Sunday, March 3, 2013

10 Most Important Events of the Theatrical Animation in the Television Era of Animation

It is difficult to identify exactly where the television era of animation began or ended.  I would label The Secret of NIMH in 1982 as the official start of the renaissance, but it would take animation several years to take off.  It is easiest to look at the sixties and seventies as the TV era, with some overlap in the fifties and eighties.  Theatrical efforts during this period was dwindling and sporadic, with few features and most studios closing their animation departments.  These are the few memorable events that eventually led to the renaissance.
10. Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)
Disney's adaptation of Winnie the Pooh was released as three shorts in 1966, 1968 and 1974 before being packaged together in 1977.  Winnie the Pooh has become one of the most beloved franchises in animation.  Disney's adaptation really immortalized Milne's stories and these cartoons hold up better than almost any other cartoons of the sixties and seventies.  This simple, lovable cartoon was one of the few worthwhile efforts from Disney animators of the time.

9. Bambi Meets Godzilla (1969)
This short is a minute and a half including opening and closing credits and is composed of only one gag.  But it is a really good gag.  The timing and simplicity is perfect.  This represents the rise of independent animator's succeeding outside of the weak studio system.  This short had a large enough impact to earn the 39th slot in the book the 50 Greatest Cartoons.

8. Yellow Submarine (1968)
I have only been including American cartoons in these blog posts, and I suppose technically this is an American movie as it was made for the Beatles to finish their contract with United Artists.  Yellow Submarine was one of only a handful successful non-Disney animated features to succeed in theatres before 1985.  It is still commonly seen as a head trip, but the artistry is unique and iconic.  This movie represents one of the few times of the TV era that animation was able to tap into the zeitgeist.  This is one of the best animated features in history and remains a strong part of pop culture and the visuals are just as memorable as the Beatles' songs.

7. Pink Phink (1964)
Animation studios began closing or moving to television in the fifties.  By the sixties the grand tradition of the studio theatrical short was almost extinct.  However for a short while DePatie-Freleng, a new studio that was cofounded by legendary Termite Terrace member, Friz Freleng, brought the art form back.  DePatie-Freleng had animated the memorable title sequence for the Peter Sellars' movie and the sleek feline spun off into his own series in this fun short.  With its accent on music and almost minimalist style, Pink Panther cartoons were well animated and enjoyable.  DePatie-Freleng animated a few other characters and even took over Looney Tunes with forgettable new characters before going exclusively to television.  But starting a new animation studio that specialized in shorts at this time was a risk and DePatie and Freleng should be commended for it.  Their initial cartoon is still one of the most memorable shorts of all time.

6. Walter Lantz Calls it Quits (1972)
Walter Lantz is an interesting luminary in animation.  He did not innovate like his peers Walt Disney and Max Fliescher.  His cartoons did meet the artistic heights of Warner Bros., MGM or UPA in their heyday.  But Walter Lantz did not cut corners like Paul Terry or Famous Studios.  He was a good person that made good cartoons and was respected among in his field.  He gave a home to legendary animators Shamus Culhane, Dick Lundy, Tex Avery and others when they longed for a better working environment.  Probably the most notable accomplishment of this great man was that he outlasted all of his competitors.  He loved animation and did it longer than anyone.  In 1972, the man who had been creating animated shorts since 1929, closed his long running studio.  It may have closed without much fanfare, but the legacy and longevity of Lantz deserves acknowledgement.  His 43 years in the business is a testament to the power of passion.

5. Mary Poppins (1964)
Mary Poppins was a masterpiece.  Everything Walt did in animation, music and live-action led to this iconic feature and he was certainly recognized for it.  This is primarily considered a live-action movie, but the animation is what makes it a great fantasy.  Mary Poppins feels like a fantasy because she enters a world that is clearly animated and she interacts believably in it.  The combination of live-action and animation still holds up and has really only been matched by Roger Rabbit.  Mary Poppins has the heart of an animated feature.  It is one of the movies that can get stodgy critics and audiences to appreciate animation.  Animation can be used anywhere in any way.  This movie is a true testament to the art form.

4. Production of Thief and the Cobbler (Started Production in 1964, Still Kind of in Production)
Also a testament to passion is Richard Williams' unrealized magnum opus.  The failure for this movie to complete under its creator is one of Hollywood's greatest travesties.  Williams intended this to change the animated feature and had it been released in the sixties it likely would have.  Williams took many commercial projects such as A Christmas Carol, Raggedy Ann and Andy: A Musical Adventures and Who Framed Roger Rabbit for which he won an Oscar to fund it.  However after losing control of the film after 28 years in production, it was shoddily completed and quietly released failing to live up to its creator's vision.  Williams, devastated, gave up on ever finishing his dream or even discussing it.  There is a cut on YouTube, edited by a fan utilizing test footage along with completed scenes.  The world never got to fully witness what Richard Williams had wanted to share, but the fact that during the sixties an animator was able to take that much of a risk was unheard of.  In a time when animation was strictly relegated for Saturday mornings this amount of effort and passion was incredible.

3. Don Bluth's Exodus (1979)
Disney's Nine Old Men were getting older and less active in the studio.  Disney animation had not been good in years.  One of the only highlights of Disney in the seventies was the work of Bluth which stood out in The Rescuers, Pete's Dragon and his directorial debut of Small One.  He was a leader at Disney, but he had grown frustrated with the legendary studio.  He took comrades Gary Goldman, John Pomeroy and sixteen other animators on an exodus to create his own studio and try to save the art form of animation.  The audacity and ambition of Bluth was almost unheard of in the seventies.  It took and his animators time to find success, but gradually they animated Banjo the Woodpile Cat, animation in Xanadu and finally Secret of NIMH which was the first important event of the renaissance.  After Land Before Time Bluth definitely lost his way and never really returned to the quality or influence of his first three features.  However leaving Disney in that fashion got people's attention and was something that needed to happen for things to change for the better.

2. Fritz the Cat (1972)
The most influential figure in animation during the TV era was Ralph Bakshi, a Terrytoons animator that changed the way people saw animation.  His features were controversial and shocking.  The first feature was the X-Rated Fritz the Cat, which was a huge box-office success.  The first cartoon that was really intended for adults without requiring accessibility for children.  From Fritz Bakshi went on to direct more adult features such as Heavy Traffic and American Pop as well as high fantasy features such as Wizards and Lord of the Rings.  Bakshi's features have not maintained popularity outside of the seventies, they were really products of their time.  However this was one of the most ambitious and risky moves an animator had ever made.  The influence of Bakshi is still with us today and he remains one of the most important, well-known names in animation history.

1. Death of Walt Disney (1966)
Animation had never suffered as much of a blow as when its spokesperson passed away.  His own studio which was the driving force in the industry for decades took almost 25 years to recover.  Now Walt's ambition had moved on from animated shorts and features as his focus shifted to live-action, television and theme parks.  But the spirit of animation spilled into every project he undertook.  With Mary Poppins being released two years prior to his passing one can only imagine how he might have followed it up or even topped it.  There has never been anyone like Walt Disney and the animation industry benefited immensely from his involvement and guidance.  His death really represented the end of the old guard and animation pioneers.

10 Most Important Animated Series of the Television Era of Animation

The Television Era of Animation is also known as the Dark Age of Animation.  Animation went from innovative mass entertainment for children and adults to being strictly regulated for children.  The process of animation became cheap and economical and a lot of the theatrical quality and creativity did not translate to the limitations of weekly television.  But the TV era took place across thirty years and there was a lot of cartoons produced for TV.  As much as this era is looked down upon animator's did manage to create several quality shows.  These were the highlights of the sixties and seventies.  The one's that hold up against the view of history.

10. The Mighty Heroes (21 episodes, 1966, CBS)
Ralph Bakshi's TV series was short lived but certainly stands out among the other comedies of the period.  This is a precursor to Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures, which went on to be one of the most important cartoon's of the renaissance.  Mighty Heroes did not have much lasting popularity and the characters have been used sparingly.  But this is a rare example of a wacky television cartoon that is not based around stock gags or a laugh track.

9. Tom Terrific (26 episodes, 1957-1959, CBS)
This aired in five minutes segments as part of Captain Kangaroo.  All in black and white with very limited animation.  But it does hold the personality and artistic stamp of creator Gene Deitch.  The concept is that the boy can turn into anything and has adventures with Manfred the Wonder Dog.  Just full of imagination, which was something that many television cartoons sadly lacked.

8. Schoolhouse Rock (64 episodes, 1973-1985, ABC)
One of the few educational cartoons that I would actually call educational.  Decades after these aired my ninth grade English teacher showed us these and we actually learned a lot about grammar.  These are effective, memorable and creative shorts.  Both animation and education strive with being accessible and fun, too bad the two do not always work well together.

7. Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids (110 episodes, 1972-1985, CBS and Syndication)
Educational cartoons were not a huge industry in the seventies and eighties.  Usually educational content in cartoons during this time were a formality to keep watchdog groups satisfied.  But Fat Albert was actually created around morals.  The setting of Fat Albert is interesting because it was familiar to the target audience.  Fat Albert targeted and understood children that entertainment often ignores.  This is also the perfect example of celebrity involvement in animation.  Bill Cosby was not just allowing his name to be used for marketing purposes, this was his concept and he believed in the mission of it.

6. Jonny Quest (26 episodes, 1964-1965, ABC)
Hanna-Barbera was able to reuse concepts and designs time and time again.  But every now and then they were able to create something truly unique.  Jonny Quest holds up well.  The animation is certainly limited and made for the assembly line, but the backgrounds and settings are above average.  Also it is notable how the humans are designed realistically rather than caricatured.  At the time this series was controversial for violence and suspense, it certainly holds up as a fun adventure.

5. Beany and Cecil (26 episodes, 1962, ABC)
Bob Clampett is best known for directing classic Looney Tunes such as Porky in Wackyland, Porky's Duck Hunt and The Great Piggy Bank Robbery, but the legendary animator created some of television's first enduring and most imaginative characters.  The animation in Beany and Cecil is much cleaner than most sixties animation and the characters are better designed.  It did not last long on TV and its eighties update by John Kricfalusi was even shorter, but it certainly stands out among the bland efforts of the television era.

4. Peanuts specials (45 specials, 1965-present, CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox)
I should probably mention the Dr. Seuss and Rankin-Bass specials on this list, but I have mentioned Christmas specials many other times on this blog.  But I really wanted to mention the Peanuts special because Charlie Brown and animation have had a mutually beneficial relationship for over fifty years.  Charles Schulz was heavily involved in A Charlie Brown Christmas (the best holiday special of all time) and several other classics.  Not all of the Charlie Brown cartoons are hits, but at their very worst they feature the great humor of Charles Schulz.  One of the best innovations of the television era was the annual special.  The Charlie Brown and Snoopy cartoons are still loved and seen by many every year.

3. Disneyland (hard to say, 1954-1986, ABC, NBC and CBS)
Disney was able to benefit from television unlike any other.  Instead of just selling his filmography to networks Walt was proactive and produced the best television entertainment of the time.  Animation in particular benefited from the anthology series as old shorts and movies were able to find new audiences and be reused in new ways.  However unlike other theatrical short showcases such as The Woody Woodpecker Show or the Looney Tunes anthologies the cartoons were really only edited for time not content.  But the long running TV show did not just reuse old material, it created new animation such as those found in the legendary Tomorrowland episodes and even created a memorable new character, Ludwig von Drake.  This was animated by Walt's top-notch staff and was lead by many animation luminaries, most notably Ward Kimball.  The series also was able to give audiences a look behind the scenes in episodes such as The Plausible Impossible.  Walt Disney's anthology series did not exclusively feature animation, but it was always impressive when it did.

2. Rocky and Bullwinkle (163 episodes, 1959-1964, ABC and NBC)
Chuck Jones dubbed television animation, "illustrated radio."  This was because these cartoons relied on scripts, voice acting and soundtracks to overcome limited animation.  The best illustrated cartoon was definitely the works of Jay Ward.  These cartoons were really nothing special to look at, although the characters had memorable designs.  But the jokes were sharp and nonstop and the voice acting was top-notch.  Rocky and Bullwinkle was Jay Ward's greatest success.  Relevant, yet timeless.  It managed to combine lowbrow humor with wit and intelligence.  This cartoon could even be considered a precursor to South Park.  Rocky and Bullwinkle holds up as one of the best television shows of all time, animated or otherwise.

1. The Flintstones (166 episodes, 1960-1966, ABC)
Hanna-Barbera really owned television animation for thirty years.  They were prolific and created many memorable, marketable characters.  However they never animated anything as good as The Flintstones.  The Flintstones is not a masterpiece, it is derivative and not well animated.  But the visual style, stock jocks and characters are iconic.  This series is possibly the only television cartoon that was equally enjoyed by children and adults.  This was something families watched together and enjoyed together.  It managed to succeed in primetime for six years and even received a nomination for Best Comedy (something only Family Guy would accomplish in 2009, in a year with seven nominees).  This series is fun and has reached a status of timeless.  The franchise definitely seems to hold diminishing returns, the spin-offs and movies not being all that great.  But the original series was revolutionary and represents the best of the television era of animation.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

10 Most Important Animated Series of the Animation Renaissance

The animation renaissance that I would date from 1982 to 1994 is my favorite era of entertainment.  I was born in 1991 and grew up with the influence and impact of these cartoons.  The renaissance is when animation was able to reach new audiences, new levels of success and heights of quality.  The medium reestablished itself as an indispensable part of our culture.  Here is a look at the most important animated series of this exciting period.

10. Tiny Toon Adventures (98 episodes, 1990-1992, Syndication and Fox Kids)
They're Tiny, they're Toony, they're all a really great.  Tiny Toon Adventures was the first television cartoon that Steven Spielberg was a producer on.  This was Warner Bros. animation's return to fame, the studio would reach heights they hadn't seen since the Termite Terrace shorts.  Tiny Toons is unlike any other franchise update, it creates its own characters and identity while being true to the spirit and quality of the original Looney Tunes.  The characters match up with Bugs and Daffy but are able to have their own identities and dynamics.  Also this series features great appearances from the original Looney Tunes, bridging the two generations.  This series is full of sight gags, pop culture irreverence and wit.  It is everything that Warner Bros. does at their best.

9. Gargoyles (78 episodes, 1994-1997, Disney Afternoon and ABC)
Disney theatrical animation was the king of the animation renaissance, but the output of Walt Disney Television Animation was just as influential.  The Disney cartoon with the biggest following is easily this action cartoon.  The tight storytelling, heavy action and high quality designs were unseen in television animation.  TV animation is normally economical and made for the assembly line, but everything about Gargoyles (the writing and the art) was an artistic endeavor.  This show has a strong, dedicated fan base.  The legacy of the show has continued in comics written by series creator Greg Weisman.

8. VeggieTales (48 episodes, 1993-present, Home Video)
Not a TV series like the rest of this, this was an original series for a whole different medium.  VeggieTales is important because it was created by nonprofessionals for a market that was not being reached.  The fun characters and funny gags were different from the sanitized, uncreative material that conservative Christians usually receive and they have supported the franchise for twenty years.  The series with a message is so accessible that it has a large following outside of Christian children.  It is rare to see animation used for something outside of money, but VeggieTales is continuing proof that the medium can be used for anything.  It is also a great example of early successful computer animation.

7. Animaniacs (99 episodes, 1993-1998, Fox Kids and Kids' WB)
Tiny Toons brought Warner Bros. back, and the studio continued to improve with this fun series.  Irreverent and wacky, Animaniacs pulls no punches and follows no formulas.  It is a return to animation for the sake of fun and it really holds up.  The series gifted us with great characters, jokes and really catchy songs.  The series spun off into Pinky and the Brain, continuing the incredible collaborations of Spielberg and WB.

6. Batman: The Animated Series (85 episodes, 1992-1995, Fox Kids)
This is the best comic book adaptations have ever been.  This is better than superhero movies and even superhero comics.  This series had a great grasp on Batman in the characterization and the visual style of Gotham.  The series was dark and mature, but exciting and fun enough to win over kids as well as adults.  The universe was so real that it expanded into feature films and further adaptations of DC comics: Superman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond and Justice League.  This show was so good that it did not stop with this show, the legacy of it is still being felt in the comic books.

5. DuckTales (100 episodes, 1987-1990, Syndication and Disney Afternoon)
Disney's greatest television success.  It was made in a time when toyetic, cheaply produced assembly line animation ruled the airwaves and audiences responded with this change in quality.  DuckTales had a high budget, the best animation a TV series could have and great characters.  The series had varied adventures, rather than sticking to one formula.  It kept the spirit of the Carl Barks comics, immortalizing Scrooge and his nephews and gifting the world with the breakout character of Launchpad.  DuckTales was successful well into the nineties and is still remembered fondly today.

4. Ren and Stimpy (52 episodes, 1991-1996, Nickelodeon)
Television animation is rarely associated with an artist or creator, Ren and Stimpy is the exception.  The star of the series was really the style and personality of John Kricfalusi.  Animation die hards watched this series as well as mainstream children audiences.  Today, Nicktoons are the most successful cartoons on television and that started in 1991.  But while the other initial Nicktoons were runaway hits (Rugrats) or supported by the network (Doug), Ren and Stimpy was remembered as a great piece of animation.  The surrealism and mature humor is still unlike anything in TV animation.

3. Adventures of the Gummi Bears (64 episodes, 1985-1991, NBC and ABC)
While this is one of Disney's best animated series it is hard to argue that it is better than DuckTales or Gargoyles.  Other cartoons from Walt Disney Television Animation such as Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers, TaleSpin, Darkwing Duck and many others seem to have larger followings but this was the start of quality TV animation in general.  Disney put money into the animation and storytelling, it was unlike the cheap efforts from Hanna-Barbera or the cheaper efforts of Filmation.  Gummi Bears was when television animation became more than just a pastime or diversion for children.  Gummi Bears' influence is still being felt today.

2. Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures (19 episodes, 1987-1988, CBS)
While this popular series only aired 19 episodes due to resistance from watchdog groups (in one of the most ridiculous controversies of all time), the field of animation was watching.  Read any animation article or book from 1987 on and chances are this series will be mentioned.  Animators and aficionados hold this show in such high regard because it was the first time on television that a cartoon was lead by an artist's vision.  This was not made to sell toys, it was made to entertain by luminaries that believed in it.  Ralph Bakshi, John Kricfalusi, Andrew Stanton, Bruce Timm, Rich Moore and many other animation luminaries worked on this show or got their start on it.  The humor of the series led to Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Ren and Stimpy, Animaniacs and many others.  This series was pleasing to the eyes, the heart and the funny bone.  It was short lived, but its influence was monumental.

1. The Simpsons (521 episodes, 1989-present, Fox)
This was not just a cartoon that was enjoyed by animation buffs.  It was not just enjoyed by children.  This was a pop culture phenomenon that everybody was watching.  It had an older target audience, but found its way into pretty much every demographic.  One of the few times that a cartoon had that large and lasting of a reach.  The Simpsons is continuing today and holds a lot of weight worldwide.  Definitely the most important television cartoon of all time.