New Releases: Different Sides of the Animation Coin

One of the trends to expect in 2018 mentioned in last week’s post is about the rise of indie animation and the plethora of choices it will bring along with it. Shout! Factory has two new releases which offer a glimpse at both sides of the animation coin.

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I Know That Voice and You Can Too

Voice acting is one of the more mysterious parts of the animation production process and while luminaries like Mel Blanc managed to garner a high degree of public awareness, there is a legion of talented actors working away behind the microphone that most members of the public would never recognise. One of them, John DiMaggio, decided to change that and went about creating the documentary ‘I Know That Voice’ to highlight the job and the players that take part.

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A Monster in Paris Review

Amazon_A Monster in Paris BR cover
Via: Shout! Factory

Finally! After only more than a year did I finally get the chance to watch this film. Long did it tease me with its development, release in Europe and sneak peeks in Canada. There’s even been a guest review featured on this blog! Today though, I can finally post my own thoughts having seen the film thanks to the good people at Shout! Factory. So without further adieu, here’s the A Monster in Paris review from the Animation Anomaly.

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The Animation

The quality of the animation seriously belies the film’s modest budget ($28 million). Given that we are used to being blinded by the dazzling efforts of both Disney and Pixar, one would expect that a film made for much (much) less would suffer from the smaller budget but thankfully that is no true. Early 20th century Paris is rendered as beautifully as any Pixar film and the love that has gone into making it look as good as it does ensures that stylistically, it is superior to much of what the large American studios put out.

Think about it. Pixar threw around $350 million at Toy Story 3 but did they honestly need to spend that much for a film that essentially takes place in the real world? If A Monster in Paris can replicate the glory of a past city so beautifully, why are Pixar and Dreamworks apparently so shackled visually?

The character animation is a bit jerky, but given the film’s comedic undertones, it is certainly understandable. Wackiness isn’t as outlandish as you might expect but it’s all in the classic Looney Tunes vibe of only noticeable when necessary.

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The Story

A Monster in Paris tells a fairly simple story; a giant flea escapes a laboratory and supposedly terrorises Paris until a singer discovers his hidden talent. While that does not sound like much, A Monster in Paris manages to weave it into the characters so much so that thei involvement seems quite natural.

There are jokes aplenty and although it’s nice to hear lots of jokes, it’s fun to see them too. Thankfully A Monster in Paris has plenty of both.

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The Characters

A Monster in Paris brims with many of the characters that you would expect the Paris of old to have. Our heroes, Emile and Raoul are truly the odd couple, differing, bickering and making up again. Their chemistry is balances by the cast of characters who they interact with. While Emile tries to woo Maude, Raoul has nothing but disdain for our heroine Lucille. These two relationships are played against the larger problem of a giant singing flea complicating their lives thanks to being wanted by the police.

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Summation

Overall, A Monster in Paris is an enjoyable film. It’s distinct European flavour give the impression that it skips to a different beat than many American films and that would be correct. It eschews the pretensions of contemporary Hollywood films in favour of pure entertainment of the kind not seen much any more.

While the voice-acting (at least for the English dub) is a bit over the top, it is more than balanced by the music and original songs (written by Julian Lennon). The DVD is also a bit bare but given that the film never received the theatrical release it deserved in the States, it’s understandable that the home video release can’t be too lavish.

Delighting in its beauty, A Monster in Paris is highly recommended.

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Paranorman Review: A Good But Not Great Film

Last night we went to see Paranorman. Admittedly I hadn’t read or seen all that much about it before heading in (which is unusual but it happens) so while I was prepared for a Coraline-like experience I was pleasantly surprised, although not along the lines I thought I would be.

The Plot

Paranorman is at the end of the day, a simple film. There isn’t anything super complex or layered that will confuse the kids. It’s reminiscent of the old-school storytelling that existed before Pixar. That is to say, there are little detours from the goal that is made explicit early on. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that per se, but it does mean the audience doesn’t have to think for themselves; a feat that helps connect them to the film.

The jokes come fairly thick and fast throughout the film with a strong emphasis on the physical side. Plenty of laughs were had from both the young and old in our screening at various points although it was disappointing that the writers decided to go more for the low-brow end. It’s a tad disappointing because what bones they did throw to the adults were not near as subtle and therefore as clever as something Pixar or even DreamWorks is capable of putting out. (Let’s just say the “Witchy Wiener” sign has a missing ‘W’ and that it’s downhill from there.) That’s all well and good but I couldn’t shake the feeling that someone felt it was necessary to make up for something else.

The film is also fairly heavy on the rhetoric both political and cultural which was something I was not expecting. Points about ‘fitting in’, ‘being accepted’ and ‘facing your fears’ were all rather blatant and in-your-face. Again, this ran the risk of detracting from the story and probably would if you were more inclined towards that kind of thing. It all got plenty of laughs of course, but it added little to the film or the characters and in hindsight feels a bit unnecessary.

The Animation

What can I say, the animation is stunning. Laika have taken stop-motion to new heights with Paranorman, The sets are wonderful; large, lush and vibrant with a quirky, goolish theme. The Massachusetts setting could not have been replicated better. A nod should also go some of the posters in Norman’s room the hilarious retro horror flick titles and opening scene.

Characters move with sublime smoothness. It’s a wonder that stop-motion can create such movements that are on par with CGI if not better. No doubt it is helped by the 3-D printers and a bit of CGI FX along the way, but at its core, it’s a testament to the skills of the animators. While the film did have some CGI, it was only complimentary and for stuff that would be very difficult to do in stop-motion anyway. Is it getting too close to CGI? I don’t think so but Paranorman doesn’t make the lines any clearer at the same time.

The Characters

Overall, I was disappointed by the characters. They were all a bit flat save for Norman. Some stereotypes were naturally employed, but at the same time, it would have been nice to see a bit more depth to the likes of Mitch or Courtney instead of having them fill stock roles (or in the case of the latter) embody tropes like this, this and this.

Norman is great character with a lot of weirdness to him that makes him a great character to watch but leaves him as the odd one out amongst his friends and neighbours in more ways than one. It isolates him and it feels that those around him are brought into his fold by force.

If anything Paranorman’s characters are devoid of the backstories that they really need. We get a hint of one with Uncle Prendergast but everyone else is just, there, existing without much rhyme or reason given. If there is a major failing in Paranorman this is it. The emotive reasons to like the characters beyond Norman barely exist (and in the case of the townspeople, downright don’t exist). As a result, the characters are a bit flimsy and are unlikely to provide inspiration beyond the film.

Conclusion

Overall, Paranorman is a very enjoyable film that will keep you entertained for the hour and half but will not leave any lasting impression outside of the animation, which is gobsmackingly stunning.

Brave Review: Merida is Not The Feminist Heroine Many Were Expecting

Via: Nerdy Feminist

“You’d better say it was excellent.”

Such was the direction I received from the fiancée for this review. However it is something I simply cannot do for the entire film. For parts? Sure, we’ll get to those in a minute, but as a whole film, Brave is very good, but it isn’t excellent; there are simply too many areas where it comes up short.

First, the good stuff. Yes, the scenery really is as good as it looks. Pixar has done a superb job in replicating rural Scotland, complete with the wild open spaces and the intimacy of the woods, that provides ample eye candy throughout the entire film. Perhaps it is because of my bias (I’m from the part of Ireland that is just as, if not more, wild and rugged) I was entranced by the scenery for the entire film. Well done to Pixar for doing their homework!

Now onto the not so good stuff.

The Plot

The plot, while fine as a concept, stutters in execution. Pitting daughter against mother isn’t entirely original, but at least the ancient Scottish setting was a new twist. Sadly that doesn’t come to pass. Brave can’t decide if it’s a serious drama or a comedy. In the end it tries to be both and thus becomes a film of two halves. I’ll let you guess which half sustained my real interest and which was accepting of my superficial attention.

Unlike How To Train Your Dragon, Brave makes the mistake of proclaiming to be a dramatic film but whereas the latter makes no bones about its comedic side, Brave feels like its being funny in order to hide something and one can’t help but suspect that its to do with the removal of Brenda Chapman halfway through production that caused the, quite frankly, lazy use of comedy to patch up the hole left behind.

The Animation

While the background and scenery animation is superb, the same can’t be said for the character animation. Yes, Merida’s hair is stunning, but that is merely a distraction. Every other character seems to pop around as if on a very heavy dose of caffeine and once the action kicks in, I simply could not have been reminded of Shrek at a worse time.

Characters were simply far too jumpy, case in point is the royal family’s housekeeper (the one that, uh, hides the key in that place). As she runs through the castle and finally gets to the kitchen, there is no grace in her stumbles. They speak nothing of her character, she could have been anyone and the effect would have been the same. What differentiates Pixar from DreamWorks at this point? Nothing to be honest, DW at its best could easily pull off character animation as, if not more, graceful than Pixar has in Brave.

The Characters

This is the acid test for Brave. It was intended to be a ‘different’ Pixar film, one with a female lead, a princess, and a setting in Scotland; all traits that Disney itself would have used in the past. The film was marketed as such with a heavy emphasis on how Merida was something different from what we had seen before; a teenager, a rebel and so on.

Sadly, all the characters are stock for a Hollywood film.

There’s the idiotic father, the prim and proper mother, the rebel teenager and the three triplet boys who are simply incapable of doing anything good. While the father and the boys are merely filling comedic space, the mother and daughter who are the focus of the film, should have been much more complex.

For all the hubbub about Merida being Pixar’s first feminist, there is little evidence that she is anything more than a spoiled child who is in need of a life lesson or two. If anything, it’s Merida’s mother who is the strong female in the film, being more than capable of stopping the men right in their tracks, especially her husband!

Merida attempts to make a case for finding her own way, but with such an emphasis on ‘fate’ and placing your future in someone else’s hands, namely a [redacted spoiler],she spends more time being led down the garden path and having her decisions made for her than discovering them herself. She’s not the strong female protagonist that many (including myself) were expecting.

Even the other princesses in the Disney films seem to come off as stronger characters. Jasmine was coy enough to play along with Jafar to help Aladdin. Ariel knew what she wanted but really had to work in order to win over the prince. Belle had to work at the Beast fairly hard and overcome many obstacles to save the day. Merida on the other hand, simply has to reverse what harm she did and follow the steps laid out for her, and that isn’t a particularly difficult task.

Once the big change comes about, the Queen instantly becames a different character, an unlikeable character, a comedic character. She isn’t the same and the change dramatically shifts the tone of the film, for the worse. Yeah, there are a few genuinely loving moments, but I just couldn’t shake the fact that the queenias an innately funny character. A shame really because her serious side could have easily been kept while keeping the humurous side to her transformation to a minimum.

Conclusion

Pixar has been one of the most successful animation studios over the last 25 years. They’ve been knocking out hit after hit after hit on a more consistent basis than anyone else before them. Many have proclaimed that each new film has the potential to be the first Pixar ‘flop’. Cars and Cars 2 were certainly not the critic’s favourites; in a sense they are ‘critical’ flops.

The reality though, is that we are seeing Pixar slowly slide into mediocrity. They set the gold standard for films and unfortunately for them, everyone else is catching up. Toy Story 3, Cars 2 and now Monster’s University represent Pixar slowly cashing in its goodwill chips at least DreamWorks make no bones about using sequels to make money. Expect to see Pixar films doing well, but to become increasingly ordinary; the spread of the Disney corporate machinery is inevitable after all.

Brave is Pixar trying too hard. It’s fine to portray the film as an epic with a strong female lead but when you’ve built your brand on delivering on your promises, it’s devastating when you come up short. Brave was the first Pixar film where I lost interest during the screening. I was expecting so much more from a studio that has proven the ability to deliver, and it almost hurts when to see a film with such a great premise come out half-baked.

A Review of Zombie Simpsons by The Dead Homer Society

Image (naturally) yoinked from The Dead Homer Society

A couple of years ago (and the exact circumstances escape me), I stumbled across the Dead Homer Society and have bee a loyal reader ever since. It’s not uncommon for websites and blogs to sprout up to save a beloved series, but it’s quite rare to see one dedicated to completely and totally ending a current, beloved, popular and iconic TV show. That however, is the stated purpose of the DHS, whose manifesto proclaims:

Dead Homer Society was formed for two reasons:

1) To create an on-line home for Simpsons fans who outright despise most, if not all, of the double-digit seasons but revere the old ones the way religious types do their stupid books.

2) To create a central place for people who want to see the show finally taken off the air.

So no beating about the bush there. Although the site continues to dissect episodes both old and new, it has also been a great source of analysis as to how and why the show went downhill. Cue the latest piece of literature from the DHS: Zombie Simpsons: How the Best Show Ever Became the Broadcasting Undead.

Although it’s not of biblical length, Charlie Sweatpants has managed to squeeze in a ton of information and analysis into this pseudo post series/ebook. Personally, I always laid the blame for the show’s decline on their move into more outlandish and cartoonish plots without regard for the characters. After reading Zombie Simpsons though, I can safely say that there was much, much more to the decline than that.

Broken down into chapters for your convenience, Zombie Simpsons begins with a look at why it’s a topic that needs to be discussed and why the fall from grace is so gut-wrenching to behold. From the deathly bland nature of the three major networks in the 1980s that gave the upstart FOX network an excuse to be different to the frustration of the viewing audience, we see that The Simpsons was not so much a product of insane brilliance as it was in the right place at the right time.

Moving on, we delve into the inner forces at work behind the TV screen. Deaths, writer changes and ultimately the shift within the FOX network itself from scrappy young fighter to established player have all played a part in how The Simpsons have changed over the years. Zombie Simpsons does a fine job of spelling out how the slide was gradual and ultimately, inevitable.

On top of that, there’s a comprehensive appendix that deals with such trivial things like production and broadcast numbers and some not-so-trivial things such as the often misplaced blame on Mike Scully.

A fine text in itself, it is well worth taking the time to read and ruminate on. It is highly likely that we will never see something the likes of the Simpsons again so as horrible as it is to read about the fall of an icon, it is essential if we are to appreciate the golden years even more.

In Praise of the BFI Spirited Away book

Via: Good Reads

Admittedly (and ashamedly), the Spirited Away book by Andrew Osmond published by the British Film Institute (BFI) sat in my cart on Amazon for quite literally years before I finally got around to buying it. I know, I know, but that’s just the way it happened.

In any case, the wait was absolutely worth it. Far smaller in size than I had originally imagined, its dimensions are no indication of the stature of the writing. Presented as sort of an overarching summary of the plot intertwined with details of the production and overarching themes, the BFI Spirited Away book serves as a comprehensive guide to one of my very favourite films.

Delving deep into the beginnings of the production, Osmond teases out the reasons for its very existence; why Hayao Miyazaki decided to make it when he did, and why it stands as one of his best films to date. Analysis comes in the form of the various themes (environmental and social) running throughout the film as well as focusing on the character of Chihiro and her development during the course of the film.

Osmond has done a fine job of conveying the sometimes complex traits of the film that have confused many Western (and Japanese) audiences since the film debuted in 2001. He also does quite a good job when it comes to the background to the film, and to Miyazaki himself, going into some detail about his career to date and how is personal experiences helped shape the film.

Overall, the book is a definite must-read companion to the film. It does an excellent job of stripping away some of the layers and, at least for myself, has lead to a clearer understanding of the film. You can buy it on Amazon and consider it the best $15 book you buy this year.

Guest Post: A Review of A Monster in Paris

I’m very excited to present this special review by talented Irish animator Nichola Kehoe of A Monster in Paris, which she recently saw in Ireland.

It’s 1910 and unlikely duo Emile and Raoul accidentally cause the creation of a giant flea monster in a lab outside Paris. The monster escapes the lab and it is up to our two heroes to find the monster and stop it from terrorising the city. Meanwhile, the beautiful singer Lucille befriends this misunderstood creature, who she names Franceour.

Franceour is passionate about music and a gifted guitarist who soon, performing in a disguise, impresses the patrons of Lucille’s club with his talent. Lucille tries to convince Emile and Raoul of Franceour’s gentle nature so they can all work together to protect him from the cruel politician, Victor, who wants to use Franceour’s capture as a publicity stunt to make himself look like a hero for saving the city.

For a children’s film the story, A Monster in Paris is quite complex. It starts off with Emile as the main hero but that quickly changes to Raoul, then Franceour, then back again. The story starts off charming and funny, with great little one-liners, but loses some of its charm in the confusion of characters. The end of the film is a little bit of a mess from a story point of view.

That said, it is a visually stunning film. The character design, the backgrounds, the lighting and the animation are all a pleasure to behold. The design of the city of Paris is unique and interesting, with lots of colour on ground level and very little colour in the higher parts. There is so much variety in the colour palettes and lighting that the film is never ever boring to look at. The music is fun and entertaining.

While there may have been too many main characters, each character did have their own clear personality which was really enjoyable. Emile is shy but brave, whereas Raoul is seemingly over-confident and vain. Even little things like Lucille constantly changing her outfit, add to the visual charm of the film. The character animation is stunning, and really on a level with any major studio. There is a great mix of fun animation and sombre moments. When the script started to falter, it was the animation that kept the movie captivating.

Overall A Monster In Paris is charming, fun and entertaining. It is definitely worth a trip to the big screen.

 

 

Guest Post: Kung Fu Panda 2

Today’s post is a guest review of Kung Fu Panda 2 by Emmett Goodman. Emmett is a graduate from the Pratt Institute in New York and is a notable member of ASIFA-East. His personal review blog is here and his sketch tumblelog is here.

Via: All Movie Photo

A terrific movie, and a job well done. Kung Fu Panda 2 is both entertaining and artistically sophisticated. It has some of the same flaws as the first film, but what it excels in mostly make up for those flaws.

Dreamworks Animation is (at least in my eyes) improving more and more as their movies progress. KFP 1 had some of the usual Dreamworks traits I dislike (such as over-abundance of celebrity voices, emphasis on the actors, sub-par dialog), but it abandoned pop-culture references in favor of a solid story, and took the time to give the movie a unique and distinct look. I could never truly appreciate movies like Shrek, Shrek 2, Shark Tale, or Madagascar, because their stories were too transparent and there was too much emphasis on who was voicing the characters than the characters existing on their own. Also, you could tell the stories were no good as they were overflowing with pop-culture references (which only contributes more to the transparency). Starting with Over the Hedge, the studio started stripping some of these flaws, but they were stripped even more with KFP 1. It seems to have improved with further movies, and KFP 2 cements that fact even more for me.

I can’t praise the artistry of this movie enough. The opening of the movie (along with a personalized version of the Dreamworks Animation logo) is animated in a style suggesting metal puppets. I can’t speak for how clear the influence of authentic Chinese art is, but there is definitely something different in the look of the film than the previous. Something very tactile in the design. Poe’s memories are animated in 2D, and are so beautifully realized, that I wish there was a whole movie in that style.

The story this time is just as solid as the first film, but with more operatic tones. After the end of the first movie, Poe (Jack Black, panda) is now a respected member of Master Ishu’s (Dustin Hoffman, red panda) Kung Fu clan, and is tasked with protecting their village. However, a powerful dynasty has come under attack by its exiled prince Shen (Gary Oldman, peacock), who seeks to not only take over China, but his primary weapons threaten to destroy Kung-Fu tradition. Now the way I say it here, it probably sounds cliché, but in the movie the story is taken very seriously. Poe recognizes a symbol on Shen’s minions (wolves), which unleashes a forgotten nightmare. The story takes an emotional turn for the main characters (which for an animated film/show, is music to my ears). Poe and the Furious Five are dispatched to confront Shen and stop his bloody revolution. In the course of the story, we really get to see the inner workings of Poe’s relationship with his friends/comrades, his adoptive father, and how what made him an outcast in the first film now makes him a unique warrior.

My few criticisms? Poe’s flashback of self-realization, with all the clips from the previous films seemed a little out of place, but it was at least long enough to get the point across. I think they should have used fewer previous scenes, and maybe drawn some out a little longer instead. Also, I was a little uncertain about the acting in the scene where Poe confronts Shen about his own demons. Too preachy.

I must also speak about the directing of the movie. Jennifer Yuh Nelson is not the first woman to be involved in directing an animated feature from a major studio, but she is the first Asian-born female director to receive sole-credit in directing one. And I have to say she does a fantastic job. It is true that there are few female directors or creators in the animation industry, which is very sad to me, because I know several super-talented female artists, and many who are successful in independent animation. Hopefully, many more will be able to follow Jennifer Yuh Nelson. And some day, the lines will be blurred even more.

I am also thankful that no references to Grandmaster Flash have been made in these movies, due to the name “Furious Five.” As much as I like references to contemporary music, they wouldn’t fit into these movies.

Movies like this give me something to appreciate about commercial animated features. With all the criticisms I’m surrounded by these days, its nice to see something that impresses me.

Cy Schneider on Children’s Television: How 20 Years Really Is A Long Time

The book is dedicated to Walt Disney, the greatest Pied Piper of the all.

A couple of weeks ago, I picked up Cy Schneider’s book, ‘Children’s Television’ at a used book sale. I didn’t know much about it and I certainly hadn’t heard of the author, but it seemed to have some stuff about animation in it so, for the money, I figured, what the hell.

Long story short, it was a fascinating book to read. Not so much for what it says but for how dated it now appears. Published in 1989, this book was released right on the cusp of the last animation revolution, and it shows.

That same year, The Simpsons debuted on FOX, which irrevocably altered the perception of animation among adults; no longer was it the sole preserve of children. Not long after the three original Nicktoons burst onto the scene and the bar for animation was raised yet again. Nineteen eighty-nine also saw the release of The Little Mermaid, which heralded a new age for animation at the cinema as well.

In most aspects, this book was outdated even before it was published. It was written for the status quo and just could not foresee the dramatic changes that were literally months away. With that in mind, it does provided a great look at what the industry was like and is useful as a yardstick for how far it has come.

First of all, who is Cy Schneider? He was an advertising man who was instrumental in creating the first set of commercials that appealed directly to children, he successfully launched and developed the marketing  for Barbie and he also was on board when Nickelodeon was launched. What is notable about his career is that he was consistently involved in the area of children’s programming, which is why he wrote the book.

Children’s Television is intended as a guide to the industry for the uninitiated but seems to offer tips that are aimed at would be professionals. There are chapters on the history of children’s television, how television affects children, how to communicate with children and the licensed character. The last chapter is titled “The Boom Years” but it talks mostly about Schneider’s predictions on the future of the business, most of which are more related to the industry itself and the technological developments rather than the content.

In the first chapter, Schneider asserts that children’s television is first and foremost a business. This is sobering because we all like to think of it as a good-natured, well-intentioned industry that provides entertainment for kids but in reality, it is a business. It is a theme that is often repeated throughout the book and is hammered home that businesses will seek out the most economically efficient answer, not necessarily the right one, even when kids are involved.

Perhaps no difference is more striking or noticeable than the shift from shows based on existing toys to original characters. In addition to the seismic shift to children’s cable channels, the relative lack of licensed cartoons today is indicative of the change in attitudes among executives. The book contains plenty of references to the likes of He-Man and G. I. Joe who are held up as models of the new era and how they can represent the same aspects of quality that original characters can. Hindsight shows that that is not the case and that networks have come to value the fact that original characters can put much more money in their pockets than licensed characters can.

Playing into this is the parallel change in the characters of children’s TV shows. While Schneider talks at length about the ‘noble savage‘ who has populated children’s (in particularly boys) stories for over a century. He does offer some tips when it comes to characters that are generic at best. I would like to focus on his tips for girl’s heroines, which he offers in the following five characteristics:

  1. The are young, either children or girls, seldom women.
  2. The are innocent. Feminine but never sexual.
  3. They are usually pretty, clever and gifted.
  4. They have high morals and exemplary behaviour.
  5. They are admired by adults as well as children.

These attributes can pretty much describe any female lead in any cartoon prior to the 1990s but they are rather vague.

The book devotes an entire chapter to the various “do-gooders, politicos, pedagogues and assorted other axe grinders” who inhabit the cultural landscape. The chapter is little more than a rant against these various groups and only attempts to see their point of view in a very token sense. Seeing as it is written by a guy whose career depended on such programming it is understandable why such ‘interference’ in his business would cause his blood to boil. Why it is included, I do not know, but it makes for interesting reading and does emphasize the point that you can’t please everyone.

Overall the book is worth sussing out, if only to gain a perspective on how much children’s television has changed and improved over the last 20 years. It has also made me eternally grateful for the vast and varied choice of animated programming that we have today, and how healthy competition in the business has promoted the steady upward increase in the quality of the programming.