Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Once a week: animation

I'm going to write about animation at least once a week and today are two reviews of DVDs you might not be aware of.

Gigantor: The Collection, Volume One

When I was a kid and lived on Okinawa – my dad was stationed there – I regularly watched Japanese cartoons and other programs on the local station. Of course I didn't understand the dialogue as it was in Japanese, but like any TV-addicted child I was willing to watch whatever was one the tube.

So my brother and I watched Japan be defended every week from monsters by Ultraman and the cartoons "Big X" and "8 Man" regardless of our inability to follow dialogue.

Somehow, in all of this sampling of another country's pop culture for kids, we missed "Gigantor," a popular animated adaptation of "Tetsujin-28" manga – a Japanese comic book – about a 12-year-old boy who controls a huge robot.

Fred Ladd, the producer who had successfully brought over to this country "Astroboy," perhaps the best known and most highly influential Japanese animated series, bought the rights to "Gigantor" for American distribution in the mid-1960s. The show was a big hit in syndication.

Because of my own interest in animation – as well as my time in Japan as a child – I was more than interested in seeing these "Gigantor" cartoons; the first 26 episodes have been collected for this four-disc edition.

They might be a shock to today's anime fans used to accomplished animation and sophisticated storylines. "Gigantor" is a loud, boisterous, crude affair with simplistic plots and a hero who can make his robot do just about anything with his control box. It's interesting that the star of the show, the robot itself, has no personality. It is just a machine controlled by a young boy.

Entertaining in a cheesy way, I liked "Gigantor," but I have to admit that many animation fans might easily be put off by its inadequacies. Hardcore anime fans may be the most receptive audience.

The set included commentary from producer Fred Ladd as well as an interview with him and anime historian Fred Patten.
The Best of Dr. Katz Professional Therapist

The late animator Chuck Jones was responsible for some of the most memorable Warner Brothers shorts including "One Froggy Evening," What's Opera Doc?" and "Duck Amuck." He also produced and directed the animated "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," which is definitely a holiday classic.

I bring up some of the Jones' credits so when I quote him, you'll have some context. He called limited animation – specifically television cartoons such as "Yogi Bear" or "The Flintstones" – "illustrated radio." Jones said a good animated cartoon needs to carry the story and gags thought the visuals instead of through the dialogue.

Dialogue, though, is cheaper than creating the drawings necessary for good animation.

Jones died in 2002 and I don't know if he ever was exposed to "Dr. Katz Professional Therapist." I hope not. As limited as the Hanna-Barbera cartoons were, they are paragons of movement next to "Dr. Katz," which is truly "illustrated radio."

The premise for "Dr. Katz" isn't bad at all. Comedian Jonathan Katz plays a low-key therapist beset with a surly receptionist and a lazy son as well as an assortment of odd patients. His patients are played by other comedians, including Dave Attell, Kathy Griffin, Denis Leary, Richard Lewis and many more.

The animation is done in "squiggle-vision," a computer technique that jiggles the lines of the drawings to give the illusion of movement without there really being any. There is only the most basic animation in the series, such as mouths moving.

I suppose it was much cheaper to do this series in animation than in live action, as there is no artistic reason to use this very limited form, just a financial one.

The show can be quite funny, as clearly the comedians not only used good bits from their acts but also adlibbed with Katz.

The way I watched this disc for review was to close my eyes periodically, and yup, it plays just as well. It is truly radio with pictures.

If you're fan of contemporary stand-up comedians, you might like "Dr. Katz." Just keep your eyes closed.

© 2009 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

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