I Should Really Just Relax

So! The New Mystery Science Theater 3000 is here. That longshot, once-in-a-lifetime revival of the best television show in history turned out to be the real deal, unlike some crowd-funded projects involving cans without labels that I could mention. What’s more, we didn’t just get some one-time, big-nostalgia reunion special, we got over fifteen hours of show, rich and fully featured.

And…I don’t like it that much.

Everything a fan could want is here: the puppets, the songs, the chintzy sets. The movies are as pitiful as ever, and the riffs are rapid-fire. This fan, however, is left wanting. I admit that the following are the expected complaints of a crotchety old man who wants everything to stay the same as it ever did, but I’m going to deliver them anyway.

First off, the show feels…I don’t know…rushed. It wants to get straight to business. There’s no acknowledgment of the show’s long hiatus, and the new host, Jonah, seems almost happy to be stranded in space. Whereas the old show took a little time to characterize Joel Robinson as a gentle, fatherly figure, and Mike Nelson as the bullied newbie, I feel like Jonah has no persona to call his own. He just kinda slides into his position and does what’s expected of him. I’d say he’s like a guest on The Muppet Show, but even guests on The Muppet Show occasionally paused to wonder at their surroundings.

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Hey, everybody, let’s do an Invention Exchange! Hey, let’s have a song, whaddaya say?

I also find it baffling that Gypsy can now talk. Previously, Gypsy had to devote so much of her CPU time to controlling the ship, that she could only speak in a muddled, halting manner. She came off as slow, causing the other bots to tease her, and Joel to give her special treatment and comfort. I thought it was sweet, but I guess today’s attitudes towards autism/ADHD/any other over-diagnosed childhood illness won’t allow it, so the writers decided to play it safe. Now we gots a smart-and-sassy Gypsy…who melds right in with the others and is quickly forgotten.

Crow and Tom Servo are just okay, though their shrill, sibilant voices are difficult to distinguish from one another at times. Neither one of them has really had an opportunity for characterization, either. I haven’t seen a shred of Crow’s masochistic mania, or of Tom’s cultured pompousness. They don’t explain how they got shanghaied from Earth and stuck on the Satellite of Love again; they’re just there, going along for the ride, never questioning, never doubting.

Then there’s the villain. While nobody could replace Trace Beaulieu as the man-about-madness Dr. Clayton Forrester, I think the makers of this show could have done a hell of a lot better than Felicia Day. There’s absolutely nothing threatening, silly, or even funny about her, and I feel like her involvement is just another attempt of hers to stick her geek-baiting face into a set where lovelorn nerds will fawn over her.

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I was in The Guild! That means I like video games!

The only cast member who looks like he belongs is Patton Oswalt, though I feel he’s criminally treated playing a dope like TV’s Son of TV’s Frank. Oswalt is an intelligent and thoughtful guy; I almost feel like he should be the host. He’s so good at playing put-upon, sensitive, and optimistic characters that he’d be a natural for it. Some of the best skits on the old show involved Joel teaching the bots about the delicate aspects of human nature, and I just don’t see the happy-go-lucky Jonah pulling this off. Oswalt, on the other hand, could have been great.

I tried to tell myself that the show isn’t really about the characters, it’s about really bad movies, and the really good jokes made at their expense. Somehow, though, I just couldn’t convince myself of this. I think that the relationships between the characters, and the tone established in the host segments, are linked to the atmosphere in the theater. An emptiness in one seeps into the other. The hurried feel of the show makes the riffing weak and mechanical. My dad and I watched the first episode together, and he and I were making better jokes than Jonah and the bots within five minutes. Bear in mind that he and I were students of MST3K; we learned how to make fun of movies from Joel and Mike.

So I watched the new show for hours and hours, scratching my head about why it wasn’t lighting me up. Then, ubiquitous uber-dork Neil Patrick Harris made a cameo, and all became clear: the show’s been hijacked. It’s not the territory of struggling, self-hating comics anymore. Now it’s the land of the Happy Little Internet Elves. It’s all nerdgasms and super-squees. I wouldn’t be surprised if PewDiePie or Jonathan Coulton made appearances. I guess it’s just a product of its time: when you used to watch MST3K, you were smoking on the couch and staring at Comedy Central at two in the morning. Now you’re binging Netflix on your iPhone while working the elliptical at In-Shape. The world shifts as its denizens hold fast.

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We’ll get back to doing RiffTrax after this, right?

It’s more evidence that the problem is likely mine. Maybe I’m just griping about the show because it’s different from what it used to be, and I don’t want it to be different from what it used to be. If I can just stick with it, show it a little patience, then maybe I’ll get on board with it. After all, I had a really tough time accepting the changes that the Sci-Fi Channel made to the show back in the 90s. Eventually, however, I came to love Pearl, Bobo, and Brain Guy, as is evidenced by their cameo on the new season, which overjoyed me, and reminded me of just how much I missed them.

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

vid’s been taken down, sorry 😦

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.

These Are the Days of Lasers in the Jungle

Remember these commercials? They aired over twenty years ago. Tom Selleck narrated them. AT&T had the future of communications all mapped out, and now that it’s here, it looks even better than advertised.

I’m not going to get the watch, but I want the iPhone 6. It makes my iPhone 4S look chunky and archaic. I was really impressed when I got the 4S too; my previous phone was the hefty, non-Retina iPhone 3GS, and the jump from there was tremendous.

How fortunate I am to be so picky. How fortunate we are to see such advancements in our lifetime. Ideas that were science fiction when we were kids are coming to life even before we get old. The world might not look much different from how it was in the nineties, at least not at first glance. Look around and you’ll see the same roads, the same pollution, many of the same buildings, and many of the same problems. New threads have knitted themselves into the backbone of life, though, and the emotions, values, and thoughts of our society have changed with it. People don’t rent movies anymore. They download them to their smart televisions. They don’t use VCR tapes. They record their favorite shows and movies using hard drives connected to satellites.

People don’t carry Walkmen to listen to music anymore. They don’t strap Polaroids around their necks when they want to snap a quick photo. They don’t even need to sit at a personal computer when they want to go on the internet. For all of that, we now rely on pocket-sized cellular devices that wield more computing power than early spacecraft. The Star Trek communicator, Dick Tracy’s wristwatch, the Turtle-Com, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, they’re all real. Don’t panic, but I bet you’re holding one in your hand right now.

These are the days of miracle and wonder. Don’t cry baby, don’t cry.

Top Cartoons: South Park – Super Fun Time

http://southpark.cc.com/full-episodes/s12e07-super-fun-time

(Sorry, this is Hulu, so you’ll have to put up with some commercials.)

South Park, with its irrationally crunched production schedule, can’t help but be hit and miss. This is a pretty damn good episode, though, and it doesn’t even have to lean on its usual crutches of excessive profanity and sex. It’s pretty gory, but who cares about that these days?

This one’s about commitment to “the rules.” The kids go to the South Park Pioneer Village for a field trip, and discover the workers there are so devoted to teaching about life in 1864, that they won’t break character, even when armed robbers take them hostage and start executing them. The situation is completely over-the-top, and even though it turns violent very quickly, it’s surprisingly hilarious.

The foul, selfish Cartman and sweet, innocent Butters aren’t there to see this, though. Forced to hold hands as partners, Cartman drags Butters out of the village so he can play at an arcade. Butters hates the idea of sneaking away from the class, and he clearly doesn’t enjoy the arcade at all, but he refuses to release his grip, because “teacher said not to let go.”

Butters, who’s been my favorite South Park character since his first appearance, shines like a burnished trophy here. Being a clean, mild-mannered kid, he’s often taken advantage of, but when the terrifying prospect of “getting in trouble” hangs over his head, he resists with all his might. In this episode, Butters has the cutest panic attack you’ve ever seen, and he even hits a couple of people in an apoplectic fit. Trey Parker and Matt Stone have said that their favorite scenes to write are the ones involving Cartman and Butters, and it’s easy to see why.

In the end, Stan turns the tide of the situation with some clever, Bugs Bunny-like stunts that made me actually want to applaud. It’s a very funny mixture of cartoon silliness and extreme violence, with a touch of uncompromised sweetness dashed in. I don’t think I can say that about any other cartoons out there, and that makes Super Fun Time a Top Cartoon to me.

Top Cartoons: The Perils of Penelope Pitstop

 

Anyone who knows me knows three things:

1.) I love cartoons with sexy women.

2.) I love old plays and movies with frantic piano music and dastardly villains that the audience is invited to boo at.

3.) I do a FABULOUS Paul Lynde impression.

So it stands to reason that I would love the 70s cartoon The Perils of Penelope Pitstop. However, I don’t like it for its content. The animation is typical of Hanna-Barbera’s corner-cutting chintz — characters “shoot” out of sight instead of visibly running, explosions are represented using the same stock clouds of smoke over and over, and dramatic crashes are implied off-screen with camera shakes — and the stories are too long and repetitive. This is a babysitter show to be sure. Still, I’m a sucker for its premise. I know it’s nothing original. It’s a parody of the serial cliffhangers The Perils of Pauline, and it’s a mishmash of silent film cliches, but it’s a looney, cartoony twist on the concept, and seeing it come together just makes me smile. Its makers may not have had a lot of money, but they sure had a lot of fun.

Penelope Pitstop originally appeared in the cartoon Wacky Races, as part of an ensemble of crazy characters, any one of whom could have had his or her own series. Penelope is a stereotypical southern belle: naive, sweet, trusting, and speaking with an exaggerated accent. Every other minute she’s tangled in some overblown trap, calling “hay-ulp.” Janet Waldo nails the “little ol’ me” role, and I’m sure that many little boys growing up in the 70s dreamed of being her hero.

Her protectors, The Anthill Mob, also featured in Wacky Races, but there they had malevolent personalities and a different vehicle. Here they behave less like sneaky criminals and more like a twisted version of the Seven Dwarfs. The mobsters are voiced by Paul Winchell, Don Messick, and Mel Blanc, and I’m impressed that they were able to keep the voices of all those similar-looking characters sorted out in their heads. They always come driving to Penelope’s rescue, but they often screw things up, so it falls on the ostensibly helpless racing gal to save the day.

The real heart of Perils, though, is that no-goodnik The Hooded Claw, voiced to the hilt by the immortal Paul Lynde. Strangely, he is uncredited on the show. I wonder if he was embarrassed about starring in a cartoon. That doesn’t seem plausible to me, though; not for the man who donned a golden wig and makeup on Hollywood Squares.

The Hooded Claw, who neither wears a hood nor has a claw, is a delightfully evil guy. As the alter ego of Penelope’s legal guardian (I don’t know exactly how old she must be), the Claw wants to kill Penelope so her family fortune will pass to him. Instead of simply shooting her in the head, though, he comes up with the most ridiculous plans anyone can think of. They usually involve tying Penelope in place somewhere while something explosive, heavy, or sharp hangs over her. She’s always allowed plenty of time for someone to save her, even if that someone is herself. Of course, Claw is always foiled, shaking his fists and yelling “Blast, blast, blast,” but he’s never discouraged, and every episode ends with him smiling as he prepares a new plot.

I watch these nutty, low-budget cartoons and tilt my head in awe and admiration. What wild writing sessions must have gone down to bring these characters together? At some point, somebody said, “Hey, let’s give the chick from the racing cartoon her own backstory, and then stuff her in an old-school damsel-in-distress scenario! We’ll make Paul Lynde the bad guy, and her saviors will drive a talking car!”

Then somebody else said, “I love it!”

Today’s cartoons are pretty weird, and some of them are quite clever, but Perils is on a different level than all of them. It’s made by people that watched movies while movies were still young, and who have a deep and abiding love for that big, boisterous, and yet painfully awkward stage of the great medium. Only South Park comes this close to re-capturing that spirit, a spirit that I hope never moves on to the next world.

Witch Hazel vs. Witch Hazel

Trick or Treat

 

Broom-Stick Bunny

(Embedding doesn’t seem to work with this one 😦 Please click the link to watch.)

Here’s a good example of why I prefer Warner Bros. cartoons over Disney ones. These two cartoons both feature the phenomenal June Foray as a Halloween witch, one good, and one not-so-good.

The first cartoon is another Donald Duck comeuppance, and it has a generally kind, kid-friendly tone. The Witch Hazel in Trick or Treat is a happy-go-lucky sort who admires the costumes of Huey, Dewey, and Louie, and despises Donald’s stinginess and pranks. She helps the boys take revenge in a very unusual manner. There’s an impressive explosion when she prepares her brew, but overall there’s not a whole lot of excitement in the episode. It’s just a happy, bouncy jaunt, very much like its soft and snappy theme song. It’s all very professionally packaged, with no sharp edges to cut yourself on. John Kricfalusi calls Disney animation “feminine,” and this cartoon certainly feels that way.

Broom-Stick Bunny, on the other hand, is something else. It’s balls-out zaniness, from its crooked, technicolor backgrounds to its witty and perfectly delivered dialogue. Of course, it’s a Chuck Jones joint, so what else would you expect?

Jones’s Witch Hazel is much more than just a cheerful old potion-maker. Foray puts on a tour-de-force performance here, expressing joy, vanity, insecurity, giddiness, impatience, jealousy, and despair all in the space of seven minutes. Feminists might balk at the characterization, but everyone else will find her hilarious. It’s hard not to like a villain like this, who sings sweetly to herself, leaves clouds of hairpins in her wake, and is always on the edge of a real belly-laugh. Of course, Mel Blanc is terrific too, as both Bugs and the bored-looking genie in the mirror, but this is really Hazel’s show.

My absolute favorite moment in the cartoon is when Hazel reveals her intent to add Bugs to her brew, and the two characters collide with a brilliant musical sting:

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I love the lines here! Hazel is so far up in Bugs’s grill that he should tip over. The rigid poses are perfect for the tense situation. Best of all, though, is Hazel’s face! Instead of the expected expression of open hostility, she wears one of hardly-contained glee, and it fits perfectly with her character.

Comparing these two Witch Hazel adventures on a purely technical level, I’d say that Disney comes out looking like the superior studio. Broom-Stick Bunny looks rough and simple when put next to the silky-smooth, always-on-model motion of Trick or Treat. But where Disney is the faultless father, Warner Bros. is the fun uncle, and Broom-Stick is the cartoon I’d rather watch. It’s wonderfully written, creatively designed, and tremendously voiced. It also ends with one of the funniest twists in cartoon history. No one does cartoon comedy like Chuck Jones, and this is one of the crown jewels in his body of work.