It was a dark and stormy afternoon. A Disney Afternoon. Life comes at you like a hurricane. This was long after the time when rotund bears guzzling down this liquid they called Gummi juice and when a tiny rodent would go in a berzerker rage after sniffing just the hint of cheese. Now these toons were domesticated. Living in the suburbs and raising a family. They might call themselves a “troop” but the only combat action they’ve seen is a tiff over where the property line begins or ends.
That’s when he walked into my life.
Bonkers D. Bobcat.
It’s hard to make heads or tails of this guy. He’s a toon. A big toon star. He’s risking life and limb to entertain the human types. Schmoes like you and me. It makes sense. Bonkers wasn’t the only cat to walk this road. We saw something like this happened in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? back in the day. In Cool World not too long ago, too, but we don’t talk about it. It seems like a match made in heaven. But get this: the human people that Bonkers hangs around with?
They’re not flesh and blood like you and me. They’re also cartoons.
I tell Midge to hold all my calls. This was going to be a long afternoon. And it was going to end in murder.
His very existence opens an entire Pandora’s Box of questions. Was this meant to be a Disney Afternoon Roger Rabbit series? Disney was sharing those rights with Stephen Spielberg and Amblin. Maybe that’s the center of this mystery. Did rights issues with Amblin forced Disney to murder Roger Rabbit? And was Bonkers meant to step in his shoes like nothing ever happened? You don’t have to look very far to find clues. Roger was supposed to have a land all his own in Disneyland called Toontown, but any trace of him got scrubbed clean and replaced with the Mouse. Who knows, in another life, you could be taking your kids to Bonkers’ Toontown.
Then there are the mysterious and unexplained disappearances. Bonkers had been paired with a large man named Lucky Piquel for the first half of the series. Then, for some reason, Bonkers was paired up with a new human character: a young, slender woman named Miranda Wright. Miranda Wright…. that name sounds like something familiar. That’s not all though. Lucky disappear wasn’t the only one to disappear. So did half of Bonker’s cast. A grumpy police box that can detach itself from under the car’s dashboard. An anthropomorphic police siren. Into thin air, just like that. They also introduced a grumpier authority figure that Miranda reports to: Sergeant Francis Q. Grating, voiced by …
The worst thing is that ol’ Ron is probably the worst voice actor on the show. But I’m going to stop there. I don’t want Hellboy to get all medieval on my ass.
Even more mysteriously, that episode that explained why Miranda Wright replaced Lucky Piquel? It also disappeared. It aired on the Disney Afternoon, but was never re-aired again. That is, until now. Twenty-five years later, the episode that explains part of the mystery is on Disney Plus, along with all the other episodes of Bonkers. It may be the secret that blows this whole mystery wide open.
It turns out that Bonkers D. Bobcat didn’t make his debut on Disney Afternoon. Nor did he first appear on the twelve shorts that aired on CBS’ show, Disney’s Raw Toonage. Bonkers wasn’t a cop then. But no, it turns out the cat that had it all first showed up on the silver screen.
That’s right… this smartmouthed orange bobcat got his start in movies.
Bonkers was the star of an animated short called “Petal to the Metal” that aired prior to the Jon Turtletaub film called 3 Ninjas. It turns out that Bonkers is a bonafide movie star… if that’s what you call being a star of an animated short before 3 Ninjas.
It was odd. Animated shorts airing before movies had been long gone, especially in the 90’s. They only came back because the studios thought a classic cartoon revival was in the air. Disney brought them back thanks to a big star of a recent blockbuster hit. When Honey, I Shrunk the Kids came out in 1989, the movie started off with a cartoon short called “Tummy Trouble.”
The star of that short, by the way, was Roger Rabbit. Circles within circles, with a stuttering long-eared rabbit at its center.
Back in the day, Roger’s big champions were Michael Eisner and Stephen Spielberg. The used to have a good working relationship back when one of them was a chairman at Paramount and the other one was the guy behind Raiders of the Lost Ark. But they let a man come between them — some lush named Jeffrey Katzenberg. Katzenberg wanted to be second-in-command. Eisner didn’t want to lose current second in command Frank Wells. Roy E. Disney felt Katzenberg was taking too much credit for the studio’s animation successes, and Spielberg felt that Katzenberg was being mistreated. The guy would eventually leave the company and become the “K” in “Dreamworks SKG.” Bad feelings all around meant that Disney couldn’t use Roger much in the future, though.
For his part, Bonkers’ creator, Greg Weisman, denies that Bonkers was ever Roger. “Certainly, Roger provided inspiration for Bonkers,” he says in an interview. “And I suppose one could say that if some higher up had come to us and said, ‘Do you want to do the TV version of Roger Rabbit?’ (which never happened) than we would have jumped at the chance and most likely Bonkers never would have happened. But Bonkers was developed as its own entity, originally entitled ‘Toon Cop’. Roger was never our Toon Cop.” If you look at it as Disney realizing that they couldn’t use Roger Rabbit much in the future, it makes sense. They wouldn’t even ask Weisman to make a TV version of Roger if they new Spielberg would just say no. After all, there was a whole theme park land about to open, and they might be without the mascot they built the land around.
Bonkers was a cartoon that was trouble from the start. Take a look at those episodes where Bonkers was partners with Miranda Wright. The animation looks cheaper. Bonkers looks like a Hanna Barbera character and nothing like the quality you’d expect from a Disney Afternoon show. Internet detectives noticed this quirk. On “Miranda episodes,” Bonkers has just one color spot on the fur around each muzzle. On “Lucky episodes,” Bonkers has two black spots and his fur is drooping. He looks worn and bedraggled as if the Slappy Squirrel comments had cut him to his heart.
Why the change? Did the show run out of money at some point. Maybe the guy voicing Lucky demanded too much money, and The Mouse decided that he was getting too big for his britches. No. That doesn’t make sense. Both Bonkers and Detective Lucky Piquel were voiced by one Jim Cummings. A hell of a great performance, by the way. He’s doing two distinct voices.
Here’s were things get crazy. It turns out you got to turn your brain upside down. (Cut to: clip of a toon taking his brain out, rotating it, and sticking it back into his head.) You know those episodes that featured Miranda Wright? They were animated first. Who is Miranda? She is a friendly police officer partnered with Bonkers. She also came off as a Disney princess. She was friendly and reliable and had big doe-like eyes. Bonkers was a little like her animal friend.
Miranda Wright. There’s something about that name….
Here’s the theory made by people much smarter than me: when Disney execs finally got a hold of those first episodes of Bonkers, they panicked. Spielberg was charging hard with Tiny Toons Adventures, a show that leaned heavily on the legacy of classic Looney Tunes characters. Now they were unveiling their own show called Animaniacs about cartoon stars interacting with the real world. Compared to that — hell, compared to Goof Troop that came out the previous year — the animation on Bonkers was lacking.
Weisman’s team was out. Disney brought in animation veteran Robert Taylor, who had worked on Goof Troop and TaleSpin. Also on his resume is a less kid-friendly venture: The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat. Bonkers never goes full Fritz, but a lot of that cynical world view bleeds into the show. Bonkers got edgier.
Taylor paired Bonkers with Lucky Piquel — a sad, overweight man. He always complains about being cheated from a job promotion. At the same time he’s an incompetent cop who probably would have solved zero cases is Bonkers wasn’t his partner. Like Roger Rabbit’s Eddie Valiant, he’s be racist toward toons but doesn’t have the excuse of a toon killing his brother. When presented with an easy way to close a case, he’ll take the lazy way out. He also is subject to more injuries than Miranda. He can withstand being trampled upon, being blown up, and being dropped out of a plane where the parachute only opens when you hit the ground. Such is the way of a toon parachute. Lucky Piquel blurs that line between cartoon and man.
Lucky is openly resentful that Bonkers has been assigned as his partner. This was the secret that made the Lucky years better than the Miranda years. Lucky finds Bonkers insufferable, just like the audience did. We knew why Lucky was grumpy.
The toons in this era are far more grotesque. Miranda episodes were fine having a more rounded and less sad Droopy Dog stand-in who mostly complains about Bonkers wrecking his car. He is much cuter! The Piquel episodes, on the other hand, have an off-putting version of that already uncanny cartoon creature, Baby Huey. Think of it. A weirder Baby Huey. The villains got darker, too. Bonkers and Miranda felt like they were going after the Yosemite Sams of the world. Villians in the Piquel episodes had no problem with endangering children or turning toons into living museum exhibits. It’s all still appropriate for children. It’s just closer in sensibilities to older children approaching their preteens than very young children now.
In the episode called “New Partners on the Block,” Bonkers finally switches partners. Lucky saves the day, and for his services he’s hired by the FBI. He moves to Maryland. The episode aired on the original Disney Afternoon block. When the show was rebroadcast on Toon Disney, the episode mysteriously disappeared. Some people might wonder if it’s because the awkward transition from one cast of characters to another was too jarring. The truth is far more sinister.
Bonkers and Lucky are assigned one of their most harrowing cases on this episode. They must stop a domestic terrorist. A year or two after that episode first aired, Timothy McVeigh made national headlines when he bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City. The episode was pulled from rotation, along with “Fall Apart Bomb Squad”. This one is a far darker episode, by the way, with a sentient bomb leveling a comedy club, a news broadcast, and an awards ceremony as terrified humans stampede to escape.
These episodes can now be viewed on Disney Plus. Bonkers may be the most dangerous show currently on the streaming channel.
There’s another strange, absolutely unexplained mystery: Disney Plus. There, the first episode features Lucky Piquel. This episode is not the first episode of Bonkers by either production or airdate. Bonkers debuts all the way down at Episode 46.
So here, after more than a thousand words and forty-five episodes, is where I finally get to the premise of the show itself. Seriously. Why are you still reading? Bonkers is a big time actor with a long greasy ponytail, and his crew includes The Mad Hatter and The March Hare from Alice in Wonderland. He also has a stunt double named Fall Apart Rabbit, voiced by Frank Welker, who disturbingly loses body parts regularly. I confess to having quite a bit of affection for ol’ Fall Apart, an annoying Toon who surprisingly has a very warm and friendly relationship with Lucky.
In a turn of events that comments on the fickleness of modern audiences, Bonkers loses his acting career to a bunch of GI Joe lookalikes. (Taylor was a few years off with this parody. If he had the pulse of the culture at the moment, they would have been parodies of the Ninja Turtles.) He is thrown out on the streets and accidentally saves Donald Duck from a mugger. Bonkers meets Detective Piquel for the first time. Piquel’s boss is a big fan of toons, and he’d like nothing more than to have a toon on the force. Bonkers, oh the other hand, discovers that his knowledge of toon behavior is an asset. Do you remember how Judge Doom knew that no toon could resist “shave and hair cut, two bits”? Bonkers know these things too, such as how toons have four fingers, and humans have five. He helps solve cases that baffle the human police who have no idea what they should be looking for.
This makes you wonder why Disney Plus slipped this episode all the way down to 46. If you watched it in order, he is already partnered with Lucky Piquel, has switched partners to Miranda, is partnered with Lucky again, and then meets Lucky for the first time.
As a grumpy, alcoholic detective once said, “Forget it. It’s Toontown.”
The saving grace is the animation. It’s excellent during the Lucky episodes. The Miranda episodes had been done by Sunwoo Entertainment, who had done a lot of work on previous Disney Afternoon shows. The Lucky episodes were handled by Disney’s Australia studio, the wing that mostly did the direct-to-video sequels but would also provide animation for A Goofy Movie. Their episodess very close to Don Bluth’s cinematic efforts. They took special care when animating facial expressions. Bonkers’ face is amorphous and rubbery. Lucky comes with a variety of exasperated double takes.
I will also admit that many of the jokes made me laugh. For some of them, a lot. There were times I laughed so loud I looked around the room sheepishly, hoping no one heard. I think when Taylor signed on he took glee in seeing how many things he could slip into a kid’s show.
“You think Francine will laugh?” Bonkers asks. He is wondering if a toon can entertain the Chief’s sourfaced wife.
“Heh,” Lucky says with a smirk, “she hasn’t laughed since the honeymoon.”
Hell of a joke to tell on the Disney Afternoon.
Everything else is a little mediocre. The mediocrity was most apparent back in the day when it first debuted opposite Animaniacs. The theme song promised that it would be “zany to the max”, and it delivered. The jabs were contemporary, the gags were fresh, and references to Martin Scorsese’s filmography and Orson Welles were truly off-beat.
Bonker’s theme song tells you that it’s “totally nuts” and he’s “stealin’ the show.” It does not. He’s supposed to be causing Looney Tunes style mayhem. The Piquel episodes come close, with its tone bordering on noirish, but even then he’s being held back. Anything wacky is neutered in that distinctly Disney way. It’s worst in Bonkers’ first aired appearances: the episodes that re-aired the “Here’s Bonkers” segments from Raw Toonage. They feature all the surface dressings of a toon with anvils and being punted sky high and bugged out eyes but none of the daring. Desperate attempts by Disney to be Looney Tunes with none of the teeth. At no point will anyone in Bonkers finger Prince.
But you know, now that we live in a world where we’re not pitting the two shows against each other, Bonkers can be taken on its own merit. And it does get cheeky compared to today’s cartoons.
I said that this ends in a murder, and here it is: Bonkers murdered the Disney Afternoon. The popular cartoon block was created by bringing together reruns of Gummi Bears and pairing DuckTales with Chip ‘n Dale’s Rescue Rangers. After Bonkers proved to be such a nightmare to make, Disney put the brakes on the programming block. The days of original programming was over. The folks at the What A Cartoon Podcast mention that there was a “no new comedies” edict handed out thanks to Bonkers.
The Disney Afternoon was now going to chase trends. Popular, proven trends. When Greg Weisman followed up Bonkers with Gargoyles, it’s because Disney was going after Batman: The Animated Series. Gargoyles was initially intended to more comedic, but Bonkers shut that down. The animated movies were popular, so they would make sequels for films like Lion King and Aladdin. As for those Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Disney owned a whole hockey team in Anaheim now. You could turn them into anthropomorphic heroes in a half-shell… or duck feathers. The days of more original concepts were done for. No more adaptations of Carl Bark’s Uncle Scrooge comics. No more reimagining characters from the Jungle Book as a 1930’s adventure serial.
Not counting Quack Pack (airing only Tuesdays to Thursdays in 1996) and the immediately forgotten The Shnookums and Meat Funny Cartoon Show (airing only Mondays in 1994), Bonkers would be the last.
So let’s pour out one for the Disney Afternoon…. where ever you…. where ever you…. wherever you are.
Check out all the previous classic animation reviews under the tag #MADE ANIMATED!
A bulk of the info in this piece was discovered through the WHAT A CARTOON Podcast.
Episodes watched: “In the Bag,” “Hear No Bonkers, See No Bonkers”, “Is Toon Fur Really Warm?”, “Fall Apart Bomb Squad”, “In Toon We Trust”, “The Rubber Room Song”, “Tune Pig”, “New Partner on the Block”, “Witless for the Prosecution”, “Bobcat Fever”, “CasaBonkers”, “Tokyo Bonkers”, “Fistful of Anvils”, “Dog Day Aftertoon”, “Toon for a Day”, “I Outta Be In Toons”, “Frame That Toon”, “Going Bonkers”, “O Cartoon, My Cartoon”, “Fall Apart Land.”