Saturday, 1 February 2014

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Watch And Learn

Last week, I posted about the wonderful Wizard of Oz cartoon that I used to watch as an 80's kid growing up in small town Manitoba. Each cartoon episode was only about 5 minutes. I know multiple episodes aired together as a 30 minute show, but I also seem to recall individual cartoons airing as filler between other 30 minute programs.

It reminded me of another filler piece that used to air between Canadian cartoons at the time. Who remembers this?

Max, The 2000 Year Old Mouse (1968-1969) lived a great life. But don't let that interesting point and title fool you. He is a dreadfully dull and uninteresting little rodent. In fact, he barely even told the stories he purportedly lived through. He just rambled on in his annoying tone, until the voice over guy had to be brought in to lend credibility to the educational material being crammed into our ear and eye-holes. If you know the series, you won't be surprised to learn it was paid for by Encyclopedia Britannica. 

Coincidentally, I was thinking about these shorts, as I was reading a book that my friends, Russ and Amber, gave to me for Christmas called, "Unfiltered: The Complete Ralph Bakshi". Wouldn't you know it, that Bakshi, animation pioneer and legend, was behind this unappealing little mouse dropping. In fact, there was a shocking amount of other talent being wasted in these films, which I'll get to.

The connection makes sense, and I can't believe I didn't pick up on it before. It was a Krantz Films production, based in Toronto. You may recall me recollecting fondly over the infamous Bakshi/Krantz Spider-Man (Spiderman?) series in Season 3, which a lot of people hated and I rather enjoyed. Spider-Man at least had a semblance of entertainment value during that time. Max, The 2000 Year Old Mouse was a boring lecture, but it still had a lot of similarities to Spider-Man

I'm afraid you may have to watch another one of these to know what I'm talking about...

The theme song itself gave plenty of hints. Look at how off-model the mouse is compared to what he looked like in the show, even from episode-to-episode. It wasn't uncommon for Spider-Man to appear similarly inconsistent throughout.

The narrator (Bernard Cowan, who was also an announcer for CBC) is the same voice occasionally used for voice-overs on Spider-Man.

And similar effects at the 8 second mark in Max's strobe-heavy theme song could be seen in the equally trippy Spider-Man cartoon series.

While I was shocked to learn that Bakshi had a hand in this, I just became downright depressed when I learned who else had been dragged into it. 

Shamus Culhane was a director. Culhane had a hand in animating the classic "Heigh-Ho" sequence in Disney's Snow White and The Seven Dwarves, and you may recall me singing his praises as an under-appreciated renegade at Walter Lantz's studios. Shamus had semi-retired by the time he was working on this series, and to have it book-end such an interesting career is disappointing to say the least. But a guy's gotta work, right? 

Paul Soles, the voice of Max, was also the voice of your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man, and also memorably portrayed Hermes, the misfit elf in Rankin/Bass's Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer. Here, as Max, it seems like he recognized there was no point in even trying to be funny. Why would you give this unlikable blowhard anything but an incredibly unlikable voice?

We know, we know, Max! You're 2000 years old! Christ, it feels like you've told us this 2000 times already!

My own, more reliable mouse, tells me via the Interweb that there were 104 (!) episodes of this series! I could watch 3, maybe 4 "max". But somebody must have enjoyed them, to motivate Shamus Culhane in continuing this trend in 1970, as director of a similar series called The Wonderful Stories of Professor Kitzel.

I also remember seeing Professor Kitzel in 5 minute bits on Canadian television. This time around, Paul Soles is the narrator. And the format, while still preachy, is much more entertaining than Max. Professor Kitzel and his parrot are far more appealing than that braggart pipsqueak. Could we train this parrot to eat mice?

Wikipedia says there are 106 episodes of this series! Can that be accurate? Seems excessive, despite our liking it.

Steve Krantz also continued to educate in 1971 (after parting ways with Ralph Bakshi over a Fritz The Cat fall-out), and continued to make short educational films for Encyclopedia Britannica.

Wow, I think I kinda "max'd" out when it comes to education. Let's forget everything we've just learned, and remember guys like Ralph Bakshi, Shamus Culhane and Paul Soles in better times, celebrating their prouder moments and contributions to cartoons.

Smartest thing I've done all morning!

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