The 1987 fall season may go down as the one that turned Saturday morning into “The Late Show.” Instead of premiering as a block on the usual “Super Saturday,” the new network cartoon series have stumbled onto the air over the last several weekends. Some programs in fact debuted two weeks after the announced premiere date.
No one has offered any explanation for the delays. The networks’ policy of waiting until late spring to begin production of their new animated series may be to blame. Or the sheer volume of animated material needed for the combined network/syndication market may have overtaxed the resources of the overseas production houses.
Once the programs finally arrived, it became clear the trend this year was toward soft animation. The new series stress humor over adventure and feature rounder, cuter, younger characters. The older teens of the “Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?” era have been replaced by junior high and elementary school children. Robots, aliens and superheroes have largely been consigned to first-run syndication.
To make the characters seem cute, they’ve been given proportions modelled after a human baby: Large heads with big eyes and little noses, small bodies and short limbs.
The most extreme example is “Hello Kitty’s Furry Tale Theater” on CBS. Hello Kitty’s head and feet are so huge, and her body and legs so tiny, that the character can’t really walk. Her feet get in the way, and the outsized head makes her look like she’s about to topple over.
Some characters on returning shows, such as ABC’s “Pound Puppies,” have been re-designed to conform with the new style.
Although the new programs emphasize a softer look, the animated commercials that interrupt them stress trendy, hard-edged imagery, pop music and MTV-style editing. Which look draws a better response from the children who make up the Saturday morning audience remains to be seen.
Here, in no particular order, is an overview of this year’s new Saturday morning shows:
“Little Clowns of Happytown.” A group of junior clowns spread happiness among the children in a nearby city, which brings them into conflict with Mr. Bebad and his moronic henchmen--with predictable results. “Clowns” borrows heavily from “The Smurfs,” down to the gimmick of substituting “clown” for various words in the dialogue. Aimed at younger children who are up at 7:30 a.m., this collection of old jokes, sappy songs and stiff animation is a good reason to stay in bed.
“My Pet Monster” is the most likable series of the new season, with a premise sure to appeal to children. Max, his sister, Jill, and his friend, Chuck (one of the few Orientals on a kidvid show), have to hide the existence of Monster, their pal who’s stumbled in from another world. A fussy neighbor tries to have him locked up and the nasty Beaster wants to take Monster back to their world. Although the villains are weak--Beaster looks and sounds a lot like Warners’ Tasmanian Devil--the relationships among the main characters are warmly delineated and the designs have a nice, cartoony quality.
“Young Wizards.” In this formula sword-and-sorcery adventure, Prince Dexter attempts to reclaim his father’s kingdom from the evil usurper, Renwick, with the help of a bumbling good wizard, a spunky girl and three mini-monsters. Animation this limited can’t evoke a fantasy world, and the writing is a morass of cliches. “You have much to learn, boy,” snarls Renwick in his Darth Vader-esque basso during a duel with Dexter. A series with all the freshness and savor of re-heated oatmeal.
“Hello Kitty’s Furry Tale Theater” is based on a line of Japanese toys so relentlessly saccharine they could induce insulin shock. The cast presents various stories as plays, appropriating bits from films such as “Pinocchio” and “The Wizard of Oz.” If programming gets any softer than this, viewers will have to scoop it out of their TV sets with a spoon.
“The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse.” Unlike most cartoon remakes, “Mighty Mouse” is at least as entertaining as the original, an old Terrytoons series. Quirky, angular graphics and strong character poses help to compensate for the limits of the animation. The scripts include some sophisticated touches borrowed from “Rocky and Bullwinkle” and “Moonlighting,” like having the characters argue with the narrator. Not all the gags work, but it’s refreshing to see people trying something new on Saturday morning.
“Popeye and Son.” Popeye has married Olive Oyle and their son ( not Swee’ Pea) continues the family feud with Bluto’s son into the second generation. The program lacks the wonderfully fluid animation, slapstick fistfights and verbal ad-libs that made the Fleischer “Popeye” cartoons a perennial delight. Viewers will need their spinach to get through this dreary half-hour.
“Fraggle Rock” turns an imaginative puppet show into a very ordinary animated series. The original puppets had more vivid expressions and moved in more interesting ways than their cartoon counterparts. Little survives of the intriguing visual world of the Fraggles, either, and the rather shrill vocal cast has to carry the stories, with results as flat as last week’s Fizzies.
“ALF” chronicles in animated form the adventures of Alien Life Form Gordon Shumway before he left the planet Melmac for Earth. The humor of the live-action, prime-time “ALF” is based on his skewed perceptions of human customs. As he’s no longer a stranger in a strange land, the new series lacks that premise, and Melmac becomes the site of a weary, pedestrian cartoon sitcom.
“The New Archies” captures neither the doo-wop ‘50s humor of Bob Montana’s original comic strip, nor the bubble gum rock sound that made the Filmation cartoon series a hit from 1968-78. The characters have been shifted to junior high (which means their adult heads are incongruously stuck on adolescent bodies) and given an upscale wardrobe by Guess?/Esprit. Nothing distinguishes “The New Archies” from countless other shows about groups of kids, except its utter lack of humor. Miss Grundy should flunk the writers and artists.
“I’m Telling” is a live-action quiz show that combines elements from “The Newlywed Game” and “Kids Say the Darndest Things.” Sibling teams try to match answers to leading questions such as “What does your brother do at the table that drives your mom crazy?” The stories about burping, bad manners and undone homework seem more likely to appeal to adults than children.
And so another kidvid season begins. To paraphrase Ecclesiastes: “All cartoons flow to the screen, and yet the screen is not full. . . .” With any luck, next year’s shows will be a little better--and on time.