Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Animation Appreciation: Street of Crocodiles

Anyone who is interested in creepy stop motion involving dust, broken baby dolls, and discarded metal parts should look long and hard for the original masters of the craft, the Brothers Quay.

Stephen and Timothy Quay are American-born, European-based stop-motion animators, who started making short films with Nocturna Artificialia in 1979, and since then have created many short films, as well as contributing to several other artistic and commercial projects, and directing two full-length live-action movies.

They draw influence  from various sources, including Franz Kafka, Polish movie poster art, and Bruno Schulz. Nearly all Quay shorts are dialogue-free (except for, sometimes, meaningless background chatter), and have the strangeness of bizarre dreams. All of it feels completely natural and unassuming, the product of people simply making what they wished to make.

I have many favourite Quay films, including The Epic of Gilgamesh, or This Unnameable Little Broom, The Comb (From The Museums Of Sleep), Stille Nacht III: Tales From Vienna Woods, both of their videos for His Name is Alive, and In Absentia, but the best one is their most famous work, Street of Crocodiles.

Street of Crocodiles is based on a short story/chapter in the book The Cinnamon Shops by Polish writer Bruno Schulz. In the original story, Schulz describes his town in a dreamlike but harsh fashion, showcasing the bleak and stagnant nature of the area, a place in which nothing of meaning or impart happens or can happen.

The Quays adapt this into a dark vision of urban decay. The puppet protagonist (called the "Schulz-puppet" in the audio commentary) wanders through a dust-coated, mechanical market, full of useless machines, lost junk and literal dead ends. He is accosted by a tailor and his assistants (represented with hollowed-out baby-doll heads and travelling on wheeled platforms rather than legs), who take him apart and put him back together.

I wonder sometimes if anyone will read this and think that Street of Crocodiles sounds like pretentious garbage. But it's not. Sometimes a person's mind will just produce something weird and bizarre on its own, without trying to posture or hoodwink.

And there is a logic, a cohesion to the story of Street of Crocodiles once you treat it as operating like a dream or a nightmare, instead of a standard narrative, and then understand it's a story about the emptiness and uselessness of this urban environment.

Street of Crocodiles is my favourite Quay film because I'm always fascinated by abandoned urban environments and mechanical death, and I appreciate the dreamlike nature of the story. However, it's only my favourite by a very narrow margin, and I'd recommend checking out all the Quay works that you can.

Animation Appreciation: Princess Mononoke

I hate myself a little for declaring the darkest Hayao Miyazaki film to be my favourite one (like many, I credit the director as the brains behind a film, so Yoshifumi Kondo's Whipser of the Heart is not a Miyazaki movie to me, despite his extensive involvement), but damn, it's a great movie.

Princess Mononoke is the story of a changing era, one rooted in both reality and fantasy, and it is, like many fantasy stories, about the thinning of magic as technology marches on.

 However, it refuses to settle on simple answers or simple portrayals. For me, Princess Mononoke was an early lesson in showing both sides of a conflict while still having a definite preference. Also in being less heavy-handed with the themes, allowing them to come out through the personalities of real characters, rather than mouthpieces.

And the ending is bittersweet.

Princess Mononoke is the story of Ashitaka, prince of the dwindling Emishi people. A boar-god (for this is the days when animals were kami, great and sapient gods of the forest), infected with hate, has given Ashitaka a tainted mark. Ashitaka's destiny is to leave home and find a cure before this mark grows, destroying his body and mind.

Ashitaka ends up in the midst of a war between Iron Town and the kami of the surrounding forest. On the side of the kami is San, the adopted human daughter of Moro, the wolf, while Lady Eboshi leads Iron Town, a metalworking fortress/camp and a place for the outcasts and the downtrodden. And there is the emperor, never seen, but his desire for the head of the Forest Spirit will change all of their lives.

It's clear Miyazaki sides with the world of nature, as Ashitaka falls in love with San and tries to protest Lady Eboshi's actions, while Eboshi, despite her compassion for human outcasts, aids in taking the Forest Spirit's head. By using a "neutral" character as a viewpoint, and giving Eboshi many positive traits (so much that Eboshi is my favourite character in the movie), the film is not ham-fisted.

Furthermore, while it's true that Iron Town is destroyed, the Forest Spirit gets its head back before it dies, and Eboshi is minus one arm, it isn't a whole victory. Eboshi promises to rebuild Iron Town, San and Ashitaka will stay apart, and we all know what Japan is like today.

It all suggests the battles have simply forestalled the inevitable. Industry will come, take over more of the forests, and the animals will become ordinary beasts. Lord Okoto, the other boar kami, has already said that it's happening, and he also dies in battle. While the characters have not worked for nothing, the story isn't as simple as the heroes triumphing over villains, or the reverse.

While I dislike rabid anime fans who believe the Japanese can teach Americans about complex storytelling, Princess Mononoke teaches some great lessons about writing. This is how you communicate themes gracefully. This is how you have sympathy for all of your characters and create a richer world by doing it. This is how you keep the audience guessing as to your ending.

Creating Ashitaka also helps. He isn't a completely neutral character, but he is a newcomer to the area and doesn't instantly choose sides, and so we can see both sides of the conflict through him. And thankfully, he doesn't become a cipher because of this role. Ashitaka is naive, but he has convictions and a strong will, so he isn't overshadowed.

It's also interesting that Ashitaka is male, and San and Eboshi are female. Usually it is the female character who is the stabilizing force between two warring males. Princess Mononoke reverses this role, and that in itself makes the film noteworthy. Women (including San's adoptive mother , the wolf Moro) are some of the most powerful and the most vicious beings in the script.

The story adds failure to this mix, as despite his moderate influence, Ashitaka cannot mediate. He tries to tell Eboshi about the thin ground she is treading on, but she does not listen. Ashitaka tries to "free" San, but ultimately cannot. She acknowledges her feelings for him, but will not leave the wolves.

Yet the film is not bleak. Ashitaka is cleared of his mark, and there are trees growing—there is even room to cheer for the hardy residents of Iron Town, who promise to rebuild. There is hope for the future, but the hope may involve adapting to change, accepting it, or you may end up nothing but dead meat.

Visually, Princess Mononoke is incredible. Gorgeous forest backgrounds, detailed costumes and animals, and huge, breathtaking vistas. Most of the CGI is also well-integrated, though there are a few hiccups. The Forest Spirit is a particular standout, a strange, eerie creature that operates in complete silence and embodies nature as a neutral and unpredictable force.

The dub is famous for being written by Neil Gaiman, and being the first of the many celebrity-voiced dubs produced by Disney (at this point, released through Miramax). I had this on English VHS for the longest time so the dub is burned into my brain, but in several places it sounds stiff and unnatural, despite the efforts of so many great people. It's not a bad dub, it's just not amazing.

But is this a beautiful film. Princess Mononoke simply deserves every ounce of praise it gets.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Animation Appreciation: The Simpsons

The Simpsons is something that has been so integrated into American and Canadian culture that any discussion of it will be redundant. Everyone knows what this show is, everyone knows how long it's been around, and how it is so quotable. But my interest in The Simpsons has undergone a personal revival, and it makes the series easy for me to talk about, even if I'm not bringing in anything new.

While the better days of the series are behind it, the best seasons of The Simpsons are still what define the series in my head. I grew up with The Simpsons like everyone in North America did, but I've only grown to have a strong respect for it as an adult. This means that watching the series again was a whole new experience.

The Simpsons is a series that functions on multiple levels, and despite the belief that it celebrates lowbrow comedy, each of the best episodes are packed with allusions and references, deliver jokes by the ton, and contain both earnest human feeling and point-blank satire. Usually nothing gets too callous or too sappy, and the best episodes get better as you age, able to see more and more of the show's different levels of humour.

The Simpsons is also a great example of the way that you can take stereotypes and build something amazing out of them. The Simpson family are a deliberate throwback to the sitcoms of yesterday, and can certainly be distilled into a set of quick, stereotypical descriptions. The type of character each Simpson is, based on their age, gender, and occupation, does nothing to surprise the viewer. But the way the series tells its stories makes up for that. Much has been written about the way that (pre-jerkass) Homer is a far richer character than you might think, but that case can be made for all of them, including Maggie.

My personal favourite Simpsons are Lisa and Homer, again in their better days. Lisa I like because I can relate to being the smart outcast, but the fact that she's allowed to be wrong, and allowed to be childish, is what really sells her. Homer, well, we all dislike the fat idiot dad, but at least Homer is caring (but stupid), he's actually called out, and we can respect his passions as long as we forget these things are treated as strictly male indulgences.

For the many, many, great second and third-tier characters, I don't feel any emotional attachment to any of them, but the way that they make Springfield a populated world is great, and they sure are funny. Springfield is a great stand-in for Every-(North) America, a town with every popular institution found in almost every city, and most of its critiques don't truly feel dated. But it'd all be worthless if the characters weren't fun, didn't draw you in.

There are a lot of animated sitcoms out there, but it's unfair to treat it as a tired format when it produced something like The Simpsons in its glory days. It's a show that, if it doesn't have it all, sure has a hell of a lot of stuff.

My cut-off dates for "The Good Simpsons" are season 1-9, though I haven't watched season ten in a while; while season one is rough, I still enjoy it. Many of The Simpsons' strengths are beginning to show, and it's fun to watch them take shape. The episodes are also genuinely entertaining: "Moaning Lisa" is one of my all-time favourites, for the way it deals with ennui in a delicate, respectful way.

(The first season is also not particularly focused on Bart—Bart's a great character, but the idea that season one was "The Bart Show" comes from mistaking the kid's breakout popularity with prominence on the show itself.)

Furthermore, while the first season animation style is more rubbery than the series needs, it reminds me of certain Canadian animated shorts, like the work of Richard Condie, and that can only be a good thing. In fact, the Scrabble scene in Condie's famous "The Big Snit" was an influence on the Scrabble scene in "Bart the Genius".

When it comes to episodes past these seasons, no, I haven't watched every one and made notes to prove why they don't work. I just find the episodes that I have seen to be harsh and garish. They can still make observations about human culture or have a good line or so, but there's no heart or teeth to the show anymore. It just doesn't look or sound or feel "right", and is often struggling to be relevant the same way long-running newspaper comics do.

There's just this fundamental drop in quality that can't be overlooked, can't be explained away by nostalgia or by unreasonably high standards. It's nothing excessive to believe a series has lost its touch. I don't watch those other seasons of The Simpsons and keep my opinion on them hidden, but I agree with anybody who believes The Simpsons ain't as good as it was.

But once upon a time it was a great show, and deserves to be celebrated as that. To be looked back on, and seen again, and again. It might be hard to see The Simpsons again with fresh eyes, but I encourage everybody to do it.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Some Words against Griffith Apologism

 Griffith from Berserk wasn't manipulated by the God Hand. If he was, the entire story, all the hate and all that Guts has fought for, would be meaningless. It wouldn't be a personal conflict anymore, but yet another story about a hero being besieged by faceless villains. That Griffith made that choice, and personally destroyed Guts and Casca, is what makes the story meaningful.

And the evidence is strong that becoming Femto wasn't the result of manipulating Griffith, but of showing exactly who he was all along.

Regarding Griffith's personal character, well, it's clear he was a bad seed even beforehand. While it might be argued that his attacks on the royalty were simple retribution, Griffith is very, very good at these things.

Someone who leaves others to burn to death or arranges for the kidnapping of a child to be used as a bargaining tool, regardless of circumstances, can't be seen as a fine, upstanding individual. There was something dark in Griffith, or destiny would not have chosen him to become a member of the God Hand.

But let's look at the Eclipse itself. At that time, Griffith was a ruin of a man, mutilated in body, mind, and spirit. About to commit suicide. The Hand offered him a way out.

Some claim Griffith was not in his right mind when he made the bargain, and therefore the results can't be held against him. But, while Griffith was worn down to almost nothing, the Hand appealed to what we had seen of Griffith before, and they did not manipulate Griffith: they reminded him.

And they reminded Griffith of things that were completely true. First, that he had ambitions, dreams that now would be impossible to fulfill for a crippled man in a medieval society. All he could do is sit in a chair and be fed by Casca, a scenario which, no matter how bucolic it was, represented Griffith's worst nightmare.

They told Griffith he would only achieve his dreams through strife and bloodshed, and they still were not lying. The Sacrifice would be just another example of the way that kingdoms were founded on mountains of corpses, which is a fact of Midland.

Griffith was never lied to at any point, but simply shown the actual choice before him: make the Sacrifice, or lose his dream. He chose the dream. He said "yes" to the wholesale slaughter of his men, but it was consistent with the Griffith we saw, what Griffith would have wanted.

On some level Griffith must have valued his men, or the Sacrifice would have been meaningless, and yet Griffith still made that choice. We have seen before that he has the capacity for evil, and that ambition is what drives him above all else. Even his own body is a tool for achieving those ends.

Further proof is that as Femto, Griffith singled out Guts and Casca for special tortures. Femto would not have done this if he did not possess Griffith's hates and wants—if he wasn't Griffith. The two beings are the same, and what Femto does is only an expression of the evil that Griffith already had inside him. Griffith was only told the truth, and reacted as one expected him to.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Animation Appreciation: The Collective Animated Shorts of the National Film Board of Canada

I am cheating again. But I have to cheat: there is none out of my favourite shorts that I would pick above the others, and the entire library deserves kudos.

It always breaks my heart when animation fans, upon finding a Canadian-produced cartoon they don't like, declare all Canadian animation to be garbage and that our country should stay far away from doing it. We're just as capable as any other land mass of making great cartoons, and this oughta prove it.

In addition to the films and documentaries it's known for, The National Film Board of Canada has been producing and distributing animated shorts since 1941, in a multitude of forms, styles, and purposes.

They range from moralistic children's animation to sleek art pieces, from original stories to local folktales, and are brought to life cel, computer, and various solid materials. Television series showed these shorts to the public, while others have been broadcasted singly on public television, or released in themed video collections. Many can be found online, though not always legally.

Here are my personal favourites and their directors:

Two Sisters by Caroline Leaf
The Owl Who Married a Goose by Caroline Leaf
How Wings Are Attached to the Backs of Angels  by Craig Welch
Bead Game by Ishu Patel
Paradise by Ishu Patel
Getting Started by Richard Condie
The Big Snit by Richard Condie
Why Me? by Derek Lamb and Janet Perlman
Strings by Wendy Tilby
When the Day Breaks by Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby
La Merle by Norm McLaren
Blankety Blank by Norm McLaren
Walking by Ryan Larkin
Street Musique by Ryan Larkin
Sleeping Betty by Claude Cloutier
The Log Driver's Waltz by John Weldon
The Sand Castle by Co Hoedman
Hunger by Peter Foldes
Mr. Frog Went A-Courtin' by Evelyn Lambert

It's impossible to choose one of these as my most favourite, because they all offer different things, and are done by different directors. Still, I'm thankful that my country's given me these options, and these fantastic shorts. I've probably even forgotten a few of my favourites, but there was the big list.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Animation Appreciation: Super Dimension Fortress Macross

In January of 2008, Space: The Imagination Station (the Canadian equivalent to the ex-Sci-Fi Channel), started airing Robotech at a breakneck pace of two episodes every weekday afternoon. This didn't last long, but kicked off a long and happy interest in the first component of this anime mash-up: the 1982 giant robot series Super Dimension Fortress Macross.

Make no mistake, while there is a something which drives my interest in all things Macross, the entire show is worth watching and worth praising, and I am entertained by all of its facets.

In the year 1999, an alien war fortress crashed to Earth. Ten years later, the remains of the fortress have been rebuilt into the Macross. On the day of the launch, the fortress is attacked by aliens called the Zentradi. Hikaru Ichijo, a young stunt pilot, finds himself accidentally recruited into the army and decides to stay there, while he gets involved in a love triangle between Misa Hayase, his older military superior, and Lynn Minmay, a young up-and-coming pop star.

Meanwhile, it seems that the war with the Zentradi won't be won by guns alone. The Zentradi develop a fascination with human culture and the male soldiers start defecting, beginning a chain reaction that leads to a military alliance and the Zentradi striking back against their superiors.

Very few works can hit that sweet spot of appealing to multiple audiences while staying true to a single story and motif. SDF Macross appeals to fans of war and mechs, to fans of romance and character drama, and those in between. Both of these sides feed off each other, work together, and make the story stronger.

But if you tried to define the tone of SDFM, it would be easy. SDF Macross is, despite its images of war, violence, and death, ultimately an idealistic series. It's one where love and music and accidentally appealing to mutual humanity are what win the day.

The series is also capable of slapstick comedy and pessimism, which only enhances the idealistic parts. When a series is capable of moving outside its "comfort zone", that informs us that it is capable of looking at the world from many viewpoints, and becomes richer for it.

But while I appreciate all of SDF Macross, my main interest is in the Zentradi, who have been a minor obsession of mine for several years, and probably will stick out as one of my favourite things ever. All of this wouldn't be possible except that SDFM had a well-developed secondary cast that was as able to capture the imagination of viewers as the main characters did.

The Zentradi are essentially giant humans, and at first appear to be your standard "Warrior Alien" types. But after a while, we find out that they don't have a "warrior culture" but in fact have been grown and shaped into this role like bonsai trees, without any choice on the matter. Their new option to shrink down and become "human" is not always easy, but it's something worth chasing.

The Zentradi story arc combined goofy comedy with genuine feeling, told us about the power art and imagination can have to captivate the deprived, and that even comical characters don't just have to be comic relief.

All of this was like catnip to me.

My favourite character was Exedore Formo, who was sort of the Spock of the group but not really (making "Messenger" my favourite episode). However, I loved all of the allied male characters. The only allied female character who gets any screentime is Milia Fallyna, and I have issues with how she was handled. I don't consider myself a fan of her, but wish I did, and wish that the female Zentradi were more explored.

SDF Macross fizzles near the end, as the series suddenly had an order of new episodes after the conventional climax, while originally the series' running time had been cut down. Some of the material in these episodes work, but some does not.

Restarting the love triangle in order to create drama just makes Hikaru look like a cad and Misa look passive-aggressive. I don't mind the rebellion of allied Zentradi, but the almost complete sidelining of the secondary cast, and the pointless lack of success that certain characters had at fitting in, was very unappealing. This material had to be rushed out, and not meant to reflect the mentality of the series.

Super Dimension Fortress Macross was adapted into an animated film in 1984, called Super Dimension Fortress: Do You Remember Love? For most, it's a feast: lavish new animation, a story rewritten and compressed so that it fits the pacing of a film instead of being a clunky mess. It's darker and edgier, but one done well.

I don't refute any of these claims, just that the film has never gotten along with me. The Zentradi story is reduced by necessity, and they are all given ugly new designs and personalities, ugly in different ways for the genders and which spread to later Macross media. I can't care enough about anything else to enjoy the movie otherwise.

Furthermore, I find that no other Macross production has captured a similar "spark", and in fact until the very recent Macross Frontier movies, there was nothing I actually felt I was a fan of. I found things to like in many of the other Macross works, but never enough to declare myself satisfied. I wasn't looking for a new SDFM, but something to enjoy on its own terms, and didn't find it until then.

Despite how much I love Super Dimension Fortress Macross, for various reasons the Macross universe feels like an "incomplete" media universe, with a lot of things left unexplained, and a lot of older characters getting the shaft for no apparent reason. I don't apologize for this anymore, and treat myself as having always been open-minded.

I don't think SDF Macross needs a remake, for the usual reasons. The re-animated footage for the Macross Fever game is a thrill to watch, especially because "my" Zentradi are back for the first time in decades, but the principles stay intact. What we have here is a gem of an anime, and it's also better to concentrate on new things. Anybody wants to see the old SDFM, it's there for the taking, evergreen and tremendously fun.

Oh, and the Robotech dub was okay, too. If it weren't, I wouldn't be here.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Animation Appreciation: Daria

It's cliche for a geek girl to say she's a fan of Daria, but the show also has an appeal that transcends age and time in life. I was in high school at about the same time Daria was, but the series is a great character study, and also a mockery of evergreen human faults. Both of these things ensure that it remains forever fresh to me.

Daria was originally a character on Beavis and Butt-head, a fact I didn't find out until years later because Daria began her series by moving to a different town, and the tone and art style of both shows were very different. Daria herself is smart and sardonic, but also apathetic, poking fun at the human foibles around her, in the name of nothing more than doing it—but at times, a sincerity of belief does appear. Her best friend is artist Jane Lane, and Daria is similarly not "popular".

Telling stories from the point of view of the outcast is a well-worn trope, as it allows for characters to comment on the faults of society in ways more frank than the upper echelons could. But outcast characters in this role have so rarely been young girls.

Daria serves the standard dramatic purpose of the outcast, but by being a girl, and being a main character, she gives something to the female audience that we rarely get: assurance that sometimes it's okay to say when the emperor has no clothes.

At the same time, Daria is not a perfect character, and her foils are not strawmen. In fact, Daria is a great character exactly because she does have flaws, she makes mistakes. If she were merely wish-fulfillment, she wouldn't be as engaging.

There are plenty of episodes like "The Misery Chick" and "Through a Lens Darkly" that have Daria experiencing a crisis, or try to take an analytical look at her worldview. Her crush on Trent Lane, despite his many faults, also serves to make Daria more complex.

Furthermore, the people in Daria's life aren't that simple. Her mother understands her better than Daria thinks she does, and characters like Kevin, Brittany, and Mr. O'Neil are dumb but well-meaning and usually nice. Mac and Jodie are also respectable characters, and it's not tokenism that makes them that way.

Of course, you'll always find spoilsports who claim that Daria is being unnecessarily rude, the series itself is too harsh on anything it makes fun of, or the series is all about an overblown teenage persecution complex. Nope: assholes and crazies are everywhere in life, and sometimes they're right, but not always. Taking in the world compliantly is no way to deal with it, and comedy is often useful for providing this sort of challenge.

Furthermore, much comedy involves the lower groups mocking the higher groups, and that is the position that Daria herself comes from in the high school hierarchy.

Unlike, say, Lisa Simpson (who nonetheless once was a great character), Daria is mostly apathetic and apolitical, and has a few bad habits, like junk food and trashy TV. As such, we know she's not meant to be a perfect role model, but just a character like any other. It makes her annoyances feel more real to us. We can believe that when something bothers her, it bothers her, not the writers.

Our culture hasn't gotten worse, but many things about it have not changed. Yes, some parts of Daria are dated (including anything to do with computers, especially the episode "Cafe Disaffecto"), but others...yeah. We still have to deal with many of the things discussed in the series.

And by "we", I mean female viewers. I'm not saying that men can't understand this, but Daria deals with issues of body image and pressures on women that resonated with a lot of female viewers, including myself. Being nasty towards these things is not rude, but adding a needed honesty, an alternate voice to the world.

And besides that, Daria is very, very funny. Again, some things are dated, but not enough that the show can't get laughs. It's more soft chuckles than belly laughs, but these are still worthwhile.

How do I feel about Tom Sloane coming in? Parts work, and parts don't. I can see Daria and Jane going for the same type of guy, and Daria being weird around the idea of her friend having a boyfriend, and then about having a boyfriend herself, no matter how she got said boyfriend. I'm also glad the "Tom Thing" wasn't resolved speedily, and also that the series was honest about why Trent wasn't a good match for Daria.

On the other hand, Tom is such a bland character. His personality is a good match for Daria, but he's almost always right, and has none of the flaws to balance the expose of Daria's flaws that happen in the last two seasons. Their relationship feels lopsided, like Tom is only a vehicle for Daria to have new experiences and not a full character in his own right.

And sometimes the last two seasons seem written to address non-existent flaws in the earlier stories, as they press hard to suggest that Daria's attitude is not just "who she is", but the result of assorted social problems and the building of a wall around herself.

Some of these episodes are effective, but they leave a sour taste because they feel like they're trying to correct what was never a problem—Daria was never an invincible character. She was never always right. And sometimes, you just naturally grow into someone different from the norm. I like these episodes, but I prefer the immortal Daria line, "But I'm not miserable. I'm just not like them".

So, Daria has stood my personal test of time. I'm long out of high school, but I'm always going to appreciate what the show has to offer. It's about more than being a teen, more than what goes on inside that little American microcosm. It's a story about a well-developed and funny character, who gives a lot of us someone to empathize with.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Kiddie Cronenberg and Raging Hubris: A Comparison Between 4Kids and Fred Wolf Baxter Stockman

I'm calling it now: 4Kids Baxter Stockman is Fred Wolf Baxter Stockman done right.

Of course, "done right" usually suggests a lack of the original's flaws, or a preference on the part of the person making the statement. In this case, neither of those things is true.

Instead, 4Kids Baxter Stockman has the same flaws as his counterpart, but he's better-written and these faults aren't as exaggerated. And I do like both characters equally, since they appeal to me in a lot of the same ways, but also have differences beyond the physical…yet I know what makes a good character, and 4Kids Baxter is that. He's handled in a way that suggests more craft and care on the part of the writers.

I realize the comparison might seem surprising. After all, one Baxter is racelifted and the other isn't (which is also part of "done right"). 4Kids Baxter Stockman doesn't turn into a fly, but instead loses more and more of his body and then becomes a brain/eyeball/spine travelling through various robotic forms.

Characterization-wise, you could also say 4Kids Baxter is defined by his arrogance, while Fred Wolf Baxter is defined by his cowardly nature, at least as a human. (I'm primarily thinking of Fred Wolf Baxter as a human character, 'cause the personality he has in that form is the one that makes this comparison work). But again, they have more in common beyond that difference.

However, I don't actually believe the 4Kids writers were actually drawing on Baxter's portrayal in the old cartoon in any way, just that, because both these versions of Baxter Stockman have similar flaws and both of them transform,  they will be compared.

Pride is their chief flaw: 4Kids Baxter expresses it more openly and consistently, but Fred Wolf Baxter is also an arrogant character. It's just that in this case, his arrogance is easily buried by how scared he is of the Shredder, but he gets in small expressions of vanity when he can.

You could go all the way to pre-madness Baxter, someone who thought he was so worth being recognized in "A Thing About Rats"—"Well, it's about time somebody discovered me!"—that he didn't stop to consider who he might be working for. '

And Baxter still put his name on the Mousers, which is actually acknowledged as stupid in-story, and shows that same arrogance. You must be really full of yourself to do something that other Fred Wolf characters acknowledge as stupid, even in the halcyon days of the first season.

Through most of his human episodes, Fred Wolf Baxter has little moments that suggest an ego. In "The Mean Machines", he tries to claim, "Impossible, Master, only someone of my genius—" before the Shredder glowers at him and he corrects himself.

In the same episode, Baxter is prissily badmouthing the evil computer he and the Shredder are using, claiming he prefers "the real thing" to "artificial intelligence" (a fun irony for anybody who knows that a computer will be his only friend in the series), likely talking about himself.

In "Curse of the Evil Eye", before the rest of that stuff happens, Baxter makes sure to note, "My calculations were correct. The third fragment did land in the river. And I recovered it!" when giving Shredder the final piece of the Eye of Sarnath.

While his transformation angst is minimal, in "Son of Return of the Fly II", fly-Baxter also claims he used to be a "great scientist".

The most obvious example of Fred Wolf Baxter's arrogance is the rest of "Curse of the Evil Eye", which also has him being unusually vicious and competent, even before he steals the title MacGuffin for his own use. Some fans think his malevolence is due to the effects of the Eye of Sarnath, the story works as a guy who's had enough and thinks he deserves better—and it's framed by the suggestion that Baxter thinks he's been underestimated.

Choice quotes:

"I'll make the world pay for not recognizing the genius of Baxter Stockman!"

"Surrender, Turtles, and I might spare you! If you admit that I, Baxter Stockman, have accomplished what Shredder could not!"

Baxter in this episode states his anger in terms of the insult to his "genius", that he's attacking everybody because he wants to hear that he's the smart one, dammit. Baxter is an evil, pompous little jackass whose evil is only kept in check by his spinelessness.

The arrogance of 4Kids's Stockman is everywhere, and far stronger. While he also has some very familiar moments of henchmanly submission, Stockman is also someone who, no matter how dire his situation, finds time to express arrogance.

Stockman bluffs Shredder to save his life in "Tales of Leonardo", but still finds time to praise himself for finding the "evidence" for the Turtles being destroyed. In "Rogue in the House, part 1", the now-bodiless Stockman boasts that he's responsible for all the Foot's technology. He's also willing to sabotage Dr. Chaplin's work in order to make his shine, obviously out of desperation not to be thrown out as medical waste, but contempt for a young usurper could underlie it, too.

Before all this, in "Return to New York Part 2" 4Kids Stockman boards a giant exosuit to attack the Shredder, taking revenge for his crippled body and ill treatment. Just as with "Curse of the Evil Eye", this attack is also framed as anger that he is not respected enough and is smarter than his overlord, which suggests a similarity of arrogance between them.

Choice quotes:

"You blind, ignorant, self-important fool. I made [the exo-suit] to destroy you. For every punishment you inflicted upon me, I will make you suffer tenfold. You will finally learn to respect my superior intellect."

"You'll all pay, all of you! Not one of you will leave this room alive! You'll all be crushed by the genius of Baxter Stockman!"

In the larger view, 4Kids Stockman is still a weak man, and seems to have annoyed some viewers with that fact. Pride alone can't make one a great man, and often Stockman's pride is the only thing he's got. However, this makes for a more compelling story than that of FW Baxter, who seems to have largely given up on real pride unless there's a magic jewel handy.

By giving 4Kids Stockman this unshakable pride, it brings out the potential for dark humour in his character. He's like Wile E. Coyote was in his speaking roles, constantly seeing himself as a "super genius" while constantly thwarted and in Stockman's case, constantly losing pieces of his body for his trouble. And it's very, very funny.

One of the best moments is at the end of "Rogue in the House Part 2" where 4Kids Baxter, the mere brain in tube, cheers his freedom as he floats helplessly in the ocean."Ah-ha! Once again, Baxter Stockman has cheated death!"…and then promptly sinks.

In comparison, while the slapstick involving Fred Wolf Baxter is funny, it doesn't make this picture of a character whose life is supposed to be hilariously terrible. There's just a bunch of stuff that happens. And Baxter's arrogance, suppressed or not, doesn't contribute to this absent picture.

Overall, it's better when the dark humour of Baxter's situation is brought out. It makes the writers seem like they care enough to build up a focused image of a character, and it makes the character himself richer because now there's a sort of rhythm to the crap he goes through.

And this dark humour is connected to pride. It's even more funny if Stockman doesn't give up, because the higher you go, the further you have to fall. Both versions of Stockman have the potential for this, but only 4Kids Stockman brings it out. Even if he hardly ever wins and is pathetic in his own way, the fact that 4Kids Stockman maintains his pride, even without reason, makes him a smidge more respectable.

Now, let's talk about transformation. The exact nature of a transformation doesn't change the fact that both versions of Baxter are transformed. They also both desire to be human, and both seem to have nine lives, always showing up when you thought you'd gotten rid of them.

The "nine lives" issue is done better in the 4Kids version. Each time the 4Kids Stockman cheats death, he gets a new body instead of falling into the formula of most (but not all) Baxterfly episodes, which just end with him stuck in another dimension. That keeps things fresher.

Furthermore, FW Baxter is one of the few mutated humans whose personality changes when he's transformed, which, while it probably makes him more memorable, is a mistake from a storytelling viewpoint. It makes it harder to create this consistency of character I mentioned above, which is a virtue for the same reasons.

The 4Kids series does more with Stockman's desire to be human. First there is "Insane in the Membrane", which details Stockman's rush to get a new human body and its subsequent horrific degeneration, while hallucinating his lost childhood. Stockman appears to die at the end, only to be salvaged again in later episodes.

There is also fallout, as Stockman remains arrogant, but now much more sour, with an annoyed desire to die. And then, in "Head of State", it is suggested that in the far-flung future, Stockman will finally get what he wants.

In comparison, Fred Wolf Baxter's desire to be human is noted but never achieved, and never an important plot point. The character even tends to forget the idea due to his mental degeneration, such as in "Revenge of the Fly", in which it takes half the episode for Baxter to remember that he actually wanted to be human. Little ever comes from this desire, except that it's an easy way for Shredder to bribe him.

Some viewers are surprised at this difference, surprised because the 4Kids series is a more serious, darker product, and 4Kids Baxter was "always" a villain, without a doubt. Why does he get what he wants, and not the silly Baxter who started out as a normal man who just wanted to sell his inventions?

Well, firstly because modern cartoons are generally better at keeping track of what they set up, and following through with it. The 4Kids series was just generally better about getting things done rather than settling into a status quo, and Stockman's ending proves that right. It's a mark of quality to have a thing, once introduced, actually amount to something. This is another thing that was "done right".

The Fred Wolf series' lack of the same is one reason why Baxter would have never become human. Furthermore, it would have gone against the moral laws of that universe. As I've said before, FW Baxter is not an innocent victim, especially as the series goes on. Because he's part of a universe where the moral lines are clearly drawn and all dilemmas solved in a half hour, of course he's never going to get what he wants.

4Kids Baxter didn't necessarily "earn" his granted wish, since he never actively sought redemption, but it's still no shock that it happened. It was a product of a different writing style, one that has nothing to do with whether a series is serious or comedic, but with finishing what one started and allowing sympathy for both good and evil characters. That is what I prefer, and that is one reason why the 4Kids take on Baxter works better.

Another reason is that while there is potential for both characters to be sympathetic, the 4Kids version is the one that actually wants you to sympathize with Stockman, at least after a point. "Insane in the Membrane" may be in a different galaxy from what the original cartoon was doing, but we're not focusing on the gore here. We're focusing on the creation of sympathy.

Now, showing that a villain used to be a lonely child with a loving mother doesn't make him innocent, but by showing Stockman's childhood, "Insane in the Membrane" demonstrates that the series itself has sympathy for the character, and this makes 4Kids Baxter Stockman more "alive". We can have sympathy for Fred Wolf Baxter, but there's never the sense you're supposed to.

Furthermore, "Insane in the Membrane" has 4Kids Stockman acknowledge what has been in staring him in the face this whole time: that despite his ego and his ambitions, he is a failure. To be reminded of the faith his mother had in him throws his situation into a harsh light, making it disturbing as well as funny, and the character the richer for it.

In contrast, nobody ever acknowledges how horrible a turn FW Baxter's life has taken, that he has lost all chance of normalcy. Perhaps that would have been too dark for the old show, but that sort of acknowledgement could still be made funny. It's not so much that this acknowledgment is darker, but that it exists which is the issue.

4Kids Baxter's first appearance works in his favour, too. Based on what we've gotten, not what we'd like stuff to be, it's better for Baxter Stockman to start as a villain outright (as based on the Mirage comics) since Fred Wolf Baxter starting out as ordinary and un-villainous never means anything. His turn to villainy is never explained and never has any emotional impact, so it's better to start out with him as a villain and simplify things.

Something about the image of Baxter Stockman as a self-destructive failure is more compelling than that of the ordinary villainous scientist he was in the Mirage comics. The 4Kids Stockman develops this idea the most, which makes him the best Baxter we've gotten. I find FW Baxter endearing for some odd reason, but he can't come close to that.

Animation Appreciation: Whisper of the Heart (Mimi wo Sumaseba; If You Listen Closely)

Like many anime geeks, I worship at the Church of Ghibli; according to me, the studio's reputation is entirely deserved. Hayao Miyazaki and others have made many great family films, written with natural human emotion despite their strange settings, and the themes provided with a light touch.

However, there are few Ghibli movies that "speak" to me on a personal level, that have something beyond their basic goodness to absorb me in a personal sense. Those that do, they do with grace. One of them will be addressed later on, but another, which eclipses it, is the 1995 film Whisper of the Heart.

Based on a manga by Aoi Hiiragi, Whisper tells the story of Shizuku Tsukishima, a dreamy, bookish junior high girl. Shizuku loves nothing more than to read stories, and whenever she takes a book out from the library, that same name is always on the card before hers: "Seiji Amasawa".

While she doesn't actively search for the owner of this name, she wonders who it will be, and does end up running into Seiji, in a story about an antique shop, first love, and finding one's gift as an artist, as well as cats, a doll, and John Denver's "Country Roads".  The plot is building to nothing larger, but nothing smaller, than a series of events in one girl's young life. But these events are rendered with such honesty and beauty that they are captivating.

The sense of reality is also brought out by the art and animation, which create a realistic, detailed picture of modern Japan, from the Tsukishimas' cluttered apartment to the treasures in the "Earth Shop" to the library and the convenience store. Shizuku's fantasy sequences also boast distinct painted backgrounds by Japanese artist Naohisa Inoue, based on his paintings of the imaginary land "Iblard". His work can also be seen in the short film "Iblard Time", which are stills of his painting with some animated add-ons.

Even though I was much older than Shizuku the first time I saw this movie, I had an instant connection to it. The way that Whisper of the Heart depicts the fear and frustration of a budding artist is timeless, and there are scenes that feel so true to life they're tearjerkers. The fact that Shizuku and I share a lot of interests also helps to make the film resonant.

Furthermore, I appreciate the film's subtext about finding beauty in the everyday. Shizuku is not ditzy or stupid, but is always ready to look for "adventure", to treat something like finding a new antique store as a wondrous event. Shizuku lives in the moment, sees the world with bright, clear eyes, and it's sweet and inspiring.

At the same time, there is a sense of pragmatism underlying Whisper, as Shizuku goes through a dangerous period where she neglects her studies to finish her novel (doubly resonant in Japan, where high school entrance exams are a huge part of a child's future). Shizuku finishes it and promises to return to her studying, while the story tells us that Shizuku needs more work, that she is young and untried but full of potential. Seiji's grandfather tells her this using the analogy of emerald pieces inside beryl, visible inside a geode.

A dose of practicality can be used to enhance a story's idealism, and it works great in Whisper of the Heart. I can't help but think that in ten years, Shizuku and Seiji will marry as they promised, and it will be awesome because they have worked hard to achieve their dreams.

The original manga by Hiiragi is very fun, and the characters are very similar, but the dramatic punch was mostly the work of the film version. Shizuku experiences no insecurity regarding her writing, no tension regarding her schoolwork, and Seiji does not move away to study his craft (violin making in the film, painting in the manga). Both stories are about ordinary life, but the film version is the one that punches me in the gut.

Though often billed as the work of Hayao Miyazaki, who did write the screenplay and direct some of Shizuku's fantasy sequences, Whisper of the Heart was directed by Yoshifumi Kondo as his debut. Kondo was a Ghibli up-and-comer who tragically died of aortic dissection (aneurysm) in 1998, at age 47.

I have to admit, I got a little bit misty-eyed when writing this review. It's rare to find a work of art that speaks to you so perfectly, one that comforts and reassures, but also reminds you that you need to work hard to achieve your dreams. Whisper of the Heart is, without question, my favourite Studio Ghibli film. I don't know yet if it's my favourite movie, period, because I feel like I should choose something more adult and sophisticated, but it still is something special.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Animation Appreciation: Gargoyles

Image from D. Taina's Gargoyles Imagery Resource

Gargoyles, now, Gargoyles is interesting because, firstly, it doesn't create that particular emotional resonance that a lot of these works will have. Its plot, themes, and ideals don't "speak" to me on that individual level, but simply are the things that any decent person or series would believe in. However, Gargoyles is just so damn good that it ceases to matter.

In Gargoyles, everything just comes together to form a beautiful picture. Not flawless, of course, but close enough that it can inspire poetic waxing if I'm in the right mood. The characters, the stories, the voice acting, the music, the animation, the design, the world-building…it's just gorgeous.

Okay, so, in the past, humans knew of, and had dealings with, a species of winged humanoids called gargoyles, who, along with gargoyle beasts, turn to stone during the day. The last survivors of a decimated Scottish clan were frozen in stone by a spell that would last until their home castle "Rose above the clouds". "Fortunately" for them, a rich man named David Xanatos did exactly that, took apart and rebuilt the thing atop his building in the New York of 1994, and the gargoyles awaken to the modern day and a new storyline.

Gargoyles blends science fiction, fantasy, mythology, and history, with a strong vein of Shakespeare running throughout. Unlike many cartoons, these unrelated genre elements blend seamlessly, and make the series feel like it's strong enough to tackle a wide variety of motifs.

The cast of heroes begin as a set of clichés that anyone who watches American action cartoons would feel familiar with: The Leader, the Old Guy, the Young Guy, the Fat Guy, the Little Guy, the Pet, and even the obligatory human female. However, each member of the Manhattan Clan grows and changes in this new world, becoming well-rounded characters.

Goliath and Elisa's relationship is particularly noteworthy. While there's little to say with the Beast and Beauty trope anymore (and it's never as progressive as people think it is), Gargoyles makes that relationship work. It takes a realistic but uncommonly-depicted amount of time to for their bond to develop, and Goliath and Elisa must confront what they could never give each other. Their differences, in short, are given weight, which makes for more effective storytelling than the strangely effortless fantasy-xenophilia we see elsewhere.

It's the most satisfying if Goliath and Elisa never change their species and never have a biological child, both of which canon has dictated. It tests these characters' love if they can deal with such a situation and come out together without scars.

But it is the villains who are the most striking. My personal favourite is Demona, who has so much power but never has the strength to confront the truth about herself. She is driven by a destructive hatred she refuses to let go of, and becomes all the more compelling for it. Her long relationship with Macbeth is probably the best story in the series, all the greater because Demona, when she allied with Macbeth and he was crowned King, had a second chance to get the world, but lost it again because of her hatred and paranoia.

I think Xanatos is as cool as everybody else does, I just don't feel that emotional attachment to him. He's smart, he's suave, he always stays one step ahead of everyone, but also becomes a family man, challenging the notion that characters who take on adult roles can be boring.

Further challenging common television "wisdom" was the seamless and natural introduction of Angela, Goliath and Demona's biological daughter, reminding television viewers of how strange it is that new cast additions are considered gimmicks rather than an organic party of a story that's growing.

While the characters are not given equal development, and some smaller roles can be one-note, I can't think of a one that I dislike. The only possible exception is Brooklyn, whose failed romances provoked more sympathy from the rest of the fandom than from me. Thankfully the show was wise enough to realize these things were Brooklyn's fault instead of casting him as an innocent victim. Most of my dislike for Brooklyn actually comes from the way the fandom treats him, rather than how the character actually is.

(I always root for Broadway and Angela—it's a pairing that suggests certain awful clichés, but it works for the individual characters involved)

The titular gargoyles are one of the most fascinating things about the series. They are developed more than most cartoon fantasy races, given an alternative parenting still and a well-defined collectivist culture. Their designs are also great, with a seemingly endless array of faces, sizes, shapes, and colours, especially the unsung background characters. Unfortunately, there was less diversity among female gargoyles, but that is changed a bit in the comics.

That's not to say there aren't a few hiccups. Not all episodes are created equal (I hardly ever watch "Vendettas", f'r instance), and even though the animation usually tries for fluidity, not all of it is great, either. It also seems like there was a bit of a communication breakdown when it came to telling the audience that gargoyle parenting was not supposed to be considered damaging, but that problem is equally on the viewers' end.

The "World Tour" arc is also a mixed bag. I support the controversial decision to split the cast off and focus primarily on Goliath, Elisa, Bronx, and Angela being sent to places around the world. But not every episode is good—some have an obvious moral of the day and become trite, while others are just a little dull. Many episodes were designed to expand the Gargoyles universe, but that means little if there isn't an entertaining story to go along with them. Even so, most of the world "World Tour" episodes are good, and none of them are unwatchable.

I'm not including The Goliath Chronicles in this evaluation. Like Greg Weisman, like almost all fans, I've disowned this sequel/re-invention. I sat through a few episodes as a I can't sit through a single episode of Chronicles because it feels so stilted and unnatural, changing a grand series into warmed-over pap.

I've read the canon comics and I love those: it's still a crime that we never got more. While David Hedgecock's pencils were ugly, the story shone through, and it was interesting to see long-held ideas finally come to print. The non-canon Marvel and Disney Adventures comics, printed when Gargoyles was new, were entertaining when I was a kid, but now they look terrible to me. They just didn't "get" the show, and the art usually sucked, too.

And maybe Gargoyles is a hard thing to "get". Many people were involved in the making of Gargoyles, but there is a sense of some overreaching vision that makes the series hang together, one that was the product of the original team. Hats off to Greg Weisman and all of them, who couldn't be replaced.

It's unfair, maybe, to give any weight to the extensive background material this show has accumulated, but right now it's impossible for me to separate myself from it. If you've never read up on Greg Weisman's future plans and exhaustive gap-filling, now's the time. Please visit the "Ask Greg" Archives and go from there.

All in all, one great show. It's one of the few things I think should be brought back—maybe not remade, but there are so many spinoff ideas that have already been conceived, one of them could work. Gargoyles 2198, for example. But even if nothing more happens with Gargoyles, its quality is assured. It may be strange in some ways to say it, but it is my favourite American-produced animated show.Gargoyles is just that good.