Not-So-Top Cartoons: Big Hero 6

Everything about Disney’s Big Hero 6 annoys me. The characters are annoying, the art style is annoying, the setting is annoying, and the story is annoying.

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Now, I respect its goals. Disney was not aiming to make one of their trademark, safe, fun-for-all-ages, self-proclaimed masterpieces. One glimpse told me that this wasn’t a film for a thirty-eight-year-old man, or even for a thirty-eight-year-old man who likes cartoons. No, Big Hero 6 is a prepubescent slumber party for Honors students who’ve just discovered Naruto. I’d say that this movie is an anime wading pool, but it’s not even in the same waterpark. It’s wannabe anime — or as I call it, “wanime” — with a budget.

I loved anime once. I was a weird little boy who liked horror movies and violent video games, but not always for the material itself. I liked the fact that my peculiar tastes shocked the grown-ups around me, and made them look at me funny. To a kid, any attention is good attention, and being called such things as “unusual” and “mature for his age” feels good to a second child.

So, when I found out about cartoons from Japan that featured ultra-violence and scantily-clad nymphs, I was all over that shit.

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I sought it out. I found the holes in the wall that carried the early imports of MADOX-01 and Riding Bean. I rented Genesis Survivor Gaiarth. I watched Bubblegum Crisis. I read Outlanders. I even pronounced the word “manga” properly. I knew about Dragon Ball Z before Dragon Ball Z was cool.

Yeah, I was one of those people. In 1994, though, there weren’t very many of those people, so I didn’t realize just how insufferable they could be. I was one of only two kids in my high school class who even knew what anime was, so I felt okay with having a niche hobby. Being an anime-lover made me unique, and added a layer to my identity.

In the next few years, the niche became a hernia. Comic magazines printed fan art laden with blatant imitations of anime tropes. Films like Akira and Green Legend Ran crept into basic cable schedules. Blockbuster Video changed the “foreign” shelf to the “anime” shelf. My local newspaper started carrying The Boondocks. Then Marvel produced the Marvel Mangaverse, and I knew it was all over. Anime got its toehold in the western creative culture, and I was no longer special.

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I had felt special because anime hadn’t just affected my image as a person, it had affected me as an artist. I didn’t keep many drawings from my teenage years, but the ones I did still make me wince. My adolescent attempts at duplicating the shiny hair and starry eyes of animes past are quite embarrassing. I am glad to say that my current style retains an anime influence, but my old stuff was just plain “man this is cool” aping, done only to make myself feel hip, cool, and different.

When I look at Big Hero 6, I see that same aping happening all over again.

In its city of San Fransokyo (God, I feel dirty just typing that), we have all the familiar crap: the tween robotics genius, Yakuza gamblers, women in geisha-face, and a guy named “Wasabi,” because, you know, Japan. The ensemble is comprised of impossibly cheerful, fast-talking sorts (except for Gogo, who’s the moody one).

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The only likable entity in this film is the naive Baymax, an inflatable robot who just wants to help everyone. I feel that, had this movie not been so distracted with its overblown action scenes, the relationship between its hero (named “Hiro,” naturally) and his droid could have worked all on its own. It doesn’t matter that Baymax is a pale hybrid of the VGC-6OL from Robot & Frank, and the Giant from The Iron Giant, because those two movies were actually pretty good.

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Sadly, Big Hero 6 is not a heartfelt drama, but just another toy commercial, made to stimulate the kiddies with its purple laser blasts and its oh-so-Japany fantasy land. That’s okay, I guess, but I think we deserve cartoons that are better, and smarter, than this.

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You Won’t See the Doctor Now

It’s some kind of miracle. The return of one beloved 90s Comedy Central series seemed unlikely enough, so two should leave us beatific. Unfortunately, the ravages of the road leave skids and scars too deep and dark to ignore. Still, it’s nice to reconnect with old friends, even if it’s impossible to make eye contact with them.

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Back in 1995, the golden days of stand-up comedy, mellow fellow Jonathan Katz developed an unusual animated series about a put-upon psychologist who counseled comedians. In his off time, he joked with his barfly buddies, sparred with his bitchy receptionist, and slowly lost his grip on his underachieving son.

Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist was a work of introverted inspiration, with an easy spirit and a peculiar visual style. Called “Squigglevision,” this computer-drawn technique placed simple, colorful figures against grayscale backgrounds. The characters were presented in static poses, but with three or four slightly different images, so they seemed in a perpetual state of quivering tension. The look was so distinctive that the animation studio, Soup2Nuts, employed it in other series like Home Movies and Science Court as a sort of hallmark.

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The audiobook website Audible has released a fifteener — a series of fifteen episodes of fifteen minutes each. I invented the word, shut up — of all-new Dr. Katz episodes. Many of the guest comedians are returning champions, such as Ray Romano, Dom Irrera, and Janeane Garofalo, but there are a few newcomers. Tom Papa and “Weird Al” Yankovic are the ones who caught my attention, since I share their individualist worldview, and I highly recommend their episodes.

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As you probably guessed from the website that sells them (and the subtitle “Audio Files”), these are basically radio shows. No animation here. You’re meant to listen to these on the drive to work and imagine. They’re also relatively void of plot, and focus on the therapy sessions (read: comedy bits) of their guests. That’s a great loss, since the clever conversations between Katz and friends were the real heart of the original show.

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My absolute favorite scenes were the ones between Katz and his adult child Ben, voiced by Adult Swim superstar H. Jon Benjamin. These scenes were pure gold, as they presented a believable father/son relationship based on love and humor, but strained with the expectations of social responsibility.

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Sadly, Ben plays only a minor role in The Audio Files, and he only seems to appear in phone conversations. Considering Benjamin’s busy voice-acting schedule, this might have been due to scheduling difficulties, but it’s disappointing nonetheless. What’s more, age has lied hard on the voices of both actors, and their weakened efforts are a little sad to listen to.

To cover for Ben, we get Erica Rhodes playing the estranged sister of snarky secretary Laura. We get scenes of the two gals reconnecting, but I find their babyish voices grating, and honestly, I prefer not knowing too much about Laura. Her efforts to keep our therapist hero at arm’s length was a major part of her character, and getting in close to her doesn’t feel right.

What’s more, the lack of visuals removes some of the humor of the show, as the animators accompanied the confessional anecdotes with funny imagery. They were especially effective with the jokes of Dom Irrera and Mitch Hedberg, and I miss it.

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I realize that picking at this show isn’t quite fair. It’s a generous revival, and I’m grateful that it exists. I’m hoping it continues, so long as it draws its focus away from Laura and Erica, and back towards Ben and Katz. Their chemistry is a treasure, and it belongs in any spotlight it can find.

Not-So-Top Cartoons: Wreck-It Ralph

Something’s gone wrong in Videoland, and it’s not that Sarah Silverman found a way into it.

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I don’t know what to make of Wreck-It Ralph, Disney’s 2012 niche-teaser about a video game villain who just wants to be liked, dammit. Is it a morality tale? Is it an action film? Or is it just empty-headed entertainment that’s about as satisfying as a Sugar Rush?

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I’ll summarize it as best I can: there’s this arcade game called Fix-It Felix Jr., in which the player guides the friendly Felix up a building to stop the ape-like Wreck-It Ralph from busting up the place. It’s an obvious send-up of Donkey Kong, but this particular Kong is tired of getting tossed off a roof everyday. So, against the advice of his fellow bad guys, Ralph abandons his post and tries heroic deeds in other arcade games, so he can prove that he’s more than just a terrorizing thug.

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Along the way, Ralph is tormented by the violence of modern games, the gooey pitfalls of a saccharine candy-land, and the specter of a former villain who “game-jumped:” the glory hog Turbo, who caused two games to go out of order.

Like Pixar’s Toy Story or the classic Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Wreck-It Ralph presents us with a strangely complex society, with many rules and expectations for its citizens. Like the toons and toys of cartoons past, Wreck-It Ralph’s video game characters exist to please and entertain humans. As such, any individual’s attempt to rise above his or her station is considered disruptive to the community, and is thus met with disapproval. The mantra of Ralph’s support group, Bad-Anon, is, “I’m bad, and that’s good. I’ll never be good, and that’s not bad. There’s no one I’d rather be than me.”

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So the message of the film seems to be the stale old platitude of “be happy with whom you are,” but with the tacked-on amendment of, “so long as you remember your place.”

I take issue with this because, in the real world, criminals (or “bad guys”) who reform are to be commended. It takes real effort and work to improve oneself, to recognize the consequences of one’s actions, to learn empathy, to foster positivity. Even if the motivation is self-serving, i.e., to avoid prison or to save money or to raise a family, breaking away from a life of crime is indisputably a good thing, for both the group and the individual.

So is the constant urging for Ralph to stop his pipe dreams of heroism and just get back to breaking things really healthy?

Keep in mind that I only “take issue” with this. I’m not offended by it, and I understand that Ralph’s world has certain requirements in order to function, but the can of worms that this story opens isn’t, and cannot be, fully explored, and that’s frustrating. There are many perspectives and feelings to consider in a topic as complex as this, and a Disney cartoon just isn’t equipped to handle them all. You might say that Ralph’s writers were aiming to raise questions, to encourage its audiences to have lively discussions on the ride home from the theater. When a movie’s height of humor is a sassy little girl spewing doody jokes, however, I highly doubt that it has such lofty artistic goals.

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Anyway, that’s my main beef with this film: the story feels slapped together to line up with its “Roger Rabbit in Videoland” premise. And really, that’s what Wreck-It Ralph is: an updated version of Robert Zemeckis’s masterpiece, only more niche. It references the Golden Age of Video Games, when kids actually played 8-bit games in arcades, it’s got cameos from faces such as Q-Bert, M. Bison, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Clyde, and its original characters are amalgamations of existing Disney fixtures, like Mickey Mouse and The Mad Hatter.

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I actually like that last part. Fix-It Felix Jr., as played by Jack McBrayer, is basically a human Mickey Mouse. He may have been modeled after Mario, but his movements, attitude, and mannerisms are all Mickey’s. Imagine any one of his lines in Wayne Allwine’s voice and you’ll see it, I promise you. I find this idea of a postmodern update to the Mickey persona fascinating.

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(spoiler warning)

Then there’s my favorite character, King Candy, who’s voiced by Ed Wynn…as impersonated by Alan Tudyk. Put a top hat on him and you’re back in Alice’s Wonderland. I actually think the King is more like Judge Doom, in that he’s an ancient, whispered evil in disguise, revealed by accident and assuming a monstrous form.

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Turbo is, of course, a device meant to lead Ralph’s quest to a battle to save all of Videoland, but I guess that’s okay. The real antagonist of this film seems to be the insufferable weight of one’s peers, though I suppose that’s open to interpretation. There are things I like about this movie — the performances of John C. Reilly as Ralph and McBrayer as Felix, the occasionally irreverent tone, the fact that it has no songs — but the rest of Wreck-It Ralph is pretty forgettable. As with most Disney productions, it never goes too far in any direction, for fear of upsetting somebody. So instead we get fizzy, fuzzy harmlessness painted in sweets and sugars, to be ingested for a quick high before seeking out something more filling.

A post-script: yes, the animation is excellent, but that’s to be expected from Disney. Besides, computer-generated animation is so prevalent now, even in freaking live-action films, that its spectacle has become numbing. Had Disney been bold enough to depict Wreck-It Ralph in the pixel-art style of the games it was evoking, it might have earned a real high score from me.

William Loose – Mechanical Industrial Underscore

That’s the name! That’s the name of the production music I’ve been looking for. It’s the music used in the Ren & Stimpy episode Man’s Best Friend, when George Liquor orders his pets onto his couch, and scares the hell out of them.

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I’m thrilled to finally have a name, but now I can’t find the file. Supposedly it’s the property of Capitol Records, but no one seems to have it.

I want this song. There has to be a way….

Top Cartoons: Gary Larson’s Tales From the Far Side

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Like its creator, Tales From the Far Side is a misunderstood creature. A lot of people just don’t get Gary Larson, and I don’t think they got this show either. It was one of just two animated specials based on the popular comic strip, and the only one that aired in the United States. It’s a lovely bit of animation, but I think that director Marv Newland, creator of the haunting Black Hula and Bambi Meets Godzilla, pushed things a little too far into Halloween-Town for most audiences. His vision is clear right from the beginning: the score is a cloud of gloomy guitars and eerie er-hus. The camera glides past smoking farm animals and dead people before settling on a reanimated bovine. This queen of the night tells us with an piercing bleat that she’s bringing us somewhere that we might not like to go, and she doesn’t give a damn how we feel about it.

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That Newland’s direction is matched with Gary Larson’s off-center perceptions doesn’t aid the accessibility factor. In keeping with the spirit of the strip, the show is a series of disconnected jokes, many of them conceptual, so if you never dug The Far Side, you’re not going to dig this. I once watched this show with a non-fan friend, and the loudest, angriest question to come up was, “So what happened to the cow?” She was frustrated that the show had ditched the Franken-cow from the opening, and had never come back to it. She didn’t understand that The Far Side was never about the traditional, long-term payoff. Larson is foremost an idea man, and in his world, the punchline is in the premise.

We get some throwaway gags lifted straight from the funny pages, like a crow scraping its meal off the street with a spatula, but there are also more elaborate setups. My favorite is the insect airline, where the business class is packed with worker bees, and the in-flight movie is The Fly.

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There are also several “role-reversal” scenarios, not unlike Paul Driessen’s The Killing of an Eggin which arrogant humanity suffers for its transgressions against nature. Presented in the innocent pictures of the comic, this dark theme was leavened. When bolstered by motion and sound, however, it turns downright devilish.

I think it’s terrific, but most critics of the day did not. They admired the slick presentation, but found the material simple and one-note. I’m really not sure what they expected from a show based off a one-panel cartoon. I think Tales From the Far Side is the perfect amplification of the comic strip. Just watching Larson’s dumpy, bell-shaped characters take motion is a lot of fun. The animators clearly had a great time with it: everything bounces and wobbles and wiggles in a delightful fashion that suits the visual style. There’s very little dialogue, which is odd considering that the comic could be quite wordy, but I think it works. Too much speech would soften the show’s concepts, and extract us from the uncomfortable un-reality that we’re meant to be visiting.

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Some of the sequences could use a little trimming, and the finale is a big letdown, but I still think that Tales From the Far Side is a marvel. Like A Wish For Wings That Work, it’s a comic strip special whose material simply can’t cater to everyone, but that’s precisely why I love it so.

Top Non-Cartoons: Innerspace

This may be a bit on-the-nose, what with Innerspace being a Joe Dante film, starring Martin Short, and featuring a cameo by Chuck Jones. Still, I think it deserves recognition as a Non-Cartoon, if only because we just don’t see a lot of movies that are this damn crazy anymore, and certainly not done this well.

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Innerspace came out in 1987, right around the time I was heavy into game-books like Choose Your Own Adventure. I had recently picked up Explorer Destination: Brain at my school’s Book Fair and read it to tatters. I think I learned more about human biology from that silly little book than I did from any science class.

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Anyway, so jazzed was I about adventures in human anatomy that Innerspace grabbed me from its first trailer. It had informed me of the basic plot: a miniaturized pilot (Dennis Quaid) gets injected into the body of an everyman (Short), who seeks the aid of the pilot’s girlfriend (Meg Ryan) to get him out. It sounds like a decent sci-fi setup, even if it’s one that’s been done before. One thing I’ve learned, however, is that when you go into a Joe Dante picture, you never get quite what you expect.

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The film has all the elements of a sci-fi thriller, but they’re all bent into weird angles. Short’s everyman, Jack, is a neurotic mess who has nightmares about grumpy ladies attacking him at his cashier job. Quaid’s heroic pilot, Tuck, is a cocky drunk who smacks himself for a quick psych. When Tuck’s miniaturization experiment is raided by thieves, the lead scientist, Ozzy, escapes by zipping down a highway on a ten-speed. He tries to vanish into the crowd at a mall, but one of the bad guys shoots him with a gun hidden in his prosthetic hand. Ozzy saves Tuck by injecting him into Short’s ass-cheek, and then proceeds to bleed out while surrounded by performers wearing animal costumes.

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As you can see, this movie’s on the edge of Goofytown, and it doesn’t stop at the outskirts. Tuck eventually makes contact with Jack in a series of hilarious and awkward scenes that leave Jack wondering if he’s been possessed. Jack meets Ryan’s character, Lydia, who’s not only Tuck’s girlfriend, but an investigative reporter looking into the aforementioned tech thieves, and promptly falls in love with her. The two work together to trap a fence called The Cowboy (Robert Picardo), an Eastern European who’s about as far from a real cowboy as anyone can be. All the while, Jack has to avoid telling Lydia the truth about Tuck, simply because Tuck’s embarrassed about being so tiny.

Things just keep building like this, taking turn after kooky turn, until Tuck is dueling a cyborg over an ocean of bubbling stomach acid, while Jack and Lydia fly down busy roads in an out-of-control car, battling arms dealers who are the size of children.

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Don’t ask me how it all works. I’m just not that smart. I’m sure the amazing special effects help. The visuals from inside Jack’s body are quite impressive, even by today’s standards. Tuck starts his journey in Jack’s buttocks (the fat cells are really just balloons), and using the bloodstream like a highway, he visits some very real-looking eyes, inner ears, lungs, and heart valves. Using slow motion and clever sound effects, Dante makes the human body into a majestic and scary place.

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More important than the visuals, though, are the performances. Martin Short finds real  sympathy as Jack, even when he goes full screwball. Short can be grating in other films, but I think he’s palatable here because his overacting seems appropriate for the extreme situations he’s put in. He’s also grounded by Tuck, a charming rogue who’s been forced into near-powerlessness. Quaid spends most of the movie scrunched in a blinky, buttony computer console, yet he manages to project great energy. The two actors share nearly no screen time, but they somehow play off each other, with powerful and funny results. Innerspace pulls off many great feats, but making us care about its leads, in the midst of its insane plot, is by far its greatest one.

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There are so many crazy little details and characters that make Innerspace memorable that it’d do no good to try and list them all. The movie is a mural of silliness, painted corner-to-corner with colorful characters and wacky moments. A lot of it is corny, but a lot of it is inspired, and there’s an innocence to its tone and aesthetic that’s missing from comedies today. The more I watch it, the more I lament that we may never see a movie quite like it again.

If Innerspace were to be animated, it’d have to be done by Madhouse, the Japanese studio that brought us the glorious Stink Bomb. That cartoon was another tale of science gone wrong, and it also featured a bit of a dope at its center, so the parallels are there. While I doubt that even their greatest wizards could channel Dante’s sly directing style, I’m sure they could add a voltage to the film that would turn it into something special.

It’d sure be tough to replace that face-changing scene, though. I think animating that part would only make it look worse!

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