I love cartoons. It may be counterintuitive, but I take them seriously. Just this past weekend, I was explaining to my girlfriend how Aladdin used to be my favorite Disney film when I was a lad, but these days I understand and resent the unfortunate precedent it set for the rampant, A.D.H.D.-addled pop culture references that are now par for the course in today’s animated fare (excluding, Cars be damned, the basically unimpeachable Pixar). Does this make me a joyless asshole? Maybe. But I’m not alone in my appreciation (overanalysis?) of animation -- there are blogs that live and breathe animation1; plenty of people who take the art form seriously and don’t think of it as kid stuff. Seriously, there are dozens of us.
And we’re in the right. I don’t need to explain to a reader of Network Awesome Magazine that animated film and cartoons have a rich and varied history, or how they're multifaceted, or how they're enjoyable for all ages, etc. Japan has always got that right -- anime rules the roost over there. But somewhere along the line, we lost the plot and decided it was just for the wee ones and immature Fruit Brute-chomping stoners (we’ve since started to correct this... maybe), but animation started out way back in 1908 without any particular audience in mind. For god’s sake, as much as I hate citing the Academy Awards as any sort of standard bearer, the Academy was so stunned by Snow White and the Seven Dwarves that they presented Walt Disney with an Honorary Award.
Though you wouldn’t think it from the number of times I’ve been condescendingly asked “That’s a cartoon, right?” upon a particular recommendation, cartoons have been a dominant cultural force for a long time, and remain so. The Simpsons, South Park, and even Family Guy are among the most popular and influential television shows of all time. Folks like Brad Bird, Hayao Miyazaki, Henry Selick, and Sylvain Chomet are making animated movies that can stand toe to toe with classic live action and move audiences just as much, if not more. Cartoon Network and its demon spawn Adult Swim have transcended children’s entertainment and stoner fare, respectively, to become two of the most reliable sources for well-crafted, inventive, and hilarious entertainment. Even the recent return of Mike Judge’s sublimely-stupid-but-actually-smart Beavis and Butthead-inspired multiple think pieces 2 3 4 .
In short, to those who follow this sort of thing, animation is complicated. It invites a lot of questions -- is it for everyone? Is it for kids? Is it high art? Is it just stupid? And more often than not, the cartoons that are worth watching answer those questions with more questions -- marvel, for example, at the talented voice cast and animators who breathed life into what was one of the most vital and popular cartoons of its time -- Klasky-Csupo’s Rugrats -- but may only be remembered nostalgically (by the 99.9% of my generation that doesn’t write thousand word essays on the cultural significance on cartoons every week) as one of many interchangeable and childish Nicktoons. Will it ever be held up and regarded with the praise and significance it deserves? To my generation and our parents, it’s natural to think of animation as kid stuff. From the far out Sesame Street bumpers to the wacky old Looney Tunes they still showed on TV in those days (Can you believe this generation is growing up without those?) to Spongebob Squarepants (my favorite show for many years), the majority of television I watched until I was at least thirteen years old was probably animated.
It is for all these reasons that it’s nice to watch a cartoon like Danger Mouse. It is just right. There’s no debating the intended audience here; this is satisfying diversion for anyone who would like to be diverted. It’s devoid of pretension but not stupid and pandering. It’s exactly the sort of simple, reliable fare that kids enjoyed (and parents could enjoy with them, without any fear of brain damage) on Saturday mornings in my day, before we grew up and either denounced it, remembered it fondly as kid stuff, or became nerds like me. Ten minute episodes, goofy villains, goofy heroes, goofy bosses, predictable plots, slapstick -- something like this would be right at home in a lineup with Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends. I remember watching dozens of shows like this religiously. You’ve got your hero, your sidekick, your stable of baddies, and you’re good to go. For relaxing times, make it Danger Mouse time.
Danger Mouse was created and produced by Brian Cosgrove and Mark Hall of Cosgrove/Hall Films, chums from the Manchester College of Art and Design who are probably best remembered for their award-winning stop motion adaptation of The Wind in the Willows and its subsequent series. Danger Mouse, the most successful of their many cartoon series, ran from 1981 to 1992 and became massively successful in its home country (where it is considered one of the best shows of all time5) and abroad in syndication. The sarcastically narrated show follows the adventures of the titular one-eyed hero and his bumbling hamster sidekick Penfold as they save the world again and again from the plans of evil frog Baron Silas Greenback.
While it does hit the standard cartoon pleasure centers, the show is far from dumb. There’s a lot to appreciate here. Fans cite Danger Mouse’s sense of humor as particularly sophisticated, and it’s hard to argue with that (although it is worth noting that anything with a British accent sounds sophisticated by default). It’s not exactly Monty Python, but is usually considered one of the wittiest shows of its kind, and it is equally steeped in British culture -- from DM’s address (a mailbox near Sherlock Holmes’ 221B Baker Street) to the playful parodying of Danger Man and James Bond. The animation is workmanlike, but the addition of stylistic flourishes like onscreen bold and colorful block letter onomatopoeia distinguishes it as well. The phenomenal voice-over work was recorded by a cast that includes British legends Sir David Jason and Terry Scott.
Cartoons are complicated. They’re for kids, they’re for adults, they’re all over the place. Looney Tunes can be enjoyed without keeping an eye and ear on the deft styles of masters like Chuck Jones, Tex Avery, and Mel Blanc, but why should they be? They were the gifted conductors of their own symphonies, silly though they may be. If a Looney Tune is a symphony, an episode of Danger Mouse is a perfect pop song; one that can and should be enjoyed on its own terms. When someone condescendingly asks, “That’s a cartoon, right?” sometimes it just feels good to proudly say “Yes!”