Dr. Toon: Turning Points
Animation is roughly a 120-year old endeavor. As such, we have witnessed countless changes. No animator using the rice paper/cut-and-slash techniques of the 1900s foresaw the advent of sophisticated software systems that enable the motion-capture marvels playing in theaters today. In the same vein, animation itself as a cultural phenomenon has a varied history, with distinct periods of ebb and flow, highs and lows.
A good example is the year 1940 (it would probably be more accurate to say the period 1938-1940, allowing for production schedules). That single year was the Cambrian explosion in the evolution of animation; Pinocchio, Fantasia, Tom and Jerry (MGM), Mighty Mouse, and Woody Woodpecker, not to mention the first definitive Bugs Bunny short, all appeared in theaters. This supernova period of animation history is virtually unequalled.
On the other hand, we have the era spanning 1965-1987, when animation ground to a creative standstill. During this time Hanna-Barbera was mired in the depths of mediocrity. Watchdog groups had banished superheroes and any portrayal of physical conflict. Viewing blocks once reserved for cartoons featured the hallucinatory live-action offerings of Sid and Marty Kroft. Once federally approved deregulation hit the networks, Saturday mornings (and weekday afternoons, thanks to syndication), were inundated with what were, in effect, extended toy commercials.
In the theaters, quality animated films were few and tended to be the exception to the rule. The theatrical short was dead. Ralph Bakshi had some brilliant, uneven moments, but Disney released subpar efforts such as The Aristocats, Robin Hood, and The Black Cauldron. Beginning in 1984, the animated toy ads migrated to the theaters in a dull parade of Care Bears, Strawberry Shortcakes, and multicolored ponies. The era did have some apologists, notably Timothy and Kevin Burke, whose manifesto Saturday Morning Fever merely highlights how much dross was actually on the airwaves. John Kricfalusi summed it up nicely when he remembers that his formative years in the business was spent working on “some of the crappiest cartoons ever made.”
However, animation is a hardy, resilient art form. As it originates from the highest levels of human creativity, it is also unconquerable. The return of American animation to glory began in early 1987 and is, for the most part, still in effect (although with one notable, temporary downturn). What follows is an analysis of how animation turned itself around, just when it seemed it might never answer the bell again.
In a way, this piece relates to last month’s column concerning films that should have made the National Film Registry, because two of the films mentioned were instrumental in animation’s resurrection. I would prefer not to reiterate previous material except to note that Roger Rabbit owed its success to the revival of classic animated characters that captured the public’s heart anew. The film also inspired Steven Spielberg to jump-start a new generation of hipper, smarter animation for television.
The Little Mermaid, as mentioned, birthed a new formula in animated feature films by merging American musical theater with animation. The new hybrid maintained supremacy at all major studios until the CGI films produced by Pixar began to supplant them. However, it must be noted that these two films did not do all the heavy lifting as animation rose to the forefront again. Other factors, contiguous in time, contributed to the New Wave. Some of the contributors from 1987-90:
The Return of the Warner Theatrical Short
In 1969, Warner Studio released a Cool Cat cartoon called Injun Trouble. This cartoon was officially the last animation short that Warner produced. Eighteen years later, directors Greg Ford and Terry Lennon returned Warner characters to the multiplexes when The Duxorcist, a Daffy Duck cartoon made the theatrical rounds in 1987. It was followed the next year by Night of the Living Duck, (Ford and Lennon, Dir.) and in 1990 by Box Office Bunny (Darrell Van Citters, Dir.). The latter was released in conjunction with Bugs Bunny’s 50th birthday and marked the first time Mel Blanc did not voice the rabbit; Jeff Bergman had the honors. Box Office Bunny showcased Bugs as the star of a short for the first time since 1964.
Lennon and Ford continued pushing Warners’ stars back into the cultural spotlight: 1988 saw CBS air the television special Bugs Vs. Daffy: Battle of the Music Video Stars. Interestingly, the “music videos” consisted of clips from old Warner theatrical shorts. This served to rekindle interest in Warner history and what would come to be called “Classic Looney Tunes”.