My #1 Animated Feature on Netflix is…

Last week’s post ended with a cliff hanger of sorts.  One Redditor very compassionately commented “Coming next week?  F*ck you.”  People are sweet.  In all honesty, I had originally planned to include #1, but the post was becoming too large.  And I decided my last post deserved it’s own post.  So what could possibly take my number one spot over Fantasia?

1. BoJack Horseman

Am I serious?  Yessir!  Dear readers, I beg you to hear me out.  The show follows 90s sitcom star, BoJack Horseman.  But, the 90’s are gone and it is 2014.  The first episode introduces us to a BoJack Horseman (voiced by Will Arnett) who spends his morning drinking booze in front of the television, watching reruns of his old show, and struggling to write the first chapter of his biography. He has an on-again/off-again romantic relationship with his agent, a fluffy pink cat named Princess Caroline. A homeless young man named Todd (voiced by Aaron Paul) is the eternal optimist who sleeps on BoJack’s couch.  And Diane is a ghost writer who is quickly burdened with finishing the aforementioned biography.  BoJack is a man (or rather, a horse) in search of wholeness in the wake of broken relationships with producers, actors, old friends, and so on.  It is evident in the first episode just how bankrupt BoJack’s selfishness has made him, and the depths he will dive into denial to evade that reality.

BoJack Horseman stands out among similar animated shows: it’s humor is similar to Archer. While shows with crude humor are a dime-a-dozen, and some of them may have a continuing narrative from season to season, Bojack is the only one in which the characters develop. These characters all have their own history and struggles, all have their dysfunctional tendencies in relationships, and they are all living in the riches of Hollywood (Hollywoo..?) trying to comprehend the emptiness that lurks inside themselves. Den of the Geek and Vox each wrote articles back in 2015 drawing strong comparisons between BoJack Horseman and AMC’s Mad Men. And having watched both in their entirety, I couldn’t agree more. Yet, while thematically similar, the despair of BoJack lies not in a secretive, polished life a la Don Draper, but in the comedic cynicism that makes one both laugh and cry. I laugh because it is so absurd to hear it voiced out loud by a drunk BoJack during a 9am interview on PBS, where he asks if it’s okay that he parked in a handicapped spot. I cry because it is makes BoJack’s pain so visceral and transparent even when he is not honest with himself about it.

But does this show even need animation? Is it enhanced at all by not being live-action? It’s not full of costly action like Archer or science fiction tropes like Futurama. It doesn’t display the exuberant insanity of Animaniacs or the epic washes of color and motion of Fantasia. What does such a medium bring to BoJack Horseman?

The opening scene of the series is the theme and title to BoJack’s sitcom, Horsin’ Around in which a horse in ugly sweaters adopts three kids and raises them. It has all the hallmarks of an early 90s sitcom, and the animation and color palette feels oddly reminiscent of cartoons from that period. Characters have soft, curved features not dissimilar from shows like Care Bears, Doug, or even Rugrats. Everything visual about the show from the outset invites the viewer into 90s nostalgia, which is so culturally pervasive today. But no sooner does our introduction to Horsin’ Around appear then we are introduced to 21st century BoJack and all his cynicism and longing for his fame. However, the color palette and animation style never changes. BoJack and his cohorts are still in a world of pastels and talking animals, yet unable to see that the world they inhabit has many of the same woes and joys as the foregone 90s.

The animation of BoJack takes us further into our own 90s nostalgia, and like BoJack we are wondering what this new era means for us. The romanticized (perhaps exaggerated) safety and security of the 90s are gone, yet Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Full House, and even The X-Files have been given reboots. BoJack Horseman visually looks right a home next to such beloved 90s shows, as well as their reboots. The brilliance of BoJack is that it beckons us to reflect on how desperate we are to return to a period nearly thirty years in the past. And the writers know it. In the second season, a television producer (a penguin who formerly worked for Penguin Publishing) expresses that “Everything feels fresh if you just forget the last thirty years ever happened” (s2e2).

Animals are regular characters, and they live very human lives alongside humans. They work jobs, pay taxes, and go on dates–nearly always outside their species. The animal characters are painted like the animal-themed cartoons of our youth, only they are adults bearing scowls and grimaces. It is almost as if the fun animals we loved as children have grown up with us, and are now cynics just trying to get by. In BoJack Horseman, humans and animals alike are from a variety of generations: Baby Boomers and WWII folks to Gen-X, Millennials, and beyond. And each generational incarnation is in the search for purpose and joy in an uncertain world.

Yet the more flashbacks we see, the more it becomes evident that BoJack and friends were the same cynics, optimists, and everything in between, long before 2014. BoJack slowly comes to this painful realization by the end of season 1 (SPOILER AHEAD!). Speaking to Diane, he pleads…

“I mean am I just doomed to be the person that I am? The person in that book? I mean it’s not too late for me, is it? It’s not too late? Diane, I need you to tell me it’s not too late…I need you to tell me that I’m a good person. I know that I can be selfish and narcissistic and self-destructive, but underneath all that, deep down, I’m a good person, and I need you to tell me that I’m good. Diane? Tell me, please, Diane. Tell me that I’m good.” (s1e11).

BoJack Horseman is a show that is not only about longing for the bright and vivid colors of the past and stumbling around to find such vibrancy in our own age. It is a reminder that seasons of disorientation and confusion expose us, and invite us to heal.
Season 4 aires September 8.

Did I miss any gems on Netflix?  Think I couldn’t be more wrong?  Please comment and let me know!

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My Top 5 Animated Picks on Netflix

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!

5. Futurama

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.

4. Archer

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.

4. Animaniacs

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.

2. Fantasia

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!

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