Jeff Lenburg. The Encyclopedia of Animated Cartoons. 3rd edition. New York: Facts on File, 2008. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
For more than 100 years, the animated cartoon has been entertaining people, young and old, in movie theaters and on television with countless works of art and a virtual cavalcade of cartoon characters that have captured the hearts and imaginations of fans in every corner of the globe. This legion of animated heroes and vast array of cartoon productions still produces wild cheers and uncontrollable laughter, whether it is through television reruns of old favorites or the debut of new, original characters who create enchanting and memorable moments that endure forever.
Why this long-running love affair with cartoons? Why do so many people still watch their favorite cartoon characters in countless television reruns? And why do new characters and new ideas still turn on audiences today? The reason for this amazing phenomenon is simple: Animated cartoons are the embodiment of a fantasy world worth treasuring, worth enjoying and, most of all, worth remembering over and over again, no matter what place in time or what changes have occurred in the real world around it.
It is funny, in a strange sort of way, but animated cartoons were not always held in such high esteem. In the days of silent cartoons, the industry experienced a tremendous backlash of criticism from film critics, movie fans and even studio executives who felt the new medium lacked congruent stories and consistent animation quality to be taken seriously in the world of entertainment. Maybe so. But, like any untested product, it was just a matter of time before the technique of animation would be mastered, creating a visually perfect running machine with plenty of mileage still ahead.
The beginning was 1906, with the debut of the first animated film in this country, Humorous Phases of Funny Faces. Released by Vitagraph, cartoonist James Stuart Blackton, who sold his first cartoon to the New York World and cofounded Vitagraph, entered the animation business with this first effort six years after his nonanimated triumph, The Enchanted Drawing, a stop-motion short Edison film based on the newspaper cartoonist’s “chalk-talk” vaudeville act.
By today’s standards of animation, Blackton’s Humorous Phases of Funny Faces is rudimentary at best. The film is composed of a series of scenes featuring letters, words and faces drawn by an “unseen” hand. For the era in which it was made, the simplistically styled one-reel short was an important first step.
The concept of animated cartoons in this country ultimately took root thanks to two other foresighted pioneers: French cartoonist Emil Cohl and American newspaper cartoonist Winsor McCay.
Cohl followed Blackton with a stick-figure animated short presented in a series of comic vignettes entitled Fantasmagorie (1908). The film was everything that an animated cartoon was supposed to be—funny, sophisticated and well conceived. McCay surpassed even Cohl’s landmark effort with his first entry, Little Nemo, the first fully animated cartoon. Based on his own beloved New York Herald strip Little Nemo in Slumberland, McCay reportedly spent four years animating the production.
While the films of all three men were important to the growth of the cartoon industry, McCay may have done more for the art of animation than his predecessors when he created what many historians consider to be the first genuine American cartoon star in Gertie the Dinosaur (1914). The first film to feature frame-by-frame animation and fluid, sophisticated movement, it took McCay approximately 10,000 drawings to animate the five-minute production. The one-reel short was animated on six-by-eight-inch sheets of translucent rice paper, with the drawings lightly penciled first and then detailed in Higgins black ink.
It was a tremendous technical achievement, but surprisingly most critics felt the production lost audiences with its story line. In the film, the animator (McCay) is seen drawing the cartoon, in live action, slowly bringing Gertie into existence and into the real world to then try to tame the beast.
Audiences did not share critics’ opinions. Reportedly they were awed by the dinosaur’s lifelike movements, unaware that what they had seen would change the course of animation’s young history for the better.
The late Paul Terry, the father of Terry-Toons, often credited McCay for arousing his and others’ interest in animated cartoons, at a time when most people did not fully grasp the potential of the medium. As he once said, “Together with more than a hundred other artists, I attended a dinner in 1914 at which McCay spoke. He showed us his cartoon Gertie, the Dinosaur. It was the first animated cartoon we had ever seen, and as McCay told us his ideas about animation as a great coming medium of expression, we really hardly knew what he was talking about, he was so far ahead of his time.”
Four years later McCay further left his mark on animation by producing and directing the first animated re-enactment of a historical event, The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918). One of the first films to use cel animation, this landmark film featured an amazing 25,000 inked and drawn celluloid sheets of animation.
McCay’s imprint on the cartoon industry was widespread, but another early pioneer was responsible for improving the consistency of animation and the health of the industry overall. John Randolph (“J.R.”) Bray was perhaps the country’s most prolific producer of cartoon shorts. In June 1913, following a career as an American newspaper cartoonist, Bray produced his first animated short, The Artist’s Dream (or The Dachsund and the Sausage), which quickly established him in the medium.
Bray followed this celluloid feat with his first of many successful cartoon series, Colonel Heeza Liar, based on the tale-spinning adventures of Baron Munchausen. (Walter Lantz, the father of Woody Woodpecker, was one of the series’ chief animators.) The series spawned other successes for Bray, among them Bobby Bumps (1915), Otto Luck (1915), Police Dog (1915) and Quacky Doodles (1917). By 1916 his studio was so successful that he began producing one cartoon per week.
In 1914 Bray revolutionized the business of animation with his patented invention of a labor-saving animation process in which backgrounds were printed on translucent paper to facilitate the positioning of moving objects in successive drawings. (This economy of drawings is evident in many of Bray’s early cartoons, including “Col. Heeza Liar, Hobo” (1916), which used only a few more than 100 basic arrangements of the cels in 1,600 frames of footage.) During the next year he would patent two other methods to enhance the quality of animation. The first was a technique that enabled animators to affix solid cutouts to the back of drawings so they were visible from the front of the drawing; the second, a process of cutout animation. Bray also later produced and directed the first color cartoon, The Debut of Thomas the Cat,using the then-revolutionary two-color Brewster Color process; it was released to theaters in 1920 as part of the Goldwyn-Bray-Pictograph screen magazine series.
Other pioneer animators followed Bray with patented techniques of their own. Earl Hurd patented the first cel animation process, probably one of the most significant of the early animation patents, while Max and Dave Fleischer, of Ko-Ko the Clown and later Betty Boop fame, developed a fascinating process called Rotoscope, which enabled animators to trace figures seen on projected film.
During the teens, Bray was not the only major cartoon studio producing animated films. Two others came into existence: Raoul Barré’s and Hearst International. Barré was an established cartoonist whose caricatures of Indians and the lifestyle of French Canadian women were published as En Rolant Ma Boule. Turning his energies to animation, he produced several noteworthy animated series. His first was Animated Grouch Chasers (1915-16), an intriguing use of live-action openings and animated segues that won him widespread acclaim. He went on to develop one of the most successful comic-strip cartoon adaptations, Mutt and Jeff (1918), based on Bud Fisher’s popular strip characters.
In 1916 newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst realized the promise of animation by opening his own studio, International Film Service. Hearst hired talented animators Gregory La Cava, Frank Moser and Bill Nolan away from Raoul Barré’s studio to bring many of his newspaper syndicate’s cartoon properties to the screen. In short order, Hearst’s company produced animated versions of such comic-page favorites as Krazy Kat (1916), The Katzenjammer Kids (1916) and Happy Hooligan (1917).
Other comicstrip artists brought their strip creations to the screen to capitalize on the success of the new medium. Henry (“Hy”) Mayer, a prolific illustrator, drew comics on the screen for the Universal Weekly newsreel in 1913. He ultimately produced a series of screen magazines known as Travelaughs. Rube Goldberg briefly pursued a career in animation by signing up with Pathé Films to produce a newsreel spoof called Boob Weekly. Other animated versions of popular strips included George McManus’s Bringing Up Father (1918), Walter Hoban’s Jerry on the Job (1917), Jimmy Swinnerton’s Little Jimmy (1916) and Tom E. Powers’s Phables (1916).
Paul Terry, who first started working as an animator for Bray in 1916-17, also became an important figure during this period. After he opened his own studio, Terry became the first to prefigure the visual style of the Hollywood cartoons of the 1930s and 1940s by giving characters more depth and dimension, as is evident in a handful of early titles, including Farmer Al Falfa’s Catastrophe (1916) and Farmer Al Falfa’s Wayward Pup (1917).
In general, production staffs for most of these studios were minimal at best. On the average, producers turned out one new cartoon short a week, which was often animated by one person. (Hearst was known to enlist the services of well-known artists who sketched strips for his syndicate to contribute animate ideas to his weekly newsreel.) In most cases the cartoonist was the animator, director, gagman and artist. Toward week’s end, the animator’s sketchings were collected, photographed and wound onto a single reel before being distributed to theaters throughout the country.
In some cases, the final product was inferior because of such streamlined operations, prompting critics to denounce animated works. As one film critic stated, the major problem inherent in the cartoons was that “the artist was merely sketching his ideas on film.”
Walter Lantz, who wrote and directed many cartoons for J. R. Bray, discussed the story-line difficulties he and other animators encountered. “We had a makeshift studio on the top floor of a loft building in Fordham, New York,” he recalled. “There weren’t enough people in the organization to make the story department of a cartoon studio today. But we didn’t bother with stories. Our only object was to turn out 500 to 600 feet of film!”
Because animators overlooked story transitions, the films often confused theater audiences. (Some confusion was due to the inconsistent use of cartoon balloons over the subject’s head to describe dialogue or action.) Sometimes when studios churned out 500 to 600 feet of cartoon film, that’s exactly what the audience got—just film, with no real story. “Most audiences would rather flee from the theater than sit through a screening of these cartoons,” commented one reviewer.
Dick Huemer, who animated Mutt and Jeff, had this to say about the reaction of moviegoers to silent cartoons: “They didn’t get it. I swear, they didn’t get what we were doing. For one thing, our timing was way off or nonexistent. And we didn’t have sound. Sound was the great savior of the animated cartoon.”
There were at this same time, however, several animators who set new standards for the industry through their unique storytelling ability. Among them were Max and Dave Fleischer, Walt Disney and Walter Lantz. All four men blazed new trails in animation and achieved great success through instinct and imagination, as evidenced by their work.
The Fleischers turned heads with their inventive series, Out of the Inkwell (1916), which combined live action and animation and featured the antics of Koko the Clown (later hyphenated as Ko-Ko). The films are technical marvels—beautifully blending animation and live scenes of the animator (Max) bringing Koko to life as well as the entire story on the drawing board at the animator’s table. This feat was equaled by Disney and Lantz, who employed the process of live action/animation in similar fashion with successful results. Disney mastered the art with his series of cartoon fables,Alice Comedies (1924), shot in Los Angeles at various outdoor locations. The films starred a young girl—played mostly by billboard star-turned-child actor Virginia Davis—who was joined by animated characters in telling each story. The films were extremely popular vehicles, as was Lantz’s Dinky Doodle (1924), which he wrote and directed for Bray.
Lantz starred as the comic straight man in these films alongside his cartoon counterparts Dinky, a young boy, and his faithful dog, Weakheart, in comical exploits that were often as funny as the best of the era’s silent film comedies. (Lantz admitted his source of inspiration was the work of several silent films comedians, including Charlie Chaplin, Harry Langdon and Chester Conklin.)
One reason for Lantz’s success may have been his understanding of his role as an animator. In an interview he defined his job thusly: “An animator is like an actor going before the camera, only he has to act out his feelings and interpret the scene with that pencil. Also he has to know how to space characters because the spacing of their movements determines the tempo; he must know expression; he must know feeling; he has to know the character, and make him walk with a funny action.”
The ardent process of sound changed the whole method of making animated cartoons and, if anything, enabled the industry to prosper at a time when the silent film industry was stagnating. With the theatrical release of Mother, Mother Pin a Rose on Me, the first sound cartoons were produced in 1924 by the Fleischers. Song Car-Tunes, a series of “bouncing ball singalongs,” were synchronized to popular music by a revolutionary DeForest Phonofilm system. One major disadvantage prevented the concept from flourishing: Many of the theaters were “unwired” and thus were unable to project the films accompanied by 18-piece orchestrations.
The first “talking” motion picture, Al Jolson’s musical feature The Jazz Singer (1927), helped popularize the use of sound in the film industry and inspired theaters to accommodate this innovation.
Walt Disney introduced the first widely distributed synchronized sound cartoon in 1928, Mickey Mouse’s “Steamboat Willie.” With this creation began another chapter in animation history. Sound gave cartoons a dimension that was not possible in silent form. It enabled animators to create better stories, more lifelike characters and fuller animation. The process did not come cheaply, however. Production costs skyrocketed from the normal $6,000 budgets for silent cartoons, yet the all-around quality improved and was worth the price.
During the 1930s, as animators explored the virtues of sound, many new characters burst onto the screen in productions featuring popular musical tunes of the day. Warner Bros. introduced several cartoon stars, many of them influenced by vaudeville and radio. The studio’s first real star was Bosko, a Black Sambo-type character, who spoke for the first time in 1930’s Sinkin’ in the Bathtub. Created by former Disney animators Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising, Bosko became enormously popular and was soon joined by a handful of other characters in the studio’s Looney Tunes series, among them Foxy, Piggy and Goopy Geer.
Meanwhile, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) contributed its own series of musical cartoons, Happy Harmonies, directed by Harman and Ising, who left Warners to open the Metro’s cartoon department. Walt Disney continued making his Oscar-winning Silly Symphony (1928) series, the forerunner to the musical cartoon concept, while Ub Iwerks, Disney’s former protégé, set up shop to produce his musically inclined Flip the Frog (1931) series. Van Beuren Studios also joined the competition with its popular Aesop’s Fables (1928) series, initially released by Pathé and then RKO Radio Pictures.
While many of the early sound cartoons had merit, most of these productions—outside a few that had name stars—lacked distinguishable personalities and featured a myriad of characters appearing in a single setting.
More than any individual, Warner Bros. director Chuck Jones credits Walt Disney for establishing the concept of cartoon “personalities” and inspiring the rest of the industry to develop their own unique characters. As Jones explained: “Anybody who knows anything about animation knows that the things that happened at Disney Studio were the backbone that upheld everything else. Disney created a climate that enabled us all to exist. Everyone in animation considered themselves behind Disney. We all did. Strange thing: That was probably healthy for us all. Perhaps the biggest thing Disney contributed was that he established the idea of individual personality. We would look at his stuff and say ‘No matter what we do, Disney is going to be a little ahead of us, particularly in technique.’ He created the idea that you could make an animated cartoon character who had personality and wasn’t just leaping in the air like Terry-Toons. So without thinking he forced us into evolving our own style.”
Thus, from the mid-1930s on, animators began to develop the sound cartoon era’s first bona fide stars—characters with heart and soul and mass appeal. Many of the characters people remember today emerged during this period. Walt Disney added to his stable of stars the likes of Donald Duck (1934) and Goofy (1932), while studio rival Warner Bros. introduced several “superstars”: Porky Pig (1936), Daffy Duck (1938), and Bugs Bunny (1940). MGM’s famed cat-and-mouse tandem Tom and Jerry (1940) won over audiences, as did Walter Lantz’s Andy Panda (1940) and Woody Woodpecker (1941). Meanwhile, Paul Terry, of Terry-Toons fame, unveiled his most promising creations, Dinky Duck (1939) and Mighty Mouse (1942).
These solidly constructed characterizations together with tightly written scripts captured in animated form the crazy appeal of Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton, Abbott and Costello, and Charlie Chaplin, and became important factors in the success of sound cartoons.
One other important element in their success was physical action. Unlike silent cartoons, sound cartoons were fast-paced, full of slapstick and punctuated by violence. Combined, these qualities generated a terrific response from moviegoers whose sides often arched from fits of laughter before the main feature was even introduced. (Cartoons, newsreels and live-action shorts were shown prior to the feature-length attraction, appropriately called “curtain—raisers” in their day.)
“We found that you can get terrific laughs out of someone just getting demolished, as long as you clean up and bring him back to life again,” the late Tex Avery told biographer Joe Adamson. “It’s exaggeration to the point where we hope it’s funny.”
The successful cartoon formula of transitions, action and sound was further improved in 1932 when Walt Disney produced the first true Technicolor cartoon, a Silly Symphony short called “Flowers and Trees.” (The production cost $27,500 to make, two-thirds more than black-and-white cartoons.) Disney was not the first to experiment with color by any means. Others toyed with the process as far back as the early 1920s by “tinting” the films. (In 1930 Walter Lantz animated the first two-color Technicolor cartoon, a four-minute opening segment for Paul Whiteman’s King of Jazz.) Disney’s introduction of color to animated cartoons brought a whole new dimension to the screen that had never before been realized. It was a gamble that paid off not only for his studio; it took the cartoon industry into a whole new era of filmmaking.
In the beginning, because of Disney’s exclusive contract to use the Technicolor process, several studios were forced to use a less effective two-strip color method, Cinecolor. The results were not as vivid as the three-strip color process, but that did not prevent several rival studios from competing.
Ub Iwerks was among the first to use Cinecolor for his 1933 ComiColor cartoon, “Jack and the Beanstalk.” Warner Bros. offered two Cinecolor releases in the 1934-35 season, “Honeymoon Hotel” and “Beauty and the Beast,” both Merrie Melodies. Walter Lantz countered with “Jolly Little Elves” (1934), which received an Oscar nomination the same year Disney’s “Flowers and Trees” (1932) won best short subject honors. Max Fleischer also employed the Cinecolor technique in his Color Classics series, beginning with “Poor Cinderella” (1934).
The most spectacular use of color was yet to come, however. In 1937 Walt Disney again paved the way when he produced the first full-length feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It was a monumental undertaking for his studio, costing a tiny fortune to produce (six times more than its original budget of $250,000). Fortunately, it was well worth the price as the film became a tremendous box-office hit, earning $8 million in revenue following its release. With this newfound success, Disney opened many animators’ eyes to the full potential of color to animated cartoons, no matter what their length.
In 1940, Disney would further cement his place in history by releasing in “Fantasound” the cinematic jewel Fantasia, one of the first films to feature a stereo soundtrack, which only six theaters, equipped with the multi-channel stereo system, could play.
Max Fleischer shared the same vision as Disney. He gave Disney perhaps his strongest competition in the feature-film arena when he produced his studio’s first fully animated feature, Gulliver’s Travels (1939), two years after Disney’s Technicolor extravaganza. While the film did compare in quality to Disney’s full-length production, unfortunately it never produced the same financial and critical success.
Nonetheless, Fleischer would produce one more feature, Mr. Bug Goes to Town (1941), before abandoning the idea of producing cartoon features altogether and leaving the field to his contemporary, Walt Disney, who became the sole producer of feature-length cartoons for the next two decades.
The outbreak of World War II unified the cartoon industry in a patriotic sort of way. Studios showed their allegiance by producing propaganda training films and cartoons satirizing the war, with obvious anti-German and anti-Japanese overtones, to boost the public’s morale.
The effort resulted in a number of flag-waving sendups that are still funny today, among them Donald Duck’s “Der Fuehrer’s Face” (Disney, 1943), an Oscar-winning short subject; Tex Avery’s “Blitz Wolf” (MGM, 1942); and “Daffy’s Draftee” (Warner, 1944). Warner Bros. also produced a topical war bond short, “Bugs Bunny’s Bond Rally” (1943), with Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Porky Pig urging Americans to buy war bonds, as well as its own share of animated training films, namely Private Snafu, first directed by Frank Tashlin, the noted comedy film director, and Hook, which dealt with the misadventures of a navy sailor.
While the war proved to be a timely subject, Hollywood animators continued to display their affection for the actors, actresses and comedians of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Caricatured versions of many celebrities have made their way to the screen in one cartoon or another since the early 1930s. Some of the most notable appearances by movie stars in animated form include “Hollywood Steps Out” (Warner, 1941), featuring Clark Gable, Harpo Marx, Buster Keaton, Joan Crawford, the Three Stooges and others; “A Tale of Two Mice” (Warner, 1942), depicting Abbott and Costello as mice (Babbit and Catstello); “Bacall to Arms” (Warner, 1946), with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall as cartoon characters; and “Popeye’s 25th Anniversary” (Paramount, 1948), with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Bob Hope and Jimmy Durante.
The measure of success that cartoons had attained in the 1930s and 1940s continued into the 1950s. During this decade the cartoon industry experienced several important achievements. In 1953, with 3-D becoming the rage, several studios began turning out three-dimensional feature films and short subjects, to the delight of moviegoing audiences. The technique was used in cartoons as well.
In 1953 Walt Disney’s “Melody” and “Working for Peanuts” with Donald Duck, Walter Lantz’s “The Hypnotic Hick” starring Woody Woodpecker and Famous Studios’ “The Ace of Space” with Popeye were the first cartoons produced and released in 3-D. The following year Warner Bros. added its own 3-D favorite, “Lumber-Jack Rabbit” (1954), starring Bugs Bunny, while Famous Studios’ second 3-D cartoon was “Boo Man,” with Casper the Friendly Ghost.
Perhaps more important than 3-D was the unveiling of a new style of animation four years earlier, which used fewer cartoon cels to tell a complete story. The method—called “limited animation”—was the brainchild of United Productions of America (UPA), producers of Mister Magoo and Gerald McBoing Boing cartoons. The concept presented an economical way for producers to animate cartoons while still achieving a wide range of motion and believability on screen. Bill Scott, a former UPA animator, recalls the new process “proved that cartoonists could use fewer drawings and still do an excellent job telling their story.”
Economically, the new system of animation made sense, as the cost to produce fully animated cartoons had become more and more prohibitive. As costs rose, many of the major cartoon producers would adopt this method of animation. (Television cartoon producers later employed the same style of animation.) Only through limited animation could theatrical cartoons stay economically feasible.
For years it was believed that television brought about the demise of the animated cartoon short. This is true to some extent. But what actually killed the cartoon short was a 1949 U.S. Supreme Court ruling forcing studios to abandon “block bookings.” Under this method, theater owners were offered hit feature films as long as they agreed to book a cartoon, newsreel or live-action short as part of the package. Usually a percentage of the rental fee helped finance the cartoon production.
After this ruling, theater owners refused to pay more than nominal fees for cartoons. As a result, the animated short couldn’t earn back its production costs on its initial release. It often took several rereleases before most cartoons turned a profit, if any. The impact of this ruling and the birth of television ultimately resulted in many Hollywood cartoon studios closing their doors during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Walter Lantz, who was the last to stop production in 1972, said, “We didn’t stop producing cartoons because their popularity died out, it was because we couldn’t afford to make them.” In essence, television replaced movie theaters as a place to
In essence, television replaced movie theaters as a place to showcase animated productions. The growth of this medium clearly undermined the success of movie theaters in this country, as witnessed in a strong decline in box-office receipts. (The number of television sets in use in 1950 jumped from 1 million at the beginning of the year to 4 million by the end of the year.) With many programs accessible on the “tube” for free, American moviegoers had little incentive to go to the theater.
“People began to care less about going to the movies,” remarked Norm Prescott, cofounder of Filmation Studios. “As a consequence, it took four or five years for studios to recoup their cartoon costs.”
Viewing television as fertile ground, several film distributors of vintage cartoons kept in well-guarded film vaults took advantage of this new and thriving medium by syndicating the films to local television stations. The first cartoons to appear were black-and-white treasures made by Van Beuren Studios in the 1930s, seen on DuMont’s WABD-TV, New York, in 1947 on Movies for Small Fry. The program was broadcast Tuesday evenings and inspired The Small Fry Club, a network continuation of the show in January 1948, hosted by Big Brother Bob Emery. The latter continued through the 1950-51 season, screening Van Beuren’s Cubby cartoon series and several early Walter Lantz cartoons before the program was canceled. (The Van Beuren films also appeared on TV Tots Time on WENR, Chicago, and on the ABC network between 1950 and 1952.)
This did not mark the first time cartoons were used on television. Chad Grothkopf, a Disney animator in his 20s, went East in 1938 to work for NBC on “the very first animated show on the network.” Only 50 television sets were in use at the time when Grothkopf produced “Willie the Worm,” a low-budget, eight-minute black-and-white cartoon that aired in April 1938. The film was full of cutout animation, plus a small amount of cel animation, to illustrate the popular children’s poem (“Willie Worm has taken a wife, to live and to love the rest of his life”).
One year later, in May 1939, when NBC presented its first full schedule of evening programming on experimental station W2XBS (now WNBC), New York, the station previewed Walt Disney’s Donald Duck cartoon, “Donald’s Cousin,” for viewers.
In the early 1950s many classic cartoons that previously had been released to theaters made their way to the tiny screen, shown almost exclusively on children’s shows hosted by local television station personalities. Cartoons were the cornerstone of such popular programs as the Captain Bob Show, Buffalo, New York; Uncle Willie’s Cartoon Show,Beaumont, Texas; and scores of others.
In 1953, 20 to 25 stations were regularly broadcasting cartoons throughout the country, garnering high ratings from their predominantly juvenile audience. And by January 1955 more than 400 television stations were programming animated cartoons.
The increase in the number of stations that aired cartoons was due largely to a high number of cartoon packages that became available for the first time. Warner Bros., Paramount-Fleischer-Famous Studios and Terry-Toons all released cartoons to television, joined by MGM’s Tom and Jerry package and spot broadcasts of various Walt Disney cartoons on ABC’s Disneyland.
With the availability of new films, television stations throughout the country launched their own afternoon children’s shows hosted by a virtual army of “sea captains, space commanders, Western sodbusters and neighborhood policemen.” Officer Joe Bolton hosted cartoons and comedy short subjects in New York. In Los Angeles Tom Hatten entertained youngsters with Popeye cartoons in his Pier 5 Club on KTLA-TV Channel 5.
Other stations devised clever titles to inform children when “cartoon time” aired on their local station. Philadelphia’s WFIL added Funny Flickers, while WGRB in Sche-nectady ran Kartoon Karnival to attract young viewers with large doses of cartoon entertainment. CBS was the first network to join the cartoon craze. In 1953, the network added Barker Bill’s Cartoon Show to its daytime schedule, featuring early Terry-Toons cartoons. Three years later, CBS again segmented an assortment of Terry-Toons cartoons on The CBS Cartoon Theatre, a three-month-long prime-time series hosted by newcomer comedian Dick Van Dyke. That same year it also debuted the first half-hour network cartoon show commissioned to include new animation with older cartoons, UPA’s The Gerald McBoing Boing Show.
These programs only whetted viewers’ appetites, however. What was missing from television logs was newly produced cartoon programs to keep viewers interested. Since producers could not afford to produce fully animated, theatrical style cartoons, the medium had to settle for a less expensive process.
“Full animation was very, very expensive,” recalled Norm Prescott. “Television, in turn, could not support full animation. The economics just wouldn’t jibe unless somebody could come up with a way of doing animation with fewer drawings.”
The UPA-style of animation thus came to television. Early animated fare reflected this cost-efficient, or “cookie-cutter,” method. The process enabled producers to use a variety of angles, cuts and camera moves to imply motion, while using the fewest number of cels possible to tell their story. For television, the format fit like a glove and audiences never noticed the difference.
The technique was officially introduced to viewers in the first made-for-television series, the cliff-hanging, serialized adventures of Crusader Rabbit, co-invented by Rocky and Bullwinkle creator Jay Ward. The series was test marketed in 1949 and made its debut one year later. Ward produced the program expressly for television, animating the series out of his makeshift studio in San Francisco and sending his sketches to Hollywood film producer Jerry Fairbanks to film, edit and add soundtracks to complete each story for broadcast.
“When Jay did Crusader Rabbit, it was still axiomatic that no one could produce a cartoon series for television,” remembered Bill Scott, who created UPA’s Gerald McBoing Boing and was the voice of Bullwinkle J. Moose. “Jay refused to believe that.”
As was the case with other cartoon programs that followed, the cost of the Crusader Rabbit series is what made it attractive for television sales. One complete 19ﬁ-minute story cost approximately $2,500 to produce. “We would simply plan a story so we reused some of the animation with a different background,” series producer Jerry Fairbanks recalled.
Ward was followed into the television arena by two veteran animators who were most responsible for giving limited animation its biggest boost: Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera. They perpetuated the art form in a number of highly successful series for television. The seven-time Academy Award-winning directors, who invented the hilarious hijinks of MGM’s Tom and Jerry, entered television’s animated age eight years after Ward with The Ruff and Reddy Show (NBC, 1957), the first hosted cartoon series for Saturday morning featuring repackaged older Columbia Pictures cartoon shorts originally released to theaters. (In 1958, Hanna-Barbera produced the first all-new half-hour cartoon show, The Huckleberry Hound Show, featuring the cartoon adventures of Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear and Pixie and Dixie.) The series used only 12,000 cels to animate 30 minutes of cartoon entertainment (in this case, roughly three cartoons per show).
For television, this style of animation seemed most effective. “When we first started limited animation, it disturbed me,” Hanna admitted in an interview. “Then when I saw some of the old cartoons on TV, I saw that actually limited animation came off better on the dimly lit television screen than the old fully animated things.”
For Barbera, the biggest adjustment was not conforming to the new style of animation but to the low prices television paid for his and Hanna’s animated productions. “We received about $2,700 (per show) and that was after great negotiating and pleading,” he once said.
To retain a tidy profit, Hanna and Barbera effectively did away with production items that usually resulted in higher costs. They trimmed most schedule-delaying procedures, eliminated many preliminary sketches and recorded soundtracks in one sitting.
By producing cartoons at such rock-bottom prices, the marketplace for made-for-television cartoons blossomed overnight. In 1959 Jay Ward returned to television with a new series, the misadventures of a moose and a flying squirrel, better known as Rocky and His Friends. (Ward originated the characters years earlier for a never-produced series entitled The Frostbite Falls Follies.) Pat Sullivan produced a new litter of Felix the Cat cartoons, bearing the trademark limited animation style that had become so suitable for television. (Animator Chuck Jones often has called this style of animation “illustrated radio” because it’s like “a radio script with a minimum of drawings in front of it, and if you turn off the picture, you can still tell what’s happening because you hear it.”)
Consequently, during the next 10 years, the syndicated marketplace would be deluged with other all-cartoon series, aimed at attracting adults and children with characters and situations that appealed to both segments of the population. Other characters to barnstorm the “tube” during its early days of animation included Quick Draw McGraw (1959), Spunky and Tadpole (1960), Q.T. Hush (1960), Lippy the Lion (1962), Wally Gator (1962) and Magilla Gorilla (1964).
Japanese cartoon producers also began to import fully animated fantasy/adventure series that were reedited and redubbed in English for broadcast. Many have cult followings today. Some popular titles were Astro Boy (1964), Eighth Man (1965), Gigantor (1966) and Speed Racer (1967).
Many of television’s earliest concepts for animated shows were derived from successful characters or formats that worked well in many popular live-action shows. The Flintstones (ABC, 1960), featuring television’s “modern stone-age family,” was actually based on the classic television sitcom The Honeymooners. Top Cat (ABC, 1961), another Hanna-Barbera Production, mirrored the antics of Sergeant Bilko and his platoon of misfits from The Phil Silvers Show. Calvin and the Colonel (ABC, 1961), patterned after radio’s Amos ‘n’ Andy, featured the voices of the original radio team, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, who created the animated spin-off. Like television sitcoms, several programs even featured studio-recorded laugh tracks to provoke laughter in the home.
Producers later turned to other bankable properties to attract viewers. Comic strips and comics gave television characters with built-in followings. Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy (1961), caricatured in a series of cheaply produced five-minute cartoons, headed a legion of renowned comic characters in cartoon versions for television. Superheroes were included in this menagerie, flying onto television screens in countless action/adventure shows like Marvel Superheroes(1966), featuring the extraordinary feats of Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, Captain America and The Mighty Thor; The New Adventures of Superman (CBS, 1966) was the first fully animated network show based on a superhero character.
Motion picture and recording stars were also naturals for animated cartoons. Hanna-Barbera was the first to get into the act by producing cartoon versions of Abbott and Costello (1965), featuring the voice of straight man Bud Abbott, and Laurel and Hardy (1966). The Three Stooges (Moe Howard, Larry Fine and Curly Joe DeRita) brought their zany brand of slapstick to animation in The New Three Stooges, a live-action/animated series for syndication. Musical artists who gave animation a new beat in cartoon form included Ross Bagdasarian’s Alvin and the Chipmunks in The Alvin Show(CBS, 1961) and Liverpool’s Fab Four in The Beatles (ABC, 1965), the last musical group to be given animated life until Motown’s The Jackson 5ive (ABC, 1971) and teenage rock sensations The Osmonds (ABC, 1972) burst onto the musical scene.
With so many programs eventually flooding the market, however, even film and television critics wondered just how long cartoons could last in the medium. In reviewing television animation, Charles Champlin, Los Angeles Times critic, wrote: “Operating on the adage ‘if it works, copy it,’ networks went so cartoon happy there was talk of animating the Huntley-Brinkley Report.
” One recurring criticism of television animation was that the work often appeared rushed, thus dramatically undermining the quality. Animators had little control over the quality because “the pressures of television are greater than the pressures of producing films for theatres,” Bill Hanna noted. “Back when we made the MGM cartoons, we worked at a more leisurely, almost relaxed pace. There was definitely more care put into the drawing, timing, sound effects and the recording of the music. Much more time was taken to discuss stories and to design characters; pictures were reviewed in pencil test form, and changes were made before they were inked and painted. It was an elaborate process. Every phase of production was handled much more carefully than it is today. We just don’t have the time today to put in all that effort.”
Friz Freleng, who created several successful cartoon series for television for his company, DePatie-Freleng Enterprises, offered his own perspective of television cartoons. “I used to turn out 11 or 12 theatrical cartoons a year. At six minutes per cartoon, that was a little over an hour’s worth. Here, in one week, they’ll turn out four shows. They do at least one and a half hours of new animation a week,” he said. “The networks go for the numbers (or viewers). They don’t care what the quality of the show is—I don’t think they even watch the shows. As long as it’s got high numbers, it doesn’t matter whether the show is good or not.”
Former Disney animator Don Bluth, the genius behind such full-length cartoon treasures as The Secret of NIMH (1982),Land Before Time (1988) and Anastasia (1997), shared Freleng’s frustration. “They cut corners on Saturday-morning animation and when they cut corners, they kill the product,” he said. “The networks say, ‘A kid will watch cartoons that cost $90,000 a half hour, so why spend $300,000?’”
While the quality of most cartoons was suspect, most viewers welcomed the glut of animated cartoon fare that infiltrated Saturday mornings and prime-time television. Long before The Simpsons, cartoon programs demonstrated they could attract nighttime audiences.
In 1958 CBS pioneered the concept of airing the all-cartoon show in prime-time for the very first time. The network reran that summer The Gerald McBoing Boing Show, featuring the first-ever newly produced cartoons for network television. (The series actually debuted two years earlier.)
Networks did not fully pick up on the idea of slotting fully animated cartoons during the family viewing hour until the turn of the decade. ABC did the most with cartoons in prime time. In September 1960 it began airing The Flintstones on its nighttime schedule, becoming the first prime-time animated series in television history, followed by The Bugs Bunny Show one month later. In 1962 the network also spotted The Jetsons on Sunday evenings, with The Adventures of Johnny Quest (1964) to make it debut in prime time two years later, also on ABC. CBS ran a distant second in the prime-time cartoon derby. During the 1961-62 season, it aired Alvin and the Chipmunks during the evening hours as well as Calvin and the Colonel.
In 1962, after networks won big ratings with prime-time cartoon programs, NBC aired the first made-for-television special, sponsored by Timex, Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol, starring the nearsighted codger of theatrical cartoon fame. The program, which was also the first animated television musical, was an hour-long adaptation of Charles Dickens’s classic holiday story. This program marked the illustrious beginning of the prime-time holiday special and the animated special in general.
Although this charming animated rendering produced explosive ratings, it took three years before television viewers were treated to their second prime-time special, A Charlie Brown Christmas (CBS, 1965), based on Charles M. Schulz’s beloved Peanuts comic-strip characters. (The special remained on the shelf for one year, with no takers, before Coca-Cola agreed to sponsor the show.) The thirty-minute program generated a huge audience—nearly half of the nation’s television viewers.
Due to the show’s impressive performance, CBS made Peanuts an annual attraction on the network; it has since become the longest-running series of cartoon specials in television history. Runner-up Dr. Seuss inspired the first of several specials beginning with 1966’s Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas, produced by Chuck Jones and children’s book author Ted Geisel. The show also premiered on CBS.
During the 1960s, many other made-for-television cartoon specials were produced, most notably by television innovators Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass, who presented a string of perennial cartoon classics in prime time. They created such memorable shows as Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer (NBC, 1964); The Ballad of Smokey the Bear (NBC, 1964), narrated by James Cagney; Frosty the Snowman (CBS, 1969); and The Little Drummer Boy (ABC, 1968). The pair’s first prime-time entry was the hour-long animated special Return to Oz, which debuted on NBC in February 1964.
Not all of these shows used conventional animation, however. Many were filmed using a lifelike stop-motion puppet process created by Rankin and Bass called “Animagic,” a technique they initiated in their 1961 children’s series, Tales of the Wizard of Oz.
Until 1963 the Saturday-morning lineup on all three networks was mostly composed of reruns of theatrical cartoons and popular children’s programs, including My Friend Flicka, Sky King and others. For the 1963-64 season, CBS took the first step toward creating an all-cartoon Saturday-morning schedule by offering a two-hour block of cartoons.
Attracting national sponsors like Kellogg’s and General Mills, the network’s new Saturday-morning lineup included the new Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales, Quick Draw McGraw, which had previously premiered in syndication, and network returnees The Alvin Show and Mighty Mouse Playhouse. (In the following two seasons, CBS expanded the schedule by another hour, adding Linus the Lionhearted and The Tom and Jerry Show.
CBS daytime programmer Fred Silverman, who was only 26 years old, was responsible for the new Saturday-morning programming. He recognized that adults, like children, love animated cartoons and that cartoons could attract a larger viewing audience. Silverman’s assumption proved correct. Ratings skyrocketed and by the 1966-67 season, after restructuring Saturday morning with nine back-to-back half-hour cartoon shows, CBS rocketed into first place in that time slot’s ratings derby.
Taking notice of CBS’s success, runners-up NBC and ABC soon began their own Saturday-morning cartoon scheduling in earnest. ABC followed CBS in 1964 by adding cartoons to its Saturday-morning schedule, while NBC did the same in 1965. In the late 1960s, Saturday morning became known as “a jungle of competition,” and rightfully so. New cartoons were delivering the largest network audience ever, and network bidding for programs became intensely competitive. The average price for a half-hour cartoon show ranged from $48,000 to $62,000, climbing to $70,000 to $100,000 by the 1970s. Financially, these figures were nothing compared to the revenues Saturday-morning cartoons generated. By 1970 the combined network take was $66.8 million in advertising revenue from their respective Saturday-morning lineups.
By 1968, however, the success of television cartoons was somewhat diminished by one factor: the public outcry against television violence. The aftermath of the shocking assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Senator Robert Kennedy brought about tremendous unrest among the public when it came to violence, whether in their neighborhood streets or on television.
In a survey The Christian Science Monitor recorded 162 threats or acts of violence on Saturday morning, the majority occurring between 7:30 and 9:30 A.M. when an estimated 26.7 million children, ages 2 to 17, were tuned in. The issue of violence on television was seconded by a report prepared by the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence (Kerner Commission), which ultimately forced networks to make changes in policy with respect to children’s programming.
Network censors were hired to sit in on script meetings, approve storyboards and veto subject matter right up to airtime in an effort to control the violent or suggestive content of cartoons. The policy remains in force today.
In addition to instituting in-house control, the three major networks removed most of the shows and characters that were the subject of parental protests. Action-adventure shows were thus replaced by comedy series that deemphasized violence. The new aim of children’s programming would be to “entertain, stimulate and educate.” However, not all animators agreed that censorship was the right thing.
“Cartoon characters never die—they never bleed,” remarked veteran animator Walter Lantz. “They get blown up or run over and the next scene there they are, hale and hearty. That’s part of their magic, their fantasy. These so-called critics say kids can’t separate fantasy from reality. They’re looking at things they, as adults, consider harmful to the child. The critics don’t look at cartoons through the eyes of a child. I always considered our type of humor as being slapstick, not violent.”
Director Friz Freleng, of Warner Bros. fame, supported Lantz’s theory that home audiences would rather be watching slapstick comedies. “The adult audience today has been robbed of a certain amount of entertainment,” he said. “Kids keep getting it [cartoons] on TV, but you won’t find an adult sitting down and watching a kid’s show. I believe they miss it, and I believe there’s a neglected audience.”
Freleng and others had their reason to be concerned. In many instances, the network’s decisions on what to censor were questionable. Lou Scheimer, cartoon producer for Filmation Studios, related that he had run into trouble when he was animating Superboy. One sequence called for Superboy to stop an oncoming train with his hands. “It was thought that it might tempt kids to try the same,” Scheimer said. The scene was changed.
In one episode of CBS’s Josie and the Pussycats (CBS, 1970), a script called for one of the pussycats to escape from a science-fiction menace by taking refuge in a dish of spaghetti. Former producer and comic-book artist Norman Maurer, who wrote the scene, once recalled, “CBS disallowed it. They said, ‘Kids will put their cats in spaghetti.’ I was told to rewrite the scene.”
Also frustrating for most animators during this time was the audience response to early screenings of the fall shows. In the late 1970s, during a screening of Filmation’s Fat Albert and Space Academy shows at a Hollywood preview house, more than half the audience walked out, prompting producer Joe Barbera, who was on hand to measure the audience response to his own Hanna-Barbera cartoons, to remark that he yearned for a return to the old days so that “when a cat chases a mouse, he doesn’t have to stop and teach him how to blow glass or weave a basket. My wish for Christmas is they would leave education to the schools and entertainment to us.”
While many animators might disagree, network censorship, in its earliest form, brought forth stronger values that were necessary in cartoons. The action/adventure shows had their place in history, as much as their replacements, teenage mystery and rock ‘n’ roll group programs, which served to educate and entertain children in a manner that reflected new attitudes in society and the world.
In the theatrical cartoon marketplace, it was a completely different story. Producers trod forbidden turf by producing animated works that were aimed largely at adults. One principal reason for this was the increase of grown-ups and young adults lining up to see cartoon features.
The one film that changed the visual and commercial style of the cartoon feature more than any single production was Yellow Submarine (1968), an animated odyssey featuring The Beatles (John, Paul, George and Ringo) that incorporated images and stylized movement. Audiences were most receptive to the film, proving there was indeed room for animated films that were less Disneyesque.
Another film that revolutionized the cartoon feature industry was Ralph Bakshi’s Fritz the Cat (1971), the first X-rated full-length cartoon based on Robert Crumb’s underground comic strip. Like Yellow Submarine, this departure from mainstream animation was full of topical statements—this time about life in the 1960s, including the decade’s sexual and political revolution.
The landmark accomplishments of both films marked a new beginning for the animated feature film business that for several years had been stifled by the lack of other innovators in the field taking chances with full-length cartoons in this high-risk area. As a result, more feature-length cartoons were produced than ever before, and, for the first time in years, Disney actually had to compete in an ever-crowded marketplace.
Some of the new and original concepts, from here and abroad, that followed included A Boy Named Charlie Brown(1969), Charlotte’s Web (1972), Fantastic Planet (1973), Hugo the Hippo (1976), Raggedy Ann and Andy (1977) and Watership Down (1978).
In the 1980s the success of the animated feature continued, spawning new ideas to meet the increased demand of baby-boomer families. Former Disney animator Don Bluth directed the first independently produced animated feature to successfully challenge Disney’s dominance at the box office—An American Tail (1986). While other films’ characters were mostly based on greeting-card and action-toy figures (this was also true in television animation), another film renewed hope in the animation business that original characters and stories still sold audiences: Who Framed Roger Rabbit(1988), a splendidly conceived comedy/mystery produced by Walt Disney whose style harkened back to Hollywood’s golden age of animation. The blockbuster film, which grossed more than $100 million, renewed interest in creating quality animated films for adults and children and pumped new life into the cartoon industry.
Further revitalizing animation throughout this period was the introduction of computer animation with Robert Abel & Associates creating the first computer-generated 3-D character animated television commercial, “Brilliance,” featuring the Sexy Robot (1984), for the Canned Food Information Council; Pacific Data Images producing the first computer-generated 3-D dinosaurs seen by the public in the animated short Chromasaurus (1985); and former Disney animator John Lasseter from Pixar directing the first widely released computer-animated short, Luxo Jr. (1986), also the first computer-animated film nominated for an Oscar, following his first computer-animated short for Lucasfilm’s computer unit, Andre and Wally (1984).
Throughout the 1990s, animated feature films became enduring profit machines, led by Disney with a series of blockbusters: The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), The Lion King (1994, the top-grossing animated feature of all time and first billion-dollar property in history), Toy Story (1995, the first fully computer-animated feature), Pocahontas (1995) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996). Other Hollywood studios rushed onto the scene eager to make animated features. Universal (notably Steven Spielberg’s “Amblimation” studios), Warner Bros., Paramount and 20th Century Fox jumped in to compete with Disney, producing animated features aimed at the family market. Also entering the mix around this time was award-winning independent animator Bill Plympton, with his first full-length feature, The Tune (1992), becoming the first successful theatrical feature produced, directed and animated by an individual and entirely financed by him. Few came close to having the same box-office success as Disney.
As a ripple effect, theaters witnessed the return of the theatrical cartoon short, absent as a regular program feature in the cinema for almost 20 years. Disney’s release of the 1989 Roger Rabbit cartoon short, “Tummy Trouble,” ushered in a new era for animated theatrical shorts. The studio began producing new cartoon shorts for theaters, including the first new Mickey Mouse cartoon in 37 years, The Prince and the Pauper, a 35-minute featurette released to theaters. In 1991 Warner Bros. produced its first new cartoon short since closing down its animation department in the 1960s: Box-Office Bunny, starring Bugs Bunny. More new Looney Tunes followed, featuring Bugs and his Looney Tunes pals, and in 1994 legendary animator Chuck Jones returned to Warner Bros. to produce and direct a series of new Looney Tunes, beginning with the Road Runner and Coyote cartoon, “Chariots of Fur.”
With animation short subjects back in favor with studios to a degree not seen perhaps since animation’s heyday, other studios, such Hanna-Barbera, MGM and MCA/Universal got into the act. In 1995 Hanna-Barbera, which had become active in producing cartoon shorts for the Cartoon Network’s World Premiere Toons program, released several cartoon shorts to movie theaters overseas. That same year MGM issued an all-new Pink Panther cartoon, while Universal distributed its first theatrical cartoon starring Earthworm Jim, star of the popular series of the same name on the WB Television Network. The Ren & Stimpy Show creator John Kricfalusi tried to join the already crowded field by producing a series of “Brik Blastoff” and “Jimmy the Idiot Boy” cartoon shorts for theaters, but the films were never released theatrically. In 1997 Kricfalusi instead released them on the Internet under his Spumco company Web page under the series title The Goddamn George Liquor Program, becoming the first Internet-produced cartoon series.
Television experienced the largest growth and expansion of cartoon programming in its long and illustrious history. In 1990 the FOX Kids Network premiered, changing the face of kids’ TV forever, while Disney unveiled The Disney Afternoon Block, a two-hour daily programming service featuring original made-for-syndication cartoon series. The FOX Kids Network, headed by Margaret Loesch, became a force with which to reckon, producing fresh, original and highly rated cartoon series following the network’s launching, including Bobby’s World, Tiny Toon Adventures and Taz-Mania. Not to be outdone, media mogul Ted Turner launched another network two years later: Cartoon Network, the first cable network to feature cartoons exclusively around the clock. Turner started the network—his company’s fifth—after acquiring the Hanna-Barbera cartoon library for $320 million. Combined with his company’s existing stockpile of MGM, Paramount and Warner Bros. cartoons, Cartoon Network—whose audience would be adults and children—had a backlog of 8,500 cartoon titles to broadcast.
Once again FOX Network took a revolutionary approach in programming, and in 1990 it debuted a cartoon series that would become the single most popular animated program of the decade: The Simpsons, which matured into a megahit for the network. The success of The Simpsons marked the return of animated cartoons to prime time, and other networks attempted to capitalize on Fox’s good fortune.
In 1991 MTV aired the first animated series created for a cable broadcaster, Liquid Television, featuring the work of independent animators, including Mike Judge, whose Beavis and Butt-head attracted immediate attention and premiered as its own series in 1993. Meanwhile, Nickelodeon entered the animation business, introducing three original cartoon series on the network (under the name of Nicktoons): Rugrats, Ren and Stimpy and Doug, each major hits for the network.
The major networks soon followed with their own prime-time fare. In 1992 ABC added as a midseason replacement,Capitol Critters, produced by Steven Bochco and Hanna-Barbera, while CBS premiered another prime-time cartoon series, Fish Police, also produced by Hanna-Barbera. Neither was a ratings success, and both were quickly canceled. Other series premiered in prime time but didn’t fare any better. Steven Spielberg’s long-awaited Family Dog was launched on CBS in 1993, but poor reviews and bad ratings brought a swift end to the show. In 1994 ABC tried to succeed where CBS failed by unveiling The Critic, an animated spoof of Hollywood and the movies hosted by cable-TV movie critic Jay Sherman (voiced by Saturday Night Live’s Jon Lovitz). Despite the program’s biting satire of the movie business, the show did not generate ratings to stay in prime time on ABC. It was revived on FOX but its run was short.
In general, cable networks outshined the competition in the prime-time cartoon derby. The same year The Criticpremiered, USA Network launched its first prime-time cartoon show, Duckman, the adventures of an irritable, web-footed detective. The series, starring the voice of Jason Alexander of TV’s Seinfeld, proceeded to become USA’s signature show, much as The Simpsons did for FOX. Cartoon Network also debuted its first series of original programs: in 1994,Space Ghost Coast to Coast, the first talk show hosted by an animated cartoon superhero, and in 1995 What a Cartoon!a joint project with Hanna-Barbera featuring 48 cartoon shorts created by a pool of well-known cartoon directors. Comedy Central joined the growing list of networks to produce prime-time cartoon series, introducing Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, presented in a process called “Squigglevision.”
As in the past, children’s advocates turned up the heat over the level of violence in cartoons on television. Networks found themselves on the losing end as Congress ordered an inquiry to determine whether stations had in fact been complying with the Children’s Television Act of 1990, a law that limits advertising time in children’s programming and requires stations to make a serious effort to serve kids’ educational and informational needs. In three years since the law passed, little had changed. Faced with threats from Washington lawmakers, in the fall of 1994 networks unveiled their fall lineups, offering a variety of educational and informational shows, including Beakman’s World, The Spacewatch Club, Mad Scientist Toon Club and Real News for Kids.
For a variety of reasons, economic and otherwise, NBC became the first major network to drop animated cartoons from its Saturday morning lineup. The network’s new lineup would feature educational and informational shows for kids instead. NBC’s decision to bow out left ABC, CBS and Fox to compete for the $300 million-plus in kids advertising.
Beginning in the fall of 1997, the Federal Communications Commission made it mandatory that television stations air three hours a week of educational programming for children. ABC endorsed the concept and worked with educators, who read scripts for upcoming shows and made suggestions to producers. CBS bowed out altogether, joining NBC in its decision to drop animated cartoons from its Saturday morning lineup and replace them with live-action shows, such asWheel of Fortune 2000 and Sports Illustrated for Kids.
Strengthening NBC’s and later CBS’s decision was Disney’s $19 billion acquisition of ABC/Capital Cities and the emergence of the KidsWB in 1995. Disney revitalized ABC’s Saturday morning programming, turning it into a powerhouse once again, while the Kids’ WB Television Network would find its own niche with original programming—some of which first began on FOX—attracting a mix of adults and children as viewers.
Throughout the decade, animation’s boom times resulted in a merchandise explosion of epic proportions. Baby boomers principally fueled the growth in cartoon merchandise that for the first time in history saw total licensing revenue top the $100 million mark. The home video market enjoyed record sales and rentals of cartoon videos, capturing lovers of cartoons, young and old. Celebrations of Hollywood’s glory days of animation were held the world over. Film festivals honored legendary animators from animation’s “golden age”—Warner Bros. animators Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, and Tex Avery as well as former MGM greats Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera.
The popularity of Saturday-morning and syndicated cartoon series continued throughout this period spurred by the success of such Emmy Award—winning shows as FOX’s Animaniacs and Tiny Toon Adventures, and the WB’s Pinky & the Brain, all produced by Steven Spielberg and Warner Bros. Television Animation, and CBS’s Garfield and Friends, as well as a number of video-game adapted shows, including NBC’s Super Mario Brothers Super Show! and ABC’s Sonic the Hedgehog.
Meanwhile, animated sitcoms, cartoons aimed at adults, gained traction on the tube. Among the most successful were FOX’s The Simpsons (1989-); King of the Hill (1997-); Family Guy (1999-), which was cancelled once in 2000 and again in 2002, but reinstated due to incredible DVD sales and its large viewership of reruns (It is the first cancelled show brought back by DVD sales, and it happened twice!); MTV’s Ren & Stimpy (1991-96); Beavis and Butt-head (1993-97); and Comedy Central’s South Park (1997-), which caused the network’s viewership to nearly double. Original cartoon fare for children resulted in several smash hits becoming highly successful franchises spun off into specials and feature films. Leading the pack were Nickelodeon’s highly rated, Emmy Award—winning Klasky-Csupo series The Rugrats (1991-2004), The Wild Thornberrys (1998-2001), John A. Davis’s The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius (2002), Stephen Hillenburg’s SpongeBob SquarePants (1999-), and Nick Jr.’s popular preschool series, Dora the Explorer(2000-).
From the mid-1990s on, anime became a huge hit in America and a staple of children’s programming, along with more adult Japanese cartoons, striking a chord with fans of all ages, including such syndicated favorites as Sailor Moon(1995-2000), Pokémon (1997-2002), Dragon Ball Z (1989-2003) and Cartoon Network’s Cowboy Bebop (1998) and The Animatrix (2004), airing on its Adult Swim programming block.
In the meantime, one alarming trend in the new millennium was the disappearance of Saturday-morning cartoon lineups on most of the major networks—ABC, NBC and CBS—where cartoons once reigned with ratings of more than 20 million viewers weekly and dominated the airwaves throughout the 1970s and 1980s. In the fall of 2000, CBS replaced its Saturday-morning lineup with children’s programming from Nick Jr. called Nick Jr. on CBS (replaced in 2006 by the three-hour KOL Slumber Party on CBS). NBC did the same in 2002, replacing its traditional Saturday-morning schedule with live-action and animated programming in partnership with Discovery Kids, which changed again in 2006 to the new E/I weekend programming called qubo. By 2003, traditional Saturday-morning cartoons existed on only three networks, ABC Kids, FOX Kids and Kids’ WB!, with all three networks attracting a meager 2 million viewers with its current programming. Throughout the 2000s, branded programming blocks would become the norm not only on major networks, but also on cable networks, including Cartoon Network with its popular late-night Adult Swim animation block and weekday Tickle-U preschool block; the Disney Channel with Playhouse Disney for pee-wee audiences and Toon Disney with the Jetix action block (which also aired on ABC Family); MTV and Spike TV with their own competing nighttime blocks with Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, including Sic’Emation and The Strip, respectively, to name a few.
From the end of the decade through the new millennium, animated features continued to enjoy widespread success while also achieving new heights and new lows. Aside from the premiere of the first animated feature on 70 millimeter IMAX theater screens, Disney’s visual and musical masterpiece, Fantasia/2000 (1999), and Pokémon: The Movie (1999) becoming the most successful foreign animated film in American history, grossing more than $85 million at the box office, computer animation virtually surpassed the traditional ink-and-draw technique as the method of choice in making full-length animated features. Studios like Pixar Animation set the standard with the success of seven films, in partnership with Disney, that set new box-office records and new all-time highs—and consecutively opened number-one—including Toy Story 2 (1999), Monsters Inc. (2001), Finding Nemo (2003), The Incredibles (2004) and Cars (2006).
Closely mirroring their success were rivals DreamWorks Animation and 20th Century Fox’s Blue Sky Studios, commanding a considerable share of the box-office with hits such as Antz (1998), Shrek (2001), Ice Age (2002), Shrek 2(2004), Shark Tale (2004), Madagascar (2005), Robots (2005), Over the Hedge (2006) and Ice Age: The Meltdown(2006) respectively.
One serious casualty with the new wave of successful computer-animated films was Walt Disney Studios. Following such costly hand-drawn flops as Treasure Planet (2002), Brother Bear (2003) and, finally, Home on the Range (2004), in 2004 the studio shut down its main animation facility in Orlando, Florida, putting approximately 250 animators, technicians and other personnel out of work, followed by its DisneyToon Studios in Sydney, Australia, the company’s last studio producing hand-drawn animated features. Turning its attention toward producing more competitive, fully computer-animated productions, a year later it went on to produce its first homegrown computer-animated feature, Chicken Little (2005).
With such remarkable interest in this lively art, the future of animated cartoons is in good hands. As it proceeds into the years and decades ahead, the force behind animation’s success will be the same underlying element as in the past: its commitment to quality. That said, the animated cartoon will last as long as people thirst for the flicker of action, the ingenious blend of characters and well-conceived original stories that only cartoons can offer. If this holds true, the next 100 years should be worth watching.