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Monsters vs. Aliens

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

This year, DreamWorks Animation celebrates its 20th anniversary.  To mark the occasion, Callum Petch is going through their entire animated canon, one film a week for the next 30 weeks, and giving them a full-on retrospective treatment.  Prior entries can be found here, should you desire.


monsters vs aliens18] Monsters vs. Aliens (7th November 2008)

Budget: $175 million

Gross: $381,509,870

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 72%

In 2012, Pixar made major waves by releasing Brave, their first animated feature in the 26 years that they had existed (17 since they started releasing feature films) to feature a lead female protagonist.  Conversation about the film primarily revolved around this aspect and the company was roundly praised and criticised for the execution of said creative choice.  In late 2013, Disney released Frozen and one couldn’t move in 2014 without being drowned in think-pieces about whether the film was feminist or not.  2014 has also been the year in which the lack of female characters in films, long since held onto by movie executives who believe that female leads can’t carry non-romance movies – despite these past several years offering a laundry list to the contrary, and women now making up the majority of cinemagoers – has been roundly called out and questioned at large.

You can extend those questions of representation to the animated realm, too.  For example, Pop Quiz: name me five non-sequel Western animated films released in cinemas in the past 10 years that feature a lead female protagonist… who is not, or does not become, a princess.  Not a secondary lead character – so throw away Wreck-It Ralph – not a love interest, the lead character.  Off the top of my head, I can name Persepolis (which is cheating, seeing as it is based on a true story), Coraline, The Croods, this week’s film Monsters vs. Aliens…  No, that’s about all I can name.

The official list, which I have discovered through Wikipedia so apologies if some of these are wrong, consists of those films, Hoodwinked! (barely qualifies, it’s an ensemble piece by nature), Battle For Terra, Happily N’Ever After (again, barely), The Snow Queen, Anina, Epic and Legends Of Oz: Dorothy’s Return.  That’s 11.  11 in 10 years.  You can also throw the Tinkerbell series in that pile too – alongside the instalments of series like Barbie, Winx Club etc. that actually get a cinema release and fit the criteria – but it doesn’t change the fact that animation has a major female representation problem.  Pixar’s Brave provoked some heated conversation for not adding to that pile – something they will attempt to rectify possibly with next year’s Inside Out – and, although I enjoyed Brave, it’s an understandable thing to rake them over the coals for.

Especially since DreamWorks Animation will have already fulfilled this criteria six years before Inside Out attempts to.

Despite appearances, Monsters vs. Aliens is very resolutely Susan’s story.  There are stretches of the film where we hand proceedings over to the monsters or The President Of The United States, but those are basically just borrowing the film from Susan for a short while.  At its core, at its centre, Monsters vs. Aliens is a film about a woman who learns to take control of her life and stop taking men’s sh*t.  Susan is absolutely the main character, Susan is the character whose arc is the most fleshed out, Susan is the character who gets the lion’s share of the film’s awesome moments (as well as the best of them), and Susan is the emotional centre of the film.

Susan is Monsters vs. Aliens and her tale of female empowerment is why I spent so, so, so much of this film eating out of the palm of its hand.  Many stories of female empowerment that I have come across recently – best epitomised by the latest Tomb Raider, which is a videogame but is too relevant to this topic to not address – mistake actual lead female growth for “Let’s constantly put her down and beat her up until she finally turns around and fights back.”  They don’t let them grow emotionally, they don’t really let them choose to become powerful.  They’re forced into violence, forced into fighting back and they don’t really grow as a person besides a proclivity for violence.  There are ways to do this right, don’t get me wrong, but too many times I’ve seen media essentially put their lead female character through a Trauma Conga Line and have them come out of the other side broken but not stronger.

For an example of how to do this right, Monsters vs. Aliens spends much of its first half having bad things happen to Susan.  Her fiancée relocates their honeymoon to Fresno instead of Paris in order to try and further his career, she gets hit by a meteor and grows nearly 50 feet tall, she is captured by the military and forcibly locked away in prison, denied the chance to see any of the people she loves ever again, and is renamed “Ginormica” by the government.  She takes all of this how pretty much anybody would and retreats into despair, albeit trying to make the best of her situation by making friends with her fellow monsters.  When told that she would gain her freedom if she helps take down a giant alien robot, she runs away, not wanting to be put into that situation.

But, and this is the crucial bit, she then stops mid-escape on the Golden Gate bridge to help those people who she has inadvertently put in danger.  She risks her own life to help others, even though she has no reason to believe that she would make it out of the encounter alive.  Her growth is not motivated by her own survival instinct, it’s motivated by her naturally-being-a-good-person-ness being enhanced by her powers.  Susan is not a tormented dog turning around and biting back after being provoked enough because she has no other choice, she is somebody who actively chooses.  She chooses her destiny, she chooses her strength, she chooses to embrace her new role.

After the robot battle, Susan is on Cloud Nine.  She’s discovered a strength and a near-independence she didn’t know came with her personality, and she is proud of that fact!  And that pride ends up becoming a defining feature of her character.  Derek dumps her because Derek is a selfish dick, but he doesn’t take her pride with him.  If anything, he re-enforces her independence.  Naturally, she’s heartbroken for a short while, but the experience reminds her of how much more she’s accomplished by herself without holding the hand of Derek and that re-asserts her confidence.  When she’s captured by Gallaxhar, she doesn’t even pretend to play the scared damsel, she’s immediately breaking out and trying to kick ass.  When she’s de-powered, her first instinct is still to try and beat the crap out of Gallaxhar.  When she’s home free but her friends are trapped, she goes back and sacrifices her prior life to save them.

And she makes all of these choices herself.  Her agency becomes the drive for the film.  Whenever somebody else tries to snatch her agency away from her, she takes it, or tries to take it, right back.  Derek dumps her and breaks her heart; she seizes the wake-up call and announces that she will go on without him, no problem.  Gallaxhar kidnaps her; she immediately breaks free and rampages across the ship in an attempt to beat him down in response.  Gallaxhar takes her powers; her first instinct is still to try and take him down.  About to be swarmed by clones?  Susan immediately grabs a blaster and starts fending for herself.  Her friends are set to die?  Not whilst there’s still breath in Susan’s body!

She’s strong of mind, strong of personality.  Her ability to kick copious amounts of ass is just another side to her – it’s not the only side to her and it’s not the only way she asserts her independence as a woman.  She is – and I know that people absolutely detest this phrase but I can’t think of a better time to deploy it than now – a Strong Female Character.  Way stronger than anything that DreamWorks had concocted up to this point – way more so than the supposedly progressive Shrek series and waaaaaaaaay more so than the supposedly-openly-feminist Shrek The Third.  In fact, she reminds me at points – not always, their characterisations are rather different after all – of Korra from The Legend Of Korra, especially during her rampage through Gallaxhar’s spaceship which gave me flashbacks to the Korra Book 3 finale – where her kicking ass is not the empowering moment, because she doesn’t, but the fact that she is standing up and actively metaphorically yelling ‘no more!’ at her male oppressor.

This all being said, one could read the scene in which Susan fully rejects her original name and embraces Ginormica instead as yet another example of strong women being equated to masculinity – having to sacrifice their femininity to be happy or strong.  However, I think it’s hard to read it fully like that.  For one, Susan is rejecting the negative aspects of her old self – her passivity, her dependence on her man, the side of her that smiles and accepts bad things happening to her instead of fighting back – not her entire self.  She’s embracing the side she didn’t realise she had until she become Ginormica, so she’s associating that new identity, which combines the best aspects of her old self – compassion, strong loyal bonds – with her newly discovered independence and personal strength; with her new outlook on life.

For two, Ginormica still has a distinctly feminine edge to it, primarily coming from the “a” affixed to the end of the name.  It may have been assigned to her by somebody else – formally by General W. R. Monger, more than likely decided by a room full of men – but she has claimed the name back for herself.  What started as an unwanted designation turns into a name that she is proud to sport, one that denotes her strength and her femininity.  And for three, Susan doesn’t do anything, in this scene or in the remainder of the film’s runtime, that she hasn’t already proven herself capable of doing.  She’s not suddenly becoming more masculine, she’s just owning up to the identity that she has now created.

Plus, this scene is just absolutely f*cking amazing and I will hear absolutely no ill will spoken against it.

Yet, I saw pretty much zilch comments about this aspect of the film during my research for this entry.  Variety’s review – and I sh*t you not, here, go and follow the link to see for yourself – spends its paragraph on her talking about her in purely visual terms, as a thing to be attracted to and whose looks are the sole thing worth talking about.  Empire managed to get a brief segment in about it, Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek notes that the film’s very-unsubtle delivery of that message undermines and grates, but that’s about it.  Professional reviewers instead judged it by the usual things they judge animated films by – pretty colours, pop culture jokes, level of heart, nowhere near as good as Pixar – and I count 2 think-pieces at the time on its feminism.

The point I’m trying to make is that there was no conversation.  Brave sparked a conversation.  Monsters vs. Aliens did not.  Pixar sparked a conversation.  Disney are deemed worthy of a conversation.  DreamWorks were deemed unworthy of that conversation.  Now, why do you think that is?  After all, as I’ve pointed out time and again throughout this series, DreamWorks are a company with a complicated and storied history with characters of the female gender – next week I’m going to have to talk about Astrid, for example, and I am bracing myself accordingly – shouldn’t we be scrutinising their works the same way we scrutinise Disney or Pixar?

Now, of course, one can explain these away by either noting that a lot has changed in the last five years – hence why I noted the uptick in demands for representation this past year – and that Disney has a longer history than DreamWorks so there’s more to cull from.  That first one is sort of understandable, I guess, but the second is what I call shenanigans on.  After all, Pixar have only been releasing animated features for 3 years longer than DreamWorks have, and they’ve released less films overall than DreamWorks have.  So why do Pixar get preferential treatment?

It probably comes down to that rep that DreamWorks have accumulated.  I am not going to go over this in full again, as I have covered it multiple times in this series – hell, that rep is what basically helped kick-start this series in the first place – and it helps none of us if I spend forever repeating myself, but DreamWorks are seen as a commercial outhouse.  A factory, if you will, one that pumps out an endless stream of films – at least half of which are sequels – with no semblance of quality control in the hopes that something strikes financial, and maybe also critical if that’s possible, gold.  And whilst 2014 has shown that to be completely untrue – three home runs creatively, even if the How To Train Your Dragon series does nothing for me – that’s the rep they’ve acquired and it’s not one that they’re shaking any time soon.

Pixar releases, though, and official Disney releases are seen as events.  Because they limit themselves to one film a year, even taking a year off in some cases, each release and each entry into their canon is seen as something special, something to take notice of.  It’s why when they release a Cars 2 or a Home On The Range/Chicken Little, everybody is harder on them – those are seen as sullying marks on a track record that has shown it can do better.  Yet if DreamWorks releases a sub-par Shrek, everybody shrugs their shoulders and collectively goes, “Well what did you expect?” before proceeding on with their lives.  It’s why negative Cars 2 reviews compare it to Pixar’s prior classics, whilst negative Penguins Of Madagascar reviews also compare it to Pixar’s prior classics despite DreamWorks having a rapidly-growing list of quality films of their own to compare themselves to.

Look, I get it, Pixar are The Gold Standard for animation – hopefully still are, I pray to various deities that 2015 is the year in which everybody pulls their fingers out of their arses and gets back to a level somewhere close to where they were operating on up to and including Toy Story 3 – but they should not be the be all end all of conversation in the medium.  DreamWorks Animation are one of the biggest and most successful animation companies in the Western world for a reason, and their creative decisions should be getting as much scrutiny as their competitors.  You know how many think-pieces I’ve seen on How To Train Your Dragon 2’s gender roles in the past six months?  Three.  That Tasha Robinson piece from earlier that used the film as a jumping-off point to look at the industry at large, a short blog entry by Margot Magowan, and a list piece by Gina Luttrell.

Next year, both Pixar and DreamWorks are releasing films with female protagonists.  Pixar are releasing Inside Out, a film about the various emotions inside a 10 year-old girl’s mind, DreamWorks are releasing Home, a film about a black teenage girl who teams up with a not-particularly smart alien to thwart a double invasion of Earth.  I guarantee you that Inside Out will be talked about and scrutinised more for its depiction of the female gender than Home ever will be.  I mean, I’m also pretty sure that Inside Out will be a better film than Home as well, but that’s not the point.

The point is that we can’t and shouldn’t pick and choose which animated films and which animation studios are worth hard analysis.  This is a medium that deserves to be taken seriously – as I have repeatedly made clear in articles on this site – and that’s not going to happen until we look at everything with the same staunchly critical and analytical eye that we do for Pixar and Disney.  Do you think I wrote 3,108 words on Sinbad: Legend Of The Seven Seas because I had nothing better to do with my time?  I mean, I don’t, but the point is that Sinbad had that much going on in it that I didn’t need to work especially hard to hit my self-assigned word count.  Ditto films like The Nut Job, or Escape From Planet Earth, or the Tinker Bell series.  They’re not high art, but they are still worthy and capable of supporting in-depth discussion.

And so does Monsters vs. Aliens, which I believe is a very feminist film.  It’s not a perfect feminist film – Susan is still the only girl, girl-ish screams are the focal point for a very long gag, “You got beat by a girl” is deployed as an insult form but at least in a dramatic way that affects character work this time – but I believe that it is still a loud, proud and powerfully feminist film about female self-empowerment.   I may be wrong.  Hell, I want to be wrong; I want a hundred feminist critics – preferably women, who have far more of a say in this discussion than I do – to come charging down the hill and take up both sides of the argument, either agreeing with my assessment or disagreeing and showing me ten to fifteen reasons why.

I want to see lengthy conversations about the film’s messy structure, about its uninteresting villain, about why the humour does or does not work, about whether the art style works or just ends up freaking the writer out for the length of the film, about how badly the unspoken “All Animated Movies Must Be 90 Minutes Under Pain Of Death” rule hobbles the film from excellency.  All things I would have talked about at length had I the time – although, for the record: awkwardly paced first half but the film soars from San Francisco onwards, script doesn’t give him anything to do, too low-brow for the most part and the film’s very dramatic undercurrent means that the attempts at parody undercut proceedings, takes a while to get used to but at least makes Susan and the monsters look great, and this needed to be 2 hours or even a full season of TV – and all things I could have easily based at least half an article of this length on individually.

Point is, I want a conversation to start.  Animation needs a conversation if it’s going to better itself and be fully respected, and that conversation needs to cover everyone – not just critical golden boy Pixar and good old Disney.  DreamWorks Animation should be allowed in on that conversation, regardless of its past or its very commercial and prolific nature.  I am one of about three people talking about feminism and non-Shrek DreamWorks films.  This should not be the case.  So, start conversing.


Monsters vs. Aliens continued DreamWorks Animation’s re-ascension to quality filmmaking in the eyes of critics, although the film’s major underperformance overseas prevented it from being the financial smash that the studio would have liked.  It wasn’t a failure, though, and so the company would close out the decade – Monsters vs. Aliens being their only release for 2009 – on a decent note with the company still looking strong.  Their first film of the new decade, though, would take everybody by surprise and be seen as the company’s new Magnum Opus, as well as the start of a very successful new franchise.

Next week, we look at the first How To Train Your Dragon.

A new edition of DreamWorks! A Retrospective will be posted here every Monday at 1PM BST!

Callum Petch should have cut his losses long before he knew.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

DreamWorks Animation Television, Part 1

By Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

This year, DreamWorks Animation celebrates its 20th anniversary.  To mark the occasion, Callum Petch is going through their entire animated canon, one film a week for the next 30 weeks, and giving them a full-on retrospective treatment.  Prior entries can be found here, should you desire.


invasion americaBonus Entry #2] DreamWorks Animation Television, Part 1

In the 20 years that it has existed for, DreamWorks Animation has gone from another wannabe pretender to Disney’s animated throne to one of the biggest and most influential animation companies on the planet today; one responsible for helping shape the face of Western Animation for a good decade and one with a considerable pop culture presence even long after the Shrek effect has worn off.  See, the company’s influence doesn’t just reside in the realm of film.

Even before the release of Antz, DreamWorks Animation was trying to stake their claim on the land of television, in Jeffrey Katzenberg’s continued attempts to beat out Disney across all possible fronts.  Not that you’d know that as the company’s first… scratch that, every attempt prior to 2008 to break into the half-hour animated television show market was swiftly and unceremoniously cancelled.  The company has even expunged their existence from their own website entirely, like they’d rather everybody forget about them and focus on the stuff that worked instead.

Well, such selective memory is not how we do things here at the DreamWorks Animation Retrospective – although certain weeks really make me wish we did – so that’s why I’ve spent the last few weeks going through enough of the company’s first attempts at television to get a feel for each show in order to theorise why nobody turned up to them.  (I am excluding Alienators: Evolution Continues as they were one of several companies involved in that show, and this series is only looking at DreamWorks specifically.)  The next time we reconvene to look at their television output – which will be at the end of this series – we’ll be looking at the shows made post-The Penguins Of Madagascar.  Today, though, we look at the three made prior.


1) Toonsylvania

Network: Fox

Number of Episodes: 19 across 2 seasons with 2 unaired

Original Run: 2nd February 1998 – 21st December 1998

Have you ever seen Freakazoid! or Tiny Toon Adventures or even AnimaniacsToonsylvania is basically a horror-tinged mediocre version of those.  I mean, this isn’t really a surprise, Steven Spielberg was the show’s executive producer, but it also very easily explains why the show came and went within a year.  There’s no real unique voice here, nothing to truly separate it from the other shows that I just compared it to and which were gone by the time Toonsylvania debuted (Animaniacs was wrapping up its run that year).

Not that there wasn’t some good old fashioned network meddling to help speed along that process, of course!  The show first debuted on Saturday mornings, as was the norm for animated shows on network television, at the beginning of 1998, usually paired with Goosebumps and re-runs of Eerie, Indiana.  By the time that season two came around, however, Toonsylvania’s original guiding voices, creator Bill Kopp and director Jeff DeGrandis, had left and were replaced by former Animaniacs writer Paul Rugg who threw out most of the show’s established style and replaced it with something less anarchic and more sitcom-y.  Couple this with a move to Monday/Tuesday afternoons (conflicting sources on that info) – which is basically Fox admitting that they’d rather burn through the episodes and be done with it – and it likely surprises no-one that the show was cut down quickly after.

I do not know just how much the show changed in its second season; I haven’t seen any of it.  I couldn’t find it.  I can’t find much of Toonsylvania on the Internet at all because the show has basically disappeared off the face of the Earth.  The most that I could find – in English, the series is now streaming on Mexico and Brazil’s Netflix – was a VHS rip of a Best Of Season 1 collection.  Each of the shows that we look at today have been buried in some way shape or form, but Toonsylvania might as well be about five feet away from the Earth’s core.

Therefore, I have only seen four full episodes of the show – the lowest amount out of the three we’re going to discuss – and even then they’re not the actual episodes; they’re random cherry-picked segments ordered and placed like how they would end up in a regular episode of the show.  That being said, I have a good enough grasp on the show to talk about it.  That’s probably more of a testament to the bland, forgettable averageness of the show, mind.

Anyways, each episode is split neatly into four segments.  The first involves the adventures of Igor (voiced by Wayne Knight, whose voice I apparently never tire of) and Phil (better known as Frankenstein’s Monster) as they attempt to serve their master, Dr. Frankenstein, although Igor would rather the roles were reversed.  Although this observation can be applied to every other segment on the show, these segments primarily derive their humour from slapstick and absurdity, albeit a very restrained and formulaic kind.  For example, one episode involves them looking after Frankenstein’s grandmother who spontaneously transforms into a werewolf at the slightest appearance of a moon of any kind.  This sounds like a bountiful set-up for a nice variety of gags, but the structure is the same for six straight minutes, right down to the animation of Granny swallowing Igor’s head looking suspiciously identical every single time it happens.

After that we get Night Of The Living Fred, created by award-winning cartoonist Mike Peters – as becomes abundantly clear the second one claps eyes on the art style.  The gag for this segment, the one gag, is that it’s a terrible 50s-style sitcom but the family we’re focussing on are zombies.  That’s the gag and, unsurprisingly, it wore out its welcome with me long before the end of the first of these, let alone the fourth.  Not helping matters is the stilted delivery of pretty much everything in each instalment – lines, pacing, physical humour – everything feels too off-beat and in a way that’s really distracting instead of humour adding.  These segments would sometimes be replaced by a B-movie parody instead, but none were included on the VHS so I can’t comment.

Igor’s Science Minute is up next and is basically those brief little educational segment breaks from Animaniacs only less witty.  Finally, there’s Melissa Screech’s Morbid Morals, where the kids at home are taught life lessons via a Dr. Seuss-style rhyming storybook.  These segments are fine if unremarkable, notable only for the instances where the show skimps on its rhyming metre and for the fact that Melissa Screech herself is voiced by Nancy Cartwright in one of those fun little “hey, it’s that voice!” moments (also prompting that reaction: Billy West who seems to have used this show as a training ground for his various Futurama voices).

In fact, that basically describes Toonsylvania as a whole: fine if unremarkable.  There really is little to differentiate it from the other, better Spielberg-produced animated shows it too closely resembles.  It lacks personality, it lacks anything particularly great, and it lacks the amount of big laughs required to get over its derivative nature.  I get the feeling that’s a big reason why the show never caught on.  The network meddling can’t have helped, and the rise of cable cartoon programming with Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon undoubtedly was responsible for said meddling, but a show that isn’t particularly distinctive in the first place isn’t really going to receive mass tears of anguish when it gets dropped at some point.  Unlike DreamWorks’ 1998 films, there was no personal personality in Toonsylvania, just a hollow attempt to emulate what worked elsewhere before.


2) Invasion America

Network: The WB

Number of Episodes: 13 across 1 season

Original Run: 8th June 1998 – 7th July 1998

I have absolutely no idea who Invasion America is supposed to be for.  I have watched 7 episodes of this show and I have absolutely no idea who the thing is supposed to be for.  On paper, I get why The WB must have whipped out the chequebook faster than a man on speed.  “Steven Spielberg, major filmmaker Steven Spielberg, and Harve Bennett, the man who came up with the story for Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan, want to create a prime-time animated sci-fi action show for our network!  This must be some kind of wonderful dream!”  And it was, because in practice Invasion America is a dreadful dull mess.

There.  That’s why I could only make it 7 episodes through a 13 episode show.  Now, Invasion America has a lot of problems, and we shall look at them in due course, but they all add up to create the show’s easiest and most tangible flaw: its complete and total mind-numbing boringness.  For every last one of the 20 minutes that each episode runs for, I sat there in completely and total boredom; never engaged, never interested, just bored.  I’d get my phone out and browse Twitter or the Internet, I’d go to the toilet without pausing, I’d do laundry, pretty much anything whilst paying the bare minimum of attention, which is really all one needs as stuff only ever ends up happening in the last two minutes of each episode.

Yes, Invasion America is a show with a formula and that formula is as follows: cliffhanger wrap-up, exposition, big action scene that takes up the majority of the episode, short little comedown exposition leading into cliffhanger.  Now, of course, that’s not really a complaint as every television show has a formula of some kind – that’s sorta how TV works – but Invasion America’s formula is the bad kind of formula – the episodic mystery television show that keeps resetting to its default status quo to heighten stakes.  Questions are never answered, the villains never receive any setbacks at all, and lead character David is forever alone.  Not kidding; aside from about three people who somehow keep making it through episodes where they meet him, everybody that David comes into contact with dies.  All of them, all of the time, because David being alone apparently makes for better drama, and the show treats each and every one of their deaths as a huge shocking thing we should be torn up over.

Naturally, a point came where I just simply stopped caring.  It’s very, very hard to balance a show where the heroes have to remain the underdogs for a very, very, very long period of time.  Get it wrong, you see, and the audience just decides “well, what’s the point, then?” and switches off, because it becomes clear that nobody will ever win and that watching and rooting for the cast is pointless.  A show that offsets that really well is The Legend Of Korra where the screws keep getting turned tighter and tighter, to such an extent that one can wonder if Korra and co. will ever catch a break, but apathy in the audience is abstained thanks to constantly granting little victories and having a strong cast of characters who are lovable and entertaining.

Invasion America, as previously noted, doesn’t do the former enough, whilst the latter is foiled by the fact that it has no characters.  Oh sure, there are characters in the sense that everybody has a name, face and voice, but a deep and complex personality?  Their sole plot trait is their personality.  David’s character trait is that he’s our protagonist.  His mother and father exist to disappear and die, respectively.  He has a mentor figure who vomits exposition at him and then heroically sacrifices himself.  There’s a grumpy fellow alien hiding out in the desert with a good animal alien as a pet; his role is to bump into David shortly after mentor figure bites it and then “I’m too old for this sh*t” his way in and out of the show as required.  David has a best friend from high school who just keeps wandering in and out of the plot, there are two good government agents, a whole bunch of interchangeable evil government agents, a whole bunch of interchangeable evil aliens, and a brother-sister alien pair who get the closest thing to an actual personality in this plot dump.

This, arguably, is the show’s biggest problem.  With no actual characters, and so many of those blank husks running about the place, the show simply devolves into watching unimportant things happen to people you don’t care about.  That’s why all of the dialogue is so unbearably clunky, because it really is all just exposition.  That’s why none of the show’s giant action sequences excite on any level despite the great melding of the hand-drawn with CGI, because none of it means anything.  It’s why none of the frequent deaths carry any weight, because nobody was a character to begin with.  It’s why it takes the sight of a crazed near-death alien general trying to run over our hero with a spaceship the size of a hundred haemorrhoids combined to get a “so bad, it’s funny” reaction from me, because the show is so frickin’ joyless – including line readings that have less emotion than the population of The Neutral Planet from Futurama.

So, who is Invasion America for?  The relentlessly serious and miserable tone, and prime-time television slot, indicate a desire to appeal to adults.  But the lead is a teenage boy (who is The Chosen One, obviously), so they clearly want teenagers watching as well.  But the art style too closely hews to action cartoons that were popular with kids, like 90s X-Men specifically, so maybe kids are supposed to find all of this exciting?  But then they’ll be turned off by the grim tone and the painfully dull stretches of expository dialogue, whilst older audiences looking for something intelligent will be turned off by the overlong action sequences and the lack of anything going on under the surface.  Maybe it’s supposed to be aimed at families?  That would explain David’s pointless reflective internal monologues that keep bookending each episode…

The WB didn’t really have a clue what to do with it either, as it turns out, and they burned off the series in hour-long double bills (triple-bill in the case of the finale) over a month in the Summer.  The show was then kicked down to Kids WB! in an edited form for a second run before disappearing entirely, although the Internet has been better at saving this series than they have Toonsylvania – the whole thing is on YouTube if you want to simulate going brain-dead for 13 half hours.  Would Invasion America have caught on if it were scheduled properly?  I highly doubt it – it’s a show that clearly only exists to capitalise on The X-Files being a thing and audiences can smell terrible cash-ins a mile away.  Ultimately, the show is just a slog to sit through and one that has no idea what it wants to be, except maybe all things to all people, and ends up doing nothing well.

I do, however, know that its final episode ends with the text “End of Book One”, like everyone involved thought that they were guaranteed a renewal, which I find hilarious.


3) Father Of The Pride

Network: NBC

Number of Episodes: 15 over 1 season with 2 unaired and 1 unfinished

Original Run: 31st August 2004 – 27th May 2005

Father Of The Pride was doomed from the start.  On October 3rd 2003, long before the show went to air and about a year into production, Roy Horn, of famed lion-based magician act Siegfried and Roy, was mauled on stage by one of the pair’s tigers and was inches away from death.  Overnight, an animated show based around the question of what the lions in Siegfried and Roy’s magic show got up to when not performing went from an intriguing if slightly cynically designed for cash money show idea, to an incredibly tasteless and extremely awkward affair.  Even with the pair urging the show to continue production, it was all but guaranteed that a large subset of Americans would tune out immediately.

It must be stressed, though, that Father Of The Pride would likely have been doomed to failure even without that undeniably tragic event.  For one, DreamWorks, like it or not, had made their name by this point with animated films aimed primarily at kids.  With the DreamWorks connection front and centre on this one, many families will likely have tuned in expecting more of that on a weekly basis and immediately been horrified by a show that heus closer to Family Guy than Shrek – that being the view of animation in this day and age.  For two, advertising was apparently through the roof on this one, NBC pimping it like crazy during the 2004 Summer Olympics, and over-exposure is just as likely to turn people off of a show as it is to get them to tune in (again: fine balance).  For three, each episode cost between $2 million and $2.5 million to produce.  Sure, the primetime CG sitcom sounds like the kind of “well that sounds new and original, let’s tune in” sellable premise that execs dream of, but you’re still gonna need a sh*t-tonne of viewers to break even, let alone generate the tiniest slither of a profit.

Therefore, Father Of The Pride’s one season run – complete with a skipped pilot, a swift pulling from the schedules, outright cancellation shortly after that, and several episodes never making it to air in the US – will come as no surprise to anybody who could read the giant glowing neon signs from miles away.  The fact that critics tore it to shreds and that it’s generally looked upon with nothing but disdain by many animation fans to this day should also surprise nobody.  That DreamWorks Animation have culled any and all mentions of it from their website and anything affiliated with them also shouldn’t be too surprising, but shocked me regardless.  I get not wanting to have your major failures sticking too hard to your resume, but to deny you ever had any involvement in something that clearly had a hell of a lot of time and effort and money put into it seems a bit disingenuous.

But, in any case, let’s not get wrapped up too much in the ways in which this was doomed to fail from the start.  I mean, that is a through-line for all of these shows – all set to fail before they even got out of the starting gates – but shows also get cancelled based on quality, or lack of, so mismanagement isn’t always completely to blame.  So, Father Of The Pride had sealed its fate long before it hit the air, we know that much.  Unfortunately, the episodes that did make it to air didn’t exactly provide a good counter-argument for said treatment.

The problem, quite simply, is South Park Syndrome.  You see, animation is typically seen as something near-exclusively for kids – a really f*cking infuriatingly incorrect assumption that I have refuted here and will likely do so again many, many more times to come – and so the quickest way to break out from that assumption is to be as offensively adult as humanly possible.  Drugs, sex, violence, rape jokes, as much political incorrectness as you can get away with.  The Simpsons may have shattered that glass ceiling before, but its strong child fanbase meant that it didn’t really change anything.  Hence: the South Park.  Now, of course, South Park always had something more going on than just vulgar humour and mean-spiritedness, but remember our talk on the quantifiable from way back when?

So Father Of The Pride goes as South Park as it can within network television restrictions.  Except that it also marries those vulgar tendencies with continued forced attempts at heart that come off as unnatural – the marriage between Larry and Kate is the kind where the pair spend all of the time bickering hatefully at one another until it’s time for the heartwarming serious stuff; a dynamic that is never believable, with the only sitcom that I can think of that doesn’t partake in it being How I Met Your Mother – and situates these vulgar jokes in plots ripped straight from Baby’s First Sitcom Outline.  Despite that show premise, Father Of The Pride instead gives us plots about the lions trying to not be racist to some new friends of a different species, Kate and Larry suspecting their teenage daughter of being a drug addict, setting up a friend with another friend but said other friend actually having the hots for the person doing the setting-up, parent-teacher conferences, a disapproving father moving into the family home, and so on.

To put it bluntly, it’s like the show is still stuck in the 80s and no amount of drug references, fancy 3D computer graphics, and inexplicable Dick Cheney appearances and pot-shots could disguise those creaky old bones.  Audiences had seen this before and they’d seen it done better, especially since laughs were rather thin on the ground.  All this being said…  I don’t actually mind Father Of The Pride.  Oh sure, it had some terrible episodes (the Thanksgiving episode is awful), an almost admirable commitment to going through every cliché sitcom plot in the book, and a pair of blatant cross-over advertisements/ratings stunts (The Today Show’s Matt Lauer in one episode, Donkey from Shrek in another), but I still rather like it for three reasons.  For one, I got a couple of decent laughs out of most of the episodes, which should always count for something.

For two, the CG and storyboarding.  Now, obviously, this is never going to win any awards for animation quality or fully convince the eyes of the viewer – Siegfried and Roy, in particular, look like humans halfway through the process of being converted into Ken dolls – but the money has been well-spent in getting the animation to be as close to movie quality as one can manage – Donkey in this show is only some extra detail on his fur and more fluid movements away from being dead-on with his movie counterpart.  Well, most of the time, anyway – there’s a rave scene where the extras look like they’ve been ripped from a budget PS1 title, it’s pretty funny seeing just how blatant the drop in quality is in that scene.

Specifically, however, I want to praise the storyboarding and camera placements.  Have you ever noticed in primetime animated sitcoms how the majority of them have very standardised, uninspired and generic shot styles and placements?  Primarily wide-angle backgrounds of flat-looking rooms where the cast stand slightly side-on to the camera with little movement, the only change coming from the occasional Medium Close Up on a character talking before we cut back to that master shot?  I’ve probably done a poor job explaining it, but pay close attention the next time you watch Family Guy, American Dad! or Archer and see if you can tell what I mean.

Whilst Father Of The Pride does sometimes indulge in that – albeit with backgrounds that actually have depth – it also takes advantage of the 3D CGI aspect of the show to create more interesting storyboards and set layouts.  Say two characters are talking in a room.  That master shot, with the wide angle and such, will rarely be deployed outside of the beginning and ending of a scene.  Instead, we get plenty of over-the-shoulder shots, MCUs that come in from a slightly different angle, full on pans through a room, and many instances of the camera dollying along to shoot the scene from a different position.  It ends up livening up scenes of characters talking at each other, makes things visually more interesting, and overall gives the show a visual identity that both ties into and goes beyond its 3D CG DNA.

Finally, for three, there’s Siegfried and Roy themselves who are undeniably the best part of the show.  Now, considering the fact that this show was conceived, essentially, around them in what can be perceived as a marketing stunt, this is a major surprise in its own right, but what is truly surprising is just how far the show goes with them.  At no point does it paint the duo in reverential light, like a lot of shows do to celebrities who show up to play themselves (although the duo here were voiced by impersonators).  Instead, it is nearly always taking several mountain-fulls worth of piss out of them, but in an affectionate way that adds to the comedy.

The Siegfried and Roy of Father Of The Pride are heterosexual life partners who are pompously egotistical, announce their entrance to anywhere with their own theme song and usually some overly-elaborate magic trick, are almost childlike in their petulant attitudes, total lovebirds for the capitalist wad-shot known as Las Vegas, and who both love each other even when they’re bickering.  Therefore, not only do they end up as the heart of the show, weirdly enough, they are also a lightning rod for its more ridiculous and off-beat jokes and subplots.  One of them involves the pair attempting to “save” Vegas from a family-owned B&B, treating it like Patient Zero of a plague that will wipe out their way of life, whilst the ones that are clearly designed for marketing opportunities, the aforementioned Matt Lauer appearance and one entirely dedicated to Siegfried wanting a Big Gulp from 7-11, are saved by their ridiculous behaviour.

They’re entertaining, on a consistent basis, no less, and it’s because the show demonstrates an off-kilter and silly fun sensibility – likely helped by the real Siegfried & Roy apparently loving everything the show did with them – that rarely comes through in the rest of the show.  That being said, though, unlike Invasion America and Toonsylvania, I managed to remain interested throughout my time with the show, even genuinely entertained at points.  Father Of The Pride was a fool’s gambit, one that was going fail no matter what it did and one that likely still would not have truly found its voice even if it did miraculously make it to Season 2, but it’s a darn interesting one and I prefer interesting failures to dull-as-all-hell failures, if nothing else.

Plus, you know, John Goodman was in it.  I like John Goodman.  I mean, who doesn’t?


 

We will pick back up the television output of DreamWorks Animation in about three months’ time.  Next week, we return to their filmic output and look at the last film before their commonly cited creative rejuvenation period: 2007’s Bee Movie.

A new edition of DreamWorks! A Retrospective will be posted here every Monday at 1PM BST!

Callum Petch wishes he could buy back the woman you stole.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Am I Ruining Cartoons?

Callum Petch believes that he may be part of the problem and for that he is not sorry.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

gravity fallsI am probably ruining cartoons for kids merely by enjoying them to the same degree adults enjoy, say, Star Trek.

This epiphany hit me the other day when I read an article on The AV Club about the official Season 5 renewal for the hit animated kids’ show (and one of my personal favourites on the air today) My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic.  It was a thought that had been rolling around in my brain for a while, anyway, the side effect of being really friggin’ anxious about everything you ever do because trying to live like a good human being is really hard in this crapsack of a world, as well as a theory I had been working on a bit, but that article made it clear.  In fact, I’ll just quote the exact sentence that led me to this realisation.

“The 26-episode order will push the series over the milestone 100-episode mark, a remarkable achievement for a show primarily aimed at teaching young girls self-confidence, the importance of friendship, and the fact that anything that’s special for them will eventually be co-opted and stolen by dudes.”

The Brony fanbase, adult fans of the show (typically depicted as male as that apparently makes for a much more interesting narrative when reporting on them), have become inexorably tied to the show and the discussion surrounding it.  If you haven’t even heard of the show it’s based on but you spend some time on the Internet, you’ve still probably heard of the concept of Bronies.  It’s inescapable, to an extent that I honestly fear that, once the show is done and wrapped, everyone has moved on to other things and the passage of time sends the show fading into memory, its legacy won’t be “My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic was a great show that broke down gender stereotypes thanks to strong writing and characterisation.”  Instead, I’m incredibly worried that its legacy will be “My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic was the show that gave the world Bronies.”  That’s it or, at the very least, the show will get a passing mention in maybe paragraph 12.  Neither outcome is one I particularly desire.

I don’t consider myself a Brony but I do consider myself a very big fan of the show, enough to own several shirts and the second season on DVD, enough to frequent the show’s main fan-site, and enough to have to talk myself out of walking into Build-A-Bear and getting a Rarity plushee every single time I walk past my local store (I also have an affinity for cute things, so that may not be just the fan in me talking).  My rejection of the Brony tag comes primarily because I don’t associate myself wholeheartedly as a member of any fandom anymore (and partly because “Brony” is second only to “Avatards” on my list of Embarrassingly Stupid Fandom Portmanteaus) and, therefore, keeps me at a distance.  I enjoy the show for what it is; very well written, strongly characterised, funny, gorgeously animated and full of a tonne of heart.  I enjoy it for the reasons I imagine its target audience would, not because there’s a two-second reference to Bioshock Infinite in the background of one of the episodes and not because I want to marry Twilight Sparkle (that is not a joke and is still nowhere near the most disturbing thing I have come across from fans of this show on the Internet, trust me).

Lately, though, I’ve been wondering if that, appreciating and loving the show for what it is, is a problem in and of itself.  I understand that this is a kids’ show, made to be enjoyed firstly by little girls from ages 5 to 8, and I would never want the show to start pandering to myself, the older male fan.  I am a periphery demographic.  Yet that periphery demographic is the one driving discussion of the show, it’s the one that has become the focal point of discussion surrounding the show.  Hell, I wouldn’t have given it a test-run just over two years ago (I ended up accidentally picking one of the episodes that requires prior character knowledge, which is why I didn’t try again until my growing knowledge of animation led me in the direction of anything with the name Lauren Faust attached to it about six months later) if it weren’t for the periphery demographic making a giant noise about it.  And through all of this I wonder, what about the little girls from ages 5 to 8?  The ones the show was made for?  How do they feel about the show basically being stolen out from under them by grown-ups whose mere existence may have forever tainted the show for future generations?

Probably not too much, in all honesty.  The merch keeps selling, the ratings keep climbing (as far as I can tell, most of the adult fandom gather together to watch live streams on the Internet instead, which don’t count) and the kids still care enough that there are more than enough of them to turn up to most of the 900-bazillion fan conventions that have sprung up for the programme to redress the balance somewhat (I may spend a lot of my free time watching VA panels on the Internet, not just ones for this show, don’t judge).  Plus, even with the peripheral demographic, the show has yet to forget about its target audience.  It doesn’t openly pander to the periphery demo (the few times when it has have been the most cringe worthy things the show has done) and it still has the same style, voice and attitude that it did when it started, just with a slight bit more maturity to represent the growing up of its target audience.  The Bronies may dominate the conversation (enough to have two separate feature-length documentaries on their existence made) but the kids still have the show.  They still exist which goes some way to lowering my anxieties.

But this is not a feeling that is just linked to My Little Pony.  Regular followers of my Twitter may be well aware that I am a big fan of Gravity Falls.  For those who don’t follow my Twitter or aren’t aware: I am a big fan of Gravity FallsA big fan.  It is fast, it is hysterical, it is gorgeously animated, superbly voice acted, excellently plotted and full of immense heart.  It is one of the best shows on TV and I don’t know a single person in its target audience who watches it.  Of course, one could put this down to the fact that I don’t live in America and I don’t hang around children (…probably could have phrased that better) but I see a lack of kid fandom or references to children anywhere in discussion of the show, even though its target audience is children aged 7 to 11; that’s what the TV-Y7 rating is for.

Instead, it’s a collective group of intense adult fans combing the show for clues to its mysteries.  The show’s creative staff (creator, writer and voice actor Alex Hirsch, especially) lean on the show’s more grown-up fandom in conversation much more frequently than those in other shows I know do (Hirsch even all but said that it’s down to us if we want Disney to release merch for the show).  I’ve seen precisely one kid at a panel for the show (they asked a question that Alex, who teases and trolls like a master, wasn’t allowed to answer, it was cute) and few, if anybody, would refer to the show as “a kids’ cartoon,” even though it kinda is.  We’re about to enter the second season so we’ll get an answer then as to if the periphery demographic have managed to infect the product we adore so, but it worries me as to whether the target audience cares at all about Gravity Falls.  And if that is the case, then have we adults hijacked the show from them and co-opted it for our own?

Maybe it’s a question of gender roles and gender narratives.  My fear of my stealing of Gravity Falls from its target demo is less vocal because the talk surrounding the fandom is non-existent, arguably because the target demo for Gravity Falls is not exclusively little girls and the story “Adults Enjoy Watching Cartoon For Children” is not as sensationalist as “Grown Men Love My Little Pony”.  You could argue that it’s the same reason why the very large and very vocal adult Adventure Time periphery don’t get any such “co-opting” claims or fears; ditto Regular Show.  They make up a huge percentage of the fandom for Adventure Time, we’re talking near-Sherlock levels of activity on Tumblr…  OK, maybe not (practically nothing else on Tumblr gets close to Sherlock levels of devotion), but you get the general idea.  From what little I’ve glimpsed on the Internet (I’m still yet to get into Adventure Time, I keep switching off because the first season is just weird and rough as all hell), they’re basically a well-organised fan convention away from being near equal to the size and scale of Bronies.

Except that Adventure Time and Regular Show are barely for kids as it is.  They both sport TV-PG ratings and wear them with pride, watch either show (in their American formats, for the love of the Maker, if you’re going to watch either of these shows, do not watch their bowlderised UK edits) for more than three minutes and you’ll get why they’re intended for an older audience than My Little Pony (TV-Y) and Gravity Falls (TV-Y7).  It’s hard to steal something from a group of society if it’s not exactly being made primarily for them as it is.  And besides, the best cartoons aren’t just enjoyable for kids.  They’re enjoyable on multiple levels for all audiences: there’s a great throw-away scene in Foster’s Home For Imaginary Friends where the show’s creator Craig McCracken pops up in its universe that caused my 19-year-old self to almost fall out of my chair in gleeful amazement.  But the scene also works if you’re young and have no idea who the guy is because the joke is rooted in the situation, not Craig McCracken.  (Ditto pretty much the entirety of “Frankie My Dear” which becomes extra hilarious if you believe rumours that Mac is based off of a young Craig and Frankie is based off his wife, Lauren Faust.)

Maybe my anxieties are just rooted in lack of the passage of time.  After all, I’m a huge fan of The Powerpuff Girls and I don’t feel like my being so is going to/is ruining it for future generations.  If I were a fan at the time it were going out (which I was) but this age, I’d probably feel how I do with My Little Pony and Gravity Falls.  And then you have the collective nostalgic waxing by the Internet every time somebody announces a movie remake/adaptation/reboot of some beloved Saturday morning toy commercial (Transformers, G.I. Joe, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and, most recently, Power Rangers).  Perhaps the distancing effect of time creates the effect that things are now allowed to be freely appreciated by everyone equally, regardless of their age or the work’s intended audience.

But… just what if none of this matters?  What if I’m not actually co-opting jack?  Yeah, I may be a big fan of cartoons made predominately for kids, but does that mean I’m truly ruining it for the kids?  No matter how large the Brony fandom gets, no matter how many conventions they create, no matter how loud they may get on the Internet, no matter how many Rule 34 ship-drawings of Applejack and Rainbow Dash there may be, and no matter how many plushees get sodomised by people that I would like to forget exist, thank you kindly, the little girls aged 5 to 8 will still have the show.  They will always have the show.  Friendship Is Magic hasn’t changed due to the stuff surrounding it; if anything the show has strengthened its resolve to non-corporate outside influences.  The target audience will still have the show.  Everything else is just noise.

Maybe the simplest way to resolve this problem is to just stop labelling cartoons as explicitly for kids in daily conversation.  I don’t mean “stop making cartoons directly for kids,” not at all.  But what I mean is that we should stop having to separate kids’ stuff from adult stuff so much.  A random episode of The Amazing World Of Gumball has way more laughs and stronger characterisation than The Big Bang Theory at its best, for example.  I have heard that Steven Universe blows most current prime-time dramas out of the water (I need to get around to watching it).  The Legend Of Korra and its more famous original series, Avatar: The Last Airbender, are almost never referred to as kids’ cartoons even though they are; that’s the kind of level they operate on.  You class something as “for kids” and you immediately class it as “other”, something that requires lowered expectations, a different metric for success and can only be enjoyed by its target audience.

Entertainment can be enjoyed, loved and embraced by all.  So what if mainstream society is co-opting something made primarily for a specific demographic?  Who said they’re trying to?  Maybe they’re just in love with a show and don’t care about its “other-ness”?  If we had a generation of children get really into Community, would we be accusing them of co-opting media that’s not for them?  No, because that would be dumb.  Good media is good media and we shouldn’t be discouraging people from liking good things because “it’s not supposed to be for them”.  This is why I never pull any punches when I review films aimed at kids because crap shouldn’t be given a Get Out Of Jail Free card and quality should not need an appended asterisk.

So, yeah, I am probably ruining cartoons for kids merely by enjoying them to the same degree adults enjoy, say, Star Trek.  But I don’t care and I’m going to keep on preaching about how Gravity Falls is the best thing to hit TV since Community debuted because I refuse to be made to feel bad for liking something that’s apparently not supposed to be for me.  Maybe this makes me selfish, stealing away pleasures designed for people who don’t often get enough pleasures aimed at them.  Maybe this makes me progressive, somebody who is sick of barriers dividing what is supposed to be enjoyable to who and who thinks that cross-demographic enjoyment on equal levels is something to be encouraged not shunned.  Maybe it’s a bit of both.

All I know is that I don’t care either way.  Now, would you pass the remote?  Wander Over Yonder is about to start.

Callum Petch has been putting up with your constant whining.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!