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