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.