Top Cat and Timeless-ness

Today’s post is a guest review of Kung Fu Panda 2 by Emmett Goodman. Emmett is a graduate from the Pratt Institute in New York and is a notable member of ASIFA-East. His personal review blog is here and his sketch tumblelog is here.

Top Cat is one of my favorite cartoons. But the recent news of a Spanish Top Cat feature (entitled Don Gato) has gotten me to thinking about how dated the stories of Top Cat are, and it looks like Don Gato is based on a pre-existing episode from the original series, which is just as dated. The original series is clearly set within its then present day of 1961-62. The characters are written with mannerisms that suggest a tame anti-authortarian attitude that looks more than harmless today. The show was also considerably more sophisticated in writing than Hanna Barbera’s other shows, particularly in the humorous conversations between Top Cat (“T.C.”) and local cop, Officer Dibble. The characters all idealize a perfect way of life, something left over from the innocence of 1950’s Americana, and still hanging on in 1960’s America.

I still like the artistry of the original series. The character designs of “TC” and his gang are still very cute and appealing (even though a couple of them look similar to one another), as are their individual personalities. And this was still in the days when HB’s cartoon backgrounds were rich in design and texture. The new Don Gato feature has a different look to original designs that makes them cartoon-ier, but still recognizable. However, the backgrounds are now rendered in 3D, which I have mixed emotions about. And while I can understand some being nostalgic for the good-natured feel of the old show, replicating that setting and mood doesn’t necessarily guarantee long-term success. Audiences today are more likely to mock and turn away from something that’s clearly dated and old-fashioned looking. Don Gato has a slight chance, however, as it is not as dated as some of HB’s other properties.

Timelessness has been proven to be a key to animation longevity. If nothing is set in the stone of its own era, it can viewed by any generation without fear of it being too dated. Most of the original Looney Tunes cartoons are perfect examples of being timeless, as they are a collection of characters for any situation handed to them. The personalities are not dated in any way. In fact, character personalities are not dated for the most part. And since the settings varied from middles ages to dali-esque fantasies to an exaggerated present day, they could be viewed by any generation, with the focus exclusively on the characters’ personalities.

With most modern cartoons, its a mixed bag. Some could have come from anywhere (I suggest re-reading out how Charles describes Adventure Time‘s success, as well as shows like Spongebob Squarepants, Futurama and Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends) while others are clearly products of the present time (I cite the Ben 10 series and most of the Disney channel series, among other things). The recent Looney Tunes resurrection on Cartoon Network is a mixed bag, as the characters who were once placed in various settings are now placed in one sitcom setting. In a way, this makes them look like caricatures of themselves, and in turn, they look dated. And seeing Yosemite Sam singing over-produced rap-rock just doesn’t work.

If the Don Gato film was written with a new story, and explicitly stated to be taking place in the 1960s, I think it would move a lot smoother. But that’s just my opinion. I’m thinking of the last time Top Cat took feature length in 1988, which tried to put the characters in a 1980s setting complete with them singing badly-written hip-hop to meet the (then) young audience’s approval. Go check it out, and ask yourself why you never heard of it until now. Its called Top Cat and the Beverly Hills Cats.

As an adult now, timeless cartoons are easier for me to watch and still enjoy. Just watching something to mock its dated aesthetic doesn’t last very long for me. Although I understand show writers and artists needing to keep the present audience interested, they should really examine characters from the last 50 or so years, and narrow down why they are still remembered and beloved to this day, generations later.