Review: Wander Over Yonder

Take a wild wacky trip across the galaxy.

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The Lowdown:

Show: Wander Over Yonder

Network/years aired: Disney Channel/XD, 2013- 2016

AniB’s thoughts: The most recent and perhaps underrated work of Craig McCracken’s career is this show- the delightfully offbeat slice of life Wander Over Yonder. Borrowing notes from classic cartoons of yesteryear and a good sense of adventure, Wander managed to carve itself out as a sort of cult hit on Disney X.D., in the midst of more celebrated works airing at the same time, namely Gravity Falls and Phineas and Ferb, and in turn, was an understated cartoon, quietly bowing out in a summer finale in 2016.

Despite its reputation as a severely overlooked show, Wander featured some legitimate vocal talent on its cast, led by Jack McBrayer as Wander, (whose other well known voice acting role was as Wreck-It Ralph’s titular game companion, Fix-It Felix in the movie of the former’s same name.) A strange “wandering hippie man” as McCracken describes him, Wander is endlessly upbeat and looking to make friends wherever he goes and however improbable the situation… and there’s something very warm about his entire concept that just works, beyond the orange fur… He is accompanied everywhere by his inseparable pal, Sylvia, who prefers to to let her fists do the talking while concealing a gentler side as well.

There was also an actual character arc in the show for main baddie-turned likable incompetent Lord Hater, who despite his odd love-hate relationship with Wander (his antithesis) stayed deep down committed to his goal of being the “the #1 villain and baddest in the universe!” Accompanying him was also one of the better animated sidekicks in a while, the single-eyed Commander Peepers, voiced by none other than Tom Kenny, as the general of Hater’s “Watchdog” Army- a group of similarly single-eyed little men with unwavering devotion, a fair amount of cowardice, a surprising number of luxuries, and perhaps most notably, woefully underutilized by their big boss- who delegated all the hard day to day details to Peepers.

 

The show’s second and final season also saw the introduction of a brand-new and very competent villain as well (who I mention about in the character grading section), and the continued zany adventures of Wander and Sylvia, as well as Hater and his minions. Both seasons feature a lot of different planets and locales, and in many ways, it’s a more modern take on the old “space age” tales of classic cartoons the show riffs off of. Instead of shiny aluminum towers, Planet X’s and little green men though, Wander creates an immensely diverse place that we all get a glimpse into, while wondering aloud if the myriad of characters in the show are missing it all as well as it passes by. There’s a lot of heart and some deeper questions sometimes lurking in the fabric of this fun production, even among goofy inane pursuits ranging from Hater’s terrible sense of romance to Wander’s seemingly inhuman ability to drop *everything* at the cry of help. Needless to say, it’s a show that’s easily accessible and truly far more than just a footnote from its time period on Disney X.D.

 


 

Animation Quality: Traditional 2-D animation, with computer shading. Wander’s animation is gorgeously classic, a wonderful rich palette with varied worlds, characters and backgrounds all done in a simple, hand-drawn style. It works very well, and in some ways is remincient of the various locales in Samurai Jack, despite the different style of show and eras. There’s a lot of charm and color, along with some neat animation techniques which really make the show come alive. 4.5/5 points.

 
Characterization: While mostly covered in the thoughts section, the show rotates around the titular Wander, a sort of wandering “hippie” who crosses the galaxy looking to help people, have fun, and promote peace; his ride and best friend Sylvia, a “zbornak” who is a tough as she is loyal, and their “frienenemies,” so to speak- Lord Hater, the self-proclaimed villainous “Greatest in the Galaxy”, his second in command Commander Peepers, and a army of one-eyed henchmen known as the Watchdogs.

(SLIGHT SPOILERS:)

As of the second and final season, Lord Dominator, a ruthless conqueror bent on destroying the galaxy, takes over the main antagonist role. Unlike Hater, she outright seeks to destroy planets in an unstoppable march that she revels in. Dominator’s personal lack of friends may have more than a little to do with her ambitions, but she’s also quite powerful herself and genuinely enjoys being evil, so there’s that.

(END SPOILERS)

Truthfully, the entire show’s cast is exaggerated and funny in their traits, but the DNA of classic Looney Tunes and Hanna-Barbera run deep through its veins, and their hijinks correspond to that sort of humor, which is well-written. For this style of show, it’s very good. 3.75/5 points.

 

 
Story quality: Episodic, with continuity. Wander at its core has the DNA of classic Western cartoons in its storytelling, and each episode is naturally its own adventure. However, there is continuity in the show; past people and place reappear, adventures are referenced that already happened, and character development, along with a loosely long-term narrative exists. There’s no arcs, so to speak, but it’s a lot of fun to watch; it’s a show that’s smart without ever taking itself too seriously, knowing its own tropes. Indeed, the conclusion of the show is both a fitting end to the wacky people and places of the show while still giving a sense that the adventure never ends… 4/5 points.

 

 
Themes: There’s a lot of nice themes wedged into episodes about friendship, love, and ultimately many other valuable life lessons. It’s a very sweet show that finely balances these ideas on its trademark humor and zaniness. However, if you’re looking for a very densely packed thematic show, you’re in the wrong place. 3.25/5 points.

 
Don’t insult the viewer: “Fun” is the best descriptor to describe Wander. Smart, classic, and something all its own, it’s a cool ride. It also uses references and tropes quite well. 5/5 points.

 

 

Total Score: 20.5/25 (82%). Craig McCracken’s show is a entertaining blend of slapstick humor, frantic storytelling, and hints of past efforts such as Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends. It is one of the better efforts at the episodic format in recent years, and is worth a watch. (You’ll also find yourself whistling that theme song all day long!)


Like what you see? Have something to say about Wander Over Yonder? Leave a comment!

Review: Ed, Edd, n Eddy

One of the longest-running Cartoon Cartoons embodied the precociousness of youth.

The Lowdown:

Show: Ed, Ed n Eddy

Network/years aired: Cartoon Network, 1999-2009

The Lowdown: Memorial Day has passed, and June has arrived- meaning summer’s unofficially arrived for many people. To that end, perhaps no show embodied the idea of creative childhood summers better than Danny Antonucci’s Ed, Edd n Eddy, one of the first Cartoon Cartoons, and also the longest running one, sticking around in production for a full decade. In many ways, the show marked the beginning of one era and the end of another, serving as a pillar for Cartoon Network in its so-called “golden era” that occurred in almost exactly the same time frame the show existed.

To be sure, Ed, Edd n Eddy is quite different from other later cartoons that take place mostly or completely in the season. It’s not a Gravity Falls with a deep mystery element and overarching story, nor does it try to be, and while a show like Phineas and Ferb focuses on inventiveness and references, it’s almost certainly a successor in some ways to the Eds. The show, quite simply, is classic slice of life scenarios chock to the brim with slapstick, clearly defined personalities, and quite a bit of humor that really clicks once you’re over the age of 18. More specifically, the Eds are your neighborhood outcasts always looking to try a score a quick buck and social “cred” en route to jawbreakers- the hard candies are bloated to massive proportions in the show- and for the most part, fail miserably, often to some combination of disaster, abject humiliation, injury, or bad luck. Most remarkably despite all that, the Eds keep plugging away, one day (or episode) at a time.

For many kids growing up in the early-mid 2000’s, the Eds were probably a constant in your cartoon repertoire. There was some personal involvement in watching Antonucci’s fictional Cul-de-Sac as the Eds navigated life and attempted scams. For an episodic cartoon, there was an unusual attachment to the characters the more one watched- and certainly, most people had their favorites- Double D certainly stood out as the brains of the trio; there was the fear of the Kankers busting out of nowhere in any given episode, and quite a few people probably also wished Ed didn’t have the brattiest sister on Earth in Sarah. The show may have resonated strongly among the demographic precisely because it was an exaggerated version of many a peer group- and the creativity of childhood unbridled in a show with reckless abandon, and so it can be said Ed, Edd n Eddy beyond any other descriptor, is fun.

While the show primarily is set in summer, the 5th season took it in a different direction, bringing the Eds and their peers to school and into fall and winter- a fact sometimes lost in the classic episodes of the first four seasons. However, the best part was that Ed, Edd, n Eddy went out with a bang and at precisely the right moment to avoid seasonal rot in 2009’s Ed, Edd, n Eddy’s Big Picture Show– a movie that largely brought the Eds back to their roots while giving the series a fitting wrap-up. I wouldn’t quite call the series a classic, but it was very influential, and has quite a few individual episodes that are conceptually brilliant (and very funny). It’s a bit of a nostalgia trip to go back and watch the show now, but its trademark style still shines through.


Animation Quality: An old-school 2-D cel shading, which was uncommon at the point the show debuted and virtually unheard of in 2009. Danny Antonucci specifically wanted this style of animation in order to evoke a certain style and feel- and to that end, it successfully captures the old-time feeling of cartoons past, even if it isn’t perfect…but plenty good enough to bring the world of the Cul-de-Sac to life. 4/5 points.

 
Characterization: Episodic show, focused mainly on the three titular characters, all of whom fit a certain type of individual. Of the titular characters, Ed’s the nice, if not completely dumb, grunt; Edd, better known as “Double D” is the smart, nerdy one, and Eddy’s a straight con man.

Ed, while a simple and foolish kid mostly, is very kind, ridiculously strong and loves life. He’s got no sense of personal hygiene, loves monster movies, chickens and buttered toast, and most of all, hanging out with his best pals. Spouting usually nonsensical phrases and laughter, Ed every once in a while has a moment of enlightenment; it’s always entertaining when that happens.

Edd, better known as “Double D,” is the brains of the trio. Diametrically opposed to Ed in terms of cleanliness and knowledge, Edd’s a neat freak and the inventor behind the construction of the trio’s scams. He’s physically weak, but makes up for it in social adeptness, manners, and a kind disposition to please everyone…which comes back to bite him often in this show. He also wears a black sock cap; a running gag is no one has seen what’s under the cap save for the other Eds (and so it’s left to speculation.)

Eddy is the self-proclaimed leader of the Eds and the driver of the scams the trio perform through the show. He’s short in stature, but his greed for money and jawbreakers often dominate his personality. (SPOILERS: In reality, Eddy harbors an inferiority complex. He’s stuck in the shadow of his big brother and desperately wants to be liked by everyone…but is instead the object of derision from the other kids for much of the show.) Despite his flaws, Eddy is fond of his friends, and the Eds are an inseparable trio, despite their wildly different personalities and goals.

The rest of the cast of characters are entertaining enough, though as an episodic show  get varying amounts development for as long as the show aired. This consists of the other Cul-de-Sac kids that appear in every episode, and the Kankers, who are deliciously fun, if not ridiculously over the top, as the villains of the show.  3.5/5 points.

 
Story quality: Episodic, with some canon here and there, mainly pertaining to the Eds’ themselves, such as Double D’s hat and Eddy’s brother. Each episode is usually well paced and takes a page out of the slapstick book of humor, albeit more unsettling than the classics and not anywhere close to “adult fare.” Most episodes usually follow a formula, and so it’s good, not great. Entertaining is the best descriptor. 3.25/5 points.

 
Themes: This show is virtually void of most deeply engrossing themes…except it explores certain aspects of childhood and growing up quite well. There’s a shared brotherhood in the struggle for acceptance between the Eds, and perhaps a bit of a running meta-commentary on life. (Man, I’m not sure who’d want to live in that neighborhood.) There’s nothing super-objectionable though. 2.75/5 points.

 
Don’t insult the viewer: Ed, Edd, n Eddy is pretty funny, though it can be crude at points, and certain scenes can be unsettling…but that’s probably what Danny Antonucci was going for. The soundtrack also matches the fast-paced mayhem of the show well, and certain motifs are given to characters if you listen closely. 4.25/5 points.

 

 

Total Score: 17.75/25 (71%). Ed, Ed n Eddy was certainly an quantified success by ratings and seasons, but it is at its heart, an above-average cartoon with some notable flaws. Overrated slightly? Most definitely. Downright terrible? Not at all. “Above-average” seems to be a fair descriptor, and careful analysis seems to agree, as it does some things very well and preserves the sense of fun it always had some number of years later.


Like what you see? Was Ed, Edd n Eddy a favorite of yours? Leave a comment!

Review: The Huckleberry Hound Show

The blue hound with a Southern drawl proved influential- but how does he hold up today?

The Lowdown:

Show: The Huckleberry Hound Show

Studio/ years aired:  (Hanna-Barbera), 1958-1962

AniB’s thoughts: Oh yeah, I’m going old-school here. In sharp contrast to samurais, a classroom of amateur assassins doubling as junior high students, or if you want to go back further, a pair of twins in a town full of mystery, it’s all the way back to circa 1958 with one of William Hanna and Joseph Barbera’s classic cartoons: Huckleberry Hound.

Classic cartoon aficionados will recognize this distinctively even-keeled blue hound with the signature Southern drawl and a love for the tune “My Darling Clementine,” and while he’s acknowledged as a timeless character, Huckleberry himself is really straightforward. He either gets outwitted or outwits his adversary of the day, with a trademark dry commentary and a personality that never gets too high or too low. And Huckleberry Hound actually brings me to a conversation I’ve been wanting to have for a while: How should we view classic cartoon characters?

Characters like Huckleberry Hound are archetypes of later shows- the bedrock in which slapstick humor of certain varieties and the bare-bone plot structure of the “slice of life” show came from. It’s fair to say that Huck’s a classic character instantly from the Hanna-Barbera library, but at the risk of probably offending some purists, he hasn’t aged that impressively. The Looney Tunes (the original run of shows, right up through 1969), for instance, still retain their charm quite well over 50 years later, and there’s a sort of classic nostalgia that can’t be replicated, such as the Wile.E. Coyote- Roadrunner chase sequences. Huckleberry Hound on the other hand, has some variety, but Huck’s heavy handed attempts to solve the plot of the day seem to fall somewhat flat, especially with a rogues gallery that’s more generic than anything, and animation that even for the period, seems somewhat lazy at times. The classics are the classics, but there’s nothing wrong in pointing out a flaw or , especially if other shows of the period did it better. However, the show did pioneer one aspect of animation better than almost any other show: breaking the 4th wall. Huckleberry was known to often turn and talk to the audience about his plans, and while other shows certainly did this sort of tactic, it was the bread and butter of the blue hound. Additionally, the show was credited with helping Hanna-Barbera grow into becoming a household name (along with Yogi Bear), and actually won an Emmy in 1960 for children’s programming, while simultaneously helping animation’s push into made-for TV series, and so, Huck’s influence is not to be unappreciated.

The Huckleberry Hound Show was quite successful in its own day, and like most successful Hanna-Barbera characters, Huck re-appeared in a number of spin-offs down the line, especially in the 1970’s (where the company got really successful, but lazy, as the major game in town in Western animation…and it all had to be watered down “for kids.”) The show aired re-runs for a long time on Boomerang, Cartoon Network’s sister channel, after the acquisition of Hanna-Barbera properties by Time Warner, but it may not now, given Boomerang’s propensity to air other classic properties. It’s worth appreciating for what it was (a period piece with some influence) and to add breadth to your animation viewing palette, but I suspect most experienced viewers will either find it to be too simple, or delighted for the same reason.


1. Animation Quality: Traditional 2-D animation, hand painted backgrounds and drawings. Everything was drawn frame-by frame, and so, a lot of classic techniques are on display, such as the static backgrounds that are scrolled along to give the illusion of motion. It’s pretty standard for the late ’50’s- early 60’s, and so, it grades out average as well. 2.5/5 points.

2. Characterization: Essentially, the entire section falls on how strong of a character one thinks Huckleberry Hound is.

Huckleberry is an erstwhile individual who usually serves in a variety of professions which change depending on the episode and setting, from a cattle rancher to a policeman (on several occasions) to even a knight in medieval times. Typically, he’ll be pitted against the episode “antagonist(s)” who is/are the cause of the conflict, and slapstick comedy ensues when Huck attempts to resolve said issue. He’s relatively cut and dry outside of the characteristics mentioned in my thoughts. Still, those characteristics, from the Southern drawl to the 4th wall breaking, gave him a distinct personality and made him a classic cartoon character; unfortunately, the rest can’t be said of the rotating generic cast. 3.25/5 points

3. Story quality: Episodic shorts with plenty of cutaway gags. Huckleberry Hound was a typical work in story structure for the period, and wasn’t terrible, but a bit simple, given Western cartoons’ propensity to target kids exclusively in shows at the time. 2.5/5 points.

4. Themes: Thematically, the show is very simple, largely in part because the story and characters are simple too. Essentially, it’s the classic “good guy” wins (mostly, or sort of) and the “bad guy” (or antagonist figure, most, if not all of Huck’s opponents could be described as mischievous or flat characters, rather than truly “evil”) either gets his just desserts or “loses.” This would be docked more for being rather cliche and shallow if the show aired 40 years later, but considering the period and target audience, it’s very difficult to fault too heavily weakness in this area. 2/5 points.

5. Don’t insult the viewer: Huckleberry Hound is a clean show, has classic slapstick humor, and is simple fun, if nothing else. It doesn’t have a snazzy soundtrack or a crazy premise, but it’s got a decent main character and a nostalgia factor. 5/5 points.

Total Score: 15.25/25 (61%). The score may seem somewhat low for a “classic show,” but The Huckleberry Hound Show is a mixed package of a period piece that’s quite dated in some respects, and still retains some charm and innovation in others. There are other cartoons from the period that did plenty of the things it did better, such as the aforementioned Looney Tunes, but it’s worth a look if you love retro shows, classic characters, or a further look into the history of animation.


Like what you see? Love any classic or retro cartoons from pre-1980? Leave a comment!

Random Episode Ramblings #1: “Not What He Seems” (Gravity Falls)

A while back, a certain reader of mine requested at some point that I take a look at individual episodes of some shows. I considered the proposal and ultimately decided that it’d make another good series to write that would keep me going for a while…the only hard part being that I had to parse down to singular episodes I really liked. Most of the time, I usually am thinking about shows in their totality because I’m writing the graded reviews that are a major focus of this blog, and I also know other bloggers already do this kind of analysis…but I’m here to put the “AniB spin” on it. (I suppose I can grade episodes too!) So here’s the first episode I’ll talk about: “Not What He Seems,” from Gravity Falls.

There are any number of individual episodes worth talking about from Gravity Falls, the critically acclaimed Disney show that I talked about a while back, and it remains a personal favorite of mine, but I’ve decided to discuss a keynote episode of the show that brought together the best of its episodic and overarching storytelling blend, which in turn delivered on a great deal of buildup from the very first episode of the show (Tourist Trapped). It’s an episode that reveals in one explosive 22 and a half -minute package the truth about the journals, the culmination of a great deal of character development for Stan Pines, who I also wrote about in a character analysis piece, the actual purpose and reason the Mystery Shack exists (and it’s not just as a dumpy tourist trap), and finally, the explosive reveal of the mysterious “author of the journals,” in what is still an incredibly-well choreographed and animated moment.

 

It goes without saying that Not What He Seems is a Stan-centric episode, but beyond that, it’s how he ties into the entire current of mystery underpinning the entire show. While I talked at length about Stan’s role in another article, part of what makes this episode so memorable is the buildup to it. At the end of the prior episode- Northwest Mansion Mystery, Fiddleford McGucket’s fixed laptop shows a doomsday clock; since the finale of season 1 (Gideon Rises), the audience is aware of the massive portal underneath the Shack, and that the other journals were in the possession of Stan, who hid his double life working on said portal…until now.

The cold opening begins with Stan working in the basement again, apparently using toxic waste to fuel his endeavors. It also showcases another reason this episode stands out- the absolutely stellar animation. After the intro, the episode starts innocuously enough like so many other Gravity Falls episodes before it- as Stan decides to join in on some mischief with fireworks and then water balloons- and then, the facade is broken as the government shows up.

Watching Dipper and Mabel formulate an escape plan and then discover the uncomfortable truths about their “Grunkle Stan” before he had a chance to tell them is both genuinely uncomfortable and tense- a testament to the staff that such emotional sentiment was built up to this episode. In true Gravity Falls style though, there is still some unexpected moments of humor that work- and in this case, it’s delivered by Soos, whose well-meaning, albeit ham-handed attempts to protect the Shack and Mr. Pines bring just the right amount of levity to an episode where “serious” takes precendence over “humorous.”

The final 5 minutes of the episode however, is genuinely some of the best stuff you’ll ever see in animation, as the buildup come to a (literal) earth-shattering conclusion that brings many narrative threads to a head at a critical moment. Stan escapes from jail in a very cool scene (and Durland and Blubbs are playing pinata in the corner, haha), the twins have made their unsettling discoveries in Stan’s personal office (fake I.D.s’, newspaper clipping of his “death”, and a lot of doubt) and Soos shows up to protect the vending machine in the Shack’s gift shop, where after a brief reunion and struggle with Dipper and Mabel, the trio discovers the secret behind the door.

I’ll pause here for a moment to really take in the work on the drawing in these scenes. The creative team did an absolutely terrific job evoking “apocalypse,” from the reddened sky and sun, to the town literally tearing apart at the seams, and the portal itself, its massive energy surge threatening to warp the fabric of existence and send our characters into an unknown oblivion. It’s true that the writing made most of this episode and Gravity Falls on the whole, but Not What He Seems is taken to another level by the art itself- just look at this still panel:

“Grunkle Stan…I trust you.”

The decision to have Mabel make the final decision in such a key narrative moment was a crucial writing decision. Shown to be the “fun” sibling, with an insecurity towards growing up (and grown-up affairs), she is asked a hard question rooted in very real implications, a roaring rift gate potentially ready to unleash the apocalypse, and a difficult comparison: was Stan the “grunkle” she came to know over the course of the summer, or the strange man of double lives and false aliases her and her brother came to find? This line of questioning would be difficult for an adult, let alone a 12 year old girl…and she went with “trust” as an answer. Was it smart? In the long-run narrative, yes it worked out, but logically without further information it was not…but from a character-building perspective it was a perfect decision. Simply put, it showcased Mabel’s greatest strength- her ability to emphasize and give the benefit of the doubt to mostly anybody, was also her greatest strength, and that sometimes, the biggest decisions in our lives are not always as cut and dry as we want them to be, or pressing a giant red button, as Dipper would have been wont to do.

So “my brother, the author of the journals,” appeared. Ford’s official debut served as the conclusive finish to many questions in the show, and while his emergence from the portal is a massive turning point in Gravity Falls, it is secondary to everything else that happens in this amazing episode. The next episode in the show (A Tale of Two Stans) explained a great deal of backstory, but Not What He Seems served as a mid-season finale to end all mid-season finales. Alex Hirsch even described at one point that the episode was likely slated to originally serve as season 2’s endpoint, with a final season focusing on what the final 9 episodes did instead, but the result was still brilliant in setting the table for the sprint that was the end of Gravity Falls, but also as a stand-alone episode.

There’s probably plenty more I can say about Not What He Seems, or Gravity Falls as a whole, but it’s even better to go back and watch it again. And if you read this far and have never seen the show or this particular moment, do yourself a favor and watch it. It’s one of the best shows this decade, and in this author’s opinion, the best Western animated show of the same time period. Honestly, there’s more than one episode from the show that could make the cut for this column, but in the end, one of the most influential episodes in the show both as a standalone piece and pertaining to its role in the overarching story gets the nod as a stellar work of animation.


Like what you see? Want more Gravity Falls material, or episode reviews? Leave a comment!

 

Review: Samurai Jack

After a 13 year hiatus, the story of a samurai lost in the distant future comes to a stunning conclusion.

The Lowdown:

Show: Samurai Jack

Network/years aired: Cartoon Network, 2001-2004 (initial run), 2017 (season 5)

AniB’s thoughts: I had originally planned to write a encompassing Jack review as early as late 2015, nearly 2 years before I started this blog (at the time of this writing), but with the announcement and subsequent return of the Cartoon Network- turned Adult Swim classic, I put it on hold. Mind you, it was going to be a favorable look back on the original 4 seasons in which Jack faces “the Shogun of Sorrow,” Aku, and is flung into the far future, where the events of the show unfold, just like it is now, but with a great deal of fresh thoughts and material in the wake of 10 frentic, beautifully animated, well-written episodes that finally put to rest the very last of the Cartoon Cartoon series. (Previously, this distinction was held by Ed, Edd, n’ Eddy, which concluded with Ed, Edd, n’ Eddy’s Big Picture Show, the finale movie, but with Jack’s revival, it claimed the belt- in all likelihood for good.)

(SPOILERS AHEAD. SKIP TO THE GRADED SECTION IF YOU WISH TO AVOID.)

The finale of this show, for better or worse, will be talked about for a long time, and while my initial reaction was that the show could have used 20 more minutes, it was satisfying on the whole, bittersweet and fitting in the end. Jack made it back to the past, Aku was finally defeated, and as for Ashi…we’ll get to that in a second. The episode was crammed with cameos, callbacks, and perhaps the greatest troll job Aku’s ever pulled in playing the original Samurai Jack intro to the world in announcing he’d captured the samurai. We also got at least one last meeting between the Scotsman and Jack, and that was wonderful- but another question worth wondering, “was it all a dream?” Because as Jack looks out up the beautiful valley at the end, it might as well have been- for nobody in the past truly knew the suffering, pain and struggle it took for Jack to save them all and change the course of history.

As for Ashi, she was Season 5’s most notable addition. She had an entire character arc crammed into the course of 10 episodes, and despite the horde of Jack’s past allies, Ashi stands out and does so well.  Slowly, she becomes Jack’s romantic interest in a total 180 from her intial role- an assassin of the “Daughters of Aku,” a cult that worshiped Jack’s mortal enemy. As it turns out, her “Daughter of Aku” title was no mere nickname, but literal- as in quite the twist, she was quite literally Aku’s daughter…which made for a very interesting endgame. Being part-Aku, it was she who was able to create the portal to the past…but in the process of “undoing the future that is Aku,” she undid herself from existence. (It was quickly pointed out the similarities of Ashi’s end to Nia from Gurren Lagann, and so Jack is our Simon here- he saved the world, but couldn’t quite save the one he loved, and that enough qualifies the bittersweet ending as exactly that.

Not to be forgotten in any analysis of Samurai Jack are the four seasons that defined the show from its original run (and what would have comprised a complete review prior to the revival season.) As the show was in Cartoon Network hands at the time, it was designed to be far more episodic with some recurring elements and characters, and it was during this period in which several staples of the series were established, as well as the bulk of the show, from the mask-free animation style that remains striking (and slightly updated, though still the same 13 years later) to many memorable characters, most notably the Scotsman, a trash-talking firebrand of a man with a machine gun for a peg leg and Jack’s equal in combat.

The original seasons also served the purpose of building the world in which Genndy Tartakovsky was able to build a convincing dystopian future- one that had plenty of Aku’s evil influence, but also parts yet not ravaged by the evil overlord. In saying that, the idea of “hope”- or lack thereof, as the 5th season appeared and Jack came to fight his inner demons- is pivotal to the thematic aspect of Samurai Jack, and without it, it couldn’t possibly be the show that it is, nor would we have received the ending we got.

On one other specific note for season 5, Scaramouche, the self-proclaimed “Aku’s #1 assassin, babe!” became a fan favorite, starring as the main episode villain in the first new episode after 13 years (XCII), and after his defeat against Jack, went on a quest to inform Aku of the samurai’s missing sword. (Unfortunately for him, his info was outdated in short order).  Noted for his scatman inspiration and fast-talking mouth, he was a likable villain worth mentioning, considering his dark humor and attitude brought some levity and action together into the grimmer interpretation of Samurai Jack. And as his catchphrase goes, “That’s all, babe.”


Animation Quality: A unique 2-D animation, mask free (so no outlines). Season 5 featured a refreshed, upgraded version of the original style, which took the show to another level aesthetically. Samurai Jack is a dazzling array of environments, characters, and circumstances. It features fluid action sequences, and most importantly, is able to successfully convey the story with its settings and animation. They did a marvelous job- both during the original run, and through the final season.  4.75/5 points.
Characterization: Jack himself is a wonderfully simple but complex protagonist, who is continually developed as a character in every episode during the original seasons as the stoic samurai. In the 5th season, he is forced to confront despair and fading hope head on, and so the darkness he fights is not only Aku’s, but that of his own heart. Unparalleled in combat and trained to the peak of human perfection, his goal is to return to his home in the past and defeat Aku.

 

Aku, the self proclaimed “shape-shifting master of darkness,” is masterfully voiced by the late Mako, who brought the character to life in the first 4 seasons, and is carried on by Greg Baldwin in the final chapter. Unspeakably evil, but also outlandish and humorous, Aku is the incarnation of “chaotic evil” in a character and seeks to only bring darkness and despair to all. Interestingly enough, Aku has somewhat of a human side in his remarks and jokes, but it’s limited to that- he’s unafraid to smite anyone who annoys him or he deems a threat. The mortal enemy of Samurai Jack and his father, the Emperor, he vows to destroy the samurai to break all hope and cement an eternal reign.

 

(I already commented on Ashi from season 5 in the spoiler section.)

 

The rest of the show features a quirky, interesting group of characters, with the occasionally recurring one (the Scotsman comes to mind). As the show is primarily focused on Jack’s development, it does this very well, often letting the animation action convey Jack’s personality with an economy of spoken words.  The writers also are successful at making side characters episodically interesting. 4.5/5 points.
Story quality: Beautifully scripted, epically varied in its narration, and ever focused on Jack’s character development and the situations he’s put in, it’s perfect in the first 4 seasons. With the shift in tone and format the 5th season brought, a tightly scripted narrative arc told hold over 10 episodes and while the pacing feels arguably rushed to an extent at the end, the ending is still mostly fitting and remarkable.  4.5/5 points.
Themes: A classic story of good and evil, but done with the sort of complexity developed through Jack (and Aku) that really grabs one’s attention. There’s a focus on the test of one’s limits, and the belief in overcoming the odds for a good end. Everything the show explores, it tends to do well at thematically. “Hope” especially is focused on as a theme…and the struggle to keep that flame alive really becomes prevalent as time goes on in the narrative.  4.5/5 points.
Don’t insult the viewer: A gorgeous show, Samurai Jack is a stellar achievement in animation and writing. It was wonderful to see it come back and receive a proper conclusion after many years, and it was well-worth the long wait. 5/5 points.
Total Score: 23.25/25 (93%). Genndy Tarkovsky’s masterpiece, Samurai Jack is a triumph of Western animation and perhaps the finest of the old Cartoon Cartoons lineup on Cartoon Network. Masterfully inspired by many different animated styles and themes before it, the story of a lone samurai in his quest to defeat the ultimate evil continued to age gracefully up into its revival season, and then finished the tale with a satisfying conclusion.


Like what you see? Still in awe over the Samurai Jack finale? Leave a comment!

An Easter Special: Catholic Cartoons

Rich in the Word of the Lord, and not so much in their budget.

First off, I’d like to say that I’ll be a little light on content for about the next month. As of this writing, I’ve got the final 4 weeks of my last semester in school, and finishing strong takes priority…that said, I’ll still look to get a piece out here or there, and this one I was definitely looking forward to.

It’s Holy Week in the Catholic liturgical calendar, and while Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday itself might not have much to do with animation or even some readers, it seemed appropriate to talk about a lightly treaded topic in the great wide world of the genre: religious animation. (Besides, I wanted to have a little fun!)

In particular, I’m going to be focusing on a variety of EWTN children’s programming that while it has all the moral goodness you might expect, it doesn’t necessarily get the budget of their brethren at a big network studio. But first on EWTN: It was founded in 1981 as “around-the clock Catholic TV network” by the late Mother Angelica, a sister enrolled in the Poor Clares of Perpetual Enrollment, a Franciscan religious order. Since her death last year on Easter Sunday, it has been commonly suggested that she might be canonized at some point as a saint of the Church.  If this sounds foreign to you, don’t worry; to boil it down, the network essentially was founded as missionary work by a very holy, pious nun (who just so happened to have a good sense of humor; she had a talk show that runs repeats every day on the channel.) The network does all sorts of programming, which includes daily Masses from a chapel in Birmingham, AL, and audiences with the Pope on a fairly regular basis. If you’re looking to find out more about the faith, Catholicism, have strong interest in theology, or wish to hear some different viewpoints on current-day issues than the usual news, EWTN’s a great resource. But the question still remains: What the heck does this have to do with animation?

Well, as it turns out, EWTN has a programming block called “Faith Factory” aimed at kids…and part an parcel with that is a variety of religiously aimed shows that on their own, might not have enough substance to warrant the full review treatment. However, I took the time to watch a number of episodes from these group of cartoons you might have never heard of, and I can draw a few conclusions on the whole: They’re not a terrible catechesis for young viewers of the faith, but as shows themselves, they’re dreadfully low budget and very straightforward. The first program, featured in the picture for this article is The Divine Mercy Chaplet for Kids, which pulls no punches as to what its contents is…the Divine Mercy Chaplet (which is a rosary-like prayer prayed on beads, specifically devoted to “the Sacred Heart of Jesus”) which is led by an animated nun in a chapel with a group of very happy looking kids. While the content is rather wholesome from a religious point of view, the animation quality makes South Park look world-class by comparison: it is the cheapest sort of Flash animation money can buy, and while I understand the cartoons here have an non-existent budget, it’s pretty dreadful from just a “how it’s drawn” point of view.

There are also a number of short biographies on different saints of the Church in the same sort of animation, and if you can get past the cheap looks, they actually are quite interesting and certainly give a good primer about these holy men and women, especially for kids. Here’s one about St. John Bosco:

The series is actually “Once Upon a Saint,” as the intro tells us, and these shorts have been done for a wide variety of saints, from various points in the history of the faith.

(I will add that the average age of viewers that these cartoons are targeted at is much lower than the usual animation I review, but it’s still animation.)

There’s also a variety of other shorts which air everyday during the week around 4:00 PM, but this is a smattering of offerings. They might be obscure and low-budget, but they certainly hit the mark of “Catholic-kid friendly programming.”


Like what you see? Have any Easter memories or traditions of your own? Leave a comment!

Preliminary Review: Invader Zim

I am ZIM!!! Fear me…or rather, the diagnosis of a cult classic.

The Lowdown:

Show: Invader Zim

Network/years aired: Nickelodeon, 2001-2006; movie pending

AniB’s thoughts: I was initially planning to sit on this show’s review until October, but with the recent surprise announcement of the series’ return via a movie, and the Fairly OddParents review that I recently wrote, here’s a week of Nicktoons, for better or worse.

Surprised is really the most apt descriptor I have for Invader Zim’s unlikely return. The first show I thought of that may have spurned the move by Nickelodeon to do so was Samurai Jack, which after 13 years of being “finished,” is now airing an absolutely brilliant 5th and final season on Adult Swim on Saturday nights at the time of this writing. Zim, while a completely different show in terms of substance, style and writing does share two things in common with Samurai Jack: a early to mid 2000’s original run, and an incomplete story. And while I’m fine seeing the adventures of Zim and GIR again in movie form, featuring  their ham-handed attempts to take over Earth and do battle with Dib, their archrival, it’d be nice to have a tightened narrative focus, a refresh on the visuals, and some cleaning up of certain “gross-out” elements that figured prominently into the otherwise dark fantasy and science fiction tones of the original series. I do think that a movie might not be enough to do whatever justice the series really wants for a conclusion…but then again, how many times do cult classics actually get new life?

Changing gears a little bit, the original series is rather overrated by its core adherents, but it is a very unique show in the Nickelodeon pantheon at least: its pervasive darkness and science fiction-heavy elements are mixed with a type of kid-friendly black humor that in turn, is also diluted with slapstick and the usual “idiot ball” trope of some really dumb adults (and kids, for that matter); in the case of Zim, it’s almost a prerequisite to make the entirely convoluted plot-lines work, and to that end, it’s really the characters of this show that give it an odd charm. The closest comparable show I can think of in terms of style, era, and substance (to an extent) is Courage the Cowardly Dog: If dark and weird is your cup of tea, or your store of choice at malls is a Spencer’s or Hot Topic, you probably loved both or either of these shows…

Zim may hold the distinction of “cult-classic,” but nobody will mistake it for a masterpiece, and in the case of this production, it’s probably best. Its originality, particularly when it came to characters, shone through- but in equal measure the animation style, with its dark palette favoring purples and greens, and the style of writing overall also had the potential to throw people off. It’s overall an original effort that does more right than wrong- enough so that I’d say it’s at least “above-average” but whether it’s “good” (or “great”) is terribly hard to pin down. At the very least, the movie will hopefully answer a good deal of questions…and give us all a few more laughs.


Animation Quality: Traditional 2-D cel animation. Using muted colors and lots of greens, purples, blues and blacks, Zim’s colors leaned towards its off-kilter version of Earth and the strange universe the show exists in. The character models are very cartoony, but they work well for the show, and there’s only a few models that are truly off-putting. 3.25/5 points.
Characterization: The heart of the show lies in its zany and memorable characters, which in turn catapulted the entire enterprise forward.

Zim serves as the overzealous titular anti-hero bent on proving his worth as an Irken Invader; despite his puny size, big mouth and impulsiveness, his will is stronger to succeed than anyone else in his race…except he’s a menace to them to through sheer bad luck.

GIR, Zim’s dim-witted robotic assistant with a flair for human food, TV and pigs, often makes nonsensical comments and interrupts Zim often, especially when he monologues. Despite being deemed a “defective model” by Irken standards, GIR is actually quite loyal (for the most part) to Zim and contains a powerful array of weapons and modes, though he rarely utilizes them.

Dib, a boy obsessed with the paranormal serves as Zim’s archenemy and is the only human who consistently views Zim as an alien and a threat; this is in contrast to his younger sister Gaz, a dark, gloomy little girl with seemingly terrifying powers and wrath who holds little concern for anything or anybody aside from pizza and video games.

The characters tend to follow a similar line of thinking in each episode they appear in; however, the series does change up the plot lines to keep them fresh, and there is some character development, though not complete. 3.5/5 points.

 
Story quality: Episodic, with loose continuity. Zim was beginning to build a mythos and backstory in its second season before it was cancelled, which means it was incomplete in the story the show wanted to tell. However, most of the show’s episodes could stand alone. Featuring a blend of trademark humor that blended black comedy, slapstick and some randomness, Zim’s storytelling tended to usually be entertaining and unique, but sometimes strayed into uncomfortable and unsettling. 3.5/5 points.

 
Themes: Surreal and futuristic, the show’s thematic elements tend to focus more on its trademark humor and Zim’s mission. Therefore, it excels at what it does… but lacks depth thematically otherwise. 2.5/5 points.

 
Don’t insult the viewer: Dark and creepy are two aspects that happen in Invader Zim. There’s a couple cringe-worthy moments, but it’s a decent watch at the end of the day. 4.25/5 points.

 
Total Score: 17/25 (68%). Truly the definition of a cult hit, Zim is a unique show with sci- fi and vaguely dystopian themes running through its run. It’s very different, but worth a look if you’re into the types of themes and humor the show peruses, it can be very entertaining. It’s a flawed show, but a good deal of that had to do with its cancellation and the inability to finish the narrative that was developing. Hopefully, these issues can and will be resolved in the movie.