Sunday, January 1, 2012

Cartoon Network 2011 in Review

I found myself really enjoying Cartoon Network programming this past year. It reminds me of the golden days of Saturday morning cartoons, when kids and other ~AHEM~ older fans had tons of great shows to choose from. I could do without some of the live action stuff that they produce to stay competitive with Nickelodeon and Disney. They are CARTOON Network, no?

Generator Rex is a great original CN property created by a collective of creators from the comics industry known as Man of Action. It's not perfect, but it's an excellent first production from MOA and shows that they can create some pretty great stuff. Rex suffers from what John Kricfalusi refers to as "tude", the horrible character attribute that affects so many characters designed for a young audience. The main villain, Van Kleiss is a mashup of villainous stereotypes: a quasi anime-meets-Final Fantasy character design, affected accent, and an extensive knowledge of amnesiac Rex's past. But the supporting characters are great and the premise is pretty cool too ( a global event infects the world's population with nanoparticles that cause some of them to mutate into monsters. Rex can control his nanites to form his body into biomechanical weapons and is also able to cure infected people). At the heart of it all, it's a show about a kid who sprouts robot arms to smash monsters, which I'm totally behind. The show also gets major points for not downplaying the fact that Rex is Latino, but not making him a stereotype, either. I usually wind up watching a few episodes in a row on the DVR. They've managed to build a nicely fleshed out supporting cast around a good premise and keep things interesting.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars has been right down the middle with the great stuff reminding me of why I've loved Star Wars for 30 plus years and the bad stuff reminding me of why I've hated it for the last 13 or so. They have transformed the lightsaber battle into to a beautiful art, made Count Dooku, General Greivous, and Aurra Sing into much more fleshed out characters than in their big screen appearances (Dooku is seriously awesome). We got an awesome kid Boba Fett, Hondo Ohnaka, Cad Bane, Wookies and Trandoshans and always kick ass spaceship designs. The bad stuff…those annoying footsoldier droids used by the Separatists. Why wouldn't you just use those awesome assassin droids as your soldiers? Where has all the tech we see in the Old Republic gone in the Age of the Rebellion? Why are the usually charming duo of C-3PO and R2-D2 so annoying when they are the focus of episodes? And seriously, nobody in the Jedi Council can sense that there's a fucking Sith Lord basically working in their office complex? They can sense the population of Alderaan crying out all at once, but can't sense the man who will bring down the Old Republic in the office down the hall. Someday I'll post about how I would have done things. For now I stand by my half awesome/half abysmal assessment. But like so many things I loved from my youth, I have come to accept that these are properties owned by major corporations designed to turn a profit. They're not out to please an aging fanbase, but when they do, it's pretty cool.

More licensed properties, but I loved Both Batman: The Brave and the Bold (since cancelled) and Young Justice. BTTB managed to keep Batman grim while embracing his lighter side as seen throughout his history, and it did so wonderfully. Featuring the greatest cameos by lesser known DC characters and maybe the most memorable incarnation of an animated Aquaman, it was great fun and will be missed. When I was a teenager and just discovering this "anime" thing that was starting to get noticed over here, I used to dream about American comics characters in cartoons that were as visually exciting as the ones from Japan. Young Justice is that show for me. Riding high of the momentum of DC's consistently excellent direct to video animated releases, YJ looks amazing. Features what may be my favorite animated version of Dick Grayson as Robin, and definitely the coolest Aqualad ever. I wish they had a better production schedule and kept episodes coming without such gaps, but the quality has never dropped, so I'm willing to wait.

The biggest surprises for me have been Adventure Time and Regular Show. I approached both with a bit of hesitation when they debuted in 2010, mostly because I feared I wouldn't get them for the worst of reasons, namely that I was too old for them (see Aqua Teen which people adore and I never really got) They both grew on me very quickly and hit their stride this past year. Adventure Time's weird Tokidoki character designs in a sort of Dungeons and Dragons world really works. At the heart of it all, it's the story of a boy and his dog, except the dog can talk and shape his elastic body into almost anything, and they live in the strange Land of Oo. "Anything can happen" usually sounds like an annoying, cheap explanation of your show's premise, but it's kind of AT's thing. I never really know what to expect. Strangely charming musical numbers, an unexpected origin story for the series main villain that made him a way more sympathetic character, an Inception inspired dream episode, AT did them all this past season. John DiMaggio brings his A game as the voice of Jake, and the simple character designs keep the animation very consistent. I never know what I'm going to get, and I'm rarely disappointed.

Regular Show is a bit more formulaic, but I don't mean that as an insult. Two slackers working at a local park get themselves into trouble either by ducking responsibilities or busting on one another, which gets resolved with a videogame inspired boss battle as a resolution. Regular Show has some of my favorite character designs: leads Mordecai and Rigby are a bluejay and a raccoon, there's Pops, a Victorian gentleman with a giant head, Skips, a muscular mystic Yeti who skips everywhere he goes, Muscleman, a sort of greasy ghoul and his buddy High Five Ghost, and my personal favorite, Benson the angry gumball machine in charge of the park. Regular Show is always funny and enjoyable. Mordecai's unrequited love for Margaret the Cardinal is sweet and funny, and there's a great chemistry between the various cast members. Has my favorite portrayal of unicorns anywhere ever, the zombie movie episode was fantastic, and Muscleman's broken heart was one of the funniest things I've seen in a long time. Like I said, it has a formula, but it's a great formula.

Lastly, in the "cancelled too soon" category is Sym-Bionic Titan, Genndy Tatarovsky (of Samurai Jack fame)'s take on the giant robot genre. My biggest beef with this is the same one I have with all of Genndy's work, namely that I don't always like his character designs. I'm a stickler for having characters all look like they exist in the same universe, and can find his character designs wildly inconsistent. Some are great, others I think are total shit. But where he absolutely always kills it as an animation director is in creating moods, and ambience and sets/backgrounds and dialogue. The strengths in this area made up for the weaknesses I found with some of the character designs. For example I hated the character design for Newton, the human alter ego of Octus, the protector/AI. But Octus/Newton/Dad were all voiced and portrayed brilliantly by Brian Posehn, a guy who really should be getting more animation voiceover work, he's great. The mechanical and character designs definitely reflect inspirations of a Westerners exposure to anime, sentai, tokusatsu and even a bit of daikaiju. I wasn't hot on a lot of the mechanical design, but both Octus and Titan were really successful. Both used a sort of hard light body design which looked great rendered as computer animation composited in 2D. The fight scenes were epic in scale….you really got a huge sense of collateral damage. If anything, I think this series suffered because of what came before it, not for what it was. Samurai Jack was a completely original concept. The super robot genre is well established, and people come to it with expectations. It was an ambitious project that didn't resonate enough with the right demographic, which is a shame. Despite my dislikes, I watched every episode and thought it was wonderfully successful on a lot of levels. It definitely died too soon.

I'm sure there are shows I missed. In general I feel like the US animation market has become more willing to branch out and try stranger, more independent/creator owned projects. Looking forward to what pops up in 2012.

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