Power Rangers: SPD – Joining Forces: Volume 1 (2004)

Director: Greg Aronowitz, Andrew Merrifield
Cast: Brandon Jay McLaren, Chris Violette, Matt Austin, Monica May, Alycia Purrott
DVD release date: 7 June 2005 (Buena Vista)

Director: Andrew Merrifield, Paul Grider
Cast: James Napier, Kevin Duhaney, Emma Lahana, Latham Gaines
DVD release date: 7 December 2004 (Buena Vista)

Director: Toshifumi Kawase
Cast: Marlowe Gardiner-Heslin, Alex Hood, Daniel DeSanto, David Reale, Gage Knox
DVD release date: 22 March 2005 (Buena Vista)

Director: Shinichi Watanabe
Cast: Dorothy Elias-Fahn, Neil Kaplan, Diane Michelle, Joshua Seth, Brianne Siddall
DVD release date: 7 June 2005 (Buena Vista)

Director: Brian Smith
Cast: Glenn Close, Lance Henriksen, Harrison Chad, Brenda Grate, George Carlin
DVD release date: 14 June 2005 (Buena Vista)

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After the disappointment of Home on the Range in the summer of 2004, Disney did something many thought inconceivable. Citing the success of Pixar and audiences’ increasing desire for computer-generated fare, the House of Mouse, the company that originated the animated feature motion picture, was pulling the plug on 2D.

But while CG was sweeping American cineplexes, other parts of the world still worshipped at the shrine of pen and ink, none more so than the Asian market. Since the early ’80s, when it was called “Japanimation,” anime had steadily earned a huge cult-like cadre of fans. While not completely manmade (computers handle some of the more time-consuming and complicated scenes), anime’s detailed design inspires awe. Japan has also kept traditional animation alive in the U.S., specifically, in Saturday morning and weekday afternoon kids’ shows. Many fondly remembered offerings of the last few decades (Transformers, Pokémon) were redubbed versions of Japanese favorites. Even shows with their basis in the States (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) relied on anime’s stylized artistry to sell action adventure plots.

Marketing confluences, however, insured the demise of 2D. Video games, toys, and movies brought live action to the fore, most notably in the form of those multi-hued heroes known as The Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. Using old school Toho tricks (men in monster suits) in combination with a quirky, almost irreverent sense of humor, the series became a sensation. Disney, through its Buena Vista Home Entertainment subsidiary, is keeping the Power Ranger machine alive, offering two new DVDs of decidedly differing quality. Power Rangers: SPD – Joining Forces, Volume 1 retrofits the Mighty Morphin’ concept into a world police mode (the “SPD” stands for Space Patrol Delta). A diversity-correct group of teens (perky blond, dreadlocked boy of color), blessed with X-Men-like “special” skills, use unrealistic kung fu moves and lots of irony against Emperor Grumm and his robot minions. Sure, we still get men in creature suits battling over cardboard cityscape cutouts, but Power Rangers: SPD matches that mayhem with a decent message (teamwork is key) and frenzied fight scenes that are incredibly accomplished.

If you want to know why this fad fell off the pop culture radar in the first place, you need look no further than Power Rangers Dino Thunder: Collision Course – Volume 4. Dragging the Jurassic period into an unknown future world with very little wit and lots of interscholastic stupidity, the series features a dino-man who wants to bring his race of reptiles back to prominence. He decides that the best way to do so is to mess with the Power Rangers. Those irritating teens spend a lot of time doing dopey things until called upon to kick some lizard booty. Then it’s all CG monsters and blinding bright colors.

Here, and again in BeyBlade, we see the rise of CG from visual supplement to action focus. The wildly successful BeyBlade franchise centers on elite teams of tops — that’s right, battling tops — who stage Rocky-like contests. All begin with the catchphrase, “Let It Rip!” Even facing such obstacles, BeyBlade: Fierce Battle – The Movie, now available on DVD, is pretty entertaining. It opens as new champion Tyson and his pals have just finished a massive BeyBlade competition. Enter the brat Daichi, demanding a match that unleashes ancient dark forces who use their own antique tops (and creatures called “bit beasts”) to set up an Armageddon-style standoff between good and evil.

A 2D anime feature with added CG, BeyBlade is stuck in the action hero mode that plagues so much current kid-vid fare: fisticuffs replace all other flights of fanciful fun. This lack of imagination might explain why Tokyo Pig is such a hilarious hoot. The eight episodes offered on the new The Best of Tokyo Pig DVD prove that traditional pen and ink drawing does not have to kowtow to aggression or monsters the size of skyscrapers to deliver delights.

The premise of Tokyo Pig is deceptively simple: poor Spencer wants to study, but his giddy mom, nosy sister, and clueless dad want to goof off all day long. As part of a homework project, the lonely little boy is told to write in a diary. Like magic, everything he describes or draws comes to life. Better yet, one swipe of the eraser, and the objects and ideas are quickly wiped away.

After a particularly pork-filled fantasy (Spencer imagines his town being overrun by flying swine), he forgets to rub out his rantings completely and ends up with a pig he names Sunny. This be-bopping pet has special powers: he can read Spencer’s mind and with his enchanted snout, he can make thoughts come to life. The two new friends embark on a surreal journey through a joke-filled, self-referential pop-art poem, featuring talking fruit, a buttinski weather gal, and the dreaded Samurai Lunch Lady.

Tokyo Pig proves that 2D is not dead. Not by a long shot. Employing a look that is angular-retro, combined with geometrically overstated figures, it’s similar in spirit to Super Milk Chan and the U.S.’s own Powerpuff Girls. Tokyo Pig‘s scripts westernize the Japanese subject matter to appeal to American audiences, without losing the original series’ sensational stream-of-consciousness sensibility. Spencer inhabits a wickedly weird world where teachers are drama queens, principals secretly wear bikinis under their business suits, and schoolmates are cultural stereotypes, including the dumb Southern belle and the cocky Brit boy.

Even beyond such recycling of Japanese product, Disney’s own straight-to-video fare — namely, Tarzan II: The Legend Begins — argues that the company’s declarations of 2D’s death were greatly exaggerated, if not flat out wrong. Fans of the full-length, big-screen feature will rejoice in this faithful, quite enthralling prequel that shows us how the juvenile Tarzan, raised by gorillas in the jungle, learns to accept his non-ape attributes. Most of the cast from Tarzan is back, including Glenn Close and Lance Henricksen, joined by Brad Garret, Estelle Harris, and — Mr. “Seven Words You Can’t Say on TV” — George Carlin.

The tyke Tarzan has a fairly straightforward adventure: after he accidentally injures his gorilla mother and is separated from the pack, Tarzan learns that his fellow simians see him as a liability. He runs away and ends up confronting the dreaded Zugor, the monster of Dark Mountain. While the film lacks complexity (like most Disney animation releases of late), the vibrant artwork keeps us engaged and amused. Sure, we could do without Phil Collins warbling his wounded sing-alongs and some of the humor is more slapstick than sophisticated. But Tarzan II is surprisingly strong for a company that regularly bastardizes its classics rather than paying proper sequel-tribute.

Tarzan II, along with Tokyo Pig and parts of BeyBlade, demonstrate the sustained viability of traditional animation. This even though CGI has infiltrated almost every aspect of children’s programming. The huge successes of Finding Nemo and The Incredibles have more or less guaranteed that every animated movie you see in theaters from now on will be rendered in bits. Even as 2D lingers, beautifully drawn and painstakingly hand-inked, the days of backdrops that looked like masterworks are long gone.