by Kevin Wollenweber
There has been talk on so many cartoon or classic movie-related websites coming from disgruntled fans of older animated characters who justifiably wince at these beloved older characters being reinvented as live action figures, in some way believable by a more sophisticated movie-going audience. I know I cringe at the possibilities on the table of yet another reincarnation and reinvention of Tom & Jerry, now as CGI figures, along with Yogi Bear, with Booboo being rumored to receive the voice talents of Justin Timberlake!! Huh?
Now, look, I’m not going to sit here and spew at the talents of Justin Timberlake. Believe it or not, I know very little of his music, having not readily been exposed to it or, more accurately, purposely not exposing myself to it. To my ears, his fame came at a time when I thought that most of the pop talent on the charts sounded way too much alike to the point where a clueless individual like me wouldn’t know whether or not I’m listening to one major artist or the other, and this seemed so incredibly true, especially, of the female talent that seemed to lend so much lip service to emphasizing individuality as a major creative goal!!
However, it is not really my place or intention to spit venom at the talent of younger generations, not only because I don’t regularly listen to it, but also because mine is obviously not the generation that the music is aimed at; and, well, I remember growing up surrounded by albums of my favorite artists, some of which are no longer in my collection, having unfortunately been replaced by passable compact disk versions as the only representation of having once cherished the albums in question. Yet, I think even I, as hip as I thought I was at the time, would cringe if, say, Neil Young was suddenly voicing an old favorite cartoon character like a Ranger Smith or even Jet Screamer, that blink-of-an-eye phenomenon that won the heart of Judy Jetson on the second episode of the popular “JETSONS” TV show from Hanna-Barbera Studios!!
Why would anyone, young or old, think that someone like Justin Timberlake could become Booboo Bear? Why would Timberlake, himself, want that on his acting resume? Ooh, and I’ll bet that Britney Spears will become Cindy, and Yogi and Booboo would, thus, face off in a ninja battle for her affections? Ugh, there I go, doing what I just insisted I didn’t want to do. Forgive me, but the whole reinvention thing seems so incredibly silly to me and, many times, a violation of what I’d always held dear about favorite cartoons of my youth.
I’ve realized that the real joy of attempting a live action version of a classic cartoon character would have to include the actual look and feel of that cartoon. I smile to think of, say, what a live action version of Roger Ramjet would look like. It wouldn’t be Ramjet unless you had actual recreations, using physical and visual camera tricks, of the 20-second fight sequences in all its dated silliness, complete with shaking cameras and bizarre bits of violence (Ramjet biting someone’s toe or merely pinching someone in a battle—twice the silliness of the 1960’s “BATMAN” television show or something like that, for example), completely bloodless and comic book-like. The first thing that such an endeavor would seek out is all the sexual innuendo that this series really did have. You carefully listen to the dialogue of a classic Ramjet short, and you’ll be able to pick out bits of phrasing that make you snicker in wonderment as to why the censors didn’t scream and yell about that bit of phrasing like they do now about a strategically placed gunshot in an old LOONEY TUNES cartoon in which the gun violence seemed to automatically show us kids that guns could hurt you in the hands of idiots (like Elmer Fudd or Yosemite Sam).
It is hard for me to talk about the subliminal messages in some ROGER RAMJET cartoons without sounding like some snarky individual on You Tube tacking on an expletive where it doesn’t belong; so I will only tell fans of the series to listen again to the cartoons and you’ll definitely see what I mean. I think a well-written ROGER RAMJET movie would be quite successful, but if all that anyone today ever gets out of the series is that there are double meanings within the dialogue, then you’ve already missed the point. The wacky slapstick has to be there, almost outdoing that of the Three Stooges, because that is what a real golden age cartoon was all about!!
This is why I enjoy discussing my dimming memories of old celluloid movie tricks, like under-cranking and hand-held camera effects. In the mid-1960’s, there were live action commercials that were as wacky as an animated cartoon. I’d often hoped that these would someday be found again, as I’ve pointed out in earlier posts, so filmmakers could see just what would actually make a brilliant adaptation from animated cartoon to live action. It is the look and the timing of a gag, and it was always a marvel to me that the actors subjecting themselves to the slapstick torture really knew what timing was all about and what would “read” at top speed if that particular technique were used and what wouldn’t.
But, alas, not only is it incredibly expensive to make these live action retreads of classic animated cartoons or animated movie figures, but most of them turn out to have little to do with the actual cartoon, as if the producer and director are finally acknowledging, with a wink, that the cartoon isn’t relevant to them at all. Okay, I can understand this feeling of no real connection, but then why are you doing this to begin with if you haven’t the enthusiasm or compassion or just plain passion for it? And, when trying to come up with a type of character that you *THINK* would be appealing to general audiences, why do you pick a character that cannot really be done well?
Look at what was done to “UNDERDOG”. Okay, I did find it mildly amusing that, in this particular adaptation, the character’s alter-ego got his name because he regularly went around licking and nipping at the ankles of the bumbling humans within his universe, but, as the film progresses, my interest wanes and I ultimately nod off because this Disney-like adventure film totally missed the point of the original series, a total spoof of the super hero adventure cliffhanger, either animated or live action. The Underdog character is a bumbling super hero who destroys as much real estate in fighting crime as he saves the lives of those within the big city, and the character of Shoeshine Boy is the ultimate spoof of that mighty superhero adopting a mild-mannered persona.
And how can one beat the voice talents of Wally Cox, someone whom I’d come to enjoy on his “HOLLYWOOD SQUARE” appearances for his deadpan, mild-mannered delivery with that smirk on his face? I don’t think we have the likes of Wally Cox around anymore!
And I guess that all the observations of “ALVIN & THE CHIPMUNKS” have already been expressed far too many times and, to many of these observers, the new incarnations are really strange, *ESPECIALLY* if you’re approaching this from a literal point of view, as if all that was formerly animated now has to be given some sort of convoluted logic and we now, for instance, have to ponder the relationship between Dave Seville as guardian/parent (?) and his “charges”, these three woodland creatures who are now the world’s singing sensation a la the Backstreet Boys or whatever boy band is the flavor of the moment! (John K. and Ralph Bakshi were probably the first to ponder the creepy implications of such an arrangement–and they did it 20 years ago. Apparently the producers of “Alvin and the Chipmunks” never saw that particular “Mighty Mouse” episode, or they have no more a sense of irony than the producers of “Underdog”–Rachel).
Knowing of the excesses of the music industry, you would think that the ALVIN & THE CHIPMUNKS franchise would be the perfect comedy antidote; well not when the idea is making something just as obnoxious that little kids can latch onto! “THE ALVIN SHOW” featuring the voice talents of Ross Bagdasarian, creator of the Chipmunk phenomenon and its leader, the rambunctious Alvin, includes, as part of its dialogue and songs, so many pokes at the music business that you could almost say that the live action “MONKEES” had its link to the cartoon since both featured music recorded and released to intentionally promote the shows in question and both never took themselves seriously!
But I’ve seen reinventions of ALVIN & THE CHIPMUNKS and it really bothers me that most of these, with a heavy hand, end up doing exactly the opposite of what the original novelty records set out to do! Recreating novelties like this and making them kid-friendly is once again making the same mistake of misunderstanding, perhaps, why someone like Stan Freberg got into television commercials. Freberg was a special talent because he approached television commercials as someone who couldn’t understand why anyone would take the average hard sell of anything seriously!! He was given the chore of doing a commercial for a candy bar with a bizarre name; so does he go on and give us a song and dance about how good it tastes? No! He does a whole commercial around how ridiculous the name of the candy is! We’re left holding our sides with laughter and, well, I’d go out and buy me a few of those candy bars *BECAUSE* someone as intelligent and hip as Stan Freberg was hired to pump up the volume with an ad as wacky as this!! Somebody get me a crate of Zagnut Candy Bars, please!!
Likewise, I want my live action cartoons to be absolutely as wacky. Even if you’re out to make a lewd and disgusting live action film with the constant dizzying pace of a Frank Tashlin or Bob Clampett cartoon, please make it funny, and understand that the humor of the original cartoon character isn’t somehow forgotten in favor of something that is family friendly! I beg you to sit through the “PRIVATE SNAFU” series if you think that Warner Brothers cartoons were made specifically to babysit your child. These were the same minds that gave us Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny and twisted cartoons that date back to the age when we were striving to get far enough away from the cute Walt Disney template and give animation its own place in creative history, not entirely because we loathed anything Disney. Why shouldn’t Disney be honored for what he’s tried to do, how he tried to uniquely tell a story that would be embraced by people of many languages? He’s done something remarkable, here, but there have been cartoons made on a smaller scale and budget that are also beloved for entirely different reasons.
I would go so far as to say that there has never been a kid-friendly character created during the years I watched and enjoyed such things on TV that didn’t have sly adult references that allowed our parents to laugh as well, knowing that the cartoon in question was not talking down to us.
(That approach even applied to shows like “Sesame Street”:
KERMIT THE FROG: (to fairytale princess): Are you a damsel in distress?
PRINCESS: (points to outfit): What do you think this is, a pantsuit?–Rachel)
I will be interested to see how the former kids of the 1980’s, going forward, will remember their childhood favorites as broadcast on TV. Yeah, I guess that, ten years down the road, someone will want to tackle something like, say, a POWER PUFF GIRLS movie and, hey, something like that might fly because there would still be those alive who fondly recall the characters and would want to retain the look and feel of the original series as homage to it.
In the first place, the series even became popular with older cartoon-watchers, because it also had some sly light topical references and I’d heard that this series helped bring back the animated visual gag which is something that has been lost in the age of talking head or animated radio type cartoons in which the character often yelled out to the audience what another character might have been doing offscreen so the artists involved would be able to shortcut the production and not have to actually animate such antics, a technique that, to me, slowed down the pace of an otherwise great cartoon!
We have to realize that the marketing of classic cartoons is something that the various video companies have yet to really determine. These wacky little personalities of a bygone era cannot be reinvented, because the audience you’re trying to reach is already well aware of the shortcomings and successes of the cartoon in question and, so, the live action adaptation would have no real link, in the minds of that audience, beyond its clumsy attempt at imitation of an atmosphere and antic that the filmmaker of the present age, in his or her apathy,fails to understand. In this way, the studio trying this experiment has already alienated both the kids and the adults who adored the 2-D antics of the original cartoon character on its own naïve level. I don’t expect, for example, a reinvention of something like the HAPPY HARMONIES series of cartoons that not only launched the animation which would be done at MGM studios for nearly four decades, but also, in their own way, celebrated bits of music of various genres found mainly in the public domain or legally owned by the studio, mainly because the cartoons are incredibly dated and, save for oddball action romps like “CIRCUS DAZE”, previously discussed by both of us here, really aim themselves at the same audience that enjoys the similar SILLY SYMPHONIES series from the man, Walt Disney, and his mouse named Mickey and duck named Donald and various other barnyard babies.
If something like a reinvention of a HAPPY HARMONIES series were to be done, I would instead make the music the key factor, utilizing bits of jazz, from big band to bebop in a wave of atmospheric choreographed celebrations of the ages in which the music was popular, perhaps somewhat similar to the live action swing and big band shorts recently released among the Warner Archives collections. I would dabble in black and white as the scheme or look of the film in much the same way as the animators of the day had done and only use the analogue equipment to “age” the film as celebration of music’s unique past, more like an extension of what Uncle Walt had started with “FANTASIA” and some of the more musical cartoons from the SILLY SYMPHONIES. The Max Fleischer and Walter Lantz studios did this quite well at times in their short cartoons of the 1930’s and 1940’s, but caricatures abound and some of these would be perceived as insensitive slaps in the faces of those who made their names as being genuinely talented.
If animation is to be honored for its versatility, then it has to be approached as a flexible art form and understood throughout all the years it was alive and well. It is still alive and well today, but it flounders and remains in its usual safe corners all too often, and this causes me to stay in my safe little corner with the old films, totally uncensored for those who understand and appreciate them for what they are, even as cruel as they can be. Yes, they show our blemishes and missteps as much as they celebrate our triumphs, similar to the live action films they accompanied in theaters or the TV shows they played alongside on our airwaves.
All I’m asking for is that we be allowed the unmarred originals to enjoy again and again. Sure, it is possible that the quantities to be sold will be far less than, say, the next installment or chapter in a current popular animated series. That’s to be fully realized because future generations want something to call their own just as we enjoyed our Beatles, Stones, Dylan, Sinatra, Rooney & Garland, Astaire & Rogers, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Tom & Jerry, Popeye, Betty Boop, etc., not necessarily in that order! It all has its place and time *AND* it still can be appreciated as something phenomenal if the proper history lesson is attached. Those history lessons can now be applied to video releases. It is the reason why we thoroughly enjoyed the many movie boxes that Warner Brothers was releasing, often giving the purchaser a taste of what it was like to attend a theatrical showing of the film in question. How sad that other video companies have never taken the hint of what Warner Brothers had started and run amuck with it, and how sad that Warner Brothers has seemingly discontinued such carefully researched packages. It was delightful to sit through the FORBIDDEN HOLLYWOOD or BUSBY BERKELEY collections, for example, and listen to the wealth of music and animated mayhem, sometimes even seeing the performers who were all too often only remembered for their caricatures in the classic cartoons. Those are the monumental projects that I know I’d always hoped for…at least one more time!!