Review: Teen Titans GO! To the Movies

Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures

Director: Peter Rida Michail & Aaron Horvath

Writer: Michael Jelenic & Aaron Horvath

Starring: Greg Cipes, Scott Menville, Khary Payton, Tara Strong, Hynden Walch, Will Arnett, Kristen Bell

Genre: Comedy, Superhero

Rating: PG

Man, do I have my work cut out for me this time. Cartoon Network’s Teen Titans GO! is arguably the most divisive entity living and breathing in TV animation at the moment. It’s the Last Jedi of the medium. With the release of this movie, the kind of animosity that the program both elicits and feeds upon is nearly certain to increase exponentially. But enough about that. There’s a significant difference between a review and a reaction, and I’m here to do only one of those things.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Violence is frequent but cartoonish, with lots of humor. Weapons include guns, missiles, swords, lasers, chains, and more. Many come across as silly, not scary, but they’re used frequently by superheroes, villains, and law enforcers. In one scene, security guards’ guns backfire in their faces. A giant balloon robot lays waste to Jump City early in the movie; other buildings suffer explosions/destruction later. A giant robot with a huge mace goes after the Titans. Some characters are comically killed, injured, beaten, or pushed into danger/an abyss by the Teen Titans, who show no remorse.

Language/Crude Humor: No swearing, but words like “dang” and “darn.” Toilet humor for laughs is infrequent, using rude terms (“fart,” “poop,” “diarrhea,” “booty”).

Sexual Content: A prank caller pretending to be Lois Lane uses the words “smoochy smoochy” to Superman. A couple of glimpses of a bare animated superhero bottom, and Robin is briefly shirtless.

Drug/Alcohol Use: None.

Spiritual Content: None.

Other Negative Themes: The Teen Titans don’t always make the most considerate decisions–and they sure love a good fart joke. The main character is mocked and humiliated by a crowd of beloved heroes.

Positive Content: When Robin is denied his dream, he immediately seeks out a solution–but he also acts selfishly. The other Teen Titans are always supportive of Robin, even when he abandons them. And it’s never one character who defeats the bad guy alone: The Teen Titans work as a unit, using everyone’s skills, to win. They always act courageously and never back down.

Review

In 1963, the black-and-white Italian film 8 ½ was released to much critical praise and international applause. It tells the story of a young film director stifled by his own creative blocks in his ambition to make an epic science fiction film at a time when the genre was still regarded by many to be largely pedestrian and without respectable substance. To this day, it is regarded as one of the greatest and important films ever made, particularly with respect to its meta-commentary and unflinching sense of self-awareness.

Federico Fellini’s ambitious seminal work was not simply a movie about moviemaking. It was a movie about its own making. The struggles and hardships that the main character Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) encounters while arranging and designing his film are parallels to Fellini’s difficulties in making 8 ½. The story is complete with pretentious critics who blast his ideas as primitive, unchallenging, and convoluted, close personal friends that he habitually ignores in treacherous fashion while blinded by his self-serving drive, and comical-but-tragic developments that ultimately end in the film never being made.

But Anselmi learns to accept his place in the world and that he has a lot more going for him than he thought at first. This is congruent with director Fellini coming to terms with his own place as a filmmaker in the larger scheme of cinema and being greatly rewarded for his honesty both to himself and to those who supported him along the way. Having watched 8 ½ myself for the first time not too long ago, I can honestly say that it deserves all the praise that it has received.

At the risk of being accused of heresy by more ardent cinephiles, I can say unironically that Teen Titans GO! To the Movies is and should be regarded as the modern day’s version of 8 ½ as it accomplishes as a work of self-aware meta-commentary with superhero cinema precisely what Fellini accomplished so long ago with regard to the discipline of cinema as a whole. I can predict with an incredibly high degree of certainty that I’m going to say some things here that I know will raise a few eyebrows if not a few tempers, so let’s go ahead and get those out of the way so I can finish this review in relative peace.

Teen Titans GO! To the Movies is a better Deadpool film than either of the Deadpool (Our Reviews of Deadpool and Deadpool 2) films. In fact, it’s better than both of those films combined (and it’s family-friendly). It is also one of the best animated movies of the year. I would sooner rewatch this than The Incredibles 2 and have more fun with it. Because of this film, I am both willing and eager to watch the oft-derided Cartoon Network series upon which it is based again with new and more favorable eyes. Okay, are we all clear on that? Still upset? Very well, let’s continue.

It is no secret that the animated series Teen Titans GO! is something of a lynchpin topic in the ongoing discourse on the current state of TV animation. The 2013 show was presented as a purely comedic follow-up to the cult-classic Teen Titans series created by Glen Murakami and done with regard to the popularity of the New Teen Titans shorts that were produced as part of the “DC Nation Shorts” project that started in 2012. While those shorts were well-received, the series, which is currently in its fifth season with over 200 episodes and is at the time of this writing Cartoon Network’s highest-rated program, has been met with a ceaseless volley of splenetic salvos loaded with harsh criticism primarily from the devoted fans of the original 2003 production.

Where Murakami’s anime-inspired take on the young superhero team was praised for its drama, action, and robust characters, the currently airing program from Bob Haney and Bruno Premiani is repeatedly attacked for being hollow, intellectually spineless, and primitive in its style of comedy and even in the quality of its production values. Adding to this crisis is that the writers and producers of Teen Titans GO! are fully aware of the negative reactions they’ve received and have woven their response (or lack thereof) to such criticisms into the comedy of the show itself. This symbiotic feeding on the ill-will of the fanbase has been a subject to which I’ve given much thought, both in how it serves the work and in how it affects the perception that the work should be granted.

As for my own personal take, let me say in no uncertain terms that I never had any qualms with Teen Titans being reimagined as a straightforward comedy cartoon. This is primarily because I always felt that the original series was so much better at delivering comedy than it ever was at delivering drama or action. This is not to say that the drama and action were bad–it was serviceable most of the time–but that the comedy was so much better. I will defend without falter that the season four episode “Employee of the Month” is the best episode the show has ever boasted, hands down, bar none. This is clearly a realization the higher-ups share with me, as that episode was the only one to get a redux version in Teen Titans GO!

With that said, I can understand where the detractors could be coming from in their vitriol. To them, Teen Titans GO! is like seeing their most cherished memories dug up from the grave and propped up like some grotesque meat puppet to be paraded for the ignorant masses who will laugh at such cheap decadence for hours on end. Considering that Cartoon Network seems to run it nonstop on their channel and that it is, to my knowledge, only the second program in their entire oeuvre to get a theatrically released feature film (the other one being The Powerpuff Girls), it can seem as though Cartoon Network is now feeding off of the salt they keep pouring in the wound. I don’t agree or personally empathize with these woes, but I can recognize the resentment. Why don’t I agree? Well, let’s run down a few reasons.

I enjoyed the original Teen Titans well enough, but I was certainly not one of its most die-hard fans. Maybe I was just too old by that time or something. But on a more objective sense, I find that what Teen Titans GO! has on offer at least with its characters is recognizable enough for me to still feel at home with them. There are a few noticeable alterations done for the sake of humor, but nothing I find necessarily treacherous.

Robin (Scott Menville) has had his obsessive and compulsive tendencies cranked up to eleven, but still sees himself as being in the role of a leader to the rest of the team. Starfire’s (Hynden Walch) alien nature has been pushed into new territory in such a way that her grasp of the English language has degenerated into random and wholly inappropriate uses of the word “the.” Greg Cipes’ Beast Boy has become conversationally fluent in what can be safely considered “millennial white boy slang” complete with broken grammar and slick verbiage that would have started fights in the 90s. Cyborg (Khary Payton) and Raven (Tara Strong) are more or less unchanged, though the latter has come out the closet as a fan of her world’s version of My Little Pony (a nod to Strong playing a starring role in the Friendship is Magic series).

In addition to the minor character alterations and major tonal and productional alterations, there is the leering aura of awareness that the producers and writers have expressed with regard to the negative reactions that Teen Titans GO! has received. They’ve even gone as far as to develop certain episodes that have addressed this harsh feedback directly and explicitly only to return to their own method of delivery by the end without any trace of contrition or regret. All this is to say that, as far as I’m concerned, you may not like what Teen Titans GO! is doing, dear reader, but it’s doing it incredibly well with an unshakable sense of direction and confidence.

What is Teen Titans GO! To the Movies doing exactly? In my assessment, it’s doing precisely what the aforementioned Deadpool movies were trying to do to a less successful degree. The plot carries the same laser-sighted vision of self-aware meta-humor but uses it to a more meaningful degree. After besting a giant inflatable baddie with a largely ineffective and self-aggrandizing hip-hop number, the Titans come to the realization that if they wish to be regarded as real heroes instead of just a bunch of goofs, they’ll need to get their own movie as nearly all the other heroes do. That’s really the whole direction of the film.

As stated before, this is not just a movie about superhero movie-making. It’s a movie about the making of this superhero movie.  All of the doubts and hardships that the Titans (but primarily Robin) go through are a reflection of what one can imagine the creative minds behind the scenes went through in developing it. What’s more is that in pursuing the goal of getting a superhero movie, the Titans make that movie inadvertently in the process.

In order to accomplish this, Robin and his friends must get the attention of one Jade Wilson (Frozen’s Kristen Bell; and I admit, it took me a bit too long to catch that hint), the most prestigious producer and director of superhero movies in the business, and convince her that a Teen Titans movie (or at least a Robin movie) might actually be a worthwhile investment. This shouldn’t be too difficult since she’s already greenlit feature spin-offs for Alfred, the Batmobile, and even Batman’s utility belt, but Jade informs the young do-gooders that in order for them to get a movie, they’ll have to first secure for themselves an archnemesis. It was at this point that my interest perked up a bit, since the central villain of the original Teen Titans was Slade (a somewhat modified version of the comic villain Deathstroke), and was one of the most compelling embodiments of villainy on television at the time (though not necessarily deep or substantive).

Slade has made his appearance here as well, though he’s initially and repeatedly mistaken for Deadpool and is brought to life by producer Will Arnett’s comedic chops rather than Ron Perlman’s chilling delivery of old. Much to the film’s praise, they know when to put a pause on the jokes and actually get some action sequences in when they’re needed. Robin even directly points out those moments. Sure, the action sequences aren’t exactly stellar or mind-blowing, but they don’t need to be. That’s not really what we’re here for anyway.

What I was here for was unbridled humor-oriented creativity, and we got that in spades. At points, it seems like the creative team took a lesson or two from The Amazing World of Gumball (in my judgment, the finest program that Cartoon Network has had in years) by allowing for various showcases of animation methods, styles, and approaches. One 80s-style synth-pop musical montage–complete with Michael Bolton and a blaring sax solo–looked like Lisa Frank did acid and vomited all over the animatics. Another really impressive turn seemed like it might have been animated by Nick Cross, but I could be wrong about that. Marvel Comics legend Stan Lee makes a couple of cameos here, even after realizing he’s mistakenly found himself in a DC movie. To ensure that there is no topic that won’t be broached, Nicolas Cage plays the voice of Superman in this film. If you don’t understand why that is hysterical, dear reader, what are you even doing on this website?

Even as I am writing this, I am baffled by the multiple strokes of utter brilliance found here. Yes, the movie had moments that left me nearly in stitches, though I must point out that some bits may sail over the younger viewers’ heads. Upon seeing the Warner Bros. tower for the first time, Starfire remarks to it by saying “That’s where the Animaniacs live!” I was the only one in the theater who laughed. This didn’t just happen once either.

An element illustrating the sheer strength and competence of the writers’ vision was that this story in many respects would be right at home in a more serious-minded production. Robin wrestling with his own sense of inferiority and feeling the need to go above and beyond the call of duty (and even distance himself from his friends) to prove himself has parallels both in the original 2003 series and in the rightly-venerated Young Justice. That such a plot meshes so famously with a production primarily aimed at getting laughs really demonstrates the extent and versatility of both the characters and the team telling their stories.

Yes, I know. For the many who may read this, Teen Titans GO! may still be the bane of existence; the fullest embodiment of everything wrong with modern TV animation. If you feel such a way, then I’ll leave you to it. But please grant others the same grace and leave them to enjoy something that, for all intents and purposes, is a work truly worthy of someone’s appreciation and attention–so long as they avoid the seemingly prerequisite poop and fart gags, which are thankfully singular in their frequency.

Understand that those like myself who have found real merit to this work might just be getting something genuinely positive out of it that you’re missing at the moment. At the very least, if you happen to find yourself as an audience to this particular film by some odd twist of fate, watch it with a genuine reception to what’s on offer and definitely stick around for the mid-credits. You won’t be disappointed. Or maybe you will. I personally don’t care.

P.S.:

Theatrically, Teen Titans GO! To the Movies is preceded by the short film The Late Batsby, based on the upcoming DC Super Hero Girls series created by industry great Lauren Faust. It largely amounted to an incomplete non-story in which Batgirl goes through an impressively designed urban swashbuckling sequence to catch up with her comrades and do a battle against Mr. Freeze that is never shown. It had eye-catching art direction and sharp voice acting but lacked any sense of payoff. I’m sure the full series will have those bases covered in due time.

Positives

+ Brilliantly constructed meta-humor + Faultless self-awareness of its place in the broader enterprise + Funny for viewers of all ages

Negatives

- I could’ve done without the poop jokes

The Bottom Line

Yes, seriously. 9.0. Deal with it. It’s that good. Waffles.

 

8.9

Tyrone Barnes

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