Mighty Mouse rewrites the past

CONTENT WARNING: This article contains discussion of sexual misconduct and crimes.

The more I look into CBS Saturday morning cartoons, the more I respect whoever it was that was running the programming. Fish Police and Cadillacs & Dinosaurs may have been failures, but they were bold, risky failures. The Completely Mental Misadventures of Ed Grimley should never have been on children’s programming, but it proved that whoever greenlighted it knew a good thing when he saw it. (El Santo Note: As pointed out in the comments, Ed Grimley was on NBC.) And then we have today’s subject — Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures, a cartoon from 1987 that may have single-handedly created much of future Western animation.

Look at that list of alumni. There’s Season One showrunner John Kricfalusi, who who was four years away from taking Nickelodeon by storm with Ren & Stimpy. Bruce Timm, flexing his chops as clean-up artist before producing Batman: The Animated Series. Jim Reardon, writer of Wall-E and Simpsons director. Rich Moore, director of Wreck-It Ralph and Zootopia. Dave Wasson, creator of Time Squad. Mitch Schauer, creator of The Angry Beavers. Andrew Stanton, director of Wall-E, one of the writers behind Toy Story, and one of the first people at Pixar. And many, many more.

So someone at CBS — likely Judy Price, head of the Saturday morning cartoon programming at the time — was all, “Screw it. Let’s let Ralph Bakshi, the guy who is best known for putting an X-rated cartoon in theaters, do a Saturday morning cartoon based on a property that no one has thought about since the 1950’s!” After which she ground something up in her palm and snorted it up her nose like Mighty Mouse did in that one episode.

This sequence proved so controversial it was cut from future broadcasts.

Bakshi had pitched several pretty far-out ideas to CBS, one of them being an early version of Kricfalusi’s Ren & Stimpy. All of them got rejected… except for the pitch about the Mighty Mouse revival. Retro cartoons were hot back then. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? would arrive one year later as a triumphant victory lap to the toons of yesteryear. Ther was a slight problem: no one knew who had the rights to the character. After a bit of research it turns out… CBS had the rights to Mighty Mouse the entire time! They had purchased the entire TerryToons library in 1955 and forgot that they’d done so.

So who is Mighty Mouse, anyway, beyond a theme song used in a famous Andy Kaufman bit? The character goes back to 1942 with a mouse guy who was named Super Mouse, a parody of some superhero guy that was totally blowing up in media back then. Creator Paul Terry, the founder of Terrytoons, would rename the character “Mighty Mouse” after he found out someone else had the rights to the name. Originally Mighty Mouse was a regular mouse who gained his powers by eating superfoods, but that version of the character (from “The Mouse of Tomorrow”) looked super weird and nothing like the burly character in the red-and-yellow tights as we know him today. Mighty Mouse would go on to star in 80 theatrically released cartoons between 1942 and 1960

Mighty Mouse Mark I. Those tights look mighty familiar.

There’s a temptation, when doing a Superman parody, to turn our hero into a hypocrite, a naive buffoon, or a moron. Mighty Mouse doesn’t really do this. He’s an earnest hero, and the parody is that the stories are being done by mice. The Bakshi version respects this most of the time. No snarky takes, just pure heroism in mouse form.

A key animator who had once worked at Terrytoons is our producer: Ralph Bakshi. For those who are unfamiliar, Bakshi had gained a reputation for directing indie-style cartoons aimed at adults that courted a ton of controversy. Pornographic, racist, you name it. If someone says in interviews that they’re not racist if they hate everyone, then hoo-boy are a lot of red flags going up. He also attempted to direct an animated version of Lord of the Rings that flopped (and ran out of money), but is embraced by a lot of fans for its sheer ambition. (Watchers of the Peter Jackson films might be able to pick out a lot of elements that were homages to the Bakshi movie.)

And now this guy who has spent his career defining the public’s expectation of an adult cartoon is coming out of retirement, and he’s now going back to his roots and producing a Saturday morning show aimed at kids that is also attempting to revive a parody property from the 40’s.

CBS wanted a show by the end of the year, though, and required a quick turnaround time. The animators were split up into four teams with each group basically doing their own thing. The result is that the episodes wildly vary in tone.

Our first episode, “Night on Bald Pate”, is full of crazy off-beat humor where the villain (Petey Pate) goes mad anytime anyone mentions his baldness but is easily placated when put into bed and given something to drink. There is a lot of strangled screaming and expressions where it looks like Pate’s skull is going to leap out of his face.

The very second segment, “Mouse From Another House”, tones down the wackiness a lot and retells the origin story of Mighty Mouse (which is, basically, the Superman origin but at 1/50th scale). The tale is narrated by Mighty Mouse’s love interest, Pearl Pureheart, who exudes the mannerisms of a teacher telling a story in front of the class. Both of these segments aired in the same half-hour block, and it’s pure tonal whiplash: the first episode is a sugar high, while the second one is the crash.

Many of these episodes reside in the unreachable areas of my subconscious. When I watched “The Bagmouse”, for example, I immediately remembered the episode’s villain, Mr. Maxie. He’s a human who is mouse-sized. (Humans exist in this world, but size varies in relation to the animal characters.) Despite this being the late 80’s, he appears as if he’s the product of primitive Flash animation. His mouth is rendered backwards, and his size shifts at strange moments. It’s an unforgettable visual, and it’s very disturbing.

Mr. Maxie.

I even remembered how this episode ended, because that was full of cursed imagery as well. An accident causes Mr. Maxie to lose weight, and he transforms into a new (albeit friendlier) creature: a skinny being with stalks for eyes and a mouth that looks like Toejam from the Toejam and Earl games. I had nightmares about this guy.

Disturbing visuals, though, are the hallmark of this proto-Spümcø style. Several anthropomorphic characters are drawn far too sexually to be showing up on Saturday mornings. A character who appears to be covered in nipples will squeeze them to expel gas. And there’s a grown man wearing a diaper. You’re on the verge of several emotions: disgust, titillation, disorientation. Someone’s getting away with something profane, and it’s hard to completely put your finger on it because it’s not going far enough.

Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures exists in a world where mice (who live in a city scaled for their size) live in fear of the cats. The cats abuse the mice in several ways: bully them, attempt to eat them, etc. These mice, though, have a protector: Mighty Mouse! Who lives in a hotel in the sky. Mighty Mouse also works at a factory under the secret identity of Mike Mouse. His voice actor, Patrick Pinney, does a fine job alternating between the roles. Mighty Mouse has a theatrical voice that sounds like a radio personality with a touch of Ricky Ricardo, while Mike Mouse has an endearing “gee-whiz” friendliness to him. It’s never clear which one the real identity is, as both Mighty and Mike seem very comfortable in their skins. It actually seems more like a Jekyll and Hyde thing, as the two are barely the same character.

Mike’s supervisor is Pearl Pureheart, who gets kidnapped a lot. She is voiced by none other than Maggie Roswell, a.k.a. the voice of Helen Lovejoy from The Simpsons. Pearl is a character from the original cartoons. Mighty Mouse is also joined by precocious orphan kid Scrappy Mouse, who is not. While Scrappy is often unironically the kid-appeal character, there are times when it feels as if the animation team wants to murder him for having a cute character forced on them. Remember how, in a Scooby Doo movie written by James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy), another, more famous Scrappy was revealed to be a hulking monster — a response to how everyone found Scrappy Doo to be an annoying little git? Twenty years prior, Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures did the same thing to their own lovable little rascal.

The cartoon also leans into the superhero shared universe that had developed since the original show. Mighty Mouse is joined by Bat-Bat (a Batman parody) and Tick the Bug Wonder. Later we’re introduced to Aqua-Guppy and a superteam named the League of Super-Rodents. Later Mighty Mouse would meet The Mighty Heroes, a bunch of characters that Bakshi had created for Terrytoons back in 1966.

It’s inevitable that while doing an animation retrospective I’m going to have to run into the controversial figure that is John Kricfalusi. He was important and influential figure in the 90’s. He was forefront in the effort to bring animation back from the stiffer aesthetic in the 80’s to a looser, more fluid style that is prevalent in many modern cartoons you see today. It would make sense that animators would want to sign up to a project that allowed them more artistic freedom than anything else out there.

At the same time, Kricfalusi’s behavior is unforgivable. He engaged in a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old. Later, he flirted with a 14-year-old and sexually harassed her when she turned 18 and started working at his animation company. People who have worked with Kricfalusi have mentioned that “stories of how Kricfalusi sexually harassed female artists, including teenage girls, were known through the industry.”

Knowing this about Kricfalusi, there are some episodes that have aged badly. “The Littlest Tramp”, for example. The episode was already in trouble for the cocaine scene, but there are even worst subtexts now. The episode has a little mouse character who acts like an innocent little girl. She’s also drawn quite sexually in a ripped up dress. She is continually harassed by a big, blustery middle-aged human man who drives around in a limo. Stomping on the flowers she’s trying to sell, setting her up for crimes, that sort of thing. Mighty Mouse wants to beat him up, but the innocent mouse girl keeps insisting that the human man is misunderstood. The human man then bawls because no one has showed him such kindness! The episode ends with the man and the mouse getting married, where they share an erotically charged kiss.

Here’s where you notice the size difference. The large man is not gigantic in relation to the mouse girl as you would expect in real life. Rather, when scaled to the man, the mouse is about the size… of a child.

I suddenly feel very, very dirty. You can never fully separate the art from the artist.

The show ran for two seasons, and the style drastically changes from the first season to the next. The biggest surprise: while visually it starts to look more like a Spümcø product, John Kricfalusi is no longer the senior director. It seems he had moved on to developing a Beany and Cecil revival, the first project for the newly formed Spümcø.

It’s unclear who was in charge after. Wikipedia credits Kent Butterworth as senior director who would go on to direct a few episodes of Tiny Toons Adventures, the Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog and … 5 episodes of Homestar Runner? What? (Though now that I look back at it… I can totally see his influence in the Sonic cartoon.) Lately he seems to have settled into the role of animation timer. Butterworth seems to be a Spümcø guy, but his style seems to be a parody of what everyone thinks a John Kricfalusi cartoon looks like.

An example of Season 2’s visuals.

The stories, too, end up getting more cynical as well. As weird as the Kricfalusi cartoons are, they are thematically not really that different from the original Mighty Mouse cartoons from the 40’s and 50’s. The animation style changed, but the story of a hero mouse who comes to save the day feel cut from the same cloth of sincerity and silliness.

With Butterworth, I think too much of Bakshi’s darker impulses took over. In one, Pearl is ten times Mighty Mouse’s size and nags our hero who has forgotten to buy cheese so she can entertain her mother-in-law. Mighty Mouse, who let’s be reminded is a superhero mouse, cowers behind a lunchbox as he is berated for his inadequacies. This is why I hesitate to lay any of this at Butterworth’s feet. This feels very much like Fritz the Cat.

There’s also a parody of Howard Roark from Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead… so yeah, things got even weirder. There’s also a through-line on how creators are being stifled from their creativity by corporate suits. This should give you a sense of the mindspace occupied by the writers at the time. Kricfalusi cited this series as the beginning of the “Creator-Driven Revolution“. Finally, there’s true creative freedom when they’re not held down by The Man! Take this claim with a grain of salt, though. My sources of this were the Wikipedia, which were probably edited by Kricfalusi, and the guy’s own Blogspot, and it’s not like the guy has an overinflated sense of his own ego. The timing is about right, though. “Creators first” was the rallying cry of the 90’s, whether it was the Image creators leaving Marvel or the singer-songwriter trend or auteur-driven movies like Tarantino. Mighty Mouse was one of the first of that trend.

The finale is a clip show of The New Adventures. Mighty Mouse has forced his villains to watch his “home movies” as punishment for their crimes. Bat-Bat is there too… I guess just to hang out? I had thought that they were going to air classic footage, which might have made for a better episode. However, they had gone to that well a couple times before already. In fact, one of them was a music video several old Terrytoons done to a long jazz version of the Mighty Mouse theme. (An AMV before AMV’s were a thing!) I can imagine kids everywhere tuning out at this moment and turning back to playing with their toy dinosaurs.

During the finale, our voice actors do voiceovers a la MST3K and snark over the footage. Yet they are the most bored, dispiriting riffs. The mostly just restate what is going on in the footage. The series ends with Mighty Mouse alone in a room. Everyone, even his friends, has slunk off after finding the footage too boring. It’s almost as if everyone was just waiting for this show to end already.

I mean, who could pay attention when Cool World was on the horizon?

It does make me wonder though: in today’s world where superheroes have saturated every corner of pop media, is there room for an new and different Mighty Mouse cartoon? Though Teen Titans Go! might have that corner covered already.

Check out all the previous classic animation reviews under the tag #MADE ANIMATED!