Dr. Toon revisits the brilliant revisionism of Mighty Mouse.
This year animation fans were treated to one of the most significant DVD releases in recent memory. Paramount's long-awaited decision to release the complete series of Mighty Mouse: the New Adventures(1987-88) gives us more than just a cornucopia of excellent cartoons. The three discs contain an encapsulated history of modern, creator-driven animation, a presentation of young, influential phenoms flexing their creative muscles for the first time, and finally, an object lesson in cartoon revisionism that remains unsurpassed to this day.
Revisionism at its most basic is retelling from a different, sometimes radical viewpoint. It is not equal to updating, which involves moving the same character through different phases over time (think: Alvin and the Chipmunks). It does not have the same meaning as evolving, in which a character changes simply by being handled by different creative entities (think: Paramount Popeye/Al Brodax Popeye).
Revisionism is taking a 1920's character such as Felix the Cat and giving him a voice, a magic bag of tricks, continuing storylines, and a recurring cast of supporting characters, as Joe Oriolo did in the 1950's. Those cartoons are, except for Felix, wholly unrelated to the cartoons produced by Pat Sullivan and Otto Mesmer.
Revising a fictional character can be tricky. Alexandria Ripley's Scarlett, a sequel to Gone with the Wind, sold lots of books but did not resonate with many fans of the original Margaret Mitchell novel. In order to successfully revise Mighty Mouse, many factors had to mesh perfectly. They did, and the result changed animation broadcasting in countless wonderful ways.
Mighty Mouse was created (or stolen from I. Klein) by Ralph Terry in 1940. Superman was the hottest property in entertainment and Terry wanted to cash in on The Man of Steel's popularity. The result was a cartoon titled The Mouse of Tomorrow, and a super mouse was born. The name was eventually changed to Mighty Mouse to avoid a lawsuit with a former Terry artist who was in fact drawing a comic book called Super Mouse.
Mighty Mouse was fun to watch even though the setups for his feats took considerable time; he rarely showed up in his own cartoons until moments before the end. A couple of solutions were tried, including having the mouse observing danger while in disguise. At the most opportune moment, the disguise was shed and the feline butt-kicking commenced. During the 1950s, Mighty's shorts were presented as melodramatic operettas that allowed the hero a bit more screen time, but both solutions came at the expense of giving the mouse a personality. MM was a one-trick rodent, but the trick was good enough for a while.
The Terrytoons staff was not without talent, but Ralph Terry did not much care about his product. Stars such as Jim Tyer, Connie Rasinski, and even for a short time, Bill Tytla had no chance under Terry's system. Mighty Mouse came down to this: He was good, he avenged wrongs, saved the damsel in distress, and administered frightful whuppins' in the bargain. I recall some shorts in which MM continued to pummel his adversaries after they had run up the white flag and were fleeing for their lives. Mighty Mouse sold big; any nuances that could have been added to his character were superfluous to Terry. The righteous rodent was a tabula rasa (well, a blank cel) upon which anything could be written. That suited Ralph Bakshi and John Kricfalusi just fine.
Step one was in place: an established character open to revision. Step two consisted of getting the right people in the right places. Bakshi was an experienced self-made genius of the animation industry. When Bakshi began pitched Mighty Mouse to CBS he didn't quite know what he wanted or how it would turn out, but he was very sure about what he didn't want: Saturday morning cartoons as they presently existed.
Fortunately, Bakshi's first hire was a maverick in the making, John Kricfalusi. John K. was an acolyte of Bob Clampett and an admirer of the aforementioned Jim Tyer. The former was a master of emotional extremes and anatomical distortions. Tyer was an energetic animator who atoned for flaws in draftsmanship with wild élan. John K. added his own twists. Bakshi and John K. represented veteran savvy and youthful enthusiasm respectively; together they would raise Mighty Mouse to new heights.
They didn't do it alone. After selling the series the pair went on a hiring spree. With unerring accuracy (and quite a bit of luck), John K. managed to bring on a crew unequalled in TV cartoon history. Readers of the column need no introduction to names such as Bruce Timm, Andrew Stanton, Lynne Naylor, Jim Reardon, Tom Minton, and Vicky Jenson, and that wasn't even the full stable. Nearly every original member of the Spumco studio first worked on Mighty Mouse.
The DVD "making of" feature had it right: "You couldn't afford (today) to put all these names in the same room that came out of that first season." Suffice it to say that Bakshi's studio in 1987 was the Saturday morning equivalent of the Disney studio in 1937. Mighty Mouse would have the benefit of a virtual animation Hall of Fame in their salad days. This guaranteed that the shorts would not resemble anything that Terrytoons ever produced.
The last step in the successful revision of Mighty Mouse dealt with changes in standard industry production. This step naturally wedded itself to the creative urges of the staff, but it would be a difficult one. As Kricfalusi recalled, by the 1980s cartoons were made by departments, with no visible director in sight. The old studio system that existed in the heyday of Warner Bros. had long been extinguished, but Bakshi brought it back in a form known today as "creator-driven animation." In practice, this meant that an entire unit under a director was free to design a given cartoon to suit their own sensibilities. Chuck Jones used to claim that the Warner cartoons were made more for the creators than the audiences, and such cartoons tended to carry a very personal stamp.
Bakshi helped foster creator-driven productions by swapping his crew around in jobs that were highly specialized at other carton studios (Bakshi likely learned this from Gene Deitch during Deitchs' short stint at Terrytoons). Writers were encouraged to draw while artists tried their hands at storyboarding. The neophyte crew formed a brilliant synergy by the time the first season was well into production. Kricfalusi ensured that the envelope always received an extra push, and Bakshi ran interference with the censors and CBS.
Creator-driven animation had it flaws and limits; Kricfalusi admits that many times Mighty Mouse's role was reduced in many of the cartoons so that flamboyant villains and oddball secondary characters could be featured; at one point CBS executive Judy Price complained that the network was showing Mighty Mouse cartoons without Mighty Mouse. Kricfalusi also noted that "some cartoons made no sense – just weird stuff from beginning to end." Even so, no one could ever accuse the MM cartoons of mediocrity. Each one is marked by an undeniable vitality absent from the rest of Saturday morning.
Mighty Mouse himself was essentially unchanged, save for the addition of a secret identity and an orphan sidekick. As before, he was good, he avenged wrongs, etc. but the context and spirit of his cartoons was decidedly different, the ultimate goal of fictional revisionism. The series was rife with pop culture references, social commentary, and homage and parodies of films, books and actors that the staff idolized. Even Terrytoons' past was mined, and appearances by Gandy Goose, Deputy Dawg, and even Gaston Le Crayon were not unusual. The playful crew managed to sneak caricatures of Bakshi into nearly every cartoon, and it was plainly evident that they wholly loved what they were doing. Kricfalusi would carry that love with him until the clash between creator-driven animation and network budgets, censors, and deadlines drove a stake through it.
It has long been purported that the series met its end due to the Reverend Donald Wildmon, a fanatical fundamentalist who accused Mighty Mouse of sniffing cocaine in an episode titled "The Littlest Tramp." Even though Bakshi and company enjoyed tweaking the network as they grew in experience, none of the production crew on this cartoon intended to portray such a thing and adamantly deny that they did to this day. Controversy may have played a role, but what ultimately killed the series was middling ratings and the fact that the life of any Saturday Morning cartoon rarely exceeded a couple of seasons (This is still true of today's cable series, even inventive, high-quality ones. SpongeBobs, Avatars and Ben 10s are a rarity).
This is not to say that Mighty Mouse's short run was a failure. It was in fact, a victory for creator-driven animation, which became even easier and less costly with new digital technology such as Flash. The resurgent mouse launched dozens of brilliant careers and set the tone for the ironic, pop-culture-laden cartoons that followed. Mighty Mouse predated The Simpsonsand South Park and influenced them in both subtle and obvious ways. Most of all, Mighty Mouse was a victory for fictional revisionism, a lesson to a generation of young animators. Any property can be revived and improved with the judicious application of talent, imagination and loving irreverence.
It is doubtful that anyone today will invest the effort to rethink a once-popular, now defunct character or meet with the same kind of success. That makes Mighty Mouse: the New Adventures even more unique. Many series being pitched to studios today seem to feature a preponderance of dreary Kung-Fu animals of every stripe. Their creators would do well to review the series manifest of Bakshi's Mighty Mouse to see what can be accomplished with nothing but a stale old property and a fresh creative attitude.
Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.