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.


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.


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.


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.


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...