Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Actual Cannibal

Pop art at its finest.

Am I the only one who wants to see a horror film with Shia LaBeouf playing himself? In the movie, he would just have been cast in the part of a cannibalistic serial killer, unfortunately he would take method acting to an extreme. What would start out as simply living in the woods for character authenticity would slowly spiral out of control, until crew members start going missing.

It would, of course, be a musical.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Banned, Censored, and the Obscure: Part 3

Witch's Night Out

When I was at the store they had a  Halloween cartoon for sale that I haven't seen in years. Every year after trick-or-treating my family would watch this special. While not banned, or censored, this is one of those strangely obscure cartoons that has a cult following and is not well remembered, (despite the fact that it was released on VHS, and aired every year on the Disney channel and Fox through the mid nineties.)

This is the first year it has been released on DVD. Blogger and author Adam Selzer has the most  information on this cartoon, and a fabulous interview with Jonathan Rogers the creator of Witch's Night Out. Rogers apparently had no idea until about five years ago that the special had even been airing for all those years, or that it had such strong fan base. He currently has partnered with Jimmy Cross and written a Valentine and Thanksgiving special that *fingers crossed* will soon be made.

Witch's Night Out is the story of a morose witch who has been out of work for some time. Meanwhile, the adults of the town decide to throw a Halloween party in what they believe is an abandoned house (really the home of the witch). The adults are out of touch with their child side. None dress up, and  Goodly who helps plan the event sees the whole thing as a sort of community building activity. Tender and Small our child protagonists want to celebrate the spirit of Halloween and reach out to the witch to help them.

The character designs are like nothing you've seen before. Each character has a playful outline and is painted a monochrome color, with the kind of inky edges that makes me think Shinbone Alley. It is vibrant, fun, and the perfect kind of kid-friendly creepy. It starts with a catchy song, blasts through the twenty something minute short, and ends with everyone happily embracing the Halloween festivities.

I remember finding this cartoon visually enthralling as a kid, but I also remember loving the ending. Halloween is about having the opportunity to be someone you're not, but it is also - as is the case for the gently wicked Malicious and Rotten - an opportunity to explore who you could be. Even just for a night.

Having just rewatched it I can definitely recommend the DVD, it cost me a whopping $5 on sale for Halloween, comes with some golden age bonus cartoons, and has been gloriously remastered. It was also everything I remembered it to be.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Boxtroll Review

Having never read Here Be Monsters, the book this animated film was based on, I can make no comment on similarities to the original tale. So, this review will only be looking at the movie itself.
Growing up, I was a huge fan or Roald Dahl. But there is something about the grim, exaggerated nastiness of the villains paired with strange sometimes violent humor and plucky child protagonists that seems to be difficult to translate well into visual story telling. The Fantastic Mr. Fox, by Wes Anderson, managed to make that jump and The Boxtrolls follows suit. It takes this genre, and makes a movie that manages to capture the heart of these kind of strange tales.

Eggs is our primary protagonist, the adopted human child of a family of Boxtrolls that live under the city. The humans who live above believe the Boxtrolls are violent monsters. Meanwhile, the cunning Pest exterminator, Archibald Snatcher, creates a deal with the White Hat Society that if he kills all the Boxtrolls he will be allowed to join their illustrious club.

The characters are so much fun. Eggs is sweet, and funny, and utterly sympathetic in his adventure to try and save his dwindling family. Archibald is a fascinating villain, whose dream of eating cheese with the White Hats is a struggle in the impossible, made all the more hysterically absurd because of his deathly allergy to cheese. His henchman, Mr. Trout and Mr. Pickles, have deep (sometimes fourth wall breaking) discussion on the moral grays of their profession. Both insistently believe they are the heroes of the story.

The Boxtroll is funny, exciting and absolutely gorgeously animated. It is also the kind of world where the secondary protagonist’s father takes the money for a children’s hospital and uses it to buy cheese – and he is not a villain. He is simply one of many comedic morally ambiguous adult figures that populate these kinds of stories.  Children are our heroes and they live in uncertain worlds where adults cannot always be trusted, and there are harsh consequences to ones actions.  But, as someone who loved Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, despite the cruel consequences that were doled out to unreasonable children – I think kids gravitate to these kinds of stories. The Series of Unfortunate Event books are proof that a love of this genre lives on.

Navigating growing up is complicated, it is a common experience for children to feel unheard, or misunderstood by the adults in their live. While adults might look upon these kinds of stories as too grim, they carry a humor children love. They speak to an understanding of the child experience, without writing down to them. There is no candy-coating. Terrible things happen…  but so do great things. And it is the smart, brave, children who will save the day.

The Boxtrolls is not the type of family animated film we are used to seeing, but it is absolutely a film for families, and one I cannot recommend highly enough.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Female Duos (in theory) Part 1

When looking at animated female duos, it is important to look take into account the role of female characters in animation. In 1991, Katha Pollitt wrote an article that helped define a common trope: The Smurfette Principle. In the article Pollitt discusses the tradition of a male cast of cartoon characters having only one female character, who tags along with the boys.

“The message is clear. Boys are the norm, girls the variation; boys are central, girls peripheral; boys are individuals, girls types. Boys define the group, its story and its code of values. Girls exist only in relation to boys.”

Nostalgia Chick has a fabulous video that gives an overview of this phenomenon. As I’ve blogged about in more detail HERE, the 80s became a spread of marketing based animated shows. The cartoons also became decidedly gendered, with shows like Transformers for young boys, and My Little Ponies for girls. In the nineties, shows became less product based, and less gendered in their marketing. Cartoon’s became more inclusive for viewers. But as the Nostalgia Chick points out, the result was that in the shows themselves, the majority of protagonists were male. Token female characters would be a part of ensemble casts, but primary female character who carried a show were rare.
Looking at television cartoons produced by Toon Disney during the 1990s gives a good look at animated female characters during this time. Of the 25 cartoons that aired:
9 had an ensemble cast with a male majority
Adventures of the Gummi Bears (1985-1991) 4M 2F, DuckTales (1987-1990) 4M, Goof Troop (1992-1993) 2M, Gargoyles (1994-1997) 6M 2F, The Mighty Ducks (1996-1997) 4M 2F, Jungle Cubs (1996-1998) 5M 1F, Quack Pack (1996) 4M, 101 Dalmatians (1997-1998) 3M 1F, Recess  (1997-2001) 4M 2F,
1 had an ensemble cast with a female majority
PB&J Otter (1998-2000) 2F 1M *unlike the other shows on this list, it targeted preschoolers
9 had a primary male protagonist (often with supporting ensemble casts)
The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1988-1991), TaleSpin (1990-1991), Darkwing Duck (1991-1992), Marsupilami (1993), Bonkers (1993-1994), Aladdin (1994-1995), Disney’s Doug (1996-1999), Nightmare Ned (1997), Hercules: The Animated Series (1998-2000)
3 had a primary female protagonist
The Little Mermaid (1992-1994), Pepper Ann (1997-2001), Sabrina, the Animated Series (1999-2000),
3 had two primary male protagonists as a duo
Chip n’ Dale Rescue Rangers (1989-1990), Timon and Pumbaa (1995-1999), The Shnookums and Meat Funny Cartoon Show (1995)

21 of the 25 shows featured either an ensemble cast with a male majority, or had a male primary protagonist. 4 shows had a primary female protagonist, or featured an ensemble cast with a female majority.  Or to put it another way, only 16% of the cartoon series Disney produced from 1990-1999 featured a female driven narrative. Of the nine cartoons with a male majority ensemble cast, male characters on average outnumbered female characters 4:1. The single show that featured a female majority ensemble cast was targeting preschoolers, and the second female  character in this triad was a baby who couldn't speak in complete sentences.

And Disney was leading the pack. It wasn’t until 1998 that Nickelodeon featured a cartoon with a primary protagonist who was female, The Wild Thornberrys. Similarly, 1998 was the year that Cartoon Network first featured a show with primary female protagonists, with an ensemble cast, The Powerpuff Girls.

It’s probably not surprising then, that while on the rare occasion male/female comedy duos appear, female/female comedy duos don’t. Rarely are there enough female characters to make a comedic duo. Even when there are, female characters are more likely to be daughters, love interests, or sisters to a male character. There is little room for female characters to have a female partner and carry a show, the way male duos did in large numbers during the 90s.  

What would a Female Duo look like if they followed Male Duo traditions?

Two of my favorite web comic artists, Lisa Vandenberg and Rebecca Schauer, co-created an animated web series for a while. It was the first time that I had seen a cartoon that brought the comedy duo to female characters with all of the traditional comedy duo humor (including ambiguous/not so ambiguous relationships). Embracing the hapless idiot and angry friend trope, not only does Nikki and Page embody the best of the “heart” and “brain” characteristics that define male duo comedy in animation – it rises to the standard of bizarre wit that Adult Swim has popularized for older viewers.

Watching this cartoon, is like getting the taste of food everyone tells you can’t be cooked. Of course it can, you’re eating it right now, it’s delicious… but when you try to order it out an a restaurant, everyone simple stares at you blankly and tells you “food like that doesn’t exist.”

Nikki and Page is hysterical, and it doesn’t shy away from overtly “female” comedy. Two shorts in a row joke about menstruation, in the kind of gross-out humor one expects from Ren and Stimpy tradition. Jokes like this don’t fly on mainstream adult targeting animation, humor that deal with “womanly” issues must be coached through a male perspective to be considered universal humor. I find it frustrating that adult targeting animation that takes risks with shows like BoJack Horseman, don’t take the same risks with female primary protagonist and comedy.

Vandenburg  recently posted on Tumblr, about a cartoon that she and Schauer had pitched to Nickelodeon.
I saw this in my old folder and remembered when me and Becca pitched this show about young lesbian girls who hang out with spoiled snails that have realistic baby faces to Nickelodeon. They didn’t think it was as funny as we did, though.”

#the world isn’t ready for this kind of greatness
…and though the hashtag is intended with humor, she’s absolutely right. But this is exactly the kind of show (in genre) that was being made with male characters in the 90s. Shows like Ren and Stimpy capitalized on the humor that came from the ambiguous relationship of its title characters.  Baby-faced snails are exactly the kind of off-the-wall humor zany cartoons wanted.

Vandenberg is now working on Sanjay and Craig as a Storyboard Revisionist. This is a male duo show that matches her comedy style. Seeing an artist like her get an opportunity working for Nickelodeon gives me hope that someday we might see more diverse female characters in shows that are considered not just for female viewers, but for everyone. Maybe someday animated female duos will rise to the ranks of Pinky and the Brain, Ren and Stimpy, and Sanjay and Craig.

Female Duos (in practice) Part 2

Friday, August 22, 2014

Représentation pour tous Reblog

My post Fact Check: Only 13 Female Protagonists was used as a reference for this wonderful web comic about gender representation.

It is by the funny and fabulous French artist Mirion Malle. Click HERE to check it out.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Belle Movie Review

The genre, a comedy of manners, often features quick-witted women who fight injustice with their words, while humorously and critically navigating class and romance. Jane Austen classics are a great example, and are still popular today. The recently released film, Belle, gives viewers everything they expect from the genre, along with something noticeable lacking from stories like Pride and Prejudice: people of color. Romantic, smart, and headstrong protagonist, Belle, is black. This movie is based on true events.

Dido Elizebeth Belle was born in 1761. Her mother was a slave, and her white father, a captain in the Royal Navy. After her mother’s death Dido escaped the harsh life her skin color should have confined her to. Instead she was raised by her Great uncle, Earl Mansfield, as a member of their family, given an education befitting a lady. Belle might have been forgotten by history if not for a famous painting that depicts her and the cousin she was raised with.

According to Sarah Minney, a genealogist who spent two years researching Belle's history:

“Images from the period, most famously Hogarth’s work, show black people living in the squalor of London’s underclass. But there is one notable exception – a remarkable portrait of an aristocratic black girl.”

In the painting, Belle, is wearing wealthy clothing, her white cousin's arm affectionately at her waist. They appear as of equal status. This painting is a prominent part of the movie, and Belle’s unique true story (with some liberties taken) is explored as a sweeping romantic historical fiction.
Dealing with class, courtships, status, gender and race, this movie is both comedic and dramatic. Set against the backdrop of the young abolitions movement and a controversial court case involving slave traders killing off their cargo for insurance, viewers follow Belle as she tries to make a good match in a society that does not know where to place a black women of status. She is, to quote the film: “too high in class to dine with the servants, while too low in class to eat with her family.”

Bringing up fascinating issues of the time, like a young man who wishes to break down the confines of race and class, and yet must do so by rising up the political ladder of class himself. Or the complexity of a women’s place in a time where a good match was made by having a dowry, which meant a women ended up paying a man to take ownership of her, as after the marriage she would be considered his property.

As a fan of historical fiction, I loved this movie. Belle is a Jane Austen styled flick that uses modern sensibilities to ask the difficult questions about politics, race and class that are often glossed over in films based on classic literature about the time period. I would highly recommend this movie, and would rate it five out five stars if not for one unfortunate flaw.

Belle, a movie starring a black protagonist, about class and race, featuring the abolitionist movement – only just passes the Racial Bechdel Test by a single conversation. This conversation, about hair, between Belle and a black household servant is the only time we see Belle speak to another character of color. Mabel, the servant, is the only other black character of any substance in the film, and in reality she is in only a few scenes, with a handful of inconsequential lines. The result is that a social rights movement in which black men and women fought against a system that oppressed them is retold through a primarily wealthy white voice.

Historically at the time this movie takes place, there were black freeborn men and women in England, and freed slaves who became abolitionists. During the same years as this story, Ignatius Sancho became the first black person from Africa to vote in parliamentary election in Britain. Though the film prominently features the Zong case, which helped end slavery in Britain, Belle forgets to mention the work of people like the Sons of Africa: black freedom fighters, including famous author of Interesting Narratives (1789), Olaudah Equiano. Sons of Africa worked to publicize the Zong case, using it to fight against the enslavement of their people.

The end result is a bit like watching a movie about the women’s suffrage in which the female protagonist only has one minor conversation with another woman, and all conversation on women’s rights are discussed with men. This creates an unfortunate shadow on a film that by all other accounts is a wonderful watch.

So, I recommend this movie, but I recommend it along with other readings like:

The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African by Olaudah Equino
Voices From Slavery: The Life and Beliefs of African Slaves in Britain by Chigor Chike
And for an interesting (and far less romanticized then this movie) look at what living in London at the time would have been like: 1700s: Scenes from London by Maureen Waller