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.

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Top Non-Cartoons: Army of Darkness

I must confess: I was kinda leading up to this.

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Let me begin by saying that I don’t like Army of Darkness. In fact, part of me — probably the serious, “artistic” part — hates Army of Darkness. I say this with no small amount of frustration, because I’m the kind of person who should love Army of Darkness. I love cheesy horror. I love irreverent comedy. I love bloody, anarchic, over-the-top violence for its own sake, and I love any movie that goes out of its way to piss people off — especially if those people are the film’s own fans. Why shouldn’t I enjoy Sam Raimi’s beloved cult classic?

Well, it’s probably because the movie is so stupid.

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Here’s the third entry in a series lauded for its original approach to horror, and it gives us some of the clumsiest acting, the dumbest gags, and the most embarrassing stop-motion I’ve ever seen. The first time I caught AoD on cable, I came in at the windmill/mirror scene, and I spent the next ten minutes scratching my head, squinting my eyes, and wondering just how in hell a movie like this could get made. What right-minded studio executive would greenlight such a travesty?

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I mean…look at it. Extreme mugging. Unfunny scenes drawn to their absolute limits. Three Stooges eye pokes with cheap-o skeleton hands. Zombie dolls tossed at actors to simulate fighting. I could forgive the bad effects if the comedy was sharp, but this stuff is so broad I almost feel bad for it. And I don’t buy the whole “it’s shitty on purpose” argument. There’s confidence here, and that makes it all the less pleasant. If I had seen this movie in the theater, I would have walked out of it, even at thirteen years old. It’s awful.

But…it’s growing on me, and oh dear god, it’s growing bigger.

Thanks to the constant references in video games, the continued recommendations of friends, and the recent TV follow-up, I’ve developed a strange fascination with AoD. My revulsion now mingles with a desire to understand, and I feel like I’m finally getting somewhere in that regard. We haven’t yet made friends, but we’re developing a language by which to communicate, and I’m willing to admit that maybe I was just a big old fuddy-duddy about it.

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Army of Darkness is not a horror film. It’s more of a fantasy-action-comedy, and although there is no other movie to fairly compare with it, I can’t help but come back to Spaceballs. The two movies just remind me of each other in certain ways. While Spaceballs had a purpose in sending up Star Wars, however, AoD ricochets about with no real plan at all. If it’s making fun of anything, it’s the expectations of the viewers.

It retains Raimi’s distinctive style, of course, which I actually really love. The first Raimi film I ever saw was Darkman, and even as a twelve-year-old kid, I knew there was something special behind that one. That film moved and screamed and ran like nothing I’d ever seen before, and it’s probably the only instance in which a film’s camerawork actually disturbed me. There’s something Ren & Stimpy-esque about the details Raimi wants to show us, and the unique efforts he makes to do so can be unsettling. AoD, however, is not unsettling. Sure, it has one or two intentionally disquieting moments, but you’d better drink them up good because they don’t last long.

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Each of the film’s acts has its own premise and tone: first we have Ash’s bonkers buffoon-out-of-water story, followed by a quest that reaches for scary but then goes full tilt stupid, and then a lengthy siege that’s neither scary or comical, just kinda dry.

The idea of Ash Williams, an angry wiseass teaching medieval Englanders what for, is actually quite appealing. Were I in Ash’s position, I’d be pretty pissed off too. Many of his quotes deserve their fame, especially the “jack and shit” line. The joke of the film is that our “hero” is an arrogant moron, gifted only with the ability to pull miraculous action stunts at will. Thankfully, this is enough to make a movie character likable, because he comes through when he has to. He chops up or blows up every monster he sees, and he always sees them before anyone else can.

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Not that anyone else in the movie is really worth discussing. The titles read “Bruce Campbell Vs. Army of Darkness” for a reason, folks: this really is the Ash showcase. His journey for the Necronomicon (the Evil Dead McGuffin) is little more than a series of cartoon scenarios in which Ash bumbles about hurting himself. He bumps his head, burns his bum, and battles a bunch of baby Ashes.

After that, he pretty much sinks into the background as a host of stop-motion skeletons takes the stage. From here it’s nothing but a giant sword-fighting jubilee, plus a few explosions. Without Ash’s character at the forefront, the movie loses a lot of personality, though it tries to make up for it with some goofy puppet gags (as a Jim Henson fan, I do enjoy this). The action has a smidgen of that Raimi style to it, but overall it’s not particularly funny or ground-breaking. Even so, I get a unique sense from the siege sequence that this was not some rote exercise. No, Raimi was chasing something: he aimed to recreate the spooky spectacles of the Ray Harryhausen movies he grew up with, simply because he liked them. As a creative person, my motivations are often similar: I just want to make things that look like the stuff I always loved.

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I can’t begrudge Raimi for taking this opportunity. I read Bruce Campbell’s book, If Chins Could Kill, and the story of making Evil Dead was not a happy one. For the Raimi boys, breaking into the biz demanded suffering, stubbornness, and on-the-spot ingenuity. Army of Darkness was the reward for their travails: a chance to finally have some big fun with a character and mythos that they invented. That I don’t get a lot of its humor isn’t a slight on the film, it’s evidence of a unique personal touch. It may be broad, but it’s no manufactured crowd-pleaser. On the contrary, it is something more precious than that: an unsullied bit of fun made by a small group of guys with earned capital — a movie that owes nothing to anyone. This finally came together for me when I heard Raimi’s last lines of commentary on the AoD Director’s Cut, and felt like a total asshole:

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all we want to do: an entertaining movie, that hopefully people would laugh at and get some jumps out of, and we hope that you were entertained.”

Well, shit. How can I, or any creative person, grind my heel on this movie, knowing the pure sentiment that birthed it? Entertainment really is the core of it, after all; any storyteller who aims for a higher goal than that has lost his or her way. Raimi didn’t care about prestige or money; he just wanted to indulge his passion. He made a film that is distinctly his own, proudly left his fingerprints all over it, and found an ironclad fan base in spite of withering odds. That’s more than I can say for myself.

I feel like crap now, so I’m going to change the subject and talk about the TV show.

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Ash vs. Evil Dead is a good show. It does just what it needs to do, which is to update and expand the Evil Dead mythology, while keeping Ash exactly the way we remember him. The loony exuberance of the movies is still present, but it’s checked by a self-aware, 21st-century jadedness, as well as some impressive special effects. You won’t see any dopey puppets bobbling about here, but it’s still leagues away from any Walking Dead grimness, and I thank God for that. Since Raimi doesn’t have his hands on it directly, there’s still a je ne sais quoi missing from it, but it works, and I liked it from the first shot without any reservations.

It is, however, falling into a formula that I’m not sure it can maintain. Since the show is just an excuse for more Bruce, there’s not much room for real tension or plot. Most of the episodes play out like Popeye cartoons; the only differences between them are how the writers keep Ash away from his chainsaw, and for how long. Once the spinach can is opened, the audience gets exactly what it expects: deadites taunting, people crashing into walls, blood spraying on faces, and maybe a one-liner or two. I can’t really complain about this, though. With the horror genre as gray and predictable as it is now, Ash vs. Evil Dead is a refreshing reminder that scary can also be fun. Still, it needs more than nostalgia and attitude to be a truly satisfying experience. If it can’t figure out how to build off its novelty, it may have been better served as a feature film/reunion thing.

Top Cartoons: Snoopy Come Home

There have been over forty animated Peanuts TV specials, and five feature films. There’s a timeless quality to these tales of precocious youngsters. Their lives, activities, pains, and pleasures — baseball games, flying kites, pulling pranks, fitting in — have rarely deviated from what children deal with even today. Snoopy Come Home maintains the themes of the comic, but it pushes them farther than they ever went before.

This is the second animated Peanuts feature, written by Charles Schulz and directed by Bill Melendez. As the title says, the focus is on Charlie Brown’s independent, imaginative, attention-loving beagle, but instead of playing vulture or chasing the Red Baron, he gets trapped at the peak of what amounts to a symbolic love triangle.

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There are tensions in the Peanuts neighborhood. Snoopy’s been spending too much time away from home, fighting with the Van Pelt kids, and standing up his play dates. NO DOGS ALLOWED signs are cropping up at his favorite haunts, and even that round-headed kid is pounding him with lectures. It seems as though he just doesn’t belong anymore.

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So when a letter from a mysterious girl named Lila arrives, which spurs Snoopy on an impromptu road trip, everyone feels responsible.

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It turns out that Lila is Snoopy’s original owner, who, for some reason, had to give up her puppy when her family moved. She returned him to the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm, where Charlie Brown’s parents later discovered him.

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Now Lila is sick with an unnamed, but  serious disease, and misses her pup terribly. Snoopy and his bud Woodstock try to use mass transit to reach her, but NO DOGS ALLOWED signs stymie them, so they have to make the trip through unfamiliar towns and wilderness on foot. They travel a mighty long distance together, bonding, joking, and generally dealing with the rustic life. On one occasion, however, their adventure, and their lives, are put in serious jeopardy.

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Having gone without human companionship, Snoopy is pleased to spot Clara, a gal playing in the sand outside her house. He runs up and greets her, but she seizes him, kidnaps him, and attempts to forcibly adopt him.

Clara is more or less a relative of Tiny Toons’s Elmyra, with no awareness or empathy for an animal’s feelings. She gives Snoopy a flea bath, repeatedly dunking him underwater. She ties a hefty rope around his neck and yanks him around. She dresses him in hideous clothes for a tea party. Then, when she spills her tea on him, she blames Snoopy, and gives him a spanking.

It must be noted that Linda Ercoli, the voice actress for Clara, is amazing. At only thirteen years old, she gives Clara an impressive range of emotions, from giddiness to rage, and she’s always  horrifying. She even sings a very complicated patter song with aplomb and perfect rhythm.

After a crazy and intense chase, our wayward heroes make their escape, perhaps having learned something about dealing with strangers.

Meanwhile, Charlie Brown is haggard with worry. His friends reach out and provide advice to help him accept that Snoopy is likely gone for good, but nothing works.

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When Snoopy finally reaches his old friend, he has to make a tremendous decision. Lila feels so much better with her doggy around that she begs him to come back to her. It is here that Melendez’s direction best demonstrates its wisdom. Melendez understood that Snoopy’s comic strip thought-bubbles wouldn’t work in a film, so he instructed  his animators to pour their efforts into the pup’s physical expression. He may be a simple-looking cartoon character, but the agony Snoopy displays at Lila’s request is truly heartbreaking.

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What follows is a series of shockingly painful scenes, restrained only with a stingy sprinkle of humor. There are tearful, even maudlin, partings, and a haunting portrait of real depression as Charlie Brown is unable to eat or sleep in the absence of his dear friend. The sequence plays to a wistful lament called “It Changes,” which, while written with innocent and childlike language, will likely never be understood by any but the most scarred of children.

Speaking of music, one will notice that Vince Guaraldi’s jazzy piano themes are missing from this film. You won’t even hear the iconic “Linus and Lucy” anywhere in it. The score is by Richard and Robert Sherman, who also worked on Disney’s The Jungle Book and Hanna-Barbera’s Charlotte’s Web. Their work here swerves from pleasant and dark, just like the film itself.

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Mercifully, two wonderful payoffs await, and the film closes with enough joy to conquer the preceding misery.

Snoopy Come Home baffled most critics, and even Roger Ebert described it as “schizoid.” I agree that it vacillates from one emotional extreme to the other, but I don’t know if that damages the film in any way. Peanuts has always been tinged with anxiety, and I believe that’s part of its endearing nature. I don’t believe it would continue to be printed in today’s comics if Schulz hadn’t dared to mix his own insecurities and doubts into the minds of his cute little characters. I think this movie is quite an achievement, even if it would never play well with today’s audiences, who expect shiny computer animation instead of the exquisite hand-drawn work shown here.

Top Cartoons: Space Ghost Coast to Coast – Intense Patriotism

Oh man…it’s been too long since I last watched this. I’m still laughing too hard to even organize this post. This is a comedy tidal wave, and if you watch it, you’re going to have a tough time getting enough oxygen. Sure, it’s recycled animation put through After Effects, but who cares? The concept, jokes, and timing are so god-damned, spot-on perfect that I think it earns a spot on the ol’ Top Cartoon list.

This episode came at that SGC2C sweet spot between the lame Evan Dorkin days and the just plain weird Adult Swim days. Talk show host Space Ghost has decided to finally travel to America, where all the great superheroes live. Evil musician Zorak, and mostly-indifferent director Moltar have their doubts, but they’re going whether they like it or not. Unfortunately they end up in Mexico.

Highlights include:

  • The Pledge of Allegiance
  • Jeff Foxworthy’s “jokes”
  • Moltar’s fear
  • Zorak’s kids
  • The box
  • Zorak demands freedom
  • “MINE is still on.”

Just watch the dang thing.

ULTIMATE TOP CARTOONS #1: Memories Episode 2 – Stink Bomb

If Rod Serling had made a Warner Bros. cartoon, it probably would have ended up like this.

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While each of the Ultimate Top Cartoons contains at least one quality that I fiercely admire, Stink Bomb has them all

I love the intense animation and timing in Ninja Scroll, but I could do without its adolescent moodiness and badassery, not to mention the excessive, voyeuristic violence that poor Jubei and Kagero have to endure.

I love the characterization, concepts, and set pieces in The Wrong Trousers, but I prefer my cartoons a bit more grown up.

I love the mature, volatile atmosphere in Who Framed Roger Rabbit that lends a dangerous, unstable edge to harmless-looking toons, but the story is ultimately disposable and the antagonist embarrassing.

I love the art design and the clever script of The Triplets of Belleville, but I found the final act to be lame and unsatisfying.

Stink Bomb has all of the best qualities from these cartoons, and none of the bad parts. It starts out hip and smart, gets rolling really quickly, and then it fucking catches fire, amusing, startling, and maybe even scaring any witnesses. It is a masterpiece, and if you were to ask me what kind of cartoons I want to make, I’d say “I wanna make Stink Bombs.”

This forty-minute marvel, the top of the Ultimate Top Cartoons, is the middle segment in an anime anthology called Memories, produced by the great Katsuhiro Otomo of Akira fame.

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I became interested in Memories because of the unique look of its final segment, Cannon Fodder. Its characters are designed to look like cute little toy soldiers, and its a far cry from your typical anime art style, so I was curious about it. After watching it, I realized that the style was only chosen for the sake of dark ironic contrast, and the story beneath it was grim and depressing. A lot of folks love Cannon Fodder for what they call a “powerful anti-war message,” but I found it tiresome, empty, and delivered with too heavy a hand. The animation is really good, though.

As for the first segment, Magnetic Rose…ah, forget it, that one was stupid with a capital “STU.” The animation in it is pretty good, though.

No, the real gem in the film is the unassuming Stink Bomb, the middle child that isn’t out to be dark or disturbing or tear-jerking or award-winning, but simply to be a heap of jeering, sneering, devilish fun.

It’s still okay for cartoons to be fun, isn’t it?

Now, before I start my synopsis, I feel I should mention that I’m a big fan of George Carlin. Have been since age nine. In one of his last HBO specials, Life is Worth Losing, Carlin closes his act with a bit he calls “Coast-to-Coast Emergency.” Here’s the premise in his own words:

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“I’m an interesting guy. I always hope that no matter how small the original problem is, it’s going to grow bigger and bigger, until it’s completely out of control.”

He then proceeds to explain how a busted water main can lead to the transcendental annihilation of the universe.

As morbid as it sounds, I have a similar fascination with disasters, and this may be why I enjoy Stink Bomb so much. It starts with a dumb move made by a hapless nincompoop, and ends in an extinction-level mega-disaster that threatens all life on Earth.

And it’s all this guy’s fault:

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Meet Nobuo Tanaka, a lab technician at Nishibashi Pharmaceuticals. He’s come down with a bad winter cold, and he can’t stop sneezing at his desk.

His co-workers recommend that Nobuo sneak a sample of the new fever medicine Nishibashi is producing. It hasn’t been diluted for sale yet, so it should work great! Just grab one of the blue capsules from the red bottle on Chief Ohmaeda’s desk, they say.

Now, Nobuo is not a very swift man, and when he stops in at the chief’s office (which is unfortunately empty at the time), he makes the obvious mix-up: he takes the red capsule from out of the blue bottle.

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Yeah, it’s a pretty big mistake.

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Nobuo decides to take a nap in the guest room while the drug does its work. Meanwhile, the chief himself bursts into the lab, demanding to know who touched his red pills. His raving, wild-eyed demeanor suggests that something might be wrong. When Nobuo’s buddies say that it was likely Nobuo who poked around in Ohmaeda’s office, the chief freaks out further, and dashes away, presumably to find the culprit.

The techs have little time to ponder this weirdness before a strange smell wafts into the room. The lab rats notice it too. Then there’s a long, lingering shot on a ventilating fan that slowly fades to black.

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CUT TO: Nobuo, as he rises from a revitalizing sleep in the guest room — the following morning. He wanders the building, wondering why nobody woke him. He discovers the answer very shortly: everyone else in the building is dead. Even the lab rats.

Panicked and horrified, Nobuo calls for an ambulance, and then goes to the chief’s office to get some clue of what happened.

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He finds Ohmaeda sprawled before a control panel on the wall, his finger stretched towards a button that he didn’t live long enough to hit. Curious, Nobuo presses the button himself, and the whole building suddenly goes into emergency mode: sirens blare, shutters slam, and a dozen men appear on a giant monitor, ordering “to give this line priority!”

Then, a stern, middle-aged man spots Nobuo on his screen and asks where the hell Ohmaeda is.

This man is Nirasaki, the head of Nishibashi’s medicine development. Once Nobuo informs him of what’s happened, Nirasaki explains that the accident is likely related to a drug being secretly developed for the government. Nirasaki orders Nobuo to bring all samples of the drug, along with its corresponding data, straight to him at Nishibashi headquarters in Tokyo, immediately.

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Nobuo collects the samples and info based on the details Nirasaki provides, and just notices it’s the same red pill that he took the previous evening. Huh! Of course, he only realizes this after his conversation with Nirasaki is over, and he doesn’t think anything of it. He stuffs everything into a briefcase, and begins his trek to Tokyo on a little red bike.

Then a murder of crows falls dead out of the sky and hits him on the head.

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Nobuo loses control and crashes, and that’s when he notices that all the flowers in the valley are suddenly in bloom. Also, there are dead things everywhere. The ambulance and police car he called are both smashed on the sides of the street, as though their drivers simply bit it while at the wheel.

Meanwhile, Mr. Nirasaki and Mr. Kamata, Nishibashi’s president, are summoned to the JSDF war room to explain “just what the hell is going on” in Kofu Valley. The NHK news is airing warnings about a deadly “stench” in the area, against which respirators and even NBC suits afford no protection.

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A news team in a helicopter spots Nobuo and touches down to rescue him, but even with gas masks on, they all suffocate and perish before they can get within ten yards of him. Nobuo can’t figure out why.

Then a military convoy attempts to pick up and evacuate Nobuo, only to end up dying as well. Nobuo still can’t figure out why.

Nirasaki and Kamata, however, do know why. They explain to the JSDF that the pill Nobuo took was originally designed to protect people against methods of biological warfare, but an unknown reaction in Nobuo’s body has created an unexpected effect. It is now causing him to secrete a sweet-smelling, but lethal gas that asphyxiates any human or animal that breathes it. He has become, in essence, a walking chemical weapon.

Nirasaki adds the unsettling detail that this gas will thicken, and its deadly effects strengthen, as Nobuo eats, changes emotional states, or otherwise undergoes any activity that spurs his metabolism.

An executive decision is swiftly made: GET HIM.

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However, the military, even with its most advanced weaponry, can’t get Nobuo. Their snipers can’t draw a bead on him because the poison in the air makes their eyes water, and the gas has become so thick that it shorts out the computerized targeting systems in their tanks and helicopters. The army literally can no longer shoot straight, so while they accidentally decimate every structure in sight, Nobuo is left scratching his head as to what the hell they’re firing at.

My favorite moment in this sequence occurs when the army knocks out a bridge that Nobuo is riding on. As you can see below, the poor dope survives as though God Himself is guiding him:

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This is one of my favorite shots in all of cartoon-dom, if not my absolute favorite. I fucking love tracking shots like this. Just look at how the pavement judders and crumbles behind Nobuo! Look at how he bounces on his bike as the explosions propel him forward! Look at the flames and sparks and smoke plumes! Look at Nobuo’s face!!! It’s like watching Ichabod Crane riding around Syria! I love it!

Now that Nobuo has pretty much proven himself unstoppable, an emergency evacuation order is issued in Tokyo. Yeah, good luck with that. The highways are instantly hammered, the trains are all clogged, and the airports become a mass of writhing crowds and weeping children.

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Stink Bomb’s director, Tensai Okamura, cleverly intercuts the Tokyo crush with the degrading military situation, in which the all the vehicles have stopped responding and are now completely haywire. They’re firing at anything and everything, causing chain reactions of carnage, and inadvertently destroying themselves.

To quote Mr. Carlin:

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“At this point, it looks like pretty soon, things are gonna start to get out of control.”

It looks as though the only hope for humanity is for the United Nations to raze Japan to the ground, but all is not lost yet. Saunders, an American general who has an investment in Nishibashi’s wonder drug, decides to intervene, and he sends three American soldiers in cutting-edge, air-tight spacesuits to apprehend Nobuo.

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These super-suited soldiers corner Nobuo in a tunnel, and…well, I don’t want to give everything away. I will tell you that Nirasaki gets his briefcase back, but that’s it! You’re just going to have to watch the rest for yourself. You won’t be disappointed, and that’s a fact, Jack.

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So.

Whew.

Wow.

Jeez, man. There just isn’t all that much left to say anymore. This is Stink Bomb. You should go see it. It’s got everything that a Top Cartoon should: great art and animation, funny and scary moments, a delightful soundtrack, stellar voice acting, and a wicked sense of humor. I hope you weren’t waiting for me to pick at its flaws, because the truth is, I just can’t find any.


And thus the list of Ultimate Top Cartoons comes to a close. I hope you enjoyed reading these lengthy reviews because, I tell ya, writing these suckers really took a chunk out of me! Plus, my sinuses are starting to act up, so I think I’ll take one of these red pills over here and have a nap.

Hope to see you in the morning.

‘Night, all!

ULTIMATE TOP CARTOONS #2: The Triplets of Belleville

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Out of all the Ultimate Top Cartoons, The Triplets of Belleville by Sylvain Chomet is the one I’m most conflicted about. It is a strange and beautiful creation, something that deserves recognition for its genius, but I can’t help but feel that there’s something missing from it. The film was released in 2003, and was an Oscar-nominee for Best Animated Feature, but it had to go up against Pixar’s juggernaut Finding Nemo, and it really didn’t stand a chance.

I think it’s this Oscar battle that makes Triplets so difficult for me to talk about. I feel as though, in discussing it, I must always compare it to Nemo. Hell, I even noticed that their plots are similar.

The fact is that Nemo deserved the Oscar. I think it is the superior film. Yet, I do not consider it to be an Ultimate Top Cartoon. It’s too sweet and too safe. It takes too few chances with its material, and none at all with its appearance.

Triplets, on the other hand, is something else.

I suppose I can sum up my feelings this way: while Nemo will make you marvel at how real it appears to be, Triplets will make you marvel at how unreal it appears to be.

It’s also a soft-spoken, saucy trip that goes into some dark places, so it’s not for everybody. Nevertheless, whether you enjoy Triplets or not, you’ll find that you won’t forget it anytime soon. It will stick with you.

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The film starts out looking like a 1930s Fleischer cartoon. It brings us to a famous music hall where a trio of singers, the eponymous Triplets, perform with the likes of Fred Astaire and Django Reinhart. It’s cute, but you might want to let the kids play with their phones during this scene — the acts, while crazy and funny, also involve a little violence, and even nudity.

We pull back from the show to reveal that two short, chubby characters (presented in the movie’s “real” artistic style) have been watching it on a little TV. One is Champion, a morose boy whose parents seem to have passed away. The other is Madame Souza, Champion’s devoted grandmother, who suffers from a lazy eye and unequal leg length.

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Seeing Champion’s growing melancholy concerns Souza, and she pays close attention to him in order to find something that will light his fire. She dusts off an old piano for him, but her own poor playing of it turns him off. She buys him a puppy named Bruno, but the joy doesn’t last. Finally, she discovers that Champion has a passion for bicycles, and it appears that boy’s future is decided.

Bear in mind that nearly all of this story is told without words. The animation does all the heavy lifting in communicating this tale to us, and not once does it slouch.

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Flash-forward to about ten years later. Souza has become Champion’s cycling trainer, and she prepares him nightly for his big shot at the Tour de France. Bruno has turned into a butterball on wobbly stick-legs, while Champion has undergone an inverse transformation. His tall, slim figure and long, hooked nose make him resemble a turkey vulture — except for his legs, of course, which are now freakishly developed after years of cycle training.

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The regimen is unusual, but effective. Souza follows Champion on his bike rides, blowing a whistle in a steady rhythm to help him keep time. She massages his muscles with vacuum cleaners, eggbeaters, and lawnmowers to prevent him from locking up. When she feeds him, she has Champion sit on a scale tied to an alarm clock so as to limit his food intake. The lengths some people will go to, huh?

When the big race finally arrives, it’s to a dazzling parade of character designs. No two faces look alike in this crowd.

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I especially like how this movie portrays the cyclists. They may each have unique facial features, but they all have the same skinny frame and massive legs as Champion, and they all pedal with the empty look of loping, dead-eyed zombies.

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Things get complicated when a pair of box-shaped mafia goons kidnap a handful of the cyclists, including Champion, and haul them away in a ship’s cargo hold. In response, Souza rents a recreational paddleboat to pursue the ship, and she winds up following it all the way across the Atlantic Ocean.

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Souza and Bruno arrive in Belleville, a sort of fusion of New York City, Montreal, and Quebec, but quickly lose their trail. Lost, confused, and with no money to her name, Souza makes camp under a bridge one night, and taps on a nearby bike wheel to pass the time.

It’s at this lonely moment, when Souza is at her most wretched, that her humble sense of rhythm turns everything around. The tapping draws the attention of three ancient, looming figures, who saunter from the darkness like roused ghouls. They shuffle up to her, close in, and then…they sing.

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These are, of course, the once-famous Triplets of Belleville, who have come not to threaten, but to enjoy a good backbeat. Their love of song is so ingrained in their souls that no amount of years can erase it; the tiny taps from Souza’s wheel launch them into joyous performance, and then leave them laughing with all sincerity. I find this touching to the point of sadness.

This unexpected jam session delights the triplets, and they gratefully invite Souza to stay with them in their humble home.

Their very humble home.

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The triplets’ apartment is even smaller than Souza’s back in France. The triplets eat meager meals consisting of frogs, which the gals collect by blasting nearby lakes with WWII-era stielhandgranates. Souza isn’t allowed to vacuum, put away leftovers, or even read a newspaper, because all of those items are needed for their gigs.

As miserable as their situation might appear, though, the triplets nearly always smile. They have the warmth and contentedness about them that is earned from sharing a passionate life.

Champion, on the other hand, is not so fortunate. Now in the hands of a mafia don, he and his fellow captives have been hooked to a machine that creates a Tour de France simulation strictly for gambling purposes. An audience of dons puts up money on which of the three will be the last one standing. When one of them pulls up lame, he gets a bullet in the head from the oddsmaker.

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So it’s a race against time, but some sleuthing and lucky coincidences lead Souza straight to the heart of this dark event, and her new friends insist on helping her out. Souza manages to sneak underneath the machine and detach it from the floor, so that the cyclists can propel it through the wall and out of the building. The dons lay down some heavy gunfire in protest, but a well-thrown potato-masher takes care of that.

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Now Souza, the triplets, and the two cyclists are on the run, pedaling down the road with a convoy of mafia cars in pursuit. The scene promises to be pretty exciting: there’s a masterful composition of 2D and 3D animation on display, and I was expecting some smart, Wrong Trousers-style action to happen. Sadly, the chase is pretty slow-paced, and there’s not a whole lot of satisfaction to be had in it. The only applause-worthy moment occurs at the very end, when Souza looks Champion’s kidnapper in the eye (or what passes for it), and shows that she’s had enough.

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It’s a decent ending, but I have to say it: it’s nowhere near Nemo’s. 

But that’s all right. Even though The Triplets of Belleville needed to be something different to compete with a Pixar film, to be anything else but what it is would be a deadly creative sin. It may not be a “traditional” animated film by the definition that Disney and Pixar have chosen, but it is a defiant and relentless beast, with a look all its own. Every background, every shape, every design in it tells a story, whether its heartwarming or heartbreaking. You can see that the artists worked their tails off at making the animation not only speak, but sing. Hardly any dialogue is needed: the visuals are enough — especially, presented as they are, in their unforgettable style. At a time when most animated films share the same bland, porcelain look, and are chiefly sold on what celebrities are doing the voices, to make a movie like Triplets is a brave thing indeed.

ULTIMATE TOP CARTOONS #3: Who Framed Roger Rabbit

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“Eddie, I could never hurt anybody. My whole purpose in life is to make people laugh!”

Such is the tenet of the Toon, a race of beings that exist alongside humans in Robert Zemeckis’s 1988 classic Who Framed Roger Rabbit. In the alternate world it presents, toons are not just drawings put to film, they are living actors who work in Hollywood studios during the Golden Age of Animation.

And they’re total theater people. You think your co-worker Doris down the hall is a drama queen? Wait ’til you get a load of the toons.

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Toons live to perform, and even when the cameras are off, they can’t resist an opportunity to pose, show off, or pull a comical gag. It is their raison d’être, and studio owner R.K. Maroon has turned this desire into big showbiz bucks.

Trouble is one of his biggest stars, Roger Rabbit, can’t keep his mind on his work lately, because of swirling rumors that his wife, Jessica, is cheating on him. Seeking to put the issue to rest, Maroon hires Eddie Valiant, a P.I. specializing in toon cases, to snap some pics of Jessica in flagrante delicto.

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Valiant, whom Bob Hoskins infuses with a hard-boiled mix of toughness,  fury, and curiosity, has a lot of hurts. Most of them involve his brother Teddy, with whom he shared a very close bond. The Valiant boys grew up sharing three careers together: first as circus clowns, then as police officers, and finally private detectives. Their unique mixture of talents brought them great success at handling toon investigations.

Then, Teddy’s murder at the hands of a particularly evil toon shattered everything. Eddie has since become a bitter drunk who is distrustful of toons, especially when their antics put humans at risk.

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One of the rules of Roger Rabbit’s world is that toon logic, while entertaining in controlled conditions, is quite hazardous when unchecked. Since toons simply can’t help themselves when it comes to dramatic showmanship (and since they come out of their own scrapes without so much as a bruise), they often endanger and harm humans inadvertently.

To wit: I love the look of horror on Valiant’s face when Donald Duck lights a cannon in a nightclub, for no other reason except to show up that uppity Cayuga who’s hogging the spotlight. Insurance rates must be sky-high in Roger Rabbit’s world.

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Anyway, Valiant follows Jessica to her moonlighting gig at this club, and photographs her in the act of playing “pattycake” with another man. The Lothario? Marvin Acme, a practical gag manufacturer and the owner of Toontown, an animated otherworld that rests next door to Hollywood.

Roger is not pleased. He vows to Valiant that he and Jessica will be happy again one day, and then smashes through a window to disappear into the night. This scene is so film-noir it’s not even funny. Actually, scratch that; it’s quite funny, but the point still stands: here we have three major film-noir archetypes, but they’re all just slightly askew, and it’s a lot of fun to see a scene straight out of Chinatown play out with an animated rabbit at its center.

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The following morning, Valiant is rudely awakened by his former LAPD pal Lieutenant Santino, who informs Valiant that the rabbit has “kacked” Acme by dropping a safe on his head.

Despite the painful similarities between Acme’s murder and the murder of Teddy, (the chief difference being that Teddy had a piano dropped on his head), the shocked Valiant can’t quite accept that Roger Rabbit could be capable of such an act. He attempts to swipe a bit of evidence from Acme’s body when he’s caught and admonished by the ghastly Judge Doom.

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Doom is played by Christopher Lloyd, with a stern stiffness that implies he is not a man who is easily swayed. He has no patience for silliness, but he loves dishing out a slow punishment.

“Since I’ve had Toontown under my jurisdiction, my goal has been to rein in the insanity, and the only way to do that is to make toons respect the law.”

To this end, Doom has built an impressive system of enforcement. First, he has the Toon Patrol: five mobbed-up, zoot-suited weasels who are also — naturally — skilled rabbit hunters. I love these guys.

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In early scripts, there were seven weasels, so that the bad guys would appear as a dark parody of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The five that remain after the edits are still excellent, though. They’re led by Sergeant Smartass, who’s voiced by none other than David Lander. That’s right: Squiggy! And he does a terrific job, with a high, drawling voice that spews malapropisms.

Then you’ve got Greasy, Wheezy, Psycho, and Stupid, characters who don’t say much, but who suffer little for it. My favorite is Psycho, the one with the straitjacket and the straight razor, not to mention the crazy eyes and the crazier laugh.

Doom’s other weapon is the deadly Dip — a hot cocktail of paint thinners traditionally used to wash off animation cels — which he lords over the toons to keep them in line. According to Santino, the Dip is the only known way to kill a toon completely, and in a chilling moment that reminds us that Roger Rabbit is no Disneyland circle-jerk, Doom puts on a sadistic demonstration:

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“That’s one bad shoe, eh, boss?”

The message is clear: Judge Doom is champing at the bit to turn Roger into a fast-track execution. Yeah, nothing suspicious about that.

Now pardon me while I have a strange interlude, but the Dip raises a lot of questions about the nature of toon mortality. If Dip is the only way a toon can be killed, why are the toons always so afraid of guns in this movie? Wouldn’t a gunshot simply cover them with an easily-washed layer of soot? And what about death from laughter? In a desperate moment, this ironic method of passage saves Valiant’s life, so is death from laughter a official “second” way to kill a toon? A way that Santino didn’t know about?

Who knows. And here’s a better question: who cares? As with Zemeckis’s other film jewel, the Back to the Future series, we’re better off not delving too deeply into the logic. Let’s get back to the movie.

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Valiant returns to his office to find Roger waiting for him there. Roger insists that he’s innocent, but Valiant wants nothing to do with him. When the Toon Patrol arrives at his door, however, Valiant has to make a choice, and he decides to put his own ass on the line to look out for Roger. Bar fights, shootouts, and car chases ensue.

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Pieces of the plot drift in thanks to Jessica, Roger’s co-star Baby Herman, and Valiant’s sometime girlfriend Dolores, and a beefy conspiracy starts to shape up: something involving the Los Angeles streetcar service, a mysterious corporation called Cloverleaf Industries, and the ownership of Toontown.

It nearly comes together when Valiant makes a play to get the truth out of Maroon, but the cartoon-maker gets smoked before he can talk, seemingly by Jessica!

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Valiant pursues Jessica, but she disappears into Toontown. Valiant hits the brakes, having frozen up at the prospect of returning to the place where his brother was killed.

Now, I apologize for this, but I need to pause in my synopsis so that I can explain something about the Ultimate Top Cartoons.

All of my favorite films have a Moment. Most of the Ultimate Top Cartoons have a few of these Moments, but don’t let that fool you: they are really very scarce.

What I’m describing is a Beautiful Moment, when every element of a particular shot, or series of shots, comes together in an absolutely perfect way. I detailed one of these moments in my recent review of Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol. The Beautiful Moment never fails to choke me up and make me want to cry like a pup. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve already seen it, either.

Now, here’s the weird thing: while the Moment usually arrives at some critical or symbolic point in the plot, my admiration is always on a completely different level, usually a technical one. I’m not just marveling at the effect, I’m marveling at the creativity and the construction.

There are many Beautiful Moments in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but this one’s my favorite: Valiant, thinking he’ll need some Dutch courage to head into Toontown, stops and has second thoughts. He dumps his bottle of Wild Turkey out on the street, and then, in a gesture of ultimate rejection, he heaves the empty bottle into the sky. Then he fires at it with his toon revolver, and…well, look.

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Now, that, folks…is FUCKING AWESOME.

I know it’s missing the audio that makes it complete, but look at it! Look, and consider everything that’s happening: the camera swoops into the sky, closes on the toon bullet as he eyes his target, and then pulls back again to allow the gracefully spinning whiskey bottle to enter frame from the right. Then the bullet, being a toon, doesn’t merely pass through the bottle, he disintegrates it in the most over-the-top way imaginable. How did they even conceptualize something like this? I…I need to go wash my face.

Anyway, Eddie’s visit to Toontown has to be one of the most surreal experiences in cinema. A YouTube commenter likened the Toontown tunnel to a DMT breakthrough, and he’s probably not far off.

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Everything in Toontown occurs like it’s part of some gigantic production. The inhabitants are constantly in action, playing out the same scenarios that are typically written for them. What’s more, toon logic applies to everything: if you bump your head in Toontown, birdies will fly around your head. If you accidentally walk off a high ledge, you won’t fall until you look down. Your shadow will talk to you. Things like that.

Also, expect lots of cameos.

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Valiant eventually tracks Jessica into an alley, but she saves him from getting the Maroon treatment by shooting the real killer, Judge Doom. Through a few unfortunate accidents, Doom gets the drop on our heroes, and drags them all to the Acme factory so he can gloat about his master plan.

Turns out that Doom wants to possess Maroon Cartoons, the Acme Factory, and Toontown, so that he can level them all and construct the first Los Angeles freeway. Yeah, that’s the plan. I’m pretty sure it’s another joke on Chinatown, but the movie plays it pretty damn seriously, and it comes off as a  little confusing.

Thankfully, it’s just another one of those “who cares?” moments, because the rest of the film is insanity. Reviving his inner clown, Valiant exterminates the weasels one by one to the tune of “Merry Go-Round Broke Down.”

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Then he has to duke it out with Doom, who reveals himself to be the same demoniacal toon monster who killed Teddy!

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Well, it’s a partial revelation. Honestly, this is the weakest part of the movie, and I would have much preferred to see the full monster, but Lloyd does the best he can. I do like his buzzsaw arms and anvil hands, however.

I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that all ends well, that everybody lives happily ever after, and that you’ll be ready to go do something else by the time the credits roll. If you look carefully, you’ll see a slight drop in the animation quality too, as though the artists themselves were exhausted by this point.

It is nice, however, to see the sudden convention of classic cartoon characters as they looky-loo at the disaster area that Acme’s factory has become. As they sing us off, there’s a pleasant shared goodbye from Tinkerbell and Porky Pig that always gives me a little chill. If only the studios would unite for crossovers like this more often!

So, to hear me tell it, Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a top-heavy film with a weak plot that runs out of steam by the end. But can anyone really fault it for that? It clearly wasn’t made for deep critical analysis. It was made to celebrate the Golden Age of Animation, to introduce us to a new cast of cartoon characters with a slightly dark edge, and to give our imaginations a jolt by offering an alternate viewpoint on beloved animated worlds. Sure, it took an army of animators and technicians to make it happen, and not all of it looks great anymore, but the terrific performances, wild soundtrack, and bold direction make Roger Rabbit a one-of-a-kind wonder.

A coda: I’ve read some reviews online that berate this movie for portraying classic cartoon characters in an “inappropriate” way. I’m not talking about Baby Herman slapping ladies on the ass, either. I’m talking little things, like, “Donald Duck would never use a cannon on someone like that!”

I find this humorous, because anyone who would seriously make a claim like this must have difficulty separating fantasy from reality, and you’d think a person like that would rather buy into the movie where fantasy and reality collide believably!