THE NEW YORKER MAGAZINE – June 16, 1997
The Toons take over.
ARE YOU BY ANY CHANCE hoping that the millennium will usher in some sort of cleansing cultural flood tide—a next big thing that’s not just a half-ironic recycling of a previous big thing, like miniskirts or Corin-thian columns? Well, it may have hap-pened already. The new era, which is about to ripen into its golden age, was born eight and a half years ago. It was then, over a brief period in 1988 and 1989, that “Who Framed Roger Rab-bit?” posited a world cohabited by hu-man beings and cartoon characters, “The Little Mermaid” inaugurated a new Disney animation hegemony, and—the key event—”The Simpsons” went on the air.
What will be the big musical of 1997? “Hercules,” the Disney cartoon that opens in New York this weekend. What is the only successful new televi-sion series of the year so far? “King of the Hill,” a cartoon. What is the only genre of TV program to which Steven Spielberg attaches his name? Car-toon shows—four of them, including “Freakazoid” and “Pinky and the Brain.” Which is the most successful new cable channel? The Cartoon Network. What cable network is insanely profitable? Nickelodeon, thanks partly to its car-toon shows “Ren & Stimpy” and “Rug-rats.” Who are the most deeply resonant, compellingly humane people on the tube? Cartoon characters.
There are now entire genres and char-acter types that audiences will whole-heartedly embrace only in cartoon form. The live-action movie musical has been a fading form since the time of “Mary Poppins,” but put old-fashioned tunes and drippy sentiment in the mouths of animated lions and princesses and toy cowboys, and audiences will buy them (plus all licensed gewgaws). Even small children aren’t innocent enough nowa-days to put up with actual human be-ings who profess love, perform heroic deeds, and then break into song about it. But animated characters can still plausibly portray purity and nobility. Cartoons—and, pretty much, only car-toons—allow us our corn.
Satire, too, has been rather suddenly yet thoroughly colonized by the car-toons. There’s “Duckman” (USA Net-work), “Dr. Katz, Professional Thera-pist” (Comedy Central), and “Beavis and Butt-head” and “Daria” (MTV). Not only is “The Simpsons” smarter, sharper, and more allusive than any other show on television; it’s also TV’s oasis of commedia dell’arte (a flesh-and-blood Homer Simpson would be bathetically repellent), and of believable warmth as well.
If cartoons on TV have become the form in which we permit ourselves to enjoy poignancy and sass and human weirdness, in movies the distinction between cartoons and live action is blurry, on the way to moot. Digitally animated special effects transmute re-ality into cartoons and cartoons into reality. In Spielberg’s new megahit, “The Lost World: Jurassic Park,” the animated dinosaurs seem in every way more genuine and less mechanical than the people. In “The Fifth Ele-ment,” Bruce Willis zooms through a real-looking twenty-third-century New York designed by the legendary French cartoonist Jean (Moebius) Giraud. The fourth in the current series of Batman movies will open against “Her-cules” next week. A live-action “George of the Jungle” is to come out next month; two different “Casper” movies are on the way; and Philip Kaufman, who made “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” is developing a movie about the Marvel Comics character Sub-Mariner.
It cannot be coincidental that mil-lions of people now achieve their most intimate and satisfying human connec-tions electronically, by going on-line be-hind cartoony noms de net and ex-changing pixels with other, uh, char-acters. Flirting with someone in an In-ternet chat room, making love to Jessica Rabbit—what’s the difference? The plot of “Roger Rabbit.” remember, concerned a development scheme by a money-mad evil genius to destroy the cartoon char-acters and their funky L.A. quarter, and replace them with human beings: jus-tice triumphs, Toontown survives. We are now living in a sequel, “Toontown Strikes Back,” in which the animated creatures (thanks to certain money-mad L.A. geniuses) have left their old ghetto and moved en masse into our human neighborhoods.
Welcome, Toons! A recent “Simp-sons” episode lampooned, with perfect contempt, various live-action TV gen-res. Its parody of a sitcom included, of course, plenty of robotically hysterical canned laughter. It was a joke that only an animated show could do per-fectly, and it highlighted another virtue of “The Simpsons”: almost alone among TV comedies, it doesn’t have a laugh track. “King of the Hill,” which follows it on Sunday nights, doesn’t have one, either. If we find these shows funny, we have the luxury of grinning or chuckling or guffawing without elec-tronic encouragement—by ourselves, at home, in real life. Thanks to cartoons, we can respond like human beings.