Cartoons

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When MGM/UA senior vice president and general manager George Feltenstein decided last year that he wanted to reissue old "Looney Tunes" cartoons in a deluxe laserdisc collection, his colleagues laughed. "No one thought there was any value to them," he says. The company laughed all the way to the bank, however, when sales for the $100 five-disc set went through the roof: "When we put out the first set, I would have been happy if we sold 3,000," he notes. "We sold 14,000."

And that's not all, folks.

Long considered kid stuff, animation has become the art form for just about everyone. How else to explain the theatrical gold uncovered by Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, even The Jetsons (which earned $5 million its opening weekend)? Or the new 24-hour Cartoon Network on cable TV? And what about the proliferation of cartoon memorabilia, from the Fantasia animation "eel" Sotheby's recently sold for $93,500 to the Mickey Mouse watches, Popeye mugs and Bugs Bunny designer jackets that permeate suburban malls?
Cartoons are hot - but they're absolutely sizzling on videocassette and laserdisc, their new and well-deserved homes. From Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse to Wild Japanese animation like Akira, there are so many current titles, it takes 97 pages of the Whole Toon Catalog (plus regular supplements) to keep up with the releases. MGMIUA has issued four $100 "Looney Tunes" laser disc boxed sets, as well as similar packages like The Compleat Tex Avery and The Art of Tom and Jerry Part I and Part II. Disney's Beauty and the Beast has sold 25 million copies, making it the most popular home video ever, followed by the 53-year-old Fantasia, which has clocked in at 14.2 million videos sold.

The variety of animation titles currently on video is astonishing. There are environmentally conscious tapes like Picture Start's Greentoons; sophisticated antiwar dramas such as Central Park Media's Grave of the Fireflies; weird experimental collages like those
presented on Lumivision's Animation Celebration Laserdisc Collection; such wacky sci-fi comedies as U.S. Magna's Project A-Ko; and even violent, NC-17-rated cartoons like the controversial Urotsukidoji: Legend of the Overfiend, from Anime 18. Whatever your tastes, there's now an animated title at the local video store with your name on it.

Animation has been popular ever since film's earliest days, when newspaper cartoonist Winsor McCay's Little Nemo wowed audiences in 1911. But it took Walt Disney and a rambunctious mouse named Mickey to bring cartoons to the fore with Steamboat Willie (1928). "[Walt Disney] did not invent the mediurn," observes film historian Leonard Maltin in his book Of Mice and Magic, "but one could say that he defined it."

[[wysiwyg_imageupload:296:]][[wysiwyg_imageupload:297:]]Disney institutionalized the form, building a creative factory that scripted and storyboarded cartoons as no one had done before. He added sound and then Technicolor when none of his competitors saw the need. He created the first full-length animated feature - Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs despite widespread skepticism from the film industry, which dubbed the project "Disney's Folly." And throughout his career, he developed new processes that enhanced perspective and added to the believability and fluidity of his company's cartoons.

Walt Disney Home Video has also been among the first to realize the tape and laserdisc potential of its huge cartoon library. In the early '80s, the studio released many of its classic short cartoons on "Limited Gold Edition" tapes, cleverly marketing them as collectors' items that would only be sold for a limited time. Since then, Disney has perfected the "buy now or miss it later" hype, limiting availability on such popular titles as The Lady and the Tramp, 101 Dalmatians and Pinocchio.

Pinocchio provides a good example of Disney's marketing approach: Though the company denied it would ever be released on video - a claim now being made for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, despite rumors of a 1994 video release - the tape hit the shelves for a short time in 1985 and quickly went on "moratorium." This meant that stores could sell off remaining stock but could not reorder after a specified date, thus inflating demand for the title. Seven years later, Disney trumpeted a new, restored version of Pinocchio on tape and disc, again warning that it would be pulled and "not available again in this century."

Despite their tremendous success on video, these good-natured, sentimental Disney pictures are primarily aimed at children. It took Warner Bros.' "Looney Tunes" and "Merrie Melodies" cartoons of the late '30, '40s and '50s to add an adult sensibility to Disney's techniques. The six-minute Warner shorts use jazz, be-bop and classical music as the backdrop for wacky tales full of chases, literate gags, reality-breaking humor, slapstick violence and outrageous puns.

Unlike the Disney material, however, the Warner library has had a scattershot history on tape and disc, partly because of a tangled ownership situation, Most of the cartoons from 1931 to 1948 were sold in the 1950s and are now distributed by MGM/UA; post-'48 shorts are still controlled by Warner.

Until George Feltenstein took over at MGMIUA, most of that company's releases were packaged under the "Viddy-Oh! for kids" label, and were often poorly edited. Feltenstein noted the success of Warner's 1985 "Golden Jubilee 24-Karat Collection" series (still available at $12.95 apiece), which compiled eight-cartoon collections centering on individual characters like Porky Pig's Screwball Comedies and Elmer Fudd's Comedy Capers, and included notes by film historian Leonard Maltin.

Feltenstein soon put together the "Cartoon Movie Star" series of tapes that included Warner characters and also such MGM stars as Tom and Jerry and United Artists' Pink Panther. That, in turn, led to The Golden Age of Looney Tunes, which Feltestein initially planned as a disc-only series. (MGM/UA began releasing tape versions in 1993. The  first ten tapes, available at $12.95 each, duplicate the material on the initial laserdisc set; more are promised.)

Warner Home Video has taken a different tack: in addition to the "24 Karat" series, its cassette releases include such theatrical compilation movies as The Looney Looney Bugs Bunny Movie ($14.95), For laserdisc, the company shunned MGM's boxed-set approach in favor of six single-platter releases, grouped by character or subject. Daffy Duck in Duck Victory ($34.98) is a typical 14-cartoon Warner laser set, and features Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2 Century, an inspiration of sorts for Star Wars.

That success has led to other tape and disc releases which reflect animation's less-than-golden years, the 1950s..With rising costs and competition from television, theatrical shorts moved to the cheaper venue of TV, but suffered from inferior scripts and less fluid or "limited" animation.

The big exception was Jay Ward. He used the limited animation to its best advantage by relying not on action but talk: witty parodies of films, television, and society itslef. His "Crusader Rabbit," "Rocky and Bullwinkle," and "Fractured Fairy Tales"cartoons were designed for adults as well as kids. Adults could appreciate the satire, while kids saw the stories as fanciful tales. Spoofing was the name of the game. "Fractured Fairy Tales," for instance, featured a Prince Charming who looks like Walt Disney and who decides not to wake Sleeping Beauty with a kiss but instead turns a profit by displaying her in a theme park dubbed "Sleeping Beauty Land."

[[wysiwyg_imageupload:298:]]Ironically enough, Disney's Buena Vista label acquired the Bullwinkle series in 1990 and released six tapes in 1991 at $12.99 apiece; six more followed last year. The company restored the 30-year-old cartoons enhancing both color and sound, but purists were dismayed to find the series' rambling storylines had been severely edited to fit one complete story onto each tape. Image Entertainment has released four double-length Rocky and Bullwinkle laserdiscs at $39.39 each. Few other cartoons from the period are worth noting, as the form deteriorated into "hour-long commercials for toy companies," according to Doug Ranney, publisher of the Whole Toon Catalog

TOON REVIVAL
Two turning points helped revive animation's reputation after its low point in the '50s and '60s, and eventually led to the current boom on tape and disc. The first was the huge theatrical success of Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), which combined human and cartoon characters in a huge box-office smash. "Suddenly the word 'toon' became apopular part of the vocabulary," says MGMIUA's Feltenstein (Ironically, because Rabbit was distributed by Disney, the video editions have disappeared from store shelves.)

The second key event in the cartoon renaissance was the arrival of adult-oriented Japanese animation in theaters and on video. Violent, witty, sexually explicit and often very bizarre,. it brought the mythos of adult comic books into the video world. Japanimation, or Anime, runs the gamut from action-adventure and action;comedy to erotic sci-fi violence and intimate human drama. It is largely based on Japanese comic books, which account for 60 percent of the magazines sold in that country.

Extremely popular among adults in Japan - where 100 animated titles are released on video each month - these' cartoons rework old movie and story themes, sometimes in original and disturbing ways. Central Park Media's Project A-Ko ($29.95), a sci-fi thriller set in a girls' school, has a lesbian subtext and an incomprehensible plot, while Urotsukidoji: The Legend of the Overfiend ($39.95) couples disturbing erotic images with graphic violence. The animation itself has a stylized - if not terribly fluid - punch.

Overfiend set house records at one New York City theater, selling out 24 , weekends in a row as a midnight movie. By the time the cartoon came to video, it had been shown theatrically in 48 other cities and had been chosen as one of the lead titles at the Montreal Film Festival in October '93. Project A-Ko, was premiered at the Dallas Museum of Art, while Akira became the ,first and only animated film to find a place in Voyager's hallowed Criterion Collection laserdisc series

Such respectability for cartoons has opened many doors and given, a wider outlet to independent animation. The Tune, Bill Plympton's bizarre feature about a songwriter in search of a' song, has just been released on tape by Tribobo Entertainment. Plymptoons ($34.95), a compilation of the animator's shorter works is out on laserdisc from Lumivision. It features his award-winning shorts, TV commercials and even a failed sitcom.

Lumivision has released a wide variety of disc-only independant animation titles, generally priced at $34.95. Included are the Japanese-made Twilight of the Cockroaches, a surreal composite of live action and animation that tells the saga of life in a cockroach 'family;" Ardman Animatians, five shorts from England, including the Academy Award-winning Creature Comforts, about a philosophical puma and his friends; and Brnno Bozzetto Animator, featuring the work of an Italian animator dubbed the "Walt Disney of Europe."     ,
"A lot of the populadty has to do with accessibility," says Jamie White, president of Lumivision. "Laserdiscs and tapes are creating more of a demand for animation. The more people see, the more they want to know about it. Seeing it often piques one's interest in classic animation, too. They're all replayable. Even some of the stuff from the '20s is fascinating."    

Yet there is more to animation's popularity than history, accessibility or even collectability. "As the baby boomers progress demographically into a higher age group, the stuff they've always liked enters the mainstream," observes Whole Toon Catalog's Ranney. "Our generation grew up watching cartoons," adds John O'Donnell, managing director at Central Park Media, which distributes much of the Japanimation. "I read Marvel Comics, which are more adult-oriented than Archie or Casper. The baby boomers have the attitude that comics and, cartoons are fun."

There's an even simpler reason for the new popularity of animation, however. Beyond the anarchy, the color and the music, cartoons appeal to the rebellious Everyman in all of us, to the little boy or girl who wants to have the last word. "They are mirrors of what we do," observes animator Chuck Jones in his autobiography Chuck Amuck. "Or, in the case of the comic hero, what we would like to be able to do. We are all Daffy Ducks inside:"

Tha - tha - that's all, folks!


 VIDEO NOVEMBER 1993