Saturday, December 09, 2006

REVIEW: Cartoon Outkast: Class of 3000 misses the grade!

[Article written for Toon Zone News - 03.11.06 - preview screener]

I've never been overly comfortable with cartoons based on established media persona. Having celebrity personalities voicing fictional cartoon characters, fine. Celebrity personalities voicing themselves, spat into the middle of a fictitious universe in which they themselves play the central hero just seems rather indulgent.

After all, it's the fact that Batman or Bugs Bunny cannot exist within our humdrum reality that makes them so exciting; the fascination comes in knowing we can't do what they can. Granted, few are able - or willing - to drop beats like Outkast's Andre 3000. The question I pose is whether his niche musical skills alone are enough wallop for him to stand side by side with the animated medium's larger than life personalities.

First off we are best explaining a little about the Class of 3000 and just where this rather early rant derives from. Well, there is very little to tell. Pop star "Sunny Bridges" (while not officially named Andre 3000 he looks, sounds and has the same musical ground as he) has lost interest in living the life of the world famous pop-star. Poor him. Until that joy returns he's decided to - oh so graciously - step in as a teacher to a load of misfit school-kids.

Yes, he is going to teach music in the way that only Andre 3000 - I'm sorry, "Sunny" - can, and I suspect that's because all the other teachers are classically and formally trained and only Andre is not.

Needless to say, Andre/Sunny is here to liven up the class and teach some music. Ha, maybe if he gets chance, he'll sit in on a class himself. "Meow" to the highest.

Catty comments aside, Class of 3000 does have some genuinely funny moments. It's quite clear it has a fairly slick writing team onboard. However the slightly quirky, irrelevant humor does feel more artificial than genuine. We've been given the chance to sample a couple of episodes.

Peanuts, Get Yer Peanuts!

Sunny begins teaching and gets off to a [insert current trendy, hip jargon for "great" here] start. Unfortunately those nasty, boring teachers demand he gets down with a small thing called "paperwork" and poor Sunny is stuck at a desk filling out forms when his class is left to prepare for an annual event that focuses on...peanuts. Can they take his few words of wisdom and use them to create one mean peanut orientated event?

The opening sequence is a little annoying. It suffers from Mary Poppins syndrome: it belittles the professionals somewhat to enhance the main star. Sunny is such an krazy, hip, on the level "teacher" (and I use "teacher" cautiously, as from what we see in the two episodes we were offered to screen, I've seen no evidence of credentials) who the class adore compared to their usual bout.

What irritated me was that while the message IS relevant - "We've got to tear down the walls of conventions with the wrecking ball of creativity" - it's not a fair assessment of what's important in teaching. Yes, we do need to remember to step out the loop in music or any arts, before you can run, you have to be able to walk. The mistake so many make is trying to do something different and creative BEFORE they've mastered the instruments. Teachers are - at school level - an important foundation in the basics; making sure that kids adhere to practice, technique and more practice is a great deal of what being teacher is all about. I'd say it's about time TV shows explained to kids that lessons aren't dull just for the sake of it, it's because when you are learning, elements of practice ARE dull, but they are also extremely important.

Sure, a balance in teaching is required - creativity is about making music interesting so students WANT to learn - but I wasn't seeing any balance here. Sunny simply rejects the importance of finger skills (and his predecessor being compared to an over aggressive army instructor for teaching them) in favor of "feeling" the music. In fairness to the show, it seemed his students were at a fairly high level anyway, but what I question is the message. It's a bit like when a politician centers on the fun issues to get voter support and avoids tackling the nasty ones in fear of being unpopular. So far, this seems to be Sunny to a tee.

The next scene piles on the message that schools just don't "get" teaching like Sunny does. When Sunny finds - to his frustration - that he has to write out a "lesson plan" among other bits of paperwork, he realizes he hasn't time to help his students anymore! How uncool is that? I mean, gone are the days where the teachers didn't have to be legally accountable to how they teach their students. Dear lord, now teachers have paperwork so the school can take every precaution that their teachers are doing right by the students. How heinous of them and POOR Sunny! He was doing such a cool and better job at teaching than the other teachers by avoiding all that boring technique stuff. Now look at him! He's having to sift through mountains of paperwork like an ordinary teacher. How hard can life get on an ex-megastar-come-untrained-teacher?

Yes, paperwork is a pain in every profession. Yes, I've heard many teachers complain about the oodles of wooded pulp they sift through, but the scene plays out more to pity poor Sunny than as a testament to the hard work teachers put into their job.

Okay, beyond the start that plays like an electoral campaign for Andre Benjamin - I mean "Sunny Bridges" - the episode actually picks up rather well. The story splits into several smaller tales, each illustrating the overall push of the narrative with a mix of humor and a dab of cliche (watch out for the long established nerd convention). While the overall plot is nothing new, there are certainly some fresh comic undertones to this episode.

Sunny's menagerie of students are an enjoyable group of misfits. The group is a diverse bunch, ethnically, in social class and in characters. You have the rich, the stupid, the hungry, the efficient and those with, well, serious "attitude." Some of the characters fall on old stereotypes, but overall they are a good collective. They are different enough to keep the scenes active and fresh, yet they don't feel at odds with each other or the audience. Furthermore, they are memorable bunch and after watching just two episodes, I would say that's a testament to a decent set of characters.

The Devil and Li'D

Music Cliches abound as Andre - yes, I mean "Sunny" - comes face to face with the evil "Soul Stack Records," whose evil A&R men are out to seduce him into signing up with their company! When the purer than pure snow Mr. Sunny Bridges refuses, they look towards protege Li'l D as the next in line to signing his soul to the owner of "Soul Stack Records" - the Devil himself. Yes, through a wafer thin veiled allegory, the audience is quite clearly informed that the record industry is the ran by the Devil. Can Andre - I mean "Sunny" (yes it's getting old, but it illustrates the point so well..) - get Li'l D to see the error of his ways and realize that record labels are there simply to make money from the poor unsuspecting, virtuous musician?

The plot itself is as old as it comes. Supplant "evil music industry" for a multitude of other topically "evil" nouns and we have a tale that time has never had the good fortune to forget: the naive child seduced by temptation by the wicked depths of the adult world.

The story is made even more frustrating by this lazy use of the music industry. It's not as if the said scenario is a situation many kids will come face to face with in their lives. In fact, the only person watching the show that this has any relevance to is, well, Andre.

The sad thing is that even as a bit of adult musical satire, it's old hat. I for one am tired of musicians and artists whining about those who fund their careers treating them as a product. News-flash: you are an investment - you ARE a product and a business is there to make money not fund your road to glory for free. You don't see other industries making cartoons about how business makes profit from their work. I'm not sure why artists and musicians think anyone in the audience really wants to hear about how evil the industry is to them, or how these poor artists - whose only crime was to want to become superstars - are trodden on. Please artists, musicians and Andre: give it up. There is more to the music industry than this old chestnut. Move on.

As the episode progresses, one just can't help cry hypocrisy at this show. This story renounces the dangers of fame with Obi-Wan - I mean "Sunny" - explaining the evils of success to his young protege, yet Andre 3000 himself has enjoyed the good fortune of such fame thanks to years of working in the commercial end of the music industry, Furthermore, he's continually reaping from that nugget of fame through the spin offs it has bestowed upon him, to wit; a cartoon produced by himself, named after himself, starring himself. Is it just me who finds this slightly offensive?

It gets worse. While looking for a way out from the clutches of the evil Soul Stack Records contract - a foolish deal for fame and fortune Lil'D never should have signed to according to Sunny - they enlist the help of a money grabbing lawyer character. Despite the shows moral message that people offering gifts on a plate is something to be avoided - especially from that evil, money grabbing music industry - they go to an equally dodgy character to get legal advice. Do two wrongs truly make a right? Apparently they do. So where's the moral again? Don't go with dodgy A&R types, but it's fine to go with dodgy legal types if needs be.

While the story is old and withered, the evil characters are largely dull, done before cliches and the message is simply mixed up, the humor does keep the show rolling. The job fair at the beginning of the story has some wonderful quick fire gags. I particularly loved the robot that can predict your future job. Throw a robot into a show, and you are always guaranteed to make it better.

Also, despite the fact that Li'l D's musical number is meant to be a corporate sell out, I found it rather catchy - a fun bit of disposable music.

Sunny's students once again make for some colorful one liners and the Fonz (or do I again mean "Sunny"?) gives the story a solid anchor, albeit one that feels a little ego inflated. If you can get past the show's musical ego, there's quite a lot of fun stuff in there.

The animation is an oddity. The backgrounds have a rather simple charm. Loose line-work and vivid colors draw the viewer in. The character models have consistency and fit nicely with the feel of the show though their overall animation is somewhat less effective; contemporary in some respects, but the quality overall feels akin to 70's Hanna Barbera animation. It's really an odd mix. On a second watch I found it less irksome and began to be rather taken with the visuals.

To play devil's advocate to my issues with Class of 3000, Sunny isn't entirely Andre. Regardless of Andre's personal feelings about the music industry, Sunny is a disillusioned character who has clearly little love for fame, so in some respects, the fact that Sunny doesn't agree with the benefits of success while Andre clearly does isn't a massive problem. However, this is precisely the messy entanglement when you use an established personality to swing out a show. Sunny IS Andre 3000, particularly to the audience - even if he's genuinely not Andre Benjamin. He looks like him, he sounds like him, he has had a similar career and Andre 3000 has tied himself tightly to the show by having the title coin his stage name. So it's not surprising that the whole concept gives off an awkward vibe of ego and hypocrisy.

Isn't it enough that musicians have the pedestal to carve themselves out as teenage icons without having their perception and persona immortalized as they want it in a kid's show? If pop-stars seemed to live on a different plain of existence to the rest of us, this show isn't going to exactly bring them down to earth. Sunny/Andre is there to foil the record labels, do a teachers job properly and be a solid yet hip father figure to these kids. Is there no end to the man's talents?

As Sunny protege Li'l D proudly announces,"Yes, Sunny [or does he mean Andre?] wins! He ALWAYS wins!"

Yes Li'l D, clearly you're right, given the fact he's now the spotlight character on his own cartoon that derives it's stories and themes from himself and his own musical tastes might imply he does. Go Andre.

Throw together a fairly tight script, stylized visuals and an established celebrity, you'll probably get a hit. I'm sure kids won't be as infuriated by the show as I am. Maybe I've got Mr. Benjamin wrong, but this feels like a wash of ego that has been chipped and refined by some talented storywriters into a show. Be prepared to love and loathe. On first watch you may find you have a mix of the two, but I predict as the series continues you'll find yourself firmly in one of those two camps.

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