By the late 1960’s, the dancing daffodil was basically a dead genus. However, man-eating menaces still thrived, and occasional traditional flower-based stories would surface in recent times. But a new movement among America’s youth briefly gave some theatrical animators a chance to express their sentiments and fill their production quotas with satirical commentary, spotlighting the signature personality of the 60’s – the flower child.
Ralph Bakshi’s Marvin Digs (Paramount, 12/1/67), introduces theatrical animation to the flower child theme (but then, wasn’t Ferdinand the original flower child?). The title character is depicted as a walking ball of hair resembling the Addams Family’s Cousin Itt but with a trendier hat and shoes. He passes around flowers randomly – even to fighting alley cats and dogs. Most of the time he is misunderstood. His flowers wilt when two women call him a “fresh kid”. A policeman who “wants no trouble” develops a case of hay fever at his blooms. He is the ultimate disappointment to his dad (voiced by Dayton Allen), who thinks he has no drive and initiative – plus can’t even recognize him under the hair (“That’s a kid?”). While Marvin dreams psychedelic dreams of dancing with human-sized flowers who randomly become girls, Pop plans to delegate work to “make a man of him” – the project of painting the living room. Marvin’s friends are tripped out that he can’t join them for the usual schedule of “sit-ins”, “stand-ins”, “love-ins”, etc., but as Marvin brings home the paints, he hears a TV announcer discuss a city beautification program, encouraging the public to “treat their city like they would their own home”. Marvin gets an inspiration, and calls on his friends to join him for a “paint-in”. Dad awakes from an afternoon nap to find the living room painted in trippy multicolor designs. “Your mother’s going to kill us!”, he shouts. Marvin assures him that it goes great with the outside. Dad freaks out when he discovers Marvin and friends have painted the entire block in the same fashion. The police arrive, escorting the Mayor. While the populace is ready to vent a chorus of disapproving prejudice, the Mayor commends Marvin as a model citizen, showing true inspiration, originality and drive. “Drive?”, reacts his father, and suddenly recognizes Marvin as a credit to the family, ending the film with trying to draw forced analogies between Marvin and his own childhood to bask in the reflected credit – “When I was a boy…I was a boy once……” A stylish production, with some genuine trendy music by a group called The Life Cycle, interesting photographic effects, and, if not a wholly-committed treatment to solving the generation gap, at least a reasonable stab at approaching it with gentle humor and soft sell.
Hurts and Flowers (DePatie-Freleng/UA, Roland and Rartfink, 2/11/69, Hawley Pratt, dir.) follows suit upon the ideas of “Marvin Digs”, casting the studio’s new hero and Dudley-Do-Right impersonator Roland as “a flower child”, and villainous Snydely Whiplash counterpart Rattfink as “a weed”. Much like Ferdinand, Roland sits lazily under a tree contemplating the flowers, and conjuring up visions of hearts labeled “Love”. Evil killjoy Rattfink shoots an arrow from a bow squarely into the heart, cracking it, and gives Roland the horse laugh.
Peaceful Roland does not retaliate, but offers Rattfink a flower. Disgusted, Rattfink folds the petals of the flower into the point of another arrow, and lets fly another volley – straight into Roland’s rear, and causing him to fall down a well. A drenched Roland still peacefully offers Rattfink another flower! A six minute theme-and-variation ensues, with Rattfink pulling his most evil dirty tricks on Roland, but Roland, bruised, battered, and blasted, still doing nothing but offering Rattfink a flower. Rattfink can’t get no satisfaction! He tries to toughen Roland up by making him inhale from a tank of “Evil Gas”. (I still can’t find this product in any supply house – even Amazon.) The trick works momentarily, but backfires as Roland pummels him. When the effects wear off, the same flower again! Roland finally performs as drummer in a light rock group. Rattfink paints a large can of nitro glycerine to look like a drum, and tries to make an instrument switch. But he slips on a banana peel, sending the drum flying into the air above him – and down. All that is left of Rattfink is a huge crater. In the only line of dialog in the film, Roland’s two co-musicians look into the crater while one remarks, “Man, like he had a bad trip!” The scene fades in on the gravestone of Rattfink. Roland appears and places a potted flower on the grave, then departs. The ghost of Rattfink rises from the grave, takes the pot, and hurls it at Roland. Roland is conked on the head and knocked to the ground, a lump rising from his scalp, from which grows another flower – as a flower-shaped iris out closes the scene amidst Rattfink’s ghostly laughter. Seems like Freleng and company may have had considerably different sentiments regarding flower children than Ralph Bakshi!
The Addams Family, in most incarnations, including both their best television comeback in 1992 for Hanna-Barbera with John Astin, and their cameo on the New Scooby Doo Movies (9/23/72) with Astin, Carolyn Jones, Ted Cassidy and Jackie Coogan, as well as their recent CGI feature last year, features as a side “character” Morticia’s pride and joy, the man-eating plant Cleopatra. She continues to menace and nibble at all who chance to pass her way, though on-camera she hasn’t much of any track records of succeeding in luring any victims into her digestive system.
Here Stew You from Hanna-Barbera’s All New Popeye (12/9/78 – George Gordon, Carl Urbano, Rudy Zamora, dir.), provides a pleasant and decently-animated harken back to the Fleischer days, as Popeye, this time accompanied by Olive, is shipwrecked on Gooney Island (the site of Popeye’s first encounter with the Goons (before Alice) in Goonland (1938). While Popeye performs feats of strength in building them a log cabin by one blow on a key log to flip the entire lumber stack into the air, the logs assembling into a cabin like matchsticks, Olive prepares a pot of stew for their lunch. But lurking in the bushes is a quartet of giant Goons (closely following the Fleischer model sheet), who smell the cooking, grab Olive’s ladle to get a taste, then walk off with the whole pot. Olive pursues to get their lunch back, but is seized by the Goons and taken to a large treehouse in the jungle, where she is forced into servitude as their cooking slave. “I’ve heard of feeding time at the zoo, but this is ridiculous”, Olive complains. Popeye discovers Olive missing, and a trail of food aroma leads him to the treehouse. Meanwhile, Olive is trying to slip away between courses, but has her escape blocked by a multi-headed man eating plant which the Goons keep in a pot inside their house. The plant wraps its vine around Olive’s leg and threatens menacingly.
Popeye sees Olive and the plant through a window. “Oh my gawsh. Olive’s doing a tango with a grappling geranium!” Popeye tries to climb a rope ladder through a trapdoor, but one of the plant’s blooms grabs the rope and hauls the ladder in, dumping Popeye on the ground. Popeye tries pole vaulting, but another of the plant’s heads extends out and bites his pole in two, so that he misses the house entirely and lands in a tree nearby. The goons themself get into the act of intercepting Popeye, pulling a tree limb out in front of Popeye as he swings in Tarzan style on a vine, and pushing apart a hand-made ladder Popeye constructs, leaving the rungs with no support. Popeye catapults in with a bent sapling, but overshoots on altitude, crashing down through the roof, and grabbing as he passes Olive’s last canned goods, leaving her with no more ingredients for stew. The goons begin to chase her for food instead. Popeye has had “all he can stands”, and finds Olive’s canned goods to consist of spinach cans. His limbs transform into a chainsaw and mallet, which he uses to cut sections out of the Goons’ tree and bring their house down to ground level. Inside, he encounters the man eating plant. Grabbing the Goons into a whirlwind, he uses the plant’s vines to hogtie the entire troupe of Goons between the blossoms. The scene changes to a newly-constructed rowboat, with Popeye commenting that Olive drives a hard bargain. Olive, in the bow of the craft with her stewpot, looks upon four Goons tied in their seats rowing the vessel. She comments that it’s not such a bad deal – she cooks stew for the Goons, and they row them to civilization.
The Eternia Flower (11/14/84), an episode of Filmation’s He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, regrettably must be mentioned, although I’d almost rather not. Here was a product-driven series I generally avoided even on its good days (although occasionally a few laughs would be generated by the little short-circuited wizard Orco). But this episode presents double justification for avoidance. Animation was being forced into a direction where few animators had gone before – trying to spread an anti-drug message to an impressionable junior populace. However noble the intent of these early efforts may have seemed, one recurring trait had to have been evident even to some of the most die-heard children who would basically watch anything on a television set that moved – namely, that nearly all of these programs were a pure preachment, with all the subtlety of a sledge hammer, and neither funny, entertaining, nor dramatically engaging. When everybody plays his part like a cardboard stereotype, and no intriguing plot points arise, how can you really care or develop empathy for the characters, or relate to their situations to drive any morality message home? As most such productions were obviously produced in a rush and within the highly-restrictive time constraints of a television budget and release schedule, the common results appear slapdash and half-hearted in presentation at best – almost as if the writers themselves could care less, but are happy to just sweep the project past them to maintain their schedule and their practices and standards commitments. If anyone can detect even a sign of genuine passion in the presentation of this project, you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!
To keep things brief, an evil Count hopes to gain control of Eternia by influencing Eternia’s youth with the introduction of a black flower from another world (banned in Orco’s realm and other planets). One sniff of the flower, and the victim is hooked for more and exhibits standard dulling of senses, overconfidence, general intoxication, etc. (the writers can’t even exhibit any creativity by adding further other-worldy side effects to make the plot more interesting or the analogy to real life drugs a little less obviously close). Clearly, the Count is a standard stereotype outer-space pusher! He-Man must discover the stockpile and destroy the supply, before Etrnia’s youth meet a horrible fate. Enough said?
Not to say that no anti-drug program was ever entertaining. While not animated, a classic example of a show done right was Jim Henson’s Creature Shop’s Dinosaurs episode, A New Leaf (2/5/92), where the dinosaur community, in clever and witty fashion, discovers the effects of a “happy plant”. Even the public service announcement by Robbie at the end of the program is played with cleverness and class, with Robbie begging that the kids get the message so that shows like his aren’t forced to have “preachy sitcoms” before they’re even a season old!
Another class act, predating most such shows, was Speed Racer’s The Fastest Car On Earth, where Speed is administered a gas which quickens reflexes to allow him to drive a car equipped with a motor surpassing the speed capacity of any other known – except upon premature exposure to water, the gas wears off, subjecting the victim to a reversal of abilities and withdrawal symptoms placing him in mortal fear of any velocity whatsoever. The sequence where Pops Racer attempts to retrain Speed, tied in a chair, by merely showing him a movie of point of view from a car windshield is dramatically heart-wrenching – parallel to watching Frank Sinatra’s withdrawal symptoms in “The Man With the Golden Arm.” While the setup was fanciful, and no direct preachments or parallels to real drugs were referenced in the script, this episode entertained and drove the message home with style.
Perhaps one of the most striking contrasts between animators who could and animators who couldn’t entertainingly set forth an anti-drug message was the multi-studio collaborative effort Cartoon All Stars To the Rescue (4/21/90), which aired simultaneously on several networks, and was the only meeting of many network rivals from Saturday morning TV. Despite many contributions of segments, only one appeared to exhibit any real creativity or class – again deriving from Jim Henson productions, from their traditional-animation “Muppet Babies” unit. Kermit and Piggy demonstrate the effects of drugs by way of visual analogy, imagining themselves riding a runaway roller coaster, with ever increasing “highs” and “lows”. The sequence even has a topper gag, as the camera pulls back to reveal their roller coaster is on a painter’s canvas being painted by Gonzo wearing a beret, who turns to the audience and says, ‘Of course this is only one artist’s conception!” So, despite its allegedly high concept, let’s relegate He-Man’s effort to the place it belongs – the Eternia trash can.
One Good Fern Deserves Another (9/30/89), an episode of Garfield and Friends, finds out feline hero playing “jungle cat” and stalking Odie amidst the growth of Jon’s potted fern. Their rough and tumble game reduces the fern to tatters – an altogether too common occurrence. Jon travels to a local nursery, determined to get a plant that is “Garfield proof.” A nearsighted proprietor sells him what looks like a hearty new specimen – but shortly afterwards realizes his newly-delivered “meat-eating fern” is missing. Jon brings the unknown monster home, reading up on the horticultural history of the genus he believes he’s been sold. A plant book instructs on the fern’s food and watering needs, with footnote to keep it out of the reach of cats named Garfield. Garfield reacts with a broad grin to the audience: “Hey, I’m famous!” Resolving to be good so he doesn’t lose his privileges to watch a late-night horror movie, Garfield settles in the easy chair to wait for his program to start. But the fern’s green tendrils exhibit immediate growth, extending from the pot as legs on the floor, so it can walk toward its intended victim. Extending like octopus tentacles, the fern’s arms envelop Garfield and pull him from the chair. Garfield tries to convince himself that “This is not happening”, and looks back to see the center of the plant form into a ravenous mouth. “Now I know how everything I ever ate must have felt”, Garfield declares. Jon and Odie return to the room, and are grabbed up by the plant too. The distraction allows Garfield to escape the grip of the tendrils around him and run into the kitchen, where he holds off one arm of the plant pursuing him by wielding an offensive weapon: “I have a food processor and I know how to use it.” In the nick of time arrives the plant shop proprietor, armed with a lion tamer’s chair and whip. He subdues the fern, which releases Jon and Odie, and replaces it with the real fern Jon intended to purchase. Garfield emerges from the kitchen with utensils and a bottle, bemoaning that the savage fern is leaving: “I found the thousand island dressing and I was about to have the world’s biggest salad bar.” Having had enough excitement for one day, Jon, Garfield and Odie settle down to enjoy the movie – which turns out to be “Attack of the Giant Pod People”. Garfield’s mood for such fare has changed entirely, and the three of them resign themselves to watching The Crocheting Network instead.
Little Shop (1991) was a 13-episode series produced for Fox by Marvel Productions/Saban Entertainment, based loosely on the musical version of Roger Corman’s ultimate sub-B picture, The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) – the saga of a talking man-eating flytrap (“Feed Me!!!”). Several changes are necessary for the adaptation. First Audrey Junior (the plant), is no longer a man-eater, although remaining carnivorous. Nor is he a “Mean Green Mother From Outer Space”, but instead born from a dormant prehistoric seed which out hero(?) Seymour Krelborn (13 years old) finds in the city dump after a run-in with a local bully (Paine Driller) lands him in a trash truck. Audrey Junior “germinates” from consuming the wheat germ packed by Seymour’s mother in his lunch box, and grows to the typical monstrous proportions. Seymour classifies himself as a would-be nerd – he’d qualify as one, if only he had the brains for it – and is a natural born loser. Except that his horticultural efforts (usually the result of habitual overwatering) make him an unlikely success at the flower shop of borsht-belt voiced florist Mr. Mushnik, and occasionally get him noticed by Mushnik’s daughter Audrey, after whom Seymout names the plant. Audrey (the girl), however, is a highly one-dimensional character, with a fixation on nothing more than being a fire-fighter when she grows up (she spends idle time looking at magazine centerfolds of extendable fire ladders), and has no place in her life for romance. To top things off, both Seymour and Paine Driller (a hulking fat kid with large steel dental braces which he constantly uses as weapons or tools) have eyes for Audrey, leading them to constant run-ins a la Popeye and Bluto (although Seymour has no spinach, and must instead rely on the flytrap for any vegetarian help).
Coming from an era when plants had “personality”, Audrey Junior faces constant frustration in his efforts to get some “life” out of his modern plant counterparts. Each episode features rap-flavored musical numbers mirroring the “Mean Green Mother” number from the musical, and while Audrey Junior can telepathically manipulate other plant life (including getting some musical backup from a trio of flowers similar to the choristers from the musical), no one else quite achieves the goals of one of Audrey Junior’s numbers, where he encourages a modern-day flytrap to “Be Somebody”. Still, Audrey Junior busies himself with interventions into Seymour’s personal life/nightmares, and efforts to give Paine his comeuppance whenever possible. Seymour remains the only one aware of Audrey Junior’s powers and personality.
The animation style is decidedly toony, rubbery and loose (maybe only a notch above the daily version of Sonic the Hedgehog), and based on a viewing of only the pilot and half of a subsequent episode (which is all I’ve presently had the stomach to see), gets noticeably worse in subsequent production episodes. The writers seem to try hard, but the pacing is a bit too frenetic for my tastes. Character design is quirky, with Seymour having a decided overbite that make him an instant frowny-face from most forward views. Audrey Junior starts off with reasonable design in the pilot, with interesting eyes that are on the end of tendrils which can become detached from the main portions of his “head”, but becomes more scrawly looking in production episodes. The show didn’t last long, and was not a hit. Well, you can’t really blame a guy for trying.
Darkwing Duck (ABC and Disney Afternoon, 1991-92) offered us multiple encounters with the recurring villain Bushroot (half duck, half plant), who had a telekenetic link with every other form of plant life and flora to do his bidding. He was a scientist/botanist (Dr. Reginald Bushroot), until a failed experiment made him the equivalent of a Batman villain. A considerably extensive character analysis and several plot synopses appears on the site “Bushroot/Darkwing Duck Wiki”, to which I humbly defer.
Clogged (Minnie Mouse (Disney Channel), 12/12/14, Paul Rudish, dir.), a starring vehicle for Minnie Mouse without Mickey, casts Minnie as a classic Dutch girl who could have stepped out of the set of Tulips Shall Grow. Singing throughout most of the film the international hit “Tulips From Amsterdam” (known to American audiences mostly from a British English-language recording by Max Bygraves), Minnie nearly panics when she discovers her pride and joy – a single tulip in her yard – collapsed and seemingly lifeless on the ground. Minnie applies plant CPR by pressing on the stem for resuscitation, and gets a gasp out of the flower just long enough for it to point upward at what the problem is – an irrigation trough hooked up to Minnie’s windmill is pumping no water, as the wind in the area has died to a standstill so that the blades will not turn. Minnie blows at the windmill blades and achieves nothing. Tries an electric fan pointed at the blades with absolutely no effect. Hires the village oompah band to blow its hardest at the windmill, only to have the stubborn windmill blade flip all the notes back at the performers. Minnie eventually gets the inspiration to install an alternate source of energy inside the mill – bicycle power attached to a belt. But her tiny feet can’t even move the pedals against the weight of the mill shaft. She tries wearing wooden clogs, still only able to get the slightest movement, and no more than a drop of water for her starving flower. She finally tries king size clogs. Their sheer weight begins to move the mill shaft, then move it still more, then cycle to where it has built up good speed. But outside, her plant is coughing and spluttering – as a river of water is now pouring on it from the irrigation sluice. Minnie realizes she’s created too much of a good thing, and pulls her feet out of the clogs – but they keep right on turning the pedals as if self-propelled from their own momentum. The windmill blades are now turning so fast, they create a mouse-made hurricane, with devastating effect upon the townsfolk and surrounding buildings. Minnie dives at the bicycle with a pole to stop the wheels. The sudden stop cracks the core of the mill shaft, causing the top half of the windmill to break away, blades and all, sailing to parts unknown. Minnie surveys the devastation from outside with aghast shock – but backs into something large and green. Turning around, she discovers that her overwatered tulip has grown into a multi-story giant, with expansive petals. Finding the solution to all problems, she transplants the tulip atop the windmill base, where its petals form a new set of rotating blades to power the irrigation system, where Minnie below tends to a whole garden of new tulips, who sing with Minnie in chorus for the final iris out.
A Flower For Minnie (Mickey Mouse (Disney Channel), 5/29/15 – Paul Rudish, dir.) is another little modern gem. In a title-song production number, Mickey (accompanied for no good reason by Donald Duck playing honky-tonk piano in his living room), professes his love for Minnie, ad his intention to present a perfect flower to the “flower of his heart”. As he is reaching the last line of his song, and almost to Minnie’s house with a white-petaled daisy, he is buried in flying grass from the spray of a gardener’s lawn mower. The gardener comes back, sees the flower protruding from Mickey’s grass-covered hand, and snips off the flower at the stem with his pruning shears. Mickey goes into hysterics, and vows to find another flower. A window box nearby has a similar bloom, with a few bees flying around it. Mickey shoos away the bees, removing the last one with a flick of his finger. But before he gets far, the bees amass a swarm, forming into a fist to deliver the mouse punishing blows. He smashes into a fence – but finds another flower in the ground. He tugs at it – but it has long roots – in fact extending under the fence into Goofy’s yard. Another flower snarled into the root system disappears on Goofy’s side of the fence – and an angry Goofy reaches into the hole and pulls the flower back up – dragging Mickey face-first into the ground on the other side. The two play a violent game of tug-of-war – until Goofy pulls up both flowers and Mickey through the ground into his yard. He does not recognize the battered Mickey, and reacts: “Pesky moles!”, and swats Mickey with his hoe. Mickey runs into a building, and finds another white flower which he plucks – off the coffin of the deceased at a funeral!
Booted out of the church, he somehow lands on a mountain – and is beaten to the next bloom by a hungry goat, who judo flips him with the flower stem. Landing in a jungle, Mickey is chomped by a man-eating plant. Somehow finding himself on a beach, he plucks a flower from a floral pattern on a shirt – and is socked out of the scene by a beach bully. Landing dejected back on a city sidewalk, Mickey is surprised by the passing of a parade – apparently, the Rose Parade, complete with floral floats, including one flower just like Minnie’s. Mickey sneaks on board the float and plucks the bloom – right under the watchful eyes of city cop Black Pete. “Not on my watch!”, roars Pete. A wild chase ensues among the floats and marchng units. Mickey hides in a tuba, and is blown out by a pig’s strong blast. He intercepts the baton of a drum majorette and is tossed skyward. Lanfing on the trunk of an Elephant float, he ski-slides off the trunk into the parade major – knocking the major out of the scene, with Mickey now wearing his uniform. He is now invisible to Pete, who passes right by him. With the danger gone, Mickey turns out of formation, and marches down a side street toward Minnie’s house – not realizing the rest of the paraders are following his lead. Mickey rings Minnie’s doorbell and, with a graceful bow, hands Minnie the flower. “But what’s all that?” Minnie asks, pointing over Mickey’s shoulder. The parade has caught up with them, and serenades them with a marching band rendition of the cartoon’s title song. “Oh, Mickey, you’re the best”, says Minnie, planting a big kiss on Mickey. Mickey sheepishly giggles and shrugs his shoulders to the audience, as the camera takes a flower-shaped iris out.
Ferdinand (Blue Sky/Fox, 12/10/17, Carlos Saldanha, dir.) was a feature length CGI expansion of Munro Leaf’s “Ferdinand the Bull”. Right from the start, we receive reassuring glimpses to let us know that despite the change in medium, he’s still “our Ferdinand”, as the young calf attempts to shelter a small flower from the trampling feet of the other bulls. The film takes a number of new twists and turns – including an intervention to save one of the bulls who “didn’t make the cut” in being selected for the bullring from receiving an unkinder “cut” in a meat packing plant. And a psychologically interesting intrusion into the matador’s trophy chamber, where Ferdinand discovers the fallacy of the other bulls’ (and his lost father’s) fixation on being brave enough to fight in the bull ring – that the bull always loses! There is also a delightful moment where Ferdinand becomes the proverbial “bull in a china shop” and almost makes it out of the place without an incident – but not quite. Another delightful aspect of the film was the gutsy move to preserve nearly intact the design of the matador from the Disney original – despite the fact that the matador was a caricature of Walt Disney – whose studio did not produce this feature! The bullfight has considerably more action than the Disney version, but has Ferdinand stand his ground rather than be an aggressor – with the result that while the Matador is not the loser, neither is the bull – its sort of a respectful tie. An entertaining new take on the old tale, largely preserving some of its central themes. Its creativeness earned the studio both Oscar and Annie nominations, and others to boot.
Finally, there is Adventure For a Flower (2017), from a Netflix series released to India, Mighty Little Bheem (a CGI reworking of the toddler life of an established animation character. Chhota Bheem, a young boy with super strength). It seems that even as a precocious youth who hasn’t learned to walk yet, Bheem’s strength is already manifested. This episode, set in the jungle surroundings outlying Bjeem’s village, raises some very familiar feelings for a Western animation buff upon viewing. First, the setup of a naive youth in constant peril while on an innocent quest for a flower brings back strong remembrances of a “Buttons and Mindy” style story from Warner Brothers’ Animaniacs. Then, the inclusion of a menacing lion who is constantly miffed by the incomprehensible strength and dumb luck of Bheem harkens back to even earlier Warner days – as if we were watching the lion try to deal with a modern-day equivalent of the mysterious Mynah Bird from a 1940’s “Inki” cartoons. The resemblances are favorable rather than plagiaristic, and, as the film is performed entirely in pantomime, universally appealing. I recommend a view of the short film imbedded below as an adorable introduction of Western eyes to some genuine Eastern animated talent.
As usual by the time I reach the end of one of these trails, I’m wilted. We’ll turn to some “green”er pastures next week. See you soon.