Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Of Tall Tales and Great Cartoons

Pixar may not be the only studio currently producing short-form animated cartoons, but it is certainly doing its best to revitalize a genre that has been largely inactive since the mid-1950s.  Nowhere is this more evident than in Mater's Tall Tales.  That series of cartoon shorts featuring the very popular Tow Mater from Cars has just been released in collected form on Blu-Ray and DVD.

Mater's Tall Tales originally consisted of six cartoons, (Rescue Squad Mater, Mater the Greater, El Materdor, Unidentified Flying Mater, Monster Truck Mater and Heavy Metal Mater) produced for Disney cable stations such as the Disney Channel and ABC Family.  Each cartoon ranged in length from approximately three to four minutes.  A sixth cartoon, Tokyo Mater, was produced for theatrical distribution (and in 3-D) and ran a more traditional seven minutes.  It was released in theaters with the Disney animated feature Bolt in late 2008.  Two additional cartoons, Moon Mater and Mater Private Eye, debuted on the new DVD collection.

As alluded to in the introductory paragraph, the Mater shorts joyfully revisit the format of character-focused cartoons that were the backbone of animation throughout the golden age of Hollywood.  While Pixar has in the past produced shorts using characters from it feature films such as Monsters Inc., Wall-E, and The Incredibles, it never extended any of those into a series until Mater's Tall Tales.  Mater was himself the subject of such a short, Mater and the Ghostlight.  The closest Pixar came to such a series were interstitial vignettes featuring Toy Story characters produced for ABC Saturday morning programing during the mid-1990s.

Each Tall Tale highlights Mater reminiscing to Lightning McQueen of a great adventure he has experienced.  His exaggerations ultimately involve literally bringing Lightning into the story itself, of which Lightening of course has no memory whatsoever. The shorts come with a distinct pedigree; John Lasseter directed or co-directed all but the final two. He and his creative team infused the series with the high energy, quick editing and over-the-top visuals that were distinct dynamics of the Cars feature film.  All the shorts are immensely entertaining and frequently laugh-out-loud funny.  My personal favorite was Mater Private Eye with its wonderful and dead-on homage to old fashioned film noir, replete in black and white.

The true gem of the set however is easily Tokyo Mater, a direct send-up of the film The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.  Tokyo shines as the backdrop, J-Pop layers the soundtrack and fast and funny references to Japanese pop culture (notably Pokemon) abound.  A police car/donut shop gag is particularly hilarious.  What was a visually stunning 3D theatrical experience loses little in translation to a high definition home theater viewing.

Bonus features are generous, especially considering that the shorts themselves run just shy of forty minutes.  Quick vignettes profile the creation of the Tow Mater character and the making of the Tall Tales series.  Also included are story reels, production art from unmade concepts, Studio Stories and Paths to Pixar featurettes and a sneak peak at the upcoming Cars Land currently under construction at Disney's California Adventure.