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Stepping Backwards to Move Ahead
(continued from page 1)

Michael Ouweleen.
Courtesy of Cartoon Network.
The "Shorties"
Michael Ouweleen, the Creative Director at Cartoon Network, is a playful chap with the talent to dream up and direct amusing bumpers and other bits of business for his employer. Not long ago, Ouweleen generated a concept called "Cartoons That Never Made It," a bunch of cheaply produced shorts featuring such failed "stars" as Rupert the Grouper (who does not survive his debut), Frothy Dawg, and the ill-fated lovers Salt N' Slug. The highlight of this bunch was a short called "Heidi and the Yodelers," a dizzy Nordic take-off on Josie and The Pussycats. This short was animated in faux-Hanna-Barbera house style and was almost certainly the progenitor of Ouweleen's next big project.

That project made its debut in June of this year on Cartoon Network when Ouweleen produced a series of eight cartoons called "Shorties." These two-minute gems, unpredictably sandwiched between regular programs, exemplify the possibilities of what revision and reinterpretation can do even for a concept that was minor to begin with. Space limitations prohibit analysis of all eight shorts, but a cursory examination of several will serve to highlight methods by which old cartoons can make a strong comeback. "Harasscat," animated at Curious Pictures and directed by Ouweleen himself, resurrects Pixie, Dixie, and Mr. Jinks. The original Hanna-Barbera cartoon was at best a pallid copy of Hanna and Barbera's own Tom and Jerry, but in this short Ouweleen and crew take considerable liberties to good effect. The mischievous mice now resemble roughly animated woodcuts, and Mr. Jinks is Paul Klee by way of Ralph Steadman. The eternal chase seems to be stalled after a court issues a restraining order against the cat, but Jinks solves his dilemma in a series of slow-motion, overlapping cuts involving a grandfather clock. Inventive, fast-paced, and funny, "Harasscat" is a fine example of how to update old toons for the new millennium.

Coleen O'Hare of Boston's Olive Jar Studio reprised the Hillbilly Bears as guests on a tabloid talk show in her short "Miss Understanding." Animated in striking chiaroscuro style, the Bears are prodded by a Springer-esque host as Ma Rugg bemoans Pa's inability to express his inner feelings. When Pa responds, it's a delight to Ma but quite a shock to the audience and the stage crew! By bringing the Bears out of the hills, adding a contemporary touch without the Warner Bros./Spielbergian overkill, and taking a risk with artistic styling, O'Hare has created a fine and funny update of an obscure chestnut. At Film Tecknarna, director Casper Kelly went the multimedia route with considerable success when he put a new spin on Jabberjaw. In "Let's Do Lunch," the animated shark and his band, the Neptunes, jump off an actual lunch box to do battle with former foes; this is done using live-action props against a live-action background. Jabberjaw is now pierced and sports a goatee, clearly has Attitude and would surely speak with the inflections of Trent Reznor rather than Ed Wynn. The Neptunes are more in the mold of Smashing Pumpkins, and Shelley has never looked more appealing. Oh, and did I mention the kewl soundtrack?

"Let's Do Lunch" starring Jabberjaw. Directed by Casper Kelly at Film Tecknarna.
© 1999 Cartoon Network.

My favorite to date is a collaboration between Curious Pictures' director Mike Bade and underground comix artist Kazimieras ("Kaz") Prapuolenis, who put Tex Avery's Droopy and the Wolf through a surrealistic wringer. "Thanks A Latte" finds Wolfie ordering said beverage in Droopy's gourmet coffee shop and leaving the dog a taunting in lieu of a tip. Of course, Droopy inexplicably appears everywhere the Wolf attempts to go, grimly rattling his "tips" jar and demanding his due; Wolfie's office computer even sports a Droopy screen saver! As an extra treat, Red has a cameo as an office girl that would keep any junior V.P. working overtime -- at least, that is, until Droopy's angry visage replaces hers!

Kaz' designs are indicative of character in this short; Droopy is given a large, distorted head that perhaps symbolizes his omnipotence. The Wolf has been redesigned with a longer, more ratlike snout that suggests his inner nature. Bade brings back Avery's distorted takes and rapid cuts with aplomb; when Wolfie (now totally deranged) finally tips Droopy, he produces the riches of Trump from his pockets in less than five frames. Yet this cartoon is more than homage to a classic director; its modern feel, disquieting designs, and smart dialogue mark it as a unique retake on Avery's original themes.

Although this spate of "Shorties" may be finished (more, please!), other projects, such as John Kricfalusi's Ranger Smith cartoons are equally promising. Unlike General MacArthur, old cartoons no longer have to fade away; they can return in striking new forms ranging from the simple to the elaborate. All that's needed is the desire to jettison comfortable tradition in favor of daring new revisionism. If a new generation of artistes is willing to take that risk, animation can happily take a step backwards and still come out far ahead.

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

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