DVD Reviews - 'Toons, 'Toons, and More 'Toons

Packaging for the NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS: Collector

NEWSARAMASLUG: DVD – 10/26/08

-by Steve Fritz

There’s been a ton of 'toons popping up on DVD recently. It’s time to collect a bunch and give them the once over. There are so many, in fact, that there are two featured picks.

FEATURED PICKS

LOONEY TUNES: GOLDEN COLLECTION Vol. 6 (4 DVDs)

LOONEY TUNES: SPOTLIGHT COLLECTION Vol. 6 (2 DVDs) (Warner Bros.)

Informed sources say this is the final volume of this incredible series. Apparently there’s a limit to the number of classic animated shorts even in the great Looney Tunes vault. You can see they were stretching it thin this time.

This set is divided into three main sections. The first is one-off episodes that never quite fit into any category such as Bob Clampett’s adaptation of “Horton Hatches An Egg” or Tex Avery’s art deco delight, “Paging Miss Glory.” The second is more from the World War II period, including Bugs and Gehring in “Herr Meets Hare.” The final section is when the key characters were Bosko, Buddy and Beans.

The extra content, as always, is where the real treasures lie, such as Friz Freling’s MGM-produced Captain & the Kids shorts, some non-shorts stuff Leon Schlessinger and the Termite Terrace crew worked on, and two TV specials. The standout though is the most complete, poignant, and compelling biographies of Mel Blanc. There are plenty of guest comedies, alternative all-music audio tracks, and lots of other little things to keep true fans ecstatic for hours upon hours.

As for the more reasonably priced Spotlight #6? It collects 30 shorts from the one-offs with some added material from Golden #2. It’s really great for the price, but pales when compares to even the last Golden set.

Getting back on track, when you put together all six of the Golden volumes together, no animation fan can sit back and not be impressed by just the sheer anarchistic brilliance of Mssrs. Freling, Avery, Clampett, Jones, and all them McKimson brothers. In a period of slightly over three decades, they rewrote all the rules of animation to suit their particular whims and fancies. The artform would be a very different beast without them. I can’t see any ‘toon library without them.

NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS: Collector’s Edition (Disney) (3 DVDs)

The packaging - a 12” statue of Jack in his “Sandy Claws” outfit - alone begs the question. Would you call this masterwork a Halloween or Christmas classic? Whatever you call Nightmare, it’s one of the greatest animated films of the last two decades. Especially now, since in this new edition its incredible use of stop motion is enhanced through computer technology.

With the new enhancement, the film shows layers of depth heretofore not seen in the three main animation processes. It does so two primary ways. First, it heightens the colors to levels usually reserved for high-end CGI and the best of traditional animation. Second, the puppet movements are much smoother. For proof look no further than the final confrontation between Jack and Boogie. The roulette wheel screams with neon brightness. The bugs inside Boogie move with detail never seen previously.

The special content is also superlative. You not only get Burton’s short “Vincent,” but a restored version of “Frankenweenie.” There are plenty of deleted and never-completed scenes to tell you what might have been. Finally, if having Christopher Lee read the original poem Nightmare is based on isn’t good enough for you, then you deserve shrunken heads in your stocking.

So, debate as to which holiday this film belongs until the dawn. Just understand, discounting the merit of this joyous bit of lunacy deserves rotten eggs on your windows.

MORE CARTOONY CRAZINESS

BEN 10: ALIEN FORCE Vol. 1 (WB)

Take an already good show and add two acknowledged animation veterans to the mix, and in this case the results are spectacular. As fans know, Glen Murakami (Teen Titans, Batman Beyond) and Dwayne McDuffie (JLU, Static Shock) joined with this series. They jump-started the show by losing central character Max Tennyson, turned his grandkids Ben and Gwen into teenagers, and added former foe Kevin Levin. They also added a much tighter overall arc of a new race of extraterrestrials, the High Breed, out to turn Earth into their own breeding pool.

While the humor was toned down and is missed, it’s compensated greatly by McDuffie’s superlative plotting and characterization, and Murakami’s top notch teen-sympathetic art direction. The EC of the ten new aliens Ben can turn into is nice. A solid continuation of an already good series.

BLOOD +: Vol. 3 (Sony)

With this third installment, vampire slayer Saya finally understands what happened in Vietnam. Also her best friend and an investigative reporter get on her trail.

Series creator Junichi Fujisaku has managed to take Mamoru Oshii’s original movie and successfully fill in a lot of details the original Blood: the Last Vampire refused to answer. As anyone who’s seen the entire series on Adult Swim knows, there is going to be a serious sag in the middle. So enjoy the superlative character design, vicious action sequences, and intriguing plot as it stands.

CLAYMORE: The Burden of the Sword (FUNimation)

If there’s one single reason you need to see this anime series, just say Madhouse. The studio recently gave us such sterling fantasy-action as Black Lagoon and two of the best segments of the Batman: Dark Knight DVD. Madhouse proves it’s still one of Japan’s top studios with this dark fantasy.

A young boy is saved by a superwarrior called a Claymore, a woman injected with the blood of vampire-like ghouls called “yoma.” The catch is this boy’s Claymore, Claire, will eventually turn into a yoma herself. Until then, it’s one fight sequence to the next, with medieval political intrigue to keep things interesting. The first five chapters contained in this one disc sets things up beautifully. If it keeps it up, we have a true classic in the offering.

THE CULT OF CARTMAN (Paramount) (2 DVDs)

This little collection focuses on the trials and travails of South Park’s favorite “big boned” fascist. The 12 episodes contained don’t include anything about alien probes or Eric’s mom/dad. Instead we get later adventures, like young Cartman’s attempt to get Family Guy banned, forming a ginger-headed league, or taking steroids to win the Special Olympics.

Throughout it all, Cartman introduces each episode with a “lesson.” Creators Parker and Stone should have listened to Lesson #2 (“Don’t take things too far”) a little more. Admittedly it’s hard to argue #5 (“Family Guy sucks b****”). The membership card to the Eric Theodore Cartman Society is pretty cool, too.

DOCTOR WHO: THE INFINITE QUEST (BBC)

The Doctor animated? With Martha Jones no less? Well, yes. That’s not necessarily a good thing.

Unlike a previous attempt to fill out an incomplete Patrick Troughton adventure (“Invasion”), the BBC again employed Cosgrove Hall to do a totally original adventure. The Time Lord and assistant scour the universe for four keys to infinite power and stop a ruthless space pirate. The problem is the animation is so stiff and out of synch one can't believe this is the same studio that once gave us DangerMouse or Prachett’s Discworld series. It really hurts your eyes. Only for hardcore Whovians.

THE LEGEND OF SASQUATCH (Image)

If you need a textbook example of how bad animation can drag down a good story, look no further. This definitely pre-school tale is about a lonely young girl who discovers a tribe of Bigfoots. The problem is her widowed father is working on a dam that will drown them out.

This CGI attempt at an old Rankin Bass puppet project wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t have serious color continuity issues with other major gaffs. A further shame is the waste of voice talent greats such as grand dame June Foray and Joe Alaskey. Too bad. Way too bad.

ROBOT CHICKEN: Season Three (WB) (2 DVDs)

Has anyone noticed that with this third slab of creamy unicorn goodness that it appears that Seth Green, Matt Senreich and company appear to making more of their own puppets and using less of their vaunted toy collection? Not that one should find it a bad thing.

The latest and best season of Robot Chicken needed to make more puppets. The subject matter they tear to itty-bitty pieces has become much broader. Yes, the Nerd, Humping Robot, the crew of the show, and the Aliens have all returned. But they also introduce characters there just aren’t action figures of.

What’s impressive is all 20 episodes never lay an egg. This includes the EC, which includes more “chicken nuggets,” a lot of deleted scenes, another tour of the Shadow Machine operation, and other bits of deep fried morsels from these barbecued dips.

That being the case, one can’t wait to see what they do in their upcoming Star Wars sequel. Based on what they did here, they have no where near run out of ideas just yet.

SHIN CHAN: Season One/Volume 2 (FUNimation)

You’ve got to respect a show whose fans call themselves the Bastard Brigade. They realize what they are watching, and are more than willing to acknowledge what being a fan of this is all about.

Let’s be honest, Shin Chan is a Japanese reflection of Matt Groening’s The Simpsons. The father’s a boob. There’s a baby sister who’s smarter than she lets on. Mother Mitzy Nohara is Marge without any redeeming qualities. Shin Chan himself? This kindergartner does things the elder Bart only dreams of.

Yes, both cartoon kids are looking for a reason to pull their pants down and display their pimply posteriors in all their glory. The thing is Bart only does it to get a rise from his family. The references usually added to Shin’s public displays are totally subversive, daring his friends, family and fans to do something about it. As this series progresses, one can also help but notice everyone around this boy is equally off their rockers, including his classmates. Little Shin, like his fans, knows everything he does is wrong, and like his fans doesn’t give a damn. They are all bastards and proud of it. If you have it yourself, you should be too.

SILVER HAWKS: Season One/Volume 1 (WB)

When you are a studio with a hit, the next thing you want is another. Making sure your follow-up is strong enough - and, more importantly distinctively different enough - that fans will accept it is a whole other story.

This was the case with Rankin-Bass. In 1985, they struck weekday syndicated paydirt with Thundercats. They didn’t waste time and tried to duplicate it with this series. While they tried to make it somewhat different from the big cats by setting it in space, making the lead heroes “part metal/all real” and such, it doesn’t take long to realize they left their most creative ideas with Lion-O and company.

Still, one also has to say that much of the animation itself was exceptional, particularly for the mid-80s. This was due to the Japanese company Rankin-Bass employed at the time, Top Craft. Much of the talent there would soon join Hayao Miyazaki in forming Studio Ghibli.

This collection includes the first 30-plus episodes of the entire series. While one wishes the stories matched up to the animation, it has its moments.

THE SIMPSONS: SEASON 11 (Fox) (4 DVDs)

Among Simpsons fanatics the general consensus feels the series jumped the shark in its ninth season. Silly mortals. Can the show survive ten more years if it lost it way back then?

Look at this latest collection of Springfield madness. Besides the regular cast, guests include Lucy Lawless, Mel Gibson, Kid Rock, Parker Posey, and Betty White. Subject matter included Bart on psychotropic drugs, Funzo, Barney going sober, and Maude Flanders getting killed (and staying that way). What’s amazing is the show is consistently funny. As for classics? Try “Treehouse of Horror X” and “E-I-E-I-(Annoyed Grunt),” which introduced tomacco addiction.

The extra content includes the crew getting their star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a biography of Krusty the Clown, and enough deleted scenes, commentary, and other goodies to fill a Springfield waste dump.

So all you naysayers, enjoy your first nine seasons. This set shows there was a lot more to come.

THE SMURFS: Season One/Volume 2 (WB)

This early sampling of Smurfiness still finds Peyo’s creation still being handled with a lot of respect and fresh ideas. Gargamel still has an appetite for Smurf tartar. His cat Azreael is often perplexed by its master’s obsession. Jokey Smurf continues to prove he’s a closet sadist. Brainy Smurf is the biggest brown-noser to ever grace the small screen. Papa Smurf? One wonders how he got such a brood with only Smurfette in the picture.

Still, the animation is some of the best Hanna-Barbera would do in their last years. Kids today seem to find the little blue whatever-they-ares as cute as ever as their parents did a quarter century ago. Yes, sometimes the show is so sweet it will put a diabetic in shock, but there’s something just appropriately Smurfy about that, too.

SPEED RACER: THE COMPLETE SERIES (6 DVDs)

SPEED RACER: THE NEXT GENERATION/Fast Track: The Movie (Lionsgate)

It seems that even if the Wachowski Bros. movie tanked, Speed Racer has some gas left. What will probably help stoke it is this just-released classic collector’s set.

Whoever did the packaging at Lionsgate deserves a bonus. You get your money in the metal tin, made to look like the Mach 5. It’s the kind of thing old school anime fans would display on the video shelf. You get the original 52 episodes in the first five disks. Then one disk of extra content. The restored episodes are consistently top notch with sharp colors and actually dangerous action sequences. Yet at its core Speed Racer had great stories. In fact, TV Guide listed one of its episodes, “The Trick Race,” as one of the greatest episodes of all time.

The only problem is the extra content. There’s a ten-minute doc on the original series, and an additional 50 minutes devoted to the TNG series. That’s just plain wrong. Tatsunoko Studios, the studio that created Speed, has plenty of great sketches, pilot animation, and other materials in its vaults. Heck, American voice artists Peter Fernandez and Corrine Orr are still around, but barely interviewed. Something else on the subsequent series would have been cool too.

Still, this is a nice artifact. It’s already got a prominent place in my case (next to my Gatchaman collection).

Wish one could say the same for this new Speed: TNG. This D2D finds the new Speed and arch foe Annaliese trapped in the virtual race track, with mixed results. The humor and plotting need work. One could say the creators are trying too hard. The racing part makes up for a lot of it, but not all. There’s a nice bone thrown to old fans in the form of two old enemies from the original series, but they too are under-repped. The next one will feature Jeff Gordon. Let’s see what they do that time. Otherwise, remember the fast forward button.

Could there be other Speed material in the future. There were several series created afterwards. It would be cool to see some of those back. Until then, that Mach 5 sure does look nice.

SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS: WHO BOB WHAT PANTS? (Paramount)

Just when it looked like this venerable series was drowning from its own history, this little collection of new 'toons shows there’s still a lot of life left. The title episode, as well as “The Two Faces of Squidward,” are packed with wonderfully warped wackiness and pernicious visual puns. The introduction of SBSP’s cousin Stanley Squarepants makes one hope he becomes a recurring character. If there was a new Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy appearance, this would have been animated nirvana.

Well, you can’t have everything. Still, when you get down to it, this set gets awful close. Let’s hope there are a lot more.

STRAIT JACKET (Manga)

Anime fans will have a lot of problems with Strait Jacket. The big one is it “borrows” so many concepts from Fullmetal Alchemist, you wonder if it can’t be sued for plagiarism.

Apparently based on a series of “soft” novels, the initial premise is the world is protected by a specialized police force that uses a combination of magic and science. In FMA they’re called alchemists. Here they’re called “sorcerists” (“sorcerer” plus “alchemist” apparently). The time period and setting, pre-World War I Europe, are also identical. FMA has homunculi. SJ simply call them demons. Both worlds posit that if you abuse or overuse magic, there are dire consequences. Both stories have covert terrorists out to upend the world. Puh-leeze.

At the same time, the overall acting, from the animators and primary voice artists, like Steve Blum, Kari Wahlgren, and Crispin Freeman, among others, is truly incredible. In fact, I like the animation style of SJ even more. They went for a more realistic look opposed to FMA’s more cartoony characters. Finally, Straight Jacket is only three chapters and one disk. As said many times before, there’s something to be said for brevity.

At least there’s no gateway to our world. Still, a more originality would have been sincerely appreciated.

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