Friday, March 17, 2017

Back From the Past: Samurai Jack Season Five Premiere Skirts the Edge of Reason

Even a beboppin' robot doesn't dull the dark edge of the new season
It has been 13 years in our time since Samurai Jack was on the air, but 50 years have passed in Jack's world.

It seems appropriate then, that our valiant time traveler should pop back to finish in detail what he began - the destruction of the (all together now) "Shapeshifting Master of Darkness" Aku. The long-touted 10-episode return of this sci-fi animated series occurred last Saturday, March 11, on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim. In episode 1 of Season 5, Jack roars back onto the screen, but isn't one bit triumphant. Gone is the simple white gi and magical sword. Gone is the smoothed back bun. Here, we have a wild man on a motorbike looking like he freshly drove off the set of Mad Max: Fury Road. With a full beard and long black hair left to blow untethered in the wind, we get the sense our classically unruffled hero has finally HAD it with Aku and hacking around in the future. Phil LaMarr returns as Jack's stoical voice, and the episode opens with him saying in a strangled, breathless tone, "Gotta get back...back to the past." What was once a witty phrase for a fun theme song now sounds like a desperate mantra to maintain sanity. Even Aku as a bodily presence has vanished, and his loyal cult followers are in a veritable fervor for his great return. For now, he is merely a voice on the phone ( by Greg Baldwin, a successful recast from the original Japanese actor, Mako, who passed away in 2006). Even the wise-cracking, beboppin' robot Scaramouche, (show veteran Tom Kenny) wielding a sword that doubles as a tuning fork (!) can't dull the dark edge of this new season.

Even the comforting familiarity of "the bad old days" are gone. All is NOT as it should be. okay man?
Let's "back to the past" for a moment. I have loved this show ever since its debut during my college days in the early 2000s. Director Genndy Tartakovsky's influence is immediately recognizable - bright colors, sharp lines, and minimalist style. Who better to create an animated tale of a lone samurai?  While I enjoyed Tartakovsky's other ventures, such as The Powerpuff Girls and Dexter's Laboratory, those shows I could take or leave. Nothing about them ever stuck with me. But Samurai Jack is different. An animated tapestry; it didn't look like anything else on TV and still doesn't. But aside from its visual appeal, what always set this series apart was it's reserved and effective ability to SHOW rather than tell a story. With elegant animation and well-conceived plots that balanced heavy themes such as gender issues and self-worth with humor and whimsy, it succeeds in both style and substance. I began to realize this was no ordinary show when I watched episode 6 of Season 1, "Jack and the Warrior Woman," where (MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD) Aku transforms himself as a woman named Ikra who offers to "help" Jack steal a jewel for a higher, positive purpose. Jack is still new at this "saving the future" thing at this point, and he knows there's something off about Ikra, but he's wooed by her shapely body and her incredible battle skills. Plus, let's face it - Jack's a pretty lonely guy. As such, when Ikra reveals herself to be Aku at the end of the episode, you can tell he is rattled pretty bad - I mean, how easy can it be to handle having romantic/sexual feelings for your greatest enemy? (Side note: this episode also is a great example of the show's incredible creative ability to come up with an endless array of background characters - that dude with scorpions on his face in the opening montage is particularly badass.)

 Although the show ran for four seasons, it vanished as suddenly as it arrived. The show's wrap-up felt peremptory. Tartakovsky mentioned in a recent interview for NPR that he was "burned out" by the studio's creative differences at the time and other projects competing for his attention, so instead of struggling onward, decided to end the show in the most graceful way he could. But it was pretty clear there was still more to tell - and the show's fan base has agreed. 

While the show has classically tested Jack's psyche, it is clear from this first episode that this encore final season is going to show us exactly what Jack has been put through mentally as a result of Aku and - hopefully - how he will intend to rise above it. Being on Adult Swim - which was just a fledgling concept in the series' heyday -  has allowed the show to go into darker territory, which by doing so realizes its full potential rather than veering onto a radically different path. Despite our time-worn hero, Samurai Jack hasn't skipped a beat - it's just finally been allowed to become the grown-up show we always knew it could be.

For a limited time, you can stream the season as it airs here. 

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Current Reels: Everything is Awesome about The LEGO Batman Movie

The classic superteam buckle up for one wild ride! defines the word "earnest" as "serious in intention, purpose, or effort; sincerely zealous." No doubt The LEGO Batman Movie endeavors to be earnest in almost every aspect of geek culture.

Emmy-winner Chris McKay, who directed 2014's The LEGO Movie, is back in the driver's seat for this feature, bringing his wonderful knack for features that are both delightful for kids and kids at heart. In a little less than two hours, this film simultaneously succeeds in being a great Batman AND Lego movie as well as a parody of both. It is essentially a toast rather than a roast to the franchise. Much like the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic series reboot, it is the magical result of a bunch of creative adults who grew up in the 80s and 90s given plenty of resources and time to play with.

The amount of detail thrown into this film is astounding. Limelighting a huge swath of genres from Harry Potter to Dr. Who to Lord of the Rings, no geeky stone is left unturned. Easter Egg surprises for diehard comic fans abound for those with an eagle eye. Lighthearted digs at the Marvel Universe abound- for example, the password for the Bat Cave is "Iron Man sucks" - a character often paralleled with Batman since they are both billionaire self-made superheroes. McKay and his creative team find any number of ways to pay homage to the Batman franchise through the ages, with throwbacks aplenty to the campiness of the 60s Adam West series, which I grew up watching as a kid on Nick at Nite. Even fans of rom-coms don't escape unscathed.

Obscure Batman villains such as "The Eraser" get time to shine
One would think so much detail would lend itself to a muddled mess, but the thoughtful pacing makes all the difference. While plenty of color and light gets thrown at the viewer,  it succeeds in not being a complete barrage on the senses. Taking a queue from this film's predecessor, McKay allows the action to wind down at critical points for thoughtful reflection on important themes such as the dangerous effects of self-inflicted solitude. While the quest for and importance of family (there's even a moment in the credits where the phrase 'Friends are the Family You Choose' pops up briefly) are well-worn tropes, this film's sincerity freshens it up. The animation by Animal Logic, an Australian company based in Sydney and Los Angeles, is a glorious marriage of computer animation and live LEGO sets. Even the flames shooting out from the city and the Bat Jet have the look and feel of plastic accessory molds.

Will Arnett returns to lend his gritty, sarcasm-laden vocal talents to the famed DC superhero, making him possibly the best character voice yet since Kevin Conroy, well-known for his work on the 90s Batman: The Animated Series. Zach Galifianakis's take on The Joker makes him a sensitive psychopath, and under McKay's watchful eye we finally have a plot that meaningfully acknowledges the long-term twisted "bromance" between The Joker and Batman. Without giving away too much, The Joker ends up being the lynchpin that ultimately forces Batman/Bruce Wayne to address his deeper emotional issues rather than continuing to shut them down. In essence, all The Joker really wants is Batman to FEEL. The welcome presence of Harley Quinn as a badass supportive buddy (let's face it, this particular Joker is about as gay as one can get with a PG rating) encouraging "Mr. J" on his quest is a welcome change from the darker, often abusive relationship between the two. In truth, ALL the characters are genuinely likeable. Robin, as voiced by Michael Cera, succeeds in being the bouyant rather than boorish boy wonder; the subtle adult jokes about his given name "Dick" blissfully zooming over his head. A delightfully eclectic group featuring everyone from iPhone's "Siri" to Conan O'Brien, Eddie Izzard, and even Mariah Carey rounds out the talent admirably.

There is also a surprising amount of excellent music throughout the course of the film, from Batman beat-boxing to 80s hits such as the late great Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror" as well as the surprisingly complex, soaring orchestral music Scottish composer Lorne Balfe (read more about his involvement here.)

Jackaroo sez: The warmth and heart of the clever story runs concurrent with the humor and action, rather than underneath or above it. In poking fun at itself, it may succeed in being the best Batman movie yet. Only major flaw - needs more Catwoman!