She arrived in matching pink tank top and pink shorts, and, befitting her reputation as an insouciant princess, she was barefoot. A silky mop of blonde hair lay tossed across a not-uncomplicated brow. She studied me quizzically. This is a notoriously difficult profile subject, I reminded myself—easily bored, mood swings—and known to disarm you with an impish giggle. I dug in.
“I thought we’d play a game.””What game?””It’s called Journalist.””How do you play Journalist?”Insert your own joke here. I simply smiled.”Let’s start with an easy one. What is your favorite cartoon?””Charlie and Lola.“”I can’t help noticing, you say that with a British accent. But you, yourself, are not British. Why?””Because I do a good British accent.”Great, I thought. Here we go.”Where did you learn the British accent?””In school.”Already with the fibs.”Are you sure you didn’t learn it watching Charlie and Lola?”“I did!”
Absolutely no conscience.They’re just like celebrities, these 3-year-olds.
My daughter, so far as I can tell, is a fairly typical toddler. One minute she is heaven-sent, almost a caricature of a delightful and well-behaved child; the next, a howling gargoyle intent on separating me from my eyes. For the past year or so, I have been in search of television programming that is both age-appropriate and discouraging to her inner she-beast. This search has not been as easy as it might seem.
In selecting cartoons, one is faced with an uninviting (if very American) choice: insipidity or carnage. Each is famously represented by the two major producers of classic animation, the Walt Disney Company and Warner Bros. Walt Disney suffered a hardscrabble early life and had a blackguard for a father, and these, it has been speculated, inclined him to the treacle and escapism, the sinister innocence that now bears his name. Meanwhile, in the ‘30s, a set of smart alecks defected from Disney to Warner Bros., where they happened upon a magic combination: the direction of Chuck Jones, the music of Carl Stalling *, the voices of Mel Blanc, and the gag style of Tex Avery, behind a stable of characters (Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Elmer Fudd) we’re still familiar with today. “The surprising facts about them,” wrote the great film critic Manny Farber in 1943, “are the good ones are masterpieces, and the bad ones aren’t a total loss.”
Now, I am second to none in my admiration for Bugs Bunny. He is everything you want in a role-model for your child: arch, cowardly, gender-bending, and lascivious. But, no two ways about it, the cartoons he appears in can be shockingly violent. I wouldn’t rate my sensibilities as overly delicate, but one sequence, in which a dog gets sucked into a vacuum cleaner whose hose then gets dipped into the red-hot embers of a fireplace, made me walk calmly to the TV and snap it off. If cartoons rate, with baseball, jazz, and Broadway musicals, as one of the great American art forms, I thought, surely there must be some that escape the Disney-WB dialectic?
In fact, there are. Max Fleischer was a mediocre businessman at best, notoriously bad at publicity, and once said, “I’m in the business of making cartoons, I’m not in the merchandising business,” which is to get the economics of cartooning exactly wrong. But he was a genius when it came to animation. Fleischer was born in Austria in 1883 and emigrated with his parents to the States four years later. By 1919, Fleischer and his brother had created their own animation studio, where they invented the bouncing ball sing-along, the first sound cartoon (years before Disney’s Steamboat Willie), and a series of original characters, the most famous of which is Betty Boop. It’s hard to convey how distinctive Fleischer’s best work is, as it captures qualities one doesn’t associate with cartoons. Influenced by vaudeville, the classic Betty Boops are strangely vigorous, earthy, honest, but also fanciful, bordering on the surreal. (The New York Times got it right in 1919: “Mr Flesicher’s work, by its wit of conception and skill of execution, makes the general run of animated cartoons seem dull and crude.”)
While thankfully missing their sly drug references—to “smokey” and “cokie”—my daughter swoons along with the magical trippiness of the classic Fleischers (which are now available on DVD.) So, why isn’t Fleischer as well-known as Disney or Chuck Jones? In 1930, Hollywood passed the so-called Hays Code, an attempt to elevate the moral standards of the film industry. In some sense, this was the moment that American childhood was handed over to Disney. Mickey, like most cartoon characters in the pre-code days, had been risqué. In his definitive history of cartoons, Leonard Maltin quotes The Motion Picture Herald of 1931: “Papas and mamas, especially mamas, have spoken vigorously to censor boards and elsewhere about what a devilish, naughty little mouse Mickey turned out to be.” But he converted easily into the saucer-eyed innocent we know today. Fleischer was less successful: The code included a stricture against “suggestive dances,” and Betty Boop was soon stripped of all her distinctive sauciness. And so the Disney Snow White, in which a virginal princess gets rewarded for her spotless virtue, won out over the Fleischer Snow White, in which a blithely sexualized princess (Boop) gets threatened with a beheading, enclosed in a coffin of ice, and listens while Koko the Clown belts out a killer version of “St. James Infirmary Blues.” This version was made in 1933, the last year before the code was strictly enforced. Fleischer went on to animate Popeye and Superman, but he died impoverished in 1972, only 11 days after signing a contract to redistribute Betty Boop.
The code was aimed at sex, not violence. And so the path to insipidity and carnage had been laid out. For cartoons that escape the insipidity-carnage dialectic and are of a more recent vintage, my daughter and I have happened upon a series of blissfully sweet cartoons from England called Charlie and Lola, based on an equally delightful series of children’s books by the graphic artist Lauren Child. Both have a distinctive look: simple, bold, black-line drawings, filled in with flat colors, on collage backgrounds. But their most notable quality is their whimsy. Charlie is a 7-year-old boy; Lola is his (very) little sister, who I’d guess is about 4. The TV series is voiced by children, and each episode involves a fairly simple problem in which Charlie exercises his wisdom and authority, which Lola undermines with her trademark cheek. A typical episode is “We Do Promise Honestly We Can Look After Your Dog,” in which Lola and her schoolmate Lotta try to convince Charlie’s friend Marv they can mind his dachshund Sizzles.
“Lola, do you know anything about dogs?” asks Charlie.”Yes,” says Lola, mildly exasperated. “I do. Everything.””So do I,” adds Lotta.”We know that Sizzles is a very extremely very clever dog,” says Lola”What about tricks?” Lotta whispers in Lola’s ear.”We know he can do very good tricks.””If he wanted, he could roll over.””And jump over things.””And walk on two legs.””And dance.””And speak English.””Lotta,” Lola concludes, “do you know, I think Sizzles can do really anything.”
I have watched 24 episodes of this show (set your TiVos, it airs on the Disney channel in the United States) and have yet to hear one note that is cloying, sour, or otherwise dishonest. Its brilliance lies in capturing childhood instead of manipulating it: by which I mean, it neither panders to an adult’s ideal of childhood innocence nor to a child’s fantasy of adult mastery and power. The show is about, of all things, the practice of reasoning, or the giving and taking of explanations. Toddlers are people, after all, who lie only on the verge of fully understanding the prudential, moral, and ethical demands of life—they master a habit of asking “Why?” long before they understand what counts as a legitimately satisfying answer to a “why” question. “Hmm, this is going to be trickier than I thought,” Charlie murmurs to himself when it becomes clear that Lola’s favorite book (Beetles, Bugs and Butterflies) has been checked out of the library. And so Charlie treads a delicate balance between securing rote obedience through commands (shushing Lola because she is speaking loudly in a library) and instilling a respect for appropriate behavior through explanation. A balance that came home to me as my lovely interview subject, a smile spreading across her face, began to ram my hand repeatedly into my keyboard, screaming maniacally, “I’m helping you type! I’m helping you type!”