Sunday, 30 April 2017

The Rugrats' Guide To Terror - "Real or Robots?"

Continuing our plunge through the darker recesses of the infant imagination, let's take a look at "Real or Robots?", in which Tommy struggles to distinguish B-movie science fiction from reality and Stu has a particularly agonizing sleepless night as a result.  After catching the opening of a hilariously schlocky (but still hideously disturbing) horror flick on TV, Tommy gets it into his head that the adults around him might be robots in disguise, and grows particularly suspicious that his own father is not quite what he seems.  While Chuckie is over for a sleepover, Tommy enlists him as his reluctant back-up in determining whether Stu is a man of flesh and blood or a malevolent metallic imposter.  What's particularly fucked up about this entire scenario are Tommy's methods for testing his father's humanity, which include attempting to smother him in his sleep and rip open his body with a pipe wrench to see if he has gears or guts.  No actual harm is done, of course, but I'm amazed that Stu doesn't seriously contemplate if he's raising the Anti-Christ here.  On a more relatable level, "Real or Robots?" is a wonderful examination of just how terrifying the ostensible safety of one's own home can appear in the dark of night, and how the most contrived of paranoid fantasies can run away with us when we're in a suggestible enough frame of mind.  I think that everyone can identify with Tommy's concerns here to some degree, even if we've never attempted to carry out gruesome surgical work on our parents while they sleep.

"Real or Robots?" first aired in the US on 1st December 1991 and makes up the first half of the eighth episode of Season 1.  A good indicator that this was an early episode in the series' run (other than the rougher animation and Tommy having a red shirt instead of his standard blue) is that the issue of the whereabouts of Chuckie's mother is still up in the air at this point.  I'll go into this in more detail when I review the episode "Mother's Day" as part of my "Children's Lessons in Mortality" series, but the short of it is that the show's creators did not initially intend for Chuckie's mother to be deceased (rather, they put off introducing her for so long that they grew accustomed to the idea of Chaz as a single parent), and the early writers were clearly working on the assumption that she was still in the land of living.  Stu tells Chuckie that his mom and dad will be around to collect him in the morning, and Tommy later suggests to Chuckie that "our moms and dads have been taken capture to the planet Mars or something."  People get confused by this inconsistency, but that's where the process of retconning comes in.

The movie that Tommy and Chuckie are watching at the start of the episode is...really something.  It starts out with a maniacal yet curiously weedy-looking blonde scientist who mutters something about taking over the world via an elaborate scheme that involves replacing its entire population with robots.  Uh-huh, good luck with that, mate.  We see him activate one robot (who bears a vague resemblance to Stu), only for the son of the robot's original human counterpart to suddenly walk in on the lab and exclaim "Oh no!  Dad, you're a robot!" with hilariously stilted horror.  Honestly, if this is spoofing a specific movie then I would absolutely love to see it.  Stu then shows up and turns the TV off, having twigged that Tommy and Chuckie probably shouldn't be watching this; the seed of wild and irrational fear has already been firmly planted within Tommy, however.  Before he's put to bed, he manages to sneak in one additional morbidly curious peak at the robot movie, only to be greeted with the horrific sight of the robotic dad carrying off the screaming young boy.  If the sheer hamminess of the horror pastiche had left you with a smile on your face then alas, you were merely being lured into a sense of false security.  The image in question is not a pleasant one, and the kid's screaming is positively blood-curdling.  Suddenly, I find myself really very anxious what the weedy blonde lab coat did to the boy's original father, and what he now has in store for the boy himself.

Naturally, Tommy isn't feeling very settled as Stu tucks the two babies in, and once they're alone in the room he goes off on some paranoid spiel about how anybody could be a robot and you wouldn't know it.  Chuckie, ever the sensible rugrat, advises Tommy not to think about such things or he'll get bad dreams, but Tommy has decided that they're already living in enough of a nightmare.  Tommy suspects his father because his behaviour didn't seem quite right earlier when he came in and switched the TV off - in actuality, Tommy has mistaken Stu's lethargy for robotism.  As Tommy resolves not to sleep until he's uncovered the truth, we cut to the adults' bedroom, where Didi, appropriately, is reading a book entitled What Kids Fear while Stu mutters semi-coherently to himself.  Didi expresses concern that Stu has been working too hard and reminds him of an incident last summer where he overworked himself into a sleepwalking stupor and was found attempting to cook a thirteen-egg omelette on the kitchen floor.  Stu insists that he'll be fine so long as he gets a good night's sleep, unaware that he's in for a ghastly night of being poked and prodded in uncomfortable places by his infant son.

Tommy and Chuckie escape their crib, thanks to the former's indispensable skills in screwdriver concealment, and make their way along the darkened corridor toward the adults' bedroom where they find Stu snoring.  The corridor material, which includes Chuckie leaping in fright at the sight of a swinging clock pendulum, is a little superfluous, but I do love what a clear sense you get in this scene of Chuckie's unease at being out in the open in dark and unfamiliar territory.  Tommy reasons that robots don't need to breathe so he can test Stu's humanity by sticking his fingers up his nostrils and cutting off his air supply.  Stu reacts as you would expect any healthy human to do, by waking up in fright and banishing the little nuisances back to their crib, which he assumes to be broken and attempts to secure with a piece of string.  Chuckie is satisfied that Stu's response has proved he is not a robot, but Tommy has merely descended into deeper paranoia, having mistaken Stu's snoring for the sound of grinding gears from deep within his body.  He tugs on the string and opens he crib easily enough, then fumbles his way to a conveniently-located toolbox right underneath (why would you keep your toolbox under the baby's crib?  Are Stu and Didi asking for trouble?).  Tommy pulls out a pipe wrench and leads Chuckie back down the corridor to the sleeping adults, while Chuckie, sensing that this can only end very messily, begs him to turn back.  Instead, he gets saddled with flashlight holding duties as Tommy plants himself upon Stu's chest and starts to unbutton his shirt.  There's a hilarious moment where Tommy mistakes Stu's nipples for the bolts that will open his chest, but it takes a sharply wince-inducing turn when he attempts to work the wrench on them and has Stu waking up in even greater shock than before.

The babies find themselves back in the crib yet again, which Stu has now attempted to hold together with duct tape.  Despite Chuckie's insistence to the contrary, Tommy is more convinced than ever that his dad is a robot, or else why would be so determined to keep them prisoner in the crib?  During this scene, it's revealed that the toolbox carries the brand name of "Tiny Tools", which I'd take as indication that the items therein are merely baby toys and thus not quite so sinister a thing to find hidden under an infant's crib after all.  I wonder why they didn't make clearer before, then?  I suppose it was a bit of a stretch that a one-year-old baby would be able to lift an actual pipe wrench, but then so is the entire notion that a one-year-old baby could be so preoccupied with his dad being replaced by a robot in the first place.

Tommy and Chuckie spring the crib by fashioning an escape rope out of blankets, and then carry the entire Tiny Tools box into the adults' bedroom with the intention of doing some serious dissembling work on Stu.  Chuckie still isn't convinced and attempts to appeal to Tommy's common sense by insisting that there's no such thing robots (well, obviously that's not quite accurate, but certainly the context in which Tommy assumes they exist is bogus).  Unfortunately, this coincides with Stu, now severely sleep-deprived, going into one of those sleepwalking stupors Didi had warned him of earlier, and a terrified Tommy and Chuckie find themselves fleeing to the kitchen with the muttering Stu apparently in hot pursuit.  Obviously, the viewer knows full well what's really going on, so the sleepwalking Stu isn't played up as at all sinister - indeed, his immediate impulse upon reaching the kitchen is to begin making one of his famous "Stu Pickles omelettes", his slurred ramblings suggesting that he's under the delusion that he's presenting a cable cooking show.  Chuckie is confused by this behaviour, and the best sense Tommy can make of it is as a secret code being sent by robot-Stu to the denizens of Mars.  At this point, Stu notices the babies but apparently incorporates them into his dream as his brother Drew and assumes that he's trying to steal his cooking show.  As the babies flee back into the living room, Tommy grabs the TV remote in the hopes that he can use it to fend off Stu, and we get another glimpse of the robot movie, the kid apparently having escaped the robot's grasp and now practising self-defence with a mop.  Tommy doesn't have quite so much luck with the remote, although he does change the channel to a newscast which, although I do have to squint at it, I think involves a man climbing a ladder to reach a goat.

Finally, Tommy and Chuckie escape from Stu and make it safely to their bedroom, while Stu is momentarily distracted with fondling a lampshade; at this point Didi becomes aware that Stu is missing and heads to the living room to find him slumped upside-down in the recliner.  Stu makes a  confusing remark about an assistant called Ramona before Didi leads him back to bed, making a brief stopover to the babies' room along the way.  Tommy and Chuckie are both terrified as they think there's no escape, but Stu proceeds to tuck them in tenderly while remarking to Didi of a strange dream he had where Tommy kept trying to open him up and examine his innards as if he thought he was a robot or something.  Didi immediately dismisses the idea, pointing out that Tommy loves his dad and wouldn't think anything of the sort.  Tommy is apparently reassured enough by their display of affection to drop the suspicion that his dad is a robot, admitting to Chuckie that he was right all along.  Unfortunately, paranoia can be a deeply infectious thing and it suddenly dawns on Chuckie that his own dad's humanity remains untested.  Cue a dramatic flash of lightning and the episode ends.  It's really too bad that we never find out how that robot B-movie concluded.

And no Chuckie, I think we can be fairly confident that your dad's not a robot.  Thanks to the joys of retconning, however, we do have grounds to be suspicious about your mother.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Logo Case Study: Disney Videos (UK)

Was there ever a more telling signal that my childhood was nearing its end than when they changed the Disney Home Video Logo from the spooky but awe-inspiring sorcerer Mickey to this...flavourless mishmash of ungainly colours?  I can't recall exactly which Disney VHS I was watching when this showed up in place of Sorcerer Mickey, but I do recall it making the experience feel immediately "off" to me.  I was highly critical of Neon Mickey in my coverage of his logo, but at least he had something resembling a personality, even if it was a decidedly unpleasant one.  This combines a tasteless (and oh-so-very 90s) colour scheme with a ruthlessly anodyne ethos, and the resulting logo does absolutely nothing for me.

According to the description in the above YouTube video, the first Disney VHS to feature this logo was The Return of Jafar, which seems oddly poetic, given what a nightmarishly slippery slope that release proved to be for Disney's reputation, although it would take a number of years for the effects to truly kick in.  Back then, we were definitely on the cusp of great change.  The last Disney VHS release I ever purchased was Toy Story in 1996, which also seems oddly poetic in that regard. The innovative visual style of Pixar's debut feature had generated much excitement, although at the time nobody quite appreciated just how swiftly and dramatically it was to reshape the landscape of Hollywood animation, to the extent that, in less than a decade, traditional 2D animation would be all but extinct.  Primarily, I stopped buying because it was around that time that my family finally forked out for a satellite subscription, meaning that we didn't have to wait an age for new films to show up on television - but it's also accurate to say that it was around the same time that Disney stopped making films that had me itching to rush out and consume them on the day of release.  For a long time, I feared that this was all a sign of me getting old and cynical, but it turned out that my waning enthusiasm merely chimed with popular opinion.  Disney were entering that phase in the late 90s where the experience of heading to theatres to watch their latest feature was beginning to feel less like entering a magical kingdom filled with joy and surprises and more like nipping out to McDonalds for a quick lunch of french fries and cola - good for a temporary fix but totally lacking in any kind of meaningful nourishment and, above all, individuality.  Not for nothing do I refer to that particular stage in Disney's life as the "Happy Meal Era".

One of my main qualms with this particular logo is that it feels a heck of a lot more kiddish than Sorcerer Mickey, what with its cheesy colours and innocuous animation, but then I can't say for certain that this truly wasn't just a sign of me getting old and cynical.  I'm sure that there are numerous folks out there who get the same bittersweet pangs of "Childhood!" and "Nostalgia!" from this logo as I do from Sorcerer Mickey.  Heck, I'm sure that some Neon Mickey fan was howling with anguish the day their beloved childhood logo was replaced and has harboured a grudge against Sorcerer Mickey ever since.  That's just the circle of life, is it not?

Also, there is a little twist in this particular tale - according to the Closing Logos Group Wiki, this logo wasn't used on Disney VHS releases in the US until 2000 (although I've no means of confirming this), and it was just us international consumers who were treated to its appalling blandness throughout the late 90s.  It also transpires that the version we were accustomed to in the UK was not the standard one - in most other territories, this logo had a somewhat different colour scheme and a flashy little cube effect.  Did that make it any spiffier than the UK variant, or all the more monstrously tacky?  I'll let you be the judge of that.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Logo Case Study: Walt Disney Home Video (Sorcerer's Apprentice)

By 1986, Disney's initial efforts at cobbling together a dramatic and futuristic logo to appease the sensibilities of the home video age were already starting to look quite shopworn, so they retired it in favour of something altogether sleeker.  Hence, we had the Walt Disney Home Video logo featuring Mickey in his sorcerer's apprentice garb (as seen in the movie Fantasia) and the streak of hot white energy which goes into a swirling frenzy and writes "Walt Disney Home Video" in splashy magenta lettering.

Unlike Neon Mickey, of which I was thankfully spared in my own childhood, this logo I do have a shed-load of nostalgia for, so much so that I always get a case of the...well, not quite warm fuzzies whenever I revisit it.  It's not exactly a "warm" logo and I'm well aware that there logophobes out there who view it being cut from the same demonically inspired cloth as the Neon Mickey logo, and even some who'd argue that it ranks right up there with the Unholy Trinity (S From Hell, V of Doom, Closet Killer) as one of the most horrifying things you could possibly show an impressionable young child.  Personally though, I don't remember ever feeling terror when watching this one so much as sheer awe.  It had a dark and mysterious quality which I always found charming, as if I was genuinely being whisked out of my seat and transported into an exciting and otherworldly new realm.   Which is exactly how I want to feel when I'm about to watch The Rescuers or Sebastian's Caribbean Jamboree (note: we really need to talk about that one some time soon).  In my eyes, they succeeded.

That being said, there are a number of basic ingredients here which I suspect could have just have easily tipped those feelings of awe in the other direction.  Sorcerer Mickey is unquestionably a lot easier on the eyes than Neon Mickey but, as we learned from the DiC logo, there is something faintly eerie about complete and utter motionless (the flashing stars and crescent moon on his hat appear to have been substituted for actual movement, in order to give off some vague inkling of life) and having him shrouded in darkness while the logo starts up doesn't exactly help.  The synthesizer music, while nowhere near as cheap and bombastic as the fanfare from the Neon Mickey logo, still has a distinctly ominous tone, particularly at the logo's opening.  Perhaps it will have additional ill-boding significance for anybody who's actually familiar with Fantasia, where Mickey caused nothing but disaster after donning that sorcerer's hat.  Most striking of all, however, is the overwhelming blackness of the backdrop.  It doesn't feel like a natural darkness - eg: Mickey practicing his magic against a night sky - but rather that Mickey is sitting in some terrible void of nothingness, and that as the viewer moves past him and follows the swirling white streak, that vast, overwhelming nothingness is exactly what they're being sucked into themselves.  So yes, I do understand why this logo brought out such an averse reaction in some.

Truth be told, that overwhelming void always made my hairs stand on end too, although I think that only added to my fascination.  Having this strange but absolute classic of a logo littered all over your Disney viewing experience back in the day always amounted to seeing these weird, dark spots staining the otherwise colourful world of Mickey and co - a phenomenon now so deeply ingrained into my personal nostalgia that no viewing of The Rescuers seems quite complete without it.  Just one of multiple reasons why there'll always be a place in my heart - and on the media unit - for the VHS player.

Friday, 14 April 2017

Logo Case Study: Walt Disney Home Entertainment (Mickey The Neon Demon)

Not quite as infamous as The S From Hell or the Viacom V of Doom, this logo from Disney's early dabblings in home media entertainment has nevertheless proven to be a fixture of the darkest, most heavily-repressed recesses of many a logophobe's soul - indeed, no retrospective on the most terrifying media logos of all-time seems complete without a nod to the freaky neon Mickey who appeared at the start of the original clamshell VHS release of The Devil and Max Devlin.  It's recognisably the company's signature character, but no more reassuring for it.

I was born in the mid-80s and didn't acquire my first Disney VHS until 1990, by which point Disney had moved onto the Sorcerer's Apprentice Mickey logo (which many found to be equally troubling, although we'll get to that in due course), so naturally I missed out on this one.  I have little reason to believe that it wouldn't have psychologically scarred me to the moon and back, however, what with its blaring, over the top fanfare music and gut-churningly nasty Mickey Mouse silhouette, which looks all poised to lunge from your television set and drag you back into the plains of Disney Hell.  Clearly, Disney were going for exciting, bold, dramatic, maybe even a little futuristic with this logo, but instead they had every child who expected something safe and innoxious retreating to the bathroom in terror.  (To anyone who'd argue that the "Pink Elephants" sequence in Dumbo, one of the first Disney animated classics to receive the home video treatment, is actually a lot worse, I'd counter that that sequence is a beautifully animated, bedazzling marvel to watch, which does not apply to the above logo).

The Neon Mickey logo had its origins in the Mickey Mouse Revue attraction which opened in Magic Kingdom in 1971 and was later relocated to Tokyo Disneyland in 1983, and which consisted of numerous animatronic Disney characters performing together as an orchestra.  Conducting the motley team of musicians was an animatronic Mickey, and it's his garishly-rendered silhouette you see rotating in the Walt Disney Home Entertainment logo.  To be honest, having glanced at images of the original puppet I'm not sure which of the two I actually find the least palatable to look at - there's something about the knowing gaze of the animatronic Mickey which bugs the snot out of me, but then I was never one to get on especially well with those kinds of animatronic renderings of beloved characters.  Let's just say that they're both extremely abhorrent and that I for one am grateful that Sorcerer Mickey came along and saved us all.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

The Rugrats' Guide To Terror - "What The Big People Do"

As we've established, Rugrats was a far freakier, more warped and more delectably grotesque show than people tend to give it credit for, and that's something that I intend to make the case for in a lot more detail over the coming months.  We'll start by going straight for the biggest formula milk-induced nightmare of them all - "What The Big People Do".  Contrary to what some Rugrats viewers might tell you, the single most terrifying episode of Rugrats was not the one where Tommy goes for a wander around a mail sorting office and happens upon the skeletal remains of a postal worker who got lost in the system (although we will get to that), but the one where he and Chuckie fantasise about what life would be like if they were adults.

Where really Rugrats excelled was in how it tackled the subject of irrational childhood fear, which comes in many different forms and guises.  The fear that something seriously unholy is lurking beneath your bed and gearing up devour your hide the second you close your eyes.  The fear that your parents have been replaced by robots.  The fear that the dog groomer is plotting to destroy your beloved pet.  Then there's the most diabolical fear of them all, perhaps because it's not quite so irrational as the others - namely, the fear that your body is gradually warping and changing beyond all recognition, to the extent that, eventually, you're destined to become one of those adults whose behaviour so baffles and alarms you.  "What The Big People Do" takes a look at this terrifying prospect, weighing up the pros and cons of adulthood from the perspective of two tykes with an overly-active imagination and a naive, yet not entirely innocent inkling of what adult life is like, leading to several nightmarish twists and turns along the way.  Of course, what makes "What The Big People Do" so terrifying is that it contains easily the most abrupt, unsettling and downright inexplicable ending to any episode of Rugrats, ever - even today, I can't entirely make of sense of it.

What prompts Tommy and Chuckie into fantasising about the ins and outs of adulthood is their frustration at not being able to play with Didi's lipstick "crayon".  Angelica, ever the sneak, had given it to them purely so that she could enjoy the satisfaction of seeing Didi confiscate it and tell them that lipstick is strictly "for big people" (Angelica then proceeds to taunt the babies in a manner so flagrant that I'm amazed that Didi tolerates it, but then Didi is a bit of a dope for not figuring out how her lipstick ended up in the babies' hands in the first place).  Chuckie comments on the injustice of being denied something jut because they're babies.  Tommy proclaims that if they were big people they could do anything they wanted, although Chuckie finds the notion of unlimited freedom to be a tad overwhelming, particularly Tommy's suggestion that they could take baths standing up.  Tommy attempts to expand Chuckie's insight into what being a grown up entails, by getting him to imagine waking up and starting the day off in a new, adult body, and thus the fantasty begins.  The first item of note is that, in imagining themselves as adults, Tommy and Chuckie simply implant their baby heads into adult bodies, meaning that their bodily proportions look really, eerily off and, as result, the fantasy takes on an even more deliciously surreal vibe.  Chuckie notices that he's wearing a bow tie and attempts to take it off, prompting Tommy to cry out in alarm that for an adult to remove their tie will result in their head falling off.  Okay, well that's a seriously fucked up image right there.  I mean, it's hilarious that Tommy has apparently drawn the conclusion that ties are there to keep adults' heads from falling off, but I do remember being incredibly freaked out by that whole notion as a kid, even if I was certainly old enough to know that it was bunk.  Chuckie comments (not unreasonably) that being an adult is a terrifying business, so Tommy attempts to win him over by reminding him of the lack of rules and boundaries in their newfound grown up lives - adults can throw their toys, squirt their milk and draw all over the walls to their hearts' content.  Tommy is, unwittingly, hitting upon that universal paradox of coming of age - growing up means more autonomy, but sadly losing a lot of the zest for life which always made that autonomy seem so appealing in the first place.  "What The Big People Do" explores that paradox to an extent, but it's not really the focus of the episode.

Chuckie and Tommy then attempt to prepare themselves an adult breakfast consisting of Reptar cereal and a cup of joe (aka mud - a small quirk, but after drinking the mud-coffee, Chuckie obtains a mud-mustache which he retains for the rest of the fantasy).  Tommy then looks down at his wrist (although he does not actually incorporate a wristwatch into his fantasy because, being a baby, Tommy is still too young to understand the concept of time) and realises that he and Chuckie have to go to Work.  Chuckie is reluctant, but Tommy insists that Work is fun and besides, he's eager to try out driving a car.  Chuckie, ever the sensible one, points out that Tommy doesn't know how to drive, but overlooks the fact that in fantasy land, anything goes.  Before he knows it, he's in the passenger seat next to Tommy, who's weaving about recklessly all over the road, causing a few crashes and possibly a few fatalities in the process.  Tommy insists that he's driving badly on purpose because he wants to get a ticket - being the naive little infant that he is, Tommy can't distinguish between a ticket to an event and a ticket for traffic violations, so he's pretty chuffed when a cop ("played" by Angelica) pulls him over and gives him a ticket to see Reptar on Ice.  Although I do enjoy the sheer ridiculousness of this sequence (particularly cop Angelica informing the babies that they were going "a thousand miles an hour"), I do have a slight quibble with this portion of the fantasy which I'll get to later on.  There's also a sight gag in which cop Angelica appears to be smoking a cigarette that's later revealed to be a sucker, which I suspect wouldn't get past the censors so easily today.

Tommy and Chuckie arrive at Work, which they envision as a surreal playground where big people fly kites and zip around on skateboards with caged canaries all day.  Chuckie, who always had a somewhat more grounded notion of what "work" meant, comments that he thought that it would be a bit harder, although Tommy insists that that's just a ruse adults insist on.  Chuckie recalls that his dad talks about "pushing paper" at Work, so he and Tommy imagine a room in which the adults are running around pushing heaps of paper with brooms for the fun of it.  There, they run into the grown up Phil and Lil and have a jolly good time for a while, but Lil warns them not to get too complacent - Work might look like it's all fun and games, but there's always the risk of winding up on the wrong side of The Boss.  Right on cue, a voice rings out from the intercom demanding that Tommy and Chuckie report to The Boss's office.

It's here that the fantasy takes a more overtly nightmarish turn, as Tommy and Chuckie wander down an ominous dark corridor adorned with portraits depicting numerous different boss archetypes, whose eyes (eerily) follow the two adult babies as they go.  Chuckie recalls that his dad voices a persistent fear every morning that The Boss is going to fire him - neither baby has any idea what "fire" actually means, in this context, but they've picked up that it's something absolutely heinous (note: we don't actually see Chas in this episode, but from the small number of references made to him we can discern that he leads a pretty miserable life).  They envision The Boss's office as big, dark and with a literal fire motif going on, giving the scene a wonderfully, chillingly hellish aura.  Anyway, wanna take a wild guess as to which rugrat is the evil Boss in Tommy and Chuckie's fantasy?  It's here that I'm going to lay down my only real criticism of this episode - namely, that since Angelica's already appeared earlier on in the fantasy as cop, it does lessen the impact somewhat when she reappears at the climax as Tommy and Chuckie's boss.  It's possible that they purposely chose to have all the authoritative roles in the fantasy be played by Angelica, so as to emphasise her as a kind of omnipresent tyrant in the babies' lives, but to me it speaks more about the paucity of characters they had to work with (note that this episode pre-dates Susie's addition to the cast).

If you didn't already see the Hell allusion then it becomes pretty unmissable when we meet Boss Angelica, with her pigtails turned upwards like devil horns.  Angelica is literally Satan in this fantasy - but, more than anything, she appears to be the voice of Tommy and Chuckie's insecurities about their ability to cut it in the adult world, taunting them by reminding them that they're not really big...just big babies.  Tommy argues that this isn't true and that she shouldn't be so mean to them, but Angelica demands that she can do and say whatever she wants and the babies are powerless to stop her because she's The Boss.  She declares that she could even have them fired, causing the office to erupt in flames as Angelica erupts in demonic laughter.  The message is clear, and not a particularly comforting one for the young viewers at home - you'll encounter bullies and tyrants at all stages of life, and being "big" does not necessarily make you any less defenceless to their cruelty.

Chuckie finally decides that he's had enough of the fantasy and beats a retreat for the safety of the elevator, insisting that he wants to be a little kid again.  Tommy follows, narrowly avoiding the hands of the various portrait bosses as they reach out and attempt to crush him.  Tommy assures Chuckie that now that they've made it back to the elevator they are safe, only for Angelica to show up with legions of bloodthirsty robot businessmen at her disposal.  I have no idea where those robot businessmen came from - unlike the portrait bosses, their existence was not established earlier on - but the second they show up the fantasy tips over full-scale from a slice of increasingly capricious freakiness into the stuff of your very worst nightmare.  It becomes downright gut-wrenching to watch Tommy and Chuckie as they attempt to flee the robot workforce, only to find their every escape route blocked and the building exit locked.  The entire sequence is so well staged, you can practically feel the panic and desperation leaking from every claustrophobic moment.  As Angelica and the robots close in on them, Tommy happens upon a potential escape clause - if the two of them can "punch the clock" (an act which the babies again envision all too literally) they can eject themselves from the fantasy.

Tommy and Chuckie find themselves back in their playpen, as babies, with Chuckie having left so traumatised by the fantasy that he vows never to grow up.  Of course, the episode can't fade out by leaving its young audience with such a negative view of where they're ultimately headed, so Tommy tries to assure Chuckie that there are additional perks to being an adult which their fantasy didn't have time to cover - namely, that when you grow up you can get married and enjoy the excitement of starting a family of your own (actually, the way Tommy phrases it he makes it sound as if he considers the likelihood of getting married to be less than that of just having babies).  Chuckie feels reassured and admits that it might be nice to get married.  And then...

...and then we get that horrible, baffling, psychologically scarring cold sweat of an ending.  Angelica pops out from behind the curtain, Cynthia doll in one hand, toy alien in another, and shrieks, "Oh boys...time to play HOUSE!!", her pigtails suddenly curling upwards into the devil horns of her fantasy counterpart.  The episode concludes with Angelica laughing as if she's demonically possessed while Tommy and Chuckie scream and clutch one another in terror.  The end. Roll the inappropriately upbeat credits.

Honestly, I don't think I've been more baffled by the ending to any cartoon I've ever seen in my life (except maybe the Sky 1 edit of that Simpsons episode I covered a while ago, which probably doesn't count as I later discovered that it had been truncated beyond all comprehension).   Really, what is going on with Angelica at the end and why does the episode choose to round off on such an intensely unsettling note?  As a kid, it left me confused and incredibly unnerved; as an adult, it still leaves me confused and unnerved, although I'm better able to take a stab at what the writers were going for.  I think the clue is in Angelica proposing that the babies play "house", undermining Tommy's prior assurances about the benign safety of family life compared to the horrors of the work environment.  In other words, getting married would be a horrifying notion if your spouse ends up being anything like Angelica.  Arguably, there is a slightly misogynistic subtext to be had in there, so alternatively you can think of this ending as constituting one final, particularly intense scare following a fake out in which the babies thought they were safe - Tommy and Chuckie escape the horrors of their imagined adulthood only to realise that they're stuck in a neverending waking nightmare in the present.  In other words, life is hell no matter which stage of it you're at.  Again, not the most reassuring of messages to bow out on, but you do have to love Rugrats for insisting on that disturbance.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Carlton Your Doorman (1980)

I made a promise a short while back that I would take a closer look at Carlton Your Doorman, the only fully animated production to come out of MTM, should it ever show up in its entirety on the web.  Turns out I didn't have to wait long.   As I noted back in November, this had something of a reputation among animation fans for being a "lost" special, although these days I think that the term "lost" gets thrown around all too loosely, more often than not equating to "not currently on YouTube" (as opposed to, say, the lost episodes of Doctor Who, which really have been wiped from existence due to the BBC's former habit of routinely culling archive material).  I figured that if I waited long enough then it would surface eventually, and my gut instinct didn't let me down.  I'll state straight off the bat that I had high hopes for this special.  I've gone into a lot of these one-off animation projects not expecting anything too stellar but simply being interested in what they have to offer.  This one I genuinely thought might be a hidden gem; not only did it pick up a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Animated Program, but it also boasts the vocal talents of Lorenzo Music, whose work I've been admiring since about as far back as I've been watching television (I grew up on Garfield and Friends and a number of the original Garfield specials, so there's something about Lorenzo's voice that spells instant warmth and nostalgia for me).  From what small glimpses I could find of the special online, I also really dug the animation style, courtesy of Murakami Wolf Swenson, which features some gorgeously illustrative background detail (reminiscent of the lovingly-rendered New York scenery in The Critic).  And, even though I knew little of the special's source material (see below), I was genuinely fascinated by the concept of an animated special revolving around a bumbling doorman who'd previously existed on the sidelines of a different, live-action series.  Sorry to report, then, that I came away almost wishing that the special had stayed "lost" - not only did it not live up to my expectations, but I was surprised at just how much I kinda-sorta detested this one.  Carlton himself is not a particularly likeable character (there's a definite discrepancy throughout between Lorenzo's warm, disarming vocals and the sleazy, selfish, spineless prick of a character he's playing), which might have been less of a problem if the story he's saddled with hadn't been such a miscalculated downer.  Let's delve in a little deeper.

Carlton Your Doorman aired on CBS on 21st May 1980 and, as per its Wikipedia page, was never re-aired in the US (I'd take what that Wikipedia entry says with a pinch of salt, however - at the time of writing, it states that Carlton Your Doorman was "one of the last animated pilots to use a laugh track", which is a tad misleading as we know from Hound Town and The Jackie Bison Show that the practice was still clinging desperately to life a decade later).  The special was a spin-off of an MTM sitcom, Rhoda, which ran from 1974 to 1978, and focused on one of the show's supporting characters, Carlton the doorman.  And - confession time - I've never watched a single episode of Rhoda so, as with The Jackie Bison Show, I'll apologise in advance if my unfamiliarity with the source material means that I miss out on a bunch of obvious in-jokes.  I'm aware of this much -  in Rhoda, Carlton typically remained offscreen (my perfunctory research indicates that viewers did once catch a glimpse of him in a gorilla mask, but they never saw his face) and spoke to the other characters across an intercom.  Carlton Your Doorman was the first proper, full-on glimpse the world had of the character in the flesh, the twist being that Carlton appeared not as a flesh and blood human, but in the guise of an animated character (this accounts for why the special's opening sequence makes a point of building up very gradually to revealing Carlton's face, so as to squeeze every drop of anticipation from viewers who had followed over from Rhoda).  I'm not totally clear on whether Carlton Your Doorman was always envisioned as a one-off special or if this was intended as the pilot for a spin-off series that didn't happen - if the latter, then I'm frankly not losing too much sleep over what might have been.

Although Carlton Your Doorman initially looks as if it's going to be a lighthearted, if somewhat crude caper starring a perpetual loser, around the middle-mark it takes a deliberately shocking and morbid turn, which certainly piqued my interest, but I was disappointed and honestly a little dispirited by just how heartlessly it resolves itself.  In a nutshell, the plot involves Carlton accidentally killing the dog of his boss's wife while it's in his care and desperately trying to cover up this occurrence (not because he's looking to spare his boss's wife's feelings but because he's terrified of what will happen to him when his boss finds out).  Ultimately, however, he gets off the hook because his boss secretly disliked the dog and is glad to be rid of it (his wife, meanwhile, is blatantly very upset, but the script doesn't give a toss about her feelings because all that matters is that Carlton ends up well).  Oh, and did I mention that Carlton is a sex pest?  There's a bit in the opening credits where he's implied to sexually harass a woman while passing her on the way down to the subway, and it's every bit as jaw-droppingly uncomfortable as it sounds.  I'm aware that in 1980 there existed a somewhat more permissive attitude toward that kind of thing, but from a modern perspective a character who can't keep their hands to themselves is instantly going to lose a number of points on the likeability scale.  It doesn't help Carlton's case that it's his lusting after women and his refusal to accept a clear "no" from a female jogger that indirectly causes the dog to die.  This didn't necessarily have to be the death knell of the special, had it built up to some kind of meaningful character progression for Carlton, but unfortunately all that ever comes of it is that unbelievably callous ending, where all wrongdoings are excused because Carlton's boss is an even bigger jerk than he is, and which unfortunately serves to undo whatever good the special may have accomplished elsewhere.  But I'm getting ahead of things - let's go back and unravel how this entire demoralizing affair unfolds right from the beginning.

During the opening scene, we're introduced to the corporeal Carlton, along with two supporting characters - Ringo, Carlton's scrawny and vile-tempered cat, and Carlton's mother (Lurene Tuttle), a homeless bag lady who's normally seen with her hand in a trash can in search of discarded items of clothing to give to her son.  The two of them are probably most enjoyable characters of the special - Ringo you have to admire for his scrappy energy, and for regularly meeting Carlton with he disdain he deserves, while Mom's appearances are pulled off just the right levels of eye-popping, deadpan quirkiness.  She's used very sparingly throughout the special, but that's fine, as it means that her running gag isn't overdone.

After the opening credits, Carlton arrives at the apartment building where he works, and we run into his aforementioned boss, the gruff, cigar-chomping Mr Shaftman (Jack Somack).  He's none too thrilled with Carlton's performance of late, as yesterday Carlton neglected to walk his wife's dog, Punkin, leaving the dog to satisfy his bodily urges on the Shaftmans' carpet instead.  Carlton has also showed up today an hour late, and Mr Shaftman insists that he make up for it by staying an extra hour - this distresses Carlton, as he hasn't missed Happy Hour in three years.  As Mr Shaftman leaves, he warns Carlton that he's walking on very thin ice.

Carlton retires to the intercom room, and it becomes apparent (if it wasn't painfully obvious already) that he's not a very good doorman - one tenant, Mr Gleason (Paul Lichtman), complains about him having parked his car in a tow away zone, and Carlton lazily responds that he can't be blamed for the parking rules.  Carlton then gets a call from Mrs Shaftman (Lucille Meredith) who asks him to come up and collect Punkin for his walk.  Carlton does, but not before an extended gag in which we hear him noisily chugging down a can of booze across the intercom.  Carlton is apprehensive about setting foot in the Shaftmans' apartment because Mrs Shaftman has a tendency to try and seduce him whenever her husband isn't around.  It seems that Mrs Shaftman gets lonely whenever her gruff old husband leaves the building, and she's developed an unyielding lust for Carlton's sleazy young flesh, to the extent that when Carlton arrives, he finds her lying in wait naked in the bathtub and desperately trying to beckon him in with her (we don't get any glimpses of the naked Mrs Shaftman; nevertheless, it's at this point that it becomes crystal clear that this special never had any pretensions about being kid-friendly).  Mrs Shaftman's feelings for Carlton seem to be partially rooted in his reputation for being something of a horny menace himself; every other woman in the building has complained about Carlton hitting on them, so she wonders what makes her the exception.  Carlton counters that she's married and that while ordinarily he wouldn't let a silly little thing like that stand in the way of sexual conquest, she happens to be married to the one person whom he fears more than anything else in the world.  Carlton also refers to his own girlfriend, a beautician named Darlene, although he can't even bring himself to fake a convincing front of commitment toward her, even in the interests of keeping Mrs Shaftman at bay.

Carlton then collects the ill-fated dog Punkin, a scruffy, elderly little ankle-biter, and takes him for a walk in the park, where he runs into Mom, who's in the process of facing off against another bag lady for ownership of a discarded stocking.  He also spots a female jogger out for a run and...yeah, it's at this point that the story takes a sharp turn into particularly harrowing territory.  Carlton races after the jogger and attempts to pick her up with some vulgar chat-up lines, but she bluntly turns him down.  This doesn't deter Carlton, who continues to chase after her and hound her, all while ordering Punkin to keep up with him.  Unfortunately, the stamina doesn't come easily to such an elderly dog, and Punkin quickly winds up running to the point of exhaustion, whereupon he suffers a fatal heart attack and dies.

To the special's credit, Punkin's death is depicted in a sombre light immediately after the fact - there's a somewhat abrupt moment where Carlton attempts to will the dead dog (for whom rigor mortis has set in very quickly) back to life by dragging him behind him, which is played for laughs, but otherwise the music during this scene is sad and haunting, and it culminates in the tender image of Carlton picking up Punkin's body and cradling it in his arms.  A passing woman comments that Punkin is a cute dog and "so well-behaved", at which point Carlton is mournfully forced to admit that he's dead, and it's all pulled off so poignantly.  The sadness is so authentic that, the first time I saw this special, I genuinely believed that this would be the springboard to Carlton maturing, looking to take responsibility for his actions and seeking to better himself.  Unfortunately, no.  Enjoy this moment of  precious sensitivity, because it isn't going to last.

Actually, despite my above praise, I will say that the laugh track (which I've avoided commenting on up until now) is implemented very clumsily during the moments where Carlton stands over Punkin's dead body, and some of the stuff the "audience" appear to be reacting to (like the close-up image of Punkin's lifeless body featured above) seems disturbingly inappropriate.  In the following scene, we rejoin Carlton at a pet cemetery, where Punkin has been laid to rest, and watch him saying his goodbyes to the deceased dog - he seems entirely sincere as he addresses Punkin as "old friend" and implores him to tell the folks in the afterlife that his death wasn't Carlton's fault, but unfortunately it's undermined by the intrusiveness of that damned laugh track, which detracts from what could have been a genuinely heartfelt moment, however fleeting.  Carlton's self-centredness soon comes creeping back in when he complains about Punkin not being worth the $20 he's had to pay in cemetery fees (I know this was 1980 and all, but that honestly sounds like a bargain to me).

Carlton then sets about looking for a replacement for Punkin, hoping he can find a dog that bears enough of a resemblance to the deceased that he can pass it off as Punkin and the Shaftmans will be none the wiser.  Typically, sitcom plots and urban legends involving covert efforts to replace dead or missing pets don't end well, because the culprits invariably overlook some tiny detail which gives the game away (besides, anyone who's grown particularly close to their pet will almost certainly know the difference), and one senses that this is going to go down rather disastrously for Carlton.  He tries a dog pound, to no avail.  He then happens upon a pet shop, which has a dog for sale that's the spitting image of Punkin, only to learn that the dog has already been sold.  All of this stuff is pure filler, although the pet shop sequence does offer a few moments of pleasing quirkiness, thanks to the repartee between the owner and his verbose parrot.

His morning's worth of dog-hunting having proven entirely fruitless, Carlton retires to drown his troubles in another can of booze and complain to Ringo about his predicament.  He admits that he feels bad about Punkin but also has the view that he was an old dog, so it was just his time, which isn't entirely accurate.  Ultimately, he's more upset at what the consequences might be for him - namely, losing his job and having to face Mr Shaftman's wrath. Carlton then hits upon the wacky idea that he might be able to pass Ringo off as Punkin if he can give him a convincing enough makeover, whereupon he drags the reluctant cat over to see his aforementioned girlfriend, the beautician Darlene (Kay Cole).  Darlene works her magic and, through a series of techniques which look torturously painful for poor Ringo, manages to transform the cat into something resembling Punkin.  Carlton is so delighted that he professes his love for Darlene then and there, only to immediately turn tail on her when she suggests he quit drinking in exchange for the favour she just did him.  Instead, they reach a mutual agreement to have dinner together later that evening.

Carlton assures the miserable, disfigured Ringo that this will only be a temporary measure, until he's able to find another dog that looks like Punkin.  The obvious flaw in his plan, of course, is that Darlene couldn't do anything to modify Ringo's vocal cords - when he opens his mouth, cat noises still come out - so in order to pull of the deception, it's imperative that Ringo keep quiet.  Obviously, that's not going to happen.  When Carlton returns "Punkin" to Mrs Shaftman, she invites him into the apartment, ostensibly wishing to apologise for her behaviour from earlier, and all it takes is a few yowls from the furry imposter and an inconveniently-placed tray of sardines for the facade to come crashing down.   Mrs Shaftman demands to know what happened to her dog, at which point Carlton is finally forced to admit the truth.  Mrs Shaftman turns on Carlton in a display of devastated fury, just as Mr Shaftman arrives back at the apartment and learns of what happened.  He orders that Carlton go and wait out in the corridor, as Mrs Shaftman hisses her vengeful demands to her husband: "Fire him!  Have him arrested!  Kill him!"  As Mr Shaftman approaches him in the corridor, Carlton feebly tries to insist that what happened wasn't his fault.  Shaftman dourly observes that they had Punkin for fifteen years and that it won't be the same without him.  In what proves to be the special's deal breaker, he then lightens up in tone and professes that it will be wonderful.  The laugh track thinks that Mr Shaftman's unprecedented callousness is all great and hilarious, but as we've already established, this particular "audience" has extremely questionable taste.

Mr Shaftman states that he didn't care for Punkin because he barked a lot and because he made a mess on their carpet (but wait, wasn't that also Carlton's fault, for failing to walk him yesterday?).  He then adds that he can't hold Carlton responsible if Punkin died in his care, as he was an old dog.  Alright, that's a greatly less heartless perspective on things than the sentiments previously expressed, and I do wish that it had been his stance right from the beginning, but here's the problem - Carlton DID bring about Punkin's demise by forcing him to run much faster than his elderly body could cope with.  Punkin may have been old, but he could have lived for longer had Carlton been more sensitive to his needs.  This is something that the script gets around by simply ignoring in the end.  Perhaps Carlton could have pulled off this whole scenario if it was played as more of a mordant black comedy, but the final exchange between Carlton and Mr Shaftman is presented with total earnestness, as if we're meant to take it as a sign that he's not such a mean or scary boss after all.  Equally bothersome is just how casually Mrs Shaftman's feelings are cast aside in all of this.  Blatantly she loved her dog and is going to miss Punkin, yet the special doesn't do anything to address or remedy that.  Mrs Shaftman and her grief are completely forgotten as, in a moment which I suspect we're supposed to find genuinely heart-warming, Carlton and Mr Shaftman get unusually chummy and go off to bond over a bottle of champagne.  Frankly, I'm not surprised that Mr and Mrs Shaftman are having serious relationship problems.

In the final scene, we see Mom bringing Carlton a single glove she salvaged from the garbage.  Carlton seems to be in a generous mood, for he invites Mom to come and have dinner with himself and Darlene - I assume that this is the special's way of trying to hint that Carlton really is a swell guy deep down inside, even if we've just seen twenty-one minutes' worth of evidence to the contrary.  Meanwhile, Ringo is unhappy because he still looks like a dog and it'll apparently take two months for his appearance to return to normal.  Carlton jokes that until then Ringo shouldn't plan on any heavy dating, at which point the cat completely loses it and proceeds to maul his shiftless master's hide to ribbons.  The end.

The Verdict:

*Sigh*  I wanted to like this special.  I really did.  The ingredients were all there - a wonderful lead voice actor, appealing animation and an intriguing premise.  Instead, I'm left with the lingering question as to how such a crude and mean-spirited story managed to impress the powers-that-be enough to pick up an Emmy, beating out the Peanuts special She's a Good Skate, Charlie Brown, the Dr. Seuss-penned Pontoffel Pock, Where Are You? and The Pink Panther in: Olym-Pinks.  I'll hazard a guess that the judges gave it points for being "different" - in an age where animation was regarded almost exclusively as a kids' affair, populated largely by magical beings and anthropomorphic creatures, I can see why some might have found Carlton's offbeat, adult-orientated roughness to be refreshing, but unfortunately none of that holds up with time.  As a voice actor, Lorenzo Music oozes likeability, so it's a grand thing that he would go on to a prosperous career across the next decade voicing one of the most iconic cartoon characters of the era.  Carlton Your Dog Killer and Sex Pest's post-Rhoda career began and ended with this special, and that's equally grand.  I couldn't objectively call it a worse one-off special/failed pilot than Hound Town, but it does leave a far, far nastier taste in the mouth.