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...

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Couch Guests (Of The Simpsons)

I'm assuming you watched the opening for that last 'Treehouse Of Terror' installment of The Simpsons, directed by Hellboy and Pan's Labyrinth director, Guillermo Del Toro. Many of Del Toro's creations make cameos throughout, in addition to 30+ other heroes of horror and fantasy - many of which I didn't even recognize upon first viewing. It's a lot to take in over the course of a couple of minutes.

"I kept trying to add things," said Del Toro, "but I pared it down because I wanted very much to make it as consistent with the title sequence as possible."

The great thing about The Simpsons is that 25 seasons in, they can still reinvent themselves with the help of other filmmakers and creators - some of whom are genuine fans of the show. In recent years, they've been recruiting other talents to lend brief creative vision to the series, usually during the theme song's iconic "couch gag".

"We're really pretty easy with these guest couch gags," said The Simpsons executive producer, Al Jean. "We just approach people that we admire and say, 'It just has to have a couch', and 'make what you want'."

That creative licence has given the long-in-the-tooth TV series a consistent viral push of late. As of this morning, the Del Toro opening had over 20 million views on You Tube. Not bad for a show 25 seasons in.

Fortunately, Del Toro is one of those guys who reveres The Simpsons as much as the myriad of material he references in his opening.

"I remember how groundbreaking it was to see this incredibly acerbic riff on sitcom dynamics," he told USA Today. "To get to do a love letter to two things I love, which is fantasy and horror films and The Simpsons, is great. I enjoyed myself enormously."

Personally, what I appreciate most about these openings is that, unlike the show itself, they're love letters to art and animation. The Simpsons takes a lot of flack for being anti-animated, which the creators are well aware of. Since they ditched more of their hand-drawn techniques (which was more evident in the days that director David Silverman was overseeing things), seldom does the show sway now from its rigid, static, yellow, on-model environment. But in the 2 minutes they DO decide to sway - boy, do they make up for it!

Animator Bill Plympton has done 2 versions of The Simpsons couch gag - one as a love story, the other as film noir!

Simpsons creator, Matt Groening, is a personal friend of Bill Plympton. Both of them slugged it out as underground print cartoonists before they better solidified their careers in animation. According to an interview for Notes On The Road, Groening asked Plympton to do a sequence at the Annecy animation festival in France. He agreed and sent them some storyboards.

"I had two ideas and they bought both," Plympton said. "The first one was where Homer literally falls in love with the couch and they have a baby, which is pretty racy for network television, but I'm glad they did that. They had a lot of positive feedback on that one. In fact, more people saw that Simpsons couch gag than have seen all my work since I've been doing films!"

Ren and Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi did another insane, incredibly off-model take on the family in 2011.

For me this was a shocking union to behold, because John K. had previously denounced The Simpsons during the 1990's animation boom for being anti-animated. (ie. following a firmly established set of "rules" that he was dead set against)

To be fair, The Simpsons took a few pot-shots back. Remember in 'The Front' from Season 4, when The Ren And Stimpy Show is nominated for an animation award alongside Itchy & Scratchy, and the clip is just a blank, white screen with the words Clip Not Done Yet?

Anyway, if there ever was an actual feud, it doesn't seem to exist today, even though John K's intent seems to be to satirize the same thing he lambasted The Simpsons for over 20 years ago.

"This project was the most fun I've had in years", he said in an interview for Cartoon Brew. "It has really hammered home (to me) the importance of animation in animation. I think it's possible to bring animation back to this country and make the core of it fun again, not be a mere tertiary addition to some high concept or executive's "vision"."

He said his experiment was inspired by 1930's "rubber hose" animation and some of the simplistic design elements of 1950's advertising.

"In the early 1930's, there were no set bible of rules for how to animate. The medium was too young. Every animator figured out their own unique ways of moving things.

"And the cartoons were musical. All cartoons from the 1930's to the 1950's were timed to musical rhythms. This gave everything that was happening an underlying sense of fun. The tempo was the structure of the action."

Here's a different style of couch gag done by Stoopid Buddy Stoodios, who also animates Seth Green's Robot Chicken.

Instead of me blathering on about it, watch below how much time and effort goes into making one stoopid two-minute clip!

Elusive graphic artist Banksy also did a guest storyboard for a very anti-corporate, anti-Simpsons couch gag in 2010. Why? Because The Simpsons asked him to.

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, producer Al Jean let it be known that the request wasn't a product of his political leanings.

"Honestly, there was no agenda except I thought it would be great to get this guy. The concept in my mind was, "What if this graffiti artist came in and tagged our main titles?" And we got what I think is the coolest, most technically proficient graffiti artist today. I'd never seen that - a graffiti artist actually graffiti'ing the opening credits of a television show. So when you're asking for that, you're not really telling him what to do. We're a show where people are used to seeing edgy things in regards to Itchy & Scratchy, or satirizations of society, so I thought it was in line with our past and part of what's made The Simpsons great."

Slamming the parent network and the show itself is nothing new for The Simpsons, but even this one was extreme by Fox standards. Producer Al Jean admitted that portions of the opening were cut "for taste".

"I wouldn't go into (details), but it was just a little sadder," he admitted. "I don't know if the unicorn made it in the original draft."

And of course, lest we forget the less famous couch gag guest contributors - the fans. 

I'm sure part of the inspiration behind The Simpsons' Couch Gag Contest is the complete and utter lack of inspiration in writing couch gags after 20+ seasons. But I prefer to think The Simpsons is still a show "for the people", which is why they let the adoring public get involved. 

At the end of Season 24, two different couch gags were aired, created by two different contest winners - one from the U.S., and the other from Canada. Both winners were given the opportunity to visit The Simpsons' studio in LA. 

American winner, Cheryl Brown's entry was rather abstract, entitled 'Dandelions'.

Canadian winner, Ray Savaya, conceived a far more obvious (but patriotic) entry.

I hope you enjoyed this enthralling look at people who create jokes about couches. I'm quite looking forward to seeing what other guest contributors The Simpsons can wrangle for the rest of this year and for the recently announced 26th (!) season! Maybe I'll sit down and see if I can come up with my own couch gag to send in next year. Because that's what today's post has inspired me to do - continue sitting down.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Man-Child At The Movies (Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 2)

The original Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs is a wacked-out masterpiece. Crazy and colourful, hilarious and hyperactive, heart-warming and heaping with a childlike sense of wonder. When it was first advertised back in 2009, I had no intentions of watching it. At the time, I was still under the impression that all CG cartoons were soulless and unappealing - dull and (shudder) realistic, like every one of the Shrek movies. And truthfully, the trailer (for both films, actually) belied the animated genius within.

I stumbled upon Cloudy one sunny day on Movie Central and ate it up! The character designs were fun and cartoony. The animation was irreverent and detailed. The story had the perfect balance of kid cutesy and adult insanity. So it was based on this sudden set of high standards that I was extremely nervous about engorging upon the sequel, Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 2. The trailer wasn't great. The original directors, Christopher Miller and Phil Lord (who created TV's Clone High and the big screen treatment of 21 Jump Street) only had a story credit this time around. And the title was changed from Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs: Revenge Of The Leftovers to something far less clever. Also the reviews weren't great, which scared me. Anyway, those fears ended up unfounded, as I was happy to discover that Cloudy 2 was just as wack as the original, if not more so.

The sequel starts right where the original left off. Inventor Flint Lockwood (played by former SNL'er Bill Hader) immediately immerses himself in the world of Live Corp., a disturbingly serene and high-tech world overseen by the evil and elasticized inventor Chester V (played by former SNL'er Will Forte), who is very literally branded as such with his light bulb head and upside-down triangle for a goatee.

It's pretty obvious who (or what) the movie is skewering at the start - right to its "core", if you will. Actually, big corporations and cities in general are not safe. But before long, Flint and his friends are headed back to small-town Swallow Falls, which apparently is now a dangerous food jungle created by Flint's not-quite broken FLDSMDFR. (I'm too lazy to type out the acronym in full, so you'll have to watch the first movie for clarification and assume I didn't just have a stroke while typing that)

Critics who faulted the new movie for its lack of story and heart aren't wrong. The filmmakers had no qualms about the spectacle and darker tone they created, comparing the manic set-up to that of Jurassic Park. Chase sequences pile up as new and disturbing Foodimals are cranked out as quick as the FLDSMDFR can birth them. The settings are literally darker and the sense of joy you felt from the first movie is noticeably absent at times.

But what Cloudy 2 lacks in those departments, it makes up for in animation and design, which for me were the true stars of the original. A look into an excellent book called "The Art And Making Of Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs" will give you an idea of what I mean. Upon looking at the below artwork, you can only dream of what these movies would look like as a hand-drawn feature. Fortunately, the filmmakers give you a hint of that during each film's end credit sequence. The sequel even gives quick samples of puppetry and claymation, if memory serves correctly. You can see where puppetry is a major influence in the design, especially as it relates to Flint's Muppet-like dad below.

As you can see in its roots and the finished product, nothing and no one is made to look realistic. Lots of recent Disney films have cartoony roots (which you can see in art books similar to this one), but they always end up becoming more realistic throughout the development process, almost like they fear alienating the families who feed the box office. Also, somehow the CG process always seems to soften the characters and design through its glossy sheen. At least it does for me.

But not the Cloudy movies. People are rubbery, high-strung, and simplistic in their design to allow for greater range of exaggerated movement. Some of the scenes in Cloudy 2 almost make it look like Chester V's arms are detached and move independently from the rest of his body. You don't see that kind of detail in Disney movies. It's not really brave or cutting edge, but it certainly seems that way in comparison to everything else being released right now.

The voice work is great too. You can tell they aren't just casting celebrities for the sake of casting Nicolas Cage in The Croods. Most of these are comedic voice actors, and those who aren't (James Caan, Benjamin Bratt) are still well cast. Some of the behind-the-scenes guys provide funny Foodimal voices, like the nonsensical "noo"-ing of Barry and those incessantly gargling pickles. (which admittedly is a rip-off of Richard Condie's 'The Apprentice', but still funny)

By the way, the Foodimals are the obvious stars of the show. Dozens of food/animal hybrids (and their related puns) were created for the film, some of which only appear on-screen for a few seconds.

The delicious website Cartoon Brew just posted this great behind-the-scenes video about animating these creatures, which sheds some insight on why they move the way they do. Part of their look was established by building actual physical creatures out of fruit and clay.

For me, both Cloudy movies provide hope for future CG animated cartoons. Fortunately, they're both box office money-makers, which proves that audiences still enjoy when people use their imagination. If we wanted an ultra photo-realistic world, we'd watch a live action movie. Do yourself (and all other cartoon lovers out there) a favour, and show your support for Cloudy 2 in a theatre. Let's show these Hollywood types that our tastes (sticking to a theme here!) are far more discriminating than flavourless gruel like this...

Blech! I just lost my appetite!

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Procrastimation

I had several good ideas for a blog post this morning. But too many distractions resulted in a lack of prep time. It's hard to explain, but sometimes it's just not in you.

Your mind is a sponge, but sometimes it dries out. And you can't get a lot of stuff done.

You search for a theme, and suddenly that theme becomes your inability to find a theme.

You wait for inspiration...and nothing.

You want to get started, but your friend Norbert is throwing a wicked awesome party.

How does this even happen? Is it a case of writer's block?

Or is it just that you're too damn lazy to think?

Ah, who cares. Let's get inspired NOW and make the most of this remaining day! Or we can just do it tomorrow.