Friday, November 6, 2015

Quick Film Thoughts: "The Peanuts Movie"

Charlie Brown can't do anything right. His friends have known this for years. Some might even call him a blockhead - and do. But when a new little red-haired girl joins his class, he's relieved. Here's someone who's never met him before - a chance to start over and become a whole new Charlie Brown. Perhaps the book he got from his psychiatrist Lucy can help. Sure, it cost him five cents, but that's quite a bargain! (What's weirder, the fact that an eight-year-old needs a psychiatrist or the fact an eight-year-old is a psychiatrist? Such is the comedic charm of these children who think like adults.)

How to impress someone? Charlie Brown has many opportunities. There's the talent show. Or the school dance. Or maybe you can write the book report you were supposed to be teamed on with that little red-haired girl all by yourself when she's out of town. Peppermint Patty may be more street-smart than she is book-smart, but she told me her smart friend Marcie said Leo's Toy Store is the greatest book of all time. It certainly can't be that long, can it?

This is the setup for The Peanuts Movie - and you can already tell that all the hallmarks of the franchise and characters are still there. Naturally, Charlie Brown manages to bungle his way through all of these opportunities as only he can, and only adding to his problems is that "Leo's Toy Store" is, of course, Leo Tolstoy of War and Peace fame (a favorite gag subject of Schulz's partly because he loved Tolstoy and partly because War and Peace is known as an incredibly long novel, which itself leads to comic possibilities). But sometimes Charlie Brown surprises you when you least expect it - he managed to get a perfect score on his standardized test! But what if this was a mistake too? Can anything go right for this round-headed kid?

If you're at all familiar with the basic laws of the Peanuts universe, you probably know how this question will be answered. And from this basic description of the plot, you may be thinking to yourself that this is yet another Peanuts story in the tradition of those that preceded it. But that's precisely the point, and it's also the film's biggest strength: it feels both like a traditional Charlie Brown story and yet something a little bit new as far as plots with these characters go.

A lot of reviews have been pointing out the fact that the film is so faithful to its source material that they're considering it either a strength or a weakness depending on their mood and how much they enjoy Peanuts. I came in expecting the "Peanuts greatest hits" package many reviewers have claimed the film to be. What I was surprised to find, however, was that unlike the majority of the Peanuts TV specials made after Charles Schulz's death - including the most recent, the very well-done Happiness is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown (with which this shares a writer in Craig Schulz, the cartoonist's son) - which took most of their situations and dialogue directly from the comic strips (though Happiness managed to get in an incredibly memorable original scene where Linus calls out every character on their own vices while defending his beloved blanket), The Peanuts Movie takes somewhat of the reverse approach. While the film manages to work in every one of what Schulz called the "twelve devices" that he felt made Peanuts stand out and a few famous lines of dialogue pop up here and there (for example, Lucy's famous reaction to being kissed by Snoopy from A Charlie Brown Christmas), most of the situations and dialogue are completely original yet still feel like Peanuts.

What also sets this film apart from previous Peanuts outings is its slapstick humor, which I feel is its greatest strength. Peanuts is remembered mostly for its witty dialogue and a bit of that is on display here with a few funny lines that show off the "children acting like adults" concept, such as Lucy asking Charlie Brown if he's ever won a Congressional Medal of Honor or Charlie Brown fearing his pursuing the little red-haired girl will eventually lead to his house in escrow over an unpaid mortgage. But a cartoonist is both a talented writer and a talented artist (or at least they should be), and Schulz was both. His drawings were simple, but he could get a lot of comic mileage out of simple slapstick reactions - Lucy causing Charlie Brown to do a midair somersault by shouting "YOU BLOCKHEAD!", Charlie Brown's clothes being knocked off by a line drive, and so on. This sort of slapstick is here in spades, and it's all pulled off with a great comic timing - perhaps not surprising from the studio that gave us Scrat. Craig Schulz told the Blue Sky team that his father always said Peanuts was a "chuckle strip" rather than a laugh-out-loud strip, and that the film should follow. But I'd disagree with that assessment: there were a lot of big laughs at the screening I attended at a lot of the physical comedy moments, two of my personal favorites being Charlie Brown's interactions with a young boy (known only as "Little Kid") in a nurse's office and asking to be taught how to fly a kite. (Of note is that Little Kid's voice is provided by the great-grandson of one Charles Monroe Schulz.)

As far as slapstick and appeal goes, however, the crown for both is taken, as it usually is, by the beagle in the room who I intentionally haven't mentioned up until now. Snoopy has always been an interesting case as to how he's depicted in animation, for some of his best story lines in the comic strip revolve around us being able to "read" his internal thoughts. But Snoopy manages, as he usually does, to steal the show without saying a word (but making a lot of funny noises - the late Bill Melendez's distinctive "voice" for the dog and his bird pal Woodstock is part of what makes their "silent" comedy so memorable, and the sequences here probably wouldn't have been as funny without them). Some of the funniest sequences in the film involve Snoopy assisting Charlie Brown in his various plans, and it's sweet to see Snoopy as a true friend to his owner. Snoopy's fantasy life is given somewhat of an "origin story" here, as a typewriter he finds in a Dumpster outside the school and a runaway toy airplane combine to inspire his effort to write the Great American Novel. His story, of course, involves a oddly dog-looking World War I flying ace fighting the Red Baron, and these fantasy sequences are interspersed in between Charlie Brown's story as they parallel what's happening to Charlie Brown in his attempt to become liked. Snoopy himself has a love if only in his dreams - a French poodle named Fifi who is herself a brave pilot but ends up too close to the Red Baron. Although the Flying Ace sequences in previous animated outings (most notably It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown) tended to overstay their welcome, the Snoopy fantasies are some of the highlights of the film, in part due to the slapstick comedy of Snoopy and his pit crew of Woodstock and company which, like the rest of the film, is funny and well-timed. By far the most memorable is one towards the end of the film, where Snoopy imagines himself "behind enemy lines" trying to rescue Fifi. In a series of cutaways, we see he's actually acting out his "rescue" in real life, running from house to house and managing to annoy every kid in the neighborhood in the process. (Fifi is voiced by Kristen Chenoweth, oddly enough - an unusual choice as you would have no idea it was her just from listening, but she does a great job mimicking Melendez's high-pitched grumbles.)

If there's any weakness to the film, it's the fact that the emphasis on Charlie Brown and Snoopy gives some of the characters little to do. This is a complaint I've seen pop up in a couple of professional reviews, and it is somewhat noticeable. A couple of the bigger names in the incredibly memorably supporting cast are relegated to a few certain key traits: Linus totes his blanket around and occasionally references the Great Pumpkin, Schroeder just plays his piano. But other cast members end up being used in amusing ways that move the plot forward: Peppermint Patty is responsible for unintentionally getting Charlie Brown involved in most of the setpieces, as she often does, and Charlie Brown's younger sister Sally gets some memorable sequences, including a very sweet sacrifice by Charlie Brown that shows a side of him not really shown in previous Peanuts stories and a perhaps self-parodic running gag in which she cashes in on her big brother's new-found fame by giving tours of his house and selling Charlie Brown merchandise.

As for how the film looks and sounds? Like a lot of people, I laughed at Craig Schulz's remark when this project was announced three years ago that they were waiting until the technology was at the place they wanted it to be before they made a computer-animated Peanuts movie. This is a silly statement on its surface, but perhaps there is something to it: the film is not too flashy. The characters have a bit of depth and Snoopy has fuzzy fur, but they still look - and most importantly, move - like the characters we all know and love. The choice of taking poses directly from the comic strip and animating "on twos" like the animated specials, combined with the look of the characters, sometimes gives the animation the feel of stop-motion clay animation. Although Schulz's comic could be incredibly topical - touching on pop culture icons over the years from Davy Crockett to Billie Jean King to Harry Potter - the specials always had a timeless quality, and the film honors this by intentionally not being topical or up-to-date - Charlie Brown still uses a rotary phone with a springy cord of the sort that I myself think is fun to draw. (Apparently, one of the TV spots has Charlie Brown asking "Is there an emoji for 'good grief?'" Thankfully, this line does not appear in the actual film.

The character voices are all well-chosen - actual children provide the voices of Charlie Brown and his gang and the actors (led by Noah Schapp, who most recently appeared as Tom Hanks's son in Bridge of Spies) were chosen for their similarity to the classic character voices, not their name recognition, and it shows. They're all very talented and sound like we expect the characters to sound. Christophe Beck's score is nothing to write home about, but it's at its best when paired with that other inseparable element of the Peanuts sound, the jazz music of Vince Guaraldi. Beck's orchestrations of Guaraldi's music - especially a lively version of the "Peanuts theme" Linus and Lucy that orchestrates a funny sequence of Charlie Brown rushing through a carnival - are well done and I wish the score had utilized more of them rather than going for original music.

Perhaps the biggest sticking point with Peanuts purists is the fact that the film actually shows what the little red-haired girl looks like. Schulz, of course, famously never depicted her in the comics, save for one appearance in silhouette towards the end of the strip's run. As opposed to some of the earlier animated specials, however, this incarnation of the little red-haired girl (which is actually based on that silhouette) is given somewhat more of an air of mystery that suits the character's depiction, or lack thereof, in the comic strips. For one thing, her actual name is never heard. For another, most of her appearances in the movie are fleeting - both Charlie Brown and we only get to see the back of her head, or perhaps a quick shot of her face to the side. Charlie Brown is given a chance to see her face to face and she actually speaks in the scene that constitutes the "moral", as it were, of the film. Some purists may balk at the inclusion of a semi-optimistic moral in the usually pessimistic Peanuts universe, but Charlie Brown occasionally gets a bone thrown here and there.

Perhaps it's a little too optimistic for the tastes of some, but that "moral" perfectly sums up what Charlie Brown, both in his universe and ours, manages to do: be appealing for doing the same thing over and over without giving up. Sure, it'll probably never work, but in a way, it has: Charles Schulz himself always thought he'd never amount to anything and his work would be long forgotten after he put down his pen for good. In the long run, both Charlies turned out to have been wrong about themselves, and The Peanuts Movie's something-old, something-new approach is perhaps the perfect testament to what both Good Ol' Charlie Brown and Good Ol' Charlie Schulz were able to do so well - to paraphrase Schulz himself, being able to do the same thing over and over again without repeating themselves. Every dog has his day, and Charlie Brown (figuratively) and Snoopy (literally) are definitely having theirs. Hopefully we'll see a lot more of them on the big screen and the generation who is just meeting them for the first time (such as one kid at the preview screening I attended who loved Snoopy so much he thanked his lead animator multiple times for drawing him so funny) will, as the filmmakers hope, take a look at the TV specials and above all the comics (which have been lovingly reprinted over the past decade) that gave them birth. Charlie Brown perseveres, and his ability to adapt to modern times without actually "adapting" at all proves it. This film is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

(There are three gags during the credits: the final gag at the very end which sort of resolves a running gag isn't worth staying for, but the first two during the above-the-line credits and cast listing definitely are. One is one of Schulz's "twelve devices" I assume everyone expects to see, and the other is a brief cameo by five supporting characters I'd love to see more of if Snoopy ever returns to the big screen.)

The opinions expressed in this review are my own. I paid to see this film out of my own pocket, and this blog post is no way endorsed and/or sponsored by any person or entity involved in the production, distribution, and/or marketing of The Peanuts Movie or its sponsors.

THE PEANUTS MOVIE ©2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. Peanuts characters ©2015 Peanuts Worldwide LLC. No ownership of this property is intended or should be inferred.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Trip Report: "The Peanuts Movie" Preview Screening

Where exactly does Charlie Brown live? Charles Schulz's legacy looms large over Sonoma County due to spending his life where the museum which honors him is now located, but the Peanuts gang frequently is seen in the snow during wintertime. Wherever it is, it's certainly not a big city like New York - but the round-headed kid and his accomplices do have a history there. When Charlie Brown first made it to the big screen in 1969's A Boy Named Charlie Brown, he made it to the big city for a spelling bee at what appears to be Radio City Music Hall - perhaps not coincidentally also where the film opened.

Nearly half a century later, Charlie Brown returned to New York, with both the presentation and the venue somewhat more state-of-the-art, as the high-tech and highly entertaining Museum of the Moving Image in Queens played host to a preview screening of the blockhead's first computer-animated outing on November 4, wrapping up a week of Peanuts Movie-themed events in both New York City (including Al Roker's now-infamous Charlie Brown Halloween costume on the Today show) and Hollywood (where Snoopy became the first fictional dog to get a star on the Walk of Fame). Art director Nash Dunnigan and Snoopy's lead animator Jeff Gabor were on hand to present behind-the-scenes information and a Q&A session after the movie where they gave insights as to the many struggles and questions that came up when transforming Charles Schulz's four-panel comics into a 90-minute movie. And one of those questions just happened to be "where exactly does Charlie Brown live?"

Dunnigan and Gabor began their talk by remarking that Blue Sky Studios - which I was surprised to find out are located in Connecticut - are "500 of the biggest Peanuts fans you'll ever meet" and that when they told people they were working with Peanuts, the two reactions they got were inevitably the same: "I love Peanuts!" followed immediately by "Don't screw it up!" Fortunately, Snoopy has six overprotective guardians in the form of Jeannie Schulz - his widow and head of Charles M. Schulz Creative Associates, who alongside Iconix Brands controls the characters as Peanuts Worldwide - and their five children (including Craig Schulz, who co-wrote and co-produced the film), who are extremely protective of how the characters are depicted. The animators were given access to the archives of the Schulz Museum and also had digitized versions of every Peanuts comic strip - Gabor remarked he's still animating Snoopy for some promotional materials and looks at a set of strips he considered the best for Snoopy reference every day. The Blue Sky team were told by the Schulzes that Mr. Schulz hated the name "Charles" and much preferred to be called "Sparky" (a nickname given to him shortly after birth after Barney Google's decrepit racehorse Spark Plug, who actually makes a cameo in the movie). It felt odd at first to call him "Sparky" since they had never met him personally, but the Schulzes made them feel like they were a part of the family with their cooperation.

One of the first questions the team at Blue Sky had to answer was "what do the Peanuts characters look like?" This seems like a strange question to ask seeing as we've seen them thousands of times in TV, in newspapers, and on merchandise, and Charles Schulz drew them thousands of times - nearly 17,000 comics strips for 50 years. But that longevity was exactly what complicated the problem - the characters as drawn at the beginning of the strip's run are much different from those at the end. Snoopy was the biggest example given - in the 1960s and 1970s he gradually evolved from being drawn with real dog proportions while walking on all fours to walking on his hind legs with a head larger than his body, a body structure Dunnigan and Gabor compared to that of a human toddler. To create the "hero" model of the characters - the model that would be used to represent the character in the movie - a number of Schulz drawings of the characters, most from the 1980s and 1990s, were gathered and the entire team voted on which aspects of each drawing were the most visually appealing. For Snoopy, three different drawings were chosen, and the team ended up choosing the ear from one, the head from another, and the body from a third.

From there, it was a process of going through Schulz's drawings and finding the best example illustration of every pose he drew the character in and which would look the best for the "hero" model they chose. In Snoopy's case, this includes everything from him sitting on top of his doghouse at his typewriter to laughing to various physical actions. Eight to ten animators were on the team at first, which eventually grew to 80. Every new recruit on the Peanuts project was enrolled in "Van Pelt University" and taught how to draw the characters in Schulz's style. The animators then had to have all of their drawings checked by their supervisors to make sure they were "on-model" (an animation term which means that they're being drawn according to illustrations given to animators as a model on how to draw them correctly).

After figuring out how the characters would be drawn in two dimensions, the next natural problem was what exactly would they'd look like in three dimensions. Interestingly enough, they had a point of reference for this matter, as the Peanuts characters were actually made into 3D figures for a series of View-Master reels in the '60s.

Although this made a good starting point, things got strange when they actually tried to make the characters into standard 3D "turnaround" models - 360-degree animated characters whose body parts can be moved to create animation. For one thing, in their analysis of Schulz's drawings, the animators determined Schulz only drew six facial expressions for every character - extreme left and right, three-quarter view left and right, head looking down, and head looking up (with their nose in the air and their mouth usually in a funny scream). Even this proved to be more complicated than it looked. Dunnigan and Gabor showed off some head tests they did with Charlie Brown as a model. If he were to look straight ahead, his nose and hair would look wrong compared to the original drawings, so it was decided to just utilize those six original poses. But even that had its complications - the position of Charlie Brown's ears and nose actually change places in the Schulz drawings between when he's looking to the side and when he's looking towards us. The early test of Charlie Brown moving from extreme to three-quarter positions was unintentionally hilarious, as the ears and nose indeed move positions and his eyes actually melt into his face at one point. To make matters even worse, the characters moving at 24 frames a second - the standard speed for animated film (that is, every second of film contains 24 unique "drawings") - just looked wrong. We weren't given an example of this, but Gabor remarked their 24fps test looked like someone wearing a Charlie Brown suit.

Due to budget limitations, the original hand-drawn animated specials were animated "on twos". That is, rather than each frame being an original drawing, only every other frame is, making for 12 drawings per second. The solution to the facial expression problem was solved by having Charlie Brown blink when his face moves from looking in an extreme direction to looking towards us, which hides both the repositioning of his facial features and prevents his eyes from melting into his face.

As he often does, Snoopy makes things even more complicated. His head does not change shape between his extreme poses and three-quarter poses - the only thing that changes are the position of his nose and eyes. The end result of all this experimentation is that the animation poses chosen to directly mimic Schulz's drawings only work in those positions and not as a traditional 3D turnaround. We were shown some examples of what some of Snoopy's poses look like as a 3D turnaround, and the results were often comically disturbing. Snoopy in his Flying Ace getup with his mouth wide open, for example, results in one of the eyeholes in his goggles being detached from the rest of his face and his open mouth wrapping around into the back of his head. Thankfully, of course, this is only on the side of Snoopy that was designed not to be seen.

That's not to say that there isn't any 2D animation in the film: in a number of sequences Charlie Brown's internal thoughts are shown on-screen in black-and-white hand-drawn animation. Dunnigan and Gabor pointed out all of these sequences were animated by a single person, working directly from Schulz drawings. The squiggly lines in these sequences (an element one audience member who asked about their origin compared to Ed Edd 'n' Eddy) were used to create the idea of a drawing come to life.

Director Steve Martino's mantra was "when in doubt, look to the strip". This went for not only how the characters would be posed but also what background objects and facial expressions would look like. The team came up with a lot of funny nicknames for some of Schulz's drawing tendencies: the parenthesis-shaped protrusions which often come out of character's dot-eyes when looking in a certain direction are "peri-wrinkles" (pronounced like "periwinkle"). Clouds are either baguette-shaped or popcorn-shaped. And to those "happy clouds" (as Bob Ross would say) we can add "happy sausages" - when characters walk, the toes and heels of their shoes point towards the sky, making them "happy sausages" (as opposed to "sad sausages", which would be pointing towards the ground).

A promotional image showing the evolution of Snoopy. The 1970s version shows off "peri-wrinkles", while we can see happy sausage feet on the 1980s Snoopy.

A black-and-white Peanuts comic strip doesn't really need much other than the characters and some dialogue balloons - perhaps a line to represent the ground and a few baguette or popcorn clouds. Of course, an animated Peanuts movie without a background or color would look somewhat odd. Which leads to the answer to the question I posed at the start of this article: where exactly do the Peanuts characters live? The team took a trip to St. Paul, Minnesota, where Schulz was born and raised, and took a look at the style of houses there: your typical old-fashioned suburban housing (not too far off from the houses in the Northeastern suburb where I live, actually). In fact, in the few instances where Schulz did draw a portion of a house in his backgrounds, they looked exactly like the sort of houses the team found in St. Paul. As for color, the colored Sunday comic strips often used very bold primary colors due to the limitations of color printing in newspapers at the time, which would be too bold and flashy for an animated movie. Rooms and furniture were given somewhat subdued colors which were chosen to make sure they didn't clash with the distinctive primary colors of the clothes the characters famously wear in the animated specials (Charlie Brown's yellow shirt, Lucy's blue dress, etc.).

The final step in the process was the stereoscopic effects, or how the film looks when you're watching it in 3D with glasses. The film goes back and forth between the main story in Charlie Brown's "real" world and Snoopy's Red Baron fantasies inside his imagination, and the 3D effects were purposely different in each. In Charlie Brown's world, the posing is frequently as if the movie screen was a comic strip panel, with the characters right in the center and some background elements to the left and right of them, with the characters posed stereoscopically "behind" the audience. In Snoopy's sequences, Snoopy is "outside" the audience in a way that you could theoretically reach out and touch him, and out of necessity he's often positioned towards the bottom or the sides of the screen. This necessity being that Schulz never drew the bottom of his doghouse when he was pretending it was an airplane - he intentionally made it vague as to whether Snoopy actually was flying his doghouse or if it was all in his head. The animators kept this aspect by never showing the bottom of his doghouse/plane in the fantasy sequences, though sometimes they had to cheat by hiding it behind a cloud in cases where the entire house would be required have to be on screen.

As you can probably tell from this recap, the event was a lot of fun and it was quite interesting to see how much went into recreating the look of the comic strip and TV specials while given it only the minimal "modern" computer-animated spin required to compete in today's movie market. But the final question that needs to be asked is: was the movie any good? For that, you will have to wait until tomorrow, either to see it for yourself or to wait for my full review. Either way, I have a feeling you won't be disappointed. I'll go into more detail tomorrow, but for now I can definitely tell you this: They didn't screw it up.

I paid for this excursion out of my own pocket. It was in no way sponsored by anyone or anything, and all opinions expressed in this post are my own.

THE PEANUTS MOVIE ©2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. PEANUTS characters ©2015 Peanuts Worldwide LLC. No ownership of these properties is intended or should be inferred.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

12 Sensational Sesame Street Songs (Ah-Ah-Ah!)

Last week marked Sesame Street's 45th anniversary, which you have no doubt already known since you've probably read at least one article online regarding the fact. Given that I usually write about either the Muppets or Phineas and Ferb on the few occasions I actually update this blog (a narrow subject list I promise to expand one of these days), you've probably expected that I'd write something about it. Well, I was planning to, but I couldn't actually think of anything to write about until an idea came to me: why not do a list of Sesame Street songs?

I know plenty of people have done lists of what they consider to be the best Sesame Street songs of all time, but this list is not one of those. Instead, it's a list of 12 of my own personal favorites, as a way to do what many of these anniversary articles have also been doing: to reflect on what the writer likes about Sesame Street or what they remember most about it. The reason there's 12 songs is because the list consists of 10 of my personal favorites plus 2 additional songs that also are my personal favorites, but are pretty much required by law to appear on any list of Sesame Street songs (not that I'm complaining). Besides, I like the number 12. It's fun to say.

Since it's impossible for me to rank these songs as being greater than each other, I'm giving letters a nod as well as numbers just as Sesame Street always has and listing them in alphabetical order, starting with:

The Batty Bat
Year: 1985
Composer: Joe Raposo
Performed by: Count von Count (Jerry Nelson)

The Count is a one-note character (One! One-note character! Ah ah ah!) who somehow transcends the simple pun behind his existence - "Count" being both a title of nobility famously associated with Dracula and the act of reciting numbers in order - to become much more than the sum of his parts (pun intended) and perhaps one of the most-loved recurring Sesame Street characters.

The Count loves to sing as much as he loves to count, and this number (no pun intended this time) has always been one of my favorites. There's no lesson to be learned here, but the combination of stereotypical "vampire" elements such as bats flying around and Eastern European-style music also help make the Count such a memorable character and this song such a memorable song. (As for the whole "vampire" thing, Sesame Workshop, or the Children's Television Workshop - CTW - as it was originally known, has been perhaps intentionally vague on whether or not the Count is indeed a vampire. The Muppet Wiki's page on the question is perhaps one of my favorites, if only for the bizarre 1979 letter complaining about the negative effects of "mislead[ing] children into trusting Dracula" that proves crackpots existed even before the Internet, even if they had to write out their bizarre opinions and mail them to be heard.)

C is for Cookie
Year: 1971
Composer: Joe Raposo
Performed by: Cookie Monster (Frank Oz)

This is one of the two songs that pretty much have to show up on every list of the best and/or one's personal favorite songs from Sesame Street. And there's nothing wrong with that - it's both a good song and a memorable one. I especially love Cookie Monster's introduction, which almost seems like self-parody of educational programming: "Cookie starts with C. Let's think of other things that start with, who cares about other things?" I don't have much to say about this song as I do most of the others on this list, but then again, there's really no need. C is for cookie, and that's good enough for me. As it is for us all.

Five People in My Family
Year: 1969
Composer: Jeff Moss
Performed by: The Anything Muppets (lead vocalist: Jim Henson)

As one of the very first songs ever written for Sesame Street, this is an incredibly short, simplistic song compared to some of the others on the list. Even the construction of the Muppets and the minimalism of the background are lacking compared to later sketches featuring Muppets performing in front of a wall in a blank room. But it's catchy and gets stuck in your head, and what it does, it does well. It's probably one of the earliest good examples of what Sesame Street originally set out to do (and still does).

In some of the earliest promotional materials (including This Way to Sesame Street, an NBC special which featured the song and aired two days before the first episode aired on public television), one of the original ideas behind Sesame Street was heavily promoted: can letters of the alphabet and numbers be "sold" in the same way products are in television commercials? (Perhaps coincidentally, Schoolhouse Rock would be born nearly a decade later to try and answer a similar question: could the multiplication tables be memorized in the same way youngsters memorize the lyrics to popular songs by setting them to music? I'd argue that the answer to both questions is "yes".) The sketch and song are set up very much like a television commercial: explaining what the "product" is (5 is a number larger than 1, 2, 3, or 4) and then "selling" it with a jingle explaining its uses (a family consisting of a father, mother, two brothers, and a sister has 5 members). Like most advertising jingles, it's incredibly simple but effective, and most of all, is written well enough that it gets stuck in your head.

Good Morning, Mister Sun
Year: 1984
Composer: Tony Geiss
Performed by: Big Bird (Carroll Spinney)

I previously featured this song in my retrospective on Tony Geiss after his passing in 2011. This was one of my grandfather's favorite songs from the show, and I vividly recall crying as a young boy hearing this song on an audio cassette. In fact, I'm crying right now listening to the song as I'm writing this. Corny, I know, but something about this song just gets to me. It's not really an educational song, per se - though perhaps it could be argued that it explains the sun comes out in the morning - but like many of the songs on this list that don't really seem to have educational value on this list, it helps flesh out the personality of the character who's singing it. Big Bird is a friendly optimist who's willing to greet everyone he sees - even the sun. Sorry your greeting makes me cry, Big Bird, but I'm sure you'd be happy to know they're tears of joy (after you've been explained to that people don't just cry when they're sad).

I Don't Want to Live on the Moon
Year: 1978
Composer: Jeff Moss
Performed by: Ernie (Jim Henson)

This is a sweet song, somewhat melancholy but with a cute message that I haven't really come to appreciate until I became much older and started traveling more often: although it's really fun to go to different places and see unusual sights, it's satisfying to come back home afterwards. The full-body puppetry of Ernie - which, according to Muppet Wiki, required three puppeteers to move Ernie's head and all four of his limbs - is a rarity and quite impressive, especially the scene where he's swimming in the sea. His movements have sort of a dreamlike quality, which adds to the lullaby quality of this song.

I Hate Christmas
Year: 1978
Composers: David Axlerod and Sam Pottle
Performed by: Oscar the Grouch (Carroll Spinney)

Many of the cast members of Sesame Street consider 1978's Christmas Eve on Sesame Street to be original head writer Jon Stone's crowning achievement; while I don't know if I would go that far, I will agree that it's a darn good Christmas special.* Cleverly taking familiar elements of the show such as Muppets interviewing children and making them about how children celebrate Christmas and discussing the mysteries of Santa Claus's backstory rather than letters or numbers, the special sweetly and comically shows the traditional secular elements of Christmas as played by the Muppet and human cast of Sesame Street as Bert and Ernie inadvertently recreate O. Henry's Gift of the Magi while searching for the perfect present for each other, Cookie Monster's attempt to write a Christmas list (asking for cookies, of course) are foiled by his short-term desire to eat anything regardless of whether or not it's edible to satisfy his hunger, and Big Bird puts his childlike curiosity over spending Christmas at home to gain first-hand evidence to prove a doubting Oscar that Santa Claus is real. Alongside 1987's A Muppet Family Christmas, it's a great example of how the Christmas brings the best out of the Muppets (and vice versa); both are definitely on my list of my personal favorite Christmas specials besides the "Big Three" of Rudolph, Charlie Brown, and the Grinch. (Say, there's an idea for another list...)

Christmas Eve on Sesame Street features two sweet songs - True Blue Miracle and Keep Christmas With You - which are standard sentimental holiday fare of the sort that often shows up in specials like these and on the radio 24/7 throughout the month of December (and nowadays the latter half of November). They're fantastic songs, but my personal favorite from the special is Oscar's ode to the antithesis of the other two songs. I'm a sucker for funny songs and vaudevillian numbers, and this song is both, with quick and comical rhyming lyrics. And Oscar's remark that he'll "tell [Santa] where to put his toys is surprisingly ribald by Sesame Street standards. Then again, earlier in this same special, Oscar cusses out Big Bird for believing in Santa Claus - helpfully drowned out by the passing by of a very long subway train. Even when he's at his rudest, Oscar remains somehow upbeat, which makes this an anti-Christmas song (albeit in a playful, mocking matter) a sort even the kind of seasonal sentimentalist like myself can enjoy.

*1978's Christmas Eve on Sesame Street should be by no means confused with 1978's A Special Sesame Street Christmas. Due to a CTW executive's failure to realize that PBS did not work like a commercial network, he inexplicably licensed the Sesame Street characters for a variety special on CBS in case PBS rejected the other - an impossiblity, of course. The end result proves that 1978 was a heck of a year for Christmas-themed variety specials on CBS, and much like the more well-known (and notorious) of the two - The Star Wars Holiday Special - should be viewed at least once just to see how inexplicably odd the end result is.

Monster in the Mirror
Year: 1989
Composers: Christopher Cerf and Norman Stiles
Performed by: Grover (Frank Oz)

I'm not sure who my favorite Sesame Street characters were as a kid, but they were probably my favorite ones they are now - the Count and especially Grover. I'm not sure what's so appealing about Grover, but it's probably his eagerness and his desire to keep on proving he can do whatever task he's been given - be it a waiter, a superhero, or practically anything under the sun - even though most of the time he comically messes up. That's something all children (and adults, for that matter) - not just middle children, as Michael Davis (author of the Sesame Street history Street Gang) hypothesizes are those who can relate to Grover the most - can identify with (and as an only child, I should know). I also loved the books in which Grover starred as a kid - Lovable Furry Old Grover's Resting Places, Would You Like To Play Hide and Seek in This Book with Grover?, and of course, the most famous and best-selling Sesame Street book of all time, The Monster at the End of This Book. All of them are fantastic in the conceit that Grover is interacting directly with the reader, but what I really came to appreciate over the years is Michael Smollin's illustrations - especially the backgrounds depicting pages that get increasingly crumpled and stuffed with various objects Grover has tried to use to hide himself either for a game of hide and seek or from the monster at the end of the book he so fears. These - and especially all of the items Grover pulls out of his toybox in Resting Places while trying to locate the titular places he rests various parts of his body - are probably what made me come to appreciate little jokes and details in the background of detailed drawings (what the famed MAD artist Will Elder would call "chicken fat" - it's not necessary, but it makes the end result more appetizing).

I'm not sure if spoiler alerts are required for a book over 40 years old that every kid in America has practically read at one time or another, but if you haven't read The Monster at the End of This Book (and if you haven't - or just want to take another look - here it is on Smollin's official website), it turns out the monster at the end of the book is, of course, Grover himself. This tendency to miss the obvious which makes up another part of Grover's charmingly childlike persona sets up this song: Grover sees a monster in his mirror. Instead of running away in fright, he decides to show the monster he isn't scared by making silly noises. When the "other monster" makes them back, he slowly realizes over the course of the song that it's really his own reflection. A cute concept for a song, and the song itself is really upbeat and memorable - especially the later version which features a number of well-known personalities including Siskel & Ebert, Ray Charles, and Robin Williams joining in on the nonsense chorus of "wubba wubba wubba wubba woo woo woo". (As a kid, probably the biggest celebrities in the video in my mind were The Simpsons - a surprising choice for a number of reasons if you think about it, but one that's ended up standing the test of time and sadly one of the few I can still recognize by sight 20 years later.) A fun song that does Grover justice - and, all things considered, it is really fun to say "wubba wubba wubba".

Put Down the Duckie
Year: 1986
Composers: Christopher Cerf and Norman Stiles
Performed by: Ernie and Hoots the Owl (Kevin Clash)

Again, this is a song that really seems to have no educational lesson, unless you count "you can't play a saxophone and hold a rubber duckie at the same time" to be educational - although at least one person has interpreted the song to be about having to get rid of our old habits in order to do the things we desire that are better for us. That's probably not what was intended, but even if there's no deeper meaning, it's a jazzy song that, much like "Monster in the Mirror", has a memorable celebrity cameo version. (There were actually two - the version shown here is the second, which replaces a few of the celebrities from the original that appeared in the simply named 1988 Sesame Street special Sesame Street Special, renamed Put Down the Duckie for its home video release. Most notably, Phil Donahue appears in place of Pee-Wee Herman due to Paul Reubens's 1991 arrest. Thankfully, in the case of crimes that don't threaten others such as Reubens's, time heals all wounds, and the original celebrity montage with Pee-Wee was reinstated on the 40th anniversary DVD, much as Pee-Wee has been reinstated to the public at large.) As fun as the celebrity version[s] is, it messes up the rhyme scheme of the song by cutting half of a verse from the original non-celebrity version to make room for all the cameos:

I've learned a thing or two from playing music in a band
It's hard to play a saxophone with something in your hand
To be a fine musician, you're gonna have to face the facts
Though you're blessed with flying fingers, when you wanna wail you're stuck
What good are flying fingers if they're wrapped around a duck?
Change the toy's position if you wanna ace the sax

(I'm both a fan of and a stickler for clever rhymes, in case you haven't guessed by now.)

Rubber Duckie
Year: 1970
Composer: Jeff Moss
Performed by: Ernie

Along with "C is for Cookie", this is one of those two songs that probably belongs on every list of personal favorite Sesame Street songs - and for good reason. Other than the show's theme song, this is arguably the most famous Sesame Street song, making it to number 16 on the Billboard Hot 100 and being so popular on radio stations that Columbia Records took out this fantastic ad in Billboard magazine jokingly apologizing "Don't doubt us, please, we still know what we're doing":

Jim Henson recorded a Spanish translation with Herb Alpert-style backing in 1974, Little Richard did a cover in his inimitable style in 1995, it was even remixed as a disco song in 1978 on an album called Sesame Street Fever, with a fantastic cover of Grover mimicking John Travolta. (Then again, everyone, and I mean everyone, from Mickey Mouse to Ethel Merman to Ray J. Johnson - a one-gag performer nowadays better known as a recurring Simpsons punchline - cashed in on the disco craze). No matter how it's performed, Rubber Duckie is one of those few Sesame Street songs with no educational message, but definitely helps flesh out the characterization of one of its residents in an upbeat and memorable way. Much like Ernie, we're all awfully fond of Rubber Duckie - or at least his theme song.

A Song from Kermit
Year: 1977?
Composers: David Axlerod and Sam Pottle
Performed by: Kermit the Frog (Jim Henson)

Another song that arguably lacks educational value but makes up for it in memorability, this lesser-known Kermit number has a lot in common with the frog's signature song, Bein' Green (composed by Joe Raposo and first performed by Kermit on Sesame Street in 1970). Both songs pretty much have the same theme, although this one puts it less subtly on the table in its lyrics (and lacks the possible racial interpretation of Bein' Green). Kermit's not perfect, but he's happy with who he is. He may not be a great singer - he is a frog, after all - but he sings from the heart to make his friends, the TV audience, happy. Of course, Kermit underestimates himself; he - and by extension, Jim Henson - is (like most of the Muppet performers) a fantastic singer, and his deep voice and the wind instrument backing give this little song a sweet melancholy quality. Both Bein' Green and A Song from Kermit are fantastic, of course, but this is my favorite of the two.

We All Sing with the Same Voice
Year: 1981
Composers: Sheppard Greene and J. Philip Miller
Performed by: Various children

This is the only song on my list that isn't performed by a Muppet, and it discusses one educational factor that Sesame Street has always taught that has nothing to do with letters or numbers: respect and tolerance for others. Showing blacks and whites sharing the same street, though realistic especially for the New York setting, was of course surprisingly not often done on television at the time Sesame Street debuted (and got the show briefly banned in Mississippi). Even then, Sesame Street has been criticized over the years for not doing enough to represent diversity, with female and Hispanic organizations having heated discussions with CTW over their lack of representation in the early years. Even when trying to cater to minority audiences the show felt the effect of how an attempt at trying to recreate their overall culture can be seen as racist by critics; most famously in the case of Roosevelt Franklin, a Muppet whose sketches were written and performed by a black actor (Matt Robinson, the original Gordon), but were criticized by black critics for reinforcing negative stereotypes of black dialect and behavior (in 1973, Black World magazine criticized Franklin's slang as a "stage Negro dialect" that was "little more than standard English with a slightly ethnicized or southernized pronunciation").

Sesame Street has had better luck in showing what makes people alike rather than what makes them different, and this song is a good example. It's admittedly a little corny, sounding somewhat like a Raffi song or something that would show up on Barney and Friends, but for some reason, I like it. And as a long-time fan of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs long before it became a movie, it always pleased me that one of the kids is seen reading it. (As an aside, hearing the lyric "I've got one daddy, I've got two" surprises me in a good way, as it's an early example of the subtle indication that some children have same-sex parents that other kids' shows - for example - Postcards from Buster and Good Luck Charlie - have in recent years faced criticism for just as subtly hinting at, Buster infamously from no less than their PBS funders at the U.S. Department of Education.)

What's the Name of That Song?
Year: 1974
Composers: David Axlerod and Sam Pottle
Performed by: Various

An unusual idea for a song: a song called "What's the Name of That Song?" which is literally about forgetting the words of a non-existent song. Another comically upbeat, showtune-y number from the same folks who gave us "I Hate Christmas" earlier on this list (perhaps not coincidentally, Pottle would later write the similarly vaudevillian theme song for The Muppet Show). This song was originally peformed by the human cast of Sesame Street, but I've decided to highlight Bert and Ernie's version of the song. It fits the duo well, as Ernie, ever the instigator, is the one who poses the question, content in his typical fashion to wait for the answer another day while forcing poor Bert to stay up all night pondering. Bert's self-aware "Oh, music cue?!" is pretty amusing (as is Ernie's call to modulate during the key change, something Jim Henson would apparently often due during rehearsals of musical numbers over the years).

This song makes an unusual but appropriate way to end a list of Sesame Street songs - hopefully it's left you with songs that bring back memories, songs you may not have heard before, and above all songs that, like all those on this list and hundreds more over Sesame Street's 45-year history, we'll have stuck in our heads and be singing for years. Hopefully that doesn't torment you as much as it does Bert.

This post is dedicated to Tony Geiss, Jim Henson, Richard Hunt, Will "Mr. Hooper" Lee, Jeff Moss, Jerry Nelson, Joe Raposo, Jon Stone, and all the others we've lost over the years who've laid a cobblestone or two on Sesame Street by their presence and their contributions.

The Columbia Records advertisement for the Rubber Duckie single appeared in the August 1, 1970 Billboard magazine and was accessed via Google Books.

Research information for this post came primarily from the Muppet Wiki, an invaluable source on all things Sesame Street, Muppetry, and Hensoniana. Additional resources included Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street by Michael Davis (New York: Viking Press, 2008) and Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones (New York: Ballantine, 2013).

SESAME STREET and all related characters and elements ©2014 Sesame Workshop. KERMIT THE FROG, MUPPET, and MUPPETS are registered trademarks of Disney Enterprises, Inc. No ownership of these properties is intended or should be inferred.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Bandai Namco's ShiftyLook to Close its Doors

Alphaman and Bravoman from Bravoman, ShiftyLook's signature comic strip and cartoon. ©2014 NAMCO BANDAI Games Inc.
I’ve wanted to write about ShiftyLook, the comic and cartoon initiative from Bandai Namco Games* and UDON Entertainment, for a while now. Unfortunately, it seems that if I cover it, it will have to be a postmortem: it was officially announced today that the site will cease producing original content as of March 20, with the website closing for good in September.

Founded in 2011, ShiftyLook was a website which featured original content based on some of the lesser-known characters from Namco’s vast library of quirky video games. I hope to showcase some of these before they’re gone for good, but some of the highlights which I recommend you check out are Galaga: The Movie: The Comic, a goofy take on the space shooter featuring two girls and the awesomest jingo-bombastic United States President in fictional history written by Ryan North (Dinosaur Comics, Adventure Time) which was named one of the best comics in any medium of 2013 by website Comics Alliance; Wonder Momo, a fun take on magical girl/sentai tropes which is far more entertaining than the recent run-of-the-mill anime adaptation ShiftyLook launched; Mappy, a very funny and surreal animated series which seems to take the best quirks and dry wit of an Adult Swim series and Homestar Runner and blends them into the workaday saga of a disgraced policeman in an office and his questionable boss; and Bravoman, arguably the site’s signature attraction and both a fantastic webcomic and cartoon with lots of fourth-wall humor and Warner Bros.-esque insanity (and whose animated incarnation features such veteran voice actors as Rob Paulsen and Dee Bradley Baker).

UDON’s official statement as to ShiftyLook’s closure is (perhaps intentionally) vague, but Matt Moylan, who wrote both the Bravoman comic strip and animated series, gave a very critical analysis of why he think the project failed to British comics fansite Bleeding Cool:

Looking at why Shiftylook failed though, there are a lot of reasons. In my opinion they spent far too much money and effort trying to SEEM successful rather than working to actually BE successful. Even though they were just starting out, they set up enormous booths at conventions with live music, arcade machines, free t-shirts etc. None of which seemed to promote what the company actually did – make webcomics. It also always felt like they were following some pre-made guide to how a company grows, constantly moving on to bigger things despite not yet really succeeding at the smaller things. I guess that is the danger of being the subsidiary of a large company like Bandai with near unlimited resources.

Besides that they didn’t seemed to have a monetization plan until very recently. They did finally come out with some minor games near the end of 2013, but I felt neither of them was very well thought out. The Bravoman mobile app to put it lightly was not very good, and add to that a freemium “pay to play” model which is never a fan-pleaser even for a good game. Their second game, Namco High, was a Japanese-style visual novel. It’s a game genre that is barely known in the west. Plus it seemed to be banking largely on Andrew Hussie’s mega-popular Homestuck characters as guest stars to bring in an audience, which kind of begs the question of why does it feature the Shiftylook characters at all? There is still the upcoming Wonder Momo game from WayForward, which actually seems like a perfect match, but too late to save the comics.

In the end, I feel the current webcomics like Bravoman, Wonder Momo, Katamari, and Klonoa are actually at the popularity levels that a decent webcomic SHOULD be at after only 1 or 2 years. If properly monetized, they would probably be able to modestly support their creators, but that’s not near enough to support a company with big expenses like Shiftylook.

UDON will be releasing the ShiftyLook comics in book form, and Moylan is both proud of the work he did and optimistic that perhaps the books will sell well enough to allow him to work with Bravoman again some day in the future. I certainly hope that happens, but even if it doesn’t, I’m glad he and all the folks involved got to have fun with these unusual characters. ShiftyLook introduced me to both some entertaining Namco properties and some entertaining comic creators, and hopefully you out there will get the chance to meet them before the end of the year. I’ll be introducing some of them to you in the weeks to come, but why not meet them for yourselves? I think you’ll be as entertained - and as sad to see them go - as I am.

*As of April 2014, Namco Bandai Games will be officially known as Bandai Namco Games, its Japanese name, worldwide. I’ve jumped the gun when it comes to which name comes first and will refer to the company as Bandai Namco.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Thoughts on Theatre: Mr. Burns, a post-electric play

Directed by Steve Cosson. Written by Anne Washburn. Music by Michael Friedman. At Playwrights Horizons at 416 West 42nd Street, New York. For tickets and more information, visit Reviewed September 5, 2013 (preview performance).

As long as there have been people, there have been stories, and stories retold time and time again are retold in different ways by different people. Stories are modified in different ways for different reasons when they are retold; be it a fairy tale that had its more violent elements removed and then was later made into a Disney musical, or a simple anecdote about a funny thing that happened that may not exactly be remembered the way it originally happened - or even the way it was last told. For the thing that seems to affect stories and the way they are told most is not just where and when they are being told, but by who. The human memory is a faulty and often incorrect beast, and if the game of "telephone" has taught us anything, stories told to others aloud often end up mangled in the retelling purple monkey dishwasher. (I once had a friend retell the events of an episode of The Simpsons that sounded absolutely foreign to me until I realized he was actually remembering an episode of Dexter's Laboratory.)

But what are the stories of our times that will endure for future civilizations to tell, retell, and often mistell? What is our modern-day equivalent of the Bible or Shakespeare? For better or for worse, what has permeated the mindset of the modern American the most due to its omnipresence and inescapability is what is generally considered one of our relatively lower forms of culture, the television sitcom - perhaps most inescabably of all, The Simpsons. As author Chris Turner put it in his 2005 discussion of how The Simpsons affected modern pop culture and vice versa, Planet Simpson, "If there is a common cultural currency, it's got Homer Simpson's picture on it." Most likely, the longest-running sitcom in television history has had more written about it than any other series in history, from scholarly essays to an entire Internet's worth of websites devoted to it. (Remember the days before broadband and YouTube when Simpsons .wavs were the highest-quality Internet entertainment available?) Mr. Burns, a post-electric play, which opens tonight for a limited Off-Broadway run, combines and definitely proves the longevity of both the storytelling process (imperfect as it may be) and The Simpsons as a modern cultural touchstone - and brings up a number of interesting talking points on the ties that bind humankind for better or worse in the process.

The play opens on a group of people, seated around a campfire, some with guns at the ready to fire at some unseen threat. A man named Matt (Matthew Maher - all of the characters are named after the actors who play them) passes the time by regaling the group with the story of a Simpsons episode as best as he can remember it. To be specific, "Cape Feare", the now-classic episode (directed by Rich Moore long before Wreck-It Ralph) in which the family joins the Witness Protection Program after recurring villain Sideshow Bob is released from prison and makes clear his desire to murder Bart as revenge for his capture in two previous episodes. Not surprisingly, the retelling is rife with forgotten lines, skipping back and forth in the actual series of events, and a lot of derailments into discussions of other pop culture targets being satirized in the original episode - including, of course, Cape Fear (both the original and the remake). Eventually, another man named Gibson (Gibson Frazier) wanders onto the campsite. After the group realize that Gibson is not a threat, the conversation turns to where the members of the group came from and who they left behind, which eventually reveals why the group is here and why they were ready to shoot at whoever came by: in this unspecified portion of the (presumably Northeastern given the geography mentioned) United States at this unspecified time (stated in the program simply as "Near. Soon."), an explosion at a nuclear power plant has caused a nationwide blackout, leaving those who survived the disasters that ensued to fend for themselves.

The second act takes place seven years afterward, as this group has become a repertory theater company who performs Simpsons episodes alongside "commercials" which are not so much trying to sell things as they are helping the audience to remember the simple luxuries they no longer have, such as houses, showers, and Diet Coke. The final act takes place 75 years after the second; the real history of the apocalypse has conflagrated with the fiction of The Simpsons. "Cape Feare" is no longer the story of the Simpson family moving to a houseboat to avoid the murderous Sideshow Bob but is now a comically melodramatic musical about the Simpson family, the only known survivors of the power plant explosion that destroyed Springfield, who set out on a houseboat to find a new life - unaware that the villainous Mr. Burns, who was mutated by the explosion, is still alive and has set out with his henchmen Itchy and Scratchy to murder the Simpson family for some unspecified reason.

In both the first and second acts, Maher does a fantastic job as at first the storyteller and later the actor portraying Homer. His imitations of the characters are amusing as his delivery - the way he describes various visual gags from the original show are just as funny as the genuine article. (The fact that he both resembles Homer and shares a first name both in reality and fiction with Simpsons creator Matt Groening is a pleasant coincidence.) However, I was surprised that what I loved most about Mr. Burns was not the Simpsons references but the small talk that helps flesh out this unusual universe. Playwright Anne Washburn did a wonderful job with the dialogue, which both sounded genuine and was in itself an interesting gateway to this dystopia, especially in the second act. A lot of the dialogue in the second act seemed as if it was self-satirizing the difficulties of putting a play together, as the repertory company discusses the unusual circumstances of their time such as having to deal with other similar traveling companies each of which has the exclusive rights to perform their own set of Simpsons episodes, punching up episodes they have the rights to they feel are weak with new dialogue and jokes, and taking suggestions from the audience for new lines which leads to even stranger circumstances like an audience member demanding compensation for a line about magic space crystals he didn't actually write and members of the company believing they were responsible for coming up with lines that were actually in the show to begin with.

One of the most interesting things about the show to me was how things referenced in each of the various acts kept popping up in the succeeding acts. A story of a person who was at the nuclear power plant during the actual explosion - a story which itself may not have actually happened - eventually becomes the prologue to the third act's play-within-a-play. In its own Chekhovian way, a joke the entire group racks their brains to remember the exact wording of becomes the witty rejoinder in the clichéd battle scene that serves as the climax to that very same play. And some much larger recurring themes weave their way through all three acts and add to the general idea of the transformation through retelling by faulty memories: The character for whom the play is named comes up in each act; in the first he is confused with Sideshow Bob, in the second Gibson suggests replacing Sideshow Bob with Mr. Burns because he prefers playing Mr. Burns and their company has very few Mr. Burns episodes in their reprotire, in the third, Mr. Burns has indeed supplanted Sideshow Bob as the villain of the story - whether by Gibson's doing, human memory again taking its toll on Bob, or a combination of the two is left to the imagination of the audience. (In a similar vein, the collective conciousness has given Troy McClure the characteristics of anchorman Kent Brockman; McClure's catchphrase "You may remember me" becomes the dying plea of a victim unable to escape the destruction who literally wants to be remembered instead of a D-list actor's constant attempt to remind viewers he once had a career.)

The other recurring theme of endurance and remembrance (or misremembrance) of disposable culture is pop music. The second act features an incredibly funny montage of pop songs mashed together as part of the reperatory company's nostalgic repertoire; the musical that comprises the third act quotes liberally from the pieces that have apparently seeped into the mindset of the near-future - The Simpsons theme song transforms into that of The Flintstones, the lyrics to Britney Spears's Toxic are taken literally as Mr. Burns describes his deadly touch resulting from his nuclear run-in. Appropriately given its importance in "Cape Feare" itself, Gilbert and Sullivan also plays a recurring role. (One of my favorite touches was that the music played before the show began were various covers of pop songs - many of which appeared in the show itself - done in styles or genres different from those in which they were actually recorded [BeyoncĂ© as country, Lady Gaga as a classical string number, Eye of the Tiger as a lounge act], which was an interesting example of the sort of cultural transformation, intentional or not, that is a theme of the play).

Mr. Burns is a play that, much like Professor Frink, both makes you laugh and makes you think. The themes brought up about human nature are interesting ones (at least they seem to be to me - I very well could just be using buzzwords like "omnipresence" and "Chekhovian" that dumb people use to sound important, but I hope I'm not). Something Matt says during the first act seems to sum up a theme of the play as a whole: "People are not competent." It was human incompetence that led to the nuclear apocalypse, and it was a different kind of human incompetence that causes The Simpsons to mutate into the only surviving record of what happened in said apocalypse. Much like The Simpsons itself, Mr. Burns is both pessimistic and optimistic, if that's somehow possible: even though it may take more than 22 minutes for us to do so, humankind will eventually find a solution to all its problems, even if it's not a perfect one, and succeed despite incompetence. "Pull a Homer", if you will.

The second act closes with an implication that indeed not all the problems are solved by the show's halfway point which might be jarring to some - a few people at the performance I attended actually laughed because of how out of left field it was. Also, the relatively goofier third act is entertaining in its own right but somewhat pales to the world-building moments of the first two, which seems to show the difficulty of making a realistic, down-to-earth play that's also completely off-the-wall and teeming with giant robots (Note: there are no giant robots in this play). Mr. Burns may not be perfect, but it's perfectly cromulent. Even with its few flaws, Mr. Burns is an incredibly fun, interesting, and thought-provoking play. I've been trying my hardest not to make any Simpsons references in this review (despite that, a ton of them still somehow snuck their way in. Damn TV, you've ruined my imagination!), but hopefully you'll forgive me making the most obvious one of all: Mr. Burns is exxxxcellent. I heartily endorse this event or product with a review of SCREW FLANDERS...I mean HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

TV Review: "Phineas and Ferb: Mission Marvel"

BEWARE THE SPOILERINATOR! This post contains SPOILERS. Read this post at your own risk (you may want to skip the paragraph which begins "Perhaps one of the most surprising...") or don't read it at all until you watch yourself if you want to enjoy Phineas and Ferb: Mission Marvel without knowing what happens in advance!

During the last days of Michael Eisner's reign at Disney, as recounted in James B. Stewart's Disneywar, the questionable track record of the ABC network (an Eisner acquisition) and a hostile takeover attempt by Comcast at the company's lowest point led many to believe that Disney had lost its way; from the beginning, Disney's strength has always been original content and creating memorable stories and characters, not controlling the means of distributing them. There has been one exception to this rule in the past decade, however: Disney Channel, which evolved from a premium network into a basic cable mainstay and for the most part now both defines and cross-promotes the Disney brand to a young audience daily. Eisner's successor Bob Iger seems aware that content - and cross-promotion - has always been king at Disney, adding to the vast library of characters to plaster everywhere for better or worse with the acquisition of character houses that are just as large, most notably Marvel Comics in 2008. Unlike rival DC, whose parent company Time Warner often seems to act as if characters other than Superman or Batman don't exist, Marvel has made quite a name for themselves under the white gloves of the Mouse. The "first phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe", which spotlighted well-known characters from the Marvel catalog (save for Spider-Man and the X-Men, whose film rights belong to other studios) and made previously second-tier heroes such as Iron Man into household names, began before the Disney acquisition but culminated with both Marvel and Disney reaping the benefits of 2012's The Avengers, teaming up the heroes introduced in the previous Marvel films and becoming the only movie in history not directed by James Cameron to gross over $1 billion worldwide.

Contrary to the fears of those who only-half-jokingly expected the likes of Spider-Mouse or Iron Goof, Disney has thankfully ruled Marvel as a separate fiefdom for the most part. That changes tomorrow, as the Marvel characters are brought to a Disney-owned universe for the first time in perhaps the biggest sort of cross-promotion the FCC will legally allow in an hour-long special episode of one of Disney Channel's most successful animated series (and a frequent subject of this blog), Phineas and Ferb. Perhaps not surprisingly, there have been some naysayers fearing that this represents the worst of what the Marvel characters are able to do now that Disney has their grubby mouseprints on them, but those fears seem to be unfounded for two reasons. The first being that series creators Dan Povenmire and Jeff "Swampy" Marsh and their team (which for this episode included four writers, eight writer/storyboard artists, and four directors) were given strict supervision by Marvel, who inspected the episode and made sure the characters were being used in a manner that wasn't out-of-character and in a way that doesn't violate any pre-existing legal agreements the company has (it took a week for Marvel to figure out whether or not it was legally allowed for a character to say "Howard the Duck" in a throwaway gag, simply because no one had ever done it before). The second is because Phineas and Ferb: Mission Marvel is a ton of fun, which is to be expected from the franchise. Phineas and Ferb always seems to be at its best with its half-hour or hour-long special episodes, and this is up there among the most memorable.

An ordinary day in Danville is usually anything but, and this one is no different. Phineas, Ferb, and their friends are spending it in outer space, as children often do (at least if you're Phineas and Ferb). Dr. Doofenshmirtz is once again trying to take over the tri-state area in the most convoluted way possible, while Perry the Platypus is once again trying to stop him. Doof's failed invention bounces off of the boys's space headquarters, and the next thing you know, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Thor, and the Incredible Hulk are knocking at the door, powerless as a result of the chain of events and hoping Phineas and Ferb can set things straight from the privacy of their underground Secret Hideout for Emergency Defense, or S.H.E.D. for short. (We probably have storyboard artist Josh Pruett, who goes by zombietardis on Twitter, to thank for the S.H.E.D., for whose logic-defying contruction Ferb seems to have borrowed from another well-known fictional Brit. The inspiration is right there in Pruett's username.) Meanwhile, some of the Marvel Universe's villains are envious of Doofenshmirtz being able to defeat the superheroes before they did. However, they soon realize that the inventor of such "evil" gadgets as the oatmeal-to-porridgeinator probably isn't the diabolical mastermind they originally thought him to be, and soon enough even Dr. Doofenshmirtz is part of the unlikely alliance that will hopefully ensure this team of actually competent supervillains doesn't take over the tri-state area before he does. And why is there a familiar-looking platypus flying around?

There's a lot to like about Mission Marvel, especially the interactions between the Phineas and Ferb characters and the Marvel menagerie. The heroes get their powers switched around (leading to an amusing discussion between Thor and Iron Man based on an actual discussion the staff had about what Thor's powers actually entail), one of the gang briefly gets the powers of one of the heroes (and they fit him surprisingly well), the professional-yet-goofy Major Monogram attempts to upstage the much more professional and less goofy Nick Fury, and familiar Ferb running gags end up discovering they have perfect counterparts in the Marvel Universe (M.O.D.O.K., meet Giant Floating Baby Head). I'm not familiar enough with the Marvel mythos to get all of the various references to superhero origins made in the special, but most viewers will probably get at least one of the references to the various previous media incarnations of these heroes, which run the gamut from the recent Avengers movie to the '70s Incredible Hulk TV show. Even the series's mainstay of musical interludes is integrated nicely; neither the heroes or villains sing (which depending on your point of view of the matter is either a good or a bad thing), but we get a goofy pop musical number about Doofenshmirtz's new evil entourage as he commands them to do a bunch of amusingly less-than-evil deeds and a number of rock songs for the various battle sequences. Both the fights and their musical accompaniment are played straight, which seems to be a testament to how the show's writers and head composer Danny Jacob are able to compose in so many genres as well as write action sequences as well as they do comic ones.

Perhaps one of the most surprising - and entertaining - elements of the special is a subplot that creates tension between two characters who are normally played for laughs. Phineas's older sister Candace, who is usually making herself (and everyone else around her) crazy in an attempt to get her brothers in trouble, is revealed to be a Marvel fangirl and thus takes it upon herself to eagerly assist the gang in their mission to recover the superheroes's powers. Unfortunately, as she is in all things, she is a little too eager, and Phineas gets frustrated with her causing more harm than good. Phineas is usually an eternally optimistic character, and it's shocking to see him displaying anger, especially towards his own sister. It's an interesting element to the plot which made me feel sorry for Candace, and leads to a musical number that showcases the voices of Ashley Tisdale and Alyson Stoner, who perform well together (especially given the fact they recorded their parts separately). The reason Stoner's Isabella laments alongside Candace - the fact that none of the female superheroes didn't show up - isn't really touched upon outside of the song; perhaps one of the few weaknesses of the special, but an incentive for the two of them to band together and prove that they can be just as much a part of the team as the boys are - even if it is by the same dumb luck that got Candace in trouble with Phineas in the first place. But then again, that's what she does best.

Mission Marvel may not hit all the marks that the feature-length Across the 2nd Dimension did, but that's a pretty hard accomplishment to top. However, what it does do it does well, and like most of Phineas and Ferb's extra-special romps, has fun with the characters while bringing good comedy, action, and emotion - all while managing to prove that incorporating an ancillary Disney universe is among the impossible accomplishments the boys are able to pull off. Didn't Disney make another big-name purchase last year? Yes, yes they did - and there's already a Phineas and Ferb special in the works to showcase it. Given its premise (a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead-style take on the original Star Wars where Phineas and Ferb's antics happen just off-screen during Episode IV) and their Marvel-ous Mission, it seems like it will be worth the wait.

Phineas and Ferb: Mission Marvel airs tomorrow night at 8pm Eastern on Disney Channel and Sunday, August 25 at 10am Eastern on Disney XD.

PHINEAS AND FERB ©Disney. Marvel characters and elements ©2013 Marvel. SUPER HEROES and SUPER VILLAINS are jointly-owned registered trademarks of Marvel Entertainment LLC and DC Comics, a Time Warner company. No ownership of these properties is intended or should be inferred.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Quick Film Thoughs: Ace Attorney

The Ace Attorney series of video games is one of those things that, like The Simpsons or Homestar Runner, is so bizarre that it's difficult to describe and even a mere description does not do its bizareness justice. On its surface, the series is basically an interactive mystery novel which follows a basic pattern of collecting evidence and then being asked to use said evidence to find increasingly more difficult contradictions in the testimony of a character to prove your client innocent. However, it's the setup and the personality of these characters that really set the series apart: courtroom battles are usually literally such, with the lawyers screaming "OBJECTION!" at the top of their lungs and anime-esque triumpant visuals and music when things get really intense; basically every person who isn't allied with the hero Phoenix Wright is either corrupt or possibly evil (with a few exceptions, most prominently the judge, who is an oblivious idiot), every single person always seems to be against Phoenix and the odds are never in his favor (which makes things all the more triumphant when he manages to save the day by turning things around at the last minute- the Japanese title for the series is "Turnabout Trial"), and dialogue is filled with bad puns and running gags such as the apparently important difference between a ladder and a stepladder.

I'm not familiar with the work of famous and prolific Japanese film director Takashi Miike (pronounced "mee-kay"), but his adaptation of Ace Attorney was introduced at New York City's Japan Society as being more of an Ace Attorney film than a Miike film. As an Ace Attorney fan, I can tell you that indeed seemed to be the case.

As the film begins, we see the juxtaposition between the two attorneys who play a role in the story: Phoenix Wright, a rookie defense attorney, fumbles around in a dinky court while the veteran prosecutor Miles Edgeworth is a press sensation. (The subtitles shown during this screening used the usually signifcant and/or punny English-language names of the characters). The audience- including myself- laughed out loud at the action on screen, in part because of the familiar details that are taken from the games during this introduction, including certain characters and actions.

The story of the film is taken from two interconnected cases from the first game in the series: Phoenix must solve the murder of his former boss, which is pinned on her younger sister (who becomes Phoenix's assistant, more or less). Soon afterwards, Edgeworth himself is accused of murder, and Phoenix soon discovers that not only the lives of most of the people he knows or meets in court, but all of the cases he's taken on, find root in an incident that occured 15 years ago. It's up to Phoenix to not only find his new friend and rival/frenemy innocent, but untangle the mystery of this mysterious case that lies at the center of all the recent events.

This is a difficult film for me to review, since I'm not sure how someone who isn't a fan of the series would react to it. I assume, however, they would enjoy it- it's a very goofy film (much as the series it's based on is). The characters are over-the-top both in visual appearance and behavior (one of Phoenix's old classmates in particular serves as comic relief multiple times), and the exaggerated courtroom antics are amusing enough- the audience seemed to be laughing not just in recognition of the familiar characters and events of the game, but how humorous the situations were in themselves. The film runs a little bit over two hours, but it doesn't feel that long. I've seen complaints in some reviews about the running time, and I will admit that the film does lull somewhere in the middle of the storyline in between the two cases. But that's a fault that lies in the source material as well- the evidence searching is nowhere near as fun as the courtroom situations. I was on the fence myself as to whether or not the film was worth recommending until a situation that I believe a number of players have said is the point they "got" the game itself as well: In desperation and with nowhere left to turn, Phoenix decides to interrogate a parrot. And somehow, it actually works. If you've never played the games before and those last two sentences and/or imagining what events led to such a situation and how it might play out brought a smile to your face, you'll probably enjoy this movie.

Despite the few OBJECTIONs I had, the film as a whole is entertaining enough to recommend. After all, you can't go wrong with a universe where a not-guilty verdict results in confetti flying out of nowhere, part of solving a case involves debunking the local equivalent of the Loch Ness Monster, and a policeman is inexplicably followed around by a costumed mascot called the Blue Badger. The film is quite faithful to the game (with the exception of one character being changed from a corrupt business executive to a tabloid reporter, a change which doesn't really hurt the narrative and in some ways may actually help the story that's being told in the film), and there are some intriguing additions that help flesh out some of the oddities of the supporting characters as well as some self-aware jokes regarding the odder parts of the game universe which only add to the overall feeling of cartoonish ludicrousness.

Ace Attorney seems to be the sort of film that cries to be seen with a group- I could easily imagine it becoming some sort of geeky midnight movie staple, a la The Rocky Horror Picture Show or, perhaps more appropriately given the video game theme, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (which this film rivals for my personal "Most Fun I've Had Being In a Film Audience" award). I don't have enough evidence to deliver a verdict as to whether or not Ace Attorney can be enjoyed in a smaller setting and/or without those in the know, but it seems entertaining enough that, despite its flaws, I can declare it not guilty. Review adjourned.

Viewed at the Japan Society, New York City, on July 15, 2012 as part of Japan Cuts/New York Asian Film Festival.

ACE ATTORNEY motion picture ©2012 CAPCOM/"Ace Attorney" Film Partners. PHOENIX WRIGHT, ACE ATTORNEY, and related marks are registered trademarks of Capcom Co., Ltd. No ownership intended or implied.