Saturday, 25 January 2014

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Totally Oz-some!

I just learned that legendary Canadian cartoon voice actor, Larry Mann, passed away a couple of weeks ago.

Larry had great pipes. You hear his work and wonder how he could've voiced anything beyond a couple of days. That screeching, scratchiness made you think he may have smoked 80 cigarettes a day - which would've been surprising considering he lived into his 90's.

Larry is best known for his work as Yukon Cornelius in the Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer special.

But that's not his best work. His finest moments can be found in an under-appreciated animated gem called Tales Of The Wizard Of Oz.

If you're Canadian of a certain age, you will undoubtedly remember its catchy theme song.

Tales Of The Wizard Of Oz originally aired in 1961, but it wasn't uncommon for me to watch this early Saturday mornings in small town Manitoba during the 1980's. Several 5 minute shorts would get lumped into half-hour installments. It was Can Con, you see - presumably a cheap way to meet necessary Canadian TV standards. But at the time, I didn't know any better and quite enjoyed it. Still do, in fact.

Oz's Canadian connection came from Crawley Films, an Ottawa-based animation house. The American company that received title credit was Videocraft International. Prior to Oz, Videocraft had released a stop-motion program called The New Adventures of Pinnochio, which never really caught on in the States at the time, but also found new life 20 years later on Canadian TV. (you may also recognize its catchy theme song)

Tales of The Wizard Of Oz never really caught on at the time either. And Videocraft International wouldn't find success until later, once they were renamed Rankin/Bass Productions and became synonymous with holiday classics like Rudolph, Frosty The Snowman and more.

Oz was Rankin/Bass's first foray into traditional cel animation, and at the time, it was a big deal for Canada. It was viewed as a stepping stone for us to enter the international animation mainstream, as this 1961 article from the Montreal Gazette trumpeted. Still, despite those high regards (as you can tell by the photos), the crew and surrounding digs were rather modest.

CBC Radio recently conducted an interview with some of the original show staffers, including Barrie Nelson, Blake James and Sandy Crawley, who also hinted at less-than-luxurious working conditions.

Larry Mann, who I mentioned above, played both Rusty Tin Man and The Wicked Witch - with seemingly painful exuberance. What a great voice to animate! No wonder those guys loved doing the Witch-centric episodes! 

As I looked at Larry's photo above, I thought it ironic he didn't voice Socrates Strawman, who at times sounded like a different Larry - the one from The Three Stooges. Strawman was voiced by Alfie Scopp.

Rounding out the voice cast was Paul Kligman, who played the cowardly Dandy Lion ("Ma-Maaaaaa!") and Carl Banas as The Wizard, who was basically doing an impersonation of W.C. Fields. It's unknown if this was a knowing jab at the film version of The Wizard of Oz, which was originally supposed to star W.C. Fields as the Wizard. 

This wonderful voice cast is what really made the show. But I also enjoy the UPA-style of design in the characters (limited animation with appealing use of solid colours) and abstract backgrounds sometimes consisting of nothing but a colour swatch. 

Check out the scenery in 'The Golden Touch'. Aside from a few interactive furniture items, there's nothing else really there but the marble colour scheme.

I also loved the colourful title cards, with that great font that did whatever the hell it wanted to. 

I shouldn't have alluded to the fact that Tales Of The Wizard Of Oz was a failure. It had moderate success at the time. It had its own toy-line and a comic tie-in, for example. There was even an hour-long special released on NBC in 1964, 3 years after the cancellation of the series, called Return To Oz, which reunited the original cartoon cast with their respective voices and show-runners. Still, Oz would never attain the globally recognized status that Rudolph would.

Oz is far more specific in its source material. It doesn't have the benefit of built-in backing from one of the most popular annual holidays. Hell, kids nowadays wouldn't even know The Wizard of Oz as a movie! And even if they did, they may not even make the association with the characters anymore, which were altered ever-so-slightly so as not to offend MGM copyright lawyers. (notice for example, that's it's the Strawman - not the Scarecrow)

But I think there's a group of Canadians out there like me, who grew up on this and still regard Tales Of The Wizard Of Oz as a minor classic - even if they didn't have any particular fondness for the source material. True, it's easier to enjoy a show when you only have 2 or 3 channels to choose from. Do you think The Littlest Hobo could've endured in an over-saturated TV line-up like today? Doubtful. Whatever the case, I think we just recognized a great theme song and a funny voice when we heard it. So let's not over-analyze it, and get back into some actual cartoons, shall we? R.I.P. Larry Mann. Canada rules. So on and so forth.

In this first episode, Socrates somehow ends up fighting a kangaroo under the tutelage of Rusty in 'Boomer Rang'. When Rusty gets crusty, I can't help but compare him to Futurama's Bender.

Here's a great showcase for Larry Mann's The Wicked Witch in 'The Count'. There's an air of South Park to Larry's voicework as The Witch, isn't there?

The Witch is almost over-shadowed though by the hilarious voice of The Count himself! 

Larry also steals the show as the (such a stupid!) mayor of Topsy Turvy Town in 'An Optical Delusion'.

The Wizard further establishes himself as quite the crackpot, as he accidentally discovers 'The Sound Of Munchkins'.

If there are any comparisons to be made to the film version of The Wizard of Oz, you won't find it in this random, meandering episode called 'The Cultured Lion'.

You likely wouldn't have watched 'Chowy Mein' in the 1980's, as people started to realize how horribly racist they had been 20 years earlier. That said, we probably shouldn't be watching it now either.

And then there's 'Get Out The Vote', which should remain a relevant little skewering of politics for many years to come.

What an Oz-some little show, huh? And there are still about 100 episodes left for us to watch!

I may need to re-title this blog as 'Saturday Afternoon Cartoons' at some point in the future.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Saturday Morning Cartoons - The Voice Of Neeson

I'm not sure why, but I've always had a weird affinity for Liam Neeson.

My favourite movie of all time is Sam Raimi's Darkman (1990), which starred a young Liam Neeson as the title hero. It wasn't based on a comic book, but I still consider it to be the best comic book movie ever made. (although there was a Marvel comic series that followed)  I think that may have set off my obsession. In it, he gives a completely insane, over-the-top performance. Laughable at times, but he stays the course - delivering the voice of the bandaged and badly burnt Darkman with such ferocious instability, you can practically hear his Irish spittle splattering all over the microphone.

It's the voice, man! That voice coupled with the gruff, no nonsense exterior is what has turned Liam Neeson into the 1980's version of Clint Eastwood. In movies anyway. But this persona has also turned him into an unintentional comedy star as well. That no-nonsense gruffness is what makes material like his guest turn in Life's Too Short so fall-down hilarious. And that unexpected comedy is now transcending into cartoons.

Liam Neeson could become the next Mel Blanc. Except Liam Neeson only has 1 voice - Liam Neeson. Maybe it's a forced interest that all actors consider as they get older and the crow's feet start to spread out over the screen in unforgiving hi-def. But I'd like to think that he takes these roles because his friends and family keep urging him to do weird and unexpected things. Because he's Liam Neeson. Whatever the case, I was surprised to learn that he did voice work in The Nut Job, which just hit theatres yesterday. In it, he portrays a raccoon. Because why not? He's Liam Neeson.

I only hope the movie is as funny as this b-roll is.

Three weeks later, Liam Neeson will be heard as Good Cop, Bad Cop in The LEGO Movie, directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller. I have high hopes for this film based on the fact that Phil Lord and Chris Miller were responsible for making one of the most entertaining CG animated films in recent memory, Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs. (which you may recall me gushing about last year

Just try to suppress your laughter when Liam Neeson pops up at the 1:43 mark in the below trailer.

When did Liam Neeson suddenly become The King of Cartoons? Well, it looks to have started in 2005, when he did a guest spot on an episode of The Simpsons called 'The Father, The Son and The Holy Guest Star'. Neeson, appropriate to his Northern Ireland roots, played Father Sean.

Liam Neeson then did an English voice overdub for Fujimoto, in Disney's 2008 North American release of Ponyo, directed by animation legend, Hayao Miyazaki. (who also directed such classics as My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away)  Neeson seems to be a fan.

In 2011, Neeson reprised his role (in animated form) as Qui-Gonn Jinn in Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Neeson appeared in 2 episodes, 'Ghosts of Mortis' and 'Overlords'. (PS: That is NOT Ewan McGregor as Obi Wan Kenobi)

Last year, Neeson could be heard in select theatres in Khumba, a South African film about a zebra who goes out into the world to, literally, earn his stripes. Neeson portrayed Phango, a vicious leopard who terrorizes the other animals of the Great Karoo. 

Next up for Neeson is The Prophet, an animated film by Roger Allers (The Lion King) based on a classic 1923 book of poetic essays by Kahlil Gibran. The movie will be comprised of various shorts done by animation directors from around the world, including Tomm Moore (The Secret of Kells), Sylvain Chomet (The Triplets of Belleville), Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis) and Bill Plympton (I Married A Strange Person!) - just to name a few.

I love that Liam Neeson's voice is interchangeable, regardless of whether or not he's playing a good guy or a bad guy. He's just Liam Neeson. That said, I think that's why most people don't really know what to make of him. Maybe that's why it took me so long to release this next clip was a joke.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Powerpuff Piece

Not long ago, I left an issue of IDW's The Powerpuff Girls comic book sitting on my desk at work. A puzzled male employee picked it up and informed me that I was an 8-year old girl. "Not so", I declared, skimming to page 20, where I referenced a panel that depicted arch villain Mojo Jojo quoting the lyrics to Canadian singer Lawrence Gowan's "Criminal Mind". The still puzzled co-worker than referred to me as a 50-year old senior citizen. "That's better", I said.

I've received many a concerned look over my love of The Powerpuff Girls. But unfairly so. To those who don't know them, their name invokes comparisons to Strawberry Shortcake or Holly Hobbie. But while being very appropriate for that young female demographic, it's also one of the most colourful and clever cartoons ever produced - for men, by men! I mean, they do jokes about Canadian classic rock, for chrissakes!

The Powerpuff Girls were originally called The Whoopass Girls. Creator Craig McCracken debuted them on a birthday card to his brother in 1993, and then later showcased them in a short that ran in underground animation festivals called 'Whoopass Stew! The Whoopass Girls in: A Sticky Situation'.

Even in that original form, most of the show's familiar elements were in place. The Girls (though more gaunt) were very similar to their eventual, more-streamlined forms. The narrator (though differently voiced) set up the episode like all future instalments would. And the stylized violence (though less extreme) enhanced the puns, but still maintained a sense of cuteness for some reason.

Obviously, to expand this world beyond the festival circuit, Cartoon Network needed to ensure certain safeguards were in place. For example, "whoopass" wasn't the most kid-friendly term out there (their origin source of power also had to be re-imagined), so their title was changed to The Powerpuff Girls.

They were first featured as one-offs in the mid-90's. According to Wikipedia, the first short from 1995, called 'The Powerpuff Girls in: Meat Fuzzy Lumpkins', wasn't well received by test audiences, and plans for a series were postponed in order to put another Cartoon Network classic on the air, Dexter's Laboratory, which Craig McCracken also worked on. Despite that workload, McCracken made another Powerpuff Girls short in 1996 called 'Crime 101' .

Not long after, in November 1998, The Powerpuff Girls'  full-length series premiered to huge ratings, which continued for 6 seasons until 2005. Craig McCracken left the series in 2003 to work on a new series, Foster's Home For Imaginary Friends, but the show continued on without him - 78 episodes in total. There was also a Christmas special, a 2002 theatrical feature film (and surprising box office dud) called The Powerpuff Girls Movie and countless merchandising tie-ins, most of which I purchased. Because I'm an 8 year old...I mean, 50 year old senior citizen!

Let me show you a few of my favourite episodes to try and make known my very manly and mature tastes. My absolute favourite episode is called 'Octi Evil', because it introduced one of the most disturbing villains in animation - HIM. Basically he (or she?) is the devil. But probably a more effeminate version than you'd expect. It's as if Satan was a cross-dresser, crossed with a lobster. Whatever he she it is, there's no possible way you can watch this and still be under the impression it's meant solely for 8 year old girls. Hell, that's his/her blood spattering all over the opening credits!

How about destructive, break-dancing robots? You don't see that in any episodes of My Little Pony!

What about rock operas? Are those still popular with the kids? I'm surprised there wasn't a Gowan reference in this!

Actually, this episode was banned in the US and wasn't aired. The internet gives several reasons for this - depictions of communism, comparisons to cults, seizure-inducing visuals. Not sure what the real, official reason was, but that infamy makes this episode even cooler. Originally, this was intended to be the series finale, but was instead (supposed to be) released in the middle of the 5th season.

And I just dare you to try and add up the Dick jokes to be found in 'Knock it Off'?

Damn it, this could be the manliest cartoon of all time!!!

There isn't a misstep to be found in the entire 6 seasons. It's one of the greatest TV cartoons ever made. And the reason I'm telling you about it today, is because it's being resurrected later this month, which I'm a little uneasy about.

Craig McCracken actually resurrected The Powerpuff Girls once already in 2009, in a TV special called The Powerpuff Girls Rule!. It can be found on The Complete Series DVD set that came out that same year. Said to be based on one of McCracken's unreleased Whoopass shorts, it's considered to be the official finale to the series.

Then last year it was announced that The Powerpuff Girls would return - in CGI form! Frequent readers of this blog know how I feel about CGI, and will understand why I'm incredibly nervous about this decision. Also making me nervous is the fact that creator Craig McCracken had nothing to do with it.

Still, that didn't stop the 5th and 6th seasons from being great. And one of the original show directors and storyboard artists, Dave Smith, is back to direct. Whoever's involved, I will try and put on a brave, manly face - and seek out a suitable torrent to watch it from, after its original airing coming up Monday, January 20th on Cartoon Network.

What are your first initial thoughts on this? I'm not a big fan of the needless character redesigns (which just seems to include scruffier hairstyles), but the hyperactive humour seems intact. And it's always great to hear that original voice cast back behind a microphone.

The mathematician is voiced by Ringo Starr, who also performs an original song called "I Wish I Was A Powerpuff Girl"

What, Lawrence Gowan wasn't available? 

These older songs are way better! ('Music Inspired By The Powerpuff Girls' - natch!)

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Fitness First!

After all of the turkey, after all of those cookies, after that last bucket of egg nog - now we can finally start talking about thinking about doing something about exercising. And what better motivator to "bring out the tiger in you" than sitting down to a big, heaping bowl of sugar glazed oats and watching a bunch of fictional characters who are more motivated than you?

First of all, I've already burned a few calories in outright anger at the above hack, Tony The Tiger. What happened to you, Tony? You used to be such a stud. Now you're a bit of a...well...puss. And you're completely ripping off the genius of a far more fit comedic icon, namely Goofy, who did that exact same bit over 50 years ago in 1949's 'Goofy Gymnastics'.

Boy, Roger Rabbit was right. "Nobody takes a wallop like Goofy".

Side Note: If you didn't see my Roger Rabbit post from last summer, check it if you want to learn why Roger shouldn't have even been watching that cartoon in the first place. But I digress...

Perhaps we should've begun with something less violent and more educational as a token offering to our weaker and more impressionable subscribers? This will prove a nice warm-up before we get into the even more violent content below.

Popeye has always been a proud purveyor of the virtues of better living. In fact, sometimes I think he may have been downright preachy about it, if you ask me.

But when it comes to good healt', you can't disregard someone with such impressive forearms. The man certainly knows fitness, and it's admirably on display in these 2 cartoons - 1936's 'Vim, Vigor and Vitaliky' and 1950's 'Gym Jam'.

Deputy Dawg is no athlete, if 1959's 'Physical Fatness' is any indication. But he tries hard. Wait, no he doesn't. This was a mistake to include.

Krazy Kat krushes out over Ignatz crushing it at the gym, in this sample of his animated adventures directed by cartoon legend Gene Deitch. This one's called 'Fizzical Fitness' from 1963.

Also gay for the gym is Queer Duck, who you may recall from a 2002 web series from former Simpsons writer Mike Reiss. Here he is ignoring his special friend, Openly Gator, in 'Gym Neighbors'. (get it?)

Super-shredded (but only for short term), this cat and dog duo was first introduced by Disney in 1993's Marsupilami, and then later received their own program in 1995 called The Shnookums and Meat Funny Cartoon Show. I'll plan to do a separate post about this pair later in the year, but as an intro, here's an episode called 'Weight For Me', which features the pets at their most pumped.

Beavis and Butt-head hope to train us to become better athletes in 'Pumping Iron'. Huh-huh-huh, I said 'anus'.

You know what, why are we even wasting our time with this? My new year's resolution over the past 2 decades has always been to "find the easy way out, faster". And damn it, I'm not going to slow my roll in 2014! So pour yourself another bowl of Tiger Flecks, and let's exercise our right to do even less in the near future! Let's reconvene to share our success stories next Saturday morning, shall we?