On Animation Channels and Decision-Making Pt. 1: Cartoon Network

Hey everyone! This is the beginning of a 3 to 4(?) part mini-series where the discussion will be about some of the impactful decisions major animation networks in the United States have made over the past decade in regards to shows. The opinions expressed in this regard are completely my own- but I watched the networks and did some research all the same.

 

The other day, I talked about my thoughts on the 2010’s in animation from a viewing perspective: that is to say from a wide lens-sort of viewpoint about some of the better things I’ve observed, and on the whole my view of the decade is fairly positive at this point in time. It’s unlikely to change too much in part because we’re now on the back 9 of the decade and the opinion was formed with the majority of the years already in the bank, but there was another side to that discussion that intrigued me enough to write about: Network decision making.

To preface this discussion, I’m going to talk about the main 3 US networks known for animation: Cartoon Network (which includes sister block Adult Swim in this conversation), Nickelodeon, and Disney X.D., where all of the House of Mouse’s animated series have migrated to, away from their traditional home on Disney Channel (which has devolved into fairly awful sitcoms, but I digress.) I’ll also throw Fox a bone here too, as it’s noted for its mainstream adult fare, which while commonplace, is not particularly impressive. This is more of a detailed breakdown of decision-making by these networks and provides a sort of context for the decade as well. For the first part, I’ll be taking a look at:

Cartoon Network

At the dawn of the new decade, Cartoon Network made the fortuitous decision to green-light both Adventure Time and Regular Show. That decision alone ensured the beginnings of a resurgence for a network that had seemingly lost its way in the waning years of the 2000’s. Having two anchor shows was a boon, but what about some of the network’s other decisions in the meantime?

-From the 2000’s, the network carried over Star Wars: The Clone Wars:

While I haven’t talked about this show in depth with a review yet, it would be amiss to not give credit that keeping this show under contract from Lucasfilm in the final years prior to the Disney acquisition was wise. In all likelihood the final Star Wars show to be broadcast on a Disney rival, the show continued to improve and grow in complexity…too bad the time slot didn’t. The show finished season 5 on the network in 2013 before airing its final salvo on Netflix.

-The ballad of Genndy Tartakovsky: A promising failure and an unexpected return

Tartakovsky, the well-known Russian animator behind yesteryear hit Dexter’s Laboratory and the first crack at the Clone Wars era in Star Wars, came back in 2010 with an innovative, darker new show- Sym-Bionic Titan. In what is one of the more underrated tragedies of animation, the show was canned the next year after only one season that was very, very good…because toy sales… or lack thereof. (More on that issue later.) However, it was not the last of Tartakovsky this decade: He returned to direct the long-awaited but totally unexpected 5th and final season of Samurai Jack, some 13 years after its initial stoppage.

-Toys, toys and toys…fun to play with, terrible strategy to choose shows

While a whole review column is going to be devoted to what is an utterly asinine policy, Cartoon Network executives’ biggest mistake- or rather, lack of foresight, is that it’s perfectly fine to have a show succeed outside a target demographic. What happened to Young Justice is a perfect example, where it gained a diverse following but got the axe because…wait for it…it wasn’t big enough in that holy grail target demo of 7-13 year old boys, and therefore, not selling enough toys to them. What? (Fortunately, the tragedy of Young Justice does not end like Sym-Bionic Titan; the long-awaited Season 3 is being developed for Netflix.) Quality of show almost unanimously carries to financial success without being forced; look at any of the decade’s shows that hit it big, including some of Cartoon Network’s own, from Adventure Time to Steven Universe.

-Death of a bad idea: Live action shows

When your network literally has cartoon in the name, being anything aside from a specialty network in animation is a really dumb idea. And part and parcel of the wayward late 2000’s was a foray into poorly conceived, poorly written and “never should have happened in the first place!” live action shows. Incredibly enough, the network tried airing them as recently as early 2013; to everyone’s relief there’s nothing in the works (and hasn’t been) for almost 4 years now.

– Everyone’s “favorite show”…TTG

Well, it’s not a formal review/rant, and I’m also going to get there, but…a major issue for the network, even as they emerged into this new era of animation, is the absolute lovefest the higher-ups at Cartoon Network seem to have with this awful, awful production. It is shoved into every spare timeslot (including ones that really should go to other shows), promoted endlessly despite universal scorn, and somehow has survived nearly 4 years and 5 seasons. And yet…nobody I’ve heard seems to like it, except apparently “some kids,” which is hardly a ringing endorsement. It’s an insult to the original Teen Titans series which is fantastic, focuses far too hard on very low humor (to the point where’s it’s not even funny, if it was to begin with), and reportedly was the de facto replacement on the network for Young Justice. I’ll leave it at that.

-Different directions for social messages

I’m going to keep this bland, but more recent efforts like the popular Steven Universe have tried some very different messages unfamiliar to Cartoon Network shows even 5 or 10 years ago. For me, they are hardly the main focus, but they do exist; whatever the prominence of said social ideas is stays up to the viewers to decide. I think that’s clear enough.

-Some big successes, some failures

Like all their competitors, there has been shortcomings and triumphs. Adventure Time, Regular Show, and more recently Steven Universe have been big hits, and even on a smaller scale, something like The Amazing World of Gumball apparently found a niche; conversely you have TTG, Uncle Grandpa, and some others that range in terms of financial success, but not so much critical success, which I’ve elected to focus on here.

 

-The return of Toonami

Adult Swim made arguably the best decision in their history to revive the beloved anime block. Like the old days, (at the time of this writing), tune in on a Saturday night into Sunday morning- and there’s a mix of old favorites and new dubs.


 

Obviously this isn’t every last aspect of Cartoon Network’s (or Adult Swim’s, for that  matter) decision making over the past 6+ years, but some key points that I thought were worth noting. It’s a nice addendum for context with the original thought piece (https://anibproductions.wordpress.com/2017/02/17/the-2010s-in-animation-what-i-think-so-far/) that inspired this writing, and I’ll have more of this mini-series coming out!


Like what you see? Are you a big fan of Cartoon Network? Chime in on the comments!

 

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Review: Phineas and Ferb

Oh, the things you can build on a fine summer’s day…

The Lowdown:

Show: Phineas and Ferb

Networks/years aired: Disney Channel/XD, 2007-2015

AniB’s thoughts: I think I know what I’m going to write today! First, a quick shout-out to S.G. of Rhyme and Reason for the request. I was going to review  Phineas and Ferb at some point, but your input helped me to fast track an important, influential, and most of all, fun show up the priority list. (And no, I’ve still got Steins;Gate on the list, don’t worry!) Indeed, Phineas and Ferb‘s very essence lies in the two key parts of every episode: what in fact will the titular characters do everyday of their summer vacation, and to that same end, the question can also be asked of the B-plot always involving Agent P (aka Perry the Platypus) and Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz. What the writers did with that structure though, is nothing short of incredible.

Phineas and Ferb was a terrifically innovative show that continued to hold its own even after other major Western shows emerged post 2010. It combined a bright color palette mixed tastefully with simple animation that worked quite well, an entire catalog’s worth of original songs from every episode, and a consistency that ensured it saw little drop-off in performance, some 8 years after its debut. The last point in particular was very impressive, as these types of episodic shows (albeit one here  that had a loose canon and constantly self-referenced past events) have an unfortunate tendency to usually fall to “seasonal rot”- the term used for a show that’s still chugging out new episodes long after it should have been put out to pasture. Nickelodeon has two perfect examples- SpongeBob SquarePants and The Fairly Odd Parents are still airing new episodes in 2017; they are both long past the point of being innovative or even relevant- relics of about 3 eras back. To further illustrate this point, what era are all the SpongeBob memes from? (Hint: try pre-2004.) Even The Simpsons, which most critics tend to fawn over its amazing run in the 1990’s, has become a victim of this symptom; the only animated show still in production on the planet with a starting point in the 1980’s, it’s become staid for what it was. Back to Phineas and Ferb, another major reason it was able to avoid this problem was a creator-driven ending that felt natural, and a simple story structure that allowed major flexibility in where the show-runners could go with it. In that sense, Phineas and Ferb reminded me of Codename: Kids Next Door– it was only a matter of how big and crazy the writer’s ideas could go, all wrapped up neatly when it was time.

The show also contained some pretty great specials; in particular, its parody story of Star Wars was brilliantly done; while the events of the original movie still went on, it was still a uniquely crafted Phineas and Ferb story using the backdrop of Star Wars, with plenty of clever references that even I was surprised how on-point they were- and it worked beautifully! (The best nod had to be that they made fun of Jar Jar unironically. And Greedo shot first.) There was also the Marvel special, and the finale episode it itself was a special. (Kudos to Agent P- somehow after the entire show’s run, Phineas and Ferb never caught onto his secret identity- movie nonwithstanding.) I was often amazed at how clever the writing was in this show, and before Gravity Falls took the mantle of “biggest Disney TV cartoon airing” sometime in 2014 (in my personal opinion), it had been Phineas and Ferb that had really nailed the appeal to all audiences amazingly well. Was it a perfect show? Well, no- but its cultural impact (which isn’t a factor in grading) and precedents it set for other Western animation is undeniable. There’s also a high degree of re-watchability, and the fact that it’s also an extraordinarily easy show to pick up- because it’s also a case of where “simple” is better in animation. On to the grading:


 

Animation Quality: Traditional 2-D animation. Bright, vibrant and with an unmistakably simple touch, Phineas and Ferb’s animation pops with an eye pleasing color palette and easy character designs that while rather straight forward, are aesthetically pleasing. 4/5 points.

 
Characterization: Featuring the titular main characters, their big sister Candace, some close friends, Agent P and Dr. Doofenshmirtz, the show had a lovable main cast.

Phineas Flynn is the main protagonist; sporting a tuft of orange hair on top of his pointy head, he is a constantly upbeat boy with a genius intellect and creative mind to match. With his catchphrase (“Ferb, I think I know what we’re going to do today!”) he is the main driver behind all the major inventions seen in the show, which in turn he usually loves to share with his brother, friends, and even strangers depending on the setting.

Ferb Fletcher is Phineas’ stepbrother; he is English and speaks far less frequently, but is very close to the former and also has an intellect and creativity to match. Ferb often ist the one making timely quips, and is a equal partner in all the brothers’ summer endeavors.

Candace Flynn is the biological sister of Phineas and stepsister of Ferb. A typical teenage girl, her favorite activity over the summer is her numerous attempts to “bust the boys,” meaning to catch them in the act of doing something extreme, which as a running gag, always fails (with the exception of one time, but that has a caveat all its own.) She has a major crush on Jeremy Johnson, who in turn sees Candace as a good friend. She’s often seen as paranoid because of her failed busting attempts, but ultimately loves her brothers.

On the flip side, Agent P (aka Perry the Platypus) and Dr. Doofenshmirtz are arch-rivals in the tied in B-plot of every episode. Perry is an anthropomorphic platypus who is in deep cover as the Flynn-Fletcher family’s pet; in reality he’s a secret agent working for the agency O.W.C.A. with the assignment of thwarting Doofenshmirtz. He wears a fedora in action.

Dr. Doofenshmirtz is an incompetent evil scientist who actually makes very effective evil machines (known as “-inators” through the series), but always misapplies his creations, leading to his constant defeat. He’s actually a decent guy and not really that evil; over the series he and Perry actually become “frienemies” of sorts, as their daily routines rely on one another. He also has a daughter (Vanessa).

Finally, Phineas and Ferb have three friends that make consistent appearances: Isabella, a kind, bright girl who leads a Fireside Girls Troop and is their next-door neighbor and best friend; she and Phineas have actual feelings for each other (though it’s in a puppy-love kind of way at this point…), her catchphrase is “Whatcha doing?” (which is actually her first line in the series. Baljeet is an Indian-American boy who absolutely loves school to the point that he signed up for numerous summer classes; he also possesses a genius mind but is very high strung about his grades. Finally there’s Buford; while he’s a self-proclaimed bully, he’s invited along on Phineas and Ferb’s summer adventures to the point that he’s actually good friends with all of them, particularly Baljeet. He’s fa rmore sensitive that his initial appearance and actions suggest, and in a friend group that featured a variety of talented personalities, he’s often the straight man.

The other supporting crew was solid as well; the dual story lines of whatever the brothers were doing alongside Agent P’s and Doofenshmirtz’s exploits made for a very Loony Tunes-esque feel. 4.25/5 points.

 
Story quality: Episodic, but extremely inventive. The show’s writers did a great job of keeping the formula original through the show’s run, with original scenarios, smart references and allusions, and a savvy sense of humor. The consistency in structure worked to the show’s advantage- and it was a fun exercise to see how the writer riffed on what could have easily become very cliche and boring (i.e. Doofenshmirtz commenting on how he literally expects and waits for Perry every day.) 4/5 points.

 
Themes: More than anything, Phineas and Ferb focuses on the possibilities of imagination and invention, as well as family, friendship, and the total encapulation of one’s summer vacation. To that end, it’s well done, if not particularly super deep. But it’s sure a lot of fun. 3.75/5 points.

 
Don’t insult the viewer: Clever and inventive, Phineas and Ferb is a fun show with no objectionable material. Most impressive was the incredible amount of original scores produced for the show, episode by episode, and it created a slice-of life musical in a lot of ways- very unique! 5/5 points.

 

Total Score: 21/25 (84%): Emerging in a era when the major animation networks experienced a few years of downturn, Phineas and Ferb shone like a bright light. Carrying the torch for Disney Channel until 2015, it has been a critical and commercial success. As a show, it’s certainly a lot of fun and hits the mark; it’s definitely one to check out.


Like what you read? Wondering if your summer vacations can be as crazy as this one? Leave a comment!

What’s In a Character: Spike Speigel

This space cowboy’s the definition of “cool.”

Once again, another unique character comes to the fore of analysis today: Spike Speigel! After trips to the Fire Nation (Zuko) and the Mystery Shack (Stan Pines), it’s time to venture into our solar system, Cowboy Bebop-style, to meet (or re-acquaint with) one of the galaxy’s most feared bounty hunters (sorry Boba Fett) and an all-around terrific character. Spike curiously enough is the first main protagonist to be written about in the “What’s in a Character” series, and he’s worthy of the title indeed; he’s a far more interesting lead than most leading men in anime between his backstory, dynamism as a character, and general coolness; he’s the type of guy who would know that, but if you asked him, he might look indifferent. So here’s yours truly, ready to explore the man that is Spike!

Just who is Spike Spiegel? There’s a straightforward answer that he’s a runaway member of a powerful crime syndicate; a feared bounty hunter and ace pilot; a lost lover floating aimlessly among the stars, a lazy bum who only does things when they benefit him, and for a select few, he’s a friend. Whatever the descriptor, Spike is his own man, and he’s worth looking into. Of course, any discussion of Cowboy Bebop and its characters starts with the idea that our main crew is searching for meaning in their own individual lives and ways. Through the show, those aims are made clearer by way of clean plot progression, development of character arcs, and the sequence of events that happens. In Spike’s case, his character is driven by three groups, or rather, phases of time in particular- his past, represented by the Red Dragon Syndicate and archrival Vicious; his present- which starts off as simply Jet Black but grows to include the newest members of the Bebop (namely Faye and Ed, and to a lesser extent, Ein), and his future, where Spike’s hope is held in the dream that one day he might see Julia, his love, again. (Side note- does it seem like a lot of tragic lovers are named “Julia” or “Juliet”? I blame Shakespeare.) In the backdrop of these three groupings, death sits in the foreground like the Grim Reaper it is so often characterized as, not just because of the constant and steady danger Spike and the rest of the crew find themselves in (thanks largely to their profession of choice), but also as this sort of haunting inevitability that hovers through the show- and specifically in Spike-centric bits. In the very first episode, or session, Asteroid Blues, he chases down the red- eye dealer, Ansimov, only to watch his associate, Katerina shoot him dead- and be brutally killed in turn by ISSP forces. She simply wanted a better life, despite the illicit means she attempted to do so- the first of many also searching for meaning in said lives not unlike Spike, and so death is present from the start. We see the “boy with the harmonica”in the 6th episode (Sympathy for The Devil)– Wen, who because of a freak turn of events involving the Astral Gate incident did not age, but instead turned to a life fraught with violence and loneliness. This time, it is Spike who delivers the finishing blow with a special bullet- hence “sympathy for the devil.” And what of Mad Pierrot, the fearsome assassin who underwent horrific experimentation in exchange for his formidable powers? With a warped mind, and no particular skills outside of killing, it is terrifying agony watching a man whose life was stolen from him attempt to kill Spike in episode 20 (Pierrot Le Fou) only to be driven truly insane by the meowing of a cat, and in a further cruel twist of irony, crushed by the giant paw of a mechanical dog. All of these encounters represented people Spike specifically watched or took part in their demise; all had their lives stripped away to some form of hopelessness, as perhaps a precursor to his fated final showdown. These were also part of his present, as was mentioned above. But what then of Vicious?

 

While I grouped Vicious as a part of Spike’s past (which he is), he is uniquely part of his present and future at the same time; a liminal (or timeless) figure who would exist until Spike found resolution to the question of his life’s meaning one way or another. The other individuals I mentioned died doing whatever they found some sort of meaning in, or what they believed was the best path forward in that situation, and while one-off characters, they were necessary to understand Spike and his relationship regards to Vicious. Vicious knew what Spike wanted. He continued to rise in the syndicate, obtaining high-ranking status and then personally initiating a bloody, silent coup that saw him take control. He’s not a dynamic character, but rather, serves as a character foil to Spike; a sort of dark side to him that is more ruthless, lacks a moral code, and would do anything in order to reach the peak of power. He was the one who tricked Spike into thinking Julia had betrayed him; and to that end, enabled the cynical worldview of the former, aided by nearly killing him in their first early encounter (Ballad of Fallen Angels). It is made clear that in order to truly move forward, Spike must encounter and defeat Vicious, which he does…and brilliantly, his future is no longer clouded, but left to the viewers to decide what happens next. (I actually detail my interpretation and thoughts of the final battle in the Cowboy Bebop review I posted; check it out if you wish to read about it.)

What then of Julia- and why does she represent the future for Spike? She is the only person who could ever give meaning back to his life supposedly– but the show hints at us that it’s not entirely true, as Spike does in fact find some meaning in the Bebop crew themselves, from Jet, his best friend, to Faye Valentine who he often bickers with (and arguably cares deeply about in return), and even to Ed, who is a bit of an enigma to everyone. Regardless, when the truth becomes clear and Julia’s brief reunion with Spike is shattered by a bullet, his only course of action is to fight and settle the score with Vicious- again, because the man in fact is the cause of all the events in Spike’s path- but not the entire explanation for his mental state, which while partially and strongly influenced by the past, also was shaped by his present aboard the Bebop and created a potential way forward with his ultimate showdown against said antagonist.

 

Spike is interesting because of of how his path unfolds and his unique way of dealing with the problems in his way; and he’s a man of experiences whose melancholy comes from a live lived with danger and deceit around every corner, but also some strong relationships to temper that. I’m sure there’s even more to be said about this character (such as how Steve Blum’s VA career took off after his brilliant work in the English dub, or that Spike is handy with a pistol), but it took a bit of introspection to look at his entire journey and draw some conclusions from it: He’s a man who doesn’t mind danger but fears dying without fullfillment of what life means to him; being a “bounty hunter” in a sense describes that Spike is in fact “hunting” for answers, and he’s got more support than he realizes from people. And well…he’s plain cool. Anyone who rocks a suit, a smoke and a pistol like he does along with amazing piloting skills can’t be too bad a guy. Space cowboy really sums it up.


Like what you see? Is Spike your favorite character?  Anybody you’d love to see me talk about? Chime in!

Also, would you call it bell peppers and “beef?”

I guess it depends on who you ask.

The 2010’s in Animation: AniB’s thoughts so far

The decade’s not over, but there are some definite conclusions to be drawn so far.

So I was sitting and pondering recently about the sort of interesting animation pieces I could write, and I came very quickly to the conclusion that talking about this decade’s trends, triumphs, shortcomings, and everything in between would make for an entertaining discussion. Just this year alone there are interesting events set to happen for shows (which is my specialty), but we’re also coming off a 2016 where in the movie business, it was very strong for the medium- probably the best since 2010, where flicks like Toy Story 3, How to Train Your Dragon, Tangled, and the original Despicable Me (which was rather charming before it really exploded as a franchise) graced the silver screen. Back to the small screen, I’m very excited for the return and definitive conclusion of Samurai Jack in March, some 13 years after its initial “ending” (which was more Cartoon Network pulling the plug at the time); Star Wars Rebels has grown into a very good show that’s hitting its stride much like its predecessor Star Wars: The Clone Wars did, mixing plenty of serious moments with the typical humor of the franchise; and speaking of Disney X.D shows, I’ve unexpectedly really enjoyed Star vs. The Forces of Evil, which is all kinds of fun. Not to be outdone, Dragon Ball Super’s dub finally hit English shores at the beginning of the new year for those people looking to re-live their childhood, and I’ve been following the dub release of the incredible Hunter x Hunter, which is fully subbed and actually concluded its Japanese run in 2014, but is a must watch. (It’s actually a reboot of the franchise in anime (there was a 1999 series)  with more depth, overhauled animation, and virtually no filler -I’ll have a review, don’t worry!)

Aside from that brief rundown of current events, I must say this decade has been transformative in way that signals by and large that Western animation may have taken the lead back from their Eastern (read: Japanese) counterparts. While there have been a few stellar anime this decade, including the aforementioned Hunter x Hunter and Attack on Titan, for another example- by and large, the industry has been plagued with a sort of identity crisis ever since the 2008 recession- and compounded by the 2011 tsunami that hit Japan, in which long-held standards of quality and focus on character and narrative has given way to cheaply constructed shows, often with stunning animation and no such substance to speak of (think any number of “high school” trope shows that have been around forever in anime, but more boring and cliched than ever.) There’s also the rise in the hentai genre (which first off, I absolutely refuse to discuss on this site in the form of specific shows) which has further diluted and polluted the integrity of the shows at hand and the industry on the whole; and fan service seems to be put before story, characters and themes a lot nowadays. This isn’t to say I don’t enjoy anime still, but I’m not quite sure we’ll ever see something like the industry from the mid-80’s to the late 2000’s again.

As for the West, it too had its identity crisis coming out of 2008, and for about 2 years the show industry was bumbling around in the dark (remember Cartoon Network’s ill-fated foray into live action shows?), but it there were signs of life that would signal a new era of some great work. The transition show that defined this nebulous era between pre-2008 and 2010 onwards was Phineas and Ferb; shining like a bright beacon in a sea of mediocrity, its vibrant ideas, innovative plots for an episodic show, and consistency in music and plot structure, it survived (and thrived) well into the 2010’s, only signing off in late 2015 at the creator’s decision. (I’ll talk more about Phineas and Ferb in a proper review.) Its biggest contribution however, was the idea that creator-driven shows were a very good idea, and in 2010, Cartoon Network landed the two shows that would also engineer a steady Western renaissance: Adventure Time and Regular Show. With the last of the old generation gone on Cartoon Network (the final Cartoon Cartoon, Ed, Edd, n’ Eddy ended in 2009), these two shows, along with the aformentioned Phineas and Ferb, were the three Western shows that would lead into this decade.

Would I say it’s a new golden era of Western animation yet? Almost, but not quite. There have been some terrific top end shows that have emerged since the decade’s start, including Gravity Falls and The Legend of Korra (both of which I reviewed), and other ongoing endeavors such as Steven Universe (which plenty of people fawn over), and Rick and Morty (which is still niche, but does incredibly well within that subgroup), but the single aspect holding this generation back still is depth. Western animation still needs more consistency up and down the line; what made the 90’s and early 2000’s special was there was enough good to great shows that existed to call it a golden era in spite of the torrent of other terrible (often Flash-animated) cheap creations that co-existed there. The West is close and has been building back up to that point, but I’m not entirely convinced it’s there yet. I’ll check back in 2020 with a more definitive answer.

What you’ll find is that I’ll be paying attention to current events in animation, but it’s equally important to understand the history of the industry and the art form itself; in my case (as I stated before) it’s a heavy focus on shows, but movies prove themselves to be equally important as well. The 2010’s has had some amazing endeavors on that front; most interesting to me has to be the Lasseter Renaissance at Walt Disney Animation Studios, where the veritable granddaddy of animation has re-discovered its magic touch;  the emergence of small-studio and foreign animated films, which have gained more attention on awards stages in the past 5 years than I can ever remember, and that Pixar for the first time has faced something of a “crisis.” It might be more because of the ludicrously high standards Pixar set for themselves during their “Decade of Dominance” (2000-2010 was all them, really), but there’s been questions dogging them about the large number of sequels to original works, most dubiously the Cars franchise (which is a merchandising empire, but also their weakest franchise to build on.) Cars 2 was a misguided endeavor in 2011, made worse by a) the last Pixar film before it was Toy Story 3 and b) it couldn’t decide whether its plot was about Lighting McQueen and a world racing tourney, or a James Bond spoof featuring Larry the Cable Guy spouting one-liners, and as a result, it also signaled that this decade might be one of hits and misses for the leader of animated films in the world. And indeed it has; Brave (2012) is arguably in the lower half of the studios’ films, but curiously still won an Oscar; Monsters University (2013) and Finding Dory (2016), a prequel/sequel combo to two of the studio’s other beloved franchises found themselves locked out from the same award that Brave won; The Good Dinosaur endured development hell and was delayed from its initial launch date; and Inside Out was a veritable masterpiece- easily one of the top films from the studio. Most other studios would still take that record and run, but for Pixar, it represents a bit of a reality check, despite the fact that they still have the best overall track record of any Western studio in history.

I guess you can say the 2010’s has been a unique, fun decade like any other for the medium, and there have been soaring innovations and bombed failures like any other time in the medium’s history. As we round the final 3-year homestretch of the decade, it will be interesting to see how well my introspection here holds up; I suspect there will be much to talk about when that time comes. In the present though, there’s still plenty of good work to enjoy, one day at a time- and I suspect some hidden gems still waiting to be discovered… Regardless of time though, I’ll be continuing to produce reviews, character analysis, and thought pieces like this so that when 2020 comes, it’ll be that much sweeter.


Like what you see? Want to chime in about the decade in animation? Leave a comment!

Review: Codename: Kids Next Door

A quirky cartoon from the mid 2000’s is a fun meta-commentary on childhood.

The Lowdown:

Show: Codename: Kids Next Door

Network/Years aired: Cartoon Network, 2002-2008

AniB’s thoughts: You might have seen this review coming from a mile away if you read the Valentine’s Day special, but it’s exciting nonetheless to formally discuss a show that was certainly a great favorite of mine growing up. The 3rd last Cartoon Cartoon to be green-lit from a pilot- and also end its run on Cartoon Network, KND enjoyed a successful era on the network, exiting at a time (January 2008) where a great transition period was about to occur (not that anybody knew that yet.) The show, in two words to anyone unfamiliar, is creatively fun. At its most basic level, Codename: Kids Next Door sounds like what you’d expect: A spy organization featuring kid agents- and it is, but that’s just the beginning. There are giant tree houses, custom weaponry made from common household items and duct tape (which is referred to as 2×4 technology), which in turn, also have creative acronyms for code names (i.e. S.P.L.A.N.K.E.R.= Solid Pine Loaded Artillery Nicely Kicks Enemy Rear), and retrofitted vehicles that are engineered to fly. In most universes these kids would be credited as sheer geniuses, but the KND-verse is honestly a surreal version of our own- and so everything, from parody and references, to childhood fears embodied by the rogues’ gallery of wacky villains, is cranked up to 10- and by and large, it works! The sheer inventiveness and creativity was not only a credit to Tom Warburton, who headed up the show, but also necessary to really bring alive the very titular organization- the Kids Next Door- in all its zany, out of this world absurdness and the hilariously unorthodox problems and enemies facing them.

 

KND, in simplest terms, is a meta-commentary on childhood done right. It starts with a core 5- Sector V- that all embody different personalities, insecurities and aspects of growing up. From the work-obsessed, sharply focused Numbuh 1 (aka Nigel Uno) to his second in command, the cool, collected Numbuh 5 (Abby Lincoln) and right down the line, they are a varied group with unique quirks- but unequivocally embrace their childhoods in a way most adults might wish they had cherished theirs. For all the outrageous missions and crazy weaponry, the greatest enemy in KND is time itself- which has an undefeated record against an agency that normally decommissions its operatives at the tender age of 13- the gateway to adolescence. While the show is a highly episodic endeavor, there is a very loosely overarching narrative that binds this key element to the story, and it gives us in the end one of the more underrated poignant moments in animated history when (spoilers!) the team has their final goodbyes in the finale, Operation I.N.T.E.R.V.I.E.W.S. As a result, the show actually sends an interesting message about the fact that while childhood ends, nobody actually has to let go of being a child entirely. (Think about this idea for a second- all cartoons are made by adults, regardless of target audience, right?) Regardless, the entire notion plays at the imagination, supplemented by a group of characters that’s very likable.

There’s another key point that really stands out in Codename: Kids Next Door: it is one of the finest examples of diversity in a show. For a topic many liberal-leaning critics harp constantly about, it succeeds in KND for a few reasons; chief among these being that it was not a major goal or overtly intended theme of the show. It happened naturally. The Kids Next Door organization proper is a multi-ethnic, globe straddling enterprise that incorporates children from around the world; Sector V themselves are different in terms of ethnicity, and the best part about it is that none of them once seem to care about  their origins; they are simply friends and that is the end of it. But beyond that kind of diversity also lies an intellectual diversity that’s even more important- going back to different character types, goals, and ideas, the kids constantly show individual ways of thinking and solving problems, but an equal willingness to pull together and execute a plan if a goal required it. On screen, this is all accomplished in variously unusual ways, but if you accept that the show is a little convoluted in order to be fun, you’ll have a great time.

Finally, the villains of this show are all deliciously cheesy and fun. They’re legitimate threats in-universe, but include such cohorts as Gramma Stuffum (an obese old lady who creates sentient food that in turn tastes awful and makes its victims quite fat), Knightbrace (a candy shop owner-turned dental avenger at night, with aggressive teeth cleaning techniques), and Mr. Boss (a big, hunchbacked corporate type man who constantly has a cigar in his mouth and delegates other underlings and villains to do his bidding). However, the big bad of this show- Father- and his Delightful Children are a different story altogether; mostly, they are a contrast in styles to our heroes: anger replacing joy for the latter, and the child-like sense of curiosity and adventure sapped for a sort of obedient sadism in the latter (and they are quite tragic characters.) It’s very interesting what you observe when you pop the lid up on a childhood favorite- because there’s a lot more there than initially meets the eye.


 

Animation Quality: Traditional 2-D animation, with a distinct style focus on certain exaggerated features, i.e. large feet. Considering the show started in 2002, the level of detail on different sets is impressive, especially the tree houses and the various homemade inventions. As a result, it’s a show that really emphasizes some imaginative ideas, and executes them fairly well. Character models tend to stay simple, which usually works, but sometimes are a little grotesque in certain situations.  4/5 points.

 
Characterization: The show mainly has a core 5; that being the so- code numbered operatives Numbahs 1-5. All of them feature distinct personalities, and some surprisingly complex character development. They tend to stray outside their stereotype,to often hilarious results.

Nigel Uno (Numbah 1) is the leader of Sector V; he’s an agent’s agent, working tirelessly on behalf of the KND, a habit that has both seen him grow into one of the organization’s most elite agents, but also much to the annoyance of his squad members, who often wish he’d take a little more downtime. Overall though, he’s both liked and respected by his friends, isn’t immune to having a lot of fun and is noted for his bald head and trademark sunglasses.

Hoagie P. Gilligan, Jr., or “Numbah 2” is the team’s resident mechanic and vehicle specialist. A little on the rounder side, he sports a pair of old-time aviator googles at all times, loves chili dogs, and has an awful sense of humor- a fact that Numbah 5 in particular is not fond of. He also loves to monlogue situations as if he were a private detective, which occasionally is featured in Numbuh 2-centric episodes.

 

Kuki Sanban is “Numbah 3.” Usually sporting a bright smile and an aloof personality that can be only described as “airheaded,” Kuki loves all “girly crud,” as Numbah 4 would put it; in particular she has a massive collection of Rainbow Monkeys, the KND universe’s prized plush toy line. However, she’s much more cognizant than she lets on at times, and when angered, takes on an essentially demonic personality that is a complete 180 from her usual demeanor (and is terrifying!)

 

Wally Beetles, or “Numbah 4” is the resident tough guy. A short kid sporting a bowl cut and a distinctive orange hoodie, he’s sensitive about said height, and often tasked with the most dangerous missions for the team- because he’s also not “school-smart.” However, he does have some high “street smarts” and is the bad boy of the team, but he has a tendency to get himself into hilariously awful situations. (Every once in a while, he triumphs.) He also hates being associated with anything “girly-” especially Rainbow Monkeys and being caught crying.

 

Finally Abby Lincoln (Numbah 5) rounds out the main cast. Cool in both demeanor and style, the second in command of Sector V holds the most common sense on the team as its oldest member, and is arguably its most competent member aside from Numbah 1. She holds a deep loyalty to her friends and family, but her personal hobby is hunting for candy treasure- an endeavor that makes for some unlikely allies and enemies along the way.

 

The show features a large and varied rogues gallery, a good number of which parody well-known entities (i.e. Robin Food) and common childhood myths and fears. Some villains receive backstory, in particular Father, the KND’s archenemy. The Kids Next Door themselves have a memorable array of other agents outside the show’s main characters, all as quirky and colorful as the main cast.  The show’s characters follow a large, overarching canon. 4.5/5 points.

 
Story quality: The story itself follows a large canon usually rooted back to the mysterious roots of the KND organization at a global and galactic level, and the thematic elements I discussed in my thoughts,  but the majority of episodes are episodic. It is interesting to see how events do tie in, as sometimes seemingly minor events pop back up in later stories. The whole premise is fairly convoluted, but that’s part of the wackiness and fun of the show. 4.25/5 points.

 
Themes: There’s definitely a clever play on childhood nostalgia and imagination in this show, and it’s evident through everything, from the 2×4 weapons to the unimaginably crazy, massive tree houses. Other than that, standard stuff, friendship, commitment, and a whole lot of secrets exist in the shadows… This show actually has some interesting undertones, especially the inevitability of growing up, which is something anybody can relate to.  4/5 points.

 
Don’t insult the viewer: KND has its weird moments (and when they happen, you’ll know), but is really a very cool show at heart with good to great humor and a cast that doesn’t take itself too seriously. It also has some very good instrumental tracks that emphasize the action on-screen; and the theme song is clean and embodies the show; it’s a little bit of James Bond in there.  4.25/5 points.

 

 

Total Score: 21/25 (84%). Codename: Kids Next Door was an excellent show with minor flaws; however the sheer inventiveness of the idea and its well done execution led to a highly popular series that ran for 6 seasons and two TV movies. It was consistently one of Cartoon Network’s better shows from its inception to its conclusion. Kids Next Door- battle stations!


Like this review? Wished you could be a KND agent back in the day? Leave a comment!

A daily schedule!

A quick update- which regards the release of articles here at AniB Productions:

I can potentially release a new piece every single day. However, I will always be sure to have a review once a week, and usually a character piece as well. There are also plans to continue unannounced pieces outside those formats on a daily basis- such as the Valentine’s Day themed reflection.  As always, feedback is the best way for me to know what might interest anybody as readers, and serves as a great way to form ideas and further interesting discussions. I’m looking forward to building off what’s been a tremendous start here on the blog,

Sincerely,

Christian, aka “AniB”

A Valentine’s Day Special: The Day the Ships Sank

AniB’s take on the hysterical fandom obsessions of romance. (And yes, it’s like the Titanic.)

Happy Valentine’s Day everyone! Regardless of whether or not you have a meaningful stake in this holiday, I thought it only appropriate to release something related both to the occasion and animation at large. (You’ll figure it out very quickly.) Enjoy…

One of the most time-obsessive and overtly meaningless pursuits of animation fandoms is the discussion of potential romantic relationships, which is usually shortened to “shipping” and their fans as “shippers.” (In that case, I’m the party crasher.) While a good number of these discussions are fairly harmless banter, some delve into deeply disturbing territory, and other stretch the realm of incredulity. However, almost all share the common theme of being vastly overblown in relation to the actual characters, story and themes of the show in question, and rarely, if ever, do the shippers’ dreams come true, partially because most creators are wise enough to avoid needless pandering, and partially because more often than not, the ships don’t come close to fitting the story in any way.

 
I find shipping on its best days to be oddly humorous, and on its worst a foul stench and commentary on the mental state of people watching a given show. However, I’ve never been able to truly understand the gobs of time and creativity that goes into fueling ultimately useless and futile fantasies 98% of the time… Here’s my take. Romance has a place in telling a story and thematically. However, love comes in many different forms aside from romance, and a good number of stories simply don’t have a focus on or really express a need for romantic love as a heavy thematic element. One of my favorite examples is in Gravity Falls. The main protagonist, Dipper Pines, and his twin sister, Mabel, are both 12 through the course of the series. Series creator Alex Hirsch, understanding the trope well, poked fun at the idea of shipping through the show, such as with Mabel’s brief and disastrous friendship with Gideon, or the dangers of being a pickup artist in Roadside Attraction; noted placidly that “12 year olds shouldn’t be in those kinds of conversations anyways,” and that while romantic love did crop up in the show, it was usually for briefly poignant or comedic effect, such as Stan’s brief crush on Lazy Susan. But above all else, the show emphasized other types of love in its storytelling: of friendships, of family, and most notably, one of the greatest sibling bonds in not only animation but TV history. Dipper and Mabel, in short, are awesome in no small part because of their truly loving bond and how real that bond is through the show… which is also why it’s disgusting when shippers fail to appreciate the writing here and suggest incest. Ugh…

 
While Hirsch understood the fact that shipping exists and refused to pander to its existence, instead satirizing it, there are some shows that do mildly indulge it if the story sets up well, and also for potentially humorous effect. Incidentally these instances also do not bother me as they keep a greater eye on the overarching elements and narratives of a given show without sacrificing anything, and potentially even enhancing a narrative. One of the best uses of addressing a ship in this manner was the humorously lamp-shaded romantic feelings between Numbuhs 3 (Kuki Sanban) and 4 (Wally Beetles) in Codename: Kids Next Door. While Kuki tends to act oblivious in the show, it’s shown subtly from time to time that she’s far less aloof than she normally portrays, and Wally is rather heavy handed in his attempts to tell her his feelings. The near misses finally add up to a darkly humorous “first kiss” in the Operation: Z.E.R.O. movie, and an explicit confirmation of the couple in the series finale, I.N.T.E.R.V.I.E.W.S. Here, the couple works well; from a narrative standpoint it’s set up in a believable and silly fashion; it acknowledges fan expectations that were feasible, and it’s a result that made sense without detracting from the major narrative of KND itself- its story about the team, the organization, and its meta-commentary on childhood, one where puppy love could in fact work.

 
For as well as the examples noted work however, there are always cases where shipping can be dangerously influential, and not to the benefit of the work at hand. For this, I reference an otherwise solid show, The Legend of Korra. While the show was visually stunning and the story usually compelling, Korra had narrative weaknesses, and chief among these was the stunted growth of a love triangle that originated in Season 1 of the show. Initially Korra was to be a one-off short series, and the triangle would have worked reasonably well in that arrangement- Korra stays with Mako, winning out over Asami Sato in what proved to be a decent B-plot aside from the Equalists, but unsurprisingly, the return to the Avatar world proved widely successfully and three more seasons were green-lit. The unfortunate side effect of this decision, while still the correct choice, was the painfully obvious lack of ideas for Asami’s character beyond her finite role as the chief investor and bank of the new Team Avatar, and that Korra, who had already received a sort of endgame love interest after the first season, would have to now find a way to extend a plot that really was supposed to be finished. By the time of the final season, the writers needed an end to Asami’s story beyond an obvious Hiroshi Sato redemption arc, and at roughly the same time, the ”Korrasami” ship had become rampant within swaths of the Korra fandom. What happened next was a throughly sloppy bit of writing (which I discussed in my review for the show), designed to simultaneously placate loud fans, solve the Asami problem, and was easy to shove under the pretext of being “progressive.” It also left Mako hanging out in the cold in a very unsatisfying end to an interesting character, and in many ways, cheapened what should have otherwise been a very memorable finale for The Legend of Korra.

 
I’m likely not going to change the minds of many who are already into complex relationship building, but in my brief experience with the world of animation and its many fans, shipping is unavoidable even if one ignores it on the whole. However, the true reason is that not once have I seen a treatise or article addressing the topic outside of petty flame wars on the internet or shippers themselves ogling over a new potential relationship, or conversely, beyond non-shippers shouting “I don’t like it!” and not backing it up. As you can see, I’m not really a fan of the ships, but I can’t stop people either. If anything, I hope it was an interesting look into the thoughts of the various effects of shipping, which has been dealt with in various manners.


Like what you see? Unaware of the actual history of the Titanic? Have something to say? Leave a comment!