Tag Archives: The Simpsons

Failed Critics Podcast: The Intern, The Martian & Sicario

sicario 1Hello and welcome to this week’s Failed Critics Podcast, released slightly earlier than usual to try and push it out just before the end of International Podcast today (that’s today for the next couple of minutes, anyway!) As such, we recommend you check out our fellow podcast comrades Wikishuffle, Black Hole Cinema and Diamond & Human; all of whom are deserving of your time during your commute or whilst peeling the spuds, or whatever you do whilst you’re listening to us.

Joining Mexican assassin Steve Norman and intergalactic failed critic Owen Hughes for this week’s episode is Andrew Brooker, undertaking his unpaid work placement, as they review three new releases. They’re so new, in fact, that they are not even out in the UK yet! First up, Owen reviews new Ridley Scott sci-fi The Martian (which doesn’t feature any aliens – xenomorphs or otherwise) before Brooker seethes over the new Anne Hathaway / Robert De Niro comedy The Intern. There’s even room for a review of the much anticipated crime-thriller Sicario, starring Emily Blunt as an FBI agent working with Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro on the trail of the Cartel in Mexico.

Before any of that though we have our quiz (which Steve helpfully explains in detail) and news section where the team react to Sam Smith’s Bond theme replete with improv poetry, The Simpsons opening Smithers closet, and the Prometheus sequel details. This is followed by our usual what we’ve been watching section, which sees: Owen review cult 80’s horror From Beyond as he pleads for your HP Lovecraft recommendations; Steve runs through three first watches of Beverly Hills Cop, Cooties and Cop Car; and Brooker reminds himself of a time when De Niro could do comedy well with Analyze This.

Join us again next week as we review ‘the Scottish play’, Macbeth, and have a very special guest in tow for our Scottish triple bill: It’s the acclaimed author of the Three Realistic Holes trilogy of novels, Escobar Walker!

LISTEN VIA ACAST FOR THE MOST INTERACTIVE EXPERIENCE

DIRECT 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)!

Failed Critics Podcast: D’OH!n’t do any more crossovers, please!

equalizerWhat do you hear when you listen to us?

Welcome one and all to the latest Failed Critics Podcast! This week, Carole looks back at 90’s Johnny Depp with Dead Man, Owen dabbles and perhaps even revels in celebrity gossip, Steve discusses the biggest TV crossover since the Flintstones met the Jetsons and the team chat about The Equalizer and Maps to the Stars among other things.

It’s also Carole’s last podcast appearance for a couple of weeks, but don’t worry! We’ll still be back next week with a special guest replacement. Well, I say special

LISTEN VIA ACAST FOR THE MOST INTERACTIVE EXPERIENCE

DIRECT DOWNLOAD LINK

100 Greatest TV Episodes: Homer the Heretic (s4 ep3)

The latest addition to our 100 greatest individual television episodes, as chosen by Gerry McAuley. Homer the Heretic makes The Simpsons the first series to have two separate entries into our list!

One of my criteria for greatness in the arts is timelessness. I don’t think I’m alone in that. Now, that isn’t to say that you can only call something great if it’s been around for a long time; sometimes you just know instantly that something is so amazing that your grandkids could watch it* and, while they may not get the same experience as you did given the different cultural environment, there’d still be something tremendously valuable about it. In this case, it’s that the episode is still brilliantly funny and simultaneously tells us something interesting about the culture of its time.

In a few months time, Homer the Heretic will be 21 years old. It was on TV recently and even watching it for the umpteenth time I was laughing like a loon. David Meyer’s writing is so crisp and poised and brilliantly structured that it’s almost divine. This is where I feel we see Homer at his best, the Homer of the earlier series: selfish, ignorant and gluttonous in a way that we can all identify with, rather than just some oafish buffoon to do slapstick gags and dumb jokes with. What’s more, he asks genuinely insightful questions of society through his actions and even his words – famously and poignantly asking God:

“I’m not a bad guy, I work hard, and I love my kids. So why should I spend half my Sunday hearing about how I’m going to hell?”

Who knew he could say something that wasn’t entirely stupid, eh, current Simpsons writing team?

homer 1

“What if we picked the wrong religion? Every week we’re just making God madder and madder.”

For the handful of people whose lives have somehow led to them being able to read this article online but not having seen this episode, here’s the story: one freezing morning, Homer decides to stay in bed rather than go to Church. He enjoys it so much that he decides to stop going to Church altogether, incurring the wrath of Marge and causing various concerned Springfield citizens to try to bring him back into the fold and see the error of his ways.

Homer’s joy at having the house to himself is something I think we can all relate to and, while we may not all enjoy his patented space age out of this world moon waffles, I’m fairly confident we’ve all enjoyed some of the activities he does when home alone. The Simpsons is brilliant at making movie references and the Risky Business reference is actually one of the most obvious. It is, however, sure to bring a smile to your face. They also riff on the previous year’s Backdraft, finding comedy in the classic cinematic trope of the heroic rescue.

This is The Simpsons at its most bold. To actually depict God, in physical form, appearing in dreams and chatting to Homer is quite ‘out there’, especially in the good ol’ US of A. To show God as an ordinary guy at heart (“You know, sometimes even I’d rather be watching football”), mocking certain aspects of religious beliefs (“Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to appear in a tortilla in Mexico”) – that really takes some stones.

Meyer was brought up Catholic but became an atheist and the combination of detailed knowledge and devastating criticism here is perfectly balanced. The episode drips with quotable, funny lines.There’s a very fine line to tread when dealing with multiple religious groups and managing to poke fun at Christians, Jews and Hindus (or “miscellaneous” as Reverend Lovejoy calls them) without really annoying them massively is an impressive feat. The resolution, with its message that we’re all human no matter your religious beliefs, chimes with God approving Homer’s decision to worship in his own unique way. Meyer and his team manage to provide a ‘message’ that can be interpreted in multiple ways by different audiences and thus keep everyone laughing and largely unoffended.

homer 2

This episode has everything that makes the show great: bags of humour, thought-provoking social commentary and satire, an insightful depiction of family life and a remarkable likeability even when characters seem to be acting selfishly. Episodes like this are also significant in that they laid the ground for shows like South Park to really tear into things that people hold dear. A much more delicate and family-friendly balance than that is struck by The Simpsons team at the height of their powers; sadly, they don’t replicate such highs these days, but at least we have the memories. Or should I say, at least they show the classics on TV on a regular basis so we can keep enjoying them. As I say, I have every intention of still laughing like a lunatic at this episode with my grandchildren many years from now.

 

*The caveat being that some truly great shows might be a bit uncomfortable to watch with your grandchildren, no matter how old they are. Like Game of Thrones. 

homer 3

THAT’S GAME HENDRIX!

Antz

dreamworks-animation-filmsby Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

On October 12th, DreamWorks Animation SKG turns 20.  Long known as the number two CG animation company in terms of both quality and gross per film, the company has been responsible for, along with Pixar, revolutionising and revitalising American feature-length animated cinema.  And they turn 20 having finally earned sustained critical praise in addition to the usual millions upon millions from franchising and the box office (*quietly shuffles Turbo and Mr. Peabody & Sherman out of view*).  The company, in many respects, is stronger than it has ever looked.

I was a child once and, being a child, I used to be a fan of DreamWorks Animation.  I mean, like everybody, I was enamoured by Shrek and, being young and therefore incapable of good taste, I ate up their continual, lesser re-treads of the Shrek formula.  However, even children eventually develop taste and my patience with their products was waning by Flushed Away (yes, I know Flushed Away is an Aardman film, we’ll get to why I didn’t make that distinction later) and had evaporated entirely by Bee Movie.  I found their films to be stale, formulaic, uninspired, lacking in heart, and vastly inferior to what Pixar were putting out.  So, after Kung Fu Panda (which did not work for me, we’ll see if anything’s changed later on), I made the decision to stop going to see DreamWorks films.  After all, why should I keep going to those when Pixar were still riding high?

I held firm to that decision for close to six years (with one lapse for Puss In Boots because a friend and I had free cinema tickets that were about to run out and nothing else was on), finally breaking it this year due to my desire to see all the animation and because proper film critics can’t pick and choose the films they review.  Consequently, Mr. Peabody & Sherman was a big surprise for me, being a legitimately great and heartfelt film.  Was this seriously the company that, exactly one decade earlier, believed that Shark Tale was quality work it was willing to stand behind and release to the general public?  And whilst I may not have loved How To Train Your Dragon or its sequel, I can still see them as very good movies and a major step-up from, say, Madagascar.

So this journey back through their back catalogue has been rather a long time coming and the 20th anniversary of the company (which I didn’t know was a thing until the card popped up before How To Train Your Dragon 2) seemed like as good a time as any to start it.  So, every Monday for the next 30 weeks, I will be going through every single one of DreamWorks Animation’s films (up to 2013) and giving them a thorough re-evaluation.  How they were responded to at the time, what the animation landscape at the time was like to foster their success or failure, how they’ve aged and if they were good films to begin with.  We’re going to go through them all, from their debutback in 1998, all the way up to Turbo in late 2013 with a week’s break for their one excursion into direct-to-video land, in the shape of Joseph: King Of Dreams, and two weeks at some point or another to look at their television output, seeing as franchising is a major part of the DreamWorks business.  There will be some highs, some astounding lows, maybe even some surprises and, hopefully, we’ll all come out of this a little more knowledgeable about one of the biggest names in Western Animation.

But we start our adventure on October 2nd 1998 with the company’s first animated feature-length film, Antz.  Yes, with a “z”.


Antz Poster01] Antz (2nd October 1998)

Budget: $105 million

Worldwide Gross: $171,757,863

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 95% from 89 reviews

I am not going to spend the majority of this instalment focussing on the feud between DreamWorks’ Jeffrey Katzenberg and Pixar’s Steve Jobs & John Lasseter over whether or not the former stole the premise for A Bug’s Life from the latter and used it as the basis for Antz.  Why?  Multiple reasons.  1) The situation is actually rather complex and neither side, to this day even, seems willing to let it slide or come out and admit they were wrong.  You could write a book around the thing (or, at the very least, a novella) and I don’t have the time to go in-depth about the issue.  2) To spend 75% of the article’s length on circumstances surrounding its creation is to do a disservice to Antz itself as 3] With the exception of their general premises (lowly worker ants who have crushes on their colony’s princess and have fears of being insignificant in their daily lives and roles in society), Antz and A Bug’s Life actually have very little in common.

In any case, it is important information, so here is the condensed, likely-heavily-simplified version.  DreamWorks Animation CEO and co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg helped form the company after leaving Disney’s film division disillusioned by its direction and embroiled in a bitter feud with the company’s CEO Michael Eisner (and, really, who wasn’t angry with Eisner at some point in time?).  Katzenberg had stayed in touch with Lasseter after leaving and, when asked by Katzenberg during one of these meet-ups, Lasseter had described in detail their post-Toy Story project, A Bug’s Life.  Soon after, and soon after DreamWorks had acquired Pacific Data Images (PDI, the company responsible for the 3D sections of the Homer³ segment of The Simpsons’ “Treehouse Of Horror VI”), trade publications announced that DreamWorks’ first animated film was going to be Antz.  Lasseter, naturally, assumed that Katzenberg had ripped him off.  Katzenberg insisted that it was based on a 1991 story pitch by Tim Johnson that was related to him in 1994.  The situation was not helped by DreamWorks rushing production on the film and aiming for a release date two months before A Bug’s Life.  There’s also the fact that Katzenberg made an offer to an infuriated Steve Jobs that he would halt production on Antz if Pixar moved the release date for A Bug’s Life away from DreamWorks’ planned debut animated feature, The Prince Of Egypt (more on that next week); yes, that does sound an awful lot like a shake-down.

Lasseter still believes that Katzenberg ripped him off.  Katzenberg still insists that they were merely similar ideas.  (For the record, I would have been more inclined to believe Lasseter if you’d asked me about this before I saw the film and before this got out.)  In any case, Antz did end up launching nearly two months before A Bug’s Life to great critical and relatively good financial success.  A Bug’s Life, however, would debut on November 25th to near equal critical acclaim and runaway financial success ($363 million).  Not to mention the fact that that’s still held up as a very strong entry into Pixar’s canon, despite the strength of what’s come after, whilst Antz has pretty much faded into obscurity.  And then, to add insult to injury, The Prince Of Egypt was released a few weeks later, December 18th, and even with the competition from A Bug’s Life it managed to find great success, becoming only the second animated film not released by Disney to make $100 million domestic (after Paramount and Nickelodeon’s The Rugrats Movie) and the highest grossing traditionally animated non-Disney film ever until The Simpsons Movie came along.  Business may have gotten Antz out of the door first, but all it ended up doing was destroying long-held friendships and saddling the film with baggage, that may or may not be true, for the rest of its life when it’s brought up in conversation.

And that’s really a damn shame as, as previously mentioned, Antz and A Bug’s Life share an overall premise and precious little else.  Not to mention the fact that Antz has enough going on in its own terms that you can be able to discuss the film without having to make reference to the troubles surrounding its production.  So, if you want to know more about that side of proceedings, you can find an overall summary and several jumping-off points here and here.  The rest of this little piece is going to look at Antz primarily on its own terms.

Whereas A Bug’s Life was clearly aimed at the whole family and especially the younger end, Antz was aimed more at teenagers and adults.  Not that you’d know that from the trailer, of course (in fact, compare that trailer with the one for A Bug’s Life).  A Bug’s Life is focussed more on sight gags, slapstick humour and a light inclusive tone; Antz derives what little humour it has from the ramblings and snarkings of its neurotic protagonist, Z (voiced by Woody Allen, who also did some uncredited re-writes), and has a tone more befitting a high PG, low PG-13 family film (more specifically, my mind keeps cycling back to Joe Dante’s Small Soldiers, which was released two months earlier).  A Bug’s Life is a tale of slaves rising up and overthrowing their oppressors but the subtext is kept as subtext and the tone is light and inclusive, whilst Antz is a darker film that tackles the topics of individualism, rigid class structures, Communism (briefly) and blindly following orders, all with the subtlety of baseball bat.  To the face.  Of your grandmother.  At one point, the villain (voiced by Gene Hackman) almost quite literally sneers about how individualism is a disease held only by the weak.  Both films are clearly aiming at different audiences and are using their similar premises to do different things and tackle different aspects of them, they just had the misfortune of coming out two months apart from one another; not the last time that DreamWorks would fall victim to this (Megamind/Despicable Me, but we shall get to that).

A phrase that commonly gets tossed around in regards to Antz is “edge”.  That it has “edge,” “it’s edgier than A Bug’s Life.”  I get the feeling that that particular phrase is only used because everybody came to the film expecting a safe, kid-friendly romp.  Like it or not, animation has an image problem with people mistakenly believing that all animation is aimed only at kids because that’s the primary market that Disney were aiming at.  So with a film like Antz, which carries itself more like a live-action comedy adventure than a Disney film, people are going to label it edgy.  In reality, Antz plays with themes and topics that aren’t that alien from Disney films (Z’s narrative arc, which ends with him pretty much back where he started but happy about accepting it because he got to choose, is rather close to one that Ralph goes through in 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph) but just flowers it up.  Characters infrequently swear, for example.  Not majorly so, but hearing “bitching” and “crap” and “hell” is still jarring from a Western medium that goes to great pains to keep people from uttering a single bad word.  Z himself is basically a Woody Allen character dropped into an adventure movie; the guy is literally introduced ranting to his therapist about his insecurities and neuroses!  One of his lines later on in the film is a slightly altered line from Allen’s own Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid To Ask).  There’s also a genuinely frightening and disturbing war scene which is followed by a haunting aftermath and a prolonged sequence in which Z has to help comfort his dying and bodiless friend.  You know, just in case you believed that Mulan wasn’t at all held back by its G-rating and all-ages focus.  It could come off as a company desperately trying to break away from that image problem, and seem cringeworthy and forced with conflicting tones, but it’s a testament to the film’s quality that it all feels natural.  There are very few first film jitters, here, it’s a film that knows what it wants to be and rarely second-guesses itself.

Those first film jitters manifest themselves elsewhere, instead.  Subtlety is not Antz’s strong suit.  Everybody constantly re-iterates how their decisions and lifestyles are for the good of the colony, at such a frequent rate that it starts to cross over into Hot Fuzz-style parody.  The eeeeevil General Mandible goes on at length about his dissatisfaction with worker ants, stating them to be inferior to the physically superior soldier ants and how “only the strong survive” and build a purer ant colony and such.  Z’s love interest, Princess Bala (voiced stiffly by Sharon Stone), wishes to see how the common folk live but is ill-prepared once she is thrown out into the real world and resorts to complaining incessantly until she sees the true beauty of a lower-class life.  A subplot involving a budding romance between Z’s soldier ant friend, Corporal Weaver (Sylvester Stallone), and worker workmate, Azteca (Jennifer Lopez, yes, really), is exploited during a short torture sequence by the villains who look down on it as an abomination in a way that recalls to mind bigots’ reactions to mixed-race couples.  That last one is the most subtly handled of the film’s various themes.  I understand the need to ensure that you get your message across on certain touchier topics, and that subtext can often fly over the heads of children (that slavery/A Bug’s Life comparison is one that came to mind pretty much as I was typing it), but it feels overly-preachy at times, here, and amateurishly-handled; the result of first-time writers and directors not quite getting there, yet, in regards to handling weightier material (which was the case for first-time feature-length directors Tim Johnson and Eric Darnell who we will be frequently coming back to throughout this series).

Animation-wise, the film has aged better than one might think.  In terms of raw power and art design, it’s about on a par with the CG used to power the opening to Tekken Tag Tournament for the PS2, but that actually winds up being an advantage.  Early on, the film needs to get across to the viewer how Z sees his colony, a strict, regimented and personality-free hive-mind where everyone does the same thing in the same way at the same time.  The animation responds to this challenge by being mechanical, limited and relatively lifeless.  Every character moves about like they’re strapped onto a conveyer belt waiting for the next stop to be fussed with, which is almost exactly what happens in one scene where the ant queen is being presented with new-borns by a quite literally endless procession of ants.  A dance sequence mines a good laugh out of the mundane half-assery by everyone involved and has a spark of life injected when, in the centre of the image, Z and Bala decide to go against the grain.  It all works and, consequently, appears much less dated than practically all of the films that came out during the great CG boom of the early 2000s; except when the action really ratchets up, whereupon the stiff animation couples with a noticeable drop in quality to reveal that the film is nearly old enough to buy a lottery ticket.

One other thing about Antz that I found notable comes not 20 seconds in.  The first thing you see, before the main character, before an establishing shot, before even the title card, is a list of practically every single cast member in the movie, in alphabetical order by their surname.  Now, of course, casting famous actors in voice roles instead of professional voice actors was nothing new by this point, and neither was marketing an animated film based on having a big star voicing one of your characters (Aladdin was only 1992, after all).  However, animated films still resisted boasting their all-star casts up front; Toy Story opened with its playtime prologue before rolling the opening credits whilst Disney would credit the character’s primary animator before listing its voice actor.  The choice feels conscious, a way to try and draw legitimacy to the project as if, even though it’s an animated film and therefore inherently inferior, Antz is still as respectable as a live-action film.  That’s how it reads to me, anyhow, regardless of how much I may disagree with the sentiments, and it’s an interesting creative choice that foreshadows just how far down the big name stunt casting rabbit hole DreamWorks would later fall.

You know, I’m actually rather disappointed that Antz seems to have slid into relative obscurity.  Sure, it’s nothing outstanding or great or anything, but it’s definitely unique.  It’s one of those rare animated films that’s primarily made for a specific audience, with said specific audience being older than 11, and that wants to try explicitly tackling weightier topics.  It doesn’t fully work, its handling of its messaging and themes is not exactly deft and its central romance is the definition of undercooked, but it tries.  It’s a trier and it’s also good enough at the fundamentals to be an entertaining and good quality film divorced from that potential.  I feel that it deserves a better reputation than it has, a film that’s only trotted out as a historical landmark (it’s the third computer-animated feature-length film released, in addition to being DreamWorks’ debut animated film) or for its tumultuous production history and little more, although I suspect I may be frequently referring to this film in regards to various DreamWorks tropes later on in this series.  The company would be wise to re-issue it on Blu-Ray or, at the very least, refer to it in public every now and again.  I get why they wouldn’t, but it would certainly help with regards to giving it a fairer re-evaluation by the animation community and the general public at large, because it’s much better than I’ve seen people give it credit for.


A financial success upon release, Antz has fallen off of most people’s maps since then, much like most other CG-animated films that emerged once Toy Story changed the game forever (hey, who remembers Disney’s 39th animated classic, Dinosaur?  …anybody?  …is it seriously just me?) and it immediately set Pixar and DreamWorks up as bitter rivals at the cost of personal friendships.  On the plus side, it still turned a profit, was slightly more of a critical success than A Bug’s Life and has aged far better than one might have expected.  Overall, it was a fine debut for DreamWorks Animation.  It wouldn’t be until their next film, though, that the company would taste real success.  That film was 1998’s The Prince Of Egypt and we shall talk about that next week.

A brand new “DreamWorks! A Retrospective” will be posted every Monday at 1PM BST here on Failed Critics.

Callum Petch considers fun – natural fun!  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

100 Greatest TV Episodes: You Only Move Twice (s8 ep2)

A new series charting the 100 greatest individual television episodes, as chosen by the Failed Critics.

You Only Move Twice

By Dr. Pangloss

It’s a pity this series of ‘100 Greatest TV Episodes’ doesn’t come in order. Quite aside from being a sure-fire way to attract indignant comments from readers and bump up page views, it would allow me to make a frankly unanswerable case for the superlative ‘You Only Move Twice’ as number one.

Because as the best episode of the best show to have ever been broadcast, it certainly would be.

If you were to take one episode from the 508 screened so far which encapsulates the show’s intelligence, wit, uncanny ability to provide endless quotable lines and its unique blend of reverence for and irreverence towards popular culture – you could do little better

First broadcast in 1996 (!) the episode displays the staggering ability that is the hallmark of the show’s earlier episodes to send a storyline spinning wildly out of control with divergent storylines, in this case to an entirely new city and with a sub-plot for each family member only to effortlessly draw everything back together in time for a lesson on the importance of sacrifice and family values. This wasn’t the first time The Simpsons had up and moved for Homer’s career (Dancin’ Homer was), but it was the first to have a storyline for each mover. There’s actually a fifth for Grandpa which features on the DVD extras where, somewhat predictably, he is left at home, forlorn and forgotten.

Damn right we’re talking DVD extras, it’s that kind of blog.

Underpinning the episode is the wonderful conceit that Homer has inadvertently found his dream job at the corporation run by a pastiche of a 007 villain more energetic and charismatic than the Blofeld he was loosely based on. From the opening titles, through the Goldfinger, Thunderball, Moonraker, You Only Live Twice and View to a Kill nods, to the closing theme song, the episode is an homage to Bont (for legal reasons). The writers even manage to throw in a parody of a parody in a way only The Simpsons would be able to, with a cameo from Mrs. Goodthighs of Casino Royale fame (1967, youngsters).

And yet its strength is that it manages to retain that unique Simpsons feel throughout, partly in thanks to a cameo from Al Brooks as Scorpio; arguably the greatest one-off character ever and a career-defining performance. And that is a career which boasts appearances in Taxi Driver, Drive and as five other Simpsons characters – bonus points if you can name them all. The writers famously barely bothered to script his lines, as they knew Brooks would improv most of them anyway, often changing tack mid-take. The entire hammock dialogue was ad-libbed on the spot by Brooks in one take; listen and you can hear Castellaneta struggling to keep up.

‘You Only Move Twice’ possesses the multi-faceted, layered script that all of the great episodes of the show have, and that possibly only Pixar at its best moments can match. You can (and I have) watch this show at the ages of 8, 12, 17 and 24 and laugh at different moments with each viewing. From the slapstick throwaway shoe gag (see what I did there?) and a remedial class full of Ralph Wiggums, to the meta-humour of recurring gags like “what lifelong dream?” and the sophisticated, wicked double entendre of “want some cream, too?”, the show stuffs in an incredible number of gags of a hugely diverse range into a mere 20 minutes. The writers also manage to take trenchant swipes at the US Army, the UN and include a rather sad hint at the dark life Marge would have if not for the housework.

And it lovingly references Dr. Strangelove. What more could you possibly want from a TV episode?

Do not accept prescriptions from Dr. Pangloss, his doctorate is in philosophy. Also, it’s not a real doctorate. Do, however, take his writings as gospel.