I am interrupting my schedule to celebrate a special occasion. Jerry posted my first weekly column on March 14th, 2013, so this column is one year and a couple of days old today. (Cheers and fireworks!) I was not sure when I started for how long I could keep up a weekly column about animation – two months, maybe? – but I have found more to talk about than I knew. Can I keep going for another year? Well, I am certainly going to try!
For the occasion, here are some memorable cartoons with birthday or anniversary themes.
Astro Boy. #25, “The Strange Birthday Present”. On the anniversary of Astro Boy’s activation, his friends and the Ministry of Science create a special present for him – one that gives him a lot of trouble in the future.
This episode is from the first year of the TV program. It was episode #37 in Japan; shown on September 10, 1963 in Japan and on February 14, 1964 in the U.S. It exhibits all of the charm of the earliest Japanese TV anime: notably the extremely limited animation (supposedly only a thousand cels per half-hour episode), and the electronic sound effects. Mostly, it made cartoonist Osamu Tezuka (1928-1989) and his Mushi Productions famous. Tezuka was already well-known in manga circles since the 1950s. Astro Boy on TV made him known to everybody.
The Birthday Party. January 6, 1931.
Mickey’s Birthday Party. February 7, 1942.
This is an interesting pair of Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse cartoons. The first (at right), directed by Burt Gillett, was made when The Mouse was the only notable character that Disney had. Both feature Walt Disney himself doing Mickey’s voice, though in 1931 everything was fresh and Walt enjoyed it. By the 1942 remake (below), directed by Riley Thompson, Walt was running a much larger company and must have already been looking for someone else to take on The Mouse’s role. In 1931 Marcellite Garner was Minnie, still the original voice; by 1942 Minnie was Thelma Boardman. In 1931 Mickey’s birthday cake has only two candles, accurately enough. It’s hard to count the candles on the 1942 cake, but it doesn’t seem that there are enough — by 1942, there should have been 12 or 13. In 1931 most of Mickey’s supporting cast had not yet been created – not Donald, not Goofy, not Clara Cluck. Aside from Horace Horsecollar and Clarabelle Cow, Disney had to pack Mickey’s surprise party with generic barnyard animals. (The pig baker is not Peter Pig; Disney had not created him yet.) The Mickey in the 1931 The Birthday Party is the original spry and energetic young Mickey; playing the xylophone seems natural to him. The Mickey in the 1942 Mickey’s Birthday Party is the properly-dressed Mickey-as-sedate-corporate-image. Swinging at the party seems unnatural and almost embarrassing, like a mature partygoer wearing a lampshade.
(Blooper) Bunny! Made for theatrical release during 1991; not released until June 13, 1997 on TV.
Warner Bros. closed its legendary animation unit in 1963 – or 1969 — and has restarted and reclosed it several times since then. (Blooper) Bunny!, produced during 1991 and directed by Greg Ford and Terry Lennon, was a specific parody of all the adulatory TV specials produced for Bugs Bunny’s 50th anniversary in 1990. Unfortunately, after it was finished, WB management decided that it was too unflattering a depiction of its famous cartoon stars and refused to release it to the public. Time passed, management changed, and the forgotten short was rediscovered by the Cartoon Network, which loved it. The WB management of 1997 had no objection to its release on a semi-satirical TV program. Since then, it has appeared on a DVD compilation of classic Looney Tunes (even though it’s a Merrie Melody).
The 8½ minute cartoon is supposed to be, not a TV special celebrating Bugs Bunny’s 51½ anniversary, but the true story of the making of that special, including all of the flubbed lines, missed cues, Daffy Duck’s losing his temper and swearing on-camera, and Elmer Fudd switching his prop gun for a real one. Everything that can go wrong, does, during this TV Anniversary Spectacular.
Nu, Pogodi! #17 The 25th anniversary cartoon, released on June 24, 1993. The Soviet-era “wolf and hare” series, arguably the most popular that the state-run Soyuzmultfilm (Soviet Animation Film) studio in Moscow ever produced, was admittedly created just to be popular after years of heavy-handed propaganda cartoons. It was believed by Western animation fans to have been inspired by the MGM Tom & Jerry cartoons, although Director Vyacheslav Kotyonochkin (1927-2000) swore that he did not see any until 1987 – he was trying to produce Russian equivalents of the 1940s Disney theatrical animation.
The series, named for the Wolf’s frustrated promise to get the Hare next time (“Nu, Zayats, pogodi!”), started in June 1969. The series was numbered rather than individually titled. Like most Soviet-era short animated cartoons, they were mostly in pantomime so they could be shown throughout the multilingual U.S.S.R. and Eastern Europe. Actors Klara Rumyanova (Zayats) and Anatoly Papanov (Volk) mostly squeaked and grunted, except for Volk’s famous catchphrase. The series started with one or two a year from 1969 until #12 in 1982, then slowed and stopped after #16 in 1986. Papanov died in 1987, the U.S.S.R. with its state subsidy for animation disintegrated in 1991, and everyone assumed that they had seen the last of Volk & Zayats. But a commercial sponsor, the AMT Group throughout Western Russia and Nokia in Finland (telecommunications), was found to fund the production of a 17th, 25th-anniversary cartoon, released on June 24, 1993. It was designed around Papanov’s unused outtakes, which had been saved, so it featured the original voice cast.
“25th anniversary” is shown throughout the cartoon. There is one Russian-English pun: when a painting is shown of Wolf’s Volvo automobile, it is a “Volk-vo” – wolf car. If I didn’t know it was impossible, I would’ve sworn that Jim Tyer was one of the animators of the cannibal hares toward the end of the cartoon.
Party Smarty. This was the third (of ten) Famous Studios Noveltoons to star Baby Huey, directed by Seymour Kneitel and released on August 3, 1951. Baby Huey was famous, or notorious, as a pale imitation of the Warner Bros. theatrical cartoon formula of creating a popular situation and running it into the ground with endless, but always funny, variations. The Road Runner-Wile E. Coyote and Pepe le Pew series are the best-known examples. With Baby Huey, the formula may have been funny the first time, but it became very boring, very fast.
Baby Huey, the grotesquely giant duckling (7 feet tall), friendly but stupid, would try to play with the other duckling children, but would innocently break or ruin everything. The other ducklings would nastily (but understandably) trick Baby Huey into going away and leaving them alone. The fox would show up to capture and eat them all; Baby Huey would return at the last minute to rescue them, and become their hero. In Party Smarty, it’s a birthday party that Baby Huey barges in upon, oblivious to being an uninvited and unwelcome guest, where he smashes the cake and breaks all the toys.
Baby Huey’s main value may have been to help keep veteran Fleischer/Famous employees employed. Jack Mercer, the voice of Popeye for over a decade, co-wrote Party Smarty, and Mae Questal (Betty Boop, Olive Oyl) was the voice of Baby Huey’s doting Mom and of Oscar, the leader of the other duck children. (It’s his birthday party that Baby Huey crashes.)
Baby Huey’s theatrical Noveltoons only lasted for a decade, but he has been kept alive through licensed new TV cartoons, and especially comic books. In fact, he appeared in a comic book in 1949 before his theatrical debut in 1950, thanks to the licensed comic book getting advance materials on what Famous Studios were planning. Famous’ animated cartoon characters (Casper, the Friendly Ghost was the most popular) were sold to Harvey Comics in 1957, and Harvey kept Baby Huey more reliably visible in comic-book form than in his erratic TV appearances.
Baby Huey would probably be forgotten today, but for unexpected tremendous publicity when Time magazine revealed in a March 1998 issue that back in 1993, when President Bill Clinton was letting his hair down in a private conversation with Newt Gingrich, Clinton said, “I’m a lot like Baby Huey. I’m fat. I’m ugly. But if you push me down, I keep coming back.”
Today, the rights to Baby Huey have been acquired by DreamWorks Animation. Can you imagine a CGI feature like DreamWorks’ current Mr. Peabody and Sherman starring the Fat Fowl? “Duh, I tink you’re da Fox an’ you’re tryin’ ta eat me!” The mind cringes.
The Marsupilami. Okay, this is an unanimated postage stamp, but the Marsupilami has been a favorite of mine since I discovered French comic books while in college. This is my column, and I want to add him.
This is a French half-euro stamp released on June 2, 2003 for “Anniversary” mail, with no real connection to the Marsupilami. I guess he was used just because he looks cute and fits a generic birthday-party theme.
The Marsupilami (“marsupil + ami”; marsupial friend) was introduced on January 31, 1952, toward the climax of Spirou and the Heirs (Spirou et les héritiers). Spirou (slang for a young scamp) was introduced in the first issue of the Belgian weekly Le Journal de Spirou on April 21, 1938, by cartoonist Rob-Vel. Spirou’s adventurous friend Fantasio was added to the Spirou strip in 1943, and it soon became Spirou et Fantasio. In 1946, young cartoonist André Franquin (1924-1997) was given the strip to both draw and write. He turned it from a gag-a-week strip into one of long serialized adventures, one page a week lasting about a year each in the weekly magazine. As is standard with French/Belgian comics, Spirou’s and Fantasio’s adventures were designed to be 48 pages each, to be reprinted in hardcover albums. Spirou et les héritiers is still in print after more than sixty years, and is still earning royalties for Franquin’s own heirs.
Spirou and the Heirs is about three tests between Fantasio and his evil cousin Zantafio to inherit a fabulous fortune. The final test is to capture an ultra-rare marsupilami from the Amazonian jungles. The animal (and it was a wild animal, not an intelligent character) was like a jaguar-furred and –spotted friendly monkey with an incredibly long, prehensile tail. He was instantly popular, and became a regular member of the cast as an impish, innocently trouble-making pet. He did not quite take over the series from Spirou and Fantasio, but whenever he was absent from their adventures for too long, readers complained.
In 1968, Franquin retired from Le Journal de Spirou. The series was continued without the marsupilami by Spirou’s editors with new creators (the latest hardcover album is #53, In the Claws of the Viper (Dans les Griffes de la Vipère), by Yoann Chivard (art) & Fabian Vehlmann (writer), January 2013). But Franquin had invented and defined the Marsupilami, and he was allowed to take it with him. In 1987 Franquin began a new series of Marsupilami albums, not written or drawn by him but prepared by a staff under his close supervision to look exactly like his work. The staff has continued after his death. There are currently 27 Marsupilami albums; the latest is Coeur d’étoile, November 2013. Officially, this is not the same marsupilami; the series features another marsupilami from the jungles of Palombia. But as far as the average Belgian or French kid is concerned, it’s the same Marsu.
The Marsupilami is a natural for animation, but Franquin and his estate have had mixed luck with it. The first animated version was produced by Walt Disney Television Animation, theoretically co-produced by André Franquin; 13 episodes during 1993. (The final episode was shown on my birthday, December 11, 1993.) Disney ignored Franquin’s established background and teamed “Mars”, who now talked, with Maurice the gorilla and Stewart the elephant; two well-known South American jungle animals. The new Marsupilami episodes were shown with reruns of Sebastian the Crab episodes from Disney’s The Little Mermaid TV series, and Schnookums and Meat from Raw Toonage.
How bad was it? Well, the resulting lawsuit did not go into the program’s quality, but let’s say that Disney did not give it the expected attention. Franquin’s company, Marsu Productions, sued Disney for, essentially, failing to promote the Marsupilami internationally as promised, and lost revenue caused by that failure. To quote from the judge’s decision: “The court awarded Marsu $8,015,400 in lost profits. It also awarded Marsu $431,159, the amount Marsu would have received in guarantees from sublicensees had Disney not waived the guarantees.” The judge confirmed the decision, which Disney had appealed.
In 2000 a second series began, produced by Marathon Animation in Neuilly-sur-Seine, a suburb of Paris. There have been three “seasons” so far, starring the Marsupilami (or a Marsupilami), his mate Marsupilamie, and their three babies Bibi, Bibu, and Bobo in the Palombian jungle. Each season has new human supporting characters of friendly children and their scientist/naturalist parents, and a returning villain, the ruthless zoo hunter Bring M. Backalive. Marsupilami, beginning in March 2000, has 26 half-hour episodes; Mon Ami Marsupilami has 15 episodes beginning in August 2003; and Houba Houba Hop!, September 2009 to the present. (This third season is technically seasons 3 through 5.) These are no worse than the average American TV cartoons, in my opinion, and the series has sold to 36 countries around the world including Canada and Mexico; but apparently it is not considered good enough for the U.S.
In 2012 there was a theatrical live-action feature with a CGI-animated Marsupilami, On the Trail of the Marsupilami (Sur la piste du Marsupilami). The reviews were not good – see its trailer and judge for yourself — and it was never released in the U.S.
And there is a French postage stamp showing the Marsupilami holding a big birthday cake. A good note to end this column on.