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.

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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!

Brief Thoughts on Danny Phantom

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Danny Phantom is one of those shows that I’d heard a lot of people praising, so recently I watched through it. The story is of a kid who gets ghost-like powers and uses them to fight ghost monsters, while trying to maintain his normal life. So, very similar to Spider-Man. That’s fine; I have no problem with standard set-ups, especially for superhero storylines, in fact I prefer them. Overall, though, I thought it was just okay: not bad, but not really all that good either. It’s frustrating, because I really wanted to like it more than I did, and I can see that the potential was there to make a really fantastic show instead of something rather standard (kind of like Frozen, now that I think about it).

Maybe I’m just spoiled from watching Phineas and Ferb, Milo Murphy, and My Little Pony one after the other, not to mention coming off of Spectacular Spider-ManAvatar the Last Airbender, and the whole DCAU. My standards for animated TV shows are really high right now. But, even so, I wasn’t all that impressed. The characters, with one or two exceptions, weren’t all that interesting or well-developed, the gags were pretty standard, and the plotting was kinda weak. The animation was pretty lame too; very standard Nickelodeon ‘sharp angles, ugly backgrounds, wonky movements.’

And there was some standard PC shibboleths, like the boilerplate feminism, environmentalism, goofy stupid father character, that kind of stuff (though the father at least got some good redeeming moments). One episode flat out made me angry: it was a really stupid, feminist anti-beauty-contest deal with dosage of anti-Medieval snobbery. I haven’t hated a cartoon episode that much in a long time.

That said, the show was pretty good overall; the set-up’s creative and the hero’s powers are very cool. There are some good relationships (especially between the hero and his love interest), and the main villain is great for the most part (he gets a really lame ending, though). I laughed a fair amount (I especially liked a character called ‘The Box Ghost’ who was so minor a threat that his wanted poster read “$2.50 or Best Offer”). There are some really good episodes. I really liked one two-parter featuring the hero’s evil future self. Basically, I’m not sorry I watched it, but I don’t think I would watch it again.

One of my biggest problem with it is that I think it could have been a LOT better if it had been less standard. Like, if they had a more original animation style, more development on the ghosts and the ghost world, made it a little spookier and more gothic, and took things a bit more seriously and didn’t go for the joke quite so often. I’m working on my MLP video review right now, and one of the things I mention is that that show takes itself fairly seriously, in that the characters all act like what they’re doing is important and that they really care about the outcome. There are a lot of jokes, but we always feel like there’s something at stake and that it really matters what happens (even when it’s something as simple as deciding who to take to a party, the fact that it’s clearly important to the characters keeps us engaged). Now, of course the characters on Danny Phantom care about what’s happening and they do get serious at times, but they go for the joke much too often, and a lot of the time it just feels like a lark.

Again, for a show about ghosts, there’s very little atmosphere to it. The haunted house that Phineas and Ferb made to scare Isabella felt more gothic than almost everything here. The colors are too stark, the lighting is too uniform, and the angles too sharp to create any kind of spooky feelings. Yeah, it’s for kids so you don’t want it too scary, but it should be at least atmospheric. There are some exceptions, like there’s an abandoned hospital in one episode that’s pretty good, and a decent Halloween-centered episode that had some good imagery, but for the most part the design wastes the premise. It’s a story about a kid who is half-ghost, whose best friend is a goth; this should be like Saturday-morning Tim Burton instead of just bland, normal cartoon superhero.

Speaking of which, there’s another thing, something I’ve noticed in a lot of stories, which is the self-styled ‘independent, individualist’ characters who are actually completely standard. So, a bit of a big deal is made about how ‘different’ the female lead is, when actually…she’s just a Goth. As a general rule, if your persona has its own subculture, it’s not a sign of your extreme individuality. Now, she’s not a bad character, and like I say I liked the relationship with her and the hero (the idea of a goth chick falling for a ghost is great, though they didn’t really play up that angle much), but the idea that she’s some kind of extreme individualist or drastically original character is just silly. I see that a lot in fiction (and in real life), where ‘daring and original’ generally means ‘might have been daring and original about fifty years ago.’ Like, one of the marks of her individuality is that she’s a vegetarian. Um…how shocking?

Now, compare this with a character like Melissa from Milo Murphy’s Law.

She actually is a very unique and individual character. She’s a stellar student who has “a tremendous portion of my self-esteem wrapped up in my grade point average,” but has such a strong personality that she’ll just tell people to give her money and they do it. She’s sarcastic and highly capable, but is completely unathletic, forgetful of everyday things, and is absolutely terrified of roller-coasters. Her stated career goal is ‘Journalist / Queen of the Universe,’ and she’s memorized the blood type of every US President. So, she’s at once a valedictorian in the making and a junior-high crime boss (though one of the heroes). But there’s not a big deal made of her being ‘different:’ actually, she’s the popular one of the group. You see, she doesn’t have to talk about being highly individual; she just is.

So, Danny Phantom was okay, but just okay. I really liked the premise and I think it could have been a great show with different art direction and stronger writing, but what we actually got is something just above average.

 

What’s My Line at the Federalist

My latest piece at The Federalist is now up, where I talk about the old gameshow What’s My Line?

Sample:

No one on the “What’s My Line” panel would have dreamt of asking a guest about his sex life, nor would the guests have dreamt of talking about it. But if they can see for themselves that a young lady is beautiful or a man is black, they didn’t think anything about acknowledging the fact. Noting physical appearance is considered perfectly normal, even polite, because it isn’t as if it were a private matter.

We, on the other hand, are so terrified of “judging” someone by physical appearance that it’s become considered rude to even acknowledge it, even though we find we can hardly think or talk about anything else.

 

Ponies and Introverts

Being an introvert mostly involves having people force you into uncomfortable situations and then blame you for not enjoying them. Our society doesn’t approve of those who prefer solitude or working alone: we want team players! Socially-well-adjusted youngsters! Collaboration! Synergy! Whatever other terms for ‘forcing people to act according to plan’ you care to name.

Reason number I-lost-count to love My Little Pony: it not only avoids this approach, but directly criticizes it. Yes, the show literally called ‘Friendship is Magic’ teaches it’s okay to enjoy solitude and unsocial pursuits, and that the more outgoing need to understand and accept that.

True, in the first episode Twilight is forced out of her comfort zone and becomes more sociable. But she doesn’t stop being an introvert. She still likes spending time alone reading or organizing her library (she does that a lot), and she’s not portrayed as being at all wrong for doing this. The show distinguishes between ‘enjoys spending time alone’ and ‘reclusive shut-in,’ with the latter being portrayed as an unhealthy exaggeration of the former. The point isn’t that spending time alone is bad, but that there needs to be a healthy balance between solitude and socializing, and that this balance will look different for different types of people.

It’s not just Twilight either: Fluttershy and Rarity are played as more introverted characters as well. The show even makes the point that Fluttershy choosing to opt out of some group activities and just stay home alone is perfectly okay if she doesn’t enjoy those activities. Likewise, when Rarity sometimes becomes too focused on her work to be polite it’s presented as a forgivable lapse rather than a fundamental problem in her personality. That she sometimes has to seclude herself to get her work done, that she draws energy from solitary creative effort, and that she has precise, high-class tastes that the others don’t really share are all portrayed as being a good thing: just part of her unique personality, to be accepted and appreciated rather than resented as ‘unsocial.’

Meanwhile, super-extrovert Pinkie has a couple episodes where she learns that some ponies simply don’t enjoy the kind of exuberant fun and socializing that she loves so much. Pinkie doesn’t mean any harm, of course, but it’s shown that she can be annoying to people who either don’t know her or who don’t share her taste in fun. In such cases, the lesson isn’t that they need to lighten up and be more outgoing, but that Pinkie needs to accept them as they are and befriend them based on their personality rather than hers.

Then there’s Maud. Oh, Lord, I love Maud! Maud is Pinkie’s older sister, who is pretty much her complete opposite. She’s extremely reserved, speaks in terse, laconic sentences, almost never shows emotion, and is completely and utterly wrapped up in the study of rocks. She’s so odd and so socially awkward that the others at first don’t know what to make of her, until they discover that Maud’s bland exterior hides very deep feelings, particularly when it comes to her little sister.

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The Introvert and the Extrovert

In other words, Maud is a non-specific, but very sympathetic portrait of someone with Aspergers, or some related condition. She’s not presented as being ‘broken’ or tragic; just as another person with her own unique personality. She’s difficult to get to know and not good with people, but that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with her.

One episode reveals that, much as she enjoys spending time alone with her rocks, she actually is lonely for a friend. She notes that “it’s not hard to find somepony I like. It’s finding somepony who gets me.” That’s a sentiment I can definitely relate to, and I love that this show is mature and thoughtful enough to understand it. When Maud does make a friend, it’s with fellow introvert Starlight, and they bond over quiet, thoughtful activities like kite flying and geology.

The overall message is that there are some people who are very outgoing, expressive, and sociable, and some people who aren’t, and that’s just how the world works. Both types have their strengths and weaknesses, and both need to be allowed to be themselves.

I wish more shows, and more people, understood that.

Doctor Who and Swiping Male Characters

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You know, I’m not really a big ‘Doctor Who’ fan. I’ve watched several episodes from both the classic and the modern series (Tom Baker’s my favorite), and enjoyed them, but I just haven’t really gotten into it.

That said, I do have an opinion of this ‘making the Doctor a woman’ gimmick. And make no mistake, that’s what it is: a gimmick. It’s not a groundbreaking development, nor a brilliant twist of storytelling, and certainly not an kind of (ugh) great step forward. It’s a gimmick, pure and simple; a way to grab attention, and try to shore up their feminist credentials so that the right kind of people won’t turn on them.

I will say, in their defense, that given the nature of the Doctor, this one makes a little more sense than, say, making Thor a woman (not making that up, by the way; they actually did it) or, God forbid, making James Bond a woman (more on that below). The Doctor of course periodically regenerates into a new body and personality, so you could argue this works given the rules of the story. But…no. Even with a character like the Doctor you need some continuity of personality, so suddenly switching him to being a woman just doesn’t work. You can’t fundamentally alter a character in that way, even one like the Doctor and expect people to be happy about it, especially when it’s accompanied by insulting accusations of misogyny (because the only way the Left knows how to argue is ad hominem).

It’s a similar problem to Ghostbusters: on paper, a new all-female team of Ghostbusters actually isn’t a bad idea. But one, it was so obvious they were doing it as a ‘statement’ rather than because they actually cared about the characters, and two, the execution was horrible beyond belief.

The real problem with this practice of switching a character’s sex in an attempt to be ‘relevant’ or whatever the current term is, is that it’s basically the equivalent of swiping one kid’s toy because another kid is crying that she wants more, when the obvious thing to do would be to just buy her some toys of her own rather than stealing someone else’s. To the fans of the Doctor who have stuck by him all these long years, having him drastically altered in this way to appease non-fans must seem like a complete slap in the face. Now, if they came up with a really cool female Time Lord and gave her a spin-off show, and did it well (that’s really the key to any story: doing it well), the fans would eat it up. It has nothing to do with misogyny: it has everything to do with seeing a beloved character twisted to score political points.

It’s even more galling when you consider that the other kid has lots of toys of her own, but keeps menacing her brother’s.

The days (assuming such days existed: this topic invites selective blindness like few others) of a lack of female heroes is long over. Women headline about half the shows on TV. Wonder Woman just came out and was fantastic. Marvel fans have been clamoring for a Black Widow movie for years. The last two Star Wars films were headed by women. There’s obviously a huge market for well-done female leads, so there’s absolutely no need to co-opt existing male characters.

The only reason, as far as I can see, for trying to swipe male characters and turn them female is because they generally have better name recognition. So, certain people think “everyone knows who James Bond is, so if we turned him into a woman (Jean Bond?) we’d have a ready-made super-popular female icon!”

Except it doesn’t work that way, since male and female characters are typically written and characterized very differently. One of the reason Wonder Woman was such a good film is that she was written as a very feminine character. Yes, she could throw tanks around and engage a dozen men at once, but she was also warm-hearted, kind, and nurturing. Black Widow is an engaging character because she’s not just a deadly spy, but she’s also the nurturing heart of the team; the one who gives them pep talks and warm hugs when they’re feeling down. The contrast between her cold-hearted behavior on the battlefield and her warm-hearted behavior off it is what makes her so much fun to watch.

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Well, that and the…obvious reasons.

If you tried to write James Bond as a woman, it would be grotesque. No one except an obsessive feminist would want to see a woman act the way Bond acts. He’s fundamentally a male fantasy figure: the cool man of action who sleeps with every beautiful woman he meets, kills bad guys left and right, and defends king and country with his wits and sheer badassery. He works because he speaks to the male psyche. Make him a woman doing more or less the exact same thing, and it would be unbearable. Most women don’t fantasize about acting that way, and most men don’t like seeing women act like that.

Now, if they wanted to make a female equivalent of Bond: a super-competent and alluring female spy who defends queen and country with wit and moxie, and (once again) if they did a good job of it, that would be great. Female spies can be a lot of fun: just think of Honey West, Emma Peel, or, again, Black Widow to name a few. But there’s no need to coopt male characters out of a misguided feminist urge. There are already lots of good female protagonists running around, and nothing at all preventing anyone from making more. But leave established and beloved male characters alone if you don’t mind.