Word comes through AWN that Stevcn Spielberg is returning to animation by way of the Discovery Channel and Dreamworks. While things will be different this time, it is surely worth taking a look back at his previous adventures in animationland.
Although Steven was the same well known and respected filmmaker in the early 90s as he is now (well, maybe he shone a bit brighter; War of the Worlds tarnished his reputation a wee bit, at least in my book), his decision to begin producing animation was seen as a bit of a departure for him.
And what a departure! Despite being only the producer and partnering with Warner Bros. he was directly involved with three breakout shows: Tiny Toons, Animaniacs and my personal favourite, Freakazoid!
What made these shows so great to begin with? Well, for one, Tiny Toons drew on Warner Bros. directly for inspiration. Hence the occasional appearance of the numerous Looney Tunes members such as Bugs and Daffy. While this may have been deliberate for the sake of attracting the audience, by mixing classic characters with new ones, a whole new generation of kids came to know about the Looney Tunes and all the great shorts from their parent’s time.In addition, they Tiny Toons themselves became successes in their own right. Indeed, right before I moved to the States (Sept. 2007), Tiny Toons was still being broadcast regularly on RTÉ.
Animaniacs was a different beast. Here were three original characters, supposedly the “Warner Brothers” themselves (and their sister, Dot). Besides being even more off the wall than Tiny Toons, the creators did well to bring to life a vast and varied range of characters that the Warners could, and did, constantly provoke, enrage, degrade and drive insane, all to the delight of the audience.
Lastly, we come to Freakazoid! Again, what a show, besides a genuinely insane protagonist (I can hear Paul Ruggs voice in my head as I write this), the plots were just downright bonkers, as were the supporting characters (Arms Akimbo anyone?). Such a shame it wasn’t to last as long as the others, I’m going to blame the network for that one, no offense to anyone. What was so great about Freakazoid! was that when you watch it, you can’t help but feel that the people working on the show were having fun the entire time. They probably weren’t, we all know how animation works, but at least it appears that way!
Two things stand out about all these shows, first, they were all high-quality shows in every way. The animation, writers (the animaniacs show bible supposedly cost $100,000 alone), and the characters themselves. How do we know all this worked in the show’s favour? You’re reading about them now! Well over a decade later, that’s how. You don’t see me talking about the Real Adventures of Johnny Quest do you? That’s because I’ll talk about it later (with my most grievous apologies to Fred for even mentioning it)
Secondly, another aspect of these shows was that the respective teams were generally left alone to do their own thing by Warner Bros. management. It seems a bit incredulous in this day and age, heck it was incredulous even then as John K. often cites that one of the reasons he was removed from Ren & Stimpy was interference from Niekelodeon executives.
It is generally acknowledged that the teams were left alone for the simple reason that with a reliable guy like Spielberg involved, things would be unlikely to get out of hand. Personally, I think this is probably an accurate enough. The resulting shows are proof that a hands-off approach can bring out the best in everyone involved.
We haven’t seen cartoons like these since, well, the 90s. What a shame. Sure the animation landscape has changed, animation on broadcast TV is as dead a horse as you can find that is still being flogged (albeit because of government mandates). The cable networks, while putting out plenty of fantastic shows, are unlikely to ever repeat shows of the same caliber as those I’ve discussed.
Could we see Steven doing something similar again today? On the Discovery Channel it’s unlikely, but with strong DVD sales of his older shows, there’s always hope. Hey, it worked for Futurama!