Thursday, October 20, 2011

WordGirl -Tobey's Tricks and Treats

Since I'm playing catchup with my blog, I'm going to cover a Halloween special that's short and sweet, which is appropriate considering those descriptors also apply to most pieces of Halloween candy.

So I figure, why not do something different and cover a recent Flash cartoon that's not in my age group but somehow manages to have a pretty sizable adult fanbase, a show that's considered just as fun to watch as a kid and as an adult. And before any bronies can get all excited and think I'm talking about THAT show, here is a show that people really overlook too much, WordGirl.

Oh no, the TV's trying to educate me! Quick, change the channel!
I discovered this show entirely by accident, because I happened to be babysitting a four-year old and the four-year old happened to love PBS. Before I was enlightened, I figured that PBS plays the game similar to how Nick Jr. does it, where the shows feel about as engaging as a drill to the eye and the characters expect you to do the thinking for them. Long story short, I was wrong, and not once did I run into a show where a character was standing still for five seconds because they couldn't locate the red ball behind them. Instead, Dinosaur Train showed me species I never knew before, Cyberchase has Christopher Lloyd as the main villain, and WordGirl actually has a character with full-blown schizophrenia. Truly this is the channel Nick Jr. wishes it was.

WordGirl basically answers the question of whether it's possible to have a superhero show aimed at little kids considering the inevitable violence and crime associated with that genre. Long story short, it is. Because come on, there was a generation of little kids that watched Batman: The Animated Series and they turned out okay. It's still educational, but it's also fun to watch. WordGirl doesn't just teach the children new words; she also thwarts world domination plans and fights various themed villains.

I consider WordGirl to be Dora the Explorer's alternate universe self on steroids. They share the same ethnicity and have a monkey companion, but while Dora thinks that saying "go" in Spanish is an achievement worthy of a traveling mariachi band consisting of frogs and snails, WordGirl will teach you the meaning of the word "immaculate" while tying a streetlight around a half-mouse mutant with an exposed brain. Also, Huggyface? I'm pretty sure if he fought Boots, Dora would have to rename her talking monkey companion "Bucket of Unidentifiable Monkey Organs".

Since I'm getting into the holiday spirit, the first episode I cover of this wondrous slice of educational television tells a haunting tale of a boy who uses his massive intelligence and his abilities to build giant robots for evil. A boy who has a thirst for destruction just as much as he has a thirst for caramel. I'm talking about Tobey, and this is his story.

Tobey's Tricks and Treats

Oh cool, the cartoon is making a reference to the best part of Kazaam.

October 23rd, 2009

Availability: On DVD

Before I actually talk about the episode itself, I just want to note the title screen. Whenever they show the title card in this show, which typically consists of the villain in some random pose on account the villain making an appearance can make or break an episode for someone (hey, come on, I can't be the only Darkwing Duck fan that avoids all Jambalaya Jake episodes, right?), a narrator helpfully informs the children what words they need to look for in today's episode. See, this is edutainment and by god we're going to learn something today.

And the words for this episode are "eerie" and "supernatural", which, to me, feels kind of redundant for a Halloween episode. I guess if they chose a set of words like "decapitate" and "inter", we'd be able to guess the plot before the show even starts.

To this show's credit, the screen dissolve they choose for this episode is very fitting, if a little creepy. How do we teleport into the show itself? By showing Tobey being devoured by a swarm of bats. Hey, thanks for the nightmares, PBS. Or should I say "thanks again", since you were the people who brought us Boobah.

Replace those bats with Zubats and you have an accurate representation of Mt. Moon.
We quickly forget that scene of pure horror by opening on some kids dressed in costumes and, more importantly, our main characters WordGirl and Captain Huggyface. Like Clark Kent, WordGirl has a civilian persona that's no one suspects named Becky Botsford, but unlike Clark Kent, WordGirl likes to compromise her secret by having her superpowered intelligent monkey sidekick go to school with her. Considering that chimps are exotic pets and all that, it's pretty ballsy to be assuming that no one will make the connection between the superhero chimp everyone sees fighting bad guys on TV and the only pet chimp in town.

...also, how come the district just allows a chimp to be enrolled in their school? Isn't anyone worried about the health risks? I'm pretty sure that if you gave a chimp a failing grade, it would respond by flinging feces everywhere and biting you until you contacted five different diseases.
Nice of one Flash cartoon to endorse another Flash cartoon. Note the pony.
 Anyways, before I got off topic and started rambling about damn dirty apes, Becky wonders out loud about who will win the school costume competition, because nothing opens an episode better than some good old-fashioned exposition disguised in the form of a rhetorical question, and then her best friend Violet appears in a WordGirl costume. Aaaaawkward.

Also, she brought her pet cat to school. Okay. I guess the teachers here are really lenient about maintaining an allergy free environment. I bet they also regularly fumigate the rooms with peanut butter gas in order to kill off any stragglers.

...and geez, that kid to the far right. I love it when cartoons with schoolchildren just throw in a malformed, freakishly large child in just to shake our perception of reality. I understand we're mutating due to all of the chemicals in our food but I don't think we're doing it that drastically.
I love that Becky and Violet have great costumes and then the girl to the right just
slapped on some fake ears and a nose at the last minute.
But back to Violet and her Wordy Crusader costume. She even has a WordGirl utility belt with a ray gun and magic wand, because if there's one thing that irritates a superhero the most, it's fans who just can't get their weapons right even though the superhero is right there, solving crimes in this fair city. Don't worry, WordGirl. Spider-Man feels your pain whenever he sees cosplays at the New York Comic-Con. Especially whenever someone tries to dress up as Ultimate Spider-Man. would that ray gun holster even work?
But wait! Even though there's a costume competition going on, the atmosphere is still really friendly and positive! We need some sort of jerkhole to show up and ruin it for everybody.

Luckily, one of the children decided to dress up as Shredder from the original TMNT cartoon and he's going to do just that. Come on, tell me I'm wrong. He's so Shredder.

"It's those blasted turtles!"
And we get it in the form of Tobey, who, according to the theme song, the name of the episode, and the actual title card, is going to play the role of "villain" in this delightful Flash animated romp. Kind of screwed yourself there, Tobey. It's hard to describe Tobey (or Theodore, but only he really uses that name if he wants to be a priss) without making comparisons to other, more popular boy genius characters in animated TV shows, but Tobey is a young man that can somehow build giant robots even though he's, you know, only ten. Yeah, yeah, we've all seen this archetype before, but since our brainy little nutball speaks in a really snobby fake British accent and is voiced by a pretty awesome voice actor (Patton Oswalt, aka Remy from Ratatouille), I'm willing to look past this cliched approach.

He also has a crush on WordGirl despite the fact that she constantly thwarts his schemes, which instantly makes his relationship with the main character pretty creepy if you dwell too long on it. He dislikes being beaten by WordGirl, but he'd love to take her out for an ice cream or sing her serenades while the sun sets. Luckily, the other villains give him hell for this (villain team-ups in this show usually devolve into name-calling) so I don't have to go too deeply into his psychological strangeness.

He's the only gradeschooler with five different restraining orders.
After he's done flirting with Violet and giving her vocabulary tests in order to see that she's really The Word Knight herself, BritishVoice McBrainac later brags that he's going to definitely win the costume contest because he's most definitely, assuredly, and positively got the best costume in the entire playground on account he's the superior kid out of all of them and everyone should be worshiping him as a god among men.

It's basically the standard "villain basks in the light of his own hubris before he gets taken down a notch" scene, but what makes it funny is that somewhere along the way, Becky makes fun of his samurai costume by pointing out the lack of chronological authenticity to the outfit. Personally, I'm just happy they're calling him a samurai. You have no idea how many cartoons will call that costume a ninja outfit thanks to Shredder.

Also, Becky? All of you are still in grade school. Like Tobey is seriously going to whip up some straw sandals and an actual kimono on a ten year old's allowance.

"Come on, you're clearly mixing up Heian Period garb with Endo period fashion. Do your research!"
We cut to the classroom, where we see that their teacher, like most cartoon teachers, gives way more of a crap about the children's education than the teachers in real life. We also get our first word defined for the day. There's a fun little pun where the future furry in the class says that she's eerie because she has four ears, before Becky shoves herself in front of the class and starts to define the word even though, you know, she's supposed to be trying to hide her secret identity as The World's Greatest Word Detective. She even gets her own theme song whenever she defines a word.

And, for those curious, eerie means spooky or scary, something that gives you goosebumps.

...don't give me that look. You clicked on a blog post titled "WORDGirl". You're going to be learning the vocabulary with me!
"Now, there are those who say that on Halloween night, a black cat still guards the
old Sanderson house, warning off any who might make the witches come back to life!"
The teacher ends up announcing the winners of the costume contest, and after we see some posturing from Tobey where he's just so sure he's going to win, it of course turns out that the winner is Violet as WordGirl. We were all expecting it to happen, but Tobey's failure is still as sweet as a lollipop. Suck on that, Tobey!

Personally, even though it was obvious that Violet was going to win, I was rooting for the kid who's dressed as The Hulk while somehow remaining legally distinct from The Hulk. Yeah, dodge those Marvel copyrights, animators! Fight the man!

Gargantukid on the right will never stop being hilarious.
Tobey is irate about this because he's positive that girl cheated because she's really WordGirl and just went as herself. It's a good thing the actual WordGirl isn't actually in this shot, because I'm sure she rolled her eyes so hard they fell out of their sockets.

In fact, he's so mad he's going to go ahead and ruin Halloween for everybody now. And yes, he actually says that. He even belts out some pretty decent villain laughter before the cartoon decides to make the often-used "everyone stares at the villain laughing manically as if he's gone insane" joke.

...but really, considering that all Violet won for winning the costume contest is a ribbon, I really doubt he should be wasting his time and energy getting back on the whole town for this transgression.

Oh geez, I want a ribbon with that happy pumpkin face.
Later that night, we, as expected, find Tobey's house surrounded in his themed villain minions, giant robots. I wonder if the MacCallister family ever gets complaints from the neighbors. does Tobey get all the material to build robots that big? I bet somewhere, there's a very sad junkyard owner who's wondering where all of his scrap metal is going and somehow didn't make the connection between the disappearing stock and the strange kid who keeps showing up with a wheelbarrow.

I wonder if there's an episode where one of the robots accidentally takes one step
too many and demolishes half of Tobey's house...
There, the villainous plot our main hero has to thwart is laid out in front of us like the sugary haul of a good trick-or-treating session. The robots' mission is simple. They have to steal all of the candy so that Violet doesn't get a single piece, therefore wasting all of her precious trick-or-treating time! Considering the fact that this is an educational show on PBS, this allows the villains to be even more petty than ever before and man, do I love it. 

I love that Tobey's robots actually dressed up in costumes of their own, if only because I'm picturing some poor employee at a costume shop slaving away for hours upon hours at an industrial sized sewing machine just to sew a bumblebee costume that can fit a three-story tall robot.
But then, candy montage set to vaguely hiphop-ish music! We leave Tobey and see children on Halloween doing what they do best; approaching the houses of strangers and demanding that they hand over the sweets or else the house gets TP'd.

It is during this montage that we get to see one of the other colorful villains from the show, Chuck the Evil Sandwich-Making Guy (he's a sandwich themed villain, just in case this show ever makes a crossover with Blondie), handing out high fructose corn syrup shaped into candy-like pieces. I like that the villains, when they're not terrorizing the city, will do mundane tasks such as this. It shows that when they're not stealing or holding the city hostage, they're just normal people suffering from strange themed deformities. I say "deformities" because Chuck's head is in the shape of a sandwich.

And before anyone asks me, no, I don't know how Chuck got this way. The cartoon just assumes you'll buy the fact that he's somehow half-food and moves on.  
Yo dawg, I herd you like sandwiches...
 The best part though has to be the person who lives in the ornate mansion. Instead of chasing the children away from her porch or summoning the attack hounds, the rich person who lives at this chateau actually hands over giant wads of cash and golden jewelry to people who trick or treat there, turning the stereotype on its head.

...also, this is probably the time where I seriously wished I could enter a cartoon and do what these cartoon characters are doing, because good god. Hundreds of dollars handed to you at the same time you're getting free candy! I think I've discovered heaven.

The first kid that visited her house was lucky enough to get copy of Action Comics #1.
After all that is over, (although personally I wanted to see if the other villains like Dr. Two-Brains or The Butcher were handing out any themed treats of their own) we get to see that Becky is going to go trick-or-treating with Violet, who is totally letting the whole "Everything thinks she's WordGirl just because she's wearing the right costume" thing go to her head. As you would imagine, this irritates our hero to no end because basically some kid with none of her raw talents is taking all the glory she should be feeling if she let her secret identity out. In her defense, I'd feel the same way.

Oh, and this scene and only this scene, we see Becky's adopted family, but their part is so minor that I can't really talk about her fake dad, fake brother, and fake mom in too much detail, other than they're nice people and the parents are surprisingly good parents despite the fact they can't notice that their daughter is a superhero for some reason. I'm just noting that they were in this episode for posterity.

And eww, the chimp just ate out of the candy bucket. I don't care if he used his pirate sword to get the candy corn out. Who knows where that thing's been.

Oh sure, Violet's happy now, but just wait until Frank Miller does a gritty reboot on her backstory.
While the kids go out on the yearly candy heist, giant robots mercilessly stomp through the streets of Gotham City and, instead of smashing buildings or killing people, they steal all of the candy. Those villainous slimeballs! know, Tobey could get a lot more bang for his buck if he ordered his robots to raid the local Targets and Wal-Marts and steal all of the candy from their sections instead of getting the germ-infested candies that were handled by other people, but I guess that wouldn't be keeping to the Halloween spirit.

 We cut back to Tobey and...whoa there, cowboy. You're this close to crossing the line from childhood crush to full-blown creepy obsession. This isn't cute. This is just terrifying!

...and he crosses it when he later hugs the pumpkin and sighs wistfully. I'm just glad he doesn't know where WordGirl lives and this isn't on a channel that would allow full-blown insanity present in Batman: The Animated Series or else he's going to graduate from boy genius to boy stalker.

But hey, he's a pretty good artist, so I can't fault him for it.
 Anyways, after that disturbing little detail, the robots pour out their ill-begotten goods all over Tobey's front lawn and we hear our loveable little Mini-Shredder shout that he's won Halloween. Oh, so this is what this is all about. He's still horrendously butthurt about the costume contest loss so now he wants to win an actual holiday.

Not satisfied with a mountain of candy that's nearly buries the freaking house, Tobey orders his robots to go back to town and steal even more candy because he will not rest until he has every last piece of candy in this doomed burg. Geez, kid. Just quit while WordGirl still isn't on to your scheme.You already have enough candy to kill the world's supply of diabetics. Just eat your stolen candy and be satisfied with what you have.

Somehow I have trouble believing that a town would have enough candy to submerge a house...
And, sure enough, when the robots go out into the field a second time, WordGirl manages to catch wind of this and decide that these robots must be stopped. What did I tell you, Tobey?

...also holy cow, that is a disturbing Halloween costume there, kid. I know he only exists for the robot to make a "taking candy from a baby" pun, but come on. There's a reason there's public nudity laws in place and he's breaking it.

That is one durable diaper, supporting that guy's weight like that...
With the town now in a panic, the kids want the Woman of Steel Words to help them.

...unfortunately, when I say WordGirl, I mean the girl that's dressed up as WordGirl for Halloween, not the actual WordGirl. This of course irritates our hero to no end, because no one ever cheers her on when she's just doing normal things. Fame is an addicting elixir she's unable to taste due to her choice of secrecy.

Also, I just can't believe that there is only one person dressed like WordGirl in a town where WordGirl regularly saves the day. I'm pretty sure that if half my town is dressed up like Batman for Halloween, the ratio of Batman to other costumes is even higher in areas where Batman actually exists.

"Now I know how Tony Stark feels."
Violet is all caught up in the delicious applause her costume is receiving, leading Becky to try to snap her friend back to reality by hitting her with a plank of logic. No really, Becky flat out says that Violet can't fight robots because she doesn't have powers instead of choosing to humor her friend and let her get crushed to death by several tons of solid steel.

...only she does it in the form of a definition of the word "supernatural", since it's been a while since we last had a word defined. Now, you'd think this would be a bad thing, the fact that there are large portions of the show where the characters are not trying to cram information down our throats, but then if you're asking that, remember why people hate educational television in the first place and be thankful for the long periods of nothing but robot-induced destruction. Dora the Explorer never has segments where robots steal things!

"My hair is bright pink. Your argument is invalid."
Dumb blonde girl says that she's going to show off her natural WordGirl abilities by marching up to Tobey's house and telling him that it's not nice to steal candy, which sounds pretty close to how Dora the Explorer deals with her problems. Man, it'd be so awesome if this show made subtle attacks in Dora's direction, because that's a show that needs every dose of mocking it can get.

So anyways, they sneak their way to Tobey's house and Violet runs off to thwart the evil bad guy herself, but not before telling Becky to hold her cat and to call her parents if she doesn't make it back in ten minutes.

...wait, did Violet just tell her friend that if she doesn't return in ten minutes, that means she died? That's awfully badass of that character.

Only the strongest will survive
Lead me to heaven when we die
I am the shadow on the wall
I'll be the one to save us all
Anyways, finally, after all of that build up, after more tension than a educational television show deserves, we finally get the real WordGirl and see that the only thing Becky has to do to turn into her superhero persona is say "Word up!" and her costume magically appears out of thin air. Good thing they didn't resort to a transformation sequence like in Sailor Moon.

Course, since she had to hold onto Fluffy, Violet's faithful kitty sidekick, she inadvertently reveals her secret identity to her friend's cat. It's a good thing this is the rare children's show where the animals don't speak or else things are going to get very awkward for Becky in the next couple of weeks.

WordGirl leaves no witnesses. She can just tell Violet that Fluffy "ran away".
Violet confronts Tobey, and luckily, since this isn't one of those superhero shows where lives are on the line, Tobey is merely stuffing his face with candy instead of, you know, threatening to blow up a bank or holding the mayor's daughter hostage while he settles a deal with the city's leading mafia families. He is only in grade school, after all.

Man, Tobey is going to be so sick the following morning. You don't just grab an armful of candy and start stuffing yourself with it. It's all about the pacing. With the right planning, you can make your Halloween stash last all the way to January.

And then he pukes all over WordGirl.
Since Tobey has a functioning brain, which automatically makes him smarter than the cartoon villains that existed during the 80's, he figures out that the girl standing in front of him is not really his archnemesis. Well, yeah, Tobey. For starters, even though I really didn't want to bring this up, WordGirl is of a different race than Violet. Sheesh, you fight her like every other week. You'd think you'd at least remember what color her hair is!

...also wait. WordGirl doesn't even disguise her face or anything when she's a civilian, meaning her disguise is even worse than Clark Kent's. How is her identity even an issue? This is Hannah Montana all over again.

But then again, I'm questioning the logic of a cartoon that has a half-sandwich mutant
and a chimp dressed up as a pirate.
Luckily, WordGirl is there to save the day thanks to the use of cartoon violence. And she does so while endangering the life of her friend's cat! Heroism!

Oh my god, she burst through that robot's body. That's not child-friendly.
After some frankly disturbing amount of violence from a show that's on the same channel as Sesame Street, WordGirl ruthlessly rips apart the robots that have been previously established to have thoughts, feelings, and personalities, and Tobey's scheme has been thwarted because now he lacks the means to steal more candy. Personally, he shouldn't be feeling too broken up, what with the giant mounds of candy covering his lawn, but what can you do?

And when WordGirl returns into her Becky persona, we get the expected "Oh hey, normal friend I always hang out with, you just missed the superhero that looks a lot like you beating up the bad guy and saving the day" scene. I'm just going to skip right past it because, to be frank, Becky's such a terrible actor that I'm surprised no one's figured out her identity sooner.

...I know, I know, rule of funny, but come on, there were villains in Gotham City that knew Batman's identity.

What did you expect, Tobey? You dressed up as a TMNT character renowned for losing in every episode he's in!
And so the episode ends with candy raining down out from the many gaping wounds in the robots' now lifeless bodies. It keeps on raining candy too, because go to hell, physics! This is a cartoon!

It also takes a turn for the weird when Tobey tries to catch treats that fall from the sky and bizarrely only get healthy food. Because God is punishing him for suffering from one of the Seven Deadly Sins or something.

...or maybe he's just a bad catch. Hah hah, Tobey. You may be the smartest kid alive, and you may be able to make robots with free will, but if you can't win a costume contest or trick-or-treating, no one will respect you because you're a snob.

I love how everyone's focusing on the raining candy instead of,
oh I don't know, the giant pile of candy as tall as a house behind them!
Also, for some reason, before the iris out, WordGirl feels the need to hop onto a broom and pose like a witch even though she can already fly. Come on, man, now you're just being redundant.

She's also stealing Violet's cat since, now that the cat knows her secret, she's going to whisk the animal away to someplace she can properly dispose of the body. Superheroes!

Come little children, I'll take thee away
Into a land of enchantment...
At least I can finally say that now I know how an actual superhero would trick-or-treat. Usually all the masked vigilantes are too old to enjoy this Halloween tradition.

The Moral of this Cartoon
Nothing is more irritating than being a superhero on Halloween and watching people dress up as you and pretending to be you.

Final Verdict

For an educational show, this is pretty good.

I like that while it teaches kids new words and doesn't talk down to them, there's an element of fun to the cartoon. I like that Becky has some flaws to her, like the fact that she actually expresses anger and frustration. This seems like a weird thing to point out, but again, Dora the freaking Explorer. Dora the Explorer has since become the standard that a lot of educational cartoons try to reach and as such, we get a lot of characters that have the same "stare at the camera, never express anything other than blissful glee" personality to them.

Which is why it's kind of a breath of fresh air to have a cartoon that's got a big vocabulary, but at the same time, has characters that will actually steal and get frustrated and do these things.

As for the animation itself, it kind of fluctuates. The areas it suffers the most are when you get really close to the characters and it's really obvious that only the mouth is moving on a still frame, but when there are multiple characters, it really shines. The Flash animation is pretty good and arguably the simplistic style kind of works after a while. There's good timing, the jokes don't drag on for too long, and it's surprisingly well-written for something aimed at an age level way below mine.

Plus I'll be honest. I like that WordGirl is a female superhero but they allow her to like princesses and ponies. That's always a plus when they don't do the whole "badass girls should never like girly stuff because its beneath them!" thing because seriously? Seriously?

My opinion on this episode? It's pretty solid. There's nothing about it I really hate and it has its moments. I think part of the reason is because I personally enjoy Tobey and the fact that he's such a prissy little snot who feels he has to win at everything because he possesses the technological know-how. My favorite scenes are definitely the ones with Tobey in it, hands down.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to drown away my sorrows in pixie stix because I just said good things about an educational cartoon designed to teach children new words.