Thursday, 13 October 2016

King of the Hill: season 2

After a successful first season, King of the Hill continues with more of the same, but it’s the kind of development that really works for this kind of show. There are some episodes that take advantage of the animated medium, including the unlikely events of a huge twister and an unexpected explosion for a season cliffhanger, but generally this show’s strength is that it deals with the everyday clash between traditional conservative America and the modern world.

What I like about King of the Hill is that Hank and Peggy are no more angels than they are clowns. They are in many ways stereotypical and absurd, but they’re also good-hearted without being heroic. They do their best even if they have a lot of daft values and are prudish to the point of silliness, and equally they’re often in the right without being role models. Their small-minded conservative values are lampooned, but the left-wing hippies and bureaucrats they encounter are more ridiculous still.

There are interesting questions raised here about tolerance and progression, as when Connie wants to join the boys’ wrestling team and Peggy has to begin to question if girls and boys ought to be able to do the same things, when Hank has to accept his mother’s Jewish boyfriend and poor Bobby gets entirely the wrong idea about a black comedian’s race-based jokes.

While the more exaggerated episodes are interesting, like when Hank takes a video store to court, the Hills and Khans go to Mexico or Peggy finds out the truth about an old romantic story and hunts down a random woman who once kissed her husband, the best episodes revolve around small-scale family issues. The kids get lost in some local caves, an uppity academic organises a dig in the Hill’s back yard and Peggy’s loyalties are divided, and poor Luanne has to deal with her alcoholic, manipulative mother.

My favourite episode was a little on the exaggerated side, though. Hank has a mix-up over where to buy fish bait and gets in a whole lot of trouble. It’s just credulous enough to work while being a very silly, funny situation.

The season finale heralds a bit of a shake-up, and I think that’s needed. While I really enjoy King of the Hill, already at season 2 it runs the risk of getting stale, so the key now is a bit of variety. We’ll see in season 3!

Sunday, 9 October 2016


Don Bluth’s career reached its apex here. He’d left Disney after The Fox and the Hound, and scored a hit with my personal favourite of his movies, The Secret of NiMH. He’d also teamed up with Spielberg for the highly successful The Land Before Time, All Dogs Go to Heaven and An American Tail. Then came Anastasia, which was a big hit and is fondly remembered by numerous people only casually interested in animation as one of their favourite Disney films. While this could have been Fox’s big entry into the world of serious, epic animation, however, Bluth blew it with bloated follow-up Titan AE. It wasn’t terrible, but it was definitely a flop and Fox didn’t make another animated feature film until sure-fire cash-in The Simpsons Movie.

So in many ways Anastasia is Bluth’s masterpiece – though we shouldn’t write him off yet, as the crowd-funded Dragon’s Lair animation may yet be a big hit. It’s certainly a good animated film – grand in scale, beautiful to look at with strong narrative-driven music. It has its faults but it’s definitely up there with the best and may have the most beautiful backgrounds of any animation I’ve ever seen.

Anastasia deals with a familiar story, a kind of modern fairy tale. After the Russian revolution, Grand Duchess Anastasia is still alive, living with amnesia in a Russian orphanage. She is taken to her grandmother by men who want to defraud her, though eventually the truth shines through. Made in 1997, this film came before the remains of Alexei and either Anastasia or Maria (the other having been in the main grave) were discovered – though in no way claimed to be historically accurate, or demanded to be taken seriously. The plot is lifted in simplified form from an earlier live-action movie, so the film is not the source for the fanciful interpretation of history.

In visual terms, the film has much to recommend it, but is in places uneven. Bluth’s debt to Disney has never been so apparent, especially with squirrels that look straight out of Sword in the Stone and the cute little dog Pooka who looks a lot like Gurgi in true dog form. The facial designs are very Disney and Rasputin here owes a lot to Jafar (who of course owes a lot to Zigzag), unfortunately being just a little too comedic rather than formidable for my liking. He is a little too distant, sending minions to sabotage trains or putting visions into Anastasia’s head when she’s asleep, only appearing for a showdown at the very end and then being rather ineffectual. There’s an echo of Scar in his musical number, too, which is particularly appropriate given JimCummings provides the singing performance.

But the speaking voice comes from Christopher Lloyd, one of several actors clearly having a wonderful time here. Meg Ryan and John Cusack turn in uninteresting leading character performances, but there’s far more fun to be had with Angela Lansbury putting in a bit of class, Hank Azaria mixing a cod-Russian accent with his Chief Wiggum voice for adorable comedy sidekick Bartok the Bat, and Kelsey Grammar hamming it up as affable fat man Vlad.

The romance doesn’t sizzle, the bad guy doesn’t give any shivers down the spine and the songs don’t worm their way into the brain quite enough. The visuals are also undercut a bit by rather strange facial designs (especially Dimitri’s nose) and an overreliance on rotoscoping every time there’s a full-body shot, but these don’t drag the film down far. It’s satisfying, grandiose and rather beautiful, even if it’s not perfect and doesn’t quite have the emotional resonance to make me want to re-watch. After all, last night was the first time I sat through it again since first watching in 1998!

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Oliver & Company

Oliver & Company gets a bad rap. Released in 1988, it comes at the end of Disney’s slump, following the difficult The Black Cauldron and the forgettable The Great Mouse Detective, and just before The Little Mermaid – the recognised start of the Disney renaissance. But the problem isn’t that it’s a substandard film or an embarrassment to Disney, nor a huge departure from the established filmmaking process. It’s that Oliver and Company is just decent, which for a major studio like Disney is just adequate. There’s a lot to like here and a lot that is strong and well-constructed, but the problem is that the scale is too small and it pales beside other Disney stories that are epic in their scope and the original.

Oliver & Company is Oliver Twist with animals – and in New York. Oliver is a cute kitten while the Dodger and the rest of Fagin’s gang are dogs. Fagin himself is human, and perhaps the ugliest of all Disney’s major characters, while Bill Sykes here becomes a merciless extortionist. Instead of Mr. Brownlow, Oliver is taken in by a very cute little girl named Jenny Foxworth, who made me realise that most of Disney’s supposedly cute little girls are actually rather fussy and annoying. Jenny may be the cutest of Disney’s young girl characters.

What Oliver & Company does well is its characters. Oliver is very cute and Dodger, while he could have been developed more, was convincingly compassionate. The rest of the gang is made up of tokens from stock, but they’re above average stock characters. There’s a British bulldog who loves Shakespeare, a big but dim-witted Great Dane, and a random female dog sadly given very little personality. Cheech Marin steals the show as hyperactive Chihuahua Tito, before his more threatening role in The Lion King a few years later. Then there’s Bette Midler giving an absolutely pitch-perfect performance as a spoilt, self-centred poodle who alone makes the film worth watching. I’ll never forget the way she ‘barks’. Fagin himself is a bumbling Dom DeLuise character very like the various crows and cats he plays in Don Bluth animated features, and while his final shows of compassion are nice, more could have been made of him.

The problem here is that in making it the story of one cat who gets mixed up with a petty criminal, one rich girl and one nasty criminal, the scale stays very small. Other Disney movies are about the fate of kingdoms or preventing the wholesale slaughter of puppies. Here, well, there’s a lot of peril for our little gang and surprisingly there is also some pretty violent death, but it feels like the worst that would have happened otherwise would be a little girl got ransomed.

Thus, Oliver & Company just falls short. Even in the Dickens story the stakes are much higher, be it inheritance theft, boys being shot, likeable criminals getting hung, prostitutes wanting to escape abusive relationships or serious comments on social inequality. This adaptation keeps things very light, and the price paid is becoming forgettable. But it is a bit sad the film is virtually erased from Disney’s merchandising or theming efforts. The songs are also dated and would have done better with jazzy instrumentation, the synthesised drums anything but timeless.

But this is not to say the movie is bad at all. It’s well worth seeing and the animals are cute. There are some very funny character moments and the animation, while never stunning, is nice and smooth with some interesting and well-integrated early use of CG. But the fact is that some kind of fantasy setting or a feeling of much higher stakes would have made the film much more engaging and memorable.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

D.Gray-Man: Hallow

I have to admit, I did not expect the D.Gray-Man anime to continue. Ten years after the original began, and with the manga first going from weekly to monthly with the switch from Jump to Jump SQ, then going on a two-and-a-half-year hiatus, I just never thought we’d see an animated continuation. Which was a shame, because I’ve always had a real soft spot for Allen Walker and his motley crew of exorcists.

This short, 13-episode season continues where the last season left off, and unfortunately the chapters it covers are a bit haphazard and uneven. It’s good that the show gets to ease in again with the introduction of Timothy, whose blue mullet and cute shorts and amusing powers I’ve always enjoyed, but the problem is that no sooner is he introduced than he becomes an extremely minor background character, where he remains to the current manga chapter.

Then we have fan favourite Kanda getting his emotional backstory, as the mysterious Third Exorcist Project is undermined by the Millennium Earl by revealing Kanda and the mysterious Alma were created in the Second Exorcist Project, and using this knowledge to cause chaos. Allen gets to witness an extended memory sequence of adorable shota versions of Kanda and Alma, blessed with great strength and a healing factor, but doomed to be torn apart by the truth. It’s a nice, self-contained background story, but eats up almost the whole of this season, completely ruining its pacing.

This leaves only the final episodes to tease the story to come – which is extremely convoluted and confusing. The Millennium Earl’s true face is revealed as various new Noah make their appearance, a few of them looking way too similar to one another, and the relationship between Nea and Mana is teased. It’s a very unsatisfying cliffhanger to leave the season on, especially with so little build-up, and if this season could be kicked off by the quick and easy Timothy / Phantom Thief G story, next season would begin with – without spoiling the manga – several episodes of slow, dull, rather confusing chapters from probably the worst period of serialisation. This makes me worry we won’t see any more of the show, but where Hallow left off was a very poor end point, so I hope that’s not the case and they find a way to have the next season start in an interesting fashion, even if it means original material.

For all the small qualms I had, though, the central point is that it was a delight to see the show on the screen again. I didn’t mind all the changes in voice actors at all, though Lavi sounded a bit strange. Allen Walker remains a favourite character and with Timothy and the flashback to Alma and young Kanda, this section of the manga had a huge focus on cute adolescent boy characters. It’s nice to start seeing more depth to the Millennium Earl, and Road gets some good moments, too.

I’m still a manga reader, and that’s not going to change, but the more the manga gets adapted to an anime, the happier I’ll be, and if we get an adaptation right up until the manga’s eventual conclusion, I’ll be very happy indeed.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Mob Psycho 100

Well, I totally fell for the silly, simple charm of One Punch Man, so was keen to watch the other series from creator One, and ended up catching up with all the available manga too.

Honestly, there isn’t a whole lot of difference between One Punch Man and Mob Psycho 100. If you dislike one, I’m sure you’d dislike the other. Both centre on unassuming, rather goofy and socially awkward guys who just happen to be incredibly powerful, with the comedy usually turning on them being underestimated and then showing their strength – and then things can be serious when a genuinely strong opponent appears. Which, let’s face it, is basically the same schtick as the first year or two of Dragonball. And numerous other Jump series, too.

Fortunately, though, I loved One Punch Man (and early Dragonball), so more of the same is good for me. Where One Punch Man focuses on superhero stories and builds upon that, for Mob Psycho 100, it’s ESPers, people with psychic power. Again, there’s a goofy main character who nobody thinks will be powerful, this time a young boy rather than a young adult, though they’re drawn extremely similarly. In rather a genius touch, the incredibly powerful young psychic works for a con-man, who until he met young Kageyama Shigeo (also known as Mob, the Japanese term for ‘background extra’) thought that psychic powers weren’t real and has been exploiting the gullible.

There are a number of concurrent themes running through Mob Psycho 100. Shigeo wants to become popular, but is very easy to ignore. His brother is very outgoing and likeable but hasn’t been able to show any psychic ability. Shigeo comes up against evil spirits (one of whom becomes a comedic ally) and a rival psychic who follows a classic story path of being too proud, getting humiliated and then becoming an ally. The series, sadly only 12 episodes long, concludes with a satisfying battle against a shady hidden organisation, with plenty of bathos but also impressive action scenes.

Like One Punch Man, this series doesn’t work purely on its premise, but by having very likable characters and actually being funny. The moment where Shigeo makes his decision on which school club to join will endure as one of the funniest moments in an anime I’ve seen for quite a while.

Because I’ve now read the manga, I have to say that there’s a whole lot more material still to come that I’m looking forward to rather more than anything in this season. There are good emotional moments and some great action scenes. But certainly there is room in the world for both Mob Psycho 100 and One Punch Man, and I want more of both, much more, and soon. Alternating series of the two shows with all iterations of the manga and webcomic versions being sporadically released suits me just fine.

Monday, 12 September 2016

The Simpsons season 11

‘Behind the Laughter’ sums up the state of The Simpsons by season 11. It was a pretty poor episode, lacking in laughs but with the occasional bright moment, and at least not just a clip show. But by this stage the jokes were about terrible episodes like ‘The Principal and the Pauper’ and some of the more stupid celebrity cameos.

There are still some good episodes, of course. This isn’t quite the nadir yet. Episodes where Bart is put on Focusyn and where the family have to live in Mr. Burns’ mansion and Homer gets carried away are good ones. But there’s just too much nonsense and the grip on reality is long gone. In this season alone, Bart becomes a faith healer, has a mystical vision of his future and adopts another horse. Homer, meanwhile, becomes a Hell’s Angel, a professional duellist, a food critic, a Hollywood writer, a missionary and almost entirely responsible for Maud Flanders’ death in what would otherwise have been a clever and interesting piece of continuity development and was otherwise a strong episode.

Oh, and for some reason Maggie is a bowling savant.

Some parts just about work, like when Lisa gets Bart and Homer sent to a leper colony, or evil corporate sponsors turn Apu’s kids into a zoo exhibit. Other ideas are fairly normal but ruined by bizarre twists, like when Lisa takes up tap dancing and ends up assisted by science-magic dancing shoes.

But by far the worst part of this season is that it’s now very clear Homer has made the change from likeable idiot who loves his family to outright psychopath. Say what you will about Flanderisation, the devolution of Homer’s character is by far the worst thing to happen to the Simpsons. But at least at this stage, the show is generally enjoyable. 

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

King of the Hill – season 1

It’s one of those shows everybody watched but few call a big hit. It’s not as iconic or easy to merchandise as The Simpsons, South Park or even the show that (sadly) replaced it, Family Guy. It didn’t have the same mass appeal as its creator Mike Judge’s previous hit, Beavis and Butthead. Some might say it may as well have been live-action. But in many ways, King of the Hill is the best of the bunch.

Traditional right-wing American values are under fire just now, especially if you spend a lot of time on the Internet. Many observers, including centrists like me, are concerned by the growing authoritarianism, bullying tactics and outright cruelty on display from the far left, who at some point have to realise they’re not the good guys when they behave just like those they detest. I can’t imagine how that kind of person would perceive King of the Hill. But the whole point of the show is that it’s not a celebration of conservative small-town America. It’s an affectionate lampooning of it. It portrays a traditional Texan community full of xenophobes, homophobes and extremely fragile masculinity, but rather than eviscerating them, it gently exposes the follies and foibles of ignorance while accepting that these kind of people can also be likeable, good-hearted and ready to learn. In a world of safe spaces, echo chambers and thought policing, a show like King of the Hill would be extremely healthy viewing, poking fun at the right and left of the American political spectrum without viciousness.

I watched King of the Hill as a child and teenager, but didn’t really get it. I wasn’t familiar with the American small-town mentality, conservative values or particularly Texan idiosyncrasies. A lot went over my head, like that Dale was a conspiracy theorist wholly unaware that he’s being very obviously cuckolded and is raising another man’s son – which should resonate with the so-called ‘alt-right’ just now, with their obsession with ‘cucks’ and tin-foil-hat theories.

Rewatching the show now, I’m thoroughly enjoying it. The first season was a short 13 episodes, but it’s quite astonishing how quickly the show not only introduces its core cast, but makes every single one of them both buffoonish and likeable. Hank Hill is such a wonderful character because there’s far more nuance to him than Homer Simpson or Peter Griffin. He’s big and tough but deeply insecure because of his overbearing father. He’s lost in a modern world and terrified of liberal values as well as comically prudish. But he loves his family, wants to help others and wants to protect a way of life he adores. Yet he is constantly challenged, looks like an idiot at first (‘So are you Chinese or Japanese?’) but later actually learns and develops. Peggy is hilarious, sometimes a voice of reason and sometimes dangerously competitive or self-centred with a wonderfully gung-ho attitude to Spanish. Bobby pre-empts the popular character type later seen in the youngest boys of Malcolm in the Middle and The Middle but manages to always seem reasonable in his bizarre behaviour. Luanne is more than token overemotional trailer trash, and has some of the season’s best one-liners, with Brittany Murphy’s subsequent stardom an amusing footnote.

Hank’s friends Dale and Bill are classic loser characters, yet each gets moments to shine to lift them from being one-note joke characters. Boomhauer is more one-note but he’s so funny I don’t mind, and mysteriously he also gets the additional character quality of being a womaniser. The Laotian family next door are in many ways stereotypes but are actually very nuanced, fiery characters, each with a lot of distinct personality.

The humour largely comes from small-town characters having to deal with a developing modern world and confronting their prejudices, usually highlighting the arbitrary nature of some signifiers of what is masculine or what is American. It’s a healthy examination of a section of society that is as gentle and subtle as it is cutting. King of the Hill is smart and insightful, and right now, it’s more fun to watch its early seasons than The Simpsons past its glory days.