Friday, 23 October 2015

The Simpsons: Season 2

The second season of The Simpsons moves it into more golden-era territory, though there’s still plenty of experimenting, plenty of odd choices in character design, writing and animation that wouldn’t fit in the show later on. Yet looking back, those elements seem refreshing, fun and inventive. The show has obviously already exploded in popularity as well, with some of the biggest celebrity guests you can get making an appearance – Danny DeVito, Ringo Starr and Dustin Hoffman. Hoffman used a pseudonym, like Michael Jackson in the next season, but for a show only just finding its feet, those are pretty huge names.

There are more episodes in this season, and things have been polished. The bus stop sequence in the opening has already been scrapped, and characters like Barney, Chief Wiggum, Smithers and Ralph have more firmly-established characters. Without any kind of fanfare, the show also introduces the likes of Groundskeeper Willie and Dr. Hibbert and has fun with the first of many ‘Treehouse of Horror’ episodes – James Earl Jones also lends his distinctive voice to the episode, and it’s interesting that as originally conceived, Kang and Kodos weren’t evil at all. One of the show’s funniest gags was the part with blowing dust off the cookbook.

Bart is made a little more likeable in this season, having to grapple with his own shortcomings, apologising when his selfishness genuinely upsets others and even toiling away for some pocket money – even though he very quickly regrets that. Meanwhile, Lisa’s vulnerabilities are also explored, as well as her often absurd stubbornness, and Marge – as well as stealing many scenes with her funny little vocal reactions – provides some of the show’s biggest moments of defiance when she decides to deal with things in her surprisingly dramatic way. Her appearance in Itchy & Scratchy as a squirrel is also something very special.

A whole lot of the season, though, revolves around the pattern of Homer getting the chance to hit it rich – whether as a successful dancing mascot, as the recipient of money for suing Mr. Burns or as the brother of a very rich man – and messing it up, or realising other things are more important. This pattern isn’t actually often very inventive, but sometimes it does lead to some real insight into the family dynamic and how ultimately, their bonds will prevail despite how often they screw up or act selfishly. It’s interesting that the idea of infidelity in the marriage, which informed a lot of the first season, is now mostly replaced by the fear of things simply falling apart without outside influence, through the characters’ innate flaws.

There’s actually a lot of sentimentality in this season, but it never really oversteps the line into schmaltz. When Grandpa loses Bea, when Lisa has to say goodbye to Mr. Bergstrom, the story of Marge’s unlikely decision to date Homer and especially when Homer thinks he doesn’t have long to live all tug at the heartstrings, of course balanced with the bathos that The Simpsons does so well, and overall it makes the viewer far more invested in these characters.

And, I suppose, keep them invested for many, many years yet. 

Thursday, 8 October 2015

The Simpsons: Season 1 (1989)

I always meant to rewatch The Simpsons in order, and when the opportunity came up to watch with someone else, it seemed a good plan. I’ve watched the Tracey Ullman Show shorts before, but we wanted to simply watch the first full season, which kicks off with a Christmas special.

The early episodes of The Simpsons are often referred to with a mixture of reverence and affectionate mockery, but what is usually stressed is how different things were from how the show became, not just now but in its glory days. But what surprised me was how well-established a lot of characterisation and plot structures were. Yes, sometimes Smithers has the wrong skin tone or Barney’s hair is the same colour as his face, but there were bigger gaps I expected. For one, I often hear it said that at the beginning, Bart was the major focus of the series, but it shifted to Homer when everyone realised he was both more complex and more entertaining. But while that may be true of the marketing – which was very much Bart-focused in those early years – the same is not really true of the series. If anything, Homer and Marge are the real focal points.

Then there’s the characterisation. The idea that some Simpsons characters begin multi-faceted and were gradually boiled down to flat caricatures defined by a few exaggerated quirks is called ‘Flanderisation’, and while I haven’t really seen the worst seasons of The Simpsons, it feels like these early episodes are painted with very broad brushstrokes, so to speak. But then, there hasn’t really been that much time to flesh out secondary characters, with Mr. Burns being the most nuanced in this season. Some parts seem a bit off – I never quite felt like Lisa should find Bart’s prank phonecalls to Moe as funny as she does, and Marge leaving Maggie to wander after Bart and Homer in the woods doesn’t ring true to her character later at all, but what I was most surprised by were how well-established some traits were very early on.

I didn’t expect Sideshow Bob to be introduced so soon, let alone be so fully-realised way back in season 1. Apu has yet to be well fleshed-out but appears more than I expected him to, and Reverend Lovejoy and his wife are a bit two-dimensional at this early stage. But Barney and Moe despite odd appearances are pretty much as they will always be, as are Otto and Principal Skinner.

A recent Treehouse of Horror had fun harking back to these days – the episode was weak but it was fun to see the animators mocking the very fluid animation back then, especially the way Bart’s face would often twist (bringing back Marvin Monroe was also a clever touch). That fluidity was actually a lot of fun and rather missed. The eccentricities and unconventional risk-taking in the animation is fun and I would prefer to see more of that over the sleek and smooth animation of today.

It will be interesting to see the show develop, but the thing that I’m most surprised by is that the show had a strong and established identity even this early on, and little has really changed over the high points and low points of the show’s long history. 

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

小提琴 / Xiaotiqin / The Violin

For my first animation impressions in a few months – a break I took while I set up a new life in Japan, plus a temporary shift towards watching live-action properties – I thought something simple and artsy would be a nice idea. So this cute little animation project that made some ripples online seemed to fit the bill.

The Violin is the first animation on my blog from Singapore. Indeed, it’s the only animation from Singapore I know of, though I’m not unfamiliar with the country – it’s where my uncle lives and I’ve visited many times. A short animation from a small studio called Robot Playground Media, the film uses simple visuals reminiscent of European comic books to give a brisk overview of Singaporean history over the past 80 years. There is no dialogue – unsurprisingly, the soundtrack is dominated by the instrument of the title – but the past century has been a turbulent one for the little city-country, so there is ample opportunity to mix the schmaltz with big historical moments, and the one scene not in Singapore is of one of the atomic bombs falling on Japan.

Essentially, the concept is a lot like War Horse, only with a musical instrument rather than an animal and a story that stretches over decades rather than years. But it is similar in that the violin passes through the hands of a series of characters on the edge of important historical events. After being given to a boy on the quayside of 1930s Singapore, it is lost when the boy’s family flees the Japanese invasion, before being picked up by a representative of the allies after the war ends and given to a girl who becomes a famous violinist. As she hones her craft, Singapore struggles for independence, and later establishes a strong identity and becomes the city of skyscrapers and shopping malls it is today.

The animation is simply-executed in Flash, and while at times it is clumsy enough to be called lazy, at other times it is delicate and artful and certainly can be praised for the effort that has been put into a small-scale project.

This is a piece of animation very much tied up with its country of origin, and unashamed of it. It’s a Singaporean animation that celebrates the history of Singapore, and can show a wider audience something of Singaporean culture and national identity. It may not redefine storytelling or animation as an art form, but it doesn’t need to. It’s a small-scale animation that touches on major events, and well worth the time it takes to watch it.