It wasn’t until I started researching The Twisted Tales of Felix the Cat that I realized how much Film Roman owns my soul.
If the name sounds familiar, it’s because Film Roman is responsible for animating the majority of The Simpsons. Originally animated by Klasky Csupo, The Simpsons switched over to Film Roman in Season 4. Film Roman continued being the animation studio all the way to Season 27. So when anyone posts a Simpsons gif on here, there’s a good chance that it was from an episode animated by Film Roman.
But that’s not all! Film Roman got started way back in 1984 when Phil Roman, who had been working under Bill Melendez Productions, decided to start his own studio because Melendez was swamped with work and was unable to work on Garfield specials. Its first project was A Garfield In the Rough. Film Roman would go on to produce specials that were familiar mainstays at every single holiday: Garfield’s Halloween Adventure, A Garfield Christmas Special, and Garfield’s Thanksgiving. All of this led to a Film Roman production that I would consider one of the finest cartoons ever made in the 80’s: Garfield and Friends. Garfield may already have been a popular character, but Film Roman gave Garfield dimension beyond a Monday-hating lasagna aficionado. (And for anyone who thinks Garfield is lame, I challenge you to watch the Garfield and Friends cartoon.)
Film Roman was also responsible for Bobby’s World, X-Men: Evolution, and the first two seasons of Family Guy (i.e. when the show was good). Film Roman was also partially responsible for the best Avengers adaptation on television: Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. So it’s kind of a surprise to me that another show about a famous cartoon cat snuck so far under my radar.
Felix the Cat comes from such a storied history that the 1995 cartoon being covered today barely ranks as a footnote in the Felix the Cat Wikipedia entry. Our black-and-white round headed character made his debut in 1919, preceding Mickey Mouse by almost a decade and Bugs Bunny by almost two. He’s an iconically simple design. Many characters that succeeded him follow the same template. I ran across a zen-like YouTube video where Felix the Cat transforms into Sonic the Hedgehog. The basics are all there.
Early Felix cartoons are pretty darned primitive, looking very much like doodles a talented high schooler would draw in a composition pad out of boredom. The style reminds me a lot of something straight out of newspaper comic strips. I haven’t seen it mentioned anywhere, but I imagine that George Herriman’s Krazy Kat was an influence.
There’s this coiled up energy to this early cartoon. Felix is on the screen bouncing around like he’s about to unleash mayhem at any moment. He’s also a bit of a lush. The one cartoon I saw had him boozing with his pals at a speakeasy while his wife waited for him at home with a rolling pin. Eventually Felix gets into a fight with a street lamp.
Felix would continue to survive throughout the decades. An important milestone was the 1950’s revival. These implemented the static “limited animation” style that we associate these days with Hanna-Barbera. (Sixties Felix — which went 250 episodes! — was done by Famous Studios, Paramount’s animation wing.) While the show introduced several important concepts to the Felix mythos (such as Felix’s “Bag of Tricks”), I find them a little hard to watch. Seeing Felix rendered in such stilted animation was like watching a master be chained and denied the use of his hands.
So which version does Twisted Tales go forward with? It’s closest to the 1930’s version — something of a footnote in the Cat’s storied history. Felix suddenly found himself surrounded by a more mature animation industry. A silent cartoon character rendered in black-and-white now had to contend with cartoon characters that could talk and were rendered in Technicolor. It wasn’t enough just to be the only cartoon character on the block. Change or die, Felix. You had to set yourself apart. You had to get weird.
Echoes of this era resonate throughout the 90’s cartoon. The first episode of Twisted Tales of Felix the Cat features a villainous restaurateur who has a machine that picks up sentient animals and shoves them in a meat grinder. Which then visually turns them into meat patties. The meat patties, though, have eyes and seem pretty jolly in their new form. Ah, the morbid humor that people found funny in the 1930’s now have a new home in the ironic 1990’s!
That’s not to say that 90’s Felix didn’t know what kind of world he was living in nowadays. I want to talk about the intro a little, which features a primitive CGI model of our very own Felix. I think it works on several levels. First, it’s drawing in the eyes of the kids. CGI cartoons were the new hotness, and CGI Felix is the catnip to draw in new viewers even if it doesn’t feature on the actual show. Second, it’s sort of a jab at how everyone seemed to be jumping onto the CGI trend even as the cartoon itself, which recalls far more traditional styles, shows that it’s not necessary.
And third… it’s a reference to one of the episodes. Felix wanders into an animator’s studio where they’re producing a new episode of Twisted Tales of Felix The Cat. It turns out to be the episode that Felix is currently in, only in a very preliminary phase. (The implication is the finished product is going to look exactly like the current cel animation.) In the episode, Felix is a dilemma. In a very Spaceballs movie, he decides to rewind time so he can finish watching the wireframe storyboards so he can figure out what he’s supposed to do next.
Very meta, this Felix. In a later episode, Felix gets kicked out of two additional studios: “Flem Roman” and “Scumco.” Curse you, John K., can I never flee your grasp! There is a lot of that influence at play in this show, though. In a sense, Felix was sort of the half-way house between Ren & Stimpy and Spongebob Squarepants.
Felix’s voice is provided by Thom Adcox-Hernandez. He’s not a familiar voice, but he does have some roles under his belt: Lexington on Gargoyles, and Klarion the Witch-Boy on Young Justice. Adcox-Hernandez gives Felix the voice of innocent enthusiasm… at odds with Felix’s drunken layabout from the early years but really not that far from 30’s Technicolor Felix. He nails Felix’s “Eh heh heh HEH” laugh.
Wikipedia implies not the first choice, though. He seems been a placeholder has he was replaced by Charlie Adler for Season 2. I guess when the voice behind Buster Bunny, the Bigheads, Snively, and live-action movie Starscream becomes available, you just can’t say no. That said, Adler’s Felix is almost a different character. I’m not sure if it’s his portrayal, or if it’s Mark Evanier’s more cutting writing style or both.
Season 2 Felix has a meaner edge. It’s a more appropriate portrayal when you have Evanier writing the eps. (Evanier is best known for co-writing Groo the Wanderer, a comic where a dim-witted Conan stand-in drawn by Sergio Aragones regularly chops his enemies into pieces. He is also a prominent comics editorialist.) “Poo poo mouth!” Adler’s Felix would scold his sentient magic bag while spanking its bare, flesh-colored bottom. “Mustn’t speak naughty words!” In one episode, kids turn off Felix (a cartoon star) because he’s just not kid-friendly enough. Not like Fuzzy Bunny!
Why, where’s the bright young Felix from Season 1 that I remembered? The one who used to play a banjo on street corners for a living! Now he’s a snarky millionaire who’s waking up in a mansion and railing against upstarts horning in on his fame! Lemme tell you, When Felix starts insulting Rosco for his dimwittedness and his love of comic books, a little part of me died. Evanier’s gotta Evanier.
The rest of the voice cast are a rogue’s gallery of talents: Jennifer Hale, Cree Summer, Frank Welker, Phil Hayes, Tony Jay, Jim Cummings, Patrick Fraley, Brad Garrett, Billy West, Tom Kenny, and many more. Seriously, name a prominent voice actor from the 90’s and he or she was on Felix the Cat. Rob Paulsen? Yup, he’s credited. When your first voice director is Susan Blu (Arcee from the Transformers), you are going to get some quality voice actors. The generally high quality all around, in fact may be why this show is reputed to be one of the most expensive cartoons created by Film Roman.
Compared to other Film Roman projects, the animation style is quite complex. There are tons of different character designs that follow age-old templates. Characters have wild, exaggerated movements like they’re made of stretchable rubber. There’s a ton of creative locations. And the animators has fun with the show’s surreal nature.
The show was described as Fleischer-style. I point this out mainly because I don’t think Felix ever was ever animated by Fleischer studios. Even in the 30’s, during a short stretch where Felix was animated by Van Buren Studios, the characters looked rounder and roly-poly. With Twisted Tales, everyone seems to have stepped out of Popeye. They’ve got elongated oval noses and stretched out torsos like Popeye’s villains, the Goons. To summarize: Felix is already a classic property, and it’s being used to pay homage to an animation style of another classic property.
As a Fleischer pastiche, though, it’s lovingly accurate. One episode, “Noah’s Nightclub,” contains familiar jazzy sung interludes and anthropomorphic buildings, clouds, and elements. If the color palette had been more muted, it would be indistinguishable from a cartoon made in the 1920’s.
It wasn’t consistently beholden to the Fleischer style. Several episodes would go for a more zany, slapstick route you might find on Tiny Toons Adventures. Still, you wonder if there were specific animation teams whose whole reason for signing on was to do these throwback cartoons.
The Twisted Tales of Felix the Cat is yet another 90’s cartoon — along with Mighty Mouse and Batman: The Animated Series —- to take inspiration from the Golden Age of animation. There was just something in the 90’s, perhaps inspired by Roger Rabbit, the Disney Renaissance, and Spielberg’s successes with Don Bluth properties, that made it seem like the old ways of animation were the way of the future.
In the end, though, the winner was limited animation. Twisted Tales gave way to a retro style, but one that was more closely inspired by the sixties aesthetic. Animation would trend towards Dexter’s Lab, The Powerpuff Girls, and the emerging hobbyists using Flash animation. These cartoons that used limited animation as an asset and grew it in new and interesting ways. Maybe it was costs that eventually brought the Fleischer style cartoons to an end.
So what’s next for this over 100 year old character? Well, the rights got sold to DreamWorks, which is under the Comcast/Universal umbrella. Your move, Shrek. Stop making more Boss Babies and get a new Felix going!
Check out all the previous classic animation reviews under the tag #MADE ANIMATED!
H/t to Flubba for the recommendation!