Thoughts

What cartoons are your children watching?

This is a question I keep asking myself every time I turn on the TV and look at the Cartoon Network, or The Disney Channel, or Nickelodeon these days. It’s unbelievable how much thoughtless, cheaply made programming they shove into their slots, with little or no thought for substance, style, quality and most of all, for values.

Just like most foods you can buy at the store these days are made up mostly of fillers and devoid of nutrition and natural goodness, most cartoons on TV are nothing but patina, a modicum of presentation pulled over a steaming pile of dung.

The Disney Channel is in the most shameful state of all. They have a legacy to live up to. They have a heritage, which is something no other channel has. Back in the early 90s, when I came to the States, The Disney Channel was way up there on a pedestal in terms of programming quality. It was heaven for a boy with a hunger for good cartoons.

Now, it’s 95% garbage. They’ve got terrible live-action shows geared solely toward filling programming slots and selling merchandise and hurriedly-done computer-animated cartoons.

What happened to shows like Duck Tales, or the Rescue Rangers, or Tale Spin? What happened to the old cartoons with Mickey Mouse, Pluto, Daffy Duck and the rest of the gang? Aren’t there any people who still have good ideas at Disney’s TV subsidiary? There are obviously very talented people at Pixar, where great movies still get made. Can’t Disney recruit some more people like that? They’ve obviously got the money, since they just spent $4 billion on Marvel. Only a small fraction of that money would go a long way toward turning around The Disney Channel.

Overall, the industry is in decline, precisely because they’ve been focusing on quantity, not quality and substance. They’re trying to spend as little money as possible and churn out as much footage as possible, without any foresight or real planning about a show’s direction, character development, plot, dialogue, character animation (movement, drawing style, aesthetic appearance, etc.), progress (generally, if characters are doing something or striving to achieve something, progress or setbacks toward an overarching goal ought to be achieved with each show), and most of all, since these cartoons are shown on children’s channels, they ought to be kid-friendly, they ought to promote good values, and they ought to appeal to one’s artistic sensibilities.

As for those who give these shows the go-ahead, I can only describe their approach as auto-pilot. They’re throwing stuff at a wall in order to see what sticks, and instead of trying to figure out why stuff doesn’t stick, they’re looking for more stuff to throw. They care little about any of the things I mentioned above. They care about filling slots, preferably with stuff made by people they know, and about selling ads during those slots. They’re trying to hock merchandise instead of realizing their jobs involve a much higher responsibility than that of a vendor at the local flea market. They ought to care deeply about what they put on the air, and instead of examining the merchandise they’re selling through the critical lens of someone who is helping shape young children into responsible, caring, sensible adults, they’re looking at these cartoons as a means to an end — the end being solely the channel’s bottom line.

What they don’t realize is their revenues are decreasing not because they need more live action shows on a cartoon channel, or because less people are watching TV because they’re spending more time on the internet, or because they need to spend less money and cut more corners — they’re decreasing as a direct result of the crap they are putting on TV. If only they took their time to find quality cartoons and filled their programming slots with them, they would see revenues and ratings increase, not to mention that we’d have happier, healthier children all around.

You may ask yourselves, how do I find good cartoons when the good offerings are so slim? I outlined a few good rules of thumb in this post. The most important part is that you should use your good judgment to find shows that are worth watching. Don’t give into popular opinion or into what kids may ask for, because at younger ages, they need guidance. They’re not ready to save the world, in spite of what’s portrayed in run-of-the-mill cartoons. Ask your friends, or go online to sample what’s available in stores. Go to YouTube and look for video clips from quality cartoons you can purchase, or if you hear of a good cartoon show that’s not televised, go to their website and see if they show clips. Now, more than ever, there’s real choice, because you’re not limited by what’s on the TV channels, and it’s so easy and affordable to get to the good stuff if you only put a little effort into it.

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Thoughts

Where's the Solar Coaster when you need it?

Lamenting the absence of a practical, usable solar car…

In an episode of The Raccoons which aired in 1985, entitled “The Evergreen Grand Prix“, Cedric, one of the protagonists and Cyril Sneer’s son, comes up with a design for an innovative solar car that Cyril promises to mass-produce in a new deal struck with a big car manufacturer, a Mr. Mammoth. Once the manufacturer hears the car is solar-powered, he objects, because he sells other tie-in products like gasoline and oil, and they can’t be used when the fuel source is sunlight.

Cyril quickly changes his mind, trashes his son’s brilliant design, and builds a road-hog prototype instead. When it comes time to demonstrate his prototype’s abilities publicly, Cedric and Bert come up with a surprise. They rebuild the trashed solar car and propose to Cyril that the two prototypes race together to see who wins.

the-solar-coaster

Mr. Mammoth is eager to see what happens, and gives the okay. Naturally — or, I suppose, unnaturally, given the current status quo — the solar car wins, to Cyril’s dismay. The manufacturer then agrees to mass-produce self-assembly kits of the solar car, which goes on to be a great success.

So I ask, given that this episode saw the light of day in 1985, has anything progressed in the area of solar cars since then? After all, it’s been 29 years. That’s a long time, during which many new developments could have been architected. The answer is sadly no.

To put things in perspective, the Solar Coaster used a single rectangular solar panel which also doubled as a rear spoiler, and it was enough to make the car “peppy”, as one of the lines in the show went. Today’s solar cars (actually, all solar cars since their inception, sadly) have placed photovoltaic panels over the entire top of the car, and it’s still not enough. They have had to adjust the design radically in order to increase the top surface area, so the cars have no side height at all. They’re basically tapered tops and bottoms, packed full of solar cells, and yet their performance cannot be described as peppy.

borealis-iii-solar-car

I realize the Solar Coaster doesn’t exist. It’s only the fancy of the show’s writers, but still, it’s a good standard by which to judge the solar car’s progress within the last three decades, simply because the idea has been around for that long, if not longer. From my point of view, R&D in photovoltaic cells has stagnated sadly, and this is what’s holding back the solar car. Incredible leaps have been made in computer technology, building technology, and even the performance of petrol-fueled cars, but unfortunately the solar car is still the sickly step child no one likes to play with. To paraphrase Terry from “On the Waterfront”, it could have been a contender; it could have been somebody. [Sorry for the clichĂ©.]

Instead of a serious contender, we’re offered a glorified solar fan in the form of the 2010 Toyota Prius, whose solar cells will be used to cool the car while it’s parked. Thanks, but we’ve had that stuff around since the 80s too.

solar-power-car-vent

If you want to watch the full “Evergreen Grand Prix” episode, it’s available on Youtube in three parts: part 1, part 2 and part 3. If you’re seeing this on my site, not on my feed, you can also watch the videos below.

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Thoughts

Sometimes you need to use a book the right way

There’s a Looney Tunes cartoon from 1944, entitled “Brother Brat“. It stars Porky Pig and speaks eloquently about child discipline. In it, Porky becomes the unwitting baby sitter for a Rosie the Riveter type super-woman who’s pulling long shifts at the factory, helping out with the war effort.

When she leaves her brat, Butch, with him, she also hands him a book, which she says always helped her. It happens to be a book on Child Psychology.

Child Psychology - 1

Porky takes the offer at face value, and believes the book will really help him. When baby Butch starts acting out, he checks the book for advice.

Child Psychology - 2

He soon finds out the book is no good, as he applies the wishy-washy, sound-good nonsense from the book to his real life situation and things go from bad to worse.

Child Psychology - 3

By the end of the cartoon, he’s running for his life, with an axe-wielding maniac baby on his tail.

Child Psychology - 4

Then Susie the Riveter comes in, notices the mayhem, and asks him if he used the book. Desperate, still running, he screams, “Yes, but it didn’t work!” Then Susie grabs the book and shows Porky how it’s done: “Maybe you didn’t use it right. It always works for me!”

Child Psychology - 5

The punchline is obvious, and yet it teaches all of us, to this day, a valuable lesson: sometimes the only thing that works is a spanking. As for child psychology books, I share the opinion of the animators — those books are a bunch of hooey, fit to be printed on toilet paper and used that way. I’m not alone in that sense. Most people shared this opinion when classic cartoons were made. Cartoon studios of all sizes lampooned child psychology books, including Disney.

Spanking has sadly become a tabu practice in this “enlightened” age. If you spank your child now, the state will take it away from you. Surely the state must know what it’s doing, right? Because governments in all developed countries have shown us they manage everything else to a tee, beyond reproach, right? Naturally, we ought to trust what they tell us to do with our children?

I see parents these days, stressed to the breaking point because of children who haven’t been properly disciplined, and they’re afraid to discipline them. They try talking to them, they try to reward them for good behavior, they try timeouts, but seriously, sometimes a child just needs a good spanking. The Bible knows what it’s talking about when it says in Proverbs 13:24: “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him.” It has the benefit of thousands of years of experience on its side when it gives that advice.

If you’re interested, my father wrote a couple of articles several years ago. One is on the duties of children toward their parents, and the other is on the duties of parents toward their children. The articles are a compilation of verses from various books of the Bible on those topics, and they’re not doom and gloom stuff — they’re thoughtful, fascinating stuff. To make things even more interesting, my father is a psychiatrist who is keenly interested in the proper development of one’s character and personality.

On an unrelated note, thank goodness for Google Video, which indexed the cartoon from Dailymotion! I wouldn’t have been able to provide you with screenshots from the cartoon otherwise, because I couldn’t find it in regular web searches. I don’t have it in my collection, and only saw it a few times on TV, including once on Boomerang recently. I encourage you to watch it.

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Reviews

The Raccoons

I recently re-discovered a show I used to watch and love as a kid: The Raccoons. I can’t remember if I saw it in the US or in Romania as I grew up, but I remember the characters quite well. My wife remembers watching the show as a child, too. Now, thanks to Boomerang, I can watch it once again.

The Raccoons

What I like about it is the stories, which always have a nice lesson in them for children, and the show’s setting — a beautiful evergreen forest somewhere in the mountains. The characters, though odd at first, get to be quite likable as you watch the show regularly.

When I was little, I didn’t really care who created the show — I only wondered why the main characters had to have big, bent noses, and why Bert and Cedric had such whiny voices. Now that I’m older, I still wonder about the noses and the voices, but I also want to know who is responsible for creating this wonderful show and bringing it to market. One name pops up time after time in the show’s credits, as producer, director and writer: Kevin Gillis.

Kevin Gillis

Kevin Gillis - creator, producer, director and head writer for "The Raccoons"

As you can see, he looks like a normal human being. I wondered about that… He doesn’t have a huge, bent nose, so I don’t know why he chose to make the characters that way. And since I haven’t yet heard his voice, I don’t know if it’s whiny, like Bert and Cedric’s. I guess that’ll have to wait. In the meantime, I’m glad I can watch “The Raccoons” once more.

If you have children, please know that I highly recommend this show. If you have Boomerang where you live, or have another channel where it’s being shown, then definitely tune in and enjoy it. If you don’t, the store pickings are unfortunately fairly slim. The DVD production is discontinued for now. At leat YouTube has quite a few video clips from various episodes available.

Images used courtesy of Breakthrough Films & Television. There’s more info about the show on IMDB and Wikipedia.

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Reviews

The Beatrix Potter Collection (2008)

The Beatrix Potter Collection (3 DVD set) was just released for sale on 2/12. Ligia and I bought the set just a few days ago, and we’re very happy that we did it. The series was done very well by the BBC. Each DVD contains three animated stories, and each story has a live action introduction filmed in an idyllic English country setting. Some of the live action introductions do repeat, and we found that to be a bit annoying. It would have been ideal if a different intro was filmed for each cartoon, or if only intro was present per DVD, to keep things different.

We love the animation because it looks just like watercolor book drawings that have come to life. The lines are well defined, the colors are wonderfully chosen, and the sound effects almost too real. The movement of the characters is a bit awkward, but I like it because it reminds me once again of their book drawing origin. I can’t say it enough, so I’ll say it again: watching the DVDs is just like seeing the book drawings come to life.

The stories are wonderfully plotted and contain great lessons for the little ones. It’s a pleasure to watch and follow along with the characters. The story-telling is relaxing but won’t put you to sleep. It’s just the right tempo. Some of the stories are a little scary, like that of Pigling Bland or Samuel Whiskers, but the scary scenes are only alluded to, not shown. Still, it’s effective enough to send chills down your spine, so you might want to pick and choose which stories you show to your children based on their age and level of understanding.

Here is what’s included in the set (images of each DVD cover are included below):

  1. The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends
    1. The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny
    2. The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies and Mrs. Tittlemouse
    3. The Tale of Tom Kitten and Jemima Puddle-Duck
  2. The Tale of Pigling Bland and Other Stories
    1. The Tale of Pigling Bland
    2. The Tale of Samuel Whiskers or the Roly-Poly Pudding
    3. The Tailor of Gloucester
  3. The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle and Mr. Jeremy Fisher and Other Stories
    1. The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle and Mr. Jeremy Fisher
    2. The Tale of Mr. Tod: The Further Adventures of Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny
    3. The Tale of Two Bad Mice and Johnny Town-Mouse

I’m trying to think what other cartoons I can compare them to, and their closest “relative” is probably Little Bear, which is a series about a bear family living in an American forest. The drawing style and movement of the characters is similar, thought the colors aren’t pastels in Little Bear.

I definitely recommend these cartoons. They’re great for children, but you don’t need to be of that age to enjoy them. Ligia and I both found them enjoyable.

Buy The Beatrix Potter Collection

The Tale of Pigling Bland and Other Stories

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A Guide To A Good Life

I miss Collier's Weekly

I know Collier’s has been gone for a long time, but when I see stuff like this, or this or this, I can’t help but love it. Maybe we should have more drawings in our magazines, and they should be done with the same classy style and atmosphere. Things are a bit too realistic nowadays. We can always get plenty of reality. We can’t avoid it. It would be nice to open a magazine and get lost in its own little world, where the articles, drawings, photos and yes, even ads are different from all the rest.

Collier’s Weekly

Image Credit: ASIFA-Hollywood Animation Archive

Such little thought is given these days to good cartoonists. Let’s not forget a good cartoonist made Harper’s Weekly what it was, and great artists gave Collier’s its look. Instead of getting celebrities to do provocative photo shoots on the cover — and to manipulate their looks into something completely artificial — it would be better to feature wonderful art like Collier’s did.

Ad from Collier’s Weekly

Image Credit: ASIFA-Hollywood Animation Archive

When we think class these days, fashion magazines come to mind. You open them up, and about 80% of those things are ads with lanky, weird-looking models sulking or posing awkwardly/provocatively. There’s very little substance, and very little interesting stuff. True class in a magazine is a style that comes through the page, and it’s about art, layout, colors, copy and yes, atmosphere. It should invite the reader to open it. While it deals with the problems of the world, it should be upbeat and entertain. Maybe I’m off the mark, but from what I’ve seen so far, I really do wish Collier’s could be resurrected, with the same style and panache of its heyday.

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Reviews

Thomas TimberWolf

Thomas TimberWolf

Back in 2001, you could see some wonderful and innovative cartoons on the Internet. I’m talking about Thomas TimberWolf, an (unfortunately) short series made sometime in 2000-2001 by Chuck Jones and company. This series is possibly the last animation work of Chuck Jones, who died in 2002. This was about the same time that you could see some truly crappy cartoons on TV — not that things have improved much nowadays. But let’s get back to the good stuff…

One of the wonderful things about Thomas TimberWolf is that the series was done in Flash. While some of the smooth movement and art of hand-drawn cartoons was lost, what we gained was a small file size (about 2.8 MB for 5-6 minutes of fun) and vector art. Vector art?! Oh yeah. It means you can scale any of these cartoons up to whatever size you want, and the lines will still be smooth and crisp. No pixelation, no blurriness, only clear lines and colors. Wonderful!

Let’s also not forget that the cartoons themselves are great. I mean, c’mon, we’ve got an intellectual timber wolf with a tragi-comic flaw: every time he says the word “Timber!”, trees fall on him. He spends his days trying to avoid falling trees and not entirely succeeding. How can you not be entertained by that? 😀 What’s even better is that Chuck Jones’ signature style was retained during the computer animation process. We’ve got the same minimalistic gags, the familiar, endearing character art, and that wonderful, non-specific warm and fuzzy feeling that you get when you watch quality stuff. I can’t describe it, but any cartoon aficionado will probably know what I’m talking about.

Thomas TimberWolf was released on the Internet in 2001, and it seems that a short while after the series ended, the Flash files became easily accessible on various sites, without copyright restrictions. I’m not sure entirely sure about that, so don’t quote me on it, but that seems to be the case. At any rate, I believe I downloaded the episodes from this same site several years ago. They’re still up and available there, so that’s a good thing.

Although only 13 episodes got released to the public, there are about 6 more episodes available, and that’s straight from the horse’s mouth. Stephen Fossati, who created, directed, wrote and co-produced the series, said it sometime in 2005. Stephen Fossati is Chuck Jones’ only living protege and worked closely with him for about 10 years. Their collaboration culminated with the Thomas TimberWolf series. I would love to see the other episodes, and I wonder where they are. If anybody has information about them, please let me know.

If for some reason the site where the episodes are posted goes down, I have them and can post them here. I’m not sure about the legality of it. If someone can give me the all clear on it, I’ll gladly put them up.

So, while they’re still available, go download all of the episodes, and keep them safely on your hard drives. They should be preserved for posterity.

More information

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Thoughts

When animation trash gets called art

Last year, I stumbled over the blog of one of the directors for the Ren & Stimpy cartoons, by the name of Vincent Waller. I subscribed, curious to see what one of the people who’d worked on that horrible cartoon was doing nowadays. It didn’t take long for me to find out…

A few days later, he blogged about a cartoon made by one of his fans. He lavished so much praise on it that I watched it. It was an utter bunch of filth, filled with suggestive sex, curse words, violence and bestiality. It was done in the style of the Ren & Stimpy cartoons — same sort of animation, similar character movement, similar colors, etc.

I left a comment on his post, telling him that I couldn’t believe he’d posted that garbage to his blog. I honestly thought the guy knew better than that, but I was wrong. He deleted my comment. I left a subsequent comment. He deleted that as well. I contacted him via email. He answered back and seemed somewhat rational. I thought I might have a decent conversation with him, and I asked him out of sheer curiosity why the Ren & Stimpy cartoons ever got made. What was the rationale behind them? I told him I found them depressing altogether, and I found the subject matter crude and filthy. I said that as a child, I wanted to see cartoons on TV, and very often, only Ren & Stimpy were on in the evenings, so I had to watch them if I wanted to watch any cartoons at all.

He told me to go away and not bother him again. He said that there was something wrong with me, that I should have watched something else, and that he and the series creator happened to like them, and that’s why they got made. That was the end of that conversation.

But, it got me thinking about the people behind Ren & Stimpy and the other horrible cartoons that our children can watch on TV nowadays, or were able to watch until not long ago — stuff like Beavis and Butt-head, for example.

These people make this horrible crap that appeals to their sick and twisted minds, filled with all sorts of suggestive behavior and language meant for adults, and they put it on TV, where it gets shoved by the cartload into the minds of our children. Do they take any responsibility for their actions? No, they do not. They blame the viewer for watching their stuff if he or she complains.

What they also do not want to recognize is that stuff that’s on TV carries weight with people (yes, it still does, in spite of widespread cynicism). If it gets shown on the air, people assume it’s been vetted and there’s some merit to it. It’s a false assumption, I know, but most adults don’t know this, much less the children. They don’t know the stuff is crap. If it’s on Nickelodeon or the Cartoon Network, it must be good, right? Wrong.

Generally speaking, crap cartoon shows get made because the creator is friends with a network exec, or he’s worked on a successful series and can now pitch his idea with some leverage. But that doesn’t mean that these shows are any good or that they’ve been vetted responsibly. It only means they got into the channel through the back door, and yes, they smell like it, too. What’s more, series creators and directors often get “artistic freedom” once a show has been approved. Execs don’t dare censor stuff, because that would stifle the series’ “creativity” — and I use that word very loosely in this context. So a bunch of weirdos with no self-control get to put together shows that get shown to children. What’s more, they absolve themselves of any blame whatsoever if children are influenced negatively by their work, and call people who protest “legless, armless lumps” (that’s the term used on me by that director I mentioned in the first paragraph), because they should know better than to watch their stuff.

They do not want to acknowledge, however, that children do not yet have the power to filter things properly. They don’t have a fully developed moral compass, and more often than not, choose to sit in front of the TV and hope that something good is on. Or, these thoughtless, immature “artists” also pull out the parent argument. They say that parents ought to monitor what their kids watch. Well, it’s a bit difficult to do that when you’re at work and your child is at home. Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network are supposed to be fairly safe channels, so you can’t just disallow them altogether. If you can’t even allow them, what can you allow?

But does any of this register with them? No. All they care about is making their crap, expressing themselves “artistically”, and getting paid for making their crap.

The sad thing is that the creator of Ren & Stimpy (whose name is not worth mentioning here) is now enjoying some sort of fame, since he was one of the few people who still adhered to the old animation methods (storyboards, character development, hand drawings, etc.) when he made Ren & Stimpy. He’s getting praised on various animation sites for that, and for contributing heavily to the ASIFA-Hollywood Animation Archive.

I think ALL of that praise is misplaced… You can follow all of the right methods, you can make all the storyboards you want, you can draw painstakingly well, but if your original vision is horrible, the end result will be horrible as well. Ren & Stimpy should have never made it to TV. It should have been released to tape, and I bet if that had happened, we’d have it archived in obscure, seldom-seen videos on YouTube, uploaded and viewed by a few animation geeks, because no one else would have liked it.

In spite of the fact that this man is doing his part to preserve a somewhat lost art in animation, he’s a poor example of putting that art to work. Judging by the stuff he’s created so far, he’s not fit to hold a candle to Preston Blair or any other of the Golden Age animators he is aping. There’s a LOT to be said about censorship in animation, and Disney, in spite of all his shortcomings, had a very, very bright idea when he kept an iron grip on what got made and put out at his company. He made sure it was okay to show to children. The man was a genius.

I’ve done a lot of talking about bad cartoons in this post. What about good cartoons? What cartoons do I think are appropriate for children? Well, it just so happens that I wrote a post on how to find cartoons for children last year. It’s a good read, so have a look at that. I encourage parents out there, and the younger folks as well, if you’re looking for good cartoons, don’t stop looking, and don’t settle for garbage. Go looking for better stuff. If you have to buy DVDs, buy them. You can also rent from Netflix.

Make sure the stuff you watch is good stuff. You’ll know it’s good stuff because it’s the stuff that makes you feel warm, fuzzy and comfortable when you watch it. When you get up after watching it, you feel happier and better. Look for the good stuff, and let the bad stuff go to waste, because that’s where it belongs.

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