Monday, February 28, 2011

More on That Rumor

I'm sorry I can't stop talking about this stupid Nickelodeon rumor, but thinking about it more makes me think about the psyche of some people, more or less. Two more things I thought about:

1. The rumor claims that the shows are going to have the characters growing up as they would if they were actual people. Besides not really targeting the specific demographic, this really sticks out to me as bizarre. In part because of the whole Nostalgic Bias Syndrome thing. If people want shows from the past back because they (falsely) believe them to be superior, why would they also want the characters to grow up? Isn't part of the imaginary "getting your childhood back" that things are exactly as they are in your childhood, because you believe it to be better?

2. The source of this rumor was a high school newspaper. I've seen a bit of NBS in the high schoolers of today (it seems to have shifted to early 2000s Disney Channel, as that article which I still want to make fun of someday- perhaps now in conjunction with this one- shows), but these kids would be too young to remember these shows. Since the article is in the general "you damn kids today don't know what a cartoon is" vein, they are basically saying that they themselves have inferior entertainment.

You look into this thing more and more you wonder why people believe it. And in the end, you realize that Hitler was right. I hate to Godwin this- partly because the Godwin card is so damn easy to play, partly because a certain Southern California professor has played the Godwin card in conjunction with Nickelodeon so many times- but the man with the mustache knew what he was saying in this case- which is why he was so good at it: "the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily...Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation." The memories of these shows bring positive emotions to people (perhaps partially falsely due to NBS), and thus they want the rumor to be true despite all evidence to the contrary.

"Blanket" Policy

As those of you who follow this blog or my Twitter feed (or both) probably know, I'm a big fan of Charles Schulz and Peanuts. One of the amazing things about Peanuts is how it is both of its time and timeless: the themes and characters of the strip are universal, but due to the fact that Schulz often referenced the pop culture of the time, from Davy Crockett to Harry Potter, it is also a time capsule of the late 20th century. For example, Charlie Brown idolized various baseball players over the years in the hopes that his infamously poor team could be like them: in the 1960s, he lost a spelling bee when he had Willie Mays on his mind when asked to spell "maize"; in the late 1990s, he wrote Joe Torre for managing advice at the time he was creating a new legacy with the Yankees- which was also the same era Schulz put down his pen for good. Despite this, most of the gags and situations that Schulz created are ones that people of all generations can relate to and recognize: sibling rivalry, crushes, struggles in school, persevering despite failing time and time again.

Because of this, it's not surprising that the Peanuts characters have endured even 11 years after Schulz's retirement (and, sadly, passing). The classic television specials still do well in the Nielsen ratings each year, and Peanuts merchandise remains as inescapable nowadays as it has for years- so much so that Charles Schulz frequently appeared as a close second to Elvis Presley on Forbes magazine's annual Halloween list of highest-earning dead celebrities (though, not surprisingly, the list got a new #1 last year with the passing of the King of Pop).

And Peanuts remains a big business. As of this week, syndication rights to the strip are now held by Universal Uclick, after 60 years with United Media. A number of newspapers asked their readers whether or not it was worth the effort of signing a new contract to continue running reruns of a long-dormant strip, but it appears most of them have decided to keep it running. (Universal also announced last year they are taking over Dilbert's distribution, and this week announced that come June they will take over the syndication of all of United's features.) Last year, the rights to the Peanuts franchise were sold to a joint venture of clothing manufacturer Iconix and the Schulz family. The company, Peanuts Worldwide, has, among other things, been bringing Snoopy and friends into the social networking sphere, recently creating an official Facebook page. Iconix's Rocawear recently introduced a clothing line combining the classic characters with lyrics from the work of company founder Jay-Z- the combination, though bizarre, surprisingly works.

But one of the projects Peanuts Worldwide has up their sleeve that really intrigues me is the animated special due next month on Warner Home Video, Happiness is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown. Craig Schulz, Sparky's son and part of the creative team who oversees the characters- which also includes Schulz's wife Jean and Pearls Before Swine cartoonist Stephan Pastis- recently told a number of outlets, including Home Media Magazine and Creators Syndicate, how this project came about. It seems that when the home video rights to the Peanuts specials were sold to Warner Home Video after years with Paramount, two new specials were in the contract as well.

This is actually the second time Warners has done something with the characters under their license- the first was a series of "motion comics" a couple of years ago. Of the four major members of the creative team responsible for the classic specials- Schulz, producer Lee Mendelson, director (and voice of Snoopy) Bill Melendez, and composer Vince Guaraldi- only Mendelson is still with us (though not involved in these projects), so putting together a new creative team would obviously be a very difficult task. I'm sure Studio B up in Vancouver is a great Flash animation team, but they didn't do very well with these adaptations of Schulz's gags- the animation is somehow more crude than the earliest of the TV specials.

Thankfully, this doesn't appear to be the case with Warm Blanket. An interview Al Roker did on the Today show with Mrs. Schulz last year for the strip's 60th anniversary featured what appear to be a few clips from the special, animated at Wildbrain and directed by Pixar's Andy Beall (who also takes over Melendez's beagle duties). The animation is very fluid and looks like it comes from the 1960s, and Mark Mothersbaugh's music is appropriately Guaraldiesque. (For those of you who, like me, shudder at anyone else putting words in Charlie Brown and company's mouth, rest assured the gags and dialogue come directly from Schulz's own strips, as many gags from the specials have since the beginning and all have since Schulz's death.)

But there's more! In relaunching their kids line under the new name Kaboom, comic imprint Boom! Studios recently announced they were doing a Peanuts-related project. Many- including myself- wondered what it could be, especially since Schulz himself dictated no new Peanuts material would be able to be written after his death. It turns out it's a graphic novel adaptation of the special. And I must admit, seeing the preview pages of this make me look forward to this special even well as its graphic novel adaptation. The drawings are very Schulz, but the artists have taken their own unique spin on it without making it look "odd." Here are two of the preview pages as an example:

Schulz was very good both at dialogue-driven gags and sight gags, and these two pages do a good job of adapting both of those. Some of the panels look like they could have come directly from the comic strip, while others- such as the closeup of Snoopy and the "action shot" of the doghouse rolling down the hill- deviate from the norm, but do a good job of getting the action across. You can tell what's happening very easily. Schulz's sight gags often worked as well in animation as they did in print, and this print adaptation of an animated adaptation of his work seems to show that as well.

Both the DVD and the graphic novel come out in March, and you can expect a review of them here. The team at Peanuts Worldwide certainly seems to be showing that you can teach an old dog new tricks- but when a dog like Snoopy is involved, those "new tricks" aren't really that new to begin with.

PEANUTS® ©2011 Peanuts Worldwide LLC. No ownership intended or implied.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Don't Take Any Wooden Nickel(odeon)s

At a time when everyone is doing Oscar predictions, I, who knows next to nothing about the nominees, am taking this time to squash a really stupid rumor that is going around Twitter and Tumblr, which appears to be a side effect of what I call "Nostalgic Bias Syndrome"- which I will get into one of these days.

This image is going around the Internet. It is so obviously false that it's not even funny. For example: Nickelodeon doesn't even use that logo anymore, their ratings haven't somehow plummeted in recent years (seriously, look at a listing of the most-watched shows on cable and see how many times SpongeBob comes up), such a plan wouldn't be economically feasible...

It appears that this rumor was started by a NBS-driven "article" from a high school newspaper. Which is odd, since I was pretty damn sure that the sort of NBS that twentysomethings use towards Nickelodeon has shifted to the Disney Channel when it comes to today's teenagers. Some of the quotes from that article are both hilarious and sad at the same time. For example: "Teenagers have wanted to show kids now-a-days what a real cartoon is made of but never had the evidence to convince these pups. Starting next month; these kids are in for the surprise of their lives." Which is basically a fancy way of saying "YOU DAMN KIDS GET OFFA MY LAWN." Either way, the spread of this stupid, stupid rumor seems to show how NBS overcomes common sense, especially on that breeding ground of moronitude generally known as "The Internet." USE YOUR BRAINS, PEOPLE!

®&©Jeff Smith

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Phineas and Ferb's Three for All

You think this is hard? Try guest-voicing a character on Phineas and Ferb! That's hard!

Readers of this blog (or Twitter followers, or people who know me in real life, or some combination of the three), probably know that I'm a big fan of Disney's Phineas and Ferb. I'm not going to go into why- partly because it would take too long, partly because I already have- but either way it's a very funny show that's head, shoulders, and platypus tail above the rest of the TGIF-level tripe the Disney Channel offers. Seriously, though (which is something the show never takes itself as, oddly enough), it's probably not just one of the best-written animated shows on TV, but possibly one of the best-written shows on TV period. But you don't have to take my word for it. (Cue that Reading Rainbow sound effect.)

Jane Lynch, whom you might know as the curmudgeonly Sue Sylvester from Glee- or a number of other curmudgeonly characters (seriously, that seems to be all she plays- except for those Activia ads, where I think she's playing Bizarro Sue Sylvester, who is kind to everyone and offers them yogurt)- recently told Entertainment Weekly that "I laugh as much as my daughter when we watch. That is not the case with other kids shows. I fear they are teaching her bad comedy! Phineas is clever and delightful, with just enough cynicism to keep me coming back." And if there's one thing Ms. Lynch knows, it's cynicism. But she's not just a fan of Phineas and Ferb, she's also a guest voice! Yes, she's joining the long list of well-known names- a number of whom are admitted fans of the show- to lend their vocal chops to Phineas and Ferb's wonderfully wacky world. EW has four video clips from one of the episodes that will debut next month when the show returns for its third season, which features not only Ms. Lynch, but Tina Fey, Joan Cusack, and returning guest voice Vicki Lawrence.

Three is a magic number: the legendary Regis Philbin alongside Phineas and Ferb co-creators (and voices for two of the funniest characters) Dan Povenmire (left) and Jeff "Swampy" Marsh.

Disney is so certain that the two kids with unusually large brains contained in their unusually-shaped heads will be their next big marketing icons that they're spreading them out as well, including giving them their own two-minute talk show segment. Space Ghost Coast to Coast it's not (nothing ever could be), but it occasionally amuses. Case in point: this Friday's outing, which features television legend in his own right Regis Philbin. Rapping. Specifically, a song called "Squirrels in My Pants." Seriously, what's not to love? Clearly, he's a good sport. As are all the big-name guests who have made their way to the tri-state area...and hopefully there will be more to come.

In conclusion, if you're not watching Phineas and Ferb, why not?

PHINEAS AND FERB ©Disney. No ownership intended or implied. Photo credit: Rick Rowell/Disney XD

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Disney TV Animation Revival Dead in the (Fish) Water?

One of the members of my Twitter Secret Circle, Ukari Bakosi (alias RacattackForce of The [Real] Scratch Pad), pointed me in the direction of an interesting comment that makes me wonder if the possible Disney Television Animation renaissance which looked like it might be coming on the heels of Phineas and Ferb may be dead in the water before it even started.

For a little background, we have to go way back into the archives of the official blog of The Animation Guild. Way back in 2006, when Phineas and Ferb was first being developed, some of the commenters in the industry left some interesting comments regarding the fact that P&F was a unique creature in the animation industry- a show that was storyboard-driven rather than script-driven. Much like in the old days (old Warner Bros. cartoons, for example), the dialogue and gags were not already written out at the start, but rather, a simple premise was thought up from which the entire team suggested gags and dialogue. It was an odd duck, which led P&F staffer Chris Headrick to remark:

DTV's [Disney TV Animation] script-heavy output has led to losing many kids to other, more story-innovative shows, like [Dexter's Lab and Johnny Bravo]. Now there's a concerted effort at DTV to make cartoons like CN and Nick have, hence taking the risk on premise shows again. Right now, the "premises" are still eight pages or so long on Phineas and Ferb! It's tough to wean people from scripts when they are used to them. Nevertheless, it is starting to be evident to the powers-that-be at Disney that 8 pages of script = 8 minutes of screen time, but 8 pages of premise = 20-30 minutes of screen time...

Once the series premiered two years later, an anonymous commenter remarked:

haha that must be a very old comment. chris quit the show. his #1 reason? the SUFFOCATING amount of executive notes and executive meddling on the show. A lot of P&Fs best storyboarders left the show for other projects, and the typical Disney mountain of notes was a big reason they chose to move to other places. next time you see chris, just ask him--the stories of DIsney execs with their hands messing all over that show are crazy.

You hear a lot about the creative struggle between the creative end and the business end, and apparently there was a lot of it at P&F, as Wired pointed out in a feature article on the show:

Early on, when Disney suits began pecking at [creators] Marsh and Povenmire with questions and suggestions—does Phineas’ head have to be triangular? can the platypus character have a girlfriend?—Povenmire threatened to walk. “I finally said, ‘Look, you can make whatever show you want to make. But if you want me to come work on it, it’s going to have to be the show I pitched to you,’” Povenmire recalls. “Otherwise, I can make more money if I stay at Fox this year.’” It was Marsh who pushed back when an exec questioned whether Phineas and Ferb had to be step-siblings—a relationship rarely seen in kids’ animation since Cinderella (and we know how that turned out). But Marsh was adamant. His mother has been divorced and remarried so many times, the family calls her current husband Sev, as in her seventh. As a child of a family so blended it’s nearly a smoothie, he wanted kids to see a happy postdivorce family onscreen. Furthermore, Povenmire and Marsh wanted Phineas and Ferb to be funny but not snarky, a distinction that didn’t come easily to animation scribes. “It was hard for our writers to get on board with that concept,” Povenmire says. “One actually asked us, ‘Do these characters have any personality?’ Well, yes, they do. It’s just not the personality you’ve written for the past 10 shows you’ve worked on.” When Phineas and Ferb finally debuted in 2007, however, the show was an instant success, quickly proving it wasn’t “too smart” for TV.

By sticking to their guns, the creative team of Phineas and Ferb truly proved doing things the old-fashioned way leads to a hit. One that the business end wants more of. David Levine of Disney Channel once said, "I think animation is on its way to making a comeback...I know from what some of our competitors are doing there’s a huge ramp up of animation and so I think we’re going to be seeing a resurgence in animation over the next couple of years...The holy grail for us would be animation and comedy for Disney channel, something that can sit along Phineas and Ferb, something that can sit along our newest show, Fish Hooks, which if you’re a screener I hope you get a chance to see, because it’s hilarious. That really is the Holy Grail for us." Apparently, the business end thought that Fish Hooks would be the next Phineas and Ferb, and from the bizarre writing, that certainly does seem to be the case. However, an anonymous commenter on the TAG blog had this to say when the show was picked up for a second season in December:

Its not going to be a frutiful continuation of FishHooks. Alex Hirsch, who worked tirelessly to craft that show has moved on and two of the three senior writers (the two good ones) were not asked to return because they continued to push boundaries of the show. Their replacements were selected with "following orders" as one of their main attributes. You'll see how drab, unfunny and unimaginative the 2nd season product will be. Disney TV continues to be ruled by committee churning out the boring.

More recent episodes of Fish Hooks have seemed a little weaker than the earlier ones, but since the second season hasn't started yet, I don't know if this is a result of that or just the staff having an off day. Not everyone is going to bat 1.000, but the fact that Phineas and Ferb gets pretty damn close is a testament to its writing staff and, I assume, how it's produced. If this is the case and Disney TVA wants to keep its staff in line rather than allow them to run free, then it seems that Phineas and Ferb may have been a fluke- a well-written and financially successful fluke- rather than a sign of a new era of Disney TV animation dominance. Best of luck to Mr. (Clamantha) Hirsch on his new show Gravity Falls- I'll be interested in seeing if it's actually good...

Monday, February 7, 2011

Yet Another Super Bowl Ad Analysis

A football game. Commercials. Everybody's talking about the damn thing, so it's not like I need an intro, so let's just do yet another thing where someone gives their opinions on Super Bowl ads, shall we?

Surprisingly, the winning spots this year on USA Today's Ad Meter were these two dog-related spots that didn't really impress me. I guess I'm not a good predictor of what the public likes. Apparently, it likes dogs.

I personally think this Doritos spot was much more amusing than the dog one.

Although not one of my favorite spots of the night, since it also has a twist ending and a lot of people were commenting on it, I might as well point out Groupon's spot. Groupon had two others before and after the game using the same unexpected twist ending, regarding whales and the rainforest, respectively, but the one during the game got a lot of flack online for using the oppression of Tibet as a punchline. Personally, I thought the ad was amusing, though not one of the best of the night. Groupon is actually raising money for the whales, the rainforest, and Tibet- it would have been nice if they actually pointed this out at the end of their spots or something and thus avoided themselves a lot of negative publicity. Either way, at least they're trying to do something regarding the serious problems they're making fun of, which is more than can be said for a number of people.

Best Buy uses the mismatched pair of Ozzy Osbourne and Justin Bieber to poke fun at the rapidly-obsolete technology world. Say what you will about Justin Bieber- his recent TV appearances to promote his upcoming film and this ad prove that he can make fun of himself. Plus, this ad implies that, much like Ozzy, someday he will be obsolete. Which would not surprise me at all.

Volkswagen's spot is an example of one where the extended online version is more amusing than the aired version, probably because it gives more time to set up the theme before hitting us with the surprise ending. Plus, a little kid walking around in a Darth Vader costume is just cute.

Though technically not a 100% Super Bowl spot, Chevrolet's tie-in with Glee was very clever, both in terms of setup and brand positioning and cross-promotion. This year's post-Super Bowl fare just happened to be a new episode of Glee (and it was a fun one-probably the best of the year so far), so it's not surprising that Sue Sylvester and company showed up during the game. Multiple times. (That's Fox's self-promoting for you). Chevy's Super Bowl spot featured a typical in-character Glee set-up (really typical- it was pretty much the plot of a first-season episode) to lead into the ad Chevy showed during the Glee episode itself: a fun performance of the classic "See The USA In Your Chevrolet" jingle followed by a very funny wrap-up where Sue's master plan is foiled once again. Both spots were very much in the Glee style of humor and performance, and just plain fun to watch. Much like Glee itself.

But, surprisingly, true self-promotions took the night. At least for me. Fox had a very funny promo for House where the curmudgeonly doctor takes the role of Mean Joe Greene in a remake of the classic Coke ad with typical results. But by far the best spot of the night for me was one for the NFL itself, featuring classic TV characters getting ready to watch the Super Bowl. Much like these TV greats, the Super Bowl- and its commercials- are certainly a pop culture institution and a phenomenon that brings millions it for the game or for the ads.

Oh yeah, and Roseanne Barr getting hit with a log.

Go packo.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

How the West Was Fun

It's been 40 years since The Oregon Trail was first created as a board game by a group of schoolteachers from Minnesota (a state which, interestingly enough, was not actually part of the Oregon Trail). I would hazard a guess that more people have played some iteration of the educational PC game than actually traveled the real Oregon Trail. The simplistic game's goal is to give its players a feel of what life might have been like if they were one of the thousands of pioneers to take the 2,000-mile land route from Independence, Missouri to the Oregon Territory's Willamette Valley. Basically: it was really hard and you'd probably die. Despite the game's somewhat politically-incorrect theme (you don't really hear the term "Manifest Destiny" thrown around nowadays as much as you used to, what with all the Native Americans and separation of church and state and whatnot), the game has become part of pop culture- so much so that its official website keeps track of references and remakes to it that have popped up online. And it is this nostalgia and name recognition that seems to be the impetus for the game being revived on Facebook, combining all the fun with social networking with all the fun of your friends dying of dysentery.

As VH1's Best Week Ever pointed out, The Oregon Trail is on the surface a very dull game. However, it seems over the years that MECC- now The Learning Company- has realized this and added a bit to the proceedings. I grew up playing a lot of Oregon Trail II, which added a number of alternate trails and detours, such as the Mormon trek to Utah and the California Gold Rush, to the proceedings. (My friend and I loved the jokes involving oxen and famous French people in the game's credits, and are apparently the only two people on earth who remember them.) Recently, an iPhone app was released based on the game which added a number of entertaining minigames as well as some humor in the form of goofy animations and conversations between the pioneer and his family (the developers must have realized that the theme of the game is somewhat un-PC, and just decided to run with that to amusing effect by having the pioneer frequently insult or just downright ignore his wife's frequent complaints).

Having spent a lot of time with the Facebook iteration (I'll admit it- it's addictive), I'm very impressed with the way it keeps the Oregon Trail theme and charm (if you can call it that) but also adding some social networking features as well as some other features to keep it from getting dull. This includes alternate routes you can take, various items you can buy to improve your skill, and minigames. This includes the traditional hunting minigame, which is rather fun (as it always has been) and makes you think a bit, too. At least, it makes me think. With the gun you start out with, you can down a bear in two shots and a buffalo in three. Of course, bears are faster and more dangerous than buffalo. So if you have both coming at you, what do you do? Shoot the bear, of course- same amount of food in less shots. Another minigame involves repairing your wagon when it breaks down. I call this game "Pioneer Tetris" because it is pretty much like a game of Tetris- you have unusually-shaped wood pieces you have to patch over the holes, the goal trying to get as few overlapping pieces as possible- preferably none, which is of course easier said than done.

The other thing I'm quite impressed with is the social networking factor. This includes the fact that you can have your friends "join" you on the trip. Let's admit it, it was always fun to put your friends in as travel companions, whether for "realism" or because you were amused when they broke they leg or got dysentery. This tradition continues, and you can even post their unfortunate circumstances on your Facebook page to rub it in their faces. But what I'm most impressed with is that, unlike most Facebook games, premium items to give you a leg up which cost real-world money are included, but aren't really required. As The Learning Company themselves put it, "you can definitely make it to Oregon on your own steam! We wanted to make sure everyone could enjoy the Trail." And really, isn't this what makes it more fun? It certainly does for me- besides, what's more pioneer-like than trying to raise money on your own from the gold you find on the side of the road and saving for that upgrade rather than spending real-world cash on it?

There's a little bit of an educational factor as well, of course- various landmarks are described in detail, and real-world personalities show up in saloons. I like that those personalities aren't really described 100%- since I know the story behind Phineas Gage, for example, it's amusing to see him and hear him complain about his headache, but I also like the fact that they just don't go out and say what he's famous for, encouraging someone who doesn't know to look it up and learn something. But even though The Oregon Trail is ostensibly an educational game, its appeal has always been both something more and something less than that. Blue Fang Software and The Learning Company have done a good job in bringing it to the Facebook age, assuring that many will continue to die of dysentery for a long time. And in the world of the Oregon Trail, dying of dysentery is something you can actually be proud of.

THE OREGON TRAIL® ©2011 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. No ownership intended or implied.