In all the years I have been watching cartoons in many forms and from many corners of the world, we are all pretty adjective to what we like and what we hate. Now I’m no Jerry Beck but from what I know, there are two types of cartoons that fall into a particular category:
- One type of cartoon can have great animation but lacklustre writing
- Another can have poor animation but brilliant writing.
This isn’t any surprise to what we’ve been used to in modern day animation, but it’s these types of genes that go back as far as the Golden Ages themselves. With big names like Warner Bros, MGM and Disney making themselves a fun living by bringing out memorable characters, suddenly every other studio wanted to try and gain the same line of fame and stardom. Now many of these have been pretty pick and mix, remembering them from either the glory days of Cartoon Network (when they actually showed cartoons) or revisiting/discovering them via YouTube. This is where the good writing/bad animation, bad animation/good writing scenario comes in.
Often, many studios spend so much time in designing wonderful character designs and carefully crafting the worlds they live in they often forget the real drive for all shows – the writing. If you fully understand and believe in the characters before you start conjuring up random ideas, then you can make them believable; put yourself in their shows, make them relive your own problems and lives but in a far more humorous scenarios. Or if it’s going to have proper continuity (such as Avatar, for instance) then make each episode follow on and remind each other of the adventures your characters come across so that eventually everything will click together.
Sadly, everything is about making a fast buck, so many cartoon shows suffer a lot from people who don’t fully understand what is funny, thus they stick the characters in either unrelated escapades or brand them as pale stereotypes when they become too lazy to think of their own original material. But again, this all happened way back in the Golden Ages, where the animation truly mattered.
One studio that comes to mind is Colimbia Screen Gems. This studio has had many changes to its style and writing than David Beckham’s haircut, handled by Frank “Tish Tash” Tashlin and Bob Clampett respectfully, both who spawned from Warner Bros. They have some of the most gloriously designed characters with perfect streamlined animation – by such people as Emery Hawkins, for one. But alas, their writing has been considered on/off. It seemed like the storyboard artists were operating VCR’s’; they had these wonderful characters with loads of potential – the lesser known “Fox and Crow” come to mind – and yet they didn’t know how to use them properly. At times, they would start off all right but wind up with a sour finish, and at times they just dragged out a dreadful storyline which becomes a waste of beautiful animation altogether. If you dare, try and locate “Mass Mouse Meeting”, a cartoon which is a sure cure for insomnia.
To be fair, when they do a good story they do a good story, which is helped by directors like Bob Wickersham to keep the animation fast, funny and energetic, as well as voice actors like Frank Graham to bring the characters to life (again, with Fox and Crow).
The “good animation/bad writing” category would also suit Famous Studios (Noveltoons/Harveytoons). Not that their stories were poor in the least; they just became repetitive. Again, they had an interesting arrangement of characters with fun potential – Baby Huey, Buzzy the funny crow, Casper the Friendly Ghost – with some amazing animators working behind them (Seymour Kneitel, Marty Taras). But over time, when they realised they had hit on a good thing, they tried to remake the same stories again, and again, and again, where you eventually know that Casper will gain a new friend, you know they’ll be some crow-related recipe Buzzy has to escape out of and you know Herman will eventually beat up Katnip by the end.It’s rather a shame to admit that, in the end, the only good thing to talk about these shorts was the animation.
However, Harveytoons did boast of a few characters who didn’t fall into the repetitive storyline syndrome – Tommy Tortoise and Moe Hare, while to some an obvious knock-off from the Bug Bunny/Cecil Turtle series, managed to turn themselves into something far different following their first short. And Blackie the Lamb also proved to be highly entertaining with fresh ideas for his series against Wolfie the Wolf. So it’s probably a blessing that these two stars in particular only had a small run – short but sweet.
In fact, the same would also apply to Walter Lantz’ studio. While it’ll forever be the studio that made Woody Woodpecker, many of their cartoons either didn’t have an actual plot or just burnt out halfway. It didn’t help either when, after a few shut downs and reopenings, their animation style took a nasty turn thanks to one Paul Smith…
…but I won’t go into that, because it brings me nicely to my next point – bad animation/good writing.
It was clear when the 40’s and 60’s rolled in did the stylised, limited look of UPA quickly affected the other studios at this point. The animation quality decreased and, while artistically brilliant, a few companies did suffer due to this. Thus, studios like Hanna-Barbera had to rely on the writing to keep cartoons funny and entertaining when the attention turned from theatrical cartoons to made-for-TV works. And surprisingly, this was quite a blessing for a few little companies...
Terrytoons, the company who brought us Mighty Mouse, Gandy Goose and Heckle and Jeckle, was way, way behind the times, using the same old methods and styles from as far as the 1930’s. And while their rubbery style was fine and everything, the writing dept was just as old as their techniques – either resorting to Disney-like Silly Symphonies or plagiarising other ideas/storylines to claim as their own. The only characters that were keeping them alive (and the audiences laughing) were Heckle and Jeckle, helped greatly by Jim Tyer’s fantastically wild squash-n-stretch animation, but even they suffered from poor writing now and again.
However, it was after Paul Terry’s departure from the studio did the writing start to pick up. This was when animation studios started making cartoons for television and, thus, the animation was limited to 8 frames instead of 16 to save money and produce shorts faster. Of course, Terrytoons’ “new and limited” style wasn’t anything to brag home about, but – oh! – were their TV shorts good! The strongest character to thrive from here was Deputy Dawg, who really made himself a name by witter, faster-paced and original episodes, all in a space of five minutes each, no less! Never mind what the censor police say about stereotypes and wotnot, I could literally watch DD all day long so long as the writing is sharp and clever.
The same also applies to Hanna-Barbera, as previously mentioned. Before they fell into the Scooby-Do syndrome and after a rocky start with Ruff and Reddy, they hit it high with Huckleberry Hound, Quick Draw McGraw and Yogi Bear, with Lippy and Hardy, Magilla Gorilla and the Flintstones to follow suit. These guys were helped greatly when Warren Foster and Michael Maltease transferred from WB to HB to take over Dan Gordon and Charlie Shows for providing the storylines, the real driving forces for the immense cast to follow and form over time. Clever wordplay, dreadful puns, and inventive concepts – my guilty pleasures for cartoons altogether, never mind that some of their humour was based on “illustrated radio”. Of course while their animation did get better as time went on, the writing would still be so-so (and I don’t mean Peter Potamus’ companion either), but it’s the glory years of the 50’s and 60’s I’ll cherish for always and always.
And what about modern day animation? Well, it’s pretty hard to say right now. Some people say “we’re screwed”, some people say “it’ll get better”. So it’s pretty difficult to say when animation is going to get back on its feet to how it used to be. There have been some shows that show promise and, more often than not, succeed, while others just sound promising by the synopsis; their actual episodes something less to be desired. It would be too long a list to say which shows have good writing/bad animation or bad writing/good animation – let’s just say there are a few rare ‘toons that have good animation AND writing…
So to sum up my post, here’s some lesson that I’ve learnt from my 20-something years of watching, studying and enjoying cartoons altogether:
- If your cartoon series is going to have limited animation, be sure to keep the writing fresh and lively. The funnier, the better. Just don’t let characters read out or describe everything that happens on screen.
- Even if the story in mind isn’t as good as it should be, at least provide the best animation you can. Make yourself stand out from the crowd, develop your own style, whether it’s 2D, CGI or pixel gifs.
- Don’t try and bluntly copy other peoples’ works or ideas. Try something new, something that hasn’t been done before. If that doesn’t work then take Hanna-Barbera’s advice: see a simple storyline and then twist it into something original and different until it becomes what you want. Remember, no Fairy Tale parody should appear the same XD
If any one this has made sense, then take the advice I heed. It’s worth it.
Next time, I’ll discuss the good animation/bad writing, bad animation/good writing further by a proper comparison of two shows from the