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Monday, November 13, 2006

Silly Executives, Cartoons Ain't For Kids: Or How Mr. Magoo Ended Up In the Kids' Library

Like most people of my generation, I have fond memories of Saturday morning.

I literally grew up with the Saturday morning cartoon; its arrival in about 1963-64 coincides with some of my earliest television memories. I'd watch THE NEW CASPER CARTOON SHOW with my talking Casper The Friendly Ghost doll, advertised on self-same program (which didn't talk anymore after I took a screwdriver to his "voice box.").

Not to mention Beany and Cecil and later, Milton The Monster and Underdog (some fine cartoons which have themselves attained "orphan toon" status, but that's another story).

The season's new cartoons usually premiered around my birthday in September, so it was like a personal birthday present wrapped and delivered to yours truly, courtesy of ABC, NBC and CBS. (And yes, I'm old enough to remember when that's all the networks there were).

When I was eight years old, my parents decided I was old enough to have my own set, so they put their old RCA Victor black-and-white TV (vintage 1957) in my bedroom when they bought their brand spanking-new color one. That way, my parents could watch whatever boring old adult programs parents watched back in 1969 or so while I stared at a curved gray screen, eating my Lucky Charms (dry).

It was a bit of a challenge getting a decent picture (I swear, you had to adjust those "rabbit ears" just right, preferably sitting with one hand on the set) but once I got a clear image, I was in heaven.

I saw the premiere of "H.R. Pufnstuf" on that set, and the first season of some strange cartoon called "Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?" (Though I had my own odd notions of the premise. I used to think Scoob and the gang were trapped in "Horror World" and were trying to find their way home). As far as I was concerned, I had it made.

Had I known I was unwittingly contributing to a mindset that today poisons the thinking of not only the animation industry, but of those who buy and watch the cartoons, I might not have been so happy.

For you see, while the network executives danced around their offices in glee over the ratings numbers ("My God, kids are actually watching this crap!") parents were growing increasingly concerned ("My God, kids are actually watching this crap!") So the parents begat watchdog groups, forcing network "suits" and animation producers in fear of their jobs to favor more "kid-friendly" programming. Thus, the mantra from the 1970's on became "cartoons are for kids."

Never mind that for at least two generations before that, they hadn't been. The "classic" cartoons--the Bugs Bunnys, the Woody Woodpeckers, the Tom and Jerrys--were produced for a theater audience, in an era when you could see something before the main feature besides wide-screen commercials. There were no multiplexes, there was no "niche marketing." Just wonderful animated films--if the kids laughed, great, but it was the adults who paid for the tickets. So the cartoons were made primarily for them, with sly gags few kids would get. If you think Tex Avery had kids in mind when he made RED HOT RIDING HOOD--or any of his other cartoons, for that matter--you're seriously delusional.

Even the people who made the cartoons would admit two, three, and four decades later that kids had been at the bottom of their list of priorities: they made them for themselves first, their fellow adults second. Kids? Shouldn't they be out playing, or something?

But try to tell that to any cartoon producer today. Or the thoroughly-brainwashed young fans, for that matter. If you want truly adult animation, so the thinking goes, watch anime. Bugs Bunny? Feh! Kid stuff.

In my early years on the Net, I remember getting into a long, bitter online argument with an all-too typical otaku, who just couldn't conceive of American animation as anything but vapid, nursery-school, Disneyesque schmaltz. To this day I regret not pointing out that Osamu Tezuka, pratically a god among the anime faithful, was himself influenced not only by Disney, but Max Fleischer. Look at ASTRO BOY sometime, and I guarantee you'll see not only thinly-veiled tributes to PINOCCHIO, but scenes straight out of BIMBO'S INITIATION or MINNIE THE MOOCHER. The characters even look like refugees from a Fleischer short.

Yes, I wish I'd said that. I probably would have been able to hear that fanboy squirm.

Naturally I wasn't surprised when perusing the video collection at the local library, and discovering all the good cartoon videos were in the kids' section. I was, however, when I discovered some vintage UPA cartoons in there.

That's right, UPA, the studio that spawned the crotchety, stubborn--not to mention nearly blind--Mr. Magoo. That revolutionized animation styling throughout the industry. The studio whose output could be at turns whimsical, poignant and disturbing--often in the same cartoon. But there it was, a Gerald McBoing-Boing DVD. With every cartoon in the brief series, along with a classic Magoo, buried beneath "Veggie Tales" and "Dora The Explorer." Free from peanut butter- stained fingers, no less--I doubt any kid in the place had ever heard of Gerald McBoing Boing.

At the time, I had never seen GERALD MC BOING BOING or any of the subsequent sequels, and had hardly seen a Magoo outside of the abysmal later ones made for TV. And I hadn't even seen those in years. I had to watch that video. Immediately.

Just one little problem. At the time I had no DVD player, so I had to watch it there. The player in the adult library was unfortunately occuped, so I had to watch it in the kids' library, on their player. Not as easy as it sounds, believe me.

If you've never tried viewing anything in the kids' library without a kid to accompany you, I wouldn't recommend it. Be prepared to have the librarian's eyes boring into your skull, no doubt wondering if she should leave you to your video-watching or call the police. Consequently, after one quick viewing, I bid the place a hasty "adieu."

So that's how Mr. Magoo ended up in the kids' library. And he didn't even have to stumble in there accidentally--dimwitted adults put him there.

This little tale only serves to illustrate how thouroughly entrenched--and ridiculous--the whole "cartoons are for kids" attitude has become. It's so ingrained in our collective psyche that even obscure classic (and often very adult ) cartoons get buried beneath a pile of juvenile pap. If it's animated, the kids'll love it, right? In retrospect, I probably should have kept looking to see if they had UPA's TELL-TALE HEART in there. Now there's a film sure to appeal to the cookie-snatchers: "Mommy, I'm scared! That heart's beating all by itself..."

I know certain perceptive people reading this will be quick to remind me that GERALD MC BOING BOING was originally a Dr. Seuss children's story, and indeed it was. But the subsequent UPA cartoon veered rather far from Seussian territory, coming up with something quirky and even a bit dark. In short, very UPA. After all, the boy is not only rejected by his peers because he spoke sound effects rather than words, but by his own parents. He walks, dejected, up an endless flight of stairs (against a stark background of flat color) and resolves to run away, sneaking off into the dark night. Leonard Maltin compares the "staircase" scene to a similar one in a live-action film called THE FALLEN IDOL.

On that I'll just have to take his word, since I've never seen THE FALLEN IDOL, but his point is clear. GERALD MC BOING BOING is no kids' cartoon, as we've come to understand them. The filmmaking is very adult (as in "sophisticated", not "obscene") and the story took place in a cold adult world, albeit from a child's viewpoint.

The Magoo cartoon included on the video, featuring the original stubborn, ill-tempered early-fifties incarnation of the character, could hardly be called juvenile material, either.

But I know I'm preaching to the proverbial choir. I don't know anymore how we cartoon fans can overcome this decades-old misconception and put classic animation where it belongs--with the "big boy" and "big girl" videos. I can only suggest that if you see some wonderful old cartoons in your local library, and you don't have kids of your own, you might want to "borrow" a niece or nephew for the afternoon.

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LL Rucker said...

Okay, South Park is a wee bit too over the top for the kiddies. Family Guy is just plain silly, to me at least.
As a child I watched Rockie and Bullwinkle, and looking back it's funny that we weren't terrified of Boris and Natasha, what with all the talk of Kruschev and the bomb!.
Todays cartoons are just little life lessons for the kids. There is little humor in them and very little entertainment, at least to me.
Years ago, and I won't say how many, we used to go to the drive-in movies and they always showed a cartoon before the feature. My favorite was the one with the baby whale and it's momma singing "Momma's little baby loves shortening, shortening,Momma's little baby loves shortening bread. And Figaro!
I don't know why cartoons have gone the route of educational. Were they meant to be anything more than funny?

any_ol_1 said...

UPA's TELL-TALE HEART is on the HELLBOY dvd (also available at netflix)

Shortnin' Bread [6:16] is on 150 Cartoon Classics UPC: 683904505309 which is only a couple of bucks if you find the right one, in the bargin bins. I *think* that's the title that had that song in it.

My take on this is cartoons were neither for adults or children, they were meant to be profitable. :-) Plugs would be pulled, alliances changed at the drop of someone supplying TOO much footage or not hitting a deadline. From the books I've read, for such wonderfull product, most of the people working in the toon trenches really had sad lives. It would be nice if we could get their work today, as they intended without editing and redrawing; nicer still if proper recognition could be given these largely unknown talents.

Oh, and on libraries I'm afraid to go under the 'You must be this tall to get into the childrens room" sign :-) I reserve them for pickup at the main desk.