Archive for category Childhood Revisited
Swat Kats really, really strove to be different.
In the wake of the huge popularity of the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, studios and networks scrambled to create the next “badass talking animal superhero” group. Street Sharks, Dinosaucers, Biker Mice from Mars (which they tried TWICE), Wild West Cowboys of Moo Mesa, and Bucky O’ Hare. Large, broad-shouldered, fine specimens of male machismo with animal attributes spout cheesy one-liners as they beat the crap out of embarrassingly incompetent villains within stories of questionable coherency and consistency. None of these really succeeded, and on the occasion I do look back on them, it’s easy to see why.
Swat Kats, however, really tried to be different. Utilizing an anime-inspired character design, darker and muted colors, variable body-types, and slightly-meatier plots, Swat Kats sought, at some point in its development, to change the game around, to bring a more tense and legitimately exciting experience to young kids. And, in all fairness, it worked. It was the highest rated kids show in 1994 and plans were laid for more episodes and other commercial products.
But suddenly, it was cancelled.
Why? They were in the midst of three new episodes when it was unceremoniously shelved. It was shoved into part of some Hanna-Barabara animated block of TV, then dropped of the schedule, before a half-assed DVD set came out in 2010, some four or five years later. Why did one of the highest rated kids show ever get canned so quickly?
After watching the two aired seasons, I can hazard a guess: Swat Kats must have been a FUCKING ordeal behind the scenes.
Swat Kats: The Radical Squadron – (1993)
Director: Robert Alvarez
Starring: Charlie Adler, Barry Gordon, Gary Owens
Screenplay(s) by: Glenn Leopold, Lance Falk, Christian Tremblay
I can only describe Swat Kats as a well-oiled, wonderfully organized mess. And I mean this as a positive. The titular show, in which Chance “T-Bone” Furlong and Jake “Razor” Clawson, disgraced Enforcers (kinda like a police/military government unit), team up in a totally not-gay way as masked do-gooders with masterful technology developed from a junkyard, seems egregiously stuck among the fantasy-tale-trappings of 70s animation, the ultra-male-heroism of the 80s, and the “EXTREME/RADICAL” facade of the 90s. It liberally bounces between time-travel, magic amulets, giant monsters, out-of-control robots, mutated vicious flora, invading aliens, violent underground creatures, doppelgangers, mad scientists, zombie mummies, ghosts and possessions, curses, parallel worlds, and threats of nuclear fallout. The sheer variety of adventures isn’t necessarily the problem; it’s that Swat Kats swiftly rips through them in such a short time period (23 episodes) that it’s impossible to get a sense of what kind of world the actually Swat Kats live in (especially since most of the characters hardly seem particularly phased by these events).
Swat Kats is best thought of as a comic-book-as-animated-series, each episode being a different issue within a different set of circumstances. Some episodes are just paced better, while others seem so forced and calculating and radical that I suspect there was a quite a bit of tension between the creative staff and the executive heads. Christian Tremblay, Glenn Leopold and Robert Alvarez wanted to make a straight-forward, decently action show with a bit of depth and nuance. The studio wanted to shoehorn in previously established popular tropes, like medieval fantasy stories (which aren’t too far outside the realm of the show, but should not have been the THIRD episode), a ridiculously bombastic KISS-esque soundtrack (which was thankfully toned down in the second season), and miles upon miles of exposition.
Oh. God. The exposition.
I’ve seen many, many cartoons, both old and new, but Swat Kats takes the cake in exposition. They explain what they have to do, explain what they’re doing, explain what they’ve done, whether it worked or not, and if not, what will happen if the threat is not neutralized. They do this over and over again. Repeatedly. Other characters will lend their voices to YET AGAIN explain events that are obvious. Not even the worst Hanna-Barbara or Saturday morning cartoons went to the lengths this show did. No writer or director worth their salt would think this is a good thing; I can only suspect that some overzealous executive felt kids wouldn’t be able follow what was going on.
And yet, despite Swat Kats’s frantic, bi-polar, over-explanatory nature… it’s easy to like. Not necessarily enjoy, but there’s stuff along the surface to really engage in. The aerial battles and fight sequences are really well done, and the hand-to-hand, ground-level action sequences are quite exciting. People are flat-out killed on the show; there is no mandated “red shirts jumping out of helicopters with parachutes” creed when they’re destroyed. It has a fairly dark tinge – perhaps not as dark as nostalgia might believe, but I have had moments where I exclaimed, “Oh shit!” in seeing a feline citizen killed under toppled barrels, and a mutated scientist blown-up into goo.
When the cast does anything other than explain the plot, we get some pretty fun characters, although they’re a bit one-note. T-Bone and Razor have a decent “more than just bromance” interplay between each other, although their casual, just-hanging-out conversations work much better than their attempts at one-upmanship. Mayor Manx is the comic relief, a literal scaredy-cat that laughably raises taxes due to the sheer amount of destruction that occurs in their city. Deputy Mayor Calico Briggs is the female “love interest” who keeps the Mayor in check and can contact the Swat Kats at any time. She’s feisty but kinda pointless, although she has her moments. Second season newcomer Felina Feral is more useful as an Enforcer without getting too stereotypically butch, but there’s nothing beyond that. And her uncle, Commander Ulyssus Feral… well, he’s just frustrating. He and his Enforcers are so ineffectual, constantly being destroyed by the threat of the week, yet he always tries to solve every problem by throwing more Enforcers at it. But when the Swat Kats save the day, he gets mad at them for destroying city property, even though the Enforcers cause half of it themselves. Yeah, sure, you can say it masks a seething jealousy, but it doesn’t exactly come through on the screen.
As mentioned above, Swat Kats’s core issue is that it shoots for the stars, piling on conflicts that grow more and more fantastical. It fails to ease viewers into its world; instead, it assumes kids for the most part will just accept every event thrown its way. If you can manage that, then under that surface are some pretty interesting ideas, such as “Razor’s Edge,” where Razor loses his nerve after he believes he maimed an innocent couple. In “The Dark Side of the Swat Kats,” Swat Kats calls attention to the non-lethal weaponry used by the team by warping them to a parallel world, in which the Swat Kat doppelgangers utilizes lethal and deadly force (probably the best piece of brilliant subtlety in a show that isn’t really known for it). And kudos to the show for its willingness to show origin stories, for heroes and villains alike. Although lacking in clarity, we even learn why T-Bone and Razor left the Enforcers:
I spoke with Christian Tremblay via email, who also graciously participated in this reddit Q&A, who said the show was cancelled due to the toy line coming out too late (full interview will be forthcoming). While I can’t argue with one of the show’s creators, a part of me can’t shake the feeling that there’s something else here. A late toy line is one thing, but the show’s popularity should have been able to withstand that. More likely it was a combination of that, with parental complaints and executive concerns, that led to the sudden cancellation. Whatever the case may be, there does seem to be a bit of hope of the show returning, according to Mr. Temblay himself.
Swat Kats: The Radical Squadron threw excitement at you like it was going out of style, but had a love for its premise and characters that can’t be denied, even if that love didn’t know when to be quiet once in a while. Still, it’s a fun show, and after swallowing up some of the groaner gags, it’s almost impossible to hate; any other reaction would be less than radical.
(Side note: The show changed visual styles within the second season, making the character designs more angular and sharper, and producing a much cooler, stylistic opening credit. While working solely with the animation studio Mook, Inc. in the second season was a great decision, I personally believe Mook worked better with the first season’s slightly toonier designs. This is much more apparent with the female characters; Callie and Felina’s flat faces are disappointing to say the least.)
Finding simplicity in complexity was Jim Henson’s Dog City’s surprising gift. Here’s an example of how other studios handled meta-commentary in their animated format.
I began watching Jim Henson’s Dog City as a joke. I remember the program being really goofy; and as such, the idea was to watch this silly-little Dog City show, then the ultra-semi serious Swat Kats, and compare the two in some elaborate “dog vs. cats” anthropomorphic utilization in early 90s animation, like some over-wrought college dissertation.
My mistake, of course, was discounting the name Jim Henson, someone who would rarely put his name on something that wasn’t good quality. The craftsman more or less behind The Muppets, Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, and a host of other pieces of entertainment had a knack for delivering entertainment that went well above and beyond the basic and simplistic necessities required for young viewers. He brought heart and a love for the characters in his creations, qualities that were increasingly rare and discounted in children’s entertainment.
Dog City, the show, was derived in part from an all-puppet, 39-minute movie of the same name, which was part of the The Jim Henson Hour. It was a comically gritty vision containing murderous, kidnapping canine thugs, and dog puns. Whether or not this holds up I cannot say – but what I can say is that the puppets were re-purposed for the live-action segments for the half-live, half-animated 31-episode run on FOX. It tells the story of Eliot Shag, an animator who uses the various influences in his life to tell the animated story of Ace Hart, a private-eye who solves crimes in the canine world of Dog City (“Curb Yourself!”).
Self-awareness and meta-jokes were becoming a big thing in 90s animation. Tiny Toons, Sam & Max, and especially Animaniacs were representative of a knowing, winking, comic take on the very medium that viewers were watching. This was all well and good, especially for older viewers, but younger viewers weren’t often given a strong incentive to engage in the world that was created – mainly because the world really wasn’t meant to be taken seriously. Peter Sauder and J.D. Smith, the show’s story editors, seemed completely wrong for the direction Dog City would take . Sauder primarily wrote for Rupert, Babar, and Care Bears; Smith wrote mostly for Babar and Care Bears specifically. (Smith opened up his body of work after Dog City, with credits on Beetlejuice and Tintin. He would eventually go to do Sam and Max as well.)
In other words, could the blend of their ultra-young sensibilities mesh well the goofier, crazier, self-aware humor? Could the idea of an fake, animated dog world in the 1940s that exists in a puppet-based dog world in the 1990s work without confusing its audience? Surprisingly, yes.
Dog City – (1993)
Director: John van Bruggen
Starring: Ron White, Elizabeth Hanna, Kevin Clash
Screenplay(s) by: Pater Sauder, J.D. Smith, David Finley
To its credit, at least for the first two seasons, Dog City is relatively sincere with its premise, despite the groaner canine gags from the animated segments and the suspension of disbelief required from the puppet segments. Ace Hart is a private eye, hired by various citizens of Dog City for various jobs, but he’s a good, gruff-voiced guy that works in tandem with chief of police Rosie O’Gravy (Rosie, I’d argue, is really one of the best designed characters of 90s animation) and more or less tolerates paperboy/youthful sidekick Eddie. At the same time, Eliot clashes with his building supervisor and his boss while he tries to animate the Dog City show on time – which, well, you kinda have to swallow; the idea of one animator working on an entire show by himself is rather ludicrous, even by kids TV standards.
Still, the show does a great job balancing the two sides, having a lot of fun using the events and characters from the real world and pulling them into the animated one. Paralleling Eddie and Artie, Bugsy and Bruno, and Rosie and Colleen/Terri works quite well, and even in the first season, the show hits hard at its meta trappings – the constant talks between Eliot and Ace; pulling Eliot into the animated world during a surreal dream sequence; creating a violent character that “Eliot can’t control”. It works to be both entertaining and somewhat critical of the animation field at the time, and what’s particularly clever about this is that instead of excessively breaking the fourth wall like its WB counterparts, Dog City critiqued the field through the secondary world of canine puppetry.
I also have to give props to some excellent dialogue and voice work. Ron White as the voice of Ace has an appropriate monotone sound, Humphrey Bogart-esque in his narration and regular speaking voice; yet can bring the energy when doing crazier scenes without loosing the character. Rosie is also perfectly voiced by Elizabeth Hanna; strong and quick with the tongue. The first season in fact is filled with quite wonderful back-and-forth dialogue between Rosie and Ace, and lines like “That was my collar, fleas and all” are read well enough to sound authentic.
The stories are silly but coherent, balancing the puppet-world developments with the animated-world ones. A lot of the exposition is done through the banter between Eliot and Ace which helps to avoid the shoe-horned exposition that often plague kids shows. It works better than expected, with Ace acting as Eliot’s muse (of sorts), gleefully keeping Eliot’s sanity in tact. The show enjoys playing around with how nearly unhinged Eliot is, with characters commenting on the behavior in comical fashion, or when Eliot’s desperation filters into the cartoons he creates. In “You Gotta Have Hart,” Eliot is fired and is forced to insert Ace into fake commercials to make ends meet. Despite the oddness behind using Ace in EVERYTHING, he goes over the top towards the end as things get more and more desperate. It’s amusing, clever, and sad, all at the same time.
Each season can be delineated by specific themes. The first season was more surreal and meta, playing around with different tropes relating to detective-story tropes, pulp entertainment, dreams and inspiration, cartoon logic, the animation industry, pandering to demographics, violence, and the effect of violence on impressionable minds. Season Two is much more character focused, developing the puppets (Eliot, Terri, Bruno, Artie, Bowser) and the animated characters (Ace, Eddie, Rosie, Bugsy, Bruno). The first season is slightly stronger, mainly because it seems like the second season had trouble focusing on how best to develop everyone. “Farewell, My Rosie” is a great episode that develops Rosie’s backstory…. without actually INVOLVING Rosie in the action. “Of Mutts and Mayors” leave Rosie and Ace on the run from the law, but there’s little there to strengthen the already awesome interplay between them, which is particularly disappointing, since S2′s Rosie is a tougher, more hard-nosed detective than she is in S1. Still, seeing them try and improve the characters is always a nice touch, and every so often they succeed, like in “Old Dogs, New Tricks,” which has Ace and Eliot going up against their respective mentors.
Season Three is… well, different. It seems like the network heads forced Dog City into an animated-variety show format. Artie now has “his own animated show” staring his squeaky toy, Rosie is given a niece named Dot in random one-offs, Bugsy tells odd stories while in prison, and there’s a subpar-Tex Avery cartoon called “Yves ‘N Steven.” The episodes are less noir and everything is a bit wackier and unhinged. While tonally off from the first two seasons, the writers somehow prevent it from completely off the rails, even managing to mind some funny moments through the chaos. And it even ends with a sweet moment in the finale, “Dog Days of Summer Vacation,” where Eliot is reassured by his “real” and animated friends that they’ll always be there for him – if not for us, as the show never did come back from cancellation.
Dog City struggled to balance a mix among elements of straight-forward narrative, absurd comedy, parody, meta-commentary, and, later, variety. While not everything worked, it still managed to be quite entertaining. Woe be it from me to ever doubt Henson again, god rest his soul; Dog City managed to pack more bite than its bark.
The Wuzzles was somehow brilliantly before its time and yet hopelessly outdated. What went right, and what went wrong?
In the mid-80s, Disney was feeling itself in the TV animation game. It was aiming to bridge a gap between young and tween audiences, something that could essentially market stuffed animals and toys, yet also capture the eyeballs, interest and respect of a growing, after school/early Saturday market. It was aiming to be for both boys and girls, and even for adults watching with their kids. It wanted to do something very ambitious, but animation at this point had only geared itself around cutesy, toy-based shows – obvious attempts to market solely the stuffed animals and action figures that manifested from them. That mentality influenced the style of the animation, the easy and simplistic storylines, the useless-sounding soundtracks, and the flat voice over work. Everything was slow, deliberate, and adorable.
So Disney had an opportunity to change things. But it couldn’t come out and just do it, what with market forces and advertisers set in their old ways. So to test the waters, Disney produced two shows – Gummi Bears and The Wuzzles, which aired competitively on two different networks at the same time. On the surface, both shows are clear attempts to infect toy stores with new, cuddly creations for massive profits. Unlike previous cartoon ventures, Disney allowed the creators to open up the stories and characters a lot more. Gummi Bears went with the medieval/swords-and-sorcery theme, which was much stronger and popular (at the time) than the sitcom-esque goofiness that was The Wuzzles. (The larger irony, in fact, is that “sitcom-esque” was exactly what cartoons would become.) That, among other things, made The Wuzzles incredibly ahead of its time. And yet, because of its cutesy, simplistic trappings, it simultaneously remained a cheesy 80s construct. It had insanely grand ideas, ideas we even find today in Adult Swim shows, My Little Pony, and The Looney Tunes Show, but couldn’t let go of emphasizing its adorableness, to its ultimate detriment.
In a rare Childhood Revisited/Did We Miss Out crossover, I re-examine The Wuzzles, both as a piece of nostalgia and an exploration of what could have been.
The Wuzzles – (1985)
Director: Fred Wolf, Carole Beers
Starring: Brian Cummings, Jo Ann Worley, Bill Scott
Screenplay(s) by: Ken Koonce, David Weimers, Mark Evanier
Let’s get this out of the way first – The Wuzzles is not that great of a show. It’s inconsistent and poorly paced, a bit eccentric and tonally all over the place. This is usually on par for most early 80s cartoons; the only thing The Wuzzles had going for it was the beautiful animation. But as I delved into all twelve episodes, which are easily searchable on Youtube, I wondered how many of the show’s problems were amateurish, and how many were actually intentional.
Pushing past The Wuzzles‘ premise, which is simply combining two animals into one (which in itself always happens to make aesthetically-pleasing hybrids, despite most animal combinations most likely being hideous), there’s actually a gem of a great show here. It’s hard to determine which episodes aired first, and which episodes were produced first, but in a way you can kinda tell, as certain episodes are better than others, in terms of story, characters, and pacing, as if the show was finally getting into a groove. (Also, there’s a small amount of continuity: Bumblelion’s admiration with paragon pirate Buck Swashler; a towel Butterbear gives Eleroo is visible in a followup episode.) In fact, a few episodes use the poor pacing to its advantage.
The show’s egregious issue is a basic TV fundamental of editing: its lack of crossfades when cutting from scene to scene. This makes it nigh impossible to note any changes in time and space. In the episode below, “Hooray for Hollywuz,” we jump from Hollywuz to the main town, and back again, via regular scene edits. It’s quite disruptive, especially since it involves air travel and sending postcards, both of which takes quite a bit of time:
Later, The Wuzzles realize that the only way this can work is to keep the time and space jumps consistent, and to make sure every scene counts. This is how Archer does it, and most Adult Swim shows manage their comedic timing so well. This is showcased best in “Class Dismissed,” arguably the best episode of the show’s brief run:
The Wuzzles is at its best when the story opens up the characters and the world around Wuz; when we get to see the various interactions among the townspeople and some of the more interesting events that occur in this mythical land. “Class Dismissed” has all of these strong points, along with three separate story lines that come together in the end. Butterbear is invited to a classy party, but is too embarrassed to bring her classless friends (Hoppopotamous, Rhinokey, Bumblelion, Eleroo, and Moosel), forcing them to learn how to be more sophisticated so they can attend. Meanwhile, Butterbear somehow gets into a My Fair Lady scenario, teaching Crock’s sidekick Brat how to act like a gentleman. MEANWHILE STILL, Crock ends up missing said sidekick, and begins to scheme on how to get him back. It’s a multi-layered plot that’s almost Arrested Development-like in its development, and even has a climax sequence that could be taken from Hurwitz’s titular show.
What’s interesting about The Wuzzles is that the characters, although cute, are kind of terrible people. This is okay – most sitcoms portray characters that are inherently terrible people you’d never really want to be around. Hoppopotamous is loud, brash, and annoying; Rhinokey is mean and corny; Butterbear is naggy and bitchy; Bumblelion is arrogant and borderline bro-douchey; Eleroo and Moosel are hypocritical cowards and kind of willingly dumb. Crock and his cronies are portrayed as the “villains,” but in actuality, they’re only lazy sleezeballs, and not that far off from the worse elements of the main six (Crock has a few endearing moments himself!). I actually love all of this. Watching old Disney Afternoon shows made me realize that most of them star terrible people, which is strangely a lot more relateable than people realize.
A prime example of this is the second best episode, “In The Money,” in which a broke Bumblelion stumbles upon stolen money. Upon finding these bags of gold coins with Eleroo, he immediately – and I mean, IMMEDIATELY – becomes a jerk, taking the bags all to himself with shifty eyes and throwing Eleroo a mere pittance of coins. His attitude escalates from there: buying suits, insulting the owner of the corner store and his friends (I personally loves how he carries the moneybags everywhere he goes) and involving himself in this absolutely hilarious sequence involving a new car. (Seriously, the linked scene is fantastic.)
It’s the little things that we’ve come to appreciate now in shows like The Looney Tunes Show and MLP that are present in The Wuzzles. A fully realized world opens up, almost as detailed as Equestria. There’s electricity and damns and corner stores and diners and hair salons – but also scary castles and pirate (Pi-RATS, parrot/rat hybrids) and mysterious islands. There are no main villains that want to destroy the world; just really annoying Wuz citizens and shitty things that happen that they have to deal with. There are cars and car dealerships – car dealerships, people! – and in fact, one of the best things about this show are the car chases; they look phenomenal, and tend to make even the most boringly ludicrous and ridiculous plots into something exciting. (It’s a skill that will reach its peak when animating the airplanes in TaleSpin.)
But as implied, the show has pretty terrible stories for the most part, and a ton of groaner jokes. But the stories are really animated versions of typical sitcom plots. The thuddingly banal “Shock Around the Clock” takes the cliche story of Crock faking an injury to garner Butterbear’s sympathy and service:
Beyond being a lame plot, the bigger issue is that most of the episode takes place in Butterbear’s house. There’s little going on outside of that setting, which kills the imaginative entertainment. The worst example is when the main six seem to be the only ones concerned when they damn protecting their town is about to break (“Moosel’s Monster”). It’s disappointing and frankly illogical that there’s no one else in Wuz worried about this crisis. Perhaps it was for budget reasons that they couldn’t create a crowd scene; in that case, they were better off forgoing the entire plotline.
The other issue that the show has is its awful, awful soundtrack. The music is mostly discordant synths and other electronic noises, with little to no reflection on the show itself. Which is a shame, because the theme song is so much more ambitious and technically sound; listening to the various music cues sound like some student’s attempt at making “Art” music. Even with the well-done car chases, the audio almost single-handedly kills the mood.
The last episode, unfortunately titled “What’s up, Stox,” introduces a potential new character, Ticoon (part tiger, part raccoon), an ambitious businessman working to be a zillionaire. He’s a pretty solid character: confident, clever, and confrontational; it would have been great to see him developed more in future episodes, especially going toe-to-toe with Bumblelion or Crock. But Gummi Bears won the era, and The Wuzzles was forced into cancellation, in the back of that mysterious Disney vault that they swear they have.
It’s a shame; The Wuzzles, with another season, could have worked out the kinks and been something more remarkable. (Most likely, however, it would have been given more fantastical elements, considering the time). I honestly think, like MLP, a reboot could really give this show a modern sheen that would work wonders. The flaws keep the The Wuzzles captive in 1985, but rich animation and some inspired moments make the show pretty unique. In their own way, the Wuzzles themselves personify the show’s own aesthetic – split between two species of animated thought.