Monday, March 18, 2013

How TV Nearly Killed Cartoons (Animation of the 1970s-80s)


If you consider the above actually good, your nostalgia filter needs desperate cleaning.

Many people have a hard time recalling animated television series from the 1970s to the earlier half of the 1980s and the ones they do mostly are for a bad reason. Limited animation had been used for about ten years prior to the invention of television, but was created for artistic purposes not for budget reasons. UPA, as mentioned earlier on this blog, was a pioneer in the field. Some of the studio's most famous creations include Mr. Magoo, Gerald McBoing Boing, and the feature length film Gay Purr-ee. Other studios began to catch on to the popularity of limited animation and companies such as Hannah Barbara began to realize that the technique could also be used to save money. By the time television had become commonplace, animated series turned to limited techniques in order to deal with smaller budgets and produce large numbers of episodes. American cartoons also became increasingly more 'kid friendly' to appease moral watchdogs and sensitive parents. By the late 1960s, theatrical cartoons were no more.   

Lack of budget (and creativity) resulted in many shortcuts. 

Early on animation on television was certainly aimed for the family crowd, but was of decent quality. Jay Ward is fondly remembered for bringing TV its first cartoon, Crusader Rabbit, in 1949 and for The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show (1959-1964). His cartoons had simple yet appealing character designs, good voice acting, and had humor both for children and adults alike. Hannah Barbera's earlier cartoons also were fairly enjoyable for a period of time. Huckleberry Hound and Yogi Bear became household names and The Flintstones (1960-1966) was the first primetime cartoon and had a sizable older fan base, paving way for shows such as The Simpsons three decades later. Another noteworthy cartoon was Beany and Cecil (1962-1969) by ex-Warner Bros animator Bob Clampett, which was well known for its crazy humor, slapstick, and puns.


Crusader Rabbit, the first cartoon to be made for TV.



Jay Ward and Hannah Barbera made excellent cartoons early on. 

Sadly, this would not last. As the temptation of milling out more and more cartoons at lower and lower production costs loomed, the quality of TV animation plummeted drastically. This made the business executives very happy and appeased more conservative groups wanting safe, sanitized cartoons for their children. And since young children will watch anything put in front of their faces, they did not complain about the low quality of these new cartoons and many weren't even exposed to older theatrical animated series or TV series to compare them to. (Unless, in some circumstances, these older programs were censored.) The regime of Saturday morning cartoons and educational programs were demanded by groups such as Action for Children's Television. Thus, public opinion changed to treating animation as 'kid's stuff' an attitude that still persists to a certain degree today. Filmation, Hannah Barbera, Ruby-Spears, and other companies regurgitated Scooby-Doo knock-offs and stale storylines at an astounding rate. The dismay of unhappy animators and certain film critics were largely ignored.

This was a great blow to many artists in the medium who had to work on cheap products in order to stay competitive. The influential cartoons of Warner Brothers, MGM, UPA, and other former powerhouses had gone by the wayside. Disney was struggling just to stay alive at a certain point and was even at danger of closing a few times. (Which is almost unimaginable today considering how much of a monopoly the studio has become!) Walt had died, many of Disney's older animators had left or retired, and traditional animation at the studio had become very expense. (This was due to Sleeping Beauty not earning back its cost at the box-office, forcing Disney to rely heavily on xerography tracing and recycling animation from its previous films.) The result of these unfortunate studio woes resulted in an extreme dearth of creativity. Mediocre or just plain terrible TV shows dominated, including the likes of The Archie Show (1968-1970), The Groovie Goolies (1970), The Jackson 5ive (1971-1973), Super Friends (1973-1985), and Jabberjaw (1976-1978).


The animators were so lazy, they didn't even bother to color in the eyes.


One word: gaudy. 


Let's pitch a Scooby-Doo clone, but with a shark...in a band! Brilliant, the kids will never notice!

The quality of American television animation continued to decline into the 1980s due to over-excessive merchandising. Many 'popular' cartoons of the era were little more than product commercials solely created to get parents to buy toys for the their children. Cartoons following this trend included Transformers, My Little Pony, Care Bears, He-man, Jem, and even a show about a rubik's cube. Super Hero cartoons sanitized for younger audiences, such as, The New Adventures of Batman (1977) and Spider-Friends (1981-1983), were also common at the time. Speaking of sanitized, it is rather hilarious that several R-rated movies were adapted into Saturday morning cartoons. Parents were actually ok with their childern watching pc versions of Rambo and Robo-cob?! Video game based shows also plagued the 80's, the most notorious being The Super Mario Bros Super Show and The Legend of Zelda (both 1989). 


Umm, wow. How was this even made? It's so bluntly racist!


Not another Care Bears clone!


Hannah Montana + Barbie + KISS = Jem 


Warning: Not the Batman your teenage son wants for Christmas. 


Because every kid wants to watch a cartoon about a toy box.


In other countries, the state of animation was not so dire. In Europe, most of the budget went to making the occasional high profile film, such as The Yellow Submarine (UK, 1968), Watership Down ( UK, 1978), or The King and the Mockingbird (France, 1980). Russia primarily focused on making short films both for adults and childern, such as Hedgehog in the Fog (1975), Firing Range (Polygon) (1978), and The Tree and the Cat (1983). Only very occasionally were TV series made, as most countries found it hard to compete with America's excessive output of cheap cartoons. Arguably, the most successful series outside the USA were Danger Mouse (UK, 1981) and Nu Pogodi! (Just You Wait!) (Russia, 1969-2006).  The only country that churned out TV animation rivaling that of America was Japan.

It is interesting to contrast the state of American animation to Japan. Yes their were forgettable, more merchandise-driven based franchise shows such as Speed Racer (1966-1968), Science Ninja Team Gatchaman (1972-1980), and Getter Robo (1974-1975). However, there were also more intellectual and creative shows created at time due to the anime revolution of the late 1960s as a result of social unrest and artistic rebellion. (Two of the most prominent works in the 1960s responsible for this were Horus: Prince of the Sun and The Vampires, as mentioned earlier on this blog.) Before the revolution, anime was a lot like 'typical' American films in the vein of Disney. Princess Knight (1965) and The Wonderful World of Puss in Boots (1969) are examples of the 'old hat' of anime.


Early anime was a lot like Disney.


Most Americans tend to think that 1970s anime was 'just giant robots' because mecha was the primary genre that made it overseas to the USA.

Some of the most fondly remembered anime series came out the 1970s-1980s, a period often considered a 'golden era' for animation in Japan. Lupin III no doubt shocked audiences when it first appeared on TV in 1971. It was the first truly 'adult' anime brimming with black humor and sexual innuendos. Although somewhat tame by today's standards, the show caused enough controversy when it originally aired that Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahada (whom you may have heard of) were brought in to make the show a bit more family friendly and focus more on slapstick comedy. Initially, Lupin flopped, but quickly attained cult status. It became successful enough to spawn three other series and several movies and TV specials. Since then, Lupin and his criminal hijinks have become as familiar to Japanese audiences as Bugs Bunny is to Americans.

Miyazaki and Takahada would later move on to Nippon Animation. There Takahada directed several very influential anime series based off classic childern's novels, including Heidi, Girl of the Alps (1974) and Anne of the Green Gabbles (1979). Miyazaki made his big break with Future Boy Conan (1978) before he and Takahada established Studio Ghibli and the rest is history. Another notable Nippon anime was Dog of Flanders (1975), a very bleak but beautiful series by Yoshio Kuroda.

Popular genres of the time were sports dramas, such as Ashita No Joe (1970), and fantasy space operas. Several sci-fi manga by Leiji Matsumoto were adapted to TV including Space Battleship Yamato (1974) and Galaxy Express 999 (1978). The historical drama, Rose of Versailles (1979), was about a women raised as a man during the class clash of the French Revolution. It was notable for taking the risk of introducing (possibly) bisexual characters to popular anime and for its tragic ending. Anime legend Osamu Tezuka also managed to finally remake two of his most beloved series, Astro Boy and Jungle Emperor Leo (Kimba the White Lion) with a larger budget and without the constraint of censorship.


Lupin III, the first anime series for a more adult audience.


Sport dramas, such as Ashita no Joe, are exceedingly popular in Japan.


Galaxy Express 999, a popular series dealing with death, immortality, and betrayal. 


The Dog of Flanders: it will make you cry.


Future Boy Conan is still considered to be one of the greatest cartoon series ever.

Towards the end of the 1980s, things began to change again for American animation, but fortunately for the better. After realizing that the competition from Don Bluth and other independent animators were taking away from their market, Disney realized it had to shape up in order to survive. Thus the company began vigorously training a new crop animators and released Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) and The Little Mermaid (1989), starting a successful period during the 1990s of revival known as the Animation Renaissance. Other companies, like Warner Brothers and Hannah Barbera (now Cartoon Network), began to make successful cartoons again, such as The Animaniacs (1993-1998) and The Iron Giant (1999). Newer studios such as Nickelodeon, Dreamworks, and most notably, Pixar, were also met with great success during this era. Many of them continue to be important to the animation industry today.


Everyone's reaction to this movie: 'Disney is alive?! :D" & "Thank God we don't have to put up with cartoons like Fangface anymore!"