Review by Roger Ash
CBS and Paramount have finally released a complete set of Ralph Bakshi’s Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures as a three-DVD set. These are DVDs that have been eagerly awaited by fans of the series (myself included) for decades. How big of a fan am I of the series? I asked to write this review. (Asked might be the wrong word. Begged might be more accurate.) The show is just that damn good. But to understand why Mighty Mouse fans are so devoted to the series, we have to take a short trip back in time.
The History of the Time
For those who are too young to remember such things, in the mid-80s there was no such thing as Cartoon Network or Boomerang. Cartoons were mainly on after school — with series based on toy lines like Transformers, ThunderCats, and G.I. Joe — and Saturday morning. By that time, various standards and practices and special interest groups had caused cartoons to become, well, bland. They had to teach a lesson. Violence, especially slapstick violence, was a big no-no. Saturday morning was populated by saccharine cartoons like Care Bears and Smurfs. If you wanted funny, forget it. Humor didn’t sell. Classic Looney Tunes had been edited so much that they were no longer funny. It was not a good time to be a fan of TV animation.
It was into this atmosphere that Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures was unleashed in 1987. Producer/director Ralph Bakshi assembled a crew of young animators and turned them loose to make the kind of cartoons they wanted to make. This was the first animated TV show that was creator-driven. The series is clever, weird, satirical, controversial, and often uneven. But most importantly, it’s funny.
Early Work by Animation Talent
This was a return to his roots for Bakshi as he worked for Terrytoons, who produced the original Mighty Mouse cartoons, prior to becoming famous (or infamous) for creating animated films for adults such as Fritz the Cat and Heavy Traffic. While at Terrytoons, he created The Mighty Heroes, who return to the screen in the Mighty Mouse episode “Heroes and Zeroes.” The people who worked on Mighty Mouse may have been young and unknown at the time, but they have become many of the movers and shakers in animation, including John Kricfalusi (Ren & Stimpy), Bruce Timm (Batman: The Animated Series), Andrew Stanton (WALL-E), Tom Minton (Animaniacs), and Jim Reardon (The Simpsons).
I believe that there are a lot of similarities between Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures and Monty Python’s Flying Circus. They were both made up of a group of people who combined to do something amazing, something new, and something highly influential that none of them could have done without the others. If you look back at both series now, assuming you’ve never seen them before, you might think they’re just like everything else. But they aren’t. They were the ones who did it first. They set the standard. Shows like Ren & Stimpy, South Park, Venture Brothers, SpongeBob SquarePants, and many more owe a big debt to Mighty Mouse.
This is not to say that Mighty Mouse is a perfect show and every episode is great. They aren’t. Some stories aren’t very strong. Some of the animation is not good; it can even become unintentionally funny such as when, in “Mouse From Another House”, the character Scrappy’s head is often inordinately big. It looks damn goofy. But even a poor episode of Mighty Mouse was better than any other animated show at the time.
Full of Tributes
All 13 episodes of Season 1 are on the first two discs with the six episodes from Season 2 on disc three. Each episode contains two cartoons. In addition to new cartoons, there are a handful that feature classic Terrytoons cartoons spliced together over music and such.
The cartoons themselves look wonderful. The DVDs were mastered from the original negatives, and the colors are bright and really pop. The cartoons hold up really well and are chock full of verbal and visual humor. A running visual gag is that a caricature of Bakshi appears in nearly every one of the new cartoons. But enough of this, let’s talk about the cartoons themselves.
The people who worked on the series are obviously fans of classic cartoons and comic books as the series is peppered with tributes to classic animators and comic references. Homages to classic Warner Bros. director Bob Clampett are common, and the cartoon “Puffy Goes Berserk” is a loving tribute to director Tex Avery‘s classic “King-Size Canary“. For comic fans, you’ll find the Justice League/Avengers type team “The Legion of Super Rodents”, featuring such characters as Kid Hamster, Mole Mom, and the Rampaging Sloth. Mighty’s origin story is a parody of Superman’s origin. And one of the most popular characters to appear on the show is a comic parody — Bat-Bat.
“Night of the Bat-Bat”, directed by John K., introduced the world to Bruce Vein (Bat-Bat) and his ward Tick (the Bug Wonder). There has been a dairy-related crime spree in Mouseville, and the duo face off against the villainous Cow to end this reign of terror. Animation fans may recognize the Cow’s voice, which was provided by Michael Pataki, as he would use the same voice a few years later as the character George Liquor on Ren & Stimpy. The Cow would become a regular thorn in Mighty Mouse’s side.
The Best Season One Episodes
The main characters in the series are Mighty Mouse who, in the guise of Mike Mouse, works at a factory owned by his girlfriend, Pearl Pureheart. The orphan Scrappy Mouse tags along in a number of cartoons. I think the strongest episode from the first season is Episode 12, which features “Mighty’s Benefit Plan” and “See You in the Funny Papers”.
“Mighty’s Benefit Plan”, directed by John K., is a hilarious parody of Alvin and the Chipmunks. The story centers around Elwy and the Tree Weasels and their manager, Sandy Bottomfeeder, and how they came to live together. The whole story is narrated by Mashy the Pup, a road kill dog. I know that sounds gross and, well, it kinda is, but it’s played strictly for laughs and is outrageously funny. The Tree Weasels song “Twitch and Writhe” is sure to be stuck in your head for hours after watching the cartoon. On his blog, John K. says this is his favorite of the Mighty Mouse cartoons. John K. writes quite a lot about Mighty Mouse at his blog, and if you’re a fan of the show, it’s worth the time to check it out. It contains a lot of insider information.
“See You in the Funny Papers”, directed by Kent Butterworth, tells the story of what happens when some of the villains from Scrappy’s favorite comics come to life due to a magic ring. Mighty Mouse has to get the villains back in the ring, which leads to many hilarious battles. My favorite battle is with a barbarian named Huge the Conqueror, a parody of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Using his magic hammer, Huge turns Mighty Mouse into all manner of objects. Unfortunately for him, the last transformation turns Mighty Mouse into a large tiger, who swallows Huge! Huge begs to be let out of his mouth because “it smells like onions in here!” The design of this cartoon is particularly impressive as the backgrounds are made to look like art from classic comics, dots and all!
But perhaps no cartoon from the first season shows how different Mighty Mouse was from every other show on the air than “The Ice Goose Cometh”. This cartoon was directed by John K. and features the return of classic Terrytoons characters Gandy Goose and Sourpuss (a cat). The story opens in the arctic, as Mighty Mouse tries out his heat vision. He cuts free a piece of a glacier with a figure inside (ala Captain America) that floats to Mouseville. When it melts, we find Gandy inside. He wanders around town, looking for his pal Sourpuss and wondering why things look so strange. When he learns he has been frozen in the ice for 40 years, he freaks out and his search for Sourpuss becomes more frantic.
He brightens up when he spies Mighty Mouse, who uncharacteristically acts rather cavalierly towards him. This causes Gandy to have a breakdown and end up in a pysch ward. Mighty Mouse takes Gandy home to help him assimilate to the 80s, but things don’t go well. Gandy is truly lost without Sourpuss, and Mighty is losing his patience. This leads to a wonderfully demented scene where Mighty Mouse blows up at Gandy for serving him a birdseed sandwich. Fortunately, Mighty Mouse eventually finds Sourpuss, and he’s reunited with Gandy. This episode is wonderfully animated, incredibly disturbing, yet remains very, very funny. No other animated series at the time would have run a show this personal and this out of the ordinary. Giving creators a voice is what makes Mighty Mouse special.
The show was not without its controversies. It’s fairly well known that the Rev. Donald Wildmon and his group, the American Family Association, went after the show for a scene in “The Littlest Tramp” in which Wildmon was sure that Mighty Mouse was snorting cocaine. In the cartoon, poor flower girl Polly Pineblossom gives Mighty Mouse a flower. He puts the flower in his pocket. In a later scene, he recalls Polly and takes the flower from his pocket and sniffs it. Of course, after being in his pocket for that long, the flower has turned to dust, which goes into Mighty Mouse’s nose when he sniffs it. If you watch the cartoon, it’s obvious what’s going on, but that didn’t stop Wildmon and his crew from going after the show and CBS. Bakshi cut the scene in subsequent airings.
The Second Season: Even Better
With a very strong first season under their belts, could the second season live up to the high standards they set? In my opinion, it did. In fact, I find the second season episodes to feature more biting satire and break more boundaries than the first. And this was done with a smaller crew as John K. and a number of others left to do the ill-fated Beany and Cecil revival at ABC.
More Terrytoons characters were brought back in the second season, including the villain Oil Can Harry, who is obsessed with Pearl — a very creepy, stalkerish, Pearl-should-get-a-restraining-order kind of obsession. “Mighty’s Wedlock Whimsy” features the return of Gandy and Sourpuss (who may be more than friends), who convince Mighty Mouse and Pearl that they should get married. James Hound and Deputy Dawg also appear in this cartoon, which features a hilarious dream sequence that parodies The Honeymooners and implies that Pearl and the Cow may be really enjoying each other’s company while Mighty is away at work.
The strongest episode of the season is Episode 4. The first cartoon is “Snow White & the Motor City Dwarfs”, a tribute to Tex Avery’s classic fairy tale cartoons like “Red Hot Riding Hood“. The cartoon even has a nightclub scene where Snow White sings and Mighty Mouse goes into ridiculous flights of animated delight.
The second cartoon is my favorite of the entire series, “Don’t Touch That Dial”. It centers around a child who flips through cartoons on a Saturday morning. Mighty Mouse becomes trapped in parodies of current cartoons like The JetStones (Jetsons and Flintstones) and Ringo Ding (Scooby-Doo). In the JetStones, Mighty Mouse is trapped in the opening sequence, a parody of the Jetsons opening, complete with theme song. The song is sung in a sort of tuneless monotone that makes the ridiculous lyrics, such as “Meet George JetStone, your second favorite cartoon star”, even funnier. Ringo Ding is a dead-on parody of Scooby-Doo and the other Hanna-Barbera cartoons that featured a wacky character surrounded by a mixed group of teens who make jokes that were more inane than funny.
The kids capture Mighty Mouse, whom they believe to be the Rat Monster of Gruesome Gulch. When they unmask him, off-screen, the reaction of the kids to the fact that Mighty Mouse wasn’t wearing a mask is guaranteed to make me laugh. When Mighty meets up with old pals Rocky & Hoodwinkle (a boxer and a moose), he lightens up and they crack jokes until the Real Gagbusters show up. These four anime-inspired characters aim to remove all humor from cartoons. This cartoon is a savage satire of animation as it stood at the time and TV in general. And the closing line reminds us why TV is there in the first place: the commercials.
The Special Features
There are not many special features on the set, but what is there is nice. First up are three classic Mighty Mouse shorts that have never been on DVD before. One of them, “The Mysterious Package”, features early work by Ralph Bakshi.
There are also audio commentaries on two episodes by John K., Tom Minton, Kent Butterworth, and Mike Kazaleh. The commentaries are fascinating and contain lots of behind-the-scenes info. I really wish the producers of the DVD had sprung to have more commentaries recorded.
The best special feature is a half hour documentary called “Breaking the Mold: The Re-Making of Mighty Mouse”. It features vintage footage as well as new interviews with many people who worked on the show. It’s one of the best documentaries I’ve seen on a DVD and contains lots of behind-the-scenes stories and information about the show. It’s a fascinating documentary, and I wish it had been longer.
Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures is an important show in the history of animation, both for the show itself and for the career start it gave to many who worked on the show. Perhaps most importantly, it brought back funny cartoons to TV. At least that’s what it did for me. Most TV cartoons at the time were fairly bland, and if you saw one season, you knew what was going to happen the next season and the next because they never changed from that original formula. Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures changed from week to week! I love watching it because you can never predict what’s going to happen next. One week you get a villain who wants to steal all the left shoes in Mouseville, the next two alien cats arrive to take over the Earth and no one notices. Bottom line, the show is fun. And by being fun, it gained a host of fans who wanted more, and creators who wanted to make more fun cartoons. Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures has deserved to be on DVD for years. While I do wish there were more special features, I’m very happy with the set as it is and it comes with my highest possible recommendation.
Our Guest Writer
Roger Ash lives in Wisconsin where he works for Westfield Comics. He also does some freelance writing, including interviews with Louise Simonson, June Brigman, and Jon Bogdanove about Power Pack in Back Issue #38 and a Flaming Carrot article in Back Issue #39. I’m thrilled he could share his animation expertise with CWR — he’s made me eager to check out this set for myself!
(The studio provided a review copy.)