Thoughts on ‘Gravity Falls’

Gravity Falls is one of those shows that I’d heard raved about from several different quarters as being a very smart, very funny, and very mature kids’ show with a lot of dark, creative imagery. So, when I had some extra time (read: was procrastinating again) I watched through it.

My reactions were surprisingly pretty mixed. I enjoyed a lot of it; when it’s good, it’s very good. The trouble is that, like the little girl with the little curl, when it’s bad it’s horrid.

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The set up is that two twin siblings, Dipper and Mabel, are going to spend the summer with their great-uncle (‘Grunkle’) Stan; a grouchy con-man who runs a tourist trap ‘mystery shack’ in the rural town of Gravity Falls, Oregon. The town, as the two kids soon discover, is a nexus point of everything weird, supernatural, and unexplained, and they try to uncover the mysteries of the place while dealing with the pressures of growing up.

So, a good set up with lots of potential. Now what else is good about it? Well, first of all, the characters are pretty fun. I can’t say I was especially engaged by any of them (with one exception), but they’re interesting and pleasant company for the most part. The story arc of the two kids growing into adolescence is pretty engaging and realized through some nicely drawn subplots. The relationships are really good too; between the siblings, between the kids and their uncle, between Dipper and Wendy the girl who works the counter, and so on.

The stand out, for me, was the uncle, who’s a fantastic character. When I look back on the show, his scenes are chiefly what I remember and his relationship with the kids was probably the best thing about it. He’s an unabashed crook, grump, drinker, and scoundrel, but nevertheless you know he loves his kids and would do absolutely anything for them. His interactions with the two kids, especially with Mabel, are the most emotionally gripping elements of the story and actually brought a lump to my throat once or twice.

The atmosphere of the show is great as well. There’s a constant underlying sense of secrecy and uncertainty, playing into the mystery element. You’re almost never sure quite what’s going on, who to trust, or what’s going to happen next.

I also like the creativity shown in the creature designs and the supernatural effects (my favorite being an island that turns out to be a floating head). As that indicates, it’s often very dark and pleasantly frightening: sure to give sensitive young viewers nightmares. I liked how it was willing to push the scary and disturbing imagery, and that they weren’t afraid to place the kids in real danger, making for an unusually harsh tone for a kid’s show.

Speaking of danger, the main villain is fantastic: kind of like Freddy Krueger if he were a used car salesman. The exact rules of what he could and couldn’t do were kind of vague, but that’s kind of the point, and he was wonderfully evil in a delightful way.

Oh, and the show is often very funny, with a gloriously dark sense of humor. For instance, an early joke is that Stan’s last outing with the kids involved them helping him counterfeit money (“The county jail was cold”). Basically, any time we see one of his schemes, it’s pretty much hilarious. Mabel’s pretty funny too with her super-cheery, not-quite-all-there perspective, and Dipper gets some great reactions as the nearest-to-sane character present.

Okay, so the show has good characters, great atmosphere, it’s creative, funny. Sounds good. And a lot of the time it is. But the rest of the time…

The first problem is that, though the show has great atmosphere, the animation is kind of hideous. The characters are all lumpy and distorted, and there’s a dreary, unpleasant tone to the art style. And it’s not a matter of being stylized either: a lot of the characters in Phineas and Ferb have much weirder designs than this (Phineas’s head is a triangle), but they don’t create the same impression of ugliness. Maybe it’s because the characters there are done in broad geometric shapes, or because the colors are brighter, but the animation is much more pleasing to the eye than anything here. Gravity Falls is kind of unpleasant to look at, especially the more you watch of it.

Another thing is that I found the writing oddly slapdash. For instance, sometimes plotlines are more taken for granted than actually established. Grunkle Stan supposedly doesn’t believe any of the kids’ stories about the strange goings on. I may have missed something, but I recall maybe one or two scenes of him reacting this way, and both very early on. Then in the opening of the second season it’s suddenly a twist that he knew all along. But…they hadn’t made anything of his supposed incredulity. It didn’t affect the story in any way, at least not that I can remember (contrast in Milo Murphy’s Law, where Bradley’s status as a jealous sourpuss is well-established even though he’s not in very many episodes). And there are a few things like that; elements that are just kind of assumed, but not really established and which don’t affect the story in any way until the writers just decide to resolve them.

Also, the characters don’t always behave believably. There’s a Halloween episode where the twins end up menaced by a Halloween spirit that threatens to eat them if they don’t give him a certain amount of candy by the end of the night (downing a passing child just to prove it’s serious). Dipper spends the night embarrassed to be trick-or-treating and wanting to ditch the effort to go to a party with Wendy. Even in cartoon terms, that’s not believable behavior: he could be entertainingly irritated at being frightened into doing something he’d rather not, but he can’t be just shrugging off a death-threat from a supernatural monster. In other words, there has to be at least an element of fear in his behavior if the scenario is going to work, but there isn’t; he’s just annoyed and trying to find away to blow it off. The way they defeat the monster is stupid as well; just a cheap joke that feels like they were stuck for an ending.

That’s a problem that kind of keeps coming back throughout the show; as I said, the writers are willing to put the kids in real danger, but they don’t always act like they’re in real danger, or even in a cartoonishly inappropriate way. Half the time the characters just don’t seem to be taking their own predicament seriously: and not in an amusingly careless “I’ve seen it all” kind of way, but in a weird “doesn’t matter to me” way. This sort of thing rips me right out of the story: you can’t be both flippantly careless and darkly frightening at the same time because the two tones cancel each other out. It hits the right balance sometimes, but misses badly at others.

Again, contrast this with Phineas and Ferb. It’s a much brighter and cheerier show, and the characters there are very rarely in any danger, or even faced with serious consequences, but whenever they are they act like it. They still joke and banter, but when they need to be serious they get serious. For example, when Candace realizes her brothers have been abducted by an alien poacher, she immediately forgets all about ‘busting’ them and rushes to their rescue. Even as goofy and surreal as the show is, the characters consistently act in a believable fashion. The characters on Gravity Falls don’t, or at least not consistently.

Ironically this means Phineas and Ferb actually does a better job at creating a sense of danger and dread on the rare occasions it tries than this one does as a major part of its makeup. When zombie pharmacists are scarier than child-eating scarecrows, something has gone very wrong with the latter.

This is probably connected with another problem; the show is very cynical, which isn’t necessarily bad in itself, but it leads the characters to have kind of a myopic worldview. The thesis seems to be ‘the only good thing you can do is be there for your friends and family,’ which plays out in some very strange and kind of nasty scenes. There’s a bit near the end where one character can literally save the world with a single gesture…but he holds off because he’s angry that another character hasn’t shown him enough appreciation. Then the choices the kids make towards the end are likewise kind of…wrong. I can’t get into it without spoilers, but the overall point seemed kind of self-centered to me. Basically, the leads are very loyal to each other, which makes them likable, but it doesn’t seem to translate into either care for others in general or any sense of value for its own sake.

Related to this is that the show often rewards the characters in unearned ways just because the writers decide they should be rewarded. There’s a really stupid episode where Dipper and Mabel are hunting down a centuries-old conspiracy, and Mabel’s random, goofy behavior turns out to be the key to solving each riddle, because the guy who set the puzzle was just as goofy and random as she was, and “being silly is good.” No. Just…no. The hand the of the writers is brutally obvious throughout, rewarding Mabel for no other reason than that they wanted her to be right.

Again, contrast this with a similar situation in a better show. There’s an episode of My Little Pony where Rarity has to solve a mystery on Rainbow Dash’s behalf and apparently spends most of her time changing costumes and getting distracted by irrelevancies. But it turns out everything she focused on was vital to the case (the costumes not so much) and that, in classic detective fashion, she knew what she was doing the whole time. You see, Rarity was able to solve the mystery because she’s both intelligent and very attune to details: traits that obviously lend themselves to solving mysteries. On Gravity Falls, Mabel solves the mystery because she’s ‘silly’ and because her random, goofy behavior just happened to correspond with the mystery author’s random, goofy behavior, which only works because it was specifically set up that way. That’s the difference between an earned solution and a contrived one.

And there are quite a few episodes like that, where the writers are obviously just forcing things to go their preferred way, either because they’ve written themselves into a corner or because that’s just how they want it to be. So between that, the false-seeming behavior, and the often slapdash plotting, I don’t think I can call this a well-written show.

Then there are just stupid things: I praised the main villain, but the secondary one is just dumb and neither a consistent character nor a very entertaining one. There were a fair number of episodes that just plain didn’t work, or had a great set up that they completely undermined for a cheap gag.

In all this I think the central problem is the mindset behind the show. I don’t know anything about the creators, but the show seems to come from a very cynical, almost nihilistic point of view. I may be reading too much into it, but that’s the impression I was left with, though accompanied with some strong emotional connections to and between the characters and a lot of good humor and creativity.

I’ve spent a lot of time describing what’s wrong with Gravity Falls because its flaws are mostly structural, down under the surface and tricky to pin down. The show is superficially very strong, but it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny very well. Shows like Phineas and Ferb and My Little Pony are not only fun to watch, but get better the more you think about them. I’ve seen Phineas and Ferb all through at least three or four times and I’m still finding new things to like about it and new ideas to draw from it. Gravity Falls is generally fun to watch, but it doesn’t hold up well to scrutiny. The more I think about it, the more I see the flaws, the gaps, and the wrongheadedness in it, all the more so because it does have such a superficial shine to it that makes me annoyed to find it’s not as good as it tries to be.

I’m an inveterate re-watcher, so one of my main rubrics for judging just about any work of fiction is whether I want to see it again. Phineas and Ferb I wanted to re-watch as soon as it was over, since it left me so emotionally satisfied that I wanted to go back and see the whole thing again knowing where it was leading. Danny Phantom left me appreciative for the good parts, but with absolutely no desire to watch it again. Gravity Falls is somewhere in the middle. I don’t want to watch it again anytime soon, but I feel like I may at some point in the future. The good parts may just be good enough to tempt me back once more, at least to some episodes. It’s certainly a good show in a lot of ways, but I can’t say I liked it very much.

So, in the end, I have very mixed feelings about Gravity Falls. I liked a lot of it, and I disliked a lot of it, and on the whole it left me glad that I had seen it, but with a bit of a bad taste in the mouth.

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My Little Pony Touches on the True Meaning of Christmas (Yes, THAT True Meaning)

I’m repeatedly amused at the thought that, this time last year, I’d barely given a thought to My Little Pony, and now it’s one of my all-time favorite animated shows and keeps compelling me to write about it. Among the many pleasures it’s brought is that I now have another favorite Christmas special to watch.

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MLP has had a few ‘holiday’ episodes centered around Hearthswarming: the Equestrian equivalent to Christmas. Typical of this show, they’re much smarter about it than the cutesy exterior would lead you to think and the best so far is A Hearthswarming Tale from Season Six, where they do a ponyfied version of A Christmas Carol (which a bit of the Grinch thrown in).

The episode opens with Twilight Sparkle hosting a Hearthswarming party at her castle. However, her friend Starlight – the recently-reformed ex-egalitarian dictator – reveals that she doesn’t celebrate. She complains that, though it’s supposedly about an important event in their culture, for most people it’s just an excuse for candy and presents (Spike: “And why would you deny yourself presents and candy?!”). In response, Twilight offers to read Starlight one of her favorite Hearthswarming stories to try to get her into the spirit of things.

The story tells of a powerful and dedicated wizard named Snowfall, who is annoyed that everyone is wasting time partying around Hearthswarming instead of working to make a better Equestria. She then decides to use a magic spell to remove the holiday entirely, including everyone’s memory of it. However, three ghosts – of the past, presents (sic), and future – show her why this would be the wrong decision. Of course, each character in the story is played by one of the established cast, with Starlight as Snowfall, Rainbow Dash as her put-upon assistant, etc. (which leads to a great joke about Twilight doing the voices as she narrates).

Obviously, it’s not the story of A Christmas Carol so much as a modified take on it to fit better in the setting, which actually works a lot better, both because it would be odd if they just did a straight version with the ponies, and also because the changed story allows for them (in typical MLP fashion) to touch on some very interesting ideas.

For instance, Snowfall’s reason for hating Hearthswarming is specifically that she thinks it wastes time and effort that could be better spent on creating a better world for everyone: just like many a Communist or political radical has objected to Christmas or any kind of fun and enjoyment because it wastes time and money that could be better spent solving the world’s problems.

The show succinctly deconstructs this position. When some of the other characters are discussing Snowfall’s argument, they ask, “what does she think a better world would look like?” If it’s people being kind and generous to each other, enjoying one another’s company, and coming together for a common purpose, then, well, that’s what they’re doing. It hardly makes sense, when trying to make a better world, to seek to remove something that actually makes people better.

Likewise, Snowfall’s dismissal of gift-giving as silly and wasteful is also deconstructed: the point’s not the gift itself, but the thought behind it. The gifts, parties, and so on are only ways to express love and goodwill. Again, what does she think a better world looks like if not that?

Then comes probably the most interesting and startling part (which I didn’t even catch until my most recent viewing): Snowfall gets shown the future that will come to pass if she casts her spell to destroy Hearthswarming and finds it to be a frozen wasteland. You see, in the MLP mythos there are creatures called Windigos: ghostly frost monsters that feed off of strife and hatred. Hearthswarming celebrates the defeat of these monsters when ponies first came together in Friendship, and the love and goodwill borne of the annual celebration keeps them at bay.

Leaving aside the fantasy setting, note what’s happening here: Snowfall, the hardheaded would-be realist, scoffs at this quasi-religious origin of the holiday. Then, when she sees the future, she discovers that what she dismissed as a myth or a story for children is not just true but vitally important to her and everyone else.

Now, obviously they don’t come within a mile of the actual Birth of Christ, but, in their oblique way they actually make the point that the ‘mythic’ element of a holiday may be the most important thing about it, and that all the other trappings might just be a means to celebrate what it’s really all about.

Have you ever wondered, in all those stories about ‘saving Christmas’ (which, frankly, mostly amount to saving presents), what would happen if they didn’t save Christmas? What if, somehow, the Grinch actually could steal Christmas? What would that mean?

Well, through the lens of its fantasy world, My Little Pony actually becomes possibly the first Christmas special to not only ask this question but to give a pretty good answer. Here the result is an endless winter born of strife and hatred. On a more fundamental level, the answer is that it would be a world without hope. If, somehow, you could destroy Christmas – that is, remove the coming of Jesus – you would be left with a hopeless world still mired in sin. Again, it’s done obliquely in a fantasy setting, but the storyline and imagery are certainly applicable to the real meaning of Christmas.

So, in other words, My Little Pony MY LITTLE PONY – actually has a pretty good idea of what ‘no Christmas’ would actually mean. This show gives a better image of the true meaning of Christmas than the whole Hallmark channel.

Plus the humor is spot-on, the music is some of the best of Season Six (Luna gets a solo: what else needs to be said?), we get to see everyone in Victorian-style dress, and the evocations of the holiday both positive (“Growing like a seedling / and playing is like dreaming”) and negative (“Finally set free from your forced celebration / no need to reply to your trite invitations”) are so apt that I found myself repeatedly quoting the episode as I went about my Christmas shopping.

So, I’m left asking the same question I’ve been asking all year: why is this show so darn good?

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‘My Little Pony’ at Catholic Match

So, I’ve now been paid twice for writing about ‘My Little Pony.’ I should put that on my dating profile.

It’s tempting, when we want someone to like us, to try to be what we think they want us to be. Being open and revealing our unique personality can be alarming; Discord has a near-panic attack at the idea of how Fluttershy might react to seeing just how strange and different he really is. But, though it’s a risk, letting the other person see us for who we are is really the only way to have a relationship. If we constantly put up a front and hide the things that make us who we are, then we’re not really helping anything.

This is not, I hasten to add, a license to do whatever you want under the excuse “it’s who I am.” Early in their relationship, Fluttershy makes it very clear to Discord how much she will and will not tolerate from him. His chaotic, carefree personality is fine; his penchant for playing mean tricks on people or throwing childish tantrums is not.

She thus makes the distinction between what Discord should change and what he shouldn’t. Fluttershy doesn’t ask him to be a completely different person, and she can make allowances for his bad habits, but she does ask that he not be a selfish jerk and lets him know that his working to overcome that side of himself is a condition of their remaining friends.

Read the rest here.

Various and Sundry Cartoon Thoughts

Most of my viewing habits lately have been directed towards cartoons. Maybe it’s because I find the rest of the entertainment world increasingly hostile, or just because I enjoy the medium, but in any case I’ve been watching a lot of animated shows lately.

Stories, I find, are like relationships: made up of thousands of individual moments adding up to an overall tone that is either positive or negative. Either you like the person and feel better for having known them, or you dislike them and would prefer to having nothing to do with them. Then again, there are the ones who simply pass you by without leaving much of an impression. So, of the cartoons of recent years that I’ve watched, here are some general thoughts:

Avatar the Last Airbender is pretty much top of the heap: less a great show than a great fantasy-adventure that happens to have an animated show for its medium. Rich, beautiful, mostly positive (some lame feminist agitprop that really doesn’t fit the setting is probably the worst of it), filled with great characters and a wonderful story almost perfectly told.

My Little PonyFriendship is Magic, of course, I love. It’s certainly an acquired taste that not everyone will like, but man it hit a note with me with its timeless setting and storytelling, complex and charming characters, and especially its strong moral emphasis. I love moralism and ethical philosophy, and this show is not only all about that, but actually seems to know what its talking about. Great humor and some beautifully creative animation add to the charm.

Phineas and Ferb is another one that really speaks to me. In a world full of despair, resentment, and pessimism, the cheery good-will and hope that forms the core of this show is a breath of fresh air. It’s all about nice people doing nice things and enjoying life, but manages to do it in a smart, hilarious, and deceptively thoughtful way so that it doesn’t come across as the least sappy or contrived. I think Mr. Disney would have loved it; it’s espouses exactly the kind of hopeful can-do optimism that he did.

Gravity Falls I have mixed feelings about. Its really well written (for the most part), and its high moments are fantastic. I laughed hard and even choked up a few times. There’s a lot of creativity, and I enjoyed the fact that the show was willing to get really dark and scary at times. At the same time, though, there’s a mean-spirited, cynical side to it that I did not like, and when it’s bad, it can be really stupid. Plus it’s kinda ugly and there are some moral issues to it that would definitely prevent my showing this to my kids. I’ll have to delve deeper into it later.

Milo Murphy’s Law is the sequel series to Phineas and Ferb, by the same crew, so you know this is gonna be good. Like its predecessor, it boasts great characters and a refreshingly positive attitude, while being even crazier and more off-the-wall, with things like time-traveling secret agents, pistachio monsters, a teacher who may or may not be a vampire, and so on. It’s more serialized than its predecessor, with more of an overarching storyline, and though so far it’s not as good as Phineas and Ferb, it’s pretty close.

-The Ducktales reboot is too young to really say for sure, but so far the signs are very positive. I didn’t really watch the original, but the rebooted series is a ton of fun, and I love that Scrooge is allowed to be an actually heroic capitalist, and even to espouse solid principles about hard-work and self-reliance. The characters are all a lot of fun, there’s some intriguing story developments in the works, and I’m honestly eager to see where they go with this. Plus it has Kate Micucci as Webby, who also voices Milo’s sister Sara in Milo Murphy’s Law, and I’m kind of in love with her voice, which is the most adorably charming croak since Jean Arthur. It also has Donald Duck as a main character: what more needs to be said? It’s Donald Duck! You’d have to work hard to make him not funny.

Danny Phantom, you know what I think of that. A decent show that could have been fantastic if they had put a little more effort and imagination into it.

Sonic Boom is not very good, but it’s kind of charming for that very reason: less like they were really trying with it than they were just having fun playing with these characters. It’s pretty funny and just kind of relaxing to put on and enjoy. I can’t say it’s a good show, but it’s entertaining and pretty harmless.

Season 7 In Revue

So, Season Seven of My Little Pony is officially over, leaving us to wait until spring for Season Eight…while enjoying a series of Equestria Girls shorts on YouTube! More Equestria Girl stuff the better.

On the whole, it was a good one; the writing’s as strong as ever and the show doesn’t display many signs of slowing down. Several episodes I thought ranked as among the show’s best, including an amazing run of Royal Problem, Discordant Harmony, and The Perfect Pear in the space of four episodes (the fourth, Not Asking for Trouble, was pretty good as well). Perfect Pear in particular is clearly in the top five of all time. Of course, the story wasn’t all rosy: some of the episodes, especially in the first half of the season, were pretty uneven, and one of them, Daring Done was, I thought, one of the weakest of the whole series.

Now, how did my wish list shake out?

7. Villain Team Up

Nope, not this time. I’m hopeful it’ll happen at some point down the road, though.

6. Button Mash

No, but I didn’t really expect it to happen anyway.

5. The Return of Diamond Tiara

Well…she had a prominent cameo in one episode, where she got to show a little personality, but that’s it.

4. Gabby and Gilda Episode

Nope. Neither appeared

3. Spotlight One of Pinkie’s Other Sisters

Like #5, they got a non-speaking cameo, but that’s it.

2. Scootaloo’s Parents

Nothing direct, but we did get a brief allusion to her home life, where she commented that she doesn’t have anyone offering her support or encouragement. The more hints they give about her parents, the more I get the feeling the subject would be too painful for this show to deal with.

Honorable mentions:

-Pet-Centric Episode: Nothing doing

-Ember Comes to Ponyville: Yes! And it was every bit as much fun as you’d think

-Owlowicious and Spike Episode: Nope. I don’t think Owlowicious even appeared, except in photo form.

-Princess Celestia Fighting and Not Losing: Yes! Granted it was in a dream sequence, but even so, her confrontation with her own evil self, Daybreaker, as well as Nightmare Moon in Starlight’s dream was one of the season highlights and let us see just how powerful she really is.

-Rainbow Dash solo: Nope…though she did get a major part in a number in the movie, which was pretty good.

1.Sunset Shimmer Comes to Equestria

Yes! Though it was unfortunately brief, and she only got to hang out with Starlight. Still, we got to see Sunset being a pony again for a while and Starlight visiting the human world, and though we didn’t get to spend as much time on either as I would have liked, they were just as much fun as I expected.

Here’s looking forward to Season Eight!