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

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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.

Top Cartoons: Gummi Bears – For a Few Sovereigns More

 

In my previous post, I mentioned that Cubbi, one of the kid bears in the Gummi Bears cartoon, annoyed me. The pink scamp, always armed with a wooden sword, dreams of a life of swashbuckling adventure, and his hyperactive antics just¬†rub me the wrong way. Here’s a Cubbi-centered episode, however, that I like – if only because the cheeky brat¬†gets hit with something uncommon in kid’s cartoons: disillusionment.

Duke Igthorn hires Flint Shrubwood, an emotionless bounty-hunter, to capture a Gummi Bear, promising twenty gold sovereigns as pay. The job turns out to be pretty easy for Shrubwood, as he tracks and snatches Cubbi with little trouble. When Iggy welshes on the fee, though, Shrubwood decides to take the duke captive as well. Thus one of my favorite cartoon scenarios is spun: a threat from outside the usual formula interferes, forcing the good guys and bad guys to work together to defeat it.

Shrubwood is a terrific threat, too.¬†The show introduces him with some badass acoustic guitar strums, cues that are never used anywhere else¬†in the series. As his name and the episode title suggest, he’s a squinting, soft-spoken caricature of Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, and he has the¬†quick draw to match. Even a platoon of Igthorn’s massive ogres can’t stand up to him. He flutes¬†a signature four-note theme¬†to announce himself, and¬†to inspire panic in his quarries. To put it simply, he’s a far more competent villain than Igthorn could¬†ever be, and¬†that’s¬†bad news for everyone.

What really makes this episode stand out, however, is the forced cooperation of Igthorn and Cubbi, who are chained together like The Defiant Ones.¬†Amid the context of their mutual hate and distrust, they have conversations about where Igthorn went wrong as a knight, and the talent¬†of Cubbi’s animators registers that a lesson is being learned: the world is not as simple as the little bear¬†thought it was. At the climax, Cubbi¬†has to make a big decision, and the scene is admirably subtle in its power and sentimentality, an impressive achievement¬†for a Saturday morning cartoon. It still moves me when I watch it, and that’s why this is one of my favorite cartoons ever.