cartoons

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Cartoon Copy(Samurai Pizza)Cats

According to Kirby Ferguson’s Everything is a Remix, 74 of the 100 top grossing films from 2002-2012 are either sequels, remakes or adaptations. “Perhaps audiences just prefer the familiar (Ferguson part 2).”

As Ferguson showed us, many Disney cartoons are based off Grimm fairy tales and various other sources, but traditional Saturday morning cartoons also caught on to the reiteration of successful shows to keep their audiences coming back for more. Preston Blair, cartoonist for Disney and Hanna-Barbera, showed how to draw character archetypes in many of his how-to books on, most notably Cartoon Animation.

Heavycutecharactergoofy

If we examine the some of the characters in the Hanna-Barbera universe, we can see that many characters across shows share many of the same traits, often to convey something about their personalities. In 1969, Hanna-Barbera introduced the world to the crime-solving great dane Scoobert-Doo and the Mystery Machine gang of Fred, the All-American hunk; Daphne, the red-headed vixen; Velma, the bookworm, and Shaggy, the scruffy slacker.

scoobydoo

After the success of Scooby-Doo! Where Are You?” Hanna-Barbera premiered a new cartoon in 1977 called Jabberjaw. Notice any similarities?

Many of you may also remember the Hanna-Barbera classic Yogi Bear and his little sidekick Boo-Boo, two pic-a-nic basket thieves who find themselves getting in trouble with Ranger Smith, the park ranger of Jellystone park.

That was in 1961. In ’62, audiences were treated to Wally Gator, an alligator who lives within the confines of the zoo and must be kept in check by zookeeper Mr. Twiddle. Are you noticing a pattern?

While these are examples of in-house copycats, there are plenty of instances through time of animation studios swiping character types from established shows. In 1990, John K. introduces us to Ren and Stimpy, a volatile chihuahua and stupid cat duo, the two always prying at each other’s nerves.

The_Ren_and_Stimpy_Show_Title_Card

In 1993 with the launch of the Animaniacs, we get Pinky and the Brain, a pair of lab mice, the former a genius, the latter insane.

pinky-and-the-brain-cartoon-nice-wallpaper-1024x768

And then, a few years later, we get CatDog, a … yeah.

CatDogHeader

Just by looking at these images, without even watching an episode,  we can deduce which characters in these pairs are the goofy half of the equation. The off-kilter eyes, hanging tongues and the buck teeth convey the stereotypical dopey look we’ve seen time and again.

With the popularity of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, animators try to jump on the bandwagon of anthropomorphic fighting animals. Case in point: Street Sharks and Samurai Pizza Cats.

With the overnight success of Pokemon, we got arena-battling anime like Digimon

Pokemon http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NcfdoSuC6MI

Digimon http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mUihzNN0ees

And then we get to the other half of the equation with the reimaginings. The 1960s The Adventures of Johnny Quest got a ’90s iteration in The Real Adventures of Johnny Quest. Tiny Toons was a spiritual successor to the 1940s Looney Tunes. Muppet Babies were exactly that to the original Muppets. The Rugrats became teenagers in Rugrats: All Grown Up. A Pup Named Scooby-Doo took us back in time with the gang before they were old enough to drive the Mystery Machine. James Bond Jr. And adaptations. Garfield and Friends brought the tabby cat to the small screen after finding success in the funny papers. Street Fighter and X-Men both got their own cartoons in the ’90s. There are so many it would actually take forever to list them all. So, I think this provides a good-enough picture of the highly iterative nature of cartoons.

And, finally, truth-bomb: SpongeBob SquarePants is just Rocko’s Modern Life underwater.

Rugrats

The Invisible Repetition of the Cartoon Theme Song

Cartoons are everywhere we turn.

It’s hard to believe the medium of cartoon animation is only roughly 100 years old, given how ubiquitous characters like Mickey Mouse, Scooby Doo and Spongebob Squarepants have become. We have backpacks emblazoned with Dora the Explorer’s face, vitamins made with Wilma Flintstones visage and even entire theme parks inspired by classic animated features. Baby boomers, Generation X and millennials all have cartoons from their youth that they remember fondly, and I posit that the tried-and-true intro/theme song combination that begins every episode plays a heavy role in reinforcing our connection to those viewing experiences.

While I could analyze the excellent intro sequence to Batman: The Animated Series, sadly, it’s already been done (and I highly suggest you click that link), so I’ll move on. One of the most successful cartoons in history, the Looney Tunes still appear in various incarnations even to this day. Predating the first commercially viable TV sets, the Looney Tunes animated shorts debuted in 1930 in theaters on film reels. Because animated features were still relatively new during the World War II era, producers modeled these shorts after existing entertainment structures, most notably Vaudeville and orchestra. Now heralded as one of the most influential cartoons of all time, many Looney Tunes shorts begin with the recognizable (blank) song in much the same way an orchestra would play an opening song before the curtains rose in a play.

In the first second of the intro bumper, we can see the Warner Bros. logo come into focus on the screen as if we were seated in a theater and the lights slowly adjusted in brightness to spotlight the beginning of a performance. Once the WB logo fades off, we then get a close-up of Bugs Bunny, the star and ringleader of the Looney Tunes. What’s important here, which differs from many cartoons intros of today, is that by showing us a large disembodied bucktoothed Bugs Bunny on screen, we’re being told that we’re not in attendance to watch a story necessarily, but rather a character. Then, as if the red rings around his head didn’t already resemble curtains, we see Bugs lift the projection screen right before our eyes, revealing that we’re very much about to watch a tongue-in-cheek, self-aware farce featuring anthropomorphic animals. Bugs lounges on top of his own name, reading “BUGS BUNNY in,” reinforcing that the character is about to get himself into some bizarre antics.

As TV sets became affordable and began to fill homes all across America, studios like Hanna-Barbera ushered in a new era of cartoons as the golden age of animation entered its twilight. With classics like the Jetsons, Scooby-Doo, Where are you? and The Flintstones, the studio gave us countless cartoons classics that became pieces of TV history. Once the most successful, longest-running animated TV series in history (an accomplishment since taken by The Simpsons), The Flintstones popularized many paradigms animated shows still follow today, perhaps most of all the use of a theme song with catchy, unforgettable lyrics.

Before the lyrics begin, we see main character Fred operating his dino-crane for just a split second. The camera then pans to his supervisor as he glances at his watch, waiting to sound the klaxon for ending the work day. But how do we know in these first three seconds that Fred is a construction worker? For one, we see his boss wears a hard hat, but, perhaps more importantly, he is standing next to his office, which has conveniently been labeled “office” on the outside wall. One simple word provides all the context we need for the first few shots of the intro.

And the very first lyric of the show’s theme song is “Flintstones,” a no-nonsense primer to prepare the audience to join the family for their newest episode. After we “meet the Flintstones,” the next line in the song fills us in on the entire pull of the show: “They’re the (not a) modern stone-age family.” This is it; this family is the seminal satire of modern America through the frame of the stone-age. The song culminates in Fred’s catch phrase “We’ll have a yabba dabba doo time/a dabba doo time/we’ll have a gay old time,” injecting a catchphrase that once meant nothing and bringing it to the forefront of pop culture references.

Flash-forward to the ’90s, when dedicated childrens’ entertainment stations like Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network found their stride. Branded as Nicktoons, Nickelodeon’s original programming defined a generation of kids, providing millennials with a group of friends to grow up alongside of in the Rugrats.

The intro theme begins with a drumroll as an airborne diaper falls into place on main character Tommy Pickles’s bare baby bottom. As he regains his balance after this handstand maneuver, the animators pull a clever little trick by panning the camera to Tommy’s 1-year-old perspective, making his living room seem 10 times bigger than it would appear to our adult perspective. We go on a journey with him for just a few baby steps toward his bottle, steps that would seem insignificant to us but are larboriously coordinated by little Tommy. Just before reaching his milk, he takes a tumble to the floor, and we take that sudden plummet with him. We not only see the world from his perspective, we also feel it. As he attempts to touch his lips to the lid of his bottle that is just outside his reach, he is approached by one of his father’s toys (Stu is an inventor), and the camera pans out, revealing that, to Tommy, his living room is actually so large that it rolls over into the horizon because he is so small he can’t see the whole thing from his prone position on the floor.

Perhaps the best part of the whole intro is the very end, when the camera reverses from the baby perspective to that of the adult characters (in this instance, Tommy’s parents Stu and Didi). Didi lifts her son from the floor and sees the whole gang, her son nearest her in her arms, with her niece Angelica beside him, and his three best friends, Chuckie, Phil and Lil in the background. The children only speak to each other when the parents are out of the room, and they take those opportunities to go on adventures. but, when adults are present, they revert to behaving like unsuspecting, harmless babies. To encapsulate this conflict, we see Tommy freeze for a bit on screen, as if he’s mulling over in his head whether he wants to do it or not, and then, after a few seconds, decides to squeeze his milk bottle all over his parents and the camera (us, the viewers), demonstrating how unpredictable his childish behavior really is.

 

Stonecutter Homer

Why is Homer Simpson Yellow (And Why It Doesn’t Matter, Kinda)?

“Narf!”

“OK I love you buh-bye!”

“Hellooooooo, Nurse!”

You might recognize these catchphrases from the ’90s cartoon series The Animaniacs, a show about the three Warner siblings who were so zany that they had to be imprisoned in a water tower to ensure they couldn’t annoy anyone. Modeled after the Warner Brothers classic Looney Tunes, Yakko, Wakko and Dot were a trio of animals known for smooching everyone from Michaelangelo to Albert Einstein and breaking out into song on a whim. When you look at their jet black fur, clownish white faces and maraschino red noses, one can’t help but wonder: what the heck are they supposed to be, anyway?

The Animaniacs logo (wikipedia)

Recognizing the ambiguity in their own character design, the writers had a little fun with leaving us guessing. In an early episode, the Warner Brothers are in a session with their psychiatrist Dr. Scratchansniff when he poses the question to them. The brothers then segue into “What Are We?”, postulating all the potential animals types that might fit their description.

Ultimately, we realize the question is erroneous, and, in trying to deduce their identity, the joke is on us (“what we are, dear doctor … is cute”). According to Sean Hall’s “This Means This, This Means That,” “Adults often have to have things explained to them … because while the meaning of the drawing is often transparent to the child it is frequently opaque to the adult (68).” The visual interpretation of the protagonists is a gag itself.

Perhaps the most popular cartoon ever made, The Simpsons rose also rose to prominence in the ’90s, setting the precedent for primetime animated sitcoms. My mom let me watch it until she learned that Bart says “sucks” a lot, but I still managed to catch episodes when she was busy preparing dinner. Before she cut me off, she would always ask me, “Why are they yellow?”

After all these years, I’m pleased to finally have an answer to this question myself. In “Understanding Comics,” Scott McCloud describes a phenomenon called amplification through simplification. “When we abstract an image through cartooning, we’re not so much eliminating details as we are focusing on specific details (30).” Let’s use the lead character, Homer, as an example.

Homer Simpson of Sector 7G (boston.com)

Once the viewer acclimates to his skin tone, she will soon realize that Homer’s design is intentionally unremarkable; he is meant to represent the average middle-aged white collar middle class (as evidenced by his white-collared shirt). He has a squiggly line around his crown and only two remaining arches of hair on top of his head, representing his baldness (and therefore his age). His scruffy face isn’t animated with bristling hairs swaying with each turn of the head, but rather a flat, light brown circle painted around his mouth, suggesting lazes-faire attitude. Finally, his belly bump shows us he is a couch potato who worked hard to earn his beer gut. And, really, do we need to know anything more?

The modern cartoons of my youth have since been succeeded by the postmodern, perhaps most notable of all Adventure Time. A buddy cop-style series featuring the adventures of Jake the Dog and Finn the Human across the land of Ooo, Adventure Time scales higher up (toward the abstract) on McCloud’s picture plane than either the largely iconic Animaniacs or the Simpsons. Though many of the characters, including Jake and Princess Bubblegum, are very much on the iconic end of the spectrum, they often break from their default configurations into the realistic spectrum, creating a level of irony that the show has become so well known for. For example, you may have seen this clip of Finn trying to overcome his fear of the ocean:

Or, maybe the finely detailed contours of Ricardio’s face creep you out just as much as they do to me, signifying his nefarious nature.

Ricardio, heart of the Ice King (deviantart)

I used to think the fairly simplistic, iconic characters of my youth were drawn so as a way to cut the costs of animation, but, clearly, there is intentionality behind every tongue-wiggling scream.

Why you little!