Friday, December 31, 2010

The Holiday(s)

Whether or not saying "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" is considerate or a war on Christmas is not something I wish to get into- everyone knows that the majority of the American population celebrates Christmas and a couple of substitute words isn't going to threaten it.

I only wonder why many of the commercials I see this year ('10) on television have people saying "Happy Holiday", using the singular rather than the plural. I actually think this is more offensive than the plural, because it implies that there's only one holiday. What they really mean is "Happy Holiday Season", I think- which is what everyone is celebrating, unless you're an atheist (or Scrooge).

What bugs me more than anything is when people set up a "holiday" celebration- calling it a "Holiday Festival" or something- and everything about it is Christmas related. There's Santa Claus, there's Christmas trees, Christmas music, Christmas this and Christmas that, and maybe even a Nativity scene. There are no menorahs or kinaras (although there are plenty of semi-pagan symbols), so claiming that their festivities are wintertime holiday neutral isn't the truth.

This actually happened to one festival we usually go to every year, once called "The Festival of the Trees" because it was primarily a display of artists' decorated trees- its name was changed to "Holiday Festival". There aren't any dreidels or anything, and the old name didn't even have the word "Christmas" in it!

The same can happen on television- a channel will claim to play "your favorite holiday movies", and all they play are Christmas movies and specials, and not a single Hanukkah special. Part of the problem here is that there aren't very many Hanukkah specials, but still. I'd just prefer a little honesty, that's all.

Actually, all this pales in comparison to my irritation with the mudslide of commercials using traditional carols with rewritten lyrics about their stores and products, telling me that I haven't been buying presents the right way. It was sort of funny two years ago, but now it's getting annoying.

Half-baked DVDs

As a child of the '90s, I grew up with a lot of cartoons on television that were part of the churning, creative and prolific phenomenon that was the Renaissance Age of Animation. Some of the world's greatest and most impressive animated movies and TV shows were born in the 1990's.
Now that we're entering the 2010's, this leaves me in the curious position of being part of a generation that is no longer new. My age group was about the same age as Andy from Toy Story when it was new, and we've all grown up like Andy did in Toy Story 3. This makes my generation officially a nostalgic one, and therefore we are a niche market for nostalgic '90s product.

I personally subsisted primarily on three food groups: Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, and cartoons produced by Steven Spielberg. When it comes to Disney, we mostly saw the most popular movies on tape, and were a little skimpy on Disney Afternoon.
Like every other television viewer, there are plenty of shows that we watched that were extremely popular, and others that weren't. The biggest problem with that is that DVD releases are very inconsistent.

So it frustrates me to no end that even popular shows like Animaniacs don't get every season released. The Spielberg cartoons show no sign of getting further volumes, and many lesser known shows that I like either get incomplete releases (including so-called "best of's") or none at all.
It's like... what's the point? Okay, I get that sales aren't as good as the copyright holders would like, but the people who were buying them would surely want to buy more. Why start something and not finish? Those who would want to see most of a television series would surely want to see all of it.

So here's a list of cartoons I wish would have proper DVD releases or further season box sets:
  • The rest of season 3, and seasons 4 and 5 of Animaniacs (UPDATE: At long last! Volume 4 has been released!)
  • Seasons 2 and 3 of Tiny Toon Adventures (ideally with a bonus disc of the specials, Pinky, Elmyra and The Brain and the unique episode of The Plucky Duck Show)
  • Rocko's Modern Life (UPDATE: Luckily, this show has since had seasons 1-2 released, and 3-4 are also slated, but unfortunately they're the censored versions.)
  • The Angry Beavers (UPDATE: This series, thank God, is now being released, with seasons 1-2 and half of season 3 already out and the rest currently not yet announced.)
  • Sheep in the Big City (okay, so maybe this one's from the early '00s, but it's still underrated)
  • Bonkers
  • Goof Troop and Quack Pack
  • Beetlejuice
(UPDATE: I suppose by now this post is outdated, but my point still stands- it took WAY too long for this stuff to come out on DVD.)

Sunday, December 19, 2010

CG versus Traditional: No contest

I'm frankly getting tired of people feeling hatred for CG animation. I understand where you guys are coming from, because you love traditional animation and don't want it to be replaced, but there's something you don't understand about CG.

The most ignorant of CG-haters seem to think that the computers animate for you. Like the days when the original Tron was new, there are those who consider using a computer to animate "cheating", as if it's at all easier to do. Let me tell you, I've watched lots and lots of making-of documentaries- especially for Pixar films- and the animation process is just like traditional, except you're using a computer cursor instead of a pencil, moving the model around like clay.

The same principles established by the Nine Old Men still hold true in CG animation. The most primitive CG animation (such as the video for "Money For Nothing") resembles stiff plastic puppets, because they couldn't make them move any more fluidly. It takes effort to apply squash-and-stretch and make the characters seem as malleable and flexible as real life, and create detailed texture- the models don't move for you, all on their own.
In fact, the only thing that's any easier in CG is foreshortening and perspective shots.

I've also seen people call CG "too perfect", or simply dislike the aesthetic. I don't understand where they're coming from. For one thing, traditional animation doesn't seek to be flawed, nor does CG seek to be flawless. Yes, there are inherent inconsistencies of proportion, perspective, and foreshortening in traditional animation- and I suppose you can find some charm in those errors- but those are hardly intentional.
I think the best example of classic cartoon physics and squash-and-stretch being used in a CG production is Horton Hears A Who, although I wouldn't blame you if you thought the adaptation of the book could be better.

I think the difference between CG and traditional is merely a matter of what materials are used- like the difference between using clay and wooden puppets- and the resulting look and feel of their respective processes. If you think there's an inequality of beauty and effort between them, then you're not paying attention.

And to be honest, I think it's about time traditional animation caught up with CG, when it comes to sheer spectacle, detail, and cinematography. I don't expect any traditional animation to look like da Vinci, but I think more tricky angles and such would make traditional more of a competitor these days. Maybe if The Thief and the Cobbler was properly released...

Oh, and the Robert Zemeckis animated features? You can still rant about those. Those have terrible texture...

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Artifacts of our Childhood: The Nutcracker Prince

I used to be one of those many people who recognized Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker Suite", from Disney's Fantasia no less, but only had an inkling of what the story was supposed to be.

We got most of our inklings from seeing the 1990 film The Nutcracker Prince. Although it inevitably uses Tchaikovsky's score, it seems to be the most faithful adaptation out there of E.T.A. Hoffman's "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King".

There's a feeling of post-Secret of NIMH animated audacity in the film, because there are onscreen deaths and actual blood, which is probably why we remember scenes from it so vividly. In particular, I recall the flashback in which we see the princess become ugly, where everyone is drawn in a more stylized '60s-ish way for some reason. The Mouse Queen is voiced by Phyllis Diller (Ha ha HAAA) of all people, which makes things even stranger.

And despite the Mouse King sounding remarkably like Tom "Spongebob" Kenny (it isn't), he is by far the most gosh darn scary Mouse King ever. Watch the climax and you'll see what I mean.

Everybody's Doing It: My Yogi Bear rant

I can sort of get over the fact that the new Yogi Bear movie is live-action and CG, despite the fact that every attempt at adapting a cartoon character to a live-action environment has failed here in America. Garfield and Marmaduke didn't do well domestically, and yet we're getting The Smurfs and rumors of a Family Circus and a Bugs Bunny feature as well. Why Hollywood continues this madness is anybody's guess.

But what bugs me the most is that the writers and advertisers for Yogi seem to think that Yogi's eating habits are the focus of his personality. Excessive indulgence is the heart and soul of the cartoon, right? The last thing I want to see in a movie is a CG bear covered in CG cheese and grease and bread crumbs, fulfilling somebody's fantasies of Yogi Bear food porn.

I don't understand where the writers got the idea that Yogi pulls fantastic stunts and builds crazy gadgets, either. I've watched the original cartoons since my childhood, and although I admit I haven't seen every episode, the show's theme strikes me as being the relationship between Ranger Smith and Yogi, and their conflicts for control. And where the heck is Cindy Bear??

...Something that really bugs me, though, is the completely random turtle in the trailers. It has a frog tongue. A freakin' frog tongue. It's like somebody in the story department honestly thought that turtles are amphibians, and that they had long tongues like frogs and toads, and persisted that they keep the gag despite arguments from the slightly smarter writers. Or worse, no one noticed even through rewrites, filming, animating it, and editing.
And they have the gall to swing that turtle around like nobody's business, shoving its anatomical FAIL in our faces in eye-popping 3D. I find it really disturbing and gross, actually. It makes me kind of wince.

UPDATE: I now have a very definite reason to not like this movie. According to Jim Hill Media, the Animation Supervisor Alex Orrelle said this:

"I have to admit that that was one of the real challenges of working on 'Yogi Bear.' Trying to figure how to take this character that had been created back in 1958 and then make him work for 2010 audiences," Orrelle continued. "I realized that this was going to be a real challenge when I showed some of the original 'Yogi Bear' cartoons to my kids and -- after 5 minutes - they walked out of the room because they were bored."

I think this clearly indicates three things:
  1. His kids are really lame and have no taste in humor.
  2. If his kids are at all typical of their generation, it means that kids today don't like Yogi Bear, and therefore don't want to see a movie about him. So it was a bad idea in the first place.
  3. Orrelle felt compelled to retool the character so that people who don't like Yogi Bear would want to see the movie. This has never been a good strategy: if The Monkees were trying to appeal to non-Monkees fans with their film Head, they learned that their non-fans wouldn't trust them as far they could throw them, and that their fans would be disappointed with the changes.

Friday, December 17, 2010

What's it all about, Charlie Brown?

There's an enormous irony I've observed while watching A Charlie Brown Christmas this year, and seeing all the mushy and sentimental Peanuts merchandise. The classic special, in fact, teaches us one of the biggest lessons of them all:

Anti-commercialism sells.

I was pretty appalled when a few years back they were selling Charlie Brown Christmas trees, with an enormous red ornament dangling downward and everything. Somehow or another, Christmas' greatest symbol of modesty this side of the Virgin Mary on a donkey and the Christ Child born in a manger has become a product.

I'm not very angry about it, actually, because Miracle on 34th Street taught us this irony too. It only strikes me as odd that millions of people watch Charlie Brown Christmas and get all dewy-eyed when they talk about how much they relate to Charlie Brown, and yet the sentiments don't really carry over into real life.
What's especially odd is that the special is so very overtly Christian, and yet only so many people who watch it feel the same way that Linus does. Does this speech simply go over people's head? Do they go "Oh yeah, some people celebrate Christmas because of that Jesus guy"?

I also find it interesting that there are some sentiments in A Charlie Brown Christmas that aren't necessarily relevant anymore. Take for instance Snoopy's dog house decorations- the moral here is that Snoopy is being excessive and greedy, going all out to win the contest prize money.
These days I doubt that many people decorate lavishly and elaborately for the sake of winning a prize. I've seen a lot of television shows about the subject, and if anything, people who decorate that way are expressing their sheer exuberance through creativity. Heck, we've got a neighborhood only a few miles away from where I live called Sleepy Hollow, where residents for several blocks go all out with their decorations, and there's a sense of unity and community.
Schulz's second example of commercialism and phoniness is the aluminum Christmas tree. Lately, ironic hipsters and nostalgic baby-boomers have brought this bright and gaudy decoration back from the depths of "forbidden non-naturalistic decorations", as we shall call it. I blame Charles Schulz for making metallic trees out of style for many decades, and making real Douglas Firs the trendy tree. But nowadays aluminum trees pose no real threat to the real deal, and instead represent a fondness for the aesthetics of mid-century Christmases.

I still love A Charlie Brown Christmas for its message and humor, but perhaps its not so timeless as we once thought, nor as persuasive.

Mexican Hot Cocoa

Recently I've come to enjoy these Mexican cocoa brands that usually come in candy-bar-like chocolate discs that you're supposed to grind into a powder with a grater. They do sometimes come in powder form, but usually you have to put in a little extra work to get a cocoa that always includes at least cinnamon and sugar for a spicier cup of cocoa. It's not quite as sweet or creamy as your usual powder mix, but the cinnamon makes up for it.

You'll recognize them by their hexagon-shaped packages.

The two brands I've tried are called Abuelita and Don Gustavo- which seem to deliberately be the "feminine" and "masculine" brands, respectively, because the former has a smiling, charming and quaint grandma wearing antiquated clothing on the box, and the latter has a 50-60-year-old Mexican man who looks like somebody who works on a farm. Not only that, Don Gustavo has darker chocolate and tiny bits of peanuts in it.

Santa Claus outsmarts the Devil

I watched a 1959 film called Santa Claus the other day, which is a dubbed Mexican film about Satan sending out a devil to tempt children into doing evil and foul up Santa's deliveries, including scenes of letters to Santa floating out of a post office incinerator, Merlin giving him magical objects to help him, and a red-bearded, topless blacksmith creating a magical skeleton key for him.

...And I thought to myself, "Darn! Somebody beat me to it."

Monday, December 6, 2010

"We're a Couple of Misfits" versus "Fame and Fortune"

I don't remember ever seeing the "Fame and Fortune" segment in Rudolph, despite it apparently, supposedly, having been in there since 1965 and surviving until 1997. True, I was only eight years old at the time, but I tend to have vivid memories of things I watched on TV. Also, my mom doesn't remember ever seeing it either. And she saw the original airing in 1964.

What I'd really like to see restored back into the special, though- or at least included as a bonus feature- is the so-called "Peppermint Mine" scene with Yukon Cornelius. This is because it plays a fairly significant role in the continuity of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and the Island of Misfit Toys.

EDIT: Whoops! Apparently that scene was in a recent restoration, and it's included on the Blu-ray.