Friday, January 18, 2008

"You're in the movies now and I'm in your cartoons..."

Sometimes the anticipation of Saturday Morning Cartoons was more than my little brother and I could bear. We’d be up before dawn, ensconced a mere six inches from the massive wooden console TV, the snowy white fuzz of an off-the-air station flickering softly in the dark living room. Just before 6 a.m. the three network stations crackled to life with a vibrant test pattern, which morphed into the morning sign-on of a waving flag and arousing version of the National Anthem, followed by commentary from a man in a suit sitting at a desk. His appearance signaled a mad scramble to the kitchen to scarf down a quick bowl of Franken Berry and glass of Tang (the drink of astronauts!) before the fun began.

And what fun it was! We absorbed animated versions of The Jackson 5 and The Osmonds, surreal live action shows from Syd & Marty Krofft’s bizarre world of Lidsville, HR Pufnstuf and Sigmund and the Sea Monsters; motorhead cartoons like Wheelie & the Chopper Bunch and Speed Buggy; and tons of “spooky” shows including The Groovy Ghoulies, Scooby Doo Where Are You?, The Funky Phantom, Goober and the Ghost Chasers and The Addams Family. We got our first glimpses of different cultures with The Amazing Chan & the Chan Clan, Fat Albert & The Cosby Kids, and Johnny Quest, and even endured space-age versions of Josie & the Pussycats in Outer Space and The Partridge Family in 2200 A.D.

Of everything we watched on Saturday mornings, however, my favorite was Bugs Bunny. I couldn’t get enough of the wise-cracking rabbit and his motley band of antagonists. Even with the daily dose we got weekdays after school we’d still eschew other Saturday morning cartoons in favor of Bugs & Co.

1. The Rabbit of Seville

As difficult as it was to choose favorite Warner Brothers/Merry Melody cartoons, I narrowed it down to two: both, incidentally, directed by Chuck Jones. The first is The Rabbit of Seville - a break-neck operatic production of the classic hunter vs. hunted set to the music of Rossini’s overture to “The Barber of Seville.” The story begins with bumbling hunter Elmer Fudd chasing Bugs into an opera house, where he is tricked by the rabbit into going onstage. Over the ensuing 6 minutes the pair race through a series of barbershop gags, mostly entailing Bugs giving Elmer brutal shaves and haircuts. It made me laugh as a child of six, and it still makes me laugh thirty some odd years later. The Rabbit of Seville was one of several WB cartoons that introduced me to classical and operatic music, for which I am forever grateful.

2. Feed the Kitty

Many may not be aware of this tender gem, which doesn’t include any of the famous WB clan. “Feed the Kitty” is a simple twist on the ole dog/cat cartoon rivalry: a gruff bulldog named Marc Anthony unexpectedly falls for a fluffy little black and white kitten named Pussyfoot. It’s a simple enough concept, and there is gentle humor in the bulldog’s clumsy attempts to keep the kitten a secret from his owner - pretending the kitten is a wind-up toy, a powder puff and a doll in a toy car - but it is the range of emotion shown by the bulldog that proves what a stunning animator Jones was: he brought the dog to life in such a way that the viewer knows exactly what the dog is feeling, and those feelings reverberate to the viewer, tugging at the heartstrings like no other cartoon can. It is one of the most sublime bits of animation I have ever seen, and I absolutely love it.

3. Schoolhouse Rocks

American kids watching Saturday Morning Cartoons in the 1970’s weren’t just bombarded with commercials for Funny Face Fruit Drink and Evil Knievel action figures, we were also treated to fun, educational cartoons that taught us grammar, math, science, history, and politics in song form.We learned our times tables (“Three is a Magic Number”), how bills are passed into law (“I’m Just a Bill”), that “A Noun is A Person, Place orThing,” how our solar system works (“Interplanet Janet”) and the Preambleto the Constitution. I can distinctly remember my third grade class having to recite The Preamble, and the stunned look on the teacher’s face when we all began singing it instead. After thirty years the fashions and terminology are somewhat dated - kids today probably have little idea what a “record machine” is, for example - but the cartoons and songs are still relevant educational tools that make learning fun.

4. The Beatles - Yellow Submarine

Not every cartoon I watched as a youngster was shown on Saturday mornings, however. The first time I ever saw Yellow Submarine it was shown during prime time on one of the big three networks; in 1971 we only had three networks and channels, unless you counted PBS, which kids generally didn’t. I remember watching it with my older sister and being struck by how different it seemed than the cartoons I was used to. Parts of it didn’t seem like a cartoon at all, appearing more to be cut’n’ paste photos that had been hand-tinted in deliberately bold, strange colors. The feature length cartoon tells the story of how a music-loving paradise called Pepperland falls prey to the music-hating Blue Meanies, and how one escapee in a yellow submarine seeks help and finds The Beatles. The band agrees to help battle the Blue Meanies and travels back to Pepperland via a series of alternate universes. It amazed and scared me at the same time; I loved The Beatles and the whole idea that their music could triumph over evil, but the images in the Sea of Monsters section of the movie frightened me, as did the blue glove that chased and crushed fleeing Pepperland residents. This was the cartoon that expanded the limits of my already overactive imagination.

5. Ren & Stimpy “Space Madness”

Although I never outgrew my love of cartoons, I despised the politically-correct movement of the 1980’s which heavily edited out anything considered taboo, violent or bad for children. I was appalled and shocked at how lame these edited monstrosities were, and how the cartoons of my childhood had been ruined. Which is why, in the early 1990’s, I was completely wowed when I tuned in to watch The Ren & Stimpy Show and got a heady dose of violence, taboo and crazy situations, all in one episode. It was obvious that creator John Kricfalusi had soaked up every Tex Avery directed cartoon ever made. Of all the early Ren & Stimpy episodes, none pay homage to Avery quite like Space Madness, which combines the geekiness of Star Trek with an unparalleled, over-the-top anxiety born of being cooped up with your crew mates too long. It’s got all the hallmark Avery touches -extreme close-ups, oversized facial features, neurotic tics, riotous moodswings, hysterically funny - and like all the best of the golden age cartoons, it doesn’t dumb down while it’s cracking you up.


Daniel said...

Ah, you've diversified from the music. Great stuff.

kc said...

Good selection, Lu. Makes me want to watch Yellow Submarine in full.