Saturday, June 26, 2004


All Hollywood projects can be described as "[successful thing] meets [other successful thing]." The description for Tiny Toon Adventures could have been "Who Framed Roger Rabbit meets DuckTales." The decision to make Tiny Toons was influenced by two then-recent successes. Roger Rabbit was the first movie to acknowledge the nostalgia element in cartoon fandom. What I mean by that is that cartoons had usually been thought of as "timeless"; the repackaging of Warner Brothers cartoons -- for television and in compilation films -- usually presented the cartoons as belonging to no particular time or place, endlessly recyclable entertainment aimed mostly at kids. Roger Rabbit, with its '40s setting, presented classic cartoon characters as belonging specifically to that period, part of a genre that had vanished just like the film noir genre to which Bob Hoskins' Eddie Valiant belongs. It acknowledged that cartoon fans weren't necessarily kids, and that what made the old cartoons great were the elements that had been sucked out of them by TV broadcasting (the violence, the political incorrectness). DuckTales, a show that premiered in 1987, was Disney's attempt to "go retro" by reviving popular old characters and placing them in situations similar to those that they had faced in the cartoons (or, in this case, in Carl Barks' comic books), while still retaining the sensibility of the '80s Saturday Morning cartoon. Its success proved that a TV show could split the difference between nostalgia and the necessity to appeal to today's kids -- and that combination was what made Tiny Toons a success.

Tiny Toons was of course the idea of Steven Spielberg, who was looking for another cartoon nostalgia project to follow Roger Rabbit. The basic idea was taken from Roger Rabbit: cartoon characters, or "toons," are not just ink-and-paint creations but actors, who have to learn their trade just like every other actor; the characters of Tiny Toons are young cartoon characters who are learning the art of cartoon trickery and violence -- with the original Warner Brothers cartoon characters as their teachers. Each character was reminiscent of a classic WB character, sometimes in unusual ways; Elmer Fudd's pupil was Elmyra Duff, a girl who mostly wanted to hug animals instead of shoot them, while Montana Max, a loudmouthed rich kid, was sort of a distant relation of Yosemite Sam. My favorite equivalent: an African-American girl, Mary Melody, who was similar in design to So White from Bob Clampett's Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarves (this was never openly acknowledged on the show, because that cartoon is unoffically banned from the airwaves and home video). You're probably familiar with the main characters, Buster Bunny, Babs Bunny, Plucky Duck, Hamton Pig ("I react to characters funnier than I am"), and so on.

The show was hyped as a return to the spirit of classic WB cartoons. It wasn't, but it was closer than, say, many of the Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck cartoons that WB tried in the '80s. Some of the things Tiny Toons had going for it included the look of the thing; design in cartoon TV shows tended to be either very literal or very stylized (today almost everything is very stylized); Tiny Toons went for a kind of "simplified realistic" look in the backgrounds, similar to the look of the opening cartoon in Roger Rabbit. The pacing was faster than almost any daytime cartoon show of the era, and the timing of the gags, often a weak point in TV cartoons, was unusually sharp, perhaps thanks to the enlisting of old-school WB animators like Tom Ray and Norm McCabe to work on the timing sheets. When Tiny Toons is at its best, it offers up lots of gags, one after the other, with minimal wait time between them and with the payoff movements occurring exactly where they need to to get the laugh; if you can find a VHS of the made-for-video movie "How I Spent My Vacation" (probably the best thing the show ever did), watch the scene where Hamton tries to pry Plucky away from him using a crowbar, then the jaws of life, and so on. Each gag is funny in itself, but it's the piling of gag on gag that makes it work; it's the opposite approach to the Ren and Stimpy approach, which was essentially to slow down at important gag points so the gag would "read" better.

The weaknesses of Tiny Toons, and with the WB TV division in general, starts with the fact that the gags get by mostly on speed and timing; the drawing is rarely exceptional and the characters usually stay on-model (when they go off-model it tends to be because of an accident overseas, not because the animators are willing to distort for comic effect as the classic animators often did). The show had a large budget and the amount of movement the characters engaged in was a revelation after years of limited animation -- but the movements aren't usually very characterful; there was some attempt at physical characterization -- Plucky's insouciant hand-waving at moments of overconfidence -- but not the kind of instantly-recognizable characteristic movements you get from Ren or even from Homer Simpson in the early years of that show. Tiny Toons also changed its visual style heavily depending on which overseas studio was handling the animation, suggesting that there wasn't enough of a guiding hand in shaping an overall visual style for the show.

The writing of Tiny Toons was supervised by the producer, Tom Ruegger, whom Jean MacCurdy (the head of WB's new TV animation division) had worked with at Hanna-Barbera. Ruegger was in the usual mold of a TV cartoon producer -- some drawing, some writing, but primarily called upon for administration -- whose most notable credit at H-B was A Pup Named Scooby-Doo, which got a lot of grief for using kiddie versions of the Scooby-Doo characters but which was, from my point of view, the best incarnation of those characters since the original (which, admittedly, wasn't very good to begin with). After years of putting Scooby into bad fantasy scenarios -- "The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo," and such -- Pup adopted the mystery format of the original show, and simultaneously used and mocked that format, sending up the conventions and characters of Scooby-Doo at the same time that it paid tribute to them. That's essentially what Tiny Toons became: instead of an attempt to recreate the style of WB cartoons, it was often an in-jokey re-examination of that style, openly explaining the conventions and playing off our pre-knowledge of those conventions. One episode had a plot point built around the convention that a character can walk on air if he or she doesn't look down.

The writing was always a point of controversy. Ruegger and MacCurdy made two very good, very important hires: Paul Dini, who Ruegger had worked with at Filmation, and Sherri Stoner, a Groundlings comedienne (and then-girlfriend of another improv comic, M.D. Sweeney) who had been the live-action reference model for Ariel in The Little Mermaid. Both writers clearly welcomed the chance to write in pop-culture jokes, current slang, the occasional risque jokes -- the sort of thing that used to be common in cartoons but which had been pushed out by the desire to make every cartoon "timeless." This, again, makes Tiny Toons different from Ren and Stimpy, which premiered a year later. Ren and Stimpy was conceived in reaction to the cartoons of the previous 20-30 years, and was deliberately "retro" in feel -- a throwback, in look and in cultural references, to the TV cartoons of the '50s and early '60s. A Tiny Toons episode by Dini or Stoner is a cultural time-capsule of the early '90s; it is "retro" in its determination to be current. Stoner's best early script for the show, "Hollywood Plucky," has a few points of similarity to the cartoon "Hollywood Daffy" (to be specific, it has the basic setup of Daffy/Plucky trying to get into a Hollywood studio, though it doesn't take any jokes from the original), but it's as much a festival of 1990 pop culture as "Hollywood Daffy" was a cavalcade of the stars of 1946.

But if those writers did well on the show and at WB Animation in general, others clearly didn't. Some writers and artists were apparently brought in from other projects (including Ralph Bakshi's short-lived but influential Adventures of Mighty Mouse) on the belief that Tiny Toons would be artist-driven, visually-oriented cartoons like those of the classic era, and felt betrayed that the show turned into a typical writer-driven show with the directors reduced to traffic managers. Bob Camp, one of the disgruntled Tiny Toons artists who left to work on Ren and Stimpy, recalled:

We had this real strong mutual hate going on between us. The producers castrated the directors so they didn't have any power. The writers had all the power and none of the talent. You couldn't change things, it was all scripted out. The writers were writing sight gags, which is something you need to work physically by drawing- not by some guy at a typewriter who doesn't know how to draw.

I've dealt elsewhere with the writer vs. storyboard issue and I don't want to go into it again; the more important point is not that Tiny Toons was scripted, but that it was scripted in a way that was often hard to distinguish from the Saturday Morning cartoons of the '80s. With many lesser episodes of Tiny Toons, if you take away the big budget and the full orchestra on the soundtrack, you have a script that could have been done at Filmation: young heroes, a creepy villain, a moral or environmental lesson, a happy ending. Little bits of cartoon violence (within the limitations of the TV censors -- nobody was allowed to be shot with a gun, for example) were thrown in, but a lot of it is basically a continuation of the '80s Dark Age of Cartoons, rather than an antidote to it. On the other hand, the "artist-driven" cartoons weren't always better (Eddie Fitzgerald, the inspiration for Pinky on Animaniacs and another writer/artist who later went to Ren and Stimpy, wrote and directed a takeoff of "The Great Piggy Bank Robbery" which, he reportedly instructed the animators, was to look as much as possible like the original, except with Plucky instead of Daffy). And the best work on the show was being done by the best scriptwriters, particularly Stoner and Dini. The idea that if you don't draw, you can't write cartoons is practically dogma now, but I don't think it makes much more sense than saying that if you can't photograph a movie you can't write it either.

Tiny Toons was one of those shows where 65 episodes were produced at once for daily viewing. The 65 episodes premiered in syndication, and the show was a big success; it was even referenced in a Seinfeld episode, although the reference (in the episode "The Contest") showed that the writer, Larry David, had probably never watched a Tiny Toons episode in his life.

Random note to close this off: The show was originally to be called Tiny Tunes, but WB, influenced by the success of the term "Toon" in Roger Rabbit, apparently wanted that word to be in there, so it became Tiny Toons and then Tiny Toon Adventures.

Coming in part 2: Tiny Toons, the Fox years.

EDIT: The original version of this post mistakenly said that DuckTales premiered in 1989. Thanks to "DarthGonzo" for the correction.

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