Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Shake & Flick in: "Raw Deal in Rome"

Directed by: Eugene Mattos
Written and Created by: Michael Rann, Eugene Mattos & George Johnson
Art Director: Butch Hartman
Background Stylist: Tim Maloney
Music: Bill Fulton
Produced in Association with: Fil-Cartoons, Inc., Philippines and Mr. Big Cartoons, Australia

This short is a rather odd entry, and by that, I mean it's one of the weirdest cartoons I've seen in my life. It has an incredibly simple setup, but uses stuff like wild takes and exaggerated poses ramped up to eleven, which makes this cartoon quite interesting to watch and analyze from a visual standpoint. The problem is when you bring everything together, there's something that doesn't feel right here. Call it "a mess" if you will, it wouldn't be totally inaccurate.

A vicious flea named Flick is looking for someone or some dog to have a bite, and on his way spots a billboard advertising Shake the Dog in concert. After Flick interrupts Shake's lyre performance by diving into his fur and biting him, things escalate into a musical showdown, a chase through the streets of Rome, and a chariots race at a Colosseum. Eventually Shake makes it back to the stage he was originally going to perform in, only to be caught by Flick and eaten whole.

So we have an okay premise and setup. Dogs and fleas are natural enemies, so coupled with good gags and animation it should make a fine cartoon. The cartoon is also done entirely on pantomime, giving it a very "Tom & Jerry" feel. It's fitting, for the most part.

The character of Flick is greatly established, showing him wrecking havoc as he hops around and never reacting to anything around him, aside from when he grows into a monster-like creature with humongous mouth and teeth whenever Shake is around. He's an absolute badass, and if anyone deserves the title of WAC's Resident BAMF (Google it), it's probably him.

Then there's Shake, which despite having an interesting design (it's not often we see a male poodle), is actually the source of most of the problems with this cartoon. He is shown mostly as a calm, gentleman-like character, but sometimes he would do these wild takes as if he would be scared or surprised by something. For no reason. It's like they were trying to establish him as some sort of nervous wreck, but within context of the cartoon I don't see why they felt the need to do this. And this is the cause of the short's biggest flaw. The wild takes and exaggerated faces are great from an artistic point of view, but they're inserted into the cartoon horribly. Most don't either fit for the situation, or are ridiculously over-the-top. I'll save the examples for the screenshots section, which by the way, is pretty big for this entry.

Then there's the humor. There are some really funny moments in this cartoon, my favorite being the chariot race with Shake getting run over by Flick on every lap. Flick rides a ridiculously large motorbike, while Shake is seen with every sort of pathetic vehicle desperately trying to avoid Flick every time, with no luck. This part is really well timed, and it's hilarious how Shake is shown pathetic from every angle, with the trumpets blowing right next to him, a wheel on his cart falling before the race even begins, and his "pants" dropping on every shot. The music that plays here is great too, so I think I'll give a thumbs up to Bill Fulton, who did a good job on the whole cartoon. But then you have jokes like when Flick bites Shake and he is sent flying up to the skies where he kisses a Roman Goddess, which angers a nearby Roman God, causing Shake to be struck by lightning. I guess it's creative, but it's really random and I don't buy the setup either. It's like they have this great idea for a gag but they don't know how to insert it into the cartoon.

I guess in the end I'm not exactly sure how I feel about this short. I really, REALLY want to like it, because it's artistically amazing, but too many things bring it down when you place the whole product together. It definitely deserves a watching, I'll give it that, since its style is pretty unique and it's definitely fitting if you're looking to watch something different. So yeah, don't throw this one into the garbage based on this review. Who knows, it may end up being one of your favorites.

Best part of being done with this short is that starting with the next one, we have a streak of near-perfect shorts for a while.

I like the introduction of Flick, showing his badass and vicious nature right away as all the columns fall as he jumps through the street and then when he grows the giant fangs upon seeing Shake's billboard.

This is the first example of the unfitting wild takes I mentioned. Shake is introduced reading a magazine while waiting for his hair to be done. However, he does this weird wild take, then relaxes a bit, then does an even wilder take. Why is he reacting like this? There aren't any voiceovers or noises (outside of the background music) that will cause him to go like that. Maybe he IS reacting to the background music, but there's nothing that indicates if it's part of the setting or just meant for the audience. I'm guessing he's being called on stage, but why not add something to denote this better? A voiceover, or an alarm with a nearby screen for him to look at? And even with all that, it still doesn't explain his reaction in the last screenshot, that one definitely feels random for the sake of randomness.

I do like the joke with Shake following the reflectors, mainly because of his frustrated expression when whoever is handling the lights finally gets it right.

Flick's vicious expressions is definitely something you don't notice in detail until you freeze-frame. This particular shot looks terrifying.

Oddly, Shake's reaction when he's first bitten by Flick is not nearly as exaggerated as his previous one when he's called on stage.

This gag starts out fine with Shake sabotaging Flick's harp playing by destroying it with a catapult, but then he brings in a steamroller and a robotic suit that fires a beam. It goes too long, which kinda kills it. I do like Shake's satisfied face as he sweeps the remains, though.

The music showdown is a pretty good scene, but the best part is the end where Flick plays the electric guitar at full power, blowing out Shake's fur and flesh, followed by his skeleton. The part where the fur and flesh join back with the bones is pretty gross, but it's done well.

As I said, this gag is too random, but I do like the looks on Shake as he's struck by lightning. I'm guessing the mythical figures here are Mars and Venus, but I'm not sure. If you're good with Roman mythology, feel free to enlighten me.

Flick is too awesome to be fooled by such a lame disguise.

This is a good expression, but also pretty random. I guess it means Flick is driving Shake nuts, but I don't know, it still feels rather off.

This scene I find a bit disturbing. Flick is swallowed by the engine of a flying plane, causing the plane to crash while Flick hops out intact. Maybe I'm looking too much into this, but it rather bothers me when vehicles that are presumably filled with people crash in cartoons (although it's not too bad here, I've definitely seen worse examples).

The scene where Shake desperately waits for the elevator while Flick slowly approaches is actually pretty well timed.

I also like the brief moment with Shake in the elevator and a gladiator and a lion enter it as he goes up. It's a funny shot.

Love the pathetic sight of Shake as he gets the worst chariot during the race.

What did I tell you guys? Total BAMF.

I love this whole sequence. It's very fast-paced, and despite Shake getting brutally injured at every shot, the execution and timing actually do make it fun to watch. I particularly love Shake's last attempt to continue in the race, wearing a propeller hat while "London Bridge" plays, only to be run over one last time by Flick.

I won't deny the first two expressions are terrific, but they are way too over-the-top for the situation. Shake's expression in the last screenshot as he's about to be eaten is a lot less exaggerated, which makes it all the more mind-boggling.

Also, one more thing I didn't mention in the review proper, but just remembered. This cartoon credits two animation studios, and while Fil-Cartoons was the go-to studio for most WAC shorts, I believe this is the only short that credits Mr. Big under "Produced in Association with". Maybe this has something to do with the huge switches in poses and animation? I don't know, but Mr. Big was just coming out of Ren & Stimpy at this time, so maybe they handled the more exaggerated scenes in the cartoon? I would like to know more about what happened here.

Fortunately, Shake was still able to escape after the iris out.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Hard Luck Duck

Created, Written and Directed by: William Hanna
Art Director: Bob Onorato
Story Consultant: Tony Benedict
Key Animator: Kunio Shimamura
Layout Designer: Drew Gentle
Background Stylist: Andy Phillipson
Music: Gary Lionelli
Voices: Russi Taylor, Brad Garrett, Jim Cummings
Produced in Association with: Fil-Cartoons, Inc., Philippines

I remember that when this short aired, there weren't any new shorts for months after it, or at least what it felt like months. To this day I still wonder why they ended the initial batch with what's easily the weakest of the first eight WAC shorts. It's by no means terrible, but it's not great either, and while I can give this cartoon credit for a few things, they're not enough to outweight its problems.

Hard Luck Duck wakes up one morning and gets ready to find some breakfast, as his friend Harley the Alligator warns him to stay out of trouble. Staying faithful to his name, Hard Luck arrives at a restaurant, completely oblivious that the Fox that runs the place wants to have him for lunch. After a series of sight gags, Hard Luck is saved by Harley, gets captured again, gets saved again, gets captured and saved AGAIN, and then... the cartoon ends.

That's pretty much it. Outside of some nice bits of animation and mildly fun gags, there isn't much to say about the plot. It's incredibly generic, and it doesn't help a lot seems borrowed from older Hanna-Barbera cartoons. The character of Hard Luck Duck in particular borrows from the Duck from the Tom & Jerry cartoons (Quacker) as well as Yakky Doodle, but for some reason it doesn't feel too well here, because while those duck characters were more naive and kid-like in their actions, Hard Luck just feels like he's dumb. I can tolerate him being fooled by the Fox the first time (even with him being tossed from a bowl to a blender to an oven), but then being fooled not twice but three times, and with all of Harley's warnings to top it off, I just can't root for this character anymore. He's too stupid, and by now he seems to serve no purpose other than being cute.

This brings me to another problem. Outside of briefly altering the setting, there's little reason as to why this couldn't have been a Yakky Doodle cartoon. Both cartoons have a duck and a fox, and Harley is basically fulfilling Chopper's role from those shorts. They even borrow the "Cover your eyes while I beat up the Fox" scene pretty much whole. No variation, twist, nothing. It's the same thing. At this point the cartoon just feels like a Yakky Doodle short with a different coat of paint, so why not just make it that? Joe Barbera had no issues using existing characters in "Stay Out", so why not here?

Another problem with the cartoon is the pacing. A whole day goes by during the whole thing, but it's hard to tell how fast time is passing. The beginning is pretty straightforward until Harley arrives at the Fox's cafe. Hard Luck asks if he's going to have breakfast with them, so only little time has passed since the beginning. From this point on the cartoon plays continuously to the end (no fade outs until it's over), but during the final chase it turns into dusk and after Harley dispatches the Fox one last time, he and Hard Luck are ready for bed, and it's night time by now. Time sure went by fast, and they didn't even get to eat. As I said, bad pacing.

It seems so far I'm trashing this short, but there a few good things about it. There is some great animation on the Fox, which is where the best visuals of the cartoon show up. He's very expressive, with lots of great takes and a funny voice provided by Jim Cummings who adds a nice fake french accent. Hard Luck has some nice animation on him as well, particularly during the scene at the restaurant, and Russi Taylor's voice for him (which sounds like her Huey, Dewey & Louie voice) is fitting, so I won't complain there.

On contrast, Harley's animation feels rather dull and generic. He doesn't really do much that seems worth noting or taking a screenshot of. This also leads me to believe the animation for each character was handled by a different animator, because the difference is quite noticeable, specially when comparing Harley and the Fox. It's like night and day. Although it is fun to hear Brad Garrett in his pre-Everybody Loves Raymond years doing voice acting. He does a pretty good job.

There really isn't much left to say about this one... because it doesn't really stand out. It's not too funny, it's badly paced, and outside of some good animation here and there it's no visual showcase either. I guess Bill Hanna was going for a "cuter" approach with this cartoon, but even then, I was expecting something more entertaining coming from the man that co-created Tom & Jerry. I hadn't seen this one in years, and rewatching it made me remember why I never bothered tracking this short for another viewing. The only way I'll ever rewatch this again is if CN releases these shorts on DVD so I can take better quality screenshots, but as things are now, Hard Luck Duck's purpose is pretty much over.

I don't mind the gag with Hard Luck living inside Harley's head, but I do mind Hard Luck's comment on how he wishes he could have a bathroom in there. I can think of a couple of VERY good reasons not to.

As stated, most of the good animation and poses in this short comes from the Fox. These are some nice screens from the scene where he's introduced.

I do like the joke where Hard Luck's face is in the milk carton only a minute after he's been wondering around and the Fox comments "News travel fast". It makes no sense whatsoever, but it's nonsense I can get behind. Or maybe it's from a previous time Hard Luck got lost and that's some really old milk.

Nice exaggerated take on Hard Luck after the Fox feeds him one drop of Tabasco sauce. 

Some more good animation when the Fox cracks an egg open on Hard Luck's head.

This part is rather disturbing. There's obviously nothing graphic about it, but I always picture what would actually happen when you put a little duck on a blender. The final animation of Hard Luck solidifying is pretty good, though.

"Deal With It"

Hard to see in motion but the Fox licking his lips as he awaits for his meal is another nice bit of animation.

The aforementioned "Cover your eyes" scene. Taken entirely from Yakky Doodle.

Probably the best bit of animation in this short is the part where, after Harley punches the Fox off-screen, his whole face is sucked inside his head. Him slowly trying to get it out is gorgeously done, with great takes and poses. However, that last screenshot is strange, it's like the Fox was going to tell the viewers something but it was removed in the cutting room, as there's a jump cut to the next scene occurs at that frame. They should have ended that scene with the previous screenshot.

There really isn't much left in the cartoon outside of this scene with Harley eating the motorboat and the Fox, then spitting it back. Very well animated too.

Taking a screen of this because oddly, this short has one of my favorite lines in all of WAC. "So long, Fox. Don't go away mad. Just go away." Great quotable material right there.

I think this is the only WAC short that doesn't end on a joke, a witty commentary, or a punchline of some kind. Hard Luck and Harley go to sleep and... the end.