Animation nation suffers some casualties

I’ve been enjoying much of the latest wave of animated television series this past year, but nothing last forever. This week, the Cartoon Network announced turnover among its “DC Nation” lineup of superhero shows, and Disney XD and Nickelodeon weren’t far behind.

Both the team-oriented Young Justice and computerized cosmic Green Lantern: the Animated Series have recently developed more intricate and mature plots, and both have been fairly faithful to the pre-“52” continuity of DC Comics. Unfortunately, both will be ending.

Season 2 Young Justice lineup
Young Justice, as of Season 2

On the Marvel side, I’ve already mourned the departure of the fun Spectacular Spider-Man and movie precursor Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. Disney XD’s Ultimate Spider-Man is decent, but I still prefer “DC Nation’s” interstitial shorts to the “Marvel Mashups.”

Tron: Uprising is also rumored to be canceled after being moved to various time slots. Not only did that show expand on the setting and designs of the live-action movies, but it also built its own strong plots. At least Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles seems to be doing well, both in terms of writing, voice, and art as well as ratings.

I still need to catch up on direct-to-video releases, including Superman vs. the Elite and Batman: the Dark Knight Returns, and I’ve enjoyed the occasional episodes that I’ve caught of Futurama, Archer, Metalocalypse, and Motor City.

Many of the TV shows that are continuing are fantasy-flavored rather than based on comic books, and I recommend Avatar: Legend of Korra, Dragons: Riders of Berk, and Kung-Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness. It’s too bad that the short-lived ThunderCats revival or SymBionic Titan didn’t get a chance to join them.

Janice and I also like the Seinfeld-style Looney Tunes Show, even if we long ago stopped watching Fox’s Sunday night comedies, such as The Simpsons or Family Guy. In addition, there are other popular franchises I haven’t kept up with, including G.I. Joe, Transformers, Ben 10, or Adventure Time. I have caught the cute Lego Star Wars one-shots, of not Ninjago.

Speaking of Star Wars, the Clone Wars has also featured impressive character development, spectacular settings, and a gathering darkness, remedying many of the flaws in the live-action prequel trilogy. If the show gets renewed, it will likely move from Cartoon Network to Disney XD following the Mouse House’s purchase of Lucasfilm.

I’m not especially optimistic that the upcoming Beware the Batman, Teen Titans Go, Avengers Assemble, and Hulk and the Agents of SMASH will be as good as the departing Young Justice, Green Lantern, or Tron. Enjoy them while they last, or catch up on the best of recent cartoons on video!

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Rise of the Guardians review

On Sunday, 2 December 2012, Janice and I met role-players Josh C. & Sara F. at the Showcase Cinemas in Woburn, Mass., for Rise of the Guardians. We enjoyed the holiday-themed animated fantasy movie.

Wallpaper for computer-animated fantasy movie
Seasonal superhero team

Rise of the Guardians follows Jack Frost, a boy who is granted supernatural abilities and meets other seasonal icons, including a sword-wielding Santa Claus, the cute Tooth Fairy, a mute but expressive Sandman, and an inexplicably Australian Easter Bunny.

These seasonal superheroes find themselves fighting the Boogeyman and his nightmares to defend the hopes and dreams of children everywhere. Sure, we’ve seen all of the elements before, but how they’re represented and mixed is a feast for the eyes. In terms of computer animation, I’d put Rise of the Guardians very close to Disney/Pixar’s Brave (its rival for awards), as well as to the How to Train Your Dragon franchise.

The voice casting is pretty good, with Star Trek‘s Chris Pine as Jack Frost, The Shadow‘s Alec Baldwin as Santa, Isla Fisher as the lead Tooth Fairy, X-Men‘s Hugh Jackman as the Easter Bunny, and Jude Law as Pitch Black, the Boogeyman.

Rise of the Guardians is based on a series of children’s books that William Joyce wrote for his late daughter. Guillermo del Toro was one of the producers, and the movie does have some of his love of the fantastical.

Dreamworks’ decidedly non-denominational film appropriates Christian and pagan iconography, most of which will go over the heads of most viewers. It reminded me of L. Frank Baum’s Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, which was one of the more eccentric adaptations done by Rankin-Bass.

While it’s no Lincoln, I’d give Rise of the Guardians, which is rated PG for some violence, about a B+, three out of five stars, or a 7.5 out of 10. Of the previews we saw, Jack the Giant Slayer looks like what I’d call a classic fantasy gamer flick. Josh, Sara, Janice, and I later enjoyed lunch at The Restaurant in Woburn, Mass. Next up: The Hobbit [Part 1 of 3]: An Unexpected Journey!

 

The Dark Knight Rises, a belated review

On Sunday, 22 July 2012, I met Beruk A. and James B. at the AMC Loews Boston Common for a matinee of The Dark Knight Rises. Sadly, the superhero sequel was overshadowed by the tragic shootings in Colorado.

We enjoyed the film, which neatly wrapped up director Christopher Nolan and lead actor Christian Bale’s take on Batman. I liked The Dark Knight Rises a little more than The Amazing Spider-Man, if not as much as the four-color The Avengers.

Wallpaper 6
Nolan and Bale’s Batman comes to a conclusion

Cast: Bale is a decent Bruce Wayne, a tortured soul masquerading as a billionaire playboy. He’s not as fun as Adam West (who once called me “chum”), as slick as Val Kilmer or George Clooney, or as initially odd a choice as Michael Keaton was for the costumed vigilante.

Bale is again ably supported by older character actors in The Dark Knight Rises. Michael Caine is Wayne’s cockney and concerned butler Alfred, Morgan Freeman adds mischievous gravitas as technologist Lucius Fox, and chameleon Gary Oldman is the embattled Commissioner James Gordon.

Newcomers to this cinematic version of Gotham City include Marion Cotillard as mysterious executive Miranda Tate, Tom Hardy as brutal assassin Bane, and Joseph Gordon-Leavitt as idealistic police officer John Blake. Blake becomes the audience surrogate in hoping for things to improve, even as the police as a whole are outmaneuvered.

They all did well in their roles — even if Hardy was sometimes hard to understand through his face mask — but Anne Hathaway deserves special mention for her performance as Selina Kyle/Catwoman.

I had some doubts about the young actress, but Hathaway was properly slinky and cunning as the (never-named) cat burglar and con artist. She was believable in navigating Gotham’s seamy underbelly and its glittering galas, and she brought much-needed femininity and light to Nolan’s grim and gritty universe.

Plot: Batman Begins showed how an orphan could become an anonymous champion of justice, and The Dark Knight depicted Batman fighting grotesque villains (Aaron Eckhart’s Two-Face and the late Heath Ledger’s unparalleled Joker). The Dark Knight Rises expands on both those themes and is Wagnerian in showing Batman fighting Bane and a conspiracy for the very survival of Gotham City.

Nolan tries to make the plot a complicated puzzle, but even the trailers for the movie telegraphed some of the resolution. Anyone who has read the comic book storylines of Batman: Year One, The Killing Joke, Son of the Demon, Cataclysm, No Man’s Land, and Nightfall knows what to expect.

I appreciate Nolan and Bale’s somewhat more realistic approach to Batman’s world and motivations, but the pendulum has swung very far from the cheerful camp of West’s 1960s superhero. Even the direct-to-video adaptations of DC Comics are moving to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, another obvious inspiration.

Rich felt that Nolan’s Batman isn’t as majestic or as much of a loner as he prefers, but I agree that the amount of time that passes for the desperate citizens of Gotham (and the audience) is on the long side.

I thought that The Dark Knight Rises‘ political subtext was muddled. Following Joseph Campbell’s hero pattern, the aristocratic hero must wander, reject his father figure, be humbled, triumph over his dark reflection, and then walk away or die. Other than a bus full of orphans, we see very few of the 12 million ordinary citizens whom Batman is supposedly fighting to protect.

On the other hand, there’s a populist “99%” strain to Bane’s Robespierre-style demagoguery — even if he’s just a tool of the League of Shadows. The military and police are shown as impotent, implicitly endorsing vigilantism. Granted, dressing up as a bat to fight crime doesn’t always make sense, but why bring up those points if you’re not going to fully show both sides?

Visual effects: From the opening scene of a daring aerial hijacking, The Dark Knight Rises‘ set-piece scenes were clearly inspired by the James Bond movies, which Nolan also paid tribute to in Inception. The battles of The Avengers were more cosmic and colorful, but Batman’s gadgetry and vehicles are still impressive.

Like some comic book writers and fans, Nolan’s Dark Knight is more of an urban warrior than a stealthy detective or martial artist. Perhaps this leaves room for the next set of filmmakers to interpret and develop different aspects of Batman. Even though I miss the Batman: the Animated Series of the 1990s and even the recent campy Batman and the Brave and the Bold, I look forward to the upcoming animated Beware the Batman on TV.

Soundtrack: Hans Zimmer’s score is appropriately operatic, if not especially memorable. Unlike the Marvel Universe, whose movies include relatively recent popular music, it seems fitting that DC’s iconic heroes such as Batman stick with classical.

Spoilers and ratings: Note that some of the articles I’ve linked to contain “spoilers” about the plot, but I’ll try to avoid giving anything away directly here. I can see a few ways for how Nolan’s version could have continued, but I’m also content with his conclusion to Bruce Wayne’s story.

Since Batman is the single most profitable superhero film franchise, there’s little doubt that Warner Brothers/DC Comics will reboot the movies as soon as possible, not unlike various Marvel remakes. I do wonder if they’ll be able to maintain the quality amid stylistic and cast changes. I’m cautiously optimistic about the Superman reboot Man of Steel, as well as early plans for a Justice League film (for which I’ll have to write up my own ideas). I just hope they’re fun and well-done.

I’d give The Dark Knight Rises, which was rated PG-13 for violence, three out of five stars, a B+, or a 7.5 out of 10. The only upcoming movie that’s getting buzz and I’m excited about is Peter Jackson’s planned trilogy adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. In the meantime, keep tuning in, same Bat time, same Bat channel!

P.S.: Here are my Batfilm ratings:

  • 1943: Batman serials — yet to watch
  • 1965: Batman ***/B+
  • 1989: Batman **/B
  • 1992: Batman Returns **/B-
  • 1993: Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (animated) ****/A
  • 1995: Batman Forever ***/B+
  • 1997: Batman & Robin */C
  • 1998: Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero (animated) ***/B+
  • 2000: Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker (animated) **/B-
  • 2003: Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman (animated) ***/B+
  • 2005: The Batman vs. Dracula (animated) **/B, Batman Begins ***/A-
  • 2008: Justice League: the New Frontier (animated) ***/B+, The Dark Knight ***/B+
  • 2009: Batman: Gotham Knight ****/A-, Superman/Batman: Public Enemies **/B (animated)
  • 2010: Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths ***/B+, Batman: Under the Red Hood ***/B+, Superman/Batman: Apocalypse **/B (animated)
  • 2011: Batman: Year One (animated) ***/B+
  • 2012: Justice League: Doom (animated) **/B, The Dark Knight Rises ***/B+, The Dark Knight Returns (animated) coming soon

The superheroes of spring 2012

I’ve fallen behind in blogging again, but here’s the first in what I hope will be a series of posts to catch up on what I’ve been up to as spring slides into summer. Now that the genre television season has wound down, let’s look back at some shows that I liked.

As I’ve mentioned before, there has been a lot of good animation to enjoy this past year. Avatar: the Legend of Korra is my favorite of the recent batch of cartoons. Nickelodeon’s sequel to its successful Avatar: the Last Airbender continues that show’s Asian-style artwork, inspiring world-building, and escalating intrigues. (Note: some of the enclosed links have “spoilers.”)

Korra wallpaper
Nickelodeon's new Avatar TV series

As fellow blogger Thomas K.Y. has noted, Korra‘s adolescent characters are a bit harder to sympathize with than Avatar‘s wandering children. However, the setting and story more than make up for that to me. Republic City resembles a dieselpunk/fantasy China of the early 20th century, and the conflict between people who can “bend” or control the elements (air, earth, wind, and fire) and those who can’t has led to some tense moments.

I’ve also been impressed with the first episode of Disney’s Tron: Uprising, which may join the Cartoon Network’s Star Wars: Clone Wars in using computer animation to flesh out a cinematic sequel that initially underwhelmed critics. In contrast, Kung-Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness, Transformers: Prime, and G.I. Joe: Renegades are entertaining, but they’re not as memorable as additions to their respective franchises.

Cartoon’s Green Lantern: the Animated Series started out slowly with simplistic designs based on Bruce Timm’s, but it has steadily incorporated elements of recent comic book storylines, including the proliferation of cosmic factions based on different colors and emotions. How to Train Your Dragon: the Series will joining a competitive field.

In more traditional animation, the Cartoon Networks’ Thundercats revival has also mixed retro nostalgia with more modern animation and world-building to good effect. It’s friendlier to younger audiences than Korra or Tron, but I’ve enjoyed the reboot so far. I hope that the next Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles can do the same.

I wasn’t sure about the five-year jump within the Cartoon Network’s Young Justice, but seeing the pre-“52” reboot “Batman family” and returning favorites such as Beast Boy and Wonder Girl has won me over. On a related note, I enjoyed the direct-to-video Justice League: Doom, which had favorite voice actors and lots of fights between superheroes and supervillains, if not a plot accessible to non-fans. Superman vs. the Elite comes out next week, to be followed by the long-awaited Batman: the Dark Knight Returns. I also look forward to next year’s Beware the Batman.

Disney XD’s Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes has also incorporated bits and pieces of classic and recent plots, from Loki’s treachery (also seen in the live-action Avengers movie, which is still doing well with critics, fans, and the box office) to the infiltration by the shapeshifting Skrulls (“Secret Invasion”). The animation and writing aren’t quite as tight as for Young Justice.

Avengers‘ companion, Ultimate Spider-Man, has several snarky nods to the movie continuity, but I still miss the four-color Spectacular Spider-Man and am not thrilled by the silly humor or de-aging of characters such as the Heroes for Hire.

Cartoon Network’s “DC Nation” animation block of programming on Saturday mornings — Green Lantern and Young Justice (followed by Korra on Nickelodeon) — includes very funny shorts with “Super Best Friends Forever” and Aardman stop motion, as well as glimpses of past favorites such as the Teen Titans Go!

Disney Channel’s “Marvel Universe” block on Sundays (Avengers and Spidey) does give some nice glimpses into the art and characters of its shows, plus how real-world athletes can approach comic book moves. I don’t particularly like the “Marvel Mash-ups,” which dub modern jokes over weakly animated scenes from the 1960s through early 1980s. I may be in the minority of people who prefer the gags of The Looney Tunes Show or Metalocalypse on weeknights to most of Fox’s Sunday night programs.

Coming soon: Police procedurals, supernatural series, and movie reviews!

Getting our bearings and animation roundup

The Secret World of Arrietty
Image from The Secret World of Arrietty

Janice and I were busy last week with work and more unpacking in our new apartment. We did take some breaks, checking out the Wilson Farm, the Outer Limits, and other shops and restaurants in our area.

On Saturday, 10 March 2012, we screened The Secret World of Arrietty, which is loosely based on the children’s book The Borrowers. The latest Studio Ghibli movie featured the animation style and gentle pace familiar to fans of Hayao Miyazaki’s works, decent voice acting, and a plot that was somewhat more faithful than other adaptations, such as Howl’s Moving Castle or Tales of Earthsea.

The Secret World of Arrietty follows a 14-year-old girl who is a member of a diminutive family of “Borrowers” living beneath the country home of modern humans. Arrietty’s adventures are both charming and perilous, as she has bittersweet interactions with a human boy named Sean.

The U.S. English voice cast includes Amy Pohler and Carol Burnett, but the celebrity casting isn’t distracting. The movie may not be as action-packed or high-concept as other Miyazaki films, but it’s still entertaining and a nice antidote to the recent overload of loud, computer-animated flicks. Overall, I’d give The Secret World of Arrietty, which is rated G, 7.5 or 8 out of 10, four out of five stars, and a B+/A-.

In other animation, Janice and I recently watched our DVD of Azur and Asmar: the Princes’ Quest, which follows two boys from their childhood in medieval France to the deserts in search of a fairy princess. Like Sita Sings the Blues, my first impression of the flat computer animation was that it was crude, but the detail and style grew on me as the characters and story developed.

I thought the movie did a nice job of depicting the conflict and synergy of European, North African, Arabian, and Persian styles and folklore. I’d give Azur and Asmar an 8 out of 10, four out of five stars, and an A-.

I have yet to watch Justice League: Doom, and Cartoon Network’s “DC Nationblock has just started on Saturday mornings, with a mix of Young Justice, Green Lantern, and humorous shorts aimed at younger audiences. It’s a little disjointed so far, but I like the shorts. Disney XD will be starting its own Marvel Universe programming on Sunday mornings, including The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes and Ultimate Spider-Man.

And that’s not even including upcoming animation such as Star Wars: Clone Wars, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Avatar: the Legend of Korra, How to Train Your Dragon: the Series, and Pixar’s Brave! I’ve given up for now on trying to keep up with the latest TV iterations of G.I. Joe, Transformers, and Kung-Fu Panda, although they all seem decent. In comedy, I find myself more interested in The Looney Tunes Show, Metalocalypse, or Archer than in The Simpsons or Fox’s Sunday night animation block.

One final item (for now) of news: Sadly, Jean Giraud, also known as Moebius — borrowed from the mathematician — died last week. I discovered his art years ago in Metal Hurlant/Heavy Metal magazine. As with the recently deceased Robert McCall and Ralph McQuarrie, Moebius shaped generations of science fiction and fantasy creators and fans. Examples of Moebius’ influence include the distinctive looks of Alien, Blade Runner, Dune, The Fifth Element, Heavy Metal, Tron, and Willow. All of these artists will be missed, but their visions live on!