Is The Fairy Tale Over at Disney Animation?

By way of introduction, this is the premiere installment in what I hope will be a regular series of columns discussing the latest animated releases on home video, as well as new titles on the big screen and TV, along with some general thoughts and ramblings about cartoons past and present. As a fiftysomething pop culture junkie whose weeks once revolved around Saturday morning television and who still spends a goodly portion of his free time watching Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, Disney and their affiliated channels, I like to think that I am peculiarly particularly qualified for this project.

The biggest news in theatrical animation recently was a Los Angeles Times article running last week, just before the release of  Walt Disney Pictures’ 50th cartoon feature, Tangled. In the piece, Disney/Pixar honcho Ed Catmull said that the Rapunzel revamping would, for the time being, be the studio’s final foray into the fairy tale/”princess” genre that began over seven decades earlier with its very first feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

“They may come back later because someone has a fresh take on it,” Catmull stated, “but we don’t have any other musicals or fairy tales lined up.” Two fantasy-flavored projects in the planning stages, Jack and the Beanstalk and The Snow Queen, were axed by Catmull and fellow Disney Animation overseer John Lasseter. Reaction to the Times article ran the gamut, with some readers claiming that the studio was selling out its heritage while others said that the “Disney Princess” mentality has run its course.

Now, the folks at the House of Mouse have made statements in the past regarding the company’s plans that proved to be premature, if not outright wrong (Remember when 2004’s Home on the Range was going to be Disney’s last traditional cel animation film?), and some have viewed Catmull’s comments, which he later softened in a Facebook response, as an attempt to lower expectations if Tangled failed to draw at the box office. Well, its three-day opening weekend take of just over $49 million nearly overtook Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 for the number-one slot. What’s more, Tangled is possibly the best non-Pixar Disney ‘toon since The Emperor’s New Groove. It has all the hallmarks of  the studio’s post-Little Mermaid oeuvre: a strong and independent heroine; a snappy Alan Mencken score (complete with a by-now obligatory self-discovery song, “When Well My Life Begin?”); and the anachronistically “hip” dialogue that’s become de rigueur in the wake of the Shrek movies. And in an ironic twist, Disney’s home video branch this week released Waking Sleeping Beauty, a documentary looking at how an influx of talent shook up the company’s moribund animation unit in the late 1980s and early ’90s with such titles as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and Beast and Aladdin. The success of Tangled should show Disney that, given the right creative forces, there is still life to be found in the fairy tale realm that helped make the company’s fortune, and it may yet live happily ever after.

On the home video front, Baby Boomers and Gen Xers with a hankering for the TV cartoons of their youth will appreciate Warner Home Video’s Fall releases of several complete series, all part of their manufacture-on-demand line. The programs include such Hanna-Barbera shows as The Funky Phantom (where mystery-solving teens were helped by a Revolutionary War-era ghost who could turn invisible), Goober and the Ghost Chasers (where mystery-solving teens were helped by a hat-wearing dog who could turn invisible…see a pattern here?), the 1973 Addams Family series (featuring ’60s sitcom cast members Ted Cassidy and Jackie Coogan, with a pre-Taxi Driver Jodie Foster as Pugsley!), and the very self-explanatory Josie and the Pussy Cats in Outer Space (Say, they never did make it back to Earth, did they?).

The pick of the bunch, however, was a show that came from the studio of former H-B writers Joe Ruby and Ken Spears, the 1980 sci-fi/adventure series Thundarr the Barbarian. Created by Marvel Comics alum Steve Gerber–who also gave the world Howard the Duck–and featuring character designs by legendary artists Alex Toth and Jack Kirby, Thundarr was set in a post-apocalyptic Earth (2,000 years after a “runaway planet” disrupted Earth’s orbit and shattered the Moon in the far-off year of 1994!) populated by mutated monsters and spell-casting sorcerers. Joining the brawny title hero on his wanderings were the spell-casting Princess Ariel–who would often chide Thundarr for his “fight first, ask questions later” attitude–and Ookla the Mok, a hirsute, growling man-beast with a passing resemblance to Star Wars‘ Chewbacca.  The George Lucas influence was also evidenced in Thundarr’s weapon of choice, his lightsaber-like “sunsword” (You couldn’t have an actual sword on Saturday morning TV at the time, of course). Bearing elements of Marvel’s Conan and War of the Worlds comics, as well as Kirby’s Kamandi, The Last Boy on Earth series for DC, but offering its own unique style, Thundarr the Barbarian may not have been great science fiction, but it was a nice novetly on the small-screen landscape and is worth a look…and maybe someday an updating?

Today’s comic book fans, of course, are hardly wanting for TV shows to watch. As the wonderfully light-hearted and retro-flavored Batman: The Brave and the Bold winds up its final season on Cartoon Network, the cable channel last week premiered its new Young Justice series. Set to debut in January, the show features several superhero “sidekicks” (Robin, Kid Flash, and the new black Aqualad) heading up a group of teen crimefighters and looks promising. Meanwhile, the Disney/Marvel synergy is already bearing fruit with Disney XD’s The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. Tying together characters who have either made it to the big screen (Hulk, Iron Man, Black Widow) or are about to (Captain America, Thor)  in advance of the 2012 live-action Avengers movie, this is the best-looking Marvel cartoon in many years, with good characterization in its dialogue, and can be enjoyed by readers of the super-team’s original series as well as the newer Ultimates comics. One thing, though: insect-sized heroine the Wasp was well known on the comic pages for her constant costume changes and makeovers. It’ll be a shame if, due to the artistic and time constraints of producing an animated series, she’ll have to go through at least through the entire first season with only one ensemble.

On a final note, I’d just to ask: Is anyone else out there a little creeped out by the new, computer-animated Yogi Bear set to debut on the big screen later this month?

I’m sorry, but this is not the cuddly-looking cartoon bruin I saw in Hey, There, It’s Yogi Bear back in 1964. The eyes, the fur…this Yogi looks crazed enough to grab a camper’s pic-a-nic basket, with the camper’s arm still attached!