Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Transformers - G1 season 1

I may have been very keen on Thundercats, and probably consider it the better cartoon today, the cartoon I loved above all others as a young child was Transformers. There's a long list of cartoons I loved and will eventually revisit - MASK, Inspector Gadget, He-Man and She-Ra, plus all the home-grown cartoons like The Raggy Dolls, The Poddington Peas, The Family Ness, Trap Door, Stoppit and Tidyup and The Shoe People. And now that we're making a list I can't leave out the quirky Mysterious Cities of Gold - need to finish Season 2 soon - and its sister Ulysses 31. Or, indeed, that Betamax to the VHS of Transformers that is the Go-Bots

For all that I loved the Transformers, though, I can't say that these episodes of the very first season were familiar to me - and they deserve their reputation for being very low-quality in production terms. Of all the big 80s cartoons, only He-Man is this clunky. There are constant colouring errors, with characters that share very similar designs constantly being confused, layering errors and plain bad animation choices. Grimlock and Devastator have robot heads that keep changing. Thundercats had its iffy parts, but every episode of Transformers is stuffed full of them - something compounded by the DVD I was watching, from the Kid Rhino remasters, had gone back to pre-broadcast masters that contained even more animation errors than made it to the original airings, for the sake of better overall picture quality. Luckily, the latest DVDs from Shout! have mostly fixed these problems - but I don't have those. 

My Transformers is really the Transformers of the latter part of the second season and the movie - which I will still defend. I didn't see much of season 3 - I don't think it made it to terrestrial television in the UK, so what episodes I saw were bought on VHS. Similarly, I don't remember a this season either, with only Heavy Metal War as part of my modest video collection. My brother and I didn't know at the time that the Marvel Comics continuity was different from that of the cartoon, so until I rewatched these initial 16 episodes I thought the Dinobots were created to deal with Shockwave but trapped in a tar pit. That's only in the comics - here, they are simply built. If anyone asks about the later need for Vector Sigma to activate new Transformers, you either hand-wave frantically and talk about supercomputers being needed to make intelligent bots but regular ones being able to make simple-minded robots, or you just point to the numerous contradictions within the cartoon (just try to trace the Constricticons' origins) and run away. 

The fact is that Transformers is simply not well thought-out. The plots are clearly utterly thrown-together and often nonsensical. Reasons for the Decepticons retreating can be as simplistic as having some foam on them. In one episode, Skyfire is honoured as having sacrificed himself for the rest, and then after only a couple more, they dig him up when they need a lift and he's alive and well. The pilot episodes end with the Transformers preparing to return to Cybertron...and then they just pretend that never happened. Most egregiously of all, the show never gives adequate reason for the robots to ever need to transform, which is rather the key point of the whole series. Soundwave will turn into a tape player to sneak into a station...but the giant robots can just rip the walls apart and walk in anyway, so why bother? Why does Reflector need to change into a camera to look at a code when the robots all have these capacities in their eyes? There's a vague sense of powering up by transforming - the Dinobots' dinosaur forms are like heavy artillery, Megatron's entire form being a gun makes him more powerful than just using his fusion cannon, and the Autobots who for whatever reason cannot fly get places faster by being vehicles, but the premise is robots in disguise, and given that they do not fool one another and are so much stronger than the puny humans that they have no need whatsoever to fool them, there's never any call for a disguise.

For this first season, I must say that I entirely sympathise with the critics who condemn the cartoon as a poorly-made excuse to sell toys. It's undeniable that this is not a cartoon made out of love for telling a story. A whole lot more effort could have been put into this. The times it looks awesome are far outweighed by the times it looks stupid, the human characters are all absurd - especially 'hacker' Chip Chase, who can somehow completely remote-control a super-advanced living robot on his 80s computer - and Megatron's vague plans to get 'energy' soon becomes bizarre, once he has access to Cybertron and could go and harvest energy anywhere. The cast is also plain outsized, so the likes of Skywarp, Blue Streak and Windcharger aren't exactly unique enough to be well-remembered. 

And yet - there is a certain sparkle here, and it's not just nostalgia talking. There's a reason Transformers excelled beyond various very similar franchises, and it wasn't just the marketing machine, which was also present with its competitors. Even if the series never really gets there with the explanations, the transforming robots thing still captures the imagination and the sound they made for it is perfect. And in common with the Go-Bots and Thundercats - especially once the Lunataks arrived - one of the key factors to Transformers being compelling is that the bad guys are not just cackling maniacs, though Megatron is little more than this, with plenty of hubris. What is crucial, though, is that he is surrounded by such a colourful crew of fellow baddies - the hilarious Starscream, always trying to usurp Megatron and mocking him yet being entirely ineffectual, the hilariously deadpan Soundwave with his awesome shoulder bazooka, and his snappy little streetpunk tape Rumble, who I'm oddly glad became the nicer-looking blue robot despite the well-known controversy. Looking into the extant fandom I found lots of cutesy 'Daddy Soundwave' art, with Rumble and Frenzy as his badly-behaved kids and Ravage and Laserbeak his pets, something which has no more support in canon than Soundwave stroking Ravage in 'Heavy Metal War', but my god it plucked my heartstrings in a funny way. 

This first series was laying the groundwork for something better. In season 2, there would be a lot more development for the primary cast, the animation would gradually improve and the new characters would often add a lot to the dynamic of the teams rather than simply exist somewhere in the background. I still feel the Transformers series is defensible - even good. But that's with a few provisos, and one of those is that it isn't judged purely on its first series. Because much as I enjoy every episode, that's with a fair bit of cringing. 

Friday, 21 February 2014


Bambi is not a familiar Disney film to me, though of course the little deer and the fate of his mother are deeply entrenched in popular culture now and I doubt it's possible for any but the youngest child to be surprised by what was reportedly such a harrowing scene for original audiences. It was not harrowing for me, however: it's a favourite family anecdote that when I, as a very young child with work-addicted parents, was taken to a theatrical re-release I reacted to Bambi's mother's disappearance by telling the rest of the cinema, 'Don't worry! She's only gone to work.'

If IMDB's rerelease years are to be trusted, I was two years old at the time, and I haven't seen the film since. At least, not all of it. I had a Bambi duvet cover in my childhood, though, and through clip shows and cameos the process of cultural osmosis has meant that most of the film's major elements were not entirely unfamiliar, but still, I was able to watch the film with a fresh eye.

Quite famously, the film didn't do particularly well on release, clashing with the Second World War, upsetting children with its middle-act bleakness, annoying hunters with its political message and making animation fans question if it had lost the point of animation by focusing on realism. But it is now considered one of the greatest Disney films, its middle act is certainly front-and-centre in any debate on emotive issues in animation and of course it has been very profitable in the long run. 

It's also another remarkable reminder of how technically accomplished Disney were in their early years. There was really no competition for them outside the United States. While Princess Iron Fan and Momotarou show animators still struggling to make characters walk naturally or seem like they have any weight at all, Bambi showcases how characters and scenery look reflected in water, heavy snowfall and storms and even a fire raging out of control, which may not quite be up to the standard of later fires, but is certainly both impressive and cleverly-done, especially in how it is often offscreen. Similarly, the character animation is superb, with the mixture of studies in animal motions and cute faces much more advanced than it may at first seem to one very familiar with the cute Disney animal aesthetic. One need only look at the rather more dated, strange motions of Friend Owl - and his gimmick of suddenly getting very close to the screen - to remember how the staples of character animation were not yet locked in place, and to remember how unusual this sort of animation was in a wider context, and how very accomplished. 

But Bambi is of course an extremely simple story. Bambi is born, a 'prince' amongst the woodland creatures, and has an adorable time learning to walk and talk with the annoying hyperactive bunny Thumper and the gender-confused skunk Flower. He is impressed by the adult deer, and by his father despite how utterly emotionally remote he is (apparently the subject of Bambi II, though I've not seen it). Then his mother is shot, which is terribly sad, but he grows up to happily find a mate and fight off nasty hunting dogs. The wicked men - never actually shown - get their comeuppance when they cause a forest fire they clearly couldn't escape from (apparently Walt had to be dissuaded from showing their agonising deaths onscreen), and the story ends optimistically with the new generation. It is very simple, and a lot less arbitrary than the likes of Pinocchio or Alice in Wonderland, yet quite surprisingly given its reputation as amongst the most babyish of the Disney films, it is also remarkably mature and uncompromising. More of it is about death and sex than it is about cutesy animals. 

Apart from the cyclical framing of death with births, Bambi has a lot in common with The Lion King. Both present their talking animals as just that, rather than giving them human bodies or funny hats, which is my preferred form of anthropomorphism. Neither have human characters, though of course they have their mark on the world and the story of Bambi. Both follow up their heart-wrenching scenes with high-energy contrasting scenes, and allow their protagonist to grow up - albeit very quickly. But there is a distinct difference in tone - The Lion King has the epic proportions of power struggles between royals, whereas Bambi is contemplative and almost detached, in a way perhaps masked by memories of Thumper skating on ice or skunk romances. 

Though the story is very light on the ground, there is certainly more to Bambi than I ever gave it credit for, and it remains part of a body of work of a studio far, far ahead of anyone else at the time. Don't let it being the story of an adorable baby deer fool you - there is some depth here, if you allow yourself to look for it. 

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

The Lego Movie

You can colour me surprised. Even with all the rave reviews and the excellent word-of-mouth, I really didn't think that The Lego Movie was going to be much good. The Lego franchise has felt overbearing to me over the past few years, with all the tie-in games - Lego Star Wars, Lego Harry Potter, Lego Marvel superheroes...none of which I've been remotely interested in. Then came the trailer for this film, full of humour that seemed to be trying way, way too hard and the less-than-appealing tagline of 'From the creators of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs'. That it was animated by Animal Logic, whose Happy Feet and Legend of the Guardians I enjoyed would have been a bit of a plus, but I didn't actually find that out until the closing credits. 

By which time, of course, I was completely converted. The thing about glib, self-effacing humour is that out of context - like in a trailer - it's a lot harder to tell that it's undermining parts of the character and just seems goofy. In the film itself, it was a lot funnier, and a lot more likeable. 

And that's what The Lego Movie has done well - be likeable. And that despite also going for a biting bit of satire on modern life, which is quite an impressive feat. Plus it is very clearly aimed at Generation X as opposed to the teeny kids of today, who I imagine were mostly confused by the trippier moments and cameos from Teenage Turtles and Lando Calrissian.

This is one way that the Lego movie could really stand out - being able to use the characters from their toy ranges and mash them together...though I'm guessing there was some kind of deal with DC so that only their comic superheroes made it. It's a hell of a lot of fun to see Batman interacting with the crew of the Millennium Falcon, especially with them all exaggerated versions of themselves, not to mention a council that includes Dumbledore, Gandalf and Abraham Lincoln in his space chair. And, of course, Michaelangelo the artist and Michaelangelo the turtle. 

From the beginning the film establishes its silly tone: a very funny prologue sees Will Ferrell's character Lord Business stomping on brilliantly ridiculous boots to overwhelm Morgan Freeman's silly old wizard character Vitruvius and establish control over the film's Macguffin. We then have the main character introduced: the construction worker Emmet, who lives in a world that despite what you may have read is far more Huxley than Orwell: everyone is kept brainlessly happy, placated by mindless entertainment and overpriced coffee instead of Soma, which has the added appeal of, y'know, actually being a recognisable critique of modern American culture. Though everything is awesome - as the earworm song goes - Emmet is not only incredibly dull, but very lonely as well. He has no real defining characteristics and no friends. His comfortably life is shattered, of course, when he sees a (beautiful) intruder on his construction site, then happens upon the 'Piece of Resistance', a piece that can put a stop to the evil plans of Lord Business. 

Now a target of Lord Business and his brilliant henchman Bad Cop - who also has a good cop face, and is voiced by Liam Neeson having the time of his life - but falls in with the faction of the Master Builders, including Vitruvius and the beautiful Wyldstyle, who have the ability to disassemble the Lego parts around them and reassemble them into things that suit their needs. With them, Emmet discovers the other worlds kept apart from his - the Wild West, the medieval world, and even the mish-mash of 'Cloud Cuckoo Land' where denizens like the intensely cutesy Uni-Kitty reside. But since Emmet has the 'Piece of Resistance', Lord Business will not rest until he is captured. 

The broader context of this, of course, ends up being that classic of self-referential toy franchises, the tension between the adult collectors who become obsessive about perfection and the idea of children actually using toys as intended and being creative. Hinted at from the start with 'relics' like highlighter pens and Vitruvius' chewed-lollipop staff, there's a live-action portion that jars a little at first but ultimately works and for all that it is an obvious concept, also seems like exactly the statement a Lego movie ought to make. 

The film perfectly balances its silly humour, its epic adventure and its more serious message about creativity being stifled - with an amusing stinger about a little sister to boot. There's an eagerness to undercut sacred cows that works particularly well here, with an incredibly goofy Green Lantern, Batman's hilarious angsty song (with a final line in the version played at the end credits that is possibly the edgiest thing I've heard in a kids' film, in a song parodying edginess no less) and a very amusing version of Lando Calrissian from Billy Dee Williams himself. Add in spices of The Matrix and Toy Story, and it’s a success story.

What the Lego Movie does, it does very well - it's hilarious, it makes you like its characters, it's irreverent and it looks good, too. It's restrained, of course, by the need to look like Lego, but while that could have been a disadvantage, it also makes for the best visual idea here, which is to make all the explosions and lasers and other visual effects be constructed from CG Lego bricks as well. Great idea. One of many, which is why this unlikely film can be such a success story. It's also nice that I'll be able to have this critical success to point to the next time someone claims that 80s cartoons being toy adverts precludes any sort of artistic merit.