Last week I did a story about how kids of today grow up without the joy of getting up early on Saturday and plopping down in front of the television and starting the weekend off with a bang. While growing up in the late 1960’s and throughout the 1970’s was the real golden age of cartoons. While there was a lot of good cartoons done in the 1980’s there was a lot more bad ones than good ones. Hanna-Barbera was the major company that started to do shows based on prime time television show like The Dukes based on the Dukes of Hazard and celebrity shows like Mr. T, Chuck Norris, Pac-Man based on the huge arcade game. Then there was the wave of shows that turned characters into babies or kids like Muppet Babies, Flintstone Kids and Pink Panther and Son.
Saturday morning was becoming stagnate but there was an animator that pushed the envelope of theatrical animation and help usher in a renaissance of modern animation that is still being influenced today and that man was Ralph Bakshi. Before Bakshi directed feature films like Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic, Wizards and Lord of the Rings he started in animation at Terrytoons where he created and directed The Mighty Heroes and many others. But Terrytoons was mostly known for their biggest star Mighty Mouse. After the lukewarm response to his feature Fire and Ice Bakshi was having trouble getting new projects off the ground. In 1987 he met with Judy Price who was the head of CBS Saturday morning programming and made several show pitches that were all rejected by Price. She asked him if he had any other ideas and he told her that he had the rights to Mighty Mouse and she liked the idea and bought it. Bakshi did not in fact own the right to Mighty Mouse and did not know who did. He found out that CBS had acquired the Terrytoons library in 1955 and as with most studios had no idea that they owed them. Bakshi later said “I sold them a show they already owned, so they just gave me the rights for nothin’!”
While some would say that Mighty Mouse was where John Kricfalusi got his start with Bakshi but it was really in 1986 when Bakshi directed along with Kricfalusi doing the animation for The Rolling Stones’ cover version of the Bobby Womack song Harlem Shuffle. If you watch the video you can see where a lot of the style and influence that you would later seen in The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse. Below is the music video for the song.
The biggest difference with The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse and other Saturday morning cartoons was that Bakshi made the show a really creator driven show meaning that it allowed the animators to be involved with the stories and having everyone work on the show as a team as opposed to the traditional script being written by writers that may not know anything about animation. Bakshi’s team included some very now famous animators for the show. The key creative figures were writer/cartoonist Tom Minton (Animaniacs), cartoonist Eddie Fitzgerald (Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog), Lynne Naylor (Samurai Jack), a designer, animator and layout artist. Jim Smith was key. Bruce Timm (Batman the Animated Series) did clean up. Libby Simon headed the color department. Vicki Jensen painted the backgrounds. Bob Jaques was the timing director. Minton and Kricfalusi went to CalArts to see who the best talent from the latest crop of graduates were. The ended up hiring Kent Butterworth (Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog), Mike Kazaleh (He did the awesome comic Adventures of Captain Jack and The Ren and Stimpy comic at Marvel), Jeff Pidgeon (Tiny Toons Adventures), Rich Moore and Jim Reardon (Simpsons), Vicky Jenson (Taz-Mania), (Carole Holiday (A Goofy Movie), Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo) and Nate Kanfer (Courage the Cowardly Dog).
With this young eager team of talent they set out to make a very unique and original show that would push the boundaries of Saturday morning cartoons. The most important thing that they did was to make the show funny and entertaining. The show did have its share of controversy and the biggest being the now infamous sniffing the “cocaine” that was blown way out of proportion.
During the production of the episode “The Littlest Tramp”, editor Tom Klein expressed concern that a sequence showing Mighty Mouse sniffing the remains of a crushed flower resembled cocaine use. Bakshi did not initially view the footage; he believed that Klein was overreacting, but agreed to let him cut the scene. Kricfalusi expressed disbelief over the cut, insisting that the action was harmless and that the sequence should be restored. Following Kricfalusi’s advice, Bakshi told Klein to restore the scene, which had been approved by network executives and the CBS standard and practices department. The episode aired on October 31, 1987, initially without controversy. If you watch the cartoon there is no way that you think that he is sniffing cocaine. It clearly shows that it was a flower made by the girl. But leave it to a religious zealot to make an allegation to stir up controversy for his own gains.
On June 6, 1988, Donald Wildmon, head of the American Family Association that ironically is run by Wildmon (surprise), alleged that “The Littlest Tramp” depicted cocaine use, instigating a media frenzy. Concerning Bakshi’s involvement with Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures, the AFA claimed that CBS “intentionally hired a known pornographer to do a cartoon for children, and then allowed him to insert a scene in which the cartoon hero is shown sniffing cocaine.” Bakshi responded, “You could pick a still out of Lady and the Tramp and get the same impression. Fritz the Cat wasn’t pornography. It was social commentary. This all smacks of burning books and the Third Reich. It smacks of McCarthyism. I’m not going to get into who sniffs what. This is lunacy!” Bakshi defended the episode, saying, “I despise drugs. I would be out of my mind to show a cartoon character snorting cocaine in a cartoon.”, and stating that Wildmon had interpreted the scene out of context.”Mighty Mouse was happy after smelling the flowers because it helped him remember the little girl who sold it to him fondly. But even if you’re right, their accusations become part of the air we breathe. That’s why I cut the scene. I can’t have children wondering if Mighty Mouse is using cocaine.” On CBS’s order, Klein removed the sequence from the master broadcast footage.Wildmon claimed that the edits were “a de facto admission that, indeed, Mighty Mouse was snorting cocaine”. Bakshi agreed to the removal of the offending 3½ seconds from future airings of the episode because of his concern that the controversy might lead children to believe that what Wildmon was saying was true. Wildmon’s group then demanded the removal of Bakshi, but, on July 25, 1988, CBS released a statement in support of him. Thankfully the DVD does show the uncut version of Littlest Tramp
The most important thing about The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse is the influence that it had going forward in the animation industry. If the show had not been done we might have not seen Ren & Stimpy and possibly South Park and even Family Guy. It also changed the way that some show were done where the animators had more input into the stories. It paved the way for networks like Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network to do original programming. The other big influence was the people who worked on the show and went on to some of the greatest animated shows and feature films. For a young animator to be able to work with a seasoned talent like Bakshi was a chance of a lifetime. It also proved that you could make shows that were funny and not based on toys or other previous properties. It also made a great show to follow the other influential show on CBS at the time Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and that was a great one-two punch of great television at the time.
CBS Home Video has thankfully released the entire 19 episode uncut versions on DVD in a nice 3 discs set. It also includes for the first time on home video 3 vintage Terrytoon Mighty Mouse cartoons and a great 30 minute documentary with interviews with Bakshi, Kricfalusi, Timm, Stanton, Butterowrth, Kazaleh, Simon, Minton, Reardon, Pidgeon and Jenson talking about working on the show. There is footage from when the show was being done and gives great insight to how the show has impacted their careers and the industry. CBS Home Video has done a nice job with the DVD release. The video quality is good considering the age of the original source material and considering it’s not one of the studios higher profile titles. The mono audio is good and thankfully not been changed into a faux stereo mix that happens many times. Both seasons are spread over the three discs and the third disc has the original Mighty Mouse cartoons and the documentary. If you are not familiar with this show you should really check it out. Some of my favorite episodes are Night of the Bat-Bat that is a spot on parody of Batman, Mighty’s Benefit Plan that does a great parody of Alvin and the Chipmunks and of course The Littlest Tramp that was good even before the “controversy”.
While not every episode is a winner at the very least every episode tries to do something different and while it may have not always worked it was leaps and bounds over animation that was being done on Saturday mornings at the time. The show still holds up incredibly well when viewing today and hopefully inspire younger animators to try to do something different, just like Bakshi did back then. Make your own path and let creativity drive you to make something different and fresh. The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse did just that. So if you miss the days of real Saturday morning cartoons then you really need to pick this set and pop it in your DVD player and have your own Saturday Morning Cartoon flashback.