17 June 2009

Bryan Loves Television Part II: The Flat and the Furriest

Here's a topic pretty close to my heart now. I'm a big fan of animation, traditional much more so than digital, but that's not really what this is about. Now, moving out of the hideous maelstrom that is Reality TV, modern cartoons are pretty good. Good, not great. Again, this entry is derived completely from hearsay, my own train of thought, and Wikipedia.

My favourite era of animation by far is the Termite Terrace period at Warner Brothers in the mid-1930s and early 40s, although by the time Chuck Jones hit his stride in the early 50s the animation had hit its peak. Keep in mind he somehow packed more story in the 6-minute "What's Opera, Doc?" (1957) than there is in an entire season of Family Guy.

Supposedly because they couldn't make either Elmer or Bugs really fat and they wanted some stereotypical fat Wagnerian Opera singer, they just made the horse really...really...fat.

Those cartoons, however, were made primarily as shorts to be shown in theaters before feature films. They did find life, however, with "The Bugs Bunny Show" debuting in the United States on October 11, 1960, which played mostly the theatrical toons from the late 40s and 50s, with some new interstitials. These are still some of my favourite cartoons of all time, but I consider the 1960s to be incredibly weak for televised cartoons due to Hanna-Barbara's monopoly and the virtual non-participation by Walt Disney studios.

Disney was undoubtedly a pioneer in animation and we ultimately must bow to Snow White and Seven Dwarfs. Besides being an incredibly successful feature length animated film and Walt Disney's first animated film, it also pioneering realistic depictions of human characters and detailed settings, as well as rain, lighting, and water effects prior to which were either considered unfeasible or unworthwhile for an animated medium. For the next thirty years, Disney Studios remained an innovator in animated feature films, but with Walt Disney's declining health and eventual death in 1966, they missed a lot of the initial jump into television until 1985.

Anyway, what this is all setting up is that about 50 years ago all they had on TV was Warner Bros repeats and Hanna-Barbara. Now, I've got a soft spot for Yogi and El Kabong and all that crap, but ultimately, these were cartoons that were churned out at an incredibly cheap and fast rate in order to make as much money as possible. Using heavy limited animation as well as stock footage and sound effects, the studio was able to chug out an incredible quantity of material that served very well towards deriding the animation from something that adults were expected to enjoy before a feature film to something directed towards children on Saturday mornings.

Now, as a kid I really liked this stuff. As a kid. There's a reason for that. Kids are retarded. The writing is pretty mindless, even with higher profile shows such as the Flinstones and Jetsons. There was never any serious integrity behind these kinds of programs and for a long time this kind of animation took the steam out of the other major studios. The 1970s gave us shit like Scooby Doo and Jabber Jaw solving the same mystery every week. Yeah, by the way, Hanna-Barbara had just the right amount of integrity to rip-off its own creations.

Ultra Magnus, not Optimus Prime -
buy the slightly different coloured model! Now!

So, dark days for a while. All these eras are total shit. No one really had the spirit to make anything worth watching. The commercialism of the 1980s gave us things like Transformers and Thundercats, while I'm sure were remembered fondly, were essentially half-hour toy commercials each week. Hell, Transformers would regularly kill off characters and replace them with new ones in order to have different action figures to sell. Fucking Michael Bay has more honour than that. Yes, I did just type that sentence.

There once was a time when animation truly meant something, driven by strong characters (Daffy Duck, who is the single character for "Duck Amuck" (1953)) and genuine societal archetypes (Bugs Bunny as the trickster rabbit, akin to Anasi the trickster spider of the Ashanti of Ghana or the Space Coyote from Southwestern Native American mythology, but that is for some other note I believe). In the 70s this transitioned to an allegory for...the Honeymooners and Sgt. Bilko, quickly moving on to an excuse to collect all of the different colours of Battle Cat.

In 1989 a film named "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" changed everything. Besides having the only dual appearance of Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny, it reinvigorated and inspired Warner Bros Studios to pursue what I believe to be the greatest era of television animation, which was the early-to-mid 1990s. 1989 also saw the premiere of The Simpsons, which essentially created an entire new genre of adult-based cartoons that could be taken seriously as a valued medium.

In the 90s out of WB the heavy hitters you get are Tiny Toons, Animaniacs, Pinky and the Brain, and Freakazoid. I put Freakazoid in there because I fucking love that show. Disney had some good stuff too, but I feel like the best they had was like Duck Tales and Tale Spin, and Darkwing Duck, which for some reason I feel all had the same characters in them. Either that or retreads of old characters like Goof Troop, while Warner Bros managed to keep their sense of humour intact while treading new and updated ground with a show like Animaniacs that also had some basic jokes that could appeal to adults. When they did retread their characters, they used "spiritual successors" in Tiny Toons which was much more original than something like Goof Troop.

Now, amidst all of this shit was some really innovative shows from new cable networks like Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network. This has since led to an explosion of crappy, crappy shows that I will get into on the next go-around. In the early 90s though, shows like Ren &Stimpy, Rocko's Modern Life, and Doug (my own picks for the best nicktoons) showed an even greater variety of creative freedom than the WB and Disney revival. You could write a doctoral thesis on the cultural nostalgia juxtaposed with a satire on modern-day sensibilities disguised as low-brow crudity found within each episode of Ren & Stimpy.

Ah jeez, the chick with 3 boobs from Total Recall
like you have to ask

Cable in general served as an outlet for many creative shows that would not have found life elsewhere. I've talked in Part 1 about Beavis and Butthead finding a home on MTV, a shitshow like Angry Beavers on Nickelodeon or something more subtle like Sheep in the Big City on Cartoon Network may never had found a home otherwise. Network cartoons tended to rely on generic genre cartoons such as Gargoyles or established franchises such as X-Men and Spider-Man. While many of these cable networks were established in the 1980s, their explosion in popularity and distribution in the 90s allowed many artists a creative outlet, especially in such programs as the What a Cartoon! Show, which served as the jumping-off point for Dexter's Laboratory, Cow and Chicken, Powerpuff Girls, as well as the Larry and Steve short, a man and dog team that was Seth MacFarlane's prototype of Family Guy.

Just think, without shows like this giving opportunities to aspiring animators we might not ever have had a Family Guy. Oh sassafras. These were all funded by Hanna-Barbara, who I will admit earned back a lot what they had lost from whoring themselves out in the 70s. Like Julia Roberts.

So this explosion of creativity continued to expand and expand until sometime early in our current decade it lost a bit of steam. Either from overexposure or an accidental encouragement and duplication of the flaws of some of these shows through their popularity, the movement died out almost as soon as it had flared up, leaving us with mostly shit nowadays.

This will continue in the sequel to my rant about cartoons, including my feelings on the Adult Cartoon genre in: Bryan Loves Television Part III: 2 Flat 2 Furriest!

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