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NYCC 2012: "Randy Cunningham" Entertains; "Slugterra" Continues in Disney Animation Upswing

On the last day of New York Comic Con 2012, Disney ran a special screening of two animated premieres: the Halloween episode of Randy Cunningham: 9th Grade Ninja and the first episode of the two-part season premiere of Slugterra, which airs today, October 15, 2012, at 3:30 PM (ET/PT). There was also a brief Q&A session with the Disney PR representative running the screening, at which the only news-ish information released was that the rumored Fireside Girls spinoff from Phineas and Ferb is not being actively worked on at the moment, and that they’re focusing more on the show and the movie.

It was the first time I had ever seen an episode of Randy Cunningham, so I didn’t know much about it other than what is explained in the opening credits, and have to admit I was pleasantly surprised at what I saw. The episode was split into two segments: the first centering on a mishap involving Randy and his friend Howard trying to use Randy’s mystical “Ninjanomicon” to resurrect the plant they killed in science class. The magic ninja spell malfunctions, resurrecting the skeletal remains of their science teacher’s late husband, who promptly tries to finish his life’s work of building his doomsday device. The second half played off “Night of the Living Dead” zombie tropes as corrupted candy from McFist Industries leads to shambling, rotting trick-or-treaters. I’m most impressed at how well Randy Cunningham can manage to balance being a show that both kids and older viewers can enjoy for entirely different reasons. Kids will love the gross-out humor and slapstick shenanigans, which are all animated and acted with gusto and glee. Adults will get a snicker out of the more outlandish elements like the science teacher’s complete inability to let go of her late husband’s remains or the references to movies like The Shining and any number of zombie films and TV shows.

The CGI series Slugterra skews for a slightly older audience, as 15-year old Eli Shane is called to duty as law-enforcement in the subterranean realm of the title after his father falls in the line of duty (seen in the opening tease of the episode in a moment of surprising emotional potency). Unfortunately, Eli is left to learn the ropes of protecting and serving in the realm of Slugterra, which is well beyond any experience he’s ever had in his young life. Luckily, he makes a few fast friends in the realm: the Molenoid Pronto, the human girl Trixie, and the cave troll Kord Zane, who assist him in learning the ins-and-outs of Slugterra. Central to the realm are the ubiquitous tiny slugs, all of which seem to have strange superpowers and which are used as living ammunition in the weapons of the land. I’m sure PETA will have a fit over the concept regardless, but to the show’s credit, they make sure to show that the slugs are willing participants in this potentially lethal game, and Eli is quickly establishing himself as a hero because he treats the slugs with respect and friendship, as opposed to many others in the land (especially the villainous Dr. Blakk) who treat them as property to be roughly handled.

Disney TV Animation has been on a real tear lately, fielding a rapid succession of visually arresting shows with unconventional hooks, all of which feel extremely creator-driven in their quirky sensibilities. Slugterra may not have quite the same adrenaline rush of Motorcity, but in its own way, it’s equally idiosyncratic and outlandish, flinging us headlong into a world that’s just familiar enough to keep us grounded but just bizarre enough to keep us constantly off guard. If the Hub’s Kaijudo is one of the best game-based TV shows I’ve ever seen, Slugterra comes off as doing it one better even though it’s not actually based on a live game (yet…I’m sure Disney, like all media companies today, has an eye towards trans-media opportunities). That’s really not meant to be as critical as it might sound: the themes of lost parents and a young man starting out on the hero’s path is potent stuff and much more of what the show seems to be about than game mechanics. Most game-based shows may be rooted in the same storytelling soil, but they are first and foremost about the games and not the characters, which is why combat scenes will stop dead so characters can engage in long-winded explanations of what’s happening for the audience at home. Slugterra is first and foremost about Eli, so rather than blathering on about what’s really happening, he (and, by extension, we) have to discover things on our own.

I’m not sure that I’m going to actively seek out Randy Cunningham, but I think the show is at least as good as most of the shows on the Hub (which universally recognize that parents are as much of the audience for their shows as kids) and certainly wouldn’t mind following it passively. Slugterra is fascinating, and I have to admit no small curiosity to know what comes next, which is the best compliment anybody can pay to any TV show.

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