Toon Times: Spielberg did what?

    Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Studios.

    FromRugratstoThe Simpsons, at some point in each of our lives we’ve devoted an inordinate amount of time to watching cartoons. Whether you have been depriving your inner child of animation for who knows how long, or you’re an active Disney/Nickelodeon/Comic Strip-phile like I am, this is your inside look into what you didn’t (or maybe what you did) already know about animation. Enjoy your free issue of the Toon Times.

    Outside of the Walt Disney Company, it’s easy to forget some of the greater animated films that have existed in the past few decades. I have lost count of how many times I’ve seen the look of utter confusion in the faces of both friends and strangers when they discover Anastasia is not a Disney Princess or The Land Before Time was actually made by Universal Studios.

    Which brings us to Steven Spielberg. You may know him as the director of Jaws, Indiana Jones, Schindler’s List, and countless other movies that have affected film history for the better (and sometimes for the worse. A.I. Artificial Intelligence, am I right?). But did you know Spielberg brought us some of the world’s most treasured cartoons?

    Pinky, are you pondering what I’m pondering? Narf!

    Pinky and the Brain began as a short skit on the cartoon Animaniacs about siblings Yakko, Wakko and Dot Warner, a group of three, well, we never actually learn what they are. But they’re cute.

    Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Studios.

    In the same year Spielberg executive produced Animaniacs, he released Schindler’s List, which ranks among the most celebrated films of his career. Yet somehow, in the 15 years that have passed since Animaniacs ended and the 13 years since Pinky and the Brain followed suit, we’ve focused on the Spielberg films and forgotten all about the mice in their lab and the Animaniacs in their water tower.

    Speaking for myself and a few of my acquaintances, it’s true these cartoons have lived on in the hearts of some. Whether intrinsically with our “Good Ideas and Bad Ideas” or through our AP US History goal of mastering the states and their capitals, in some ways these shows have sustained themselves.

    The Land Before Jurassic Park

    But even more than his television shows, Spielberg was part of creating some of the most treasured feature animations we never realized he produced. Does The Land Before Time ring any bells? The year was 1988 — Spielberg was a year away from releasing Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade — when he made a little movie about dinosaurs that ended up becoming a children’s classic.

    More than two decades later, there are 13 Land Before Time series installments. Who knew, right? Even I, a very enthusiastic Cera the Triceratops impersonator (as a toddler, mind you), haven’t seen past the seventh film. Of course, in my defense, by the time the eighth film came out, I was already in my pre-pubescent “I love Harry Potter more than anything in the world” phase.

    The Land Before Time may have had an even greater effect than we realize, extending its roots to the live-action industry. Is it really a coincidence that five years after The Land Before Time was released, Spielberg was putting together Jurassic Park? Perhaps this fascination with dinosaurs was borne of a childhood love for playing with plastic prehistoric reptiles, but the correlation between film projects still raises a quizzical brow.

    Tiny, Toony and a Little Looney

    The question I found myself asking, and I assume may have struck you at some point, is why would Spielberg, one of the great directors of our time, produce so many animated shows and films?

    Looking back before any of the WB cartoons, there is one notch in the belt of the visionary director and producer that defines all his future endeavors: Tiny Toon Adventures.

    Photo courtesy of ThrasherDave on Flickr, licensed under the Creative Commons.

    Spielberg, born in 1946, entered a world already in the middle of the Golden Looney Tunes era. As the daughter of a Bugs and Daffy Duck fanatic myself, I’m no stranger to the effect that these cartoons had on the baby boomer generation. To this day, my dad will still make it a point to record Looney Tunes marathons when they appear at random on cable television. And because of him I’m personally acquainted with the likes of Elmer Fudd’s “Kill the Wabbit” and my dad’s personal favorite “Racketeer Rabbit.”

    When Spielberg entered in on a deal with Warner Bros. to aid in the creation of a new cartoon, he was eager to return to these glory days of animation. And that’s what he did in Tiny Toons with younger versions of main characters from the classic Mel Blanc cartoons.

    This theme carried over from an earlier production, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, a film that set a new standard for the combination of live-action and cartooning. Spielberg and director Robert Zemeckis (known primarily as the director of the Back to the Future trilogy) incorporated characters brimming with Acme-inspired sensibilities that made them the perfect precursor to the Tiny Toons franchise.

    An American Tale

    Every Saturday, I wake up and turn on cartoons. Is this just a product of serious nostalgia? Maybe. But there must be something more.

    Spielberg recognized it when he took on his work with Warner Bros. He understood the value of cartoons not only in the lives of children, but in the hearts of all people. At the heart of animation is the desire to reconnect with the idealism of our youth.

    Whether it be through a tale of a mouse named Fievel being reunited with his family after a perilous journey to America (An American Tail), a ghost boy’s journey to find true friendship (Casper), two mice trying to get out of laboratory testing and find lives in the real world, albeit for nefarious reasons as well (Pinky and the Brain), what Spielberg noticed several decades ago is something we all need to see now: the idealism of our childhood really is the window to a beautiful life. And lest we forget that he helped bring cartoons to us, we must at least promise to remember animation for itself.


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