I am normally the first to applaud any effort, however hackneyed, that offers praise and glory to the Brotherhood of Man. No, wait...the Great Diverse Salad Bowl of Multicultural Appreciation: Three cheers for the betterment of each gender, race, religion, and all myriad proliferation thereof. Still, before I burst into an alto rendition of "I'd Like To Give The World A Home," I do want to make one exception. I'm just a little tired of seeing animated series that push the much-belated point. The origins of animated diversity stretch back to at least the early 1960s but the shows were so much more innocuous then. The first minority characters who were not stereotypical buffoons provided a realistic balance to cartoons; their inclusion came across as more natural than forced.
Insistence on full-blown diversity arrived in animation during the 1980s, and by the end of the next decade there were no casts of any predominant gender or racial group in any given series. Educators, psychologists and sundry experts anointed this process and meticulous balances were seemingly agreed upon before a show hit the air. If integration had gone as well in the actual world as in the animated one, what a world we would see! There would be no genocide in Africa; Palestinians would not be exploding in unexpected places while Israeli tanks put shells into their villages; women would not be sold as sex slaves in shady corners of the Third World, and...well, there really wouldn't be a Third World, would there? We would all cooperate just like the multiracial, multi-gendered cast of Captain Planet (The power is YOURS!) and do great things. Black hand in brown hand in yellow hand in white hand performing in harmony, bringing into reality the New Jerusalem (equitably shared by all, I might add).
Or maybe not. If the widely quoted research is correct and watching violent cartoons predisposes children to violence, why hasn't the steady flow of politically correct, cooperative-minded cartoons incited children to peace? Why does racism remain such a pervasive problem? Is it saddening that the term "ethnic cleansing" gained widespread use during a time when animated series were straining hardest to please the minions of PC? I am not against the representation of all genders and races in our animated fare; what I tire of is the painfully obvious attempts to convince us that such seamless and perfect integration exists at all times in all circumstances while ignoring reality in the most Panglossian terms. In the past eleven months the World Trade Center has been reduced to a neatly groomed patch of bare earth while America's avengers draw up maps to Saddam's heavily reinforced doorstep. The hope that children are actually absorbing lessons about acceptance and cooperation from animated cartoons seems fainter than a far-distant gunshot echoing in the hills of Bosnia; they are not blind to the rest of this world.
The latest example is Jacques Cousteau's Ocean Tales, a recent product of the distinguished French animation studio Dargaud-Marina. Jacques Cousteau, as you may recall, was a notable scientist/sailor who roamed the seas in his high-tech rig Calypso exploring the wonders of the deep. Cousteau perfected both the aqualung and the riveting TV special, his kindly, weather-beaten face familiar to millions. The Calypso sank off Singapore in 1996 and Cousteau passed away the following year, but both have been restored to animated life for this new series. More's the pity; Captain Planet -- er, Cousteau -- has been appointed as maritime baby-sitter for a team of racially diverse, gender-balanced young'uns gathered from each of the world's continents.
Ah, frere! Where do these kids come from? Are they manufactured and prepackaged by the lot in some multicultural version of Acme, Inc.? I have watched countless Cousteau specials and I don't particularly recall his crew being all that diverse. Most of them seemed to be intense, bearded males in wet suits with nary a Hispanic preteen female amongst them. Aren't these child spawn supposed to be in school? Who carries the liability for their perilous adventures, and do their parents and siblings (if they indeed exist) miss them at all? Do they do their chores and make their bunks with the same precision and alacrity that most children do? I can hear the Captain now, his lilting accent wafting down the ship's corridors: "Who has left all zees lights on, eh, do you think I am made of francs? Just wait unteel you haff bills of your own to pay!!"
Well, so much for this deep-sea doo-doo. I have a feeling that the kids will vote with their flippers and pass on this one, just as they do on most politically correct, pro-social programs pushed under their finicky noses. Just wait until they find out that Jacques Cousteau has no super powers mutant or otherwise, nor any notable robotic or extraterrestrial enemies (I do concede that I might have missed those parts of his TV specials during fridge and potty breaks). Bah. Let's have cartoons simply be entertaining and bereft of any other agendas, and maybe we can all just get along.
Among the more disconcerting generalizations I have been hearing of late is that American animation is stuck in a rut, that everything appears similar at best and undifferentiated at worst, that studios and buyers are looking for more of the same old thing, and that nothing really creative has come along in a long while. The first thing I wonder about when hearing these complaints is the relative meaning of "a long while." My next thought is a succinct, "Huh?" It seems rather that we are experiencing exciting times in animation, not stale ones. Even with the employment picture waffling and hundreds of projects in want of angels and buyers, 2002 is a great year for fans of the genre.
Well. Let's see, here. From the beginnings of American animation in the late 1890s there were probably three major innovations up until 1928: The switch from rice paper to acetate cels, the combination of live-action and animation, and the adoption of industrialized methodology to animation production. One could argue for the rotoscope, but this was an extension of live-action. This period of roughly forty years in which animation poised itself for the future was also its least interesting period in an aesthetic sense. Sure, there were master innovators, clever ideas, and exciting glimpses of what was to come, but let's face it -- this was a black and white landscape of humanized animals, nearly all of them poorly drawn and all far too similar to each other. The many men and few women who would bring anatomic accuracy and realistic movement to animated cartoons were finishing middle school. Most animated series were lucky to last five episodes if not backed by newspaper magnates promoting their own syndicated comic strips. With the exception of Max and Dave Fleischer's technical experiments and Otto Messmer's work on Felix the Cat, there was not much of interest to anyone but future historians. Perhaps this would have been a better time? After all, this is nearly half of American animation's history...
How about the limited animation and the neck-tied animals that came to television and stayed for decades after the studios ceased making shorts? How about the endless, dreary variations of superheroes of the past, present and future that battled some of the most inane and ludicrous villains ever to infest a storyboard? Perhaps you would prefer the "Night of the Living Toy Commercials" that followed FCC deregulation under Ronald Reagan? Might those who complain recall a time when Disney animation was virtually defunct and the only animated characters seen in theaters were little kids banging past your knees to get out to the popcorn stand? It wasn't all that long ago.
The honest truth is, this is perhaps the most creative and vital time in the field. There are more features, more series, more animators, more women in animating and executive positions, and more entertaining and offbeat ideas then there were even twenty years ago. I would love to have seen Maxwell Atoms, in just one example, trying to pitch Grim and Evil to one of the big three networks back in the 1980s. "Well, see, I've got these two kids who become pals with Death. And in the second part of my show, a criminal madman with his brain and guts transplanted into a decorticated bear tries to destroy the world." Uh-huh. Shall I go into the vast amount of cartoons that have run, are running, or getting ready to run via the Web, giving voice to a multitude of hopeful independents? Nothing new? All the same? There's no pleasing some people (especially, I suspect, the ones who can't get their projects sold), but don't let them spit in your latte. American animation is by no means moribund; it's alive and doing quite well. Let's enjoy what we have.
"Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name"
-- The Rolling Stones, "Sympathy for the Devil"
The Stones' 1968 tune has as much meaning today as it did back then, even though Mick, Keith and company had no way of foreseeing entertainment policies of the 2000s. Even though the Prince of Lies appears today in several cartoons, you must guess his name. Well, sometimes you do and sometimes you don't. Devilish conundrum? No more puzzling than, say, the recent Supreme Court decision to excise the words "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance. Dr. Toon leans neither Right nor Left on these issues; they are in fact risible when examined closely, and reflect less on our morals and values than on the tiresome culture wars that only Americans can inflict upon each other.
In my last column I quoted an interview with Craig McCracken in Toon Zone dated February 24, 2002. McCracken talked not only about his new Powerpuff Girls movie, but also about changes he had to make in the show. According to McCracken, the Powerpuff's nemesis "Him" was originally the Devil, but this idea had to be abandoned because, "We're not allowed to have any religious references on the show." The Devil thus became an androgynous antagonist, taunting the Girls with polyphonic sneers. Far more obvious is David Feiss' "Red Guy," who makes life Hell for Cow and Chicken. Feiss' classic satanic design utilizes horns, a forked tail and carmine complexion; it is next to impossible to mistake this character for anyone but Old Scratch, but to name him as such would be a "religious reference" and thus taboo. Was it only last year that we witnessed a prime-time offering called God, the Devil, and Bob in which Lucifer took no refuge at all behind veiled references? The inconsistency is interesting indeed.
The eccentricity is compounded when one regards the Toon Disney series Hercules in which we get jocular representations of all the gods of antiquity including Hades, who sports a sulfurous mane and commands two miscreant imps. Are these religious references, or has enough water gone under the aqueduct in this case? Is the Devil in fact a religious reference? Although every major faith seems to have an equivalent figure, he is usually feared and abhorred; his worship, when present, tends to be underground. There is much less proselytizing and missionary work on behalf of Old Nick relative to that done for the other side, and absolutely none done by the cartoon characters mentioned above. There have been cartoons in the past that clearly featured Satan, and the character has appeared in shorts by Warner, Fleischer and Disney. What is the confusion over calling him by name today?
It appears that in these times one must be careful not to offend representatives of many various faiths and groups by making specific religious references tied to any one belief. As with the Pledge of Allegiance, it is far safer to legislate, politicize and regulate individual thought than to risk the wrath of polemic-minded interests with an ideological axe to grind. It is unknown why those who prefer to say, "One nation under God," those who choose to substitute another deity, and those who prefer to dispense with a Supreme Being altogether cannot all have their way; the only thing gained would be tolerance and the only thing lost would be laughter at the Supreme Court. Now that the Pledge is unconstitutional, then I suppose that makes public mention of the Devil unconstitutional as well. Thus, the "Red Guy" -- except for one little fact; if it looks like the devil, acts like the devil, and has a butt crack like the devil, it must be...but let's not go there again.
If the Powerpuff Girls want to have it out with Satan personified, or Cow and Chicken wish to match wits against the flagrant Prince of Darkness, why (the hell) not? The Devil has been part of our folk tales for centuries, appearing as trickster, tempter and architect of shady, soul-snatching deals. Imagine how Faust or Paradise Lost might have read under the recent injunctions. What if the Charlie Daniels Band had to sing The Red Guy Went Down to Georgia?, or we were made to say: "The Him you know is better than the Him you don't know"? In the usual crackdown for political correctness, we are again forced into ever-tighter conformity in the crusade to promote diversity. Diversity is a dish that tastes best when not forced down one's throat; tolerance ought to come about as the result of an open mind and the courage to undertake exploration of one's self and others. As for the entire controversy, a simple, unconstitutional "Go to the Devil!" will suffice.
But of course, the Red Guy made me say that.
This column marks my third year with the great people at Animation World Network. Tons of thanks are due to my wonderful and patient editor Heather Kenyon, my respected publisher Dan Sarto, and also to Darlene Chan, the most imaginative image wrangler ever to wrangle an image. As always, warmest thanks to you, my fans and readers. Keep reading and keep in touch!