Tuesday, 30 January 2018

VHS Verve: Scruffy (aka See You Next Tuesday)

There's no denying that The Animals of Farthing Wood could get awfully dour at times, but when it comes to children's cartoons that positively revel in their own morbidness, I know a scruffy little puppy who might just have Fox and His Friends licked. Scruffy was a three-part animated special that aired as part of the ABC Weekend Special anthology series in 1980. Adapted from the novel The Tuesday Dog by Jack Stoneley, it tells the story of a stray spaniel puppy (voiced by Nancy McKeon) who roams the streets and goes from master to master, but whose tragedy-stricken existence means that she can never hold down a home for very long. I wouldn't quite put it up there in the same levels of soul-destroying bleakness as Rowf and Snitter's existence in The Plague Dogs, but the special nevertheless has a penchant for heaping misery on its young protagonist for no other reason than to emphasise how difficult life is for a discarded pup. In its efforts to be as drab and dingy as possible it occasionally wanders into territory that isn't entirely tot-friendly. If you'd prefer your kids to stick with entertainment that's free of such grisly topics as death, destitution, alcoholism and paedophilia, you'd best steer them clear of Scruffy.

Scruffy opens with our narrator (Alan Young) telling us it's based on the "real-life story" of a stray dog. Real in that the titular Scruffy was modeled on an actual historical dog, but this is obviously a heavily fictionalised account of her life and times. In reality, Scruffy's story took place in Manchester, England in 1956, where she was impounded in the Manchester and District Home For Lost Dogs, which apparently had a policy of destroying any animal which was not claimed or rehomed within a week. The shelter kept track of how long each dog had lived within its walls by accommodating them according to which day of the week they were impounded. Scruffy was brought in on a Tuesday, so she went into the Tuesday pen. Stoneley happened across her while working as a reporter for the Daily Mirror and ran an article on her plight on the day that she was due to be put to sleep. Response to the article was overwhelming, with many hopefuls vying to be the one to rescue Scruffy. Ultimately, Scruffy was homed with Derrick Davies, the four-year-old son of a miner; meanwhile, the surge in publicity meant that multiple other dogs at the shelter were adopted on the same day. In 1978, Stoneley revisited Scruffy's story by publishing a novel, The Tuesday Dog, in which he imagined her life before she was captured and impounded. In the US, it was re-titled Scruffy: The Tuesday Dog, and used as the basis of this animation. I should say upfront that I have never read Stoneley's novel (the cartoon adaptation being a relatively recent discovery of mine) so for the purposes of this review I will not be able to compare how faithful the ABC Weekend Special is to its source (other than shifting the action to contemporary America). That being said, one thing that does stand out to me, from looking at a picture of the real Scruffy, is that she blatantly wasn't a spaniel of any kind. Anyone want to bet that her breed was changed so as to capitalise on the public's familiarity and long-standing affection for a certain cartoon spaniel from that Disney film about dogs we've all seen? It's probably not a coincidence that Scruffy falls in with a mongrel who's pretty much the spitting image of Tramp. This isn't the only thing that Scruffy pilfers from Disney, as we'll see shortly.

Scruffy was animated by Ruby-Spears, a California-based animation company founded by two former Hanna-Barbera employees in 1977. They were responsible for a lot of those weird 1980s cartoons you probably only half-remember if you were around at the time, including that one about Mister T. A quick glance at Wikipedia's page for ABC Weekend Special reveals that they regular contributors to the series and that Scruffy wasn't even their first animated special about a homeless dog - I'll note The Incredible Detectives and The Puppy's Amazing Rescue as titles to keep an eye out for (actually, there are some really interesting titles in that list, period - what on Earth is Homer and the Wacky Doughnut Machine? It sounds like one of those Simpsons games they would periodically put out on the Game Boy Color, only this clearly refers to a different doughnut-loving Homer altogether). My understanding of these ABC Weekend Specials is that they were intended as a younger version of those ABC Afterschool Specials I've seen on the receiving end of so much derision - the ones which attempted to educate teens about social issues like drink-driving and premarital sex. Scruffy itself has a vaguely educational bent and there are times when it plays as an extended PSA about the problem of abandoned and unwanted dogs, albeit one that clearly struggles with the matter of where to place the work of animal shelters that take in strays and may have to destroy them if they cannot be rehomed. On the one hand, Scruffy doesn't demonise the dog wardens themselves - there's a tendency in animation to depict them as sadists who hate dogs, but here they're clearly just people doing their jobs and they'll frequently comment on the forlornness of the dogs' situation. On the other hand, Scruffy is REALLY emphatic with this point that once a dog enters a shelter, it has just seven days to find a new owner or it will be put to sleep, and it doesn't make any bones about what that means either. I don't know how relevant this "one week and you're out" rule was to shelters in 1980, but the impression Scruffy gives is that a shelter is the worst place for a dog to end up and that turning in a stray dog to the authorities should be seen as tantamount to giving it a death sentence. There's a scene early on where a character suggests taking Scruffy and her mother to a shelter and his partner berates him as if that's the sickest suggestion she ever heard. However good the special's intentions, I can't help but feel there's a risk here that children might up thinking that abandoning a dog on the streets or in the wilderness is a nicer option than leaving it at a shelter - particularly as Scruffy is ultimately vague on actual solutions to the problems it raises.

Before we get too deep into Scruffy, I want to talk a bit about The Video Collection. I stumbled across a VHS copy of Scruffy and was drawn to it when I noticed that it was distributed by one of the defining labels of my early childhood. Growing up, one of the first VHS tapes my family ever owned was the English-language dub of Les Douze travaux d'Astérix, or The Twelve Tasks of Asterix, and I always got a tremendous kick out of watching the promo at the beginning. Even at age four I knew the stench of hardcore 1980s naffness when it came wafting at me. It's A Wonderful Life in sparkling colour? What is this insanity?

Okay, there's nothing in the least bit naff about "Jazzin for Blue Jean", which is the greatest music video of all-time. That "Run The World" thing looks so outrageously dorky, however, that I blatantly should have tracked down a copy by now (much as I loathe Band Aid and its assorted spin-offs).

Also involved with distribution is Worldvision Home Video Inc who, as per the disclaimer on their logo, are "Not affiliated with World Vision International, a Religious and Charity Organisation". Even without doing the research I can tell that some serious legal trouble went down there.

Something to keep in mind about Scruffy is that, although packaged here as a feature film, it was originally aired as a three-part special and, as such, has the flow and structure of an episodic TV series. Viewed as a whole, the narrative feels meandering and disjointed, and you can easily break it down into three separate portions - firstly, Scruffy's birth and early life under the care of her mother, Duchess (June Foray), secondly Scruffy's time spent as the sole companion to a destitute street performer, Joe Tibbles (Han Conried), and finally her life as part of a pack of mangy junkyard dogs. The story begins when a pregnant Duchess is abandoned by her owners, who are moving to an apartment and unable to take her with them. Well, okay, technically they don't intend to abandon her, as they're expecting this other lady, Helen, to come by and collect her later, although any semi-responsible dog owner would have stuck around and to ensure that the handover goes smoothly, particularly with a pregnant dog this close to popping. Duchess doesn't understand what's going on (her mistress does explain it to her, but then the special is frankly a bit inconsistent on whether or not dogs can understand human tongue), so she breaks loose and attempts to seek out her owners, meaning that she isn't around when her prospective new owner calls by. Helen realises that Duchess has fled the yard but decides that the dog has gone forever and makes no attempt to locate her. Right away, I had an inkling that I was going to get really frustrated by some of the dopey decisions made by the humans in this story. (Did Duchess's former owners ever communicate with Helen about the fate of their dog? I guess not.)

Duchess returns to the house some time after Helen's departure and is disturbed to find it stripped of all amenities. There's a touching moment where she considers looking for her owners upstairs but recalls that they always forbade her to go up there and is held back by her sense of obligation to the careless jerks who, unbeknownst to her, have buggered off and left her for good. Duchess remains in the empty house, where she gives birth to her puppy and for a while is able to eke out a living begging for scraps from the workers at a nearby construction site. Unfortunately, the same builders later call by to burn the house to the ground, it being a condemned property, giving us the first of several dramatic set-pieces in which the dogs' lives are threatened. Finding their escape route through the kitchen blocked, Duchess is forced to disregard her ex-mistress's "no upstairs" rule and make a desperate bid for freedom by carrying her puppy up the chimney. As they emerge onto the roof (looking remarkably spotless given what they've just been through), the builders notice them and recognise Duchess as the dog they've been feeding all this time. The dogs are rescued and taken in by one of the builders, Ken (Frank Welker), and his lovely wife Alice (Janet Waldo), who have the aforementioned debate over whether or not it's ethical to leave a stray dog at an animal shelter. After Alice comes down heavy in her disapproval, Ken suggests that they adopt the dogs themselves, and for a moment it looks as if the story could wrap up quite happily here. Fat chance. We've still got two and a half episodes left to go, so you can bet that something has got to happen to shatter this perfect vision of suburban bliss.

This time round, it's the dogs who do the abandoning. As soon as her puppy is old enough to walk, Duchess forces her to walk out on Ken and Alice and accompany her back to the site of their former home - such is Duchess's enduring devotion to her erstwhile owners, whom she still believe will return for her one day. This causes great inner turmoil for her puppy, who recognises that she's safe and happy where she is, but in the end she's forced to follow her mother's lead. Ken and Alice aren't seen again for the entire special, which if you ask me seems kind of heartless given how emotionally attached they've blatantly grown to their new friends. At the back of mind, I kept picturing just how devastated they must have been to wake up and find their adopted doggies gone, and it's troubling that they receive no closure, but then the first half of the story is full of loose ends and random characters who essentially go nowhere. Early on, Scruffy interacts with two animal characters who each get their momentary turn in the spotlight, only to vanish without trace the instant the narrative starts to progress. The first of these is Terry Tomcat, a character who serves no useful purpose whatsoever other than to kill 90 seconds or so's worth of time. He gets mad at Scruffy for chewing on his tail and then gets royally offended when she mistakes him for a dog, and that's about all he does. The fact that he bothers to introduce himself at all implies that he will be of some narrative significance, but as soon as he exits the scene we don't hear a peep from him again. I can only assume that Ruby-Spears received a memo that, as per the laws of Western animation, any cartoon featuring a heroic canine had to have an antagonistic cat inserted somewhere. We'll get to the second character shortly, but first we have a dramatic plot turn to go through.

The nomadic mom and pup have a problem, in that Duchess doesn't know the way back to their old home and gets herself and her offspring hopelessly lost out in the countryside in the middle of winter. While Duchess is napping, the puppy spots a lamb gamboling through the snow and naively approaches it in an attempt to play. Unbeknownst to her, there are a couple of farmers lurking nearby with rifles, and they misinterpret the small dog's intentions, taking her for a sheep-hungry feral. Thankfully, the farmers turn out to be lousy shots, as they twice fail to hit the puppy even when she's standing motionless. Maybe she's a tinier target than they're used to, for when Duchess tries to intervene, it doesn't go quite so well for her. Duchess races to her puppy and orders her to run for cover, the two of them flee through the snow with the puppy at the head, the gunshots continue to ring out and...if you thought that this entire scenario sounded worryingly reminiscent of that infamous moment in Bambi where his mother gets killed, you were right to be concerned. The puppy makes it to safety, but turns around and realises that she did so alone. This sequence was quite blatantly staged in an attempt to replicate that equivalent moment from Bambi to a tee, although the significantly lower quality animation means that it doesn't have quite the same resonance. Still, there is one area in which Scruffy does give us more bang for our buck than Bambi (if you'll forgive the rather tasteless pun), in that we get a distant glimpse of Duchess's dead body lying in the snow. Welcome to the death of innocence, kids.

Frightened and alone, the puppy wanders on and encounters our second time-waster, a mouse who never formally introduces himself. Actually, his purpose is slightly less baffling than Terry Tomcat's, in that he provides our protagonist with a figure to whom she can vocalise her grief and confusion at this critical moment. He also points her in the direction of a city where she might have a chance of settling down with another human household, although he declines her request that he accompany her and scarpers offscreen and out of the special. The puppy makes the journey alone but immediately finds herself out of her element when she realises just how big and crowded the city is. She retreats into a park, where she spots a man under a bridge cooking up a batch of orange mush on a makeshift stove. This presents her with a dilemma; naturally, she's drawn toward the prospect of finally getting some food in her belly, but she's also observed first-hand that humans can be both dog lovers and dog murderers, and she has no idea how she's supposed to distinguish between the two. Realising that she risks dying a slow death from starvation if she doesn't seize the opportunity, the puppy approaches him, and thankfully he turns out to be entirely benign; this is Joesph P. Tibbles, Shakespearean actor turned down-and-out street performer, and he's only too happy to share his bridge and his mush with a kindred spirit. Finally, about twenty minutes into our story, the puppy's name is officially bestowed upon her - Tibbles names her Scruffy, which he states in honour of a dog owned by his younger self...possibly so that he can recycle the collar and name tag he still has to hand.

The following portion of the story focuses on Scruffy's life with Tibbles, who, as it turns out, makes little cash because passers-by do not appreciate his attempts at highbrow street performances. Add a cute, howling puppy to the mix, however, and they're all over it. Tibbles trains Scruffy to do tricks he then incorporates into his act, and for a while the two of them are raking it in. We get a largely superfluous sequence in which a pair of street muggers attempt to grab a share of the earnings for themselves, and Scruffy and Tibbles manage elude them across some railway tracks. The payoff is nice, for it has a tender moment where Scruffy and Tibbles embrace and affirm their partnership, but the sequence feels drawn-out and mostly comes across as an attempt to shoehorn in an additional dramatic moment where the producers feared that the story was at risk of getting slow. Like most minor characters in this special, the muggers get involved on an entirely arbitrary basis and have no further story relevance the instant they disappear from view.

By now, Scruffy and Tibbles are earning enough money that the former declares they'll soon be able to afford a roof over their heads and live happily forever. "Forever and forever", he keeps repeating over and over, as if he's just asking the Fates to swoop in and jinx this. Sure enough, Tibbles collapses from a heart attack and Scruffy nearly gets drowned in a river. Man, that escalated quickly.

Even though Tibbles' departure from the story comes about as abruptly as Terry Tomcat's (Alan Young assures us that Tibbles did not live through the night), I have to admit that I was really torn apart by his death, as his relationship with Scruffy is easily the most heartfelt and well-constructed component of the story. You really buy that these two lost souls would form such a close and symbiotic bond, and when that's severed by Tibbles' inconvenient heart failure, it comes down like a mocking, sadistic sledgehammer from above. It's here that our blatant Tramp knock-off, Butch (Michael Bell), enters the picture, as the one who dives in and saves Scruffy from her watery deathtrap. He takes Scruffy back to meet his buds at the junkyard, and the story turns into Oliver and Company had Dodger's gang been a bit more socially problematic. There's the tragic case of Collie the collie (Linda Gray) who carries a boot wherever she goes and nurtures it as if it were a puppy; Butch explains to Scruffy that Collie had a puppy who died a while ago and she's never come to terms with it. We then meet Randy the boxer (Bell), the resident alcoholic (we later learn that Randy frequents a local tavern, sits on a stool and gets served just like a human barfly, although how he funds his drinking problem is anyone's guess) and Sam the mongrel (Young), the disheveled pervert of the group (he attempts to get fresh with Scruffy, but is stopped in his tracks by Butch, and the special plays this entire exchange off as casual humour). Finally, there's Solo (Conried), a Scottish terrier. He's super friendly and mellow. Only kidding, Solo is coarse and ill-tempered, just like every other Scottish character depicted in US animation.

Scruffy is part of a family again (albeit one consisting of perhaps not the most desirable group of individuals) but fate continues to be a bitch to her and a fresh fly surfaces from the ointment in the form of sleazy criminal Caitlin and his right-hand dog Caesar (Welker). Caesar appears to be a kind of pit bull mix (Wikipedia identifies Caesar as a Rottweiler, but they also have Sam down as an Irish terrier, and he's blatantly not). Caitlin is aware of Scruffy's former career as a performing dog and hopes to ustilise her talents for far more nefarious purposes - namely, taking her into convenience stores and using her as a diversion while he helps himself to the contents of the cash register. Sounds foolproof, right? Caitlin has more plot significance than those two random muggers from earlier, but he's still a one-dimensional villain who feels shoehorned in late in the game in order to keep the sense of conflict ticking along. It doesn't help that he and Caesar have this vaguely Dastardly and Muttley vibe about them, and that as soon as they enter the picture the special is at risk of descending into altogether hokier Hanna-Barbera type hijinks.

With Caesar's help, Caitlin is able to lure Scruffy away from the junkyard dogs and into his unctuous grasp, but is ultimately foiled by Butch, who rescues Scruffy during a robbery in-progress and gets her back to the junkyard. They are pursued by Caesar, who challenges Butch to a fight to determine Scruffy's fate. Butch accepts, and it's in the resulting showdown that the special throws up its first - and only - glimpses of blood. The limited animation means that the violent clashing and gnashing of jaws between Butch and Caesar can only be staged so convincingly, but the imagery still gets awfully brutal at times, particularly during a moment where Caesar gets hold of Butch's neck and hoists him upward, causing a messy splattering of red to rain down upon the junkyard. Butch takes quite the thrashing from Ceasar, but his tenacity pulls through when he's able to get atop of Caesar and bite down hard on the pit bull's neck, prompting Caesar to retreat (somewhat implausibly, as he was carrying this fight up until now), leaving Butch in a broken and crumpled heap. The rest of the gang gather around his semi-conscious body and Solo, ever the wee angry lad, is quick to point the finger of blame at Scruffy for getting Butch into trouble in the first place and insists that she leave now. Scruffy refuses, stating that she could never abandon Butch after what he just did for her, although she's painfully aware that kismet has taken away every other soul she's ever loved. How does she reverse the tide? With divine intervention, of course. Scruffy looks up at the cosmos and begs it not to let Butch die, which Young's narrator informs us was interpreted as being close enough to a prayer, and hey Worldvision Video, you did state that you weren't affiliated with that religious organisation. This isn't going to turn out to be some sort of stealth Christian cartoon, is it? Not exactly - Butch does pull through and Scruffy's newfound ability to implore the Heavens for assistance is implied to have played a part in that, but that's as deep as the special gets on the matter.

Later, a recovering Butch remarks to Scruffy that he way Caesar threw him around, he'll be stiff for a month. "Caesar," Scruffy scoffs, "At least we'll never see him again." Ugh, Scruffy, you should have really learned not to tempt fate by now. Sure enough, Caesar shows up at that very moment, although there's a mixture of good and bad news this time. The good news is that Caitlin kicked Caesar out when he failed to return with Scruffy, and Caesar no longer feels any enmity toward Butch's gang as he sees himself as being in the same boat now. The bad news is that Caitlin decided to exact his revenge by calling the dog wardens and alerting them to this pack of stray dogs roaming the junkyard, and Caesar has come to warn them. Unfortunately, the dogs are so conflicted as to whether or not they should trust their old enemy that they don't manage to act until the wardens are nearly upon them. The pack deliberately disperses in the hopes of confusing their pursuers, with Butch and Scruffy sticking together. At this point Scruffy again raises the question as to whether being captured and sent the dog pound might be more of a blessing than a curse. "A lot of dogs find new masters there, don't they?" she asks. "Sure," says Butch, "but if you don't, you're dead, Scruffy! After seven days if you're still there they put you to sleep! Permanently!" He tells her this with all the depraved relish of a boy scout looking to scare the rest of his troop at a campfire.

In the end, Scruffy is captured by the wardens. Butch has his chance to run for freedom but, unable to abandon Scruffy, does the noble thing and surrenders himself to the humans. At the shelter, Scruffy and Butch find themselves confined in the Tuesday pen together, with just seven days to make an impression on prospective new owners or face the final curtain, the threat of death being ever-present in the execution hut that sits in the far corner of the yard. The following day, they peer over into the neighbouring Wednesday and are greeted by none other than Solo, Randy, Collie, Sam and Caesar, who were all busted earlier that morning. As the days roll by, all the dogs try hard to get themselves adopted and out, but to no avail. Butch notices that Scruffy isn't putting her full heart into it, pointing out that if she deployed some of the tricks she used to do while performing with Mr Tibble, she would get herself snapped up in an instant. Scruffy admits that she's been holding back because she doesn't want to be rescued if it means leaving Butch to his fate. "You're all I got," she tells him. "I love you!" "I love you too, kiddo," he replies. (On the surface, this looks like an innocuous attempt at tugging on the viewer's heartstrings, but trust me when I say that it takes on a whole new level of uncomfortable on repeat viewings.)

On Butch and Scruffy's penultimate day, a reporter appears to do a story on the shelter. He's never named, but this is our stand-in for Jack Stoneley. A warden explains that the dogs in the Tuesday pen will be due for execution tomorrow, although the smaller one will be given a few extra hours reprieve as, being a puppy, she still has a chance of being rehomed at the last minute. That ominous Tuesday finally arrives (although if you're an eagle-eyed viewer, you might notice that the sign on Butch and Scruffy's pen periodically switches to "Monday") and Butch is taken out of the pen and led away into the dreaded execution hut, imploring Scruffy to do her tricks and get herself adopted while she still has time. As Scruffy lies there sobbing her heart out, one of the wardens suddenly runs over waving a newspaper, asking everything to be put on hold. Turns out, that reporter from yesterday ran a story focusing on the plight of Scruffy, and now the phone lines are jammed with hundreds of callers wanting to adopt her. He points out that some of the other dogs might have a chance too and asks his colleague if he put Scruffy's friend to sleep yet. I have to admit that my heart was in my mouth at this point as, given how nefariously grim this special had been with the fates of Duchess and Mr Tibble, I wasn't sure on where it might be going with Butch. But no, he emerges from the hut, alive and well, and Scruffy and the gang rejoice. By the end of the day they've all been adopted, and as an added bonus Scruffy and Butch end up with a clean-cut suburban family who are happy to take them both together. To be honest, I was disappointed that Scruffy wasn't ultimately reunited with Ken and Alice instead of waltzing off with this bunch of random nobodies. Her new family feel like a major step down from Ken & Alice and Mr Tibbles - presumably, we're supposed to see them as the best possible owners because they're such a nice, clean-cut suburban bunch, but there's a vaguely Stepford Wives air about them.

Finally, we get an epilogue which gives us a glimpse Scruffy's new life six months on from that glorious Tuesday. She's now fully-grown and she and Butch have produced an adorable litter of puppies together and - wait, hold up, when Scruffy told Butch she loved him she meant it in a romantic sense? That's mighty awkward, as up until now I had interpreted Butch as being more of a surrogate father to Scruffy. Turns out, when Butch deflected Sam's attempts to make a move on Scruffy earlier, he may have had an ulterior motive all along. I know that Ruby-Spears were looking to evoke Lady and The Tramp with these two, right down to giving them the exact same conclusion, but did they never stop to ponder just how skin-crawlingly weird it would look in their case?

(Actually, I suspect this is more a case of them hoping to have their cake and eat it. Bearing in mind that I haven't read the original book, I assume that Ruby-Spears wanted Scruffy to remain a puppy for the full duration of the story so as to retain her maximum appeal factor, but they also wanted her to have a love interest who's worldly-wise and capable of taking on a pit bull, so a significant age gap was kind of inevitable.)

In the closing moments, Alan Young switches into full-blown PSA mode and leaves us with this stirring statement:

"Most strays are not as lucky as Scruffy. There are millions of them, and they have a terrible time. They're abandoned by unfeeling people; hungry, neglected, lost. It shouldn't be that way. Maybe some of us can think of ways to change it!"

Although it seeks to educate children on the problem of abandoned and unwanted dogs, in the end the special doesn't do very much more than shake its head and remark "isn't it a shame"? I appreciate that it's attempting to pass on the torch and inspire the next generation to endeavor to improve where their parents messed up, but its final stance on the matter is so vague as to seem obtuse. For one thing, there is a very obvious solution which Scruffy's family blatantly haven't gone in for, and which Bob Barker might have told them a thing or two about - it's more than a little ironic that we're being encouraged to celebrate the birth of Scruffy's enormous new litter just as the narrator is stressing how many millions of unwanted dogs there already are in the world.

The Verdict:

At times, Scruffy comes across as a cartoon with a real identity crisis - it lacks the visual and narrative sophistication to rival the Disney animations it's blatantly aping, while Ruby-Spears' Hanna-Barbera origins are periodically betrayed in the array of random plot contrivances, dull-witted villains and one or two entirely arbitrary characters who are basically just there to fill the cartoon's quota for things with silly voices. Still, it's undeniably harrowing in its depiction of death and destitution, it's surprisingly light on (intentional) comic relief, and some of the more emotional moments do land quite a powerful punch, particularly those involving Mr Tibbles.

UPDATE 19/2/20: It's been over two years since I wrote this review, and within that time it has proved to be one of my more popular pieces in terms of page views and search engine results. As such, I feel the need to be upfront about the fact that I wish to formally withdraw some of my prior statements, particularly my comment about how "children might feel safe with Oliver and Company", which I realise with hindsight was demeaning to both Scruffy and Oliver and Company. I was attempting to be flippant, but fact is that since writing this I have grown increasingly weary of commentators who tend to focus on the darker aspects of children's entertainment to a self-indulgent, borderline pornographic degree that seems to willfully distort the intended purpose of said entertainment (see: anyone who brings up Watership Down primarily to obsess about the presence of blood in an animated family film). I can't help but feel that a lot of the assumptions behind this kind of commentary are condescending to children's entertainment, and to children as a target audience. I am conscious that I applied many of those assumptions in my original final statements on Scruffy, and for that I sincerely apologise.  I'll always be fascinated with children's entertainment that is ambitious and willing to stray from the beaten track, and hopefully in the future I can convey that fascination from a perspective that goes slightly deeper than...well, you know, that woefully misapplied line from The Hudsucker Proxy.

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

The World's Strangest and Most Unsettling Simpsons Endings

You know, I have to apologise. I realise there were two separate occasions where I promised something for 2017 which I subsequently never delivered - that is, a retrospective looking at Al Jean and Mike Reiss's short-lived attempt at their own primetime animated sitcom, The Critic. All I can say is that after going through all eleven episodes of Family Dog with a fine-tooth comb, I haven't quite been able to steel myself up for another full-blown, in-depth, episode-by-episode analysis of that same nature, particularly for a series with about twice as many episodes. While I still intend to deliver the promised retrospective *eventually*, I can sum up my overall opinion on The Critic right now in a nutshell - an underrated series with plenty of sharply-written gags that's hampered by one fatal shortcoming (and no, it's not that Jay Sherman himself is "too flawed to be likeable", in the words of Warren Martyn and Adrian Wood, authors of I Can't Believe It's An Unofficial Simpsons Guide. I'll be gunning for you later, Martyn and Wood, so sit tight). Namely, that its sense of story construction is really deficient. The Critic is a funny series, but also one with a penchant for spinning a lot of absurdist humour while essentially going nowhere. Episodes don't so much end as fizzle; whatever problems are established tend to be resolved abruptly or glibly, or not at all. (I believe that Season 2 did attempt to address these issues, to a point, but I should save that for my analysis proper.) Jean and Reiss had a huge deal of comic flair but narrative was blatantly not their strong point - it hasn't escaped my attention that it was during their tenure as showrunners for The Simpsons (Seasons 3-4) that the series transitioned from being a more grounded, drama-orientated animated sitcom into a wilder and wackier cartoon (whether you like the change or loathe it).

I've no doubt that a big reason why The Simpsons succeeded where The Critic fell is because it was simply a warmer show. The Simpsons may be a dysfunctional family but they are capable of weathering their difficulties as a family unit; no matter how ugly things get, those familial bonds will always endure. Jay does have a handful of positive relationships, enough to keep his life from seeming ridiculously forlorn, but one of the series' major running gags has to do with how much people actively scorn him. It doesn't exactly make for feel-good television. But what really gives The Simpsons (classic era, anyway) the edge over The Critic is that, even once the show had crossed over into more overtly cartoonish territory, it retained the sense that it was fundamentally in it to tell its audience a story. Episodes genuinely seemed to have been conceived with an interest in exploring how characters would cope with and work through certain problems, as opposed to just what scenarios could be used as a springboard for a barrage of gags. Obviously this too is something that would whittle away with time, although it was not an entirely linear process. I believe that Season 7, when Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein came on as showrunners, did attempt to return The Simpsons to being a more drama-orientated series than it had been post-Jean and Reiss.

That's not to say that every classic era Simpsons ending, even those without Jean and Reiss's fingerprints, came about as a result of tight, lucid or meticulous plotting. There are a handful of episodes that bow out on real head-scratchers, either because the writers had written themselves into a corner and needed to bail out or, for whatever reason, they decided to throw a weird, last minute curve at the viewer. When The Simpsons gets strange, it's bound to get downright unsettling. And when things get unsettling, naturally that's going to inspire a weird kind of affection in yours truly. Here's where we celebrate that smattering of episodes that chose to close up shop by leaving the viewer in a lingering, uneasy statement of bewilderment, feebly questioning just what the hell they had seen. First, though, a disclaimer: the reason why this list is mainly concerned with the classic era episodes (ie: most of the 1990s stuff), because that's mostly what I'm familiar with personally. I ceased to watch the show religiously at around Season 14 (possibly sooner) and nowadays I usually only catch newer episodes by chance or if something about an episode happens to have piqued my interest. I acknowledge that there are some pretty significant gaps in my knowledge of the later seasons and that as a result this may not be the most comprehensive list on the subject. If there's any other particularly strange or confusing closer that you believe conforms to any of the patterns discussed on here, then by all means feel free to let me know.

The Front (Season 4)

This example is slightly different from the rest of the list, in that it has nothing to do with how the story ends per se. The episode, which sees Bart and Lisa writing for Itchy & Scratchy under a familiar pen name and Homer attending an adult education course, concludes in a fairly conventional fashion (with Homer getting a plunger stuck on his head). Then the episode fades out and we get a random thirty-second short starring Ned Flanders (much of which is taken up by a catchy title sequence). What was THAT all about?

As is often the case with the series' more curious ventures, the actual explanation turns out to be entirely banal. "The Adventures of Ned Flanders" came about purely because "The Front" was running short and the production team desperately needed a way to extend it. Hence, they threw together this bizarre bit of anti-humour with Ned and his two sons, nothing of which has any relation to the episode proper. My immediate thoughts on viewing "The Front" were, "Are there going to be more of these things?" After all, giving the short its own title sequence, and its own title ("Love That God") does convey the impression that this is all part of a series. But no, that in itself is part of the joke. It's an awful lot of hoopla over something we'll never see again. As per the DVD commentary, it was conceived as a sort of tribute to Archie Comics, who would intermittently pad out spare pages with similarly arbitrary material.

"The Adventures of Ned Flanders" was a one-off event, although it did go on to inspire the Season 7 episode "22 Short Films About Springfield" (an episode comprised of nothing but this kind of thing) so it has a legacy of sorts. As it is, it's a triumph of the non-sequitur, and also an intriguing glimpse into The Land of What Might Have Been. Let's be honest, if Ned Flanders really was given his own ongoing series of thirty-second shorts, it's hard to imagine it consisting of little more than a variation on this exact same gag - namely, that the Flanders clan are just too innocent and wholesome to be capable of delivering a punchline with any actual punch to it. But having just spent twenty-odd minutes inside the malfunctional Simpsons household there is something downright endearing about emerging through the sunny innocuousness of the Flanders' world. Perhaps an occasional return to "The Adventures of Ned Flanders" wouldn't have been at all out of order; it seems a shame that we'll never get to find out.

Treehouse of Horror IV/Treehouse of Horror V (Season 5/6)

Initially I wanted to avoid putting any Treehouse of Horror endings on here because, by definition, those things are supposed to be weird and unsettling. It's Halloween and, as per annual tradition, the Simpsons writers are given the opportunity to let down their hair, indulge in some seriously far-out plotting, and, if they're lucky, experience the thrill of slaughtering a bunch of characters who'd be otherwise untouchable in a regular episode (no continuity, no problem). I can only imagine what an enormously cathartic experience it must be. "Treehouse of Horror IV" and "V" go a step further than their brethren, in that they're strange episodes even by ToH standards. Whereas most ToH episodes tend to be a bit dark, spooky and fantastical, IV and V take twists into the genuinely nightmarish (personally, I was disturbed by the moment in "Terror at 5 1/2 Feet" where Bart and the gremlin first make eye contact and the latter smiles, as if he wants to be friends with Bart, then casually rips into the side of the bus). It's only fitting that they each should bow out with some of the most hair-raisingly non-sequitur endings in Simpsons history.  IV ends with a vampire-fied Simpson clan all poised to devour Lisa, only to hang back and wish the viewer a happy Halloween, before humming "Hark The Herald Angels Sing" a la A Charlie Brown Christmas. V ends with Bart waking up and discovering that the entire "Nightmare Cafeteria" segment was really a bad dream, only for he and his family to be turned inside out by a mysterious green fog...whereupon they start singing a corrupted version of "One" from The Chorus Line. Oh, and Santa's Little Helper goes all Jeffrey Dahmer on Bart. It's one hell of a gruesome closer.

I'm toying between which of the two endings I find more unsettling, and find myself, oddly, leaning more toward IV. It's not that I'm immune to the graphic nastiness of that V ending, or the freaky incongruousness of seeing the family perform an upbeat number whilst kicking blood all over the place (although the Chorus Line parody itself isn't quite so random - if you're an attentive viewer, then you might have recognised it as a callback to the ending of "The Shinning", when the family were forced to endure a rendition of "One"from the Tony Awards whilst freezing to death in the snow). But that Charlie Brown homage is just weird, and has no business being in a Halloween-themed cartoon. That's precisely what makes it so disturbing. That, and Santa's Little Helper's attempt to replicate Snoopy's signature dancing style, which has the effect of making it look as if he's demonically possessed. Too creepy for words, you sordid mutt.

Sideshow Bob's Last Gleaming - The Sky 1 Edit (Season 7)

This one's an esoteric choice, as it was only confusing if the sole version of this episode you had access to was the heavily truncated one aired in the UK by Sky 1 in the late 1990s. I include it here because it was the source of great personal perturbation to myself back in the day, and also because I couldn't resist the opportunity to plug the extensive coverage I wrote of this edit back in 2016. Check it out - you won't find a more loving or dedicated analysis of the subject if you tried. To sum it up, Sky 1 removed an all-important moment in which Bob is distressed by the sounds of a lowbrow sitcom featuring Vanessa Redgrave because the term "haul ass" could be heard. Unfortunately, the episode's closing gag is a direct call-back to that very moment, meaning that, in the Sky 1 edit, what we got was an entirely a random ending where Abe Simpson shows up on a bike for no reason (oh, and his own "haul ass" remark was also cut). Chattering cyclops indeed.

The Day The Violence Died (Season 7)

And here we reach the ending that pretty much inspired this whole entry. "The Day The Violence Died" is easily one of the strangest episodes of The Simpsons, period. I know that a lot of fans don't like this episode purely because of a scene where Homer gives Bart 750 dollars with no questions asked (we're told in the DVD commentary that Matt Groening took tremendous issue with this moment too), but then the episode as a whole seems to hinge on a number of bizarre twists and implausibilities. It's also an episode which shifts dramatically in its focus midway through, starting out as a bog-standard Simpsons adventure before becoming something altogether more meta and self-critical. Initially, it's about Bart's chance encounter with Chester J. Lampwick (voice of Kirk Douglas), a destitute ex-cartoonist who transpires to be the uncredited creator of Itchy the mouse, and his subsequent attempts to bring Lampwick his rightful recognition. This is resolved halfway through the episode, but from its very solution springs a brand new problem - the Itchy & Scratchy studios are left bankrupt after being ordered to pay a substantial cash settlement to Lampwick, spurring Bart and Lisa off on a new mission to save Itchy & Scratchy. They spend much of the third act spinning their wheels and running into total dead ends (Homer isn't coughing up any more dough, and Lampwick, who we would expect to play a major role in the episode's resolution, withdraws completely, flat-out stating that he doesn't care how things turn out from here). Finally, Bart and Lisa come up with a solution, only to discover that two other young Springfieldians, Lester and Eliza, have already cracked the problem and put Itchy & Scratchy back in business. Naturally, Lester and Eliza are doppelgangers of Bart and Lisa, to the extent that they have the characters' original designs from The Tracey Ullman Show interstitials. The actual Bart and Lisa wind up feeling a little dejected; Marge suggests that they should just be happy that their favourite cartoon is back in production, but neither of them can shake the feeling that there is something not quite right in their universe. The episode ends with Lester skateboarding past the Simpsons' house and glaring at Bart, while ominous music plays and Bart follows his gaze uneasily through the window. Dear god, does that ending give me the creeps. Was anyone else reminded of that Twilight Zone episode about the woman at the bus station?

This is another ending which I overthought way too much as a kid. I noted that Lester and Eliza were really the Tracey Ullman versions of Bart and Lisa and wondered if it had something to do with Roger Meyers Jr's line about everything in animation being plagiarised from something else. Hence, the significance of Bart and Lisa getting upstaged by rip-offs of themselves...or is it the other way around? Lester and Eliza have the characters' original designs, after all, so perhaps, much like Chester J. Lampwick, they're simply looking to hone in on what's rightfully theirs. Perhaps they're even the primitive Bart and Lisa who, through some kind of freaky inference with the space-time continuum, have come for revenge on their future selves for abandoning everything they formerly stood for; that is, raw and offbeat slices of life from a contemporary suburban family?

On the DVD commentary, Bill Oakley admits that a lot of viewers were baffled by the ending and explains that it was born from the frustration of not knowing how to finish the episode. This led to the line of thinking that, "Well, why should it be up to Bart and Lisa to solve all of Springfield's problems anyway? What if some other kids elsewhere in town just happened to beat them to it this time?" Hence, we got Lester and Eliza. The ending is foreshadowed in a scene where Marge reminds Bart and Lisa of all the amazing feats they've accomplished as a team (incidentally, Marge is wrong when she tells them they've foiled Sideshow Bob on five separate occasions, as on at least two of those occasions Bart defeated Bob single-handedly). Ostensibly, Marge is giving her kids the extra confidence boost they need to pull through and save the day, but what she's actually doing, unbeknownst to herself, is underlining the sheer improbability that it should ever have fallen to a couple of children to redress so many issues of this magnitude. I've spoken previously about Season 8 being the point where the series became very self-aware and even a little uneasy about its juggernaut status, but in many respects this episode acts as a precursor to all of that, in that it's really about the show taking a good hard look at itself and shaking its head, if a little facetiously. Regardless, our sympathies remain with Bart and Lisa - we recognise that their final discontent doesn't stem from petty jealousy of Lester and Eliza so much as the chilling realisation that they were little more than irrelevant extras in someone else's narrative. It's a disturbance far more offsetting than the plight of a one-shot character like Lampwick or a tertiary character like Roger Meyers Jr.

What Oakley doesn't explain in the commentary is if there's any particular significance to Lester and Eliza having Bart and Lisa's old character designs from The Tracey Ullman Show...so far as I can tell, this is simply an in-joke for the long-term fans. However, I'm inclined to think that my old analysis about Lester and Eliza being the avenging Ghosts of Simpsons Past was on the money all along. When Bart and Lester lock eyes at the end of the episode, the true horror comes in being confronted by the self, in all its glaring, accusatory ugliness. Their uneasy stand-off signifies the gulf between the series past and present, the latter having to sheepishly admit that it's become a shadow of everything it once set out to be. The Simpson family that Lester and Eliza appear on behalf of may be long gone, but "The Day The Violence Died" suggests that the series continues to be haunted by memories of its humbler origins, a malaise underscored by an ending in which Lester roams openly around Bart's territory while Bart is confined eerily to the sidelines.

Speaking of Ms Ullman, the scariest thing The Simpsons have ever done is certainly NOT a segment from a Treehouse of Horror, but the very first of the Tracey Ullman Show shorts, "Good Night". Let's earmark that one, and the ways in which it continues to haunt my deepest, darkest nightmares, for a full discussion in itself.

Bart Star (Season 9)

Jump ahead to Season 9, the point in which the series was visibly starting to transition from the "classic era" into the pale shadow of its former self that Lester clearly saw coming. Beyond "The Principal and the Pauper" (which was a holdover from Season 8), this season found the series in a less self-depreciating mood, having moved past its anxieties and silenced those inner voices of unsolicited criticism - Frank Grimes was in his grave, Sergeant Skinner and Roy had been banished into oblivion and Lester and Eliza hadn't been seen for quite some time. While we didn't get the magic powers or long lost triplets promised by Troy McClure, there was a definite sense of the show screaming "To heck with it!" and just doing whatever it wanted, and stranger, less conclusive endings were an occasional consequence. Like this one in which Bart is last seen being dragged away in handcuffs for a crime he didn't commit, while guest star Joe Namath casually attempts to impart that the real purpose of the episode was to provide an extended PSA on the dangers of vapor lock. Whut?

(Actually, it's made all the more sinister by that startled facial expression Namath pulls at the very last second, as if it's just dawned on him that there's something very wrong with this particular closer.)

Das Bus (Season 9)

"...and eventually they were rescued by...oh, let's say Moe."

Do I really need to elaborate on this one?

We're on the Road to D'oh-where (Season 17)

I mentioned that I ceased to be a regular Simpsons viewer at around Season 14, but I have seen a smattering of later episodes here and there, among them this oddity from Season 17 (actually, I've got the whole of Season 17 on disc; it was Sideshow Bob themed, so I couldn't possibly say no). The clue here is in the title, which does more than just wink at Talking Heads - it's an episode that drives itself to a total narrative dead-end and then just...stops, with no attempt to pull out any of the wily tactics observed elsewhere in this list. The result is not only unsettling, but also a little melancholic.

For the most part, I think that this episode is watchable. The main story, which involves Bart and Homer taking a road trip so that the former can go to reform school and the latter to Las Vegas, is fairly entertaining, although the subplot, which has Marge becoming a low-level drug dealer, is pretty lame (there's also a rather tasteless suicidal Moe joke, and I'm not sure, but I think that Homer may have killed a horse). Both storylines drag out to the point where it gets a little too late to establish a reasonable means of taking the family out of their respective jams, and it becomes apparent that the only option would be a hasty deus ex machina. But nope, that doesn't happen either. Instead, Lisa arrives home from school to find Maggie unattended. She checks the answering machine and finds two messages, one from Marge, who's been busted for her backyard pharmacy and urgently needs Homer to bring the bail money, and the other from Homer, stating that he lost Bart in Las Vegas and is being held in a prison in Nevada after picking a fight with a pit-boss. Lisa turns to Maggie and admits that she always knew it would come down to just the two of them eventually. She promises to look for work in the morning and we cut to the end-credits.

It's a grim scenario. Homer and Marge are both left incarcerated, each unaware that help from other other will not be coming, and Bart appears to have fallen off the face of the planet, while Lisa and Maggie are left to fend for themselves back at Evergreen Terrace. What's disturbing, yet also strangely poetic about this turn of events is the manner in which the episode plays it off as little more than the logical conclusion to the entire Simpsons narrative. Lisa reacts not with horror, but with heavy resignation, apparently all-too aware that her family crossed the point of no return ages ago and all she can do now is embrace self-sufficiency and find her own way forward. By now, viewers should be canny enough to know that the family will be rescued from their predicament by virtue of the great reset button that will be activated in time for the next episode - but honestly, they could have made this the series finale and I would have bought it. Admittedly, that last lingering image of Maggie sitting alone in her highchair would made for one heck of a downbeat and low-key means of finishing a series this ground-breaking and influential, but perhaps that's entirely befitting for a show that always opted to walk a little on the wild side.

Bonus Round: All of Season 5

I noted at the start of this entry that it was during Jean and Reiss's tenure as showrunners that The Simpsons transitioned from being a more down-to-earth animated sitcom to something altogether fruitier. And yet, much to my surprise, when I was scanning through the series' extensive catalogue in preparation for this list, I realised that the highest number of endings consisting of surreal sight gags and meta observations actually came from Season 5, when David Mirkin took over as showrunner. I am somewhat exaggerating when I say this applies to all of Season 5, but nevertheless, this was definitely the season of the bizarro final punchline. Admittedly, a good chunk of these are just very intricate movie parodies which may be lost on you if you haven't seen the films in question (Boy-Scoutz 'n The Hood, Homer The Vigilante, Deep Space Homer and Lady Bouvier's Lover all spring to mind), but there are also a fair number demonstrating just how confident yet also amusedly fixated with its own limitations the series had become by this stage. Here are the examples that especially stick out:

  • Rosebud - This ending's based on Planet of The Apes (coming off of an episode which serves as an extensive spoof of Citizen Kane - hence the title), although I don't think you need to be familiar with the source to appreciate the joke it's going for (that Burns is destined to keep on repeating this pattern with Bobo for centuries to come). It closes the episode on an awfully sinister note, one which has the viewer pondering whether the notion of Burns still being around in the distant future (albeit sans the better part of his original body) and spreading his trademark villainy across the remains of a post-apocalyptic Earth should be taken as more of a comfort or a bone-chiller. At least there's reassurance in the confirmation that Smithers is still at his side, albeit in a heavily modified form as his robotic running dog.
  • The Last Temptation of Homer - Maybe it's just me, but as a kid I was always freaked out by that final gag in which Homer is hounded by the leering bellhop and then punches his lights out. It's not the most left-of-field closer, but there is something oddly disconcerting about it.
  • $pringfield - This one's a bit troubling for the two story threads it just kind of leaves hanging (actually three if you recall that Smithers is last seen being held at gunpoint by a deranged, Howard Hughes-channeling Mr Burns). Lisa never gets the halfway presentable Florida costume she was promised by Marge for her school pageant and is last seen enduring a dubious award presentation at said pageant. More problematic is the handling of Marge's gambling addiction, which is glib and by god the episode knows it. After finally admitting that she has a problem, Marge ponders if she should get some professional help, to which Homer responds, "No, that's too expensive, just don't do it any more." This ending lampoons the writer's quandary of having to establish a problem and resolve it within the space of 22 minutes, the risk being that you wind up with a rather facile representation of how the world works - which is an issue when you're dealing with something as complex and potentially life-destroying as addiction. Homer and Marge kiss at the end, so we get some superficial signal that all is right in the world again, but...it's not. As Homer keeps rubbing in Marge's face, "YOU have a gambling problem!" (Incidentally, this may well be the Simpsons episode to most closely resemble an episode of The Critic, in that it's more about gags and random sketches than a particularly strong plot. They are great gags, sure, but this is such a weird episode tonally.)
  • Bart Gets Famous - A highly meta episode about the hollowness of Bart's initial status as a 1990s icon. It's only fitting that it should end on a meta joke in which an assortment of Simpsons characters spout their respective catchphrases for no other reason, it seems, than to remind Lisa how painfully out of her element she is within this town. ("If anyone wants me I'll be in my room" is actually a pretty apt summarisation of her eternal predicament.)
  • Homer and Apu - "There's still time; let's hug him again." The Simpson family are apparently now aware that everything must happen in 22 minutes, nothing more and nothing less. Otherwise you wind up with a non-sequitur Flanders skit in the tail.
  • Homer Loves Flanders - In some respects, this episode feels like to a precursor to "The Day The Violence Died", in that it deals with the younger Simpsons being all-too aware of how their universe functions and recognising that even the tiniest scratch in its fabric has the potential to make it all unravel. Bart is unnerved by the fact that Homer and Ned are now friends despite years of (one-sided) enmity, but Lisa reassures him that if they ride it out then eventually the status quo will reset by itself. Yet toward the end of the episode, Homer and Ned have only become closer than ever; they reaffirm their friendship in a heartwarming scene that's purposely undercut by Bart and Lisa's concern that this alteration to the show's dynamic, however minor, could spell the end to their weekly adventures. At the very end, Lisa's initial forecast turns out to be entirely accurate. In the final scene, we see that Homer has reverted back to scorning Flanders, with no explanation given, other than that his attentions have simply shifted onto the next big thing - which, in a further parody of television convention, happens to be one of the hoariest-sounding plots around. Homer has been left a country house by some random relative we've never heard of (or will again) and proposes that the family stick out the weekend there to debunk local legend that it's haunted. A contrivance so nice, they skewered it twice (see also "Bart The Fink" of Season 7).

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Animation Oscar Bite 2009: Rejoice In The Sun (Reprise)

81st Academy Awards - 22nd February 2009

The contenders: Bolt, Kung Fu Panda, WALL-E

The winner: WALL-E

The rightful winner: WALL-E

The barrel-scraper: Bolt

Other notes:

The years 2007 to 2009 are what I fondly (if awkwardly) refer to as Pixar's "Fountain Age", by which I mean that they tapped into this almost mythical spring of mind-bending creativity and the results were like seltzer to the soul. This was the time in which Pixar seemed absolutely unstoppable, delivering three outstanding films in a row, each crafted with a singularity and sophistication that had one positively salivating, and each very, very joyous to watch. The middle film was Andrew Stanton's Wall-E, which saw Pixar dip into its most arthouse mode yet, by reviving a practice I'd considered long extinct in Hollywood animation - that is, a deep trust in silence and non-verbal character interaction. In an age where big budget animation was predominantly driven by stunt voice casting and non-stop wisecracking, it was refreshing - even a little startling - to have a major animated film where the two leads only speak a scant handful of words between them, and where the entire first third of the film is almost completely devoid of dialogue. The relationship between WALL-E and EVE is depicted with a heartfelt elegance, capturing both the purity of these two artificially intelligent souls and also the haunting stillness of a world were most other life-forms are apparently either dead, defunct or got out long ago. It moves at a contemplative pace that implores the viewer to slow down and sniff the figurative daisies along the way, befitting for a film that advocates, above all else, the necessity of being awake in order to be alive. Oh, and as a side-note, WALL-E's (non-anthropomorphic) cockroach companion is wretchedly adorable, which goes some way to rebut Pixar's earlier insistence, when promoting A Bug's Life, that insects have this inherent "ick factor".

In other news, DreamWorks Animation were officially back in favour again. Kung Fu Panda scored them their first nomination in four years and did a lot to restore their credibility following a string of Shrek sequels and mediocre-at-best comedies about farting animals...perhaps because Kung Fu Panda was the first DreamWorks Animation in ages to give the impression someone had genuinely cared about bringing this particular story to life as opposed to just clinging to the mentality that, "Farting animals sell!" It treats its world, its characters and the culture from which it derives with more gravitas than one would reasonably expect from a late-00s DreamWorks film with the title Kung Fu Panda, drawing a good balance between the drama and the low comedy and actually being quite a lovely film to look at (no small feat given how much I've complained about about the ugliness of some of those DreamWorks features in the past). Story-wise, nothing overly unexpected happens - it's a pretty straightforward Unlikely Savior narrative, but one made with such an obvious affection for all things chopsocky that it keeps you smiling through the predictability. It's not a masterpiece for the ages, but if nothing else, it was reassuring to see that DreamWorks were capable of growth and aspiring to be more than just the edgier-than-thou alternative to Pixar.

Finally, we have Bolt, the first (non-Pixar) Disney film to have been nominated in this category since Brother Bear in 2004. Bolt is an interesting film. Well, okay, no it isn't. In itself, Bolt is about as tortuously uninteresting as Disney feature animation gets - the story and characters are derivative as snot and there's this terribly disposable air to the entire affair, as if the film never had aspirations of being even vaguely remembered a few months after its release date, provided it was able to shift enough plush toys within that time. What's odd and strange and curious about Bolt has absolutely nothing to do with the finished product but with the shadow of that altogether weirder picture that will forever stalk and haunt this one, although you'd have to have a bit of background knowledge on the film's development history to know that it's there. Before Bolt became Bolt it started life as American Dog, the much anticipated follow-up project from Lilo & Stitch director Chris Sanders. It was to star a pampered celebrity pup named Henry who finds himself stranded in the Nevada desert and has to team up with a couple of real oddball critters - a cranky one-eyed feline and a radioactive mutant bunny - in order to make his way back to civilisation. From the sounds of it, it would have been one hell of a freaky feature. Then in 2006, John Lasseter was brought on as creative head of Disney Feature Animation and supposedly he wasn't very keen on where Sanders was going with this project (or with Sanders in general - rumours also stipulate that Lasseter positively hated Lilo & Stitch). He gave Sanders a lengthy series of notes on how to "fix" the film, there was apparently a bit of butting of heads between the two and, long story short, Sanders was booted off the project and replaced with two more compliant directors, Chris Williams and Byron Howard. The resulting film was safe, predictable and totally impossible to feel any excitement over, unless you happen to have a thing for American white shepherds.

To some, Lasseter's treatment of Sanders would be the first chink in his reputation as Mr Artistic Integrity (it gets a lot worse from here, but we'll address that elephant in the room in due course), as it suggested that Lasseter was ultimately more concerned with delivering a commercial product than he was with supporting the creative visions of his individual directors - but then everyone has their limits and, without having seen how American Dog was shaping up, it's difficult to say whether or not Sanders' vision merited infinite amounts of patience. Inevitably, fans tended to side with whichever of the two names they preferred. Myself, the tiny glimpses we got of American Dog didn't really appeal to me.* But then Bolt most certainly didn't.

The Snub Club:

Besides WALL-E, the trendy highbrow animation to see in 2008 was Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir, an Israeli animated documentary about the Lebanon War, which found itself competing in a different category, for Best Foreign Language Film, but lost out to Yojiro Takita's Depatures. Other than that, 2008 didn't really have a lot else going on. Blue Sky released their second non-Ice Age feature, an adaptation of Dr Seuss's 1954 book Horton Hears a Who!. Why Hollywood keeps trying to churn out feature adaptations from a writer renowned for his playful brevity is beyond me - Blue Sky's attempt has none of the eye-gouging nastiness of that live action Cat In The Hat film from 2003, but it still succumbs to the usual pitfalls in having to pad out a story designed to be read aloud in less than a tenth its length. It's watchable, but not much else. Also, as if to balance out their recent encounter with narrative integrity, DreamWorks Animation released Madagascar 2: Escape To Africa, just to remind everyone that they were still the house of half-based franchises and ugly comedies about farting animals. I loathed the first Madagascar with such murderous intensity that I've managed to successfully steer clear of this one for close to a decade. I don't intend to give in now.

*Actually, I think the dog, Henry, is quite cute. Not so sold on the rabbit or the cat though.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Animation Oscar Bite 2008: Year of The Rat

80th Academy Awards - 24th February 2008

The contenders: Persepolis, Ratatouille, Surf's Up

The winner: Ratatouille

The rightful winner: Ratatouille

The barrel-scraper: Surf's Up

Other Notes:

Okay, so I mentioned last time that Cars was always going to be at a disadvantage for me because I think automobiles are boring and dull and the idea of an alternate universe populated entirely by automobiles strikes me as kind of inherently creepy. Ratatouille, on the other hand, was right at the other end of the spectrum, in that they were going to have to screw it up really, really badly for me to dislike it. This was a film that went straight for my Achilles heel - that is, my long-standing affection for  Rattus norvegicus. Willard I am; many a day in my life has been brightened simply by having a fancy rat park their scaly tail upon my shoulder. And, unlucky me, I chose to put my emotional investment into a creature that's traditionally anthropomorphised as one of the villains of the animal kingdom. So when I learned that Pixar were making a film where a rat actually got to be the hero, it almost seemed too good to be true (and it very nearly was - Ratatouille had one of Pixar's more notoriously troubled productions; Brad Bird, fresh off The Incredibles, inherited the project after Jan Pinkava's initial blueprints fell through). Ratatouille was the rat film I had been waiting for my whole life. That it happened to be such a great film on top of that was a lovely bonus.

One thing I was all over about Ratatouille was how much care and attention had evidently gone into replicating those murine movements and mannerisms - whenever Remy and his brethren budged an inch there was always something wonderfully, intrinsically rattish about it. I understand that Pinkava's version of the film had actually pushed in the opposite direction, in making the rats so anthropomorphic that they ceased to move or even look terribly much like rats; such was the fear that audience would find the subject too skin-crawling. It makes me not weep too much for his lost labours. I'm reminded of how in the run-up to A Bug's Life Pixar would talk about how they set out to reduce the "ick factor" associated with bugs and, naturally, that extra pair of appendages was the first thing to go (the characters' moral allegiances are even coded, predominantly, as "four legs good, six legs bad", with the villainous grasshoppers being leggier creatures than the honest ants). That always bugged me (pun intended), as it gives the impression that A Bug's Life didn't particularly trust its own subject matter (insects don't have to be "gross" - they're beautiful, magnificent and mysterious. Haven't you ever seen Microcosmos?). I think Bird did well in not instilling Ratatouille with a similar coyness; it doesn't shy away from the fact that it's a film about rats, asking the viewer instead to move past whatever reservations they might have. It's a film that oozes a genuine passion for everything it encompasses, from the artistry of fine cuisine to the gracefulness in allowing its pint-sized protagonists to express their fundamental ratness.

Once again, the UK release was blighted with a pointless localisation, with celebrity chef Jamie Oliver being pasted in as the voice of the health inspector (replacing Tony Fucile), but compared to Clarkson's cameo in Cars Oliver's performance was at least fairly low-key and not too obnoxious (besides, it could have been worse - they could've gotten Gordon Ramsey, in which case I would've had no choice but to boycott the UK release altogether).

Persepolis, a feature adaptation of Marjane Satrapi's autobiographical graphic novel about her adolescence in Iran during the Islamic Revolution, was another strong entry, a powerful coming of age drama told in stark black-and-white tones. For all its haunting contemplations upon finding one's place and identity in a world that scarcely seems to recognise one as an individual, I'm a little ashamed to admit that what mainly sticks out in my memory is the random "Eye of the Tiger" interlude (the film is not without a sense of humour, despite tackling such sombre subject matter).

Last and least of the bunch was the sophomore effort of the still-fledging Sony Pictures Animation. Surf's Up was a step up from Open Season - unlike that film, it at least tried to bring something different to the wacky, animal-orientated CG comedy table, in being a penguinised parody of The Endless Summer (the trailer, which played the concept hilariously straight, looked fairly promising). Problem is that I don't think they really knew how to work the mockumentary gimmick and tell a coherent story all in one, and the second the novelty wears off, the film itself loses interest. There are long stretches in the second half where it seems to ditch the mockumentary angle altogether - we still get a lot of brief, Creature Comforts-esque vox pop skits interspersed throughout, but whenever we return to the main penguin's story all sense of the on-screen action being trailed an in-universe camera crew suddenly disappears; nor do the characters exhibit any awareness that there are theoretically cameras pointed at them the entire time (this becomes a problem when the Jeff Bridges penguin divulges deep, dark secrets he blatantly doesn't intend to be spread around). It's decent enough, but I have a feeling that Aardman would have handled it better. Or maybe not - their attempts at a mockumentary version of The Tortoise and The Hare reportedly crashed and burned quite messily behind the scenes.

The Snub Club:

Pixar may have been right at the top of their game, but 2007 was not a great year for DreamWorks Animation. Oh sure, Shrek The Third still racked up big numbers at the box office, but it was at this point that audiences really started to fall out of love with the grimy green ogre, and it suddenly became fashionable to hate a franchise which had been considered the height of cool just six years prior. My mother, who loved the original, called this one "trash" and expressed anger that someone was apparently paid for writing it. Myself, I wasn't massively keen on the first two installments, but even I was taken back by what a massive step down in quality Shrek The Third was - it's such a dreary, manufactured, joyless experience, and there's nothing to suggest that anyone involved in the making of the film derived absolutely any pleasure from the process. Shrek and Fiona's ghastly, gaseous hellspawn offer nothing of any value or endearment, while Justin Timberlake's King Arthur quickly grates on the nerves, but by far the film's biggest error of judgement was in making Prince Charming the main villain - in Shrek 2 he was little more than a joke/plot device (yet another inversion on traditional fairy tale ideals), but here he's had the role of Big Bad awkwardly thrust upon him for no greater reason, one suspects, than the writers awkwardly fumbling around for some vague thread of continuity from the previous film. Charming is way too ineffectual to be main villain material, and the film's treatment of him is just cold.

Oh, but later that year DreamWorks also released Bee Movie. So it wasn't a total wash. I have no idea quite what Bee Movie supposes it's doing - it's by far the strangest, most inexplicable thing to be sitting in DreamWorks' canon right now, a film that defies logic, coherence and narrative aesthetic in favour of endless bee puns and the most bizarre case of interspecies romance this way west of "Opposites Attract" (good thing I'm open-minded, eh?). It might have been conceived as a kind of parody of Pixar's fanciful, anthropomorphised world-building (predating Sausage Party by nine years), although that's probably giving it too much credit. Bee Movie has the distinctive flavour of a joke that was carried too far; it never takes flight as a film and it feels downright awkward packaged as something you could babysit the kids with. A financial failure on release, Bee Movie has since become something of a cult item, and for that I'm glad. Any film this balls-to-the-walls, hypnotically inane sorely deserves an appreciative viewership.

Meanwhile, Disney's love affair with CG continued with Meet The Robinsons. I'll get round to watching it...one day. Its impact was fairly minimal, but all indications tell me that it's head and shoulders above Chicken Little, and that's a decent enough start.

Elsewhere in 2007, The Simpsons made their long-awaited big screen debut after years of rumours and speculation and tinkering that went nowhere (they'd been toying with the idea of a Simpsons movie since at least as far back as Season 4, when James L. Brooks had suggested that the script of "Kamp Krusty" be expanded to feature length). At the time, I knew some folks who were absolutely shocked that The Simpsons Movie didn't make the nominees list, but it really didn't surprise me. With the awkward exception of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, feature adaptations of televised cartoons have never held much sway when it comes to Academy recognition. There's also the fact that The Simpsons Movie wasn't very good...or maybe I was just sour because my favourite character wasn't in it. I got a handful of muted chuckles from the film, but the total lack of Sideshow Bob was a definite deal-breaker. If you think that sounds petty, put yourself in my place - Kelsey Grammer had confirmed early on in production that he'd recorded lines for the film, and I was so happy at the news that Bob would be involved that I told absolutely everyone I knew. Then when the film came out and transpired to be an entirely Terwilliger-free experience, not only did I have to deal with my personal disappointment, for a while I also had to contend with people coming up to me and saying, "Hey, didn't you tell me that Sideshow Bob was going to be in The Simpsons Movie? Well, I didn't see him anywhere..." Yeah, it seems that Bob was included in an early version of the script but got taken out. Apparently they test screened the shit out of this film throughout production and a LOT of consideration was given to feedback from audience members who weren't familiar with the show, with the intention of engineering a movie that was accessible to fans and non-fans alike; with that in mind, I'm going to take an educated guess that Bob got jettisoned because his character isn't exactly self-explanatory and there was some concern that laypeople would find his whole deal too confusing (Hank Scorpio from "You Only Move Twice" was going to be the villain at one point but got dumped for that very reason). Okay, fair enough, but they couldn't even spare Bob a measly background cameo? (Some people swear that Bob is lurking somewhere in the angry mob sequence but...he isn't. Believe me, I've looked.)

Finally, Imagi Animation gave me the opportunity to indulge my inner six-year-old with the release of TMNT, the Ninja Turtles' first theatrical outing in fourteen years. Before seeing it, I tried hard to put myself in the mind-set of that small child who'd once been insatiable for the adventures of Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael and Michelangelo. I've no doubt that six-year-old me would have loved this movie. Unfortunately, adult me is more of a stickler, and the instant I left that auditorium I was overwhelmed in contemplating the sheer number of plot-holes I'd just been asked to swallow. So, let's get this straight - these thirteen (mostly) gargantuan monsters were unleashed on Earth millennia ago and nobody's seriously noticed them until now? Compared to that, a woolly mammoth deluded enough to think she's a possum is an easy sell.

Monday, 8 January 2018

Animation Oscar Bite 2007: My Two Feet Can't Find A Way

79th Academy Awards - 25th February 2007

The contenders: Cars, Happy Feet, Monster House

The winner: Happy Feet

The rightful winner: Happy Feet
The barrel-scraper: I'm tempted to say Cars. But maybe that's just mean.

Ah, now this is a result which caused quite a bit of upset back in the day. Most people expected Cars to win and were gobsmacked when the award instead went to the film about the tap-dancing penguin which my friends and I at the time thought looked quite naff. That being said, not many people actually liked Cars, at least compared to other Pixar titles. The merchandise was a big hit with the littlies, but the film quickly garnered a reputation as Pixar's weakest and got a ton of unfavorable comparisons to Doc Hollywood (a 1991 Michael J Fox vehicle that I'm surprised enough people actually remembered). But everyone still expected Cars to triumph because it was Pixar, and after two wins in a row Pixar were now recognised as Academy favourites. Its loss created an awkward rift in what would otherwise have been a perfect winning streak for every Pixar release from Finding Nemo to Toy Story 3.

Personally, I find the whole notion of a universe populated by intelligent automobiles to be inherently unappealing, even a tad sinister, seeing how it inadvertently suggests a world where machines have displaced man (a Volkswagen with a mind of its own? If that isn't scary I don't know what is!). From the teaser, I'd assumed this would be more like Toy Story, where the cars lived in the "real" world alongside humans and became animated when they weren't around - an alternate world made up of talking cars, though? That's just crazy! Perhaps if I shared John Lasseter's obsession with the titular object I'd be more at home here, but to me the car is just a boring functional item, nothing more (not that that should be the deciding factor - a good film should draw you into its world and make you care, regardless of whether you're a hobbyist or not).

Whatever the sins of the original, the UK release was made a hundred times worse because Jeremy Clarkson was in it. In the original US version of the film, Lightning McQueen's perpetually off-screen agent Harv was voiced by Jeremy Piven, best known for playing Ari Gold in the HBO series Entourage, but in the UK he was swapped out with that other Jeremy who presented Top Gear (at the time). I touched on this kind of needless localisation, briefly, in my coverage of the 2005 awards, and you might have detected that I'm not a fan of it. At any rate, I've rarely seen it done well. In Shrek 2, where two minor characters voiced by US celebrities were re-dubbed with the voice-overs of UK celebrities, it was implemented very clumsily and with little to no attention to preserving the integrity of the original joke (why anyone thought it was a good idea to replace Joan Rivers with Kate Thornton in the role of Joan-freaking-Rivers is absolutely beyond me). Here, I can at least see the relevance of inserting Clarkson into a film about automobiles, but my appreciation for the in-joke is hindered by the fact that I have such a strong dislike of Clarkson and find myself automatically adverse to anything that serves mainly to pander to his ego. (Actually, a quick glance at Piven's Wikipedia page would suggest that he's perhaps not the most desirable name to have associated with family friendly entertainment at this point in time. But then neither is John Lasseter.)

But enough about Cars - let's take a look at our winner. Happy Feet was directed by George Miller, best known for the Mad Max series (his switch to family friendly fare with cuddly-looking animals isn't entirely unprecedented, given that he also wrote and produced Babe) and was the debut feature animation project from Australian visual effects company Animal Logic, who would later go on to animate The Lego Movie and its various sequels/spin-offs. After seeing Happy Feet, I was immediately sorry that I ever dismissed it as naff. Happy Feet is too hypnotically, mind-bogglingly weird to be dismissed as anything. Whatever naffness it might have it flaunts proudly on its sleeve; it's a film that marches very much to the beat of its own drum, and you find yourself warming to it, no matter how loopy the curves it throws at you. I caught myself getting annoyed during a scene where a leopard seal threatens Mumble with the line "I'll take you with ketchup!" (mate, you're a leopard seal living out in Antarctica, how do you know what ketchup is?), and had to remind myself that there's also a penguin who's somehow able to channel Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five and that Mumble's parents may be the literal reincarnations of Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe (they're even called Memphis and Norma Jean, in case you didn't get the allusion). I quickly learned not to question this film's unique brand of (Animal) Logic.

The film's premise - a young emperor penguin who prefers to dance rather than sing is made a pariah by his society, when his talents are deemed to be in violation of their proud traditions - sounds daft on paper but makes sense in context. Penguin society is played as an analogy for organised religion, with the penguins using song as a means of appeasing their deity, and Mumble's unconventional approach quickly marks him out as a threat (it's not hard to read Mumble's knack for dancing as a LGBT metaphor - the film readily lends itself to such an interpretation in a scene where Mumble takes a stand against his father's attempts to explain away his differences as a biological abnormality). Happy Feet also has a message about the impact of human activity on the rest of the natural world, which is conveyed, wittily, as a sort of inversion on Close Encounters of The Third Kind, where humans are the mysterious and ominous invaders with whom Mumble longs to make contact (from my understanding, earlier versions of the script were a lot kookier and involved the penguins facing off against literal extra-terrestrials, a plot thread that was apparently dropped quite late into production). In scenery terms, Happy Feet is a really good-looking film, although I have to admit that I wasn't overly charmed by the character animation, the combination of photo-realistic penguins with humanised expressions striking me as just a little too shuddersome. As it stands, Happy Feet is one of the stranger films to have taken this award - I've no doubt that it would have been smashed had it gone up against a stronger Pixar entry, but it's surprisingly disarming stuff, and very worthy of its crown.

The third entry forgotten in all of this was Amblin Entertainment's Monster House...which if you ask me is pretty darned underrated, even if it isn't exactly pretty. I've mentioned previously that I'm no fan of Robert Zemeckis and his super-freaky experiments with motion capture, so it's somewhat ironic that I feel as positively about this film (which was animated at Zemeckis's studio, ImageMovers) as I do. I'm still not sold on the technology, mind - Monster House at least has a more stylised aesthetic than The Polar Express, with the characters bearing a pleasing resemblance to stop motion figures, although they still have something of the uncanny valley in them, and some of the designs seem really off (one character, Bones, whom I'm guessing is supposed to be a teenager, looks about 47). Story-wise, it's refreshing to have a CG family film that goes for old-fashioned spooks (in a manner reminiscent of 1980s kids' entertainment) over wacky, fast-paced comedy, and Steve Buscemi is fun as a creepy, Gollum-esque neighbour who's become the subject of local urban legend. Also curious are the vague plot similarities with Pixar's Up, which was still three years away; both involve a cranky old man who's struggling to come to terms with the loss of his wife, whose ghostly memory has become consolidated (in this case all too literally) with a building that won't be pinned down. Not for nothing do I think of Monster House as the twisted, Basket Case-esque twin brother of Up.

The Snub Club:

DreamWorks Animation found themselves pariahs yet again, with Over The Hedge failing to generate much of a stir among the public and the Academy alike (box office-wise, this was one of DreamWorks' weaker performers). There were a few enthusiastic souls who proclaimed it to be the studio's best feature since the original Shrek...which was probably true, but might tell you something about just how dire a lot of their output had been within those five years, because Over The Hedge is as forgettable and vanilla a DreamWorks animation as they come. Broadly, it repeats the Madagascar formula of shoving a bunch of wacky, celebrity-voiced animals into unfamiliar territory and racking up enough hi-jinks to fill 80-odd minutes, with the difference that the plot here is slightly more refined and the film actually has a vague idea of what it's about (feeding wild animals will turn them into unendearing backyard vermin, or something). Unlike Madagascar, it didn't leave me feeling homicidal, but then it didn't leave me feeling much of anything. I could take it or leave it.

Also in 2006, Blue Sky unleashed their first Ice Age sequel, in what would ultimately become one of the most insanely dragged-out franchises of modern times. Ice Age: The Meltdown does redress one area where the original was sorely lacking, in that it manages to include a female character who gets more than two lines, but other than that it's much the same parade of pointlessness in search of a plot that all of the Ice Age sequels intrinsically are. Paleontological inaccuracies have always been part and parcel with the Ice Age films, but that doesn't let them off the hook for basic plot implausibilities, and Meltdown has a particularly obtrusive one - the idea that this full-grown mammoth would seriously believe that she's a possum after all this time is a stretch, and has the effect of making Ellie look really, really stupid for much of the film. It's not the worst Ice Age sequel, not by a long shot, but it did make it plain that Blue Sky had nothing meaningful to add to what was already an extremely thin premise.

2006 also introduced a new player into the Hollywood animation game, as Sony Pictures Animation got in the fray with their debut feature, Open Season. The film has the distinction of being the first Hollywood CG animated feature to be helmed by a female director, Jill Culton, who co-directed with former Disney director Roger Allers, best known for rescuing The Lion King from Development Hell (and for sending Kingdom of The Sun, the troubled project that was eventually reworked as The Emperor's New Groove, plunging head-first into it). Unfortunately, Open Season itself doesn't live up to the excitement promised by such a directorial duo, being quite content to be another wacky buddy comedy featuring ugly, celebrity-voiced animals at a time when such films were ten a penny (see above). A docile grizzly bear raised in captivity is lured into the woods by a hyperactive deer, we get the inevitable "what does a bear do in the woods?" gag (in fact, I suspect the film was conceived entirely for the purposes of accommodating that one gag) and then...other wacky hi-jinks ensue. By now you could connect the dots yourself.

Meanwhile, indie animation was by now also hungry for a slice of the CG pie, and one of the early results was Kanbar Entertainment's Hoodwinked!, distributed in 2006 by The Weinstein Company (also not something you want associated with family entertainment at this point in time). The film was reportedly made on a budget of less than $8 million, and more than anything it proved that CG is not a toy you want to be playing with unless you have the means of making it look good, because Hoodwinked! is not at all easy on the eyes. Story-wise, its attempts at giving Little Red Riding Hood the Rashomon treatment are reasonably creative, and enough to keep it from seeming like just another Shrek clone, but the deal-breaker would be the jaw-droppingly clumsiness with which it telegraphs its plot "twist" a mile away (hmm, I wonder who could the culprit be? Surely not that otherwise entirely pointless character they keep shoehorning into every segment?) I complained about Corpse Bride for making its own "twist" too obvious, which may have been a mite unfair of me, as I'm not massively convinced that Burton's film really intends it to be that big a shock, and there it honestly doesn't make a huge difference to the story either way. Here though, it really comes off as the film having a low estimation of your intelligence.