Sunday, June 27, 2004

TINY TOON ADVENTURES -- Part 2

After its success in syndication, Tiny Toons produced 35 more episodes for the Fox network, spread out over two seasons. Sherri Stoner was promoted to producer for these episodes, and she started to bring in her improv friends to write episodes; writers who would work on the follow-up project, Animaniacs included the Groundlings' Peter Hastings (who was the live-action reference for the Beast in Beauty and the Beast, to Stoner's Belle) and Deanna Oliver. Paul Dini also wrote and story-edited a bunch of these episodes.

If you look at comments by online Tiny Toons fans, it seems like these later episodes were considered a disappointment. I don't agree. Tiny Toons in the first 65 episodes had produced some fine short cartoons and half-hour episodes, but a lot of duds. The duds fell into two categories: traditional Saturday-Morning cartoon stories disguised as Tiny Toons episodes, and failed attempts to mimic classic cartoons. Despite the hype about a return to the classic style, Tiny Toons had written scripts, a sensibility shaped as much by Hanna-Barbera and the Groundlings as by Looney Tunes, and a tendency to mock rather than accept cartoon conventions. That's not a recipe for a return to the old style; it's a new style, and when that style was applied to old WB cartoon plots -- hunting stories, for example, or a junior version of "One Froggy Evening" or "The Great Piggy Bank Robbery" -- the result made you want to turn off the TV and watch the originals. "Hollywood Plucky" worked because it wasn't an attempt to recreate "Hollywood Daffy"; it applied a similar concept to the more meta-humorous, sketch-comedy-influenced style of Sherri Stoner's writing.

When the show tried to create something similar to the earlier cartoons, say, in the cartoons with Calamity Coyote and Li'l Beeper (who really had no personalities beyond what they took from the originals), it didn't work; it just pointed up how far this show was from the style of the Golden Age of animation. It was at its best when it stood on its own, and that's what started to happen in the later episodes, with more of an emphasis on original characters: one of the best short cartoons, "The Amazing Three," focused on the show's female characters, who were very different from the old characters simply by virtue of being female; this cartoon, by the way, was co-written by Arleen Sorkin, later to become the voice of Batman's Harley Quinn. And with other characters, the show started to emphasize their own individual characteristics rather than their similarities to the great characters of the past; there were still some episodes where Buster Bunny acted like Bugs (including a very funny Stoner-penned cartoon called "Ruffled Ruffee," where Buster pulls a Long Haired Hare on a Raffi-like singer), but more episodes where he acted like a nervous, neurotic kid, simultaneously attracted to Babs and in competition with her.

One thing that Tiny Toons dealt with only fitfully was the challenge posed by the success of Ren and Stimpy. This show, with its popular success and the enormous respect it commanded within the industry, changed the way TV cartoons were written and the way they looked, and it was obviously a very different writing process (artist-centred) and look (retro-Hanna-Barbera combined with a dollop of gross-out humor) than that of Tiny Toons. Only one Tiny Toons episode really tried to go all-out for the Ren and Stimpy style; this was an episode called "Hog Wild Hamton," written by Paul Dini and Bob Carrau and directed by Rich Arons. This episode had a fairly standard plot -- Hamton throws a disastrous party while his parents are out of town. But the entire half-hour was heavily influenced by the style and tone of Ren and Stimpy. The artists were encouraged to add visual gags, many of which were staged with Kricfalusi-style closeups and pauses; one gag, involving someone eating cake very messily, was done in extreme close-up with the cake splattering in slow-motion. Dialogue was de-emphasized in favor of visuals; the Tiny Toons style of rapid-fire gags was replaced with a more "cartoony" style of individual gags developed and drawn-out. (The difference, I suppose, between a writer thinking up a bunch of gags and an artist examining the visual possibilities in a particular gag.) Some of the secondary characters had R&S style designs and movement, like a bunch of military men with rectangular heads and long wagging tongues. The whole episode -- a very funny episode, by the way -- was an attempt to "get with the times" when it came to animated TV cartoons. But it was as far as Tiny Toons would ever go with this style; most of the other episodes reverted to the writer-driven, gags-piled-on-gags style that would characterize all the WB TV cartoons. Whether this was because "Hog Wild Hamton" didn't seem like the way to go, or because "the writers had all the power" and wouldn't give the artists the authority to make stuff up, the decision not to go all the way with the R&S style probably helped WB in the long run; at a time when the airwaves were clogged with bad R&S imitators, the later episodes of Tiny Toons and the early episodes of Animaniacs actually stood out from the crowd because they weren't doing Kricfalusi lite.

Still, the influence of Ren and Stimpy, and the residual influence of "Hog Wild Hamton," was seen in the later Fox episodes of Tiny Toons and in the first season of Animaniacs, as the show's visuals became more confident and interesting within the basic writer-driven style: more willing to depart from the basic character model or from the basic "reality" of the background, and go into flights of animated fancy. Ren and Stimpy layout artist Chris Savino, one of the few R&S artists who ever said anything good about Tiny Toons in public, analyzed it like this:

Warner Bros -- they're putting out some pretty good stuff... Warner Bros is kinda following suit in some of their visual antics with the Tiny Toons. Tiny Toons used to be really dialogue heavy and then the writers saw what was going on with Spumco, because the animation field is really close-knit and if you work with somebody at one studio, you're bound to work with them somewhere else and everybody knows each other. So when they saw Ren and Stimpy, they were like ``oh wow, let's try this'' so they got their writers to do it this way and there is a lot more visual goings on.


Another characteristic of the later episodes of Tiny Toons is their increased use of meta-humor; instead of the occasional, Tex-Avery-style breaking of the fourth wall, whole segments or even whole half-hours would be built around the idea that these characters knew they were on a TV show. One of the best episodes, "Thirteensomething" (written by Sherri Stoner and directed by Jon McClenahan, who also animated several key scenes), was about Babs Bunny quitting her job on "Tiny Toons" to try and get a job on a "human" show. This kind of meta-humor would hurt Animaniacs when it started doing that sort of thing rather late in its run. But with Tiny Toons, it actually helped, because it further helped to liberate the show from the need to mimic the classic cartoons; the characters were increasingly portrayed as stars in their own right, rather than pupils of older characters -- and that freed the writers up to use jokes that might have been too talky or too postmodern for a traditional cartoon but which worked perfectly in the context of the developing WB TV style.

While writing and producing the last episodes of Tiny Toons, the staff was also in the process of developing Animaniacs, the show that would take Tiny Toons' time slot (and cause production to be halted on Tiny Toons despite its continued popularity). This was actually referred to in one of the last Tiny Toons episodes produced, "Two-Tone Town," written by Deanna Oliver. In it, WB is developing a new show called "Acme Oop!" which Buster fears will take Tiny Toons' time slot; the show -- and the time slot -- is finally given to three obscure characters from the early years of Looney Tunes, Foxy, Roxy, and Goopy Geer, who have the generic "inkblot" design that was used for the Warners on Animaniacs. The episode works on its own terms as a funny story about Buster and Babs helping old cartoon characters (there was a similar story in the first season, "Fields of Honey," involving PC-ized versions of early WB stars Bosko and Honey), and it also works as a commentary on changing tastes in cartoons, and it's also a big in-joke. This is what Tiny Toons and WB TV animation were doing by this time: not just doing Saturday Morning stories with a few jokes for the grown-ups, but doing stories and jokes that actually worked on multiple levels. It also has some of the flaws of Tiny Toons: every time there's a joke involving a classic WB cartoon trope -- like Buster dressing in drag -- it's painfully obvious that the staging and physical acting of the characters doesn't measure up to more visually-oriented cartoons. Still, anyone who thinks Tiny Toons had no visual imagination isn't necessarily looking very closely; moments like Buster's eyes changing color and design as he gets worried, or his facial expression as he opens a sound-effects box to create cartoon sound effects, are funny for the drawing, not the writing.

Closing note: There was at least one attempt to create a spinoff of Tiny Toons: an episode called "Take Elmyra, Please," was to be a pilot for a spinoff about Elmyra and her family. It was a time when, inspired by The Simpsons, everybody was trying to create an animated sitcom about a weird family; this one had some funny moments but had absolutely no interesting characters apart from Elmyra, who was too obnoxious to carry a series (this was before Family Guy proved that a show could sort of succeed with uninteresting characters and an obnoxious lead). The show wasn't picked up, but a follow-up script, "Grandma's Dead," was produced as part of Tiny Toons. Also, there were another couple of episodes about a family of fleas that seemed calculated to lead to a spinoff, although they didn't (and didn't deserve to). Plucky briefly got his own show, "The Plucky Duck Show," but only one original episode was produced, the superb "The Return of Batduck" ("Remember Aloysius Radiator-Elbows?"). Everything else was recycled materian from Tiny Toons, and Plucky never did get any more original episodes produced for his show.

Tomorrow: Animaniacs, part 1.

1 comment:

Tom Ruegger said...

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