Thursday, 13 October 2016

King of the Hill: season 2

After a successful first season, King of the Hill continues with more of the same, but it’s the kind of development that really works for this kind of show. There are some episodes that take advantage of the animated medium, including the unlikely events of a huge twister and an unexpected explosion for a season cliffhanger, but generally this show’s strength is that it deals with the everyday clash between traditional conservative America and the modern world.

What I like about King of the Hill is that Hank and Peggy are no more angels than they are clowns. They are in many ways stereotypical and absurd, but they’re also good-hearted without being heroic. They do their best even if they have a lot of daft values and are prudish to the point of silliness, and equally they’re often in the right without being role models. Their small-minded conservative values are lampooned, but the left-wing hippies and bureaucrats they encounter are more ridiculous still.

There are interesting questions raised here about tolerance and progression, as when Connie wants to join the boys’ wrestling team and Peggy has to begin to question if girls and boys ought to be able to do the same things, when Hank has to accept his mother’s Jewish boyfriend and poor Bobby gets entirely the wrong idea about a black comedian’s race-based jokes.

While the more exaggerated episodes are interesting, like when Hank takes a video store to court, the Hills and Khans go to Mexico or Peggy finds out the truth about an old romantic story and hunts down a random woman who once kissed her husband, the best episodes revolve around small-scale family issues. The kids get lost in some local caves, an uppity academic organises a dig in the Hill’s back yard and Peggy’s loyalties are divided, and poor Luanne has to deal with her alcoholic, manipulative mother.

My favourite episode was a little on the exaggerated side, though. Hank has a mix-up over where to buy fish bait and gets in a whole lot of trouble. It’s just credulous enough to work while being a very silly, funny situation.

The season finale heralds a bit of a shake-up, and I think that’s needed. While I really enjoy King of the Hill, already at season 2 it runs the risk of getting stale, so the key now is a bit of variety. We’ll see in season 3!

Sunday, 9 October 2016


Don Bluth’s career reached its apex here. He’d left Disney after The Fox and the Hound, and scored a hit with my personal favourite of his movies, The Secret of NiMH. He’d also teamed up with Spielberg for the highly successful The Land Before Time, All Dogs Go to Heaven and An American Tail. Then came Anastasia, which was a big hit and is fondly remembered by numerous people only casually interested in animation as one of their favourite Disney films. While this could have been Fox’s big entry into the world of serious, epic animation, however, Bluth blew it with bloated follow-up Titan AE. It wasn’t terrible, but it was definitely a flop and Fox didn’t make another animated feature film until sure-fire cash-in The Simpsons Movie.

So in many ways Anastasia is Bluth’s masterpiece – though we shouldn’t write him off yet, as the crowd-funded Dragon’s Lair animation may yet be a big hit. It’s certainly a good animated film – grand in scale, beautiful to look at with strong narrative-driven music. It has its faults but it’s definitely up there with the best and may have the most beautiful backgrounds of any animation I’ve ever seen.

Anastasia deals with a familiar story, a kind of modern fairy tale. After the Russian revolution, Grand Duchess Anastasia is still alive, living with amnesia in a Russian orphanage. She is taken to her grandmother by men who want to defraud her, though eventually the truth shines through. Made in 1997, this film came before the remains of Alexei and either Anastasia or Maria (the other having been in the main grave) were discovered – though in no way claimed to be historically accurate, or demanded to be taken seriously. The plot is lifted in simplified form from an earlier live-action movie, so the film is not the source for the fanciful interpretation of history.

In visual terms, the film has much to recommend it, but is in places uneven. Bluth’s debt to Disney has never been so apparent, especially with squirrels that look straight out of Sword in the Stone and the cute little dog Pooka who looks a lot like Gurgi in true dog form. The facial designs are very Disney and Rasputin here owes a lot to Jafar (who of course owes a lot to Zigzag), unfortunately being just a little too comedic rather than formidable for my liking. He is a little too distant, sending minions to sabotage trains or putting visions into Anastasia’s head when she’s asleep, only appearing for a showdown at the very end and then being rather ineffectual. There’s an echo of Scar in his musical number, too, which is particularly appropriate given JimCummings provides the singing performance.

But the speaking voice comes from Christopher Lloyd, one of several actors clearly having a wonderful time here. Meg Ryan and John Cusack turn in uninteresting leading character performances, but there’s far more fun to be had with Angela Lansbury putting in a bit of class, Hank Azaria mixing a cod-Russian accent with his Chief Wiggum voice for adorable comedy sidekick Bartok the Bat, and Kelsey Grammar hamming it up as affable fat man Vlad.

The romance doesn’t sizzle, the bad guy doesn’t give any shivers down the spine and the songs don’t worm their way into the brain quite enough. The visuals are also undercut a bit by rather strange facial designs (especially Dimitri’s nose) and an overreliance on rotoscoping every time there’s a full-body shot, but these don’t drag the film down far. It’s satisfying, grandiose and rather beautiful, even if it’s not perfect and doesn’t quite have the emotional resonance to make me want to re-watch. After all, last night was the first time I sat through it again since first watching in 1998!

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Oliver & Company

Oliver & Company gets a bad rap. Released in 1988, it comes at the end of Disney’s slump, following the difficult The Black Cauldron and the forgettable The Great Mouse Detective, and just before The Little Mermaid – the recognised start of the Disney renaissance. But the problem isn’t that it’s a substandard film or an embarrassment to Disney, nor a huge departure from the established filmmaking process. It’s that Oliver and Company is just decent, which for a major studio like Disney is just adequate. There’s a lot to like here and a lot that is strong and well-constructed, but the problem is that the scale is too small and it pales beside other Disney stories that are epic in their scope and the original.

Oliver & Company is Oliver Twist with animals – and in New York. Oliver is a cute kitten while the Dodger and the rest of Fagin’s gang are dogs. Fagin himself is human, and perhaps the ugliest of all Disney’s major characters, while Bill Sykes here becomes a merciless extortionist. Instead of Mr. Brownlow, Oliver is taken in by a very cute little girl named Jenny Foxworth, who made me realise that most of Disney’s supposedly cute little girls are actually rather fussy and annoying. Jenny may be the cutest of Disney’s young girl characters.

What Oliver & Company does well is its characters. Oliver is very cute and Dodger, while he could have been developed more, was convincingly compassionate. The rest of the gang is made up of tokens from stock, but they’re above average stock characters. There’s a British bulldog who loves Shakespeare, a big but dim-witted Great Dane, and a random female dog sadly given very little personality. Cheech Marin steals the show as hyperactive Chihuahua Tito, before his more threatening role in The Lion King a few years later. Then there’s Bette Midler giving an absolutely pitch-perfect performance as a spoilt, self-centred poodle who alone makes the film worth watching. I’ll never forget the way she ‘barks’. Fagin himself is a bumbling Dom DeLuise character very like the various crows and cats he plays in Don Bluth animated features, and while his final shows of compassion are nice, more could have been made of him.

The problem here is that in making it the story of one cat who gets mixed up with a petty criminal, one rich girl and one nasty criminal, the scale stays very small. Other Disney movies are about the fate of kingdoms or preventing the wholesale slaughter of puppies. Here, well, there’s a lot of peril for our little gang and surprisingly there is also some pretty violent death, but it feels like the worst that would have happened otherwise would be a little girl got ransomed.

Thus, Oliver & Company just falls short. Even in the Dickens story the stakes are much higher, be it inheritance theft, boys being shot, likeable criminals getting hung, prostitutes wanting to escape abusive relationships or serious comments on social inequality. This adaptation keeps things very light, and the price paid is becoming forgettable. But it is a bit sad the film is virtually erased from Disney’s merchandising or theming efforts. The songs are also dated and would have done better with jazzy instrumentation, the synthesised drums anything but timeless.

But this is not to say the movie is bad at all. It’s well worth seeing and the animals are cute. There are some very funny character moments and the animation, while never stunning, is nice and smooth with some interesting and well-integrated early use of CG. But the fact is that some kind of fantasy setting or a feeling of much higher stakes would have made the film much more engaging and memorable.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

D.Gray-Man: Hallow

I have to admit, I did not expect the D.Gray-Man anime to continue. Ten years after the original began, and with the manga first going from weekly to monthly with the switch from Jump to Jump SQ, then going on a two-and-a-half-year hiatus, I just never thought we’d see an animated continuation. Which was a shame, because I’ve always had a real soft spot for Allen Walker and his motley crew of exorcists.

This short, 13-episode season continues where the last season left off, and unfortunately the chapters it covers are a bit haphazard and uneven. It’s good that the show gets to ease in again with the introduction of Timothy, whose blue mullet and cute shorts and amusing powers I’ve always enjoyed, but the problem is that no sooner is he introduced than he becomes an extremely minor background character, where he remains to the current manga chapter.

Then we have fan favourite Kanda getting his emotional backstory, as the mysterious Third Exorcist Project is undermined by the Millennium Earl by revealing Kanda and the mysterious Alma were created in the Second Exorcist Project, and using this knowledge to cause chaos. Allen gets to witness an extended memory sequence of adorable shota versions of Kanda and Alma, blessed with great strength and a healing factor, but doomed to be torn apart by the truth. It’s a nice, self-contained background story, but eats up almost the whole of this season, completely ruining its pacing.

This leaves only the final episodes to tease the story to come – which is extremely convoluted and confusing. The Millennium Earl’s true face is revealed as various new Noah make their appearance, a few of them looking way too similar to one another, and the relationship between Nea and Mana is teased. It’s a very unsatisfying cliffhanger to leave the season on, especially with so little build-up, and if this season could be kicked off by the quick and easy Timothy / Phantom Thief G story, next season would begin with – without spoiling the manga – several episodes of slow, dull, rather confusing chapters from probably the worst period of serialisation. This makes me worry we won’t see any more of the show, but where Hallow left off was a very poor end point, so I hope that’s not the case and they find a way to have the next season start in an interesting fashion, even if it means original material.

For all the small qualms I had, though, the central point is that it was a delight to see the show on the screen again. I didn’t mind all the changes in voice actors at all, though Lavi sounded a bit strange. Allen Walker remains a favourite character and with Timothy and the flashback to Alma and young Kanda, this section of the manga had a huge focus on cute adolescent boy characters. It’s nice to start seeing more depth to the Millennium Earl, and Road gets some good moments, too.

I’m still a manga reader, and that’s not going to change, but the more the manga gets adapted to an anime, the happier I’ll be, and if we get an adaptation right up until the manga’s eventual conclusion, I’ll be very happy indeed.