Makin’ Toons: Inside the Most Popular Animated TV Shows & Movies
by Allan Neuwirth
Cartoons have been experiencing a reinvigoration in America for the past 15 years. The Simpsons, South Park, Ice Age, Ren & Stimpy, Finding Nemo (and Pixar’s other features), Courage the Cowardly Dog, and Batman: The Animated Series, to list a few. Yet Makin’ Toons: Inside the Most Popular Animated TV Shows and Movies is the first real successor in interest to Leonard Maltin’s great study of the first 75 years of American animated cartoons, Of Mice And Magic (1987).
Like Maltin, author Allan Neuwirth attempts to document the making of some terrific toons, both for historical purposes and for the interested reader of today. His book, well illustrated with layout drawings (many never before published), other behind-the-scenes materials and a sly cover by painter Bill Wray, delivers nearly everything he promises.
Neuwirth’s approach is immediately engaging, he introduces himself as “a toon-a-holic” and his love for the medium and experience in the field is evident throughout. He lets his subjects tell their stories and mostly keeps his own opinions out of it with the exception of a couple of shots at Titan AE (and why not?).
He’s clearly knowledgeable about and cares a great deal for his subject, which is excellent, but a touch more skepticism might have done better by it. To mention all the intentional Hamlet parallels in Lion King and not at all that pesky little Kimba the White Lion rumor? He also has a knack for seemingly bold but carefully-phrased proclamations which, when you think about them, you realize you agree with. Calling The Simpsons “inarguably the finest prime-time animated series ever made” gave rise to such protests in my head as “What about the classic original run of Ren & Stimpy? Or Batman: The Animated Series for that matter?” I’ve never considered The Simpsons true animation – rather, it’s the very highest form of what legendary cartoon director Chuck Jones dubbed illustrated radio: A show that rarely needs to be seen to get its laughs or tell its story. Ah, but of course Ren & Stimpy and Batman: TAS, good as they were, were not prime-time (although Ren & Stimpy ran a few times in that timeslot on MTV). And there may not be room for such purism as mine among cartoon fans these days, what with the variance in quality (of animation) between Disney’s Aladdin and Parker & Stone’s South Park.
A good part of the appeal of Neuwirth’s technique is that he gives each show or movie the respect they deserve. He rightly points out that from the very start South Park, for example, contained “enough blasphemy and bad taste…to offend just about everyone.” But he also allows that this very fact is part of the delight of the series for many.
Animation, by its very nature, attracts a different breed of creative person, and therefore this book is populated by some fantastic characters. It perhaps best realizes its goals in the chapter on voice artists. Here Neuwirth’s subjects range from undisputed legend of the craft June “Witch Hazel, plus too many more to list” Foray to new boy John “Sid the Sloth” Leguizamo.
Gendy Tartakovsky, the creator of Dexter’s Laboratory and Samurai Jack, described in the book as “One of the most successful men ever to pull on an animation glove,” Craig McCracken and his Powerpuff Girls, and, loath as I might be to admit it, Mike “Beavis and Butthead” Judge also come off quite well here. Their stories are told in a light, breezy manner, though the real world will intrude occasionally as it has a way of doing. The chapter on composer Alan Menken, for example, tells a moving story of how he learned his longtime collaborator, Howard Ashman, was dying.
But these men and woman are relatively well known to cartoon fandom; Neuwirth extends his analysis to include those lesser known outside their profession: Painter Eric Radomski, sculptor Kent Melton, art director Susan Goldberg (the first woman to be credited as such for a Disney cartoon feature) and her husband Eric, who animated Aladdin’s Genie.
What Makin’ Toons lacks is, no animating play-on-words intended, a certain depth. Many of the TV shows or features discussed deserve books of their own which can expand upon their making and give a critical reassessment of their worth. But, given the scope of Neuwirth’s ambition – to present a representative cross-sampling of great toon practitioners of the last couple of decades – a bit of a lightweight touch was perhaps unavoidable. Fortunately, the back of the book provides a bibliography for those who want to dig a little deeper. Another appendix or two, consisting perhaps of a checklist of every animated feature or series produced in the book’s time frame might have been a useful addition – but such lists are readily available on such web sites as Jerry Beck’s cartoonresearch.com.
In some ways, the past couple of years have been wonderful for animation fans. Yet at the same time, the business is in an unquestionable state of flux, with even Disney (!) making drastic cuts to its “classic” animation department. Some have seen this as the death of traditional, 2-D animation in favor of the computer generated variety. In light of some notable recent flops (Sinbad, Treasure Planet, Osmosis Jones…), compared to the aforementioned CG successes (not to mention Shrek), it’s certainly possible they have a point. Yes, a film like Lilo & Stitch pops up every once in a while and makes a success, but these days they’re the exception. So being that the future of animation is as uncertain as it is (though it seems certain it will have a future) the book’s lack of a clear resolution at the end was perhaps also inevitable.
Still, this is the sort of book which, if you love cartoons, you should definitely not pick up and look at in the store unless you are prepared to buy it. Because you will want to.
Cartoon Research: http://cartoonresearch.com/