Monday, September 06, 2004

A Good Enviro-Toon

In a previous post I had my say about the perniciousness of the "enviro-toon," the cartoon that tries to indoctrinate children about the importance of Saving Our Planet. What I realized after writing that is that I have, in fact, seen an enviro-toon that was actually good, though I'm not sure that it was actually intended as an enviro-toon. It's a Warner Brothers cartoon called "Lumber Jerks," 1955, directed by Friz Freleng and written/storyboarded by Warren Foster, where the Goofy Gophers find that their tree has been cut down and taken to a factory where trees are processed into furniture; in the end, they somehow swipe the furniture that was made out of their tree, and the ending shows them sitting on top of a stack of furniture, staring at a TV set that isn't plugged in.

This cartoon is not to be compared to "Captain Planet," and yet in a way it is an enviro-toon. Seeing the factory, one of the Gophers says "It definitely seems as though they are bent on the destruction of our forest." I remember, growing up in the '80s, hearing that line and preparing myself for a preachy environmental message, because that's what we were getting in cartoons at that time. The preachy message never came, of course. And yet, without preaching, the cartoon does seem to make a point about environmental devastation: animals are left without homes because of all the trees being chopped down. In the factory, trees are wasted in order to make frivolous or small things; one gag shows a whole tree being used to make one toothpick. It also shows that people are getting dependent on factories for things that they used to get themselves; in another gag, trees are chopped up and then combined with glue and other things to create "artificial fireplace logs." A theme of the cartoon is that everything is becoming artificial and man-made; the ending shows a natural tree replaced by a stack of furniture, including the ultimate '50s accessory, television. It never preaches, but it makes more points about the environment than all the Captain Planet episodes combined. And instead of showing that only evil people harm the environment, which was the complacent message delivered by "Captain Planet" or "Smoggies," it shows that trees are being chopped down in order to make the things we use every day -- in other words, we are the ones harming the environment.

Now, having said that, I have no idea whether Freleng and/or Foster intended to make a serious environmentalist point here. Probably not. The cartoon is a follow-up to a Goofy Gophers cartoon of the previous year, "I Gopher You," where the Gophers' vegetables wind up in a vegetable processing plant; both cartoons get most of their laughs at the expense of '50s over-mechanization and over-reliance on mass-produced stuff, and I think "Lumber Jerks" is more a riff on mass-production than it is on the destruction of forests. But still, anyone looking to make an enviro-toon could learn a few things from "Lumber Jerks." It's on disc 4 of the first Looney Tunes Golden Collection.

The Goofy Gophers had a weird history at WB, by the way. Bob Clampett came up with the basic idea -- two polite gophers of the not-that-there's-anything-wrong-with-it variety, sort of combining Chip n' Dale with the personalities of Hollywood character actors like Edward Everett Horton and Franklin Pangborn -- but he left the studio before making any cartoons with them, and Art Davis, who took over his unit, made two cartoons with them ("The Goofy Gophers" and "Two Gophers From Texas"). When Davis's unit was shut down, he had another Goofy Gophers story ready to go, so Bob McKimson directed it ("A Ham in a Role"). Then two years later Friz Freleng took up the characters and made a cartoon with them. Three years after that, Freleng revived the characters, redesigned them, made them less aggressive (they were originally sort of like the early Tweety, inflicting violence on their adversaries while acting "cute"), and put them in three cartoons. Then they vanished again, but McKimson made one more cartoon with them in the late '50s. And finally they resurfaced as adversaries for Daffy Duck in one of those limited-animation DePatie-Freleng cartoons of the '60s. That's a long career for two characters who never really caught on. Something about them just caused one director after another to take a crack at them, but I'm not really sure what. (I like the Gophers, but I'd rather it had been Hubie and Bertie who had gotten revived -- those characters were really deserving of another shot at cartoon stardom.)

No comments: