Voice Acting Analysis: Voltron Legendary Defender-“Crystal Venom” (MAJOR SPOILERS)

Welcome back to Voice Acting Analysis, everyone! Today we’re looking at the recently released Voltron: Legendary Defender, a spectacular reboot of the admittedly cut-and-paste 80s series about giant lion robots who kick lots of ass. It’s gotten quite a large fanbase already thanks to its clever, insightful writing of lovable characters, gorgeous animation from Studio Mir (The Legend of Korra), and a top-tier voice cast. Top to bottom, I can’t think of a weak link. Today I’ll be looking at a relatively isolated episode to more fully dig into the cast from a general sense and in both this specific story, which is quite excellent.

“CRYSTAL VENOM”

Summary: The Voltron crew is attempting to get information out of their captured prisoner, the Galran commander Sendak, through a link with a Galra crystal he brought aboard. However, strange things begin happening in the castle, and the question of what is real and what isn’t may have deadly consequences…..

Analysis

Josh Keaton (Takashi “Shiro” Shirogane)-More than a few people have wryly commented that this isn’t the first time Josh has played a “space dad” to a bunch of misfits, having been Hal Jordan in that capacity on the late, lamented Green Lantern: The Animated Series (why no, I’m not still bitter). But Shiro is a distinctly different character from Hal in a number of ways. Hal was an adult who had major responsibilities, but you were never in doubt that he would be able to handle them mostly maturely. Shiro, by contrast, is the survivor of an alien abduction on the Kerberos space mission, tortured and experimented on and forced to fight for a year before escaping somehow (there’s a lot of mystery to his character, let’s just say), having to try and remember a lot of it. But he’s also a mentor figure to this ragtag crew, trying to hold them together and be an inspiration. And he is that, Josh doing a smooth “leader” voice like he often does that works rather wonderfully for taking command and encouraging his team, as well as a certain geeky enthusiasm at points. But Shiro is clearly still heavily impacted by his time abroad, with some pretty major PTSD issues; it’s tough to say how much of his leaderly skills are him trying to keep things together in his own head to try and act like everything is okay when it’s clearly not. Nowhere is that shown better than here. In a confrontation with Sendak (who may or may not actually be speaking to him psychically), Josh adopts a panicked, paranoid fervor as the commander taunts him about being a supposed monster, finally escalating into a frightened “STOP IT!” It’s stellar work in a tense scene.

Steven Yeun (Keith)-Steven, known primarily for shows like The Walking Dead, made his voice acting debut on Korra as the first Avatar, Wan, and did an excellent job there, playing the role with lots of heart and humor. Keith is a bit of a shift in terms of personality. He’s quiet. Terse. Rough. Doesn’t suffer fools gladly. And Steven does a fantastic job with all of that; those characters are often hard to play, but he finds the humanity in Keith’s exasperation (especially my favorite line delivery in the entire season: “We had a bonding moment! I cradled you in my arms!”), fear/confusion, and even some honest laughs. He doesn’t get a whole lot to play around with here, but he does nicely with material like insulting Lance’s intelligence, impatience at how long it’s taking to extract info, being alarmed at the training robot suddenly trying to murder him, and comparing notes with Lance on what the castle’s been doing.

Jeremy Shada (Lance)-It’s aaaaaadventure time! Joking aside, Jeremy plays Lance in some very different and fun ways from his most famous role as Finn on that particular Cartoon Network show. Lance is a lot more openly gregarious and flirtatious than Finn often is, and puberty has added an additional slice of fun to Jeremy’s voice and performing style. As a result, Lance is sort of the designated comedy punch-up character, though the great thing about the show is that everyone gets to be funny in their own ways. His flirting frequently sucks/gets him into trouble and his comebacks are lame. But Lance does deserve to be a paladin, and Jeremy has a wonderful sincerity to his performance as well that makes the rough edges of the character more palatable. This episode is largely a comedy highlight for him, screaming in terror and being quite Done with the state of the castle trying to kill them, but there’s still a great little sincere moment where he thinks Coran is in trouble and tries to help him (it’s the castle imitating Coran’s voice, but A for effort, Lance).

Tyler Labine (Hunk)-Mostly a live action actor in Canadian/co-Canadian productions, Tyler’s had a few voice acting gigs here and there (such as an enthusiastic sports announcer type in Monsters University), but this is easily his best thus far. He’s got a nicely rough, cheery voice, and the sensitive yet canny Hunk is a good match for it, in both moments like when he’s complaining about possibly throwing up,  when he’s discovering just how important it is that they fight, or explaining why he suspected two bounty hunters as being liars from the start. His work here is pretty much all comedy-based, bemoaning goo food trying to kill them or insisting that he not kick Pidge because of a misunderstanding, but it’s all delivered with great aplomb.

Bex Taylor-Klaus (Pidge)-There’s a bit of a twist with this version of Pidge, traditionally depicted as male (most hilariously in the original 80s English version, where the character has what is best described as a chain-smoking Muppet voice) which has led to all manner of speculation and headcanons. Turns out this version is, at this point (using “she” pronouns for the moment myself), a girl, having dressed as male to go undercover at the Garrison to try and find out what happened to her brother and father, who were on the Kerberos mission with Shiro. I think I can say that Bex, primarily known for appearing on series such as Arrow, IZombie, and the Scream show on MTV, makes one of the best VA debuts I’ve heard in ages. She’s got a lovely mixture of high and low tones to her voice, and is brilliant from the first moment, capturing all the smarts, sardonic humor, rage, and sensitivity of the character wonderfully. It’s no wonder Pidge is such a fan favorite, frankly. She gets some pretty fun stuff to do here dealing with the castle attempting to inconvenience or murder them all, including possibly my favorite Pidge line of the entire series: “Curse my short arms!”

Kimberly Brooks (Princess Allura)-I was both surprised and pleased when I heard about this casting. Usually this kind of role goes to your Tara Strongs, your Grey DeLisles, your Jennifer Hales. Kimberly is an absolutely wonderful, but I’d honestly say  vastly underappreciated black VA who’s been putting in consistently great work for years on shows like Scooby-Doo, Doc McStuffins, and Steven Universe, and in games like Mass Effect or the Arkham series where she’s Barbara Gordon/Oracle. For her to get a role like this is fantastic. And Allura is a terrific character on top of it, a princess who has a rich emotional inner life and range as well as getting to really kick some ass. Kimberly adopts a pseudo-British accent for the role, and while one can occasionally hear her slip, it adds a real distinct flavor to the performance in both dramatics and occasional comedy. She gets probably the most meat of the episode since the climax involves shutting down the AI of the castle-ship, which has become corrupted and is about to kill them all….but it contains all her father’s uploaded memories and personality. While most of this heartbreaking decision is shown through gorgeous, saddening visuals, Kimberly absolutely nails the tearful goodbye. Next to Bex, it’s my favorite performance of the episodes and probably the series.

Rhys Darby (Coran)-A New Zealand-born comedian and actor, Rhys is probably best known for projects like HBO’s Flight of the Conchords. Not having seen that, I can only speak to my experience of his presence here, and what a delightful one it is. Coran is one of those interesting combinations of a prim-and-proper military attitude with a skewed, overreacting way of looking at the world. Rhys, with his genuine Kiwi accent adding a flavor much like Brooks’ faux-Britishness, manages to do this high-wire act while making it seem almost effortless. He can snap into or out of all-business, nutty, oddly sincere, or sometimes all three at once. Coran has some fun stuff here, like blathering on about old times (he does this a lot) and then attempting to explain to a skeptical Lance why the castle couldn’t be haunted because it has strange mystical properties that they’ll never fully understand…which he realizes DOES make it sound haunted. He also gets some wonderful moments of sincerity and urgency as he tries to snap Allura out of her trance to realize that Alfor’s corrupted AI has tricked her.

Jake Eberle (Sendak)-Jake is an actor who dabbles in a lot of different types of things; outside of his voice acting, he’s probably best known as a sound editor. For Sendak, he adopts a tough, gruff voice that’s well-suited for his brand of villainy in the early episodes as a sort of mid-boss the paladins have to deal with. He gets some really interesting notes to play here, though, taunting Shiro about his supposed weakness and the terrible things he did during his time fighting as a gladiator for the Galra. It’s really eerie and unsettling, with Jake bringing a gloating menace full-force.

Keith Ferguson (King Alfor)-A lot of the additional voices in the series don’t get credited, sadly, although some are fairly easy to pick out due to their prominence (Norman Reedus and Lacey Chabert as the aforementioned bounty hunters, for instance). Keith is fairly consistent as an additional voice in the series, and Alfor certainly sounds like he COULD be him (as does the Garrison commander in the early episodes), so we’ll go with that for now. Keith has been around for a while, first coming into prominence as Bloo in Foster’s Home For Imaginary Friends and having done a little bit of everything since (currently he’s Reaper in Overwatch). He adopts a kingly, regal voice similar to Allura’s accent for Alfor, but the nice thing here is that with the corrupted AI, he gets to put a different spin on things (after displaying the regular attitude in the opening scene with them conversing). What’s curious is that outside of one moment of anger towards the other paladins as he tells them to get away from Allura, there’s not anything directly sinister about his performance. It’s just….off. Creepy. Not like Alfor (as Allura says as the episode closes). Very impressive, eerie work.

That’s all for Voltron for now. Next time….well, honestly having a bit of trouble figuring that out. So let’s just say it’ll be a surprise.

Voice Acting Analysis: Young Justice-“Independence Day/Fireworks”

Welcome back to Voice Acting Analysis! This week we’ll be covering a series that is equal parts joy and frustration to me: the DC Comics-based Young Justice. It’s a largely excellent, focused team teenaged superhero show in its first season, but the second season attempts to do SO much with a lot more characters and an alien invasion plot in less time (20 episodes vs. Season 1’s 26) that it ultimately feels rushed and unsatisfying in a number of ways (I also firmly believe such a large timeskip of five years was a creative mistake) outside of aesthetic qualities. Thankfully, said qualities are often enough to carry the show even through its issues. One of them is a stacked, fantastic voice cast from top to bottom in both seasons. I can’t think of a single weak link in the entire ensemble from a pure performance standpoint (characterization is another matter; I’m not as fond of some of the writing for a few of the characters, but that’s mostly me being picky). On to these first episodes!

“INDEPENDENCE DAY/FIREWORKS”

Episode Summary: Robin, Speedy, Kid Flash, and Aqualad are excited to finally be brought into the Justice League’s Earthbound headquarters, the Hall of Justice. However, Speedy becomes dissatisfied at what he feels is them still being treated like sidekicks and storms off, vowing to become a solo hero. When a fire at Cadmus’ laboratories breaks out, the other teen heroes decide to investigate….and find much more than they ever anticipated.

Analysis

Jesse McCartney (Robin/Dick Grayson)-Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. Jesse McCartney? As Robin? I was skeptical too, believe me (especially since we had just dodged a bullet of him being replaced by Dev Patel as Zuko in the live-action Last Airbender fiasco, which would have even been MORE unfitting). But the writing is very specifically tailored to Jesse’s high-pitched voice, and Jamie Thomason (who cast this series as well as having casting/directing duties on some of the other Weisman-produced shows like Gargoyles and The Spectacular Spider-Man) directs him in those specific ways. This Robin/Dick is arguably more like Batman than he realizes, although he has more delight in that. He’s annoying in a believably teenaged way (for instance, his tic of taking prefixes out of words can get a bit annoying both in and out of universe, much like a later character’s use of a sitcom catchphrase, though neither is really THAT awful). Yet there’s still that genuine heroism and goodness underneath, which Jesse manages to capture quite well too. It’s not my favorite performance among the core group of young heroes, but it’s very solid work nonetheless.

Khary Payton (Aqualad/Kaldur’ahm)-I’ve been a fan of Khary ever since his breakout role as Cyborg on the 2003 Teen Titans cartoon; the entire show had an amazing voice cast (one of the few bright spots of the current Teen Titans Go! cartoon is that cast chemistry), but Khary was undoubtedly one of the group highlights as the bombastic “BOO YAH”-ing hero. Fast-forward and his characterization for this new version of Aqualad is basically the complete opposite: pensive and self-serious. It’s not exactly a completely different “voice”; there’s less attitude and the pitch is deeper, but it’s still recognizably Khary. More than anything, he sounds like a leader, so it makes a lot of sense that he eventually becomes it in the series’ fourth episode. He and another person we’ll get to shortly are my favorite performances in the whole show.

Jason Spisak (Kid Flash/Wally West)Once known for largely working in anime dubs like Zatch Bell!, Jason has migrated more to Western cartoons in recent years (he also did a lot of and continues to do videogame work when he was still dubbing anime), with this and Razer in the excellent Green Lantern: The Animated Series being some of his most prominent work in that arena (he was also a wonderfully arrogant but pathetic Justin Hammer on Avengers Assemble). He’s got a nice youthful sound to his voice, and he mercifully doesn’t do that thing super-speed characters sometimes do in cartoons where they TALK really fast because “lol fast amirite?”, but he’s still got that livewire energy yet sincere heroism; later on in the series, he also makes Wally’s horribly flirtatious nature go down slightly easier. At this early stage, he’s not my favorite (he gets some STELLAR bits later on, trust me), but he’s a nice lighter addition to the team.

Nolan North (Superboy, Superman)-Superboy (later taking the civilian name of “Conner Kent”) is perhaps my favorite character in the entire series. I have a soft-spot for grumpy-ass characters who nonetheless strive to be good and heroic people, and Nolan (who started doing voice acting heavily after a soap opera he was on, a General Hospital spin-off called Port Charles, got cancelled, and in about a decade has been in nearly everything under the sun) is very very good at that kind of role. Superboy is often a raw nerve, especially in these episodes as he’s still shaking off his programming as a clone of Superman, but even at this early stage you can sense the desire, the need to be a hero; my favorite line reading of his is his veiled threat to the League when they appear to be about to stop the sidekicks from going on further missions: “Why let them tell us what to do? It’s simple: get on board…or get out of the way.” Nolan, as a result of the whole clone thing, also plays Superman/Clark Kent in the series, and it’s also quite nicely done, especially since they let Supes be kind of not very nice about the whole situation (though he’s called on it, his feelings are understandable, and he eventually warms to the boy), though I far prefer his work as Superboy. Easily my favorite next to Khary in the whole show.

Crisipin Freeman (Speedy/Roy Harper, Guardian/Jim Harper)-This was in the middle of a period where Crispin, one of my absolute favorite VAs ever, was showing up in a LOT of Western shows, and even though those seem to have dried up outside of his occasional guest spots as Connie’s father on Steven Universe, it was wonderful to hear his distinctive, rich tones in shows like this, the aforementioned Spectacular Spider-Man, Scooby-Doo Mystery Incorporated, and Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. The character of Roy has a lot of spoiler territory attached to him that I won’t get into here, but he does an excellent job establishing the role here, with one of the best, most tense scenes in the episodes as he reads the League the riot act for still treating them like children and sidekicks (as well as admonishing the other teen heroes for not standing up to it), then storming out in disgust. Crispin also does a good job of playing the Guardian of Cadmus (who we later learn is Roy’s uncle) with basically the same voice, but ever-so-slightly older and with a different, more authoritarian but reasonable attitude when “normal”, then harsher and angrier when being mind controlled to attack the team.

Bruce Greenwood (Batman/Bruce Wayne)-The celebrated Canadian actor (he’s one of those “hey, it’s that guy!” faces) did an excellent job of making this role unique vocally and not just like he was chasing the near-definitive Kevin Conroy voice/portrayal in the DTV film Batman: Under the Red Hood (his speech near the end of why he’s never killed the Joker is as good as any speech Conroy’s ever had). I’m glad he got to have another, more extended shot at it; he’s quite an excellent, if harsh, mentor to the teens throughout the first season and Bruce’s gruff but fatherly tones help bring this across. He’s not quite as prominent here, but he still gets some good lines in, like his exposition at the end (in general, he does a good job with making the exposition feel natural, since he has a lot of it as the missions director).

Alan Tudyk (Green Arrow/Oliver Queen)-Alan’s actually done quite a bit of voicework over the course of his career, most notably his current status as Disney Animation’s John Ratzenberger-like “good luck charm”, having appeared in four (and, with Moana this fall, five) of their most recent CGI animated films in various roles. He has a good “clear” voice that he can take in a number of different directions, be it a straightforward hero like Barry Allen in Batman: The Brave and the Bold, a hammy villain like King Candy in Wreck-It Ralph, or a conflicted individual like Sonny, the best character in the otherwise standard Hollywood-ized “adaptation” of I, Robot. He doesn’t get a whole ton of stuff to do as Ollie over the course of the series, but he does a good job with what he’s given here, like mischievously making a bad pun, sheepishly apologizing for revealing a secret, or trying to reassure Roy.

Phil LaMarr (Aquaman, Dubbilex)-Phil has a good story about how he auditioned for Aqualad/Kaldur in this series and that he was bummed about not getting the part at first, but realized that Khary was better for it. At any rate, he’s definitely a strong fit for this version of Aquaman: strong, noble, and deep, and he does that very well. But I find his work as Dubbilex, the mutinous geo-gnome, somewhat more intriguing. It’s softer and has a bit of an unidentified accent, but I like what Phil brings to the role in still giving the diminutive creature a presence and authority as a leader within his community (perhaps creating a parallel to how the teens feel similarly powerless, but are capable of quite a lot).

Rene Auberjonois (Dr. Desmond)-Much like Bruce Greenwood, Rene is one of those “that guy” actors who’s been in EVERYTHING over the course of his long, long career (most notably to geeks as the Changeling Odo on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), including quite a bit of VA work. He has a very distinctive, clipped voice that he tends to default to while still making characters distinct (my favorite bizarre role is his Frenchified chef Louis in Disney’s The Little Mermaid, kicking ass with one of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s silliest yet darkest songs Les Poissons), and that fits quite well for the arrogant, ultimately in over his head scientist. It’s honestly a shame he has to go through that whole mindless monster transformation for the action climax. I would have liked to see and hear more of him.

Miscellaneous-A number of minor roles get filled in on the sidelines, including Keith Szarabajika as an intimidating Mr. Freeze, Yuri Lowenthal as Icicle Jr. (nicely petulant and he’ll get a bigger role later on), CSI’s George Eads as Barry Allen/The Flash (fine, if very straightforward), Miguel Ferrer and Mark Rolston as as-yet-unidentified villainous voices, and Kevin Michael Richardson as J’onn J’onnz/Martian Manhunter (deep, yet soft and very fitting). Danica McKellar also gets a very quick intro bit as Miss Martian/M’Gann, sounding soft and likable.

Overall, the two-part series premiere is both an excellent intro to our heroes, villains, and the actors at large. Whatever its faults, the show was always on point with its voice acting. Next time on this feature, we’ll be discussing the new Netflix series Voltron: Legendary Defender, based on the classic 80s anime hodgepodge and produced by the crew and studio of The Legend of Korra sans Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. It has an incredibly stacked cast and legendary director Andrea Romano at the helm, so I’m sure we’ll be in for a treat on that score.

Voice Acting Analysis: Steven Universe-“Keystone Motel” (SPOILERS AHOY)

Welcome to Voice Acting Analysis! This is a new feature I’ve decided to try out in terms of flexing my muscles on one of my favorite subjects in regards to animation: voice acting. Just as crucial a component to an animated character’s emotional life and heft as the design and movement, voice acting can be often underappreciated in reviews and critiques of animation, though in some areas that has started to change due to the Internet allowing a much wider information network for people wanting to know who has voiced which character. This feature will be looking at all sorts of products: movies, TV episodes (doing an entire series would be a fool’s errand, critiquing an episode lets me get much more specific), shorts, and I may even look at original web content.

We’ll start things off with Rebecca Sugar’s Steven Universe, a show that is unique in a number of ways, up to and including voice acting. While the series does employ a number of actors who have experience in either animation or other voicework areas (such as Zach Callison, Grace Rolek, Kimberly Brooks, Susan Egan, Michaela Dietz, Brian Posehn, and others), it primarily eschews what we might call “career voice actors”, people like Tara Strong, Rob Paulsen, Kevin Michael Richardson (although he appears in the “Say Uncle” ‘crossover’ with Uncle Grandpa), and many, many others. The series instead casts a much wider net, going for stage actors, singers, radio personalities, comedians, and basically anyone who has an interesting vocal presence. As much as I love the career voice actors mentioned above, it IS great to hear such a variety of talent, and many of them are now people I would absolutely love to hear in more animated projects.

The specific episode in question is “Keystone Motel” which I chose primarily because it has a lot of great actors working off of each other and getting great, emotional material to sink their teeth into. I’ll be examining each actor’s performance throughout the episode, even if their contributions only amount to a few lines, and pointing out specific moments or deliveries that I think are particularly  nice and relevant in my analysis.

“KEYSTONE MOTEL”

Episode Summary: With Garnet still angry at Pearl for her deception in “Cry for Help”, she goes on a road trip with Steven and Greg to the Keystone state, staying at a motel. When her emotional turmoil causes her to split into Ruby and Sapphire, things might get worse before they get better….

Analysis

Zach Callison (Steven)-Somewhat of a cartoon veteran at this point, having made appearances on shows like The Legend of Korra and Sofia the First, as well as films like Mr. Peabody and Sherman and the dub of Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises, Steven is fairly close to Zach’s natural speaking voice but slightly higher pitched. As an actor, he arguably has the hardest job in the series in that Steven is both the POV we see nearly everything through and often an emotional anchor for the characters around him. As a result, a lot of the humor in the character comes out of his often blase reactions to the strange things that happen, and Zach has a lot of fun with this (“Is it weird that I’m getting numb to this?” in “Reformed” is a personal favorite example). Though, often the best moments in Zach’s acting in many episodes come from both that guileless cheer and his warm, loving acceptance of other characters and their flaws, such as his admittance that he thinks Pearl is “pretty great” in “Rose’s Scabbard”. “Keystone”, then, is a bit of a departure for Steven and Zach both in that he spends much of the running time confused or upset, although he tries to cheer up the arguing Ruby and Sapphire up in his own inimitable way. His best scene comes near the end, as he storms off in a huff after the two ruin breakfast, and then pours out his soul: ““I was so happy when Garnet said she was gonna come on this trip with me and Dad! Home’s been awful! Here’s been awful! I thought you wanted to have a fun time, but everyone’s been acting awful too! It-it just came with us!” Zach acts this beautifully, hitting the anger and the regret at how bad things have gotten, and him quietly wondering “I don’t understand! Is-Is it me?” is like a knife in the gut.

Deedee Magno Hall (Pearl)-Personal bias time: Deedee as Pearl is, next to Shelby Rabara as Peridot (who isn’t in this episode but we’ll get to her soon enough), my favorite vocal performance in the entire series. Deedee is primarily a Broadway veteran, as well as a former member of Disney’s late 80s/early-to-mid-90s revival of The Mickey Mouse Club (or MMC, as it was often referred to), which also featured the likes of Marc Worden (who’s had some VA experience as well), Britney Spears, Ryan Gosling, Christina Aguilera, and Justin Timberlake among others. Deedee has a wonderfully expressive voice that can steal scenes even if she’s just making a strange noise or hitting a particular syllable in a memorable way (this also applies to Rabara, incidentally). And she absolutely nails Pearl’s big emotional scenes, such as her breakdowns in “Sworn To The Sword” and “Scabbard”, and songs like “Strong In The Real Way” or “Do It For Her/Him”. Pearl isn’t in much of “Keystone”, but in her brief moments Deedee perfectly captures the anxiety, guilt, and desperation to be forgiven. Her pitiful “I’m sorry” is particularly heartbreaking.

Estelle (Garnet)-Let’s not mince words: Estelle’s voice is just cool. Born in the U.K. and beginning as an artist there before migrating to the U.S., her deep, richly accented tones have been a highlight of the series from the beginning. What makes Garnet a particularly fun (if admittedly difficult at times) character to write about in terms of her acting is how impenetrable she often seems. Estelle adopts a very matter-of-fact, deadpan tone for most of her lines, which add a different flavor of comedy and authority to contrast to Pearl’s high-strung attitude or Amethyst’s outlandish party animal vibe. Thankfully, she’s gotten to stretch quite nicely as the series has gone on, expressing deep anger, frustration, happiness, sorrow, fear, etc. with aplomb (in the recent episode “The Answer”, she provides a wonderful fairy-tale style narration to the events), yet still retaining that feel of mystery. Like Deedee, she’s not in the episode for very long, but her brief moments are perfectly executed, with me being especially fond of her drawn-out frustration as Ruby and Sapphire begin their split.

Tom Scharpling (Greg)– A man of many talents (writing, music, acting), Tom is primarily known as the radio host of Jersey City’s WFMU long-running “The Best Show” with his co-host Jon Wurster (who popped up on this show as the sleazy Marty, Greg’s former music producer, in “Story For Steven”). His other credits include working on the TV series Monk as a writer and producer, as well as previous collaborations with Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim division on shows like Tom Goes To The Mayor and Tim And Eric Awesome Show Great Job! He has an easygoing, affable vibe to his voice and demeanor, which perfectly suits Steven’s laid-back but loving rocker/car wash owner dad. Often Greg can be a voice of reason or wisdom among the crazy shenanigans that make up Steven’s life, and Tom always manages to do a good job with those scenes without making it feel like preaching directly to the audience. Thankfully, he’s also really funny, and gets some great bits here, such as wondering aloud whether his contact is legitimate, getting Steven excited about staying at a motel and then immediately downplaying it when Garnet wants to come, or reacting in a pretty casual manner to the fact that Ruby and Sapphire have split, indicating that he’s met them before (tell us THAT story please, crew).

Charlene Yi (Ruby)-Admittedly a large part of the fun here is the visuals, with Ruby going through a bunch of crazy poses and facial expressions in rapid succession for much of her screentime. But in a way, we can credit Charlene’s livewire performance for this visual feast; allegedly Rebecca Sugar went back and redrew a number of poses and expressions after hearing the vocal track. Which just speaks to the strength and power of that performance. Ruby is a pot of boiling rage here (in case you’re wondering, the visual and personality similarities to Anger from Inside Out HAVE been noticed by the Internet), and Charlene punctuates a lot of her lines with growls and little screams that convey this state of mind. It’s a BIG, showy performance for most of the episode, but then we have that climax. After seeing how upset Steven’s been made, Ruby tries to push the blame on herself and Sapphire for how things have gone, and Charlene brings the performance down several volume levels, making her sound more like a concerned mom whose kid has seen her fight with the other parent (and make no mistake, Ruby and Sapphire are VERY much in love, no matter what certain randos might try to tell you) and is trying to defuse things. She also beautifully plays the reconciliation with Sapphire; her loving tease that she gets to look at Sapphire when they de-fuse is utterly adorable thanks to Charlene’s acting. Acting-wise, it’s probably my favorite tightrope-walking in the whole episode.

Erica Luttrell (Sapphire)-Erica is no stranger to animation, having been in projects like The Magic School Bus, Doug Langsdale’s Dave the Barbarian and portraying Wonder Woman villain Cheetah in several DC Comics cartoons and video games. On average, those tend to be very outlandish, over-the-top roles (her role on Barbarian has a good deal of high-pitched screaming involved at times, for instance), but she dials it back rather nicely as the literally-and-figuratively cool-headed Sapphire. A lot of the humor in the character comes from her deadpan line readings as a result, such as when she says hello to Steven after Ruby stomps out of the motel or when she confirms that she’s engulfed with rage in the calmest voice possible. But she also does a great job with the heavy lifting at the end with the argument and then reconciliation: the shame in her voice as she says “but we made him feel like it was HIS fault!” or the anger in “I don’t think you’re stupid!”, and the heartfelt laughing as Ruby picks her up. It’s very tricky work emotionally, but Erica knocks it out of the park.

All in all, “Keystone Motel” is an excellent example of the series’ commitment to high-quality comedic and dramatic voice acting, as well as just being a great episode in every other respect

The Black Cauldron (1985)

Ah, The Black Cauldron. Of all of Disney animation’s red-headed stepchildren, this is perhaps the most red-headed and stepchildren-y (and I’m not just saying it because the leading man is a ginger). Based on the beloved Chronicles of Prydain novels by Lloyd Alexander, in development for over a decade, the first film animated in 70mm since Sleeping Beauty….and it got its ass kicked at the box office by the fucking Care Bears movie. That’s the kind of moment where you want to rethink your life. And it more or less did: the directors were either fired or left Disney, the next films were under the scrutiny of Katzenberg, Eisner and Frank Wells (until his untimely death in 1994), and Disney quickly got back on its game. Yet is The Black Cauldron really all that bad? Well….I wouldn’t say it’s GOOD, but there are some things to recommend within it.

First, it looks great. The character designs are kind of standard Disney (and turning Fflewddur Flam into an elderly man instead of the dynamic, younger goofball he is in the books remains a baffling decision), but they move well and the Horned King is one of the best Disney villain designs, brought to life well by the animation and John Hurt bringing his general Shakespearean gravity to the role. The backgrounds are similarly immaculate, particularly the awesomely grungy castle of the Horned King. Finally, Elmer Bernstein’s score is better than the film frankly deserves, epic, grand, and spooky in equal measure (although his theme for the Horned King definitely steals a bit from his Ghostbusters score).

No, the movie doesn’t fail because it looks cheap, far from it. The problem here is story and character. Now, I’m not a purist, and recognize that things need to often be changed when adapting books into films. And combining elements of the first two books in the Prydain series (The Book of Three and, of course, The Black Cauldron) isn’t a terrible idea at all. But the film overall lacks the spark, wit, and charm of Alexander’s books. Taran’s youthful arrogance is overbearing here, rather than tempered by his general good heart (there are a few moments here like that, but they’re a drop in the bucket). Fflewddur as noted is bafflingly portrayed, although Nigel Hawthorne does what he can vocally in the part, and Gurgi is super annoying without any charm outside of his redemptive sacrifice near the end (which is immediately undone). The only character that translates more or less faithfully is Eilonwy (Doli too, but his role is much reduced), but even she’s hampered by not being given terribly much to do story-wise.

Really, it just lacks that Disney special-ness. I don’t care about what’s going on when I watch it outside of “ooo look at the pretty/impressive animation”. Even something like Oliver & Company, which is a trifle of a movie, manages to give me that emotional connection. In the end, all I can say is that it just falls flat for me. Sorry, guys. Maybe next time.

Oliver & Company

Oliver & Company sits in a very curious place in Disney history. Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Frank Wells took over the Disney company in 1984, but the animated films already set to be released within the next two or three years (The Black Cauldron, The Great Mouse Detective) were well into development, and could only be changed so much. Cauldron had some scarier footage trimmed, but that was about it, and Detective went through a title change (originally, it shared the Basil of Baker Street moniker with the books it was loosely based on) and some budget/schedule reducing. Because of that, Oliver can really be seen as the first film solely shepherded by the new regime, pitched by Pete Young in a famous “gong show” that also saw the birth of films like The Little Mermaid (although, amusingly, this idea was at first rejected, but Katzenberg liked it enough to follow through with co-directors/writers John Musker and Ron Clements), and eventually directed by George Scribner all on his own after the firing of Fox and the Hound/Black Cauldron director Richard Rich (who went on to do the Swan Princess and Alpha and Omega series). As such, it’s a strikingly different film from those that preceded it, and even some afterwards: a nakedly contemporary-at-the-time film with pop and rock songs rather than fairy tales or fables with vaudeville, ballet, or Broadway-ready hits. Does it hold up? I’d say quite well, albeit with some caveats.

Inspired by Dickens’ Oliver Twist (it can’t really be thought of as an adaptation), the plot takes its major cues from it but mostly does its own thing with them. In fact, I’d argue some of them are improvements. Fagin, for instance, is no longer a cruel anti-Semitic caricature exploiting his charges, but a neurotic, desperate mess of a man in debt to the terrifying Sykes (Robert Loggia, brimming with underplayed, casual menace), who loves his dogs but can’t see any other way to survive outside of sending them out to help bring in money. Awesomely voiced by Dom DeLuise (in his only Disney role), Fagin manages to become rather endearing and lovable in his flaws, and his turn to heroism at the end is kind of inspiring. The gang itself is made of broad archetypes, but they’re all expertly animated and voiced characters that are fun to hang out with; I was particularly fond of Francis, the bulldog with Shakespearean pretensions voiced with booming pomposity by the late Roscoe Lee Browne. And Bette Midler has a lot of fun with the arrogant poodle Georgette, belting out “Perfect Isn’t Easy”, the only really Broadway-esque number, with delightful relish. Though the main attraction is Dodger, voiced by Billy Joel in his sole film role, and while the part doesn’t really challenge him acting-wise (he’s basically playing himself as a dog), Joel is high-spirited yet laid-back in his own inimitable way, and he easily steals the show song-wise with the incessantly catchy “Why Should I Worry?” The plot itself is admittedly a bit thin, but it’s well told and paced decently, so neither is it patience-testing.

Oliver himself is a bit trickier. While adorably designed and ably portrayed by Joey Lawrence of “Blossom” and “Melissa & Joey” fame, he’s kind of in the vein of early Disney kid protagonists like Pinocchio, Dumbo, or Bambi in that things just kind of happen to/around him rather than him driving the plot. He gets a few nice moments of agency, mind you, especially in the climax, but I couldn’t help but think of the comparison. The relationship that builds between him and young Jenny (Natalie Gregory, very good) is sweet and adorable in that way kids so often bond with animals, and we do root for them to stay together (even Fagin, in one of the film’s best scenes). Really, he’s mostly a vehicle for the fun and songs, but then, that could be said for Dickens’ Oliver as well. Either way, it doesn’t really hurt the film.

Animation wise, the film is in an interesting transition period. Still using the Xerography process, the film has a very scratchy look to it, with New York City looking both impressively grimy and dirty in places, yet also vibrant and full of life in others. The CGI is…well, it’s rudimentary compared to, say, the heights of the Beauty and the Beast ballroom, The Lion King’s stampede, Hunchback’s Notre Dame, or the action/adventure thrills found in Tarzan, Atlantis, or Treasure Planet, but the sheer volume of vehicles and even some backgrounds is impressive for 1988, especially in the exciting, climactic subway chase (which has a rather memorable, violent dispatching of Sykes).

The animal animation is fantastic, quite possibly on the level on something like Lady and the Tramp (which this film frequently borrows from in terms of the POV camera often being that of the animals, as well as cameos by Jock, Trusty, and Peg during “Why Should I Worry?”), if a little more loose. The humans are pretty standard Disney but still memorable, particularly Fagin’s haplessness and Glen Keane’s formidable, massive Sykes. Musically, the songs are quite diverse, from the opening Huey Lewis-driven “Once Upon A Time In New York  City” number that sets up both the 80s vibe and gets the story moving, to the irresistible “Why Should I Worry”, to Ruth Pointer’s far too short, energized “Streets of Gold” (thankfully the full version is on the soundtrack), the aforementioned “Perfect Isn’t Easy”, and the sweet piano number “Good Company” that furthers Jenny and Oliver’s bond.

Overall, I think Oliver is just as interesting for what it represents as well as its own considerable virtues. The old ways of doing things were dying (in particular, Oliver was the first Disney film in quite some time to get a marketing blitz in terms of toys and merchandise), a new order was imposed, and a mermaid who dreamed of becoming a human was just around the corner….

The Little Mermaid (1989)

Now this is more like it, as far as princess movies go. 30 years came and went between Sleeping Beauty and this, and quite a bit changed: the Xerography process ruled the roost animation-wise, then Walt died, Disney World opened, and then, after over 25 years of seemingly increasing irrelevance, the animated films began to quietly crawl back with the new Eisner-Katzenberg-Wells leadership in the 80s. Successes like The Great Mouse Detective, Oliver & Company and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, as well as an increased focus on TV animation, began to restore some of the lost luster to the Disney name. And so in 1989, The Little Mermaid was released, and nothing was the same anymore. To me, this was never a favorite as a child beyond the songs getting lodged in my brain (I was a dumb kid who thought it was too “girly”), but I rediscovered it as a teenager and fell completely in love. It remains one of my absolute favorites.

First, there’s the artistry. Some of the kinks are still being worked-out CGI-wise, they haven’t gotten to the gorgeous digital ink-and-paint CAPS system yet (save one shot near the end of the film), some background characters look unfinished, and occasionally there are some weird movements. But the character animation and backgrounds are overall magnificent, continuing the leaps forward made by films like Detective, Oliver and Roger Rabbit. Ariel, Sebastian, Ursula, Eric, Triton and the rest are all wonderfully appealing designs, moving in ways both amusing (Duncan Marjoribanks’ restless Sebastian who can shift into a confident showman at the drop of a hat, Ariel gets a lot of physical comedy in the second half via Mark Henn) and achingly truthful (Glen Keane’s masterful, sincere work in “Part of Your World”). Ursula in particular is a fantastic design who moves with sinewy glee thanks to Ruben Aquino and his crew. The effects animators, led by future director Mark Dindal (Cats Don’t Dance, The Emperor’s New Groove), deserve a big shot out for the surely pain-in-the-ass, near-constant bubbles, as well as stellar work in the action sequences (particularly the storm and the  final fight with Ursula, which has one of my favorite dispatchings of a Disney villain ever).

And then there are the songs. Oh, man, these songs. Outside of maybe “Daughters of Triton” (which is super-short and doesn’t burrow into your brain), there’s not a single dud amongst them. Lyricist Howard Ashman and Alan Menken were fresh off the success of the film version of their delightful, blackly comic Little Shop of Horrors, yet they manage to perfectly switch styles here to a more “Disney” feel, while bringing their own spins to things. It is an absolute crime that because of AIDS, we only got two and a half Disney musicals out of the late Mr. Ashman (I say “half” because in Aladdin, 3 of the film’s songs are still his: “Arabian Nights”, “Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali”). His endlessly clever wordplay in songs like “Under the Sea”, “Kiss The Girl” and “Poor Unfortunate Souls” can shift on a dime to the power and yearning of “Part of Your World” (I’m also quite fond of the comic ditty “Les Poissons”, sung with delightful relish by Rene Auberjonois). Menken’s music seems to have been born to play alongside Howard’s lyrics, and he does a fine job with the score as well, his first for a feature film. The reggae and calypso flavors for “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl” are particularly striking.

The voice actors all do their own singing, which would not always be the case in later films, and it lends a great authenticity to the performances. Jodi Benson’s immensely likable yet frustrated acting as Ariel gives way to her knocking “Part of Your World” and the triumphant reprise out of the damn stratosphere. While he doesn’t sing, Kenneth Mars lends weary dignity and anger, yet also a softness to King Triton, especially in his final conversation with Sebastian. Speaking of, Samuel E. Wright is absolutely hilarious in the role, high-strung yet able to shift into his composer persona easily, and he absolutely kills both his big numbers. Christopher Daniel Barnes, a future animated Spider-Man, does a great job bringing Prince Eric down to earth, making him a relatable “aw shucks” kind of guy instead of the stiffs we had previously (he has a priceless facial reaction to a statue that depicts him as one of said stiffs). Pat Carroll is an absolute scream as Ursula, spitting out her lines with glee, though I don’t know how she wrapped her mouth around some of those super-fast, twisty lyrics in “Souls”. And ringers like Auberjonois, Buddy Hackett as Scuttle the seagull, Jason Marin as Flounder, Ben Wright as Grimsby (amusingly, the directors had no idea he had previously done voices like Roger in 101 Dalmatians for Disney), Paddi Edwards as Ursula’s creepy-ass hench-eels Flotsam and Jetsam, and Edie McClurg as the maid Carlotta round out the numbers nicely.

The story is immensely well-crafted, moving from scene-to-scene with a minimum of fuss and getting what it needs to get done, done quickly yet with just enough time to let us breathe and watch the characters develop (Sebastian has a particularly good scene where he shifts into more of Ariel’s ally). Speaking of which: Ariel has come under fire from some critics for not being a good role model for young girls, and is accused of only wanting to land a man. This is a fair interpretation, but it’s one I rather disagree with. Ariel is shown early on to already be fascinated by humans (there’s a joke about certain types of Internet nerds somewhere in here), and in “Part of Your World”, she expresses feelings that she just doesn’t like being underwater that much (“Flippin’ your fins, you don’t get too far”). Yes, she’s a hormonal teenager, and Eric does serve as a love interest, but I found that relationship interesting nonetheless. Ariel’s interest in the human world does not suddenly stop when she meets Eric; there’s a delightful montage where she explores his kingdom, and her joy at everything she gets to do is infectious. And his reasons for falling for her in the first place, not just her voice but the fact that she saves his life, strike me as more legitimate than “hey, just met you in a forest/at a ball, let’s totally get married” (which, incidentally, recent Disney films like Frozen or Princess and the Frog have done an excellent job of skewering) But that’s just my spin on things.

So yes, I believe The Little Mermaid absolutely deserves its place in the Disney canon as a stone-cold classic. Its imperfections stick out today, but for me make it even more loveable than some of the more polished later films. Directors Ron Clements and John Musker (this, Aladdin, Hercules, the vastly underrated Treasure Planet, and the aforementioned Frog) are hard at work on a new princess film, Moana, set for release late next year. I can’t wait to see how it stacks up to one of the all-time greats.

Sleeping Beauty (1959)

I’ve watched Disney’s 1959 animated feature film version of Sleeping Beauty several times, the most recent time being in its utterly pristine, gorgeous Blu-ray. And when I say gorgeous, I mean gorgeous. I’m no Blu-ray expert, but even I can tell they pulled out all the stops on this one. Every frame is like a great painting. And really, that speaks to the film’s strengths as a whole. It’s easily the most opulent film made under Walt’s regime, full of pomp, beauty, terrific character animation in a different, far more angular and abstract style than usual, and one of their best action climaxes ever (not just the short dragon fight, but the escape and build up). So saying all of that, what’s my opinion on the film as a whole? In a word: good. Or rather, the rest of the film BESIDES the visuals is good, but those are amazing. The rest is just not on the same level, whereas in some other cases, even if the animation isn’t up to par, I can recommend Disney films on writing or acting levels (Robin Hood, for instance).

This is not so much the case here, though there are a few things I do enjoy re: the writing and acting, and I suppose I should go ahead and mention them now. First things first, the three fairies Flora, Fauna and Merryweather are clearly the film’s main characters, and the story is much better off for that realization. Like most films (hell, this film) during this era of Disney, they’re broadly drawn stereotypes, but are amusing in their flaws and foibles: Flora is the leader, Fauna is a bit of a scatterbrain, and Merryweather a smartass grouch. My favorite non-Maleficent line in the film is, when told she can’t turn Maleficent into a toad because their magic is supposed to make people happy, to respond “Well, it would make ME happy.” Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston supervised the animation on them, and they’re full of life throughout as a result, while Verna Felton, Barbara Jo Allen and Barbara Luddy do a great job as the voices. The other side characters like Kings Hubert and Stefan are also well done; the scene where they drunkenly celebrate and argue while a minstrel sneaks wine into his glass and then guitar is a film highlight.

And then we have our villain, Maleficent. Wooooooo boy is she AWESOME. While I enjoyed the revisionist Angelina Jolie-starring Maleficent from last year to a certain degree (mostly because Jolie acted the shit out of it), I have to admit to preferring the unapologetically pure-evil version found in the animated film. Surprisingly, she’s not actually in the film all that much; the film is 75 minutes long and she’s onscreen in total for maybe about 10-15 of those. But between Marc Davis’ brilliant design and animation, her getting the best lines (in particular a marvelous little scene where she outlines a cruel future for Prince Philip, in rhyme no less), and Eleanor Audley’s terrific performance, she’s a Disney villain for the ages. Even her dragon form is onscreen for a very short amount of time, roughly a minute, but it kicks so much ass that it’s what a lot of people only remember about the movie. Even her goons are memorable, sharp edged and nasty like her, and her crumbling castle lair has some great backgrounds, though this is basically “Great Backgrounds For Your Desktop: The Movie”. Little wonder that Maleficent ends up as the architect or leader in a lot of Disney’s crossover material like Kingdom Hearts.

And now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, there’s a big gaping hole in the middle of the film that just does not really work for me at all: our ostensible leading lady and man. Now, I should note that they’re not awful characters. Aurora/Briar Rose and Philip are, like the rest of the film, brilliantly designed and animated (Davis pulling double duty on her, and Milt Kahl doing Philip), and as a result show more personality than, say, Snow White or Cinderella or their princes. There are some great bits where Aurora slyly figures out that the fairies are hiding something from her, but plays along anyway, and Philip gets some good facial reactions. Mary Costa and Bill Shirley do an admirable job with their vocal and sung parts. And “Once Upon A Dream” is a great song, one of the classic Disney love songs, even if perhaps the film doesn’t completely earn it. Really, the music as a whole is wonderful, with composer George Bruns rearranging Tchiakovsky’s Sleeping Beauty ballet into the score and songs (“Once Upon A Dream” is the ballet’s waltz for instance).

Honestly, after all that, there’s not really a whole lot I feel I can say about the film. It’s a straightforward, uncomplicated fairy tale that benefits immensely from the artistry and not much else. As a technical exercise, it’s brilliant, and story-wise it’s far from unwatchable or boring; I might not buy “Once Upon A Dream”, but I can certainly appreciate how it looks and moves. It just doesn’t quite strike me as the best of the best, the cream of the crop. I like my Disney films to have a little more meat on them character-wise, and no matter how hard those fairies, good and evil, work, I just can’t buy into the film emotionally when its romantic leads are duller than dirt.

So in the end, I do quite LIKE Sleeping Beauty. It’s a fantastic experience. I only wish it were a little better as a film.