Thursday, 18 August 2016

The Simpsons: Season 10

I’m not adding anything new to the world of Simpsons criticism – from people far more informed than I am – when I say that where season 9 was the turning point, season 10 is where it’s clear this show isn’t what it used to be. There’s a tendency to claim that while the glory days are now behind The Simpsons, weak Simpsons is still better than most TV. But compared to most other animated sitcoms, whether Futurama or King of the Hill or South Park or even Beavis and Butthead, from here on in The Simpsons is sorely lacking. It’s right on the brink of not-worth-watching at this point, and I found some episodes decidedly tedious.

And yes, the main problem here is Homer. He’s now absolutely the show’s main character, but he’s also a self-centred, borderline psychopathic, narcissistic weirdo. He was once so relatable, and now he’s a proud criminal and unbelievable moron who I find it hard to believe anyone would like if they started watching the show from this point. No longer Fred Flintstone, he’s become more Felix the Cat, and that’s hard to stomach.

There are some decent episodes here, especially toward the beginning of the season, like ‘The Wizard of Evergreen Terrace’, where Homer actually shows some conscience after coming up with a scheme to destroy a piece of American heritage. Bart shows a bit of depth in ‘Bart the Mother’ and the moment where a whole awards ceremony is faked for Lisa is probably the funniest moment of the season, alongside Homer surveying his newly-built barbeque. Homer’s stint as a bodyguard also has its moments.

This is also one of the few example of an episode where there are two plotlines where both are good (Homer gets a pet lobster concurrently with Lisa’s cheating dilemma, and both are amusing stories). Too often, there is a strong strand and a weak one, and sadly it usually falls to Marge and Lisa to pad episodes with some dull time-wasting, like trying to find a missing jigsaw piece or getting a new doorbell.

Some ideas are good and badly-executed, like the kids setting up a pirate radio show, ending with a terrible musical number, or Homer and Ned’s trip to Vegas which jettisons all its interesting moral questions very quickly. Other ideas are just terrible, like Homer becoming friends with a Hollywood couple in a bizarre self-congratulatory celebrity episode. More could have been done with Homer looking into his roots than him being a horrible person to hippies, and the Treehouse of Horror episodes are wearing thin, especially as they are no longer the containment episodes for surrealist sequences. Trips abroad are terrible, the Scotland jaunt being weirdly tacked-on and the journey to Japan being embarrassingly less amusing and insightful than one phone call to Japanese people about Mr. Sparkle. The Steven Hawking cameo also isn’t nearly as funny as I remember it being.

This is a disappointing series where the saving graces are few and far between, and I don’t predict any improvement from here. It’s also a little sad to note this is the end of Phil Hartman’s characters Troy McClure and Lionel Hutz after his murder. He would have made a great Zapp Brannigan. 

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Finding Dory (with Piper)

Finding Dory was preceded by the short film Piper, which was a characteristically cute little story of a little sandpiper who at first is traumatised by water, but then learns to innovate by following some little hermit crabs and becomes the best little hunter around. It’s a very Pixar story, extremely cute and full of heart (though of course requires us to be highly selective with what life forms we anthropomorphise), with plenty going for it technically – not just the water effects, but the clever way the simulated depth of field imitated cameras focusing on very small things. For me, though, the strangest surprise was seeing King Crimson stalwart (and recent NyX collaborator) Adrian Belew provided the music.

The movie itself was a triumph. When the sequel to Finding Nemo was announced, people were sceptical. Finding Nemo again? But the shift of the story from Marlin to Dory was a very clever one. Dory as a character centred on the quirk of her memory loss. That made her a character who was extremely amusing but shallow – what would she forget next? Her friends? Her companions? Where did she come from? What was she doing before she met Marlin?

So here we get a quest for self-discovery from a fish with short-term memory loss. And, indeed, long-term memory loss. Dory doesn’t remember her parents, until small things begin to remind her of where she grew up. Not in the ocean, but in captivity.

Like the first film, Finding Dory is primarily a journey – or two journeys, since Marlin and Dory are separated through much of the story. On this journey, numerous characters are introduced very quickly – burly, protective but fun-loving sea-lions; insecure but loveable whales; a self-centred but good-hearted octopus; a typical small role for John Ratzenburger as a little crab quietly trimming the lawn. Sigourney Weaver steals the show without actually having a character, and there’s a very satisfying mini-cameo right at the end to tie up some loose threads from the first film.

Of course, the film relies heavily on coincidence, highly unlikely feats of action and an octopus able to thrive seemingly indefinitely out of water. But those don’t impede a simple, direct and at times very moving plot. There’s a little plot device involving shells that is particularly sweet. Having this kind of ensemble cast works well in an animation, when characters can be so distinct without having to play a very large role in the story, and the humour is always gentle, affectionate and celebrates pushing yourself a little further before and thinking outside the box.

Visually, this is also triumphant, a notable improvement from the first film, and the huge central tank of the aquarium is particularly beautiful – though of course animating something designed to be beautiful is going to result in beauty, so that helps the visual impact of the film. In some ways the ending is a little messy and one wonders if there wasn’t some huge impact on how humans view marine life, but it was also a satisfying large-scale moment in a relatively small-scale film.


Sequels are often seen as a lazy cash-in, and very often detract from the original. But this kind of sequel, made 13 years later from a place of real affection for the original, filling a gap that persists from the original storyline, is exactly how a sequel should be done. And it didn’t hurt that baby Dory was just so damn cute!

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Dofus Livre 1: Julith / Dofus Book 1: Julith

Finally watching the Wakfu OVAs put me very much in the mood for more Wakfu. There’s no more Wakfu to watch until Season 3 begins next month, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t more from the universe I could see. I still had this to watch, the first in the Dofus films, released theatrically in France earlier this year.

France has been producing some impressive animated movies in recent years, Le Jour des corneilles being a particular favourite, and it seems fitting that Ankama got something up on the big screen. And to mark the occasion, they’ve upped their game, creating something beautifully fluid and ambitious, yet again pushing the boundaries of Flash further than anyone else. I couldn’t say this movie quite stood alone, requiring a fair bit of knowledge of Joris’ background, but parents accompanying their kids or random cinemagoers probably would have enjoyed this as a standalone piece.

The story picks up three years after the end of AuxTrésors de Kerubim. Little Joris is still little, but a slightly more rebellious 10-year-old, rather than the adoring 7-year-old of the series. He still adores his papycha Kerubim, but rebels against him a little, too, especially when it comes to seeing the Boufbowl games.

However, life around Kerubim is never simple, and when the formidable Huppermage named Julith comes for the dofus Kerubim is protecting, there’s little our heroes can do to oppose her. Joris and little Lilotte, now much closer to Joris than she was in the season, have to join forces with a young rival Huppermage named Bakara and a swaggering Boufbowl player named Khan Karkass to secure an opposing Dofus and use it against Julith before she can put her wicked and very Fullmetal Alchemist-esque plan into action. And Joris might just discover a thing or two about his real parents along the way.

Where Julith really succeeds is in not taking itself too seriously. The characters have the typical Ankama eccentricity to their designs, with Julith having a very distinctive nose, Khan Karkass being the silliest Iop design yet and Bakara looking somewhat like she belongs in The Dark Crystal. There’s some wonderful bathos to some of the rather serious moments, and the fact that underpants are instrumental to the antagonist’s plan just undercuts everything nicely. Like many French animations, it also covers territory that American family fare tends to shy away from – getting drunk, flamboyant homosexuality and explicit heterosexual desire, too. It’s also both silly and rather joyful that defeating the antagonist essentially turns into a game of Boufbowl at the end.
 
But the heart of the piece is of course Joris and he retains his extremely likeable personality from the series. He’s still a very long way from the Master Joris we saw in Wakfu, but he’s also growing and changing. And yes, as expected, we had an explanation for why Kerubim calls him ‘Father’ in the OVAs – if not yet a similar one for Atcham.


I’m excited for more Wakfu, but I have to say far more than the peaceful, fun little series that was Aux Trésors de Kerubim, this movie made me excited for more Dofus. I’m very keen to see where things will go with Livre 2. 

Saturday, 23 July 2016

The Simpsons: Season 9

If problems had begun to appear in the last couple of seasons, this season is the one where it no longer felt like the next episode was likely to be good, with a small chance of being a stinker. This is where the Simpson family stops being relatable and start being outright scary. It’s also where the show completely disconnects from reality, where things that were previously Treehouse of Horror material enter regular episodes. Witness, for example, Kirk Van Houten’s arm being sliced off, never to be mentioned again. Or the launching of a submarine captain as a torpedo when Homer randomly gets put in charge. It just doesn’t seem like The Simpsons in its prime any more. Family histories can be altered whenever it’s convenient to the plot, like when Grandpa shows Lisa that Homer and Bart were very smart as young children, and perhaps most irritatingly and controversially, Principal Skinner’s character is totally assassinated when he is revealed to be an imposter, which for many – such as Chris Turner in Planet Simpson – is the show’s ‘Jumping the shark’ moment. It’s not just the abrupt change in continuity that sits uneasily – it’s the sheer implausibility of the town’s reaction. That said, it’s not up there in implausibility with things like moving the whole town five miles on wheels.

None of these are the nadir of the season, however. That honour goes to ‘All Singing, All Dancing’, which may be my least favourite episode of The Simpsons ever. I’m just glad these episodes weren’t among the first I saw.

But there are certainly strong episodes here, too. Nelson as a star peewee footballer, Lisa falling victim to an elaborate advertising gimmick, and Bart actually facing some consequences when he gets caught in a string of lies all work well for the show. Moe finds love and actually gets some proper character development, and Mr. Burns – despite it coming over as a bit strange so soon after an episode where he was broke – has one of the season’s funniest episodes in possession of a trillion-dollar bill. The season finale, with Homer and Marge trying to reignite their sex lives, is also full of strong moments and still manages to feel like envelope-pushing, almost two decades later.

But the real problem with this show at this stage is how quickly the characters can be remoulded to fit an idea or concept. We’re already getting to the stage where Homer is a psychopath who doesn’t care if he kills. It’s a struggle for Marge to be interesting. Bart is badly in need of more depth and Lisa seems to be losing her strength of character and cleverness.

Sadly, it’s downhill from here. 

Saturday, 2 July 2016

少年メイド / Shounen Maid / Boy Maid

Trash. No denying it.

But I enjoyed every episode. And it’s no more egregious than the OreImos and Love Lives of the world.

The female demographic is clearly becoming more and more lucrative in the anime world. It’s female buying power that is the engine behind the success of the likes of Osomatsu-san, Kuroshitsuji and the various hot-blooded sports series like Kuroke no Basuke, Haikyuu!, Free! and Yowamushi Pedal. And just as the male demographic gets feel-good pandering trash, so too do female audiences get their own flavours. Which are perhaps a little more…surprising to Western tastes?

Before it becomes an elephant in the room, yes, a lot of Japanese women like to watch homoerotic stories involving a little boy and an older man. The older man is usually on the feminine side, but the kind of pretty that makes women around him blush and giggle. The boy is usually innocent and often feminised. Kuroshitsuji is perhaps the most prominent example of this set-up, but by no means the only one. And the idea of putting a young boy in a rich man’s house as a maid has been done before in the explicitly pornographic Shounen Maid Kuro-kun.

So this series already begins in a very, very weird place. Little Chihiro-kun in just an elementary school student, 11 or 12 at most, when his mother dies and he goes to live with his extremely wealthy uncle Madoka. Madoka is a clothing designer who loves frills and when he finds out his nephew loves to clean, he promptly puts him in a frilly apron over his shorts and long socks. Though the writer is careful not to make anything overtly sexual about this relationship, Madoka is a rather infantile man who often decides to come and sleep in the same bed as Chihiro.

This odd couple relationship is fleshed out as Chihiro finds out more about his family, various friends and relatives are introduced and Madoka’s personal life gets whipped into shape just as his professional life is kept in check by his personal assistant Keiichirou. A cute member of an idol group called Ryuuji also befriends the motley crew, and I have to say I’d probably rather watch the spin-off about the group that’s airing on Nico Nico Douga (and thus not getting translated by anybody), which at least is sexualising a 16-year-old rather than a 12-year-old – while pretending to be innocent.

But for all the bad taste in the mouth this series might leave, the fact is that it’s cute and fun, just like shows for men about adorable lolis tend to be cute and fun. That Chihiro is only a kid but far more responsible than the adults around him is cute, the occasional embarrassment of being seen in his apron (and his friends ending up with the same fate) is cute. The dynamic between the Uchouten Boys – the idol group – is clichéd and drawn briefly, but also cute. And yes, Chihiro himself, with his serious exterior but obvious vulnerability, is extremely cute.


There’s no denying that the premise is creepy, there’s glamorised paedophilia running under the surface throughout, the characterisation is lazy and the show doesn’t really go anywhere, but it’s no more creepy than numerous little sister or loli comedy shows, and is still very enjoyable for those of us who like cuteness, whether aimed at guys or girls. 

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Zootopia

Disney is in another extremely strong age, following the Fairy Tale double-whammy of Tangled and Frozen with the wonderfully big-hearted Wreck-it Ralph and Big Hero 6. Now comes Zootopia, an animal allegory that holds a mirror up to human society in the time-honoured way, but with a clever and timely message that crucially seems to please everyone.

Zootopia follows Judy Hopps the adorable anthropomorphic bunny as she follows her dream to become the first-ever rabbit police officer in the multicultural urban utopia that is Zootopia. Even though she manages to surprise everyone and make it through Police Academy as valedictorian, she is constantly underestimated until she manages to wrangle a simple investigation that soon unfurls into a conspiracy that will rock Hopps’ society to the core. But with her new odd-couple friend Nick Wilde the sly fox – and a coincidental powerful little ally – perhaps she has a shot at solving the mystery.

This is of course a look at the current fixations the world has – diversity, integration, celebrating differences or fearing them, and comes with the refreshingly stark opening message that even if you’re told platitudes about following your dreams, it’s seldom that simple. Perhaps the cleverest part is that the messages offered by the film please opposite ends of the political spectrum. For the left, there’s the central message that if you have a dream you can follow it and defy the odds to buck the trend and win over all the doubters. For the right, there’s the concurrent message that there are fundamental differences between various groups, which come with innate limitations and strengths, and draw people into different roles based on averages – even if outliers can be encouraged. Everybody is happy.

And using animals means that time-honoured jokes based on stereotypes can be gleefully employed – only about animals, so no human groups will be offended. The film is replete with sight gags based on appearance, comments about traits associated with different creatures and even jokes revolving around slurs. It’s quite nice that using animals circumvents the current problems about being ‘problematic’, or seeking to be entirely PC.

Pace-wise this is a classic smooth committee-approved script, ticking off exposition, mystery, investigation, development, disillusion, revelation and final confrontation. It’s neither hard to predict nor new, but it works very nicely and hits all the right emotional notes. I wouldn’t say it has heart to the same degree as Wreck-It Ralph or Big Hero 6, but it absolutely gives the audience engaging characters, a fascinating and amusing world, a believable story, some hard-hitting moments and material for social debate, which is pretty good going for a children’s film.

The ensemble cast is also very strong, with the likes of Idris Elba and Oscar winner J.K. Simmons having fun with broad roles, Maurice LeMarche doing a classic impersonation, Tommy Chong being Tommy Chong and Shakira rather bizarrely providing the emotional heart of the movie as well as a rather catchy Sia-penned closing number.

I watched this movie late – I don’t think it will be showing in Japan much longer, and it’s months since its American release – but I’m glad I managed to catch it on the big screen. The way Zootopia is set up for creatures of all sizes and various climates is rather charming and the level of detail in every frame is astonishing. Another hit for Disney, and another set of characters I hope will soon be regarded as beloved characters from a classic film. 

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Wakfu OVAs

As a proud Kickstarter contributor, I got these OVAs from Ankama months ago in my nice big pack of goodies. But I put off watching them until I could find a way to watch them in French with English subtitles, because the English voices don’t sit well with me after so long watching the originals – which is also why I STILL haven’t got around to finishing the new season of Mysterious Cities of Gold.

But a few days ago Ankama E-mailed mentioning their trailer for season 3, and wanting to watch it but not wanting these three specials spoiled – which I now know they would have been had I watched – I decided it was time to figure it out. I was able to do so, and once again had the pleasure of dipping into le Monde des Douze.

And what a pleasure it was. The specials were more than I had anticipated, continuing the adventures but building on them in dramatic form. We got to see a lot more familiar faces than I had expected, which was great for fanservice but also for the expansion of the world – not only Joris helped this time, but Kerubim and Atcham too (though I’m not sure when they took to calling Joris their father – maybe something the Dofus films will explain? I should probably watch Julith sometime soon!). Goultard appears too. More interesting still are the foes we see – most brilliantly, this OVA focuses on Ogrest and all the problems he causes the world. Great to see that story concluded after all this time. There is also Remington, Ush, the intriguing future threat Lady Echo, and intriguing mind-controlled cameos for comic characters Maskemane and Percimol. Nox is of course gone for good, but it was nice to see the references to him. These appearances were a lot of fun for a fan, but mostly it was just good to see the Brotherhood back in action, especially Yugo.

The story continues with Tristepin and Evangeline’s peaceful life with their cute twin girls interrupted by the call of Otomai summoning them to the Sadida kingdom. The kingdom is in trouble, inundated by Ogrest’s tears. The time has come to deal with the absurdly powerful Ogrest, but to do that, they need the Eliotrope Dofus to counter Ogrest’s Dofus. And the Dofus have gone missing...

What follows is an enjoyable quest with lots of scraps and two mightly power-ups for our main two heroes, but more crucially contains a whole lot of very sweet and engaging interactions between beloved characters. Whether Pinpin gets the power of a god matters to me far less than whether he is a good father, or if Adamai will come to understand his brother’s rash actions or the huge efforts he went to in order to preserve the World of Twelve. 
Personally, I loved this and regret that I didn’t watch it sooner. I’m a little sad it’s still so hard to get hold of and consume Wakfu materials, because it remains a firm favourite. What I’ll make of season 3 I’m not yet sure, but I’m confident I’ll enjoy it – and whatever else Ankama put out. It’s not that they can do no wrong, and I am a little worried that after Nox, the Shushus, the Eliotropes and Ogrest himself, the Siblings and perhaps the Gods themselves are going to seem a tad underwhelming. 

But I certainly haven’t had enough of Yugo, Pinpin, Amalia, Evangeline, Ruel and the rest...so I’m certainly on board for more and willing to see just how good Ankama’s follow-ups will be!