Saturday, 28 September 2013

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Takei Say

Colin's Blog. Star Date: 9 / 28 / 13.

My girlfriend and I had the pleasure of meeting Star Trek legend George Takei last night, as part of Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra's production of "Sci Fi Spectacular". George co-emceed the evening, which showcased iconic music from small screen and cinematic science-fiction. It was a wonderfully geeky night, made even geekier afterwards when I had a chance to meet the man known as Mr. Sulu.

"I've always been a Star Trek fan", I gushed, embarrassingly holding up the photo line. "But I'm also a big cartoon buff!"

"Ahhhh," George replied, in that patient velvety tone - the one he uses to mask pained inner reminisces of the hotel room he left behind.

"And I'm always surprised at how much stuff you turn up on," I raved. George then began proudly listing off a few of his more recent TV appearances - some of which I thought we could highlight this morning, along with some of the other cartoon contributions he's made over the past 40 years as an accomplished voice actor.

Predictably, Takei's first voice role in a cartoon was as Hikaru Sulu in Filmation's Star Trek, the animated version of the popular TV series. It ran from 1973-74 on NBC. In his 1994 book, "To The Stars: The Autobiography of George Takei", it was revealed that Takei wasn't even originally cast in the cartoon. His voice was supposed to be impersonated, but fellow cast member Leonard Nimoy refused to sign on to the project until Takei and Nichelle Nichols (who played Uhura) were hired. Nimoy felt it would help to stay true to creator Gene Roddenberry's original vision of ethnic and cultural equality, but the cast was also known to fight for each other in times of financial instability, especially in the uncertain times after the original live action series was cancelled. In fact, Walter Koenig who played Chekov, also wasn't in the original voice cast - but he was later brought on as a writer, in another act of crew camaraderie.

George Takei reprised the voice of Sulu a few more times throughout the years, including in various video games, in an episode of Drawn Together and in Futurama's 'Where No Fan Has Gone Before', which recruited and re-suited many of the original Star Trek TV cast, who appeared alongside the crew of the Planet Express. George Takei also appeared as himself in 4 other episodes of Futurama. Well, at least his head did.

Takei has also made 4 guest appearances on The Simpsons, but has yet to appear as "George Takei". He's played a restaurant owner, a game show host, and a waiter named Akira. Takei originally portrayed Akira in a 1991 episode entitled 'One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish', but was later replaced in subsequent episodes by Hank Azaria.

Unfortunately, like Akira, many of Takei's cartoon roles in the late 90's/early 2000's tended to teeter towards stereotype. In Disney's Mulan from 1998, he portrayed "First Ancestor". In 2002's Jackie Chan's Adventures, he voiced "High Mystic". That same year, he also played "Warrior #4" in Samurai Jack. From 2003 to 2007, he portrayed "Master Sensei" on Disney's Kim Possible. See where I'm going with this? 

Takei has always been proud of his Japanese heritage, so while he'd be fine with these roles, you still have to assume it didn't provide him with much in the way of range or challenge. But fortunately from 2003 on, it seemed like Takei's deep, dulcet tones started to be treated with more respect, and the casting became more frequent and creative.

That even started back in 1999 when he was cast as Mr. Fixx in Batman Beyond. He's the big guy in the brown suit.

Perhaps taking inspiration from that villainous turn, the makers of 2010-2011's The Super Hero Squad Show cast Takei as the (sometimes) mighty Galactus.

The more booming qualities of Takei's voice were tested in 2 different Transformers cartoons - as Yoketron in Transformers: Animated (2009) and currently as Alpha Trion in Transformers: Prime. (2012-present)

After listing off a few of the characters he's portrayed, Takei then reminded me of perhaps the most interesting role he's played. And a startling one too depending on the sci-fi fan you're talking to. "I'm the only Star Trek actor to reach over into Star Wars", he said. Which is true!

George Takei lent his voice to a 2009 episode of Star Wars: The Clone Wars, where he played Lok Durd, heard briefly below at the :28 mark. And much to his and our benefit, the universe didn't even implode upon itself afterwards!

In addition to action/adventure (and as we've learned from Futurama), Takei can also handle comedy.

In Archer, he voiced Mr. Moto in a Season 3 episode entitled 'Drift Problem'. In Rick & Steve: The Happiest Gay Couple In All The World, he voiced Mayor Screwsum. And in Chowder, he portrays a little white cat named Fois Gras.

Also on Adventure Time, he portrays the studly Ricardio, the Heart Guy.

George can also do family-friendly. He's been featured in a couple of more recent Scooby Doo movies. He was cast in a reboot of Hasbro's Pound Puppies not long ago. And you'll hear him this November in Free Birds with Owen Wilson and Woody Harrelson.

All of these roles raced warp speed through my mind last night, and before I knew it, my photo was taken and it was over.

"Live and long and prosper", he said with a Vulcan salute.

"You as well, my friend", I stated sadly, sheepishly offering a counter salute and shuffling off, wishing I had more time to talk about what his future had in store for us.

When I returned to the table, Chrissy, my girlfriend, asked why I didn't get him to sign my DVD. In the heat of the moment, I had forgotten I was holding my Season 4 Futurama DVD, the one containing 'Where No Fan Has Gone Before'.

"Go up there and get it signed," she insisted.

"No way", I said, stammering. "He'll think I'm a loser!" (The irony of that statement is not lost on me, by the way.)

"Gimme this and I'll do it", Chrissy said, swiping the DVD from my trembling hands. She brought it up to Mr. Takei, he asked for the proper spelling of my name, and minutes later, she brought the DVD back to me, signed. That's true unconditional love right there. The kind Gene Roddenberry wanted. The kind George Takei would've been proud to hear about, but from a friend in the safe confines of his comfy hotel room.

"I'd like to live long and prosper with you," I swooned, gazing into my girlfriend's eyes.

"Great", she mustered, completely unaware of my intentions to ask her to see Walter Koenig with me at next month's Comic Con.

May all of your relationships "live long and prosper" as well!

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Saturday Morning Cartoons - The Somewhat Delayed Fall TV Preview 2013

I miss the days when Saturday morning cartoons were still big enough to warrant those star-studded prime time specials where they gave you previews as to what kids could expect to watch on TV during the fall season.

Maybe star-studded is too strong a term. Actor-laden?

Okay, maybe I don't really miss those at all. In retrospect, they barely contained any actual previews! Anyway, it doesn't matter because we're all old enough now to make our own informed decisions as to what cartoons we want to watch. But in case you're a lemming, here's my Somewhat Delayed Fall TV Preview of new cartoons I've watched or am intending to PVR this fall. I am your host, as Alf doesn't seem to return any of my emails.

Teletoon / Cartoon Network (Canada)
Cartoon Network (USA)

This comedy is a spin-off from a short film called The Cartoonstitute, and a series from 2011 called Secret Mountain Fort Awesome. That particular show never took off, but apparently it won enough awards to warrant this new series.

Created by Peter Browngardt, who also worked on Futurama, Adventure Time and Chowder, Uncle Grandpa features the adventures of everybody's uncle and grandpa, visiting random children with his friends Pizza Steve, Ham Sandwich and Giant Realistic Flying Tiger, just to name a few. Mark Hamill, who seemingly appears in every cartoon series ever conceived, lends the occasional bellow to another acquaintance of his, Frankenstein.

It's certainly not revolutionary, but I'll admit I laughed in spots.

Family Channel (Canada)  ***Premieres Sunday, October 13th***
Disney Channel (USA)

This fun show comes from Craig McCracken, who brought us cartoons like The Powerpuff Girls and Foster's Home For Imaginary Friends. Like anything McCracken is involved with, the pace is fast, the colours are vibrant, the laughs are many and the appeal is just undeniable. And the theme song could be the most insane earworm I've ever contracted.

If you like what you can see, you can stream the first episode, 'The Picnic', by wandering over yonder.

If the voice of Wander, the little orange alien, sounds familiar to you, this clip will probably help to enlighten...

Other celebs in the Wander voice cast include Aziz Ansari, James Marsden, Edie McClurg, Frank Welker and Spongebob Squarepants' Tom Kenny. (who incidentally also provides a voice in Uncle Grandpa)

FOX (Canada / USA)

This show has been airing on Fox, late Saturday nights since mid-summer. There are only 6 episodes right now, but 6 more are on the way.

The term "animation domination" had previously been used by Fox to promote their Sunday night block of adult programming, like The Simpsons and Family Guy. This is a half-hour show comprised of bits, promos and 2 book end 11-minute mini-series, including Axe Cop and High School USA!.

Axe Cop may sound familiar. It started as a web comic created by 29-year-old Ethan Nicolle, who based the stories and characters on guidance from his 5-year-old brother, Malachai. The TV show is based on some of these stories with new writers. But apparently the now 8-year-old Malachai was still brought in as a creative consultant. Which is why the decision was made to move Zombie Island into space.

Parks and Recreation's Nick Offerman was a huge fan of the comic series, and requested to play the lead long ago.

The end result is bizarre and hilarious. Many of Adult Swim's adult-generated shows could only try to be this genuinely offbeat.

The back end series, High School USA! looks deceptively like Archie and the gang at Riverdale, but the content is decidedly different. Skewering modern youth can be tiresome. It's hard to keep it original with the glut of teen parody options out there. But High School USA! is pretty amusing, and doesn't come off as forced. Creator Dino Stamatopoulos (writer on TV Funhouse, creator of Moral Orel, and probably best known as "Star Burns" on Community) keeps things fresh and edgy. SO edgy in fact, that the 6th episode of the series was banned by the FCC for its depiction of the porn industry.

Family Channel (Canada)
Disney Channel (USA)

These great 3-minute reboots of classic Mickey Mouse are overseen and co-written by Paul Rudish, who worked on Dexter's Laboratory and The Powerpuff Girls. The series premiered in June and new episodes have come out intermittently. It's a great example of how animation can still be the star of the show, as opposed to the writing-reliant programs you see on Adult Swim. Quick, charming and a great reminder that simplicity can be a key to success, Mickey Mouse is a nice throwback to classic cartoons, but a worthwhile reinvention.

Here he helps Minnie rebuild bistro inventory in gay Paris in 'Croissant de Triomphe'.

YTV (Canada)
Disney XD (USA)

Okay, I'd never watch an entire episode of this. I was just thrilled that a Pac-Man cartoon could still exist in 2013, as it made me feel a little less...uh...mature.

After all, it was 30 years ago that the original Pac-Man aired on ABC. With special guest stars Dick Clark and Henry Winkler! Brought to you by Cascade - leaves dishes and glasses virtually spotless!

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Saturday Morning Cartoons - A Case of Sniffles

Those forced to work with me know that I've been thoroughly unpleasant to be around of late. My nose has been leaking, my voice has been creaking, and I can't keep a swig of coffee down before I start hacking it up all over myself. Yes, I have a bad case of the "sniffles". Which reminded me of the mouse of the same name.

A lot of credit for Sniffles' creation goes to Chuck Jones, who directed him as the star of 12 Warner Bros. cartoons. But it was another Charles who first injected the creative "cutesy" that helped to make him a star, and he was a former Manitoba resident.

Born in Winnipeg, Icelandic illustrator Charlie Thorson was a bit of a renegade who roved in and out of some of animation's hottest houses throughout the 1930's, but tragically wouldn't really be known for it. Not like that other Charles anyway.

He worked for Walt Disney and had a hand in creating Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs; he's credited as the original designer of characters like Droopy at MGM, and after he ended up at Warner Bros. in 1938, he was even unceremoniously overlooked in his contributions to the development of Bugs Bunny. Much can be said about Charlie Thorson, but unfortunately, this isn't the post for it. If you want immediate background into his life story, I recommend you pick up the book, "Cartoon Charlie" by Gene Walz, who is a prof at University of Manitoba. In it, he details the restless life of Charlie Thorson, and his sometimes self-destructive path into obscurity. Today, we'll only take a look at his contributions as the "inspirer" of Sniffles.

For being such a rough and rebellious guy, Thorson could draw "cutesy" like no other. Which is why his illustrations proved so influential at the time, when cartoons were known for being "cutesy" - sometimes at the cost of quality. No wonder he found a home at Disney! But even Warner Bros. at that time, was cranking out the "cutesy".

The design for Sniffles was based on a character that Charlie created for Disney in a cartoon called 'The Country Cousin', except the Warner Bros. version wore a different hat plus a scarf - because he's cold, you see! Charlie also adopted versions of the cats he used at Disney and plunked them into the Warner Bros. picture as well, which was called 'Naughty But Mice'. (1939)

Both the Disney and WB cartoons are quite similar in story, involving a cute (and drunk) mouse overcoming adversity - except in the case of Sniffles, he also battled the common cold.

A trip to the drug store puts Sniffles in peril, combating a hungry cat and an electric razor(!), which also gets drunk.

It's a weird little cartoon. But it's also goddamn adorable. If only we could ALL be that cute when we were that drunk. But even in this cartoon, Sniffles' namesake is fast-forgotten. And within 7 minutes, Sniffles loses the cold and succumbs to the "cutesy".

Here he is on Christmas Eve - perfectly healthy, and putting the "aw" in holidays in 1940's 'Bedtime For Sniffles'.

That cuteness is abetted by Sniffles' voice, which was originally provided by Margaret-Hill Talbot, who also provided a voice for Andy Panda. IMDB also credits Sniffles' voice to 2 other actresses in later installments - Majorie Tarlton and Sara Berner, who also provided voices for Jerry Mouse and Chilly Willy.

It's hard to believe Chuck Jones cranked out such disgustingly cute material, considering how many times he went on to blast the bill from Daffy Duck's face. But back then, he was creating slower-paced cartoons for children. Not long afterwards though, you could start to see his speedy and more manic influences starting to take over - even in the Sniffles series.

My favourite from all 12 Sniffles cartoons is 1943's 'The Unbearable Bear', which even starts showcasing the more abstract backgrounds that Chuck would lean heavily on in later years. Unfortunately, it also showcases a more annoying side of Sniffles, who went on to become an incessant chatterbox. One starts to wish at times he'd become sick again.

Sniffles' last classic cartoon was 1946's 'Hush My Mouse', where he became food for thought at Tuffy's Tavern, where Edward G. Robincat (a pretty obvious caricature of tough guy  Edward G. Robinson) craves a plate of delicious Mouse Knuckles.

Despite his brief cartoon legacy and his growing inability to shut the hell up, Sniffles was actually a very popular cartoon character at the time. He could be seen right alongside Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig, even on official Warner Bros. stationary.

He also received a second life in the world of comics, where he was weirdly paired up with a little girl who could shrink to his size if she so wanted to. 

Sniffles also appeared in later years on TV in The Sylvester and Tweety Mysteries, and on big screens in 1996's Space Jam, where he was given a very flattering flattening cameo.

A younger and more allergy-prone relative of Sniffles named Lil' Sneezer also turned up in 1990's Tiny Toons Adventures.

Oh great, Sniffles' cold is gone, but mine still lingers! Oh well, best to stay in bed like my buddy George Geef here. Not unlike most Saturday mornings, I suppose.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Saturday Morning Cartoons - GRANNimation

Tomorrow is Grandparents' Day, and to celebrate, we're partying with one of animation's most famous and feisty seniors, simply known as Granny.

Granny just celebrated her 75th birthday. Wikipedia claims her first appearance was in 1937's Little Red Walking Hood, a film directed by Tex Avery - but if you watch it below, she doesn't even look like the Granny you see above. And she's actually credited as Grandma, as per Little Red folklore. That considered, I don't think this character can be clearly defined enough to be considered Granny. To me, it's just a token old lady.

Although she would end up being more officially utilized in a later Little Red outing, seen at the 3:30 mark in 1955's 'Red Riding Hoodwinked'.

She seemed a little more in her element in 1941's 'The Cagey Canary', which Tex Avery started and Bob Clampett completed after Avery left Warner Bros. studios. She seems younger in this and much thinner than the character we know and love, but I guess that happens to everyone, right? All the pieces are in place here for a Tweety and Sylvester cartoon, but it's not Tweety and Sylvester.

The elements are in place yet again in 1943's Hiss And Make Up, directed by Friz Freleng, but it's still not Tweety and Sylvester. Granny still appears younger and thinner than she's depicted now, but her voice reaches a very familiar and flippant pitch. You can tell the filmmakers were on to something here.

Then her voice regresses back to an experimental phase again, getting slower and calmer in 1944's 'Hare Force'. Note the name of the dog in this cartoon, which apparently stuck with Freleng when it came time to solidify those cat and canary characters.

In 1950's 'Canary Row', Granny finally becomes THAT Granny, and the cat and canary are officially named Tweety and Sylvester. From here on in, Granny is portrayed as the de facto owner and part-time defender of Tweety Bird, and is a permanent fixture to the series.

Counting 'Canary Row', Granny would appear in a total of 20 classic Tweety and Sylvester cartoons between 1950 and 1964. Some of my favourites are the ones that depict her as spry beyond her years. I love her sense of youthful fun at the end of 1951's 'Tweety's S.O.S', after she takes a MAJOR lickin' and keeps on tickin'.

But in addition to that childlike exuberance, she also has a caring, maternal side to her. This is on display to a fault in 1953's 'A Street Cat Named Sylvester'.

Granny also possesses a dark side. Part of this stems from her insatiable love of animals. At times, she seems to love them a little TOO much, especially in the hilarious 'Ain't She Tweet' from 1952.

She also seems completely off her rocker at times. But I mean, that cat and canary have created so much havoc and home repair need for that poor old lady - who can blame her? Which is likely what brings her to the breaking point, at the :54 mark in 1953's 'Fowl Weather'.

Granny received a makeover in 1956, and threatened Sylvester with a more complex and very literal opportunity to face the music in 'Tweet And Sour'.

Beyond Tweety and Sylvester, Granny also cameoed in other classic Warner Bros cartoons. She appeared as quite the tease to a money-mooching Yosemite Sam in 1953's 'Hare Trimmed', starring Bugs Bunny. According to this, Granny's first name is Emma. (or "Emmy", if you speak Yosemit-ese)

And in 1965's Halloween-themed 'Corn On The Cop', starring Daffy and Porky, Granny is referred to as Mrs. Webster.

In a nice nod to these classics, The Looney Tunes Show, which currently airs on Teletoon and Cartoon Network, refers to Granny as Emma Webster, which is an amalgamation of these 2 separate references.

In fact, The Looney Tunes Show gave Granny her biggest and best (back)story yet in an 2011 episode called 'Eligible Bachelors', where she's depicted as a WWII hero who saves the Eiffel Tower from the Nazis. Maybe that cat and canary will start showing a little respect now knowing that she's a celebrated veteran!

Granny has also appeared in various incarnations of other Looney Tunes-related material between 1990 and now, including TV like Tiny Toon Adventures, The Sylvester and Tweety Mysteries, Baby Looney Tunes and the very unfortunate Loonatics Unleashed, where apparently she was alive and well in the year 2772. She also cameoed in the movies Space Jam and Looney Tunes: Back In Action.

For being such a secondary character, Granny has shown amazing longevity. And I was thinking that even before I learned she was alive and well in the year 2772. I think a consistent part of that can be attributed to the appealing voicework of Bea Benaderet, who played Granny up until 1955, and June Foray, who took over the role after Bea and is still playing it to this day!

Upon looking back at these appearances, I enjoy how June and Bea can shift Granny from being sweet old lady to unstable kook, in a matter of seconds, without ever losing character. I enjoy the youthfulness they brought to the character in the 1950's, and the genuine maturing sweetness that June now exudes in The Looney Tunes Show. I'm sure that maturing sweetness isn't hard to pull off, considering that June will be turning 96 years old next Wednesday. But to be that age and still working like that - I'm assuming the occasional toughness that Granny exudes wouldn't be much of a stretch either.

I would love to speak more highly of June and Bea and the wonderful things they've done for cartoons over the years. But it's definitely a lot to cover and worthy of a separate post. So to close for now, I'll leave you with 2011's theatrical release, 'I Tawt A Taw A Puddy Tat', a CG cartoon released before screenings of Happy Feet 2, and featuring more original voicework by June Foray, who is paired up with an old song recording by Mel Blanc.  It warms my heart to watch this, because when Granny takes to the piano, it kinda reminds me of my own Granny, when she used to tickle the ivories at Christmas time in an effort to get my brothers and I to sing. If you still have a Granny, make sure you call her tomorrow. Even if she is a bit of a kook.