Toon Town Revisited

The new 13-part series Tooned! offers a highly entertaining look at Saturday morning cartoons and their impact on culture and society through the years.

Creating a documentary series on the history of Saturday morning animation, which is a colorful reflection of the social and artistic trends of the times, may seem like a daunting task. However, animation fan and producer Dale Burshtein and co-producer Richard Mortimer have put together a fascinating 13-part series on this entertaining slice of pop culture. Produced by Breakthrough Films and TV in association with Dale Burshtein Productions and Canwest Media, Tooned! takes us on a rollercoaster ride through some of the most influential animated shows of the past 60 years, sprinkled with interviews with some of the creators, animators and voice talent who were behind these beloved oldies.

‘Our focus is the iconic Saturday morning shows that aired during the ’50s thru the ’70s’although that doesn’t mean we have left out hugely influential shows such as The Flintstones or the Peanuts specials, which aired in primetime,’ says Burshtein. ‘Many of the Looney Tunes TV series began their life as theatrical shorts, and we also have people like Don Hahn, Nancy Cartwright, June Foray and Tom Kenny to give us their take on their favorite animated shows and characters of each era. So although Saturday morning toons are the starting point, we also cover the bigger picture.’

When Burshtein and her team decided to tackle this massive assignment, they realized that it would be best to package each half-hour show with a unifying theme. ‘We have each episode look at a certain theme’one show looks at comedy, another focuses on superheroes or love or sidekicks in cartoons,’ she notes. ‘Each episode has something for everyone, because everyone tends to look for their personal favorites. It takes them back to the time when they used to watch them in their pajamas while eating cereal for breakfast. It’s such a shared experience. They used to play the same cartoons over and over again. You watch them now and it’s amazing how much you can remember. And they’re even funnier now!’

The producers were lucky to get contributions from natural storytellers such as June Foray and Stan Lee to talk about classics such as Rocky and Bullwinkle and the Marvel superhero cartoons. ‘It’s wonderful to have the perspective of people who were there when these classics were made,’ says Burshtein. ‘We also include some archival interviews with animation legends such as Joe Barbera, Jay Ward, Mel Blanc and Chuck Jones.’

Fans will also get to enjoy anecdotes and insights from contemporary stars such as Nancy Cartwright (voice of Bart Simpson) and Tom Kenny (voice of SpongeBob SquarePants) as they talk about the talented people who inspired them and how they were influenced by these luminaries. The series also offers interviews with well-respected animation industry veterans such as Oscar-winning producer and director Don Hahn and film historian Leonard Maltin, who elaborate on the social and historic significance of many of the titles.

Just for fun, the producers have also included actors such as Malcolm MacDowell, Vivica Fox, Janeane Garofalo and Cheech and Chong, who chat about how cartoons shaped their acting and comedy careers.

Burshtein says the toughest aspect of the job was trying to fit such a rich history and cultural legacy in 13 half-hour episodes. ‘We’re writing a love letter to this particular era of TV animation, but you can only fit so much in each episode. For example, when we are doing an episode on superheroes, we can only scratch the surface, and it’s hard to please everyone, because if you’re a fan of animation, you definitely have your favorites and opinions about what should be included.’

Of course, sifting through volumes of these beloved shows and listening to the stories of Toon Town players provided the documentary filmmakers with an added appreciation for the art form. ‘When you interview a legend like June Foray who was the voice of Rocky the Flying Squirrel and was a pioneer in making animated films eligible for awards is such a valuable experience,’ says Burshtein. ‘And she is still able to instantly flip back into these voices at the age of 83.’

One thing Burshtein hopes audiences will take away from the show is an appreciation for the talented men and women who were behind these Saturday morning toons and the real sense of community and bond that exists to this very day in the animation field. ‘They seem to know and support each other,’ says the filmmaker. ‘They are all part of this fantastic world and they’re not profiled as much as the movie stars or their live-action counterparts. One of the highlights for me was hearing the stories told by Martha Sigall, who was one of the first female animators working in Hollywood. I think it’s just fascinating to listen to her stories about the time Mel Blanc came to audition and how he got to do the voice of Porky Pig after spending two weeks on a pig farm!’

A big question is who do you get to host such a big project? A 2D-animated character, of course. Since Bugs Bunny and Fred Flintstone were too busy for the job, the producers decided to create a character called Howard (animated by Canadian indie studio Smiley Guys), who has been a long-time extra and background player in the world of cartoons. ‘He has an insider knowledge of the animation scene during these decades, and of course he’s in love with cartoons, so he links the stories and provides commentaries on the material,’ explains Burshtein.

Obviously, since there is way too much material to fit into a 6.5 hour format, the producers are hoping that they can fund a second season fo the show. ‘It’s cool to see that no matter who we talked to, we all have those shared memories. These shows left a deep impression on us at an early age and they continue to be funny, irreverent and influential.’

Tooned! airs on Canada’s TVTropolis on Fridays at 11:30 a.m., 7:30 and 10 p.m. For more info, visit www.breakthroughfilms.com.