Case Study 65: Pokemon–“The Mastermind of Mirage Pokemon”

Original Airdate: April 29th, 2006 on The WB

This special was made to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the staggeringly popular Pokemon franchise, which means that this year was the 20th anniversary of Pokemon and that I am therefore as old as the stars and the seas. If you don’t know what Pokemon is, I’m guessing there are no children with you underneath your rock, because Pikachu and company have been delighting kids across a smorgasbord of media platforms for two decades now. It all started with a handheld video game that’s gone on to enjoy six direct sequels. There’s also the TV show. Did you know you can watch 930 episodes of the TV show? It’s been running continuously since 1997 and Ash is still going through puberty. There are also 19 movies, and I’m talking feature films, not the “very special episode” crap we have the misfortune of examining tonight. The trading card game you might remember from elementary school? Still totally a thing. There’s enough tie-in merchandise to make a robust and healthy garbage island. And if you’ve been watching your hysterical and reactionary local news, you’ve probably heard about how a certain mobile game is leading us all to fiery doom at the hands of pedophiles and vandals. Most adults are probably exclusively familiar with the video game and haven’t watched the TV show since 5th grade. How has it held up? Well…

Strengths

  • Great concept. There’s a reason the Pokemon franchise is such a big hit. It’s intrinsically interesting to imagine a world crawling with hundreds of unique semi-intelligent life forms with magical fighting powers. Sure, here in the real world we just found out that there are four species of giraffe that we hadn’t realized existed, and that’s legitimately thrilling, but what if there was a giraffe that had a separate brain in its ass, complete with a mouth full of teeth ready to bite your damn hand off? And what if you could capture that giraffe and make it fight your enemies with searing blasts of psychic energy? Personally, I love it when fantasy is closely wedded to the real world, and while the world of Pokemon seems to have armies of clone nurses and a robust and nonsensical economy, the world inhabited by trainer Ash Ketchum (Kayzie Rogers) and his retinue of hangers-on is modern, technologically sophisticated and ostensibly realistic, allowing fantasies and projection to take root faster than a hungry Tangela.
  • Strong choice of medium. And really, in some ways, Pokemon makes a lot more sense on TV than in a video game. The fundamentally magical premise becomes hidebound by stats, type effectiveness, movesets and endless grinding when it takes the form of a game, but the creators of the show cheerfully fly in the face of established rules about type or how strong/useful any given move is when it makes for good spectacle. This might infuriate the turbonerds out there, but this kind of poetic license can go a long way in making a fight that would otherwise be a foregone conclusion fascinating.
  • Cute. They might keep you in your seat with flights of fancy about riding a flaming horse into the sunset, but chances are they lured you in with a button-eyed talking mouse, or a kitty, or a puppy, or a…balloon, I guess? Hell, these people even managed to make a literal pile of toxic sludge cute. Also, a bag of garbage. Those people at Nintendo know what they’re doing when it comes to luring you in with candy-coated adorability.
  • Sci-fi horror premise. Okay, now that we’ve gotten generalities out of the way, let’s stick those brass tacks into our eyes. At first it seems like we might be in for something cool: Ash and all his friends are lured to the compound of one Dr. Yung (Bill Timoney, Mission to Mars,) who has used only the most cutting-edge developments in pokemon mad science to create “mirage” pokemon, which he replicates instead of catching in the wild. They’re strong against things that would normally knock them out and eventually he harnesses the power to let them use any move they want. They’re super-powerful and they can’t be stopped. Professor Oak (Jimmy Zoppi) is quickly captured and everyone else is left to fend for themselves. The show does take on themes of science vs. nature with all the subtlety of Joe Eszterhas and Misty (Michele Knotz) nearly plummets to her death, but all of the cool pulpy things they could do with this premise quickly fall by the wayside as we descend into the worst episode of Pokemon I’ve had the displeasure of seeing, and it’s not like it was Masterpiece Theatre to begin with.

Weaknesses

  • Jarring change in voice actors. This special is most infamous for the fact that the production company somehow decided they weren’t making enough money on this hugely popular series and sacked all the principal voice actors. Which is a shame, because the original cast was very strong. Comedic stylings centered around Team Rocket’s high school drama club antics and Brock (Bill Rogers) being a pussy hound have always been weak sauce, but at least the original cast could sell it. The backlash against the voice acting was so intense that the dialogue was re-recorded for the DVD release and Kayzie Rogers was straight-up replaced, which makes sense, because while Ash was always voiced by a middle-aged woman impersonating a gravelly voiced preteen boy, Kayzie Rogers’ voice is slightly higher-pitched, which makes it seem like Ash has Benjamin Button disease. It probably didn’t help that Rogers is also the voice of Max, an eight-year-old.
  • Team Rocket. Speaking of Team Rocket, why the fuck are they even here? It’s great evidence of the show’s tendency to cling to its formula even when it doesn’t make any sense. Plenty of previous episodes that didn’t need a conflict with dastardly villains had Team Rocket inserted sideways on the theory that an antagonist is always essential, but there’s already a clear and obvious antagonist here: the mad scientist with the super-powerful, weaponized monsters. The Rockets ultimately end up just bearing witness to the proceedings while offering witlessly snide commentary and the occasional interjection from Wobbuffet. Don’t worry, Wobbuffet’s voice actor didn’t change. (It had always been Kayzie Rogers.)
  • Filling time. Here we have another case study in a 22-minute children’s program airing a “special” where proceedings are dragged out to an hour. With a plot this cliched, the last thing the writers need is more run-time to fill, but still we endure an interlude where Yung captures Ash’s Pikachu and tortures it in order to get information. Aghast, Professor Oak agrees to reveal the information peacefully. Why not just skip a step and torture Professor Oak? Oh, that’s too far? But it’s okay to torture animals in a cartoon for kids? I mean, they’re essentially cockfighting in the first place, so I guess we’ve already lost our innocence in that regard.
  • Predictable. Believe it or not, they go through this whole pretense where Dr. Yung has also been kidnapped by the nefarious Mirage Master, but it turns out he was REALLY DR. YUNG ALL ALONG! Of course he was. What would be the point of having two mirage experts, one of which only exists to wear a turtleneck badly and get captured? How else would he have been able to master the complicated mirage technology instantly? Why else would the compound have been equipped with mirage generating missiles, allowing the mirage pokemon to pursue our heroes outside of the compound? God, I can feel myself getting less cool with each word I write. But this whole charade also reveals a critical plot hole: after the dramatic revelation of the Mirage Master’s double identity, Oak blusters that it all makes perfect sense, given the fact that Yung was pushed out of the Pokemon Institute for unethical research practices. Oh, you didn’t think to mention that fun fact back when he invited you and a bunch of children to his mysterious lab facility?
  • Maudlin & hamfisted. The worst thing of all about this episode is that the thing that finally defeats Yung’s mirage pokemon is an intervention from floating cat fetus Mew, whose power is hastily explained as coming from the fact that he represents a merger between data and a “true soul.” You see, he didn’t meet Yung’s exacting requirements as a research subject and was left to dejectedly hang around the facility and suffer the occasional torrent of verbal abuse. Of course, the true-hearted Professor Oak recognized Mew’s inherent worth, and Ash nobly forced himself through a barrier of pure energy to save it from imprisonment, and the initially helpless and pathetic-seeming pokemon was really a big hero in the end. The exertion of fighting Yung’s powerful Mewtwo caused Mew to disintegrate, but we’ll “see him again someday.” None of this makes any goddamned sense at all, but it appeals to that same part of your brain that made you coo over Pikachu in the first place, assuming that cat fetuses are your thing.

Final Judgment: 1/10. Look, despite how it may seem, I don’t hate the Pokemon TV series. This was just an unusually bad episode, but it’s not really surprising that after ten years, everything starts to look a little threadbare, considering that the show was never high art to begin with. 

NEXT TIME: I was going to review The Bachelor, but I thought I’d go for something a bit more intellectually stimulating, so Scooby-Doo it is.

Case Study 65: Pokemon–“The Mastermind of Mirage Pokemon”

Case Study 50: The Vampire Diaries, Episode 52–“Ordinary People”

Original Airdate: November 3rd, 2011 on The CW

Whoo, it’s been a while. There are two reasons for that. First, a plague has fallen on the house of Oryx, and second, technical difficulties prevented me from my glorious plan of covering what would surely be one of the seven wonders of television history: NFL Rush Zone. Instead, I’m covering The Vampire Diaries, and since it’s a fast-paced soap opera for the hoverboard generation, I had to watch quite a bit of it to feel comfortable offering an opinion on any one episode.

Strengths

  • Rich mythology. Okay, let’s get this out of the way upfront. Diaries was obviously intended as a Twilight cash-in. The first movie in the series had come out the year before and had made billions of dollars, so the dude that brought us Dawson’s Creek dug around in the backlist and found some likely looking YA fiction from the early 1990s. So Diaries takes a minute to find its voice and walk away from its derivative roots. That isn’t helped by the fact that the central romance between Elena Gilbert (Nina Dobrev) and Stefan Salvatore (Paul Wesley) is as inert as a noble gas, except with a noble gas, there’d be chemistry. Despite the game efforts of Dobrev and Wesley, the writing does not rise to the occasion. Thankfully, you can’t fill seven seasons and three seasons worth of spin-off with “teenagers” making moon eyes at one another, and in the three seasons I sampled the show cultivated a rich and rewarding mythology of vampires, werewolves, witches and even the occasional ghost. There were intricate, internecine conflicts between families and schemes that took centuries to unfold. There were magical artifacts, spells and counterspells. If you’re willing to give this show a chance and overlook its kiddy-bye exterior, you’ll find that it’s really quite immersive.
  • The originals. If you’d obediently clicked the link about the spin-off, you’d have found out that it is in fact called The Originals. I bring this up because the eponymous Originals are the subject of tonight’s episode, which chronicles nothing less momentous than the invention of vampires! They all stem from the Mikaelson Family, and what with vampires being immortal, the Mikaelsons are mostly still alive and have shown up to cause problems for Elena and friends. Think about all the drama that can well up in three generations of any given family. Think of all the grudges, overlooked slights, simmering resentment and unresolved tension, much of which only dissipates upon death or estrangement. Well, now imagine your family never died and have been clashing swords with one another for a goddamned millennium. In this episode, Elena seeks to break the compulsive control that malevolent Original Klaus Mikaelson (Joseph Morgan) has over Stefan. She thinks she can do this by uncovering the history of the Originals, so she seeks out his sister Rebekah (Claire Holt.) What happens next reveals that the family history that Rebekah had believed for centuries was all an ex post facto lie spun by Klaus, and we get all the dirt via flashbacks. All the best family dramas involve murder, magic and revenge.
  • Damon. Many of the characters on this show are two-dimensional, but you can’t say that about Stefan’s brother Damon (Ian Somerhalder.) Initially, Damon is set up as the evil, bloodthirsty alternative to the goody two-shoes, domesticated Stefan, but it becomes clear pretty quickly that despite his violent tendencies and his ever-present irreverent sarcasm, he cares a lot about Stefan and Elena. In fact, he cares too much about Elena, frequently butting heads with Stefan over her affections. The first time we see him in this episode, he’s sneaking up on Elena in a dark cave to scare her just for the sake of being an asshole. Later, he goes drinking and whoring with the help of some vampire compulsion. But at a key moment, he admits to Stefan that he’s trying to save him from Klaus’ control because he owes him for saving his life time and time again. He really does care! But when Stefan mocks him for it, Damon kicks his ass and leaves him lying on the ground. Sure, the bad boy with a heart of gold is a stock archetype, but Somerhalder executes it with real flair and Damon feels much more like a real person than many of the other leads, perhaps with the exception of Caroline (Candice King.)
  • Ripper Stefan. Normally, Stefan Salvatore is as boring as white toast. I had hoped for the sake of the show that they’d find a way to make him interesting and give Wesley a chance to prove himself as an actor. One fun way to do that is to give him a Dark and Mysterious Past. You see, he wasn’t always a brooding pretty boy hoping to meet the love of his life while lurking around a cemetery. No, he used to be what’s called a “Ripper,” a vampire that has renounced his humanity and just loves to tear people apart to feast on their delicious blood. Hooray! He managed to eventually get himself under control, but then Klaus undid all that hard work. So the Stefan on display here is mean and angry and all-around evil, and the show is that much more interesting for it.
  • Well-written closing scene. You could accuse this show of taking itself too seriously. It’s surrounded by a heavy aura of portentousness, perhaps to set itself apart from its wacky cousin, Buffy The Vampire Slayer. But the final scene here is both light-hearted and deft. Elena comes home from a long day of pumping Rebekah for information only to find a fully-clothed Damon sprawled on her bed. He’s there both to harass her and because he expects her to want to yell at him for using typically unorthodox methods to try and get through to Stefan, but she just wants to sleep and crawls into bed (weirdly fully clothed.) As the conversation unfolds, they realize they’ve come out of the day better than expected–Damon was confronted by Klaus’ vengeful father, Mikael (Sebastian Roche, Wer,) who was able to successfully extract information from Stefan by threatening Damon’s life, and Elena turned Rebekah against Klaus by revealing his murderous deceit. Thinking about Rebekah, Elena muses that Rebekah’s just a girl who “lost her mom too young and who loves blindly and recklessly, even if it consumes her.” My respect for the show skyrocketed when neither Elena or Damon pointed out that Rebekah shares these traits with Elena. The scene ends on a high note, too–Elena points out that her experience with Rebekah underscored the importance of familial bonds for vampires, which means that Elena can’t save Stefan from himself. Only Damon can do that. If that’s true, the viewers will reap the dividends—Damon and Stefan are a much better pairing than Stefan and Elena. That fact alone has no doubt brought us pages and pages of turgid, incestous slashfic.

Weaknesses

  • Elena. Diaries isn’t the first show to have a bland, featureless protagonist designed to let the viewer project themselves onto the hero of their favorite soap opera. Consider also Grey’s Anatomy, Lost or even Wayward Pines. Just because it’s a common flaw doesn’t make it an endearing one, though. What exactly are Elena’s characteristics supposed to be, anyway? According to Wikia, she is “popular, sporty, smart, compassionate, empathetic, caring and friendly.” Who wouldn’t want to be those things? Though I will say she’s sporty in the same way Melanie C is sporty, which is to say she has maybe once looked at a soccer ball. Also, compassionate, empathetic and caring all mean the same thing, and Elena is as smart and compassionate as she needs to be to keep the plot moving forward. I’m just glad that Elena’s evil doppelganger Katherine exists to give Dobrev something to do.
  • Witches. Witches on Diaries are primarily represented by members of the Bennett family, and in the present day that means main cast member Bonnie Bennett (Kat Graham.) Bonnie is one of the few people of color on the show, and this means that nearly all the witches we see are black. It also means that we’re frequently seeing black witches who only exist to help out their white vampire friends, including in historical situations that have been whitewashed to remove actually existing racial tension. This is ironic considering how the show frequently uses human-vampire relations as a metaphor for prejudice and fear of difference. Other bloggers have written extensive, on point explorations of race on this show, so I’ll just point out that we’re given another example here of black witches existing only to serve their white buddies and being given absolutely nothing else to do with their kickass magical gifts. You see, Original matriarch Esther Mikaelson (Alice Evans, 102 Dalmations) is a witch herself, but on her expedition to the New World she is accompanied by another witch and healer, Ayana (Maria Howell, Addicted.) Now, Ayana is supposedly Esther’s best friend and mentor and the heir to all-powerful immortality magic. So she presumably taught Esther everything she knows about magic, giving Esther the central role in vampire mythology while Ayana gets shunted to the sidelines. All she gets to do here is to point out to Esther that creating vampires in an anti-werewolf arms race won’t be a net gain for either the Mikaelsons or the world at large, and that’s it. Witches are just as cool as vampires. They can do magic, for fuck’s sake! If you’re going to turn them into magical negroes, at least give them some thoughtful, creative stories of their own.

Motivation: Knowledge. If Elena is going to bring Stefan back to his dopey self, she needs to learn the secrets of the Originals.

Final Judgment: 8/10. This show seems lightweight at first blush, but there’s a lot going on here. Be aware that the quality of this show is wildly inconsistent—some of the episodes I watched were full of cringingly stupid moments and tired cliches, and the more time spent on Elena’s love life, the worse off we all are.

NEXT TIME: I return to the Marvel animated universe by reviewing the original 1960s Spiderman cartoon! I’ll do whatever a blogger can.

Case Study 50: The Vampire Diaries, Episode 52–“Ordinary People”

Case Study 47: The Mysterious Cities Of Gold [1982], Episode 18–“Maiden Flight Of The Great Condor”

Original Airdate: August 28th, 1982 on NHK

The Mysterious Cities of Gold is a French-Japanese co-production, and unlike many of the kids’ shows I’ve reviewed so far, it’s serialized as opposed to episodic—that is to say, it tells a long continuous story. There are risks to doing this—a 10 year old isn’t going to binge-watch a Saturday morning cartoon the same way you’d swallow up an entire season of House of Cards in a weekend—but Cities does a good job of bringing the viewer up to date on what exactly is going on in the story before any given episode, which makes sense. Much like Powerhouse, it half-heartedly attempts to be educational by way of a documentary featurette appended to the end of each episode that is superficially related to the plot, addressing subjects such as the natural geography of South America or the fauna of the Galapagos Islands. There’s also a 2012 sequel of the same name.

Strengths

  • Original premise. You don’t see a lot of historical fiction pitched at kids, especially not in serialized cartoon form. Cities tells the story of a small group of travellers on a grand adventure, searching for the eponymous cities. It pertains to a particularly bloody moment in Spanish history, but it doesn’t whitewash things too aggressively—Zia (Janice Chaikelson) is a kidnapped Inca princess and Tao (Adrian Knight) is the last living descendant of an extinct tribe. But the show doesn’t lean too heavily on historical elements and instead looks for material in the fantastic. In this episode, the explorers are menaced by a tribe of hill-dwelling giants and make their escape in a giant solar-powered bird-shaped aircraft. And about that…
  • A giant solar-powered bird-shaped aircraft. I guess you might call this sort of innovation in 16th-century historical fiction “sunpunk.” Either way, it’s unexpectedly awesome to watch what at first appears to be a gigantic golden statue spread its wings and take flight when exposed to the sun as the temple around it dramatically crumbles to the ground. If a jaded adult can experience a few moments of surprised joy at this spectacle, I can only imagine how a kid would feel. It’s even better when Esteban (Shiraz Adam) discovers that a magical trinket makes it stow its landing gear and submit to passenger control. You may have seen the recent stories in the news about how a 15-year-old discovered a heretofore forgotten Mayan city using the help of satellite photography and deductions about astronomy. If there are still jungles today that are so thick and impenetrable that they contain unknown secrets, imagine what it must have felt like to be an explorer 450 years before Google Maps. Barring major technological innovation like deep space travel, only fiction can offer the thrill of exploration in the 21st century.

Weaknesses

  • Aurally displeasing. First of all, there’s the music, which sounds like a reject from Eurovision 1977. Wikipedia discloses that one of the directors of the show vetoed the original Japanese theme music because it was too “understated.” They may have overcorrected. The other audio issue here is the dubbing. I understand that dubbing comes with the territory in anime, especially if it’s pitched at kids and/or rebroadcast in the US, as was Cities. Still, it’s egregiously terrible here, and the issue is that the creators didn’t even try and rewrite the lines so they fit the amount of animation time they had. I wouldn’t care if the faces didn’t sync up with the dialogue, but once again, they overcorrected–the faces sync up fine, but every other line of dialogue is so rushed that it sounds like you’re watching Gilmore Girls on 2x. A couple of rewritten lines and the show would have been that much more immersive.
  • Padded. I watched four episodes of Cities to get background and they all felt like there was 10 minutes of content in a 20 minute show. Often the padding takes the form of dreadful interludes of “comic” “relief” featuring the bumbling sailors Sancho (Terrence Labrosse) and Pedro (Michael Rudder, Blindside.) Mercifully, they’re only in the background here, but instead we get a pointless excursion to an underground volcano viewing platform and some stupidly careless death-defiance when Esteban and Tao try and climb to the top of the enormous bird statue/airplane. The best kind of suspense is transparently manufactured suspense designed to kill time!

Motivation: There’s a couple things going on here. Any story of exploration is to some extent driven by knowledge, but Esteban is seeking to be reunited with his lost family, and his Spanish guardian is of course looking for money in the form of that sweet, sweet municipal gold.

Final Judgment: 4/10. Definitely nothing too special, and I can’t imagine why anyone who isn’t a nostalgia junkie would want to seek this out.

NEXT TIME: Another review of an extremely short subject as I analyze Disney’s new Mickey Mouse cartoons.

Case Study 47: The Mysterious Cities Of Gold [1982], Episode 18–“Maiden Flight Of The Great Condor”

Case Study 44: Manimal, Episode 6–“Scrimshaw”

Original Airdate: December 3rd, 1983 on NBC

Previously on this blog, I’ve taunted you with a link to this list, poetically titled by Wikipedia “List of television series considered the worst.” Despite all the garbage I’ve already covered here, I’ve yet to encounter one of these—until now. And the really surprising thing here is that Manimal isn’t even THAT bad. It’s definitely not great. But I laughed a lot harder at this than I did at See Dad Run, that’s for sure. Sure, I was laughing at the show and not with it, but I’d rather be laughing at something than be pissed off or annoyed.

Strengths

  • Fun action sequences. Anyone looking to enjoy entertainment intended for a popular audience needs to be willing to engage in a certain amount of suspension of disbelief, and that need is more pronounced in the action/adventure genre. If you’re worried about the amount of time and energy the Inca would have to put into mechanical traps to foil Indiana Jones, you’re missing the point. Now, Manimal is no Raiders Of The Lost Ark. Any attempt to think about the story being told in Manimal actively repels thought like drops of water on those fancy khakis. But there’s car chases. There’s dune buggy chases. Manimal himself, Dr. Jonathan Chase (Simon MacCorkindale), dangles precariously off the pontoons of a seaplane mid-flight. It meets the basic criteria of an action-adventure show, and it even displays a certain amount of panache in the process.
  • Original idea. Sure, the fantasy genre is lousy with shapeshifters, but as far as I can tell this is the first instance on TV of a protagonist with the ability to change into any animal he wants. While the Animorphs book series would perfect the idea a decade later, it’s still a tantalizing concept. Of course, the show doesn’t do anything interesting with the idea, but some shows don’t have any ideas at all.

Weaknesses

  • Cartoonish & juvenile. I’m going to go ahead and generously assume that Manimal was aiming to appeal to the whole family and not just criminally stupid adults. I would feel sure that this was intended for children if it wasn’t a live-action series airing in primetime. The show opens with Manimal and friends exploring the magic of tide pools at a beach when they uncover a skeleton clutching a walrus tusk. At first I thought they were going to try and find out who killed the deceased, but it turns out that, no, the tusk is scrimshawed with a treasure map, and the rest of the episode is devoted to avoiding a villain who’s willing to kill for doubloons. At one point our heroes visit a bar patronized by grizzled sailors, and Manimal associate Ty Earl (Michael D. Roberts, Rain Man) is forced to play a game of five finger filet for some reason. Later, Manimal’s friend Brooke Mackenzie (Melody Anderson, Flash Gordon) gets caught in honest-to-god quicksand, which would be stupid enough, except for the fact that the show gets quicksand confused with sinkholes. This plot might pass muster for an episode of Johnny Quest, but when you’re putting it forward as something actual adults might watch, it’s a real fucking stretch.
  • Terrible special effects. Since there have been plenty of TV shows with stupid storylines before and since Manimal, I’m guessing the ludicrous SFX on display are what earned this show its abysmal reputation. They’re hilariously bad, and since the premise of the show is that Manimal turns into animals, we get to see quite a bit of them. The most laughable part of the transformation inevitably involves stock footage of animals completely removed from the scene and without any other actors present. Using movie magic to wrangle dangerous animals is no problem these days—look no further than Zoo, or better yet, don’t look at Zoo at all—but for something with Manimal’s budget it was an impossible dream to have a panther plausibly resolve a hostage situation.

Motivation: Manimal and his buddies are desperate to uncover the secrets of the scrimshawed tusk, and despite this they are not inside a Hardy Boys novel. Knowledge.

Final Judgment: 3/10. Based on its reputation, I was expecting this to be irredeemable, but anything that makes me laugh is at least somewhat endearing. So Bad It’s Good beats So Boring It’s Bad any day of the week.

NEXT TIME: Bring on the puppets, because I’m watching Fireball XL5!

Case Study 44: Manimal, Episode 6–“Scrimshaw”

Case Study 41: Lego Star Wars: The Yoda Chronicles, Episode 1–“The Phantom Clone”

Original Airdate: May 29th, 2013 on Cartoon Network

Star Wars is one of those unstoppable action/adventure mega-franchises that I end up discussing oh-so-frequently—much like Dragon Ball, Gundam, Marvel and DC. After having lain dormant for a decade, the film franchise is undergoing a revitalization, hewing to the Marvel Cinematic Universe formula of being bought out by Disney and having a constant stream of movies in various stages of production orbiting around one central, tent-pole series. In a complete coincidence, today brings us the trailer for the second outing in the brave new world of ceaseless Star Wars titles. But 2005 to 2015 was a good decade for Star Wars offerings on the small screen, even if they were pitched squarely at the kiddie market. Two separate versions of The Clone Wars filled the hours on Cartoon Network, successfully banking on the notion that kids didn’t know any better when it came to avoiding the prequels. But they set the stage for the current incarnation of Star Wars on TV, Star Wars: Rebels, which is apparently well-crafted enough to draw an adult audience, or at least an audience of adults willing to watch cartoons intended for children, which is a group that I would not have previously put myself in and yet here I am nonetheless. Regardless, the Lego-based video game adaptations of the Star Wars franchise seem to have spawned their own crop of TV shows. This may seem like an odd choice, considering the characters in the Lego Star Wars games don’t talk and the levels of meta-merchandising are starting to get rather cumbersome when you have a cartoon cash-in based on a video game cash-in based on a plastic-toy cash-in based on a film franchise designed to sell stuff. But it’s a choice that, for the most part, worked out pretty well.

Strengths

  • Funny. I’ve shown on this blog that time and time again entertainment–especially entertainment for kids, which is by definition not sophisticated–lives or dies based on how successfully it pulls off comedy. This is not to say that something has to be funny to be good, but it never hurts. It is true, however, that the most maudlin, sentimental melodrama will never be nearly as obnoxiously bad as something that tries to be funny and fails abjectly. In any case, it’s a trademark of the Lego game series to take the piss out of overly serious media franchises, and nothing is more overly serious than an epic battle between good and evil with the fate of the universe hanging in the balance. The series even manages to avoid leaning too heavily on C3PO (Anthony Daniels,) which is great because C3PO is right up there with Carrot Top, Gallagher and Daniel Tosh. The best bits are tried-and-true comedy staples given new life by being inserted into the typically dour Star Wars setting. Yoda’s (Tom Kane) lack of shoes make it hard to run in the rain, leading to slapstick gold. When Yoda and Mace Windu (Adrian Holmes, Debug) are trying to piece together the identity of the undercover Sith Lord operating from inside the Republic and R2-D2 frantically holo-projects an image of Chancellor Palpatine (Trevor Devall, Kid Vs. Kat,) Windu and Yoda agree that asking Palpatine who the undercover agent might be is a great idea. There’s even a reprisal of that hoary old bit where a person tries to maintain two divergent conversations via call-waiting, except it’s a million times funnier when it’s a three-way phone call between Palpatine, Yoda and General Grievous (Kirby Morrow, Lego Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu) and Palpatine’s Lego-head is spinning between a nice face and a mean face depending on who he thinks he’s talking to. Which brings me to…
  • Unique aesthetic approach. The Lego-riffic nature of the whole affair is also redeemed through clever, detail-oriented use of distinctive visuals. When Grievous attacks C3PO and a roomful of padawans offscreen, we see the outcome of the battle when C3PO’s detached Lego-head comes bouncing down the stairs. When a gunship makes an ill-fated jump into hyperspace, Yoda, Windu and R2D2 are stranded in space as the gunship breaks into a million little Legos. The animators really committed to the distinctive Lego aesthetic, and it shows from the very first moments of the episode, as the opening shot places us beneath Grievous’s Starfighter–where we can see Lego divots. Hee!

Weaknesses

  • Gigantic plot hole. Much like The Wrong Mans, Lego is trying to succeed at both comedy and action, but unlike Mans, Lego only pulls it off on one front. And while that’s better than failing at both things, if Lego wasn’t attempting to tell a credible adventure story about saving the galaxy and so forth, there’d be more time for jokes. Grievous and Palpatine’s whole plot centers around Grievous stealing the Kaiburr crystals from the padawan’s lightsabers. Now, maybe the phrase “Kaiburr crystals” means something to you if you’re a hardcore Star Wars nerd, but I asked the nerdiest Star Wars nerd I could find and even he was only able to come up with the fact that lightsabers are powered by focusing crystals and by inference that’s what a Kaiburr crystal must be. The reason this distinction is important is that if there’s something special about the damn Kaiburr crystals I have no idea what it is, because the show never bothers to explain, and apparently Kaiburr crystals are only found in JEDI lightsabers, and only they can power the Central McGuffin, and again none of this is ever actually made explicit. In other words, there needed to be a reason for Grievous to get involved with Yoda and the padawans, so the writers slapped some bullshit together and hoped no one would notice. I understand that it’s a Star Wars cartoon and some familiarity with the source text is to be expected, but if it’s something I would have to be a religious viewer of the various animated series or a dedicated student of the canonical novels to understand, you’re setting the bar too high for most people, resulting in a pretty unsatisfactory adventure.

Motivation: This is Star Wars, after all, so the survival of the entire universe depends on Yoda’s actions here.

Final Episode Judgment: 6/10. This is an amusing way to spend 22 minutes if you’ve got a Star Wars superfan in your house who isn’t too picky about actual storytelling.

NEXT TIME: I plumb the depths of Hanna-Barbera to bring you the coverage of Huckleberry Hound that 2016 so badly needs!

Case Study 41: Lego Star Wars: The Yoda Chronicles, Episode 1–“The Phantom Clone”

Case Study 32: Dragon Ball Z–“Broly–Second Coming”

Original Airdate: March 12th, 1994 on Fuji TV

Dragon Ball Z, along with Sailor Moon, might be one of those shows that the average uninitiated Westerner calls to mind when the subject of anime is brought up. It also fuels a lot of prejudice about the overall low quality of anime. This is a shame, because there’s a good deal of excellent anime out there—but it would seem Dragon’s reputation is well deserved.

Like Lupin the Third or Gundam it’s also part of a massive, decade-spanning ultra-franchise. It’s the second of four series about the collection and curation of dragon balls, and under review tonight we have the 10th of 15 “films” centered around Dragon Ball Z alone. I put that in quotation marks because like the so-called “films” of Danny Phantom, Angelina Ballerina and Teen Titans, it’s simply an hour-long version of a cartoon that is normally half an hour long.

Strengths

  • The empowerment of children. This is a pretty common trait for kids’ entertainment. In the real world, kids are constantly at the mercy of adults and have little control of the major aspects of their lives. This is even more true today than when this episode aired thanks to modern trends of helicopter parenting and nosy neighbors calling the cops if they see a ten-year-old at the park on her own. In the world of Dragon, though, tiny children can fly and fight gigantic supervillains. For reasons too dumb to explain, our normal Dragon-tagonist Goku (Sean Schemmel) is dead at this point in the series and the main characters in this outing are his son Goten (Kara Edwards) and Goten’s pal Trunks (Takeshi Kusao.) They’re ultimately outclassed in the climactic brawl against demigod Broly (Vic Mignogna, Fullmetal Alchemist) but not before they single-handedly win a fight against a gigantic fucking dinosaur. This doesn’t hold true for every episode of Dragon, but “Second Coming” offers kids the pleasure of a) seeing themselves as the protagonists and b) seeing those protagonists kick ass and keep the big bad on his toes.

Weaknesses

  • Witless, childish banter. This is the downside of having kids as protagonists–at least when your show is badly written sludge. Accompanying the kids is the teenager Videl (Yuko Minaguchi) and the little kids constantly bicker with her. At one point Goten demands to eat some of the bait in the trap they’ve set for the dinosaur by screaming and crying like a shitty-diaper baby for what seems like an eternity (which, by the way, is what wakes Broly up in the first place, so thanks, Goten.) Later, he tells the dinosaur that it needs a manicure. By defeating the dinosaur they win a dragon ball that a local charlatan (Robert McCollum, Sengoku Basara: Samurai Kings) wears as a necklace; Trunks quips that if they had a second monster he could win the guy’s jacket, too. High-larious.
  • Bathroom humor. Again, maybe this is supposed to seem charming because the protagonists are little kids, but it really ain’t. When Broly shows up, Trunks urges Goten to summon the aid of the dragon with their newly complete set of dragon balls—but first Goten has to take a leak. Later, Trunks manages to wriggle out of Broly’s clutches by covering him in some manner of liquid bodily waste, and based on the color it looks like it’s the less savory of the two options. And nothing can help me unsee Trunks taunting Broly with his bare ass.
  • Endless, pointless battles. Look, I realize these are a central part of the Dragon brand. That doesn’t make them any more watchable. It’s all the more frustrating because at first it looks like this episode is actually going to be about something. You see, that charlatan I mentioned has convinced his village to sacrifice children to the gods in order to protect the villagers from the dinosaur. Videl challenges them on the ignorant barbarism of this practice and our heroes set off to prove the charlatan wrong. But they do this really quickly and it’s all over and done in the first 20 minutes, complete with a feast of glistening red dinosaur meat. The rest of the show is spent in an interminable fight with Broly. Instead of wanting to achieve power by preying on people’s fears and forming violent religious practices to bolster that power and create psychological barriers to rebellion, Broly’s just your garden variety evil asshole. The only thing worse than a show wasting your time with inane action sequences is the show teasing you with an actual story before burying you under inane action sequences.
  • Videl/Yuko Minaguchi. Minaguchi’s voice acting is just awful. She struggles with line readings as simple as “No thanks! I can’t wait to see what you screw up next.” She gets the cadences wrong. She emphasizes the wrong words. She runs it all together into what sounds like one word. She can’t even make “My name is Videl” sound natural. The show’s writing doesn’t do Videl any favors, either. She’s the only female character here and she’s constantly shat on. Goten and Trunks treat her like a nagging mom. She’s got superpowers of her own, but apparently they’re not as strong as those of the kiddies, because Broly almost instantly throws her into the water and leaves her to drown, taking her out of the action for the entire second half of the show. At the end of the episode, Goku’s other son and Videl’s love interest Gohan (Kyle Hebert) shows up to help fight Broly. The comic denouement has Videl henpecking him and chasing him around for leaving her to die—which is an entirely legitimate grievance, but the show acts like she might as well have curlers and a rolling pin. Yuck.

Motivation: Survival. After Broly mistakes Goten for Goku, who had defeated him in a previous hour-length episode, it’s all that Goten can do to hold his own. Only the intervention of a dragon ex machina saves the day.

Final Episode Judgment: 1/10. This was real bad, folks. Hopefully your kids never find out about it, because I could feel my brain cells dying the entire time.

NEXT TIME: It’ll be a gear-grinding transition from this to Masterpiece Theatre as I review The Six Wives of Henry VIII.

Case Study 32: Dragon Ball Z–“Broly–Second Coming”