Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Adventure Time – season 8

After realising season 7 had ended some time ago, I binge-watched the rest of season 8. I have to say, it brought with it a lot of what I had hoped for in the last season. 

Yes, there were some strange throwaway episodes, like diving after a sea lard and finding a strange new world, or the return of James Baxter the horse (though I did like how he got his name). But most of the season was dominated by two much longer, more intriguing plotlines - the development of the elemental guardian plotline that reaches fruition in season 9, but more importantly, Susan Strong providing Finn with a link to find the rest of the humans - and his mother. 

This plotline leads to the final lengthy arc of this season, with its own unique introduction and a bleak portrayal of the future of humanity. Once again, we see the idea of humanity preferring life in virtual reality and getting trapped inside. But Finn's mother and the rest of the humans are part of a different society, perhaps one that works a little too well. 

Finn gets some fine emotional moments and development, and it had already been a strong season for him as we got more exploration of the idea of alternate Finns being trapped in his swords. Finding his mother and of course ending up confronting problems she'd caused before eventually having to return home provided some great emotional highs and lows. Plus Susan became a fully-fledged character too, with her own past to confront, and had a cathartic reunion in the end. 


Now that both Finn's parents are well-established and he's growing up, there aren't so many loose ends left to tie. I think the next season bring Princess Bubblegum's darkness and the loose ends that remain in Simon's stories to an end, and then I feel like we might finally come to the end of this brightly-coloured, often rather dark cartoon that from its beginning has been squarely targeted at stoners and adults. I hope it draws to a natural close before too much longer. There's no point stringing it out until it gets stale, and while this season has been very satisfying indeed, I don't think there's that much more remaining in plot terms to bring out these kind of heavy hits in future. 

Monday, 10 July 2017

Adventure Time – season 7

The last few seasons of Adventure Time have seen very sporadic release schedules. Sometimes there’s a slew of episodes all coming out in a month and sometimes there’s nothing for weeks and weeks. It’s not clear where seasons begin and end most of the time, and I was under the impression that season 7 ended with the episodes ‘Preboot’ and ‘Reboot’, mostly because they took five months to come out after the previous episodes – but now I find out that’s midway through season 8 and I should have done my season 7 impressions in the March of 2016. Oh well.

Season 7 was actually the time that the show lost me somewhat, with season 8 episodes only recently having piqued my interest again. This season’s major events include Princess Bubblegum getting deposed by the cowardly King of Ooo, a lengthy exploration of Marceline’s past and where she got her different powers, and a real visit to the surreal parallel dimension Farmworld. There are also more hints to Simon’s past, with Betty at large in the present day.

But honestly, it’s partly the unpredictable release schedule, partly the feeling that the show’s major ideas are now played out and partly a few dud episodes like trying to figure out underwater political intrigues with blowfish and porpoises. There wasn’t much badly wrong here, but a lot of momentum felt sapped by the longer storylines, which unlike those of season 8 didn’t really feel like the advanced the plot of characters very much, especially Marceline. Princess Bubblegum got a little more depth, though.


In fact, the problem with this season was that unlike the seasons surrounding it, with major arcs largely focused on Finn, there’s not enough contrast between light and shade. Marceline is all darkness, Bubblegum only treading between bright pink and grey. What defines the current Adventure Time, a very long way out from its quirky initial pilot, is that it can contrast its silliness with surprising depth and ambition. I can see that this season brought to the fore some of the cleverer elements thought up for secondary characters, but they really pale beside Finn or the Ice King’s stories. And that leaves this season a little sub-par. But certainly, it remains fun to watch.  

Monday, 3 July 2017

King of the Hill: seasons 7&8


This show began to lose its way a little by taking a show with the central premise of being believable and down-to-earth and introducing whacky and far-fetched scenarios, and that really showed in season 7.

The season had too much that was too far-fetched. Bobby got fooled into making drugs. Dale leads the gang in hunting Chuck Mangione through a megastore at night. A pork magnate tries to transform Luanne into a woman from an advertising illustration, and himself into a pig. Instead of small-town foibles and recognisable characters, the show starts dealing with people who think they’re wizards, sexy female pest exterminators, stereotyped bikers and vision quests. I guess dancing with dogs just about passes as familiar ground for middle-class America, but it’s a weird story.

There’s one great episode, though, finally filling in a pretty big gap in a show about Texas, which sees Hank embarrassed when his dog Ladybird appears to be racist. It raises some pretty important questions about this setting, previously left at ‘Are you Chinese or are you Japanese?’, so it was good to see development at last.

That aside, Season 7 mostly left me with the feeling that the show was in decline, I have to say. However, King of the Hill got back on track somewhat in the eighth season. 

Yes, there are still some parts that go a little over-the-top, like Luanne protesting from the mouth of a giant mechanical mascot, a TV star coming to stay or Hank finding himself having to decide whether or not to let part of the town flood in a downpour of rain, but the vast majority of these episodes are believable scenarios about everyday problems – like Bobby wanting to get out of showering after sports or Hank getting a bad back.

The character of Peggy is going a little too strange at this point. She was originally a very subtle character, a little too full of herself yet very slow to read between the lines, but in episodes about her getting a chance to be an artist or taking pictures of a Flat Stanley doll, she crosses the line to being outright delusional and probably psychotic. She provided the highlights of several past seasons, but now she’s just a little too much. I suppose it’s an example of Flanderisation.

There are extremely big-name guest stars in this season. Brad Pitt has a lot of fun as Boomhauer’s brother in a performance that may as well have just been Mike Judge speaking in a slightly different register. Lindsey Lohan, early in her career, plays a love interest for Bobby. And then there’s Johnny Depp hamming it up as a conceited yoga instructor. None of them get in the way of the episode or draw undue attention, and it’s pretty likely only very big fans would recognise any of them before the credits. Ben Stiller also has a role as an annoying guy who thinks he’s far funnier than he is…meta humour, there, perhaps?

Some very memorable episodes worked out well here, like Hank hiring a big rig to play at being truckers for a while, or Bill managing to be popular by pretending to be gay – which sounds like it would be offensive but of course only highlights the ridiculousness of exaggerated perceptions of minorities.
At this stage there is a slight feeling of the show being played out. I’m not sure what the remaining 5 seasons will bring to the premise. But I’m still willing to find out, and the show remains a fun, now comfortingly familiar, piece of TV.  

Monday, 19 June 2017

進撃の巨人 2期/ Shingeki no Kyoujin season 2 / The Advancing Giants season 2 / Attack on Titan Season 2

Season 2 of Shingeki no Kyoujin was woefully short, especially as it didn’t feel like it was that far above the rest of the crowd in terms of production budget or ambitiousness. There were some nicely-animated sequences, many of them strange things like Christa deciding to do battle, but there were some decidedly clunky parts as well, especially when it came to CG.

But if it feels woefully short, that means it’s enjoyable, and this second season certainly was. Absolutely one of the most prominent anime around just now, its popularity is backed by an intriguing setting and several layers of mystery.

This season brought us a lot of revelations – why Ymir is dotes so much on Christa, the identity of the most iconic abnormal titans (revealed in a brilliantly anticlimactic way), how the mindless titans are made and the true extent of Eren’s powers. Interestingly most of the season revolved around a plotline where Eren is a particularly grumpy damsel in distress. There are also new mysteries, like how the wall was made and by whom now that new details have been revealed, the identity of the beast titan and perhaps more about the smiling titan too. Then there’s the long-standing mystery of what Eren’s father did, and why.

Of course I want more. Much more, and quickly. But I’ll also wait patiently. I read a few manga chapters in advance but spoiled only the cliffhangers from that point, not any of the larger mysteries, and I intend to enjoy them animated first. I can make a few predictions based on what we’ve learned so far, but I can stress that these are not spoilers, only my guesses. Still, if you don’t want to read my speculation or haven’t finished this season, please look away now!

-       I think the beast titan is either Eren’s father or someone else very close to him
-       Since we’ve seen people can turn into titans, I think that more of the main cast will get titan powers later, especially Mikasa, Armin and Levi
-       Everything has been engineered by people, who probably live in a separate society ruled by the beast titan, and there’s going to be a huge battle against them
-       This season’s antagonists are probably going to be fodder for the big bads of the next arcs

It will be interesting to see if any of these are true or if I’m way off. Either way, it will be fun!

Saturday, 20 May 2017

The Land Before Time 2: The Great Valley Adventure

Less worthy than Fievel Goes West is this, the first of many, many sequels to The Land Before Time. It suffers many of the same problems - less sense of importance, less at stake and less sense of danger - but also has a much weaker central premise. 

That said, it establishes a fairly neat formula that would hold strong over many sequels and essentially does the same things that The Lion Guard would retread - rather more expertly - decades later. 

The plot follows the gang trying to be all grown up by foiling nasty egg thieves, for some reason given British accents by the actors behind Johnny Bravo and Pinky from Pinky and the Brain. They not only manage to foil these inept antagonists but end up hatching an egg. Not one of Ducky's siblings, as expected, but a Sharptooth! A baby tyrannosaurus. So begins a middle act about learning not to act with prejudice, even against a creature that will grow up to eat you without hesitation, and an inevitable third act about returning the baby to its vicious, voiceless parents. 

Almost none of the original cast sticks around, with only Cera of the main gang reprising her performance. I think this is before the tragic death of Judith Barsi, who played Ducky in the first movie, but her replacement does a decent job with the character's odd grammar. Littlefoot sounds older, but that works for a sequel and I didn't find fault with the main group. 

But the rest of the film is just too insubstantial. The egg thieves are bumbling idiots who pose little threat even to juvenile dinosaurs, and there's never any question of little Chomper’s fate, though I assume he'll be seen again in further sequels. In the original, poor Littlefoot is put through such a wide range of emotions it's very easy to empathise with him. In this sequel, there's just not enough to tug at the heart-strings or make us care about the current predicament. 

And that's what really gives the feel of a TV series as opposed to a movie. It's the sense of scale and significance. This movie would have been fine as three episodes of a TV show, but making a feature film demands rather more. At least Fievel Goes West tries to shake things up with a huge change of setting. This movie just continues from the first film with very little sense of peril or excitement, and the result, perhaps inevitably, is a film that just isn't very exciting. 

Friday, 19 May 2017

An American Tail: Fievel Goes West

An American Tail was one of Don Bluth's best, restrained by a simple but coherent narrative and centred on a very cute protagonist. So it makes sense that it got a sequel. 

However, as with other successful franchises he kicked off, the second theatrical American Tail movie - as with the TV series and direct-to-video follow-ups - had no involvement from Don Bluth. 
Fievel Goes West, while successful, has the feel of contemporary Disney sequels. Unlike Pixar's follow-ups, these tended to be rather cheaper and less impressive than their predecessors. So it is with Fievel Goes West - while it has elements on the premium side, like voice acting from John Cleese and the final performance from James Stewart, as well as some ambitious action sequences, overall everything is just shallower, less well-executed and less believable. 
The original has a simple set-up with plenty of grit and misery to balance the cuteness and light. The sequel is just a bit too silly to carry the torch. 

One significant positive is that Fievel's character developed in a believable way. He's grown up a little since the first movie, with more confidence and even headstrong selfishness. It works, and aligns well with his burgeoning interest in cowboys. 

Perhaps the most crucial problem is that the sequel lacks a sense of danger. A spider doesn't seem like it should be a threat to anyone, even a mouse. While Cleese's character is compelling and believable, his ultimate plan is too stupid for any situation beyond a Saturday morning cartoon. And in particular, Tiger's storyline is far-fetched, at times racially insensitive and ultimately doesn't bring enough gravitas to a final action scene - especially with little Fievel participating. 


Overall, Fievel Goes West is not a bad movie. It's perfectly watchable and better than other Bluth-movie sequels, especially the execrable Timmy to the Rescue. But it doesn't quite manage to escape that feeling that it's been thrown together by writers who don't care for the material and only want to retread familiar old story paths, takes the slapstick too far in a way the original didn't, and doesn't give enough reason to care about its characters. Not a worthy sequel, but not a dire one either. 

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

An American Tail

Don Bluth does well with mice. The Secret of NiMH was his breakthrough, and remains a very strong movie. But perhaps his biggest cultural hit was An American Tail – though I’d have to say there’s stiff competition from dinosaurs.

Another one I haven’t viewed for many years, as a child much of the significance of this movie went over my head. I didn’t have a clear idea of the imagery immigrants to the States expected in the late 19th century, let alone understand a thing about Russian Jews. To a child, those nuances probably don’t matter so much. But they’re very interesting as an adult.
An American Tail does absolutely everything better than All Dogs Go to Heaven. The animation is much better, with Fievel (or Feivel, sometimes) actually being very cute, and rotoscoped/xerographed elements looking impressive without getting too jarring. The story is compelling and each episode adds to the story. The music is fantastic, especially ‘Somewhere Out There’, and whereas All Dogs Go to Heaven tries to incorporate different musical elements through patronising stereotypes, An American Tail actually pays tribute to different immigrant cultures (though some Irish people might see cause for complaint) and spices up musical numbers with traditional musical styles. It even has a message of not judging based on race despite the mice-versus-cats set-up, with Tiger being quite unlike the rest.

Where An American Tail succeeds is in its multiple narratives. There’s Fievel looking for his parents, the secret plan he sets in motion, a very simple love story on the side, and the tragicomic conceit of the family always missing seeing their son while Fievel’s sister Tanya never gives up hope. Indeed, perhaps the film’s greatest appeal is its contrasts between sadness and hope.

Bluth is also allowed to be playful. Monstrous waves are very much in his style, and he adds in many fun touches like distorting glasses and an inventive sequence with the water sloshing about in a boat.
Maybe I could have done without the final Statue of Liberty sequence, but this is in every way a strong family film and deserves to be remembered every bit as fondly as Disney’s classics.


I very much enjoyed going back to this little story – and even if Bluth is not involved, I’ll be sure to watch Fievel Goes West at some point.