Sunday, 26 June 2016

Zootopia

Disney is in another extremely strong age, following the Fairy Tale double-whammy of Tangled and Frozen with the wonderfully big-hearted Wreck-it Ralph and Big Hero 6. Now comes Zootopia, an animal allegory that holds a mirror up to human society in the time-honoured way, but with a clever and timely message that crucially seems to please everyone.

Zootopia follows Judy Hopps the adorable anthropomorphic bunny as she follows her dream to become the first-ever rabbit police officer in the multicultural urban utopia that is Zootopia. Even though she manages to surprise everyone and make it through Police Academy as valedictorian, she is constantly underestimated until she manages to wrangle a simple investigation that soon unfurls into a conspiracy that will rock Hopps’ society to the core. But with her new odd-couple friend Nick Wilde the sly fox – and a coincidental powerful little ally – perhaps she has a shot at solving the mystery.

This is of course a look at the current fixations the world has – diversity, integration, celebrating differences or fearing them, and comes with the refreshingly stark opening message that even if you’re told platitudes about following your dreams, it’s seldom that simple. Perhaps the cleverest part is that the messages offered by the film please opposite ends of the political spectrum. For the left, there’s the central message that if you have a dream you can follow it and defy the odds to buck the trend and win over all the doubters. For the right, there’s the concurrent message that there are fundamental differences between various groups, which come with innate limitations and strengths, and draw people into different roles based on averages – even if outliers can be encouraged. Everybody is happy.

And using animals means that time-honoured jokes based on stereotypes can be gleefully employed – only about animals, so no human groups will be offended. The film is replete with sight gags based on appearance, comments about traits associated with different creatures and even jokes revolving around slurs. It’s quite nice that using animals circumvents the current problems about being ‘problematic’, or seeking to be entirely PC.

Pace-wise this is a classic smooth committee-approved script, ticking off exposition, mystery, investigation, development, disillusion, revelation and final confrontation. It’s neither hard to predict nor new, but it works very nicely and hits all the right emotional notes. I wouldn’t say it has heart to the same degree as Wreck-It Ralph or Big Hero 6, but it absolutely gives the audience engaging characters, a fascinating and amusing world, a believable story, some hard-hitting moments and material for social debate, which is pretty good going for a children’s film.

The ensemble cast is also very strong, with the likes of Idris Elba and Oscar winner J.K. Simmons having fun with broad roles, Maurice LeMarche doing a classic impersonation, Tommy Chong being Tommy Chong and Shakira rather bizarrely providing the emotional heart of the movie as well as a rather catchy Sia-penned closing number.

I watched this movie late – I don’t think it will be showing in Japan much longer, and it’s months since its American release – but I’m glad I managed to catch it on the big screen. The way Zootopia is set up for creatures of all sizes and various climates is rather charming and the level of detail in every frame is astonishing. Another hit for Disney, and another set of characters I hope will soon be regarded as beloved characters from a classic film. 

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Wakfu OVAs

As a proud Kickstarter contributor, I got these OVAs from Ankama months ago in my nice big pack of goodies. But I put off watching them until I could find a way to watch them in French with English subtitles, because the English voices don’t sit well with me after so long watching the originals – which is also why I STILL haven’t got around to finishing the new season of Mysterious Cities of Gold.

But a few days ago Ankama E-mailed mentioning their trailer for season 3, and wanting to watch it but not wanting these three specials spoiled – which I now know they would have been had I watched – I decided it was time to figure it out. I was able to do so, and once again had the pleasure of dipping into le Monde des Douze.

And what a pleasure it was. The specials were more than I had anticipated, continuing the adventures but building on them in dramatic form. We got to see a lot more familiar faces than I had expected, which was great for fanservice but also for the expansion of the world – not only Joris helped this time, but Kerubim and Atcham too (though I’m not sure when they took to calling Joris their father – maybe something the Dofus films will explain? I should probably watch Julith sometime soon!). Goultard appears too. More interesting still are the foes we see – most brilliantly, this OVA focuses on Ogrest and all the problems he causes the world. Great to see that story concluded after all this time. There is also Remington, Ush, the intriguing future threat Lady Echo, and intriguing mind-controlled cameos for comic characters Maskemane and Percimol. Nox is of course gone for good, but it was nice to see the references to him. These appearances were a lot of fun for a fan, but mostly it was just good to see the Brotherhood back in action, especially Yugo.

The story continues with Tristepin and Evangeline’s peaceful life with their cute twin girls interrupted by the call of Otomai summoning them to the Sadida kingdom. The kingdom is in trouble, inundated by Ogrest’s tears. The time has come to deal with the absurdly powerful Ogrest, but to do that, they need the Eliotrope Dofus to counter Ogrest’s Dofus. And the Dofus have gone missing...

What follows is an enjoyable quest with lots of scraps and two mightly power-ups for our main two heroes, but more crucially contains a whole lot of very sweet and engaging interactions between beloved characters. Whether Pinpin gets the power of a god matters to me far less than whether he is a good father, or if Adamai will come to understand his brother’s rash actions or the huge efforts he went to in order to preserve the World of Twelve. 
Personally, I loved this and regret that I didn’t watch it sooner. I’m a little sad it’s still so hard to get hold of and consume Wakfu materials, because it remains a firm favourite. What I’ll make of season 3 I’m not yet sure, but I’m confident I’ll enjoy it – and whatever else Ankama put out. It’s not that they can do no wrong, and I am a little worried that after Nox, the Shushus, the Eliotropes and Ogrest himself, the Siblings and perhaps the Gods themselves are going to seem a tad underwhelming. 

But I certainly haven’t had enough of Yugo, Pinpin, Amalia, Evangeline, Ruel and the rest...so I’m certainly on board for more and willing to see just how good Ankama’s follow-ups will be!

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

The Simpsons: season 8

With season 7, I felt The Simpsons had turned a corner, but season 8 felt like more of the same. It’s still mid-turn, with some very goo
 episodes, and my all-time favourite Simpsons moment (‘There’s your answer, fishbulb’). There are two of the best parody episodes in the series (X-Files and Frasier), another moment that really last
 in an otherwise episodic show (The Van Houtens’ divorce), some good episodes for Ned and Reverend Lovejoy, and the best of Seymour Skinner’s many dabbles in romance. The Frank Grimes episode is also a clever bit of meta-humour examining the premise of the show, and homer’s chili-based hallucinations are wonderfully 90s. ‘Bart After Dark’ showcases some slightly more complex issues than typical for a cartoon, and Marge gets some fantastic moments, and ‘Homer’s Phobia’ is a bit ham-fisted but brave in what it attempts.

On the other hand, this season has some real duds. The spin-off showcase is a bad idea done badly, the Poochie episode falls flat and the parody of Mary Poppins is too obvious, too lazy and definitely not funny enough to work. A James Bond villain fighting with machine guns and grenades while Homer doesn’t notice and an Italian mafia-Yakuza showdown in Evergreen Terrace just take this show too far from its relatable origins and simply don’t feel very Simpsons. Firing people from human catapults just about passes.


But at this stage, I miss the days of a normal, dysfunctional American family, but they already seem distant. The Simpsons is still kept afloat with some classic moments and clever writing, but it’s right on the edge of sinking, and that’s a shame. 

Friday, 3 June 2016

ワンパンマン / Wanpanman / One Punch Man

I realised when I posted my review of the OVAs that I had never actually written my thoughts on the first season of One Punch Man – in fact, I decided not to because those OVAs were coming out and I thought I could write everything together. But that was six months ago and I forgot all about it. Well, I’ve posted my thoughts on the OVAs, so I’d better post about season one!

One Punch Man has an interesting creation story, which really helps its success. It’s the kind of feel-good underdog success story that you can really get behind. A writer calling himself One started to publish a crudely-drawn webcomic about a superhero so strong that no matter how powerful his opponents, they can be beaten with one punch. Rather than looking incredibly cool, this hero is a rather ordinary-looking bald guy with a silly costume reminiscent of Anpanman with colours inverted, the Japanese title being a play on that classic children’s character. Not only is our caped hero Saitama goofy-looking, but he has a very detached, deadpan attitude to the world, speaking his mind and undercutting all the usual inflated rhetoric of comic book villains by using a single punch to destroy them. As a vehicle for bathos to undercut all of the clichés of a world where huge monsters and cheesy superheroes do battle, it works marvellously.

I was a little sceptical when I heard the premise. Godzilla vs Bambi is never much fun. If Saitama overcomes all obstacles with one punch, what drama can there be? But this is where One’s writing makes a difference, and why, I presume, readers were hooked despite the terrible art (which has it has to be said vastly improved by this point) and the obvious concept. Rather than Saitama’s power, it is the world he is part of and the way he balances indifference and yearning to be recognised and appreciated that makes this series so compelling.

One of the things that I like the most about One Punch Man is that in many ways it echoes HunterxHunter. One is not shy about this – some character designs are direct echoes, and one frontispiece had Saitama reading and praising HunterxHunter in Jump. The Hero Association in One Punch Man is very similar to the Hunter Association, with some very familiar dynamics.

The real compelling drama of One Punch Man is the slow recognition of Saitama’s talents. He is first acknowledged by Genos, a rather adorably pure-hearted cyborg out for revenge and powerful enough to go right to the top of the Association. Saitama, meanwhile, is held down by not being the brightest bulb, despite what his shiny head might make you think, and enters the association near the bottom – and is given the rather unfortunate name of ‘Caped Baldy’.

This premise is what got me hooked, but it’s the ensemble cast of S-Class heroes that took me over the boundary to loving this series. Each of them revealed thus far is very interesting and interacts with Saitama in a very amusing way, be it tetchy master telepath Tatsumaki or the wonderfully misleading King.

I’m delighted that One Punch Man is so popular and will soon be having its second season. It’s funny, it does smart things with its simple concept, and above all, it’s likeable. I want more!

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, season 5

I got a certain gratification from the deflation of hype that came with My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic season 4. It became very clear that this cartoon was really nothing that remarkable, one in a long line that sat alongside all the other animation I watch in a fairly normal way. The fandom started to fizzle out and it seems people are forgetting being a ‘Brony’ was ever a thing. Can’t say that’s something I’m sad about. I watch so much animation that having to disassociate myself from a subculture just for watching this as well was a little tedious.

But season 5 also lost me a little. I grew tired of it, stopped watching for a long period of time, and just decided to finish the season and start the next this past week. Trying very, very hard to keep their fandom alive with an episode full of in-jokes that the wider audience must have been baffled by in ‘Slice of Life’ rubbed me the wrong way, and after the mid-season break I just didn’t continue with the show for almost a year.

There’s a real feeling of a show running out of steam here. The Cutie Mark Crusaders are finally given a pay-off moment, which honestly I thought would be saved until the last five or six episodes of the show, and was of course pretty anticlimactic. Continued episodes with them in season 6 can only be more so. Discord episodes become less of a treat and more flogging a dead horse, and bringing yaks into the equation just came over as very patronising.

The flow of the season seemed very odd. Barely any rarity in the first half, but then way too much of her in the second, which is too much Rarara for any but her staunchest fans. Pinkie is as annoying as ever, and while I liked the writing of the episode where Applejack meets her friend who is now famous, direct Lady Gaga references are going to get very dated very quickly, and were already hardly up-to-the-minute.

It’s now very clear that Friendship is Magic is not revolutionary, is not going to break boundaries and is not going to provide entertainment that’s far more epic than expected. But I have to say, the variety of alternate universes glimpsed in the season finale, including several where the familiar characters are in a tough post-apocalyptic warrior setting, were a pleasant glimpse of that. I’d love to see those angles developed more, but sadly I know that’s not going to happen. Because this is no longer a show that has the capacity to surprise or redefine cartoons for girls. I’d like to say a new Powerpuff Girls would be more likely to accomplish that…but honestly, I don’t think we’ll see anything but the same old safe formulae there either.

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

One Punch Man: Season 1 OVAs

One Punch Man remains the darling of anime fandom at the moment, and I’m very much under its spell, especially as it keeps adding characters that really seem like nods to HunterxHunter. I’ve read all of One’s webcomic currently available, as well as the nicely redrawn manga currently exploring its own original side-arc (written by One), and thoroughly enjoying it all.

So it’s nice to also have some original material presented in animated form. And with the DVD releases came six more episodes, with original side-stories to add to what we already saw in the anime. While there are a number of side-stories in the manga that could have been adapted very nicely for this purpose, the creators decided instead to have original material. And I have to say I was quite pleased with that decision, because the days of horrible low-quality filler are past and the anime team came up with some very entertaining short side-stories. Some were very inconsequential, like Bang stalking Saitama or a hot springs trip for most of the prominent S-Class heroes (with a silly murder mystery thrown in), though all contain some really fun character moments – and I love seeing Child Emperor getting all bossy and playing detective.

But others really gave more depth to the characters, especially the first one dealing with Saitama getting his uniform. Fubuki really gets some good moments in the fifth OVA as well, adding more to the rivalry story between her and her sister Tatsumaki that has underpinned all her appearances.

Some of these episodes are a tad lazy. Not as much hard work and love goes into them as the main series. But then again, that’s par for the course. And the fact is that there’s an audience still very keen for more Wan Pan Man, so they’re a very good way to tide the fans over until the second season begins. Though personally, I’d like to see much more of the webcomic!

Thursday, 5 May 2016

The Simpsons: Season 7

I had a few problems with Season 6 of The Simpsons, feeling that in many ways, the early hints of the rot that would later infamously make the series less and less entertaining, but I have to say that other than a few episodes and that continuing feeling that it’s hard to really accept that the Simpsons are your average American family when the number of reasons they ought to be world-famous keeps mounting (Homer on tour with Hullabalooza without mentioning his successes with the B-Sharps, Bart vying for the Radioactive Boy role but nobody remembering that time he got famous on the Krusty the Clown Show), but some extremely strong episodes are in this season.

In many ways, this marks the season where the core of Simpsons characters who carried the early shows and actually developed much faster than I had expected before rewatching the whole show in order begin to seem played-out and get gradually less interesting. Bart in particular begins to be more an accessory to other stories than carrying things on his own, and the last episode of the series nicely establishes that (a) most teenagers see him as trying too hard rather than being cool and (b) sometimes his selfishness makes him look like such a jerk that it’s important that he makes amends with kinder gestures. Similarly, Homer is getting progressively more simple-minded, though he’s still a way off being a psychotic idiot. Getting morbidly obese for a more comfortable life is about as far as his crazy schemes should be able to go.

Perhaps the character to come off worst from season 7 is Mr. Burns. After the cliffhanger at the end of the previous series turned him into, as the show itself states, a cartoonish cackling villain rather than a mean but feeble old man, he begins his descent into caricature. The episode where Homer fills in for Mr. Smithers may be the last hoorah of an interesting and nuanced Mr. Burns, the one who surprised me with his complexity in the first three seasons, but when he is literally trying to kill Bart by kicking him into a safe hard enough to knock both overboard while stealing artworks, it’s easy to feel The Simpsons has moved a long way from its origins or any chance of the show portraying identifiable problems for average people.

On the other hand, this is also where the rich cast of minor characters truly begin to shine, with episodes specifically focusing on that. There is also another very strong Apu episode which is very timely even now, decades later, with illegal immigration still a hot topic. With Bart and Homer becoming less central, Lisa and Marge are also given the chance to shine and become interesting characters, Lisa’s making friends on the beach trip, newfound vegetarianism and decision to keep her town’s history a secret for the sake of others all very strong moments of development for her. It’s also nice to see the show keep attempts at continuity going here, with Lisa committing to her vegetarianism, Selma keeping Jubjub and at least Mr. Smithers remembering how central the Simpsons seem to be to his and Mr. Burns’ lives.

Marge, too, gets some strong episodes and depth. Part of the joke of her character is that she’s simple and boring in many ways, but she has her neuroses and passions too. It may seem hard to imagine her going to the work picnic and getting blind drunk on the punch by this stage, but the episode where she becomes a social climber gives her some real flaws, which go hand-in-hand with increased depth.

While the cracks are indeed showing and The Simpsons’ glory days will end soon enough, season 7 was stronger than season 6 and there are still a number of truly brilliant episodes to come before the sharp decline. And hey, even now, The Simpsons can produce good episodes. The one with Marge and Lisa competing to go to space was strong.