Remembering Saturday Morning

  • On April 27, 2010 ·
  • By ·

It seems every generation goes through that phase where they complain about the present and long for the past. I’m not trying to do that. The present’s not always awesome but it’s where I live and the future’s where I’m headed. But stuff does change and sometimes it’s a good idea to bring something back when you remember it used to be awesome. I’m talking about Saturday mornings and cartoons.

I grew up in the ’80s and ’90s back when you could see cartoons on nearly every channel on Saturday morning. It was tradition. Much like the Sunday funnies in the newspapers, Saturday morning was a time when programming was specially dedicated to the concept. I woke up this Saturday, checked the channels, and you know what I saw? Nickelodeon was fawning over their teen starlet iCarly, Cartoon Network was showing some anime I didn’t understand, (but at least it was animated) and some other channel was showing CGI talking vehicles. That was it. No Saturday morning block on the network stations. No reruns of older cartoons anywhere. Either it was anime or pre-kinder programming. What happened? A wikipedia article claims mandates for educational/informative shows eventually killed Saturday morning, along with advocacy groups and competition from other forms of entertainment. Supposedly with the rise of Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, and other channels that played children’s programming regularly, there was little reason to focus Saturday morning for it. That’s like saying MTV exists, why do we need to show music videos? Take a look at this block of programming from the 1980s and this block from the 1990s. Compare that to today where you have so much reality TV drivel, so much “tween” nonsense, so much lifeless pre-kindergarten crap.

Shows I Remember

Bugs Bunny

Call it whatever you want. The Bugs Bunny/Tweety Show, The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Show, whatever. Back before Cartoon Network exclusively became the place to see these cartoons (and before they drowned them out with their own programming) they’d rerun on older stations all the time.

Beetlejuice

Based loosely around the Tim Burton movie, Beetlejuice and Lydia ran around through the Neitherworld having crazy adventures.

The Real Ghostbusters

Do I have to explain this one? It was based on probably the biggest franchise of the ’80s and still holds up incredibly well today.

Darkwing Duck

I know plenty of you folks grew up on Ducktales, Rescue Rangers, and Tailspin, but this show was probably my favorite of the bunch of duck-themed shows that filled TV at the time.

Count Duckula

Another duck show, only this one’s British and about a vegetarian vampire. It was often paired up with Danger Mouse, which was just fine with me.

Rocko’s Modern Life

This was when Nickelodeon brought us Ren & Stimpy, Doug, and Rugrats. How can you not enjoy a show with an opening theme by the b52s?

Sonic the Hedgehog SatAM

This show ran around the same time as The Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog but took a totally different approach to the concept. The SatAM was to better differentiate the two. And since Saturday morning is gone much like this series, it seems only fitting. I remember it launching around the same time as Cro, a show about a frozen mammoth who regaled you with stories of his caveboy friend.

Decent Shows Today

There’s still some good animation being done now but it’s usually squished to weird hours in favor of live action programming.

The Fairly OddParents

A highly stylized show about a kid who has fairy godparents. If you ever get the chance to watch one of their longer animated movies, especially the crossovers with Jimmy Neutron, do yourself a favor and watch.

The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy

Two kids who won the Grim Reaper in a limbo contest and now he has to be their friend forever. This is one of those shows that’s for kids on the outside and grown ups on the inside. It’s been around for awhile but that doesn’t mean it won’t disappear tomorrow. When I saw the creator and voice actors at San Diego Comic Con in 2006 they all seemed to accept that it was always under the guillotine of being canceled.

The Venture Bros.

Part of the Adult Swim block on Cartoon Network. Basically they asked the question of what Johnny Quest would be like when he grew up. It’s a brilliant show.

Archer

Much like The Venture Bros., this show is targeted towards grown ups. It stars H. Jon Benjamin as the title character, Sterling Archer –  a secret agent for ISIS, international spy agency. It also stars Aisha Tyler (who I saw do standup recently and can’t recommend seeing highly enough) as the sexy Lana Kane and a whole bunch of other funny people in very entertaining roles. If you haven’t checked it out yet you should.

Final Thoughts

Saturday morning cartoons have changed a great deal since I was a kid. But then again, I’ve changed, too. Now I can find cartoons online or on adult blocks late at night. People like me who grew up on Saturday morning cartoons most likely aren’t even up that early on weekends anymore anyway so perhaps I shouldn’t complain. I just miss the amount of cartoons and the environment it generated. Back then, so many stations would be putting cartoons on the air, by some sort of mathematical law, at least some of it had to be good. And folks who knew what they were doing at the time brought us what some people have called a second renaissance or second golden age of animation. With shows like Animaniacs, Pinky and The Brain, Taz-Mania, and Tiny Toon Adventures bringing a revival of good cartoons. Will we ever see shows like that again? Possibly. Right now Hollywood has been on a retro kick bringing back old properties. TV networks have all been about the reboot as they brought us the new Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles, Lunatics Unleashed, and Baby Looney Tunes. (Seriously, Baby Looney Tunes? Jim Henson’s Muppet Babies and The Flintstones Kids was over long before they decided to cash in on designs of the characters used to sell baby products.)

There was the short-lived Duck Dodgers series awhile back and recently it was announced that Warner Bros. would be making a new The Looney Tunes Show. However the promo art for the series has already gotten some pretty harsh scrutiny. I’ll reserve judgement until I actually see it. The problem with doing cartoons today, especially with pre-existing properties like these, is satisfying both the younger audience who are the ones supposed to be tuning in and the older audience who are watching out of memories of shows from their childhood. It’s a hard line to walk. Either cartoons are for the kiddies and not to be taken seriously or they have to be raunchy and explicitly adult. There aren’t too many shows that can please both anymore. It’s a rare thing when that actually happens.

Review: Little Nemo (1911)

Little Nemo in Slumberland was a newspaper comic strip by Winsor McCay that started in 1905. The story would usually involve some bizarre and fantastic dream by the title character, Nemo, and usually end with him waking up in bed in the last panel. McCay is considered a pioneer in both the newspaper comic and animation genres. McCay animated several films over his lifetime, achieving an amazing level of realistic movement that would be unmatched by most studios for years to come. His early films used rice paper where backgrounds were traced either by him or an assistant. He developed the system of keyframing and using cycles for repetitive motion.

The 1911 film shows McCay entertaining several of his friends, drawing some of his characters in pen, then promising to make 4,000 drawings in a month to show them moving. We then get a scene of people delivering all the barrels of ink and boxes of paper to his studio. The artist is hard at work drawing and testing a shot when a nosey guest causes piles of drawings to topple over. McCay shows off some of his drawings and the film continues a month later where we see him showing off the finished piece to his friends. Parts of the film are hand-colored to make them match their newspaper counterparts.

This was in the early days of animation when these sorts of shorts would be shown to vaudeville audiences. In films like Gertie the Dinosaur McCay would do tricks of interaction such as telling the character to do things or appearing to pet her. Little Nemo is very technically advanced for it’s time. There’s a level of draftsmanship to the art and quality to the animation that many similar contemporary films never achieved. There’s something to admire about an artist making their own films, especially today when most people tend to think of animation as some huge studio production.

Review: Bosko The Talk-Ink Kid (1929) and Sinkin’ In The Bathtub (1930)

  • On April 23, 2010 ·
  • By ·

In order to understand Bosko you have to understand his time. He was a product of the early sound era in film. His pilot cartoon, Bosko The Talk-Ink Kid, was the first to sync speech. (Steamboat Willie synced audio but no dialogue.) This was an interesting time for animation as things were new and studios were just being founded. Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising had worked with Disney before setting out on their own. They eventually signed a contract with Leon Schlesinger to produce cartoons for the Warner Bros. Bosko’s design is common for his time. He’s a simple character comprised of mostly black with a white face, similar to Felix the Cat or Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. He sings, dances, and in his early appearances speaks in a stereotypical blackface minstrel voice. Eventually Harman and Ising had a falling out with Schlesinger and moved to MGM, taking Bosko with them. Though you could possibly argue he was supposed to be more of an ink blot or some kind of bug in the Warner cartoons, at MGM he was redesigned into an obvious black boy character.

The whole concept of Warner Bros. cartoons is fascinating even when only seen on a business level. You had animators who sold their cartoons to somebody who sold them to a bigger studio. This bigger studio in turn showed these shorts in their own theaters before their own films and used them to advertise songs the studio owned in their catalogue. Today commercial tie-ins can seem blatantly obvious at times. But think back to the early days of animated cinema or, heck, even back to early television. Frugal spending resulted in airing older films and limited animation which later became a style of it’s own –  a time when one sponsor could own an entire program.

I grew up in the ’80s and ’90s when these types of cartoons were still being shown regularly on TV. I remember when Nickelodeon relaunched their cartoon block to focus on the more popular Warner Bros. characters and cartoons, even using the tagline, “No Bosko. Sorry, Bosko.” It made me kind of sad, actually. Yes the Bosko cartoons are pretty pointless and bland. Yes they’re basically animators jiggling their keys in front of early audiences to make them oo and ah. Yes the designs are often ugly and offensive. But to see them gone to make room for the Daffy Duck and Speedy Gonzales or Bunny and Claude cartoons of the 1960s was depressing. I find it much more surreal to watch zanny films of a bygone era that show the heavy influence of long forgotten vaudeville acts, personally.

Bosko The Talk-Ink Kid is similar to the Max Fleischer Out of the Inkwell films, with Ising drawing Bosko, the drawing coming to life, and then some nonsense to show off Harman and Ising’s ability to animate silliness to sound. I find this sort of novelty charming in other cartoons when it’s used well. (WB’s own You Oughta Be In Pictures a decade later and the pilot of Tiny Toon Adventures later still being good examples) Here it’s brief and defaults to Bosko getting very annoying very quickly before he’s sucked back into the pen. I could see some indie animator today drawing their own characters fighting with them so it’s probably still a decent sales pitch.

Sinkin’ In The Bathtub is the first ever Looney Tune. We see Bosko courting his girl Honey and riding down the hills in a bathtub. Because you see, they were both taking a bath when they first appeared on screen. Because what better way to introduce your characters to an audience than to show them totally naked? And bathtubs are funny. Why are you asking questions? Do you not see us jiggling our keys? Don’t ask questions of our shenanigans. I think the highlight of the whole thing is Bosko sliding down a mountainside with a series of rocks directly in front of him resulting in a continuous run of crotch-shots. Because nothing makes a hit in the junk funnier than repeating it vigorously.

Cartoons like these should be preserved and shown for historical purposes and so that they might encourage future spoofs like the Fairly OddParent’s “The Good Old Days!” episode. Though thin on story they at least have a lot going on onscreen. (Compare that to the subsequent Buddy cartoons that followed after Harman and Ising took Bosko to MGM.) Without them there would be no “That’s all, folks!” so they deserve some place in history.

Fantastic Planet

Today I’m going to write about an interesting animated French/Czechoslovakian film from 1973, Fantastic Planet. Before I even try to explain it, check out the trailer.

So yeah. What is this thing about? Well it’s a story about humans living on an alien world. On this planet the dominant species is gigantic. They keep some humans as pets. Others are seen as pests and are exterminated. It’s a very strange sort of science fiction. There are some insanely imaginative visuals going on and just when you think you understand the logic behind some of what’s going on something weirder happens. It’s an interesting effect. The world we’re shown is truly alien and strange which gives us this uncomfortable feeling – the same as the humans in the film feel.

It’s not so much a “humans must rise against” kind of movie like Battlefield: Earth. It’s message is more about learning to co-exist rather than forcing dominance. It certainly has the look and feel of a 70s animated film with a style that reminds me of Yellow Submarine or Monty Python. I really recommend checking this one out for yourself and seeing what you can take from it. It’s easily found online but as always I encourage legit viewings of good films to support them.