Hello everyone! This past weekend I had the joy of watching the pilot episode of Disney’s reboot of Ducktales with my wife. If you haven’t seen the new Ducktales pilot, you can watch it on YouTube. The show is a wonderfully fresh take on this late 80’s treasure. Huey, Dewy and Louie all have distinct personalities (enhanced by the impeccable voice talents of Danny Pudi, Ben Schwartz, and Bobby Moynihan). And perhaps the greatest change is Scrooge McDuck’s role as a retired adventurer who is drawn back into the game by the spirits of his great-nephews. Former ‘Doctor Who’ David Tennant carries Scrooge in a direction pleasantly removed from the 1987 rendition, whose desire for treasure just happens to drag the Duck triplets along for the ride. Instead, Scrooge is a seasoned adventurer inspired by the youth of nephews to strike back out in the great unknown. The voice acting is superb, the writing is fast and witty without sacrificing the plot, and the animation embodies it all in with smooth transitions and an eye-catching color palette. It’s a great start to what will hopefully continue to be an enjoyable adventure series.
I love animation. As a medium, it allows for the storyteller’s imagination to be unleashed without the budget/technological constraints of a live action production. Despite the pervasiveness of CGI/3D shows and films like Zootopia, the 2D landscape still holds the greatest flexibility for the absurdity that cartoons have thrived on since Looney Tunes. And cartoons have also shown a high level of versatility for an array of art styles and narratives. With that in mind, I’ve compiled a brief list of what I consider to be the cream of the crop of animation on Netflix. I’m only including 2D animation, as well as strictly Western shows (meaning no anime… this time). Below are my Top 5 Tastes of Animation on Netflix!
In spring of 1999, Matt Groening (The Simpsons creator) and David X. Cohen introduced the television viewing public to the world of the 31st century in the illustrious and bustling city of New New York. The show primarily follows the exploits and adventures of Philip J. Fry (referred to as Fry), a pizza delivery boy who is accidentally cryogenically frozen at midnight on New Year’s Eve in the year 1999. Fry then finds himself in a future that no one ever could have predicted. Cars fly, aliens, robots, and humans co-mingle in relative peace, and faster-than-light travel has been discovered through burning dark matter (which is conveniently left in the litter box by adorable house pets called niblonians). And Fry quickly becomes a delivery boy of the future for Planet Express, accompanied by the one-eyed ship captain Leela, and the robot Bender.
As science fiction and fantasy nerd, Futurama had my attention for four seasons which consistently delivered memorable homages and subtle jokes that were written for nerds by nerds. The crew of the Planet Express ship turn out to have been the source of the Roswell landing in 1947 (this episode, “Roswell the Ends Well” was the season premier of season 4, and won an Emmy in 2002!). In another episode, Fry learns that Star Trek fandom has evolved into a banned religious cult and all evidence of the series has been destroyed. As a show with such a plethora of references , allusions, and whole episodes that are spins on classic sci-fi and fantasy, animation was the only way to capture such a vast love-letter to nerd favorites throughout the past century. Unfortunately, the show was canceled by Fox after 4 seasons, to be followed by 4 movies and subsequent seasons that were produced and aired on Comedy Central. This later material tended to be more topical (often related to current events) in its humor, and the writing suffered because the change in networks (as well as being written several years later) meant that the crude humor that was subtle and witty to avoid censors was replaced with more grotesque, explicit jokes that didn’t try to hide their intent. But if you’re a nerd, the first four seasons of this animated space adventure are for you.
I hesitated including this show because the humor is far from wholesome and family-friendly. I stopped watching Archer for a couple years after I found joke to be in extremely poor taste. Yet, I came back. The show follows a privatized, international spy agency whose staff is composed of insanely dysfunctional field agents and administrative folks. While many spy stories focus on the hero or heroes completing missions, this unhinged cartoon wraps the missions in administrative red tape, vindictive interpersonal dynamics, and pathological chaos.
Why do I include Archer on my list? Because the animation has a unique pseudo-realistic style. Unlike most cartoons, the caricature is visible in the drawing of the characters themselves, Archer‘s cast at first glance do not look humorous at all. They appear rather plain and boring. Yet the writing embraces the style, delivering the majority of its jokes with a deadpan seriousness that is both gut-wrenchingly sarcastic at worst and deliciously awkward at best. Not only that, as soon as the laughter starts to subside the screen often explodes (perhaps literally) with some well choreographed actions sequences. Archer delivers on humor and action, utilizing all it’s animation style has to offer in doing so. If your children are in bed, take a chance on Archer‘s pilot episode. You’ll either laugh until you cry, or you’ll think much less of me for suggesting it.
In the late 80s and early 90s, Warner Bros Animation was experiencing a renaissance of sorts. Saturday mornings were full of the best the studio had produced since Looney Tunes. Airing on Fox Kids in 1993, the hijinks and antics of the Warner Brothers (and the Warner Sister!), and their accompanying cast brought insanity that surpassed that of Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd. The show was a half-hour sketch comedy that didn’t hold back. The animation captures every hyperbolic facial expression and exaggerated bodily stunt, including those performed by frequent, animated celebrity “cameos.” Animaniacs features sketches of historical events such as Michaelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel (with some unrequested help from the Warners) and in another they inspire Einsteins paradigm-shifting formula. Musical numbers such as Yakko naming each country on the planet or learning multiplication are even educational. Anyone watching cartoons in the 90s remembers other notable characters like Pinky and the Brain (who eventually got a spin off show) and the ‘Good Feathers’ (a running parody of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas with pigeons), and more.
This show is pure, unadulterated madness and the animation keeps up with it all, as did my ADD. The 90s color palette and hand-drawn animation holds up even two decades later, and the timeless humor still hits home. Animaniacs remains the best of the Warner Bros Animation renaissance. And with all 99 episodes on Netflix, there is a plethora of sketches to enjoy.
In 1940, Walt Disney produced his third animated feature, Fantasia. While I genuinely hope that this film needs no introduction, it does merit a brief overview. Fantasia consists of eight animated segments which are set to eight pieces of classical music. Each segment contains its own music-inspired narrative, ranging from the rise and fall of the dinosaurs, to centaurs and cupids having their fun spoiled by Greek gods, to the Devil summoning the restless dead for night of chaotic revelry. Were I composing such a list in 1940, each segment could count as a separate representation of animation’s versatility. Originally inspired by Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies in the late 1920s, Fantasia is what happens when imaginations enthralled with the majesty of music are captured in colored ink and on screen. The image of Mickey Mouse sporting a red robe and blue hat comes from the segment “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” and is to this day his most iconic rendition.
My favorite piece (or at least a close second to the film’s final “Night on Bald Mountain”) may be the very first segment that opens the film. Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” opens with the live-action Philadelphia Orchestra playing on stage before slowly being consumed by vibrant, moving colors which begin to take on form and shape. This opening is a Creation story of sorts as the music slowly speaks a new world into existence.
If you have never watched Fantasia, or haven’t in years, take the time to enjoy the transcendent sounds of some of histories best musical pieces set to some of the most impressive animation of both its day and our day.
And Number 5 is…
Coming next week!