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.

Review: The Fairly OddParents

A longtime cartoon has both positive attributes and glaring weaknesses.

The Lowdown:

Show: The Fairly OddParents

Network/ Years aired: Nickelodeon/ 2001- now (though there were shorts as early as 1998)

AniB’s thoughts: After a lot of recent pieces on Japanese anime, my focus now swings back to the West with a well-known show to most- the long running Nicktoon that has been SpongeBob Squarepants’ running mate on the network for over a decade and a half.

Technically, this is a preliminary review, seeing as FOP is still going in a 10th season, but at this point, it’s a formality given that the general form and context of the show is well-worn and well known. Therefore, from my perspective at least, it’s a show that started with some really original comic creativity and humor while also doing parody of other major cultural touchstones quite well, and then age began to set in as far back as 2008, when the show was only 7 years old in its full-series format (11 if you go back to the first shorts on Oh Yeah! cartoons) I actually talked at length about the “seasonal rot and zombification” of The Fairly OddParents in another piece that was from St. Patrick’s Day, so rather than rehashing that entire conversation, I’ll do my best to just focus on the show actually starring in this article and less so the meta-commentary further out around it.

If Butch Hartman’s masterpiece was Danny Phantom, this show was and still is his baby. (Mind you, it’s an enormous cash-making baby whose soul might have gotten sucked out at least going back 5 years, but still something he clearly cares about, if nothing more than as a tool for what I’d presume is a very comfortable livelihood.) It’s got all the elements of later Hartman shows including the spontaneous humor, the sound effects in conjunction with action (and while this is a technique as old as time in animation, FOP has a distinct feel to this idea), and the fast-talking, slice of life episodic format with its trademark convoluted premises, all honed down to a “T.”

Overall, The Fairly OddParents is an enjoyable, if zany experience in its earlier seasons and a retread milquetoast disappointment as it continues to wind on into what very well could be eternity with the way Nickelodeon hangs onto old franchises. In favor of the franchise, its parodies still hold water even from early episodes, and are often quite well done (i.e. the character the Crimson Chin. Definitely a reference to comics and certain heroes.) On the other side, recent episodes have opted for dated references, retread plots, uninteresting characters thrown in simply to “keep things fresh” and some of the gross-out and downright strange humor endemic to many a Nicktoon over the past decade. Graded on its entire body of work, the show comes out as pretty average- a viewing experience you may or may not want to see, but if you do, the episodes from 2001 to around 2007 are pretty solid on the whole (and the TV movies are a lot of fun as well- Channel Chasers anyone?) but after that, you’re on your own. (And Sparky, the magical dog from season 9 can die in a fire. Thankfully the writers  canned him after severe backlash…only to introduce a literal Mary Sue in the form of Chloe season 10. Zombie show indeed.)


Animation Quality: 2-D animation, about as average as it comes. It was this way back in 2001, and still is this way in 2015, obvious improvements in computer shading non-withstanding. It’s generally bright and colorful; the color palette is pretty easy on the eyes, and is still eye-catching enough, and despite the simple style, it usually augments the frenetic comedic action of the show quite well. 3/5 points.

 
Characterization: Two words: genre stereotypes. Before I delve into this idea though, a quick rundown of the main trio:

Timmy Turner stars as the “fairy godchild,” the 10 year old who receives fairies in order to improve his lackluster life, as far as the basic premise goes. He’s got buck teeth, a “silly pink hat” and shirt, and is remarkably reckless about a variety of his actions, particularly when it comes to wishes, and so, while Timmy solves most of the show’s episodic problems, he’s often the cause of them too.

Cosmo and Wanda are his “Fairy Godparents,” the magical creatures sent from the whimsical Fairy World to serve at Timmy’s beck and call. Aside from their wands which can grant any wish that does not violate the in-universe “Da Rules” (supposedly), the pair can shape shift, disappear and teleport long distances, and fly (they have tiny wings.) Overall though, they are silly creatures. Wanda and Cosmo in particular are foils: a husband-wife team with opposite personalities- Cosmo is “an idiot” in Wanda’s words, but knows how to relax, while Wanda is the smart one of the pair, though very uptight…meaning their dualism is something that’s been done many times before in other places and shows….which in turn leads back to my initial point in this section.

 

Cosmo is the most unpredictable thing on the show; Timmy becomes more formulaic as the seasons roll on, especially after you watched more than 5 episodes at any point during the show’s run. The supporting cast is mainly static but certaintly still has some of its own charms, from the Timmy’s insane teacher Mr. Crocker, to the massive ruler of Fairy World, Jorgen von Strangle (who is a parody of Arnold Schwarzenegger); character development is not a major focal point in the show but a certain predictability is. Overall not anything special, but also not anything particularly displeasing. 2.75/5 points.

 
Story quality: There’s a story? The show is episodic, and there only seems to be a very loose canon, involving mainly Timmy, his fairies, and Da Rules. Everything else seems to contradict an earlier event at some point, so you learn to ignore too much continuity fast in this show. As for its format, the canon can be partially excused, but not wholly. Later seasons bring down the score of originality in plot choices on the show. 2.25/5 points.

 
Themes: Wishes, be careful what you wish for, magic should not be abused… fairly harmless stuff, but perhaps the greatest virtue this espouses is that one simply cannot wish their problems away in life. Other than that, it’s typical plot of the day fluff. 2/5 points.

 
Don’t insult the viewer: The Fairly OddParents is standard animated fare for the most part, but the general scattershot direction of the writing can be slightly irritating. Other than this, it’s not particularly demeaning in any way. 4/5 points.

Total Score: 14/25 (56%). A completely average show in most ways, The Fairly OddParents is still one of the longest running animated shows on TV. Perhaps it’s the comfortable familiarity with the source material at this point, because the show’s biggest shortcoming is the stench of seasonal rot. For its length alone it will likely get an annotation in the history of animated shows.


Like what you see? Love the Fairly OddParents? Leave a comment!

Star Wars Rebels: A Farewell to Maul

EDITOR’S NOTE: If you couldn’t already tell, this entire piece, from the title on down is a massive spoiler. If you’re not looking for major plot details about Star Wars Rebels to be revealed to you now, best to turn away. If not, enjoy!

Unless you’ve been living under a rock or don’t know animation, a major event in Star Wars history happened on March 18th, 2017- the death of Maul, one-time apprentice to Palpatine. The story came full circle at last as Maul, searching to regain lost power and a sense of self, found the end of his destiny at the hands of Obi-Wan Kenobi. Indeed, his demise came on Tatooine, the place where it all started- and represented a complete narrative arc for the one-time Sith Lord.

Well, you might be asking why AniB would write about Darth Maul. Isn’t he a movie character? Not exactly. To start with, Maul’s death takes place in Star Wars Rebels (and if you haven’t checked it out, it’s well worth the watch); after he falls down the shaft in Naboo in The Phantom Menace, it is Star Wars: The Clone Wars where he reappears, and of all the major characters from the prequel era (and perhaps the franchise overall), none owe more to continued story progression via animation than Maul. While the most casual fans of Star Wars and even those who know little recognize Maul as the acrobatic, devil-horned, growling Sith Lord from 1999, there is a whole legion of people out there who also know Maul now through the voice acting of Sam Witwer and the  two animated shows he appeared in, as well as The Son of Dathomir comics. There is a far more developed tale now to Maul: of Dathomir and Nightbrothers, a Dark side cult; of the time Maul became ruler of Mandalore and Death Watch, only to be personally stopped by Darth Sidious, his old master, and now of the middle-aged man with no real identity, neither Sith nor with any allegiance owed or given. As we see Maul in Rebels, he might have been physically reconstructed, but he was as broken as the day Kenobi sliced him in half decades earlier.

 

https://www.scifinow.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Star-Wars-The-Clone-Wars-Dave-Filoni-Darth-Maul.jpg

When Maul reappeared in Star Wars: The Clone Wars, he was alive, but grotesque, driven to the point of insanity. With the help of Talzin, leader of the Nightsisters, Maul was revived and given real prosthetic legs (he had some kind of spider-like prosthetic prior to made of a mangled mess of metal.) Furthermore, for the first time Maul was given a sort of family- his apprentice, Savage Oppress (in the picture, on the left) was his brother, and Dathomir was a sort of dark home from which Maul could be supported. But one thing remained constant that clouded all this from Maul’s mind: Selfish vengeance against Kenobi. Indeed, as Maul leveraged power, eventually all the way up to the leader of Mandalore, his thirst for revenge proved to a quest doomed in failure: While he beat Obi-Wan at a duel and even killed Satine Kryze, a woman he loved, Kenobi was not broken. He continued to grow over the course of tragic events, following the path of the Jedi, eventually in time becoming the enlightened mentor of Luke Skywalker. However, Maul continued to wallow in the past and self-pity- the final insulting blow dealt when Sidious stripped him of his empire and his brother- and leaving Maul more empty than before, now defeated by both Jedi and Sith.

 

Maul reappeared in Rebels as a older man, trying to cling desperately onto past shreds of glory and delusional dreams of defeating both Jedi and Sith. To that end, he pressed his advantage in Twilight of the Apprentice when Ezra Bridger, a young Jedi Padawan (and main protagonist of the show in question) came with Ahsoka Tano and Jedi Knight Kanan Jarrus came to the planet Malachor in search “of answers”; he used Bridger as a pawn to gain a powerful Sith holocron- an ancient artifact containing knowledge and secrets- and fed Dark Side ideologies to him in an attempt to start swaying him to be his apprentice. However, after several incidents that led Maul to fall further in the bad graces of the Ghost’s crew (which usually involved tricking Ezra through the Force to come to him), he was able to, with Bridger’s help, combine the Sith holocron with a Jedi one, revealing the prophecy of the Chosen One- and while both Bridger and Maul had different interpretations of what they saw, neither knew about Luke Skywalker. Maul believed it to be Kenobi, colored by his past experiences- and set out to once and for all destroy the Jedi Master.

The rest of the details do not need to recounted here, but symbolism went a long way in characterizing Maul in his dying days. On Tatooine, he is literally walking through a barren desert- symbolic of what is left for him in his life. In a revisit to Dathomir, he has a shrine to his Death Watch days, but in turn is clinging to two dead families- his Mandalore one and Nightsisters/brothers. And with Ezra he may have been thinking of Savage the whole time- the one person who Maul truly cared about, though “love” might not be the accurate term. And so when Kenobi slices him down, symbolically baiting him into the same move he used to finish Qui-Gon Ginn on Naboo, there is finally relief for him. Kenobi reveals the Chosen One exists and the decades-long rivalry is settled. Even in death though, Maul seeks the path of revenge in Kenobi’s arms (“[The Chosen One] will avenge us!”) and thus, dies.

 

While this is but a brief summation of Maul’s journey since his debut in Phantom Menace, it is a journey best experienced watching. Witwer gives a voice and personality to the Dark Sider beyond just the acrobatic kick and signature dual-bladed saberstaff that Maul is known for; the culture and people that Maul originated from, the Zabrak is explored, and overall, the continuation of his life in animated form comes off brilliantly as a tale of what the medium can do in taking a well-known character to a new level and breath fresh life into the tale of one of the prequels’ most interesting additions to Star Wars lore. For all the terrible things he’s done, I’m not sure “rest in peace” is entirely appropriate, but it goes without saying Darth Maul will be missed.


Like what you see? Check out Star Wars Rebels and The Clone Wars if you haven’t! Leave a comment!

 

A St. Patty’s Day Special: “Zombie Shows”

Happy St. Patrick’s Day to everyone! From four leaf clovers to corned beef, or beer, it’s a big deal in Buffalo, NY at least. As a quick aside, who else liked the Kids Choice Awards rigging it for SpongeBob yet again last weekend? 14 wins in 15 years…something’s rotten and it’s not just the fish or the network…it’s the show. Nobody beyond the age of 12 conceivably believes these judgements are reached fair and impartially; take one look through the list of “winners” and there’s a common thread that Viacom properties almost unanimously sweep the awards where they are nominated…and considering the mediocre at best quality of many of these productions, including the aforementioned sponge, it’s not that hard to figure out. It also indicates to this writer at least that Nickelodeon’s not quite ready to “give up the ghost,” so to speak, on their longest running property. Oh well…I think today’s subject ties into this issue quite nicely!

Whether or not you’ve been reading this blog regularly, I thought the holiday would provide a nice case to talk about the luckiest of shows- the ones that have become mainstays of culture due to their longevity and perceived quality. You know them- SpongeBob Squarepants, The Simpsons, South Park, even something like The Fairly Odd Parents– which have been around for well over a decade and in many cases, are headed for 20 years of new episodes if they haven’t already reached it. So that begs the question- they must still be doing something right? Well yes…and no. On one level, the entire reasons these shows still run is that they’ve become the impermeable faces of their respective networks, and from a merchandising/franchising standpoint, this trait is invaluable. They’ve become “trusted brands” of sorts, a rarefied air for an animated show to reach considering the average life span probably clocks in around a year to two. The other reason is that hand-in- hand with the first reason, they make gobs of money for their network still- but is there a point of diminishing returns? That’s what we’re going to take a look at today.

While these shows have been highly successful endeavors on many levels, longevity can eventually breed laziness, the quality of the production can slip, and to borrow a fitting term, the shows can “lose the plot” of what they originally meant to do. The Fairly Odd Parents is a pretty good example of this phenomenon. Originally part of Nickelodeon’s late 90’s incubator program Oh Yeah! cartoons, the original few seasons were fairly fresh and original, did parody really quite well and had a couple for-TV movies that were entertaining (Abra-Catastrophe!,  the first one ever for the series still holds up quite nicely.) However, by 2008 the show had hit a decade since its pilot and 7 years had passed since it had become a formal series, and so to freshen things up, Poof, the fairy baby of Cosmo and Wanda, was added to the cast in another TV movie. While this change indicated a strong inclination to “mix things up a bit,” the truth was that the show had also just started a 6th season and really would have been better off wrapping up what had been a really solid production in the early-mid 2000’s. Unfortunately, the show has continued to be dragged out by Nickelodeon along with its other anchor- SpongeBob, and now in a 10th season nearly 20 years since its first short, its age is quite obvious; it hasn’t been innovative or relevant for a long time as a show; new characters have continued to be injected to try and add new depth to a universe that was tapped out a long time ago (see Chloe- the literally Mary Sue character), and it’s even sunk to making pop culture references that are dated even by the time the episode airs. It’s a sad mess…and the textbook definition of a “zombie show.” (For the record, this isn’t an indictment of Butch Hartman, but rather that his first show has been driven into the ground because apparently there’s still profit to be made.)

Unfortunately, Nickelodeon is my guinea pig for the topic at hand, and so inevitably the discussion turns to SpongeBob. Global icon, marketing machine and cash cow all rolled into one, the sponge clearly has been a boon to the network…but in doing so, caused an over-reliance on that one franchise. Nick missed the boat on making Avatar into a bigger franchise-twice, despite critical acclaim, and this was in the midst of steadily deterorating quality from SpongeBob itself. The show has been around long enough to have distinct “eras”; the classic SpongeBob that is still referenced and memed pretty regularly is pre-2004, when the first theatrical movie of the franchise was supposed to end it. Of course, Nick wanted to have their cake and eat it too, and so the show continued on, losing its original creative director, Derek Drymon in the process. After a decade in which the show improved precious little aside from a significant upgrade in animation quality consummate with a triple A show’s budget, creator Stephen Hillenburg returned to try and drag the show out of the hole it dug itself into. Mind you, SpongeBob is still long past the point of being relevant, regardless of what the rigged KCA’s would have you believe, or the profits Nick rakes in (because it’s also the most-aired show on the network.). And SpongeBob is emblematic of Nickelodeon’s problems in moving on and establishing more new shows to take its place, as I talked about in my network decision-making piece for it. To that end I ask the following question: Is it really worth the potential millions being lost to new, exciting, vibrant shows (which are chiefly being pushed by their competitors ) to keep the sponge and Timmy Turner on life support? I don’t think so. The Loud House appears to be a great step in the right direction, but like a rejected lover, a network at some point has got to let go of the past and move on.

Finally, what about a show like South Park? Does it fall in this “zombie show” category? Yes and no. On one hand, because it’s a production designed to be a satirical commentary on issues of a given time and place, it keeps it relevant. Conversely, when you’ve been around since 1997, some episodes might come off as dated, but its format is a great strength that I’m unsure can be replicated. And what of The Simpsons, the only show still airing from the 1980’s (not counting sports productions)? Definitely a “zombie show,” but considering its cultural icon status and its first 10 years which are widely lauded…it buys you a lot of time and fame, and even a movie. The point ultimately is that these lucky shows hit the jackpot, made it big and have stuck around despite the shortcomings and sorts of flaws that comes with sustained commercial success and network hegemony. On one hand, it’s still a remarkable achievement, but on the other, a show left out too long starts to smell. And for everyone’s sake, it’s best that networks eventually wean off of them; besides, reruns exist for a reason, syndication is still quite profitable yet despite the rise of the Internet, and innovative creativity must be allowed to flourish in order for animation to find its fullest potential. Much of the time, less is more.


Like what you see? Know any other “zombie shows?” Leave a comment!