Sunday, 18 November 2012

The Amazing World of Gumball (season 1)

Here’s quite an interesting one. And one of the things that’s interesting about it is how surprising it is that it’s interesting.

My first introduction to Gumball was in the cinema. I can’t remember which kids’ film it played before, but there was a promotion for Gumball that painted it as a zany kids’ show with only a scene with an electric wheelchair suggesting any vague semblance of oddness – other, of course, than its visual style, which was a vibrant mixture of different animation styles.

I dismissed it as not particularly interesting, but then saw threads for it on one of my few forays into 4chan’s /co/ when that was the best place to hear about Wakfu news (with plus4chan) and decided to check it out. And I’m glad I did. Despite some major flaws and annoying characters, it was a subversive, interesting and very funny show that would appeal to older stoners in much the same way Adventure Time does, even though it enjoys a fraction of its popularity.

Gumball is also interesting because after the rather ugly Hero: 108, it is the first series from the British-based Cartoon Network Development Studios Europe, though shows like The Cramp Twins have also been developed by Cartoon Network Europe, so unless Gumball kickstarts a wider process of creating hit shows, that will probably not amount to much.

Created by French-born, London-based writer Ben Bocquelet, the series does have a notable flavour of British surrealism despite its American setting and American cast. It likes pushing its boundaries, with gross-out humour a good deal more disgusting than expected, jokes hinting at race that get a little uncomfortable when you’re aware that Gumball’s voice actor is a little white boy and Darwin’s is a little black boy, and a whole lot of risqué asides. In fact, for a little blue 12-year-old cat with weird jutty hipbones, I have to say that the apparent sexualisation of Gumball gets a little weird. Every few episodes he’ll end up naked, dressed as a girl, or otherwise severely emasculated. He and Darwin are put in suggestive homoerotic situations every few minutes. I don’t get huffy about unintentional gayness as humour, but…put together holistically, it kinda borders on the creepy.

Part of why Gumball works is its simple premise and complex execution. Episodes are built around Gumball’s home life and school life. At home, he lives with his adoptive goldfish brother Darwin, who is largely his rather more intelligent lacky; his little pink rabbit sister Anaïs, who is precocious and slightly neurotic; his blue cat mother Nicole, who clearly wears the trousers in the relationship and works very hard to prove herself; and his pink rabbit father Richard, who is so look-at-me-I’m-so-random dumb that he is noticeably a prime reason people do not watch the show, sad to say. His voice actor just hams it up too much. Gumball’s chaotic home life provides the entertainment for a lot of episodes, but the best ones revolve around inadvertently torturing their neighbour Mr. Robinson. As with poor local store worker Larry, it’s amazing just how far the writers will push Mr. Robinson’s life getting ruined by the Wattersons for humour. They are second only to Gumball in how much they get tortured.

School is a more interesting climate. Gumball’s classmates include a banana, a piece of toast, a balloon (in love with a cactus), a T-Rex named Tina, a creature so huge only its feet are seen, a little robot and Gumball’s crush – a peanut, or perhaps a moose who hides inside a peanut shell. The staff include shrill and sadistic teacher Miss Simian –quite brilliant – and hippy cloud-man Mr. Small. Here it is that Gumball tends to be at his stupidest, and humiliation often follows.

Which is all to suggest that the humour of Gumball is mean-spirited, but it isn’t really. There’s a lot of exaggerated suffering, but somehow it all makes Gumball pathetic in an adorable sort of way. He’s constantly buffeted about by fate, but it goes from funny to bittersweet and makes me care about the crudely-drawn little blue kitten.

And Gumball really has its animation style going for it. Mixing traditional-style animation as done in flash, cel experiments, CG dinosaurs, CG robots, cel shading, touches of live action, cut-out animation and CG made to look like puppetry and stop-motion, it puts the episode of Sayonara Zetsubou-sensei that throws in as many animation styles as possible to shame. The result is a mess, but an intentional and brilliant one, making for a vibrant world that is very exciting for an animation buff.

It would have benefited from a good song (the Japanese dub got one!), but still, I unhesitatingly recommend it.

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