Little kids will watch anything, and when you’re with one, so will you–which is how I ended up a few weeks ago sitting with my 4-year-old nephew, Sam, watching Scooby Doo, Where Are You? This was late-period Scooby, which meant that, like many series that run dry creatively, it featured a celebrity guest. In this episode, Mama Cass had called Scooby and his pals to find out who was haunting her candy factory. (It turned out the glowing slimeys were actually two locals trying to scare Cass away so they could take over the factory!) I found myself, quite improbably, longing for the early, classic Scooby Doo s, which in distant memory were more vivid, screamingly funny, and real scary. Sam didn’t seem to mind, though. He sat inches from the screen, saucer-eyed, his tiny mouth slightly open.
Sam didn’t know, nor did he care to hear, that cartoons could be better than this. He seemed uninterested in a lecture about the Golden Age of Cartoons, when Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck sprang to loony life and captured a nation’s imagination in six- to eight-minute spurts. These theatrical shorts of the 1930s and 1940s–mastered first by Tex Avery and later by Chuck Jones and Friz Freling–were like insane sprints, done in five weeks and budgeted to the frame. Yet, they came out beautifully: characters like liquid fun, pictures like party music, because–and only because–the people who worked on them were artists. Sam, who turns on the Cartoon Network every time he walks into a room, knows mostly only the later kind of cartoons–the Magilla Gorillas, the Frankenstein Jrs., the Peter Potamis–which television started cranking out like sausages in the 1960s. Produced mainly by the animation team of William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, these crappy half-hours–The Flintstones was the zenith–were done on the cheap, which is usually the excuse given for why the animation is so limited, the characters so flat, the writing so hackneyed, the timing so lazy, the music so cheesy. (It took John Kricfalusi, who did the awe-inspiring Ren & Stimpy for not much more money, to expose that lie.) The truth is, Hanna-Barbera didn’t make cartoons any better because they didn’t have to. Kids like Sam (then I) would watch them simply because they were cartoons.
It was doubly shocking, then, when the Cartoon Network decided to bring back the classic seven-minute cartoon short in 1995. First, because the channel seemed to be doing just fine selling crap; second, because of all the studios they could have chosen to oversee the project, they picked Hanna-Barbera. (Perhaps the fact that Ted Turner owned both companies had something to do with it.) Good cartoons require not only the will to make them but a considerable amount of talent–which, based on the evidence, one wouldn’t expect to find hanging around the Hanna-Barbera lot. But three years and 45 new cartoons have more or less proved that expectation wrong. It may be damning with faint praise (though any praise at all for Hanna-Barbera is praise indeed), but it’s personally astonishing for me to admit that many of these cartoons are decent.
This month and next, the Cartoon Network is debuting the latest batch of 10 new toons Wednesday nights, and they provide a fairly good measure of the project to date. None is stunning, but two are promising, and only one or two are not worth watching at all. So, a quick rundown:
J ohnny Bravo and the Amazon Women. Johnny Bravo, an apparent nod to Greg Brady’s alter ego, is a real sweet-talkin’ ladies’ man, or so he thinks. He speaks Elvis (“Hay, bayba”) and has as many angles as his character design, a hepped-up version of square-jawed 1950s clip art. The backgrounds are static and the movement is limited, but the jazzy style makes it work. Plus, it’s always funny when a deluded Lothario offers to massage an entire tribe of angry spear-carrying women three times his size. This short ran Jan. 1, but it will rerun regularly and becomes a half-hour series in mid-1997.
Blammo the Clown. This ran Jan. 7, which is just as well. The main characters, Phish and Chip, are a dumb shark and wisecracking lynx, respectively, with a screaming human boss. In this episode, the duo fights a bomb-throwing clown and gets blown up in a large number of unfunny ways. Even if you didn’t see it, you’ve seen it.
Awfully Lucky (debuted Jan. 15). A jerk gets ahold of the “Paradox Pearl,” which gives its possessor extraordinary good luck, followed by especially bad luck. It’s a series of not-good gags followed by bad gags.
Strange Things (Jan. 22). This is one of those computer animations that is just amazing to look at, and you don’t laugh once. I’m tempted to say that the fault lies in the form, that the artificial coolness of computer animation makes it all but impossible to capture character and slapstick. But then, we’ve all seen Toy Story–a mesmerizing piece of work, true, but that’s not going to be enough anymore.
Snoot’s New Squat (Jan. 29). Snoot stars a brightly colored rubber-faced being who spouts celebrity impressions and can change size and shape at will–and is not voiced by Robin Williams or Jim Carrey. After The Mask and Aladdin, this character would seem completely unnecessary, particularly since he’s also not very funny. He does, however, have a screaming boss.
Larry and Steve (Feb. 5). Seth McFarlane, the creator, writer, and director of this very fine short, is only 23, which is either surprising or obvious, depending on how you look at it. Steve is an intelligent talking dog who can only be understood by his owner Larry, who is–as Larrys always are in pop culture–a moronic jerk. (As he patronizingly tells a sales clerk before putting an 800-watt bulb into a standard desk lamp, “Honey, I think I know what I’m doing. I didn’t go to kindergarten for 12 years because I was stupid.”) While the duo reminded me a bit too much of Nick Park’s Academy Award-winning Wallace and Grommitt claymations, McFarlane managed to wring laughs out of a car-cut-in-half gag, and I can’t remember the last time that was done.
What’s Goin’ on Back There? (Feb. 12), starring Sledgehammer O’Possum, a street possum. It might be a matter of taste, but the self-conscious funkiness of this cartoon (a cop car, for example, is labeled “Po-leece”) smells Kingfishy to me. It may be that the creator, Pat Ventura, is black, but that still wouldn’t really excuse it.
Home Sweet Home (Feb. 19), starring the Zoonatiks, who are basically wacky animals. I’m sure whoever did this worked very hard on it.
Mission Imfrogable (Feb. 26). Swamp and Tad are frogs from outer space, I guess, but it’s unclear why. One is dumb, and the other cracks wise. On the positive side, their boss screams only sometimes.
The Great Egg-Scape (March 5). The Flintstones’ pet, Dino, is forced to play mother to a rapidly growing thunderbuttasaurus. This short was written and directed by Hanna-Barbera co-founder Joseph Barbera, and the nicest thing you can say about it is that, compared with most of their oeuvre, it’s better than it has to be.
Steve, the talking dog, confronts disaster with aplomb (30 seconds):
Sound05 - LarryAndSteve.avi or Sound06 - LarryAndSteve.mov; download time, 5 minutes at 56K Sound02 - bob-larryandsteve.asf for sound only