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Drawn to animation

Adult viewers help cartoons make it big in prime time

By M.S. MasonArts and television writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 29, 1999


At a 10 p.m. screening of "The Prince of Egypt," the movie theater is packed with adults - there are next to no children present. At the same theater, "a bug's life" is considered a cool date movie.

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Somewhere along the line, cartoons grew up. There are enough adult-centered half-hour animated shows coming to TV this season and next fall to appeal to (almost) every taste and demographic. Some industry insiders wonder if the sitcom has come to the end of its formulaic rope. Others wonder if too many "toons" will spoil the pot. And a few hopeful types speculate on whether all this animation might just open the door for more serious work - those beautiful, sophisticated animated films at film festivals.

In fact, there's a lot of experimenting going on in 'Toontown, much of which bodes well for the whole genre.

This season "The PJs," "Home Movies," "Dilbert," "Futurama," and "Family Guy," and next season "Baby Blues" and "Downtowners," join standout favorites "The Simpsons" and "King of the Hill" on prime-time. Most of these are distinctive in style and intent, and though some have family audiences in mind, all are designed to appeal to adults, too. Even the handsomely stylized new "Batman Beyond" (Saturdays, WB) looks more appropriate for adults than kids.

The popular craving for complex cartoons may have started with Disney's "The Little Mermaid," which was one of the first animated feature films in recent times to appeal as much to adults as to children, with an excellent score and a bright, layered story. Animation certainly seems to be the place for musical comedy these days, at least in the movies.

When animators speak of adult-involvement with "toons," however, they like to recall the high wit of Chuck Jones and his all-American Bugs Bunny (1936), who began as a wise-aleck American answer to the growing fascism in Germany and Italy.

Cartoons with mature charisma weren't born yesterday. And now 'toons are everywhere on the small screen, too.

So ... what's up, doc? What's the appeal?

One thing seems clear - all the producers and filmmakers questioned point to Matt Groening's "The Simpsons" as the mother of all "new" cartoons for grown-ups on TV. Groening opened the doors for writers and animators alike.

The allure of animation for television writers seems obvious enough - they all say basically the same thing: "Your imagination has no bounds," says Larry Charles, the executive producer of "Dilbert," who along with strip creator Scott Adams is principal writer on the show. "You have no limitations - if you can imagine it, it can be realized. You have a much wider palette with which to play than most TV writing allows, and you are always seeking to expand the boundaries of the form."

"The writer has all the freedom in the world to follow his characters into outer space or the Bahamas," says Peter Ocko, who with Jeff Martin writes "Baby Blues," coming to the WB next fall. Based on the cartoon strip seen across the country, the show concerns the adventures of a young married couple and their new baby.

"We illustrate a thought or a concept with what we call a fantasy pop," Ocko says. "Like, we have a two-minute sequence at the beginning of one episode when [the main characters] break out of prison in imitation of a prison movie, exclaiming, 'We're free, We're free!... Gee it's nice to get out of the house.' It's great to get inside the characters' heads."

Such flights of the imagination appeal to the child-like in us. Sometimes the appeal is to the childish, as in shows like the intermittently clever, but ever sophomoric "South Park." Better programs with a little substance, such as "King of the Hill," "Dr. Katz," and the new charmers like "Home Movies," "Dilbert," and "The PJs," offer us the opportunity to absolutely abandon, let alone "willingly suspend" our disbelief. Unconstrained by the usual formulas, bigger issues can be investigated in 'toons - or satirized, depending on the type of show.

"The Simpsons" can go after environmental issues, and "King of the Hill" can tackle women's liberation without seeming either shallow or too politically correct.