Top Cartoons: Gary Larson’s Tales From the Far Side

vid’s been taken down, sorry ūüė¶

Like its creator, Tales From the Far Side is a misunderstood creature. A lot of people just don’t get¬†Gary Larson, and I don’t think they got this show either.¬†It was one of just¬†two animated specials based on the popular comic strip, and the only one that aired in the United States. It’s a lovely bit of animation, but I think that director¬†Marv Newland, creator of the haunting Black Hula and¬†Bambi Meets Godzilla, pushed things a little too far into Halloween-Town for most audiences. His¬†vision is clear right from the beginning: the score is a cloud of gloomy¬†guitars and eerie er-hus.¬†The camera¬†glides past smoking farm animals and dead people before settling on a reanimated bovine. This queen of the night tells us with an piercing¬†bleat that she’s¬†bringing us somewhere that we might not like to go, and she doesn’t give a damn how we feel about¬†it.

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That Newland’s direction is matched with Gary Larson’s off-center perceptions¬†doesn’t aid the accessibility factor.¬†In keeping with the spirit of the strip, the show is a series of disconnected jokes, many of them conceptual, so if you never dug¬†The Far Side,¬†you’re not going to dig¬†this.¬†I once watched this show with a non-fan friend, and the loudest, angriest¬†question to come up was, “So what happened to the cow?” She was frustrated that the show had ditched¬†the Franken-cow from¬†the opening, and had never¬†come back to it. She didn’t understand that¬†The Far Side was never about the traditional, long-term payoff. Larson is foremost an idea man, and in his world, the punchline is in the premise.

We get some throwaway gags lifted straight from the funny pages, like a crow scraping its meal off the street with a spatula, but there are also more elaborate setups. My favorite is the insect airline, where the business class is packed with worker bees, and the in-flight movie is The Fly.

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There are also several “role-reversal” scenarios, not unlike¬†Paul Driessen’s¬†The Killing of an Egg,¬†in which arrogant humanity suffers for its transgressions against nature. Presented in the innocent¬†pictures of the comic, this dark theme was leavened. When bolstered by motion¬†and sound, however, it turns¬†downright devilish.

I think it’s terrific, but most critics of the day did not. They admired the slick presentation, but found the material¬†simple and one-note. I’m really not sure what they expected from a show based off a one-panel cartoon. I think Tales From the Far Side¬†is the perfect amplification of the comic strip.¬†Just watching Larson’s dumpy, bell-shaped characters take motion is a lot of fun. The animators clearly¬†had a great time with it: everything bounces and wobbles and wiggles in a delightful fashion that suits¬†the visual style. There’s very little¬†dialogue, which is odd considering that the comic could be quite wordy, but I think it¬†works. Too much speech would soften¬†the show’s concepts, and extract us¬†from the uncomfortable un-reality that we’re meant to be visiting.

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Some of the sequences could use a little trimming, and the finale is a big letdown, but I still think that¬†Tales From the Far Side is a marvel. Like¬†A Wish For Wings¬†That Work,¬†it’s a comic strip special whose material simply can’t cater to everyone, but that’s precisely¬†why I love it so.