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'Toons not fit for an adult

The New TNN's cartoon lineup features shows too childish for grown-up minds. Why is that?

June 26, 2003|Charles Solomon | Special to The Times

"Animation" and "adult" are rarely linked in the United States, where the medium has been stereotyped as a mindless entertainment for children. The juvenile cartoon programs premiering on the New TNN (the network that is wrangling to re-identify itself as Spike TV) -- "Gary the Rat," "The Ren and Stimpy Adult Party Cartoon" and "Stripperella" -- are supposedly made for an adult, male audience. But these shows are "adult" only in the sense that you wouldn't want kids watching them.

Kelsey Grammer provides the voice for Gary Andrews, a rich Wall Street attorney who has somehow been transformed into a 6-foot rat (although his head looks more like a German shepherd's). Like the premise, the first episode, "Inherit the Cheese," is little more than a mean-spirited cheap shot at such obvious targets as lawyers and tobacco companies. The animation, done in the Internet animation program Flash, is so stiff and limited it makes Saturday morning kid-vid look lavish.

"The Ren and Stimpy Adult Party Cartoon" presents six new adventures of the wheezy Chihuahua and thick-witted cat that were too gross for their initial run. The duo has apparently shrunk, as they can now live in the mouth of a sleeping skid row wino or a bar room spittoon. The "Onward and Upward" episode suggests that jokes about bodily fluids, bouncing buttocks and weird sexuality constitute the series' stock in trade.

"Stripperella" wasn't available for preview, but the effortful animation of a Pamela Anderson caricature doing grinds and bumps in the title sequence didn't look promising.

If gags about boogers, excrement, vomit, cuspidors, testicles, belching, sex and child molestation are what the average man really wants to watch, it's a pretty dismal commentary on the gender I've always enjoyed belonging to.

Animation can be used for entertainment that is adult in the true sense of the word, presenting interesting and difficult ideas in ways that cross boundaries of age, culture and nationality. John and Faith Hubley won an Oscar for "The Hole" (1962), in which two construction workers discuss the possibilities of nuclear war; they garnered additional awards for "The Hat" (1964), an examination of the causes of war, and "Eggs" (1970), a dialogue between Death and Mother Nature about overpopulation. Isao Takahata's "Grave of the Fireflies" (Japan, 1988) depicts the suffering of a brother and sister amid the firebombing of Tokyo during World War II with heart-rending poignancy.

Animation doesn't have to be serious to qualify as "adult." In the hilarious "Why Me?" (Canada, 1978) by Janet Perlman and Derek Lamb, an absurd little man experiences all seven Kubler-Ross stages of accepting death when he learns he only has seven minutes to live. (Watching "Why Me?" is a bit like listening to Susan Sontag on fast-forward.)

Frederic Back (Canada) and Hayao Miyazaki (Japan) have used warmth, gentleness and beauty to present ecological concerns in their Academy Award-winning films, while Bruno Bozzetto spoofed the excesses of the oil industry with mosquitoes in the mordant "Self-Service" (Italy, 1974).

Hideo Anno employs a constantly shifting array of graphic styles to suggest the loopy uncertainty of teenage relationships in "His and Her Circumstances" (Japan, 1998).

Because he fell into a cursed spring in China, the wiry martial arts hero of the "Ranma 1/2" TV programs and features (Japan, 1989), turns into a buxom red-haired girl when he's splashed with cold water. This popular slapstick comedy includes sly commentaries on traditional sex roles that range from Ranma's fractious relationship with his fiancee Akane to an aged teacher's insatiable fetish for girl's underwear.

Many anime series include so-called "fan service" shots of scantily clad girls, and buxom heroines fighting crime and alien invaders before the New TNN unveiled "Stripperella." For sheer sexist silliness, it's hard to beat "Burn Up Excess" (1997), a comedy-adventure about a four-woman Tokyo Police Warrior Team. The series includes an on-screen "jiggle counter" that enumerates the number of times each character's breasts bounce.

"Adult" animation can be moving, thought-provoking, silly and uproarious. It should always be more entertaining than the New TNN's lineup.

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