Thursday, March 08, 2007

REVIEW: "Gankutsuou" Honors Dumas Masterpiece

[Article for Toon Zone News: 06.01.06]

Animation and literary classics are not regular bedfellows. Occasionally they’ve slipped between the sheets, so to speak: many cartoons are taken from classic literature. But there are few of which you can honestly say that they’ve reinvented a classic.

Most successful animated versions of classic novels have—in this man’s humble opinion—added something unique to the original formula. Animation itself is an ethereal medium, and it’s a special ingredient that should be exploited to its utmost. Straight animated renditions of Shakespeare plays or the Gospel stories miss the realism that a live dramatization can bring, and they rather lack the special sparkle that animation can bestow.

Animators have previously been inspired by the works of Alexandre Dumas: The Three Musketeers got an unusual treatment in the Spanish Dogtanian and the Three Muskerhounds, for instance. It wasn’t quite high brow entertainment, but it was certainly enjoyable, and a later spin-off series covered some more of Dumas’ Musketeer novels.

But no animated work has ever been quite so epic as Gankutsuou: The Count Of Monte Cristo. Gonzo’s adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo adopts a more mature perspective than did the anthropomorphic pooches, but like Dogtanian it also introduces certain differences.

First, it’s set in the 51st century, not the 19th. But those who might be put off by such a shift should be reassured that the details—both narrative and visual—stay within the 19th century French pastures of the original novel.

More important, this version changes the central character, Edmond Dantès, from protagonist to enigmatic antagonist by moving the audience’s perspective—and sympathies—to a different point of view. It’s a bold move, and one that gives Gankutsuou its own special place in the vast library of Cristo cinematic adaptations.

The story—both the original and this adaptation—is a rich and complex one, and it’s a tale wrapped in mystery and intrigue, so I'll keep explanations to a minimum. Suffice it to say that our hero, Albert, is a young lad who meets the enigmatic Count of Monte Cristo and, spellbound, follows the Count along a path that leads to murder, betrayal and revenge.

The present DVD is the sixth volume in Gonzo’s version of the saga, so don’t be offended if I suggest that you’d be no more than a first class chump to jump into this anime series here. Try starting at the beginning, because volume 6 reveals and resolves the Count’s mysteries.

I can only make one slight criticism of the adaptation, and that’s the unsympathetic portrayal that the title character receives, which weakens the tale somewhat. Contemporary society frowns on revenge. There is no honor to be found in it, according to our social myths; it is an overwhelming evil that will finally eat into its host and destroy him. Rarely are we are allowed to cheer for a vengeful character as we do in Dumas’ original. In this animated adaptation, revenge is a driving blood lust fueled by something beyond our comprehension, and this removes the motives, courage and sympathy for Dantès and his plight. It paints him unsympathetically (how he does cackle!) and adds a supernatural element. The twist in Gankutsuou: Count of Monte Cristo is a positive device for retelling of the story, but it does somewhat weaken Dantès as a character.

I should also add that the characters are also a bit weakened in the English dub: I found much of the dialog flat and not reflective of the drama. I recommend the subtitled version instead.

The story is the real reason to get this series, but Gonzo has done a stunning job on the visuals. Their skills are on fine exhibit here, with fixed texture patterns coloring the foreground and characters. At first this can be confusing and may take some getting used to. This trademark effect is accompanied by some wonderful soft finishes to the background and set up shots. On top of this, the animation is dynamic and first class, particularly when it comes to depicting the epic action of the finale. An introductory sequence is beautiful rendered as well.

It’s also given a beautiful score, especially in the episode "Counterattack." I’m not a fan of the show's rather gushy intro theme, but the outro has a wonderfully catchy melody that is also used for the DVD's interactive menu's soundtrack.

Don’t expect much excitement from the release itself. It’s a functional volume with a small number of special features. There is a rather impressive double art presentation of mechanical and fashion designs, but beyond that the features are fairly thin. There are two rather novel "comment" features from the artists involved in the production, but neither really give you any inside information. The director, for instance, mentions that there were things he regretted doing, but he never specifies them. There are some trailers for other Geneon DVDs, but I don't really count such as "special features". You of course, may feel differently, and if so, it's my duty to inform you of them. Knock yourself out.

If you are a Dumas fan, then this is a must-get, a mature and respectful rendition of the original. If you've never read Dumas or seen any of the many film versions of The Count of Monte Cristo, and especially if you love beautifully crafted animation with an intelligent classical edge, then start saving your pennies and look to invest in this series.

REVIEW: She-Ra DVD Boxset Volume One

[Article for Toon Zone News: 30.12.06]

Ah, the good old days. Home-baked bread, kids on BMXs, Duran Duran booming out of the stereo and of course, an abundance of cheap and cheerful Filmation cartoons.

And that was just last Thursday.

For once again I'm back on the Filmation DVD box sets, and this time we're off to experience one of Filmation's more famous mainstream offerings: She-Ra Princess of Power, which in box set context has the less catchy title of She-Ra Princess of Power: Season One, Volume One.
The story? What, you don't know? Okay, imagine a world called Eternia. It is a planet swamped in magic, high technology, and simplistic morality. It is protected by a man with a magical sword, furry tights, and the most bizarre blend of blond hair and dark tan the universe has ever seen. His name is He-Man.

Imagine this world of Eternia is also a wonderful platform for selling toys to TV-fixated male kiddies for large sums of parental cash. Imagine it? You've probably experienced it at one end or the other. Yes, Eternia is a world that, among others, made a horde of toy owners and studio executives very, very happy.

Now imagine that this world requires a counterpart—particularly as Eternia's financial lifespan is coming to an end. Enter Etheria! It's a girl's world with girly magic, girly unicorns, and girly women who fight evil monsters while the girly men scrub the dishes at home. It is a good world and it's enjoyed by many, though not quite as many as Eternia was. Nevertheless it brings joy, particularly to the aforementioned toy manufacturers and studio executives.

At the center of Etheria is She-Ra, He-Man's twin sister. Perhaps to her disappointment, she hasn't quite got the tan her brother’s managed, but as compensation, she does have lots of exciting girly powers. Alongside the Princess of Power is a group of plucky freedom fighters who aim to overthrow the tyrannical Horde, a group of alien invaders who have control of Etheria. Let the battle begin!

At a basic level, She-Ra Princess of Power differs little from its sibling series. They share the same animation style, voice artists and audio sound banks; on a story level, both offer moral tales that pit honest, heroic characters against incompetent, evil monsters; and both titles offer a simple message that their viewers can contextualize to real-life situations. However, on a closer look, there is a fair bit separating the two.

First, the actual overall scenario for She-Ra Princess of Power is a little less of a fairy tale than He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. While He-Man lives in a kind and honest kingdom ruled by a kind and honest King and Queen who are occasionally threatened by some silly fool, She-Ra lives in a world of oppression where freedom is the honest man's ultimate prize. In She-Ra, there is no even playing ground between good and evil: evil won before the series began, and it's a fight to get a foothold against the towering dominance of the Horde.

Naturally, She-Ra Princess of Power avoids letting the subject of forced oppression create too much of a dampener on the cartoon fun, but it's an issue that is rarely ignored. The show takes the question of freedom and the rights of the individual very seriously, occasionally placing mature issues at the center of its episodes. "Burning Books" is one episode on this box-set that, as its title suggests, has a close parallel in recent history. "Lost for Words" is a rather literal metaphor for the voice of resistance. And "The Price of Freedom" asks how far the value of freedom truly extends.

She-Ra's other major distinction from He-Man comes in its target audience. This is undeniably a girl-oriented production, as the creators themselves attest. In fact, the show has exactly what a girl would want: a talking horse. A talking, flying horse. A talking, flying unicorn horse. A talking, flying unicorn horse with multicolored wings. As the example suggests, it's a no-holds-barred pitch at the female demographic. Adding more to the G-Factor, we have a heroine who can communicate with animals as well as heal them. Throw in a cute owl, a dotty witch and the most effeminate male sidekick cartoons have yet to see, and you have the perfect girl action cartoon. On the commentary track, staff writer J. Michael Straczynski (a familiar name to Babylon 5, Fantastic Four and Spider-Man fans) mentions that Filmation brought in consultants to help design the show, and that one of their key concerns was that the heroine not hit anyone. Sure enough, you'll rarely spot She-Ra actually attacking anyone on screen.

Wisely, though, Filmation didn't ignore their already present male fanbase, and so they incorporated the already planned He-Man toy-line "The Horde" into She-Ra. This helped balance the show's character and give it a little more male orientation. Yes, Hordak and his cronies are an excellent counterpoint to the female-focused world of She-Ra. If She-Ra and the great rebellion are the dream of girls, the dirty mess of gadgets, monsters and transforming robots can only be the boy's sandbox. This again marks an interesting contrast between the sibling shows. Where He-Man and the Masters of the Universe blended magic and technology, She-Ra Princess of Power pitted the two against each other.

The stories on this first volume of season one—a staggering 32 episodes—make for a great watch. I was most impressed by the production efforts to give Etheria its own identity. That effort is obvious visually (and if that doesn’t convince you, the 97-page PDF series bible included on the disk set should be a further clue). In She-Ra there is real internal consistency. We have a world of different kingdoms with set characters in each. As the series unfolds we get to see a little more background to some of these places and the people that inhabit them. All this supports the basic principle of the show: the fight for freedom. By giving Etheria set places, it creates a chessboard for its pieces, and the battle becomes more real. That's not to say that there is any particular arc to these established locations and characters, but this focus on consistency really helps give the theme of occupation credibility, even when the theme isn't explored to any great depth.

The stories themselves are more character-oriented than in He-Man. You'll notice a greater mix of superfluous interaction and comic interplay. I found these plot-free inserts a refreshing change of pace, though occasionally they made the stories feel a little uneven.

Episodes to watch out for? Don't skip "The Price of Freedom,” which is one of many He-Man crossovers on the box-set and certainly the most adult and challenging story of them all. If you are looking for comedy, "Gateway to Trouble" has some wonderful scenes between its guest star, Skeletor, and the evil Hordak. For gentle moral action, watch "The Stone in the Sword" or "The Peril of Whispering Woods." Of course, one cannot forget to mention the excellent five episodes that launch the series (and made up the He-Man and She-Ra movie, "Secret of the Sword"). You won't find many animated series introductions that establish a show as effectively as that story.

So what about the DVD box set itself? It's a great presentation that folds out with a richly colored panel of character images, and the disk prints themselves are beautifully rendered to match the panels that support them. The interactive DVD menus are well constructed, with some effective music loops and busy presentations. There are three different interactive menus on the six disks.

The episodes, as with Filmation's Flash Gordon recent full set release, have episode synopsis for each interactive episode selection. Furthermore, the chapter selection has a great little smattering of episode facts.

The extra disk of features is up to Filmation's usual standard. While the documentary is a fairly pedestrian affair so far as information goes, it does have an abundance of interviews from the production team and spans a decent duration. The character/location biographies are rich in both content and presentation, offering more detail than the previous Filmation DVDs I've seen.

For the CD-ROM owner, there is a fantastic wealth of PDF files, including not only the gigantic series bible but also a colouring book and the "Secret of the Sword" comic (a heavily edited adaptation of the aforementioned movie). There is also a collection of selected scripts to peruse. For the kids there is an interactive game and for the collector some artist trading cards. On top of all that you have the standard image gallery as well as a fantastic storyboard-to-episode comparison.

There are only two commentaries: "King Miro's Journey" with writer J Michael Straczynski and storyboard artist Micheal Swanigan, and "The Sea Hawk" with writer Larry Ditillio and editor Rick Gehr. The former is far more enjoyable than the latter, which is rather dry, but both are worth listening to.

Downsides? None to the box set itself, beyond the shortage of commentaries. The set is finely presented, easy to navigate, and chockfull of cool features. The stories themselves are also a solid collection. I can't even whine about the obligatory "Filmation fun" character hogging the limelight, as there is no such character in She-Ra! Yes, no Orko, Gremlin or MO. The nearest comparison is Kowl the big-eared owl, but his cynicism and smart-aleck quips at the fluff-for-brains archer, Bow, make for a true treat.

Aside from Hordak, the Horde aren't particularly amazing, but then, aside from Skeletor, He-Man's menagerie was fairly dull. Shadoweaver is just another version of Evil Lynn, though her relationship with Hordak proves surprisingly complex (see "A Loss for Words" and "The Eldritch Mist"). Imp is annoying but again has a curious relationship with Hordak. The rest are fairly forgettable, except for Mantenna. Never has a Filmation henchman had it so hard at the hand of his master.

From a production perspective, the glory of Filmation is there. There is great comfort to be found in the visual and aural predictability of stock animation and music. I would certainly buy any He-Man or She-Ra soundtrack if one were ever produced. The scores are amazingly effective and perfectly blend ambiance and action.

The biggest production hitch is with the voice artists. Their work is effective but lacks diversity. In fact, a great many are done by Filmation’s head honcho, Lou Schiemer (infamously Orko from He-Man). Unlike the pleasure found from the repetition of stock animation and music, a lack of diversity on the vocal track can be frustrating. Turn you eyes away from the screen and you'll be hard pressed to know whether that's Grizlor or a villager speaking. Sometimes the same electronic intonation is added to both, and this can be very confusing if you have the show on in the background. The stories may be fairly simple, but the lack of voices mean you have to pay attention!

Overall, this is another great Filmation box set, especially for nostalgic collectors. She-Ra is sorely under-rated, particularly beside its big brother, He-Man. That’s a shame, as She-Ra is a solid, well-written and ideology-focused universe. It might not give us any answers to our world's topical problems, but it’s a friendly reminder that freedom is something that should never be taken for granted. I think that's a message we can all appreciate, and She-Ra Princess of Power Season One Volume One is certainly an enjoyable way to experience it.

ARTICLE: The Importance of Feedback!

[Article for Cartoons Dammit! Christmas Day 2006]

(Merry Christmas and Happy Whatever folks! For a change of pace, this week's blog is brought to you by James McLean, artist of 'Stripped Bare" the Drawing Board's head elf. Take it away James!)

What ho chaps and chapalinas!

I’ve come promptly to stand in this spot, just behind your shoulder (the slightly less attractive one you possess on your left side) and whisper oh so moistly, some sage advice into your left ear. You may want to take heed of these words, you may not. Either way, they are hereby delivered forthwith.

Audiences - generally speaking, artists share a reciprocated love/hate relationship with the merry band of art hungry wilder beasts. It is a symbiotic relationship - in other words, we feed of each other with equal need; we need an audience, they need stimulation. Keeping this symbiosis in a decent status quo is a difficult one, for unfortunately, these wilder beasts have freedom of thought - and opinion. Some will even throw this first amendment right straight at you. Sometimes it can be words shaped from the fluffy feelings of adoration. Sometimes what's thrown can be downright fecal.

Question is, how should we take criticism?

This is a tough question. As artists we are vulnerable creatures, be we writers, pencillers, animators or twig arrangers. We respond to criticism sensitively. We are so close to our projects we suffer a weakness in our own objectivity. We need feedback, but we need to treat feedback with caution. It can break an artist's spirit and self belief. It can thereby hinder future work or even put him off his chosen hobby/vocation.

So we need to be constructive of our feedback.

Take the adult TV cartoon Family Guy - with it's surreal and often controversial take on pop-culture, is it going to appeal to all? Certainly not. I imagine many long term fans of "I Love Lucy" may balk at an episode. I certainly recall my grandmother watching one episode of Family Guy and despite the fact I'd be laughing throughout, she genuinely queried if this was a "comedy".

So if we imagine the feedback to a show like Family Guy, how diverse could such comments be? How does creator Seth Macfarlane deal with the negative feedback? While some remarks are probably outright nasty, you can bet that some of the comments against Seth's team would be constructive criticism as to why Family Guy fails to work because - for some people - it genuinely does fail to work - it doesn't make them laugh.

But does that mean it's broken? Does it need to be fixed to make such people laugh? Would we just be causing a similar rebuke from another audience if we did?

Bottomline: we can't please everyone.

As artists, we're trying to create a product (not necessarily for profit), that appeals to a certain group; a certain mindset. To do that, we need to understand what sort of audience we are looking to attain. Once we know our projects audience - be it those who like Family Guy or those who like I Love Lucy, we then need to build our projects to be as professionally tied into this "herd" as we can.

To know how successful we are, feedback is important. We can't be both supplier and customer. We need help in ascertaining how good our product is. We need feedback! You have to listen to the remarks, but you must learn to discern what is useful and constructive to your craft and what is unnecessarily destructive.

Here are some pointers based on experience I've had as a writer and illustrator as well as Manager of the Cartoons Dammit!'s Drawing Board.
  • Don't be afraid to ask for feedback, but don't immediately presume all feedback is relevant. Not everyone will like or agree with your work, and you can't change that, nor should you therefore try and act on all advice. Pick what's relevant to your project and audience. Try looking at how often comments come up - does the same advice get repeated? Might be worth taking note - particularly if it seems like it's coming from people who "get" what you are doing.
  • Be honest with yourself. Are you trying to find excuses as not to agree with some of the more negative feedback? Are you simply trying to avoid facing a problem?
  • Watch out for those who are mixing up personal feelings about you as an artist with your work. Happens a lot!
  • Embrace all constructive feedback rather than take it personally. See how you can take a negative and turn it into a positive!
  • Don't ignore the advice of professionals, but don't be afraid to contextualize it with your intentions. Professionals are human too. Don't readily accept all advice as being gospel.
  • Use your common sense, gut and experience to discern what comments are worthy of influencing your work in the future and which are best to ignore. Some comments won't be as relevant to your art and intended demograph.
  • Be prepared to make mistakes. Professionals make mistakes. You will make mistakes. Some will be ones only you'll be aware of, some won't be apparent until someone points them out. We're human - not machines, don't let the occasional error ruin you - learn from it. To paraphrase one famous saying: "Those who don't learn from their mistakes are doomed to repeat them." May I also include a nugget of my own wisdom: "Those who fear making errors are being stupid heads - they end up producing bugger all."
  • Be polite when responding to feedback. You NEED honest feedback. Some ego slaps are great (and as I will explain later conducive to an artist), but you need objective opinion. You can't get that if people thing you are going to have drama at the nearest sign of commentary that doesn't praise your project
Finally. Ego. Ego. Ego. Bask in your positive feedback. Enjoy it. It's good to have an ego. Hell, you'll need an ego as an artist. We are in the business of opening our souls, expressing our creativity. Take heart when someone loves it. Even one person. If you've enriched someone's day for twenty minutes that's a wonderful thing.

It takes more guts to be an artist that to comment on it. The fact you are not ashamed or afraid to express yourself is a worthy talent in it's own. Never forget that.

Furthermore, ego is needed to get out best work out there - we have to believe in ourselves. Sometimes people will warn you your idea is "stupid" (had that a few times) but the end result is actually something to the contrary! If you had listened to the advise before you actioned your plan, you'd never have turned out that splice of brilliance! Sometimes you have to go with your gut. However, as with all risks, be prepared for the chance that what people predicted may come true. Our ego's allow us to take risks where others wouldn't and that can mean we create some brilliant stuff! But there will be times when we fall flat on our arty faces. I doubt there is a professional alive who hasn't done so. That's life - but that's also the adventure!

We need ego! Given we can never please everyone who views our work, it is vital there is one voice louder than the rest: our own. Listen to it, but don't let it delude you!

Got all that? Now go do some art, big-head!