Top Cartoons: Man’s Best Friend

The Ren & Stimpy Show built its success on its disturbing scenarios and unique direction, so imagine my curiosity when I learned that Nickelodeon banned one of its episodes for “excessive violence.” I just had to see this sucker for myself.

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John Kricfalusi, who directed and co-wrote this cartoon, says it was one of the reasons that Nickelodeon fired him. Without his influence, the Ren & Stimpy Show would go on to slowly disintegrate. Is Man’s Best Friend really that bad? Even for its time (1992), I don’t believe it was.

It stars the terrifying George Liquor (American), who is voiced by the late Michael Pataki. Liquor is a ferociously conservative man ever lost in the fabled glory days of the 40s and 50s. To him, a man is no man without discipline, and when he adopts Ren and Stimpy from the local pet shop, he quickly puts them through a strenuous — and bizarre — training regimen.4073630_l3

My favorite scene is when Liquor teaches his pets to stay off of his couch. “In order to learn discipline,” he says, “you must learn to misbehave.” He frightens the poor animals by telling them that he hates it when his “lower life-forms” sit on his “non-living possessions.” Then, in the next instant, he tells them to do just that!

Confused and afraid, Ren and Stimpy cling to each other desperately, while Liquor commands them to break his rules. Meanwhile, this intense production music is pounding away in the background. I love this music, and I want it. If anyone, anyone knows what this musical theme is called, please tell me. I really want to know.

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The cartoon hits a climax when Liquor dons a ridiculously huge bite suit and orders Stimpy to attack him. Stimpy won’t comply, however, as he cannot bring himself to harm his master. Ren, on the other hand, is thrilled at this opportunity, and he proceeds to whale on Liquor with his “Prize Bludgeoning Oar.”

This is the violent scene that Nickelodeon objected to, but it’s far from uncomfortable. In fact, it’s quite cathartic to see the put-upon chihuahua take revenge on Liquor. There are a couple of graphic shots, but they’re hilariously over-the-top, and most of the beating takes place offscreen. In other words, it’s no worse than anything else the show got away with, so the banning leaves me scratching my head.

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Now, if the network had complained about the undertones of this cartoon, I’d be a little more understanding. Man’s Best Friend is, on paper, a story about child abuse. Liquor’s mixed-up lessons and harsh treatment are tantamount to psychological torture, but in animating this material, Kricfalusi manages to make it funny. Typical gags are forgone, replaced with shockingly tense and wild scenes that viewers can only respond to by laughing. I consider Man’s Best Friend a masterwork, a perfect expression of John K.’s one-of-a-kind style, made legendary by its “too hot for TV” status. He’s never topped it, but I don’t think he really needs to.

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Top Cartoons: Disney’s Pinocchio

Can you believe they did this shit in 1940? Now, I’m not a big fan of Disney animation, but there’s something about Pinocchio that astounds me. Whenever I see it, I have to stop and sit and watch, and keep watching it through to the end.

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I’ll say up front that it’s not the plot that mesmerizes me, as it’s pretty shallow. It’s a series of primary lessons about the dangers of the world and the importance of family, but the threads never entwine or resolve in a satisfying way. Pinocchio only escapes his troubles through luck, and the villains never receive a comeuppance; they simply vanish, to remain as hidden threats forever. The message is actually pretty bleak: beware, children, beware.

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The protagonists don’t interest me much, either. Pinocchio is believably innocent, but the saccharine sweetness of Jiminy, Gepetto, and the pets galls me. Of course, I understand that fairy tale characters aren’t known for their depth, but it would’ve been cool to see at least a hint of it somewhere. The closest the movie comes is in Jiminy’s appearance in the opening scenes: he’s obviously had some hard luck despite his good nature. This is why I think Finding Nemo is Pixar’s finest film, and one of the best animated films of all time: the hero Marlin has scars that are never fully defined, but that are recognizable nonetheless.

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No no, what amazes me about this movie is the unbelievable skill on display. The backgrounds, the design, the ANIMATION. Good Lord, the animation is amazing. I’m not just talking about the silky smoothness of it, either; I’m talking about the creative expression that went into it. Gepetto’s hands manipulate the marionette handles correctly. Stromboli’s puppets jerk and swing the way one would expect them to. Liquids of all kinds leak and splash and drip with tremendous detail.

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There’s no laziness in Pinocchio’s animation, no shortcuts taken to save time or money in production. You can see that every movement was agonized over. Even Pinocchio’s run dazzles me. I could just sit and watch him run for hours, studying and marveling. This movie is seventy-five fucking years old. How the hell did they master these principles with such artistic flourish when feature-length animation was still so young? It makes me feel inadequate as an animator.

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Now, I realize that Walt Disney Studios put twenty-two professional animators and eight animation directors to work on this film (one of them the great Preston Blair), so measuring my one-man productions against Pinocchio is completely unfair. Still, I have the advantage of technology on my side, while Disney’s artists had only pencils and paintbrushes. Watching Pinocchio makes me realize just how much I have left to learn, and right now, it looks like a pretty steep mountain.

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Chased the muse yesterday until the wee hours. Felt great. Why did I avoid it for so long? The Muse has only ever energized and fulfilled me. Why did I feel scared before? It’s not Writer’s (or Animator’s) Block; I know exactly what I want to express. It’s just that when I look at my projects sometimes, I freeze. Where is this coming from?

I have a feeling that I’m digging into something very important here. I need to find out what’s getting in the way and root it out.

We Gotta Soften the Software

Picture this: I’m fourteen, and I’m in my bedroom waiting for my brother to get off the Super Nintendo. He’s playing Madden (yes, it was around back then), and I’m getting impatient.

“Hey, when are you going to be done?” I ask.

“Why?” my brother says. “What do you want to play?”

“I want to play Mario Paint,” I say.

My brother scoffs and points at the new PC at the other side of the room.

“Hey!” he says, “you’ve got a freakin’ two-thousand-dollar Mario Paint right there!”

I didn’t admit it at the time, but he was right. Courtesy of my friends at the Modesto High School computer lab, I had Autodesk Animator and Adobe Photoshop for Windows on my 486. A professional creative suite, one far more robust than Mario Paint, was at my disposal.

So why in the hell was I jonesing for a sit-down with Nintendo’s chintzy pretender?

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Well, aside from the fact that my Super Nintendo was practically my best friend at the time, Mario Paint was just so much more approachable than anything Adobe or Autodesk have ever made. It had style and showmanship. The title screen was interactive. The menus were colorful. There was punchy, catchy music to listen to. Every tool made a sound: paintbrushes pecked at the screen, the Undo button barked, and the navigation buttons all made little clicks and clunks. And when you were ready to wipe up your mess and start making a new one, the game offered an array of screen-clearing tools that the did the job with unique 16-bit effects.

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Since this was a cartridge on a relatively feeble chunk of hardware, Mario Paint was extremely limited. You could only really paint with sixteen colors, the music composer allowed no sharps or flats, and the animation program only allowed the production of nine frames. I never made anything worth keeping on Mario Paint, but I didn’t care, because I always enjoyed using it.

It reminds me of how I feel when I mess around with Maxis’s hyper-criticized classic Spore. Maxis knew that the heart of the game was its personal connection with the player; the idea that the player’s characters and stories would always be more interesting than something a studio could present. So they poured their efforts into these delightful creation programs and built them into the game.

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Players — myself included — ate this up, and they cranked out millions upon millions of creatures even before the game was released. I can understand that! Spore’s creation tools are so intuitive and so much fun that an artist can move from vision to finished product in minutes, all the while watching it spring to life bit by bit. The creatures move and react to every adjustment the player makes to them, providing a powerful, and continuous, feeling of creative gratification.

It’s a hell of a lot more fun than the God-damned Maya tutorial I fumbled through recently. I spent hours making an un-textured butterfly-thing and then struggled just to make its wings flap. I remember nearly tearing my hair out because I couldn’t find the “edit curves” menu option, even though I had just used it minutes earlier. That tutorial was a joyless slog, and it made me depressed that I needed to learn so much confusing bullshit just to express an idea in my head. I realize that 3D computer modeling isn’t supposed to be simple, but who said it has to be so fucking intimidating?

I remember reading that people often used the Sims games as rudimentary home design tools. I can understand that! The Sims 4 is a hell of a lot more fun to use than most of these advanced 3D modeling programs, and I’m saying that as someone who usually hates building homes in The Sims.

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It’s very, very easy to forget that art is supposed to be fun. There are so many outside factors that can sap the joy of creating: deadlines, marketability, ambition, impossible standards…any one of these is enough to constipate an artist. The message becomes one of work, “MAKE THIS.” What we need are tools that feel like toys, or that at least have toy-like options, which will remind us of the Muse’s true message, which is “START WITH THIS, AND SEE WHERE IT TAKES YOU.”

I can only hope that companies like Nintendo and Maxis, who are enjoying phenomenal success with games like The Sims 4 and Super Mario Maker, will share a little of their magic, and teach creativity and productivity designers how to give their products some much-needed creative heart. Sure, it’s important to be proud of the work you create, but I’d much prefer to have a great time making it.

Desk-A-Lax and CS666

I haven’t felt terribly creative lately. Hell, I haven’t felt terribly lively lately. You know what I need? A good desk.

Maybe that needs some explanation.

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We got this desk for my room. When it arrived, I knew that Mom and Dad were going to pretty much spend the whole day in my room, so I took preemptive action and jumped on it. I fumbled my way through the instructions like a caveman with a stone chisel and eventually the damn thing was done.

Then, something weird happened: I started to move again.

Completing that desk dislodged something in me. I suddenly realized all of the overdue activities that surrounded me. I had to call the insurance company about this bimbo who backed into my car. I had to call my dad’s friend about that English teaching job in Japan. I had to contact my old job to see about my last check. I had to fill out and mail those Social Security forms. I had to email a bunch of people that I’d been neglecting. I had to find a new cell phone carrier, because AT&T fucking sucks.

I had to finish that damn cartoon.

I became an administrative dynamo. I sorted things out, sewed things up, and threw things away. I emailed a dozen people. I rearranged my dressers. I filled, emptied, and refilled the circular file. I was Felix Unger on crack, and it felt great. After I was finished with one task, I desperately searched for another one, because I didn’t want to slow down.

Finally, I knew there was no more avoiding it: I had to animate. I sat down at my spanking new desk, powered on my fancy Retina 5K iMac computer, and double-clicked on nolucknora.fla.

And the program crashed.

Seems that Adobe Flash CS6 doesn’t agree with Apple’s El Capitan update on the subject of large files. I tried a number of approaches to solving this, thinking that there was some legacy conflict or something. I uninstalled, reinstalled, shut down, restarted, copied stuff, moved stuff, erased stuff, and updated stuff, but nothing made a difference. The only thing I could think to do was move up to Adobe’s dreaded Creative Cloud if I was ever to animate again.

I don’t like Creative Cloud. I don’t want to deal with Creative Cloud, but technology, and furniture-related mental laxatives have forced my hand. Wish me luck, and feel free to send me furniture to assemble when my creative output slows down again, would you?