Top Cat and Timeless-ness

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.

Top Cat is one of my favorite cartoons. But the recent news of a Spanish Top Cat feature (entitled Don Gato) has gotten me to thinking about how dated the stories of Top Cat are, and it looks like Don Gato is based on a pre-existing episode from the original series, which is just as dated. The original series is clearly set within its then present day of 1961-62. The characters are written with mannerisms that suggest a tame anti-authortarian attitude that looks more than harmless today. The show was also considerably more sophisticated in writing than Hanna Barbera’s other shows, particularly in the humorous conversations between Top Cat (“T.C.”) and local cop, Officer Dibble. The characters all idealize a perfect way of life, something left over from the innocence of 1950’s Americana, and still hanging on in 1960’s America.

I still like the artistry of the original series. The character designs of “TC” and his gang are still very cute and appealing (even though a couple of them look similar to one another), as are their individual personalities. And this was still in the days when HB’s cartoon backgrounds were rich in design and texture. The new Don Gato feature has a different look to original designs that makes them cartoon-ier, but still recognizable. However, the backgrounds are now rendered in 3D, which I have mixed emotions about. And while I can understand some being nostalgic for the good-natured feel of the old show, replicating that setting and mood doesn’t necessarily guarantee long-term success. Audiences today are more likely to mock and turn away from something that’s clearly dated and old-fashioned looking. Don Gato has a slight chance, however, as it is not as dated as some of HB’s other properties.

Timelessness has been proven to be a key to animation longevity. If nothing is set in the stone of its own era, it can viewed by any generation without fear of it being too dated. Most of the original Looney Tunes cartoons are perfect examples of being timeless, as they are a collection of characters for any situation handed to them. The personalities are not dated in any way. In fact, character personalities are not dated for the most part. And since the settings varied from middles ages to dali-esque fantasies to an exaggerated present day, they could be viewed by any generation, with the focus exclusively on the characters’ personalities.

With most modern cartoons, its a mixed bag. Some could have come from anywhere (I suggest re-reading out how Charles describes Adventure Time‘s success, as well as shows like Spongebob Squarepants, Futurama and Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends) while others are clearly products of the present time (I cite the Ben 10 series and most of the Disney channel series, among other things). The recent Looney Tunes resurrection on Cartoon Network is a mixed bag, as the characters who were once placed in various settings are now placed in one sitcom setting. In a way, this makes them look like caricatures of themselves, and in turn, they look dated. And seeing Yosemite Sam singing over-produced rap-rock just doesn’t work.

If the Don Gato film was written with a new story, and explicitly stated to be taking place in the 1960s, I think it would move a lot smoother. But that’s just my opinion. I’m thinking of the last time Top Cat took feature length in 1988, which tried to put the characters in a 1980s setting complete with them singing badly-written hip-hop to meet the (then) young audience’s approval. Go check it out, and ask yourself why you never heard of it until now. Its called Top Cat and the Beverly Hills Cats.

As an adult now, timeless cartoons are easier for me to watch and still enjoy. Just watching something to mock its dated aesthetic doesn’t last very long for me. Although I understand show writers and artists needing to keep the present audience interested, they should really examine characters from the last 50 or so years, and narrow down why they are still remembered and beloved to this day, generations later.

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.