Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A near-perfect gauge with which to measure a decade's drop in quality

Fortunately the eighties were still a lot of fun and a thoroughly enjoyable decade despite a massive amount of lousy cartoons that flooded the market. There can be no doubt as to how sloppily the decade's quality for cartoons fell, and there are several ways to look at it:

You can see it as the decade when television cartoons were at least still trying to come up with some original ideas to present and ended with the merchandising tail wagging the dog.

You can look at it as starting when Battle of The Planets, the latest of a tiny handful of popular Japanese works, was a huge hit in 1980 and ended when Akira began to make its highly-publicized round on American theaters in 1990.

You can discuss it as when Disney was struggling to get people of all ages to not be embarrassed to admit they were going to a Disney animated feature in 1980 and were later kicking and screaming to get in to see the latest Disney animated feature in 1990.

You can view it as when NBC began having a hit lineup of Saturday morning cartoons in 1980 and eventually abandoned them all to go entirely live action after Saved By The Bell.

Or, if you really want to take a technical and literal look at it, you can take a look at the very first cartoon broadcast as 1980 began and compare it to the very last one aired as 1989 came to a close. I had originally hoped to do that, but unfortunately I just can't seem to get my hands on such information no matter how much I've tried over the years.

But I can do something fairly close to that. Let's take a look at the award-winning show The Smurfs.

At the beginning of the eighties, Peyo's delightful little blue elves made their appearance to American audiences and none of us were really prepared for just how much we'd all be won over by them, and for excellent reason. The original European comic strip was wonderful, and Hanna-Barbara did a surprisingly masterful job of adapting the Smurfs to the boob tube. Many of the stories were actually based on Peyo's own original tales, itself an unusual move for HB, with only slight alterations (Peyo understandably had final say on how everything was presented).

But as each year wore on, the network -- as networks always do -- were only interested in one thing: something new. Whether a new character or new concept, something had to be added to a show even if it was already an established hit, and The Smurfs was no exception. For the longest time, it was simply newly-added characters, but finally, the last season was a disaster as it yanked even the beloved fairy tale setting away.

So as a result, The Smurfs sets a pretty good gauge for how badly the quality of cartoons fell in general for the entire decade.


Ladies and gentleman, may I present for your examination and comparison what is said to be the series' very first entry and what is said to be its very last.

The very first prepared episode for the television Smurfs, I'm told, is the one of the three cartoons that graced the pilot and made an instant impact, "The Smurfette". This cartoon, which was of course necessary to broadcast immediately since it introduces the origin of one of the most popular stars of the show and of all time, is actually based upon one of Peyo's own original stories (despite his not being mentioned in its opening credits -- what, HB simply assumed everyone would know or something? I don't know, you tell me) and shows just how much respect HB had for the source material, and while it's true that there were some odd last minute bits shoehorned in at the last minute, the whole thing was so charming that these seemed minor quibbles. A ratings hit was born.

Fast forward to 1989. The episode that Smurf Scholars (hey, that's a pretty fun christening for someone out there, lol ;) ) assure me is the very last Smurfs cartoon created for television was "Hearts 'N' Smurfs", an embarrassment on all counts. The writing, the concept, the execution, and yes, even the animation have all dropped so badly here that you just want to shut the thing off in humiliation and hope to God that no one caught you watching it. Don't believe me? See it yourself.

So, in other words, if you look at how cartoons went downhill in that way... well, it looks really dismal.