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The Marvel folks have been dominating the discussion of superheroes lately, but I'll always be a DC Comics kind of gal, thanks largely to watching "Batman: The Animated Series" at just the right time when I was a kid. It remains my favorite incarnation of "Batman" and it's high time it got its own Top Ten List. This was one of the harder lists to pare down, and I've got a long list of honorable mentions as a result. As always, entries are unranked and ordered by airdate. And I reserve the right to totally cheat and count two-parters as single episodes.

"On Leather Wings" - The show's pilot episode is also one of its greatest, that sets the tone and style for the entire series. The mad scientist story is straight out of the earliest incarnations of Batman, but the modern sophistication of the writing and the more adult handling of the characters quickly establishes that "Batman: The Animated Series," (Henceforth "BTAS") had far bigger ambitions than most syndicated weekday cartoons.

"Heart of Ice" - Perhaps the best example of how "BTAS" reinvented, added to, and permanently enriched the "Batman" universe. Mr. Freeze was a gimmick villain until Paul Dini and Bruce Timm got their hands on him, giving Victor Fries a tragic, crushing backstory that humanized him utterly. Add the score, the winter imagery, and that amazing Michael Ansara performance - Freeze's cold heart was never a gimmick again after this.

"Feat of Clay" - A two-parter with some of the strongest animation in the entire series. The tour-de-force finale sequence is pure, glorious nightmare fuel. However, it's the villain origin story, which could easily be mistake for an old fashioned '40s or '50s noir mixed with sci-fi horror, that really packs a punch. The shapechanging Clayface was one of several of the Batman villains who I found legitimately frightening in these early episodes.

"Almost Got 'Im" - A collection of our favorite villains gather to play cards, banter, and swap "Almost got 'im" stories about the Caped Crusader. It's a light, funny episode with a lot of great punchlines. The individual stories aren't all that memorable, but the framing device and the character interaction is priceless. I especially love how Two-Face's giant penny story provides an origin for the beloved Batcave fixture. And that he's still got the hots for Ivy.

"Heart of Steel" - I love Barbara Gordon in this, far more than I enjoy her subsequent appearances as Batgirl. Maybe it's the wonderful creepiness of the Rossum Robots (gotta love that reference), patterned off Miyazaki creations of all things, or the paranoid "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" story. Or maybe it's the heightened intensity of the action and suspense. Because the enemies were robots, they got away with much more violence here than usual.

"The Laughing Fish" - My favorite Joker episode, because it's so wonderfully absurd and twisted. The poison gas that leaves its victims with disturbing perma-grins, the copyright scheme, the wacky commercial with Harley singing the Joker Fish jingle, and Batman going up against a shark - it's just one outrageous moment after another. This was also the episode where Harley Quinn really became Harley Quinn, and I love the character to bits.

"If You're So Smart, Why Aren't You Rich?" - I always had a thing for The Riddler, having cultivated a similar know-it-all personality as a kid. Riddler's origin story is not one of the better ones the show came up with, but I was always a sucker for the puzzles, and the writers came up with some fun ones for this episode. This was also the first time I remember seeing Robin in the series, who could usually be counted on to lighten things up a bit.

"Harley and Ivy" - Was there ever a pairing of female villains as perfect as Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy? Bad girls were never so much fun to watch, and I couldn't help rooting for Ivy's twisted feminist schemes, even though I knew she was in the wrong. I mean, what woman hasn't secretly dreamed of having a bazooka on hand when harassed by a pack of hooligans? Their comeuppance, or course, is poetic justice at its finest - Gotham's Finest, that is.

"House and Garden" - I don't know why, but Poison Ivy episodes always seemed to involve the most horrific monsters and concepts. "House and Garden" has some of the most jaw-dropping. The story starts out innocuously enough, one of several second season episodes dealing with familiar villains' apparent attempts at reforming themselves. Ivy appears to have given up crime and become a suburban mom, but of course all is not what it seems.

"Harley's Holiday" - And finally, we end with a comic romp with my favorite "BTAS" character, Harley Quinn. Unlike Poison Ivy, Harley really does try to reform when she's released from Arkham. Unfortunately she's picked up some bad habits after all that time with Mr. J. I had a touch time choosing between this and the previous Harley episode, "Harlequinade," but this one gives Harley a chance to show what she's like working solo, and I appreciate the hopeful ending.

Honorable Mentions: "Christmas With the Joker," "Robin's Reckoning," "Two-Face," "Joker's Favor," "The Clock King," "I Am the Night, "Read My Lips," "Appointment in Crime Alley," "Eternal Youth," "Trial," "Mad as a Hatter," "Harlequinade," "Second Chance," "Catwalk," and "Over the Edge."
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It's been a long time since I ventured into the anime sphere. After going cold turkey since 2008, I thought it was time I took a look at some of the shows that have been getting attention recently. One of the most buzzed about, which will premiere on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim over the weekend, is last year's action series "Attack on Titan." It's been available on Netflix and Hulu and all the usual anime outlets for a while now. I've worked through ten episodes so far, enough to get a fairly good bead on the show. I intend to finish it, but frankly, my impressions are mixed.

"Attack on Titan" is not about the largest moon of Saturn, and not a science-fiction series at all. Instead, it's a post-apocalyptic steampunk show, that takes place in a future with a very medieval European aesthetic. The Titans are giant naked humanoids that have exterminated much of humanity. Their origins are a mystery, but their sole purpose seems to be to hunt down and eat human beings. The survivors now live in a vast walled settlement under a feudal system of governance with very limited technology. One day, after a hundred years of relative peace, the Titans attack the outer wall and destroy a major city, Shiganshina. Three children among the survivors vow to grow up and join the fight against the Titans.

I found the first two episodes depicting the return of the Titans underwhelming. The production values were gorgeous, the design work was fine, and I liked the basic premise of humanity being under the heel of these creepy, brutal fairy-tale giants. But at heart this is a very typical fantasy anime, with all the usual tropes you'd expect - and some particularly grating ones. The chief one was the main character, a hotheaded brat named Eren Yeager whose personality is driven almost entirely by self-righteousness, and is prone to bouts of angry ranting. I've noticed this type of protagonist has become pretty popular lately. Lelouche from "Code Geass" and Light Yagami from "Death Note" are other examples of similarly frustrated young egomaniacs. I find them terribly off-putting.

However, they're common in shows like this that want to establish that they take place in particularly brutal universes. The Titan attacks involve lots of explicit violence and gore. The Titans have no private parts, but they still make for wonderfully disturbing visuals, especially when they're eating hapless humans by the handfuls. Of course, the humans aren't particularly nice either, and the series shows that they're at their worst in a crisis. While the nihilism is refreshing to a point, I wish it were accompanied by so much oveheated melodrama. When people get upset in certain action anime, they have a tendency to start screaming all their dialogue, and "Attack on Titan" is especially prone to this. The first two episodes eventually devolve into so much screaming and crying and carrying on, I hit the mute button a few times to spare my ears.

Fortunately subsequent episodes tone down the most egregious problems. Eren is aged up quickly to become a cadet in training, and his brattiness is turned way, way down. The show transitions to a character-driven military story, following Eren and his friends Mikasa and Armin as they become cadets and then join up with the army. Their primary means of combat is the Gear system, which combines steam-powered grappling hooks, parkour, and big honking swords to let the soldiers become these crazy samurai Spider-men. The action scenes are a lot of fun to watch, and eventually the series builds them up to some great crescendos. There are still intermittent screaming matches, but far fewer of them.

But as entertaining as "Attack on Titan" is, it's not really doing anything new or better than similar series have done before. Its worldbuilding is good so far, but it's starting to lean pretty heavily on the old tournament fighting show formula. The characters, the scenarios, the discovery of game-changing new powers - it's all awfully familiar. There's the female second-in-command with the glasses and the uptight demeanor. There's the sweet ditz with the food fixation. There's the absent father with too many secrets. There's the convenient amnesia. The nice production values, climbing death count, and high intensity count for a lot, but whenever things slow down, the weaknesses of the show's construction are plain to see.

I'm not surprised that anime fans who enjoy shows like this are eating up "Attack on Titan." It's a shiny new variation on a lot of old favorites. However, it doesn't strike me as a classic or a game-changer, not the way that "Evangelion" or the first "Full Metal Alchemist" series were - unless the bar for quality has seriously come down since I took my long break from anime.
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As noted previously, 2014 is the first year since 2005 where there will be no new release from PIXAR animation studios. So it's time to take stock of the fourteen features that the studio has produced so far. Here's my ranking of the PIXAR movies from greatest to least. Due to concerns about length, I'm going to cheat a little, as you'll see below.

1. The "Toy Story" trilogy - I prefer the second to the first and wasn't really sold on how the third one ended, but it's hard to argue that the "Toy Story" movies aren't the studio's greatest achievement. The first film was an instant animation landmark when it premiered in 1995, and the sequels miraculously matched it on every level. The technology kept improving, but what was really impressive was that the storytelling and the fidelity to those wonderful characters never lagged for a moment.

2. "The Incredibles" - "PIXAR does human beings," was the big selling point, but the real accomplishment was telling a story that skewed a little older and more mature while not losing the sense of adventure and fun that characterized the best PIXAR work. Director Brad Bird joined the studio to bring a fascinating world of superheroes and supervillains to life. I especially love the '60s design touches and all the little bits of superhero terminology that make the "Incredibles" universe feel so alive.

3. "Ratatouille" - Reportedly a difficult production for the studio, which lost one director and had to work on a much shorter schedule than some of the others. However, the end result is a charmer, proving that PIXAR could make a great movie out of the most unlikely subject matter, in this case a rat who becomes a chef. Disney struggled to market and merchandise the film without an easy hook like "monsters" or "toys" or "superheroes." Personally, I always thought the hook was obvious: foodies.

4. "Monsters University" - Yep, I'm surprised to see this one so high too, but I really appreciated what PIXAR did with the "Monsters Inc." prequel. They got me to care about Mike, a character I never really connected to, and delivered a difficult message in a careful, thoughtful way. This may be the only college life movie I've ever really enjoyed, because it is actually about the meat and potatoes stuff of the college experience that the raunchy teen comedies aren't interested in talking about.

5. "Up" - The opening sequence of "Up" is so strong that I feel it takes away a bit from the rest of the movie, which never gets close to finding the same emotional power. Sure, it's a fun adventure movie about a group of misfits, but the underlying melancholy of the main character's struggle with his regrets suggests that so much more was possible. So "Up" remains a conundrum for me, a movie that I admire very much, but with enough weak spots that I can't quite bring myself to count it as a favorite.

6. "A Bug's Life" - PIXAR's sophomore effort does not get enough credit. It remains one of their most gorgeous with some of their most memorable characters, including the evil grasshopper voiced by Kevin Spacey and the ladybug with gender issues voiced by Dennis Leary. Yes, the "Yojimbo" plot is old and full of cliches, but it works. And I still think this is one of PIXAR's most gorgeous-looking movies, especially the way they use light and color in a world centered around plant life.

7. "Finding Nemo" - I love Dory. I love the seagulls. I love the jellyfish and the turtles and everything involving the whale. However, I find the movie as a whole a little on the lackluster side. There are some major parts of the story and major characters that struck me as pretty by-the-numbers, and I never felt that Marlin and Nemo and their relationship got nearly as much development as they needed to really give the movie the proper stakes. "Nemo" is a lot of fun, but feels like PIXAR treading water.

8. "Brave" - This one really didn't hold up as well on rewatch as I was hoping it would. I still adore Merida and the whole relationship with her mother, but when you hold "Brave" up against the rest of the PIXAR films, the worldbuilding is awfully slight and the plot is awfully thin. This is one of those cases where the offscreen struggles over the film's direction really shows. The whole movie feels rushed, haphazardly pieced together, and not quite sure of what it's doing. I'd love a sequel, though, to help fix a few things.

9. "Monsters Inc." - There's something about the "Monsters" world that rubbed me the wrong way. I'm not sure if it was the lukewarm satire on the energy crisis, the jokey handling of corporate culture, or just one monster pun too many, but it didn't work for me. And aside from the Sully and Boo relationship and the last chase scene with the doors, not much else in the film did either. The irony is, of course, that I really enjoyed the prequel, "Monsters University," which didn't live up to this film for many viewers.

10. "WALL-E" - I got some fun out of the first half of the movie, but the second half on the spaceship with the chubby vestiges of the human race was full of missteps that "WALL-E" never recovered from. I disliked it so much that I haven't revisited the movie since I first saw it in theaters. Taken by itself, the first half of the movie would probably rank solidly in the middle of the PIXAR features, since it's so uniquely dark and conceptually bold. I wish the movie had continued in that direction, but oh well.

11. The "Cars" movies - Even the least likeable PIXAR films are works of art, full of beautiful imagery and clever ideas. I don't mind the first "Cars" movie much, even though I'm not a fan. It's clearly PIXAR's work even though it's not the studio at its best. The sequel, however, has all the earmarks of the superfluous sequels that PIXAR promised that it would never make, and for that reason "Cars 2" is on the very bottom of the rankings.
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I was debating about what to write about to today, and considered a "Rank 'Em" post for the PIXAR movies. 2014 is going to be the first year in a while that won't have a PIXAR release, and honestly it's something of a relief after their last few films. Since "Toy Story 3" in 2010, the quality has noticeably slipped, most obviously with "Cars 2." I liked "Brave" and "Monsters University" more than most, but I understand why others have been underwhelmed. By embracing franchises, it feels like PIXAR has fallen a step or two behind and lost some creative momentum.

So Bob Iger's announcement today that two more PIXAR sequels are in development has raised some mixed emotions. These are "Cars 3" and "The Incredibles 2," which we know almost nothing about except that Brad Bird is apparently writing the new "Incredibles" movie, and the earliest we'll see either of them will probably be 2017. After "Cars 2" and the spinoff "Planes" series, there wasn't much enthusiasm for a "Cars 3," but the response to an "Incredibles" sequel have been fairly positive, since original creator and director Brad Bird is going to be involved. "The Incredibles," celebrating its tenth anniversary this year, is one of the few PIXAR movies where there has actually been vocal demand for a franchise.

I'm not so convinced that it's a good idea. "The Incredibles" ranks very high on my list of favorite PIXAR films, and is the last one I was entirely happy with. Moreover, Brad Bird maintained for years that he would only return to the "Incredibles" universe if he came up with a good enough story to warrant a sequel. He very well may have been struck by inspiration, but I have to wonder about the timing. If you look at the list of PIXAR movies, the sequels are coming in roughly the same order as the first movies. 2001's "Monsters Inc." was followed by 2002's "Finding Nemo" and then 2004's "The Incredibles." Looking at the sequels on PIXAR's current slate, 2013's "Monster's University" will be followed by 2016's "Finding Dory" and then either "Cars 3" or "The Incredibles 2." Bird may not have been pushed to come up with new "Incredibles" story, but he was almost certainly nudged.

Also, it was particularly shrewd to announce the two sequels together, because it takes the attention off of "Cars 3." The "Cars" franchise is regarded as a necessary evil by PIXAR fans these days. Nobody really minded the first movie, though it wasn't recieved with much enthusiasm, but "Cars 2" received the worst reviews of PIXAR's entire history by a large margin, and less than impressive domestic returns. However, PIXAR and Disney have made a killing on "Cars" merchandise, and the sereis remains very popular worldwide. Globally, "Cars 2" outgrossed "Brave" and "WALL-E." "Planes," made on the cheap by former direct-to-video outfit DisneyToon Studios, also made a healthy profit on ticket sales alone, in spite of very mixed reactions. A "Planes" sequel is due out in theaters this summer, less than a year after the first. To put it bluntly, the decision to make a "Cars 3" is as financially driven as the decision to make those "Planes" movies, but if PIXAR uses those profits in part to make more original films, you won't hear many complaints.

The pressure has been turned up for PIXAR to release more films, increasing from one film a year to one-and-a-half. Consider that Dreamworks Animation has been releasing two a year since 2010, and is increasing to three starting this year. What effect this has had on the quality of their films is debatable. However, PIXAR is moving to close the gap a bit. The current plan, announced by Ed Catmull last year, is to release an original film every year and a sequel or prequel every other year. However, that's not going to be an easy schedule to keep to. The next two features coming up, "Inside Out" and "The Good Dinosaur," are are both originals and both due in 2015. "The Good Dinosaur" was supposed to be the big 2014 summer film, but it was beset by delays over reported story problems, so it was pushed back a year, "Inside Out" was moved up, and "Finding Dory" got bumped to 2016.

Ultimately I'm happy an "Incredibles 2" is going to happen, but I'd be much happier if I didn't know about all the financial considerations behind the scenes that were driving it. I would have been much happier to hear about a "Ratatouille 2" or an "Up 2" honestly, because those were weirder, more idiosyncratic films that didn't do quite as well, and a sequel probably only would have happened because somebody at PIXAR really, really pushed for one to happen. No sequels at all is probably too much to ask for these days - but maybe not. Look at how the tables have turned when you compare PIXAR to their once greatest competitor. After the mess with all the DTV sequels, have you noticed that the newly resurrected Walt Disney Feature Animation hasn't made or announced a single sequel since the "Winnie the Pooh" movie?

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We've been hearing a lot of complaints recently about how women and girls are still underrepresented on the big screen even though they've been making a killing at the box office. I've stumped some of the same talking points before, but I've been happy to stay out of the conversation this time. Things may not be improving quickly, but I'm satisfied that they are improving and more importantly the right people are aware of the issues.

And really, when you see the gender problems that are still running rampant in other, more niche segments of the entertainment universe, Hollywood movies don't look so backward after all. As a former anime fan, I've seen much, much worse when it comes to sexism and gender inequality onscreen. In fact, I have to admit that it's one of several reasons why I fell out of love with the genre a few years ago. Now talking about gender representations in anime is always going to be difficult because it's a reflection of a foreign culture, and we don't want to be insensitive to the Japanese. However, I don't think that makes the basic criticisms any less valid, when you get down to it.

First, let's acknowledge that there are anime creators who get it right, most notably Hayao Miyazaki of Studio Ghibli, who is known for his strong heroines, to the point where they're regularly pointed out by parents as good examples of the kinds of female characters we want to see more of from Hollywood. I've also been very happy with franchises like "Ghost in the Shell," which despite incorporating some occasional female nudity, places a strong, capable, mature woman in the central role, Major Makoto Kusanagi. And then there are the Rumiko Takahashi series like "Ranma 1/2" and "Inuyasha." Or Haruka Takachiho's "Dirty Pair." If you know where to look, there are a lot of good, positive, female anime characters out there.

On the other hand, these days you really have to look for them. Anime has always been a very male-dominated sphere, full of fantasy action shows and supernatural romances aimed at teenaged boys. There are whole genres devoted to guys dealing with "magical girlfriends" or "harem" scenarios where they have to juggle potential relationships with multiple love interests. There are shows specifically aimed at women and girls, but audiences have been shrinking and these days shows for female demographics are vastly outnumbered by the ones aimed at men and boys. These days, a "shojo" or girls' show will also try to appeal to male fanboys, often including characters or particular scenarios that appeal to male sensibilities.

Much of the current anime landscape has been overtaken by romantic comedies and slice-of-life shows about relationships. These often star "moe" girls. "Moe" roughly translates to "cute," and refers to female characters who embody youth and purity. They're not typically sexualized, but are intended to provoke feelings of protectiveness and affection from the male audience, similar for what they might feel for a younger sister. Moe girls tend to be sweet, quiet, shy, and passive. There's been a bit of a backlash to this type recently, with the rising popularity of "tsundere," or uptight, aggressive girls, who start out as hostile but gradually become friendlier to a male main character over time. And despite the asexuality of both types, they're all inevitably fetishized to an alarming degree.

I don't think this would be so bad if there were more variety in the types of anime girls you see, but moe and tsundere girls have crowded out most of the others, and they make for poor main characters. Few are actually in roles that have any agency. I stuck mostly to action and adventure anime for years, and what always drove me crazy was the way that they kept sidelining female characters from the action. Girls are not allowed to get into serious fights, unless it is with a female villain, and these clashes are usually very minor, preliminary bouts paving the way for the hero's big battle later on. Even when they are the main character, guys usually do the fighting for them, or girls battle through proxies like dolls or pets. They tend to get a lot of lip service abut being brave and smart and strong, but little opportunity to prove it.

The prime example? Sakura from the immensely popular action show "Naruto." She's the main character's love interest, a ninja trainee who is supposed to be learning to fight on the same level as her two male teammates. The whole show is centered around battles and showdowns between various opponents. Sakura and most of the other female ninja almost never get physical. They only display a handful of flashy moves and special techniques among them. Sakura is apparently gifted in certain areas applicable to combat, but we never see her do anything impressive. The bulk of her training takes place offscreen during a time-skip. And like so many other female characters before her, eventually she opts to train as a healer and leave the bulk of the fighting to the boys. But if there's anything involving love and angst - suddenly she's got plenty of screen time.

Commonly you see female characters limited to being girlfriends, sisters, daughters, mothers, and spiritual guides. If they have power, it's only symbolic and depends on the backing of a more powerful male figure. Or else, their power is compromised by being neurotic, emotionally unstable, and immature. Grown women are constantly depicted as childish in order to make them more sympathetic. It wasn't just one or two shows, but a consistent trend across nearly every anime I saw in the last few years I was actively part of the fanbase. It was particularly noticeable in the children's programs. You don't realize how careful Western cartoons are about balancing depictions of girls and boys, including strong girl-power messages, and promoting female role models, until you see anime that ignore this completely.

I see the same problems in Hollywood movies, which are mostly aimed at young adult male audiences these days. Actresses are too often stuck in minor, inconsequential roles, limited to being pawns or existing solely to give the male main character a reason to act heroic. However, they do tend to be more well-rounded, more assertive, more aggressive, and more interesting. The biggest problem is really that we don't see enough of them. There are plenty of anime girls, but they tend to be terrible characters with very limited parts to play. The best anime girls I've seen lately have been the comedic ones, who get to break out of the boundaries a little bit.

So sure, gender representation in Hollywood could be better, but it could also be a lot, lot worse. I may find superhero films terribly low on heroines, but at least they're not skewed to the point where I've gotten disenchanted with the entire genre. And little by little they are getting better. Anime? The only positive thing I've heard lately on the gender front is that they're remaking one of their most successful girls' shows soon - "Sailor Moon."
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Okay, no waiting until March this year. Sundance and the Superbowl are behind us, and I've got a pretty good bead on the titles I'm looking forward to. Like last year, I'm splitting this topic up between the bigger, mainstream releases, and the smaller, artsier prestige titles. And if previous lists have been any indication, several of the latter are probably going to be delayed until 2015. Since I've already covered them in previous posts, I will not be talking about foreign options that are only getting their U.S. releases this year like "Mood Indigo" and "Snowpiercer." Also, I think I've said enough about "X-Men," "Interstellar," and "Transcendence" in past entries. Here we go. Big titles up first:

"Godzilla" - I can't help it. I love big destructive action movies and kaiju-big-battle movies in particular. My biggest criticism of last year's "Pacific Rim" is that there weren't enough monsters. The newest attempt to revive the "Godzilla" franchise in the west is being directed by Gareth Edwards of "Monsters," and if I had any worries about his relatively thin filmography, they were quashed by the excellent teaser trailer that we got last year. It doesn't hurt that Frank Darabont contributed to the screenplay, and the cast is stacked with names like Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche, David Strathairn, Sally Hawkins, and Ken Watanabe.

"Guardians of the Galaxy" - Let's be honest. The Marvel universe films feel like they've been on autopilot lately with three sequels in a row. Fortunately they've got more interesting titles coming up, including "Guardians," which is going to be a major departure for the franchise in terms of style and subject matter. Call this a superhero film if you must, but from where I'm sitting this is a space adventure movie, about a rag-tag team of aliens doing battle with the forces of evil. Observers have warned that the premise may be too out there for general audience to take - one of our heoes is a talking raccoon - but it looks to me like exactly the kind of creative shot of adrenaline that the Marvel films need to keep going through Phase 2 and into Phase 3.

"The Boxtrolls" - Laika's last two stop-motion animated films, "Coraline" and "Paranorman" have been excellent, so of course I'm looking forward to their next one, "Boxtrolls," about an orphan boy who has been raised by a tribe of friendly trolls who live in cardboard boxes. The villain will be an evil exterminator voiced by Ben Kingsley. Really, how can I say no to this? There have already been two delightful teasers released for the film, the most recent one focusing on the laborious process of stop-motion animation. It looks like it could be a very good year for cartoon features, with the "How to Train Your Dragon" sequel, the Lego movie, and the next title on this list.

"Big Hero 6" - Disney Feature Animation has been on a roll these past few years, and it looks like they've worked out a good long-term strategy for themselves. Instead of trying to transition away from the girl-centric fairy-tale films that have been their biggest hits, toward more boy-friendly action features, which got the studio in trouble in the past, instead they're taking turns between both kinds of stories. So after the princesses of "Frozen," next holiday season we're getting a wacky superhero movie set in an anime-inspired universe full of giant robots and Japanese food puns. This will also mark PIXAR's first collaboration with Marvel, which is providing the film's source material.

"Annie" - The 1982 version of "Annie" directed by John Huston (yes, really) was one of my favorites when I was a kid, so I'm looking forward to the updated version starring Quvenzhané Wallis as the new Little Orphan Annie and Jamie Foxx as Benjamin Stacks, this version's Daddy Warbucks. Director Will Gluck hasn't handled a musical before, but I have liked some of his previous films, especially "Easy A." Jay-Z is handling the music, and after the fantastic job he did with "The Great Gatsby," I have a lot of confidence he'll be able to pull this off too. "Annie" will be Columbia's big Christmas release this year, but it's going to have to compete with a certain Disney musical that's also on its way.

"Into the Woods" - Now this could turn out to be terrible. All the movies on this list easily might be. However, I just love the idea that somebody is finally bringing Steven Sondheim's musical about fairy-tale characters facing the consequences of their fanciful adventures to the big screen. And because it's Disney, we're getting an all-star cast including Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp, along with a few others who can actually sing. Rob Marshall's directing career has been very hit or miss, but he's a good fit for this material and I'm looking forward to the end result.
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I resisted doing a "Simpsons" list for a long time for the usual reasons. It's been too long since I've seen many of the episodes. I quit watching regularly around the ninth or tenth season (though it seems like nearly everyone else did too). And my picks are heavily influenced by nostalgia since I saw most of the early seasons in junior high. However, I don't hesitate to call myself a "Simpsons" fan and we've got history together. So I'm adding the caveat that these are my favorite episodes of "The Simpsons" from the '90s. The 1999-2000 season is when Maude Flanders died and Apu had octuplets, to give you an idea of where the cutoff point is.

As usual, picks are unranked and ordered by airdate.

"The Way We Was" - The story of how Marge and Homer got together is one of the absolute essentials, the bedrock on which so much of their relationship and the show has been built. In the early years "The Simpsons" was still very much about the family's dynamics, and even though it spoofed on the tropes of suburban life sitcoms, it was still part of the category itself. The episode is simple, straightforward, and still mighty heartwarming. It didn't hit me how much until the Carpenters' callback in "The Simpsons Movie," really the only thing I liked about that film.

"Kamp Krusty" - There's always that one episode of a syndicated show that you love, but they only seem to play very rarely. For me it was "Kamp Krusty," the wonderfully twisted tale of Bart and Lisa being sent off to Kamp Krusty, which turns out to be full of death traps and forced labor. I always loved when "The Simpsons" got twisted and outrageous with nostalgic childhood activities, and "Kamp Krusty" is so lovingly detailed in its catalog of horrors that it's still one of my favorites. This was the fourth season premiere, which is by far its greatest year and the most well-represented here.

"A Streetcar Named Marge" - Where do we even start? The "A Streetcar Named Desire" musical with a melancholy solo for Apu as the paperboy? Marge as Blanche DuBois? Ned Flanders as the world's sweetest Stanley Kowalksi? The musical director played by Jonn Lovitz? The Maggie subplot at the Ayn Rand School for Tots? I bought the "Simpsons" album that had all the songs from this episode and can still sing most of them to this day. And I'm willing to bet that most of the former kids of my generation only know "A Streetcar from Desire" because of this episode.

"Marge vs. The Monorail" - The town of Springfield has become as important to the chemistry of "The Simpsons" as the Simpsons family. Mob mentality isn't just a phenomenon here, but practically a way of life. By the time this episode came around we had already seen the town's casual corruption and willingness to embrace the bizarre, but "Monorail" took it to new, wonderful extremes. Also note that while everyone remembers the extended parody of "The Music Man," but this was also the episode that started out with "The Simpsons'" take on the opening of "The Flintstones."

"Selma's Choice" - I honestly felt for Selma and her plight, but it's Duff Gardens that I love this episode for. The theme park experience was spoofed more thoroughly in "Itchy and Scratchy Land," but I thought Duff Gardens did it better with the beer-themed mascots and their alcohol-shilling version of "It's a Small World." Better yet, it gives a much more grounded version of a day at a theme park gone wrong with Bart on a malfunctioning ride and Lisa the Lizard Queen. This also contains one of the greatest "Simpsons" gags ever, Homer's epic relationship with a spoiled hoagie.

"Homer's Barbershop Quartet" - It would have been easy for the show to do a "Behind the Music" style parody, but by specifically mirroring the ups and downs of The Be Sharps on The Beatles gave it so many more dimensions and cultural resonance. In addition the the obvious references like Barney's conceptual artist Japanese girlfriend and the rooftop reunion, the installment is chock full of little details that any Beatlemaniac would appreciate. And then of course, there's "Baby on Board," a legitimately catchy earworm sung in part by Disneyland's Dapper Dans.

"Cape Feare" - The best of the Sideshow Bob episodes, and one of the last to be written by the show's original writing team. Now I've never seen either version of "Cape Fear," but Sideshow Bob makes such a great villain, I found him legitimately threatening (and terribly funny) enough for the plot to work. The show's gags never got better, defusing a lot of the tension with a lot of "Looney Tunes" silliness, including the beloved stepping-on-rakes bit. And the "Pirates of Penzance" ending is one of the most absolutely brilliant moments of time-stalling nonsense I've ever seen.

"Treehouse of Horror V" - Like many viewers, I tuned in for the yearly "Simpsons" Halloween specials long after I stopped watching the other episodes. My favorite of them was the fifth one, which contained "The Shinning," "Time and Punishment," and "Nightmare Cafeteria." So that's a parody of my favorite Stanley Kubrick film, a parody of a short story from one of my favorite science-fiction writers, and possibly the sickest and most gruesome concept the "Simpsons" writers ever came up with. Throw in the running gag with Groundskeeper Willie, and it's a classic.

"And Maggie Makes Three" - "The Simpsons" may be prized for its comedy, but it could also deliver moments of real warmth and poignancy. And even though the creators joked that Homer got dumber year after year, he was often at the center of the show's most heart-tugging episodes. In another of the great "Simpsons" flashback episodes, we get a look at the kind of life that Homer wanted, and learn about the sacrifices that he makes for his kids. It's not an especially funny episode, though I love all the stuff with Mr. Burns, but it's without question one of the very best.

"El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer (The Mysterious Voyage of Homer)" - You gotta love a "Simpsons" episode that is essentially one long drug trip, though one brought on by Guatemalan insanity peppers instead of the more traditional mind-altering substances. This has some of the show's most wild and wonderful animation, as Homer journeys through beautifully surreal desert landscapes on a spirit quest. The Space Coyote he meets is voiced by Johnny Cash, of course. "The Simpsons" rarely got so wildly experimental, so it was great to see them really cut loose and break a lot of rules.

Honorable Mentions go to: "Bart the General," "Krusty Gets Busted," "Bart Gets an F," "Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish," "Bart the Daredevil," "One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish," "Brush with Greatness," "Flaming Moe's," "Radio Bart," "Itchy & Scratchy: The Movie," "Lisa's First Word," "I Love Lisa," "Whacking Day," "Lemon of Troy," "Bart Sells His Soul," "Treehouse of Horror VI," and "Homer's Enemy."
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It used to be that the start of the TV midseason in January was for the premieres of the second-stringers, new shows that weren't good enough to premiere in the fall, and the return of existing ones that were solid but unspectacular performers. A few familiar titles might be held back to plug in expected holes in a network's schedule, and a few shows might be switched to different time slots, but there was nothing really big to look forward to.

Well, cable content changed all that with its vastly different year-round scheduling, and the rise of foreign television and the web-content have only made the change more pronounced. Now there's a lot of new television to look forward to each January, and this year looks like it's going to get off to a big start. Lots of new shows and lots of returing ones will hit the airwaves soon, giving February's Sochi Winter Olympics some serious competition for eyeballs. Here's a quick rundown of some of the most anticipated shows coming (back) our way.

"Community" and "Hannibal" - Both of these critical darlings were renewed by the skin of their teeth for NBC, and both are coming back shortly after New Years. Original recipe showrunner Dan Harmon is back for a course-correction after the not-entirely-disastrous fourth season of "Community," and there may be hope for a sixth season yet. The really interesting one to keep an eye on will be "Hannibal" though. The buzz for this show has only increased during its hiatus, and hopefully audiences have had a chance to catch up on the first season. It'll be taking over the Friday late night slot from "Dracula" in February.

"Downton Abbey" and "Sherlock" - The fourth series of "Downton Abbey" ran from September to November of 2013 in the UK, and will be coming to PBS in January. Viewers regularly complain about the gap in broadcast dates, but that gap keeps getting shorter as the series progresses. "Sherlock" fans will have an even shorter wait. The much anticipated third series premieres on New Years Day in the UK, but will begin airing on PBS on January 19th, and hit DVD and Blu-Ray the week after that. And let's not forget the "Doctor Who" Christmas Special, which BBC America will air on the same day as its premiere in the UK.

"True Detective" and "Black Sails" - One of the most anticipated HBO originals in some time is its upcoming drama series that will star Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey as a pair of detectives on the hunt for a serial killer. Billed as an anthology of crime stories, the cast is expected to change with each season, so its high profile leads aren't locked into a multi-year commitment. It premieres January 12th. Two weeks later over on Starz, we'll see the premiere of "Black Sails," a pirate-themed adventure show following Captain Flint and his crew. This should not be confused with the upcoming NBC series "Crossbones," with John Malkovitch, which has yet to secure a premiere date.

"Flowers in the Attic" and "Lizzie Borden Took an Axe" - Lifetime has latched on to event movie after the headline generating buzz of projects like "Liz & Dick." This January we'll be getting a new adaptation of the notorious V.C. Andrew novel "Flowers in the Attic," starring Heather Graham and Ellen Burstyn as members of a seriously dysfunctional family. And then comes "Lizzie Borden Took an Axe" starring Christina Ricci in the title role. Lifetime isn't exactly known for the quality of their TV films, the descendants of the once-popular network "Movie of the Week" franchises, but these both of these projects feature a lot of good talent and the trailers that have been released certainly make them look like a lot of fun.

"Space Dandy" - Almost entirely under the radar to everyone except us anime fans, "Space Dandy" is the newest series from Shinichiro Watanabe, creator of the beloved "Cowboy Bebop" and "Samurai Champloo." The series will actually be premiering first in the US on January 4th, fully dubbed, on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim, and then in Japan a day later. This isn't the first time a US broadcaster has made a deal like this, but I've never seen one for a series so highly anticipated. "Space Dandy" will be a science-fiction adventure comedy, following the adventures of a super-cool and super-perverted alien hunter.

Other January season premieres include "Girls," "Archer," "Justified," "Mythbusters" (which is kicking things off with a "Star Wars" special), "House of Lies," "Banshee," "Shameless," "Episodes," "Teen Wolf," "Pretty Little Liars," "White Collar," and "The Fosters," "The Americans," "Vikings," and "House of Cards" will be back in February.

On the network side, I'm still holding out hope for the Alphonso Cuaron-produced supernatural series "Believe," which is slotted for the mid-season, but had its premiere date pushed back after reports of production troubles. Also keeping an eye on FOX's "Rake" with Greg Kinnear" and the army-themed comedy, "Enlisted."
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There are so many expectations that have been heaped on the latest Disney CGI feature, "Frozen," that I feel obligated to start out this review by addressing some of them. Yes, the marketing campaign featuring Olaf the Snowman was terribly misleading, and "Frozen" is really much darker and more interesting than the slapstick-filled trailers made it look. Yes, it is a musical in the grand tradition of Disney musicals.

Unlike "Tangled," which was light on song numbers, "Frozen" boasts nine on its soundtrack, and for the first half hour more is sung than spoken. No, the movie is not a "Tangled" clone, though the designs are similar and it's clearly intended for the same audience. And finally, no, "Frozen" is not as good as the A+ Cinemascore and big box office returns would seem to indicate. It is very good as animated features go, and worth seeing, but expectations need some tempering.

So what is "Frozen" all about? A few elements from the Hans Christian Anderson classic, "The Snow Queen," are incorporated into a largely original, modern-minded fairy tale about two royal sisters. Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristen Bell) are born princesses of the Scandinavian kingdom of Arendelle. As children they are very close, but Elsa has magical abilities to summon ice and snow that get away from her one day, and cause a terrible accident, harming her little sister.

For everyone's safety, and particularly Anna's, Elsa shuts herself away from the world, and tries to control and suppress her powers. Anna is puzzled and hurt by the rejection, but Elsa maintains the distance between them, even after their parents tragically perish. However, another accident on Elsa's coronation day causes disaster for the kingdom and prompts Elsa to flee into the wilderness. Anna goes after her, with the help of a mountaineer named Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), his reindeer Sven, and a snowman named Olaf (Josh Gad) that Elsa inadvertently brings to life with her magic.

At first glance, "Frozen" looks like a very typical Disney fairy-tale adaptation. You have the Broadway musical story structure, the goofy sidekicks, the bickering love birds, and not one, but two doe-eyed Disney heroines who sing about their feelings. However, "Frozen" actually subverts parts of the Disney formula, particularly some of the more troubling old conventions about love and romance. There are villains, but very different from the kind we typically see in Disney films. It's not clear at first whether Elsa is meant to be bad or good, as she's made to be extremely sympathetic, and when she acts like a villain, we understand why. She gets the film's showstopper, "Let it Go," a thrilling self-affirmation anthem that Idina Menzel knocks out of the park.

Moreover, while "Frozen" does have a lot of romance in it, the most important relationship is really between Elsa and Anna. Their sisterly bond is given far more attention and development than anything else in the film, and handled with considerably more thoughtfulness than the similar mother-daughter dynamics of last year's "Brave." Also, the treatment of Elsa's magic, referred to repeatedly as a "curse" has shades of the Beast's condition in "Beauty and the Beast." There are some very complex emotions and motivations in play that might go over the heads of the smallest members of the audience.

So luckily there's Olaf the Snowman, who is not nearly as precious or as cloying as he looked in the previews. Instead, he's a good reminder of why movies like this have comic relief, because that's exactly what he brings to the story, When things get too dark or grim, there's sincere, sweet-natured, dim-witted Olaf to jump into the fray and lighten the mood for a few minutes here, or ten seconds there. He and Sven the reindeer are extremely well deployed, mostly staying on the sidelines but pitching in when appropriate. Olaf in particular is a great character, a subtle manifestation of Elsa's softer side.

Given all the things that "Frozen" does right, it feels stingy to point out that the movie is far from perfect. The music is hit-or-miss, an acceptable approximation of the work of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman on the earlier Disney musicals, but not at the same level. The three acts that are all very well plotted and well written, but tonally might as well be three different movies. Elsa, despite being the most interesting character by far, gets an abbreviated arc that doesn't really deal with the impact of her transformation. And then there's Anna, perfectly likeable, but also clearly Rapunzel-lite.

The film was made on a very short timeline, and I expect a lot of these problems could have been ironed out if the filmmakers had a little more breathing room. At the same time, what they managed to accomplish in that span is astonishing. The visuals are a clear step up from "Tangled," full of gorgeous snow and ice effects, and still retaining that ineffable Disney atmosphere. The heroes are an unusually well-rounded bunch, with Kristoff and Anna's princely suitor Hans (Santino Fontana) making for a nice departure from the usual Disney love interests.

I'm glad to see Disney Animation's fortunes on the rise again. "Frozen" makes for a strong addition to their library, more promising than fulfilling ultimately, but definitely another big step in the right direction.
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There's some great children's media being produced these days. Cartoons may have been pushed out of Saturday mornings, but Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, and Disney are still running new shows on television, and animated films regularly reap massive box office rewards. Heck, many of the biggest franchises these days are aimed at younger audiences, particularly in the fantasy-action genre. It's no wonder that many of these properties have attracted adult fans.

However, too often I've run across grown-up fans who try to justify watching "Adventure Time" or PIXAR movies by declaring that they're not really for kids. Many creators sneak in elements that only adults would pick up on and understand. Media has often been so rigidly segmented, that some viewers are convinced that anything that appeals to adults must be aimed at adults to some extent. However, there's a pretty big difference between something that appeals to grown-ups and something that is explicitly targeting them.

So let's put things into perspective here. "Adventure Time" is aimed at kids aged 8-12, despite the much older Finn and Jake cosplayers that can usually be spotted at most fan conventions. The recent PIXAR feature "Monsters University" was rated G, putting meaning that its content was specifically tailored to be safe for the under-13 set. Disney's "Frozen" received a PG, but as this Forbes article suggests, there's really not much difference between a G and PG these days. Hasbro's "My Little Pony" occasionally does shout-outs to the Brony herd, but it's still primarily aimed at little girls.

Why am I taking the trouble to point this out? I think there's an inherent value in kids' media being kids' media, especially since so much of it has disappeared from the media landscape in recent years. G-rated commercial films are practically nonexistent now, aside from a few nature documentaries and animated films. There has been a massive scaling back of traditional children's programming on television, with much of it now contained on specific family-oriented cable channels and good old PBS. "Family hour" prime time viewing is all but extinct and I don't think it's coming back. Not only is there less programming available specifically aimed at children, but less for general audiences that is appropriate for children.

It's fine for adults to enjoy children's entertainment. I do myself, frequently. However, denying that it is children's entertainment co-opts it and devalues it to an extent. Movies and television made for kids is too often dismissed as pabulum, as something that by definition can't be as good or as valuable as movies and television for adults. This is nonsense, but it's a common assumption. Young adults in particular are quick to insist that "The Hunger Games" or their favorite imported anime isn't for kids, trying to distance themselves from the perceived stigma. When I was in my teens, I worried for years that I was too old to be watching cartoons. I stopped caring when I hit college age.

Anime is an interesting case because Japanese content standards are very different from American ones, and there are some properties that are indeed intended for adult viewers. However, the vast majority of the shows that become popular in the U.S., particularly the violent action anime like "Dragonball Z," "Fullmetal Alchemist" and "Naruto" are intended for older children and teenagers. They may be dark and dramatic and thrilling on the same level as you'd see in American media for adults, but you just have to look at the ages of the protagonists - twelve to sixteen year-olds - to figure out who the shows are actually meant for.

It's a strange irony that so many properties that we used to consider children's entertainment - superhero films, "Star Wars," and the emerging young adult fantasy genre, are now the biggest blockbuster generators that depend on adult ticket sales. And to make sure those adults feel comfortable showing up at the ticket counter, we've seen young characters aged up, stories get darker and darker, and content push the boundaries of the PG-13 rating. I don't think the most recent Batman or Superman films, with their moody atmosphere and amped up violence, would be appropriate viewing for many of the younger kids who originally read their comic books.

These characters have evolved over time to become more adult, sure, but it seems an awful shame that they've abandoned their original audiences to such an extent, and a little shortsighted to be honest. The reason there is so much nostalgia and demand for these characters is because most fans first encountered them as kids. I'm actually glad that Warners keeps making cartoons for their DC superheroes designed specifically to engage younger children, and Lucas has kept "Star Wars" going through tie-ins like "The Clone Wars." These big franchises aren't going to survive in the long run without their youngest viewers onboard.
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Ah, Thanksgiving weekend. When I get together with family over the holidays I usually end up watching several hours of television that I wouldn't under normal circumstances. In the past there have been "NCIS" marathons, "Mystery Science Theater 3000" evenings, and this year multiple episodes of "Family Guy" with my brother. He's a fan of the show, but I long ago decided that it was not for me. Still, I was a little curious about how "Family Guy" had been doing. I hadn't watched an episode since before its resurrection, back when it was still growing a cult following on "Adult Swim." Now that it had become monstrously popular, maybe it was more watchable.

Thanks to Hulu, we had access to a couple of the most recent episodes, and after watching several, I'm sorry to say that the show hasn't improved one bit. Oh, I understand the appeal. It's dark, mean, raunchy, and delivers a lot of shock value very well. However, it's almost totally lacking in heart, and I found the majority of the shocks way to gratuitous and lazy to be very entertaining. Daring can't substitute for cleverness. Also, there were the usual old problems that "South Park" so deftly skewered back in "Cartoon Wars," when it revealed that manatees with topic balls were the secret to the success of "Family Guy." There's the randomness of the non-sequiturs, the slapdash feel to the writing, and the sense that they're still cribbing their best material from better shows.

On the other hand, there have been some improvements. I like that Stewie's not the evil megalomaniac anymore. Instead, he's a neurotic gay sophisticate who happens to be trapped in the existence of an infant. His interactions with the only other sane member of the Griffin asylum, Brian, were my favorite parts of the episodes I saw. I heard the recent spoilers about Brian, and I have to say the move is daring, but it could also be disastrous to the show. Stewie and Brian have one of the only relationships on the show that actually works as a relationship. Peter and Chris still seem to be about the same. Lois has gotten a little darker, but is still essentially the same housewife template. Meg, the eternal victim, seems a little less miserable than when I saw her last, though that's only because she's embraced her family's perversions more fully.

What really struck me about these episodes was the level of the content. It's gotten much more extreme over the years, and is at least on par with the late night cable animated shows. There is lots and lots of sexual humor. I found references to pornography, sadomasochism, incest, rape, and it was implied that Meg had a menage a trois with Nintendo video game characters Mario and Luigi. Stewie's rejected teddy bear committing suicide our of despair seemed positively cuddly by comparison. "Family Guy" is veering awfully close to another animated show from a few years ago that relied almost entirely on shock humor, Comedy Central's short-lived reality show spoof "Drawn Together." It gave up on the premise pretty quickly in favor of copious amounts of sex and violence. "Family Guy" hasn't quite sunk to that level, but it's getting there.

I want to emphasize that it's not the content itself that I have a problem with. I love "South Park" and "Archer," and the more outrageous they get, the funnier they usually are. Those shows, however, are clever and well-written and understand that their best material comes from their characters. The generic storylines are broad parodies of family sitcoms that were out of date decades ago. "Family Guy," while it does get a few chuckles out of me here and there, is just graphic and sophomoric for the sake of being graphic and sophomoric. I'm honestly a little stunned that this is airing on a mainstream network in the 9PM hour. Sure, they never show any detailed genitalia and the nobody curses, but you'd think the blood and gore and vomit and sick humor would have gotten more flak in the general public. Or maybe I'm just old fashioned.

What I find especially strange is that from what I've seen of the "Family Guy" spinoffs, "The Cleveland Show" and "American Dad," creator Seth MacFarlane is capable of being much smarter and more interesting. "American Dad" in particular has had some great episodes, and I've never seen it be remotely as mean-spirited and vile as "Family Guy" has become. Heck, I liked "Ted" much more than I was expecting to, and I'm looking forward to the sequel. In its current form, I find "Family Guy" tolerable, but it's not something I'd ever watch on my own. In fact, over the course of the mini-marathon of episodes I sat through today, I find it a much easier watch if I only listen to the show and don't look directly at the screen.

Never a good sign.
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It was a mixed year for "The Legend of Korra," with animation studios getting swapped around, too many different plots going on in the beginning, and Korra herself revealing deep flaws that felt like a major step backwards from her character progression last year. However, when all was said and done, I liked this season much better than the previous one. It has several episodes that are among the best things the "Avatar" team has ever done.

Korra faces several different antagonists this year. First there's her power-hungry uncle Unalaq, chief of the Northern Water Tribe, who comes to the South with his twin children, Esca and Desna, to start a civil war. Angry dark spirits attacking ships and causing havoc are another problem. Then there's a mysterious force in Republic City that is also causing trouble but Mako, now a cop, is the only one who realizes it exists. Meanwhile, Bolin and Asami get caught up in the schemes of an eccentric businessman named Varrick. Tenzin, having been rejected by Korra after a severe falling out, spends time reconnecting with his family, including his older siblings Bumi and Kya. And finally there's the biggest villain of the season, whose very existence and relationship to the Avatar is a major spoiler.

"Legend of Korra" struggles to juggle all of these different characters and storylines. The spirit world figures into a lot of the story this year, and the season even features the subtitle "Book Two: Spirits," but there's so much else that needs to be set up and established, that we don't get around to the spirits for a long while. It's really not until the midpoint of the year, when we get to a two-parter explaining the origins of the Avatar, that the show seems to find its groove again and regains some of the lost coherence and momentum. I think the biggest issue was that the show tried too hard to make sure all of its supporting cast got time in the spotlight. Bolin's movie career, as funny as it was, could have been largely cut, and several of Tenzin's little bonding sessions with his kids likewise could have been skipped.

Korra herself bore the brunt of the damage, sad to say. She spent so many of the early episodes being stubborn, hotheaded, shortsighted, and much too easily duped, that I got frustrated with her, as I'm sure a lot of other viewers did. It's not that the issues she faced were inappropriate or that they didn't make sense for her character, but that they all should have been addressed much earlier, or in some cases it seemed like they had already been addressed during the first season. I understand that "Korra" was originally supposed to be a stand-alone miniseries and the creators wanted to end the first season with some finality, but too much of her development this year failed to build on her existing journey. Fortunately her arc concluded in a better place, and characters like Mako, Tenzin, and Bolin were handled better. Mako actually has a personality now, thank goodness.

Messy as it all was, ultimately I liked "Korra" this year so much better than last year. We got out of Republic City and got to see how the rest of the "Avatar" universe was doing. We delved much further into the show's mythology and there was a lot of great worldbuilding, particularly everything related to the first Avatar, Wan. There were also more references to and cameos by characters from the previous series, without relying on too many flashbacks. Aang was largely absent this year, but he had arguably a larger presence thanks to all the time we spent with his squabbling offspring. Lots of longstanding questions about the nature of the Avatar, the Spirit World, and the spirits were finally addressed.

I felt that the change in environment to largely urban settings was something of a mistake when "Korra" first premiered, so the focus on the spiritual world and the more slowly evolving Water Tribes was a welcome change. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the Avatar Wan episodes, which take place thousands of years prior and utilize this wonderful woodblock art style. The Spirit World also provides lots of good opportunities for unique visuals with different design sensibilities. I should also note that it's very obvious which episodes were given to the show's primary animation house, Studio Mir, and which were farmed out to a second-stringer.

I'm a little worried about how the series is going to progress from here, because we've still got at least two more Books coming down the pipeline, and yet again the story seems to have wrapped up pretty nicely. It's hard to say where the story could go from here - maybe they'll finally do something with Zuko's grandson?
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Cartoon Network's "Adventure Time" just isn't losing steam, after three years and five seasons. I've mostly missed the boat on this series, to my regret, but I'm getting in on the ground floor of a brand new show that could be described as something of a spiritual spin-off, "Steven Universe." It premiered on Cartoon Network last week, helmed by Rebecca Sugar, one of the most high profile staff members of "Adventure Time." So here's a review.

"Steven Universe" is getting a lot of press for Sugar, who is the first woman to be billed as sole creator of a Cartoon Network production. Since Cartoon Network has been a little light on programming featuring girls since the Powerpuffs went off the air, I was glad to hear it. And sure enough, "Steven Universe" features three very strong, interesting female characters, Garnet (UK singer Estelle), Amethyst (Michaela Dietz) and Pearl (Deedee Magno), who are known collectively as the Crystal Gems, and protect Earth from all manner of monsters and mayhem with their special Gem powers. Amethyst can conjure a whip and has shapeshifting abilities, and Pearl conjures a sword and can create holograms, for instance.

However, the story is firmly focused on their youngest and newest recruit, Steven Universe (Zach Callison), an energetic, roly-poly boy around preteen age who inherited a Gem from his departed mother, but doesn't know how to use it yet. In the premiere he briefly manages to activate it, conjuring up a shield. Sadly, attempts to repeat the feat have so far failed. Steven lives with the Crystal Gem warriors in their temple/headquarters/apartment, and does his best to help them with their world-saving while getting into plenty of trouble on his own. He's very much a little brother figure, struggling to prove himself and live up to his elders. Everything is seen from his point of view, and it's a funny, cheerful, and entertaining one.

The Gems have a lot of personality and have a lot of potential as characters, but the show works because Steven works. He's a lot like Finn from "Adventure Time," except a little younger and sillier, and much less competent. Steven works very hard, but has to deal with a lot of failure. Fortunately Steven is a very resilient kid who never stops trying, and he's got great support from Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl, who may be busy, but clearly care a lot about him. We briefly meet Steven's dad, Greg Universe (Tom Scharpling), in the second episode, a former rocker who lives out of a van. He's loving and amiable, but clearly "a mess," and Steven is probably better off rooming with the superheroes.

So far it's the show's visuals and its genial sense of humor that have me hooked. I love, love, love how the Crystal Gems have been designed. They're all clearly female, but Garnet is a big, stoic warrior figure, Amethyst is messy and laid back, with some huggable heft to her, and brainy Pearl is icicle thin, but all angles. They're very different from how women and girls are usually caricatured in animation, with little effort to make them look conventionally attractive. The animation is fun, full of crazy action and wacky facial expressions, but what's really impressive is the gorgeous background art and environments. The Gems' temple is a real stunner, featured heavily in most recent episode.

Best of all, I like how the show is goofy and weird and very much committed to doing its own thing. Steven has a habit of randomly singing songs - most of which he made up himself. He gets obsessed with things like ice cream sandwiches and making snappy comebacks. A whole episode is devoted to him showing off the usefulness of a novelty backpack shaped like a cheeseburger. It's only been four episodes, and the potential for memes is already off the charts. And yet underneath it all, the show has a lot of heart. The Gems act like a group of close siblings, and plots are more concerned with relationship dynamics and interpersonal issues than the usual superhero action schtick.

I'm rooting for "Steven Universe" to stick around for a while. It has completely won me over and I'm curious to know about the show's bigger mythology and everybody's backstories. There's a lot that has been hinted at, but we don't know many specifics yet. It hasn't been explained where the Gems come from or if the girls are even Earthlings. There's also not much of a wider cast so far. Aside from Steven's family unit, the only other potential semi-regulars that have appeared are a mailman and the employees of a local donut shop. But as we've been getting introduced to this world little by little, it's been a blast. And I look forward to getting to know "Steven Universe" a lot better.

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I've wanted to do an anime music video (AMV) list for a while now, but I was a little iffy on the logistics. I pretty much exited the wider anime community in 2008, so I'm not aware of what's been going on in the community lately. Still, I've been an AMV fan for years and I have a ton of recommendations. So I figure, what the heck. My picks might have some mileage on them, but they'll still be a good place to start.

All links below lead to AnimeMusicVideos.Org pages. I'm not lnking to the videos directly because AMVs tend to be fairly ephemeral things that can disappear form the usual sharing sites without warning, leaving a trail of broken links in their wake. This archive site at least has all the necessary identifying information to help you track them down elsewhere.

Caffeine Encomium - Has my vote for best AMV ever. "Kodomo no Omocha," or "Kodocha," is a pretty obscure comedy series about a child actress named Sana, who is highly, highly energetic. That's about all you need to know. This is about the simplest kind of AMV there is, just clips set to music. No special effects, no original content, and a very simple concept too, but boy is it effective. And file away the name of the video's creator, Kevin Caldwell, a highly influential figure, who has become something of an in-joke among AMV editors.

Mad World - There are a lot of fast and furious AMVs made with footage from the wild "FLCL" series, full of explosions and fight scenes and all manner of visual craziness. This is not one of those videos. "Mad World" shows off the slow and contemplative side of "FLCL," by setting clips to the Gary Jules song. You can tell an anime is really something special when the show parts are just as good as the fast parts, and that's certainly the case here. Footage of Jules performing is inserted into the video, but not in a showy way, creating this great moody, unique atmosphere.

Trauer - "Wolf's Rain" was not a series I particularly liked. It was gorgeous, but seriously underdeveloped. That's why I was so glad someone took the footage and manipulated it to create this intense, engaging new narrative for the two main characters, that packs way more punch than the original in only a few minutes. The concept is better than the execution - the added effects are pretty rough at some points - but it works. Also, that is a Ramnstein song being used. The AMV community is an international one, and this is not the only foreign entry on this list.

Code Monkey - If I didn't know about the middle-aged office worker sci-fi comedy "Black Heaven" beforehand, I might have mistaken the animation in this video for being totally original, created specifically to illustrate Jonathan Coulton's ode to the lowly programmer, "Code Monkey." The little pop-up bubbles are perfect, the ridiculous product placement is inspired, and all the humor just fits so well. The anime and the song separately are okay, certainly nothing to sneeze at, but put them together and you've really got something special.

Hold Me Now - The appeal of "Princess Tutu" can be hard to explain. It's a charming "magical girl" show that is centered around ballet, opera, and fairy tales. It's certainly cute and sweet, but has some pretty dark and thrilling moments too. "Hold Me Now" manages to capture that in a little over three minutes, though it does spoil a few things that curious viewers probably wouldn't want to know going into the series. But if you have no intention of watching an anime about ballet dancers and talking animals anyway, I definitely recommend giving the video a shot.

Quid Pro Quo - Stretching the definition of AMV a little here, because this one has no music involved. Instead, this video's editor took a chunk of the audio from Kevin Smith's "The Flying Car" short featuring Dante and Randall from "Clerks" and replaced the humdrum visuals with lip-synced clips from the super-homoerotic supernatural fantasy melodrama "Descendants of Darkness." The result is hysterical. The New Jersey counter-jockeys getting replaced with anime pretty boys is already ridiculous, but it just gets wilder and weirder from there.

Faithless - Okay, tradition mandates that I have to have at least one "Neon Genesis Evangelion" video in the mix and at least one featuring the music of Linkin Park, because those are the two go-to sources for a terrifying percentage of young, angsty AMV creators. I'm going with "Faithless" because it's edited very, very well and it gets to the heart of what "Evangelion" is actually about. It's not about the carnage or the destruction or the screwy Biblical references. It's about a group of screwed up kids taking their personal problems with them into life-and-death battles.

Golden Boy Race - You know, sometimes you don't even need a lot of edits to make a good AMV. The most important part really is putting the right clips with the right music. In this case, putting the madcap bicycle race sequence from "Golden Boy" with a German pop singer's cover of Queen's "Bicycle Race" does 90% of the work. I beleive all the editor did was speed up or slow down some of the clips to get them to match the music better. The larger irony here is that "Golden Boy" is one of the most notoriously raunchy anime of its time, which you can't tell at all from the clips.

Somewhere Only We Know - Lots of editors have made videos with clips from Studio Ghibli films, because you can hardly ask for more gorgeous footage. However, it's very easy to lose that very particular, pastoral atmosphere of the films with too many edits or effects or bad music choices. "Somewhere Only We Know" gets the balance just about right, featuring some of the loveliest imagery from "Castle in the Sky," "Princess Mononoke," and "Spirited Away." What's really key here is the pacing, which isn't scared of being languid and laid back and just letting us enjoy the animation.

The Road to Iron Chef - And finally, we close with a very oddball entry. This isn't an AMV, but a special intro video that a couple of AMV editors and artists put together for an "Iron Chef" style editing competition that took place at an Atlanta convention way back 2003. It's the best explanation I've seen of what AMV editors actually do, why they do it, and what the community is like. With lots of references to Homestar Runner, this is definitely dated, but it's still a lot of fun. I especially love that the bulk of the visuals are original, cartoon creations of artist Big Big Truck.
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Time for a little Halloween nostalgia, kids. "Hocus Pocus" and "Army of Darkness" are all well and good, but "Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas" (directed by Henry Selick, of course) is the kids' horror classic that really deserves some celebration for hitting the twenty year mark this season. Its rise in the pop culture pantheon is a classic underdog story, and one fueled almost entirely by its loyal fans.

In 1993, Disney was skeptical of the film. Everyone was skeptical. A stop-motion film? An animated horror musical? Where a gang of monsters kidnap Santa Claus and take over Christmas? I remember an LA Times article full of hand-wringing about the scary imagery and macabre themes that were sure to terrify unsuspecting children. How could Disney let Tim Burton do this? The ad campaign didn't skimp, but it couldn't seem to make up its mind - some emphasized the scares while others tried to hide them, pushing the Jack and Sally love story front and center. Afraid that there would be backlash from the angry parents of sensitive children, Disney released the film under its Touchstones Pictures banner with a PG rating and prepared for a flop. They also made the same mistake with Burton's "Alice in Wonderland" seventeen years later.

"The Nightmare Before Christmas" wasn't a smash hit, but it did pretty well in theaters, impressed critics, and had enough exposure to attract a loyal base of fans. The returns were good enough for Disney to bankroll Henry Selick's next feature, "James and the Giant Peach," but they were still tentative about associating too closely with "Nightmare." For years, its media presence was scarce. Clips appeared in the intros to Disney branded programming for a while, but the film itself was rarely seen. Because of its short length and its PG rating, it didn't immediately join the regular rotation of Halloween television programming. I only saw it air on a broadcast network once, in the late 90s, during the early evening hours. Now ABC Family runs it every year around Halloween.

So what changed Disney's mind about the film? The adoring audience, primarily. Merchandise initially was scarce in the U.S. for years, though there seemed to be a ton of it available in Japan, where the film had been a much bigger hit. I remember finding fantastic Jack Skellington Christmas ornaments in an import shop, and wondering why they weren't in any of the Disney stores. Similar ones showed up there eventually, after specialty product lines proved to be very popular with the Hot Topic crowd, and by the late 90s "Nightmare Before Christmas" paraphernalia was a perennial bestseller for the company. This spawned a re-issue of the film and talk of a possible sequel in 2000, a 3D conversion in 2006, and more limited runs every subsequent year until 2009. New product lines, including video games and a tribute album followed. Soon Jack Skellington was everywhere.

But maybe the most symbolic sign of Disney's newfound acceptance of the property came in 2001, when they created the Haunted Mansion Holiday, a "Nightmare Before Christmas" overlay for Disneyland's Haunted Mansion, to go along with the Christmas versions of It's a Small World and The Country Bear Jamboree. Japan got one too, for its Haunted Mansion at Tokyo Disneyland. Now for a few months every year, you can find Jack, Sally, Oogie Boogie, and all the rest in the Disney parks. The U.S. version of the ride has proven so popular that FastPass machines have to be activated especially for it every year. The villain-themed store in New Orleans Square became devoted entirely to "Nightmare Before Christmas" merchandise for a few seasons. When I saw the place last, Jack Skellington was still sharing shelf space with Jack Sparrow.

Ironically "The Nightmare Before Christmas" turned out to be a perfect fit for Disney's collection of brands. It appeals to older children and teenagers growing wary of the squeaky-clean Disney image, but it's light enough to maintain broader appeal. Despite all the subversive touches, it's still a very traditional musical film underneath, and some fans have been asking for years for a stage production (unofficial ones keep popping up like daisies). While the film is scary and unsettling in places, it turns out that it hasn't traumatized kids any more than they can handle, and has become a holiday favorite in many households.

If you wondered why Disney bankrolled Tim Burton's passion project "Frankenweenie" last year, which most considered a very niche and very strange little animated film of limited appeal, you have to remember that twenty years ago, this was the same attitude that everyone had about "The Nightmare Before Christmas." Who knows what we'll think of "Frankenweenie" twenty years from now? It wouldn't surprise me if it became a cult hit. "Nightmare," having risen to such prominence, will probably still be around then too.
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Maybe I was feeling sorry for PIXAR after hearing about the delays with the troubled "The Good Dinosaur" feature, their Canadian campus closure, or the latest round of snarky complaints about how they sold out after the Disney merger. Maybe it was because none of the other animated films this year have been quite as good as I felt they could have been. But for whatever reason, I found myself really impressed with "Monsters University." I had been cool toward the first film, and wasn't expecting much out of the prequel, but this was really a very solid and entertaining PIXAR movie.

This time out, Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) is really the star of the show, who makes a fateful visit to Monsters Inc one day as a little monster, and becomes enamored with the idea of growing up to be a Scarer, one of the monsters who travels into kids' bedrooms at night to collect the energy generated by their screams. An ace student, he gets into the top school for Scarers, Monsters University. But though Mike is dedicated, he's simply not as intimidating as monsters with natural talent for scariness, like an infuriating slacker named Sully (John Goodman). Mike and Sully are rivals at first, but when they're kicked out of the Scaring Program by the harsh Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), their only way back in is to lead a team of misfit monsters to victory in the Scare Games, the campus's version of the Greek Games.

There are lots of new characters, the most prominent of which are the other members of the Oozma Kappa fraternity that Mike and Sully find themselves having to join in order to qualify to compete in the Scare Games. There's middle-aged former salesman Don (Joel Murray), two-headed Terri and Terry (Sean Hayes, Dave Foley), eager beaver Squishy (Peter Sohn), and Art (Charlie Day), who is a little out there and who resembles a colorful dust rag I once knew. Much of the film is taken up with getting them all trained up and ready to compete. The Oozma Kappas' chief rivals are the Roar Omega Roar frat of bigger and more aggressive monsters, lead by Johnny J. Worthington III (Nathan Fillion). Oh, and remember Randall (Steve Buscemi), the chameleon villain from the first movie? He's in this movie too, but I won't give away in what capacity.

I don't tend to get along with college frat house comedies, but "Monsters University" really only borrows the basic template of one to tell its story. There's no raunchy humor to speak of, and little material could be viewed as objectionable to small children. However, there's a good, solid story underneath, one that actually gets across some good ideas and messages to its intended audience. Mike's dream is to be a Scarer, but his physical limitations put that goal out of his reach. And the movie doesn't magically find some way for Mike to overcome those limitations or get around them. A big part of the movie is about Mike accepting who he is and Sully helping him get there. The friendship that develops between the two has its ups and downs and silly contrivances, but at the end of the day it's honest and genuine and heartwarming in the best way possible.

Or your could just watch the movie for the gorgeous CGI graphics, which present hundreds of different monsters, big and small, and a scenic campus full of monster-y flourishes, that seems to have borrowed bits of architecture from a dozen different real-life institutions of higher learning. There are lots of little details it takes multiple viewings to fully appreciate, and the visual gags are constant. I especially love the way many of the new character look. Dean Hardscrabble is a cross between a dragon and a centipede. Other monsters resemble griffins, squids, slugs, bears, haystacks, and assorted polygons, with a design sensibility that seems to have been borrowed from the Muppets, where nearly all the monsters are in bright colors with cuddly features. Mike and Sully get shined up a bit for this outing, but look reassuringly like themselves.

The worst thing you can say about "Monsters University" is that it's middle-of-the road, not particularly ambitious in its aims. There's nothing really new or exciting about the technology, the movie was clearly aimed at the broadest audience possible, and there are a few logical inconsistencies with its predecessor that may rile the obsessives. However, what it does choose to do, it does well. This could have easily been a piece of fluff, the way so many other animated sequels and spinoffs have been lately, but it wasn't. This one took itself seriously, and there's a lot of care and contemplation apparent in its story. That's the kind of commitment to quality that I'm glad to see is still alive and well at PIXAR.
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I've been falling behind on my movie reviews, so I'm going to spend most of this week playing catch-up. This year has been full of animated sequels, but there were two notable original entries from earlier in the year that deserve a little discussion.

Dreamworks' "The Croods" was a nice surprise. The trailers laid out the story of a family of cavemen who have survived harsh times by living in constant fear and rarely leaving the safety of their cave, and pointed to a pretty typical parent-child bonding narrative. The young heroine must break free from constraining tradition, but must also remember to love and cherish her overprotective dad because he only wants the best for her. Frankly, I wasn't expecting much.

However, the major creative force behind the movie was Chris Sanders, who wrote and directed with Kirk DeMicco. Sanders previously brought us "How to Train Your Dragon" and "Lilo & Stitch," family bonding movies that managed to present their sentiments without feeling too mushy. "The Croods" is likewise very good at being entertaining while telling us its very familiar story. The Crood family consists of father Grug (Nicholas Cage), mother Ugga (Catherine Keener), son Thunk (Clark Duke), baby girl Sandy (Randy Thom), aged Gran (Cloris Leachman), and finally the teenage daughter who yearns for something more out of life than just surviving it, Eep (Emma Stone).

The destruction of their home cave and a chance encounter with a wanderer named Guy (Ryan Reynolds) set the Crood brood off on a road trip of discovery. The big selling point of of the film is its gorgeous visuals, giving us an endlessly fascinating, colorful prehistoric world full of impossible sights and made-up creatures. Reality was clearly only a jumping-off point. Tiny furry elephants swarm underfoot like mice. A sabre-toothed tiger has coloration that wouldn't look out of place on Lisa Frank merchandise. This is set in roughly the same period as the "Ice Age" movies, but "The Croods" has much more diverse and richly rendered environments, presenting one eye-popping vista after another.

The character work is also great. Grug's obsessions over safety are well-founded, because their world is full of danger. An early sequence where the family goes hunting turns into a massive action sequence where they barely escape multiple predators, and get to show off finely honed fighting skills and personal idiosyncrasies. Though she may be more sensitive, their's nothing remotely dainty about Eep, who Hulk-smashes her enemies with the same ferocity as the rest of her family. There's an energy and a expressiveness to the animation of our cavemen heroes that is too often missing from other recent CGI films. A lot of thought and care went into the way they move and behave, and it shows. And ultimately, it's the Croods themselves who make the movie work.

Much less successful, but still commendable for its ambitions, is Blue Sky's "Epic." This is the studio that brought us the "Ice Age" movies. You'd never think "Epic" was the work of the same studio, because this is a big step up for them in many different ways. "Epic" features a society of tiny people living in the woods who are deeply connected to nature. (Think "The Borrowers" crossed with "Ferngully") A teenage human girl, Mary Katherine or MK (Amanda Seyfried) is magically shrunk down to their size and joins a pair of noble Leafmen warriors, Nod (Josh Hutcherson) and Ronan (Colin Ferrell) on an eventful quest to save their forest from the destructive Boggans, lead by the evil Mandrake (Christoph Waltz) and his son Dagda (Blake Anderson).

It's a lovely world the Blue Sky artists have created here, full of fine details and charming ideas. However, as with the last films that heavily involved fantasy author William Joyce, "Rise of the Guardians" and "Meet the Robinsons," the beautifully designed characters are awfully flat. MK, a spunky kid having a hard time connecting with her scientist father, Professor Bomba (Jason Sudeikis), is so typical, she's immediately forgettable. The same is true for her rebellious love interest Nod. The only characters who have much personality are secondary ones like the Forest Queen Tara (Beyonce Knowles) and the comic relief duo of Mug the slug (Aziz Ansari) and Grub the snail (Chris O'Dowd). Steven Tyler also shows up as a psychedelic glowworm.

The plot is pretty contrived stuff, hinging on lots of arbitrary rules that aren't well grounded at all. So much time is spent explaining what has to happen how and when, there's not much time for character development. We get just enough hints of relationships and backstory that it's frustrating that we don't get more. Many of the concepts just aren't well thought through at all, and it's too easy to poke holes in them. However, this is miles better than anything else Blue Sky has produced in years and I hope they continue to push themselves this way. There's a lot of potential on display here, and I'm curious what the studio is going to do next.
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I went back and forth about whether I should write up a reaction post to the finale of "Futurama," as I've spent so many posts cheerleading the series before. However, it's been over a year since the last time I wrote about it on this blog, there are a lot of other episodes to talk about, and this finale feels like the real deal in a way that the other finales haven't, so I think I can justify this one. Some minor spoilers for the most recent seasons ahead.

Season seven of "Futurama," aired in two batches over the last two years. There's been a lot of debate over whether the quality of the show has dropped since it came back from its long hiatus, and whether season seven was as good as season six. My position is that "Futurama" has always had weaker episodes, and while the Comedy Central episodes were more inconsistent and had different sensibilities than the FOX episodes, they were still well worth watching weekly. Some of my favorite episodes, including body-switching episode "Prisoner of Benda" and time travel episode "The Late Philip J. Fry," came after the hiatus. I'm going to need a few rewatches to cement how I feel about the most recent season, but there have been some strong contenders, including "Murder on the Planet Express," a spoof on "Alien" and "The Thing," and the finale episode, "Meanwhile."

There's no denying that the show changed fundamentally. Fry and Leela became an official couple, and "Futurama" stopped doing episodes about how Fry was a fish out of water in the future. The sentimentality became more overt, spreading to some of the other characters. There was more attention paid to continuity. Characters like Zapp Branigan, Kif, and Cubert didn't show up as often. References to more current pop-culture started appearing. Some of this didn't work, such as the Susan Boyle episode and the one where we learn about how Zoidberg and the Professor first met. It often seemed like the writers were trying too hard or running short on ideas. Plots started coming off as more contrived and formulaic, or so off-the-wall that they didn't feel like "Futurama." There were two anthology episodes, "Naturama" and "Saturday Morning Fun Pit," satirizing nature documentaries and terrible Saturday morning cartoons respectively, that stick out as especially bizarre.

Still, there were plenty of good episodes and the writers came up with some great things to do with the characters. Zoidberg finally got the girl in "Stench and Stenchability," the weirdest remake of Charlie Chaplin's "City Lights" ever. "Lethal Inspection" gave us a reason to like Hermes and "Calculon 2.0" gave us a reason to like Calculon, briefly. We met the Professor's parents in "Near-Death Wish" and Scruffy's trainee janitor, Jackie Jr., in "Murder on the Planet Express." And the nerd in me loved that we'd occasionally still get references to older science-fiction stories like "Flatworld," "E.T.," "Twilight Zone," and "The Time Machine." Even the crummiest episodes had their good points. Whatever you want to say about "Attack of the Killer App," the social-media episode, it spawned the now ubiquitous "Shut up and take my money!" meme.

"Meanwhile," the last episode is a good example of all of the things I've always liked "Futurama." It takes a nerdy science-fiction plot device, time travel, and uses it to create absurd situations. In this case we have the Professor's time button, which only allows for time travel ten seconds into the past, and is abused by Fry and the rest of the gang immediately. The show isn't afraid of being weird and morbid and silly just for the sake of being silly. It uses the fact that the series is animated to show us something impossible, a quality I think many viewers take for granted. The show also deals with Fry and Leela's relationship in a way that is emotionally serious, even if very little else in the episode is. The last ten minutes of "Meanwhile" are likely meant to be a take on "I Am Legend" and other "last man on Earth" stories. However, "Futurama" takes the concept and uses it for goofy gags - and to show us just how strong Fry and Leela's commitment has become.

It was hard to escape the specter of the show hitting a plateau of mediocrity the way that "The Simpsons" did around its sixth season. So, it came as something of a relief to learn that "Futurama" has been cancelled. There are other avenues for its potential resurrection, including Netflix, and I certainly wouldn't say no to another movie or two, but this feels like a natural place to stop. The story gave us a happy ending for Fry and Leela (though a calculatedly open-ended one) and it was enough.

Time to bid a fond farewell to the world of tomorrow.
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And here's where I'm kind of a hypocrite, because I'm about to engage in some shameless rumor dissection. A few weeks ago, a blog called Blue Sky Disney posted a schedule of Disney Animation's slate of future projects, all the way up through 2018. It looks like this:

Frozen (2013)
Big Hero 6 (2014)
Zootopia (2016)
Giants (2016)
Moana (TBA, likely 2018)
Untitled Dean Wellin Animated Feature (TBA, likely 2018)

The dates are correct, as Disney staked them out officially earlier in the year, but the titles have only been confirmed up through "Zootopia," which was revealed to be a anthropomorphized animal buddy-cop comedy at the latest D23 convention. Beyond that, it's all speculation, but there have been enough corroborating reports from other sources that point to this information most likely being legit. For instance, here's a recent report from Bleeding Cool with more details on "Giants," which is a new spin on "Jack and the Beanstalk." And this interview with director Ron Clements seems to confirm "Moana," a Polynesian themed tale. Lots can change between now and 2016, of course, but I think there's enough information here to write up some thoughts on what's going on at the Mouse House.

One of the first things I noticed about the new slate is that it's a little light on female lead characters. Oh sure, "Zootopia" will split the billing between a female rabbit and a male fox, and there are sure to be girlfriends for Jack in "Giants" and the young superhero in "Big Hero 6," but Disney's traditionally gotten into trouble when they try courting the young male audience too aggressively. Some have pointed out that the slate has been a little too princess-heavy recently between "The Princess and the Frog," "Tangled," "Enchanted," PIXAR's "Brave" and now "Frozen," but it's a little worrying not to see anything even being discussed.

I was hoping that Disney would have a little more faith in their princess movies after "Tangled," but less than three months away from the release date of "Frozen," we have yet to get a good look at the main characters, the story, or anything else in the film aside from the comic relief. A Japanese trailer is floating around that offers much more substance in only a few seconds, and irony of ironies, the film is retaining the "The Snow Queen" title in Japan. Still the film got made, after a decades in development, and I'm looking forward to it.

Second thing I noticed is that Disney is globetrotting again, setting some of its future movies in very culturally distinct locales. "Big Hero 6" is based on an obscure Marvel Comics property, and will be set in a fictional Asian-themed city. It will star a young hero named Hiro Hamada, who has created his own robot partner. This has anime homage written all over it, which could be a lot of fun, but there's also the danger of uncomfortable Asian stereotypes running amok. But then, Dreamworks did it right with the "Kung Fu Panda" movies, so I have some faith that Disney will too.

I'm also very curious about "Moana," the latest from Disney veterans John Musker and Ron Clements which will be their debut in CGI. Because I am a film nerd, I know that it shares a name with the obscure 1926 South Seas ethnographic documentary, "Moana," made by Robert Flaherty as his follow-up to "Nanook of the North." And I know that Moana was the name of the lead male character, whose story was a coming-of-age romance. That doesn't mean that Disney's "Moana" will necessarily center around a male hero. "Moana" means "deep water" or "ocean" in Samoan.

"Giants" was apparently pushed back because of Bryan Singer's "Jack the Giant Slayer," but that film was such a bust on every level, I don't think it should affect the Disney version at all. Besides, if the latest reports about the direction of "Giants" are correct, the two movies will have almost nothing in common. By 2016 I doubt anyone will remember "Jack." "Zootopia" strikes me as having a very modern sensibility, and is the kind of project I'd expect to see at Dreamworks or one of the smaller CGI animation outfits. When Disney tries to get hip with their animated films, they tend to end up with movies like "Chicken Little." Still, it's too early to say anything yet.

Finally, the slate is interesting for what's not on it. There are no sequels at this time, in spite of the success of "Wreck-it-Ralph" spawning so much discussion about what could happen in the next installment. This is in stark contrast to PIXAR, which has embraced the concept of franchising many of its past hits. And there is no sign of previously buzzed-about projects like "King of the Elves," based on a Philip K. Dick story, or the rumored Mickey Mouse feature. Instead, new Mickey Mouse shorts have been in circulation, and one is expected to play with "Frozen" in November.

Happy watching.
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The second season of "The Legend of Korra" is coming up soon. I'm looking forward to it, especially after that Comic-Con trailer. So I thought I'd use this month's top ten column for a quick revisit to its progenitor series, "Avatar: the Last Airbender," which has my vote as being the best children's animated series of the new millennium, and the best thing I've ever seen come out of Nickelodeon.

Picks are unranked, listed in mostly chronological order, and there are some light spoilers ahead for the first two seasons, as I can't talk about much of the third season without them. And as usual, I will totally cheat and count two-parters as single episodes. Here goes!

"The Boy in the Iceberg" - Yes, it's the pilot episode. What a great introduction to Aang, the easily excitable airbender kid who Water Tribe siblings Katara and Sokka accidentally free from deep freeze in an iceberg. I wish I had seen this episode first, since it does a great job of setting expectations about the tone and the content of the show while introducing the rules of the "Avatar" world.

"The Waterbending Master" - Aang and Katara have to navigate carefully when Master Pakku refuses to teach Katara waterbending. This is a thoughtful look at the characters trying to balance their needs and interests with that of someone from a different culture, plus it has a great ending where Katara gets to throw down in one of the most exciting displays of waterbending in the whole series.

"Avatar Day" - Some dismiss this as a filler episode, but I think it's one of the funniest installments of the show. The gang come across a village that hates the Avatar, which prompts Aang to try and right the past wrong, and Sokka to play Sherlock Holmes with detective gadgets and a funny hat. We also get some significant advancement in Zuko and Iroh's storyline, as they adapt to life on the run.

"The Blind Bandit" - Toph's introduction episode, which spends a lot of time in the fascinating world of professional earthbending tournaments, which seems to function similar to professional wrestling. The parodies are great - one of the combatants is named The Boulder - but the fights are truly thrilling. Toph is one of my favorite characters, and this episode is a big reason why I started rooting for her immediately.

"The Drill" - Another big action episode that gives us one more round of Aang and his friends fighting Azula's forces. This time they intercept the Fire Nation's attempt to breach the outer wall of Ba Sing Se using a giant mechanical drill. In addition to the phenomenal construction of the action sequences, this has some of my favorite banter from characters on both sides.

"City of Walls and Secrets" - The gang finally reaches the Earth Kingdom capital of Ba Sing Se and quickly sense that something's not quite right about the place. The Orwellian society presents a different kind of obstacle that the kids haven't had to deal with before, and the darker themes and ideas in play are handled well. Also, the whole bit about the Earth King's bear is absolutely priceless.

"The Puppetmaster" - Trying to find out what's behind a series of disappearances, the kids meet an elderly waterbender who takes a strong interest in Katara. This one was originally aired around Halloween and presented as something of a horror story. It's surprising how dark this one gets, taking the concept of bending the elements to some pretty uncomfortable extremes.

"The Boiling Rock" - A two parter that features a good old-fashioned jailbreak story and some big surprises. This is one of several third season episodes that uses a smaller cast to spotlight specific characters, so Sokka, Suki, and Zuko get some great moments to shine, dealing with a situation that keeps getting worse. However, it's the villains who end up stealing the show with a major game-changing ending I didn't see coming.

"The Ember Island Players" - It's an old trope that right before the grand finale, you get a cheaper episode, usually a recap clip-show in the case of cartoons. "Avatar" takes the idea and does a great twist on it, putting the kids in the audience of a Fire Nation play that tells a warped version of the story so far from their enemies' point of view. The play and the kids' reactions to the play are hysterical.

"The Firebending Masters" - I've saved my favorite episode for last. This is the one where Aang and Zuko go to the home of the original firebending masters to learn firebending. The way these two interact on their journey, and learn the truth about the mysterious masters together is so much fun. The animation here is breathtaking, the final firebending lesson being one of my favorite moments from the whole show.


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May 2014

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