Archive for category Animation
Eek! the Cat found hilarity in suffering, which is no easy feat.
For a cartoon centered around a chubby purple cat that constantly and consistently gets hurt, Eek! the Cat coasts wonderfully on an earnest, endearing sensibility. It physical prat falls and sly references never overshadow the sheer positivity of the show, which makes watching Eek! the Cat a treat and a delight to watch. Creators Bill Kopp and Savage Steve Holland clearly had a distinct vision and commitment to its premise, ostensibly parodying and satirizing the very nature of the “cute helpful animal” icon via Eek himself, yet expressed their quirky, comedic talents within their affection for the characters.
Eek! the Cat may not have been the best cartoon of the 90s, but it was without a doubt the most rewarding, which makes its disappearance from the public conscious all the more disappointing. If I remember correctly, it had a pretty sizable following – and with five seasons under its belt, FOX KIDS felt so as well. It’s a funny, hilarious, and occasionally subversive show that follows its titular character through some of the strangest, most surreal situations, who always approaches every encounter with an infectious optimism. Even when Eek is smashed by a door, crushed by a piano, or blown up by a bomb, he still wills himself to help others, his mantra “It never hurts to help!” guiding him through the pleasure (and pain) of altruism.
Eek! the Cat follows the principle that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” (even literally, as in “Eek Goes to the Hot Spot,” where by holding a place in heaven’s line for another mischievous cat, Eek is sent down to hell by mistake). The show’s approach to the misery that is life resembles that of another memorable cartoon, Rocko’s Modern Life. Yet while that show focused on life’s malevolent eccentricities with a Fleischer-esque absurdity, Eek! the Cat uses its characters’ inherently helpful nature to push through broader, crazier adventures via a Tex Avery-template, all in the name of saving the day, whether emotionally or physically.
As I’ve mentioned before in previous pieces, cartoon pilots are mostly about setting the tone and comic sensibility of the show, which tends to leave character development lacking, which makes Eek! the Cat’s first episode, “Misereek,” somewhat disappointing. It lacks confidence, but it does showcase some early crackpot, physically gags, where a desperate, hungry Eek tries to get the attention of his family, but ends up bouncing all over the neighborhood in increasingly absurd ways. Other than Mittens (who is fairly out of character), there are no mention of any side characters who will become central to the show’s development (well, there’s the family – Mom, Wendy Elizabeth, and J.B., but as the show goes on they become less important).
“Bearz N’ the Hood” is when the show comes into its own. The line between Eek as a talking pet and anthropomorphic character in world filled with them becomes blurred as Eek tries to get the autographs from the stars of “The Squishy Bearz Rainbow of Enchanted Fun Minute,” only to become the Squishy Bearz’s only ally when they’re on the run from the the law. (The line between “animal as pet,” “animal as animal,” and “animal as legal person” is not just blurred, but utterly irrelevant – trying to understand this is missing the very point of the show.) It’s a great episode, working with what Eek! the Cat does best – subverting yet another batch of cutesy characters (this time, the Care Bears) through a crackpot lens. And even as the show breaks apart that “mascot animal” trope, it still embraces them as real characters trying and eventually succeeding. This isn’t Happy Tree Friends. Eek! the Cat wants to break down the helpful, curious animal character trope and mold it into its own image.
The writers do depict “molding” in a variety of ways, like in “Eek vs. The Flying Saucers,” where a cute alien creature arrives on Earth and Eek tries to show him the beauty of what our planet has to offer. Of course, they encounter the worst of humanity, but even beyond that, the alien is wholly unimpressed when he’s shown “true beauty,” which is kind of a big deal – I don’t think I ever seen a piece of entertainment, animated or live-action, present the natural wonders of Earth with a mediocre shrug. I suppose it’s a moot point though, when the alien reveals himself to be Voltar, a multi-eyed creature bent on destroying the planet. (This is kind of a disappointing reveal – I loved the alien’s blase reactions to the greatest things the world has to offer and wish he was a regular character.) Or take “Cape Fur,” in which Eek’s family finds a cute pink bunny stuck in the rain and bring him into his home. Eek is more than happy to help him, even as the bunny (hilariously voiced by the late Phil Hartman) starts to exhibit obvious sociopathic behavior. Eek doesn’t even entertain the idea that this rabbit is a thief and murderer until he sees a report about him on the news, and his family doesn’t believe him until its almost too late. A Cape Fear parody is the perfect template in which to break down the fluffy helpful animal trope. Then there’s “Catsanova,” in which Eek sees the massively obese Annabelle and falls in love – of course someone like Eek, who sees the best in everything, would be completely blind to Annabelle’s weight (a running gag involves Eek responding “Really?” to everyone who mentions how fat she is). In order to declare his love for Annabelle, however, Eek has to get past Sharky the Shark Dog.
Sharky the Shark Dog is television’s greatest forgotten animated character. A viciously violent yet classically refined canine who only speaks in barks and whimpers, Sharky is one of the few creations that can flawlessly fit the role of protagonist and antagonist, depending on the episode’s needs. Maybe because I have Hannibal on the brain, but Sharky as being both brilliant and destructive reminds me of NBC’s sophisticated monster (exaggerated, of course), which posits him perfectly in the elastic world of Eek! the Cat. He becomes central to the show, especially when the second season drops the 22-minute length episodes and starts with the 2 x 11-minute approach. The show loses the endearing helpfulness of its one-off characters since it can’t really work them in the shorter time length, but after a somewhat rocky start, Eek! the Cat, which is now known as Eek! And the Terrible Thunderlizards, changes its focus to insane adventures and broad parodies, using a number of the characters to riff on pop culture and pop culture tropes. It also “pairs” Eek and Sharky up on these adventures – as both partners and enemies, which works excellently.
The compilation era of Saturday morning forced the shorter length, and Kopp/Holland paired it with a new creation – The Terrible Thunderlizards. Parodying the machismo 80s’ “talking animal” action cartoon, The Terrible Thunderlizards is about three supposedly sadistic dinosaurs released from prison in order to destroy two humans whose very existence threatens to destroy dinosaur-kind. The show really functions along three premises: 1) through the humans, where Bill always finds himself in tremendous pain when Scooter’s comical attempts at human ingenuity goes awry; 2) the Thunderlizards themselves, who, in the midst of their mission to eradicate the humans, find themselves up against the the Thuggasaurs, an evil group of living, fossilized dinosaur bones; 3) the hate/really hate relationship between the Thunderlizards and General Galapagos, which has a broken-domestic quality to it (a hilarious recurring gag involves Galapagos turning to the camera in desperation, deadpanning “We dinosaurs are just doomed” whenever the Thunderlizards screw up).
The Terrible Thunderlizards lack the loose, wild freedom that Eek! The Cat has, but it has enough to function within Kopp’s and Holland’s themes of “comedy-through-suffering” and genre parody/satire. The Thunderlizards come off as tough, cruel, take-no-shit badasses, but over the course of the show it becomes clear that they’re really clumsy, good-hearted wusses with a surprising skillset when they’re focused on the true enemy. Things start off funny enough with a Roadrunner/Coyote-like battle between the Thunderlizards and the humans, where Bill and Scooter’s unlikely escapes are mistaken for military brilliance when the Thunderlizards’ weapons backfire (I love in particular Squat’s panicked tantrums, reminiscent of Bill Paxton’s “Game Over” reactions in Aliens). It’s a template that can’t last on its own, though, so the story mixes in a secondary element, the battle against the inept Thuggasaurs, which soon becomes the primary thrust of the show. It’s for the best, really, as it gives the show a specific genre to lambast, while working to endear the prisoners-turned-heroes. Even as the “heroic” dinosaurs find themselves smashed, crushed, and demolished, the writers understand to ensure their victory against the Thuggasaurs’ typically goofy plans. Hell, the very reason the Thunderlizards were put in prison was because they rescued an injured Thuggasaur; it’s funny to see the writers turn the show from abject parody into comical legitimacy. The Bill/Scooter elements, on the other hand, are amusing enough, although you can sort of feel the writers struggle to do more with it, introducing Babes (a female human of dated women stereotypes), Huckleberry (a dinosaur child that owns them like pets who is strangely dropped from the series), and educated, upperclass primates (which doesn’t go anywhere either.) It isn’t as if the human stuff is bad, per se, but the show gets so caught up with the Thunderlizards/Thuggasaurs action that the humans angle starts to feel perfunctory.
As mentioned, though, Eek! the Cat retools itself within the new 11-minute format, focusing more on inserting its eclectic cast into thin but obvious parodies which not only allows for some wild, absurd gags (most hits, some misses), but allows the characters to… well, I don’t want to say “develop,” but are allowed to be seen in a new light. The show starts to group the cast more frequently, giving the show a new approach by playing around with the comic relationship with each other. “Quadrapedia” is an ambitious musical, where all the characters sing to hilarious rock toons when Eek and Elmo goes on a quest to save Annabelle. “Mountain Groan” is a character free-for-all, where Eek, Annabelle, Elmo, and the Squishy Bearz go camping only to be kidnapped one-by-one. “Paws” is in my top ten, where a mutant goldfish infests Wendy’s kiddie pool, and Eek, Sharky, and Mittens have to set sail to find and capture it. The episode has a lot of fun with spacial distortion, portraying the five-foot pool as a massive, deadly ocean to explore, but the real comic drive is the insane but enjoyable interplay among the characters.
Seasons two and three are at the show’s strongest, really blending the absurdity with great characterizations. “Shark Doggy Dog” is a hoot, with the actual Don Cornelius guest-starring as he develops Sharky into a hit rapper (Cornelius notoriously hated rap music but attempted to soften up to “youths” by making appearances like this). “Eek Sneek Peek” takes an Animaniacs-like approach to telling its audience how a cartoon is made, in typical wacky fashion. “Lord of the Fleas” re-tells Lord of the Flies with penguins, really just so they can have a penguin yell out “SHUT UP, PIGGY” in a hilariously bad British accent. One of my favorites is “Try Hard,” which only uses its Die Hard reference as a locale; it’s really a Professor Clouseau-esque romp as multiple Sharkys try to eradicate a clueless Eek, but they just can never nail him. It’s a tight, physical-comedy focused episode, a massive improvement from the pilot, and has some of the show’s best visuals gags.
Eek! the Cat starts to lose its focus by season four. It never gets bad, but it seems to struggle with plotting, inexplicably moving away from the goofy interplay of its immaculate cast and focusing broadly on the “dog-chase-cat” antics between Eek and Sharky and the parodies/meta-gags/references. Before, it was all about the characters within those parodies/meta-gags/references, but it becomes all about the parodies/meta-gags/references at the expense of the characters. The first few episodes of season four are great – “Valley of the Dogs,” “Pup Fiction,” and “Outbreek” – but you can see the show slowly drop the meticulous plotting for more random, stream-of-conscious pacing. There’s more references to overwrought 90s events – the broken Hubble Telescope, the public’s seeming fascination with Melrose Place – and guest stars start to approach The Simpsons’ levels of uselessness. While Don Cornelius and Mr. T (in Thunderlizards) were perfectly inserted into Eek’s wacky world, the show stops all momentum to more or less heap unearned praise on John Landis, John Walsh, and Weird Al Yankovic, the latter being a particularly waste of a cameo. “The Gradueek” is a particularly late-season highlight, giving Sharky a real, palpable arc of sorts, but its telling that it his real crush, Platinum, is never mentioned. Subsequent episodes are funny but more scattershot; it’s not that they ran out of ideas, so much as they ran out of enthusiasm.
Part of that may be due to the failure of Klutter, which only managed seven episodes before disappearing. The problem with Klutter, which stars a monstrous living pile of clothes that get into silly adventures along with its tween cast, is that the show is immutable. The parody is clear – the anthropomorphic “thing” brought to life to help kids out – but unlike Eek! the Cat or Thunderlizards, Klutter is genuinely helpful and the kids are too “real” to be broken down, physically and metaphysically, and reshaped into something new and subversive. The writers has to play it straight, and the show is at a lost, with long, drawn-out sequences and scenes that pad for time. “The Klutter and I” for example, wastes almost five whole minutes with the kids trying to stay awake while bland TV parodies play over them. Without the ability to put them through a cartoon-physical hell, those attempts to play it straight fail; the situations are wacky and absurd, but the characters can’t match that tone. (One character’s hair color fails to be consistent across episodes.) Klutter isn’t terrible, but it’s unworkable.
Klutter wasn’t the distraction that hurt Eek! the Cat/The Terrible Thunderlizard’s final episodes. It wasn’t even that they ran out stories to tell. It seems more like Kopp and Holland were losing interest in the show and struggled with pushing it in any interesting directions. The fifth season is funny but feels hollow, uncomfortably focused solely on Eek and Sharky (and not their weird partnerships but the lazy antagonisms), which does the show an unfortunate disservice. Removing Mittens, Elmo, Annabelle, and the Bearz from the full scope of the show loses a lot of comic momentum, and even though the energy is still palpable, it leaves a wanting feeling. The final episode, “Rock-Eek 6,” ends with Sharky asking for Adrian (since it’s a Rocky parody through-and-through), and feels fleeting, reference for reference sake. The previous episode, “The Sound of Museek,” feels like the correct finale, with the show’s passion for music and the characters getting together for a genre-smackdown festival for yet-another Timothy ailment. Seeing the abstract band getting back together makes for a nice moment, a proper endgame.
Eek! the Cat revels in its cartoon absurdity, utilizing such icons as anvils, pianos, safes, and especially mallets to harm and maim is characters, whipping them out from the magic worlds that exist behind their backs. It’s a classic cartoon trope, but here, it’s specifically used to – sometimes literally – break apart other classic cartoon genres in order to create something that feels both new and old, familiar and subversive. Eek! the Cat wasn’t the 90s best cartoon, but it deserves to be counted among the best.
Now we’re taking.
The “World Tour” has finally started to live up to its promise, with two solid episodes that finally gives Avalon’s mission some purpose. Both episodes bring subtext to the forefront as well, something that Gargoyles always had a bit of a problem with. The episodes themselves are strong, narrative-wise, but the subtext is where the real meat is. And while “M.I.A.” takes the theme of drive and purpose, and turns it against itself into obsession, “Sanctuary” is noteworthy because so far, out of the entire show, this arguably may be the first episode to deal with its patriarchy/ feminist subtext so overtly – how drive and purpose is also used as manipulation and control, in particular of male control over women, and the various ways its subverted.
Gargoyles 2×28 – Sanctuary
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The crew arrives in Paris, and Elisa decides to do some sightseeing while the gargoyles are stone. She witnesses Macbeth and human Demona being lovey-dovey and tries to tail the latter after they separate, but she loses her. Elisa returns to Goliath with the information as well the news that some winged creatures were spotted over Notre Dame. Goliath and Bronx goes there to investigate, but before all of this, we need to talk about Goliath’s behavior towards the two women in his life, because for the first time, it’s a lot more harsher and controlling, cleverly paralleling Thailog’s actions later in the episode.
I had mentioned how disappointed I was with the father-reveal from “Monsters,” and while I still have some issues with that, “Sanctuary” does deal with the fallout, in unexpected ways. Angela addresses Goliath as “father,” a name he shoots down immediately, demanding that she think of the entire clan as her patronage. There is a truth to this, of course, but it’s a passing-the-buck kind of truth – as of this moment, there IS no clan. There is a thin layer of resentment Goliath shows Angela here, and I can imagine that after “Monsters,” Angela has tried to talk to Goliath about their relationship, which only made him think of the pain in losing Demona. It’s obvious that he wants to put a wall between that kind of bond, and he’s hiding behind gargoyle tradition to make it so.
It gets worse when he learns of Demona. Goliath attempts to solidify the wall, and he does two surprisingly terrible things: first, in order to keep Elisa with Angela, he tells Elisa that he wants to keep his daughter away from her mother (due to Angela’s concern about her parentage); then in the same beat, pushes the truth AGAIN by claiming Demona’s desire for vengeance is so strong that he needs Angela to stay with Elisa, to protect her. It’s a shock to see the noble Goliath pull such manipulations to keep them passive, shooting down any protestations, and it’s even more devastating that the two women acquiesce, portrayed in a two-shot of Elisa and Angela facing each other but not quite on the same plane, looking down and not at each other.
Goliath confronts Demona, and after a really poorly shot action scene (I get the sense that the editors here were cutting around particularly ugly visuals), Thailog arrives, and he and Demona are now a couple. It’s a bit tough to watch Demona, who was driven by hate (but a hate that she owned up to), kind of submit to Thailog over love, but there’s so many layers of control and manipulation here that it’s almost a miracle that the episode get away with it. Goliath thinks Demona is manipulating Thailog, both to get the false-Goliath to turn against humans as well as some other sinister plan involving Macbeth. After failing to convince him, and being accused of being jealous (and there’s definitely a layer of jealousy here), Goliath flies off, back towards the women he CAN control. Despite the ugly animation, the shot of Goliath standing tall in between the seated, submissive Elisa and Angela in the boat speaks uncomfortable volumes.
Here’s the full extent of the story: Goliath thinks Demona and Macbeth are plotting against Thailog. But Demona is actually marrying Macbeth only to imprison him for all eternity, declare him legally dead, and inherit his fortune, so as to combine it with Thailog’s cashflow stolen in “Double Jeopardy.” (The episode glosses over exactly what happened to them after “Avalon.” The Weird Sisters’ spell seems to “couple” the two as a unit – as a team in “High Noon” and here as lovers, but in both cases it’s temporary, and I guess Demona turning into a human during the day snapped her out of the spell quicker than Macbeth, which allowed her to manipulate him. It’s kinda messy and unclear, in particular how Macbeth is rich in Paris, but the plot cooks so it’s more fun to follow along.) The biggest reveal is Thailog is manipulating them both! He’s finagles a way to position Macbeth and Demona to try and kill each other so he can win BOTH their fortunes. Nice to see the guy utilizing his Xanatos’ training, and nice for the episode to toss aside the whole weird “male/family/shipping” vibe from “Double Jeopardy.”
I think it was all tossed aside to emphasize the more legitimate and creepy daughter/father vibe (and, by proxy, that sense of patriarchal/sexual control). In particular, when Goliath and Angela go up against Thailog, the latter speaks of Angela with a very libido-driven tone: his line-reading of “Mmmm, and a young one at that” isn’t lost to the viewer. Of course the show can’t get too explicit – or even too implicit – but the connotation can’t be denied, especially with the episode’s whole approach to control. Take a look at the opening screenshot – Thailog’s grabbing of Angela in that shot is charged as all hell. The whole episode is about powerful male figures taking control of female ones, and their attempts to fight back against this. It’s all there, especially in the fight between Demona and Macbeth; Macbeth is trying to kill Demona, while Demona is trying to control him. It’s powerful, intriguing stuff.
Elisa ends that fight by shooting Demona, knowing that no one else can kill the two except by each other’s hand (I forget if she learned that in “City of Stone” or “Avalon.”). Macbeth awakens miserable but somewhat comforted knowing that he is capable of love, despite this date ending somewhat awkwardly. Demona awakens and sees Angela for the first time, and there’s a connection there, although Demona runs off with Thailog before she can recognize it. It’s still odd to see Demona flail back into Thailog’s arms, but it’s less weakening the character and more for her to plot with a new Xanatos-equal. Less intriguing is the obvious “more than just friends” relationship burgeoning between Elisa and Goliath, especially with all the early shutting down of Elisa’s thoughts he did. I do like that Elisa smartly ended the Demona/Macbeth fight, and straight-up told Angela that Demona was indeed her mother. I hope this will allow the both of them to push back against Goliath a bit more, especially as it’s clear the show is gearing them to be a more familial unit, but it’s important to make sure Elisa and Angela still can stand on their own and are willing to call the main gargoyle out for his bullshit. It’s awkward in spots (the attempts at making “sanctuary” a running theme in the episode doesn’t work at all), but the gender/control subtext of the episode, coupled with the show’s theme of drive and reasons to keep going, makes it a standout.
“M.I.A.” [apologies, the episode isn’t set to allow embedding] is another highlight, but less in subtext, and more in setting up a tight narrative and creating memorable characters in a short amount of time. This episode also takes the theme of what drives people, and turns it against itself, and how that can be perverted in a way that has nothing to do with obsession, greed, or power. For this episode, it’s vengeance, but not the almost-justified, all-encompassing kind like Demona, but the petty, misguided, heat-of-the-moment kind that masks grief, guilt, and shame.
The top-tier studios are brought in for a beautiful take on three of the hatchlings of Goliath’s old brood (I think – I had to wiki this, but I didn’t want to look too much as to avoid spoilers) that has taken up in London. I should say two, though, as Una and Leo, who are more animal-anthropomorphic than typical gargoyles (which is a bit confusing), refuse to help local Londoners being harassed by nearby thugs. It should be noted that this runs counter to the whole gargoyle mantra – their whole purpose is to protect. Without that, they become rude, cruel, and vindictive, especially when Goliath and his friends have the “audacity” to ride into town.
To what extent should your purpose in life take you? If your purpose is to protect, is that just the home? The town? The state? The world? That’s the question “M.I.A.” poses, with Una, Leo, and the late-Griff as our debaters. Before getting to that, there needs to be some setup. The crew sees a commemorative statue to Griff and Goliath and are rightly confused, but a local friendly British guy tells the story of some creatures helping the Brits turn the German blitzkrieg. He takes them (well, Elisa, as Goliath, Angela, and Bronx follow) to Una and Leo, who are pissed at Goliath for what seems to be inexplicable reasons. Una knocks them all out with a spell, and when Goliath awakens, he finds his friends missing. Una and Leo sadistically hid them away, claiming to return the pain Goliath himself caused when he failed in his promise to protect Griff.
That is a hell of a thing. Una and Leo’s actions are vicious, Una clearly the mastermind here due to the obvious crush she had on Griff. Beyond that, though: this is what happens when the need to be given a purpose is suddenly drawn out after being packed in for so many years, creating this ill-advised, sad attempt at revenge. Even though their actions are abhorrent, you can’t help but feel sympathy for them, so desperate they are at wanting to something, anything, for they’re fallen comrade and the guilt they feel for what their part it in may be. As of right now, though, it’s just vindictive anger, and this forces Goliath to use the Phoenix Gate to figure out what the hell is going on.
He warps back into 1940s Britain, and after a narrow brush with a plane, runs into Griff. He introduces them to past-Una and Leo, and thus begins the discussion of their goal. Griff is gung-ho about stopping the Nazis, but Una and Leo are more reluctant. They claim this isn’t their fight, and it’s true, to an extent. But Griff truly believes in this fight and Goliath, while attempting to stay out of the debate, knows the consequences of staying out of battles with stakes bigger than the personal. As Goliath says: “In my experience, human problems become gargoyles problems.” He helps Griff, with the promise to protect him. Hence, the beginning of the episode.
Breath-taking action scenes follow as the two gargoyles battle the Germans and their non-Nazi-symboled aircraft. I particularly love the unspoken team-up that develops between the gargoyles and the British pilots. It’s a great moment, emphasizing how the higher stakes force everyone to look past differences and stand up to an ultimate evil. Goliath saves Griff’s life as promised, but it looks as if fate will not be denied. It attempts to create other methods to kill Griff, Final-Destination-style. Goliath breaks it by warping the two of them back to the present. I’m not sure how logical it sounds – wouldn’t fate try to kill him in the present? – but, you know, magic. Also good episodes allow you to ignore logic and enjoy everything that happens.
It also makes for a wonderful reunion in the end, too, as Leo and Una finally comes to terms with the part they played in Griff’s death. Sure, they didn’t do anything, but “evil prevails when good men do nothing,” and all that. To a gargoyle, doing nothing is the same thing as being evil, and the consequence of that was losing Griff, Goliath or no Goliath. Leo realizes this first, and Una follows suit, pushing past her emotional connection to Griff and embracing her guilt and grief simultaneously. In a way, the episode “rewards” this powerful moment with Griff’s return; the real reward is watching the three finally fight off the thugs from early in the episode.
The time-travel plot is handled simply and strongly here, a bit less cluttered than “Vows” or “Avalon.” There’s even a bit of a joke about the complexity of time travel with the final Goliath/Elisa exchange in the end, probably a bit of an in-joke about their past time-travel episodes. Regardless, “Sanctuary” and “M.I.A.” finally gives the World Tour episodes their own drive, their own real purpose. Here’s hoping they can keep this up.
“Sanctuary” A-/”M.I.A.” A-
Sporadic and uneven, it’s clear that production issues and the lack of executive/creative cohesion ruined Bonkers’ potential. Why Bonkers never could quite get off the ground. Part 2 of 2. Part 1 is here.
[Before I begin, I received a bit of more information about Bonkers from Bob Schooley, a producer/writer who was very much present during this time, that has proven invaluable: The first couple of Miranda episodes were sent to different studios because the main Disney Animation studios were working on Goof Troop at the time (this doesn’t explain why Kennedy was involved in anything though). This would bolster my argument that Disney Afternoon at this point was spreading its resources out way too much – with Goof Troop, Bonkers, Marsupalami, Raw Toonage, Aladdin, Gargoyles, and The Mighty Ducks more or less being put together at the same time. I also learned that the weird pacing and other oddities that seem out-of-place in the Miranda episodes were due to the new crew going back to those episodes and trying to “fix” them, which just doesn’t work at all. This would explain why Kanifky pops up once in a while (see below about my thoughts on Kanifky) and would also explain the crossover episode “New Partners on the Block.” I don’t talk about that episode, mainly because – besides the terrorism plot that caused this episode to be banned (more episodes of Bonkers are banned than any other Disney Afternoon show, which is surprising) – there’s nothing really to the crossover. Also, it’s not that really great of a episode.]
Here’s what you need to know about nu-Bonkers: he was a former toon star who was unceremoniously kicked out of his acting gig and stumbled into the world of law enforcement. That’s legit. Transitioning from “role” of police officer to actual police officer is enough material, comedic or otherwise, to make Bonkers into a decent show – by focusing on how a cartoon star with a particular set of wacky skills could possibly function as a member of the LAPD. The first set of toons by Weisman, Hathcock, Capizzi and company didn’t work quite as well as expected, but Robert Taylor’s retooling made for a secondary mess.
It sucks, too, because the core of Bonkers re-categorization works. It comes from a deeper and more thematic point of view. Everything you need to know about Bonkers is portrayed by his home – which is a trailer park on the edge of a cliff hidden behind a facade of a mansion. It’s a perfect visual microcosm of what Bonkers was versus what he has become. The show overall is more ambitious, reaching for a richer, exploratory approach to the differences between humans and toons. There are more rules, more excuses to engage the various ideas that separate toons from humans, and the show pulls much more from the Who Framed Roger Rabbit template – it’s a bit darker and the crimes are more serious, which involve framing people for murder, a near-toon genocide, and even terrorism. Taylor’s retooling makes one huge, crucial mistake though: while it went through hell to note the differences between humans and toons, it never bothered to find them on similar ground. In other words, unlike The Odd Couple, which worked every episode to connect the two different characters, Bonkers implied that these two “species” should stay apart. This creates an uncomfortable, borderline racist, dissonance that Bonkers will never, ever be able to overcome.
Here’s the thing: millions of children around the world would kill to be able to hang out with their own cartoon buddy, goofy and physically immune to real violence. The last thing they want to see is that the experience would SUCK. You could kind of get away with that in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, where Eddie was working through his pain and grief to return to a point of toon appreciation again (it helps that the film is definitely geared towards an adult audience). To see that kind of frustration week in and week out, however, is the opposite of fun. Lucky and Bonkers rarely click outside their Laurel/Hardy-esque dialogue (Jim Cummings should be given some kind of knighthood for how well he vocally plays off himself), and with episodes reaching for deeper, darker stories, character cohesion becomes even more important. In a more threatening, more dangerous world, a rich partnership is paramount. The Lucky episodes of Bonkers have none of that.
Bonkers (Lucky episodes) thrives in a world of misery and discomfort, of a struggle for accomplishments sans recognition. Both Bonkers and Lucky never get admired for their constant and consistent merits, always ending up losers. Even their most studious wins feel like losses, which most likely leaves audiences frustrated and children depressed, or vice-versa. And while there’s nothing wrong with a cartoon set in what amounts to two characters’ “personal hell,” the show failed to maintain a real, albeit exaggerated, connection between these two down-and-out figures. Lucky, the pushed-around family man desperate for a promotion and stability; Bonkers, the toon star viciously thrust out of the limelight into a world beyond his limited understanding – these two work best when their manners, action, and dialogue compliment and support each other, despite their comic craziness and frequent misunderstandings. When their conflicts enter into bitterness and desperation, Bonkers drops into a quagmire of sadness, and even the most ardent attempts at jokes only add to the melancholy. No one wants to laugh at a sad clown when he’s actually crying.
If the Miranda episodes were focused on the relationship between Miranda and Bonkers (to mixed results), then the Lucky episodes were more concerned with Lucky’s and Bonkers’ individual stories, of sorts. This actually works quite well in the “Going Bonkers/Gone Bonkers” pilot episodes, which does a lot to establish the lowest point of the main characters: Bonkers fired from his hit show as its replaced by some generic action cartoon, Lucky stuck in a dead-end position with illusions of advancement to improve his and his family’s lot in life. Bonkers, in particular, is in a shitty state – he has no home and no job, and his exaggerated tears are quite effective to create sympathy for him. Bonkers, overall, hasn’t been turned up to eleven just yet; the episode is subtle enough to keep his wackiness tied to specific moments of desperation. I love, for example, the scene where he happens to run into Donald Duck and forces an impromptu audition – while the duck is being held hostage. Disney’s animation and timing here is just perfect, building a nice, wacky, growing misunderstanding that leads to the Lucky’s incidental involvement and the criminal’s capture. Bonkers’ specific cartoon skillset is showcased here as well.
There’s a shot in particular where, while Lucky delineates various barriers in the office, Bonkers gives him this look. It’s a perfect scene: for a brief moment, Bonkers may just be in over his head. The toon that has been in so many insane situations (as an actor) has no idea what to do. This utter lost feeling of displacement is there throughout the pilot, which works as Bonkers’ friends disappears and he loses Lucky’s trust. So when “The Collector” captures Bonkers, the bobcat doesn’t bother to run. Where would he go? He accepts his fate as the glass container comes down on him. The pilot parallels Who Framed Roger Rabbit sensibilities so much here – remember when Roger says he couldn’t escape the handcuffs “at any time – only when it was funny”? That’s not a joke – that’s a truism of being a toon. His life, his existence is limited to “toon rules,” and so is the case with Bonkers, who finally wins back his confidence when Lucky arrives (after a change of heart) and Bonkers gets back into the swing of his cartooniness, besting The Collector at a toon-off. It’s also no coincidence that while the villain in Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a toon pretending to be a human, The Collector is a human pretending to be a toon. Ninety percent of the pilot is genuinely good.
But the ending hints at what will be Bonkers downfall. The Collector is thrust into a “toon box,” with looks to be some kind of psychopathic cartoon hell. Bonkers says he’ll be fine, but come on. The guy will be psychologically tortured until he’s dead. Really, though, this is an excuse for the writers to end the plot without having to engage in any proper denouement or resolution, a gimmick that writers will constantly utilize to downplay any and all of the success Lucky and Bonkers have. Secondly, the ending tries to force-rush a relationship between Lucky and Bonkers, but this fails because the pilot ends with Lucky NOT happy being Bonkers’ partner. Between the tossed-off endings and the disconnect between Lucky and Bonkers as partners, Bonkers begins a slow, unfortunate descent into pure bitterness and awfulness.
Subsequent episodes are basically a timeline of writers and animators getting lazier. Some ideas are sound, like “Is Toon Fur Really Warm,” where Lucky asks Bonkers to use his former acting connections to find a toon skunk wanted for murder (to appear at his daughter’s birthday party). Already you see the problem – a cop asking a toon to find a (alleged) murderer? To its credit, the episode does get into Bonkers’ past a bit, and shows that he’s actually a decent investigator. The animation and expressions are great, and the use of shadows and shading to evoke a noir-esque mood is genuinely effective. I’m still a bit unclear about Marilyn’s age – she looks 13 but acts 7 – but the disconnect between Lucky and Bonkers is still present since Lucky isn’t even involved with the whole “blackmail for murder thing,” despite being, you know, a cop.
I’m certainly not asking a show like Bonkers to be true to the nature of police work, but it would be nice if the show at least paid lip service to the job. Lucky rarely acts like a real cop, spouting bullshit, hypocritical advice mainly to get Bonkers off his back. By this point, Bonkers is less a toon actor with a police badge and more of a moronic ball of almost-homosexual energy. I don’t mean to be offensive, but Bonkers aggressiveness should have been left to his acting history and craving for attention unleashed, instead of wildly desperate attempts to win Lucky’s (actual?) love. So something like “Luna-Toons” works, because Lucky acts like a cop and Bonkers is enthused with teaching his skillset to an alien he confuses for a toon. But then episodes like “Out of Sight, Out of Toon,” “Calling All Cars,” “In Toons We Trust,” and “Never Cry Pigs,” begin to sour any type of partnership between the two (despite being relatively decent overall). Lucky hates Bonkers for no real reason, despite the bobcat being absolutely right in all those episodes. That being said, Bonkers’ “Trust me…” claims often make things worse, so Lucky’s hatred is justified! Nothing is working.
Things only get worse, as Lucky gets lazier, Bonkers grows more out of control, and the writers stop giving a shit. “Once in a Blue Toon” is just frustrating, watching the characters try and reform a villainous toon, failing, and then watching the toon just “magically” reform himself for no reason. Then there’s “Time Wounds All Heels,” where we watch Lucky, who, I must emphasize, is a COP, act uncomfortably cowardly as he’s stalked by a released prisoner he put in jail. “Stay Tooned” is just depressing, where an unhinged Bonkers concocts a nonsensical conspiracy theory which gets everyone fired. Potentially interesting episodes that approach the thematic level of the pilot fall flat, like “The Day the Toon Stood Still.” There is so much potential in an episode about a deistic toon-clock distoring up toons’ timing (since timing is so important to a toon) and returning time to a point before toons existed. Too bad the solution was weak since the clock just needed to be told “Thank you.” (PROTIP: if the solution to your story is a character needing to say “Thank you,” then you failed).
Bonkers continues to be a waste of potential and ambition. Take something like “Get Wacky.” “Get Wacky” suggests something fascinating. Humans view their purpose in life through the lens of a philosophical/religious mentality. “Get Wacky” claims that toons view their lives as being characters in their own cartoons. This is an AMAZING idea, especially applied to someone like Bonkers, who was actually in his own cartoon. Not only does this give weight to Bonkers’ reaction in the pilot, but potentially gives a real drive to Bonkers as he goes up against a Wacky Weasel (Rip Taylor!), a toon criminal that never got caught in his own cartoons. What should have happened: after failing to catch Wacky, Bonkers gets really, really depressed about his lot in life, but Lucky pulls him out of his funk by the virtue of being his partner, inspiring Bonkers to go one-on-one with Wacky to the end. What actually happened: well, after a lot of failing, Bonkers is told by a useless toon radio he’s a character of his own cartoon, which then just leads to the Wacky/Bonkers showdown, which the latter wins. The episode never reaches for the potential stakes of its premise, and Lucky continues his semi-prejudice, anti-toon diatribes, in between Chief Kanifky’s mindless claims for results.
Speaking of which… Chief Kanifky is quite possibly the WORST character ever – not just in animated shows, but in entertainment in general. Look: you can have clueless, brainless characters. You can have tyrannical, aggressive characters. You can’t have both. If you do, he better be in jail or dead by the end of the episode. Bonkers has the audacity to make Kanifky into a significant character, being both an idiot and overbearing, freaking out Lucky/Bonkers with his audacious demands and his moronic ramblings. When the mayor demotes, then fires him in “The Good, the Bad, and the Kanifky,” THIS IS A GOOD THING, but the show justifies Bonkers and Lucky getting his job back because… well, I’m not sure why. Because he’s sad? Kanifky is just shit. He’s not a good boss, and he’s not fun to watch. Bonkers at this stage isn’t fun to watch in general, but Kanifky is just dire, adding to the utter frustration of the entire show in general.
Everything after that is just nonsensical and uninteresting, watching writers and animators pad their time for the paychecks. All the interesting dynamics that “Going/Gone Bonkers,” “Get Wacky,” “Is Toon Fur Really Warm,” and “Luna-Toons” are gone, replaced with boilerplate plotting that grows stupider in time. You may get something fun(ish) like “Never Cry Pig,” a goofy twist on the Three Pigs fairytale, but mostly you get asinine episodes like “Hamster Houseguest,” “Weather or Not,” “A Wooly Bully,” or “Cereal Surreal,” simple plots where Lucky and Bonkers are pretty much useless. Sooner or later you see EVERYONE give up, like in “Seems Like Old Toons,” where some old-school toons need to be animated before the studio is destroyed (no one thought to move the equipment?), or “Toon with No Name,” where a current crime spree mirrors an old Bonkers cartoon (but it absolutely DOESN’T, so impossible to tell what’s going on?), or “Comeback Kid,” where for some reason, the villains, who are in possession of tank that they are literally about to fire, suddenly do not fire it, which makes me think they utterly screwed up the storyboarding process. “Imagine That” follows a toon pencil and Marilyn to the toon world but the episode makes no sense, plot-wise, and what the world is going on in “Fall Apart Land”? Lucky, the guy who hated toons for 57 episodes, is secretly looking at theme park ideas with Fall-Apart Rabbit in his spare time? NO.
Broad strokes, combined with characters inconsistencies and egregious bouts of pessimism dooms Bonkers. It might be crazy think that the one thing Bonkers needed is subtlety, but that’s the very thing that prevented Who Framed Roger Rabbit from spiraling out of control – and even now there are people who find Roger Rabbit too much to handle. Still, it’s the wasted potential and disconnect between the show’s leads makes Bonkers painfully disappointing. There’s something to the idea of Lucky working to teach Bonkers how to work his way through police procedure with respect and control. There’s something to the idea of Bonkers guiding Lucky through the crazy, unique rules of the tooniverse (one detail I love is how Bonkers can literally paint colors on himself when a random act causes him to lose his hues). This contrast is interesting. Too bad Lucky is an awful teacher, sending Bonkers away out of laziness, anger and frustration. Too bad Bonkers is less a guide and more of an unrestrained tornado of overly-affectionate chaos. Rare are moments of inspiration, like the beginning of “Stand-In Dad,” where Lucky calms a lost kid, and Bonkers transforms into a card so the kid can write his home address on. The rest of the episode is a mess, but for a moment, Lucky is endearing, Bonkers is helpful, and the two CONNECT. Most episodes are the chaotic, incomprehensible kind like “Basic Spraining,” where all that early potential is jumbled and sporadic. How could Lucky completely forget Bonkers was the only toon cop on the force? How could they both fall for a fake police academy training session that, upon failing, they’d lose their badge? At a metaphoric level, why wait so late to pull in Bonkers’ toon rules and their abilities to be useful? There is a better, tighter show here, but god forbid the writers give it to us beyond the pilot.
Bonkers (and characters like Bonkers) are inherently hard to write for because writers tend to fall into the trap of emphasizing silliness and stupidity for easy laughs. They never bother to contextualize reasons for that obnoxious behavior other than the belief that Bonkers is a toon = he’s a moron. WAY too many writers mistake goofy innocence for excuses to be idiotic (see also: Spongebob, post-movie). The thing is, Bonkers ISN’T an idiot. He made a killing in his cartoons. He was unceremoniously kicked out of his lifestyle and thrust into a career in law enforcement by sheer coincidence. Bonkers’ wackiness should be a result of him falling back on his “acting” since that’s all he knows, which, to be fair, the “Going/Gone Bonkers” pilot showcases really well. But Taylor’s episodes quickly loses track of this (actually, they lose track of all sense of characterization, but Bonkers takes the hardest hit), having the bobcat resort to mindless behavior because, goddamn it, we need funny things to happen.
In the end, neither Lucky, Miranda, or Bonkers could save the show. If the bold, thematically rich subtext and world-building of the Lucky episodes were combined with the relationships and characterizations of the Miranda episodes, Bonkers would be a great show, along with TaleSpin and Ducktales. Unfortunately, Disney’s animation B-team of animators and writers seemed unable or unwilling to take its premise to task, basking in awfulness and unearned silliness, making the prospect of hanging out with toons seem like torture. Overall, while I appreciated the Lucky episodes for their ambition, the Miranda episodes worked better for me, even though both needed extensive work. A human/toon would should have been a fun excursion, but through the Disney machine, the whole concept most likely would have driven anyone….well, crazy.