Saturday, November 5, 2016

Jean Jacques Perrey, 1929-2016

Rolling Stone magazine and other outlets are reporting the passing of Jean-Jacques Perrey from lung cancer on Friday. He was 87. An early pioneer of electronic music, the French-born Perrey was an early adopter of an electronic instrument called the Ondioline (a modified version of which was used in the famous solo in Del Shannon's Runaway) and in 1966 with Gershon Kingsley (who composed the famous Moog composition Popcorn) released the album The In Sound from Way Out!, combining the Ondioline with hand-spliced tape loops of animals, humans, and other sound effects. Their follow-up the following year, Kalidoscopic Vibrations, is notable for featuring one of the very first songs ever to utilize a Moog synthesizer, The Savers (later used as the theme to the game show The Joker's Wild). Although many Moog-based albums would be released in the 1960s and 1970s - many of which would follow Perrey & Kingsley's example of mixing original compositions with classical music and popular Top 40 tunes of the time, it's amazing to think that what I've always considered the earliest example of a "Moog album" is in fact 95% not "Moog" but rather a predecessor!

 
Perrey & Kingsley's one actual "Moog" composition, The Savers (1967)

Perrey would later record two solo albums for Vanguard and compose a number of other works and albums both alone and with collaborators, most recently with Dana Countryman. Jean-Jacques Perrey's work is some of my favorite music of all time because it's not only catchy, but also a very "visual" sort of music. It's some of my favorite music to draw to and is in a way to me very much like an aural cartoon - many of his songs I can imagine sight gags that accompany the changing instrumentations and sound effects (in later years Perrey's work with Countryman would even sample the iconic Hanna-Barbera cartoon sound effects, which scream "zany cartoon" to me - as they probably do to a lot of people, since they've been used in practically every cartoon from the past 30 or 40 years). It's also probably some of the few "Space Age" music that still sounds "out there" and futuristic, perhaps not in the real future sense that was big in the '60s, but the imagined "retro future" of the same era that '60s icons that originally meant to predict what our futures will be like, such as Disneyland's Tomorrowland, have chosen to pay tribute to when those predictions turned out to be less than accurate.

 
One of my favorite Perrey & Kingsley "cartoon" pieces, Electronic Can-Can (1966)

And speaking of Disneyland, it is they who we have to thank for Perrey's most indelible contribution to pop culture - when Disneyland introduced the Main Street Electrical Parade in 1972, Don Dorsey, who was responsible for audio engineering and production for Disneyland parades and festivals, chose Perrey & Kingsley's Baroque Hoedown as the song which would accompany it. Dorsey's rendition of the song is famously mixed with various theme songs from famous Disney movies and patriotic tunes. The song oddly fits the experience, which is as "out there" as Perrey's music, and the song has become one of many that make one immediately think of the Disney parks - if not the Walt Disney Company as a whole itself. Interestingly, the song was at first used without permission - Perrey himself was unaware that Disney was using it in a parade until he visited one of the theme parks and was shocked to hear one of his own compositions! Since then, things have been squared away and Perrey & Kingsley have been paid proper royalties by Disney. (Before Disney took the song as its own, the Beatles sampled Baroque Hoedown on the 1968 installment of their annual fan club Christmas greeting - a record which also included Tiny Tim covering Nowhere Man.)

 

Perrey and Kingsley's original recording of Baroque Hoedown was used as the soundtrack for this short film which appeared as part of Mickey Mouse's 50th anniversary TV special in 1978. Combining it with stop-motion animation of Disney memorabilia further shows how the song has become synonymous with "Disney" as a company and a spirit. Stop-motion animator Mike Jittlov was incensed that Disney did not give him on-screen credit for his short films, so he hid the name of two collaborators in the animation itself and his name backwards on the psychiatrist's door at the start of the film. Jittlov's autobiographical movie The Wizard of Speed and Time is an interesting, if intentionally fanciful, recollection of his work and example of his mastery as a stop-motion artist.

Other countless examples of Perrey's work in pop culture include, but are not limited to, the "Medicinal Fried Chicken" episode of South Park, a recent Simpsons couch gag and a recent Apple commercial, a sample in the Smash Mouth song Walking on the Sun, and countless, countless others. As Perrey was a musician, the best way to honor him is not to talk about him, but to let you listen to him, so here are some more of my favorite compositions as well as other uses of his music in pop culture:

 

2016 guest Simpsons couch gag featuring Perrey & Kingsley's Computer in Love

 

December 1969 sketch from The Ed Sullivan Show starring one of the newest Muppets at the time, Big Bird, only one month after Sesame Street debuted, featuring Perrey's solo composition Minuet of the Robots. Big Bird is performed here not by Caroll Spinney but a professional dancer, who accidentally beaned Ed with his beak at the end of the sketch. Sullivan apparently didn't get the "I'll give you the bird" zinger - I'm guessing he ad-libbed the unintentionally hilarious (and redundant) introduction of his next guest as "Big Bird, a real big bird."



An example of Perrey's later work- his 2006 cover, with Dana Countryman, of The Typewriter, a famous comic instrumental by Leroy Anderson, famed composer of light, usually comic, instrumentals, his most famous being Sleigh Ride (the lyrics were written later by someone else).


"Going to the Store" (2011) by David Lewandowski, featuring Perrey & Kingsley's The Little Ships

I end this tribute to one of my favorite composers with my all-time favorite composition of his - Country Rock Polka from the 1970 solo album Moog Indigo. This is another "aural cartoon" track where I can think up gags in my head to the constantly changing instrumentation of the simple, hummable, repeated theme. These are the kind of instrumentals I like best, giving joy without words to everyone regardless of language, and Jean-Jacques Perrey did it quite well and with technology that was new at the time and still sounds unique to this day. Remembering his collaborator, Dana Countryman wrote in an appreciation that "[h]is motto and creed in almost every interview that he gave was 'keep smiling and be happy'. He was the master of happiness." Great advice, especially in a year such as this one. Thanks, Jean-Jacques, for your humorously happy music.

 

Friday, July 15, 2016

Series Review and 10 Terrific Episodes of...The Loud House (first half of Season 1)

The cast of The Loud House. Lincoln (in the orange shirt at far right) is being chased by (clockwise from top left:) Lily, Luan, Luna, Lori, Leni, Lisa, Lynn, Lucy, Lana, and Lola.

The entertainment industry seems to love stories of young professionals who strike lightning out of the gate, but for every Mozart or Spielberg, there are probably twice as many veterans who plugged away for years in the background before striking gold. In the industry of TV animation, Chris Savino fits the bill for the latter, but not before chalking up an incredibly impressive body of work in his 25-year career. Starting on Ren & Stimpy in his 20s, Savino has on his resume stints on such fan favorites and bona fide modern classics as Rocko's Modern Life, the original Powerpuff Girls, and Samurai Jack, as well as serving as show runner on the post-Genndy Tartakovsky version of Dexter's Laboratory and director of a memorable Cartoon Network original movie The Flintstones: On the Rocks. But no man is an island, and very few successes - animated or otherwise - can be truly said to be the work of just one person, and that also goes for the series Savino and his team are currently reaping the benefits of - had Savino had his way, it would have involved a talking rabbit and his 25 sisters. Nickelodeon executive Jenna Boyd gave a piece of advice that Savino considers the greatest he's ever received in his professional career: "consider making them human."
Model sheet for Warren, Lincoln Loud's lagomorphic prototype. Via the official Nickelodeon Animation Tumblr.
With that suggestion - and the number of sisters whittled down to a more-sizable yet still comically overwhelming 10 - the result was The Loud House. (Amazingly, Savino drew partially on personal experience, growing up with nine siblings, with the five who were girls - much like the female characters on the show - all having four-letter names beginning with L.) After a proof-of-concept short as part of the 2013 Nickelodeon animated shorts program, the concept was picked up as a series much quicker than usual. The Loud House debuted as a regular series on May 2, 2016. After two months on the air, the results are overwhelming to say the least: already it's the top animated kids show on cable, nearly doubling Nickelodeon's kiddie viewership ratings and - perhaps most astonishingly of all - taking the viewership crown that's belonged for more than a decade to that ratings god and genuine pop culture icon, SpongeBob SquarePants. The series was renewed for a second season after less than a month on the air. (Not to say that the fry cook champion of Bikini Bottom is down for the count - a rising tide lifts all boatmobiles and good competition makes everyone work harder, even if said competition comes from the same network. Mr. SquarePants, still a unstoppable merchandising powerhouse, just wrapped up a stopover in Chicago preparing for his debut on one of the few facets of the media landscape he has yet to conquer: Broadway.)

The Loud House follows the day-to-day struggles of Lincoln Loud (voice of Grant Palmer, the only actual child in the voice cast that makes up the Loud family - and believe it or not, giving the L-named main family unit in a show called "The Loud House" the actual last name of "Loud" was a suggested afterthought as well), an 11-year-old boy who is the middle child in a family of 11 kids. In order of age, his ten siblings - all sisters - are: Lori (Catherine Taber), the oldest child who, when she's not talking to her boyfriend Bobby on her cell phone, tries in vain to serve as the voice of authority when things get out of hand (as they often do); Leni (Liliana Mumy), the fashion-savvy "dumb blonde" (at least on the surface) who is sweet and loyal but frequently confused and scatterbrained; Luna (Nika Futterman), the would-be rock star who enjoys playing guitar as loudly as possible and often gives her thoughts on goings-on in the form of famous rock lyrics; Luan (Cristina Pucelli), the jokester who enjoys pranking her siblings and frequently punnily comments on goings-on much to the annoyance of those around her; Lynn (Jessica DiCicco), the sporty girl who enjoys turning everyday chores into sports and making up her own bizarre (and often painful) competitions; Lucy (also DiCicco), the dark-haired goth girl who writes melancholy poems and whose tendency to "hide in plain sight" due to easily being ignored is a frequent running gag on the series; the twin siblings Lana (Grey DeLisle-Griffin) and Lola (also DeLisle-Griffin), a pair of troublemakers who, despite being different as night and day - Lana enjoying frogs, mudpies, operating heavy machinery, and other tomboyish pleasures whereas Lola is the typical spoiled rotten, easily-angered pageant queen (and often the other siblings' worst nightmare) - frequently make a chaotic team when they aren't arguing with each other; Lisa (Lara Jill Miller), the four-year-old genius who uses her siblings as unwitting test subjects for her wacky experiments when she isn't sarcastically mocking their intelligence behind their back; and Lily (DeLisle-Griffin yet again), the baby who, like most cartoon babies, often seems to have a grasp of the chaos going on around her when she isn't cavorting around naked or making a mess of herself.

Most episodes of The Loud House seem to follow the same basic formula: carrying on a long tradition along the lines of Ferris Bueller, Clarissa Darling, and that other middle child Malcolm, Lincoln opens each episode by directly addressing the audience about some aspect of his life which will be explored in the episode. Lincoln is frequently referred to in show press materials as "the man with the plan", but more often than not those plans go off perfectly only in his imagination. Be it trying to get to the couch to watch a TV show before his sisters, taking a family photo as an anniversary present, or simply trying to get out the door and to school on time, the chaos that is ten sisters running wild makes even the simplest task a chore. Lincoln's plans more often than not backfire not due to his sisters' interference but his own dumb luck or his own fear that his sisters will sabotage them, a mindset which frequently causes said sisterly intervention to inadvertently happen anyway. But at the end of the day, all eleven of the kids end up learning a usually sweet little life lesson about getting along as a family, which Lincoln sums up by addressing the audience once again. Lest things get too sappy, however, this is usually immediately followed by what I like to call a "kicker" - a final out-of-left-field joke (usually a callback to an earlier event or a final repetition of a episode-long running gag) to end things on a laugh.

So why is The Loud House so successful - and why am I writing about it? I've seen a number of people call it "a return to form for Nickelodeon", but that in itself is kind of a misstatement. Ever since getting the ball rolling on creator-driven animated series on cable 25 years ago, Nickelodeon's "house style" has specifically been that they don't have a "house style" - although by sheer coincidence most of the Nickelodeon (and Cartoon Network and Disney Channel/XD) animated series have been perfect matches for each other aesthetically, this in itself is a happy coincidence as each of them has been different as night and day. (Nor were all of them specifically made with a particular network in mind: had history turned out different, both Adventure Time and Phineas and Ferb would have ended up running on Nickelodeon - and Ferb would have premiered 15 years earlier.) But there is a sort of unintentional connection between The Loud House and some of Nickelodeon's most well-remembered series such as Doug and Hey Arnold! in that the roots are very similar - rather than being off-the-wall cartoony mayhem at heart - even though the series is chock-full of it - at its core The Loud House tells slice-of-life stories that are relatively down-to-earth yet still somehow pack a comical cartoon punch. (Heck, even Rocko's Modern Life wrapped some social satire about the problems of everyday life around its kooky cartoon crust.) The day-to-day blunders of the suburban Doug Funnie and the big-city Arnold were relatable to the young viewing audience - and their parents - because they're the sort of everyday story all of us, regardless of age, gender, or residency, tend to deal with. Human foibles are human foibles regardless of where they occur.

Added to this simple base of relatable human antics are a bunch of memorable, surprisingly well-developed characters, an appealing visual style, and a just plain funny, optimistic-in-the-face-of-despair sense of whimsy combined with good comedy writing and top-notch voice acting. To differentiate the characters in the original pilot short, besides being given distinct designs and primary colors of dress, each sister was given a personality trait that can pretty much describe them in a few words: the bossy one, the dumb one, the smart one, the sporty one, etc. It serves as an easy way to tell this admittedly large cast of characters apart, but surprisingly the writers are able to avoid the trap of making the characters seem two-dimensional by giving them personalities that flesh them out both with the help of their simple traits and through other ways as well. (So much so that their vivid personalities occasionally overshadow the ostensible main character of the show, on which more later). The final piece of this puzzle is a charming old-timey art style which hearkens back to the comic strips that Savino cites as a major influence (in particular the work of Cliff Sterrett and Charles Schulz). Animated in ToonBoom Harmony by Ontario-based animation studio Jam Filled, the colors are bright and the animation is filled with cartoony details such as funny background elements and - one of my personal favorite touches - old-timey comic-strip tropes such as fistfights being depicted as clouds of smoke with the occasional human limb popping out (with said smoke clouds being given old-timey cartoon shading).

Via Official Nickelodeon Giphy page

Combined, The Loud House is a fun package that is perhaps a breath of fresh air in that it's optimistic and positive while being relatable and fun to watch. I myself am an only child, but as one, struggles and fights with family members over the simplest and stupidest of things are a common occurrence, so even as someone without siblings there's a point of entry in terms of relatability. There was a period in animation where, as Phineas and Ferb co-creator Dan Povenmire once put it, "every single character was a jerk or an idiot" - a period also exemplified by a slew of cartoons where the headsmart boy main character outsmarted both his out-of-touch idiot parents and his bratty siblings. Here, the characters are on equal footing - despite what some of the advertising makes it out to be, no one is trying to one-up or be smarter than one another, or set up a war on either generational or gender lines. Savino quotes Boyd as saying that the show is "not about pink vs. blue. It's not about boys vs. girls. It is about characters vs. characters." (Granted, as far as the "jerk or idiot" thing goes, Leni is an idiot - at least on the surface - but she's the funny kind.) Both fighting over everyday problems - and finding a way to settle the dispute - paint far too many aspects of human interaction, be they political or familial. To steal a line from the musical Avenue Q (penned by Bobby Lopez before he became Mister Let It EGOT), "the more you love someone, the more you want to kill them". Or, as The Loud House's own theme song puts it (again somewhat inaccurately to its actual tone): "Duck, dodge, push, and shove/it's how we show our love." I've seen at least one review that praises The Loud House as a lighthearted palate cleanser to watch to take a break from the occasionally lighthearted but also serious, emotional roller-coasters of its contemporaries such as Steven Universe and Gravity Falls, and that's probably the best explanation as to why it's so popular: much like the newspaper comic strips it admittedly is influenced by, The Loud House provides a comfortable escape from a cynical world (both the real world and the world of other more emotionally charged animated series), something you can come to day after day and be guaranteed both a smile and assurance that no matter how screwy your life turns out, someone else is having the same problems as you and (occasionally) finding solutions to them. And with the newspaper comic pretty much dead as a doornail, it is any surprise that the format that's carrying on its traditions is one that becomes more popular with each passing year, the animated television cartoon? (Perhaps somewhat ironically, it's this combination of writing, art, and newspaper comic influence that has made The Loud House rekindle my interest in wanting to write and draw comic stories, something that Phineas and Ferb previously influenced in me. Seeing as Phineas and Ferb lasted eight years and got a lot of coverage on this blog, if its popularity continues at its current rate, Lincoln and his sisters will probably hang around this blog as often as the boys from Danville did.)
A possible explanation for The Loud House's success, as summed up by the ostensibly-melancholy Lucy Loud. Screencapture by the author.
The Loud House was originally picked up as 13 episodes of two 11-minute shorts (which is more and more becoming the standard format for an animated television cartoon). This order was later doubled for a total of 26 episodes. Nickelodeon has been reaping the benefits of the Monday-to-Friday "strip" format that Cartoon Network has made an art out of creating programming events around (in particular the successful Steven Universe "Steven Bombs") by debuting a new 11-minute Loud House short every weekday in May, followed by a few special weeks here and there pairing with similar strip stunts for other hit shows such as Harvey Beaks and ALVINNN!!! and the Chipmunks (a surprise third-party runaway hit for the network based on the 60-year-old Ross Bagdasarian novelty act). With 25 of the 26 11-minute shorts making up the first half of the first season having already aired (with the last to air later this month), let's take a look at ten of my favorites that show The Loud House at its finest at showcasing its distinct mix of cartoon comedy antics, character interaction, and life lessons.
A photo posted by @nfutterman on

Title cards - drawn in the style of Sunday comic "logo boxes" - for the original 13-episode pickup (26 shorts) of The Loud House's first season, as a commemorative print by art director Amanda Rynda. Via Nika Futterman on Instagram.

All lists are subjective to begin with, and making a "top ten" list makes things even more complicated. Since I was never any good at ranking things, this is not a "top ten" list, but rather a "ten" list. Episodes are listed in alphabetical order as opposed to being ranked from least to most favorite, and position on the list is not an indication of relative quality and/or personal enjoyment.

All featured episodes were directed by Chris Savino unless otherwise noted.


Chore and Peace

Written by: Alec Schwimmer
Storyboard by: Ed Baker
Screencapture by the author.
Lincoln feels he's getting the raw end of the deal when it comes to chores in the house, being forced to take out the trash while his sisters do things that in his mind are much easier. Lincoln decides to go on strike, refusing to empty the garbage until one of his sisters will trade chores with him. Rather than giving in, the sisters decide to strike back - but when Lily goes missing once the house gets far too dirty, both sides realize the importance of their respective chores.

If a generation's mindset is reflected in its pop culture and vice versa, it's amazing to see how much of a tonal shift there has been between the millennial generation - those who grew up in the 1990s and early 2000s (which include myself) - and their children who are now starting to reach the coveted 2-11 demographic. A metric ton of media marketed to children in the early-to-mid 1990s carried a theme of "who needs stupid parents?" (It's amazing how many types of cereal and/or junk food were advertised with a basic theme of "your parents have no idea why you like this thing, but you like this thing, so who cares about them?") This current generation is apparently much closer to their parents than the previous one was, so it's interesting to see that this trope has (thankfully) pretty much died out. When The Loud House was being focus tested with children for the first time, Chris Savino was shocked when one of the first questions he received was "where are their parents?" If Lincoln and his sisters were able to just run to their parents and have them solve all the messes they got into, there admittedly wouldn't be much of a show, and the kids seemed to know this as well. They just wanted reassurance that there were parental figures keeping a watchful eye on their kids, no matter how rambunctious they may get.

Mom (Jill Talley) and Dad (Brian Stepanek) - it's a running gag that we never get to either see their faces or hear their real names - are for the most part used as background characters or comic relief, or to set the plot in motion as the Louds have to cope with whatever activity they've arranged. This episode probably has one of their most amusing roles as well as a good excuse as to why they choose not to solve this problem - even though the house is a mess, Mom keeps brushing it off with "Well, it's looked worse." She and Dad want to see how Lincoln and his sisters solve this problem themselves - partly out of seeing if they can prove they're responsible and that they might learn something from it, but also partly because they're as amused by the goings-on as the viewers hopefully are (well, not to mention that whole "there really wouldn't be much of an episode if Mom and Dad solved the problem themselves" thing). There's a lot more that makes this episode memorable than just the parents's involvement (or lack thereof, in this case), however: the details of the various trash items thrown around the dirty house are fun to look at and must have been fun for the background artists to think up and draw, and Lincoln's protest maneuvers which get more and more ridiculous are a lot of fun too, as is a running gag involving tiny genius Lisa's chore: paying the family bills, which leads to a lot of back-and-forth with her unseen accountant, using as many S-words as possible to play up the lisp Lara Jill Miller adds to her distinctive voice ("Janish, I don't think any of ush bought a car in Sashkatshewan"). There's also some great supporting roles by frequent guest voice and veteran voice actor in his own right John DiMaggio, including Luna's British-accented roadie Chunk ("Chunk's gotta blow!") and a sentient garbage pile named Trashy (Lisa's doing, naturally), who becomes as concerned as the rest of the family when Lily goes missing, amusingly referring to her only as "Baby".


Driving Miss Hazy

Written by: Karla Sakas Shropshire
Storyboard by: Jordan Rosato
Screencapture by the author.
As the only Loud sibling with a driver's license, Lori is willing to drive the other Loud kids to wherever they want to go - for a price. Fed up with having to do errands in return for transportation, Lincoln realizes that Leni is also of driving age, but her typical cluelessness has led to a record of failed driving tests that rivals a certain sea sponge's. Lincoln decides to use a driving video game to help Leni practice, but her fashion-consciousness and pretty-much-everything-else-unconsciousness combined with Grand Theft Auto-lite tactics do not paint a pretty picture. For some reason, the authorities don't like it when you decide to divert the test vehicle to the mall and hip-check a senior citizen over a new dress in the middle of your driving test. Undeterred, Lincoln's siblings - who are just as tired of catering to Lori's questionable whims as he is - help Lincoln set up a makeshift car in the middle of the living room, and soon Lincoln realizes the problem is that he isn't "speaking Leni". (Wait...there's a country named after her?) With a combination of fashion terminology and using words Leni can actually understand like "spinny thingy" and "blinky-blink", Leni actually learns how to drive, practicing her newfound skills with the family's lawnmower. However, Lori isn't happy about this turn of affairs, and decides to sabotage Leni's chances by having her listen to a recording of dubious driving "advice" the night before the test.

For some reason, "dumb" characters always seem to be the ones that not only seem to have the biggest impression on pop culture as a whole - Homer Simpson, Patrick Star - but also the ones that are my personal favorites. Leni is shaping up to be so far my favorite Loud House character, and this episode is a personal favorite of mine because she takes center stage. If you actually think about it, writing "dumb" lines is actually more difficult than it looks. I'm reminded of the singer Moby's comment about the actual genius inside one of Homer Simpson's typically stupid creations: "You can imagine a Zen monk sitting on top of a mountain for 15 years just thinking about ['Call Mister Plow, that's the name, that name again is Mister Plow']". Comical misunderstandings in the form of puns, usually from someone who doesn't have a keen grasp on the situation at hand, have always been one of the go-to sources of humor from "Who's on first" to that other classic driving test, "what does a yellow light mean". Leni carries on in this tradition here, with her passion for fashion providing an unexpected means to an end. ("What does the brake pedal do? White shoes after Labor Day..." "Ew, stop!" "Exactly! What does the gas pedal do? Boots from the '60s..." "Go-go!")

But it's also possible that Leni is perhaps more intelligent than she lets on (or could ever realize), as we get a lot of comical instances of how her unique way of looking at the world seems to shadow some inate talents - besides her footwear-based knowledge of car parts, Leni eventually gets so skilled at operating the family lawn mower that she's able to write her own name (even if the letters aren't in the correct order), and taking an Amelia Bedeliaesque literal interpretation of Lori's request to "make her bed", she ends up carving an impressive wooden bedframe. (Perhaps I knock Leni's intelligence in this article a bit more than I should myself, but it's only because I love her so.) There's a little bit of obligatory life lesson as Lori shows regret for her actions and a both rare and admittedly sweet example of all the Loud siblings working together to help one of them reach a goal, showing that even in all the chaos they care for each other deep down, but with loopy Leni in the driver's seat, this episode is perhaps one of the most just plain fun so far. Every episode of The Loud House is fast-paced, but perhaps appropriately for one about driving, both the sight gags and wordplay seem to come at a higher speed than normal, making this one of the most "cartoony" episodes (in a good way) of an admittedly already-cartoony show.


In Tents Debate

Written by: Bob Mittenthal
Storyboard by: Ed Baker
Screencapture by the author.
Lincoln and his sisters are dreading their annual vacation to Camp Scratchybottom. After raising the suggestion at a sibling meeting, Lincoln takes it upon himself to ask his parents if it would be possible to vacation elsewhere this year. The only problem is that he never specifically said where. Five of the sisters want to go to the beach, while the other five have their heart set on the Dairyland theme park. With Lincoln the tie-breaking vote, the fear of breaking the hearts of half of his siblings so concerns him he prolongs his decision as long as possible. To try to entice him, both sides butter Lincoln up by doing his chores while also showing off the pleasures of their desired vacation spot. Once they realize Lincoln is taking advantage of the situation, the dueling parties change their tactics to showing off the negative sides of whichever locale the respective lobbying group doesn't want to go to. Is there a decision that can make everyone happy?

Abbott and Costello. Bert and Ernie. Pinky and the Brain. For generations, one of the simplest and most effective ways of writing and performing comedy has been pairing a straight man with a funny guy. This concept even crosses over to other countries and cultures: in Japan, it's the tsukkomi and the boke. In Yiddish, they're called the schlemiel and the schlimazel (as made famous by the theme song to Laverne & Shirley). Writing for comedy with larger groups always seems to follow the same format - you can have as many people as you want, but it's always one straight man playing off of much more colorful characters.

If there is one problem The Loud House is showing while finding its footing (one that will no doubt be solved as the series continues and the team finds their groove into playing with how the characters work with each other), it's that sometimes the colorful personalities of the sisters overshadow Lincoln so much that he ends up having no personality as a result - a dangerous situation for someone who is ostensibly the main character of the show. Lincoln works best as a straight man when he's in the position I like to call "the Mickey Mouse". Once Mickey Mouse became a corporate icon and cash cow, he started to lose his rambunctious personality he had in the carefree days of the 1930s, so more colorful characters were required to work off of him - occasionally themselves guilty of stealing the show out from under him, but for the most part continuing the straight man/funny man tradition perfectly. Pair Mickey with Donald Duck, whose anger at the tiniest thing causes chaos, or Goofy, whose kind-hearted but clumsy actions do the same - or even better, use all three - and you've got a recipe for comedy.

In a career-spanning interview on the official Nickelodeon Animation podcast, Chris Savino remarked that Lincoln's position in the family in terms of age was something he seriously debated and changed multiple times. Making him the middle child makes him what he calls "the fulcrum" of the family - since there are 10 other kids, five older than him and five younger, if he goes too far in one direction, he runs the risk of upsetting the balance in either direction. Whether you want to call him a straight man, a Mickey Mouse, or a fulcrum, Lincoln's position as a middle child makes him a perfect fit to work off of more colorful characters, and since this episode divides the sisters into equal teams of five - not by age, but by desired vacation spot - it's a perfect example and probably one of the best examples of the team getting the dynamic of Lincoln and his sisters right - and perhaps most importantly of all, making it funny. It's also incredibly sweet to see all of the siblings working together, holding a family meeting and seriously discussing their vacation plans, which shows that they can be good friends instead of the stereotypical "always fighting siblings". The situation Lincoln inadvertently causes, how he uses it to his own advantage, and how doing so soon backfires is quite funny and ends in a sweet slice-of-life lesson about how we must occasionally sacrifice our own happiness in order to make others happy, or, to quote the famous Star Trek line, how "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few". That sort of tension/comedy/lesson mix is The Loud House at its best, and this is probably one of the best overall episodes of the series - if not the best - so far. (On an unrelated note, might I point out that Lincoln is not at all concerned about a giant cow randomly showing up in his kitchen and handing him laundry? Lincoln's admittedly an odd kid, but that only raises some questions.)


It's a Loud, Loud, Loud, Loud House

Written by: Chris Savino
Storyboard by: Kyle Marshall
Screencapture by the author.
After the Loud kids come to blows over some spare change left in the couch, Dad punishes them all by making them clean out the attic. There, Lincoln stumbles across a letter from a "Sharon DeMonet" - supposedly the previous owner of the house - telling of a fortune buried somewhere inside the Loud residence. This only makes the siblings want to fight each other for the bounty even more, but Lincoln feels that there may be something to Ms. DeMonet's warning that they won't be able to solve the mystery unless they work together.

Though obviously not as wide-spanning in exotic locales nor as cameo-packed as the 1963 Stanley Kramer classic from which this episode takes its name, it's just as filled with slapstick - and money, obviously. One would think either Lisa or the pun-loving Luan would be able to easily see through a psuedonym as obvious as "Sharon DeMonet", but then again, greed does weird things to people. Besides the episodes which show the balance of the family and how it can easily be tipped (such as "In Tents Debate" above), my other favorite type of Loud House episode is those where Lincoln and his sisters are working together as a single unit to solve a problem, like this one. Personal desires and greed must be set aside, no matter how difficult it may be, but the petty infighting also leads to not only a lesson learned (obviously, though the character who ends up delivering said lesson is a surprise in itself), but a lot of comical fight sequences. We also get another example of Leni perhaps being more intelligent than she lets on (and being aware of people thinking of her as a dumb blonde) - after she uses a hairpin to pick a lock on a treasure chest, she remarks to her shocked siblings, "There's more to my head than just air, you know!"


Linc or Swim

Written by: Karla Sakas Shropshire
Storyboard by: Jordan Rosato
Screencapture by the author.
The antics of the Loud siblings - engaging in chicken fights with the elderly, public defecation, and drinking pool water (hey, it's not Lana's fault it tastes like chicken soup) - have gotten them banned from every public pool in town on a hot summer day. A despondent Lincoln decides to buy a single-occupant inflatable pool all for himself. Lincoln has a heck of a time setting it up, and to make matters worse, his sisters soon commandeer it once it's finished. Eventually, Lincoln finally gets the "paradise for one" he's been dreaming of...but somehow, it's awfully lonely.

This episode showcases another successful way of giving Lincoln a personality that the show hasn't used much (but hopefully will in the future). The three major conflicts in literature are often given as man vs. man, man vs. nature, and man vs. self, but "man vs. technology" is a form of conflict (which probably technically falls into either the "nature" or "self" category) that's been used as a source of comedy ever since Laurel and Hardy tried to push a piano up a flight of stairs (and possibly earlier). The entire middle section of this episode plays out pretty much like a silent cartoon, giving Lincoln a Charlie Brown aspect to his personality as he tries in vain to set up his swimming pool but mishap after mishap ends up getting in his way with as little dialogue as possible. It's a lot of fun to watch, but (as is the case with most of the episodes on this list and most Loud House episodes in general) the whole thing is fun, with the Loud kids's unusual poolside behavior being another highlight - among others, Lucy pefers doing the old "if you drown, you're a witch" test rather than actually swimming, and Leni naturally fails to understand even the basic rules of Marco Polo. (Keep an eye out for the senior citizens who show up at the end of the first scene - long-time Nickelodeon viewers should be able to recognize more than a few of them.)


No Guts, No Glori

Written by: Haley Mancini
Storyboard by: Miguel Puga
Screencapture by the author.
It's Mom and Dad's date night, so Lori's in charge of the house. Much to the anger of the other Loud siblings, Lori's drill-sergeant tactics when it comes to keeping things in order are so restricting that she's quickly dubbed "the Queen of No". The younger Louds decide to overthrow Lori's rule and put Lincoln in charge, but once Lincoln's free-for-all lack of rules quickly dissolves into chaos, Lori's threat that Lincoln "couldn't last five minutes" as the boss soon comes back to haunt him and he quickly gets second thoughts.

You have to wonder if the Loud kids are always this rambunctious or if they decided to go wilder than usual just because Lori wasn't in charge - a good number of the episodes start off with the kids chaotically running around having fun, but the mess they make here is one that's messier than usual. This episode is one that's somehow both not as heavy on the morals yet one that is in a different way - Lincoln doesn't discuss the lesson he learned at the end of the episode, but it's implied from his and Lori's actions that being "firm but fair" works for a reason and that Lori's learned from experience how to keep the house from not being destroyed while Mom and Dad are out. It's fun to see both Lincoln and his sisters working together to conspire to overthrow Lori and then Lincoln and Lori working together to get things straightened out once he realizes the error of his decision. There's also a lot of fun cartoony business, including an amusing sight gag playing on the character design where an irritated Lincoln's face turns red from anger, topped off by his tuft of hair "bursting" and emitting steam. (Interestingly, this is perhaps the only episode so far not written by one of the staff writers - it was written as a freelance gig by Haley Mancini, whose current day job is both writing for and voicing Princess Morbucks on the current incarnation of The Powerpuff Girls, for which she was just nominated for an Emmy.)


Project Loud House

Written by: Chris Savino & Michael Rubiner
Storyboard by: Chris Savino
Screencapture by the author.
Lincoln has made a sculpture of his family as the centerpiece for his show-and-tell project at school. Unfortunately for him, Mom and Dad have already left for the day, so it's up to Lincoln to prepare breakfast and get all of his sisters ready for school. But things (naturally) quickly devolve into chaos: the little distractions - of which there are plenty - are easily taken care of, but then Leni turns blue as a result of her skin cream being replaced with one of Lisa's experimental formulas and Lori refuses to drive the kids after she gets angry with her boyfriend Bobby. Can Lincoln get the entire family out the door still in one piece - and for that matter, can he do the same with his sculpture?

Although neither the first episode produced nor the first to air, this makes a great introductory episode to the series, as it plays a lot on the sisters's distinct personality traits. Although practically every episode uses their quirks as fodder for story and jokes, this one puts them all front and center as they not only cause each little problem, but Lincoln also uses his knowledge of them to his advantage to find a solution.


Sound of Silence

Written by: Michael Rubiner
Storyboard by: Jordan Rosato
Screencapture by the author.
Trying to get some peace and quiet for once, Lincoln decides to buy a pair of noise-cancelling earbuds he sees on a TV commercial. Lincoln finally has a perfect day where he doesn't have to hear his sisters, but the next day soon turns out to be his worst nightmare, as it turns out by pretending to agree with everything his sisters said to cover the ruse, he's accidentally made plans with his sisters to help them with all their unusual requests. To make matters worse, they keep telling horror stories of retributions carried out as a result of disappointing Lola, who keeps reminding Lincoln of an important errand he inadvertently agreed to.

This episode is an amusing take on the pushback between Lincoln and his sisters when it comes to the few instances they try to get the upper hand on each other (though never in a malicious way). Lincoln may be smart, but he's not as smart as he thinks he is. Suffice it to say his sisters may know he's been ignoring them...which makes me wonder, if they made up this whole thing as payback for Lincoln ignoring him, are all of the Lola horror stories made up as well? Because Lola is just the type to actually go through with the amusing flashbacks which are a highlight of this episode, which include references to The Godfather and Fatal Attraction.


Space Invader

Story by: Chris Savino & Karla Sakas Shropshire
Written & Storyboarded by: Chris Savino
Screencapture by the author.
Being the only boy in the house, Lincoln is the only Loud kid with a bedroom all to himself - well, actually, it's a closet that's been converted into a bedroom, but at least he doesn't have to share a room as all his sisters do. That is, until Lynn and Lucy get in a fight and the kind-hearted Lincoln just can't say no to Lynn's request to sleep over. After all, it is only one night. Lynn's love of sports leads to irritating and often painful (for Lincoln, that is) antics all through the night, and her loud snoring once she finally does fall asleep only makes things worse. Lynn has already overstayed her welcome, but much to Lincoln's dismay, Lucy still won't make up with her, and Lincoln's attempts to send Lynn packing by imitating her boorish bedtime behavior only endear Lynn to him more. It's up to Lincoln to have Lynn and Lucy make up so he can finally get a good night's sleep.

It takes all sorts of humor to make any type of comedy, but relying too much on any one type makes it tedious. At the same time, certain types of humor are degraded or thought of as ruining something if they're even used sparingly. Practically every comedy staple or institution - from Monty Python to The Simpsons to Phineas and Ferb - is somehow able to find a mix of both highbrow and lowbrow humor, and The Loud House is no exception. In an interview with fan site Beyond the Cartoons, Chris Savino mentions the possiblity of a "well-placed fart joke" - "We're not doing fart jokes for the sake of fart jokes, but when it fits, it fits." Thankfully, The Loud House doesn't go to that well too often, and it's neither the intentionally ironic juxtaposition of, say, a vomiting cat with the orchestration of light-hearted, hokey needle-drop music (which Joseph Lanza dubbed "gale-storming" in The Cartoon Music Book) that Ren & Stimpy turned into a perverse art form, nor is it the wall-to-wall booger and poop jokes that many cartoons in the mid-'90s jammed themselves with in a failed attempt to reverse engineer what made Ren & Stimpy so popular. They are there, but they're sparingly used and, yes, well-placed. When Lynn performs a "Dutch oven" on Lincoln in this episode (farting in bed while he's trying to sleep and then jamming him under the covers so he's forced to smell it), it's not funny because it's a fart joke for the sake of being a fart joke or because Lynn's doing it out of malice (because she clearly isn't). It's funny because it's honest - these are siblings being forced to room together due to circumstances beyond their control, so of course they're going to tease each other just because they can get away with it.

And putting up with your siblings at bedtime is exactly what this episode is about. Most of the Loud sisters are paired together in bedrooms by relative age, which for the most part works, as most of the pairs are alike in either age (identical twins Lola and Lana) or mindset (teenage girls Lori and Leni). But Lynn and Lucy sharing a room is the odd one out: they have absolutely nothing in common (well, other than being voiced by the same person), and it's this "odd couple" relationship and both how it shouldn't work but somehow does that fuels this episode. Lynn and Lucy make an odd couple, but it turns out Lynn and Lincoln make an even odder one. Familiarity may sometimes breed contempt, but more often than not, even the most unlikely of opposites can become the best of friends, and it's the fact that Lynn and Lucy actually miss each other - and how they express it - that's a highlight of this episode. Other memorable bits include Lincoln's impersonation of Lucy and a great misdirection double-entendre that's boosted both by DiCicco's delivery and Lincoln's initial reaction: after seeing Lincoln playing with a stuffed rabbit - "Y'know, I'm noticing a complete lack of balls in this room. [beat] No soccer balls, no footballs, no baseballs..." (Not that this kind of joke is the sort of thing that makes or breaks a show for me, but like I said, it takes all kinds of humor.)


Undie Pressure

Written by: Alec Schwimmer
Storyboard by: Violaine Briat
Screencapture by the author.
Lincoln has the pesky habit of reading comic books in his underwear in plain sight of his sisters. It's more comfortable for him that way, but naturally they're not the biggest fans. After an argument regarding all of their bad habits, Lincoln decides to make a bet with his sisters: he'll stop reading comic books in his underwear for good, but only if he isn't able to go without doing so longer than all ten of his sisters can go without their own bad habits. With a new pair of underwear on the line for Lincoln, both sides are (for the most part) prepared for a long battle - but some of them go down easier than others, and nobody ever said that those who are more strong-willed - namely, Lola - had to play fair...

If this were a live-action series, this would probably be classified as a "bottle episode" - where, for budget purposes, the action is confined to relatively few sets and features relatively few cast members (though, of course, this has no monetary bearing on anything when you're an animated series with eleven characters). This episode takes place entirely within the Loud living room, so the spotlight here is how the characters interact with each other and how they try their darndest both to give up their own respective vices and get each other to start doing theirs again. Lori's boyfriend Bobby actually appears in person for the first time as well. He's voiced by Carlos PenaVega, who's no stranger to Nickelodeon, having starred in Big Time Rush (as well as being a member of the band of the same name that was spun off of it). Like most of the Disney talent who became part of the supporting cast of Phineas and Ferb, he does a surprisingly good job as a voice actor, as his deadpan reactions to unusual goings-on - such as a actual chicken crossing the road - end up forcing Luan to naturally make joking responses (as much as she doesn't want to for once). The ramping-up of the competition is done in such a way that when the eventual victor is revealed, it comes as a surprise - I had completely forgotten the character's involvement when I first saw the episode - and the lesson here, where Lola actually shows remorse for her actions and buys Lincoln his "victory undies" even though he didn't win, is probably one of the show's sweetest. (And Luna - and by extension Nika Futterman - does some pretty darn good comedy British and Svedish accents, ja?)


Bonus: Slice of Life

Written by: Chris Savino
Storyboard by: Jordan Rosato & Kyle Marshall
Directed by: Kyle Marshall
Screencapture by the author.
This web-exclusive short is a direct adaptation of a comic given away to promote/advertise the show during its coming-out party at the 2015 San Diego Comic Con. Said comic was only five pages long, so even for a short it's pretty short, but admittedly, there's really not much you can do with the concept of "this is what dinner's like when you have 11 kids and a pizza has 12 slices", but what it does it does well. It's on this list as a bonus for two reasons: it yet again does a good job of introducing the characters's personality traits (which it should, given as it was meant to create awareness of the show's existence and all) and in part to highlight the contributions of the latest member of my personal Hooray for Women Doing Awesome Things In Animation and Also I Am Extremely Jealous of This Person's Talent Fan Club (among whose esteemed members include a previous interview subject of mine, Aliki Theofilopoulos), Jordan Rosato, who drew the brief shot in this short of the characters rendered in anime/manga style as they prepare to battle over the last slice of pizza. Besides having done a lot of my personal favorite episodes alongside writer Karla Sakas Shropshire, Rosato's caught my attention due to her contributions to "Linctober", an event the Loud House staff did on social media in October 2015. Putting their own spin on the popular "Inktober" concept - in which an artist posts an original drawing in ink every day in October - members of the show's staff drew characters from the series in the style of a different comic artist every day. Not just Rosato (who chose Leni), but Miguel Puga (Lincoln), Diem Doan (Luan), and Lauren Patterson (Charles the dog) did some fantastic pieces rendering the Loud House characters in styles ranging from the realistic (Dick Tracy, Marvel Comics) to the cartoony (Garfield, Calvin and Hobbes) and yes, a few manga and anime-inspired pieces - not only recreating each individual style dead-on, but also creating some art that's just plain fun to look at. Given not only the visual inspiration but the shoutouts the show makes to the Sunday funnies (the family pets are named Charles, Cliff, Walt, and Geo after cartoonists Schulz, Sterrett, Kelly, and McManus respectfully), I'm hoping to see future episodes which play on different styles for fantasy and dream sequences in the same way Rosato gives them a manga twist in this promotional short to allow the creative team to be given more chances to show off their expertise at various art styles. (To see the Linctober contributions for yourself, check out the "#linctober" hashtag on both Tumblr and Instagram. And while you're there, check out Jordan Rosato's own Tumblr and Instagram.)

Honorable Mention:

Sleuth or Consequences (written by Whitney Wetta & Sammie Crowley, storyboarded by Kyle Marshall): Lincoln's hopes to go to a convention devoted to his favorite superhero, a Batman-type character called Ace Savvy, are thwarted after Dad grounds all the kids when the toilet backs up. Lincoln is immediately blamed due to his past mischief, but for once in his life he's completely innocent. To clear his name, Lincoln decides to put Ace Savvy's teachings into action and plays detective, interrogating his siblings as to who caused the clog with the help of Lucy (who had nothing better to do anyway).

This is a fun little episode in particular for its revelation about Lucy. I won't give it away here as it's a good part of the fun, but let's just say you can't always judge a book by its cover, and Lucy's secret - and how Lincoln decides to hide it in a lesson regarding what you're comfortable about yourself to reveal to others and how those close to you will have your back to make sure you aren't teased about it if you aren't - is quite memorable. Another highlight is the entire interrogation sequence, in particular Lincoln's horribly-drawn caricatures of his "suspects". (It amuses me especially that he had to write the names of more than a few down as if he couldn't recognize his own drawings, but can you really blame him?)

The Sweet Spot (written by Kevin Sullivan, storyboard by Kyle Marshall): By process of elimination after many a disastrous car trip, Lincoln has determined the "sweet spot" - the one seat in the family van (lovingly dubbed "Vanzilla") that doesn't have some sort of flaw such as a broken spring or gum stuck to it. The night before the family's next big road trip, Lincoln hatches a plan that will allow him to acquire the "sweet spot" for himself, but then realizes that the seat he's sitting in is only half the struggle - due to their quirks, the sisters sitting next to, in front of, and behind him can make or break a road trip as well. Lincoln spends the night negotiating seating arrangements with his sisters, who demand preferred seating arrangements of their own...and this only makes them more suspicious that Lincoln might have an ulterior motive up his sleeve.

Of the handful of early episodes I've seen of Adventure Time (one of many gaps in my current TV animation collection I have to rectify one of these days), by far my favorite was "Memories of Boom Boom Mountain", in which our intrepid hero Finn the Human's desire to help those in need causes more problems than it solves when it turns out each problem he fixes ends up causing a problem for someone else and so on. Although he's a nice guy at heart, Lincoln is by no means an altruist and his conniving in this case is for his own benefit rather than someone else's, but this episode's premise reminds me a lot of that Adventure Time short: the more people you try to wrangle to do your bidding, the more complicated things get, and it's that chain of demands that spirals out of control that makes this a fun episode. (If nothing else, all this negotiating is probably preparing Lincoln for a career in politics.) It's also a fun episode due to showing off the sisters's personality traits and quirks and how they're affected by car trips: the motion of the car makes Leni even more dazed and confused than she usually is (making her Lincoln's perfect seat partner), Lisa spends the entire car trip thinking aloud to herself the many ways she could potentially die en route, and Luna naturally sings loud rock music, leading to an amusing sarcastic retort from Lisa: "Where's a low-flying plane when you need one?"


In the United States, The Loud House airs weekday afternoons at 5:00 pm Eastern on Nickelodeon. Check out the official Loud House Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram (and check out series creator Chris Savino on Instagram as well).

The author wishes to thank Haley Mancini for clarifying her status as a freelance writer on the episode "No Guts, No Glori". Additional thanks to my fellow animation fans on Twitter for discussion on The Loud House and cartoons in general, in particular Ukari "RacattackForce" Bakosi, Thomas "Spongey445" Blalock of A Taste of Spongey, Luis "lartkma" Ramirez, and Luan Loud herself, Cristina Pucelli.

THE LOUD HOUSE and all related titles, logos, and characters are trademarks of Viacom International, Inc. ©2016. No ownership of this property is intended or should be inferred.

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.