May 4, 2014 posted by

Planes, Trains, and… “Cars”?

pedro-posterEver since Pixar’s Cars in 2006, animated anthropomorphic vehicles have become “in”. Cars led to Cars Toons, a series of 7-minute short films on TV or DVDs from 2008 and continuing (Maeter’s Tall Tales and Tales from Radiator Springs), then the theatrical Cars 2 in 2011. Eastern Europe’s Ot Vinta 3D, with a story about an anthropomorphic airplane race, produced by Touch FX Animation Studio in Yerevan, Armenia, was released in Russia on August 9, 2012. On August 9, 2013, Disney’s Planes (CGI animation subcontracted to Prana Studios in Mumbai), about an anthropomorphic airplane race, was released in America theatrically; and Ot Vinta 3D, an apparent imitation translated as Wings, was released directly to video. Now the theatrical trailers have already started for Disney’s Planes: Fire & Rescue. What’s next – anthropomorphic spaceships?

Tex Avery's "Little Johnny Jet (1953)

Tex Avery’s “Little Johnny Jet (1953)

Cars was not the first example of anthropomorphic vehicles in animation. The anthropomorphization of incidental objects including vehicles is almost as old as animation itself. The earliest significant animations of a vehicle were Leon Schlesinger’s/WB’s 1937 Merrie Melodies Streamlined Greta Green, where all the people are anthropomorphized cars (IMDb: “Junior wants to grow up to be a taxi, but mom wants him to be a nice, respectable touring car …”; he races trains, too); Pedro, the juvenile Chilean mail plane, and his Poppa and Momma mail planes, in Disney’s 1942 feature Saludos Amigos; the tugboat Little Toot, based on the 1939 children’s picture book by Hardie Gramatky, produced as a segment of Disney’s 1948 feature Melody Time; Tex Avery’s MGM 1952 One Cab’s Family, about two married taxicabs whose son wants to be a hotrodder; Susie the Little Blue Coupe, a Disney 1952 short cartoon based upon an original story by veteran Disney story writer Bill Peet; and Avery’s 1953 Little Johnny Jet, about an ageing World War II B-29 bomber whose baby son is a jet. (Wikipedia and Disney say that Susie was a direct inspiration for Pixar’s Cars.) But although these animated shorts and features were “family films”, the presentations of Pedro, of Little Toot, of Susie, and of the cars and planes were aimed for children. (I am ignoring schoolroom educational films that had anthropomorphized cartoon cars in them.)

Animated anthropomorphic vehicles after that became generally limited to British children’s TV animation. The most prominent example was probably Thomas [the Tank Engine] & Friends. Thomas the Tank Engine began as the most popular character in a series of forty-two British children’s books featuring anthropomorphized steam locomotives from 1945 to 1996, The Railway Series, first by the Reverend Wilbert Awdry and later his son Christopher. In 1983 producer Britt Allcroft bought the TV rights, and the children’s program has been produced from 1984 to the present, from 1984 to 2002 as Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends, and from 2002 to the present as just Thomas & Friends. The program over the years has encompassed live-action radio-controlled model locomotives and trains with static models of humans and animals, to stop-motion models of the humans and animals, to locomotives with cartoon-animated faces.

thomas-tankIn 1990, the producers of Thomas the Tank Engine made the animated series Tugs, about two rival anthropomorphized tugboat fleets in Bigg City Port during the 1920s. The Star Fleet (Warrior, Big Mac, Sunshine, Top Hat, Ten Cents, O.J., and Hercules) are the heroes, and the Z-Stacks (Zorran, Zebedee, Zak, Zug, and Zip) are the villains. The animation for the British Tugs was heavily edited and given an American soundtrack for the American children’s TV series Salty’s Lighthouse.

Theodore Tugboat was a very similar Canadian cartoon TV series from 1993 to 2001 by Cochran Entertainment, whose founder, Halifax-based Andrew Cochran, set it in a thinly fictionalized Halifax harbour as “Big Harbour”. Almost half of the 130 episodes were directed by Robert Cardona, one of the producers of Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends and Tugs. The series had one human character, the Harbourmaster, and five anthropomorphized tugboats; Theodore Tugboat, Hank “the volcano”, Emily “the vigorous”, George “the valiant”, and Foduck “the vigilant”. An anthropomorphized building, the Dispatcher, on the Great Ocean Tug and Salvage Company wharf, gives the tugs their jobs each day. The episodes were filmed on a model set with radio-controlled anthropomorphized ships, buildings, and machinery; the tugboats had cartoon-animated faces.

Probably the best-known series after that were the thirty-second Chevron Cars TV commercials featuring anthropomorphized cars touting Chevron gasoline with Techron, from 1996 to 2011, using stop-motion clay animation by Aardman Animations. Although the cars had individual names like Sam Sedan, Wendy Wagon, and Tony Turbo, they were best-known generically as the Chevron Cars.

Benny the Cab is well-remembered from the 1988 Disney-Touchstone feature Who Framed Roger Rabbit. But he was an individual character who only appeared once.

From 1989 through the mid-1990s, mostly to prove that it could, too, be done, computer/Furry fan Eric Schwartz animated several Aerotoons on his home Amiga computer. These were mostly seen by only his friends. In the mid-‘90s Schwartz discovered that sexy anthro animals were a lot more popular, and he gave up his Aerotoons in favor of Amy the SquirrelYouTube has them all today.

Jay Jay the Jet Plane was a TV series in computer animation aimed at young children, 2 to 6, about CGI aircraft of all types with human faces who live at Tarrytown Airport. There were similar CGI human-faced ground vehicles such as a fire truck and a towtruck, and some friendly insects including Breezy the butterfly and Bobby & Billy Bee. Humans were played by real humans, notably Brenda Blue who ran the airport. The series began in 1994 with non-animated models, moved to The Learning Channel in 1998, and then started with the animated characters in half-hour episodes on PBS Kids from 2001 to 2005. Beginning in 2006 the series was repackaged with new beginnings on the old episodes. The main characters were Jay Jay and his friends Tracy, Snuffy, and Herky, who were played as children from 4 to 6 years old. Supporting characters were adult airplanes and other vehicles, and the humans. Planes and vehicles were computer models on miniature sets; the faces were superimposed by face tracking.

Somewhere in here, Tugger, the Jeep [4X4] Who Wanted to Fly should be mentioned. This 2005 CGI feature about a jeep who wants to fly like an airplane, thus combining elements of both anthropomorphic car and airplane movies, is less interesting than the legal troubles of its studio, Genesis Orlando, and its director, Jeffrey Varab. According to Varab’s 2010 rebuttal letter on the Animation World Network, he was encouraged to make the movie and created Genesis Orlando to do so, it had its theatrical premiere on July 4, 2005, the theatrical distributor (20th Century Fox) backed out, and before Varab could find a new theatrical distributor, he was sued for fraud on the grounds that his promises of theatrical distribution were not being met. Genesis Orlando went bankrupt, and Tugger the Jeep, Who Wanted to Fly ended up as a direct-to-DVD kid’s release by Anchor Bay on February 10, 2009. The July 2005 theatrical premiere predates Pixar’s 2006 Cars and DisneyToons’ 2013 Planes and their imitators, so Tugger should not be accused of jumping on their bandwagons.

Japanese anime has never had any animated anthropomorphic featured vehicles, but it has had at least one minor one. Rikujo Boetan Mao-chan/Ground Defense Force Mao-chan was a 26-episode, July 3, 2002 to December 25, 2002, TV animated parody of the Earth-is-invaded-and-must-be-defended-by-a-team-of-high-school-students formula. Earth is invaded, but the aliens are SO CUTE, looking like giant plush kitties and bunnies, that the military can’t fight them without looking like bullies. So the Japanese government creates a special team of beginning elementary-school girls to defend Earth. The heads of the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force (Army), the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force (Air Force), and the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (Navy) all pull strings to get their eight-year-old granddaughters appointed as Earth’s defenders. (Everyone knows that while nepotism does not officially exist in the Japanese government or military, both are full of it.) The military leaders try to conduct their interservice rivalry through their granddaughters, who just want to be best friends together. Everything in Mao-chan is cartoon animation except the vehicles, which are computer-generated. Mao-chan is given a World War II German Tiger tank outfitted with Artificial Intelligence to fight the invaders. Instead, she programs it to be her pet, Mi-kun. It follows her everywhere, and likes to have its turret rubbed. Mao-chan’s symbol was the picture of the cartoon little girl in a ridiculously cute uniform riding atop her CGI pet Panzer tank.

I will let someone else deal with the animated 1984-’85 were-sportscar Turbo Teen. For the record, there are also the live-action TV series My Mother the Car (1965-1966) and Knight Rider (1982-1986). There are several live-action sentient-car movies, notably the Disney comedies The Love Bug (1968), Herbie Rides Again (1974), Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo (1977), Herbie Goes Bananas (1980), and Herbie: Fully Loaded (2005); and the 1982 TV series Herbie the Matchmaker and a 1997 TV movie also titled The Love Bug.

killdozer-comicAs an antidote to all this cuteness, there have been many live-action killer-car movies and TV episodes. Stephen King’s horror-fantasy short story, Trucks (1973), has been filmed twice, as the 1986 live-action feature Maximum Overdrive, and as a 1997 TV movie also called Trucks. This is the one in which all road vehicles come alive and start killing humans. Then the bigger vehicles like 18-wheel trucks and bulldozers also destroy the smaller automobiles. The story ends with the captive human narrator wondering whether ships and airplanes have also turned against mankind. King also wrote Christine (both the novel and the movie; 1983). There are the 1964 Twilight Zone episode “You Drive”, the 2006 Supernatural episode “Route 666”, and several others. Theodore Sturgeon’s classic 1944 World War II short story Killdozer!, about a bulldozer possessed by an alien intelligence that makes the bulldozer start killing its construction crew, was filmed as a 1974 TV movie.

There are numerous unfilmed science-fiction and fantasy novels and short stories with sentient vehicles. Keith Laumer (1925-1993) started the Bolo series about self-aware AI military super-tanks that several authors (Linda Evans, S. M. Stirling, David Weber, etc.) are continuing after his death. Isaac Asimov wrote one short story, “Sally” (1953), in which all automobiles in the future (2057) have positronic brains and do not need human drivers. Jake, the human protagonist, discovers that the cars are self-aware, communicate by honking horns and slamming car doors, and have individual personalities. (Disney’s Susie the Little Blue Coupe was released on June 6, 1952. Asimov’s “Sally” was published in Fantastic, May-June 1953. Was the Disney cartoon about a cute anthropomorphic automotive flirt an unacknowledged inspiration for Asimov’s story about a robotic cute vain convertible?)

Many authors, past and present, have written short fiction and novels featuring sentient spaceships with AI or cyborg brains, from Henry Kuttner (1915-1958; his 1945 short story “Camouflage”, in collaboration with his wife, C. L. Moore, may be the earliest of all) to Alan Dean Foster (1946-present) with his Flinx series. The longest series is The Ship Who Sang by Anne McCaffrey (1926-2011), with six sequels (as the Brain & Brawn Ship series) by her and/or Margaret Ball, Mercedes Lackey, S. M. Stirling, and/or Jody Lynn Nye.

Maybe someday some of these stories will be produced in animation. Meanwhile, we can look forward to two more Disney/Disneytoons/Prana Planes features, starting with Planes: Fire & Rescue in July 2014.


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