Saturday, 26 November 2016

King of the Hill: season 3

Shows often hit their stride around season 3, and I’d say the same applies to King ofthe Hill, though it was extraordinarily well-shaped from the very first episodes. While a syndicated show, King of the Hill actually does interesting things with its continuity – Luanne in particular has a lot of interesting moments of development, with her boyfriend dying in the cliffhanger from the previous season and a subsequent period of soul-searching as her hair grows back. The season also introduces the potential for Hank to get a step-brother even in his middle age, the birth being part of the finale here.

Largely, though, where King of the Hill succeeds is in its complexity and dark undertones. Hank’s father Cotton is pretty central to this, being an abusive and misogynist embodiment of all the left hates about small-town right-wing America. He is central to several season highlights, including a moment of lightness when he takes the fall for Bobby in an embarrassing predicament and one good moment for Hank where he finally stands up to him to defend his mother – and his mower. The way others act around Cotton is often very funny, but for a comedy show there’s a lot that’s chilling and unpleasant about what he embodies.

This is a show with a fantastic ensemble cast, though. All Hank’s friends and family have their brilliant moments. The main gang are consistently amusing, Luanne has the show’s best one-liners, Peggy is by turns an unstoppable force of nature and incredibly naïve, especially when it comes to matters of adultery (her realisation of it making for one of the highlights of the show so far) and the way Bobby mystifies his family is by turns funny and affectionate.

Not every episode is a hit. Bill losing it and starting to impersonate his ex-wife is too far for what was previously a subtle character quirk. The dolphin episode stretches credulity and Hank’s character too far. The Rashomon episode (which I just noted was a family trope in my thoughts on My Little Pony:Friendship is Magic season 6) was a little slow and exaggerated.

But these were certainly the minority, and the vast majority of the episodes were very funny and often quite touching. It’s the episodes that are centred on small problems dealing with the modern world that shine, like Peggy playing in a softball team or the problems with taking Bobby hunting. I also liked episodes centred on Kahn, who is a remarkably subtle and multifaceted character for what would in many ways have been a token outsider role. Probably the best element on the show’s more complex side is Peggy’s deep-seated sadness about not being able to have another child. It becomes less and less subtle but was at its best with her reactions to Hank trying to get his dog to breed.

The show is certainly strong at this stage, and a pleasure to watch. But will it continue that way? I’m not sure just now, but I’m happy to keep watching.

Monday, 21 November 2016

The Land Before Time

During a difficult time for Disney, around the same time Oliver and Company was underwhelming audiences, yet before Pixar revolutionised the animated medium, it wasn’t as though animation ground to a halt. In fact, in some ways the pre-renaissance lull in Disney’s output was a golden era for rival studios like Fox and Warner Bros. And in particular, Don Bluth was the torch-bearer of high-quality animation. And one of the most well-remembered of his movies is this one, The Land Before Time.  

It’s The Secret of NiMH that really stamped Bluth’s presence on the mainstream, and it’s probably my favourite of his works. Steven Spielberg got involved for the remarkable success of An American Tail, and George Lucas got on-board too for this, a consciously ‘Bambi-with-dinosaurs’ project that hit the right buttons for mainstream success – kids love dinosaurs, animators can make spectacular volcanic landscapes and baby dinosaurs can even fill any movie’s cuteness quota within minutes.

Rewatching The Land Before Time, it’s in many ways clumsier and less satisfying than the average Disney movie, but it does far more things right than it does wrong. The biggest success is making a core group of characters that are easily understood yet not completely flat, likeable but flawed, and easy to care about despite, well, being terrible thunder lizards. Littlefoot, Cera and the gang are still the benchmark for cute dinosaurs, far more so than those in Dinosaur or even The Good Dinosaur, even though those long eyelashes are just a little weird. The film succeeds when the kids are separated from adult influences, whereupon we largely get a series of character moments, which almost always hit the right notes. Cera being headstrong and clashing with Littlefoot while adorable little Ducky gets upset doesn’t break new ground but fleshes out its characters very neatly. Though Spike and Petrie are lesser characters than the others, Spike a mute, peaceful glutton and Petrie oddly adult in the group of small kids (a role probably meant for Bluth’s favourite Dom DeLuise, if he hadn’t been off voicing Fagin in Oliver and Company), but they fill out the group well. They also reinforce the central message of diversity – despite differences, but acknowledging different strengths and weaknesses, the little dinosaurs overcome the idea that ‘Three-horns don’t play with long-necks’ as they work together, something which I’m surprised wasn’t pushed home more at the film’s climax.
Indeed, perhaps the weakest point of the movie is its ending. Yes, a goal is reached, there are happy reunions and it comes after an exciting escape scene, but there’s no real feeling of closure. The movie poises itself well to wrap up neatly, but it just doesn’t satisfy with its abrupt ending. What do Littlefoot and Cera do after this? Does Cera’s father change? What is said of Littlefoot’s mother? How does Ducky continue her interactions with the rest?

It’s true that there are sequels to answer some of these questions – no less than 13 of the things – but I’m pretty certain their quality will not match up to the original’s, and little of the creative team’s original intentions will be apparent there. But certainly, this was a good piece of animation, and paved the way for All Dogs Go to Heaven and later Anastasia. What should be celebrated is the purity of vision of The Land Before Time, the innocence that just about avoid mawkishness and the lack of cynicism or self-conscious cleverness. It’s a simple message, delivered simply and with striking and often inventive visuals, and while there were parts that could certainly have been improved, particularly at the end, overall this was a very enjoyable, undeniably enduring piece of work. 

Sunday, 20 November 2016

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic - season 6

The show that so quickly spawned a subculture continues to prove itself just another show. And that’s fine. It’s not redefining kids’ shows, it’s not deviating from established formulae and it’s not broaching surprisingly tough topics for a colourful show for smaller kids as many hoped at the start – but it is still enjoyable, easy viewing.

There are a few signs of the malaise that affects so many shows towards the end of extended runs. One is that old cliché, a new main character. The ‘Mane 6’ still have their adventures and lessons to learn, but they’re starting to achieve their goals. Rainbow Dash is a Wonderbolts reservist, thus essentially has fulfilled her life’s goal. Twilight Sparkle is princess of friendship, wings and all. Rarity has her boutique, and the others are pretty well-established and content with their lots in life now. Even the Cutie Mark Crusaders have actually completed their mission and transcended the ‘blank flank’ subplot, which is the biggest flag for the show ending soon yet – though they continue to have little adventures helping others get cutie marks, which is just a little forced.

But yes, a large part of the focus now turns to Starlight Glimmer, once an antagonist whose episode was actually a very interesting analogy for libertarianism, as she ran a village where individuality and rising above the rest was forbidden, so no pony could feel inadequate or ashamed – only for the heroes to prove, of course, that being unique and special in your own distinct way is extremely important.

In this season, she is reformed, and Twilight takes her on as a student. The little pony taken under the wing of a princess now becomes a teacher in her own right, which is quite a nice progression but another end-of-character-arc flag. As for Sunset Glimmer herself, she’s really not a very interesting character. She’s given centre-stage in both the opening two-parter and the season closer and manages to just about be likeable without actually being interesting. Her angst about her past isn’t a good hook for her character and she just needs more personality quirks in a group that not only has had five seasons of development, but had most of their key moments in the first handful of episodes. It’s a little bizarre when a random juvenile from a previous season’s antagonist race is more interesting than your new major character – though Thorax’s story’s conclusion was a little too cheesy.

Otherwise, the show plumbs the depths of classic derivative cartoon plots. Rainbow Dash makes dumb mistakes in her new position, or helps out other trainees who are in a pickle. Rarity’s new boutique has problems with its opening day and difficult staff members. Delicious home-cooking eventually wins over the hearts and minds of a society that mindlessly follows critics. It’s nothing original, though sometimes it’s very well-done – I rather enjoyed the Rashomon episode.

In the end, I’m left feeling unmoved by this Pony season. It’s not exciting, new, fresh or different any more. If they had gone the Fawlty Towers route and ended this show in its prime, it would probably have endured, but this fading into mediocrity is painful – doubly so when the writers are so keenly aware of it they make an episode bitching about fans who only like the oldest instalments of a franchise. Really, they make a character – Quibble Pants – who has this as his defining characteristic…and then he sees the error of his ways not by being shown later instalments are just as high-quality as the rest, but only by finding out what he thinks is fiction is actually reality, with a tacked-on random speech later about how old and new episode have different focuses, thus different pros and cons. It was horribly transparent, insecure writing that really got on my nerves.
Yet still I will watch on, until the end. But I’m not sure how much steam is left in this one.