Blame it on the breakneck deadlines, the need for merchandising tie-ins or the combination of shrinking advertising revenues and rising production costs: The producers of Saturday-morning cartoons have apparently identified their mission as "to boldly go where everyone has gone before."
Nearly all the season's new programs (which began rolling out last week and continue today) are based on or adapted from something else. But if original ideas are in short supply, some of the shows display an unusual degree of creativity in their treatment of the familiar material. Some, but not all: The quality of the 1991-92 cartoon series varies enormously.
"Mother Goose and Grimm" (7:30 a.m.). The artists have done an excellent job of preserving the look of Mike Peters' comic strip; they also have a good sense of the characters' personalities. Ms. Goose appears slightly addled but not stupid; her dog, Grimm, manages to be both obnoxious and appealing--largely due to the vocal performances of Mitzi McCall and Charlie Brill. Despite these strengths, the flat timing and pedestrian direction keep the the program from being as entertaining as it could be. Grimm literally scaring the fur off Atilla the Cat should be hilarious, rather than amusing. More imaginative direction could make "Mother Goose" a hit.
"Back to the Future" (10 a.m.). The writers and designers seem to have gone back to the past for this cartoon version of Bob Zemeckis' movie-comedy series. The humor, the celebrity caricatures and the anthropomorphized dog all look like typical '70s Saturday-morning fare. Although Christopher Lloyd appears in the live-action wrap-arounds, teaching basic science projects, Michael J. Fox is conspicuously absent--as is the imagination and the humor of the original films.
"Darkwing Duck" (8 a.m.; also seen weekdays at 4:30 p.m. on KCAL Channel 9). When this comedy-adventure series premiered on the Disney Channel several months ago, many observers noted that the title character bore a marked resemblance to Daffy Duck in Chuck Jones' short "The Scarlet Pumpernickel." The designs of some of the other characters also appear to have been lifted from the old Warners shorts, along with many of the poses and gestures. But this time, they're not funny.
"Hammerman" (9 a.m.) ranks as the dud of the season. Rap star M.C. Hammer appears in live action wrap-arounds and supplies the voice of mild-mannered Stanley Burrell, who dons a pair of magic dancin' shoes to become the crime-fighting super-hero, Hammerman. It's ironic that the cartoon version of a dancer as dynamic as Hammer should be done in animation that looks painfully limited, even by the undemanding standards of Saturday morning cartoons. Some of the movements consist of just two drawings that jerk back and forth.
With its bright colors, flashy special effects and fuller animation, "The Pirates of Dark Water" (9:30 a.m.) may well be the most lavish series ever created for Saturday morning: It looks more opulent than some recent features. The cast of this sword and sorcery tale seems to owe a lot to "Star Wars"--there's a determined young Prince with a fussy sidekick, a dashing pirate rogue, a spunky, independent woman and a bloodthirsty villain who speaks in a rumbling basso. But the visual richness makes "Dark Water" a program children will want to watch again and again: Plan on taping this one.
"Yo, Yogi!" (7:30 a.m.) features '90s teen-age versions of Yogi Bear, Boo Boo, Snagglepuss and Huckleberry Hound. The hot, contemporary colors and reworked designs give the artists a chance to reinterpret the familiar characters, much as they did on "A Pup Named Scooby-Doo." Unfortunately, Yogi and company look better than they sound: The late Daws Butler created the voices for most of these characters, and Hanna-Barbera apparently hasn't found a comparably talented replacement.
"Taz-mania" (8:30 a.m.). The Tasmanian Devil, the ravenous whirlwind of teeth, claws and semi-intelligible growls from the Warner Bros. cartoons, seems like an unlikely candidate for a series of his own, but "Taz" is the funniest program of the 1991-92 season. Ol' Baggy Eyes (as Bugs Bunny used to call him) has been turned into a none-too-bright adolescent, struggling to cope with siblings, parents and a couple of inept trappers who want to bag him for a zoo. While no one would mistake the show for a vintage Looney Tune, writer Bill Kopp and director Douglas McCarthy deployed their limited resources cleverly in the first episode, including some well-timed visual gags about a mad reclining chair. Taz's father, an underplayed mixture of Foghorn Leghorn, Bing Crosby and Ozzie Nelson ("go off and play in the montage sequence, son") steals the show from his frenetic offspring.
Based on the Roger Corman horror film "The Little Shop of Horrors" and the Howard Ashman-Alan Menken musical, "Little Shop" (9 a.m.) tries a little too hard to be off-the-wall. The stylized, angular graphics look interesting in stills, but they don't move very well, and the disjointed first episode was difficult to follow. This time, it's Seymour, a nerdy adolescent, who raises the carnivorous talking plant. His flat, understated narration gives the show the tone of a vaguely Dada "Peanuts" special. Fox has a reputation for offbeat, imaginative children's fare, but "Little Shop" is a little too offbeat for its own good.
"Where's Waldo?" (CBS) and "Prostars," "Wishkid Starring Macaulay Culkin" and "Spacecats" (NBC) weren't available for review. One network representative who asked not to be identified said, "We'll be getting the cartoon shows hours before they go on the air."
Saturday-morning kidvid has always been produced on a frantic schedule: The networks don't sign the contracts with the producers until April or even May for programs due in mid-September. But in recent years, getting so much animation onto the screen in a such limited time has become more difficult.
"Our shows are all on time this year, but we obviously need to start putting the programs into production sooner," says Hanna-Barbera president David Kirschner. "It's going to require more cooperation between the networks and the producers to bring children a quality product."
"The demand for animation worldwide has increased dramatically during the last six years," adds Margaret Loesch, president of the Fox Children's Network. "The customers from the United States are no longer the only ones knocking on the foreign animators' doors; the overseas connection is taking longer because of that increased competition. Clearly, something has to change."