Archive | April 2013

Book Review: The Complete Peanuts, 1987-1988

Fantagraphic Books continues marching through the history of the Peanuts gang, with their latest release.

On a personal note, I think this time period was where my comprehension on some of the stories really started to happen, when reading the series at a young age. I was surprised to find myself remembering a June 1988 storyline where Spike convinces Snoopy that the 1988 Olympic Games have been moved to Needles, CA. Speaking of Spike, it seems that Schulz got over his ‘fix’ during the last few years, and the amount of Spike strips has diminished in 1987 and 1988.

During these two years, Schulz references certain character traits that have come and gone with the passing of time. One reference is this Saturday strip from 1988:

I found it rather humorous to see Snoopy consider something that was entertaining for readers, to be akin to the whims of youth. A Sunday strip a few weeks later would have Snoopy attempting to do a ‘suppertime dance,’ only to find out he’d forgotten the steps.

Another fun area of thought happens when Charlie Brown is witness to a tree eating his kite. Horrified at what he’s seen, he goes to Lucy for therapy, only for her to bring up a question that most ‘logical’ people would ask:

This volume also shows one of the major changes for the comic strip, when the decision was made to go from 4 boxes to 3 for the daily strips. Word was some found this ‘condensing’ of a comic to be terrible, but Schulz was said to embrace the layout change.

Thinking it over, It does seem to fit into the overall ‘rule of 3,’ in that the use of things in 3’s is often more effective, exciting, and effervescent. However, it is a little jarring when one turns page 181 in the book, and sees 183 with the new format. But after a few pages, you soon forget the incident.

(Top): The last 4-panel strip, from 2/27/88; (Bottom): The first 3-panel strip, from 2/29/88

Peppermint Patty and Marcie also continue their usual regimen of school work, sports, and attending ‘Tiny Tots’ musical concerts. The two even go back to camp, where Patty is put in charge of teaching three girls to swim.

Schulz also ramps up a bit of the ‘hinted’ rivalry the two have over Charlie Brown, leading to some rather shocking panels (like the ones on the right). There’s even another such ‘tiff’ between the two later on in 1988, that proves to be rather humorous.

Plus, an event occurs that noone probably thought could ever happen: Charlie Brown actually manages to trade Lucy to another team: Peppermint Patty’s! Charlie Brown seems to come out ahead in the deal, considering he not only got traded Marcie, but a whole pizza as well.

Speaking of ‘junk food,’ Schulz continues to parlay pizza, cookies, and other non-healthy items throughout most of his comics. One has to wonder if he was put on a health-food kick by his doctor, and his inclusion of them in the strip was a way to let out his frustration over being unable to have such goodies. This is normally shown as Snoopy claims he hears chocolate chip cookies in the Brown family pantry calling to him.

Along with his love of junk food, Snoopy’s love of multiple personalities continues, this time adopting the personas of a surgeon and a doctor.

Keep in mind there’s more than enough strips to keep one preoccupied. I personally found the assortment of strips for 1987-1988, to be a little more entertaining than the ones for 1985-1986.

Each of the books contains a foreword, and in this volume, it’s provided by Doonesbury cartoonist, Gary Trudeau. It’s a brief-yet-interesting analysis as Trudeau recalls a discussion about persons whose work made a mark on society, and how Schulz ended up doing what some only dreamed of doing.

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An Animated Dissection: Redux Riding Hood

During my mad obsession with film in the 1990’s, I would sometimes pay attention to some of the lesser-concerned categories on The Academy Awards. One category that piqued my interest was Best Animated Short-Subject. There would be a few shorts I’d see nominated or winning, that would often catch my eye. I recall seeing my first visuals for the Wallace and Gromit short The Wrong Trousers, when Nick Park won for the short in 1993. A few years later when the dynamic duo began to take the world by storm, the visuals were enough to help me consider viewing the VHS release.

I can’t say what it is about some shorts that often caught my eye, but there was one during the 1998 Academy Awards that stood out when announced. It was called Redux Riding Hood, and the only thing that was shown (during the nominee readings), was the poster above. Maybe it was the all-red background, or my brain trying to wonder what the thing the big bad wolf was wearing/holding on to.

When I was in college, I posed a question about the short on the AnimationNation message boards, and was surprised to find out who had actually made it: Walt Disney Television Animation. Yes, that odd imagery that had piqued my interest, had come from a Disney-produced short.

For years, the short film has pretty much been the black sheep of Disney animated shorts. After its Oscar nomination, it was sealed up and never released, except on super-rare occasions. Then in 2012, the short’s director Steve Moore uploaded a copy of the short to Youtube, and posted information about it on his blog. You can view the short below, and revel in this rather un-Disney-looking animated production:

(I was going to give a blow-by-blow report on it, but I figured letting it speak for itself in the link above would be simpler)

On his blog, Steve weaves a very entertaining read about the creation of the short. Apparently, he was given an offer he just couldn’t refuse in 1995: create a short with no strings attached, in the style of the Fractured Fairy Tales from the old Rocky and Bullwinkle show. Script-wise, Moore was impressed with the story created by writer Dan O’Shannon, who had written for such shows as Newhart, and Cheers.

Redux Riding Hood was to be the first in a series of Twisted Fairy Tales, but the additional shorts were never made. Word was, the next one would have involved the three little pigs in a Real World setting, from a script written by Frank Conniff (or to those of you who watch MST3K, TV’s Frank!).

The vocal talent on the short is quite a who’s who list of actors. The wolf is voiced by Michael Richards, whose manic vocalizations really seem to suit the wolf. As a more calming counterpoint, the wolf’s wife (a sheep!) is voiced by Mia Farrow, which to me, brings a certain level of class to the production. There’s even small roles filled by the likes of Fabio (true story!), Lacey Chabert, Don Rickles, Adam West, and June Foray (which REALLY makes it a Fractured Fairy Tale homage). Minor narration is also provided by Garrison “Prairie Home Companion” Keillor.
Moore’s development of the short also runs counterpoint to the normal process: instead of looking at previous styles, Moore did not reference anything from Disney‘s archives, and when hiring artist John Kleber, forbid him from looking at or referencing any animation art. Instead, the short would develop its own visual style, and also be a combination of cel art, and collage work.

Musically, the short was given a jazzy edge by Bernie Wallace, and was largely improvised at the scoring session. Needless to say, several persons at Disney felt that the music stylings were not suitable to animation. It’s hard to believe that such backwards-thinking existed, given that Jazz had been used in several Disney productions, including one of their biggest hits from the 1980’s, Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

Even though the additional fairy tale takes were not done by Disney, Steve Moore’s work must have caught someone’s eye with its homage to Fractured Fairy Tales. Shortly afterwards, Moore began work on a for-reals Fractured Fairy Tale that would be included with the theatrical distribution of Universal Pictures’ 1999 live-action release, Dudley Do-Right (anyone out here remember that? Anyone?).

The short would be The Phox, The Box, and The Lox, which was originally scripted by one of the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show’s writers, named Bill Scott. Taking the script, Steve Moore developed this lost fairy tale for the screen, and does a pretty good job with our modern-day tools. You can view his results below:

Personally, I find Redux Riding Hood to be a humorous and entertaining short, not to mention a precursor to the the numerous ‘fairy tales with a twist’ films that snowballed into theaters in the wake of Shrek’s success. Such films included the cheaply made N’ever After and Hoodwinked, not to mention the twisted-yet-heartless first major foray into computer animation for Disney: Chicken Little. However, the contemporary twist in Redux Riding Hood doesn’t keep nudging and winking at the audience: we realize the modern-day references are there, but the writer and filmmakers just see them as props to telling their story. As well, Redux’s 15-minute running time helps us enjoy a fractured fairy tale that doesn’t overstay its welcome.

Remembering Rock & Rule: Nelvana’s first feature film

For me, there’s something to be said about finding films on television between the hours of 1am and 4am. Several piqued my interest during this time frame, including some that were animated. One that I happened across on either TBS or TNT in the early hours when I was 10, showed a rather desolate wasteland of a world, featuring rat-like humanoids, a large metropolitan city dubbed “Nuke York,” and a pulsating orange creature with glowing blue eyes summoned from a deep pit.

That was all the information I had to go on for many years, as I had missed seeing the opening title of the film. Years later, I found out that what I had witnessed, was the first animated feature made entirely in Canada: Rock and Rule.

One of the animated rarities that got lost along the ‘animated feature film trail,’ its production company was one that many of you may know well.

About the Company Nelvana, & the Development of Rock and Rule

If you grew up in the 1980’s and had cable, chances are you saw some of the productions from Canadian studio, Nelvana. Their logo was of a polar bear looking skyward, generally surrounded by an arced cluster of stars.

The company was founded by Michael Hirsh, Patrick Loubert, and Clive A Smith.  Though Hirsh and Loubert were into the underground filmmaking scene, Smith was the only one amongst them who had prior animation experience.

According to an interview with the founders, there wasn’t much of an animation culture in Canada in the 70’s. They opened their small business in an apartment in Toronto, but it wasn’t until the end of the 1970’s did they finally start producing shorts, and most of them holiday specials. In fact one of the company’s biggest claims-to-fame is the animated segment for a certain Holiday Special that would be dis-owned by its series’ Creator many years later.

Nelvana wasn’t rolling in money, but they were making tidy sums off the work they were doing. One of the shorts they developed called The Devil and Daniel Mouse (based on the story The Devil and Daniel Webster), became a jumping-off point for a fairy-tale concept called Drats, which the studio decided to develop into a feature-length film.

The company’s graduation from animated shorts to a feature-length film wasn’t that different from the leap Walt Disney took almost 40 years before, when he made a similar maneuver. And like that major leap for Disney, Nelvana would be doing something that many people would say was ‘folly.’

Nelvana put almost $8 million into the development and production of their first feature over a 4-year period of time. Though as production of Drats continued along, it developed into a darker, more adult-themed picture that seemed more geared towards the teen and college crowd. And thus, Rock & Rule was born.

Unlike today, where movies are marketed based on big-name celebrity ‘voice-talent,’ this film’s selling point was the numerous musicians and groups that were on the soundtrack. You had everyone from Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Cheap Trick, and Earth, Wind, and Fire.

Given the non-Disney style of the production, the persons distributing the film had no clue how to market it. Almost a year before its eventual release, United Artists and MGM picked up the film for acquisition. Hoping to add some star power to the film, the voice of the male lead (named Omar) was replaced by Paul Le Mat (best remembered for his role as John Milner in George Lucas’ American Graffiti). Test screenings in Boston didn’t go over so well, and the film was never officially released in the United States for full-on theatrical distribution. Its limited theatrical release happened on April 15, 1983.

Rock & Rule would suffer the fate of several different non-traditional (read: non-Disney) films: editorial cuts, and a quick shuffle off to the home video marketplace. The film was supposedly marketed on home video under the title Ring of Power, and could even be found circulating around on bootleg copies. Of course, Nelvana‘s contributions to the film were not acknowledged by the bootleggers, and many passed off this strange early 80’s film as being made by Ralph Bakshi (in an odd coincidence, the studio had previously been approached to provide animation services for Bakshi’s Heavy Metal at the time Rock was in production).

Though the film was distributed by MGM on VHS, Nelvana still retained their original cut of the film (with Omar not voiced by Paul Le Mat), and one could request a VHS copy from them (only $80!). However, the full wide-screen print of the cut was destroyed in a fire, and only a VHS copy in pan-and-scan format exists to this day.

Rock and Rule wouldn’t get much acknowledgement until the DVD age, when Unearthed Films released it on DVD in 2006.  A 2-DVD set was also released, and included audio commentary by Clive Smith, along with behind-the-scenes pictures, and making-of material. The original cut of the film also came with this release.

It should be noted that before its DVD release, the internet was one of the few places one could find more information about the film. At one point, a Canadian fan had one of the most comprehensive pages on the film up and running, and it was through that page that I found out much of the information about it. Sadly, the page has been removed (and may potentially cause harm to your computer, if Norton Antivirus is to be believed).

A Brief Synopsis of the Film and some of My Thoughts

Set in one of those dystopian futures where mankind has been wiped out, animals have mutated into humanoid form, and built their society on the ruins of ours. They’ve even managed to prove that rock and roll will never die, as a legendary super-rocker named Mok (above), attempts to open a gateway to another dimension. With his popularity waning, he seems intent on proving to the world that he still has what it takes, but he needs one special thing to open the gateway: a voice.

Searching all over, Mok finds the voice he needs when he shows up at a little dive in Ohmtown. The voice belongs to Angel (upper-left), who is part of a band led by her James Dean-like boyfriend (and lead guitarist), Omar. Mok invites the band to his palatial estate on the edge of Ohmtown, but when Angel rebuffs Mok’s requests to leave the band, he kidnaps her and takes her to Nuke York.

Omar’s egotistical nature makes him believe that Angel has run off with Mok, but his back-up band members Dizzy and Stretch convince him otherwise. ‘Borrowing’ a police car, the three make their way to Nuke York, and attempt to find Angel.

Overall, Rock and Rule is a pretty gutsy film to make. There’s some nice visual eye-candy, and some of the music is quite catchy…but the film feels like it’s flying by the seat of its pants. It never really feels like the audience has much time to catch their breath before they are whisked off to a new situation or locale. Then again, it could almost be Nelvana wanted to make a film that was more of a statement than an emotional rollercoaster. There appears to be some attempts to make the relationship between Omar and Angel relevant, but it never really feels like there’s much ability for that story arc to connect and work. Omar just broods a bit too much, and there aren’t enough scenes to really show you that he’s matured through the course of the film.

There are a few minor attempts to make Angel into a character that can take care of herself, but for most of the film, she just becomes the ‘MacGuffin’ that everyone is chasing after.

Probably the most interesting character is Mok, with his tooth-jutting, big-lipped face, not to mention his temper tantrums and theatrics. Rumor is that his appearance was meant to mimic Mick Jagger (even his rumored full name was considered to be “Mok Swagger”). However, Jagger’s agent was told of this, and cautioned the studio not to consider this rather comical connection.

In Conclusion

Rock & Rule was one of those films that came out in what I consider ‘the dark ages’ of animation: that period from the 70’s and 80’s, when the struggle for quality was an almost impossible feat to pull off. Even those that did do quality work weren’t pulling in big amounts of money. Don Bluth’s The Secret of NIMH managed to pull in $14 million during its 1982 theatrical run.

To show how fickle the market for animation was in the early 1980’s, Nelvana’s next animated feature film (released in 1985), would net them a $23 million gross, and even beat out Walt Disney Pictures’ semi-mature ‘dark’ animated feature, The Black Cauldron. What was the film that had this Canadian animation studio beat out the almighty Disney?

Yes, that’s no joke.

Children’s animation in the 80’s would keep the company afloat, as they’d also animate for series like Strawberry Shortcakeand the Star Wars spinoffs Ewoks, and Droids.

Rock and Rule is probably the only time Nelvana took such a big gamble to try and break out of their shell with an original idea. Since 1983, the company only found theatrical success with The Care Bears property, as all future releases tied to the company were television shows, or direct-to-video features.

Today, Nelvana is still around, but it isn’t quite the same as it was over 40 years ago. Its founders have long since retired and moved on, and nothing coming out of the current studio iteration is quite as dark and gritty as some of the stuff made during their first 10 years (heck, even some scenes in The Care Bears Movie were a little intense for kids).

Rock and Rule is definitely an ‘animation oddity’ that if you’re looking for films during the animation ‘dark ages,’ you owe it to yourself to seek it out. The film is a prime example of a studio taking a risky first step into new territory, but not able to reach the pinnacle of other studios like PIXAR or Dreamworks.

iPad App Review: “Manos,” The Hands of Fate

(Available in the iTunes App Store for iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. Requires iOS 5.1 or later. Price: $1.99)

Ever since my cousin introduced me to Mystery Science Theater 3000 one December evening, I have been a fan of the show. Over the years, I’ve seen almost all of the films they have reviewed, with some that were downright hilarious…and others that were downright painful.

Several films that the group on the Satellite of Love endured, received a second life due to their appearance. One that gained notoriety due to the show, was Manos: The Hands of Fate. The story followed a small family attempting to find The Valley Lodge, and instead, end up at a strange house overseen by a shaky, large-legged fellow named Torgo. Though Torgo advises the family to go away, the father of the family claims they should stay the night, much to Torgo’s claims that “The Master will not approve.”

Many have taken fandom of the strange film to heart,  but one of the most impressive from a pop-culture standpoint, has been the 8-bit inspired game created by FreakZone Games. Unlike the film that seems to plod along at a slow and boring pace, there’s more than enough to keep you wide awake as you attempt to make it through the game.

Taking on the role of the family patriarch in the film named Mike, it’s up to you to make it through the game’s eight levels, armed with jumping skills, and a handy revolver. You can also find shotguns throughout the game, but I guarantee that you won’t have one in your possession for very long.

What makes this 8-bit game so much fun, is that its developers remembered numerous 8-bit games from the 1980’s that were film adaptations and thought: “Wow! They really put alot of stuff in those games that weren’t in those movies!”

I myself have memories of such games, notably Back to the Future and The Goonies II. Yes, The Goonies never got a movie sequel, but a Nintendo game sequel that for some reason, turned Kerri Green’s character Andy into a mermaid, which Mikey and his friends need to find in a mind-numbing series of caverns. You encounter everything a frozen cavern, lob molotov cocktails around (I’m not making that up!), and find several strange persons that make one wonder just what they are doing in the nearby caverns of Astoria, Oregon.

The developers of Manos took all that they experienced, and poured those memories into this game. There’s enough of the film’s ‘plot’ throughout, along with numerous situation and character references. However, the film would make for a very boring video game, so they’ve spiced it up with plenty of annoying obstacles, and several cameos from other films that appeared on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

A few choice cameos from those films include:

Hobgoblins!

Ro-Man, aka The Robot Monster

Remember when you played 8-bit games as a kid, and some levels or bosses would be so frustrating, that you’d throw a fit? Yelling out loud, pounding on the controller, wondering why after 48 tries you still couldn’t beat that specific boss? Well, Manos recreates those feelings and much, much more! This ain’t a cake walk, folks. If you want to make it through the Valley Lodge, you’re gonna suffer in a way that only old-school 8-bit can provide. I swear, by the end of the game, you’ll never want to look at another couple in a car drinking and necking again.

However, several of the levels give one the ability to level-up their health with some hidden ‘crystal hands’ laying around. If you collect them all, you’re treated to a special ending…if you can last that long.

The creators of the game also have a little fun with the design of some levels. Several allow you to go left and right, while others will have you at the mercy of the game as the screen moves along, and you try to keep up. The designers even have fun with one level, whose stylings look eerily similar to a game released in 1987 for the Nintendo Entertainment System.

If there’s one fly in the ointment for this i-based games, it’s in the controls. I played my copy on an iPad2, and found my left thumb fumbling a few times attempting to hit the directional arrows.  I can only wonder what these controls are like on an iPhone or iPod Touch.

Some may even find sheer terror in the fact that the game has no save or password feature. Better shut yourself off from the kids, your girlfriend, or that home  improvement project that’s almost finished. My first play-through took about 60 minutes, but after playing it several times, I was able to make it through the game in 20 minutes.

When it comes to making purchases on Apple’s Appstore, I’m still somewhat of a cheapskate. However, I have to say I don’t regret the $1.99 that I dropped on this game. It really is a fun little time-waster, and I was more than happy to support such a whimsical homage to one of television’s greatest series, and one of the biggest ‘stinkburgers’ of a film they had to sit through. I’ve made sure not to reveal too much, as some areas will have you laughing out loud, and others going: “…WHAT THE-!?”