A while back, Cartoon Network flirted briefly with programs aimed at preschoolers and kindergartners for early morning weekday TV in a block called Tickle U. It didn’t last long. Why? Because young-children based programming is HARD. Young children have fickle, hard-to-pin down attention spans, and coupled with parents keenly in-tune with what their toddlers are watching, it requires a tremendous amount of research, dedication, and experience. (I highly recommend Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, as he delves deeply into the complexities that went into the successes of Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues.) The Disney Channel has experience. Nickelodeon has experience. Cartoon Network? The channel that, at the time, simply re-aired classic cartoons and more quirkier, new programming like Dexter’s Laboratory? Not so much.
I bring this up because on a particular slow day, I happen to catch the short lived Mr. Men Show (2008-2009) revival on Boomerang, which has become a hybrid of classic-classic cartoons and CN’s dumping ground of “shows that never made it”. It’s programming is uncanny, a mix of then-and-now, seemingly stuck in a temporal loop of cels and Flash files of various framerates. I love it. Mr. Man seemed destined for the early prime-time kids market, but like that idea, it fizzled in the water.
Mr. Man is a series of books by Roger Hargreaves that involve emotions/states of mind represented as colored-blob characters, forced into situations where their strictly one-dimensional attribute comes at odds with, oh, whatever Hargreaves felt like. These books were along side your Harold and the Purple Crayon and Good Night, Moon, and the bright, insane characters always appealed to me, as well as their blind commitment to their forced nature. They were cute, simple, and straight-forward; depending on the character, they could be a tad scary.
Imagine, then, you’re commissioned with the task of animating this into a long run series for a year. What do you do? Sure, you could go the ‘lesson-learning’ route, a route that Nick Jr. or Noggin certainly would have done. Cartoon Network animators aren’t the young-ish type, and so went with a unique and oft-bizarre story of a whole world of Mr. Man/Little Miss types, creating what -would- have been an almost infinite clash of pure-emotions. It was animated improv: “You play a perpetually angry person; you play a naughty tease; the setting is a nightclub and you both left your wallets at home. Go!”
The result was a goofy, self-aware, eccentric assault of really brief gags, skits, and musical interludes all centered around two themes, lasting for twelve minutes each. The first was yard work; the second, preparing a parade. Unlike the very simplistic, kind, and melodic flow of shows like Oswald and Dora the Explorer, Mr. Man had surprising rich gags (Mr. Quiet’s understated commentary was a gem and poised to have him the show’s star) and some bizarrely risque material, like Miss Naughty’s light hints at sexual promiscuity – which ended up mostly as practical jokes. But it’s there, and quite hilarious when you pick up on it. The Mr. Men Show was erratic, to be sure, and the seemingly random cuts from skits to musical cues to five-second shorts was rather hard to swallow. But underneath the exterior was a delightful and subtle bunch of jokes.
DID WE MISS OUT? I’d say we did; although parents might “enjoy” it more than their children.
I wish I had similar sentiments for Krypto The Superdog (2005-2006), a clear throwback to the era of Saturday Morning Cartoons. We follow the exploits of a canine house pet who rocks Superman powers and fights evil cats and alien animals and teach lessons. The problem is that animated shows today are self-aware, and when a cartoon tries to engage in its campiness and play it straight – instead of exploiting it – its cheesiness becomes grating.
In one episode of Krypto, we’re already forced to endure lessons about judging people (well, animals) and “great power coming with great responsibility,” the latter lesson gained from what I assumed to be Superdog’s future sidekick, a cat named Streaky. (This particular episode was pointedly awkward and borderline disturbing, and the awful line-readings and less-than-stellar animation didn’t help.) It’s not a stretch to assume this show was definitely for children (perhaps the older set), but even they may find it boring, as today’s youth are so adept with Twitter and Youtube and any other animated program that breaks the 90s mold. For something made in the 21st century that had such dated aesthetics and writing, one can’t help but experience the show with this —> :/ expression.
DID WE MISS OUT? Nah. With not one single interesting character on the show, it’s probably better off in the distant backburner.
I’ll be doing this feature every so often I catch an episode of something on Boomerang or CN late night or something.