By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
By the mid-1980s, commercial animation was in sorry, soggy shape. Outside of the sort of small independent productions you’d see in traveling animation festivals, there was nothing exciting happening, nothing with a sense of history or irony or mischief. With few exceptions, cartoons as they were produced for television and (rarely) the theaters were cheap, boring, bland, ugly, unfunny, joyless, politically correct and designed not to offend any sensibilities but the artistic. They lacked the true wild cartoon spirit — the impertinence of a Bugs Bunny, the unbridled id of Tex Avery’s wolves, the runaway rage of a Donald Duck, the happy universal anthropomorphism of the world according to Boop.
Then — just around the time McCracken and Tartakovsky were starting at CalArts — came The Little Mermaid, wherein Disney got its commercial groove back and found a new old-fashioned formula to beat to death, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which celebrated the glorious anarchy and lively design of the medium’s golden age, and then The Simpsons, which conquered television and the world. And suddenly cartoons not only looked like good business, but, what was more important, they began to look like cartoons again. A small but exponentially influential new wave of "creator-driven," historically aware, postmodernist cartoons appeared on TV, beginning with Ralph Bakshi’s Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures and breaking big with John Kricfalusi’s The Ren & Stimpy Show. Hanna-Barbera got back in the game with 2 Stupid Dogs, a Ren & Stimpy–ized take on the studio’s early classic Huckleberry Hound style, created by Donovan Cook, a CalArts (and Ren & Stimpy) alumnus, who hired Craig McCracken as an art director on the recommendation of another CalArts grad, Paul Rudish; McCracken, who left school at the beginning of his third semester to take the job, in turn recommended Genndy Tartakovsky to work on the show. Rudish, whom Tartakovsky calls "an overall genius," would help refine and define both Dexter’s Laboratoryand The Powerpuff Girls. The first episodes of each series, says McCracken, were "basically made by the same guys, just a different person in charge of it."
Both made their first pre-series appearances as part of Cartoon Network’s World Premiere Toonsprogram. Dexter’s Laboratory, about a suburban boy scientist with an anomalous "foreign accent" who keeps an impossibly large secret laboratory in his parents’ house, was the first to become a regular series, debuting in April 1996, and would four times be nominated for an Emmy. "Powerpuff was a little shaky originally," says McCracken. "There was one focus group with 11-year-old boys where they basically said, ‘Whoever made this cartoon should be fired,’ and I was in the room with all the producers and the president of Hanna-Barbera, and it destroyed me."
But the constant inquiries of fans of the two World Premiereshorts, Linda Simensky’s love for McCracken’s Dexterstoryboards, and the desire to keep the production unit working led to a second chance for Powerpuff. McCracken settled executive qualms by further developing the individual personalities of the girls, assembling a "bible" in which he posed the girls 20 questions and had each answer in her own voice. And as Dexterreached the end of its 52-episode run (another 13 go into production this month), the team segued into The Powerpuff Girls, with McCracken taking the lead.
"When I first started working on the show," says Tara Charendoff Strong, "I didn’t know it was going to be as successful as it was, ’cause a lot of the original scripts were very action oriented, and I’d just be like ‘Pow! Take that! Ow! Yeah.’ And I’d be like, ‘What is this show?’" Says E.G. Daily, "You’re not talking about people who have been doing it forever and forever and they just have this formula down, they’re just sort of these guys who started doing this tweaked cartoon and it happened to work."
It has worked, though, and not by accident, unless you want to consider the distribution of talent accidental. Last year, McCracken and Tartakovsky were named by Entertainment Weeklyamong the 100 Most Creative People in Entertainment: little kids who stared at pictures until they came alive, growing up to make pictures come alive. (And this year the Powerpuff Girls themselves made the magazine’s list of — appropriately — the 100 Most Powerful People in Entertainment.) But unlike Mojo Jojo’s, McCracken’s head has not swelled. "My mother keeps telling me that I’m famous, and I’m like, ‘The show is famous, people know the Powerpuff Girls, but I’m nobody, I’m just a guy.’
"My agent keeps saying, ‘You’re hot right now, let’s shop you around so we can get your price up,’ and I’m like, ‘I don’t wanna leave, these people treat me perfectly.’ They leave me alone and let me do what I want to do. You can’t ask for anything more." Tartakovsky, whose new series, Samurai Jack, "a quirky action show," is set to bow next summer, says the relationship with Cartoon Network is "perfect. They just go, ‘We love what you do, so do it. Here’s some money and some time, and give us shows.’"
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