Tag Archives: animation

Animation nation, fall 2014 edition

While a number of news outlets have observed the demise of Saturday morning cartoons, a television tradition for generations of Americans, there is still a range of animation available in primetime, on cable, and online. Still, it will be hard for a younger generation accustomed to a wealth of streaming video to have a common pop cultural language.

Nicklelodeon, which has aired the surprisingly well-written Kung-Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness and How to Train Your Dragon: the Series, among other shows, recently moved Avatar: the Legend of Korra to online-only broadcast of its fourth and final season.

While Legend of Korra may not have the consistency or popularity of its parent, Avatar: the Last Airbender, the Asian-flavored fantasy series has still featured excellent characterization and world-building. Its story arcs and setting have inspired much of my current "Vanished Lands: A New Dawn" campaign.

I think Legend of Korra has bounced back from the rushed storytelling of its third season, which looked like it might be the end of that franchise (and the less said about the 2010 live-action movie misfire, the better). The new video game probably won't be enough to keep the franchise going.

Legend of Korra

The Avatar gang

Similarly, the Cartoon Network, which had ended Star Wars: Clone Wars after the Disney-Lucasfilm merger, continued its track record of canceling good shows such as Young Justice and Green Lantern: the Animated Series. At least Clone Wars managed to end well, filling in the gaps between the prequel movies and the classic trilogy.

Cartoon Network threw the final episodes of Clone Wars online and burned off episodes of Beware the Batman in one weekend. The sitcom Looney Tunes Show has also dropped of the schedule, but I'm sure Bugs Bunny and company won't be gone for long.

To be fair, DisneyXD had also canceled Spectacular Spider-Man in favor of shows for a younger audience. At least it has begun showing Star Wars: Rebels, which is a bit more kid-friendly than Clone Wars had become and features the familiar setting of George Lucas' galaxy shortly before the events of Star Wars [Episode IV]: A New Hope.

I'm enjoying Rebels so far, and its crew of adventurers is very similar to the characters in Jason E.R.'s recent "Star Wars: Dark Times" space opera scenario. With Disney/Lucasfilm working on more live-action movies, I expect Rebels to get a decent amount of promotion.

In addition to Avatar: Legend of Korra and Star Wars: Rebels, I've been enjoying the latest incarnation of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, although I don't know how long Nickelodeon will carry it. TMNT has all the wackiness of its predecessors and is still faithful to the core characters that Eastman and Laird created (again, don't get me started on the latest live-action flick).

There are many cartoons for younger children, such as Ultimate Spider-Man, as well as some long-lived ones aimed at young adults, such as The Simpsons, Robot Chicken, and Archer. Unfortunately, there are few all-ages shows that aren't formulaic comedies.

We've fared better lately with movies, but serious fans will continue to look at anime or other animation from around the world and wonder why cartoons on U.S. TV aren't more diverse.

The Book of Life review

On Saturday, 18 October 2014, Janice and I went to the AMC Burlington Cinema 10 for an early matinee of The Book of Life. We enjoyed the movie, which is the latest in a strong year for animation.

The Book of Life

Fondly remember the dead

Plot: The Book of Life begins in a modern-day museum as a clever guide gives a bunch of bored schoolchildren are some insight into Mexican lore. The story then shifts to puppet-like characters in a tale full of swashbuckling romance and otherworldly adventures.

Manolo, Maria, and Joaquin are three young friends in the village of San Angel, but they are driven apart by their parents' expectations and two meddling immortals, La Muerte, ruler of the Land of the Remembered, and Xibalba, ruler of the Land of the Forgotten.

Reunited as adults, matador Manolo would rather be a musician, and Joaquin is a decorated soldier, as was his late father. Maria returns from Spain and is wooed by both Manolo and Joaquin, but Xibalba's schemes and vicious bandit leader Chakal send Manolo on a quest through the lands of the Remembered and Forgotten….

Cast: The summary above doesn't do justice to The Book of Life's twists, colorful visuals, and strong acting. Diego Luna is properly soulful as Manolo (reminding me of Antonio Banderas), and Channing Tatum plays on his image as good-natured hunk Joaquin (not unlike Kevin Kline). Zoe Saldana is spunky as Maria, who refuses to be the passive object of the two guys' affections and rallies San Angel against Chakal's horde.

They are supported by experienced voice actors Kate del Castillo as seductive La Muerte, Ron Perlman as fearsome Xibalba, and Hector Elizondo as Manolo's bullfighter father Carlos Sanchez.

In addition, Christina Applegate plays the museum docent Mary Beth, Ice Cube is the benevolent Candle Maker, and other characters are voiced by Danny Trejo, Cheech Marin, and even opera singer Placido Domingo. There is some slapstick, but nothing really offensive.

Direction: Jorge Gutierrez does a decent job of pacing, from the initial prologue through Manolo's eye-popping arrival in the Land of the Remembered through his more conventional final confrontations with Joaquin and Chakal.

Since Guillermo del Toro was a producer, it's no surprise that the expansive scale, Mexican mythology, and emotional heart of The Book of Life are so well-handled. I was interested to see mentions of feminist and animal-rights ideas balanced against elements harking back to ancient Mesoamerica and even Greece and Rome.

Death is shown as not something to be feared, but as part of life. True heroism requires sacrifice, and respect for family and true love still conquer all. None of these messages come as any surprise, but they are delivered in a piñata of action.

Cinematography: Make no mistake, though, the fast pacing and clever visual effects are mainly for a younger audience. As I noted above, this year has been a particularly strong one for animated movies, including The Lego Movie, Frozen, The Boxtrolls, and now The Book of Life. (I'd put Mr. Peabody & Sherman and How to Train Your Dragon 2 only slightly behind them.)

The inventive character designs and divergent settings (San Angel and the lands of the Remembered and the Forgotten) are still impressive in an era when we've gotten used to hyper-realism or highly stylized computer and stop-motion animation.

Soundtrack: The music of The Book of Life is a great blend of Latin, classical, and pop tunes. Normally, I wouldn't like the inclusion of the latter, but all three styles manage to help both the humor and romance of this movie.

Rating: The Book of Life is rated PG for rude humor and scary images. I'd give it an 8.5 to 9 out of 10, four out of five stars, or an A-. I liked it slightly more than The Boxtrolls and close to The Lego Movie. I'd strongly recommend The Book of Life to anyone who's young at heart.

After the movie, Janice and I went to the Tex-Mex Border Café for lunch. (We also had Besito and Chipotle as options nearby.) I hope to eventually catch The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, which is in limited release, and Big Hero 6.

The Boxtrolls review

On Saturday, 27 September 2014, Janice and I met newlyweds Thomas K.Y. and Kai-Yin H. at the refurbished AMC Burlington 10 multiplex for The Boxtrolls. We enjoyed the stop-motion fantasy film.

the Boxtrolls

Charming animated film

Plot: The Boxtrolls opens with what looks like a child being abducted by monsters in the teetering town of Cheesebridge. However, viewers soon learn that the Boxtrolls, so named because they wear discarded cardboard boxes, are not malicious, merely subterranean scavengers and grotesque goblins.

The child becomes a boy named Egg (for the box he threatens to outgrow), even as Archibald Snatcher uses the supposed abduction to whip up hysteria to further his own nefarious ambitions. Unfortunately, the villain is allergic to cheese even as he years to join the town's "white hats," or cheese-tasting ruling council (reminding me of the inventor in Aardman's Wallace and Gromit series).

As more and more Boxtrolls are captured by Snatcher's dimwitted henchmen, Eggs encounters a girl, Winnie, the daughter of mayor Lord Portley-Rind. She helps him understand the human world, fight Snatcher, and learn about the true circumstances of his kidnapping.

Cast: The colorful characters, whose names could be from a Dickensian or Harry Potter novel, are voiced by a strong mostly British cast. Isaac Hempstead-Wright plays courageous Egg, and Elle Fanning is the plucky Winnie.

Ben Kingsley is the loathsome Archibald Snatcher, who sometimes disguises himself as a woman in an attempt to infiltrate Cheesebridge's high society. His henchmen, the large Mr. Trout, the self-doubting Mr. Pickles, and the pugnacious Mr. Gristle, are played by Nick Frost (The World's End), Richard Ayoade (The IT Crowd), and Tracy Morgan (30 Rock), respectively.

Jared Harris (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Fringe) isLord Portly-Rind. None of the actors was particularly recognizable in their roles, but all gave expressive performances matched by their cartoonish avatars.

Direction: The Boxtrolls, which is based on Here Be Monsters! By Alan Snow, was directed by Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi. They do a good job of juggling action, physical and verbal comedy, and pathos with an absurdist tone with some social commentary — some critics have noticed the strong resemblance between Cheesebridge and Terry Gilliam's dystopian fantasies.

Cinematography: As one might expect from Laika, the animation studio that produced Coraline and ParaNorman, the stop-motion is excellent, with 3-D printed faces and light computer-enhanced imagery making this one of the smoothest and most baroque-looking films of its type so far.

I liked the environment and character designs, which are reminiscent of Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas or The Pirates! Band of Misfits without being derivative. The closing credits give some insight into the laborious process. The Boxtrolls' Rube Goldberg inventions, including Snatcher's steampunk menace, are fun to watch.

Soundtrack: The music helps keep the action suspenseful, and the title and closing credits help set the tone for a fun, if bizarre adventure. Fittingly, Monty Python's Eric Idle wrote the title song. (Janice and I recently enjoyed the final simulcast of that comedy troupe's farewell concert.)

Rating: The Boxtrolls is rated PG for some gross humor and scenes of peril. While I agree that the story for The Boxtrolls isn't as tight or as clever as that of Coraline or ParaNorman, I'd still compare it favorably with most of the genre. I'd put it slightly below The Lego Movie as my favorite animated movie of the year so far, at a 7.5 or 8 out of 10, a B+/A-, or four out of five stars. I'd definitely recommend The Boxtrolls to fans of British humor and animation.

One of the films I'd like to catch next in the theater is The Book of Life, which is computer-animated rather than stop-motion, but it still looks bright and fun.

After the movie, we went to Besito, a new Mexican restaurant in the Burlington Mall that we all liked. Also this past weekend, Janice and I walked the Minuteman Trail in Lexington, Mass. I know I'm behind on reporting on conventions, seasonal festivals, and more, but I'll try to catch up, even as the new genre television season begins!

How to Train Your Dragon 2 review

On Saturday, 21 June 2014, Janice and I met Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H. for How to Train Your Dragon 2 at the recently renovated AMC Burlington Cinema 10. We enjoyed the computer-animated fantasy sequel, which had character development and visuals that were at least equal to those in James Cameron's Avatar or several recent Disney/Pixar films.

How to Train Your Dragon 2

Animated fantasy sequel

Plot: As with most sequels, viewers who skipped the first How to Train Your Dragon won't appreciate the new movie as fully as they might. Loosely based on Cressida Cowell's children's books, the movies (and the Nickelodeon TV series) focus on Hiccup, a scrawny Viking who breaks with tradition in learning to ride dragons rather than fight them.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 picks up a few years after the events of the first movie. Hiccup's hometown of Berk has learned to coexist with dragons, and we see a quidditch-like race involving his friends.

Restless Hiccup and his Night Fury steed Toothless explore ever farther from his home island and finds his long-lost mother (already "spoiled" in trailers), as well as ruthless pirates who share his gift for communicating with flying reptiles. As in the first movie, sacrifices must be made for the greater good.

Cast: Jay Baruchel returns as a slightly more mature Hiccup, with Gerard Butler as his gruff father and chieftain, Stoick. Cate Blanchett, who hasn't gotten to interact directly with monsters as Galadriel in Peter Jackson's Middle Earth movies, brings weariness and hope to Hiccup's mother Valka.

Other returning voice actors include Craig Ferguson as Stoick's counselor Gobber, America Ferrera as the winsome Astrid, and Jonah Hill as obnoxious Snotlout.

Christopher Mintz-Plasse is Fishlegs, who vies with Snotlout for Ruffnut's (Kristen Wiig) attentions while her twin Tuffnut (T.J. Miller) looks on and scoffs. The dynamics among Hiccup's family and friends are more fully explored in the television show, but there are many nods to them in the movie.

Newcomers include Djimon Hounsou as the pirate Drago and Game of Thrones' Kit Harrington as the swashbuckling Eret, who captures Ruffnut's eye during one of several narrow escapes from the pirates. Everyone is well-cast in their roles.

Direction: Dean DeBlois, who also co-wrote the screenplay, does a good job of building up the action while also providing some character moments. Any lack of originality in the story is more than made up for by the appealing characters, heartfelt story, and strong visual designs. (No, I haven't yet seen Frozen, but understand it's one of Disney's better recent efforts.)

Cinematography: Although I didn't see How to Train Your Dragon 2 in 3-D, the regular visual effects have continued to improve, with human skin, dragon scales, choppy seas, and fire all spectacularly rendered.

Hiccup's gliding scenes with Toothless early in the movie are particularly good, and even though the large-scale battles toward the end are familiar to fantasy fan, they manage not to completely overwhelm the viewer.

Soundtrack: The musical score echoes the themes from the first movie and the TV series, and it properly accompanies and builds with the action. As in Cowell's books, there is a Scottish lilt to the music, and the opening and closing credits drew us into the superficially slapstick setting.

Rating: I'd give How to Train Your Dragon 2, which is rated PG for action and "some rude humor," a solid 8 out of 10, four out of five stars, or a B+. I liked it about as much as its predecessor, if not as much as the TV show, which expands on all the characters.

Don't let the relatively disappointing box-office returns dissuade you from seeing it. I'd recommend this movie to fantasy fans, children looking for their summer cartoon fix, and those looking for comedy and drama in lighter measures.

In other family-friendly animation, I thought the third season premiere of Avatar: Legend of Korra was strong, and I look forward to The Boxtrolls. Janice and I also joined Thomas & Kai-Yin for dinner at Noodles & Co., which just opened in Burlington, Mass.

Coming soon: More gaming updates, a Star Trek convention recap, and Byron V.O.'s visit…

Storm season, 2013 edition

Just over a week ago, the U.S. Northeast was hit by a blizzard after a relatively mild winter so far. "Nemo," as some dubbed it, dumped about two feet of snow on Boston between 8 and 9 February 2013. Fortunately, we had ample warning, and Janice and I were able to work from home on that Friday.

Found Nemo

Clearing up after February blizzard

It took several rounds of shoveling to clear our patio and cars, especially since Janice's car got buried in the 12-foot-tall pile at the end of a row in our apartment complex's parking lot. Still, hardy New Englanders were back to work on the following Monday, even if my face-to-face tabletop role-playing game was postponed again because of narrowed roads and difficulty getting quorum.

On Friday, 15 February 2013, Janice and I traveled to Chicago for the wedding of a daughter of one of my maternal cousins. We had visited them a few years ago. At Logan Airport, we had breakfast at Potbelly Sandwich Shop. Janice and I had an uneventful flight, picked up our rental car, and checked into the Hyatt Place in Hoffman Estates, Illinois.

We then joined my parents and my brother's family for a filling lunch at the Lucky Monk brewpub. After a brief rest (since large gatherings usually involve eating), we went to Margie & Joe's wedding rehearsal and the rehearsal dinner at Bankok House & Shanghai Restaurant in downtown Elgin, Ill.

The next morning, I watched cartoons with my brother and nieces, who also follow the strong but underrated lineup of Young Justice, Green Lantern: the Animated Series, and Star Wars: Clone Wars. We returned to Lou Malnati's for proper deep-dish pizza.

My second cousin's wedding was conducted at the Highland Church of the Brethren. The groom's step-grandmother officiated at a ceremony that Margie & Joe designed themselves, gathering a diverse set of traditions. The reception was held at the Seville, a large hall that can apparently host several such celebrations simultaneously.

We ate, conversed with fellow guests and family members, and danced (even if we didn't join the younger folks for "Gagnam Style"). The partying went on late into the evening, and a good time was had by all in Chicago. I'll try to share some photos when they get uploaded.

Our return to Boston was delayed by only an hour by the latest snow. I finished reading Redshirts, which I enjoyed — it's similar to the movie Galaxy Quest as a loving riff on Star Trek, but it was a little meta for my taste. On the way home, Janice and I got sandwiches at Charcoal Guido's, a new eatery on Moody Street in Waltham, Mass., for "linner" (lunch+dinner).

After a few weeks' interruption, the games resumed last night with Jason's "Barsoomian Adventures: the Tenth Ray of Mars." I'll try to post an update for the planetary romance session soon.

Tonight, I'm meeting some former co-workers for dinner at Little India and the latest "Escapists" book club meeting. We'll be discussing the magical realist graphic novel Daytripper, which I enjoyed. So much to do, so little time!