Saturday Mornings: Cartoon Babies
During my childhood, there was a strange trend going on. As the beginning of the era of cartoons trying to become more edgy and cool, there was a trending new format of the "babyfication" of older cartoon characters! Shows were being rebooted all the time with a new look or new characters, but now we were getting cartoons where the entire cast were de-aged, becoming children. We can assume that this was to speak more directly to a younger audience, so they could better identify with the cast. However, instead it often just oversimplified characters that were once complex and it drastically dumbed down some of the humor. In a couple of cases, this made for a more imaginative approach, for others… not so much.
Tom & Jerry Kids – I was not a great fan of Tom & Jerry. I remember watching them mostly at Mr. Gatti’s Pizza, as it was usually the only cartoon that they would play on their big screen in the kid’s dining room. I always felt it was a dated cartoon, and I instead preferred the antics of Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner for good physical comedy. Then out of nowhere in the fall of 1990, kicking off the morning on Fox Kids block of shows, Tom & Jerry Kids debuted. Faithful to the original, the mouse and kitten were still silent characters, getting involved in all manner of wacky hijinks. The cartoon was still produced by Hanna-Barbera, at least in part, so it still felt like a faithful adaptation with a modernized look to appeal to the younger audiences. There were other segments interspersed that were based on other classic characters like the bulldog, Spike, and good old Droopy, but now they were taking care of their own sons, Tyke and Dripple respectively. After 4 seasons in 1994, the show was cancelled by FOX but began airing as reruns one year later on Cartoon Network. With two silent protagonists, they had to double down on the rest of the voice cast, so they brought in some of the best. Don Messick and Frank Welker had come over to voice many numerous characters, they had Phil Harman guest star a few times, and even Buster Bunny’s voice actor Charlie Adler voiced Dripple!
A Pup Named Scooby-Doo – Scooby-Doo was a mega franchise that had infinite possibilities. When A Pup Named Scooby-Doo premiered on September 10th, 1988, it was actually the eighth incarnation of the show since the original show, Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! hit the airwaves in 1969. Now depicting the central cast as elementary-aged children, the main concept remained the same. However, the show was a bit more wacky and satirical in nature, with zanier monsters than ever before. Even with the changes, it felt as if this cartoon felt loving in its mockery and flattering in its parodies. APNSD was the final television series in the franchise in which Don Messick voiced Scooby-Doo before his death in 1997. Casey Kasem was also back to voice Shaggy, which helped the show feel comfortable and familiar. It airied for four seasons on ABC as well as during the syndicated block The Funtastic World of Hanna-Barbera until August 17, 1991. Today, there are dozens of modern-day teen horror shows that owe their formula and their success to Scooby-Doo. The premise of young adults hunting down monsters and solving supernatural-based mysteries; it’s a recipe for fun! APNSC had elements of this horror-type genre but played down to a level that was more fanciful, thus remaining family friendly and colorful while still upholding moments of suspense.
The Flintstone Kids – Hanna-Barbera is certainly going to be a repeat offender for these ‘babified’ shows. They were the animation studio that recycled their assets the most, surpassing Looney Tunes in trying to bring their shows back to relevance over and over again. Yet, it was this cartoon that was the first one that made me sit-up as a child and ask, Why are they making this? The Flintstones was still a beloved show at the time and it did feel dated, but it was a show about prehistory so I felt like it worked on both levels. Just like the other cartoons on this list, we have juvenile versions of the original cast, dealing with their childhood and going on new adventures. It debuted on September 6th of 1986 and ran for 2 years on ABC The Funtastic World of Hanna-Barbera block of shows. I felt like there was a lot of love in the show, and the animation was cute enough, but I felt it was a flat idea that may have been constrained by the nostalgia of the original and the limitations of the setting. Here again, we have another All-Star voice cast, with Charlie Adler and Frank Welker back again, Julie McWhirter who was back again to voice Betty Rubble from The Jetsons Meet the Flintstones, and even Mel Blanc returned to voice both Dino and Captain Caveman! In the end, I was not a huge fan but I would certainly watch it if nothing else was on at the time, but I would probably sit through another TMNT repeat before I would see what trouble a baby Fred Flintstone would get into this week.
Pink Panther and Sons – Hanna-Barberra is back again, bringing along with them a show that originally airing on NBC from 1984 to 1985, then moved to ABC in 1986. I remember being very confused when this came out, wondering what it was that I was seeing. The show starred Pink Panther’s two sons, Pinky the pre-teen, and Panky the toddler. They would hang out with their group of friends, the Rainbow Panthers crew, which was filled with about a half-dozen other multicolored “panther” buddies. Even the parents matched their kid’s colors; with lavender, blue, green, orange, and yellow. This fact bothered me a little because I was watching a lot of science shows at the time and I had just learned a little about the passing down of dominant and recessive traits from parents to children. Where did all these colors come from and why did panthers only mate with their similar color? Ultimately, this cartoon did not have any appeal of the Pink Panther, the original that was featured in many shorts and specials from the late 1960’s. As you can expect, the creators smartly tried to use the same theme song for Pink Panther and Sons tried to capitalize on the sassy saxophone tune of the original, composed by Henry Mancini, and even the lyrics claim that the sons are just like their dad. Yet, they weren’t in any way like their father in the show. Firstly, Pink Panther is a silent character with the original Pink panther Show being essentially voiceless; yet Pinky is very chatty as the main star and Panky cries all the time! The Pink Panther show had a minimalism style and had a very strong 60’s art direction that felt distinct; Pink Panther and Sons is colorful, but lacks any real artistic direction. Overall, Pink Panther and Sons was just another whiny cartoon about kids on vacation that I usually avoided if I could help it.
Popeye & Son – This cartoon was jointly produced by Hanna-Barbera and King Features Entertainment, only airing for one season of thirteen episodes on CBS in 1987. It was a follow-up to The All New Popeye Hour that ended in 1983. In this series, Popeye had married his long-time love, Olive Oyl, and they had a son named Popeye Junior. What was confusing to me was that I thought Swee’Pea was Popeye Junior. The original comics had a much greater history and lore than what was explored in the cartoons. In the comics, Swee'Pea was a foundling under Popeye's care. Later sources, mostly in the cartoon series, say that Swee'Pea is Olive Oyl's cousin or nephew that she must take care of from time to time. This may have been a way to introduce a baby character without having Popeye and Olive Oyl get married, and to avoid any unsavory suggestions about babies being born out of wedlock. Maurice LaMarche voiced Popeye in this series (succeeding Jack Mercer in that role who had passed away in 1984), while much of the cast of The All New Popeye Hour reprised their respective roles. This series reran on the USA Network in the 1989-90 season and on The Family Channel from 1994 1995. The cartoon was mostly staged at the beach, or on a boat in the ocean, maintaining Popeye’s nautical heritage, but they would also have scenes at their school or even at home. Jeep, Wimpy, and other side characters are back. Even Bluto has a wife and son, who are constant rivals with Popeye’s family. Beyond my Junior = Swee’Pea confusion, I remember taking this cartoon at face value, as a colorful romp that was mostly harmless.
Muppet Babies – I saved the best for last. This was the cartoon for kids with huge imaginations who loved to play pretend and place themselves into wild adventures. The show ripped from genre-defining movies, parodied popular TV shows, and allowed children to face fears in inventive ways. The inspiration for the show came from one of the best scenes in the 1984 movie, The Muppets Take Manhattan, as Ms. Piggy imagines what growing up with Kermit would have been like. In her musical fantasy we get to see baby versions of Kermit, Ms. Piggy, Scooter, Rowlf, Fozzie, and Gonzo. This live-action sequence was so popular that The Jim Henson Company very quickly turned the idea into a half-hour cartoon program, debuting in 1984 and running for 7 seasons until 1991. Even after the conclusion of the series, it had remained so popular that CBS continued to air reruns of the series until the fall of 1992. In this re-imagining, the Muppet Babies live in a large nursery watched over by Nanny, who is seen only from the shoulders down. They play games which transition from the real world into scenes that become "real" to the babies, such as finding themselves aboard a pirate ship or in the land of Oz. Often these fantasies are filled with stock footage scenes or live-action clips from popular movies. To round out the cast, they added baby versions of Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, Beaker, Animal, and they created a twin sister for Scooter named Skeeter. Later cartoons would come to parody the same content, but the Muppet Babies really did it first and they did it best. The voice cast was also top notch, with Frank Welker as Kermit and Skeeter, Russi Taylor as Gonzo, and Greg Berg as Fozzie and Scooter. Howie Mandel voiced Baby Animal and Baby Bunson in the first season (84-85) and Dave Coullier took over as their voices for the rest of the show. With Jim Henson as the helm as the creator, every episode was guaranteed to have personality and heart; to this day it remains a fun cartoon to watch that brings back the nostalgia and leaves you feeling warm and fuzzy.