Original Airdate: November 9th, 2016 on CBBC
Aardman Animations had been cranking out stop-motion claymation cartoons since the 1970s—you may recognize their work with Peter Gabriel—but they only really hit the big time when director Nick Park’s short film Creature Comforts won an Oscar. That same year saw the debut of A Grand Day Out with Wallace and Gromit at the Bristol Animation Festival. This was the beginning of a franchise of lucrative and beloved Wallace and Gromit cartoons, including a feature-length film in 2005. Aardman also brought us the classic kids movie Chicken Run, and, yes, a movie based on Shaun the Sheep. Shaun first appeared in A Close Shave, a Wallace and Gromit adventure that won an Oscar of its own in 1996. Aardman is like the Pixar of Plasticine, except they’ve been out in these streets for a hell of a lot longer than John Lasseter and company. Since 2007, Aardman’s been cranking out scads of 7-minute cartoons about Shaun for the BBC’s children’s programming channel. How does it compare to other animated short subjects?
- Animation style. Okay, the aesthetics haven’t changed much since Comforts, but the animation looks better than ever. One of these shorts entails more than 10,000 individual frames, which means hours and hours of painstaking work, and the folks at Aardman didn’t skimp on the details. You can never see the strings here and it’s surprisingly easy to disappear into the pastoral world of Shaun despite the admittedly distinctive array of bulbous heads, thick brows, gapped teeth and ridiculously huge noses on dogs.
- Cute. So anything with dogs and other domestic animals gets brownie points from me right out of the gate, but this is one of those purportedly comic affairs where the comedy comes from the most gentle of observations and decidedly sedate hijinks. This short involves an escaped convict posing as a sheep to avoid scrutiny from the police. He walks on all fours and uses pilfered socks to imitate the black ears of a sheep and it looks pretty silly. A small child might find the whole enterprise intrinsically amusing for this reason.
- Dialogue-free. It’s an interesting move by the people at Aardman to have each episode of Shaun offer a soundtrack with music, sound effects and absolutely no talking. Sure, there’s baa-ing, and barking, and grunting, all of which makes perfect sense if the protagonists are sheep and dogs. Strangely, even the humans don’t speak, though they emote in a kind of nonsense language akin to the dialogue voiced by the characters in The Sims. This makes the show more accessible for international audiences or for pre-verbal children, and it’s a welcome change of pace from the hackneyed or too-clever-by-half dialogue that pours out of lesser children’s fare. Of course, there are trade-offs…
- Insubstantial, even for something seven minutes long. There’s not a lot happening here in terms of story. A jailbird escapes to the farm, poses as a sheep and gives himself up when he realizes that the nameless farmer might eventually kill him for food. Of course, the farmer isn’t going to kill anyone—I feel fairly confident that this is the kind of farm where sheep are only used for wool—but the convict doesn’t know that. You could get a lot of comedy and story out in seven minutes, but it looks like Shaun doesn’t have that kind of stamina 143 episodes in, if it ever did.
Final Episode Judgment: 7/10. It’s light-hearted, sweet and very hard to dislike, but it’s also not very memorable and it doesn’t have much of the distinctive wit that made Comforts and Wallace & Gromit so successful.
NEXT TIME: Did you know that The Mary Tyler Moore Show had three separate spin-offs? Did you know that these include a wildly successful drama starring Ed Asner, pictured here trapped deep inside the uncanny valley? That’s right, baby—come back later for Lou Grant! It won 13 Emmys!
Original Airdate: November 13th, 2013 on Hulu
Thanks to Netflix, it’s become de rigueur for streaming services to produce their own original programming, and Netflix hasn’t made it easy on its competitors, churning out critically-acclaimed hits like Orange is the New Black and Master of None. Amazon Prime comes in at a distant second for original fare, most notably due to the success of Transparent. But whither Hulu? If Amazon Prime is lagging behind, Hulu has died of a heart attack and is slowly decomposing in a heap somewhere. They had exactly zero shows in AV Club’s top 40 last year and the only Emmy nomination they received was for an election special helmed by the timeless and relevant Triumph, the Insult Comedy Dog. Honestly, the highlight might very well be The Wrong Mans. A network in this position is going to desperately try all kinds of crazy things in the search for the next big hit, including giving Eva Longoria money to star in an “edgy” animated sitcom described in Variety as being like “Family Guy for women.” Gulp.
- Periodically funny. If that sounds like I’m damning Mother with faint praise, it’s because I am. But it’s better than a joyless slog! Most of the jokes that work in this episode center around the near-critical levels of self-centeredness displayed by our protagonist, Rudi Wilson (Longoria, Desperate Housewives.) Here, Rudi tries to get her friend Sarah (Gabrielle Miller, Corner Gas) to loosen up, but after her first day-drinking bender, Sarah professes a desire to “buy drugs, burn things down and hurt people! Hurt them so much!” Without so much as a pause, Rudi cheerfully replies, “Okay! See ya tomorrow.” We get more along these lines from the episode’s subplot, which has Rudi’s ten-year-old son Dick (Jesse Camacho, Less Than Kind) unwittingly imprisoned when he tries to get close to an incarcerated father figure. The prison figures out their mistake before Rudi realizes Dick’s gone. This is exacerbated when she mistakes Sarah’s son for her own. Sarah corrects her, only to get a brusque “I don’t think so.”
- Breaking up a boy’s club. Look, there’s no good reason for anyone to try and bring more versions of Family Guy into the world. Seth MacFarlane is a cancerous growth on the taint of comedy. But there’s something to be said for an animated series where the morally deficient and hijinks-prone protagonist is a woman, unlike MacFarlane’s crap, or The Simpsons, or Futurama, or Bojack Horseman, or Archer, or that shitty Bill Burr vehicle on Netflix. And many of the other characters are tightass suburban moms! Sure, it may be a hoary cliche to make fun of soccer moms, but at least we’re dealing with a story by and about women. Of course, passing the Bechdel Test doesn’t guarantee quality in and of itself—but Leslie Knope would be proud.
- Turning around a derivative storyline. South Park famously lampshaded their own piss-poor creative skills by making a big deal about how The Simpsons had supposedly already tackled every good storyline, and Mother had me ready to compare Rudi and Sarah to Homer Simpson and Ned Flanders in Las Vegas. While Mother does retain the device of the milquetoast character going way too far in their indulgence, Rudi proves to be an unlikely voice of reason and moderation. She ultimately brings Sarah back from the edge of total insanity, though she still has to engage in some kind of death-match with cobra venom coursing through her veins. You know, edgy, etc. But this is promising. Rudi reluctantly stepping in to do the right thing shows the possibility of a well-rounded character who isn’t just wacky for wackiness’ sake. Of course, Mother didn’t survive past 13 episodes, so it was all a big waste of everyone’s time.
- Tasteless. This is my big problem with “edgy.” “Edgy” could mean that something is interesting, experimental, attempting the never-before-seen. Unfortunately, it usually means “let’s see if we can get away with jokes about children masturbating in public and giving their bullies blood-borne hepatitis.” It can be hard to draw the line between jokes about negligent parenting that play on our insights and observations of the characters and jokes that are just supposed to shock us into laughs of discomfort, because normally people frown on child endangerment. But this is a constant challenge for comedies relying on despicable characters—when do we stop laughing at them and start laughing at their victims?
- Unlikable protagonist. The protagonists of those male-driven animated comedies I listed above all exist on some continuity between well-intentioned idiocy and petty maliciousness. The further you get down that continuum, the more you’re forced to appreciate the show in spite of its hero, in the spirit of Archer. Mother Up was always going to struggle, but the fact that Rudi’s an asshole doesn’t help. I’ve never understood the TV writer’s penchant for assholes. Don’t we already have enough assholes in our day to day lives?
Final Judgment: 6/10. It’s not very good, but it’s head and shoulders above Family Guy. Have I mentioned how much I fucking hate Family Guy?
NEXT TIME: Hey, I liked it when Gundam had giant flying death robots, so I’m sure every anime with giant flying death robots is also awesome, right? RIGHT?! I review Zoids: Chaotic Century!
Original Airdate: October 9th, 1976 on ABC
Out of all the entities in the intellectual property storehouse of Hanna-Barbera, the crime-solving Great Dane named Scooby-Doo has had the most staying power. There have been twelve different iterations of the animated series, including one that’s still on the air today, as well as countless feature-length animated movies, not to mention the live action movies with the hideous CGI dog. Seriously, Snoop Dogg turning into an actual dog in that music video looked more credible. There’s also the predictably large swath of merchandise and cash-in attempts, including actual Scooby Snack dog treats, a Scooby Doo-themed version of Clue, and for some reason a Scooby Doo stage play. Sadly, tonight’s case study demonstrates that a higher-profile Hanna-Barbera product doesn’t make for higher quality.
- Paying tribute to literary heritage. When I saw that this was going to center on the Headless Horseman, I felt confident that it was going to be a watered-down, half-assed public domain bastardization that would make Washington Irving spin like a whirligig. While Scooby is half-assed in all things, this was a surprisingly thoughtful adaptation of the classic story. The show makes an intriguing intertextual move by establishing that the Scooby-verse exists within the fictional context set up by “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” The horseman’s story is traced not to Irving but instead to Ichabod Crane, the ancestor of one Beth Crane (Janet Waldo, The Jetsons), a friend of the Scooby Squad that only exists for the purposes of this episode and this episode only. Beth faithfully situates the Horseman’s origins within the Revolutionary War—as in the story, the Horseman is said to be a luckless Hessian decapitated by a stray cannonball, and this is almost certainly the only Hanna-Barbera program ever to discuss Hessians. Because there’s a glimmer of uniqueness and originality in this part of the storyline, Scooby viewers may be tempted to track down the source text. Of course, they might after doing that be tempted to never watch this show again, but either way, points for being bookish.
- Sparingly amusing. Scooby is ostensibly a comedy, but the laughs are few and far between. Here are the three funny things that happen in this episode. Number one: We begin the action at a Halloween party hosted by Beth, who is dressed as Snagglepuss. Hooray for synergy! Number two: At one point, the characterically craven duo of Shaggy (Casey Kasem) and Scooby-Doo (Don Messick) faint due to fright. Scooby’s dimwitted country relation, Scooby-Dum (Daws Butler, The Jetsons), sees this state of affairs and also pretends to faint, appearing to think that this is what they’re all doing now. Ho ho ho. Number three: At various occasions, the dogs get their noses touched, bopped or poked, resulting in a comical honk sound effect. This concludes the list of funny moments in this episode of Scooby. You might be saying, “Wait, none of those were funny at all!” Well, now you can imagine what the rest of the episode was like.
- Scooby-Dum. I know some of you stopped paying attention the second I brought up this hick. Yes, that’s right—the good people at HB decided they needed to spice up the action by introducing another dog, even dumber and less articulate than the original dog. Clearly they didn’t learn from this mistake, as the execrable Scrappy-Doo was still three years away from being born into existence wet with the amniotic fluid of Satan’s bride. S. Doo is already hard enough to understand and his conversations with S. Dum prove nigh incomprehensible. Dum has little to offer besides hammy mugging and a bumpkin-ish approach to the unforgiving world of confidence men dressed up as movie monsters from the thirties. Wikipedia grimly notes continuity errors amounting to a “dubious lineage” for Dum, and I figured that these errors were born of a critical lack of interest on the part of the people who had written 40 episodes of this particular flavor of Scooby, but it turns out that there’s inconsistency even within this specific episode, with Dum being referred to as both Scooby’s brother and his cousin. I’m going to choose to interpret this as evidence that the Scooby line is rife with incest, which goes some way towards explaining why the Scoobies are critically stupid despite their sapience.
- Flaccid “mystery.” Look, I love a good mystery. Even when I was a kid I loved a good mystery. Scooby acts like it’s going to present you with a mystery. They drive around in a goddamned Mystery Machine. What we get instead would make Agatha Christie vomit blood in an incendiary, gin-soaked rage. The minute we lay eyes on Elwood Crane (John Stephenson, The Flintstones) it’s obvious he’s the monster-impersonating douchebag we’re looking for, but we have to hang around for 15 minutes while the usual gang of idiots figures out that the seedy uncle who took the diamond necklace for “safekeeping” is actually the bad guy. They still don’t come to the natural conclusion even when the “Horseman” “steals” Elwood’s head. The really outrageous thing is that there’s only one other person the Horseman could possibly be, the Lurch-esque butler Tarlof (Alan Oppenheimer, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.) Tarlof is obviously a fake-out, seeing as he’s creepy-looking as hell. He also didn’t take any fucking diamonds!
- Unconvincing action sequences. The episode tries to go out with a bang as Doo, Shaggy and Elwood wrestle one another for control of a speeding biplane mid-air. The problem is that the show has been taking advantage of cartoon physics all along, so it’s not like gravity is a serious threat. In fact, Scooby at one point steps completely out of the plane and walks several feet out on the empty air in the grand tradition of Wile E. Coyote. Next, they apparently crash through the back wall of an airplane hangar without damaging the plane. Shaggy falls through a mysterious hole in the seat and grabs onto the landing gear. Finally, the plane abruptly and inexplicably disintegrates. The end result is something neither thrilling nor comprehensible.
Final Judgment: 3/10. There are probably better episodes of Scooby. I know there are worse episodes, thanks to the aforementioned hell-spawn. Headless Horseman aside, Scooby and the gang can’t escape the stench of hackish mediocrity.
NEXT TIME: Gritty live action superheroes, anyone? I review Gotham!
Original Airdate: January 18th, 1974 on BBC1
The most obvious point of reference for Roobarb in the Oryx Vault is Paddington: It’s another five-minute cartoon made by BBC in the 1970s to pad out the hour when other things ran short. But while one series is based on an iconic and beloved children’s book character, the other is about a badly drawn chartreuse dog with a misspelled name. (At least it makes him easy to Google.)
- Cute. Okay, I’ll admit it. I’m hopelessly devoted to dogs. And, sure, Roobarb only bears an abstract resemblance to any actually existing dog. Sure, it does the same weird thing that Paddington does where all the narration and voices are done by one guy (Richard Briers, The Good Life) so Roobarb doesn’t sound particularly distinctive, despite Briers gamely putting on a silly voice. But, come on, a dog wearing a poorly assembled horse costume? I’m not made of stone, people!
- Rock bottom production values. To say that Roobarb shares Paddington’s lo-fi aesthetic is to put it mildly. As mentioned, there’s only one voice actor, but that’s just the beginning. Everything is a shaky line drawing. The characters’ mouths don’t match up with the audio, and that’s when they move at all. At one point, Roobarb’s foil Custard observes Roobarb in a comically humiliating situation, and it’s not clear if he’s looking through a hole in a fence, coming around a corner on the side of the fence or walking through the gate of the fence, because they didn’t bother to colorize the backgrounds. And the theme song? Let’s just say it’s doesn’t rival “Spin It” from Talespin.
- Story that goes absolutely nowhere. Here is the plot, such as it is: Roobarb encounters a sad lion. The lion is sad because he’s part of a circus and he’s lost. Roobarb tries to distract him from his woes by putting on an extremely shitty one-man circus. Then the real circus comes back, so the lion books. If you’re going to do a lazy circus thing, just have the characters go to the circus and have misadventures there. It turns out that watching someone attempt to be entertaining and fail is not, in fact, super entertaining on its own.
Final Judgment: 4/10. You know, if there’s one thing I’m learning here it’s that the vast majority of television doesn’t even try to rise out of the endless sea of grey mediocrity that floods every broadcast hour.
NEXT TIME: Hey, they made a TV show out of the movie Limitless, so that’s going to have to make up for the fact that I couldn’t find an extant copy of the Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure cartoon.
Original Airdate: January 13th, 1968 on ABC
Previously in this space we discussed an episode of the Iron Man cartoon from 1996, and the gold standard in DC and Marvel animated series’ are 1992’s Batman: The Animated Series and X-Men, respectively, so the Snake People among us would be forgiven for thinking that the 1990s invented cartoons based on comic books. Nope, the Boomers can take credit for this one—both DC and Marvel have had cartoons based on their libraries as far back as the 1960s. Spider-Man is one of the more iconic examples, if only for its fun and oft-parodied theme song. I’ve actually spent a decent amount of time lately catching up on prehistoric Marvel comics and for long stretches of time in the 60s Peter Parker was the best thing going. The show takes many cues from the comics, but like the comics, it is far from perfect. Heavens, no.
- Classic comic book plots. So each episode of Spider-Man is divided into two ten minute segments, which are either parts one and two of a longer story or are two discrete entities. This flexibility is smart—it means that the writers aren’t stuck stretching out a thin plot into an entire half-hour and can be more judicious about pacing. Here, we get two separate stories. The first features four established bad guys teaming up to tackle Spider-Man (Paul Soles, Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer) and the second centers on a two-bit actor with the groan-worthy name Charles Cameo (Carl Banas, Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer.) Cameo uses his impersonation and disguise skills to steal precious baubles and at various points he takes on the guise of Spider-Man, Peter Parker and J. Jonah Jameson (Paul Kligman.) The “supervillains combine their forces” and the “someone is out there doing a defamatory impersonation of our hero” are standard comic book tropes for perfectly good reasons. It’d be uncharitable to dismiss them as mere cliches, because it makes perfect sense that the various bad guys would at some point get the idea to combine forces, and identity theft is a natural outgrowth of a masked public figure with a mysterious background and questionable motivations. The show does reasonably interesting things with these tropes, too—Spider-Man can’t defeat his rogues gallery on sheer physical strength because they have him outnumbered, so he manipulates them and plays them against one another to foster infighting, and Cameo capitalizes on the paranoid Jameson’s ever-present Spider-Panic to the point where Jameson gets the cops involved. Not bad for a low-budget kids show, especially considering the actual comics from the period handled some of these things in a more clumsy manner. For instance, when six villains team up against Spidey in the 1964 Spider-Man Annual, for some dumb reason they all fight Spider-Man individually in a Chamber Of Secrets style gauntlet. Of course he beats them all, because he beat them all before one-on-one and why would anything be different now just because they formed an LLC? I dunno, maybe Stan Lee created an artificially low bar for spider-related excellence here.
- J. Jonah Jameson. Jameson’s fun. He’s a big windbag with a Hitler mustache who likes to work himself up into hysterics, yelling and waving his arms around. Spiderman always outsmarts him. His employees crack jokes at his expense. In that same issue I just talked about, you can see him yelling at an actual spider. As usual, Spider-Man makes him look like an asshole here when it turns out that Cameo was the bad guy all along and Jameson’s back to square one on his lifelong quest to prove that Spider-Man is the Ayatollah. As Dolly Parton would say, he’s as mad as an old wet hen.
- The bad kind of camp. Look, camp is always going to be something of a bugbear, and there was no hope that any superhero property anywhere in the temporal vicinity of the 1966 live-action Batman was not going to be dripping with camp. However, it never reaches quite the level of art that ends with Batman getting into a surfing contest with The Joker. If you’re going to be campy, you damn well better lean into it. We can’t just settle for a visual of Spider-Man web-slinging through the suburbs, shooting webs up into the empty night sky and swinging around like there were skyscrapers instead of two-story rowhouses. I won’t be soothed by the sight of The Vulture (Soles) somehow producing missiles and explosives from between the feathers on his wings mid-air. It’s not even good enough to have Cameo escaping Spider-Man’s clutches by squirting him with tubes of paint until he becomes all flustered and painted. No, you really have to step up your game if you’re coming for Cesar Romero.
- The Green Goblin. So The Green Goblin (Len Carlson, The Racoons) is one of Spider-Man’s more iconic nemeses, and I’m sure over the years various artists and writers have done interesting things with him, but for this reviewer he’s corny as hell. But he killed Gwen Stacy! Yeah, he also throws pumpkin shaped bombs. He buys his outfits at the pop-up Halloween superstore where the old Sears used to be. He looks like an off-brand garden gnome. He drives a shitty little sky scooter. I’m not buying it. It doesn’t help that Carlson’s voice acting makes him sound like the Wicked Witch in a theatrical production of Hansel & Gretel for pre-schoolers.
- Under-explained plot points. At one point Jameson needs to deliver a “police memorial statue” to the police, and he needs to go pick it up at the artist’s studio. This gives Cameo an opportunity to impersonate Jameson, but what the hell is a “police memorial statue” and why is the editor of the local newspaper responsible for ferrying it across town? And it’s not like this was the only way to get Jameson involved—a few scenes later he’s checking out a local antique show as advance publicity, but this time Cameo’s disguised as the antique dealer. Is there some reason Jameson needs to be integral to all of Cameo’s plots, even when it doesn’t make any goddamned sense whatsoever?
- Doubling down on the theme song. Sure, everyone loves it. Listen, bud. He’s got radioactive blood. Sure. I’ve heard it all before—literally, because once we’re out of things to do in the second segment and still have a minute left to go, they run out the clock by showing us another 30 seconds of miscellaneous Spidey hijinks while we enjoy an encore performance of the theme song. Look, I get that there’s only so many ways we can watch Cameo steal stuff, but pacing is important because otherwise you get embarrassing shit like this.
Final Judgment: 3/10. Regardless of how catchy the song is, I really can’t recommend that you watch the 1960s version of Spider-Man. Paul Soles is no Tobey Maguire. He’s not even Andrew Garfield.
NEXT TIME: I’ll review the controversial German World War II miniseries, Generation War! Don’t worry, I’m sure I’ll be back to watching ridiculous cartoons for undiscriminating children soon.
Original Airdate: May 29th, 2015 on Disney Channel
Periodically, you’ll see reports claiming that Kids These Days recognize Mario, Joe Camel, or Pikachu more frequently than they recognize Mickey Mouse. You can blame the rise of video games or a boom in tobacco advertising in the 1980s, but Mickey’s declining popularity over time is chained to Janet’s Law: you’re only as good as what you’ve done for us lately. Despite the fact that his face is plastered over 40 square miles of prime Florida swampland, Mickey hasn’t been holding down any television or film franchises of any notoriety. At best, today’s kids are familiar with him as a supporting player in the Kingdom Hearts games. Eventually, somebody at Disney must have caught on to this, because now we have a series of animated shorts starring America’s favorite everymouse darkening our door on a semi-regular basis.
- Animation & humor style that blends old and new. It’s easy for Mickey to tip its hat to retro styles, seeing as how the little rat’s been around for almost 100 fucking years. Regardless, the Mickey on offer here looks a lot more like Steamboat Willie than he did in my childhood. I understand the logic here—short-form cartoons originated as preludes to feature films and have often been an uncomfortable fit on a TV schedule. It’s why so many of the shows I review here find themselves desperately grappling to fill 22 minutes and it’s why the Huckleberry Hounds and Schnookums and Meats of the world divide their time between three distinct cartoons. But Mickey is very much a product of the 21st century. There are plenty of elegant modern touches to the animation—consider the Mickey’s-eye view of syrup drizzling over his breakfast pancakes—but the humor has also been updated for the jaded eye of post-millennial youth. There’s plenty of violence of the broken teeth and exes for eyes variety, and there’s even a sprinkling of gross-out humor—we get treated to a dog man’s protruding nipple, and a pig man’s hairy, misshapen ass is exposed, complete with a flatulent sound effect. Ain’t no way that shit was gonna fly in Fantasia. All this amounts to a cartoon just as much influenced by Ren & Stimpy and Spongebob Squarepants as it is by Silly Symphonies.
- Rapid-fire. The other upside to having four minutes to work with instead of 22 is that the end result feels much more content-rich. The plot here is simple: Mickey (Chris Diamantopoulos, The Three Stooges) is trying to find the perfect flower for Minnie (Russi Taylor, The Simpsons.) In the course of trying to find that flower, he has eight separate misadventures in just under two minutes. Huckleberry had seven minutes and didn’t even get half as much content crammed in there. So the creators of Mickey are really trying here, and they’ve certainly got the spectacle down—there’s even a catchy song and a denouement featuring a full-scale parade and marching band. And yet…
- Not very funny. All that incident doesn’t get you very far when the end result is barely worth cracking a smile. Most of the jokes here consist of Mickey getting his ass kicked in various ways, and while that’s definitely a staple of cartoons going back decades, it’s not intrinsically funny in and of itself, or at least I never thought so. Haw haw haw! He’s been grievously injured! Now he has to go to the hospital! Or maybe he’ll die! Yeah, never did anything for me. And it’s one thing when you disguise full-body third-degree burns by making Daffy Duck all sooty, but as mentioned, today’s fast-paced climate demands that Mickey look approximately 60% more damaged. There is one funny moment, though. One of the flowers Mickey attempts to pick turns out to be from the bouquet on someone’s coffin. Mickey address the mourners thusly: “Uh…he was a good…man?” Diamantopoulos’ reading is gold, even if it’s a little macabre for first-graders.
Motivation: Mickey just wants to show his love for Minnie with a daisy. “She’s the flower blooming in my heart,” he sings. What a man!
Final Judgment: 6/10. If this blog has taught me anything, it’s that there’s oceans of shitty to mediocre children’s television out there, so in that respect Mickey’s ahead of the pack. But thanks to We Bare Bears, I believe we can do better.
NEXT TIME: I finally come for HBO. What’s that? Am I reviewing one of HBO’s many popular shows from this century? Nope—The Larry Sanders Show! Hey now.
Original Airdate: September 18th, 1960 on first-run syndication
I doubt that Huckleberry Hound is anyone’s favorite cartoon character. Hell, I doubt he’s anyone’s favorite Hanna-Barbera character. But he plays a relatively prominent role in the history of western animation. Hanna-Barbera was one of the first studios to make cartoons specifically for television, and Hound was their second offering and their first big hit. If my reviews have demonstrated the lowlights of children’s fare from the 2000s, 90s and 80s, trust me that before 1960, kids TV was a vast wasteland of hideous puppets and Krusty-esque clown shows on local TV stations. There were cartoons like Looney Tunes and Mighty Mouse, but they had first appeared in movie theaters back in the days when a two-hour feature film was the culmination of an entire evening’s worth of entertainment. William Hanna and Joseph Barbera got their start in this world, making theatrical cartoons for MGM Studios, including the smash hit Tom & Jerry series. In the late 1950s, MGM decided they had a sufficiently robust catalog of animated features that they could just start reusing them and that there was no need for Hanna & Barbera to keep making cartoons. The animators scrambled to get the backing to start their own production company. They didn’t have the natural pathway into movie theaters that animation studios run by MGM, Warner Brothers or Disney did—so they looked to television. The rest is history, but how closely should we revisit this particular history? Well…
- Unique, if esoteric, setups. Okay, so it doesn’t speak highly of Hound that its solitary strength is also something of a deficit, at least for anyone wondering if their kids would like the show. But I’ll tell you one thing—you don’t see many cartoons about dogs/stereotypical Southerners fighting with the French Foreign Legion in the Algerian War. Nowadays, you don’t hear much about the French Foreign Legion—I didn’t even know what it was until high school—but when they were on the front lines of an exotic desert war, they had more pop culture cachet. There was even a TV show on NBC a scant three years prior to this episode, but nowadays kids might just find this setup baffling. The other two segments are equally charming in their dated/unhinged nature—the cumbersomely named “Pixie & Dixie and Mr. Jinks” feature has Jinks (Daws Butler) selling his mouse friends to rocket scientists intending to qualify them for status as Laika-esque animal astronauts. Jinks is the one that eventually gets sent to the moon, and if he follows in Laika’s pawprints and dies from hyperthermia it happens off screen. The premise of the “Hokey Wolf” installment is less topical but no less bizarre–Hokey (Butler) tricks three little pigs (uncredited) into relinquishing their home to him by posing as the ghost of another wolf they fucking murdered and haunting them. Okay then!
- Unfunny. I will credit Hound by saying that this isn’t the obnoxious, toxic “humor” where you’re peppered with an endless stream of try-hard non-jokes in the manner of Danny Phantom. Instead, Hound mostly doesn’t try at all. It’s very gentle. The proceedings mostly take the form of the classic Looney set-ups of hero vs. antagonist, but these shorts don’t have the anarchic joie de vivre that made Looney and its siblings famous. They’re generally much more sedate—while your typical Bugs/Fudd stand-off involves at least 5 or 6 encounters and opportunities for Bugs to outsmart and flummox Elmer, when Huckleberry (Butler) confronts Powerful Pierre (also Butler) there are only two confrontations until Huckleberry has the matter in hand. Huckleberry is also a less compelling hero than Bugs. Bugs outwits his rivals, while Huckleberry only manages to prevail through dumb luck. Bugs moves quickly, while Huckleberry moves at the pace of the South. This one probably won’t matter as much to the kiddies, but Bugs Bunny, Roadrunner and Jerry the mouse are underdogs fighting for their survival, whereas here Huckleberry is an officer on the side of a colonialist government in a war of liberation and Pierre is a renegade insurgent. Regardless, here’s an example of Hanna & Barbera failing to recapture the magic of their more famous film counterparts.
- Derivative. It’s common knowledge that the most famous Hanna-Barbera creation, The Flintstones, was a thin gloss on The Honeymooners, and one of their other famous creations, The Jetsons, transparently relocated the Flintstones to the distant future instead of the distant past. If you add that to the creativity on display here, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Hanna & Barbera never had an original idea in their lives. Hokey Wolf bears a suspiciously strong resemblance to Yogi Bear, the woodland animal he replaced in the lineup, right down to his porkpie hat, neck-tie and diminutive sidekick (Doug Young, The Flintstones.) Pixie et. al seems like what would happen if a particularly uncreative writer’s room pitched “Tom & Jerry, except there are two mice!” At first blush, Huckleberry himself passed this test, but that was until I saw a clip of Southern Wolf, a character that animation legend Tex Avery created during his time working alongside H & B at MGM. It doesn’t help that all three of the originals are funnier than what we see here.
- Poorly plotted. There are two moments in these cartoons that really test one’s suspension of disbelief, even considering that we’re extending a fair amount of cartoonist’s license as a matter of course. The scientists (uncredited) in the Pixie & Co. short are looking for animals smart enough to send into space, and yet when they first meet Mr. Jinks they don’t seem to consider him as a candidate, despite the fact that he can talk. It’s only until later, when Pixie (Don Messick, The Flintstones) & Dixie (Butler) aren’t working out, that Jinks seems perfect for the job. Geez, if you’re determined to murder super-intelligent animals, you could have saved a lot of time by paying attention to the cat smart enough to exchange mice for cash. The Hokey Wolf story is even flimsier. As mentioned, Hokey hopes to acquire real estate via the time-honored method of simulated haunting, and all goes well until the pigs are confronted by the original wolf, who is somehow still alive despite the fact that he climbed down a chimney and into a burning fire. Sure, it’s a cartoon and he probably got away with some singed, sooty fur, but how did that happen without the pigs noticing? I had assumed all along that they had buried his charred corpse in a shallow grave and resolved to hide their shameful secret from the public. I know it’s pointless to argue with cartoon logic, but it’s an awfully big hole in the story and everything hinges on the wolf’s miraculous return to life, and there’s not even a single line of dialogue attempting to explain.
Motivation: Mr. Jinks and Hokey both want money (in the form of cash and real estate, respectively) and Huckleberry is questing for the power of the French empire.
Final Episode Judgment: 3/10. There’s hours and hours of classic Warner Brothers cartoons for free on YouTube. Maybe stick to that?
NEXT TIME: What happens when aliens invade England during the Blitz? Find out as I review Invasion: Earth!