Monday, 22 January 2018

Song of the Sea

I really do think that Cartoon Saloon’s feature films are the future. Or at least Tomm More’s films. They may not make much money right now – according to the internet, they don’t even crack $1m gross, on considerably higher budgets – but they are artistic, beautiful and hopefully after getting more and more established will eventually break through to the mainstream.

I really enjoyed The Secret of Kells, though it lacked a certain sense of scale and excitement. Song of the Sea is better in narrative and character terms, and the animation has also stepped up considerably. Underwater sequences in particular are very beautiful. This film also focuses on more well-known, though still esoteric, elements of Irish mythology, which is a great niche for this studio to have. At the same time, as has been noted elsewhere, there seem to be several nods to Ghibli here, especially in the old witch Macha. Her hair flares up like Yubaba’s and she struggles up the stairs like the Witch of the Waste. Some of the pacing choices also echo Spirited Away and its famous sudden slowdown for a train journey.

Song of the Sea is about an adorable 10-year-old boy called Ben, voiced in the sweetest lilting Irish accent by the kid from Moone Boy, and his discovery that his sister is a selkie. In Irish mythology, selkie are seals who transform into women in fur coats, and the way to keep them human is to take away that coat. Well, Ben’s mother was a selkie, and his sister is one too, but his father is deeply broken-hearted from being abandoned by the one he loves, and so keeps his daughter’s coat hidden away. Little Saoirse (‘Sheer-shuh’) doesn’t talk, only wants to be back in the ocean, making music with her seashell and regaining her voice. When they leave the isolated lighthouse they call home to stay with their granny, but attempt to return home on their own, an adventure into the world of faeries begins.

With Saoirse mute and the rest of the cast – mostly eccentric faeries like the Great Seanacha√≠ who knows all the world’s stories, recorded in strands of his hair – appearing briefly, the whole movie rests on Ben’s shoulders. And young David Rawle gives a fantastic performance to carry it all, petulant at first and resentful because he believes his little sister is the reason his beloved mother is gone, but increasingly gentle, generous and brave. He has to convey stubbornness, fear, exhilaration and wonder, and it all works very nicely with the vocal performance and a funny little character model more basic than most you’ll see in animated feature films.

The ending is a little overly convenient. In particular, I’d like an explanation as to why Mac Lir’s sadness, which is the catalyst for all the action in the story, just vanished. And it could have been explained away in a line, but I felt that was necessary for a satisfying conclusion. Otherwise, though, the spectacle and happy resolution are both impressive and moving.

The art is beautiful, the music is lovely, the performances are all good and the sense of place is very strong. There’s not that much to hook the young kids who love action and explosions, and I suspect that critics and animation buffs will have greater connections with this than kids will, but it’s a wonderful movie that I hope will touch those who take the time to watch it, and look forward to more of More’s work. 

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Powerpuff Girls: Season 6

I didn’t finish watching Powerpuff Girls for a long while. In part, it was because it’s a shame to see the end of a classic show, but mostly it was because by season 6, it wasn’t really feeling like a classic any more.

The show had been on air for over 6 years by the time it finished, and felt like it was running short on ideas. Weird and politically incorrect Rocky and Bullwinkle parodies, returning a monster baby to its mama and poor Buttercup being told she’s got no particularly special talent over the other girls don’t feel like the playful and inventive episodes of old. The season plays out without the sparkle of inventiveness or irreverence that characterised its early run. A steampunk episode, featuring the Steamypuff Kids, is pretty fun, though.

The Powerpuff Girls have endured in a way that not many similar shows have. There was the anime spinoff, the spiritually similar early My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and now a new revival that I haven’t seen yet. The designs are enduringly popular and rewatching old episodes never fails to put a smile on my face.

But the problem is that there’s only so far you can go. Sure, you can give the little kindergarten-age heroes crushes on some boys and have them go from fist-fighting with their antagonists to going camping with them, but they’re still funny little bug-eyed kids with insane super powers. There’s nothing to discover about their pasts and no angsty teenage plot arcs they can go through. So flipping to alternate worlds of the wild west or making a whole episode in the style of the Who’s concept albums starts to feel a little like scraping the barrel.

But apparently there are enough stories to tell for a new series to come out. So I guess my Powerpuff adventure doesn’t stop here.  

Monday, 8 January 2018

Adventure Time: season 9

There was a bit of confusion in regards to where season 8 ended and where season 9 begun, but now it’s been officially determined what season goes where, and season 9 covers the multi-part saga where the elementals have taken over and transformed Ooo, then the handful of episodes in the aftermath where Jake looks weird, Finn has to deal with his rogue clone Fern and there’s one more battle with a leftover bit of the Lich.

This sets up the plotline that will dominate season 10, revolving around members of Princess Bubblegum’s family, but feels like a bit of a throwaway season. It doesn’t have a strong identity, not even having been defined as a full season until a while after it finished, and is dominated by a multi-part series that not only isn’t very exciting (Slime Princess’s episode being the most memorable but mostly for being a little disturbing) but is in the shadow of much more compelling and plot-driven multi-part arcs in the season before it. The episode with Jake and his brother Jermaine is a nice human touch in a weird series, which I say in full awareness that the characters are not humans. Otherwise, though, this season is very light on the real character development and world exploration that made Adventure Time hit compelling new heights a couple of years back.

I’ve definitely moved on somewhat from Adventure Time. Obviously it’s a long way from the silly short that kicked it off, and it’s been wildly successful especially with older stoners. But it feels like time to wrap it up, because most of the intriguing background elements that were slowly revealed have now all been shown. There’s not much more to say about Simon’s past, Finn’s parentage, the Mushroom War or the weird alternate universes, and morsels like what happened to Marceline’s mom centuries before the show begins are probably best left understated.

I’ve enjoyed Adventure Time and I’m still watching season 10, but there are better shows to watch and I hope the show gracefully comes to a close soon. Ah, I see that’s what’s planned, so that feels like good timing to me. 

The Amazing World of Gumball: season 5

Season 5 of Gumball had some of the most enjoyable episodes of the show’s run, with some of the most interesting character development, though also a couple of the show’s only duds too.

Looking back to season one, Gumball has come a long way, looks a lot better, and tends to have very slick, economical writing with good jokes, very likeable characters and that same love for animation that drew me in the first place. I don’t remember ever laughing quite as hard at a cartoon as I did at the end of The Ex.

What I really like about Gumball is that while it sometimes re-treads old, familiar cartoon plotlines – love potions, working with a hated teacher to pass a test, trying to get rid of Granny’s unwanted gifts – it’s very much a cartoon that focuses on contemporary lifestyle. A lot of cartoons these days, not counting satirical comedies for adults, try to have their characters in some weird timeless setting where people don’t use the internet or have smartphones and high school is, well, the way the writing team remember it. Maybe they have a game console that bleeps and bloops and shows some 8-bit graphics. That goes hand-in-hand with the sorts of references that are safe to use – classic movies or 80s iconography, classic rock bands with iconic looks, perhaps even some classic literature. Well, Gumball throws all that out and references internet memes like Friendship Ended with Mudasir and Yu-Gi-Oh chins, has its kids use Facebook, Instagram and Wikipedia clones, catfish their grandpa and in a truly brilliant move has an episode made in collaboration with the makers of ‘Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared’ (which is superb in its own right).

There’s also a Yelp-reviews-as-blackmail episode, but South Park already did that, and it wasn’t really a highlight of either show’s run. The show’s take on social justice also went semi-viral last year, and while it was a very intelligent commentary on it often being used (especially online) by self-righteous people not because they care about the issues they’re talking about but because they want to dominate in arguments and cover their insecurities by being the most tolerant, it was a real shame the clips that circulated didn’t show how Gumball learns that he was misguided in the way he tried to debate. The show ultimately concluded that forgiveness and genuine compassion trump argumentative self-righteousness.

Other references are more safe and straightforward, and it seems like the show is embracing the referential aspect of its comedy and running with it, sometimes a bit far. I enjoyed the Final Fantasy parody episode, and the episode where Gumball tries to befriend Ocho to get to Mario works mostly for the character humour and not the references, but for example Harry Potter references fall flat (especially when two different episodes’ references to Ron being annoying and Gumball preferring Voldemort to Harry kind of clash with each other). Other than a surprising Kyary Pamyu Pamyu skit, ‘The Singing’ was one of the show’s worst episodes, a lazy compilation of unoriginal song parodies – also breaking the unwritten rule that Gumball and Darwin will always appear at least once. It’s these kinds of clip shows that don’t really work, with ‘The News’ another example, bringing to mind the worst random episodic gag episodes of Rick and Morty.

This season again devotes time to some of the more minor characters to develop them. Even Sussie gets an episode, which ends in truly bizarre, somehow uplifting style. Rocky gets an episode too, though not much new is said about him. We also get a relationship episode for Darwin, obliquely referencing his bromance with his adoptive brother, as well as a bit more development for Gumball’s grandpa Frankie, and a nice episode where Nicole reflects on what might have happened had she never met Richard. I really enjoy episodes developing the main cast, but subversions of what’s expected – like Gumball pining for his nemesis Rob when Rob decides to move on – are the most brilliant.

References to the likes of Gremlins and Jurassic Park aren’t particularly surprising, even at the same time, but unexpected references include the chest-thumping from The Wolf of Wall Street, the scream from The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Gumball has always been a show that throws in unexpected and amusing references, and this isn’t the first time we’ve seen obscurities from the Internet – How-To Basic was referenced last season, there was an episode about going too deep on Youtube and ending up with Rickrolls and Youtube Poop, and there have been art choices very reminiscent of the Yaranaika face and Dolan in the past, so I’m not surprised how this aspect of the show is developing. There’s a need to be cautious, though – too much and it will become unfunny or detract from the heart and soul of the show. Already Gumball’s malleable 2-D nature is becoming a bit overdone, especially when it’s ignored when he decides he’s the only kid without special powers. Still, so far the show isn’t overstepping and I’ll be watching the show into its sixth season happily.

Oh, and there’s one throw-back to the awkwardness with the Hot Dog Guy. Marvellous!

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Kingdom Hearts Re:coded

I don’t have a whole lot to say about Re:coded, but I wrote an entry like this for 358/2 Days and intend to do it when I get around to 2.8 and Back Cover, so it makes sense to put a little something together.

But Coded was always the least consequential of the Kingdom Hearts games. You could understand the overall story without 358/2 Days, but it filled in a lot of backstory for Roxas and Axel in particular – which is vital for trying to get us to accept Lea in KH3. Coded on the other hand could be left out altogether.

Like all the minor KH games, this was a handheld spin-off. Not just a handheld console game, but a phone game. It was later ported to the DS and pushed that hardware fairly well. It was also fun because you could make it very difficult if you wanted to. Story-wise, however, it was a bit of a dull chick.

The story revolves around the Disney characters discovering that the journal Jiminy Cricket kept has been wiped. Apparently a semi-digital creation, they use a data version of Sora to recompile the fragments of data and eliminate bugs that have somehow been included. Pete and Maleficent get involved and it all gets more convoluted, and the ending actually supplies a little more depth and clarity to Namin√©’s character and decisions, but so far at least, this game’s events haven’t had any significant repercussions. The Re:coded release added a little bridging scene between Birth By Sleep and Dream Drop Distance, which is quite fun, but doesn’t give any information other than making it clear that what will happen in KH3 is a result of defeating the other forms of Xehanort.

This HD remaster doesn’t have any new visuals, either, though it is quite nice to see the story presented in a nicer way. The cast come in to record the lines, too, Haley Joel Osment now well-practised in his slightly weird high-pitched Sora voice, which still sounds very odd coming out of the KH1 model, but that definitely makes for a more entertaining ‘movie’.

Final Mix 1.5 had a fun game, a lacklustre game and a fairly interesting movie. 2.5 has two fantastic games and a rather throwaway movie. But I have to say of the two, the latter is a far better package. 

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic season 7

There's still no end in sight for MLP, with a movie just out and the show continuing into its 7th season. 

In many ways, the show's character arcs have reached their endgame, which is quite nice to see - it forces the characters to grow and develop further from there, and means the show can't just endlessly freeze itself in the same cycle of character ambitions and dreams. The Cutie Mark Crusaders have their Cutie Marks, and now set out to help others. Rainbow Dash is a wonderbolt, and has issues as part of the team rather than as a rookie. Twilight is used to being a princess now, even if still a neurotic one, and mostly imparts lessons to others. 

Trying to make Sunset Glimmer a major character isn't working that well. The show doesn't seem all that convinced of her, not even making a place for her in the intro (which still revolve around the friendship lessons that haven't had much of a place in the show for a long while). Some of her interactions with Trixie are fun, and she's at least a welcome voice of cynicism sometimes, but she's just not interesting or likeable enough to carry episodes, and there's already a large cast of characters who can lead episodes and learn the same things she does. 

On the other hand, surprisingly it's the show starting to plumb deeper depths of its lore that keeps this season interesting amongst several dud episodes about Rarity's fashion boutique or being more friendly with the dragons. Having more of an examination of Starswirl the Bearded made for a compelling cliffhanger into the finale, even if it's very awkward writing that allows Twilight not to see the obvious consequence of her spell from the beginning. 

I also loved the episode where Rumble became the focus. He was an extremely minor colt with just one speaking line before, but there was something very cute about him and how he was one of very few boy ponies to be given the same face shape as the fillies. I always liked him in fandom and with his brother Thunderlane getting featured more, it made sense for him to have an episode. He had a bad attitude and his voice evidently dropped, but he got a great song, I liked the underlying issues his attitude was copying and generally I'd enjoy seeing him featured again, questioning the things blindly accepted by pony society. 

The show also let darker elements of Scootaloo's backstory come through some more, while not being explicitly tackled. Absent parents, abandonment issues and disability make her a potentially extremely interesting character for such a light show. Because it's so light we can't count on much more than hints of an underlying sadness, but those notes are sweet when they're hit, just like finding out more about Applejack and Applebloom's parents. 

But I still have my doubts about stretching this show out too much more. With most character arcs completed, episodes with just the 'Mane 6' hold the attention less and less, and they can't keep relying on new characters or fleshing out previously minor background ponies without a feeling of scraping the barrel. I don't mind another season or two but they really need to take on a bigger scope and work towards something bigger than how well a shop runs or whether or not your friend genuinely likes the cakes you make her. If the show continues much longer, I'd like to see it try to get more serious. 

Kung-Fu Panda 3

I thought they didn't have this film on my flight, though it was on my outbound journey, but actually it was hidden away in the 'for kids' section. Not sure why it wasn't in 'family movies' this time. 

Anyway, I found it and watched it as a final relaxing film, and it fit the bill just fine. Light entertainment with some smiles, if not the big laughs of the first films, and impressive action. 
This time around, Po has to face an undead bull voiced by JK Simmons who was once the close comrade of the old turtle master Oogway. He uses Chi to enslave the various animal masters around China, turning them into chi zombies made of jade. Because Chinese-y, I guess.

Po goes on a quest to understand himself after meeting his birth father, intending to master Chi to fight this new threat. But he only learns to be a panda, obviously neglecting that being raised by a duck, that's not fully who he is. 

There's a nice big satisfying fight at the end, where for some reason the baddie doesn't use the instant-inslaving technique that worked on everyone else, There's some spectacular animation in the fights and in Po's clever idea for dealing with the baddie, and everything gets wrapped up neatly. 

The stakes just about work, though perhaps a larger scale would have been more moving. There's a very sweet gesture of help at the end, and overall the film ends as satisfying but not quite as grandiose as its predecessors - which were of course very silly in any case. 

It's obvious why this franchise worked out so well, able to encompass silliness and awesomeness together, And of course China likes it. A trilogy is neat and the idea might get tedious after too many more iterations, but I could stomach at least a couple more. 

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

The Amazing World of Gumball: season 4

Gumball remains my go-to show for fun and relaxation, and it's fast becoming my favourite western show currently airing. Probably Adventure Time has hit greater heights in its run, but is way less consistent and not nearly as smart. 

Gumball is quietly subversive and is remarkably up-to-the-minute. They can make all the old familiar references any cartoon can make, to Terminator or Dragonball or The Legend of Zelda, safe established nostalgic works that are obvious points of reference, but this show will also put in nods to The Last of Us or even YouTube series like How To Basic. 

One of the standouts this season was the anime homage. I was a little sad only Nicole got to have a fun humanised version for her big fight, the kids ending up as limited-animation chibis, but the Toriyama tribute was spot-on and the fight pretty entertaining. Still, it was one of the laziest episodes of the season, because it did just what you'd expect a cartoon to do when parodying anime. It's much better when they throw everything at the screen, like in the Hallowe’en special where you have the schoolkids dressed up and half a dozen references thrown at the viewer at once.

Several characters get more development. Nicole and Darwin get their pasts filled in. Anais gets to be the centre of some episodes that flesh her out, still awkwardly trying to make friends or becoming a crime scene investigator in a fun send-up of gritty detective shows. Even Richard gets a modicum of depth as his biological father enters the scene. Gumball himself, meanwhile, is intentionally shallow and doesn’t need fleshing out, but there’s something very entertaining about watching him get obsessed by stupid things like finding out why one friend doesn’t slap him affectionately on the butt like he does with his other male friends, even though they all find it intensely annoying.

My favourite two episodes were the ones with the Hot Dog Guy. Gumball tries to be random by hugging this stranger for no reason, and of course it soon spirals out of control and becomes incredibly awkward, neither of them actually wanting to spend time with one another but ending up in situations where it would be rude to refuse one another’s company as things get increasingly homoerotic. Yes, weird for a kids’ cartoon. No, not really homophobic because it’s not funny from the angle that being gay is inherently comical or disgusting, but awkward misunderstandings are both funny and adorable. Yes, weirdly adorable even though one is a little blue cat and the other is a large hotdog.

I’m definitely keen to keep watching, and with the sixth season just starting, it seems I have plenty more.