Sunday, January 13, 2013

Reviewing is Magic: Interlude!

Before I get started reviewing the fifth episode of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, I wanted to take a closer look at one particular aspect of the show.  This time, I'm looking at the title sequence.

Now, a proper opening needs to do several things.  It needs to entice new viewers to stay with visualsGargoyles, Duck Tales, Transformers, Batman, My Little Pony, My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, Hammerman and music.  It needs to show you the characters, and- you know, I can summarize this much easier with the following:  An introduction needs to introduce you to the series.

Now, some series take this to mean it needs to retell the origin of the series.  Many cartoons from the 80s and 90s took this approach, and I can't think of any opening that did this better than Disney's Gargoyles.

That opening is, essentially, the first five episodes of the series in a nutshell.  You have the deep voice of Keith David laying out how creatures from a thousand years ago are now in modern day (90s) New York, the differences between the two worlds, and also provides some glimpses of the kind of action and story you can look forward to ("We are defenders of the night!").

But it's not perfect.  It presents to us David Xanatos, both as the guy shocked when the Gargoyles come to life, as well as being involved in a fist fight with Goliath.  We don't know if he's a hero, a villain, or if it's complicated (spoiler alert: it's complicated).  Strangely enough, we only see some of the other main characters in passing, without really knowing anything about them.  Bronx the gargoyle dog (still not sure how that worked) gets more opening sequence time than Hudson, Brooklyn, Lexington, or Broadway.  In fact, the only time you see Hudson is his backside while he swoops down a couple of times.

It also has the problem that while it works for the first season or so, things tended to change rather quickly and rather severely in that show (to the point where most of one season was spent focused on three characters nowhere near New York City).  But I digress.

This approach doesn't always work, though.  I mean, just look at this riveting origin story:


Now, doing an opening that introduces you to the cast can get even more complex when you have a ridiculous number of characters.  I present Transformers.

If I watched that for the first time, having never seen a Transformer before in my life, I'd probably be excused for assuming that the jet fighters were the robots of the purple-logo guys, and that one dude with a giant arm cannon was some kind of heavy weapons side character.  And it gets even more confusing in the second season:

Seriously, all I can pick up is that there's a lot of robots shooting at each other, and one turns from a train into the space shuttle.  And maybe some are bigger than others.  I know they fight, but I don't know where, I don't know anything about the world, and it's just a jumbled mess (something, sadly, the current films decided to take to heart.  But that's another review series for another time).  If I saw the Gargoyles theme before the season 2 opening, I might think they were also doing a history of robot wars, starting with when robot dinosaurs fought each other, and how it evolved into

So we've looked at one decent one, three insane ones.  Let's look at some great ones.  And when I think of the two best cartoon openings, I think of Duck Tales and Batman: The Animated Series.

Yes, fine, it's the opening and ending credits, but whatever.  It is, by my accounts, almost perfect in how it presents the show.  We have a primary setting (Duckburg, complete with giant money bin on top), it presents our characters (Scrooge, who has a ridiculous amount of money, the kids, a pilot, some kind of scientist guy who rides horses, a woman with a raven, and dog people), but most of all it tells you what kind of stories you'll be getting.  Listen to the lyrics and look at how they play with the visuals.

"Race cars, lasers, aeroplanes."  "Might solve a mystery, or rewrite history."   "Tales of daring do bad and good luck tales."  I could go on, but these lines are perfect with the visuals.  We have dark castles, giant robots, jungles, cavemen, anything could happen on this show, and it's always an adventure.

More than that, it also tells us about the world.  Look at the "race car" or "aeroplane" they show.  It lets us know that while there might be a laser gun and a duck equivalent to Robocop wandering around, it also has an older feel to it.  It's all the flash of the modern world with a more vintage feel, a call back to the classic movie serials where, sure, you could expect to find hidden temples full of gold or a monastery full of rubies tucked away in mountains. 

It lays it all out and says, "this is our world.  Come on an adventure with us."  And every child wanted to.

Now, I might not do the best job ever explaining why the Batman: The Animated Series opening theme is great, but a lot of the same arguments carry over.  We're presented with the world, a mixture of modern and classic design (when is the last time you saw a police blimp patrolling the sky?), and the basic premise of the show (when criminals commit crime, a guy in a costume shows up and beats the crap out of them, and he has a sweet car).

It doesn't go into a lot of depth about who all the secondary characters are, but it doesn't need to.  Save for later in the series when villains would randomly pop up in another character's story, the story itself would tell you who these secondary characters were, and it did it brilliantly. 

So, let's look at the opening to My Little Pony.

The first thing I want to point out is that this show comes damn close to meeting up with the other two shows I said got it right in how it introduces the series.  From the very opening notes, we're provided with a simple transition from one location (yes, "the sky" is a location, but in the background you clearly see a large, mystical castle attached to a mountain) to another (Ponyville).  Our character even arrives in a hot air balloon, a means of transport best utilized by wizards who travel from the "normal" world to Oz, except this time in reverse (you'll know that the cloud "barrier" between the two areas is broken by Rainbow Dash.  Coincidence?).

In that brief glimpse of the area, we're shown a lot of the major sites of the show, as well.  We zip past Applejack's apple orchard into the village, with looming mountains in the distance.  Once we're in the village, we're even presented with a simple, basic approach to technology in this world.  Thatch-roofed houses, trains that still seem to be powered by steam, and no lampposts, cars, or other major indicators of electricity to be seen.  This area is rustic, which is wonderful, because to do otherwise would just raise questions about how ponies get all of that to work.

Now, our little lost pony (complete with "lost tourist look-around" at the setting) finds her friends, and we learn something else right off the bat.  Some ponies fly, some don't.  Some have horns, some don't.  We have diversity, though we might not know the significance of that yet.  Our next segment also introduces each of our primary characters, as well as their single "defining" characteristic, be it a love of adventure, kindness, or having fun.

But, this doesn't just set up the characters, the fact one pony loves "big adventure" while being shown in a city in the clouds zipping around tells us we can expect other locations as well as, well, adventures.  In particular I like the spotlights on Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy, since one gives us one of the themes of the show, and the other one captures the spirit of the character perfectly, from how she shares with other creatures but is easily startled.  When the pony from the opening shows up again, it really is in a flash of light as the theme tells us that "magic" exists in the world.

Let's summarize everything we've already learned about this show:  It's a world with magic and adventure, taking place in a world without "modern" technologies, and spotlights a group of friends, each of which is different and brings something unique to the group.  And that's ignoring the theme song, which simply finds a way to emphasize these details.

Oh, and the whole thing ends with that dragon we saw at the beginning using his fire breath to send a picture of the friends to what is obviously some kind of royalty.  If anybody who has watched an episode of this wondered why I never brought up Spike's Postal Service Breath before and questioned it, it's because it's explained to us right off the bat.  "This dragon can do this, deal with it."

Really, the only thing I could think would improve the opening would be if they put a rap into the middle of the song giving every character's name along with their description, but they can't all be like the new TMNT theme song.

Now, I'll admit I miss the fact that television shows no longer seem interested in lengthy themes (one reason I watched New Girl for a few episodes was because I was surprised it had an opening theme...the rest of the reasons were all Zooey Deschenel), but I guess with most shows only being 22 minutes long these days for a "half hour" program, space is precious.  But when a show takes the time to actually try to build that hook to pull a viewer in, I appreciate it.

I've watched shows based entirely on being hooked by the opening (it's how Burn Notice grabbed me), and I've avoided shows because the opening completely turned me off.  Had I never heard of this program before, and the MLP theme just happened to come on the TV when I turned it on, I would honestly think "Huh, this looks like it might be a decent show."  And then I might give it a chance to impress me.

Or maybe I just over-think these things.  But either way, good luck getting the Duck Tales theme out of your head!

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