Dr. Toon: Across the Pond
American cinema continues to largely dominate European theaters, although the heavy-handed tactics of the MPPDA are long in the past. The most lasting result of those days is that mainstream European animation is missing from American consciousness, with one exception as we shall see later.
Some of the most popular European series that most of us missed actually date back quite far. The Adventures of Tintin, was created by Belgian artist Georges Rami (a.k.a. Hergé), first appearing in comic strip form in 1929. These swashbuckling tales featured the titular young lad in various exciting formats; mysteries, thrillers, science-fiction, and even political events were frequent storylines. Two animated series were made, the first produced by Belvision, airing from 1958-1962. The series was translated into French (but never English), and American audiences never saw a single frame. The second series (1991-1992) was a joint effort between the French studio Ellipse and Canada’s Nelvana. It could only be seen in America, and briefly at that, if one subscribed to HBO. Not until the inconsistent and rather tepid 2011 mo-cap feature did many American filmgoers get their initial taste of Tintin.
In 1959, French cartoonist René Goscinny began a series of comic books featuring Asterix the Gaul and friends. These doughty warriors resisted the Roman Empire by means of a magic potion that could enable any Gaul to trump an army of centurions. This, of course, was done in a humorous and satirical fashion, and the series became popular enough to warrant the production of a dozen full-length animated films beginning in 1967 with Asterix the Gaul. It is safe to say that more Americans can identify The Powerpuff Girls or Penelope Pitstop than Asterix, mostly because the temperamental blond Gaul never, for the most part, made it to American theaters.
And then there’s the saga of Lucky Luke, originally a comic series produced by the Belgian artist Maurice DeBevere, better known as “Morris”. Amazingly, the series was set in the American West, where Lucky Luke was the original quick-draw king, but most Americans would be hard-pressed to identify this buckaroo. When four theatrical animated films were made beginning in 1978, only the last one, The Ballad of the Daltons, was released in the U.S. through Disney, and that on VHS. In 1983 Hanna-Barbera produced a version that ran for 26 episodes; another 26 were released in 1991. If your memory of them is dim, that’s understandable.
On the other hand, Japanese anime (originally called “Japanimation”) had little trouble making its way to American TV screens. Beginning in the 1960s shows such as the legendary AstroBoy began popping up, along with the equally iconic Speed Racer. Other fans may recall Marine Boy, Prince Planet, Kimba the White Lion, and Gigantor as early Japanese door-openers. After the stunning success of the feature-length film Akira (Katsuhiro Otomo, 1988), Japanese animation began its conquest of the American market. Beginning in 1990 American TV was flooded, with endless permutations of the tiny fighting monsters who starred in Pokemon. “Anime” took over as a more respectable (and more accurate) title than “Japanimation”. Even non-otaku know the rest of the story.
We are left to ask why this happened for Japan and not, for example, Germany. The reasons are many; the destruction of the studio block-booking system not only in America but in countries it was exported to; the collapse of censorship and production codes that weakened the MPAA (a later incarnation of the MPPDA); the decline of the Hollywood studio system and the attendant rise of modern European auteurs who began to exert their artistic influences on American cinema.