Review: Party Wagon

Scaling the wild frontier, meeting the “exotic” natives, and surviving the hardships of the open west were just a few of the problems the settlers and cowboys overcame in their search for the promised lands in early America. Cartoon Network’s newest animated feature, Party Wagon, takes extensive measures to erase this image and replace it with a fun, adventurous romp in the wild and wacky west. Created, written and produced by Craig Bartlett (Nickeodeon’s Hey Arnold!), Party Wagon takes the viewer on a trip with some of the most quirky and memorable cast of characters seen on television.

The adventure starts off as a coming-of-age story for a teenager, Randolph P. McDuff, as he escapes his city life and seeks to start over in the west. On his journey, he meets fellow travelers Romeo Jones, Louis Clark Jefferson, the cranky wagon master Bumpy Schmitts, his daughter Onery Sue, and the rootin’ tooin’ cowgirl Subliminy Jane. This band of misfits headed west meet on a ferry traveling down the Mississippi River, headed by the creepy little Three-Eyed Jack. The ferry crashes, but right before the final plank busts, Jack tells of his hidden gem mine in El Glitterado (That’s near Seattle. Who knew?) and presents the travelers with a map. The remaining members band together and travel west, each with a torn piece of the salvaged map. The group eventually joins a wagon train following the Oregon Trail, and even let in two orphans they meet on the way. The rambunctious crew is deemed the ‘party wagon’ of the train and is sent to be the last to follow all other wagons. Wacky hijacks ensue, leading to many complications, but throughout the story Randy grows as a character as he logs his daily adventures in a letter he plans to send to his aunt back in Maine. What’s made matters worse is that Three-Eyed Jack survived the waterfall and is on the hunt to get his map back.

Ultimately the film is somewhere between the growing up troubles found in many “Nicktoons” and the sharp, doubled-innuendoed wit found on such series as The Powerpuff Girls and Family Guy. While the pace may seem slow to people used to more action-oriented animation, this film more than makes up for in its clever writing and honest sense of storytelling. It’s one of the few movies that isn’t necessarily aimed at children or adults, with jokes ranging from slap-stick to humor found on more mature venues. Luckily, many of the in-jokes are so well hidden that families can watch together with no worries.

“Party Wagon” touts a very strong and respected cast. Voice work includes the actors Sean Astin (Lord of the Rings), Pamela Hayden (The Simpsons), Maurice LaMarche (Futurama), and Carolyn Lawrence (SpongeBob Squarepants). Delivery and performances of all cast members seemed right on cue with their characters, leaving audience mightily satisfied.

The weakest part of the film would the design aspect. While the movie’s overall animation is clean and well-crafted, it doesn’t push any new grounds. Many of the character designs seem to be rehashes of Bartlett’s previous works. Although this is not entirely bad, it would have been nice to see the style pushed farther for a full-featured film. Exceptional work goes into the backgrounds, however, giving them a lush storybook style that makes the west come alive with strokes of watercolors. The sky in all shots is a vivid mix of color not seen much in today’s stylized aesthetics.

Overall, Party Wagon is a great film that runs at a slower speed than usual, but earns points for its extra efforts to develop characters and deliver a unique style of storytelling. With extra depths discovered for all ages, Party Wagon is sure to round-up laughs from everyone.

“Party Wagon” airs on Feb. 27, at 8:00pm (ET/PT) on Cartoon Network.