Thursday, 18 August 2016

The Simpsons: Season 10

I’m not adding anything new to the world of Simpsons criticism – from people far more informed than I am – when I say that where season 9 was the turning point, season 10 is where it’s clear this show isn’t what it used to be. There’s a tendency to claim that while the glory days are now behind The Simpsons, weak Simpsons is still better than most TV. But compared to most other animated sitcoms, whether Futurama or King of the Hill or South Park or even Beavis and Butthead, from here on in The Simpsons is sorely lacking. It’s right on the brink of not-worth-watching at this point, and I found some episodes decidedly tedious.

And yes, the main problem here is Homer. He’s now absolutely the show’s main character, but he’s also a self-centred, borderline psychopathic, narcissistic weirdo. He was once so relatable, and now he’s a proud criminal and unbelievable moron who I find it hard to believe anyone would like if they started watching the show from this point. No longer Fred Flintstone, he’s become more Felix the Cat, and that’s hard to stomach.

There are some decent episodes here, especially toward the beginning of the season, like ‘The Wizard of Evergreen Terrace’, where Homer actually shows some conscience after coming up with a scheme to destroy a piece of American heritage. Bart shows a bit of depth in ‘Bart the Mother’ and the moment where a whole awards ceremony is faked for Lisa is probably the funniest moment of the season, alongside Homer surveying his newly-built barbeque. Homer’s stint as a bodyguard also has its moments.

This is also one of the few example of an episode where there are two plotlines where both are good (Homer gets a pet lobster concurrently with Lisa’s cheating dilemma, and both are amusing stories). Too often, there is a strong strand and a weak one, and sadly it usually falls to Marge and Lisa to pad episodes with some dull time-wasting, like trying to find a missing jigsaw piece or getting a new doorbell.

Some ideas are good and badly-executed, like the kids setting up a pirate radio show, ending with a terrible musical number, or Homer and Ned’s trip to Vegas which jettisons all its interesting moral questions very quickly. Other ideas are just terrible, like Homer becoming friends with a Hollywood couple in a bizarre self-congratulatory celebrity episode. More could have been done with Homer looking into his roots than him being a horrible person to hippies, and the Treehouse of Horror episodes are wearing thin, especially as they are no longer the containment episodes for surrealist sequences. Trips abroad are terrible, the Scotland jaunt being weirdly tacked-on and the journey to Japan being embarrassingly less amusing and insightful than one phone call to Japanese people about Mr. Sparkle. The Steven Hawking cameo also isn’t nearly as funny as I remember it being.

This is a disappointing series where the saving graces are few and far between, and I don’t predict any improvement from here. It’s also a little sad to note this is the end of Phil Hartman’s characters Troy McClure and Lionel Hutz after his murder. He would have made a great Zapp Brannigan. 

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Finding Dory (with Piper)

Finding Dory was preceded by the short film Piper, which was a characteristically cute little story of a little sandpiper who at first is traumatised by water, but then learns to innovate by following some little hermit crabs and becomes the best little hunter around. It’s a very Pixar story, extremely cute and full of heart (though of course requires us to be highly selective with what life forms we anthropomorphise), with plenty going for it technically – not just the water effects, but the clever way the simulated depth of field imitated cameras focusing on very small things. For me, though, the strangest surprise was seeing King Crimson stalwart (and recent NyX collaborator) Adrian Belew provided the music.

The movie itself was a triumph. When the sequel to Finding Nemo was announced, people were sceptical. Finding Nemo again? But the shift of the story from Marlin to Dory was a very clever one. Dory as a character centred on the quirk of her memory loss. That made her a character who was extremely amusing but shallow – what would she forget next? Her friends? Her companions? Where did she come from? What was she doing before she met Marlin?

So here we get a quest for self-discovery from a fish with short-term memory loss. And, indeed, long-term memory loss. Dory doesn’t remember her parents, until small things begin to remind her of where she grew up. Not in the ocean, but in captivity.

Like the first film, Finding Dory is primarily a journey – or two journeys, since Marlin and Dory are separated through much of the story. On this journey, numerous characters are introduced very quickly – burly, protective but fun-loving sea-lions; insecure but loveable whales; a self-centred but good-hearted octopus; a typical small role for John Ratzenburger as a little crab quietly trimming the lawn. Sigourney Weaver steals the show without actually having a character, and there’s a very satisfying mini-cameo right at the end to tie up some loose threads from the first film.

Of course, the film relies heavily on coincidence, highly unlikely feats of action and an octopus able to thrive seemingly indefinitely out of water. But those don’t impede a simple, direct and at times very moving plot. There’s a little plot device involving shells that is particularly sweet. Having this kind of ensemble cast works well in an animation, when characters can be so distinct without having to play a very large role in the story, and the humour is always gentle, affectionate and celebrates pushing yourself a little further before and thinking outside the box.

Visually, this is also triumphant, a notable improvement from the first film, and the huge central tank of the aquarium is particularly beautiful – though of course animating something designed to be beautiful is going to result in beauty, so that helps the visual impact of the film. In some ways the ending is a little messy and one wonders if there wasn’t some huge impact on how humans view marine life, but it was also a satisfying large-scale moment in a relatively small-scale film.

Sequels are often seen as a lazy cash-in, and very often detract from the original. But this kind of sequel, made 13 years later from a place of real affection for the original, filling a gap that persists from the original storyline, is exactly how a sequel should be done. And it didn’t hurt that baby Dory was just so damn cute!

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Dofus Livre 1: Julith / Dofus Book 1: Julith

Finally watching the Wakfu OVAs put me very much in the mood for more Wakfu. There’s no more Wakfu to watch until Season 3 begins next month, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t more from the universe I could see. I still had this to watch, the first in the Dofus films, released theatrically in France earlier this year.

France has been producing some impressive animated movies in recent years, Le Jour des corneilles being a particular favourite, and it seems fitting that Ankama got something up on the big screen. And to mark the occasion, they’ve upped their game, creating something beautifully fluid and ambitious, yet again pushing the boundaries of Flash further than anyone else. I couldn’t say this movie quite stood alone, requiring a fair bit of knowledge of Joris’ background, but parents accompanying their kids or random cinemagoers probably would have enjoyed this as a standalone piece.

The story picks up three years after the end of AuxTrésors de Kerubim. Little Joris is still little, but a slightly more rebellious 10-year-old, rather than the adoring 7-year-old of the series. He still adores his papycha Kerubim, but rebels against him a little, too, especially when it comes to seeing the Boufbowl games.

However, life around Kerubim is never simple, and when the formidable Huppermage named Julith comes for the dofus Kerubim is protecting, there’s little our heroes can do to oppose her. Joris and little Lilotte, now much closer to Joris than she was in the season, have to join forces with a young rival Huppermage named Bakara and a swaggering Boufbowl player named Khan Karkass to secure an opposing Dofus and use it against Julith before she can put her wicked and very Fullmetal Alchemist-esque plan into action. And Joris might just discover a thing or two about his real parents along the way.

Where Julith really succeeds is in not taking itself too seriously. The characters have the typical Ankama eccentricity to their designs, with Julith having a very distinctive nose, Khan Karkass being the silliest Iop design yet and Bakara looking somewhat like she belongs in The Dark Crystal. There’s some wonderful bathos to some of the rather serious moments, and the fact that underpants are instrumental to the antagonist’s plan just undercuts everything nicely. Like many French animations, it also covers territory that American family fare tends to shy away from – getting drunk, flamboyant homosexuality and explicit heterosexual desire, too. It’s also both silly and rather joyful that defeating the antagonist essentially turns into a game of Boufbowl at the end.
But the heart of the piece is of course Joris and he retains his extremely likeable personality from the series. He’s still a very long way from the Master Joris we saw in Wakfu, but he’s also growing and changing. And yes, as expected, we had an explanation for why Kerubim calls him ‘Father’ in the OVAs – if not yet a similar one for Atcham.

I’m excited for more Wakfu, but I have to say far more than the peaceful, fun little series that was Aux Trésors de Kerubim, this movie made me excited for more Dofus. I’m very keen to see where things will go with Livre 2.