Archive Jul 07
Book and Comic Reviews
Little Lulu Volume 16: A Handy Kid (Dark Horse). More kid-friendly delights and juvenile one-ups-manship than you can shake a stick at in this latest Lulu lot, which reprints all material from Lulu #69 - #74. The story "The Ball of String" shows just how far John Stanley was willing to take the "comedy of revenge" when he had a mind to do so. Forced to stay at his would-be girlfriend Gloria's house because of the rain, Tubby is instructed in no uncertain terms to stand in one place and not move an inch until the rain lets up and he can go home. After trying to get the oblivious Gloria's attention, Tubby leaves, only to subsequently exact a painfully humiliating revenge with the help of the titular string-sphere. "I wonder why a genius like me always gets such a poor report card," Tubby muses as he walks home after having reduced Gloria to a frazzled shell of her normally arrogant, obnoxious self. Elsewhere in this volume, Lulu inadvertently destroys a priceless suit of armor (which earns the nasty Wilbur van Snobbe an entirely "advertent" spanking), protects a rabbit from the fellers' hunting "onslaught," "reeducates" her teacher's parrot out of mimicking a "planted" insult, and swears off happiness forever after her favorite doll's head gets broken. Great fun, as always.
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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling (Scholastic Books). Simmer down, I'm not about to spill any beans regarding any important matters relating to the fates of Harry and friends. I will, however, note that the length and prolixity of this concluding volume lends additional evidence to my contention that J.K. Rowling stopped writing to please herself around the time of Goblet of Fire – the first Potter book to bloat up in size – and began writing with an eye on her rapidly multiplying fan base. Goblet of Fire maintained the high quality of the first three books for the most part, but Rowling's control of her fictional universe started to slip with The Order of the Phoenix, and she never really whipped it back into line. Much the same thing happened to Disney comics creator Don Rosa when he decided to create the entertaining but self-important Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck. As the chapters and subchapters of Life and Times multiplied, Rosa seemed to lose sight of the fact that he was doing his work for fun. Rosa is now at a creative impasse, unable to do original stories for fear of ticking off his hypercritical followers. Rowling didn't suffer from a writer's block of that fashion, but her desire to throw as many elements as possible into the climactic showdown between good and evil had similarly unsatisfying results. The book is still a page-turner, but Rowling's "everything but the kitchen sink" approach to the final battle made for a rather untidy windup. A number of characters die, some in meaningful ways and others more or less just because Rowling had the power to do the deed. Despite Rowling's best efforts, a number of fans appear unhappy with the number of issues left unsettled (at least, to their satisfaction) and are now hoping that a promised "encyclopedia" of Potteriana will fill in the cracks. If I were Rowling, I'd be breathing a sigh of relief that the ordeal is over – and perhaps harboring a wistful wish that her creation hadn't turned out to be one of the more remarkable examples of fantasy fiction ever penned.
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Jimmy Stewart: A Biography by Marc Eliot (Harmony Books). This should have been titled It's a Blunderful Write. I've rarely seen a biography so poorly composed and so riddled with factual errors that even the dimmest proofreader should have picked up. Jimmy Stewart as the voice of Fievel (sic!) in An American Tale: Fievel Goes West?! I mean, please. One good thing came of reading this mess: I won't have to waste my time reading Eliot's biography of Walt Disney, Hollywood's Dark Prince.
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Walt Disney's Comics and Stories #682 (July 2007). Gemstone goes two-for-two for July with a solid effort, the most pleasant aspect of which is William Van Horn's salutary return to form. "Blowhards" ' plot is strongly reminiscent of Carl Barks' March of Comics adventure "Race to the South Seas," with Donald/HD&L and Gladstone racing boats and Scrooge the main reason why they're doing so. This time around, however, rather than being an object of rescue, Scrooge is a master manipulator. By convincing the Ducks to race for the title to Keelcrunch Island, the tycoon gets to test his new high-tech sailing vessels without having to pay for the privilege. The "idiot-proof" craft, needless to say, face a severe challenge when manned by crews that are not wholly "idiot-proof." The story's real strong point is some simply awesome artwork – among the best that Van Horn has done in the past several years. Remarkably, Van Horn makes this strong of an impression despite using only two panels (counting the opening splash panel) larger than a quarter-page. The storm-at-sea sequences are as good as anything Bill's ever done and make me wish that he'd decided to try his hand at a longer adventure story on this same theme.
The issue's Mickey Mouse offering, Stefan Petrucha and Jorge David's "Baby Steps", is the book's weakest link. Assisted by a thoroughly uninteresting evil-scientist sidekick (whatever happened to Dexter Dingus?), Pete steals "B.R.A.T.", a computer that "learns the same way a person does – starting as a baby and maturing into an adult." Bribing the goo-goo gizmo (which actually talks more like Bizarro of Superman fame than a real baby) with "virtual candy", Pete aims to train it to help him plan heists, but "B.R.A.T." harbors an unexpected "double nature" that, in all honesty, renders Mickey's role as "B.R.A.T."'s rescuer rather superfluous. Mickey and the childish CPU do ultimately join forces to cook up a plan to help the cops bag Pete, but once "B.R.A.T." admits to Mickey that it's actually a lot smarter than it lets on, what suspense the story has managed to cook up drains away. An interesting notion, generally speaking, but the execution leaves something to be desired.
Next, we get another three-tiered "pocket-book" orphan: the Donald Duck tale "Quacked Quest," Mark and Laura Shaw and Massimo Fecchi's elaborate spoof of a certain trio of fantasy films (or a single epic narrative split into three parts for convenience's sake, if you want to be perfectly pedantic about it) that grossed serious coin and picked up major statuary several years ago. The delay between the end of the Lord of the Rings films and the appearance of this story in America (it was originally produced by Egmont in 2003) takes a little of the edge off of the satire, but only a tiny bit. The tale makes up for its Stateside tardiness with plenty of glorious Fecchi art and an ending that's got to be one of the most… um, disturbing conclusions of any Duck tale I've ever seen. With Duckburg going gaga over the movie Sword of the Kings, Donald stubbornly holds out against viewing the flick more or less out of sheer cussed contrariness, but he quickly changes his mind after Daisy goes with the fantasy flow, dons elf-ears and long blond tresses, and (more frighteningly) starts paying attention to Percy, a local scion of the Duckburg Renaissance Society. As is his "pole-to-pole" wont, Don leaves the theater a gibbering Sword of the Kings "fanboy" and wants to join the feudal fun, but his cheapjack costume (which includes a colander helmet, a la Tale Spin's Molly Cunningham's "Danger Woman" outfit) makes him the butt of laughter and rude treatment from Percy and his pals. Don plans a ghastly revenge with the help of the giant "Sourron" robot that Gyro had built for the movie-makers. Little does he suspect that even as he enjoys a bone-crunching, and atypically successful, requital – one that makes a positively frightening impression on Percy and company – his own personality is changing, not unlike a certain ex-Halfling in Tolkien's tale. You'll not soon forget the last two pages of this story, no matter how much you might want to. Suffice it to say that Daisy's prediction that major "doctor bills" are forthcoming is more likely to involve German-accented note-takers and comfortable couches than the standard bandages and liniment.
Following a three-page Big Bad Wolf "filler" story that pitches Zeke into the story of Goldilocks and The Three Bears – and none too gently, I might add – we get a 1945 Barks story, "Days at the Lazy K." Actually, it should be titled "Flicka's Revenge," seeing as how the unsentimental "Duck Man" was taking dead aim in this case at Lassie Come Home, My Friend Flicka, and similar animal movies that warmed hearts in wartime America. I don't much care for Barks' overreliance on "Donald makes a complete fool of himself" plots in his early "ten-pagers", but this variation on the well-worn theme is much easier to take, since Donald's foolhardiness is more a result of misplaced kindness than self-centered braggadocio. As a result of seeing the latest "Ticka" flick, Donald becomes obsessed with the idea of taming a wild colt with nothing but kindness. Of course, that goes over like a lead bridle and bit with the nasty little horse that the Lazy K dude ranchers rustle up for Don. What makes this story really work for me is the fact that HD&L become so upset with the colt's unpleasant nature that they make an effort to tame it themselves -- – albeit with the help of a bottle of castor oil -- as opposed to simply kibitzing and/or rolling their eyes at their uncle's inept efforts. Since Donald was not competing directly against them, this plot twist makes eminent sense and shows that even in this early stage of their comic-book development, the Nephews are capable of supporting Donald to the hilt, even when his ideas may be misguided. Barks recycled this story in the late 50s, changing the location to Grandma Duck's farm and the colt to a young fox, but that remake doesn't seriously challenge the original's quality.
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1920: The Year of the Six Presidents by David Pietrusza (Carroll & Graf). Though Pietrusza, the author of a number of works of juvenile history and a well-respected biography of the notorious gambler and World Series fixer Arnold Rothstein, never really does explain why the year 1920 "witnessed the birth of modern America," his clear and captivating narrative succeeds in convincing the reader that this was one heck of an event-filled twelve-month period. The six presidents referenced in the title – Woodrow Wilson (the sick, declining, and bitter incumbent), Warren Harding (the unlikely Republican nominee and election winner), Calvin Coolidge (Harding's running mate and eventual successor upon the former's death), Herbert Hoover (the ill-fated but then-revered "Great Engineer" and "Great Humanitarian"), Theodore Roosevelt (the former President and likely 1920 Republican nominee had he not died in 1919), and Franklin Roosevelt (the energetic and ambitious vice-presidential candidate of what turned out to be a doomed Democratic ticket) – did indeed all play significant roles in public affairs that year, though T.R.'s was more indirect, more in the nature of a long shadow cast over the 1920 Presidential campaign. (William Howard Taft gets mentioned numerous times, but he was more of a judicial sideline watcher by this point.) Critical opinions of these men wander all over the map and tend to be strongly colored by ideological biases, but it is to Pietrusza's credit that he doesn't play favorites, though one can detect a slight tilt towards Coolidge (not surprising, given that the author had some role in the Coolidge Memorial Foundation) and a certain amount of disdain for Wilson's arrogance and bullheadedness. Such touchy subjects as women's suffrage, Sacco and Vanzetti, Socialism, civil rights, and the Ku Klux Klan are presented in the same straightforward manner. Pietrusza goes against the grain by arguing that the supposedly "bossed" Republican convention was more prone to be swayed by delegates' enthusiasm than the Democratic conclave, though his argument rests rather strongly on the Republican delegates' overwhelming endorsement of Coolidge for vice-president over several better-fancied candidates. It is refreshing to read a popular historical tome that does not pay much attention to drawing conclusions that are politically correct, but instead presents a multi-faceted – and somewhat tragic, given the ultimate fates of Wilson, Harding, and Hoover – view of a stormy epoch in 20th century American history. Highly recommended.
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Uncle $crooge #367 (July 2007). Having previously honed his comics-writing chops by successfully dialoguing Super Goof and Gyro Gearloose stories, our own Joe Torcivia -- and yes, I’m allowed to refer to him that way, thanks to his review of the Filmation Superman DVD set last week – is entrusted with Disney comics’ most precious resource, Uncle Scrooge, in this issue’s last story, “Heads You Win… Tails You Bruise.” Don’t let the positioning fool you… this story, originally conceived by Lars Jensen and drawn by Vicar, is the best thing in what is actually a very strong issue. “Bruise” inducts a new “foe” into Scrooge’s pantheon of party-poopers -- “plump, obsessive, [and] hygienically-questionable” coin collector Melvin X. Nickelby, who yearns to complete his collection by snaffling Scrooge’s Old #1 Dime. Donald, striving to prove his mettle as Scrooge’s bodyguard, pursues the dime-despoiling dweeb all over Duckburg in a lengthy chase sequence that consumes most of the panels. Ultimately, Old #1 actually comes to its own rescue in an unexpected way. Joe nails the personalities of both Donald and Scrooge and also does a superb job in verbally turning Melvin, who’s depicted by Vicar as an overweight but otherwise normal-looking gander, into an anal-retentive fetishist of the sort instantly recognizable to anyone who’s spent an extended amount of time in the dealer’s room at a comic-book convention. The Vic Lockman-style alliteration that served Joe so well in his earlier efforts is here in full force, but the pop-culture and media references, both obvious and subtle, are now coming thicker and faster than ever. Joe even manages to squeeze in a clever visual parody of Gemstone’s logo for its Huey, Dewey, and Louie stories (and no, I didn’t recognize it the first time).
The issue’s lead story, Carl Barks’ “The King of the Golden River,” isn’t one of my favorite Barks $crooge stories, but it is one of my faves from the specific time period in which it first appeared (1958, aka “The Time of the Tall Nephews”). Barks’ homage to John Ruskin’s fairy story The Golden River is often cited as one of the seminal moments in Scrooge’s “permanent” personality change to the side of the angels. In truth, however, the old skinflint’s fundamental transformation from miserliness to (occasional) munificence had taken place long before this (cf. Scrooge’s decision to leave Goldie his claim in “Back to the Klondike”), and the exaggerated characterization of Scrooge that Barks uses here was largely dictated by the constraints of Ruskin’s fable. Scrooge’s thrift-obsessed tantrums in the opening pages are so over-the-top that they rise (or sink) to the level of “camp.” (The truly nasty Scrooge of such earlier stories as “The Magic Hourglass” would probably have chortled at McDuck’s overacting here.) A combination of drought-shrunken money, Donald and the boys’ efforts to milk Scrooge for a $5 donation for the Junior Woodchucks, and a nasty accident involving a steam pipe leave Scrooge a gibbering wreck. In the mountains to settle his nerves, the grumpy tycoon blows-off Dewey’s attempt to entertain him by reading Ruskin’s story (actually, a Cliffs Notes version of same) to him. But when the nearby waterfall appears to turn to gold, just as in the story, Scrooge springs into action, intent on finding some way to profit. Donald and HD&L’s resulting investigation into why the gold flows only periodically rivals that of Barks’ later “Flying Dutchman” story -- heavy on expository dialogue and highly mechanistic in nature – but it ultimately requires a spiritual change of heart for Scrooge to see the error of his greedy ways and resolve to “keep the gold flowing” by doing selfless deeds of generosity. Of course, such a complete reformation never actually does come to pass, lending this story a certain air of phoniness. Still in all, the tale is well-structured and gets its didactic point across without ramming it down the reader’s throat. Don Rosa accompanies the story with a nice back-cover illustration that depicts Scrooge eagerly panning for waterfall-gold as Donald and the boys look on approvingly – in truth, a scenario that could not possibly have taken place in the story, given the way Barks actually had its events transpire. We could call this yet another “fable of the Golden River,” I suppose.
David Gerstein returns to dialoguing duties in Per Hedman and Vicar’s “Boxing Donald,” a silly but amusing scenario in which Donald accidentally finds himself entrusted with preparing Goosetown’s boxing team for its upcoming match with Duckburg’s finest (and, if the speech patterns of the Goosetown boxers are any indication, its dumbest as well). Thanks to a snooping reporter who spills the beans to the Duckburgian sporting public, Don soon finds himself in a no-win situation. He doesn’t win, of course, but at least he avoids getting beaten to a pulp. David again lets his imagination soar in the dialogue balloons, and, though the attempts to incorporate contemporary slang and pop-cult prods (would you believe, a reference to a Darkwing Duck villain??) seem a bit overdone at times, they do lift a relatively uninspired storyline a few levels above average. Sorry I can’t say the same for the normally reliable Dwight Decker, who can’t make a silk (or even suede) purse out of the sow’s ear that is Gorm Transgaard and Freddy Milton’s “Extreme Scrooge.” Scrooge doesn’t engage in any X-Games nonsense herein – though actually, that would have been preferable. Instead, after being driven crazy by the pressures of business responsibilities (only four panels worth!), he loses his memory and eventually comes to the conclusion that he’s Donald. In said role – and minus the telltale side-whiskers -- he outfoxes Neighbor Jones, makes a profit selling produce from Donald’s garden as “ketchup in designer bottles” and “veggie-dolls” (do the people who created Veggie Tales know about this?), and alienates Daisy. Don finally returns to the scene and literally smacks Scrooge back to normal. A Richie Rich story of a number of years ago – in which Richie, suffering from amnesia, becomes “Peter Poor” and makes a small fortune before becoming himself again – handled this idea a lot more effectively.
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The Reagan Diaries, ed. by Douglas Brinkley (HarperCollins). Let me start by mixing a Presidential metaphor, of sorts, and making one thing perfectly clear. It is unlikely that anyone hostile to Ronald Reagan who reads this abridged version of the diary he regularly kept as President will change his or her mind about the man as a result of reading it. It is a pure, unpretentious, unadorned slab of the 40th President, and those with minds already made up about Reagan's intellect are likely to gag on his frequent "I hate Mondays" comments, his references to ending a busy day by going to "beddy bye," and so forth. There are no unexpected revelations, apart from the fairly predictable one that Reagan occasionally used the diary to blow off steam about political opponents and the partisan media. It is also unsurprising that Reagan liked most of the world leaders and diplomats he met. It was very difficult for him to hate anyone. Just reading the diary entry concerning the attempt on his life only confirms what we already knew via hearsay, namely, that he was more puzzled than angry as to why John Hinckley attempted to kill him. Particularly notable here is the extended length of the diary entries in the later years of Reagan's presidency. Those who continue to snicker at the thought of a lame-duck Reagan "already" in the grip of Alzheimer's disease have some serious explaining to do, I think. HarperCollins is apparently planning to issue the uncut diaries at some point in the future, so I wouldn't call this an absolutely essential purchase for Reagan fans and history buffs, but it's definitely worth careful perusal courtesy of your local library.
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Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Warner Bros.) In its willingness to skimp on details and plow through the narrative of the fifth Potter book with all deliberate speed, the movie version of Phoenix is all but incomprehensible to anyone who views it "cold." By this time, though, it's fairly obvious that the Potter film franchise is playing strictly to the "gallery" of committed fans. How else could one explain the fact that Tonks and other never-before-seen members of the Order of the Phoenix are thrown onto the stage with alarming carelessness, barely getting a formal introduction regardless of whatever roles they are fated to play in future books. The O.W.L. wizarding exams, which get so much attention in the book, are likewise passed over quickly, with the one "exam scene" being used as a mere backdrop for Fred and Ron Weasley's explosive departure from Hogwarts School. Thankfully, one doesn't need "simultaneous translation" to enjoy such moments as Harry's much-ballyhooed (and curiously elongated) first kiss with Cho Chang, or the delightfully sinister portrayal of the officious, sadistic bureaucrat Dolores Umbridge, who comes to Hogwarts to put a lid on rumors that Lord Voldemort has returned and pushes it down hard, ultimately ousting Professor Dumbledore and running the place as a dictatorship. The movie, like the book, makes much of the notion that protecting people from the truth "for their own good" is a terrible idea. The climactic showdown in the Ministry of Magic is truncated but well done, though I have always thought that it was a mistake of J.K. Rowling's to involve Voldemort in such a conventional "all-stops-out action sequence" this early in the overall narrative. The mano-a-mano with Dumbledore has the unintended consequence of turning Voldemort into a sort of Darth Vader wannabe (sans nose, and with wand rather than light-saber) and just another plate-glass-smashing bad guy. The faceoff with Harry in Goblet of Fire was briefer and far more symbolically meaningful, since Harry was fighting Voldemort personally and reacting to Cedric Diggory's death. By the time we get to the movie version of Deathly Hallows, I am afraid that Voldemort will seem far more like a conventional movie villain than he really ought to have been. The movie is handsomely made and acted reasonably well, but it's hard to place it above Prisoner of Azkaban, Goblet of Fire, or even Sorcerer's Stone, insofar as overall quality goes. At least the Potter movie franchise is in adept hands.
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Ratatouille (Disney/Pixar). Pixar deftly picks up the pieces from the disappointing Cars with this sprightly new effort, which, though it has more than a few flaws of its own, possesses the undeniable advantage of being thoroughly unique, as opposed to a Doc Hollywood remake. Though it's a bit on the long side, this tale of Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt [The King of Queens]), a French (at least in theory) rat who dreams of turning his "nose" for food into a career as a Parisian chef, more than makes up for any draggy spots with a simply marvelous ending that even tops that of Brad Bird's previous Pixar effort, The Incredibles – and without any super-heroic violence, to boot.
Interestingly, given that it stars a cute rat (yes, really – leave your preconceived notions about rats behind) and makes hay from the dubious idea that a human's limbs can be manipulated by the pulling of hair on the person's head, Ratatouille is rather more "adult" than most Pixar productions. The climactic moment, featuring a cadaverous food critic (voiced wittily by Peter O'Toole) who can sink a gustatory enterprise with a single cutting column, certainly is easier for adults to understand and appreciate. This sophisticated challenge clashes rather dramatically with the inherent silliness of Remy "puppeteering" the hapless Linguini, the heir to the late Chef Gusteau's famed but recently devalued Parisian restaurant, into a newly won reputation as a master chef (much to the dismay of Gusteau's diminutive successor Skinner, who prefers to exploit Gusteau's exalted reputation with a line of appallingly cheesy frozen-food creations). The Remy-Linguini relationship bounces through generally predictable ups and downs, with some of the latter being exacerbated by Linguini's blossoming romance with Colette, a cynical female chef -- a subplot that could just as easily have been jettisoned, but which appears to have been tacked on for the benefit of having at least one semi-major distaff character on hand. Though the ramifications of the alliance are the main reason why the movie drags in spots, I found it rather clever and charming, certainly preferable to the spirit of Gusteau ("Ghosteau"?) that advises Remy at certain moments, especially during the early stages of Remy's sojourn in Paris. I do realize that "Ghosteau" is a "figment of the imagination" rather than an actual ghost and that Remy needed someone to converse with once he became separated from his father's rat colony, but the presence of this convenient spiritual ally seemed every bit as contrived as Remy's making like Geppetto. Illustrations and advertisements picturing Gusteau coming to life, I could accept, but not an actual, Jiminy Cricket-esque "presence." At least Brad Garrett's rumbling voice for Gusteau was fun to listen to.
In a movie in which most of the characters pretty much stay the same – though their relationships may change (e.g. Remy/Linguini, Linguini/Colette, and the bond between Remy and his fatalistic father, who thinks that humans and rats weren't meant to mix) – the food critic, Anton Ego, makes by far the most unexpected transformation I've ever seen in a Pixar film. Lightning McQueen changed during Cars, but since he was the clear protagonist from the start, that wasn't a big surprise. Set up as a villain from the get-go – his study is coffin-shaped, for Pete's sake! – Ego has enough character to weather a totally unexpected revelation and face up to its implications, even though his willingness to verbalize his feelings ultimately costs him his job. As part of his epiphany, Ego gets off what will probably prove to be the movie's most memorable line: "Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere." This salute to the "quest for legitimate excellence" is very much of a piece with Brad Bird's message in The Incredibles, though Ratatouille lacks the family dynamic that made The Incredibles so popular with conservative viewers. In order to realize his dream, after all, Remy must leave his colony and be "flushed away" (ha!) to Paris – and once he and his brood finally do reconnect, most of the latter are primarily interested in the food Remy can cadge from Gusteau's kitchens. Happily, however, the other rats have a major role to play in Remy's final triumph, and they share in his ultimate fate.
The theme of "selling out" – Skinner's attempt to batten on Gusteau's reputation, even as the restaurant he now heads is hitting the (rather genteel) skids – hasn't gotten as much attention from reviewers as it probably should have. Given Pixar's difficulties in dealing with Disney's demands during the latter stages of Michael Eisner's meltdown, it's hard not to suspect a little bit of wistful self-referencing going on here. I didn't notice the usual cameos by past Pixar "performers," so maybe this whole theme was a great big cameo all by itself. I'm sure that some American Francophiles (you know who you are) will claim that the use of thoroughly Americanized voices for Remy, Linguini, and the rats in Remy's colony represents a "sellout" itself. Je m'en fiche; I found several of the accented characters to be hard to understand, anyway.
One can hardly praise Pixar's animation enough under normal circumstances, but John Lasseter's crew really outdid themselves here, rising to the challenge of staging believable interactions between small creatures and (mostly) normal-sized humans. The scene in which Remy desperately tries to save Linguini's keister by fixing up the soup that Linguini had originally botched was just wonderful to behold, as was the climactic preparation of the dish that wins Anton Ego over to the side of the angels. It is easy to forget how awkwardly the humans were handled in the original Toy Story, but between The Incredibles and Ratatouille, I think we can safely say that the major technical hurdles of dealing with humans have been surmounted. The rats' fur represents a leap forward from the initial use of "natural" body covering in Monsters Inc., as well.
The "standard" pre-feature Pixar short, Lifted, was the only disappointment of the day. No major technical advances appear to have been made – or even attempted – and, even worse, the plot showed an atypical callousness and cruelty that left me cold. That hapless sleeping farmer didn't do anything to deserve a fate like that…
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The New Adventures of Superman DVD (Filmation's version from 1966). Released June 26, 2007 by Warner Home Video.
Up front, I must express an almost lifelong affection for the DC Comics Super Heroes, and a 15 year long love affair with the DC Animated Series BATMAN, SUPERMAN, BATMAN BEYOND, JUSTICE LEAGUE and JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED, produced by Bruce Timm for Warner Bros. I also enjoyed the 1960s DC cartoons from Filmation Studios. This DVD should have been a “lock” for me but, instead, it is a very mixed bag. Oh, there’s plenty of great stuff -- especially when viewed through nostalgia-colored glasses, where Filmation’s legendary shortcomings are minimized by the good feelings these shows originally created. We know and accept Filmation’s faults for what they were – and are! The source of my uncharacteristic displeasure is the dispensing with the usually high standards practiced by Warner Home Video, in the assembling of this package. There are far too many “CONS” to allow me to enjoy this DVD collection to the extent that I had hoped. Yet, the “PROS”, in many ways, still manage to make the package a worthwhile entertainment experience.
The series is NOT COMPLETE! I'm very disappointed in that! The Superboy segments (originally part of each half-hour episode) are omitted. Somehow, I can understand that, as SB remains in some sort of legal limbo between DC/WB and the heirs of Jerry Siegel. BUT, all the Superman episodes are not there either. The box claims 36 episodes. What they don't tell you is that there were TWO Superman cartoons per show -- plus one Superboy -- and that those are counted as SEPARATE episodes... even though each "pair" of Superman shorts are framed by the show's original opening and closing credits -- indicating it to be ONE SHOW. So, in actuality you get 18 original shows – really TWO THIRDS of 18 shows – despite the box’s claim of 36 “episodes”. Not exactly trickery, but the feeling of it is there, nonetheless. Later, there were a handful of TWO-PART SUPERMAN EPISODES that are also not in this set. Granted, these were made for the BATMAN/SUPERMAN HOUR show of 1968 -- but they were also shown as part of the SUPERMAN show after Batman split off into his own show. Perhaps they will be part of a possible BATMAN/SUPERMAN HOUR release -- though there were not nearly enough of them to give Supes a fair representation on such a set, as many of the earlier Superman shorts were mixed into that show as “extender”. Either way, I expected to see the two-parters here. Further research reveals that there are about 16 short Superman cartoons also absent from this set and, hopefully, all this missing material is being hoarded for a second volume. After all, this was never billed as “The Complete Series”, so maybe I was expecting too much, having been accustomed to the general quality of other WHV releases… the also-incomplete NEW SCOOBY-DOO MOVIES set, notwithstanding. The transfers to DVD have got to be the worst I've ever seen! Yes, I know it's Filmation, and it's SUPPOSED TO look bad. :-) But NO EFFORT WHATSOEVER was made to clean these cartoons up. The Mr. Mxyzptlk episode, "The Imp-Practical Joker" (Which I remembered sort of fondly, and especially wanted to see and contrast with Bruce Timm and Paul Dini's 1997 masterpiece "Mxyzpixilated") is unbelievably bad with lines, streaking, and visual debris across the image! SHAME ON YOU WARNER HOME VIDEO! In six minutes, the stories are often too brief and many of them are hokey even by Silver Age standards, but others are good. Besides, some very good Superman stories were done in eight pages or so, in the Silver Age comic books of legendary editor Mort Weisinger. In addition to being incomplete, badly transferred, and sometimes hokey (though I can't really blame the "hokey" on WHV, can I?), there is NO PROPER ORDER to the presentation! We DVD enthusiasts like things organized, complete, uncut, and IN ORDER! None of that here! "Superman Meets Brainiac" is on DISC TWO, while "The Return of Brainiac" is on DISC ONE! Um... all you have to do is READ THE TITLES to know this is the wrong thing to do, folks!
It's Superman! It's Superman is as close to an accurate Mort Weisinger / Silver Age interpretation as we could ever have hoped to get! Bud Collyer and Joan Alexander from the Max Fleschier theatrical days and radio series are reunited as Superman/Clark, and Lois! The character designs are as closely based on classic Silver Age Superman artist Curt Swan as was possible to do in such limited animation. It is the first animated use of Jimmy Olsen. Though sans freckles, he looks just as he did in his own comic -- that is when he wasn't being transformed into a turtle, werewolf, or other monster. Mort Weisinger was a consultant to the series, and his name is in the end credits of every show! Actual DC writers of the time did scripts: George Kashdan, William Woolfolk, Arnold Drake, Bill Finger (Considered by many to be the uncredited co-creator of Batman!), and someone who -- to my knowledge -- was never involved with DC, Oscar Bensol. As all the other writers were actual DC writers, I wonder if "Bensol" wasn't a pen name for someone else. (Jerry Siegel, perhaps?) There's a Joe Simon also credited as "Editorial". Could it have been THE "Joe Simon", comic book legend and co-creator of Captain America? Bob Hastings (LT. Carpenter on sixties sit-com MC HALE'S NAVY) begins an over 30-year association with DC Comics characters by voicing Jimmy Olsen and the absent-due to-being-in court Superboy. Hastings essentially recreated Carpenter for a cameo in the Adam West Batman series (in a scene with Alan "Fred Flintstone" Reed, no less!), and became best known as the voice of Commissioner Gordon in the '90s BATMAN ANIMATED SERIES! Gravely voiced Jackson Beck (...I can still hear him voicing commercials for Little Caesar's Pizza, and Thompson's Water Seal) is the Narrator and Perry White. The first use, outside of comics, of Luthor, Brainiac, Mxyzptlk, Toyman, Prankster, Titano the Giant Ape, and a vastly different Parasite – who meets a bit of a shocking end for a mid-sixties Sat AM cartoon. Ditto for the ending of the second Brainiac episode. No spoilers here! And THIS justifies the price of admission... The extra feature: "Superman in '66"! Featured commentators include writer Mark Waid, actor Mark Hamill, DC Publisher Paul Levitz, and Filmation's Lou Scheimer, among others. Waid is so vocal, he practically hosts the thing! They discuss Superman, the times socially and politically, Curt Swan, Mort Weisinger, and many, many Silver Age Superman panels and pages are shown throughout. Scheimer discusses the early days of Filmation, how they got the contract from DC to do Superman (...with more than a bit of bluffing and trickery -- that I'm surprised that he admits to here!), and how important Superman was to putting Filmation on the map, and its impact on Sat AM for years to follow. For any fan of animation, comics, DC heroes, or the Silver Age in general, this is ONE GREAT FEATURE!
So, ultimately, I’d say buy The New Adventures of Superman DVD set… if you are a fan of any of the above categories – and enjoy the “title opening” to each classic cartoon, where Superman flies THROUGH a brick wall that (as drawn) he could just as easily have flown around! …But, then again, sometimes it’s great to just accept stuff like this for its own sake!
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Space Ghost and Dino Boy: The Complete Series DVD (Hanna-Barbera 1966). Released July 17, 2007 by Warner Home Video.
It would seem that the DVD Gods have decidedly smiled on the year 1966. By my own totally unsubstantiated and subjective observations, 1966 may be the best-represented year for TV Show Sets on DVD outside of our current contemporary era. Small wonder, as 1966 represents the pinnacle of the brief, but forever memorable, period of “fantastic television” of the middle sixties. 41 years after the fact, episode sets of 1966 television abound on the shelves and catalogues of retailers and apparently, given the sheer volume of available material, the hearts and minds of the consuming public. Prime time series represented in my collection are (…in alpha order to avoid any subjective positioning – consciously or otherwise):
The Flintstones (6th Season)
F-Troop (1st and 2nd Seasons)
Gilligan’s Island (2nd and 3rd Seasons)
Lost in Space (1st and 2nd Seasons)
Star Trek (1st Season)
The Time Tunnel (1st Season)
Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (2nd and 3rd Seasons)
The Wild Wild West (1st and 2nd Seasons)
Other DVD series not in my collection, but no less representative of 1966, include Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, The Addams Family, The Munsters, Get Smart, and Green Acres. If only they were joined by Batman, The Green Hornet, and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., the prime time of my 11th year would be as complete as I could ever want it to be! Saturday morning TV was also changed during this magical year… by two landmark series: Filmation’s THE NEW ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN and Hanna-Barbera’s SPACE GHOST AND DINO BOY, both premiering on CBS. Warner Home Video’s release of the SUPERMAN series was reviewed here a short while ago. It was recommended, but cautiously – as omissions and production flaws were plentiful enough to be regarded as diminishing factors. Happily, this is not the case with Warner’s release of SPACE GHOST AND DINO BOY THE COMPLETE SERIES. Space Ghost is a hooded, costumed and caped super-hero of outer space. “Space-Batman”, if you will. As Batman has Robin, Space Ghost has young Jan and Jace as his teen sidekicks – along with a cute little chattering space-monkey named Blip. Space Ghost appears to have no origin within the context of the show, though an origin would be given to him in a comic book series many years later. For now, he’s just “there” and ready for intergalactic action. It’s not clear whether he is the father of Jan and Jace (though they never refer to him as “dad”), or they are mere wards, a la Dick Grayson. I can only imagine that “Mrs. Ghost” would have taken a dim view of the kids adventuring around space each week, so it’s easy to assume that (if she exists) she’s probably as dead as the mother of another Hanna-Barbera adventurous youngster, Jonny Quest. If Hanna-Barbera made one mistake with Space Ghost, it was not making it a half-hour series – meaning each story would have been done in the half-hour format, as was previously done with Jonny Quest. Instead, the “tried-and-true” H-B formula of three cartoons per 30 minute show (Two Space Ghost, with one Dino Boy sandwiched in between) was employed, and played to lesser results. For instance, a creature (such as a lava monster) would rear its ugly head, Space Ghost would battle it for the next six minutes, and it would retreat, be destroyed, or otherwise imprisoned or neutralized. More likely, a villain would take some aggressive action against innocents – or against Space Ghost, himself – and, for the next six minutes… well, you know. If you’re thinking that this sounds a great deal like the formula used in Filmation’s The New Adventures of Superman, you’re right -- but, with an important difference or two. Yes, though the plots were just as brief and often unfulfilling, they were, on the whole, less hokey than those for Filmation’s Superman. They were more on the order of “Mini-Jonny Quest” shows, as were the plots used for Dino Boy. Though this is not to suggest they were on the order of the Bruce Timm / WB produced DC Superhero Animated Series, either. Somewhere in between, though closer to Filmation than to Timm / WB. BUT… there was a level of violence to Space Ghost and Dino Boy rarely seen on Saturday morning television. Villains and/or creatures would die – sometimes on-screen, sometimes off. Often, Space Ghost would LET a villain perish, by making no attempt at rescue and, occasionally outright offed ‘em! The words “Kill”, “Death”, and “Die” had never been used with such frequency on Sat. AM TV before or since. (…Never mind the more euphemistic “Destroy”!) Ah, but since they were villains, you could say they deserved that sort of “Chester Gould Justice”. Even fixtures on the later parody series “Space Ghost Coast to Coast”, such as Zorak and Brak, didn’t survive their 1966 encounters with Space Ghost. (Okay, Zorak may have escaped at the last moment, but not Brak!). Dino Boy is, happily, a better series than I remembered it. Unlike Space Ghost, his origin is recapped in each show. A Jonny Quest / Will Robinson resourceful sort of boy bails out of a downed plane, into one of those “lost prehistoric valleys” we’d all like to imagine really exist. He is befriended by a strong, protective caveman and a pet bronto, who also fulfills the transportation function of a horse for the pair. They run afoul of strange civilizations and stranger creatures for their six-minute segments.
I’m pleased to say that most of the “Cons” that diminished the Filmation Superman set are not present here. The series DOES appear to be complete. The transfers appear to be of reasonable quality. Can’t speak to the ORDER of episodes but nothing, so far, seems painfully out of order. Minor quibble: The discs are not overtly labeled or illustrated on their surface. This is all the more inconvenient when discs are double-sided, as these are. The stories are too short. So much more could have been done with Space Ghost in the half-hour long adventure format, so common in the years to come. Monsters and/or aggressive aliens come so fast and furious that this series seems to owe more to Irwin Allen (Producer of Lost in Space, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea) than Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera. This SHOULD be a “Pro”, more than a “Con”, except that they seem to be “set-up” only to be “knocked-down”, rather than offer any plot potential. Speaking of Irwin Allen, each episode opens with an embarrassingly blatant use of STOCK FOOTAGE! The very first image to hit the eyes of each viewer of SPACE GHOST AND DINO BOY is the opening image of SPACE that dissolves into the opening credits of H-B’s THE JETSONS, created four years earlier! Yes, really! Look at it! In Irwin Allen’s case, the use of stock footage – as poorly as it may appear by today’s standards – allowed him to present wonders that were simply beyond the television budgets of the time. However, there is NO EXCUSE for such an obvious – however brief – use of stock footage (…from another show, no less!) in ANIMATION! The level of violence – and death – seen in the show. This would be more of a “Pro”, had it not help usher in the crusades by do-gooders and know-betters that persist to this day. Space Ghost’s voice, by the great GARY OWENS, is credited as “GARY OWEN” in the end credit sequence. Owens is not interviewed – nor does he provide commentary for this set. But, as he did both for the previously-released “Perils of Penelope Pitstop” and “Scooby-Doo / Dynomutt Hour” sets, I can forgive that. Would have been nice to hear Owens talk some Space Ghost, though. As with most Hanna-Barbera series, there is only one stock end-credits sequence. Voice actors heard in the show (mostly as villains) but never credited for this cost-cutting reason include H-B stalwart John Stephenson, Henry Corden, Ted (“Lurch”) Cassidy, the ubiquitous Paul Frees and fresh off his stint as The Great Gazoo, Harvey Korman. No origin for Space Ghost. Today, even Disney’s Darkwing Duck gets one! The PACKAGING is that slimmer, cheaper packaging that Warner Home Video has used since the latter part of 2005, where one disc rests upon another. You cannot handle or remove DISC TWO without first removing or handling DISC ONE. There is always potential, however slight, for damage with packaging of this sort. WOW! Only one shortcoming directly attributable to WHV, and not the show’s original production quirks.
It’s Space Ghost! In 1966,
I don’t think it was possible for an animated character to be cooler
than Space Ghost… save H-B’s own earlier Jonny Quest, Hadji, and Race
Bannon. The writers credited were Walter Black and William
Hamilton – both veterans of JONNY QUEST, accounting for the relative
quality of the scripts. A superb
voice cast. Credited or otherwise.
Inspired use of “stock adventure music” composed for JONNY QUEST.
Virtually every note comes from JQ, and a very small portion of it will
“roll-forward” into SCOOBY-DOO WHERE ARE YOU. Check the opening scenes
of “Scooby’s Night with a Frozen Fright” or “A Tiki Scare is
No Fair” for examples. Despite
its never varying episode-to-episode, the closing credits sequence
offers a great moment that is inspired by the closing credits sequence
of “The Outer Limits”. The radio-inspired shout of “SPAAA-AAA-AAACE
GHOOO-OOO-OOOST!” in the opening and closing credits, on the part of
Owens. The level of violence – and death – seen in the show. As I
said, this is a “Pro”! The “Ghost Planet” headquarters and
sanctuary! Batman had a “Batcave”. The Fantastic Four had “The Baxter
Building”. Superman had “The Fortress of Solitude”. But Space Ghost
had HIS OWN PLANET! Told you he was cool! The Phantom Cruiser,
Power Bands, Inviso-Power, and Star Trek-like communicators with the
image of “The Phantom Blot” on them! ‘Nuff said! Space Ghost’s
amazingly large JURISDICTION – which included Earth, when the story
demanded it. One episode, “The Sandman”, had a Foreign Legion commander
CONTACT SPACE GHOST DIRECTLY (!) to investigate a strange desert sand
phenomenon that swallowed up traveling Arabs and Legionnaires alike.
That must have been one HECK of an outpost, if it had the capability to
reach the Ghost Planet! Then again, aside from Dr. Benton Quest, who
else in the “Hanna-Barbera Universe” of 1966 could have been called in
on the case? Secret Squirrel? Quick Draw Mc Graw? Maybe Huckleberry
Hound was working as a cop, detective, or scientist that week…
Dino Boy was fun, in an “episodic peril and escape” sorta way. Don
Messick’s “sounds” for Bronty the Bronto made him a sort of prototype
for Scooby-Doo! Indeed, it was often like watching Jonny Quest (…or
Lost in Space’s Will Robinson) team up with Scooby! Mike Road (“Race
Bannon” in Quest) voiced “Ugh the Caveman”, further strengthening the
connection with JQ. It was as violent and full of death as was Space
Ghost. FUN! Dino Boy didn’t appear to have an actual name… or, if he
did, he had no use for it within the context of the series. He was
voiced by a boy named “Johnny Carson”. Yes, really! After what is
assumed to be the original 18 shows, there is a special six-part story
with the overall title of “The Council of Doom”. In it, Space
Ghost’s greatest enemies Metallus, Creature King, Zorak, Moltar, Brak,
and Spider Woman (…some of whom WERE KILLED during the previous eighteen
outings! Minor detail… Maybe it’s an “Untold Ghost Tale” of the past!)
team up to rid themselves of Space Ghost for good! This is rather an
amazing piece of storytelling for the time, as the “Ghost Gang”
encounters OTHER HANNA-BARBERA HEROES (!) along the way. The Mighty
Mightor, Moby Dick, The Herculoids, and the Genie Shazzan all help out
as needed to execute a story in the style of DC Comics’ Justice League /
Justice Society team-ups – the likes of which had never been done in TV
animation to this point! I don’t recall seeing “The Council of Doom”
before, but it must have coincided with the start of the 1967 season, as
the other H-B heroes present all debuted at that time. Even with six
short segments to work with, the story is rushed and exhibits the
occasional plot hole, as was typical of the Silver Age, but give ‘em
High Marks for this one! Very High Marks! There is only one Special Feature, but it’s
a goody! A documentary on the life and career of Space Ghost’s designer
Alex Toth! It is an uncharacteristically LONG piece for a DVD
extra, running an incredible 1 hour and 19 minutes! Among the many interviewees are Toth’s two
daughters and two sons, Golden Age DC Comics artists Joe Kubert and
Irwin Hasen, Warner Bros. Animation producer Bruce Timm, and a number of
Toth’s personal friends. Portions of Toth’s own manuscripts on his
accomplishments and his views on life appear to be read in his own
voice. All involved seem to portray Toth as passionate and driven, a
superb designer and draftsman… and something of an unhappy individual.
Indeed, I’d say that we get TOO close a look at the unpleasantness of
the final years of his life. This is quite surprising for a cartoon DVD
extra, where a “good face” is generally put on most things. If there is a negative to this great
feature, beyond its anything-but-rosy outlook, it’s that, while it
spends much time on Toth’s early days in New York City and later move to
California, his family, his career in comic books from the Golden Age
thru the seventies and the ups and downs of his life, it hardly
touches on Space Ghost. Now that’s fine with me, personally, as I
especially enjoyed the coverage of his work done for DC Comics –
featuring some magnificent Batman pages – and a closer-than-expected
look at this unique individual and his place in comic book history.
But, if my sole purpose for purchasing this set was an interest in Space
Ghost, as I suspect would be the case with most buyers, I would probably
be disappointed. To bring this
review full-circle, and then to a close, I described Space Ghost as a
sort of “Space-Batman”. On the special feature, Bruce Timm (not
surprisingly) cites Alex Toth’s design for Space Ghost as one of his
influences in designing Batman for his own groundbreaking BATMAN THE
ANIMATED SERIES. Buy this DVD
set, if you are a fan of animated adventure, Hanna-Barbera, Alex Toth,
comic books (Silver Age or modern)… or “anything 1966”.
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