Digital Polyphony

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Liquid Nostalgia #24

Tiny Toon Adventures: A Look Back

 

In the early 1990s, television animation was pretty much dominated by the Saturday morning cartoons and the daily after-school cartoons by Disney. Well, there was that fairly new and hip little prime-time show too, but that's unfair to compare. Eventually I started to come home after school and suddenly there were these commercials advertising new and fresh animated show. Now the biggest new one at the time was Batman: The Animated Series. But the one I remember a little more specifically was Tiny Toon Adventures.

I was already a huge fan of the Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies shorts. Who wasn't (or who still isn't for that matter)? Networks and eventually cable played those regularly and in block specials at that, making for daily dose of all things Looney. Yet, all those were old no matter how Warner Brothers Animation repackaged it. Occasionally they threw in some newer stuff, such as the transition scenes done for Quackbusters and the like, but the meat of it all was still the same shorts that were produced decades prior. They were timeless, sure, and always will be. But they weren't exactly "fresh" either, especially if, like me, you had seen some of the same ones repeatedly for years.

That type of thinking is what got Warner Brothers to really rekindle their animation devision with television as its new outlet. Now this was that time when I did nothing but watch cartoons, if you've read any of these past articles you know I've covered quite a bit from this era (often called the new renaissance for animation as a whole as Disney features were becoming relevant once more) and that my fondness towards those Disney afternoon shows knows no  bounds. Deep down, though, I always, always, always preferred the Looney Tunes gang.

Then BAM! Tiny Toon Adventures shows up. Not just the new, homaged inspirations they're known for, but all my old friends like Bugs, Daffy and Elmer Fudd were hanging around the Acme University campus as well. I'll admit, at the time, I was all about the old characters over the new, but now in hindsight, I realize just how great of a cast of wonderful characters the Tiny Toons were. Buster and his strong connection to Bugs probably made him the most popular, though I was always a fan of Plucky due to his mentor being Daffy and Daffy, well, my favorite. It had a ton of characters all together and for everyone. In fact I've read some consider Babs Bunny, she's the pink rabbit obviously (no relation to Buster), about the only well-rounded, strong female animated character in the history of the Warner Brothers Animation.  The more I sit and think about it, the more I think they might be right.

By design, though, Tiny Toon Adventures wasn't meant to last. The WB Animation Department was always looking to do something new and fresh and evolve as a company, but much of what they learned and their particular style and quality transferred to future great shows. Its impact at the time, and the re-emergence of a viable animation division for Warner Brothers, is still felt to this day.


 

 A Brief History of Tiny Toon Adventures

-In 1980 Warner Brothers re-opened its animation devision following a few years of testing the waters with animation specials spearheaded by Chuck Jones. The Cartoon division had been closed for nearly a decade by that time, however new funds and dedication brought a handful of animated film specials and shorts. 

-Noticing the rise in popularity of Disney's new television devision, Warner Brothers began looking to their own TV division in 1989. Steven Spielberg, who had recently parted ways with legendary animator Don Bluth after producing a few of his films (An American Tail and The Land Before Time) was looking to get into television animation himself. The new animation department partnered with Spielberg to begin production and development of new Warner Brothers cartoons for television.

 -The head of this new devision, Tom Ruegger (formerly from Hanna-Barbera, in fact much of the new WB Animation division were former Hanna staff) spearheaded much of the creative process. The first animated show that went into development was Tiny Toon Adventures, a purposeful homage to the classic Merrie Melodies shorts. Ruegger and his partners (for Tiny Toons, as it would often be referred to as, Sherrie Stoner and Paul Dini but others over the years) would create and development some of the most successful shows during the "second renaissance" of American animation, such as Animaniacs and Batman The Animated Series, thanks to the likes of Disney's television and theatrical films and Warner Brothers putting strong emphasis in progressing television animation. 

-The very first episode was aired in prime-time on CBS, September 14, 1990. It would run syndicated for two seasons before it would be picked up by Fox for their new Fox Kids animation block for its final season. A total of 98 Episodes were created alongside two specials.  

-In 1992, a direct to video movie was released entitled Tiny Toon Adventures: How I Spent my Vacation, later recut for television. Other direct to video feature length released were Spring Break Special, Night Ghoulery and It's a Wonderful Tiny Toons Christmas Special. Short lived spinoffs included The Plucky Duck Show and a cross-show spinoff with Animaniacs entitled Pinky, Elmyra and the Brain.

Tiny Toon Adventures won two Daytime Emmys for Outstanding Animated Program, 1991 and 1993 and nominated in 1992 for the same and won four for its music and one for its writing. The show was nominated for a total of 9 Emmys in its three years.


 

Top 10 Reasons Why Tiny Toon Adventures Rocked

 It's hard to just nail down ten things to say "this is what makes this great" for anything is impossible, but here are ten things that, for me, really nailed it and hit it out of the park.



10: No Tiny Toons means No Animaniacs

In other words, the little Tiny Toons experiment showed Warner Brothers that animation was big and could be quite lucrative if done right. Well, they did it right, and by testing it all out with Tiny Toon Adventures first, it paved the way for the division to continue on with not just Animaniacs, but Batman, Freakazoid and Pinky in the Brain amongst others. It also brought in competition against Disney which really dominated the after school market.

Make no mistake, Animaniacs was the superior show, but much of its style and sensibilities were founded in Tiny Toon Adventures before, eventually, becoming polished and refined. Plus, Tiny Toons was a success, and by being successful many doors were opened with WB Animation.


9: The Music

In each of the three seasons, Tiny Toon Adventures received Emmy nominations for its music, winning all three. Composers and arrangers William Ross, Steven Bramson and Mark Watters all received an Emmy for their efforts, all three nominated and winning several Emmy's over their careers. Their songs were catchy, relevant, and full of life. On top of this, and I wish I knew the story behind it all, Tiny Toon Adventures also had a few "music video" segments with songs from They Might Be Giants, one of those great 90s bands that people seem to only remember when someone finally brings them up. Catchy, and funny and fantastic with the Plucky Duck Particle Man Video probably being my personal favorite (and gorgeously animated, I might add).


8: The Animation Quality

WB Animation knew that if they were going to put a dent into the Disney Television lineup, they had to produce something with just as much production value. A higher budget, double the amount of animation cells used and far more keyframes and fluidity gave a great sense of energy and liveliness to the world of Tiny Toons (and all WB Animation products from that point on).

Animated shows during the 70s and 80s were pretty standard with a lot of standing around with basic backgrounds and simple angles, mouths moving and long shots. Tiny Toons, though, whisked you away with dynamic animation that moved and flowed and felt alive.

This ties into... 


7: Very Unique at the Time

Not merely unique from its animation style, Tiny Toon Adventures was the first animated show that I recall that really broke away from the norm in how it did comedy as well. Disney was out there making great television programs based on their franchise characters, Tiny Toon Adventures took in terms of Looney Tunes and with it that irreverent, personality-driven style. It was less about story and more about "moments" with characters, music and excitement not to mention a strong focus on witty dialogue and memorable banter.

It moved at a breakneck pace too. One episode will start you at Acme University, throw you over to a house or two, then whisk you away to outer space. It felt boundless and endless and never restricted itself...cartoons have no bounds, afterall.


5: Variety

There were no boundaries with the Tiny Toons there at Acme University. In fact, the complete off-the-wall approach allowed them to pretty much do what they want, when they wanted and throw everything at us including the kitchen sink. 

Many of the shows at the time had set boundaries and rules. They were defined by those rules whereas the likes of Tiny Toon Adventures were defined by not having rules. Because of this, you never knew what to expect and that little sense of mystery and unpredictability kept you tuning in every time to see who would say what, go where and do something we haven't seen before.


4: Cameos

Sure, I and everyone else loved those new characters, but honestly, it's hard to not watch the likes of Buster, Plucky and Hampton and not just be reminded how great Bugs, Daffy and Porky were. Nearly all the characters in Tiny Toon Adventures are homages to the classic Looney Tunes, and the classics were just that much better the more we watched this new crop of kids.

But thankfully, from the very first episode even, we had the best of both worlds. Some of the best animated characters were now reborn in this new series. Bugs, Daffy and company really had nothing new going on at the time - no movies, shorts etc... - and everything that was with them were the same old Merrie Melodies we've all known. Now here they are and seeing them all in a new light shows both a show that loves those classic cartoons as much as we do, and respectfully acknowledges its roots while doing so.


3: Self Awareness

If there's one major defining thing that I noticed even when Tiny Toon Adventures first aired and I was only about ten or eleven at the time, it was it knew it was a cartoon. It didn't try to paint a fantasy realm with some sort of mythology and tell linear, three-act stories. It would point fun at itself just as much as it would to anything and break the fourth wall on more than one occasion as characters will talk to and interact directly with the audience. It's like those moments in the old Looney Tunes when Bugs would look at the camera and say "he don't know me very well, do he?" 

Yet another example of its uniqueness at the time, and here done to the extreme for some memorable laughs.


2: Familiar yet Different Part 1:  The Characters

I can only imagine the absolute fun the animation staff at Warner Brothers had in creating one of the best casts of cartoon characters ever. They had the templates from the older Looney Tunes gang and, from there, just ran with it and implemented some purely original characters all their own (such as the classic Max and Elmyra). 

It's that rooted history with the characters and how they seem so familiar, yet are distinctly different enough to be entirely their own. It ties all this in to the old guard alongside it, so in a way you have a double-cast as those cameos I mentioned were actually pretty often throughout the series run. But the new cast was every bit as well-imagined and distinguished and memorable as the classics they were based on.


1: Familiar yet Different Part 2: The Style

I think the single biggest thing that made Tiny Toon Adventures what it was is the style of it both visually and how it approaches comedy. I already mentioned above that, at the time, there wasn't quite anything like it, as well as the comedic style and energy were transferred to future WB Animation shows, but let's really look at why it was so appealing:

The entire point of Tiny Toon Adventures was to re-capture the style of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies classics and draw from the inspirational directing by Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng and countless others. By making the setting to a University and a new generation of similar-yet-different, young toons being taught how to be funny was a perfect way to re-establish that style which was pretty dormant for decades outside of some re-packaged specials that might have a little new footage if we're lucky.

The "new toons" (or is that "tunes") are a bit of a metaphor to the re-established creative people at WB Animation. The likes of the old toons teaching and re-introducing their comedic style to the new crop is paralleled to the classic directors and producers teaching the new crop of directors and re-introducing it all to us, the audience. 
 

 

It's kind of sad that, now, the cycle has started all over. Now it's the likes of Tiny Toon Adventures, Animaniacs and Freakazoid that we look to as "classics" because, once again, that style and distinctly western animated comedy sensibility is pretty dead again.  I understand that I'm an adult now, so naturally I'm only casually aware of what kids today have available to them, but I do know this particular style and take on animation is really nowhere to be seen. There might be shows that take some elements, but not to this level of quality since the hey-day of Warner Brothers animation - both the eras of 1930-60s under the Warner Brothers Cartoons/Leon Schlesenger Productions and the early 1990s with Warner Brothers Animation finding such creative success once more.

Maybe that's kind of the issue. There's no major studio like that really pumping money into delivering that type of stuff that I know of and that certainly has such a history like Disney and Warners to draw from. Supposedly, Warner Bros Animation is teaming up with Cartoon Network to do a new show entitled The Looney Tunes Show for later this year (2010). I think we'll keep that as a "wait and see" at this point. The stylized way they did it looks ok, but I wonder if the animation quality is going to be at the level they deserve or if it will just stay as that cheap-looking, flash-animation quality most shows go for these days.

Well, I digress. It's not as though having something new and different takes away from the great things that are already great. You know, like how some claim putting Star Wars in 3D will ruin the film. No it won't, Star Wars will always be Star Wars, The Looney Tunes will always be the Looney Tunes and Tiny Toons will always be those group of crazy character that are a strong part of the melange of entertainment that made up my childhood.

The WB Animation Staff in 1990

PS: Did you know Tom Ruegger himself (he's there in the center next to Sylvester) has a blog? It's fantastic and full of great sketches, images, memories and photos like this one. Check it out here.

 

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