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Dr. Toon: Youth Shall be Served

Dr. Toon dives into the intersection of young children’s animation with society, psychology, and economics.

Animation for young kids is actually a recent phenomenon, at least in America. Early kiddie shows were rarely animated to begin with; shows such as Romper Room and local productions featuring live-action "hosts" were much in vogue. (My native New England market, for example, was covered by Major Mudd (a spacesuit-clad chap), Rex Trailer (cowboy host of Boomtown), and Big Brother Bob Emery and the Small Fry Club. We also had two clowns: The ubiquitous Bozo, and Willie Whistle (whose high-pitched speech was functionally incomprehensible). The possibilities of animation for the very young probably did not catch widespread attention until 1969 with the debut of Sesame Street.

It took a surprisingly long time for America to produce animation for the younger set. European and Japanese television actually outpaced the US in that regard, at least up until the mid- 1990s. After Nickelodeon made its debut, its Nick Jr. programming block imported almost every piece of animation shown. The L'il Bits, The World of David the Gnome, Maple Town, Noozles, The Adventures of the Little Koala, Adventures of the Little Prince, Maya The Bee and Grimm's Fairy Tale Theater were all of foreign origin, reflecting the dearth of American effort in this area.

One reason for this may have been purely cultural; Europe was the birthplace of countless "fairy tales". America tended to produce folk tales, which were adult interpretations of national identity.  The most notable exception was L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), which Baum himself admitted was influenced by the tales of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm.

Baum went so far as to say he was trying to write "American fairy tales"; if so, 1900 was rather late in the game, and the first Oz book was really lightening in a bottle; Baum wrote thirteen sequels before his death in 1919. Ruth P. Thompson picked up the series and produced an additional 21 sequels, and virtually none of them are remembered today.

Dora The Explorer. Image courtesy of Nickelodeon.

By 1994, American animators and writers had gotten a handle on preschool programming. The flagship series was arguably Dora the Explorer. This upbeat series is sometimes mistakenly thought to be an import due to its Latina lead and lessons in the Spanish language, but the show was produced in America (some sources indicate that Dora was originally a white, European moppet). Dora's success was both springboard and template for dozens of shows to follow, and they proliferate to this day.

Why were there so few animated programs for preschoolers, why were they so late to the scene in an animation-loving culture like ours, and what sort of success have they found? As is typical with this monthly column, we'll dive into the intersection of animation with society, psychology, and economics.

One reason for the dearth of animation for the very young was, as mentioned, the lack of predecessors (such as fairy tales) to evolve from. This may strike some animation historians as strange, considering the fact that animation has typically been viewed as somewhat of a children's medium in America. However, much of American animation was produced by and for adults. Recall that its initial milieu was the theatrical screen; not many couples brought infants or small toddlers to the movies. Those who did often regretted it.

It is fair to say that Walt Disney broke this mold, but even his early features were dependent on the traditions and conventions of the European fairy tale. Bob Clampett, Dave Fleischer, Tex Avery, Chuck Jones and Walter Lantz did not produce cartoons that young children would have found comprehensible. At UPA, John Hubley, Pete Burness, Ted Parmalee, and Phil Eastman were aiming far too high over their heads. Paul Terry likely did not give a damn either way. Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera, in producing their first TV offerings, hired the same people who wrote and produced decades of theatrical cartoons; Huckleberry Hound (1959) attracted a larger adult than child audience.

Huckleberry Hound. Image © Cartoon Network.

A second reason for the slow development of preschool animation was the bad name animation was getting during the late 1960's from psychologists and child development specialists, abetted by a cadre of censorious "watchdog" organizations. Although these forces were mainly concerned with the potential negative effects of the "chase and clobber" and superhero shows, innocuous cartoons were besmirched by association, and seemingly every cartoon series on the air needed the blessing of a psychologist or educational specialist. Although there may have been a market for preschool animation in the three decades between the 1960s and 1990s, production houses were probably leery of making shows for even younger audiences (Interesting sidebar: As I was writing this column, BBC News ran an article on February 14 that stated half of 2000 parents surveyed thought that fairy tales were too scary for preschoolers. Seems that things haven't changed much since the watchdog days of the Sixties, at least among parents).

A third reason? Demographics, particularly in the economic sphere. Preschoolers and toddlers might be delighted by colorful commercials, but were hardly influenced by the content. While the older, Saturday morning crowd could be swayed into influencing adults to purchase funky toys, breakfast cereals, and other marketable effluvium of childhood, the very young had only a dawning glimmer of recognition for these coveted products. They were, at best, Something Else That Came On The Screen until Something Else replaced them.

Thus, any televised pitches had to be aimed at adults, who all too often used the tube as a babysitter and rarely sat through shows that were ten developmental levels below them. This was the heyday of "passive learning" during the 1980s when it was widely (and mistakenly) believed that pushing a pregnant belly up against a set of speakers playing Mozart or foreign language tapes would give a fetal brain a head start in life, with little effort expended by the parent. Thus, many of the commercials went unseen by adults or were seen by children who could not logically comprehend them.

There is another, possibly more salient reason why it took so long for toddlers and preschoolers to get their slice of the rich animation pie. These shows had been very difficult to write. Deceptively difficult. The main cause is that the natures of adult and child fantasy are widely disparate, and are not as easily bridged as many might think.

One misconception of early childhood fantasy is that children do not differentiate well between fantasy and reality. At least one study conducted in 2004 by researchers from Emory University and U of Texas suggests that children make this distinction far better than formerly believed and can do so by the age of three. The truth instead appears to be: Children think in magical ways. Adults can do this too, but only by negotiating the barriers thrown up by experience, education, sexuality, logic, consequences, complicated decision-making, and advanced social interactions. As stated, these shows are very difficult to write. Unless, of course, children wrote them.

I do not, at this point, want to bore my readers or use up my allotted word count by citing refereed journal articles and research papers in my field, though they are legion. Suffice it to say that, with the help of recent explorations into the perception, comprehension, and expressive tendencies of children, a better understanding of how to design shows for the very young exists today.  The evidence is in the proliferation of series – or entire daytime blocks – of animated shows. Psychological research aiding, rather than opposing, animation has actually been of help. For instance, one might notice that with few exceptions, these shows are headlined by talking animals, or have these creatures given equal time with the headliner. Inanimate objects are inanimate no longer, and are just as cognizant as living beings. The trick today seems to be, don't tell the story as an adult would tell it to a child. To engage the child, design the show as if a child were telling it to him/herself.

Unbelievably enough, a template existed as far back as 1955. Only it wasn't an animated series. Captain Kangaroo featured kindly, non-threatening adults, prominent fantasy animals such as Messrs, Bunny Rabbit and Moose and Dancing Bear, and puppet shows that invited imagination rather than structuring it, but it is most worth noting for the purpose of this column that one Tom Terrific was the most appropriate resident in the Captain's Treasure House.

Tom Terrific and his mighty dog Manfred. Image courtesy of Gene Deitch.

In many ways, Tom Terrific, created by ex-Terrytoons exec Gene Deitch, was the perfect preschooler cartoon. Lived in a tree house without parents, had a big talking dog for a buddy, had inexplicable shape-shifting powers, went on adventures that defied logic. Who were his parents? How did he meet/acquire Mannfred the Wonder Dog? Who bestowed upon him the magic funnel hat, or did he create it? What powered this amazing "thinking cap"? How did he decide to become an adventurer at his age? Where'd he get the tree house, and how was it designated as the "World Headquarters" for adventure? Did Tom work for some secret agency?

An adult writer in 1980 might have put some thought into this, come up with a back-story, tried to explain a few things, build some linear structure into the stories. As it turned out, kids didn't care, and TT became an icon. It's to Gene Deitch's undying credit that he deciphered the rules for preschool animation forty years before Max and Ruby, Team Umizoomi, Franklin and Friends, and yes, Dora the Explorer made their debuts. Deitch is neither an educator nor a psychologist, but he did grasp one truth that others only began to grasp in the 1990s: Children think in magical ways.

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Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.

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