes style presentation (minutes-wise) would become the hallmark of nearly every animated show that would be aired on Cartoon Network. In addition, What a Cartoon, (which would become its own show), would birth clones of its own on rival network Nickelodeon and produce even more shows. All of this would lead to a long string of shows that some see as the “Golden Age” of Cartoon Network. This age would not only boast many of the aforementioned shows as stand alone half hour programs, but also bring about shows like Ed, Edd, n Eddy (Danny Antonucci), Time Squad (Dave Wasson), Sheep in the Big City (Mo Willems), Samurai Jack (again Genndy Tartakovsky), Megas XLR (Jody Schaeffer and George Kristic), Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends(again Craig McCracken), Camp Lazlo (Joe Murray), My Gym Partner’s A Monkey (Julie McNally-Cahill and Timothy Cahill), Class of 3000(Andre Benjamin and Thomas W. Lynch), Chowder (C.H. Greenblat), TheMarvelous Misadventures of Flapjack (Thurop Van Orman), and the juggernaut known as Ben 10 (Man of Action). There are many more wonderful shows that were a part of the the “Golden Age” and if you are interested knowing just what they are, you can see them in all listed here.

In 2009, Cartoon Network began to make changes in format and pushed toward live-action programming.  That push fell flat. (Certainly did with me at least. Though, I was not their target audience.) A year earlier, they would acquire the rights to Johnny Test.  A show many viewed as a much worse version of Dexter’s Laboratory. Although there are many similarities between Test and Dexter, they just weren’t the same. Cartoon Network would also make a move at this time that hurt me deeply. Always lauded for its balance of comedy and action cartoons, they would inexplicably change format again.  This time moving from an action oriented evening lineup to a more comedy-centric approach that remains to this day. Gone were shows like Generator Rex, The Secret Saturdays, and Teen Titans. In its place, more Johnny Test. It wasn’t just that action cartoons were gone or were only on sporadically. It was the type of cartoons they were replaced with. Finally, a bright light was cast back on the action cartoon wasteland when CN announced the DC Nation block. It would host DC original shorts as well as shows like Green Lantern the Animated Series and Young Justice. With a super strong lead in show like Ben 10, it seemed like a slam dunk. Alas, it was not to be. Green Lantern the animated series was canceled after only one excellent season (Shout outs to Giancarlo Volpe) and Young Justice would also suffer the same fate after only two seasons. Their replacements would be Beware the Batman (now on indefinite hiatus) and Teen Titans Go! (a chibi version of the original Teen Titans show that features the same voice cast).

So now that you know the history, whether you wanted to or not, let’s get to the reason why you’re here. Cartoon Network’s current prime time lineup. Let me start by saying that I was not entirely fond of many of the shows at first.  And as a recent Game of Thrones quiz has shown me, I can have some Ned Stark like qualities when it comes to change. That being said, once I’ve given something a shot objectively, I can say that it is either enjoyable or not. Many of the shows that CN is currently boasting in the prime time slots I can say I highly enjoy and recommend.  Especially if you’re looking for something a bit different, or just looking to continue riding the high from Sunday night after watching the Simpsons, Bob’s Burgers, Family Guy and American Dad. To start off, let’s begin with Pendleton Ward’s Adventure Time.

Adventure Time follows the life and times of Finn the last human boy on the planet, his magical dog and brother Jake through their adventures in the Land of Ooo. The show is laced with continuity that won’t alienate new viewers (which is something that nearly all the shows do quite well also) along with comedy for both adults and children alike. Of all the shows currently airing, I would say that Adventure Time was the one that took the second longest to grow on me. Once I really gave it a shot, however, I came to really enjoy the show. Now let me say that all these shows are aired in the same Looney Tunes style format of 7 minute or so shorts.  So character development is going to be a bit tough. Motivations are either revealed quickly over the course of many episodes, or in the case of the Ice King, in special episodes like “Simon and Marcy”. Adventure Time also pushed the envelope when it was implied that Princess Bubblegum and Marceline the vampire may have been involved in a relationship in the past. To my knowledge, the topic of homosexuality had never been covered on a show geared toward kids before. For the record I applaud the writing staff and all involved with the show if that was the case. If only because it is something that is very real in our society.  Parents SHOULD be watching television with their children and be there to explain things in a prosocial manner. My mother certainly did. (And off my soapbox) Occasionally dark, but always fun, Adventure Time is excellent show.

A personal favorite for me, my friends and anyone born in the 80’s is J.G. Quintel’s modern masterpiece Regular Show. In it, you follow the dynamic slacker duo of Mordecai the blue jay and Rigby the squirrel as they live out there strangely entertaining lives. Mordecai and Rigby have terrific comedic chemistry together, but the unsung strength of the show is its amazing cast of supporting characters. From the ironically bad bodied Muscle Man, to Skips the yeti, to the large headed, yet sweetly insane Pops, to High Five Ghost (The name says it all) to their uptight gumball machine boss Benson. This show fires on all cylinders. There are doses of dark humor, death (You don’t come back unless magic is involved), friendship, adult humor slid in, and 80’s music every now and then. This show gets it right more often than not.

The Amazing World of Gumball, created by Ben Bocquelet, was a show that I had a hard time getting into. I wasn’t happy that Chowder (Which I was slow to get into) and Flapjack had come to an end, so I was very resistant to Gumball without ever seeing a full episode. I initially was not a fan of the animation style and judged it only on that. I. Was. So. Wrong! This show continues in the rich history of silly, madcap comedy. Gumball Watterson, the titular character, is a 12 year old, unapologetic, d-bag cat that finds himself constantly in trouble. He is joined by his adopted brother Darwin Watterson.  Darwin is a goldfish that is often innocent and often times follows Gumball to their comedic ruin. Anais Watterson, is their 4 year old genius sister that is a rabbit that goes to the same middle school as Gumball and Darwin. Their parents are Nicole Watterson, a parentally responsible cat and Richard Watterson, the laziest rabbit in town. This show is clever in its delivery and a pleasure to watch.

Then there is The Annoying Orange created by Dane Boedigheimer.  I simply can not get past the opening credits. It’s just, no. Simply no. I can’t do it. Maybe you can, but even I have limits. And this is one.

Peter Browngardt’s Uncle Grandpa is a show that I mentioned in my first podcast and I panned it. I had only seen a a few episodes and I honestly was barely paying any attention to it. The promos for the show where a special brand of annoying and I quickly lumped it into the same category of disdain that I hold for the previously mentioned Annoying Orange. Uncle Grandpa is everyone’s Uncle and Grandpa, and puts children in unnecessary adventures or hijinks. I’m not overly crazy about him, but I do enjoy his sidekicks Pizza Steve and Mr. Gus. Pizza Steve is a self absorbed living slice of pizza who is the life of the party. (Because why else wouldn’t pizza be the life of the party) Mr. Gus is a dinosaur (although he reminds me of the Creature from the Black Lagoon) that plays straight-man to all the calamity going on. There are other colorful characters in addition to the kids and adults that also fill out the show. Uncle Grandpa may not be for everyone but the characters play well off each other and I am giving it more of a chance then I originally did.

Rebecca Sugar’s Steven Universe is my absolute favorite show in the prime time lineup. This was the other show that I mentioned in my first podcast and I errantly did not give Sugar her credit for the show as much as I lauded it. Rebecca, you have made an excellent show and I look forward to Monday nights to watch it. Your protagonist is Steven Universe (Yes that’s his name), a young boy that has inherited his mother’s quartz gem and is learning how to control his powers. His teachers are Garnet (Voiced by British signer Estelle) who is the unofficial leader of the Crystal Gems (The group of which Steven is apart of) who seldom speaks but is the powerhouse of the group, Amethyst, the roguish member of the group that has a “devil may care” attitude and also moonlights as an underground wrestler, and Pearl, the member that is all policy and procedure. She wants Steven to succeed but is very concerned about his safety, almost to a smothering degree. Steven Universe is reminiscent of the Powerpuff Girls in its delivery, yet fresh in how it drops nuggets of the past events, in addition to dealing with emotions that characters are experiencing. It makes them so much more endearing. I gush about this show.

Lastly, a special that aired last week Monday night called The PowerpuffGirls: Dance Pantsed. Personally I felt like CN dropped the ball on this special because they had an opportunity to air this on the 15thanniversary of the PPGs. (I mean, this show was announced in January of 2013) Also this was the first episode of the Powerpuff Girls that was made without any input from show creator Craig McCracken. It seems wrong that he wasn’t a part of this show. That being said, it did feel like an episode of the PPGs thanks in part to long time Powerpuff director Dave Smith. The story was fun and it was a nice throwback to days gone bye.

All in all, as time goes on, all things grow old and eventually must change. For good or for bad, Cartoon Network has changed and continues to do so. Although it currently is not focused on action cartoons, we at least have Toonami back (thanks Williams Street and Adult Swim). The current crop of shows, that are still Cartoon Cartoons as far as I’m concerned, continues to revolutionize American animation and produce new creators and no matter what, that is a good thing; but you don’t have to take my word for it.

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