The Wuzzles was somehow brilliantly before its time and yet hopelessly outdated.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 thirteen 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.
Also if you’re reading this – checkout fellow blogger Trish’s take on the show: http://babbletrish.blogspot.com/2013/08/some-thoughts-after-watching-all.html