"The Simpsons" will celebrate its 15th anniversary as a weekly series this Christmas. And what are fans of the show talking about right now?
It's the teaser revealed at a comics convention that during a mid-season episode about gay marriage, a long-time character will come out of the closet. (For the record, Wayland Smithers, Mr. Burns' resident yes-man, has been openly closeted for most of the run of the series; if the revelation is about him, fans will riot.)
Which is an object lesson about what makes a cartoon a success. It's the characters.
Since the early days of Disney, when the explosive Donald Duck upstaged the goody-goody Mickey Mouse, the appeal of a cartoon's virtual actors have ultimately been more important than its artistic craft. The skill of the animators at Warner Brothers' classic studio was focused on giving Bugs Bunny and Wile E. Coyote unique personalities, not perfectly depicting the physical force of a falling anvil. "The Flintstones" did not need masterful animation; the legendary "Bullwinkle Show" outsourced its drawing to a studio in Mexico. Even the new masters of Computer-Generated-Super-Realistic-3-D animation know: the ocean effects on "Finding Nemo" were incredible, but the movie wouldn't have broken records without Albert Brooks' clownfish named Marlin and Ellen DeGeneres' dory named Dory.
While they're still taking bows for "Shrek 2," the Dreamworks Animation crew face a daunting challenge with their first TV series, NBC's "Father of the Pride." The show's concept of life among Siegfried & Roy's show animals went from much-too-silly to much-too-grim after Roy Horn's on-stage mauling.
(MSNBC is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC.)
Even after the passage of time and healing, with the Las Vegas show still dark (and Roy's health hitting the tabloids again), NBC still points out that this is not a cartoon for kids (so the network will not be held responsible for six-year-olds' nightmares). Even so, the show partly resembles a family sitcom, with its family of white lions (note: NOT tigers) headed by classic TV dad John Goodman. Of course, Goodman is also considered a bankable cartoon voice, but mostly for "Monsters, Inc.," where he played second banana to a one-eyed Billy Crystal.
Other animated shows in the past have been built around talking animals paralleling human storylines, shows like "Fish Police" and "Capitol Critters." (The only such show to last a full season was in the early '60s, when "Calvin and the Colonel" substituted a fox and a bear for Amos and Andy — it's not a proud tradition) But "Pride" also has an animated Siegfried & Roy to provide a B-story. And their performances (actually voiced by two relatively unknown actors) are so over-the-top that this may be the best self-mocking of a show's producers since Carl Reiner on "The Dick Van Dyke Show."
The Toon PoolNowhere is the emphasis of character over animation better used today than in the low-budget haven of Cartoon Network's late night "Adult Swim." The network started by recycling old Hanna-Barbera character designs, turning superheroes into talk show hosts and lawyers, not only making a mockery of the original cartoons, but a very marketable mockery.
Their first successful attempt at developing new characters was the thoroughly non-sequitur a domestic comedy featuring a trio of anthropomorphised food products: a bag of fries named Frylock, Meatwad the meatball and Master Shake. Designed without functional arms or legs, the Hunger Force are safely separated from even cartoon interpretations of the laws of physics, and the humor is almost totally dependent on their extreme personalities (even if Meatwad's voice is frequently unintelligible).
With the ratings success of these shows, as well as reruns of former Fox primetime series "Futurama" and "Family Guy," Adult Swim is finally getting a production budget, and the result will be several new shows in the next year.
The first one recently premiered: "The Venture Bros.," an action cartoon spoof sure to be oversimplified as "Jonny Quest after puberty," with gratuitous sex, violence, nudity, drug use and Patrick Warburton defiling mummies. Coming soon are a family of hillbilly squids, a cop comedy with a talking car, untitled projects from actor Seth Green and OutKast's Andre 3000, and new episodes of "Family Guy" to air both on cable and on Fox. And a project to bring the controversial comic strip "Boondocks" to television, just rejected by Fox, has been revived by Cartoon Network.
Meanwhile, the more family-oriented part of Cartoon Network is showcasing "Powerpuff Girls" creator Craig McCracken's new show, a character-driven kids' toon titled "Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends," featuring a menagerie of creatures with distinctive personalities and a main human character that resembles McCracken at age eight.
Come January, months before the "Family Guy" officially returns from the dead, creator Seth MacFarlane will debut a new series on Fox. "American Dad" offers a different take on family comedy, in which the family's father is a security-conscious (i.e.: paranoid and trigger-happy) CIA agent named Smith. He's backed up by characters including a talking goldfish who tries to seduce Mrs. Smith and a sarcastic space alien in hiding — think "Alf" without the fur — in the off-the-wall tradition of "Guy's" evil genius baby Stewie, neurotic talking dog Brian and such recurring characters as Adam West and Death.
And in mid-December Fox will air a yet-unsold pilot for a new version of the venerable cartoon "Popeye." This project has an even odder mix of people behind it than "Pride", including Paul "Mad About You" Reiser writing the script, Mark "Devo"/"Rugrats" Mothersbaugh doing the music and Kathy "Misery" Bates as the voice of the Sea Hag, produced by the Canadian company that did TV's first computer animated show, "Reboot" (as well as the extremely creepy "Barbie's Swan Lake").
But the wildest wild card in television animation this fall isn't even considered a cartoon. "Drew Carey's Green Screen Show" will take improvised performances by Drew's gang of live performers (noticeably excluding Wayne Brady and Ryan Styles from "Whose Line Is It Anyway") and surround them with animation of various kinds. If "Whose Line" was the game show "where the points don't matter," "Green Screen" will be much more competitive, at least behind the scenes, where former Letterman producer Robert "Morty" Morton has recruited over 20 animation teams to do multiple versions of the same bits, with the best one (or maybe two) making the air. If it succeeds at all (and the rare still pictures released with the show's publicity don't look that good), it will break all the rules, including mine. Unfortunately, in a time slot opposite "Survivor," "Will and Grace" and "The O.C.," very few people will notice.
But if you want to see the ultimate triumph of good characterization over bad animation, the second season of "Rocky and Bullwinkle" has just been released on DVD. This is the series that outsourced its animating to Mexico, and paid for it with visible glitches like characters' mouths briefly separating from their faces. Yet it's still remembered fondly for characters like Peabody & Sherman, the intellectual dog and his pet boy, and Boris & Natasha, the foreign spies who transcended stereotype. And if you believe cartoons can't handle irony well, stay tuned as "Rocky and Bullwinkle" reveal the secret identity of evil mastermind "Mr. Big". No, he doesn't come out of the closet, but he can fit in a glove compartment.
is the online alias of a writer from Southern California