Saturday, 26 November 2016

King of the Hill: season 3

Shows often hit their stride around season 3, and I’d say the same applies to King ofthe Hill, though it was extraordinarily well-shaped from the very first episodes. While a syndicated show, King of the Hill actually does interesting things with its continuity – Luanne in particular has a lot of interesting moments of development, with her boyfriend dying in the cliffhanger from the previous season and a subsequent period of soul-searching as her hair grows back. The season also introduces the potential for Hank to get a step-brother even in his middle age, the birth being part of the finale here.

Largely, though, where King of the Hill succeeds is in its complexity and dark undertones. Hank’s father Cotton is pretty central to this, being an abusive and misogynist embodiment of all the left hates about small-town right-wing America. He is central to several season highlights, including a moment of lightness when he takes the fall for Bobby in an embarrassing predicament and one good moment for Hank where he finally stands up to him to defend his mother – and his mower. The way others act around Cotton is often very funny, but for a comedy show there’s a lot that’s chilling and unpleasant about what he embodies.

This is a show with a fantastic ensemble cast, though. All Hank’s friends and family have their brilliant moments. The main gang are consistently amusing, Luanne has the show’s best one-liners, Peggy is by turns an unstoppable force of nature and incredibly naïve, especially when it comes to matters of adultery (her realisation of it making for one of the highlights of the show so far) and the way Bobby mystifies his family is by turns funny and affectionate.

Not every episode is a hit. Bill losing it and starting to impersonate his ex-wife is too far for what was previously a subtle character quirk. The dolphin episode stretches credulity and Hank’s character too far. The Rashomon episode (which I just noted was a family trope in my thoughts on My Little Pony:Friendship is Magic season 6) was a little slow and exaggerated.

But these were certainly the minority, and the vast majority of the episodes were very funny and often quite touching. It’s the episodes that are centred on small problems dealing with the modern world that shine, like Peggy playing in a softball team or the problems with taking Bobby hunting. I also liked episodes centred on Kahn, who is a remarkably subtle and multifaceted character for what would in many ways have been a token outsider role. Probably the best element on the show’s more complex side is Peggy’s deep-seated sadness about not being able to have another child. It becomes less and less subtle but was at its best with her reactions to Hank trying to get his dog to breed.

The show is certainly strong at this stage, and a pleasure to watch. But will it continue that way? I’m not sure just now, but I’m happy to keep watching.

Monday, 21 November 2016

The Land Before Time

During a difficult time for Disney, around the same time Oliver and Company was underwhelming audiences, yet before Pixar revolutionised the animated medium, it wasn’t as though animation ground to a halt. In fact, in some ways the pre-renaissance lull in Disney’s output was a golden era for rival studios like Fox and Warner Bros. And in particular, Don Bluth was the torch-bearer of high-quality animation. And one of the most well-remembered of his movies is this one, The Land Before Time.  

It’s The Secret of NiMH that really stamped Bluth’s presence on the mainstream, and it’s probably my favourite of his works. Steven Spielberg got involved for the remarkable success of An American Tail, and George Lucas got on-board too for this, a consciously ‘Bambi-with-dinosaurs’ project that hit the right buttons for mainstream success – kids love dinosaurs, animators can make spectacular volcanic landscapes and baby dinosaurs can even fill any movie’s cuteness quota within minutes.

Rewatching The Land Before Time, it’s in many ways clumsier and less satisfying than the average Disney movie, but it does far more things right than it does wrong. The biggest success is making a core group of characters that are easily understood yet not completely flat, likeable but flawed, and easy to care about despite, well, being terrible thunder lizards. Littlefoot, Cera and the gang are still the benchmark for cute dinosaurs, far more so than those in Dinosaur or even The Good Dinosaur, even though those long eyelashes are just a little weird. The film succeeds when the kids are separated from adult influences, whereupon we largely get a series of character moments, which almost always hit the right notes. Cera being headstrong and clashing with Littlefoot while adorable little Ducky gets upset doesn’t break new ground but fleshes out its characters very neatly. Though Spike and Petrie are lesser characters than the others, Spike a mute, peaceful glutton and Petrie oddly adult in the group of small kids (a role probably meant for Bluth’s favourite Dom DeLuise, if he hadn’t been off voicing Fagin in Oliver and Company), but they fill out the group well. They also reinforce the central message of diversity – despite differences, but acknowledging different strengths and weaknesses, the little dinosaurs overcome the idea that ‘Three-horns don’t play with long-necks’ as they work together, something which I’m surprised wasn’t pushed home more at the film’s climax.
Indeed, perhaps the weakest point of the movie is its ending. Yes, a goal is reached, there are happy reunions and it comes after an exciting escape scene, but there’s no real feeling of closure. The movie poises itself well to wrap up neatly, but it just doesn’t satisfy with its abrupt ending. What do Littlefoot and Cera do after this? Does Cera’s father change? What is said of Littlefoot’s mother? How does Ducky continue her interactions with the rest?

It’s true that there are sequels to answer some of these questions – no less than 13 of the things – but I’m pretty certain their quality will not match up to the original’s, and little of the creative team’s original intentions will be apparent there. But certainly, this was a good piece of animation, and paved the way for All Dogs Go to Heaven and later Anastasia. What should be celebrated is the purity of vision of The Land Before Time, the innocence that just about avoid mawkishness and the lack of cynicism or self-conscious cleverness. It’s a simple message, delivered simply and with striking and often inventive visuals, and while there were parts that could certainly have been improved, particularly at the end, overall this was a very enjoyable, undeniably enduring piece of work. 

Sunday, 20 November 2016

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic - season 6

The show that so quickly spawned a subculture continues to prove itself just another show. And that’s fine. It’s not redefining kids’ shows, it’s not deviating from established formulae and it’s not broaching surprisingly tough topics for a colourful show for smaller kids as many hoped at the start – but it is still enjoyable, easy viewing.

There are a few signs of the malaise that affects so many shows towards the end of extended runs. One is that old cliché, a new main character. The ‘Mane 6’ still have their adventures and lessons to learn, but they’re starting to achieve their goals. Rainbow Dash is a Wonderbolts reservist, thus essentially has fulfilled her life’s goal. Twilight Sparkle is princess of friendship, wings and all. Rarity has her boutique, and the others are pretty well-established and content with their lots in life now. Even the Cutie Mark Crusaders have actually completed their mission and transcended the ‘blank flank’ subplot, which is the biggest flag for the show ending soon yet – though they continue to have little adventures helping others get cutie marks, which is just a little forced.

But yes, a large part of the focus now turns to Starlight Glimmer, once an antagonist whose episode was actually a very interesting analogy for libertarianism, as she ran a village where individuality and rising above the rest was forbidden, so no pony could feel inadequate or ashamed – only for the heroes to prove, of course, that being unique and special in your own distinct way is extremely important.

In this season, she is reformed, and Twilight takes her on as a student. The little pony taken under the wing of a princess now becomes a teacher in her own right, which is quite a nice progression but another end-of-character-arc flag. As for Sunset Glimmer herself, she’s really not a very interesting character. She’s given centre-stage in both the opening two-parter and the season closer and manages to just about be likeable without actually being interesting. Her angst about her past isn’t a good hook for her character and she just needs more personality quirks in a group that not only has had five seasons of development, but had most of their key moments in the first handful of episodes. It’s a little bizarre when a random juvenile from a previous season’s antagonist race is more interesting than your new major character – though Thorax’s story’s conclusion was a little too cheesy.

Otherwise, the show plumbs the depths of classic derivative cartoon plots. Rainbow Dash makes dumb mistakes in her new position, or helps out other trainees who are in a pickle. Rarity’s new boutique has problems with its opening day and difficult staff members. Delicious home-cooking eventually wins over the hearts and minds of a society that mindlessly follows critics. It’s nothing original, though sometimes it’s very well-done – I rather enjoyed the Rashomon episode.

In the end, I’m left feeling unmoved by this Pony season. It’s not exciting, new, fresh or different any more. If they had gone the Fawlty Towers route and ended this show in its prime, it would probably have endured, but this fading into mediocrity is painful – doubly so when the writers are so keenly aware of it they make an episode bitching about fans who only like the oldest instalments of a franchise. Really, they make a character – Quibble Pants – who has this as his defining characteristic…and then he sees the error of his ways not by being shown later instalments are just as high-quality as the rest, but only by finding out what he thinks is fiction is actually reality, with a tacked-on random speech later about how old and new episode have different focuses, thus different pros and cons. It was horribly transparent, insecure writing that really got on my nerves.
Yet still I will watch on, until the end. But I’m not sure how much steam is left in this one. 

Thursday, 13 October 2016

King of the Hill: season 2

After a successful first season, King of the Hill continues with more of the same, but it’s the kind of development that really works for this kind of show. There are some episodes that take advantage of the animated medium, including the unlikely events of a huge twister and an unexpected explosion for a season cliffhanger, but generally this show’s strength is that it deals with the everyday clash between traditional conservative America and the modern world.

What I like about King of the Hill is that Hank and Peggy are no more angels than they are clowns. They are in many ways stereotypical and absurd, but they’re also good-hearted without being heroic. They do their best even if they have a lot of daft values and are prudish to the point of silliness, and equally they’re often in the right without being role models. Their small-minded conservative values are lampooned, but the left-wing hippies and bureaucrats they encounter are more ridiculous still.

There are interesting questions raised here about tolerance and progression, as when Connie wants to join the boys’ wrestling team and Peggy has to begin to question if girls and boys ought to be able to do the same things, when Hank has to accept his mother’s Jewish boyfriend and poor Bobby gets entirely the wrong idea about a black comedian’s race-based jokes.

While the more exaggerated episodes are interesting, like when Hank takes a video store to court, the Hills and Khans go to Mexico or Peggy finds out the truth about an old romantic story and hunts down a random woman who once kissed her husband, the best episodes revolve around small-scale family issues. The kids get lost in some local caves, an uppity academic organises a dig in the Hill’s back yard and Peggy’s loyalties are divided, and poor Luanne has to deal with her alcoholic, manipulative mother.

My favourite episode was a little on the exaggerated side, though. Hank has a mix-up over where to buy fish bait and gets in a whole lot of trouble. It’s just credulous enough to work while being a very silly, funny situation.

The season finale heralds a bit of a shake-up, and I think that’s needed. While I really enjoy King of the Hill, already at season 2 it runs the risk of getting stale, so the key now is a bit of variety. We’ll see in season 3!

Sunday, 9 October 2016


Don Bluth’s career reached its apex here. He’d left Disney after The Fox and the Hound, and scored a hit with my personal favourite of his movies, The Secret of NiMH. He’d also teamed up with Spielberg for the highly successful The Land Before Time, All Dogs Go to Heaven and An American Tail. Then came Anastasia, which was a big hit and is fondly remembered by numerous people only casually interested in animation as one of their favourite Disney films. While this could have been Fox’s big entry into the world of serious, epic animation, however, Bluth blew it with bloated follow-up Titan AE. It wasn’t terrible, but it was definitely a flop and Fox didn’t make another animated feature film until sure-fire cash-in The Simpsons Movie.

So in many ways Anastasia is Bluth’s masterpiece – though we shouldn’t write him off yet, as the crowd-funded Dragon’s Lair animation may yet be a big hit. It’s certainly a good animated film – grand in scale, beautiful to look at with strong narrative-driven music. It has its faults but it’s definitely up there with the best and may have the most beautiful backgrounds of any animation I’ve ever seen.

Anastasia deals with a familiar story, a kind of modern fairy tale. After the Russian revolution, Grand Duchess Anastasia is still alive, living with amnesia in a Russian orphanage. She is taken to her grandmother by men who want to defraud her, though eventually the truth shines through. Made in 1997, this film came before the remains of Alexei and either Anastasia or Maria (the other having been in the main grave) were discovered – though in no way claimed to be historically accurate, or demanded to be taken seriously. The plot is lifted in simplified form from an earlier live-action movie, so the film is not the source for the fanciful interpretation of history.

In visual terms, the film has much to recommend it, but is in places uneven. Bluth’s debt to Disney has never been so apparent, especially with squirrels that look straight out of Sword in the Stone and the cute little dog Pooka who looks a lot like Gurgi in true dog form. The facial designs are very Disney and Rasputin here owes a lot to Jafar (who of course owes a lot to Zigzag), unfortunately being just a little too comedic rather than formidable for my liking. He is a little too distant, sending minions to sabotage trains or putting visions into Anastasia’s head when she’s asleep, only appearing for a showdown at the very end and then being rather ineffectual. There’s an echo of Scar in his musical number, too, which is particularly appropriate given JimCummings provides the singing performance.

But the speaking voice comes from Christopher Lloyd, one of several actors clearly having a wonderful time here. Meg Ryan and John Cusack turn in uninteresting leading character performances, but there’s far more fun to be had with Angela Lansbury putting in a bit of class, Hank Azaria mixing a cod-Russian accent with his Chief Wiggum voice for adorable comedy sidekick Bartok the Bat, and Kelsey Grammar hamming it up as affable fat man Vlad.

The romance doesn’t sizzle, the bad guy doesn’t give any shivers down the spine and the songs don’t worm their way into the brain quite enough. The visuals are also undercut a bit by rather strange facial designs (especially Dimitri’s nose) and an overreliance on rotoscoping every time there’s a full-body shot, but these don’t drag the film down far. It’s satisfying, grandiose and rather beautiful, even if it’s not perfect and doesn’t quite have the emotional resonance to make me want to re-watch. After all, last night was the first time I sat through it again since first watching in 1998!

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Oliver & Company

Oliver & Company gets a bad rap. Released in 1988, it comes at the end of Disney’s slump, following the difficult The Black Cauldron and the forgettable The Great Mouse Detective, and just before The Little Mermaid – the recognised start of the Disney renaissance. But the problem isn’t that it’s a substandard film or an embarrassment to Disney, nor a huge departure from the established filmmaking process. It’s that Oliver and Company is just decent, which for a major studio like Disney is just adequate. There’s a lot to like here and a lot that is strong and well-constructed, but the problem is that the scale is too small and it pales beside other Disney stories that are epic in their scope and the original.

Oliver & Company is Oliver Twist with animals – and in New York. Oliver is a cute kitten while the Dodger and the rest of Fagin’s gang are dogs. Fagin himself is human, and perhaps the ugliest of all Disney’s major characters, while Bill Sykes here becomes a merciless extortionist. Instead of Mr. Brownlow, Oliver is taken in by a very cute little girl named Jenny Foxworth, who made me realise that most of Disney’s supposedly cute little girls are actually rather fussy and annoying. Jenny may be the cutest of Disney’s young girl characters.

What Oliver & Company does well is its characters. Oliver is very cute and Dodger, while he could have been developed more, was convincingly compassionate. The rest of the gang is made up of tokens from stock, but they’re above average stock characters. There’s a British bulldog who loves Shakespeare, a big but dim-witted Great Dane, and a random female dog sadly given very little personality. Cheech Marin steals the show as hyperactive Chihuahua Tito, before his more threatening role in The Lion King a few years later. Then there’s Bette Midler giving an absolutely pitch-perfect performance as a spoilt, self-centred poodle who alone makes the film worth watching. I’ll never forget the way she ‘barks’. Fagin himself is a bumbling Dom DeLuise character very like the various crows and cats he plays in Don Bluth animated features, and while his final shows of compassion are nice, more could have been made of him.

The problem here is that in making it the story of one cat who gets mixed up with a petty criminal, one rich girl and one nasty criminal, the scale stays very small. Other Disney movies are about the fate of kingdoms or preventing the wholesale slaughter of puppies. Here, well, there’s a lot of peril for our little gang and surprisingly there is also some pretty violent death, but it feels like the worst that would have happened otherwise would be a little girl got ransomed.

Thus, Oliver & Company just falls short. Even in the Dickens story the stakes are much higher, be it inheritance theft, boys being shot, likeable criminals getting hung, prostitutes wanting to escape abusive relationships or serious comments on social inequality. This adaptation keeps things very light, and the price paid is becoming forgettable. But it is a bit sad the film is virtually erased from Disney’s merchandising or theming efforts. The songs are also dated and would have done better with jazzy instrumentation, the synthesised drums anything but timeless.

But this is not to say the movie is bad at all. It’s well worth seeing and the animals are cute. There are some very funny character moments and the animation, while never stunning, is nice and smooth with some interesting and well-integrated early use of CG. But the fact is that some kind of fantasy setting or a feeling of much higher stakes would have made the film much more engaging and memorable.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

D.Gray-Man: Hallow

I have to admit, I did not expect the D.Gray-Man anime to continue. Ten years after the original began, and with the manga first going from weekly to monthly with the switch from Jump to Jump SQ, then going on a two-and-a-half-year hiatus, I just never thought we’d see an animated continuation. Which was a shame, because I’ve always had a real soft spot for Allen Walker and his motley crew of exorcists.

This short, 13-episode season continues where the last season left off, and unfortunately the chapters it covers are a bit haphazard and uneven. It’s good that the show gets to ease in again with the introduction of Timothy, whose blue mullet and cute shorts and amusing powers I’ve always enjoyed, but the problem is that no sooner is he introduced than he becomes an extremely minor background character, where he remains to the current manga chapter.

Then we have fan favourite Kanda getting his emotional backstory, as the mysterious Third Exorcist Project is undermined by the Millennium Earl by revealing Kanda and the mysterious Alma were created in the Second Exorcist Project, and using this knowledge to cause chaos. Allen gets to witness an extended memory sequence of adorable shota versions of Kanda and Alma, blessed with great strength and a healing factor, but doomed to be torn apart by the truth. It’s a nice, self-contained background story, but eats up almost the whole of this season, completely ruining its pacing.

This leaves only the final episodes to tease the story to come – which is extremely convoluted and confusing. The Millennium Earl’s true face is revealed as various new Noah make their appearance, a few of them looking way too similar to one another, and the relationship between Nea and Mana is teased. It’s a very unsatisfying cliffhanger to leave the season on, especially with so little build-up, and if this season could be kicked off by the quick and easy Timothy / Phantom Thief G story, next season would begin with – without spoiling the manga – several episodes of slow, dull, rather confusing chapters from probably the worst period of serialisation. This makes me worry we won’t see any more of the show, but where Hallow left off was a very poor end point, so I hope that’s not the case and they find a way to have the next season start in an interesting fashion, even if it means original material.

For all the small qualms I had, though, the central point is that it was a delight to see the show on the screen again. I didn’t mind all the changes in voice actors at all, though Lavi sounded a bit strange. Allen Walker remains a favourite character and with Timothy and the flashback to Alma and young Kanda, this section of the manga had a huge focus on cute adolescent boy characters. It’s nice to start seeing more depth to the Millennium Earl, and Road gets some good moments, too.

I’m still a manga reader, and that’s not going to change, but the more the manga gets adapted to an anime, the happier I’ll be, and if we get an adaptation right up until the manga’s eventual conclusion, I’ll be very happy indeed.