CHILDHOOD REVISITED – Bonkers, part 1

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.

Bonkers D Bobcat

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.

Bonkers & Miranda

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.]

 

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Tumblr Tuesday – 06/03/14

Tumblr Tuesday is back! The best of Tumblr is available here. I’m going through a small backlog, so it’ll take a few weeks to get this thing current.

I compare Doctor Who writers Russell T. Davis and Steven Moffat to Kingdom Hearts, and it works better than you think.

Buzzfeed usually sucks, but they’re surprisingly accurate here when it comes to the BS of working while young.

I found a great tumblr that explores the animation in the Disney Afternoon shows. They’re doing Darkwing Duck now but I’m eager to see them explore other programs.

Why is the “women are too emotional to lead” stereotype still a thing?

DC Comics is now twelve years-old and wants you to take it super serious, you guys.

Darkwing Duck is just goddamn funny, people.

Tumblr discovers how sexual appeals affects how people respond to “gamer girls”.

THIS GODDAMN STUNT THO.

 

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Gargoyles “Shadows of the Past/Heritage”

Gargoyles Heritage screenshot

We’re back!

After so many weeks of being absent, I have finally returned. Part of my disappearance was due to an increase in work (which has since died down, kind of). Some of it was due to the sheer number of TV shows finishing up their seasons, which of course I had to catch. Some of it was general fatigue – between work, television, and the gym, my body was beginning to wear itself down. I needed to mentally and physically rest. But now I’m back, and not only are essays on their way, but there should be some other things coming too.

But this isn’t about that – this is about the “World Tour” ventures that Goliath, Angela, Bronx, and Elisa are embarking on in the wake of the Avalon saga. As Tom yells to Elisa: “Avalon does not take you where you want to go, Avalon sends you where you need to be.” In other words, while we’re still in the midst of season two, this feels like a new season, or at least a reboot of some sort, a mystical way to create some breathing room between all those crazy, complex, wild events from before and the events coming up. While it’s bit early to tell how things will go, right now it feels like a good idea. Fewer characters, fewer schemes, fewer plotlines – not that Gargoyles was a particularly tough show to keep up with, it was just coming dangerously close to crushing itself under its massive complexity. With episodes like “Shadows of the Past,” the show gets some room to breathe.

“Shadows of the Past” is a unique episode not just of Gargoyles, but of animated TV in general. There’s no real action until late in the episode; instead, there’s a lot of pondering and rumination. It’s no coincidence Disney brought in their A-TEAM animation crew for this, to signify the “reboot” nature of this series and to give the necessary visual panache to an episode dedicated to thinking and talking existentially. It was the details I love most; Elisa almost tripping when she’s climbing a cliff, the wind blowing through her and Angela’s hair, Goliath panting in fear and fatigue – and the strong visuals match up to a strong character-driven episode.

Working with such few characters helps this show immensely, in particular how it focuses on Goliath’s attempt to keep his sanity and Elisa’s and Angela’s attempts to calm him now. Goliath taking stock on his past and his role in the events that happened in “Awakenings” is powerful stuff, and kudos to Michael and Brynne Chandler Reaves to really work and break down his mental state. Gargoyles are driven by both the need to protect and the need to avenge. Without the former, they’re aimless and lost; without the latter, they’re lacking and dishonored. “Shadows of the Past” brings up the latter point to great effect; by not being there for his clan when they were killed, and failing to adequately seek revenge on those who betrayed/killed his clan, has Goliath truly failed in his role as leader?

Essentially, the answer is yes, he failed, but it was far from his fault, and it’s true that Goliath has to come to terms with. But it’s hard, and the two mysterious energy spirits that grant Goliath his fevered visions aren’t helping. I love how the episode lets the weirdness drives the stakes here; it’s pretty obvious that everything he sees is fake, especially when the stone-versions of his former clan appears before him, but to Goliath, all of this is real. The tension isn’t in the audience trying to figure out what is real and what isn’t, but in hoping that Goliath can figure it out for himself. That’s a bold move, letting the audience root for Goliath and not the narrative.

The visions being perpetuated by two green spirit “things,” revealed to be Hakon (the leader of the Vikings which destroyed the gargoyles) and the Captain of the Guard (who betrayed the gargoyles to the Vikings). I’m not sure if the show will get into it, but the episode barely pays lip service to explaining how and why the two are in spirit form, and how they are generating the magic ability to cause such visions. It’s irrelevant thought, as the point is that these two are trapped souls driven by hate and revenge, working in tandem to draw Goliath’s life force out and apply it to themselves, restoring it to them. It doesn’t really make sense (the location where this all take place is nebulous at best), but it doesn’t have to. The point is that Goliath’s guilt is being exploited by Hakon and the Captain.

Once again, the theme of purpose and drives are full force and center, but here, the question of that drive is brought into focus. Gargoyles hasn’t really put a lot of stock into the thought of whether the ideas that drive a person to continue on is justified, at least not until this episode, and I’m curious if that something the show will explore later on. Here, though, as the Captain watches Hakon draw Goliath’s life force away, he too takes stock of his role in the gargoyles’ destruction, and realizes his own failures. He attempts to atone for this by attacking Hakon, and in a visually strong moment, the two spar within the strange, hieroglyphic-laden structure as everything glows and surges around them. Again, there’s no clarity as to exactly what’s going on, but the idea is clear. Everything explodes, and when the smoke clears, the Captain is finally granted the freedom to move on into the afterlife. He and Goliath, after thousands of years, finally come to, if not an understanding, then at least a peace.

Goliath and company head back out into the waters to try and head home, and Hakon is trapped in rock, and its telling that what upsets him the most is not being trapped, but not having anyone to hate. For you see, having nothing to drive you is a fate worse than being stuck somewhere for all eternity, a fate that, as Goliath mentions, he chose for himself. It’s a strong episode, one of the best since “Awakenings,” really. I kinda feel bad for Elisa at the end though, who has to wait by the stoned gargoyles all day before they can move on.

After such a great outing with “Shadows of the Past,” “Heritage” is a letdown. The A-TEAM animation is replaced with Sun Min, who do passable work, although I’m not sure they were given a strong script to work with. “Heritage” is a lot more episodic, attempting to be something like the really fun “Protection,” where the Elisa and the gargoyles appear in a random locale with problems, get involved, and fight their way into saving the day. With a little more work and time Gargoyles will most assuredly get better at this during this “reboot” period, but “Heritage,” comparatively speaking, feels sophomoric.

Part of the issue is that it kinda plays uncomfortably in the “Native Americans are all about their past and closeness to the earth!” cliche, with only a few moments of depth that allow it to surpass it. Adam Gilad, the episode’s writer, most likely meant well when writing this episode, but a lot of the developments border on generic stereotypes, like Natsilane (who’s Westernized nickname, Nick, is portrayed as being distancing from his heritage), who is so engaged in Western ideas (he graduated Harvard, ya’ll!) that he isn’t able to connect to his Haida history, and as a result the land is dying.

“Heritage” isn’t a bad episode per se, but it’s definitely lacking. After a weird sea monster attacks their boat and simply swims away (the gargoyles put up a good fight but there’s no way in hell they could’ve bested that beast), they find themselves separated from Elisa. Elisa, near-dead, is nursed back to health by Nick’s grandmother, who is referred to as Grandmother, while the gargoyles side with a creature-gargoyle named Raven. For a chunk of the episode, there is an interesting grey area, the story blurring the line of who’s the real villain: Raven claims Grandmother is persecuting his brethren, while Grandmother claims Raven is sucking the land dry and taking it for himself. The episode isn’t a moral quandary though. It’s clear that Raven is the true villain.

The episode doesn’t explain who he is outside of a dangerous evil being, and even though there’s always the chance we’ll see Raven in the future, the episode doesn’t hint at anything significant, or even why he’s wants the land in the first place. Part of me thought he was one of Oberon’s children, the dark elves that pop up from time to time to just cause trouble (like Puck), but it’s revealed that Grandmother is actually one of Oberon’s children. (SPOILER: some research revealed that Raven is a children of Oberon, which raises the question why Raven and Grandmother were fighting in the first place. I mean, we could get into a whole thing about Oberon’s relationship to the Haida history and the land, and I’m eager to see if Gargoyles will get into that, but I have my doubts).

There are some things I like about this episode. I like that Angela noticed what looked to be an animation error – a wing from a flying monster moving through one of Raven’s fake-gargoyle – as an illusion and played it cool, revealing it to her father later. It’s only been two episodes (not counting “Avalon”) and we don’t have a real sense of who Angela is, but she seems to be a bright, self-sufficient character who can kick ass. We haven’t passed the Bechdel test yet, since Elisa and Angela so far have talked mostly about Goliath and other males in the show, but I don’t think it can quite apply here. Still, I’m curious to see if they both move past that and grow as characters. Angela is still a blank slate, but any more development on Elisa is always welcome!

As for the episode… well, after Angela exposes Raven for the sham he is, all the layers come tumbling down. Grandmother exposes herself as a child of Oberon, the gargoyles reveal themselves to Nick, gaining his trust and restoring his belief in “the old ways,” and he gains all the necessary magic powers to defeat Raven, in a surprisingly anti-climatic fight scene. Again, it’s a bit unclear what Grandmother’s connection to the land is – the ending sequence, where Grandmother’s hair turns into water that restores life to the land is oddly not commented upon – and while the show’s commitment to accuracy is commendable, correctly placing the Haida tribe in western Canada, it isn’t exactly on point when it comes to clothing.

“Heritage” feels like a placeholder, an episode designed to given the whole “World Tour” premise some context – that is, to display the kind of episode adventures these core characters will find themselves in. I do hope things from a narrative perspective will improve though. The potential is there. Hell, I even enjoyed Raven, with his sassy remarks, he makes a for a entertaining villain who seems to enjoy himself, a nice addition to the self-serious badguys of Gargoyles’ rogue gallery. But “Heritage” focus on “Othering” without giving characters like Nick something to build on other than the “get in touch with your roots!” type of agency that he has in the entire episode makes it overall disappointing. I’m hoping we’ll see Nick, Grandmother, or Raven again, but I feel like, other than Raven, this is a narrative thread the show won’t be coming back to. It’s understandable – Avalon most likely have more significant events for our characters to deal with. I could be wrong though.

“Shadows of the Past” A / “Heritage” B-

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