Thursday, February 18, 2010

Here he comes to save the day (Saturday morning to be exact...)

There are moments in your life, not too many, where you are presented with something that is so at odds with the world as you've come to know it that it shakes up your fundamental sense of what is. I can flatly say that my first exposure to "Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures" was just such a thing. It stands out as a vivid memory from a weekend that I only half remember, and appropriately for the name of this blog there was a keg involved.

It was Super Bowl weekend 1988. At the time I was attending Ball State University, an institution who's main academic claim to fame at the time was reaching #18 on the Playboy list of top party schools.(Not undeserved!) Some of my friends were from a neighboring town to the school and one of them happened to have his folks away for the weekend. This of course meant ROAD TRIP and PARTY. (Sorry to let the cat out of the bag, but really it's time to tell your folks Dude...) We piled into one guy's girlfriend's minivan, got a full keg of some kind of beer (Given our financial resources and quantity-over-quality mindset, I'm inclined to say it was Busch.) and headed out to the highway as Judas Priest would say. It was a fun, if somewhat punishing time (I played the drums at one point...apparently.) and the weekend ended with us returning on Sunday rather beat. I wound up crashing at some point during the second quarter of the game thinking the Denver Broncos had it all locked up.

Saturday morning though, there was still some life left in me. We were all sitting around eating cereal, drinking beer (Balanced breakfasts are important kids!) and channel surfing. This being the 80's and Saturday morning, our expectations weren't that high. It was under this circumstance that we stumbled upon ""Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures".

What can I say? This was a time when Saturday morning cartoons tended to be like this or this, bland clunky edgeless affairs with all the charm of a prefab housing development. Instead, here was a positively manic surreal cartoon with jaunty, vaguely 60's-ish character designs. (If the style seemed familiar, I was probably half remembering the video for the Rolling Stone's cover of "Harlem Shuffle , which also involved Ralph Bakshi, John Kricfalusi and much of the same art staff.) The episode in question (Which we came into midway.) was "The League of Super Rodents" which revolved around arch villain "The Cow" (Brilliantly voice acted by Michael Pataki, who would later lend his talents to Ren and Stimpy spinoff character George Liquor.) challenging the League to a series of one on one fights. The action gets crazier and crazier as we go from a hamster trying to defeat The Cow with his "Scamper powers", to "Mole Mom" who fires little pink mole babies from her chest to all out warfare with a rodent version of "Sgt Fury and his Howling Commandos". Meanwhile Mighty Mouse is sitting out the fight, being actively vamped by the slinky "Madame Marsupial". Here's a trailer for the show in question:

This was pretty intense stuff for the time. About the closest precedent was Pee Wee's Playhouse, which probably helped pave the way. Thing is, the Pee Wee Herman character came from from a more adult background and the show was a softened, kid friendly version of the act. By contrast, I'd always remembered Mighty Mouse as a sort of square affair. Sure, there were some imaginative bits of cartoon surrealism here and there, but they mostly amounted to "Cats abuse the mice until their bland hero shows up and socks 'em." In the new cartoons, Mighty actually had some personality and edge to him and the whole proceedings had a whiff of danger to them. This was what was swimming through my hungover consciousness as I exclaimed "Holy s**t! What's going on with Mighty Mouse"?

So I was hooked. Unfortunately, the show only lasted a couple of seasons. Controversy arose over the episode "The Littlest Tramp" which had a scene where Mighty Mouse inhales a crushed flower, leading to media watchdog and all around friend to free expression Rev. Donald Wildmon to claim that cocaine was being snorted. So the show go yanked, but thankfully not before leaving a lasting mark. It wasn't just so much that "Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures" was edgy, but it was also an attempt to return to what made animated cartoons work. John Kricfalusi had cut his teeth working for just about every animation house in television, and was frustrated with a system that tended to marginalize the creative input of the artists in favor of bland, script driven kid-dismaying crap. He'd already had a taste of creative control during his stint on the 80's Jetsons revival, but obviously he wanted more. (I strongly recommend checking out his blog, which not only details his experiences in the animation industry, but is also a treasure trove of thoughts and advice about cartooning.) "Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures" represented a substantial move forward. It's hard to imagine not only "Ren & Stimpy" but "Dexter's Lab", "The Powerpuff Girls", "Spongebob Squarepants" and most of the other cartoons with personality that followed without it.

So after decades of unavailability the complete series is available on DVD. As trailblazers go, it still holds up surprisingly well. It is a bit uneven, although this is defined as much by it's highs as it's lows. Following an episode as wild and fully realized as "Night on Bald Pate", "Mouse From Another House" feels like a clunky throwback...even though it was still better than the vast majority of contemporary cartoons. Also, due to the increased costs of keeping more of the production in house, the show had to round out it's schedule with filler episodes featuring either classic Terrytoons edited into music videos, or rehashes of previous episodes. Still, in spite of overwhelming odds, the balance of wheat to chafe is quite high. (And the audio commentaries are great. The story of "Mighty's Benefit Plan" and why the episode features a dog that had been run over by a car is hilarious.)

Definitely recommended...even if you haven't been draining a keg all weekend.

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