My introduction to Jorge Gutierrez’s work was at the 1999 CalArts Producers’ Show. It was a screening of his CG short Carmelo. If I recall correctly (and I may not be) the film wasn’t even finished that year and was presented as a work-in-progress. No matter though, Jorge’s film instantly stood out. Here was that rarest of rare among student filmmakers: somebody who actually had something to say. The CG in his film might be considered crude by today’s standards, but what hasn’t dated is the passion and affinity for Mexican culture that he infused into that work.
I met him around town shortly after that screening and over the years have had the pleasure of getting to know both him and his lovely wife, Sandra Equihua, who is equally passionate about her art and heritage. Together, they are the animation world’s answer to Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo…well, minus the physical abuse, marital infidelities and communist sympathies.
All this is to say that it’s hardly surprising somebody else has also recognized their talents. Jorge and Sandra now have a show on Nick called El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera. The show premiered earlier this month, and after watching the first four episodes, I’m delighted to report that it’s everything I could have hoped for and more.
When I first heard the series pitch a few years ago, I was immediately impressed by its concept and the dramatic possibilities it presented: the adventures of a young superhero (El Tigre/Manny Rivera) whose father is a superhero (White Pantera) and grandfather a supervillain (Puma Loco). As often as El Tigre fights villians in the show, he must also do battle with his own conscience and learn to distinguish between right and wrong. Does he cheat by his using his superheroic powers to win a soccer (sorry…futbol) match? Does he steal people’s pets and then return them to collect the reward money? Does he spend the family’s guacamole fund to buy a tattoo maker? These are the type of issues that young Manny struggles with in the series.
The series rarely broaches the deeper inner character turmoil inherent in such a setup, those fuzzy and exciting grey areas that fall somewhere between good and evil (I know, I know, it’s a kids show), but there are other levels of richness to be found in the series. Among them is a nicely fleshed out relationship between Manny and his best friend, Frida; a standout is the episode “Adios Amigos” where Manny makes the decision to stay away from Frida in order to protect her from harm, and the ensuing pain that it causes both of them. First and foremost though, the show is designed to entertain, and there’s no shortage of fun throughout. One of the show’s highlights is the stream of deliciously silly villains that El Tigre has to contend with: early episodes have included Dr. Chipotle Jr, General Chapuza and his grandson Che, Sartana and Titanium Titan. It’s a south of the border rogues gallery worthy of Dick Tracy.
Artistically, El Tigre clicks on all fronts. What is particularly impressive is how the visuals channel Mexican folk art without turning it into a caricature. It absorbs the bright rhythms, shapes and feeling of vernacular and folk art, and through digital means, transforms it into something new and exciting. Part of that new and exciting translation comes from how far the production pushes the use of Flash. El Tigre offers hands down the most dynamic implementation of Flash I’ve ever seen in an animated TV series, seamlessly combining the cinematic possibilities more commonly associated with 3D CGI alongside the organic appeal of drawn animation.
The show is intensely stylized but it is not the random styling one finds in most contemporary animation. The various pieces of the puzzle fit together well and form a compelling overall visual point of view. This includes tight energetic direction by Dave Thomas, lush color and background design by Roman Laney and Tod Polson, the eccentric and endearing character design sensibilities of creators Gutierrez and Equihua, and the artistic contributions of an almost too-good-to-be-true crew including Gabe Swarr, Fred Osmond, Chris Battle, Steve Lambe, Ray Morelli, Katie Rice, Sean Szeles, Joseph Holt, Luke Cormican, Ricky Garduno, Dave Knott, Gerald De Jesus, Eddie Trigueros, Fred Gonzales, Denise Chavez, Aaron Horvarth and Katrien Verbiest.
The show is not entirely free of weaknesses. Among them is its annoying tendency to stage too many scenes on slants and diagonals, voice acting performances that I couldn’t understand (good enunciation is apparently not in vogue among current voice actors), instances of out-of-character dialogue (though far less than other modern shows), and at least in the four episodes that I watched, not as much focus as I would have hoped for on the central relationship between El Tigre, his superhero father and his supervillain grandfather.
On the whole, the show’s strengths overwhelm its faults. Thanks to its creators, the series is colored with a generous Mexican spirit and personality, while remaining accessible to all audiences, whether you’re full-blooded Mexican or somebody whose knowledge of Mexican culture extends as far as the end of a churro stick. Refreshingly good-natured and lovely to look at, El Tigre is one of the finest animated offerings to appear on TV in recent memory.
New episodes of El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera air Saturdays at 10:30am/9:30c.
A sidenote: many of the El Tigre artists are also bloggers and they’re posting some illuminating production material on their blogs. Here’s a selection:
* Specialty poses by Gabe Swarr
* Rough Flash animation by Sean Szeles
* Various designs and paintings by Steve Lambe
* A piece of promo artwork by Chris Battle
* A great doodle of Frida by Katie Rice