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 1 of 2.
The story of Bonkers is one for the ages.
The behind-the-scenes drama that occurred during the development of Bonkers would make one hell of a book – or at the very least, a crazy oral history. The fact that this show even made it through production is a miracle. It has been difficult to piece together a clear look on exactly what went wrong with the show, as I’ve been parsing information from Wikipedia, Greg Weisman’s archives, and a bit from Jim Cummings appearance on Rob Paulson’s podcast. Any more details on this would be appreciated, but I’m going to give it my best.
Bonkers started out as show called “Toon Cop.” It was indeed the human/toon hybrid show we know today, but its primary focus was on the relationship between Bonkers and Miranda. Bonkers himself was a toon star that became a cop, but it looks like that at this point he simply “decided” to be cop (as opposed to him being fired and forced into police work). During development, the decision was made to animate actual He’s Bonkers cartoons, to portray the character’s work before he left the studios. These shorts, which aired on Raw Toonage, were done separately from “Toon Cop.” The idea behind this is actually pretty brilliant, sort of a precursor to the online side shorts we see today online. “Toon Cop” was given to producers Bob Hathcock and Duane Capizzi, and He’s Bonkers was handled by Larry Latham. I should also point out that Bonkers was never intended to be a Who Framed Roger Rabbit TV show. The may have ripped off the idea, but actually tooling the movie into a series was never in the works.
When the first nine episodes of “Toon Cop” came back from overseas, there was a huge internal uproar. Apparently, there were a ton of issues – relating to character designs, scripts, animation, etc. – but executives overreacted to minor issues and downplayed the major ones. What these issues were are unclear, but it seems that one of them was the fear that kids wouldn’t be able tell the difference between the human and toon characters. This I think was the minor issue that executives overreacted to, as the difference has always been obvious. Once you tell kids that X is a toon and Y is a human, they’re going to get it. Sesame Street realized this years ago. Why executives pushed the panic button over that, instead of the script/animation issues, is baffling. Unfortunately I couldn’t get my hands on a number of the first nine episodes, so it’s hard to really gauge how problematic they were. But of what I did see, there were problems, mostly in terms of filler, pacing, and inconsistencies.
The original team was fired. They then brought in Robert Taylor and a new team to retool Bonkers, who brought in a new look and feel to the show. Bonkers’ look was refined – it was cuter, more appealing. Miranda was dropped and replaced with Lucky, a clear Eddie Valiant knock-off. The idea of the show now seem to ensure that toons were brightly colored and elastic, while the human characters were muted and more static. This isn’t an unreasonable change. The Disney animation studios really bring out the cartoon/human dynamic beautifully, and at the very least, make it wonderful to watch (the early Lucky episodes as least were an abject lesson in expressions and fluidity, exploring how different TYPES of characters should move within the same animated space).
Unfortunately, Taylor’s overall aesthetic is utterly depressing. The show’s color palette is greys and blues and the characters are all in this weird, nebulous, melancholic state. The Miranda episodes are not as beautiful or refined as the Lucky episodes, but the palette is brighter and friendlier, and the relationships between characters are comfortable and endearing. Lucky episodes feel like the characters are two-steps away from putting a gun to Bonkers’ head and splattering ink & pain all over the walls. Both sets of episodes have their strengths, for sure. But both sets also have some insanely glaring weaknesses. If somehow they could have combined those strengths, Bonkers would have been a much more pleasing, memorable show, but only rarely do either batch of episodes congeal to make the disparaging ideas work. The only way to really look at this show is to examine each set on their own terms, then to look at how the show attempted to bridge that gap.
The first thing I noticed about the Miranda episodes is that they’re distinctively for a younger audience. The tone and feel actually fits the Raw Toonage/Marsupalami template, which is more emphatic on high-stakes wackiness. Because of which, the actual plots are relatively simple, focusing on easy-to-swallow crimes centering around stealing and burglary. There’s some forays into bigger-scaled danger, like deranged people with bombs or master criminals, but they’re aggressively toony, in that the threats are more playful than sinister. “Tokyo Bonkers” contains a powerful toon that can control any machine, but it never approaches Terminator-like darkness. The villain is ruthless, but the episode’s “Ninja Kitties” and the charmingly cute (if stereotypical) Japanese culture keeps the episode light. Or take “Dog Day AfterToon” – the obvious parody stars a toon threatening to blow up a bank when he’s fired from his own cartoon. Any real tension is taken in stride, with plenty of ridiculous ransom demands and good ol’ Bonkers silliness. That bank was never in real danger.
Miranda episodes play around with human/toon dynamic with merely a passing interest, using the contrast to set up some fairly interesting ideas. Unfortunately they tend to beat episodes into the ground. It’s pretty obvious that the core plots of most of these episodes would be better suited for an 11-minute show. There’s a lot of elaborate, wacky sequences that run way too long, creating less of a comedic sideshow and more of a desperate attempt to pad time. Some episodes, for example, overplay the absolutely terrible “Rubber Room” song, which is from a He’s Bonkers short, and there’s no appeal to this what so ever. “Do Toons Dream of Animated Sheep” opens up the idea of toons having dreams which are physically malleable, but it spins its wheels with lengthy, uninteresting chase sequences. This certainly would work for younger audiences, but anyone past the age of eight would be bored out of their minds.
Disney cartoons are capable of many things, but “wackiness” was never their strong suit. The strength of Disney Afternoon’s cartoons lie in its characters, strong and iconic, who feel like they belong in the world laid out before you. In this regard, Miranda and Bonkers, together, work rather well. It’s a partnership that, despite everything, actually functions nicely – when the writers will it that way. When watching this, I was curious if Miranda was in some ways a precursor to Gargoyles’ Elisa Maza, which was confirmed by Weisman himself. Miranda is a great, low-key character. She’s confident, single, and badass when she needs to be. She makes a great cop. She also possesses an amicable relationship with Bonkers: the show’s best moments are when the two simply sit in the cop car and shoot the shit. Bonkers, himself, of course can’t stay verbal for long, and will often find himself in the wacky, absurd, out-of-control scenarios that many people can’t tolerate. As someone who watches cartoons all day, I guess I have a high tolerance for insane characterization – your Dudley Puppies, your Spongebobs, your crack-addled early Daffy Ducks – so Bonkers’ antics didn’t bother me too much. They just tended to be uninteresting and poorly executed by storyboarders and animators who seemed in over their heads, which probably was another issue that the show had early on. The “look” of the show didn’t quite match the feel. The other recurring characters here – Al Vermin, Sgt. Grating (voiced by Ron Pearlman!), Bucky Buzzsaw, and Dr. Von Drake – are all fine if forgettable, shoved into their roles to do whatever the plot needs them to do. (Although I did like Bitters, the physically put-upon dog who is just always in the wrong place at the wrong time.)
At its worst, the Miranda episodes are a mess – poorly framed and lazily plotted. “What You Read Is What You Get” is just abysmal and nonsensical, made even worse with its unnecessary “It was all a dream” ending (endings, in particular, will be the bane of Bonkers’ existence, but we’ll get to that). Yet when the show takes its time, putting in the work to enjoy its premise and characters, the show becomes – dare I say it – likeable! It never becomes great, but it become passable. “Quibbling Rivalry” is by far the best episode of the entire show. Miranda’s sister, Shirley, arrives, a news reporter who at first seems to want to discredit the toon cop on the news for ratings. It’s revealed that she’s genuinely concerned that her sister having a toon cop for a partner is too dangerous, and her reports were made to entice the bobcat to quit. I liked the idea that Bonkers, being a toon, was unaware how his behavior and antics could be putting humans in peril. I also loved the arguments between Miranda and Shirley – they’re petty, but in an understandable, adult way. The ending works wonders, as Miranda showcases some badass cop skills rescuing an old lady in a fire, and Bonkers’ “tooniness” is utilized as he stretches himself as a ladder to allow Miranda and the lady to climb down to safety. It’s an episode that just is running on all cylinders, distinctly noting how both human and toon can have their differences and unique uses, giving both Bonkers and Miranda a real purpose and drive. “Witless for the Prosecution” makes a close second, as Miranda almost goes crazy hiding out at Bonkers’ house as a witness. I like Bonkers’ desperation trying to comfort Miranda getting out of control (as is the nature of his tooniness), and Miranda almost losing it shows she even has her limits. But they have a heart-to-heart at the end and come to an understanding, and Bonkers uses his tooniness to his advantage when he commits to protecting Miranda (not that she needed it – she basically beats down the assassin on a moving truck like that shit was Tuesday).
Unfortunately episodes like “Quibbling Rivalry” are the exception rather than the norm, as the other Miranda episodes run the gamut between silly and mediocre. I wouldn’t say any of them were truly bad (save from “What You Read”) but nothing even come close to the heights of “Quibbling”. Part of the problem is that instead of focusing on the characters (Disney’s stock in trade), it spends a lot of time establishing/explaining “toon rules,” being exceedingly wacky, and trying to be clever in its Hollywood self-awareness, very little of it working like it should. I mean, Darkwing Duck tried that three times and it never quite work (and its no coincidence that Darkwing Duck makes an appearance in the show.) Weisman, Hathcock, Capizzi, and company tried to do their own version of “cartoon characters as film actors,” less Who Framed Roger Rabbit and more along the lines of Tex Avery/Chuck Jones. Take “The Toon That Ate Hollywood,” which had a clown stealing toons’ “funny” in order to make himself relevant again. The stolen “funny” ends up inside his frog partner, and an extremely long, lengthy, confusing sequence follows where the frog grows giant and tells terrible joke. This goes nowhere. Of course, they stop him, but (animation-wise) it didn’t look good doing it, and it wasn’t funny enough to enjoy watching it.
Both “Toon For a Day” and “Cartoon Cornered” contain long, uninteresting chase sequences through fabricated Hollywood studio backlots, mainly just so they can try playing around with goofy genre styles while also making up various toon rules to pass the time. There are some interesting ideas – the “toon” storage closet; stage 13 where the zaniest cartoons are shot – but the action is bland since the character stakes are non-existent. “Love Stuck” tries to ridicule dating game shows, and “Springtime for the Iguana” introduces an otherwise insignificant side character named Roderick to take potshots at the thespian elite. Very little of this actually works, although Roderick take-down of a prisoner about to shank him was amusing, and “Love Stuck” did end with a nice moment re-enforcing Bonkers’ and Miranda’s partnership (despite the plot forcing Bonkers to act out-of-character, which is a something the show does way too often).
The Miranda episodes are only at their strongest when it really reinforces that idea of Bonkers and Miranda being good partners and good friends, two characters that work well together, justifying both their roles as members of law enforcement. Too often the show would make Miranda disappear for more Bonkers antics, which was always a mistake (the show drops Miranda so often because she GETS it. She actually is competent and works well with the various toons, and the writers JUST CAN’T HAVE THAT since it would interfere with their half-assed cartoon comedy.) Despite all that though, if Bonkers just stuck with the “Miranda episodes” aesthetic, at worst, it would have been just a basic, forgettable cartoon. No one would have been talking about it these days, like no one discusses Raw Toonage or Marsupilami in any context. And that would have been the best fate for the cartoon, really. But Taylor’s retooling placed it on a different, higher, more ambitious level, which made the fall so much worse. Next week we’ll be looking at the Lucky episodes, which had higher aspirations. In all honesty, the attempt was admirable – but when it failed, it failed HARD.
[A note on the He’s Bonkers shorts – they’re actually not so bad, but mostly as forgettable as most of the shorts that came out of young-skewing Raw Toonage. I did like when they play around with the form, like in “Sheerluck Bonkers,” when his inked form sprints off, leaving his colors behind. It’s such a random, absurd visual gag. I think, overall, the strongest short is “Goggle Goggle Bonkers,” which has the most fun with the format and revels in its stupidity, like when Jitters names his turkeys after failed movies like Ishtar, Bonfire of the Vanities, and Howard the Duck. None of them are particularly memorable or distinct, though.]