Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Merry Christmas from 2013

And Happy Holidays to all!

Monday, 9 December 2013

Friday, 15 November 2013

Ruby Gloom

Ruby Gloom started out as a franchise by American company Mighty Fine, who delivered a stationary line of pencil cases, key-chains and posters with the titular character as its "mascot". Despite its suggested "goth" theme, Ruby sounds a little more upbeat, having been described as "The Happiest Girl In The World" in merchandise bios - and when an animated adaptation was produced by Nelvana in 2006, it became more so.

Usually, cartoons based on franchises can go either way. Sometimes good, or sometimes very, VERY bad...but for Ruby, what they did with the uniqueness of the concept made for some very pleasant viewing.

As one may guess from the designs and settings, a lot of the characters are based on the familiar line-up of monsters we've all seen before - skeletons, ghosts, Frankenstein's Monster, cyclops - as well as animals associated with the same theme like ravens / crows, bats and black cats. However, the characters are anything but monstrous; they each have their own individual quirks and foibles that make them stand out and which they happily play off one another. They're more "human" than "monster" in short, and viewers will find little aspects of each that they could relate to in themselves. Case in point with Skull Boy, whose purpose to discover who he is/was puts an intriguing twist on self-discovery.

The show itself is anything but scary - it's definitely "cute" with a layer of light-hearted darkness somewhere in-between. It may obviously not be everyone's favourite, but having watched its entire run from beginning to end, I found myself taking a fancy to it over time. Beautifully animated, well-written and with a cast of characters who don't outstay their welcome.

Judging each performance also, the voice actors clearly had fun playing their respective roles. Amongst the cast involved, Sarah Gadon makes Ruby ever so innocent and cheerful, Scott McCord nails Skull Boy's awkward but friendly nature, Adrian Truss makes Poe the Raven a perfect theatrical ham, but it's Emily Hampshire who shines through as the unlucky and melancholic Misery...who has a surprisingly cool singing voice when asleep.

Handfuls of DVDs have been scattered across the globe since Ruby Gloom first aired - Canada, Brazil, France, Germany, Japan, Australia - but I'm sure it'll be a while yet before fans are able to find a complete DVD box set.

Now feel free to contradict me here but I think, in my opinion, that this series would have appealed to both boys and girls - girls would like the "cuteness" of the characters while the boys would find the monster theme "orsum". Or perhaps they would be more drawn to Frank and Len's rock-and-roll performances throughout most of the episodes. It just has this strange sort of balance that would draw both genres together without making anyone in the show appear inferior, clichéd or pushed aside regardless of gender or character. Each are given their own time in the spotlight, which is great for this sizeable cast.

Whether it was Nelvana's intention or not from the business side of things - by encouraging Mighty Fine's merchandise to the forefront next to DVD sales - it's still a nice example that not all shows with a female lead automatically makes it "girly". Least we forget, Kim Possible and the Powerpuff Girls also buck the trend there...!


Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Fire Safety Shorts

Many historians will know well enough that Animation was created first and foremost to entertain - but there are times when animation can also educate when used correctly. During dire straits, cartoons played their part in keeping spirits up "During the War", encouraging the public to fight back against the enemy and donate war efforts. Warner Bros gave American that old classic 'Any Bonds Today?' and their series of Private Snafu shorts taught soldiers what not to do out in the line of fire.

Today, the United Kingdom has become one of the largest areas for pre-school animation, which continues to entertain today's youth while including vital facts and figures relation to each show's concept. Such examples are The Lingo Show, which teaches children different languages around the world.
But as with America, British Animation educated adults as well as children. Back in the 70's, the British Government's Central Office of Information released a vast number of Public Information Films which covered a variety of subjects - safety in the home, on the street, in the country, at sea, during work. These have since become part of the "Charley Says..." collection, after the cut-out cat that featured in several of these shorts.

One of the main topics covered in such P.I Films has been the vital issue of fire. As Smokey the Bear taught American children how to prevent forest fires, Britain's Fire Safety shorts taught the dangers of fire in the home or school or workplace, how to prevent them, how to raise the alarm and how to escape them quickly and carefully. These were often played in schools whenever Firemen would visit and give demonstrations on how to make sensible use of the fire alarms and exits provided.

Rarely have the following seen repeated airings on British television, except perhaps during Bonfire Night. And even then it's rarer to see them in their original uncut versions - 'till now.

Frances the Firefly is one I remember with great fondness. The original paperback book I once owned may have had the original artwork redrawn and redesigned many times over, but the following animation (narrated by the late, great Richard Briers) shall remain timeless.
When televised in later years, this short was condensed greatly to a single measly minute - not only glossing over the seriousness of Frances' folly, its build-up and the aftermath, but also ignoring a lot of talent and skill that was put into the making of this piece. From background artists to animators, they all played their part however brief;

The second Fire Safety video, Moonlighters, is a little odd given its setting - since there is no atmosphere in space, the fire would be entirely impossible. But then it is a cartoon, so I suppose some bending of reality is required so long as the message is clearly understood...!

But if anyone deserves the honour of teaching children about Fire Safety, then Fireman Sam is your man. Amongst all the episodes made, this particular entry from the classic series was more of a "special", a useful educational episode that isn't painfully moralistic;

It's rather a shame that little appears to be known on who helped create the Frances and Moonlighters videos since the various companies / actors involved have likely been shut down or are long since deceased. But it's gratifying to know that what they've left behind would, with luck, never be forgotten.

Short but sweet films are one thing - but if you want a little action whilst teaching Fire Safety, you can't say more than this familiar TUGS episode, featuring the voice of "Protect and Survive" himself, Patrick Allen...


Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Bump in the Night (1992)

I have very fond memories of this crazy little show during my younger years, at a time when stop-motion animation became as popular then as CGI animation has now. While Bump in the Night was currently airing on the CBBC programme block (before there was even a CBBC Digital Channel to speak of), it was also doing pretty hot over on ABC (American Broadcasting Company).

Before Pixar even dreamt up Monsters, Inc, it was Mr. Bumpy, the monster under the bed, who gave us the frights and laughs in the mid 90's, with his best friends Squishington, the bathroom monster, and Molly Coddle the comfort doll. It was also my first experience of the amazing vocal talents of Jim Cummings and Rob Paulsen, who would soon become two of the most widely-used and adored voice-actors in the business - in particular for the Disney Afternoon animation block, where both helped bring to life a variety of characters each as memorable as the next. For Jim especially, his resume would be ridiculously long to post here, but it was this show that earned him a nomination for an Emmy for Voice Acting in the Field of Animation in 1994. And with good reason!

It wasn't just the stop-motion animation that really "wowed" me at the time, but the wild storylines that creators Ken Pontac and David Bleiman could only cook up. In similar vein to Johnson and Friends, in a way, they thought up a wide variety of episodes that took place in a limited number of locations, most of which occured within the boy's untidy bedroom. Sure, there may have been some "gross" humour involved, so far as belches and sock-eating are concerned, but it wasn't as overexposed or...detailed...as certain cartoons that followed I could well mention.

Then of course there was the Karaoke Cafe musical numbers, which exercised Jim and Rob's singing performances in regards to certain subjects or topics of their characters' choices. I daresay, anyone who remembers this segment of the show would have the old familiar tunes forever embedded in their minds. Whether it's "Picking Up The Pieces" or Mr. Bumpy's take on "School's Out".

Bump in the Night was the work of Danger Productions - their only major hit so far as I can dig up. For reasons of production / financial matters, once the House of Mouse took over ABC, it only lasted for two seasons. And yet, not just the fans but the folks behind the show - the writers, the animators, the voice cast - still remember it with great fondness and happy memories. In fact, for a while, the complete series was released to DVD in 2010 by Shout Factory - sadly now out of stock.
Oh well, there's always YouTube...!


Friday, 25 October 2013

October Works 2013

Halloween is a-coming once more...

Tuesday, 15 October 2013


Janet and Allan Ahlberg wrote many grand children's books together. British readers would remember the likes of The Jolly Postman, Bill Burglar, It was a Dark and Stormy Night and the Happy Families series in their local schools or libraries once upon a time.

Funnybones was another series of books they wrote that I took to most. Maybe it was because the premise of a skeleton "family" was so creative and fun. Or maybe it was the illustrations by Andre Amstutz, where the skeletons, set against the "Dark, Dark Town", truly stood out. Whatever it was, I never got tired pouring through the books I had of youth and admiring each page from cover to cover.

I especially adored the animated series that followed, which saw the adventures of Big, Little and Dog adapted by Jocelyn Stevenson, who was also responsible for the terrific Charlie Chalk as well as a host of Muppets / Sesame Street children's books. Next to a very catchy soundtrack plus theme tune, the animation was expertly crafted, with a jolly Griff Rhys Jones handling the position of Storyteller and voices.

So huge credit to Cartwn Cymru for giving us a faultless little series. Only 12 episodes in all, but this one series alone makes it all the more special. And Cartwn Cymru would continue to entertain and impress with their follow-up show, the Toucan 'Tecs - proving as with Mike Young had with SuperTed, the Welsh can produce more than just beautiful singing voices!

As this series was aimed for the pre-school market, it's more comical than scary - however, if you want "creepy", then check out this strange adaptation of one of the Funnybones books from a Hong Kong production...!


Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Don't You Open That Trap Door...!

My first exposure of this wonderfully creepy series was through a little-known Saturday Morning show known as "Ghost Train" - which broadcast other spooky-related cartoons such as The Real Ghostbusters and Scooby-Doo. Little did I know how much I would come to love and appreciate The Trap Door as I grew up...

The series was typically 80's, where being weird and insane was (and still is) in. Created by Terry Brain and Charlie Mills (known in the credits as "Brainbox Mills"), it centred on Berk, the "overworked servant of The Thing upstairs", his annoying pet spider Drutt and the brilliant skulhead known as "Moany Boni". Together, all three wind up pitted against a host of strange, gross and downright odd monsters that emerged out of the titular Trap Door.

There are so many reasons why I adore this show, but I'll name two of them;

Firstly, it's stop-motion. This is proof of why the likes of Aardman are still around today - because they show time and again just what can be accomplished without the need of CGI; popular and far-advanced it has become now, there's still a great charm of seeing something hand-made brought to life before our eyes with time, care and patience. And the animation quality for The Trap Door especially is outstanding. No surprise that Terry Brian would later go to work for Aardman as an animator for Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run and Creature Comforts.

Second: Willie Rushton. The man was a legend at so many things - cartoonist, satirist, comedian, actor, co-founder of Private Eye magazine, favoured panellist of I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue, and much-adored voice actor of both animation and audiobooks. All voices (including monster-related) were performed by Rushton himself, and how wonderfully he brought each character to life. Even as far as providing "additional material" for every episode from start to finish. I wouldn't be surprised if a good amount of ad-libbing was involved here...!

In truth, it defiantly nails the "horror" theme, yet the surreal humour balances it out as only we British know how. Terry and Charlie would continue their mad streak with the equally bizarre "Stoppit and Tidyup".

The Trap Door only lasted for two seasons - but as the old saying goes, it was "Short but Sweet". And many still remember it fondly with good reasons =)


Tuesday, 24 September 2013

She's a Little Princess!

As mentioned in a previous blog post, next to David McKee, Tony Ross is one of Britain's top children's authors and illustrators. Tony's art style is easily recognisable as he's most famous (in this generation at least) for illustrating Francesca Simon's Horrid Henry series, as Quentin Blake has been for Roald Dahl and Nick Sharatt for Jacqueline Wilson. In fact, Tony has illustrated literally thousands of children's stories - even the semi-forgotten Story Teller series back in the 80's.

As for his writing, his own stories are just as colourful and whimsical, full of witty characters and mad (but clever) storylines. The maddest and funniest of all has to be Towser, but that's another story...

Some of his books were adapted, along with a few of David McKee's, for the wonderfully underrated Anytime Tales - which saw the animated debut of one of his best-loved characters, the Little Princess.

As with a great number of children's characters, the Little Princess started out as a series of books, which saw the Royal Miss eager to explore everything...and often than not, having to learn things as well. It came as no surprise that the character was brought to animation again in 2006 as an animated series, courtesy of Illuminated Films (who also brought to life The Very Hungry Caterpillar and the brilliant Prince Cinders). And thanks to script editor Rachel Murrell, she more or less ensured that the animation style was as faithful to Tony Ross's illustrations as possible when pitching the character for television.
Featuring the voices of squeaky Jane Horricks and Julian Clary as the Narrator, the series has been a rousing success for both Channel 5 and Tony Ross - and with the birth of the Royal Baby, there'll be no fear of this Little Princess being forgotten yet!


Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Blazing Dragons! (1996)

It is no surprise at all how much the team behind Monty Python's Flying Circus have influenced both the comedy and animation world with their surreal, off-the-wall, totally-and-utterly bonkers sketches and characters. In particular, their ventures on the big screen with Life Of Brian or - most famous of all - the Holy Grail.

In fact, one of the Python players, Terry Jones, seemed to have had an affection with the Holy Grail ever since it hit cinemas in 1975. So much so that, in way or another, he tried to keep the spirit of that movie alive through other projects of his own - which included an award-winning musical on stage.
But back in 1996, he developed a lesser-known animated series known as Blazing Dragons, and shortly after a Playstation Game as a supposed "tie-in". The game - even rarer than the series - was as close to the Python insanity as possible with a number of sexual innuendoes and eccentric characters. It also boasted of an impressive voice cast (including Terry himself).

Another famous parody of King Arthur, the game focused on the Dragon Knights of Castle Camelhot - in particular young Flicker, where the player has to solve puzzles and collect objects in order for him to become a knight, compete in the grand tournament and win the heart of Princess Flame. The game becomes more interesting when a plot to kidnap the princess is uncovered...

The cartoon of the same name was a little different. Unlike the game, much of the humour in the series wasn't as "risque". However, the air of Python was still there as evident in the theme tune - likely inspired by the Holy Grail's "Camelot" number - and the variety of characters involved. From the two-headed Jester, Cinder and Clinker, to the effeminate Sir Blaze (whose behaviour got the series into a spot of bother when it aired in the US...ahem!).

All the same, what the series offered was still jolly good fun - turning the tables (round or otherwise) of the Dragon vs. Knight scenario, which saw Camelhot under constant attack of the Evil Count Geoffrey, forcing Flicker and Princess Flame to save the day.

The show ran for two seasons on CITV in the UK and Toon Disney in the US, during which time Blazing Dragons underwent a complete makeover for the second season. Half-hour episodes were split into two 15-minute segments while characters were redesigned, downsized or removed altogether. The amount of changes made for Season 2 have either improved certain areas or just left viewers scratching their heads - fans especially bring up the dip of quality in the animation.

Otherwise, it's another wee gem that's worth relighting the fire, so far as DVD or TV repeats are concerned ;-)



Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Bugs Bunny in King Arthur's Court (1978)

Not long ago in August, writer / film curator Thad Komorowski reviewed an interesting book, Arthurian Animation, which oversaw how Camelot was "represented" and adapted for animation, from the Golden Age right through to the present day. You can read his review here.

And just for kicks, here's one such take on the King Arthur legend - Chuck Jones' "plagiarisation" of Mark Twain's 'A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court'. 

At the time it was made, Chuck Jones was doing fine running his own animation studio, with a number of TV Specials under his belt that long-time fans are often divided over. If not about story adaptation or animation timing then that "it wasn't as good as when Chuck directed cartoons in the theatres!"

In case of this particular half-hour, it may not have as much belly-laughs as 'Knight-Mare Hare' or as award-winning as Friz Freleng's 'Knighty-Knight Bugs'...but in Chuck's defence he was, in his own way, helping to keep the Looney Tunes in the public eye, as well as teaching up-and-coming animators all the knowledge and skills learnt from the former Termite Terrace.

And besides, at least he was producing some of the better efforts in animation around the time of the 70's, just before the Silver Age helped to pick things up again...

Personally, I've always preferred Disney's Sword in the Stone...!

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

King Rollo (1980)

David McKee is, in my mind, one of Britain's top children's writers / illustrators with a great many books and characters under his belt - Elmer the Patchwork Elephant, Mr Benn and of course King Rollo. The latter, in fact, was the name that David used when he started up his own animation studio, King Rollo Films Ltd, which saw adaptations of his stories, and that of Tony Ross. The company continues to create new shows for today's young generation - Maisy, Humf and Poppy Cat - each a little gem in their own right using the latest technology but maintaining the classic, gentle look of shows gone by.
King Rollo was one of the first characters the studio created. From the original series of books, it tells of the young-at-heart king who is always in need of assistance from his friends - the Magician, the Cook, Queen Gwen and King Frank. The stories were very simple but wonderfully read by Ray Brooks and animated superbly by Leo Beltoft in their (then) trademark cut-out style. It's a nice little series which shows the skill David McKee's crew could produce at such a small number involved.

Arguably, whenever this series is brought up, fans would always remember Hamlet the Cat, and with good reason - there's no fear of viewers getting bored with Hamlet close by, trying to get involved in the story with his on-screen antics!

A few of David McKee's programmes have been put to DVD already - Anytime Tales and the complete Mr Benn - but just recently folks have reported that a few more shows will be following suit this coming September...including, I'm happy to report, King Rollo himself. So whether you remember the series from old or am keen on sharing some "old school" with your little ones, you can't go wrong here!

Pre-order the following DVDs to come from Amazon!

Friday, 30 August 2013

Top 5 Seasons of Power Rangers

 Special Guest Contribution by Ryan!

Twenty years ago, five teenagers with attitude leapt on to our TV Screens and captured our imagination. Jason, Billy, Kimberly, Zack and Trini were the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, chosen by the great and powerful Zordon to battle the threat of Rita Repulsa – an evil space witch who wanted to enslave or destroy earth.

The show has survived cancellation three times – once in 1998, again in 2002 and more recently in 2009 when Disney sold the series back to Haim Saban who has gone on to produce Power Rangers Samurai and Power Rangers Mega Force. Twenty years on, I’m still as passionate about the series as I was when it first began – it’s legacy is impressive, and the Rangers still hold a place in the hearts and minds of big kids everywhere.

2013 – 2014 marks the 20th Anniversary of Power Rangers, so to celebrate, here’s my Top 5 Best seasons of the show so far:
5. Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers (1993 to 1995)

Purely from a standpoint of childhood nostalgia, I look back on Mighty Morphin’ very fondly. Having watched the series that Season 1 was adapted from, I can hardly say it did the source material justice but there were things that Mighty Morphin’ did very well – particularly in the first two seasons. The character-base was brilliant, the five teens with attitude were well defined and were interesting to watch. Each had their own unique personality and traits, brought something to the group the others didn’t or couldn’t, and made for a great viewing experience. There was comedy, drama, tension and awesome action scenes – what more could one ask for?

Despite being looked upon as being a one-dimensional series – MMPR saw the characters grow and develop over time. The character arc with Tommy was probably the thing I will remember most fondly about MMPR. The guy who started out evil, turned to the side of good, had his powers taken away, restored, drained for the last time, and then returned to lead the team as the White Ranger. Bulk and Skull went from being the token bullies who only served to annoy, to being fiercely determined to find out who the Power Rangers really were, and finally giving up on that dream to become Junior Police Officers.

For the most part, the villains weren’t dangerous – Goldar, Squat, Baboo and Rito Revolto in particular were just stupid and goofy, Finster seemed more content serving Rita than conquering the universe, and Rita Repulsa wasn’t as threatening as her Japanese counterpart. Lord Zedd kinda pushed the boundaries a little, brought that fear factor to the show and showed us what a really scary and dark villain was like – but was watered down toward the end of Season 2 due to complaints from parents that he was too scary.

A lot of fans look upon Mighty Morphin as being the definitive series of Power Rangers, but for me, it lacks the bite of the later seasons which are far better developed, structured and executed as a whole. For me, it has great nostalgia value, is a great reminder of the 1990s, and deserves it’s place as a Kid’s TV Classic, but it is far from being the best series of the show. The cast changes that took place over three years with four major characters being forced out or leaving of their own volition took its toll on the series, and by the time Zeo came around, the show was suffering for it. But the campiness, stupidity and fun was well worth the watching.

4. Power Rangers Lightspeed Rescue (2000)

Lightspeed Rescue wasn’t universally loved when it first came out. It was the first season to make a clean break from previous continuity, standing completely alone in the now-expanding Power Rangers universe. Whilst Power Rangers In Space had brought the end to six years of continuing storylines, Power Rangers Lost Galaxy was something of a hybrid – keeping a sense of continuity with Bulk, the Astro Megaship and even an Alpha Robot in the series. Lightspeed Rescue was the bold step forward with no ties to previous continuity – and had the first Power Ranger team created by human science and technology, and not magic.

For me, it’s a winner. It’s something new, different and exciting we never had before. It’s akin to movies where the Government has created Federal Agencies to tackle major threats from outer-space. In this case, it’s demons from our own planet who ruled the planet, and wish to reclaim the land their Palace was built on thousands of years previously, which is now the city of Mariner Bay.

The characters are adults – they have careers, skills, experience and attributes that they bring to the team – fire-fighting, expert-pilot, aquatic stunts, climber and a paramedic, they’re the best of the best – it’s not ‘teenagers with attitude’, it’s honouring real heroes who put their lives on the line every day of the week to keep us safe and I truly think Saban’s team did an excellent job in paying tribute to these people in choosing the characters they did. However, with the dynamics of the team and the way they have been thrown together, there’s still learning curves, obstacles to overcome and lessons to learn. The cast are well-chosen for their roles and work well together, and play off one another perfectly. There’s genuine chemistry here which reminds us of the original five Rangers from 1993.

Further to that, I believe it is the first Power Ranger season to follow the storyline of the Super Sentai original, which works perfectly here. The storyline is good enough to follow, and with some additions such as the Titanium Ranger (The first US-created Ranger), there was a depth to Lightspeed Rescue, which sets it apart from other Ranger seasons.

3. Power Rangers: Dino Thunder (2004)

Out of all the seasons that Disney produced, this one was by far my favourite. The villain, Mesagog is completely different to the villains who proceeded him, that being that he’s basically an experiment gone wrong, and became the living, breathing alter-ego of the scientist, Anton Mercer, who is at constant odds with the beast, who’s bent on bringing back the age of the Dinosaurs. He’s cold, he’s calculating, there’s nothing redeeming or humane about him – he’s just pure, unrepentant evil through and through.

In a bid to unify the universes of Disney and Saban, they brought back a fan-favourite – Tommy, to clock up his fifth incarnation as a Ranger – this time graduating to Black Ranger. Now, this as fan-service is awesome, but it also adds a new dimension to the series. Tommy acts as the team’s new mentor, passing on his years of experience as a Ranger, and being brutally honest, there’s no veteran Ranger better for a new team to learn from. Tommy was introduced to the franchise as a servant of evil, who suffered the painful loss of his powers twice – the first very quickly; the second, a more protracted affair. He then served as the team’s leader when he returned as the White Ranger, fought very different type of villain as the Red Zeo Ranger when the Machine Empire attacked earth, and sacrificed his powers mid-way through Turbo. He’s seen it, done it and printed the T-Shirt.

Dino Thunder is darker in tone than a lot of other Power Ranger seasons, with underlying storylines of resentment, rivalry and deeply hidden secrets, which rise up through the season, whilst still retaining the fun-factor with the comic-relief characters, Cassidy (Wannabe Reporter) and Devin (Hopelessly devoted sidekick, head over heels for her, locked in the ‘Friend Zone’ until the final episode).

However, it’s not without its flaws, mainly elements outwith the control of the production department – Jason David Frank, who plays Tommy had business commitments in the United States which meant he had to skip a large part of the shoot (Power Rangers has been shot in New Zealand since 2002), cue Tommy being frozen in an amber block, stuck in his Ranger suit for part of the season (even, it seems, unable to remove his helmet – as they do so frequently in the Command Chamber!) and for the latter part of his physical absence, turned invisible...! The other major flaw was the fact that despite Doug Sloan and Ann Austen’s attempt to veer away from the Sentai storyline for Abaranger (from which much of the footage is drawn) – when the White Ranger was introduced, they were forced to follow and comply. And even when they turned their White Ranger, Trent, to the side of good – the original Sentai footage saw their White Ranger continue on as a bad guy. The only way around it? Easy – clone him for American audiences...

On the whole, it’s one I’d recommend watching – characters are likeable, the episodes are well-written and the storyline is killer, right until the end.

2. Power Rangers Time Force (2001)

Time Force is an excellent season of Power Rangers. At the time, this raised the bar for the standard of a Power Ranger season. A mutant criminal, Ransik, from the Year 3000 breaks free from police custody and proceeds to take over a prison full of cryogenically frozen mutants, and is bent on taking them all back with him to the year 2001, where there is no Time Force Police to stop him. After ‘killing’ the original Time Force Red Ranger, Alex, his fiancée, Jen takes it upon herself and three of her colleagues – Trip, Lucas and Katie to chase him back in time, against the orders of her commanding officer. When they arrive in 2001, they are stranded, and try to activate the Time Force morphers – but cannot do so as the DNA code is locked and cannot be activated without a Red Ranger.

This is when Wes, Alex’s ancestor from 2001 comes to the fore. Jen tracks him down, begs him to use the morpher in order to unlock the others. He eventually does so, but quickly has it snatched back from him after Jen deems him unworthy of being part of the team. This is of course until Wes comes to realise himself that he has nothing to fight for, and never has done – having lived a life of privilege from birth. But he still has a personal struggle – his father will not allow him to carve out his own destiny, and continues to control him. Wes makes the bold step to walk away from his father and joins the Rangers in their new clocktower home.

Time Force is all about carving out your own destiny. The Rangers are fully aware that when they go back to the year 3000, a lot will have changed in terms of world history – all brought about by Ransik’s rampaging army, and their own interactions with people in this time frame. The stories and subplots are fantastic, from Katie’s (Yellow Ranger) fears about the changing of the future; Trip’s (Green Ranger) feelings about his inadequacies, and position within the group and Jen and Wes’s growing attraction to one another. It’s also the first time we see a sixth ranger who is almost completely peripheral to the team – Eric (The Quantum Ranger), who is bent on driving himself to the top of his profession and impressing his boss – Mr Collins, Wes’s dad, who has formed a group called the Silver Guardians.

Possibly for me, the best plot would have to be the changing relationship between Wes and his father. Mr Collins discovers that Wes is a Time Force Ranger, and doesn’t know how to take it, but later goes onto form his own group which charges a premium to protect the City – The Silver Guardians. Initially, he invites Wes to lead the team and bring the Rangers with him, believing they could make a fortune. Wes disagrees with this, knowing his work as a Ranger is a voluntary sense of duty. It does not stop Mr Collins making the others an offer however, which they begin to seriously consider before turning it down to stick with Wes. However, over time, Mr Collins does begin to understand Wes’s reasons for wishing to carve out his own destiny, and in a heated exchange with Ransik, who’s invaded his lab in search of a serum which he sorely needs to survive, he ends up fighting for his life after telling the mutant how proud he is of his son.

Eric himself has a lot to prove and fights alone for much of the series, reluctant to work with the Time Force Rangers. He’s struggled all his life and continues to do so, he does not want pity, he wants to be admired for what he’s going to achieve. As Quantum Ranger, he takes up the leadership of the Silver Guardians and ups Mr Collins’ ability to tackle Ransik’s threats.

Ransik replaced the Japanese leading villain, who still appears in the show, but in a reduced role. He’s a complex character, shunned by society who rejected him for being a mutant and later became responsible for a criminal empire of mutants who decided to fight back against the oppressive human race. He himself, however, has a lot to answer for – after being bitten by another mutant and almost being killed, a scientist took pity on him and gave him a serum which saved his life – in recompense, Ransik killed the scientist and burnt down his laboratory. Little does he know, that scientist would later become one of his own followers, Frax, the robot who would become so bitter toward Ransik’s cruel and bitter treatment that he would try to destroy Ransik and the Power Rangers himself.

Time Force is just an excellent adaptation of the Super Sentai series TimeRanger, which follows the same storyline, and has a very positive message accompanying the series throughout – choose your own path and know no fear!

1. Power Rangers In Space (1998)

By 1998, the show was facing cancellation – Turbo had been a flop and the series’ popularity was waning. The Producers were given one more year and season to wrap things up in a satisfactory fashion – and despite having their budget slashed, they produced one of the best Power Ranger seasons in the history of the show, and put right a lot of the problems that had plagued Turbo.

Power Rangers In Space sees the villains from the past five seasons grouped together as The United Alliance Of Evil – a group bent on conquering the Universe, led by the Dark Spectre. The season follows on from where Turbo left off – Zordon’s been captured, the Rangers have lost their powers and Dark Spectre is seeking a new commander to follow on Divatox’s success and complete the conquest of earth. Despite Rita Repulsa and Divatox battling it out for the job, he chooses the up and coming Astronema to finish the job. However, they’ve reckoned without the Red Space Ranger, Andros, who eventually lets the earth Rangers join him and provides them with new powers to take on Astronema, and track down Zordon.

In six years of Power Rangers, we had nothing like this before. Storylines would unravel over time and provide a deeper and darker series of stories, which continued throughout the course of the season. Our Red Ranger for this season is a refugee from a planet conquered by the United Alliance of Evil, and now fighting back against them in rebellion for his people.

Villains like Ecliptor, Astronema’s General, were dangerous, intelligent and deadly, not like the goofy, stupid and dimwitted characters who had been there previously. Worse still, villains like Darkonda were plain nasty, wicked and uncompromising in pursuit of their goals – even if it meant hurting or even killing those who considered him their ally. Astronema as a leading villain was an interesting concept – we would later find out that she was in fact the Red Ranger’s long lost sister, who had been kidnapped years before and brainwashed for the side of evil – abducted by Darkonda and raised by Ecliptor, who despite his harsh exterior, truly loved and cared for her as only a father-figure could.

The Rangers who took over from the previous team also came into their own at this point – you were endeared to them, they had more personality, vibrancy and character to their credit, and the new character, Andros, was a worthy Red Ranger. Even the introduction of the sixth ranger was more interesting than what we had had before – Andros had kept a secret from his team mates. His best friend Zhane, who had been his partner in crime-fighting as the Silver Ranger, had been mortally wounded in battle and frozen in ice to preserve his body until a cure could be found to help him. Even when he is revived, he finds his powers are limited and he finds he can only fight for two and a half minutes before unmorphing – and so he needs to find a solution to the problem before he falls prey to the enemy.

Probably the best part of the Power Rangers In Space saga was the Psycho Rangers. Five monsters linked to the Space Rangers who provided this team with the greatest challenge any team has had to face to date. The battle against this opposing team was prolonged, kept the Rangers on their toes and saw them faced with several moments when they would seriously have to use their intelligence and skill to defeat the enemy – including a full-team colour change to blue!

As a final series, it did have some fan-service. We saw Johnny Yong Bosch return as Adam, morphing into the Mighty Morphin’ Black Ranger again, and Justin made a return to tie-up loose-ends from Turbo. Probably my favourite team-up was the one they did with the Ninja Turtles – if you haven’t seen it, go on Netflix, buy a DVD or look it up on YouTube if it’s still there, it’s a good episode.

Countdown to Destruction was intended to be the final episode of Power Rangers, and for the first time ever, we saw what was likely to happen when earth finally did fall to its knees. The situation is hopeless, the universe is in the grip of a massive invasion of evil forces, and planets across our solar system are held by the Dark Spectre. Andros finally finds Zordon, and he urges Andros to destroy his energy tube. This pretty much marks the end of an era as Zordon’s energy wave spreads throughout the galaxy and wipes out the forces of evil we’ve known and loved to hate for six years. It’s a satisfying conclusion to the journey.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Ric the Raven (1989)

Personally speaking, while I happily accept cartoons with clever word-play and mad personalties, I've mostly favoured visual humour on account of it's so much fun and easier to draw or write. And in terms of storytelling, they get through scenes and gags much quicker than having characters over-explain everything. To coin a phrase: "Actions speak louder than words."

Pantomime cartoons have always had a great appeal to the International Market, spanning back as far as the Black-and-White days of Charlie Chaplin - given that they barely contain any dialogue to translate, it makes them very easy to air across the world. The Pink Panther, Nudnik, Tom and Jerry, Chuck Jones' Road Runner and Coyote...these would all knock the likes of Spongebob for six should one find wall-to-wall dialogue extremely taxing. They have also inspired many modern-day "silent" works such as Oggy and the Cockroaches, Bernard and even Scrat of Ice Age fame.

They also inspired King Rollo Films to create their own "silent" cartoon back in the late 80's. Co-produced by German Studios Ravensburger Films / Videal GmbH Production, it follows the adventures of Ric, an optimistic blue raven who, as with many characters that weren't limited to singular settings or "guidelines", was placed anywhere in a variety of roles - as a Pilot, a Viking, a Thief, a Knight and many others - where he somehow stumbles through even the simplest of jobs in a series of frantic "sqwarks". Along the way he was regularly assisted / pestered by a trio of short bearded men, who seem like a cross between Bill Oddie and the Oompa-Loompas...  =P

Ric's career started out as a series of 30-second shorts - as were most of King Rollo Films's shows at the time, these were animated in a "cut-out" style; similar to Oliver Postgate's Ivor the Engine, for example. Then soon after, Ric was extended to five-minute shorts with full hand-drawn animation. All in all, it's a terrific series, which features the sparkling talents of Duncan Lamont, David McKee and David Bull, and which follows the comical spirit of the Pink Panther / Looney Tunes very nicely.

Ric originally aired first on Channel 4, then GMTV Kids for ITV, and then Tiny Living for Satellite Television, but he remains very popular in Germany to this day - so much so that he even has his own Digital Channel plus Website, which also airs a variety of other European cartoons. Suffice to say, it's impressive how far that little Raven has flown since 1989!

Friday, 2 August 2013

Animal Stories

Considering the number of British Animation Studios that have sadly shut up shop in recent years, it's always heartening to know that a few are still going strong in spite of "Economy this", "Taxes that" - and so I was delighted to learn that Collingwood O'Hare (now under its new name, Collingwood & Co) are still creating new content for today's watching generation. As of 2010, they've been quite busy with The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That!

But for those unfamiliar with their work, Tony Collingwood and Christopher O'Hare are the same chaps who were behind the 1996 Dennis the Menace animated series, along with The Secret Show, Oscar's Orchestra and the lesser-spotted Captain Zed and the Zee Zone. They have also done extremely well in the pre-school market for UK Animation, and have won acclaimed awards for Gordon the Garden Gnome, The Magic Key and Yoko! Jakamoto! Toto!

Animal Stories is another of their shows that deserves some attention. First aired on CITV in 1998, this series follows the everyday lives and problems of a variety of animals with every short story told in rhyme. With its gentle wit, cute character designs and well-chosen storytellers (the UK had Sir Nigel Hawthorne while the US Alan Marriott, the latter who would become super-spy "Victor" for The Secret Show), it was another winner thanks to creators Chris O'Hare and Trevor Ricketts, as well as Tony Collingwood for developing it for TV.

So here's to Collingwood & Co - may you continue on your winning streak for many more years to come!



Friday, 26 July 2013

Mike Pearse - Dennis's Big Birthday Party

The Beano will be celebrating 75 years in print this month...so I decided to mark the occasion as only I know how.

While this issue doesn't exactly celebrate the Beano's birthday, it does for one of its top characters, Dennis the Menace - who turned 50 years old in 2001 at the time this storyline was printed.

BTW, for Mike Pearse fans, if you haven't already check out his guest comic strip for the Doctor Who Fanzine Fish Fingers and Custard - "Cyberman No.3"!

Friday, 19 July 2013

Muddled Up Muddle Earth

A long while ago, I brought up the subject of adapting books / comic book characters to media - whether for the small screen or the big screen, almost always the Producers in charge will decide, for reasons many of us will never know, to take the original content in a completely different direction resulting in varied reviews.

This is one of them.
The original 'Muddle Earth' book cover
Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell are a fantastic writing / drawing duo, who have brought to our bookshelves a great collection of children's books - these include The Edge Chronicles, The Blobheads, Far Flung Adventures and Barnaby Grimes. Another popular title of theirs is Muddle Earth; first published in 2003, it is an unabashed parody of the famous Lord Of The Rings series and, like so, is split into three sections to read.

For anyone who has read Paul and Chris's books, you can be guaranteed of sparkling imagination, humour and adventure each and every time. Chris Riddell's illustrations add more to the fantastical creatures they manage to conjure up. So popular was their novel that it soon earned itself a sequel - Muddle Earth Too! - published in 2011.

So when news came that the BBC were to produce an animated series of the book in 2010, I was readily excited for a number of reasons;

  • This would have been the BBC's first in-house production during the Credit Crunch, with music performed by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra.
  • David Jason (Count Duckula, Toad of Toad Hall, one half of 'Victor and Hugo') would be part of the voice cast, playing the bumbling wizard Randalf.

With all of this in mind, you'd think it would have been a success, wouldn't you?

...dream on.
When the series did premier - I was furious, absolutely beside myself. The entire Tolkeinesque story of Joe, a boy summoned to Muddle Earth by Randalf the Wizard to become a "warrior hero", was dashed completely for an episodic adventure-of-the-week format - which saw instead Randalf, his assistant Newt and the ogre Norbert the Not-Very-Big trying to protect Muddle Earth against the Evil Dr. Cuddles.

I just didn't see why the original Muddle Earth, which was so carefully planned, laid out and developed throughout, was thrown out of the window completely. Besides the fact that Chris and Paul put a lot of effort into their works, it's been too, too long since we've seen an animated series with an on-going storyline that would have made excellent viewing compared to what CBBC were airing at the time. Heck, it would have happily made up three seasons worth of episodes per section.

But what was worse was the animation. Co-produced by Manchester-based Hullabaloo Studios, the quality of the final output was what one would have expected from a low-budget computer game.
To add insult to injury, London-based studio Freakish Kid produced a Muddle Earth sample reel when going after the animation contract...and comparing their work to what was made for the series, I kept thinking; "The BBC rejected these guys for this!!?"

The additional CGI made no difference either; the 2D animation was as plain as a pikestaff, and did no justice to Chris Riddell's superb character designs whatsoever. In fact, their attempts to to cover up the lacklustre quality with "epic zoom-ins" almost gave me seizure.

I'm aware, of course, that the writers and voice cast did their best in spite of the decisions made, but I just couldn't stomach the visuals beyond the first season. The BBC's one chance to revive interest in home-grown animation, and look what happens...

Still, what comes around goes around, I suppose. BBC's Muddle Earth only lasted two seasons - with, excluding their "official" website, little to show for it, not even a DVD release - and Hullaballo Studios unfortunately closed down soon after, which saw Factory TransMedia take up residence in their place.
Muddle Earth - 2006 version
It's still a great shame because I would have happily had Jackanory 2006 pick up where they left off - the CGI animation might not be of Dreamworks quality, but at least the rest of the story would have been told more faithfully. AND...it's on DVD, along with The Magician Of Samarkand. That shows you, doesn't it?


Sunday, 7 July 2013

Mr Men Parody Concept Sketches

As a freelance artist, I'm always going after different roles / opportunists whenever I can - whether it's in relation to what I enjoy doing most (character design, storyboarding) or something to hopefully build up new skills (graphic design et al), I'm always keen to try anything once and to constantly keep on my toes.

Way back in late 2010, I applied an ad to design a series of characters for an article, which parodied the classic Mr Men and Little Miss series with other common human foibles. I was provided with a list of names and then worked my magic with them. I had no idea what happened soon after, but below are the masses of sketchy ideas I drew up along with some colour samples (while I was still building up my Photoshop skills at the time!) :