Monday, December 30, 2013

Frozen (2013)

"Why do you shut the world out? What are you so afraid of?"

Since I feel completely out of steam right now due to the holiday season, I'm just gonna cut to the chase and say that not only is Frozen possibly the best musical to come from Disney in the last decade, it's also easily my second favorite movie of the year! (Although, comparing any movie to Pacific Rim just wouldn't be fair) The writing is solid, the characters are memorable, it has a strong message, and overall it's just a lot of fun.

In the kingdom of Arendelle lived two princesses, eight year-old Elsa and five year-old Anna, who were as close as sisters could be, until Elsa accidentally hits Anna in the head with her magical ice powers. Their parents, the king and queen, take Anna to a wise troll to try and save her, who tells them that the only way he can save Anna is if he erases any knowledge she has of Elsa's magic. It is from then that not only were the sisters forbidden to leave the castle, but Elsa was locked away, alone in her room, as she was being taught how to control her powers. As time went by, the two of them drifted further apart and became less attached to reality outside the castle walls. That is, until the day of Elsa's coronation...

Something that caught me off-guard with Frozen was that it had a very different feel from most other animated Disney musicals. Whereas a lot of the more modern ones that come to mind (Aladdin, Mulan, etc.) maintain a good focus on the scale of the main characters' actions, Frozen doesn't seem too concerned with that. The strict focus on character made it feel more like an adaptation of a stage musical than anything else I've seen come from Disney. Whether or not that was intentional (individual CG models can be very difficult to make, after all), I thought it worked in that regard.

What I took away from the movie was that it was a cautionary tale about what happens when children are sheltered from the rest of the world. As a result of how overprotective the king and queen were towards their daughters, Elsa never learned how to be confident using her powers around others while Anna becomes so desperate for company that she falls for the very for man she meets. Naturally, nothing good comes from this, and the rest of the movie shows the two sisters learning how to live their own lives.

What I liked most about it was the soundtrack. In fact, I felt compelled to pick up a copy on the way home from the theater! Two songs in particular, "Do You Want to Build a Snowman?" and "Let It Go", are really well-written and evoke so much raw emotion that it wouldn't surprise me if, over the next decade, they become as fondly remembered as "A Whole New World". I'm also going to add that it is not easy to convey emotion convincingly in CG animation. The only songs that I felt didn't add quite as much to the plot were "In Summer" and "Fixer Upper", which were still good songs in their own right.

If you can still catch Frozen in theaters, then do it. In 3D, too, if possible. It may not be like any of Disney's past musicals, but if this is the new direction that they're headed, then I'm behind it completely.

Frozen was directed by Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, and was inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

CLIP SHOW: "Star Fleet" by Brian May + Friends

By the early '80s, Japanese comic book legend Go Nagai had become a household name. He had written many famous comic stories across virtually every genre, including horror (Devilman), superhero (Cutie Honey), and erotic comedy (Shameless School); many of which he adapted into highly successful TV cartoons. However, he is probably best known for being one of the most influential figures in shaping giant robot fiction, with his creation of the very first piloted robot, Mazinger Z. It was from there that Nagai tried venturing into more uncharted territory when he created a marionette-animated TV show called X-Bomber. The story focuses on the adventures of a small crew of Earth Defense Force pilots as they fight to protect the Solar System against the evil legions of Commander Makara using the power of their transforming robot, the massive Dai X.

Shortly after X-Bomber's run on Japanese TV, it was imported to the U.K. as Star Fleet, where it was dubbed into English and got an entirely new score. In 1983, Brian May of Queen became inspired to record an EP based on the English language theme song after he was introduced to the show by his son. Star Fleet Project was May's first solo outing, and included several of his peers such as Eddie Van Halen on lead guitar and fellow Queen member Roger Taylor on backing vocals. A music video was made of the "single version" of the title track, which consisted of Star Fleet show footage and clips of May's disembodied head singing and floating through space.

Star Fleet Project was originally not intended to be released, but May gave in when everybody he played it for encouraged him to. Unfortunately, it was only officially released on vinyl, largely forgotten by a world in need of unfaltering heroism. Let's all send that message back to Earth Control!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Karate Bugmen: Mystery Bugmen Theatre - Azteckaiser, ep. 1

In this episode of The Karate Bugmen's "Mystery Bugmen Theatre" segment, I join the main crew and a couple of the guys from The Oriental Cartoon Show in live-riffing the first episode of the underrated Japanese action show, Pro-Wrestling Star Azteckaiser! The story revolves around a mysterious masked hero who fights to save professional wrestling and all of its competitors from the Black Mist federation, led by the evil Satan Demon! Azteckaiser is a live-action special effects show with animated fight sequences, and was co-created by two of Japan's biggest comic book legends, Go Nagai (Devilman, Mazinger Z) and Ken Ishikawa (Getter Robo).

Friday, November 1, 2013

The Oriental Cartoon Show: GaoGaiGar & GaoGaiGar FINAL

This episode marks my second appearance on The Oriental Cartoon Show. Here, Mark and I talk about one of my favorite giant robot sagas: GaoGaiGar: King of the Braves, and its place in Japanese robot history.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Mazinger Z vs. The Great General of Darkness (1974)

"Deep beneath the earth, seven robots lay dormant: a human, a mammal, a bird, a fish, an insect, a reptile, a ghost... and the Great General of Darkness."

After having watched Pacific Rim in the theater three times and with the home video release coming up, I'm definitely in the mood for some old-school giant robots. Let me tell you, it doesn't get much more old-school than the very first piloted robot, Mazinger Z! Although Great General of Darkness was the titular robot's second theatrical feature (the first being Mazinger Z vs. Devilman), it is unquestionably the most influential.

Like every theatrical film based on a Toei Animation TV show, it expects that the audience is already familiar with the characters and setting. Just in case you're going into this one blind, I'll give you a brief synopsis: Koji Kabuto is a teenager who lives with his little brother, Shiro, and his grandpa, Dr. Juzo Kabuto, a brilliant inventor.

One day, Koji discovers a secret laboratory underneath his house, where he finds a massive robot and his grandpa, crushed under some rubble. Juzo explains that he's been spending years down in this lab building this robot, "Mazinger Z", constructed out of the most indestructible metal known to man: Super Alloy Z! With his last dying breath, Juzo tells Koji that Mazinger Z is his to do whatever he wants with, and that with such power, he could become either a god or a devil. Koji and Shiro, now orphaned, live with Professor Yumi, a colleague of Juzo's, and his daughter and Koji's girlfriend, Sayaka, at the Photon Research Institute. Japan soon finds itself under constant attack by Mechanical Beasts, which were unearthed from ancient Mycenae ruins in Greece by the evil Dr. Hell, and only Koji and his friends can put a stop to this threat with the power of Mazinger Z!

As Koji and Sayaka's friend, Boss, is taking cover from a vicious storm with his two lackeys, he sees a shaman who tells him that a powerful evil, The Great General of Darkness, is coming to take over the world and that the only thing that can stand in his way is Mazinger Z. When all the major cities in the world come under attack by an army of giant robot monsters, Koji, Sayaka, and Boss all once again sally forth inside their mighty robots to save the world once again! However, this time, Koji learns very quickly that this is a fight he may not win...

To keep from disappointing anyone, I'm just gonna come right out and say that not only do we not see Mazinger Z actually fight the Great General, we never even see them occupying the same space together. It became something of a tradition during the '70s when Toei was making crossover movies based on Go Nagai's work that we (almost) never see the titular fights commence.

You may have noticed that I haven't actually discussed the overall quality of the movie, itself. When you consider that it's just an extended episode of the TV series, there's really no need. Stock footage, static animation, new weapons out of nowhere, and Ichiro Mizuki music are the order of the day, and your tolerance/appreciation of all that will determine whether or not this one's for you.

If you want to take a look back at a really important milestone in giant robot history, then watch Mazinger Z vs. The Great General of Darkness. Without our mighty Castle of Iron there would be no Voltron, Gundam, Evangelion, or Pacific Rim, and I can guarantee that you'll find elements of each one of these famous mecha stories right here, where they made their grand, Rocket Punching debut!

Mazinger Z vs. The Great General of Darkness is based on the comic book series, Mazinger Z, written and illustrated by Go Nagai.

Friday, July 26, 2013

BraveStarr: The Movie (1988)

"From destruction came creation: A new power... a new hope... a new hero... BraveStarr!"

When I first saw the above poster and read a brief plot synopsis, I went in to BraveStarr expecting a grand sci-fi epic with a strong western influence. Unfortunately, all it really amounted to was Cowboy He-Man in Space. I guess I should've known better after seeing the Filmation logo appear onscreen, but I really wanted this movie to be good. Unfortunately, it didn't exactly meet my expectations.

In the far future, there exists a far-off desert planet called New Texas, which has become home to many explorers of the final frontier. It is now under attack by an evil monster called Stampede and his right-hand man, a gun-slingin' sorcerer named Tex Hex. Luckily, the Galactic Marshall, BraveStarr, has been deployed to tame this town. Guided by mystical powers given to him by a wise Shaman, BraveStarr and his friends will take the fight to Tex Hex and free New Texas from the evil clutches of Stampede once and for all!

As fun as the plot may sound, the way the story is presented can be just brutal to sit through. During the first scene, we get to listen to the Shaman talk out loud to himself about how there's this incredible, omnipotent evil power haunting all of New Texas, and that a then-teenage BraveStarr is the only person who can stop it. The problem with this is that he keeps going on and on about this evil power, and yet the audience is given no clue as to what it is, what it looks like, or what makes it evil. After we finally get to see what Stampede looks like, the rest of the first half is just more dry world-building exposition.

Concerning the animation, if you've ever watched an episode of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, then you already have a pretty good idea of how it looks. Almost everything produced by Filmation sports an very similar animation style. Considering BraveStarr: The Movie was a feature-length film released in theaters, though, this is unacceptable. The animation quality does steadily improve over the course of the movie, to what I would consider Filmation's best, but it still doesn't stack up well to its contemporaries.

The characters are all completely two-dimensional in personality, and it's easy to predict what will happen to them later on shortly after they're introduced. However, I found myself enjoying every moment that Tex Hex was onscreen. Much like G.I. Joe's Cobra Commander and He-Man's Skeletor, he just had a certain charm about him that stemmed from his flamboyancy, overwhelming passion for what he does, and constant failure to do so. Eighties cartoon villains, gotta love 'em.

Unless you're a diehard fan of Filmation's other works, and I know there are a lot of you out there, then you can probably skip BraveStarr. Despite my wording, it isn't a terrible movie by any means, just an extremely disappointing one. I did enjoy the score (a lot, actually) and Tex Hex was a very entertaining character, so there were parts that I liked. If anything, it taught me to do a little more research about what I watch before I watch it.

BraveStarr: The Movie was directed by Tom Tataranowicz and was based on the syndicated TV series and action figure line of the same name.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Oriental Cartoon Show: Transformers Prime

The Oriental Cartoon Show, a podcast about cartoons and comics of all kinds, has just launched, and I'm one of this episode's guest stars. Listen as we talk Transformers Prime for almost two straight hours.