Wednesday, 2 August 2017

The Lion Guard

I’m happy the The Lion Guard is on our screens.

As a lifelong fan of The Lion King, I received the news of this series with mixed emotions. I was happy the property was getting more attention and that I would see a continuation of a favourite story, but of course the premise made me pause. So it’s a mid-quel during The Lion King 2 about Kiara’s little brother…who just never gets mentioned at all by his family or friends after that movie’s time skip? And plays a prominent role in Pride Lands politics with his group of friends, many of them belonging to species never seen in the movies, yet we have to accept all of them just vanish?

Well, to enjoy the show you simply have to accept that aspect of it. And I very quickly did, because I found myself liking the show in almost every way very quickly indeed.

A big part of that is that it’s very nostalgic. Not just because it’s obviously based on The Lion King and the animators have made great pains to emulate the style of the movie in modern vector animation – particularly successfully when it came to the lions’ facial animations, which are amazingly faithful to the cel-animated high-budget original movie. But more because of the premise and the writing, which evoke many other shows and properties of the past. With a fantastic voice cast where every actor not only evokes his or her animal but has a mellifluous voice that it’s a pleasure to listen to, I was reminded of Little Bear. The idea of young animals from different backgrounds coming together to solve the problems of nature reminded me of The Land Before Time and its sequels. The brisk writing, humour and musical numbers that were sometimes inspired and sometimes generic pap echoes the early My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. And while it’s not really a positive, the all-purpose overpowering deus ex machina of ‘The Roar’ put me in mind of the Sword of Omens in Thundercats and its ability to fix just about any problem at the end of the episode.

There were jarring elements here. Fuli the Cheetah somehow doesn’t fit the aesthetic, looking much more like vector animation than the rest of the cast. The show starts out obliquely mindful of the fact that while they prize the Circle of Life, these lions and cheetahs tear apart and eat the zebras and gazelles they live alongside, it soon descends into a herbivore-good, predator-bad pattern that conveniently leaves out how the lions actually eat. Despite this natural division, there’s obviously a bit of care taken about racial insensitivity here, too, for while the hyena bad guys still mostly sound like street gang members, there’s also some good hyenas (who sound different) to show it’s not because of their race that they’re evil – which is a pretty good message to include, but gets conveyed in a rather cumbersome way. And it was also strange and hilarious at first to hear Brick from The Middle as Ono.

Hyenas aside, I rather like the message of diversity that The Lion Guard brings, which is less simplistic than it may at first appear. The premise is very inclusive – young Kion, Simba and Nala’s cute mohawked son, is gifted with the supernatural Roar of the Elders, a roar which seems to channel the forces of nature and the magic of generations of ancestors and sends nasty hyenas flying off Team Rocket style. Scar once possessed this roar, but lost it because he misused its power – and for some reason never mentioned it in any of his appearances. It’s traditional for the lion who can use the roar to assemble the Lion Guard, the members of the pride who are the best there is at what they do – the Guard must comprise the fiercest, the strongest, the bravest, the fastest and the keenest of sight. 

Progressive Kion doesn’t stick only to lions, but assembles his Guard from throughout the pridelands – a keen-sighted egret, a swift cheetah, a bulky hippo, a fearless honey badger and then Kion at the centre of it all. Why I like this is that it celebrates diversity but also differences in cultures – each member has their own strength, their own way of living and their own knowledge, different from the others. They are diverse and fundamentally different from one another – they don’t have to mash together to all be the best at everything, or convince themselves they are all the same.

The Lion Guard become a kind of police force and community support. They keep the denizens of the Outlands at bay and help mitigate the effects of natural disasters. Some original cast members make their appearances, Ernie Sabella ever happy to reprise his Pumbaa role and James Earl Jones returning as Mufasa’s  readily-accessible ghost for the pilot double-episode (a sound-alike taking up the reins later on). Jason Marsden, Andy Dick and Lacey Chabert reprise their roles from The Lion King 2 in a highlight episode, and Cam Clarke returns not as Simba but as a background vulture.
Some of the episodes are inventive and original, like when Reirei the jackal teaches the Guard about manipulation and two-facedness, or when aardwolves are mistaken for hyenas and their absence ruins the local ecosystem. Others are a bit tired, like when a boastful celebrity eagle turns out not to be what his legend suggests he is, or when two annoying gorillas have to be escorted back to their homeland. A stronger season finale also would have been a good idea.


But I have to say, I think The Lion Guard is the best show for young kids currently airing that I know of. In terms of production quality, writing, world-building and acting, it’s ahead of the rest. Season two has just begun, and I hope the show can actually develop, as it could potentially stagnate quickly, but so far I rather like what I’ve seen!

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

夏目友人帳 陸 / Natsume Yuujincho Roku / Natsume’s Book of Friends Six

Natsume Yuujinchou continues to be a slightly-under-the-radar success story in Japan. I see toy Nyanko-senseis all over the place, but I have to say even there, I’m not sure if they know the character or just bought what they thought was a cute generic cat. Certainly there are a lot of fans watching this anime, going to the themed cafes and buying the figurines, but it simply doesn’t feel like a big anime, in the way that Yuri on Ice or Attack on Titan do.

Yet it’s continued into a sixth season now, sadly only 11 episodes but going strong. No cute fox-boy episode this time, but a lot of new development for Natsume himself, then interesting twists at the end where Natsume finally shares the secret of his book of friends with another human, plus starts to think about his grandfather.

The show remains episodic, of course, as it always has been. Natsume and his supernatural friends help out more interesting youkai, from a funny old fellow who leaves flower patterns on rocks and has lost his apprentice to an interesting crow-boy who fell in love with a human but left her without closure – only for her to trick him in a fun reversal of the usual folklore stories.

The art has settled now – it doesn’t have its own clear style, but it always looks pleasant. Something that wasn’t guaranteed in the first couple of seasons. Natsume is pretty and likeable and oddly touchy-feely with his friends and mentors in this season – perhaps aimed at the female fanbase.

There was very little real development except in the final double-episodes here, but Natsume is getting inexorably drawn into the world of the exorcists – and I want to know what happens when he can no longer escape their pull. 

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Kubo and the Two Strings

After doing well with the playful moods of movies like Paranorman and The Boxtrolls, this time Laika have aimed for epic. Though they don't eschew humour, they aim for a serious fantasy tone by telling the story of one-eyed Kubo, child of a great samurai and a celestial spirit, but enemy to the rest of his family.

I really respect this change of direction and Laika in a serious mode has long been something I've wanted to see. I was a bit dubious about the fantasy-Japan setting, a little overdone just now, but it allowed for some beautiful locations and mythologically-inspired setpieces.

Kubo succeeds with its characterisation and its action sequences. The characters have multiple layers and often memories they themselves have forgotten, so their development is interesting. Plus this is Laika's foremost triumph, visually. Outsize monsters, magical effects, fights with swords, bows and sickles and amazingly fluid paper-folding effects add up to a feast for the eyes.

A couple of negative points for me would be in character design. I understand the link between kabuto beetles and samurai kabuto, but Beetle could have looked a fair bit less goofy. And Kubo himself had a design that looked nice as a concept drawing and in the traditional animation during the credits, but in the actual movie looked rather unattractive - I'm quite sure the movie would have had wider appeal with a better design for the protagonist. 

Plus, incredible though the achievement is here, the more polished and smooth stop-motion looks, the closer it gets to looking like CG. If they are indistinguishable, one starts to wonder what the point of stop-motion is. 

Not that we're at that point yet, and this movie pushed more boundaries than ever. But for all that it had the right ingredients and an intriguing cast of characters, I wanted to love them and there was just not enough humanity in them for that. Still, I am very eager indeed that Laika continue down this path and make more serious epic animations with their own unique tone to them.


Monday, 24 July 2017

この世界の片隅に / Kono Sekai no Katasumi ni / In This Corner of the World

This beautiful, reverent, affectionate and historically accurate Japanese movie almost slipped me by – not as connected as I once was to news from the world of anime, I heard about it only because it was on the plane during my trip back to England. And I’m very glad I caught it, because it was superb.

Crowdfunded, helmed by a director I’ve never heard of (though I’ve seen other works he’s been affiliated with) and produced by Studio Mappa who thus far are mostly known for the far less serious Yuri on Ice, this is perhaps an unlikely hit, but it hits all the right notes. It treads similar ground to Grave of the Fireflies and will of course be compared with it in just about every review, but has a far less focused and relentless tone, instead giving a far lighter touch and a whimsical method of building up its characters that actually reminded me of French filmmaking.

Based on a manga, this film tells the story of Suzu, a simple and rather childlike young woman who comes from a small community on the outskirts of Hiroshima. In the years before the war, she gets married to a young man she met only once before and doesn’t remember, then goes to live in nearby Kure, a naval port.

There, she contends with being a bit hapless in a new community away from her family. Her new husband has a sick mother, a big house and a domineering older sister to contend with, and her attempts to please them and do her best are very endearing – though she’s scatterbrained and has a habit of tilting her head when she forgets things.

Of course, eventually the war comes and brings with it at first inconvenience, and later tragedy. Naive Suzu retains her gentle nature through personal injury, large-scale tragedy and the unfamiliar aspects of life in a military town, like when she’s tempted by an extramarital affair or when she first encounters prostitutes.

The things she must endure are pretty horrific, but her reaction is believable – neither breakdown nor numbness, but a mixture of sorrow, guilt at not being able to do more to help others, and of course retaining her underlying personality really give this piece a believable and deeply likeable centre. The things she has to endure are terrible, as one would expect from a wartime drama, but there’s a rare subtlety in how they affect her, here.

The film is also beautiful. Suzu’s talent is for art – one of the funniest moments in the film comes when the military police suspect her of espionage and her feelings are hurt when everyone else finds the very idea hilarious – and sometimes that gets reflected by the artistic choices of the movie. The images of rabbits in the surf and the silly stories of childhood coming to life provide beauty or levity that enhance the artistry of this film.

Of course, it’s a heavy movie, but the point is to focus on war’s affect on ordinary people. Suzu knows nothing of Hitler or Manchukuo, is a product of her society with next to nothing to gain from Japan’s military role in the war, and is far more concerned with living as well as she possibly can. This isn’t a grand political statement, it’s an effort to capture the reality of a time and place that was to be shattered by the Bomb.

Delicate, nuanced and well-researched, it’s a must-see for anyone looking for art-house anime.  

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Adventure Time – season 8

After realising season 7 had ended some time ago, I binge-watched the rest of season 8. I have to say, it brought with it a lot of what I had hoped for in the last season. 

Yes, there were some strange throwaway episodes, like diving after a sea lard and finding a strange new world, or the return of James Baxter the horse (though I did like how he got his name). But most of the season was dominated by two much longer, more intriguing plotlines - the development of the elemental guardian plotline that reaches fruition in season 9, but more importantly, Susan Strong providing Finn with a link to find the rest of the humans - and his mother. 

This plotline leads to the final lengthy arc of this season, with its own unique introduction and a bleak portrayal of the future of humanity. Once again, we see the idea of humanity preferring life in virtual reality and getting trapped inside. But Finn's mother and the rest of the humans are part of a different society, perhaps one that works a little too well. 

Finn gets some fine emotional moments and development, and it had already been a strong season for him as we got more exploration of the idea of alternate Finns being trapped in his swords. Finding his mother and of course ending up confronting problems she'd caused before eventually having to return home provided some great emotional highs and lows. Plus Susan became a fully-fledged character too, with her own past to confront, and had a cathartic reunion in the end. 


Now that both Finn's parents are well-established and he's growing up, there aren't so many loose ends left to tie. I think the next season bring Princess Bubblegum's darkness and the loose ends that remain in Simon's stories to an end, and then I feel like we might finally come to the end of this brightly-coloured, often rather dark cartoon that from its beginning has been squarely targeted at stoners and adults. I hope it draws to a natural close before too much longer. There's no point stringing it out until it gets stale, and while this season has been very satisfying indeed, I don't think there's that much more remaining in plot terms to bring out these kind of heavy hits in future. 

Monday, 10 July 2017

Adventure Time – season 7

The last few seasons of Adventure Time have seen very sporadic release schedules. Sometimes there’s a slew of episodes all coming out in a month and sometimes there’s nothing for weeks and weeks. It’s not clear where seasons begin and end most of the time, and I was under the impression that season 7 ended with the episodes ‘Preboot’ and ‘Reboot’, mostly because they took five months to come out after the previous episodes – but now I find out that’s midway through season 8 and I should have done my season 7 impressions in the March of 2016. Oh well.

Season 7 was actually the time that the show lost me somewhat, with season 8 episodes only recently having piqued my interest again. This season’s major events include Princess Bubblegum getting deposed by the cowardly King of Ooo, a lengthy exploration of Marceline’s past and where she got her different powers, and a real visit to the surreal parallel dimension Farmworld. There are also more hints to Simon’s past, with Betty at large in the present day.

But honestly, it’s partly the unpredictable release schedule, partly the feeling that the show’s major ideas are now played out and partly a few dud episodes like trying to figure out underwater political intrigues with blowfish and porpoises. There wasn’t much badly wrong here, but a lot of momentum felt sapped by the longer storylines, which unlike those of season 8 didn’t really feel like the advanced the plot of characters very much, especially Marceline. Princess Bubblegum got a little more depth, though.


In fact, the problem with this season was that unlike the seasons surrounding it, with major arcs largely focused on Finn, there’s not enough contrast between light and shade. Marceline is all darkness, Bubblegum only treading between bright pink and grey. What defines the current Adventure Time, a very long way out from its quirky initial pilot, is that it can contrast its silliness with surprising depth and ambition. I can see that this season brought to the fore some of the cleverer elements thought up for secondary characters, but they really pale beside Finn or the Ice King’s stories. And that leaves this season a little sub-par. But certainly, it remains fun to watch.  

Monday, 3 July 2017

King of the Hill: seasons 7&8


This show began to lose its way a little by taking a show with the central premise of being believable and down-to-earth and introducing whacky and far-fetched scenarios, and that really showed in season 7.

The season had too much that was too far-fetched. Bobby got fooled into making drugs. Dale leads the gang in hunting Chuck Mangione through a megastore at night. A pork magnate tries to transform Luanne into a woman from an advertising illustration, and himself into a pig. Instead of small-town foibles and recognisable characters, the show starts dealing with people who think they’re wizards, sexy female pest exterminators, stereotyped bikers and vision quests. I guess dancing with dogs just about passes as familiar ground for middle-class America, but it’s a weird story.

There’s one great episode, though, finally filling in a pretty big gap in a show about Texas, which sees Hank embarrassed when his dog Ladybird appears to be racist. It raises some pretty important questions about this setting, previously left at ‘Are you Chinese or are you Japanese?’, so it was good to see development at last.

That aside, Season 7 mostly left me with the feeling that the show was in decline, I have to say. However, King of the Hill got back on track somewhat in the eighth season. 

Yes, there are still some parts that go a little over-the-top, like Luanne protesting from the mouth of a giant mechanical mascot, a TV star coming to stay or Hank finding himself having to decide whether or not to let part of the town flood in a downpour of rain, but the vast majority of these episodes are believable scenarios about everyday problems – like Bobby wanting to get out of showering after sports or Hank getting a bad back.

The character of Peggy is going a little too strange at this point. She was originally a very subtle character, a little too full of herself yet very slow to read between the lines, but in episodes about her getting a chance to be an artist or taking pictures of a Flat Stanley doll, she crosses the line to being outright delusional and probably psychotic. She provided the highlights of several past seasons, but now she’s just a little too much. I suppose it’s an example of Flanderisation.

There are extremely big-name guest stars in this season. Brad Pitt has a lot of fun as Boomhauer’s brother in a performance that may as well have just been Mike Judge speaking in a slightly different register. Lindsey Lohan, early in her career, plays a love interest for Bobby. And then there’s Johnny Depp hamming it up as a conceited yoga instructor. None of them get in the way of the episode or draw undue attention, and it’s pretty likely only very big fans would recognise any of them before the credits. Ben Stiller also has a role as an annoying guy who thinks he’s far funnier than he is…meta humour, there, perhaps?

Some very memorable episodes worked out well here, like Hank hiring a big rig to play at being truckers for a while, or Bill managing to be popular by pretending to be gay – which sounds like it would be offensive but of course only highlights the ridiculousness of exaggerated perceptions of minorities.
At this stage there is a slight feeling of the show being played out. I’m not sure what the remaining 5 seasons will bring to the premise. But I’m still willing to find out, and the show remains a fun, now comfortingly familiar, piece of TV.