Originally created 07/21/02

Cartoon boom



The animation genre is booming on the small and big screens, from the success of comic book heroes such as "Spider-Man" to the popularity of "Rugrats," "Scooby Doo" and other TV cartoons made into theatrical movies. Here are some examples of recent projects.

- Be vewy, vewy quiet. Elmer's back to hunting that wascally wabbit. Bugs Bunny is returning to the big screen in new "Looney Tunes" shorts, along with Elmer Fudd, Foghorn Leghorn, Daffy Duck and Marvin Martian. The new cartoons will be shown in theaters with new Warner Bros. family films, beginning at the end of this year.

- "What's New, Scooby Doo?," a new series that will bring the Mystery Inc. group back to their cartoon roots (i.e. no Scrappy Doo or other extra characters), will premiere this fall on The WB, right on the heels - er, paws - of the successful live-action "Scooby Doo" movie.

- Cartoon Network's "The Powerpuff Girls" has taken flight to movie screens, and Nickelodeon's "Hey Arnold!" is also on tap. Nick's "Wild Thornberrys" will open in December, and the network is working on a movie combining "The Wild Thornberrys" with "The Rugrats."

- Spider-Man, who broke box-office records in his live-action movie, is weaving his way into a new animated series next season on MTV, and this cartoon will be designed more for teen-age viewers than children.

- Another movie, "Stuart Little" - the tale of a mouse who's a member of a human family - will become an animated series on the HBO Family network.

- And Nickelodeon's Oscar-nominated theatrical movie, "Jimmy Neutron," will be a series next season on Nickelodeon.

And, to misquote Porky Pig, that's not all, folks.

"It's incredibly exciting. You have a new golden age of animation," said Albie Hecht, president of film and TV entertainment at Nickelodeon.

Much more animation is being produced today, said Bruce Timm, the producer behind Cartoon Network's "Justice League" and other DC Comics-based cartoons. "It's a good time to be a kid." But Sander Schwartz, president of Warner Bros. Animation, doesn't see a new trend in cartoons.

"Animation has always been a hot genre," Schwartz said.

It's not a golden age for everyone in Burbank, Calif., home to animation studios for Disney, Nickelodeon, Warner Bros. and Cartoon Network. Disney has had layoffs in its animation division, but Schwartz said he hired many of those employees to create the new "Looney Tunes" shorts. They will combine traditional characters and stories with cell phones and other accoutrements of modern society.

As shown by the Disney layoffs, the state of animation isn't certain, said Eryk Casemiro, co-executive producer of "Rugrats" and other Nickelodeon cartoons at Klasky Csupo Inc.

Still, everyone's watching cartoons, and it seems like everyone's making them, too. Walt Disney Studios no longer is the only one producing feature-length animated movies, and DreamWorks SKG has offered strong competition with movies varying from "Prince of Egypt" to its more recent "Ice Age" and "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron."

"The amount of competition has raised the bar," said Donna Friedman, executive vice president for animation and other Kids' WB! programming at The WB.

On cable TV, nothing's hotter than a toon. The highest-rated cable network this summer is Nickelodeon, followed by Cartoon Network.

Many adults watch cartoons - even if they don't have kids. "About a third of our viewers are 18 or older," said Michael Alazzo, senior vice president of programming at Cartoon Network. "We never thought it would be a third."

Baby boomers who grew up with Bugs Bunny on TV are running Hollywood, and that's one reason animation remains popular. Another is economics; a third is there's less risk in ratings or at the box office. A popular TV character such as Scooby Doo is a brand name that generates a lot of money in merchadising and movie and video spinoffs.

Scooby remains popular as adults take their kids to the theater to see the cartoon characters they grew up with. Each generation is handing down Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse to the next.

"I don't know about nostalgia, but cartoons are a great comfort food for people," Hecht said. "My son, 14, and I spend lazy Saturdays watching cartoons. They bring a smile to you."

Today's corporate synergy is making it easier for cartoon stars to go back-and-forth between TV and movies. Viacom owns Nickelodeon and Paramount Pictures; AOL Time Warner owns Cartoon Network and Warner Bros.

It just took a phone call for Cartoon Network to convince Warner Bros. to distribute a movie version of "The Powerpuff Girls," the network's highest-rated series, Alazzo said. "Absolutely; there's definitely a lower risk to a movie studio."

In its promotion commercials, Cartoon Network treats its animated characters like real stars. In one spot, Fred Flintstone has a hard time finding a parking space. Speed Racer and Judy Jetson collide in their effort to park in the same space. "Here at Cartoon Network, we're fans. I don't want to believe Daffy Duck isn't a real duck or that the Powerpuff Girls aren't real," Alazzo said.

Economics is another factor. "Animation is cheaper to produce, and it has appeal to a wide audience," said Paul Gathercoal, a professor of education and media expert at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, Calif. "For the top-run films, the quality always has been good."

Cartoons offer imaginative journeys at a lower cost. It's easier to create Africa and other faraway lands on a drawing board or a computer screen than to send actors and camera crews there.

"Animation does quite well with the kind of epics that would involve $200 million or more if you did it with live action," said Russell Stockard Jr., a CLU communications professor. "And it allows for humor, it allows for romance."

Animation technology is evolving, and after the initial success and hype over digital animation, studios are stressing a mix of traditional, hand-drawn cel animation with new technology, including digital color palettes for richer tones. Animators say digital scanning of traditional drawings allows for greater camera movements. And computer-generated effects are used within traditional animated features.

The trick, animators say, is to use the new technologies to tell a story, not distract from it. CGI fires or waterfalls have stood out too much in some traditional movies.

"If it's done for technology's sake, I think it's unnecessary and distracting," said The WB's Friedman.

Nickelodeon's Hecht agreed. "Some of the noble experiments have been a little jarring, but we've been at this for a while, and we've learned how to blend things seamlessly."

(Dave Mason is television editor of the Ventura County Star in California. He can be reached at mason@insidevc.com.)

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com)