Suspended Animation

Jonesing for a Scooby snack? Still waiting for Underdog to save the day? Nostalgia victims beware: It's hard to revisit the cartoons of one's youth

Tom Brokaw's best-selling The Greatest Generation lionizes everyone who fought World War II and then came home and made millions of babies. Forty years down the road, how will we be remembered--The Snottiest Generation? Charming and subversively smart though it is, Saturday Morning Fever ultimately feels like an admission of defeat.


After a down period in the '80s when merchandising and cartoons became interchangeable, today's Saturday morning fare is a lot better than what I grew up ingesting. I visited this manic world recently, and covered the animated waterfront as widely as possible before exhaustion set in. (For the full Method treatment, I considered obtaining some Count Chocula, but since my parents never let me have anything sweeter than King Vitamin, I stuck with Shredded Wheat.) My discovery: There's a lot of good stuff on these days--smart, funny, witty cartoons that must make kids feel that they're onto something adults aren't allowed to enjoy.

Everybody was Hong Kong fighting: Feasting on irony with a Hanna-Barbera lunch box
Everybody was Hong Kong fighting: Feasting on irony with a Hanna-Barbera lunch box

The major players here, as everywhere, are Fox and Disney. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Fox is sharper, with Ren & Stimpy exerting a major influence on shows like Mad Jack the Pirate, which sells hipster surrealism that is equally accessible to young and old. (On a recent episode, Death appeared as a briefcase-toting Sammy Davis Jr.) My new favorite show, Secret Files of the Spy Dogs, is a clever parody that has the seemingly immortal Adam West voicing the part of a spy master and Mickey Dolenz as two of the dogs. On the subject of West, the new animated Batman trounces clunky old Marvel cartoons (Thor, Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Sub-Mariner) with its stylish understatement. And every so often, the show tosses in a literary allusion for older viewers. The network's no-holds-barred aesthetic, elsewhere a source of lowbrow sensationalism, serves kids perfectly here.

Disney, in comparison, keenly plays to family values while cross-promoting its film and video franchises, with The Adventures of Winnie the Pooh refusing to let the poor old bear lie down and 101 Dalmatians plodding on as a remake of a remake. Still, there's Doug (soon to be a motion picture, as commercials inform kids every five minutes), which gently warps Archie Andrews into a strange universe of blue people and juvenile mad scientists while also telling some home truths about seventh-grade hardships.

In the end, an adult viewer leaves Saturday morning worn out by the pace and volume of the commercials, but more than a little jealous of the bounty kids enjoy today. It's hard to guess what accounts for this: deregulation, market forces, or merely some lucky balance between redeeming social content (an aim the Burkes rightly scorn) and children's natural aesthetic anarchism? Whatever the case, it's difficult to avoid a sense of loss here. I don't particularly want the mass-media past I have; I want this one.

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