Drawn to animation

Adult viewers help cartoons make it big in prime time

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.

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.

"The sitcom format has reached a dead end," Mr. Charles says. "It needs to be reinvigorated to some degree. The audience knows all the formulas and clichs. I feel people are abandoning the sitcom - that may account for the success of 'Ally McBeal,' or 'South Park,' or 'Animal Planet.' "

Of course, the news about cartoons is not all good.

"Family Guy," like "South Park," is nasty without being particularly amusing, cynical without being perceptive, and ugly as sin: Unlike the singular cutout drawings of "South Park," those on "Family Guy" are as banal as old socks. It's a kind of "Married With Children" in which the most depraved individual of all is the psychotic baby, Stewie, who is always plotting the demise of his mother.

Fortunately, there are plenty of others to choose from, shows capable of pushing the boundaries of popular animation rather than merely of taste.

Next to Groening's promising new satirical "Futurama," with its 3-D space, 20th-century hero in a 30th century world, kleptomaniacal robot, and Cyclops alien, the best news to hit the commercial-animation scene is Eddie Murphy's bright, innovative "The PJs." Before any critic even had the opportunity to see it, "The PJs" (short for the "The Projects") was slammed by controversy. Some critics, including filmmaker Spike Lee, protested the stereotyping of African-Americans that the subject matter seems to imply.

Producer Larry Wilmore comments, "When you do satire, you can't take things out of context. What the [critics] failed to appreciate is that the building makes up a kind of extended family. The super [voiced by Murphy] has a lot of heart. He tries to do the right thing. Then he gets in his own way and falls over himself. But that is comedy."

The animation chosen for "The PJs," called "foamation," is one step beyond "claymation," for which the Will Vinton studio is justly famous. It's the same studio that brought us those terrific California raisin commercials several years back. Figures are made of all the characters with stick-on, changeable features and complex armatures inside that make them posable - and very expressive. The 3-D effect is stunning.

Mr. Vinton says, "Eddie [Murphy] was intimately familiar with the projects-like setting. He had lots of great characters from his own experience to call up. You find those qualities that are absolutely universal in these characters, but there are those like Mrs. Avery and the little fat kid, Juicy, who certainly came out of Eddie's own life. You can see [the show] is very moral." "The PJs" has already done well in the ratings.

The ace cast and subtle humor of "Dilbert" are likely to make it a sure thing. The style, like "The Simpsons," is cell animation - a drawing is made on a transparent cell then colored in, laid over a background, and photographed, one cell at a time. This time-honored form is only as expressive as the drawings designed for it. And "Dilbert" is delightfully expressive.

"[We're] interested in commenting on the society we live in, [workers] in a technological society and how they negotiate that, and what is the price that they have to pay," says "Dilbert" producer Charles. What are the advantages? To look at that which we all face and to be able to be satirical and funny and thoughtful at the same time is a great opportunity."

As universal as "Dilbert" may prove, "Home Movies" may be the most endearing of all the new shows. Created by the same folks who make "Dr. Katz," the show stars comedian Paula Poundstone as a divorced mom with an infant and a bright little boy, voiced by Brandon Small. The child makes home movies about cops who have gone bad.

Unpretentious and charming, the whole show is ad-libbed by the actors holding an outline. Once the "script" is recorded, the drawings are created to suit the actors' free-form dialogue and scanned into the computer. The minimalist drawings are deliberately naive, but wildly dynamic.

Grown-up animation is sometimes smart and sometimes just smart aleck. But the door to animation as a prime-time art form is now wide open. Writers, actors, and animators have a new freedom, and the viewing public has new choices.

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