Saturday, 28 December 2013

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Not Quite New Year's Playlist


It's not quite New Year's. But I'm currently partying like it is.




That's why I didn't really have anything informative to offer you this morning. One of my resolutions is to be more interesting next week. But I didn't want to leave you without any distractions THIS week, so I assembled a small playlist of old New Year's nuggets from the past few decades, to help get you prepped / pumped for this Tuesday. Enjoy, and looking forward to waking up with you all again, weekends in 2014!

Wow, I didn't intend for that last part to sound so slutty!











Saturday, 21 December 2013

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Not Quite Christmas Classics


As we "dahoo dores" the holiday season, I'm always amazed at how the Christmas specials we watched as kids, still air in prime time. Charlie Brown and The Grinch still give the gift of decent ratings close to 50 years after their initial broadcast. But have you noticed that it's only Charlie Brown, The Grinch and nothing else? There isn't a vintage holiday special outside of those two (and maybe Rankin/Bass's Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty The Snowman) that still gets re-gifted around Christmas time.

Today I thought we'd highlight 5 vintage holiday specials that I feel don't get the love they deserve. To me, all of these cartoons still hold up and feature great animation and memorable songs - but will never be considered the "classics" that Charlie and The Grinch are.


A VERY MERRY CRICKET  (1973)

Of course Chuck Jones is renowned for his take on Dr. Seuss's How The Grinch Stole Christmas. But not a lot of people are aware of his holiday special that followed.




A Very Merry Cricket is actually a sequel to another special he did called A Cricket In Times Square. Similar to Seuss, both specials (and the third, called Yankee Doodle Cricket) were adaptations of popular children's books written by George Selden.

In the special, Tucker (a mouse, voiced by Mel Blanc - natch!), Harry (the cat) and Chester (the cricket) are on a mission to bring peace to a noisy and manic city. Their mission: not unlike what was presented in the first special. I don't want to ruin it for you, but let's just say if you don't get misty-eyed near the end, you are a nasty-wasty skunk.

Speaking of the end, did you catch the cameo in the crowd at the 22:53 mark?

A Very Merry Cricket features some typically great animation, but some of it is abstract and unlike what you'd expect to see in a Chuck Jones cartoon, especially if you were only raised on The Grinch. This is evident at the very beginning of the film and near the end, when the cityscape is presented in a sometimes nightmarish and alien fashion. But the special also contains those Chuck Jones-ian character flourishes you've come to expect, like the creepy serpent-like street cat at the 14-minute mark.

Obviously, this is no Grinch. It's a bit slow in the story department, and the music is sometimes out-of-place with an over-synthesized feel, typical to any film of that decade. But it definitely has its heart in the right place, which is why I'm surprised it's largely ignored.




THE PINK PANTHER IN: A PINK CHRISTMAS  (1978)

Original Pink Panther story-men John Dunn and Friz Freleng wrote this half-hour cartoon (adapted from O. Henry's "The Cop And The Anthem") featuring a down-on-his-luck Panther on the hunt for food during the busy holiday season. What's great about this special is that the animation is similar to what you'd see in previous Pink Panther shorts. It isn't cheapened or dumbed-down like a lot of the other Christmas specials are. I'm looking at you, Yogi's First Christmas.




There's a timeless quality to the material, which I think is greatly benefited by the forced perspective of writing for a character that can't speak. It becomes necessary for filmmakers to draft a story that can translate without use of dialogue. Most of the original Pink Panther cartoons can still be enjoyed without benefit of sound, and like always, it's amazing the level of humour and emotion they can wring out of a character that, at this point, had already been part of the public consciousness for close to 15 years. I think some of the best comedy can be found in films that adapt beyond the cheat of dialogue. They must be incredibly difficult to write for, but when you watch them, it seems effortless. It didn't hurt to have original creators and gag-men back on board, who understood the character and what made him work.

The music is also unexpectedly great, with a few songs peppered throughout by a children's choir. It's all strangely affecting for a Pink Panther cartoon. But it works, and doesn't sway from the Panther's classic roots. And the reason why it works is that it's simple and genuine.




ZIGGY'S GIFT  (1982)

If you're young, this will be a very hard sell. But you shouldn't use this information to dissuade you from giving the special a chance.

First of all, it's based on a newspaper comic strip called Ziggy, which was created by Tom Wilson. Ziggy had some popularity in the 1980's, but was later forgotten - kinda like newspapers. Maybe 'forgotten' is the wrong word. Ziggy, the comic strip, still exists today, written and drawn by Tom Wilson's son. But Ziggy (in both print and cartoon) has never been praised to the extent of Good Ol' Charlie Brown.

Ziggy's Gift is directed by animation legend, Richard Williams, who is best known for his work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit. He won an Emmy for this special. You can tell the simplistic character design appealed to him, and he would've embraced the challenge of trying to figure out a way to make this squiggly, squashy character move. His design also allowed Williams to create stark, dramatic contrast to some of the environments and characters that Ziggy would encounter.




Heart and humour once again go hand-in-hand to make this an unknown classic. The voicework is funny and tough to catch in the first viewing. Pay particular attention to a Walter Cronkite-wannabe on TV near the opening.

Songs (by Harry Nilsson!) are kinda sappy, but fit the feelings conveyed.

Once again, this is another example of a cartoon greatly benefited by lack of dialogue. The secondary characters speak, but Ziggy doesn't. It was a wise decision because it makes the emotional impact of Ziggy's actions that much greater.

There's a lot of talent on display here, if you can move past the unknown and/or unwanted association to a totally uncool comic strip character. But at least this uncool comic strip character's Christmas special is good. I'm looking at you, A Family Circus Christmas.





A CLAYMATION CHRISTMAS CELEBRATION  (1987)

This is another classic marred by snarky pop culture. I blame The Simpsons.




Yes, The California Raisins make an appearance, who became uncool and over-merchandised in their later years. But even they're fun to watch in this, from a time when success hadn't yet gone to their shrivelled heads. They play a small part in a fun and weirdly traditional mixture of song and skits. The rest of the special is hosted by 2 dinosaurs, who segue in and out of cute Christmas-themed music videos. It's hard to explain, but somehow it works.

Claymation creator Will Vinton is under-appreciated for his contributions to cartoon-dom. And this is another shining example of why. This special aired for several years back-to-back with A Garfield Christmas, but is rarely seen nowadays, probably due to its antiquated animation techniques. However, heart and humour are hard to create on a computer. I'm looking at you, Shrek The Halls.





THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY  (1968)

I mentioned Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer and Frosty The Snowman above. They are established holiday classics. But Rankin/Bass's third holiday special, The Little Drummer Boy, is not. I expect this has something to do with our generation's changing perspective on religion, but it is the more mature and most touching of Rankin/Bass's work.

This is a retelling of the classic Christmas story/song, where a drummer boy (here, named Aaron) witnesses the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem. Sure, there's cutesy creative license in the use of animals - his lamb, Baba, donkey Samson and Joshua the camel - but the basic elements of the original story remain intact. Even if you have differing religious beliefs, there's no denying the beauty in the song itself, which is touchingly showcased near the end as Aaron plays for the king and discovers that his dying lamb has made a miraculous recovery from a horse-cart injury. Your kids will likely have a lot of questions about this, but seriously, when has this blog ever been intended for children? I mean, really!




The holidays for me have always been a time for nostalgia. And hopefully these specials took you back to a memorable Christmas from your past. Here's to the classics, and to making new ones out of holidays to come! Have a wonderful and merry Christmas!


Saturday, 14 December 2013

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Man-Child At The Movies (Frozen)





A few weeks ago I rambled on about a screening of a wonderful new Mickey Mouse short called 'Get A Horse', which I viewed and promptly left before watching a sneak peak of the new Disney film, Frozen. I walked out early because a) I had to purchase champagne flutes, and b) I was fully convinced that purchasing champagne flutes would be more enjoyable than watching Frozen, which appeared to be just awful from the trailers I saw.




Then the reviews started coming in. Critics shoveled praise on Frozen like freshly fallen snow. "A return to form", they said. "The best thing Disney has put out since Aladdin", they said. And the more "they said", the more interested I became to watch the movie.

Well, I finally watched it last night. And I feel guilty for acting so cold towards something that's garnered an 88% Rotten Tomatoes rating. But I stand by this chilly reception.

Let's talk positives first. Based on that first teaser trailer, I guess Frozen has to be considered a triumph of marketing. That clip makes the movie seem like the zaniest comedy of the year. But it is in fact the least zany film of the year. That reindeer and snowman probably only appear in about 20% of Frozen's running time. And I still can't figure out if that's a good or bad thing. I was so desperate for laughs about an hour in, I was just hanging on their every grunt and giggle.




It's also proof positive of the effectiveness of word-of-mouth. Based on those trailers, Frozen did not seem well-marketed to me, but it's still proving a money-maker, which has to be partially attributed to the positive reviews. It makes me wish I could sit in on the Disney marketing meetings, to learn if these decisions are indeed the acts of genius I expect them to be, or just happy little accidents.

Other positives: Some of the design work, especially in the ice palace, is quite beautiful. Apparently the animators did a brief retreat at the Hôtel de Glace in Quebec City to study how light reflects and refracts on ice surfaces. When you watch some of these scenes, you can tell their studies paid off.




And without ruining it for you, I will say the ending is a great surprise. It leads to what you'd expect to be a stereotypical Disney denouement, but then it confidently veers to the right at the last minute. It's a great example of how progressive the Disney machine has become. And it's nice to see two female characters given the lead for a change, even though they're still made to look kinda foolish at times.

Now here's the problem - unfortunately, being a "return to form" isn't really what I wanted to see. Although I can recognize the improvement in the music and songs, I simply didn't want to watch a musical. And that's largely what Frozen is, despite what that above wacky carrot chase implies. It's a "return to form" of the sweeping, animated musical, reminiscent of movies like The Little Mermaid, Beauty And The Beast and The Lion King. If you love those "vault" classics, you'll probably love Frozen. But if you're a casual Disney fan like me, than you'll likely spend a large portion of your time wondering how you ended up in the theatre.

I also don't want to seem like I'm against musicals and other forms of high-brow entertainment. It's just that if it's done well, it should seem effortless. And Frozen seems like a bit of a chore to get through at times.




I dunno, I was starting to enjoy the more unconventional side of Disney - that edgy Mickey Mouse short, the perfect Pixar blend of heart and humour seen in Toy Story 3, the imaginative irreverence of Wreck-It-Ralph. I like that they found a formula that went against their traditional "epic princess" grain, and presented it in a way that was fun and engaging for all audiences. True, I'm a man (sticks out chest), and I like movies featuring lumpy 8-bit jerks, not princesses! But if it was genuinely good, I wouldn't notice those things. Comparatively, I really enjoyed Tangled, which had a great mix of traditional fairy tale and contemporary fun. Also, horseplay.




I also found myself comparing Frozen to Disney/Pixar's Brave. Both featured independent female leads and fanciful storylines, but somehow Pixar has more of a gift for reigning in everybody - men, women, young, old. Even though Brave is probably one of my least favourite Pixar films, I still found myself undeniably entertained. And while Frozen unabashedly skews young girls, and has adult elements that should keep some moms engaged, I still have to expect a lot of them were bored and found themselves wishing that Wreck-It-Ralph would suddenly appear, to smash that ice palace good. (sticks out chest)




I'm glad people watch Frozen and think that Disney got its groove back. Because if its financially viable, it only means more great cartoons are on the way. I just hope that some of their future films can showcase less music and more fun. Or at least equal parts of each. Balance is all I'm looking for, people. And an extra manly Wreck-It-Ralph sequel*.

*NOTE: Jennifer Lee, the writer and co-director of Frozen, was also a screenwriter on Wreck-It-Ralph, so I'm well aware of the irony in that last request.


Saturday, 7 December 2013

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Blog To The Future





So Community-creator Dan Harmon premiered his new Adult Swim cartoon, Rick And Morty, last Monday on Cartoon Network. He worked on it with Justin Roiland, who premiered a crude version of these characters at an underground LA film festival under the title 'The Real Animated Adventures of Doc and Mharti'. Even if you aren't a movie buff, it's quite obvious what the material here is based on.

This is what the original, less polished (and copyright infringing) shorts looked and sounded like...




When adapting this into a series, obviously Harmon and Roiland lost some of the more blatant costume rip-offs and music cues. But the premise remains the same - Rick is a crazier, more inebriated version of Doc Brown, while Morty is a parody of the excitable Michael J. Fox-type. Together, they embark on dysfunctional and disturbing treks into the past and future, which cause conflict and family issues in the present.

Watch the first episode below and see what you think...





I think I love Dan Harmon's style of comedy. The first 3 seasons of Community were insanely brilliant, and when he was punted as show runner for Season 4, it was obvious the series had lost its way. The writing was forced, the characters became aimless - it was like the new staff spent the entire time doing a research project on what made Community work. Knowing this, NBC hired Harmon back for the 5th season, which I'm excited to watch next month. It'll be interesting to see if those first 3 seasons were just lightning-in-a-bottle, or if it was Harmon who was the guiding light all along.

As for Rick and Morty, it never really left me with the feeling I was watching an original, otherworldly comedy, like Community often did. The animation is obviously much better than in the shorts (Community fans take note of the studio working on this), and I like some of the character design choices like the tiny scribbles in people's eyes representing pupils.




The problem with Rick and Morty to me (at least in the first episode anyway) is that it never really seems to be able to shake the feeling that you're watching a Back To The Future parody.

I do like the realistic outsider view given to Morty's parents, where if you recall the movies, you think to yourself, "yeah, why would the McFly's be okay their son was hanging out with this lunatic." At least in the cartoon, they present Doc as being a blood relative, which gives them more of a foundation for a relationship and makes the premise a lot darker.

The rest of the time though I really only laughed at the incessant belching. I can't see that being funny for an entire season. 

But I realize I shouldn't gauge this on a single episode. I'll give it another go to see where they can take it. Right now though, it only made me worried about the upcoming season of Community. But prove me wrong, Dan Harmon. Prove me wrong.

Whatever the outcome, it's gotta be better than this...






Saturday, 30 November 2013

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Snow Day


I guess it's not your traditional grade-school definition of a "snow day". It's only a Snow Day in my head because I've been too tired (and smart) to shovel out from last week's dumping. But in order to motivate myself (and stall the inevitable), I'm snow-casing some cool content here to help ease your winter's (sidewalk clearing) discontent. So bundle up (in a Snuggie) and dig (a dozen cartoons)!


























Now get to work (in helping me find more cartoons to watch until the next blizzard)!



Saturday, 23 November 2013

Saturday Morning Cartoons - A Gift 'Horse'


This past Thursday night, I attended a sneak peek screening of Disney's Frozen. But I left before the movie started. It looks terrible. I'll eventually give it a try, but I just couldn't commit to it that night. I had to buy champagne flutes. Y'know, important stuff. But I did make time to stay for the first 7 minutes prior to Frozen, because screenings are preceded by a new Mickey Mouse short entitled 'Get A Horse!' And oh boy, is it a wonderful way to celebrate Mickey's 85th birthday!




Entertainment reporter Jim Hill sold me on it before I even watched it, in an article he wrote this week for The Huffington Post. In it, he informed me of some interesting facts about this new "old" cartoon.

It's directed by Lauren MacMullan, who worked on decidedly non-Disney fare like The Simpsons, King of The Hill and The Critic prior to joining the House of Mouse. Her first gig at Disney was Wreck-It-Ralph, where she worked with another former-Simpsons director, Rich Moore. Lauren had been discussing her love of old Mickey Mouse cartoons, and Rich encouraged her to pitch some ideas to the head of Walt Disney's Animation Studios, John Lasseter. Apparently Disney had been shopping around for a way to celebrate Mickey's birthday anyway, and Lauren's clever cartoon concept was green-lit in the first meeting.




"I re-watched a lot of the old black-and-white cartoons", she said. "And I just loved how Mickey could do anything in those shorts. How, if he wanted to tip his hat to Minnie but Mickey wasn't actually wearing a hat at that time, he'd just lift his ears clean off his skull. I wanted to tell a story that was set in that anything-is-possible universe. So I came up with a premise that I thought was kind of unusual."

Without completely ruining it for you, this cartoon is not what you'd expect. Especially considering the clip they released...




When talk of this short hit the Internet this past summer, Disney positioned it as a "lost" film from the golden age of cartoons. Later when the filmmakers started hitting festival circuits, that news became bogus, as it was revealed that it would include more current flourishes to represent the Mickey Mouse of today.

Keep in mind that in a theatre, you'll be watching that above clip on a big screen, wearing a pair of 3D glasses. It'll seem awkward at first, and then not long afterwards, the cartoon will explode - becoming more experimental to reflect current technology in a completely entertaining and offbeat way. It's rare that 3D is treated properly to enhance the product. This one does so successfully. As my friend, Mark, stated after watching it - "There was better use of 3D in those 7 minutes than there was in all of Thor." I couldn't agree more.

Apparently this cartoon took about a year to make, and was basically 2 animated films in one - one part traditional hand-drawn 2D, and the other CG/3D. When you see the movie, you'll find it difficult to catch everything happening in a single sitting. It really is like trying to watch 2 films at once. You'll also appreciate the seamless melding of the old (or what looks like the old) with the new. Knowing some of the behind-the-scenes stories beforehand on both sides helped me to appreciate the work even more.




The 2-minute 2D intro (which is obviously highlighted in the above clip) is meant to represent the first Mickey Mouse of the 1920's, as created by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks.

To capture the old-timeyness of 1920's Mickey Mouse, actual voice recordings of Walt Disney as Mickey were found and used in the film. Finding the right archival material to fit the script was pain-staking. In fact, his utterance of the word 'red', for example, didn't really exist. But sound technicians were able to piece it together after 2 1/2 weeks of massaging proper syllables.

The other attention to detail that I love in the 1920's section, is the devolution of modern-day animation. Basically the animators had to forget everything they were taught, because techniques of today didn't exist back then, when Disney and Iwerks were cranking out cartoons. This gives the film an unpolished but nostalgic feel.




Lead animator, the talented and passionate Eric Goldberg, who trained himself to mimic this 1920's-style of drawing, spoke to how current technology was also used to set the film back 85 years. "We cleaned it up first, but then made it boil more," he said. "As a result, the drawings have the spontaneity they would've had in that era. We added gate weave, density flicker around the sides, bloom around the blacks to make it look like overexposed film, dust, scratches, neg dirt blobs. And then we did a mistake pass."

I love that term! A "mistake pass"! Goldberg and the animators purposely went back and planted mistakes in select scenes, to give it a more rushed, novice feel. "We'd tell Gina Bradley, our head of scene planning, that she needed to go back into a particular scene and, for just two frames, make the buttons on Mickey's pants go from being white to black."




The last 5 minutes, or the more present-day portion of the cartoon, also involved an impressive attention to detail, which you'd never really consider unless you actually had to work on the short. For example, you know how no matter which way you look at a hand-drawn Mickey Mouse, you always see his full ear profile? Like, whether it's from the front or from the side, you always see his ears looking like this - Mickey Mouse. Well, a 3D rendering is meant to achieve a more realistic look - but to keep the short cartoon-y, the makers of 'Get A Horse!' had to "unrealistically" alter those ears to fit his trademark profile in the side-shots.




As you can see in the above still, a large part of the outside action takes place on a CG rendered stage. This involved a lot of pre-visualization as to how the cartoon would look on the big-screen, as described by director MacMullan.

"Our head of tech did a lot of research into what the average dimensions are for a modern-day movie theatre. With the row of seats, if you're too high or too low, the stage feels wrong and it has to work in these parameters. I've been going around to film festivals with the short, and we've had a wide variety of theatres, and it's interesting that different jokes play differently in different theatres."

Depending on where you're sitting, a different level of realism can be attained in different parts of the theatre. "When we showed our crew the short for the first time, the art director brought his 5-year old son to see it," she said. "They came in late, so they were sitting pretty close, and he told me later than when Mickey comes out of the screen and lands on the stage, for 5 minutes afterwards, his son would be looking around for him."




I was sitting to the front left while watching this, and can pinpoint at least 2 scenes in particular where it was like the action was meant for me and only me. It made me wonder what the right hand side of the theatre was experiencing. Let's just say they take full advantage of the space provided.

Anyway, I feel like I've already given away far too much about this cartoon (uhhh...spoiler alert?), but I hope you'll still consider seeing it when it hits theatres this Wednesday with Frozen. If you're a cartoon buff, it's both a loving nod to animation's roots, but at the same time, an encouraging look at how CG can still honour and even enhance those basics established by pioneers like Disney and Iwerks.

Best of all, it's a return to form for Mickey Mouse, who deserves this newfound attention. For too long he's languished as this homogenized shadow of himself - the brand! But now with this new short, and the great new TV series that I gushed about not-so-long ago, he's like this fresh new face. Kudos must be given to the current Disney regime for continuing to embrace and encourage creative departures like this - a lot of which push the envelope of what you'd traditionally expect to see from Disney. And regardless of your preferences (2D vs. CG), they still know how to bring in both adult fans and kids alike. Frozen doesn't seem like my cup of tea, but be damned if this cartoon didn't lure me into the theatre. Well played, Disney. Well played.




I've spent a lot of time here blathering on about technique and "the art form", which is important, I guess. But I like that director MacMullan knows the other key to making a good cartoon.

"For the most part, we just tried to make it as funny as we could," she said. "A nice ramification is that people seem to be happy to see him, and it's been great making people laugh. When is the last time Mickey Mouse did anything that could make you laugh?"

That last statement shouldn't be a game-changer, but it is. Someone give this woman an Oscar and a feature length film!


Saturday, 16 November 2013

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Signor Thomasino Catti-Cazzaza and Mouse-tro Jerry


This is how most people remember Tom and Jerry...




...a violence-prone pair of psychotics, constantly bent on bodily harm and killing each other. But to quote a Fugees song (and why not?), few people remember they also sometimes killed softly, with their song.




When Tom and Jerry were first created in the 1940's by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, there was little left to the imagination. "Cats hate mice and vice versa, so let's make a series of funny shorts about them beating on each other." But about 6 years after their first release, Tom and Jerry started to show signs of significant musical sophistication.

These seeds of song were planted by Hanna Barbera long before Tom and Jerry were a famous cat and mouse. Prior to that, when Hanna Barbera was working for the Van Beuren studios in the 1930's, Tom and Jerry were a couple of average schlubs, picking up odd jobs as stories dictated. In 1932's 'Piano Tooners', this "other" Tom showed quite a gift for piano playing, as do the mice who appear to have infested his apartment. This would prove symbolic of what was to come.




Tom and Jerry, the cat and mouse, would commence their musical leanings by tackling popular songs of the time, like in 1946's 'Solid Serenade', where Tom plucks a heavy-handed bass and adopts a voice that sounds very blues influenced.





One short year later, Tom and Jerry would reveal more classical influences, and were suddenly performing sold-out shows for live audiences (with complete orchestras!), as seen in 1947's 'The Cat Concerto'.







The great thing about this cartoon, especially noticeable if you're a pianist, is the accuracy shown in the playing. At least more so than you'd see nowadays, where the camera angle would purposely peer over the piano from the backside, in order to avoid having people attempt to animate fingers. This cartoon embraces a multi-angle look at those keys, where gags in the finger placement become plentiful. Not sure if the playing is 100% accurate (anyone know Franz Liszt's "Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2"?), but it certainly seems to be, at least in relation to Tom's position on the bench and keys. When his right pinkie impossibly stretches to reach those high notes, it makes you wonder as you listen to the music how it could have possibly been played by a human being. It's probably very realistic, but the cartoon makes me believe it isn't.




The other great thing about this short (along with every other first-edition Tom and Jerry, thanks to brilliant composer Scott Bradley) is how the violence is perfectly synced to the performance. Like most classic cartoons, I consider it a musical education. Here, I can take an interest in Franz Liszt, but simultaneously laugh 'til I cry, as Tom's flattened fingers struggle to ensure the show must go on. 




There's a Bugs Bunny cartoon that came out that same year called 'Rhapsody Rabbit', a reference to the fact that it too features the same piece of music by composer Franz Liszt. This one also features a musical battle against a mouse, who lives in a piano and eventually gets the better of Bugs. It's a very funny cartoon as well, but regardless of who ripped off whom (both Warner Bros. and MGM fought about it, but don't think they ever resolved it), I will always give the edge to the Tom and Jerry version, because it doesn't need dialogue to be spectacularly funny, and it deviates less from the actual "performance". (ie. no audience members were harmed in the making of the film)




I think The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences shared my sentiments, as they awarded Tom and Jerry with the Academy Award for Best Short Subject that year.

By the way, Franz Liszt's "Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2" became a cartoon classical go-to. Numerous Warner Bros. cartoons used it, like 1941's 'Rhapsody In Rivets'. Daffy and Donald Duck entertained The Ink and Paint Club with it in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Daffy also released a parody of the song called 'Daffy's Rhapsody', which was used as the soundtrack for a CG cartoon of the same name last year. 

But I digress. What sets Tom and Jerry apart from the Warner Bros. lot is that they didn't need to milk Liszt for all he was worth. They had other influences.




'Johann Mouse' from 1952, pays homage to one of the most famous waltzes in the world, Strauss's "The Blue Danube". Everybody knows this song, but people are more likely to know it as referred to here - "The Waltz".






Johann Strauss was saluted again in 1950's 'Tom and Jerry In The Hollywood Bowl', which put the cat and mouse back in front of a captive audience - this time not as musicians, but as orchestra co-conductors.




Only the makers of Tom and Jerry could somehow showcase the overture to "Die Fledermaus" and set it to footage of a cat getting hit by a bus. 

Click the poor bow-eyed bugger below to watch. 




Tom and Jerry's musical influences continued post-Hanna Barbera as well. Gene Deitch's final Tom and Jerry cartoon, called 'Carmen Get It!' from 1962, placed the pair in the Metropolitan Opera House where Georges Bizet's 'Carmen' was being performed. The opera acts more as a setting than a profession in this one, but Tom still seems cultured enough to know a few notes from "The Toreador Song"

Click any of the below cases below to watch.




Tom (or is that, Thomasino?) and Jerry were actual vocalists in a production of 'The Barber Of Seville' (another classical cartoon staple) in this Chuck Jones-directed bill from 1964, called 'The Cat Above And The Mouse Below'. And based on the destructive outcome, I can only assume the show didn't receive an extended run.




Because of that, or perhaps uncomfortable with being pigeon-holed as a classical mouse-ician, Jerry went bohemian in later years to become an underground drummer in a hipster nightclub, as evident in 1966's 'Rock N' Rodent'.




As for Tom...he ditched the ego and went back to his roots. And while I'd like to consider him progressive, he seemed temporarily content to close his syndicated TV show every week by simply tickling the ivories. Until that damn mouse turned up again to piss him off. Quite honestly, I don't know where these two found time to practice. 





Saturday, 9 November 2013

Saturday Morning Cartoons - I Mean, Saturday MO'ning Cartoons


I was seeking moustache inspiration this Movember, so I turned to animation (aniMOtion? nah, that's not gonna work!) and can now officially rank my Top 10 List Of The MO-st Awesome Cartoon Character Moustaches Ever In The History Of Pop Culture. You're welcome, everyone!

In order of preference, this list of lip luggage includes...


10) Snidley Whiplash




A villainous creation of Rocky and Bullwinkle's Jay Ward, Snidley Whiplash, arch enemy of Dudley Do-Right, rocks a killer curl! I'm pretty sure that all evil tendencies start with basic moustache twiddling. Then next thing you know, you're tying a helpless damsel to a set of railroad tracks. 




9) Dick Dastardly




While stealing Snidley's trademark curl twirl, Dick Dastardly from Hanna Barbera's Wacky Races is different in that any confidence he gained from that lip whip, was cancelled out every time his dog, Muttley, laughed at him. Before long, his ambitions dashed, he was relegated to bird catching in 1969.




8) Chief Quimby




This confident pose and the cool caterpillar making it happen would also be compromised by inconsiderate and incompetent co-workers - in this case, Inspector Gadget, who would repeatedly blast the bristles right off his boss's face.

Speaking of caterpillars, here's the original pilot episode of Inspector Gadget, featuring a character design choice that had not yet been altered late in the show's development, even in the theme song!




7) Carl Brutananadilewski     





The long suffering neighbour of Aqua Teen Hunger Force has little in life, except for his nose neighbour. But they even took that away from him once, which was profoundly disturbing to me.




6) Big Gay Al




It takes a very confident man to pull off a pencil topper like that. But Big Gay Al owns it. I believe it's what gives this talented South Park resident his power of super-positivity. (thanks for asking)




5) The Little Man




This foil to the Pink Panther is another very confident man, as evidenced by his complete lack of clothing. A lip rug is sometimes all the coverage you need!

The Little Man is rumoured to be a caricature of his diminutive and equally moustachioed co-creator, Friz Freleng. In addition to size, Freleng was also rumoured to be short on temper, which helped to inspire another caricature found below in the #1 spot.







4) The Inspector



A common companion to the Pink Panther in cartoon packaging, The Inspector (Clouseau) sported a thin thtrip strip above his lip, patchier than that of his live action inspiration played by Peter Sellers.




In relation to today's theme, the above version of The Inspector is an imposter and unworthy of this list. But The Inspector as depicted at the start of some of the Pink Panther feature films (featuring animation by Richard Williams) - now THAT'S a French tickler!







3) Wally Walrus



He had a pretty swede sweet 'stache! Mind you, that's unfairly easy for a walrus.

Wally would sport different whiskers over the years, each style more hideous than the last. 






2) Ned Flanders




This particular push-broom ranks higher on the list, solely because of the man's commitment to it. Every month is Movember for Ned Flanders. He combs it, owns it, and speaks of that soup strainer with great pride. And if it weren't attached to the man it was, I think even Homer Simpson would agree that it was a pretty well-formed and majestic mouth brow.




1) Yosemite Sam




A pretty obvious first choice, I know. But how can you not acknowledge this moustache's quality? Those dirt-foxes comprise about 40% of Yosemite's entire person. And it kinda flows up and seamlessly connects to his equally unruly eyebrows. It's bad-ass and he knows it. And it sometimes has a life of its own. 




This is the flavour-saver I will attempt to grow this month. And I too will high-five it when I do, many, many (and I mean, many) years from now.

By the way, as wacky and awesome as it is to grow a moustache this Movember, the point is to also raise money and awareness for men's health issues. I would like to help combat prostate cancer, which has a history in my family. So if you like what you've read, and would consider supporting my facial follicles and the cause surrounding it, please visit www.mobro.co/lougheed-fantana. Thanks for your support and for hanging out with me this MO'ning!



Saturday, 2 November 2013

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Ralph Bakshi's Spider-Man (Or Is That, Spiderman?)


Two things inspired this post - this weekend's local Comic Con at the Convention Centre, and this past Tuesday's birthday of animation legend Ralph Bakshi, who turned 75 on October 29th. 

A lot of people know Ralph Bakshi as "that X-rated cartoonist". Fritz The Cat, Heavy Traffic, Coonskin - these were the cartoons I wasn't allowed to watch at my birthday parties. But a lot of kids my age who grew up watching cartoons in 1980 small-town Canada watched Ralph Bakshi in another, more dad-friendly form of programming. But in retrospect, I don't think it was any better for us than Coonskin. Sure, there was no nudity or swearing, but it certainly made the perceived influence of drugs seem pretty cool.





Let me explain. The first season of ABC's Spider-Man in 1967 was Ralph Bakshi-free, and was relatively true to its comic origins. In fact, Marvel head honcho "Smilin" Stan Lee was a creative consultant, as was "Jazzy" John Romita, Sr. GrantRay Lawrence Animation produced the series, which was a joint production between the U.S. and Canada. That CanCon connection is the reason why this show was a permanent daily repeat for over two decades, alternating between mornings and afternoons. 

I watched the show for at least one those decades, alternating between mornings and afternoons. And while I enjoyed the first season just fine, with familiar villains and comic-inspired storylines, it was the weird second and third season episodes that I preferred, even though they sometimes scared the living sh*t out of me.

When Ralph Bakshi and Krantz Films took over the series after GrantRay Lawrence went bankrupt in 1968, Stan Lee and "Jazzy" Johnny were nowhere to be seen. The villains from the comic books showed up more sporadically. And all of a sudden, Spider-Man was in outer space amid a background that looked like it was exploding.




To write-off this incarnation of Spider-Man as a complete throwaway from the oeuvre is unfair. Some of the Season 2 episodes, in my opinion, were truer to the comic books than Season 1 was. Some episodes focused on the teenage angst of Peter Parker, and how being a super-hero affected his life as a high schooler. These arcs are what Stan Lee and Steve Ditko first explored in the comic's first issues. The Season 1 episodes of Spider-Man spent more time focusing on Peter's job at the Daily Bugle, attempting to salvage his job in the face of his real enemy, newspaper editor and boss J. Jonah Jameson.

In fact, it wasn't until the start of Season 2 that Spider-Man received his first true origin story (called 'The Origin of Spiderman'), which used dialogue and story elements from the first comic book.

Note how Bakshi's main title reference to our hero ditches the use of a hyphen.





One of my favourite episodes from these later seasons is a one-off called 'Diamond Dust', which shuffles back-and-forth between Peter's personal life to Spidey's super-hero struggles. This one showcases some of the best original animation seen in later seasons of the show. Note: This isn't to say the animation is good. It's just a lot better than what would come, featuring less rehashed footage than usual. It's the Fantasia of Bakshi Spider-Man's.




But these acknowledgements of Spidey's roots were far and few between. Occasionally a trademark villain would show up, like in 'Kingpinned' (which also featured J. Jonah Jameson), but more often than not, the episodes would feature green-skinned monsters or creatures from other another world, who somehow weren't far away from Manhattan.




Sometimes the enemy was a "flying cowboy on an electronic horse". (Note again the spelling of our hero's name!)




Speaking of enemies, I always loved the head-trip induced by a devious filmmaker and his cat in 'Pardo Presents'.




Head-trips seemed par for the course in later seasons of Spider-Man, not only in storyline, but in the artwork itself. 

Every Season 2 and 3 episode of Spider-Man is a trip thanks to those bleached out, acid-washed skies, overseen by art director and comic artist, Gray Morrow. 




Sometimes the storylines were trippy solely due to cost-cutting measures. Bakshi and crew made recycling footage an artform. They shamelessly used scenes and entire stories from an earlier Krantz Films production called Rocket Robin Hood (1966-1969), and reworked them to exist in Spider-Man's present day universe. The result was some of the weirdest cartoons you'll ever see. Even as a kid, you'd watch and think to yourself, "That's eff'd up." 

Spider-Man's 'Phantom From The Depths Of Time' was pretty much an awkward shot-for-shot remake of Rocket Robin Hood's 'From Menace To Menace'. And classic, super-scary Spider-Man episode 'Revolt In The Fifth Dimension' ("Talk about science fiction!") couldn't have existed without the equally scary 'Dementia Five' from Rocket Robin Hood. Compare footage, which is pretty much a shot-for-shot remake with different music and lead voices...






This is a good time to talk about the music in Ralph Bakshi's Spider-Man. While some of Ray Ellis's Season 1 music was still used, Season 2 and 3 relied heavily on funky and more experimental instrumentals from KPM's radio production library - a fascinating series of music created by a series of British composers, with names like Alan Hawkshaw, Johnny Hawksworth, Syd Dale and more.

It may not surprise you, but one of the stand-out pieces of production used in 'Revolt In The Fifth Dimension', is a song by Bill Martin and Phil Coulter entitled "L.S.D.". Seems appropriate.





Here's another mini-sampling of music you might remember from Spider-Man, all of which came from KPM...







After I found the source of this music, I started seeking out availability of KPM releases on current formats, and you can still get select cuts on newly remastered packages. Those I do own have a couple of tracks that I recognized from Spider-Man, but those I don't are still great. There are so many fine unknown composers who contributed to the KPM brand, and all of them are cult music legends. 

For more on this music, listen to this awesome podcast which inter-cuts between actual music and dialogue from Spider-Man, into the album tracks the show steals from. Very fascinating, and only begins to touch the surface on what's out there.

But back to recycling for a moment. Bakshi went so far as to spread his money even further by making "new" Spider-Man episodes out of recycled footage from previous Spider-Man episodes! 

Watch how Season 3's 'Rollarama', is basically a rip-off of Season 2's 'Vine' with one major change...






Or how The Master Technician shows no original thinking in his plans for world domination in both Season 2's 'Swing City' and Season 3's 'Specialists And Slaves'.





Or how 'Spiderman Battles The Moleman' (there's that spelling again!) compares to 'Menace From The Bottom Of The World'. Apparently these both aired not-so-subtly in the same season, separated by only one episode! The audacity of these guys is mind-blowing!






Still, I can't stay angry at them. Maybe it's just the nostalgia talking, but I see merit to their cheapie experiment. Despite the lack of resources, I think there was still passion behind the project. And they introduced a never-before-seen (and sometimes jarring!) vision of a comic hero that couldn't be replicated...outside of what they were already replicating, that is. 

Despite the terrible animation and awful drawings, there was still an artfulness to be found. And let's not forget that this provided Bakshi with the springboard he needed to take on other projects, which would eventually revolutionize the way we thought about cartoons. Without Spider-Man, there'd be no Fritz The Cat

I'd like to get into some of Bakshi's later years in a future blog post (especially some of his more unknown kid-friendly material), but for now, Comic Con calls. I'm already late, but I won't speed. It's not becoming of your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man. 

Or is that Spiderman?





Saturday, 26 October 2013

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Disney's Halloween Treat




As we creep up on Halloween, I was thinking of assembling a playlist of spooky and ooky cartoOOOOons to help set the mood for Tootsie Roll shopping. Then I started to think...1) kids who still enjoy Tootsie Rolls are weird, and 2) the ultimate Halloween playlist already exists! It's in a television special entitled Disney's Halloween Treat. Are you old enough to remember the great opening?




If you're (old) like me, you probably watched numerous versions of this TV special without even knowing it. The original Disney's Halloween Treat aired on ABC in 1982, as part of Sunday suppertime's The Wonderful World Of Disney. Then the following year, it was retitled to the far more generic-sounding A Disney Halloween (1983). Nobody noticed because the theme song remained the same, and much of the content was a rehash of Disney's Halloween Treat, except now there was more footage added, which expanded the special from an hour-long program to 90 minutes. But the 90-minute version also reused footage from a different Disney special altogether, called Disney's Greatest Villains

Other differences between the two...

Disney's Halloween Treat was hosted by a goofy foam pumpkin. 




A Disney Halloween was hosted by this creepy Magic Mirror.




The skeletons in the opening of Disney's Halloween Treat are orange.




The skeletons in the opening of A Disney Halloween are green.




Michael Eisner introduced some versions. I think Roger Rabbit made it into another. The content kept changing to reflect the current characters and CEO's.

But the best part of these specials has always been the cartoons they kept replaying year after year. Not the villain clips from feature films, but the cartoon shorts they'd (almost) showcase in their entirety. These are the funniest and most fun cartoons you'll watch this Halloween.

Let's go back to those weirdly coloured skeletons. Though they never showed the cartoon in its entirety, that footage always set the tone, didn't it? It comes from an amazing 1929 black-and-white Silly Symphony classic directed by animation legend, Ub Iwerks, called 'The Skeleton Dance'.




Ub reused some of this skeleton footage in a Mickey Mouse short called 'Haunted House'. This cartoon was never included in any of the Halloween specials either, probably due to its lack of colour.




1937 Silly Symphony 'The Old Mill' wasn't included on the original Disney's Halloween Treat, but A Disney Halloween showed some of it. This complex and cutting-edge cartoon by Wilfred Jackson helped to pave the way for the realistic, cinematic animation that Disney would become renowned for. Pay particular attention to that cool ripple effect at the 6:25 mark! And remember, this was done over 75 years ago!




One of the weirdest and most consistent additions to the TV specials was 1944's 'Donald Duck And The Gorilla'. It's not what you consider traditional Halloween content, but it's still always fun to watch that arsehole, Uncle Donald, rile up his nephews like that. As any responsible caregiver would do, Donald leads by example - with an axe.




Donald also neglected his nephews in a more seasonal outing - 1952's 'Trick Or Treat', which was also a recurring staple of the holiday specials. That crazy Witch Hazel proved to be a far better role-model for the boys than Donald ever was, which always warmed the cockles of my black heart.




Donald proves equally inept in handling spirits and spectres in 1937's 'Lonesome Ghosts'. Mind you, Mickey and Goofy are no better. I used to watch a silent and shorter version of this all the time on my cool, state-of-the-art, Fisher-Price movie viewer! Back in my day, YouTube (or should I say, BOOO Tube) had a hand-crank, sonny!






Pluto's appearances in these Halloween specials were cobbled together from various cartoons. But the wildest and weirdest was 'Pluto's Judgement Day' from 1935, where Pluto experiences his own purr-sonal hell.




Now, the Top 2 and 3 (runners-up only to 'It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown') Halloween cartoons of all time! 

I know I indicated earlier that feature film clips wouldn't count, but the Chernabog sequence from 1940's Fantasia is such a stunner! When you're a kid, this is seriously eerie! Some of these images (like the dancing devils and skinless horses of the apocalypse, no less) must be very startling to youngsters! And of course, Mussorgsky's music from 'Night On Bald Mountain' makes it all the more unnerving.




Then there's 1949's 'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow'. My newfangled (or should I say, BOOOO-fangled) Internet machine shows it as existing later than that, but it was originally released in 1949 as part of a feature film called The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. Sleepy Hollow was the latter half of the motion picture, but was later released on its own to theatres and television in the 1950's. Apparently some of the earliest TV versions (on a show called Disneyland) had an animated prologue about the life and times of Sleepy Hollow author, Washington Irving, which was never released to home video.

Production of 'The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow' began in 1946. It wasn't considered long or "event" enough to be a feature film, which is why they put it into a "package" alongside their adaptation of 'The Wind And The Willows', and later released it as The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad.





This to me is some of Disney's finest animation. A lot of funny character detail goes into the opening, followed by some of the scariest sequences (and backgrounds) in cartoon history. It's the perfect date cartoon, because it delivers thrills and chills, but at the same time, sets-up very funny, slapstick comic relief at the end in the squash-and-stretch animation of lanky loser (or should I say, BOOOO-ser), Ichabod Crane.





Enjoy, IF YOU DARE!!! Muah-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!




Coming SooOOOOOoon (just in time for Christmas): The SCARIEST cartoons of all time! Here's a sneak previeEEEEEWWw...