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|2 reviews in total|
Harvey Beaks is a Nickelodeon show that feels like it should be on
Cartoon Network or Disney. That's not a dig at Harvey; Nickelodeon has
long been the network with the loudest, crudest, and most visually
unappealing batch of cartoons. Nickwith the exceptions of the Avatar
franchise juggernaut, the passable Kung Fu Panda: Legends of
Awesomeness, and the killed-too-soon Making Fiendsis typically all
fart and no heart, to put it bluntly.
So here we have Harvey Beaks courtesy of C.H. Greenblat (Chowder). Harvey is a good-natured, curious little chick who lives in a beautifully imagined and animated forest with his parents. After countless examples of dumb, loud, angry male protagonists, Harvey's kindness and optimism are a very welcome breath of fresh air. If you're familiar with Cartoon Network's The Amazing World of Gumball, imagine that show's protagonist, but replace the pointless bouts of aggressive stupidity with what feels like genuine childlike naivety and rambunctiousness and you'll get a good idea of Harvey's personality.
That's not to say Harvey is an infallible Gary Stu; his resemblance to Pablo, the high-strung penguin from The Backyardigans, comes complete with panic attacks and outbursts of frenetic screaming (no, not Chowder-tier screaming, don't worry); he spits, strips down in public, crossdresses to burgle a greedy merchant, and engages in all kinds of shenanigans that will entertain younger viewers. The trick here is that the jokes and gagsvisual, auditory, situational, or otherwisewon't turn off parents or older cartoon fans (>implying).
Harvey is egged on by his two best friends, Fee and her brother Foo, a pair of mischievous forest imps. I'll be honest: Going into the show, I was ready to hate Fee and Foo. I just knew Fee would the be the eye-rolling, violent, hates-everybody obligatory female protagonist and Foo would be a perpetually screaming moron. And they would hate each other, or something stupid like that because kids can't handle positive, heartfelt characters? Wrong. Fee and Foo are adorable. Almost too adorable for us to believe that none of Harvey's other friends like them. When we learn their bedtime routine involves punching each other to sleep (it's nice to see that Fee isn't magically shielded from slapstick antics simply because of her gender), we fear the scene will descend into cringe-inducing John K.-esque black eyes and bruises. Instead, the twins playfully roughhouse until they doze off in each other's arms. It's obscenely cute, and a good example of a positive sibling (or family) dynamic that isn't unrealistically sanitized, but isn't stupidly antagonisticsomething hard to find in the contemporary cartoon world.
So the twins are spot-on. A perfect balance of being wild and troublesome without being overly gross, violent, or unlikable. They keep Harvey from being too perfect, but also are street-smart enough to reel him in when he gets carried away.
In creating Harvey Beaks, Greenblatt has said he wanted to give viewers a show with genuine emotion, and so far, he's nailed the characters. Besides the three main protagonists, there's a cast of pretty-well-fleshed-out supporting characters, most of whom also avoid falling into unlikable clichés. Harvey's mom isn't a naggy perfectionist. Her husband isn't a clueless idiot. Harvey's friends each fill a familiar rolethe artsy one, the party animal (pun), the exxxtreme one, the dorky one, Lumpy Space Princess from Adventure Timebut they also have enough distinguishing features to avoid being boring.
Another big plus is the richdare I say, enchantingworld these characters inhabit. Harvey's family lives in a beautifully drawn forest that's part Miyazaki and part Berenstine Bears: one moment the characters are in a modern town with buildings built directly into trees, and the next they're discovering ancient lodestone, a living giant stone finger, or a city of forest ghosts. It's a charming, unique environment that sets the stage for all kinds of entertaining, mysterious stories.
The stories, like the characters, are nothing revolutionary, but it's so nice to watch an episode and think, cynically, you know what annoying clichés it'll fall into, only to be proved wrong. Some of episodes do feel flat, but that's mostly because when the show hits its stride, it really feels special; The Spitting Tree begins passably enough, but ends with a magical final scene that evokes the joy and excitement of overcoming childhood fear of the unknown to discover new experiences. Someone's Been Stealing My Stuff and Pe-choo avoid simplistic moral messages about right and wrong and instead focus on problem solving and finding creative ways to approach a challenge. None of this is handled with too much seriousness; it's imaginative without being pretentious, creative without being obscure, familiar without being cliché, and cute without being cloying. Oh, and the musical score, composed by Ego Plum, is extraordinary.
Who should watch this show? Kids, if they don't have ADHD or recoil from positive emotions; older cartoon fans, if they don't require sex appear, violence, or EDGE. Give it a chance, and don't dismiss it simply because it shares a network with zombie SpongeBob, Sanjay and Craig, and Breadwinners. I don't know why creators still pitch to Nick, considering they seem to be trigger-happy when it comes to canceling their few good shows when they aren't instantly SpongeBob 2.
Looking for a tl;dr version? Here goes - TAWoG is a show of fantastic
production quality with writing that's all over the place. When it
works, it soars above all expectations; when it fails, it's practically
* * *
Here's why. From the first piece of promotional art I saw back in 2010, I was instantly drawn to the unique visual style cooked up by France's Ben Bocquelet, the mastermind behind Gumball's world. Almost every character looks like they were pulled from a completely different source, with some characters drawn in a traditional cartoon style, while others are puppets, CGI, 8-bit sprites, or even live action (which is also used for the backdrop of the show) - and stills from the show don't even come close to describing how much eye candy is packed into every frame. If you've only seen the show on Cartoon Network, I recommend that you look up the show's (conspicuously missing) theme song online, as it's great example of how much energy and creativity the crew has. Watching this show is the remedy I needed after the visually offensive "The Problem Solverz" ravaged my fragile cornea.
Aurally, the show almost reaches the same height of excellence. Although the voice actors are more than passable, the most enjoyable part of the show's audio experience is the soundtrack. The score is bubbly, cheery, fun - and when called for - epic.
The problem is that, under the fantastic visuals, music, and production value, the writing (especially the humor) can be quite lackluster, sometimes fatally so.
The most frequently recurring problem is simply a lack of originality. Despite the trippy visuals and wacky characters, the show's basic structure is your run-of-the-mill school sitcom. The plots are recycled, the characters cliché, and the outcomes predictable. The most glaringly obvious example is the main family, the Wattersons, who are about as unoriginal and tired as possible. You have the idiot father (think Peter Griffin crossed with Homer Simpson and Dick Daring) who can't do anything right, the genius kid (Lisa Simpson, maybe a bit a Stewie Griffin?), the voice-of-reason mom, and the trouble making boys. If you're looking for a show that subverts the "smart girls, dumb boys" dynamic, you had best look elsewhere. The father is especially poor, moving past simple incompetence to complete mental retardation at points. At times I found myself wishing he was either more like the stay-at-home dad on "Johnny Test," which is a terrible thing to want, or not in the show at all.
Predictably, the show works best when working with character traits and quirks that haven't been lifted wholesale from previous shows. The mother, Nicole, is bi-polar, and occasionally transforms into a suburban ninja of sorts. Even more importantly - perhaps the saving grace of the whole show - is that the titular Gumball is a refreshingly endearing male lead. Although he gets into loads of trouble, he isn't an extreme jerk like Johnny Test. The way the writers craft Gumball's dynamic with his adopted brother, Darwin, and girlfriend, Penny, can reach teeth-melting levels of adorability.
But again, this creates quite a large problem, this time with the show's humor. Bafflingly, the writers seem to think the best way to get laughs out of the audience is to take young Gumball and destroy him emotionally and physically in practically every episode. From being abused by his classmates, laughed at by his mother, and patronized by his sister, Gumball's cavalcade of suffering is usually the focal point of the show's surprisingly mean-spirited humor. And it barely ever works. The end sequence of the episode, "The Gi," is practically unwatchable due to the amount of public humiliation and pain inflicted on Gumball. Although the episode has a maddeningly cute happy ending, it feels disingenuous when compared to the mean-spirited tone preceding it.
Like with the characters, though, there are a handful of episodes that avoid this routine, and the difference in quality is astonishing. If you want to see the best Gumball has to offer, seek out the episodes, "The Dress," "The Pressure," "The DVD," and "The Third." Here the humor is based more on dialog, surprisingly adult innuendo, and interaction between the characters rather than cheap slapstick and cringe-inducing humiliation.
If the bad parts of this review seem too harsh, I would only say that it stems from the fact that the good episodes of TAWoG are so good, enjoyable, cute, and funny, that the bad ones stick out like a hand of sore thumbs. I can only recommend that you don't give up after a single viewing, since the quality of the show's writing varies vastly between episodes.
EDIT: tl;dr: The show got much better in season 2 and 3. Go watch it and be entertained.
* * *
Years later, I felt the need to edit this review, since some of the grievances I had have been more or less addressed in the second season of the show. Gumball's scrappier and less prone to abuse and manipulation by his peers and family, and the humor moved away from abusive slapstick to focus more on cartoon physics, sight gags, and 4th-wall breaking. The visuals lost a smidge of their original wild abandon in exchange for a much cleaner, consistent (and still amazingly pleasant) aesthetic. There are less genuinely adorable moments, but the tone of the show is just nicer overall. There's still plenty of cutesy gags and dialog to keep a goofy grin on your face while watching. The exceptions, unfortunately, are still Anais and Richard, who continue to be inexcusably mean and stupid respectively. How anybody could enjoy them still eludes me. Season 3 really goes down hill after The Shell, though. Stop making Gumball so stupid, Ben.