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Dr. Toon: Two-and-a-Half Peeves

Dr. Toon shares some nagging reservations about martial arts animals, DVD double-dipping and Clone Wars.

Kung Fu Panda was likable but not the knockoffs. Image courtesy of DreamWorks Animation.

As much as I adore animation and its talented creators, I occasionally run across things that I find rather irritating: Nothing that I hate, mind you; simply something that degrades my enjoyment of the animated medium. This month I wish to take a break from cultural commentary to share a couple of recent peeves. You may or may not share them, as no one ever reaches critical consensus on any given issue. Fortunately, my peeves are few, and number no more than two-and-a-half (not bad considering that I watch more animation than any sane adult should be allowed to).

Peeve Number One: Martial Arts Animals

A disclaimer: I did enjoy Kung-Fu Panda. What I'm talking about is the proliferation of series, projects and pitches involving animated animals as masters of oriental martial arts. It's getting to the point where an illustration of a confident-looking raccoon, pig, mouse or rabbit clad in a Shaolin warrior robe makes me want to commit seppuku. I decline to mention these projects, pitches and works-in-progress by name; they represent somebody's work and future hopes, and no potshots should be allowed until these works become actual shows in the public arena.

The novelty of this presentation has long worn off. If there's one thing that strikes me about such shows, it's their inherent derivativeness. If there's one other thing that strikes me, it's that martial arts animals are not funny. They simply aren't. When I read the trade journals, I wonder how it is that these prospective shows plan to differ from one another. Then I wonder how it is they're supposed to be funny or entertaining. Are martial arts fights funny? I grant that artists such as Jackie Chan can make martial arts comical, and it can be hilarious to watch the drunken practitioners, Still, I ask you: When was the last time you attended or watched an MMA event in which the audience was convulsed with laughter?

Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello and Michelangelo broke the mold. After them, any chicken poised with his wings in overhead strike position or giving a kick thrust is, well, a silly-looking chicken in a robe. The incongruity of a raccoon delivering devastating strikes out of a Horse Stance, OK, I get it, now let's move on. A clever idea that's overused soon becomes a gimmick and ends its life as a cliché. Martial arts animals? 十分、既に! (Enough already!)

Despite the recent lure of Beauty and the Beast, no more double-dipping. Image courtesy of Disney.

Peeve Number Two: The Golden Diamond Platinum Special Anniversary Edition DVD

I recall a routine by a popular comedienne who noted that she replaced her vinyl recording of Dark Side of the Moon with an eight-track copy, which was then replaced by a cassette tape, which gave way to a CD that was later replaced by a re-mastered CD with bonus cuts. She vowed from the stage that she wasn't buying any more copies of Pink Floyd's magnum opus until technology produced a final version of it for good and all.

So, how many of you ran out to "celebrate" the latest DVD (or initial Blu-ray) release of Disney's Beauty and the Beast? There are now Diamond Editions and Platinum Editions in which you can see three different versions of the film, watch music videos, play several interactive games, hear interviews and watch pencil tests and work-in-progress versions of the movie. All in all, I find this sort of thing to be a money-grabbing extravaganza. Nearly every Disney film is now getting Special Editions, Anniversary Editions, Platinum Editions, ad nauseum.

In the case of Beauty and the Beast, at least there is one justification: the adding of the deleted musical number "Human Again." That's about it. Alternate scores, background stills and sing-along tracks? What's that about? I am well aware that I wrote a column in the past concerning the value of "Special Edition" DVDs to animation historians, but there is such a thing as overkill, and Disney is beginning to approach that point. How many times, after all, will you purchase the same movie just because it's a different edition or boasts some musical interactive game? What are you supposed to do with your earlier DVD version(s) of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs?

Let's be clear. Dead Disney artists are not going to be resurrected to work on a restored and reanimated Diamond Platinum Special Anniversary Edition of, say, Robin Hood. It's the same damn film that was made in 1973, and no amount of extras such as song selections or Merry Games (as seen on the "Most Wanted Edition") is going to change that. No one is likely to wade through six-and-a-half hours of extra features, either. Not to mention that these collections, especially on Blu-Ray, aren't exactly cheap. Even more infuriating is the angle that some of these editions are available for a limited time only, putting even more press on you to buy them (although we all know that you can get anything, anywhere, from anybody using your mouse and the knowledge where to surf).

And enough with Tinker Bell. Image courtesy of Disney.

Why is this happening? At the risk of turning this month's column into Das Kapital, I submit that the answer is the Almighty Buck. Several years ago Disney came to an aesthetic decision that I had to applaud. The company decided to stop making direct-to-video sequels of their marquee animated films. Most of these productions were basically knockoff episodes produced by Disney's second and third string animation team. A goodly number of critics rightfully decried that they cheapened (or at least added little to) the original work. Disney came to its senses, scrapped a planned sequel to Dumbo, and pledged to go forward and sin no more.

How to make up for the lost revenue?  Increasingly sophisticated "special editions" of the old classics (eventually in 3-D versions, BTW) until every last nugget is mined and the extras grow to include: "Disney animators on Lunch Break," "Bad Sketches Fished out of the Wastebasket" and "Interview with the Color Key Supervisor." After all, Disney can't put out a new Tinker Bell DVD every month. Can they?

Peeve Number Two-and-one-Half: The Clone Wars of Attrition

A long time ago in a galaxy far away, George Lucas took the best features of old space serials, the myths and legends of several cultures, the best SFX available in 1977, and changed the cultural landscape in an indelible way. Star Warstouched a mythic nerve everywhere it was shown. Together with the film's two sequels, The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983), "Star Wars" was a near-perfect trilogy, a science-fiction saga for the ages. 

However, the trilogy comprised only episodes IV, V and VI of a much larger tale, and the backstory was presented in the first three "episodes" The Phantom Menace (1999), Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005). In 2005, Genndy Tartakovsky created a "bridge" story concerning the Clone Wars that ran on Cartoon Network from 2003-2005. That was harmless enough, but in 2008 George Lucas joined forces with CN and began producing his own opus on the Clone Wars.

Season Three is overwhelming. Image courtesy of Lucasfilm Ltd.

I present this as half a peeve, because I have enjoyed the various permutations of Star Wars since it premiered in 1977, and because The Clone Wars is an impressive technical achievement. It would be hard to do better with CGI on a TV series, given the constraints of time and budget. I also admire George Lucas' almost compulsive need to keep spinning stories and mining his personal troves of fantasy.

But The Clone Wars (Season Three)irritates me. There seem to be something like 2,987 main and supporting characters, and the action hops around annoyingly. The main plot, featuring some conflict between Separatists and Trade Federations, diplomacy, neutrality, senates, declarations of war  and Machiavellian double-dealings makes watching this show feel like an education in 15th century European politics. The storyline seems light-years away from that simple, original tale of a Princess, a boy yearning for adventure, a swashbuckling rogue, two adorable robots and a black-clad villain.

The Clone Wars is busy, overcomplicated, and difficult to follow without extensive grounding in the Star Wars expanded universe. It is a good thing gone too far, a case of imaginative hypertrophy that makes me wonder exactly where this whole enterprise got out of hand. Watching The Clone Wars actually leads me to a curious disconnect with Star Wars: I can't see how Luke Skywalker ever grew up to make an eventual difference in this intergalactic, multifaceted Tangle of the Planets featuring a cast of billions. And that, for me, is the (half) peeve: The scope of The Clone Wars is so historically broad and inclusive that the original 1977 film seems to take place in a fishbowl, even allowing for hyperspace.

I can't really dislike The Clone Wars, but I can't watch it for long, either. It's as if Dr. Seuss, encouraged by the popularity of Green Eggs and Ham, decided to take the characters and expand it into something like Lord of the Rings. A long time ago, in a galaxy far away, there was an exciting, imaginative fantasy about good and evil that enthralled everyone who saw it. Would that it had stayed that way.

Postscript: Dr. Toon is prepared for the wrath of Star Wars fans who take issue with the above. He has surrounded himself with an army of Kung-Fu aardvarks, so don't try anything funny. Next month he will reproduce this column in a Platinum One Month Anniversary Special Edition with loads of interactive extras! Have your wallets ready.