Thursday, 21 July 2011

Teen Titans

Teen Titans was probably the first cartoon I came into contact with that was tarred with the ‘anime rip-off’ brush, as I had steered clear of the hideous Totally Spies! and 80s cartoons after all are often a lot harder to distinguish from the other Japanese animations the same studios were creating. Teen Titans found itself in a middle ground that was often quite annoying: it didn’t really look like anime, even when directly imitating it. Its references were by and large extremely dated. And it was far, far better leaving that gimmick behind and presenting itself as a straightforward Western cartoon. Having finally seen the movie that marked the series’ swansong after its cancellation, it’s time to write down my impressions.

The basis of the story is, of course, deeply Western, drawn from the DC comics series of the same name that has run since the 60s, and a success story since the 80s, and sat well amongst the in-house shows on Cartoon Network. Probably wisely, the cartoon incarnation takes only one of the sidekick characters – Robin of Batman fame – and for the rest ignores the likes of Kid Flash and Superboy to fill the cast with the relatively obscure Titans who were the team’s first original additions in the comics – Starfire, Raven, Cyborg and Beast Boy, also known as Changeling, who was previously a member of the Doom Patrol.

These five, joined for a few episodes by Terra and with guest appearances from a secondary group, Titans East, as well as various ‘honorary Titans’, fight off various baddies from the comics with nefarious comic-book plots. Some of these are extremely annoying comic relief baddies, like the poor excuse to let animators play with psychedelia, Mad Mod – who not even Malcolm McDowell can make formidable – or the insipid Thunder and Lightning. On the other hand, there was some very rich tension in the comics to draw from, and plot arcs featuring Raven’s father, the downfall of Terra and Slade’s brilliant toying with Robin’s mind made for serious, clever and extremely compelling episodes.

This is why Teen Titans was good: when it got things right, it got them very right. It also did an excellent job of endearing characters to the audience, not just the main heroes, whose dynamics made for great comedy, but the minor players too: the likes of H.I.V.E. seemed pathetic when they appeared, but then through repeated appearances, humanisation and redemption became much more interesting.

The problem was that in between these came the unfunny comedy episodes, or the exaggerated semi-satirical, self-referential concepts that just seemed like the writers were trying much too hard and not managing to do what they were attempting. And the fact is that the anime influence was much to the detriment of everything beyond the cute character designs. The cutesy opening intro was fun and played very much into perceptions of Japanese music in the West, but sounds nothing like any anime intro I ever heard. The anime-style eyes sometimes didn’t look quite right on faces, especially Raven’s. But these were very minor beside the real problem: an attempt at anime styles of humour.

Teen Titans characters turn SD, appear at different sizes on the screen to play with ideas of space, get blown up slapstick-style and pull ridiculous simplified faces. But it just is not done right: it’s not so much the slightly-off art or the performances, it’s the pacing. Things happen at the wrong times, too fast or too slow, without the right transitions that make this sort of thing work so well in the likes of Azumanga Daioh. The only anime I’ve seen that paces things so oddly and jarringly was Fushigi Yuugi, where I think the creators got their cues from – and that fell flat too. Everything felt like it was trying to be an early 90s anime, and the most recent reference seemed to be Furi Kuri. Add to that the often borderline offensive Trouble in Tokyo movie, in which the Titans battle Astro Boy clones and catgirls while pursued by squealing schoolgirls, some of whom seem to have slitty eyes and big teeth, and you wonder how sincere this tribute to anime is. They also manage to write 楽wrong on signs and slip in a rather eye-roll-inducing tribute to Akira, another sign of how dated the frame of reference is.

Teen Titans was in many ways great for American cartoons. It had good characters and possibly the best voice acting I’ve heard on American TV, including the guy from Boy Hits Car, Scott Menville. It was on the serious side, and showed anime styles were viable in US cartoons, which may have paved the way for Avatar and was the one reason I’m grateful for the attempt. But the show would have been better without the SD and weird faces, the poor attempts at cutesy aesthetics. Or, more specifically, it would have been better doing them right.

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