Jerry Beck reviews a very special Nickelodeon Oh Yeah! Cartoons! short, Max & His Special Problem by Dave Wasson. Includes a Quicktime movie.
Medical assistants poke and prod at Max and his dislocated brain. © Nickelodeon.
Great talent and great animation are a cause for celebration, no matter what length, what format, or what venue it is found in. On those rare occasions when great new talent is confirmed, as when The Ren & Stimpy Show debuted and established Nicktoons or The Little Mermaid premiered and set Disney Features on its present course, there is a thrill in the discovery of a fresh vision and a new artist -- and for me, a delightful reminder of why I love animated cartoons in the first place.
For those of us who covet great animation as others might cherish fine wine, Dave Wasson's funny new film Max & His Special Problem will bring a smile to your brain (your lips will be too busy laughing). Your brain will especially relate, as Max's gray matter is the cause of the titular special problem.
Max, a white collar pencil pusher, sneezes away some eraser dust and accidentally blows his brain out of his head. His boss gives him permission to "take care of it," thus the brainless Max begins a citywide adventure, first misplacing his mental organ atop a taxicab and later at a hospital, where the surgeons spend more time adding up his bill than repairing the damage.
The Studio Mechanism
This short was exec produced by Fred Siebert and Larry Huber for Frederator's Oh Yeah! Cartoons! series on Nickelodeon. Like Siebert's previous "World Premiere Cartoons" (a.k.a. What A Cartoon!) for Cartoon Network, this is a group of creator-driven cartoons in search "the next big thing" in kid's animation. Whereas the previous Hanna-Barbera series was consumed with finding a Ren & Stimpy derivative, this series is focused on kid's point-of-view, as (with a few exceptions) most of the entries star a little boy, a little girl, a cat, a dog, or a robot -- or a combination of those elements.
Though Siebert's Hanna-Barbera experiment yielded a few excellent shorts (Genndy Tartakovsky's Dexter's Laboratory and John R. Dilworth's Oscar-nominated The Chicken From Outer Space first come to mind), and his Nickelodeon project is showing even greater sophistication, it's important to understand that these films are funded by U.S. kids cable networks and not the NFB (National Film Board of Canada) or the U.K.'s Channel 4. That any of these works transcend their intended audience is remarkable and an unexpected benefit.
Wasson's film breaks out of the pack, noticeably by lacking any of the aforementioned kids, pets and robots. The mood is laid back, the music (by Rob Cairns) is cool jazz, and the story line is wonderfully simple. But it's clearly the direction, animation and timing (Bob Jacques) that turn this silly idea into a beautifully comic film. As crazy as the plot sounds, as wild as the art style is, Wasson never shoves it in your face. There's a casual pace afoot that allows the audience in on the jokes.
Wasson's direction achieves a matter-of-fact coolness that others in the Oh Yeah! program work way-too-hard aspiring to. This short is practically pantomime, full of funny drawings and little touches that work. When Max loses his mind, due to his leaving it on a taxicab, the camera pans a map with appropriate broken-line indications of where his errant cerebrum has traveled. Small insets are superimposed over the map indicating Max's worry, and the plight of his brain -- trapped in a fish bowl, being used as a punching bag, a bowling ball, and winding up in a bohemian coffee house in appropriate beret & goatee. Small gags, well done, each one topping the one before it. Later, when Max finds his brain in a vegetable stand, it's marked for sale at 39 cents. It remains marked 39 cents throughout the rest of the cartoon. Funny stuff!
Kudos to color stylist Lou Romano, co-creator/co-writer Chris Miller, and Wasson's other collaborators for creating a little gem that comes closer to classic UPA and vintage Zagreb than any recent retro-styled animation I've seen. I hope to see more cartoons from Wasson, and encourage further risks from producers like Oh Yeah! Cartoons! that allow new independent talent to emerge. In the meantime, my brain and I will celebrate Max & His Special Problem. Jerry Beck is a cartoon historian, writer and animation studio executive. He was editor of The 50 Greatest Cartoons (Turner), recently co-wrote Warner Bros. Animation Art (Levin) and is currently a freelance writer and consultant through his own company, Cartoon Research Co.