Saturday, 27 April 2013

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Er, Cartunes

Walter Lantz was born 113 years ago to the day in New Rochelle, New York. He started his career as an auto mechanic, until one day a wealthy customer saw some of his drawings on a garage bulletin board and helped to finance his studies through art school. He would then go on to lead a long and varied career in animation, creating one of the world's most iconic cartoon characters.

Pour yourself a nice bowl of Rice Krispies (or Sugar Pops, maybe?), and let's take a look at few of Walter Lantz's more memorable contributions to, cartunes.

Walter Lantz's first foray into animation was at John R. Bray Studios in the 1920s, where he wrote and directed a series of shorts starring a character called Dinky Doodle. Lantz starred in each film as the hapless cartoonist.

You may remember reference to Dinky Doodle in Who Framed Roger Rabbit when lovable reprobate Angelo sarcastically included him in a list of potential clients for "Mr. Detective-To-The-Stars" Eddie Valiant.

Also on Angelo's list was Chilly Willy, who we'll get to in a few minutes. But in the interest of chronology, we must first mention Oswald The Lucky Rabbit.

Oswald was an original creation of Ub Iwerks and Walt Disney. Walter Lantz was already working as an intern on the films, when new studio ownership allowed him to take over and redesign the character in 1929. In fact, he won the character as a prize in a poker game played against then-founder of Universal Studios, Carl Laemmle. Seriously, that game basically gave him his first character to build his own studio around.

Oswald would star in 140 cartoons under Lantz's ownership. Watch the drastic changes in character design that occur between his first film, 1929's 'Race Riot' and 1943's 'The Egg Cracker Suite'.

By the 1940s, Oswald's popularity in cartoons had waned, but still had surprising longevity in comic books for several years to follow, like many of Lantz's creations.

Oswald is currently back in the hands of Disney, as part of a trade deal done in 2006, when Universal gave the rights for Oswald back to Disney in exchange for moving sportscaster Al Michaels from Disney-owned ABC to Universal-owned NBC Sports. I could not make that up if I wanted to. To my knowledge, Oswald's film library is still split between the two studios, which is awkward.

During the 1930s, Lantz left the Oswald series to focus on new characters that could flagship his new studio. One of them was Pooch The Pup.

Another was Andy Panda, who made his debut in 1939's appropriately-titled 'Life Begins For Andy Panda'.

Andy proved quite popular, but 6 cartoons later in 1940's 'Knock Knock' would be overshadowed by...guess who?

Woody Woodpecker was an instant hit with audiences. His relentless, manic personality had the same appeal as the original Bugs Bunny did. Woody's original, more hideous design was done by Alex Lovy, who would go on to do a larger majority of work for Hanna Barbara. This would be one of many examples throughout Walter Lantz's career, where he would surround himself with enough talented individuals for short periods of time to add fleeting footnotes to the annals of cartoon history. Let's be honest - many of Lantz's cartoons weren't classics by any stretch. They certainly weren't memorable like the Looney Tunes lot. But there are a few gems to be found, depending on who was working on them.

Alex Lovy was nominated for an Oscar for 1943's 'The Dizzy Acrobat'.

My favourite Woody Woodpecker cartoons were directed by a guy named Shamus (James) Culhane. If you watch his stuff, there are wonderful scenes and drawings to find in brief snippets. Watching them frame-by-frame will reveal a lot of detail. Here are some famous segments hidden within 1944's 'The Loose Nut'.

Shamus had a reputation for inserting naughty bits of fun into his cartoons. Here's a not-so-subtle background from another short he did while working for Lantz called 'The Greatest Man In Siam'.

Speaking of 'peckers, Woody had a scruffy and very deranged look to him during this period, which I love. My eyebrows look more and more like his every day!

But this style would be short-lived, as from 1947 on, Woody's cartoons and character would get less "looney" and increasingly watered-down as the series progressed under the direction of Dick Lundy, Don Patterson, Walter Lantz and Paul J. Smith.

But this didn't hurt the bird's popularity. Woody Woodpecker toys and comics flooded stores. His cartoons continued to churn out into theatres until 1972. In 1957 he received his own TV series, The Woody Woodpecker Show, which featured 3 theatrical cartoons per episode, linked together with new segments hosted by Woody and Walter Lantz himself.

And Woody had his own hit theme song, which was introduced in 1948's 'Wet Blanket Policy'. The tune was nominated for a 'Best Song' Oscar - the only one ever taken from an animated short.

Here's another ditty by The Starlighters, who performed another song built around that famous laugh in 1951's 'The Woody Woodpecker Polka'.

That famous laugh brings up another cartoon legend and his strained relationship to Walter Lantz - voice actor Mel Blanc. As you know, Mel is famous for voicing Warner Bros. characters. But before signing an exclusive deal with them, he was heard as the voice of Woody Woodpecker. For only 4 cartoons. But during that brief time, he recorded the signature laugh behind Woody's songs and basically the entire brand. And that laugh was kept as a sound effect, which was used for a large majority of the series' run. So when profits were being made from that sound effect, Mel obviously felt entitled to a piece of the pie. He tried to sue Lantz and lost. Still, that didn't stop him from releasing a cover of the song he helped to make famous.

Brief, subsequent voices were used for Woody after Mel Blanc's departure, including Woody gag-writer (and the guy who named Bugs Bunny), Ben "Bugs" Hardaway. (another famous co-worker!)  But it was Walter Lantz's wife, Grace Stafford, who voiced Woody the longest - between 1950 and 1985. She didn't officially receive credit for it until 1958 though. By her choosing, she insisted on doing the voice uncredited at first for fear of potentially freaking out fans who may have been uncomfortable with the idea of Woody being portrayed by a woman. Her first Woody role was for a cameo he did in a film called Destination Moon.

Okay, okay. Now we can talk about Chilly Willy, who was blandly introduced by Paul J. Smith in 1953's cartoon of the same name.

But here's where another passing ship in Walter Lantz's life defrosted the franchise for a brief period of time. Cartoon legend Tex Avery spent a short period of his later years working for Lantz. During that time (1954-1955) he released a few cartoons - most notably, two funny (if not not highly original) Chilly Willy contributions - 1954's 'I'm Cold' and 1955's 'The Legend of Rockabye Point'. Here we see Avery revisiting familiar territory from his MGM period, albeit funny and well-paced territory. That's Daws Butler as the idiot dog, Smedley. Daws also used that Huckleberry Hound drawl for Avery's wolf character in Droopy cartoons.

To get a sense of the vibrancy a good animation director can bring to a feature, check out this lifeless later Chilly Willy entry from 1967 for comparison.

There are a few other noteworthy Lantz cartoon creations we haven't covered.

Homer Pigeon was introduced in 1942, and appeared in several incarnations over the years.

In 1958, Lantz created Inspector Willoughby, an unassuming special agent similar in demeanour and doggedness to Droopy.

The Beary Family, created in 1962, was a sitcom-like set-up starring Charlie, Bessie, Junior and Suzy Beary, along with their pet goose. 

And then probably the last of Walter Lantz's most well-known characters was Space Mouse, who starred in only one cartoon - 1960's 'The Secret Weapon'.

This cartoon was created to coincide with the release of a new comic book, but it never went to series. As a comic book character though, Space Mouse made several appearances between 1960 and 1965.

Walter Lantz's crew also made cool commercials for Coca-Cola, which were released in theatres between 1948 and 1953.

Due to financial troubles (like every animation studio at the time), Walter Lantz Productions stopped making cartoons in 1972. Next to DePatie-Freling (who made the Pink Panther shorts), Walter Lantz Productions was one of the last remaining classic cartoon-makers still standing.

In later years, Walter Lantz would make ends meet by managing merch and media, doing specially commissioned artwork and visiting children's hospitals with his wife, Grace. While there, Walter would draw pictures of Woody for the kids, and Grace would supply the official laugh to accompany them. What a wonderful way to spend retirement!

Walter Lantz passed away of heart failure in 1994 at the age of 94, but left behind a rather large legacy for  little kids - and a few bigger kids too.

Ha-ha-ha-HA-happy birthday, sir!

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Saturday Morning Cartoons - One Last Smoke (BANimation)

Okay, okay! Smoking is bad, we get it!

Many of the cartoons I grew up watching had smoking in them, but I didn't grow up to be a junkie. I just grew up to be a deadbeat, like all the other healthy god-fearing children of my generation who knew the difference between right and wrong.

Even though I was a child of the over-sensitive 1980s, I was still able to watch a lot of the old cartoons my parents grew up with - many of which already depicted smoking to be symbolic of evil. Only the sleazy, the power-mad or the overtly mean cartoon characters smoked. And if they did, it was usually a cigar that was a permanent protrusion from their pursed, evil lips. To my recollection, I never interpreted it as being cool. For example, Mickey Mouse's nemesis Pete was never cool. He was a total asshole!

Some wiser, older characters smoked pipes. Popeye had a pipe. But he never smoked it to my knowledge. He tried smoking once, but it was only to prove he was manly. And it was more horrifying than cool.

Okay, it was still pretty cool. But I'm almost positive that was the only time Popeye ever tried to lead me astray into thinking smoking was cool!

Maybe it was the second time.

Lots of generally good cartoon characters have had smoking vices.

Mickey Mouse lit up the screen early in his career as seen in 1928's 'The Gallopin' Gaucho'.

Porky Pig tried his first cigar in 1938's 'Wholly Smoke' - on his way to church yet!

Donald Duck's ego is the smoke-sucking bully in 1938's 'Donald's Better Self', who makes him hit the "quack" pipe in order to prove his manhood.

Goofy had quite the problem in 1951's 'No Smoking', perhaps the funniest smoking cartoon of all time.

Considering its time of release, it's surprising to see a cartoon that depicts smoking in such an unflattering light. Especially considering the way it was being advertised back then.

Back in the 1960s, an advertiser REALLY got their money's worth. Winston Cigarettes received flack for their sponsorship of The Flintstones - perhaps wrongly so considering it was still a prime-time series intended for adults. But after 2 seasons and upon the birth of Fred's daughter, Pebbles, Winston caved and proved that even big cancer-fuelling corporations can have a heart, and cancelled their sponsorship of The Flintstones.

Other big cancer-fuelling corporations also used cartoon characters to sell their product. And they sounded suspiciously like familiar kiddie icons, like Mr. Jinks and Huckleberry Hound. "Wow mom, smoking looks fun! And SOUNDS fun too!"

Looking at these endorsement deals, I doubt Daws Butler (heard here again sounding exactly like Mr. Jinks) ever purchased a package of cigarettes in his life! 

Kind of a conflict of interest though considering he was also voicing stuff like this at the time...

Man, that Yogi Bear could be downright preachy at times when it came to smoking.

I don't blame Yogi for this. By the 1980s, concerned parents and coalitions for quality programming became the voice of Yogi Bear and all other cartoon characters.

By 1990, these cartoon characters became narcs, part of a secret task force organized by the President and First Lady.

By the 2000s, I don't think you could even say the word 'smoke' anymore. But by then it didn't matter, because cool people stopped making quality cartoons for fear of pissing off somebody's mom. Now kids were watching old vintage cartoons on speciality channels, at any given hour of the day. And angry moms everywhere decided those too needed to be sanitized like everything else.

Obviously I'm being a tad snarky here. Edits to classic cartoons happened decades previous to the 2000s. But maybe they were just done less vocally. And with less attention to detail.

For example, I found a 2001 article from Pediatrics Magazine, that broke down the bad influences that older Walt Disney films presented to our children. And don't worry - there were stats! The worst offender was 1945's The Three Caballeros, which apparently showcases 10.5 minutes of pro-smoking footage within a 72 minute running time. This can be attributed to the fact that Donald Duck's friend, José Carioca, has a cigar in his mouth the entire time.

In 2007, Disney announced it would ban scenes of smoking from all future family-friendly fare, and significantly reduce smoking scenes from more adult-skewing material from their Touchstone Pictures and Miramax divisions.

In 2006, Turner Broadcasting, owners of a cartoon channel called Boomerang, announced they would edit scenes from hundreds of cartoons where smoking was "condoned, acceptable or glamorized" - all over a single complaint received from a viewer in Britain. Two specific Tom And Jerry cartoons were cited as being inappropriate for children, both of which contained scenes of smoking - 1950's 'Texas Tom' and 1949's 'Tennis Chumps'. Never mind that Tom and Jerry was also notorious for racism and relentless acts of violence! No, smoking is what needed to go!

Here are some other examples of scenes where smoking is "condoned, accepted and glamorized" - all of which will be butted out eventually.

But what about the reason we celebrate 4/20? "Where's the good shit", you ask?

Well, Ralph Bakshi brought the counterculture a little further into the forefront with 1972's X-rated Fritz The Cat, which featured several scenes of casual smoking and one full-on freakout.

The Simpsons has featured tons of tobacco use!

And some tomacco use.

But they also haven't been scared to experiment with harder stuff. 

Here's an episode from Season 13 called 'Weekend At Burnsie's', where Homer gets hooked on medicinal marijuana. Fox was supposedly nervous about airing the episode, even though Homer is never actually seen smoking marijuana. An article in Cannabis Culture deemed the episode "uncool" by predicting the network received federal handouts for airing anti-drug propaganda! And the episode of King of The Hill that aired before The Simpsons that night coincidentally contained anti-drug PSA's, maaaan! 

Family Guy also tackled the subject of stoners in a Season 7 episode called '420'. The episode proved popular here in North America, with Brian becoming the first-ever non-human recipient of High Times' prestigious 'Stoner Of The Year' award in 2009. The episode proved not so popular in Venezuela though, where the government banned the episode for its glorification of drug use, and vowed to fine cable networks who aired it.


Here's an interesting pro-marijuana cartoon called 'The Flower' from Black Mustache , which has been puffed and passed along to over 2 million viewers online.

For some reason, these cartoons made me hungry for more cereal. But before I depart, I'd like to provide you with some inspiration in case you want to consider quitting. With the right motivation, I believe you can kick any bad habit.

Or at least find a better reason not to.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Saturday Morning Cartoons - How To Kill A Toy Franchise In 65 Episodes Or Less!

Hard to believe, but this "movable fighting man" from the 1960s was enough to inspire 5 animated series and 3 feature films - the most recent of which ('G.I. Joe: Retaliation') should surpass the $100 million mark at the box office next week. It's amazing how much this hunk (and I do mean "hunk" - check out that life-like beard!) of plastic has generated the use of so much other plastic. As in, debit and credit cards.

Lots of cartoons and movies generate successful toy sales, but rarely does the toyline fuel the features like G.I. Joe has. G.I. Joe was a toy first, then became a multimedia merchandising machine.

Sometimes the merchandising is successful early-on, but doesn't translate well to a popular or profitable series. Today we'll take a look at a few examples of this and learn where the toy-makers and TV execs went wrong.  

Hot Wheels is probably one of the most enduring and popular toy franchises in history. Introduced in 1968 by Mattel, the line attracts both car-buffs who appreciate attention to detail, and toy collectors who appreciate their frequent nods to pop culture. Oh yeah, and kids like them too.

Hot Wheels had a successful series in more recent years with Battle Force 5 on Cartoon Network, but when the brand was first launched on CBS back in 1969, it was met with much controversy. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) received complaints from rival toy companies, who claimed the shows were nothing more than toy commercials. Weird, I know! Eventually, a law was passed preventing Saturday morning product placement to be disguised as children's programming, resulting in Hot Wheels' cancellation in 1971.

That ruling was later over-turned in 1983, which spring-loaded an onslaught of mega-merchandising, where cartoon and toy companies created an unholy alliance to make back the money they never received in the 70s. That movement became commonly known as He-Man and The Masters of The Universe.

A quick sidenote about Hot Wheels before we get back on-track - famous voices heard in the original series included Casey Kasem and Albert Brooks.

GoBots were dealt an unfair hand in 1984. Tonka released the toys in North America several months before those "other" transforming robots rolled-out. But by Christmas that year, both lines were in direct competition with each other.

While the GoBot toyline was first to hit shelves, the Transformers cartoon was first to hit the airwaves in 1984, 2 months before Hanna Barbera's Challenge of The GoBots mini-series. GoBots continued one year later with a 65-episode syndicated run between 1985 and 1986, but it was 9 months too late after 13 episodes of Transformers.

There was also a movie called 'GoBots: Battle of The Rock Lords', which beat 'Transformers: The Movie' to theatres by several months in 1986, although the Transformers movie went into production before GoBots did. Upon release, GoBots only made a paltry $1.5 million dollars domestically. Transformers didn't fair much better though, making only $5 million.

Despite the existence of 65 episodes, Challenge of The GoBots makes the fail list because unlike Transformers, it didn't bolster any excitement to buy the toyline. And to be fair, the toys themselves weren't interesting or innovative enough to entice additional viewership. In both toy and cartoon, Transformers simply saturated the market better.

Interestingly, Peter Cullen, the voice of Optimus Prime, also voiced several GoBots, including Pincher, Spoiler and Tank. Frank Welker, who voiced the original Megatron, also provided GoBot voices for Scooter, Blaster and Rest-Q.

Around the same time as the start of these robot wars, Cabbage Patch Kids were begin adopted by the other half of the continent.

Cabbage Patch Kids never had an animated series, although they did get their own lousy Christmas special. But that's not what we're covering today. The franchise we're focusing on wasn't even really a toyline, but it rose to the top of the sales heap in the '80s.

Garbage Pail Kids was a successful series of parody trading cards created by cartoonist Art Spiegelman and Topps in 1985. They still release cards (the most recent series came out last year), but what you won't see anytime soon is another cartoon series. In fact, barely anyone saw the original.

Intended to air on CBS in 1987, the Canadian-made Garbage Pail Kids was dumped days before its premiere and replaced with Muppet Babies repeats. Concerned parents and coalitions for responsible television protested the show's history and content. Some also protested the merchandising tie-ins. 

The show never aired in North America, but was shown in the U.K., Israel and Iceland among other countries.

This was a rotten time for Garbage Pail Kids in other respects. In 1986, Topps was sued by the makers of Cabbage Patch Kids for copyright infringement. Schools banned the trading cards for distracting their students. And 'Garbage Pail Kids' was also an awful and barely released live action movie in 1987, which stunk up the box office and is still regarded as one of the worst films ever made. Not sure how anyone could've been surprised with the word 'garbage' in the title though.

Also putting the "gross" in toy grosses that year were Madballs.

Canadian company Nelvana produced a two-episode Madballs series, which went nowhere, other than straight-to-video. Cool new innovations they introduced "for the kids" were 1) giving the balls legs so they could walk, and 2) putting them in a 1950's rock-n'-roll cover band. Y'know, "for the kids"!

Balls, indeed. Total balls.

Let's move from the crude to the cutesy. The 1980s had so many sickeningly adorable things to buy and watch, like Smurfs, Snorks, Wuzzles, Care Bears, Care Bear Cousins, Monchhichis, Pound Puppies, Fluppy Dogs, Gummi Bears, Glo Worms, etc. But perhaps most useless of all were Popples.

Popples were pretty poppler poppluar popular, and of course, received their own series. I don't have any specific theories as to when Popples popped from the public consciousness (largely because I'm a 30+ year old man), but it can be no coincidence that it happened not long after the release of this terrible cartoon, which featured the screeching hysterics of the most annoying creatures on Earth. I guess considering the series lasted two seasons (!), it can't be labeled a complete failure. But in terms of content, it's an abomination, because it seems like the makers of the show just accepted the fact they had nothing to do with these creatures except for them to be annoying, and we all accepted that and watched anyway. For two whole seasons!

This cartoon didn't fail. Humanity did.

Speaking of annoying...

Troll dolls have been around since the early 1960s. They were invented by a woodcutter named Thomas Dam, who made a version of the doll for his daughter when he couldn't afford to buy her a Christmas gift. Once interest peaked, he started mass-producing a plastic version of the doll with the trademark electric-socket hair. Popularity of Good Luck Trolls ebbed and flowed throughout the years. But in 1992 it hit its apex, when Trolls starred in their own shrill Smurf-like cartoon special, Magical Super Trolls. "Troll-y cow", it's awful!

There was also a series in 2005 called Trollz. Y'know, "for the kids"! I mean, "kidz". These trollz were hip teenagerz who texted each other and hung out at the mall. There was a toyline that accompanied it, but no one seemed to care.

Did I mention I was 30+ year old man?

Sadly, this wasn't enough to kill the franchise. DreamWorks is threatening to release a feature film about 'Trolls' in 2015, starring Jason Schwartzman and Chloë Grace Moretz. But I'm hoping they'll turn their names into puns, like Trollë Grace Moretz. I just made that up. Although I'm not "trolling" for compliments here.

DreamWorks obviously has high hopes for the film, as Cartoon Brew just reported they purchased the worldwide Trolls licensing rights from creator Thomas Dam this week! Won't be long now until another "flow" brings the Trolls franchise flooding back to toy stores!

Okay, you've all sat through some horrible things this morning, and for that I apologize. But it is with great regret I must apologize again, and admit I've saved the worst for last. The most insidious sullying of a toy franchise ever committed to cel! And a once-great toy at that!

I can only imagine how the fateful ABC Saturday morning pitch meeting went down in late 1982...

TV Exec: "So what do you have for us?"

Pitchman: "Well, you know the Rubik's Cube, right?"

TV Exec: "Right. I love that thing!"

Pitchman: "Well, maybe you'd love it more if he had a face?"

TV Exec: "Maybe."

Pitchman: "A blue, childlike alien face!"

TV Exec: "Go on."

Pitchman: "And he talked in a hilarious voice!"

TV Exec: "I'm listening."

Pitchman: "And he flew and had magical powers that could only be released when the colours on his whimsical puzzle body were properly aligned!"

TV Exec: "I'll stop you right there for a second. Anyway he can appeal to a more Hispanic crowd?"

Pitchman: "As a matter of fact, yes! Because this magical box face just happens to be owned by 3 precocious Latino children!"

TV Exec: "I LOVE it! Here's a sack full of money! Hire popular boy-band Menudo to do the theme song."

Pitchman: "Yes sir! Let's do some drugs to celebrate! I found these rad new uppers called Popples!"

TV Exec: "Popples, eh...?"


I'm pretty depressed right now. Could really use a few Popples. The drugs, I mean. Or maybe I'll just head over here and have a colourful, magical, lovable day!

Join us next week for Part 2 of 20 on "The Saturday Morning Life And Times of Menudo".