Friday, September 18, 2020

My Top Ten TV Movies

This may be the weirdest top ten list I've written yet, for a couple of reasons. First, it's a post about celebrating the red-headed stepchild of the media world, the television movie, which has never gotten its fair shake as a legitimate form of media after decades of cheap ripped-from-the-headlines dreck. Second, this list is conspicuously missing many of the obvious, high profile titles that usually are held up as shining examples of television movies - for the simple reason that I never had access to premium cable channels like HBO and Showtime for the vast majority of my life. As a result, all the celebrated HBO prestige features that win so many Emmys are nowhere in sight. And so my list is, well, it's unique.

Duel (1971) - Let's start with one of the obvious classics. Steven Spielberg directed and Richard Matheson wrote this bare bones thriller about a truck that menaces a poor salesman during a long drive through the Mojave desert. This was only Spielberg's second feature, and he was already displaying a remarkable visual sense and facility with screen language. You never see the driver of the tanker truck, and you never need to. The film was so successful, additional scenes were shot, and the movie was given a theatrical release in Europe and other overseas markets.

The Naked Civil Servant (1975) - The biopic of Quentin Crisp put him in the spotlight as a prominent queer British icon, and features John Hurt in one of his most famous performances. It took me a while to find the film, which is currently streaming on Topic, and I'm so glad I took the trouble. It's such a daring a brutally honest portrayal of a homosexual man struggling to survive the first half of the twentieth century, you almost can't believe that either the man or the film actually exists. And John Hurt's fearless lead performance as Crisp really is one for the ages.

The Lathe of Heaven (1980) - PBS funded and aired this bare bones adaptation of the Ursula K. LeGuin science-fiction novel, starring Bruce Davison as a man whose dreams change reality, and Kevin Conway as the psychiatrist who hijacks his powers. I just love the way that such an epic story is told with so few resources, how a few cleverly dressed sets and rudimentary video effects can convey massive societal changes and catastrophes from scene to scene. This is a film of ideas and substance more than glitz and spectacle, and it really comes through in every aspect of the production.

Meantime (1983) - Mike Leigh made ten television films in the '70s and '80s before gaining enough support to make the jump to theatrical films permanently. "Meantime" is one of his best, a candid look at a working class family living in London's East End, where jobs are scarce and future prospects are dim. Gary Oldman had his screen debut here, as a skinhead, and Tim Roth plays one of the leads. Like so much of Leigh's work, the film is interested in ordinary people living out ordinary lives, and serves as a great snapshot of the state of Britain in the uncertain days of the 1980s.

The Halloween Tree (1993) - After Turner bought Hanna-Barbera in the '90s, there was a brief period where they tried to produce more ambitious projects. This included a Halloween-themed feature based on Ray Bradbury's YA novel, "The Halloween Tree." Bradbury himself wrote the teleplay, reducing the number of characters and updating the material. The animation is a little on the rough side, but the simplicity of the imagery is charming and perfectly nostalgic. I also want to highlight the great John Debney score and Leonard Nimoy's performance as Moundshroud.

Bloody Sunday (2002) - This one had its premiere at Sundance and got a theatrical run, but it was produced for ITV and aired there first, so I count it as a TV film. I strongly suspect that Paul Greengrass got tapped for the "Bourne" movies because of his work here, which depicts the 1972 Northern Irish Bloody Sunday shootings. The shaky-cam cinematography, the intense immediacy of the action choreography, and the fast-paced editing are all clearly visible here. This is certainly a prestige project, but it's a chilling and uncompromisingly bleak one that caught me off guard.

Sybil (1976) - This is the entry that's closest to what the popular conception of a TV movie is, a melodrama featuring terrible domestic abuses, women in trouble, and other potentially salacious subject matter. However, "Sybil" also features two fantastic performances from Sally Field and Joanne Woodward, and I love its approach to its heroine's personal struggles, even though the conception of DID is very dated. At three hours in length, parts of the film can be a slog, but I think it's worth it to get to the lovely final counseling session, where Sybil finally meets herself.

Behind the Candelabra (2013) - For Steven Soderbergh's sake, I went and tracked down this HBO film, about the relationship between Liberace and his longtime partner Scott Thorson, played by Michael Douglas and Matt Damon respectively. Not being very familiar with Liberace, I enjoy the movie purely as a trashy (but affectionate) gay love story and black comedy with a fabulous cast - witness Rob Lowe's towering achievement in coiffure. At the time, this was supposed to be Soderbergh's final film project before retirement - and I'm very glad that it didn't stick.

White Dwarf (1995) - Now here's a real oddity. Francis Ford Coppola was one of the producers behind this striking fantasy film, which was initially put together as a pilot for a possible series. As such, there's no real plot to the thing, just a string of introductions to interesting places and people, played by a bevy of familiar character actors. However, the worldbuilding and the weird mix of influences really sets this one apart. There are shapeshifters, warriors, monsters, and magic in abundance. And the weirdest thing is that this is actually a medical drama at its core.

The Scarlet Pimpernel (1982) - Here's a favorite from my childhood - the absolute best adaptation of "The Scarlet Pimpernel" ever made, starring Jane Seymour and Anthony Andrews, with Ian McKellan as the villain. This is largely thanks to the excellent performance of Anthony Andrews as the ridiculously foppish Percy Blakeney. The rest of the film, likewise, is all adventure and romance and fun, never taking itself too seriously. The politics are little out of date, which is why I suspect the property hasn't been remade often since, but the story is still a charmer.
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Wednesday, September 16, 2020

I Watched "Twilight"

So, months of Coronavirus quarantine has lead me to this. I've been indulging in some of the more popular movies that I'd skipped or missed from the 2000s, including "Legally Blonde" and "The Ring." This brought me to the "Twilight" movies, which are far back enough in time now that they're starting to become nostalgic for people of a certain age. There have been some re-evaluations and kinder takes floating around recently too, so in the interests of my own pop-culture literacy, I figured it was time to take the plunge. After all, I've been listening to complaints and dissections about this series for years. It's high time I formed my own opinion.

And so, the original 2008 "Twilight" directed by Catherine Hardwicke is.... a bad movie. It's not an egregiously bad movie, but it's boring, it's way too long, it makes no sense, the humor's terrible, and a lot of the production values are pretty sad. Remarkably, Kristen Stewart delivers a perfectly good performance as Bella Swan, and she carries the film without any problems. Robert Pattinson is awful, but the character he's playing is awful to the point that he's kinda hilarious, so I enjoyed him regardless. It was fun seeing Anna Kendrick as one of Bella's classmates, and Justin Chon sporting one of the worst haircuts I've ever seen on film. Good grief.

As far as teen romances go, this is far from the worst I've seen. Sure, the dialogue is wooden, and the chemistry is flimsy, but I understand completely why this was such a big hit with teenage girls. This is totally pandering to that audience. It's full of supernatural creatures but very little horror, tons of teenage angst, but no adult consequences. The Pacific Northwest locations look fabulous, and the minimal score is a nice change of pace from the aggressive song-based soundtracks of similar films. The arguments that have been thrown around about the Bella and Edward relationship being unhealthy is missing the point. This is immature teenagers being idiots together and breaking the rules, not level-headed adults setting healthy boundaries and negotiating priorities. It's a fantasy film in every respect.

The "Twilight" vampires are essentially the kids from "Tuck Everlasting" with a couple of the more showy vampire traits - super strength and agility, ultra pale skin, and some limited mental powers. I find them utterly fascinating for being so deeply, deeply uncool in spite of all this. The good vampires are a ridiculously wholesome family, the Cullens, who play baseball and walk around their high school together in slow motion. They make almost no attempt to blend in with the normies, and are so obviously people out of the wrong era that it's exasperating that it takes Bella nearly an hour to catch on. They describe themselves as "vegetarians" because they don't drink human blood, but are endlessly miserable about it. Edward goes on multiple anguished rants about being a monster and a killer. It's very much so-bad-it's-good territory.

Despite all this, the film does make me a little wistful for that brief time in pop culture where the "Twilight" films were making an absurd amount of money every year, signalling loud and clear to Hollywood that teenage girls would turn out in droves for a film that took their tastes into account. The YA fantasy trend died with the third "Divergent" film, but it did net us a few decent hits like "The Hunger Games." There were a handful of supernatural romances that tried to follow the "Twilight" formula more closely, but not as many as I would have expected. I liked some of these as well, including "Warm Bodies" and "Beautiful Creatures."

I'm tempted to watch the rest of the "Twilight" series just to enjoy the absurdity, which I understand gets ratcheted up considerably in the later installments. The prospect of Michael Sheen and Rami Malek hamming it up as vampires is pretty tempting. On the other hand, I'd just be watching the further adventures of the "Twilight" gang to gawk at their monstrosity, which I don't feel right about either. I'm long past being part of the franchise's target audience, and I think it's best to leave these films to their actual, non-ironic fans.
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Monday, September 14, 2020

My Top Ten Films of 1964

This is part of my continuing series looking back on films from the years before I began this blog. The ten films below are unranked and listed in no particular order. Enjoy.

Mary Poppins - A clever mix of special effects extravaganza, musical romp, and Julie Andrews showcase that is so charming, even Dick van Dyke's ridiculous accent can't make a dent in its enjoyability. The songs are endlessly singable, the effects work still eye-popping, and the performances of Andrews and David Tomlinson are still terribly heartwarming to this day. Nostalgia plays a large part in the film's placement on this list, but it's nostalgia that's been well earned.

The Woman in the Dunes - One of those psychological thrillers that offers such a singular, strange experience that it's difficult to make comparisons to anything else. Hiroshi Teshigahara's surrealist style emphasizes the psychological effects of lengthy confinement on the protagonist, making great use of the desert environment. Experimental film aesthetics, including a discordant score and gorgeous abstract imagery, add to the bizarre, haunting nature of the prisoner's dilemma.

My Fair Lady - I know the leading role was supposed to be played by Julie Andrews, and Audrey Hepburn had to have her singing dubbed, but I honestly can't imagine anyone else as Eliza Dolittle. Hepburn has never gotten enough credit for her comedic skills, and she's a big reason why the first half of the film is so much more fun than the second. Sure, Rex Harrison makes a magnificent ass, but it's all about Eliza and her transformation from ungainly Cockney duckling into resplendent swan.

A Hard Day's Night - I've been watching a lot of Richard Lester films recently, and what always impresses me about them is their boundless energy. He turns the first Beatles movie into a lighthearted romp full of youthful chaos, built on little more than a basic pseudo-documentary premise. There's a spontaneity to the filmmaking that makes the random encounters and little moments of humor feel so alive and fresh. None of the subsequent Beatles films ever managed to duplicate it.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb - Stanley Kubick made the blackest of black comedies about the nuclear arms race, driving home the madness of the conflict far more effectively than the straight dramas on the subject, like "Fail Safe." A lot of the heavy lifting is done by a delightfully grotesque George C. Scott and Peter Sellers, delivering not just one, but three performances, but Kubrick's stamp on the material is undeniable - and indispensable.

A Fistful of Dollars - The first installment of Sergio Leone's "Dollars" trilogy really is just "Yojimbo" in the old west, but Clint Eastwood makes the Man With No Name fully his own character, and the stark spaghetti western style is unmistakably Leone. Its simplicity is part of its success, the reduction of the story and the characters down to their absolute essentials. Eastwood's stranger doesn't need a back story, a motivation, or even a name to be a compelling antihero. Just a hat and a gun.

Marriage Italian Style - In the '60s, Vittorio DeSica had gone from making heartrending Neorealist films to broader comedies. Here, he pairs Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni in a battle of the sexes, both playing desperate characters of ill repute locked in a heated battle over love and marriage. It thumbs its nose at conventional morality, and gently mocks social norms, but is very pro-family in the end. Loren in particular is a scene-stealer, playing the heroine at three very different ages.

The Pawnbroker - One of Sidney Lumet's most challenging films is a small, intense character study of a concentration camp survivor played by Rod Steiger. It was notable at the time of release for going up against the Production Code and winning, but its continued effectiveness has everything to do with Steiger's committed performance. Though lauded for being one of the first films to dramatize the Holocaust, it's the examination of the long-term consequences that really cuts deep.

Red Desert - My favorite Michaelangelo Antonioni film puts Monica Vitti in the surreal expanse of a quickly urbanizing town and simply watches her wander and explore. In Antonioni films, the environment is the story, and the gray world of "Red Desert," occasionally punctuated by meaningful appearances of color, is an easy one to get lost in. The resulting film is a curious, impressionistic, allegorical narrative about the relationship between man and the modern world.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg - Possibly the greatest French musical ever made, and Jacques Demy's most popular work. Unlike in most Hollywood musicals, there's a tragic finale to the love story that seems determined to leave the audience in tears. The music, by Demy's longtime collaborator Michel Legrande, is unforgettable, the colorful production design indelible, and the performance by Catherine Deneuve nothing less than iconic. It's a beautiful piece of cinema on every level.
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Saturday, September 12, 2020

The Emmy Blues

The Emmys are upon us once again, and for another year, I'm staring at a list of nominees that I haven't watched.  Out of the entire Outstanding Comedy Series list of eight nominees, I've only seen "The Good Place."  In the Outstanding Limited Series, I've only seen "Watchmen."  Outstanding Drama Series, as usual, is the only category where I've seen a good amount of the titles - "The Crown," "Killing Eve," "The Mandalorian," and "Stranger Things," but honestly I'm pretty sure that at least two of those don't deserve to be there.  Oh, and I gave up on "The Handmaid's Tale" after last season, having had enough of their narrative stalling tactics.    

I've kept up enough with the general industry chatter to at least have heard of most of the others, though I admit that I had to look up "Unorthodox."  Netflix really does not do enough marketing.  But this is such a change for me from last year, when I'd seen episodes of five of the seven Outstanding Comedy nominees, and three of the five Outstanding Limited Series nominees.  What's worse, I keep looking over the unseen nominees this year, and finding myself having very little interest in seeking any of them out.  I don't know if it's the pandemic and the political situation dampening the usual awards buzz, or if the pool of eligible stuff is just shallower this year, but I can't work up the enthusiasm to check out any of the unfamiliar new programs, or follow any of the races.  I'm not even all that mad about the big snubs, like "Mr. Robot" somehow not getting anything for its excellent final season. 

I feel like I've been fighting a losing battle the last few years, trying to keep on top of the Emmys. Part of it is due to having to juggle access to so many new platforms and services in order to see these shows.  Part of it is being a genre fan at heart whose tastes just don't match up with the Emmy voters.  And part of it is the general fatigue of finding more and more new things to watch every time I turn around.  When did the Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini comedy "Dead to Me" blow up?   How many seasons of "Ozark" have there been?  I'm not even sure how to get Pop TV, which airs "Schitt's Creek."  I know I should be happy about having all of these unseen shows to go and explore, but after a summer in lockdown spent catching up on a bunch of other shows, getting yet another list of titles like this is just exasperating.  

I think I'm just going to have to face the fact that I'm never going to be on the same page with the Emmys.  Frankly, I never have been.  Twenty years ago, the only nominees I actually watched were the network sitcoms.  However, there was a familiarity to "ER" and "Law & Order" and "The Practice" getting nominated year after year, and seeing mostly the same crowd of faces.  However, as production schedules have gotten so much more unpredictable, and you often have shows skipping a year or two between seasons (what happened to "Atlanta"?), every new batch of nominees is a surprise.  And that should be a good thing, right?  Especially with the newly resurgent Outstanding Limited Series category that almost got killed off a few years ago, all this new content should be celebrated.  Discovering "Fleabag" and "Fosse/Verdon" and "Barry" last year was great, right?

Well, for a serial completist who likes staying on top of pop culture, it all just looks like too much work this time out.  Maybe I've stopped feeling a fear of irrelevance and FOMO.  Maybe I'm getting too damn old for this.  In any case, I'm seriously considering skipping the Emmys this year completely.  With lockdown still going on, there won't be much of a ceremony to gawk over anyway.  Sorry, Jimmy Kimmel.  

Still, I've got to give the Television Academy props for committing to having their awards as usual, instead of retreating the way the Oscars have.  But, that's another post for another day.

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Thursday, September 10, 2020

Aboard the "Infinity Train"

I haven't been keeping as close an eye on Cartoon Network's output lately as I've been meaning to, but I knew that I had to make time for their anthology series "Infinity Train." The first two seasons were produced for special event miniseries format, with episodes aired nightly over the course of a week. Binged all together, the way I did, each season adds up to a nicely self-contained, feature length cartoon. The show follows in the footsteps of 2014's "Over the Garden Wall," which debuted this format with a spooky Halloween fable. "Infinity Train" aims a little broader and more formulaic, but it has a fascinating central concept.

Part of the fun of "Infinity Train" is trying to figure out the rules of its universe. We meet a girl named Tulip (Ashley Johnson), who boards an impossible train one night while running away from home. Tulip discovers that each train car houses its own fantastic environment, from a kingdom of talking corgis to a giant kids' indoor playground. Tulip travels through the cars in search of a way home, accompanied by a morose little ball robot, One-One (Jeremy Crutchley and Owen Dennis), and one of the talking corgis, King Atticus (Ernie Hudson). Occasionally they also encounter the Cat (Kate Mulgrew), a trickster who can't be trusted, and far more dangerous robotic creatures called Stewards. Tulip also has to figure out why there's a glowing green number on the palm of her hand, that increases or decreases based on her progress. The second season keeps the setting and a few characters, but follows a different pair of kids - MT (also Johnson) and Jesse (Robbie Daymond).

"Infinity Train" does the allegorical hero's journey to maturation and improved mental health with plenty of style and imagination. The train is essentially a giant therapy facilitator, setting the kids on adventures that force them to confront their personal issues, connect with other people, and build new emotional support systems. I like how the writers tackle common childhood dilemmas and really dig into them. Tulip is handling her parents' recent divorce badly. Jesse is revealed to be a people-pleaser and too easily pressured into going along with the crowd. MT has a lot of identity issues. Sorting out everyone's baggage is not easy, and the series treats these challenges as far more difficult than defeating evil robots and puzzling through the different train cars.

The show borrows a lot of imagery from dystopian and cyberpunk media like "Snowpiercer," and occasionally wanders into (kid friendly) horror territory. However, what stands out is the moody, mysterious tone, bolstered by an excellent trance/electronica score, fun character designs, and an endless variety of weird environments to explore. And while there's some intense content, including violence and death, the show's unusual gravity comes across more clearly in its quieter, contemplative moments. The whole conception of the train is great, this gigantic, mechanical wonder barrelling through an endless wasteland, with no apparent beginning or end. Though there's no direct influence, "Infinity Train" can't help sharing a little existential DNA with the anime space opera classic "Galaxy Express 999," the story of another impossible train ferrying its passengers along on a frequently melancholy journey of discovery.

If I've made the show sound too serious and grim, rest assured that it's very much aimed at kids, and has plenty of humor and absurdity to balance out the monsters and trauma. There are puns and pop-culture references everywhere, along with the fun of mixing a whole lot of different genres and character types together. The young heroes are great - Tulip's a sarcastic, know-it-all geek girl who wants to be a game designer, and has a lot of defense mechanisms to disarm. Cynical MT and goofy Jesse make a good odd couple. The show also boasts some memorable animal sidekicks. My favorite is a bizarre, shapeshifting deer that the kids name Alan Dracula. He never says a word, and never needs to. Kate Mulgrew, however, was surely born to voice a slippery feline con-artist.

I like that the series has embraced an anthology format. Characters recur, but there are also clear endpoints to the main characters' stories, so you get satisfying emotional payoffs with every season. The premise is strong enough, and there are enough lingering mysteries that "Infinity Train" could go on indefinitely. My only real disappointment with the show is the same one I had with "Over the Garden Wall" - the TV quality animation is perfectly adequate, but the material is so strong that I can't help wishing for better than adequate. Even so, "Infinity Train" is something special, and I look forward to the third season whenever I get around to a free trial of HBO Now.
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Tuesday, September 8, 2020

"The ABC Murders" and "The Pale Horse"


Minor spoilers ahead

The Sarah Phelps penned BBC miniseries adaptations of Agatha Christie mysteries have been produced at the rate of about one a year since "And Then There Were None" in 2015. I like a good crime procedural, so I went and sought out the two most recent series, "The ABC Murders" and "The Pale Horse." Both follow roughly the same template of using more psychologically complex characters with expanded backstories. This includes the newest version of Christie's beloved sleuth, Hercule Poirot.

The biggest selling point of "The ABC Murders" is that it's the first of these new BBC adaptations to feature Poirot, played here by John Malkovitch. The celebrated Belgian detective is now facing old age and obsolescence, still famous but no longer in demand. When he receives a series of ominous letters, he brings them to the attention of the new head of Scotland Yard, Inspector Crome (an unrecognizable Rupert Grint), who dismisses them as a prank. Once murders do start piling up, following an ABC pattern, Poirot traces them to a troubled young salesman named Cust (Eamon Farren), who is living in the boarding house of Mrs. Marbury (Shirley Henderson) and her daughter Lily (Anya Chalotra).

I like the ways that the story has been expanded - even Poirot has an entirely invented new backstory. However, it's a sad and troubling world that Poirot finds himself in, as an immigrant in an England that has become hostile to immigrants. Bad memories follow wherever he goes, and his friend Inspector Japp (Kevin McNally) has retired in disgrace. The series intercuts Poirot's side of the investigation with Cust's travels throughout England. Cust is a socially awkward loner with a lot of inner demons, and he seems to encounter one awful set of people after another. His disturbing behavior reflects a sad life lived in seedy circumstances. Mirroring the hunter and hunted against each other also allows the series to spend more time with the various sets of victims and their loved ones, so we get to know Betty Barnard (Eve Austin) as more than just a set of convenient initials, and her sister Jenny (Lizzy McInnerny) gets her own poignant little subplot.

"The ABC Murders" works as well as it does because of the acting chops of Malkovitch and Farren. Phelps' adaptations have generally been more introspective, more focused on character over the intricacies of the mystery plotting. They've also been darker and more psychologically fraught. We get a few demonstrations of Poirot's famous eccentricities, but these are mostly used to show how out-of-date and obscure he's become. There's a strong sense of melancholy to the series, and bringing out the anti-immigrant themes and additional historical grounding further serve to demystify the character of Hercule Poirot and his universe. Malkovitch's accent is a little dodgy, but I've heard much worse over the years, and his Poirot's gradual reinvigoration by the case is a delight to see.

Now, on to "The Pale Horse," based on one of Christie's novels written later in her career. Here, we follow Mark Easterbrook (Rufus Sewell), an antiques dealer with a complicated personal life. After the death of his first wife Delphine (Georgina Campbell), he marries the unstable perfectionist Hermia (Kaya Scodelario), and is now seeing a woman named Thomasina (Poppy Gilbert) on the side. One day a shopkeeper, Jessie Davis (Madeleine Bowyer), turns up dead with a list of names in her shoe. The list includes Easterbrook, his nephew Ardingly (Henry Lloyd-Hughes), and a man named Zachariah Osborne (Bertie Carvel). As Easterbrook looks further into the death, he discovers connections to a trio of witches (Rita Tushingham, Sheila Atim and Kathy Kiera Clarke) working out of the village of Much Deeping.

The supernatural elements in the story set this Christie mystery apart, but the adaptation reflects much of her later work. The stories became darker and more cynical, and the heroes much more flawed. Departing from the source novel, the adaptation turns Easterbrook into a full-fledged antihero and his wife into a woman on edge. This is one of the shorter Christie miniseries, with only two installments. The narrative belongs solely to Easterbrook, and the cast of characters is fairly limited, making the twists and turns of the plotting much more dependent on the slipperiness of our leading man. Sewell pulls it off, but I can't help thinking that the role would have been better suited to a more unorthodox actor with a little more slime in his screen persona. Fortunately, Scodelario and Carvel do excellent supporting work.

Like "The ABC Murders," "The Pale Horse" is very interior and moody, but features more shocks and excitement. The climax, however, relies on some turns and revelations that are deployed very quickly, and there's not really a denouement, when there probably should have been. Aside from that, I found the series very satisfying, with some good twists, and a fun premise. It's not as thematically well developed as the other Christie adaptations Phelps has done, but provides more than enough murderous entertainment for me to appreciate the effort.

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Sunday, September 6, 2020

"DuckTales" Reboot, Year One

I was a Disney Afternoon kid growing up, as opposed to a Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network kid. I was exactly the right age to watch and fall in love with all the Disney-produced cartoons for television that came out in the late '80s and early '90s. The most important of these was "DuckTales" following the adventures of Scrooge McDuck and the triplets, Huey, Dewey, and Louie, based on the beloved Carl Barks and Don Rosa comics. The 2017 reboot, to my great surprise, is probably aimed more at me than the new generation of kids being introduced to these characters.

For one thing, the new series is much more sophisticated than the original series. The humor and dialogue are aimed at kids a few years older, and there are serialized elements including two big mysteries that get solved little by little over the course of the season. Scrooge McDuck (David Tennant) and his man-child pilot Launchpad McQuack (Beck Bennett) are more or less as we remember them, but Huey (Danny Pudi), Dewey (Ben Schwartz), and Louie (Bobby Moynihan) are now tech-savvy Gen Zers, each with a much more distinct personality. Webbigail (Kate Micucci) has been completely overhauled. Now she has scads of impressive adventuring skills and an obsession with McDuck family research, but having grown up in the McDuck mansion with only her housekeeper grandma, Mrs. Beakley (Toks Olagundoye), she's lonely and undersocialized. Also, I'm happy to see Donald Duck (Tony Anselmo) is finally allowed to be a main character, after only appearing in cameos in the old show. He's an amalgam of bits and pieces of all the versions of the character we've seen since 1934.

The new "DuckTales" was clearly made by fans of the original show and the comics it was based on. From the very first episode, there are geeky references everywhere, not just to beloved "Duck" canon, but to other Disney Afternoon shows, creating something of an interconnected universe. The Sky Pirates from "TaleSpin" show up in one episode. Another hinges on "Gummi Bears" lore. I'm not going to spoil how they get "Darkwing Duck" involved, because it's too funny to give away. However, the show is at its most impressive in the way that it juggles all the ins and outs of the sprawling "Duck" universe. It brings back many old favorites like Flintheart Glomgold (Keith Ferguson), Gladstone Gander (Paul F. Tompkins), and Glittering Goldie (Alison Janney) largely unchanged. Others, however, have been tweaked considerably. Fenton Crackshell, the alter ego of the superhero Gizmoduck, is now Fenton Crackshell-Cabrera and beige-colored to match his new voice actor, Lin-Manuel Miranda. The one revamp I'm still iffy about is inventor Gyro Gearloose (Jim Rash), who went from kindly eccentric to prickly jerk, so he could be used as an antagonist in various episodes. Doofus (John Gemberling) being repurposed as a nightmarishly spoiled child billionaire is brilliant though.

There are a handful of new characters that should be pointed out. Prominent among Scrooge's Rogue's Gallery is Mark Beaks (Josh Brener), a caricature of an unethical Silicon Valley tech guru. Then there's Lena (Kimiko Glenn), a standoffish teenage delinquent who becomes Webby's first gal-pal. They both reflect the new direction the 2017 series is taking - more mature, more talky, and often much more emotional. The big theme of the show's first season is the importance of family, and I was very happy to see how seriously the creators take this. In the first episode, we learn that Donald and Scrooge haven't talked in ten years, and this is related to the disappearance of the triplets' mother, Della Duck. The emotional stakes are unapologetically big, and I was not expecting this from one of my oldest, and most foundational cartoon franchises. And I absolutely adore it.

The 1987 "DuckTales" famously set a new benchmark for the quality of its production, back when children's television cartoons were all done fast and cheap. The 2017 "DuckTales" also looks fabulous from top to bottom. Everything's been designed to reflect the show's comic-book origins, but the characters are more dynamic and the animation is nicely fluid. The big season finale is a retelling of "Magica's Shadow War" featuring a theatrical new Magica DeSpell (Catherine Tate), and it's a treat. The cast list is absolutely stuffed with celebrity voice actors, but it's nice that there were a few voices that absolutely could not be replaced - Tony Anselmo's Donald and Jim Cummings as Darkwing Duck.

I'm well and properly hooked, and currently debating whether I should be rationing the rest of the episodes to make 'em last.

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