'Kiddie' cartoons entertain growing adult audience Drawing An Older Crowd


A world-renowned scholar on T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound writes a book about the guy who created Wile E. Coyote. A cable channel that shows nothing but cartoons says a third of its audience is old enough to vote. Animation cels -- the hundreds of individual drawings that make up a six-minute cartoon -- sell for hundreds, even thousands of dollars.

Even Yasser Arafat decides against moving to the Gaza Strip when he learns its cable system doesn't include the Cartoon Network.

Cartoons may have a reputation for being kids' stuff; in fact, they're anything but. Just ask Ken Dennison, who regularly sits down in his Bel Air home to watch episodes of "Johnny Quest" with his 3-year-old son, Drew.

"Johnny Quest was just a good character," says Mr. Dennison, 30, a senior art director for the Baltimore advertising firm of W.B. Doner. "When I was a kid, I just watched it because it was a cartoon, and that's what you did. But now that I'm older, I realize it's nice fantasy stuff. They're just good."

Mr. Dennison's love of Johnny Quest and Scooby Doo has made him a big fan of the Cartoon Network, one of cable's fastest growing channels. (Locally, it is available only in Harford and Carroll counties, though it might be added to Baltimore's cable lineup sometime next year.)

"I definitely watch it a lot," he says. "I probably watch it too much, even more than ESPN."

Launched just over two years ago, the all-animation channel -- yet another piece of the vast media empire lorded over by Ted Turner -- is already the fifth-most-popular cable network, according to numbers from the third quarter of 1994. While the majority of its audience may not be much older than the network itself, better than one-third of those who tune in are 18 or older.

Hard to believe? It shouldn't be, animation aficionados say. Kids alone have not made "The Simpsons" a cultural touchstone or turned "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" into a box-office blockbuster.

Great cartoons always have appealed to a wide range of ages and tastes. Consider: the winner of a recent poll asking animators to name the greatest cartoon of all time features Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd in a condensed version of a Wagnerian opera -- and plenty of adults own $100 laser-disc versions of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" that they wouldn't let their children anywhere near.

"I think adults respond just as well to color and movement at 35 years old as they do at 8," says Mike Lazzo, the Cartoon Network's vice president of programming. "Cartoons just provide a hook every bit as powerful as John Wayne or Sam Malone."

Each type of cartoon has its proponents. Most popular among adults are cartoons produced by the Warner Brothers studios, mostly during the 1940s and 1950s and featuring such stalwarts as Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, the Road Runner and that wisecracking epitome of cool, Bugs Bunny. Disney cartoons are slightly less popular, if only because they seem more specifically geared to children's tastes and don't wallow in the bad puns and sarcastic asides so prevalent in the Warners canon. But plenty of adults would argue that films like "Fantasia" are among the greatest movies Hollywood has ever produced.

The team of William Hanna and Joseph Barbera first brought Tom and Jerry to the screen for MGM, then later went independent with The Flintstones, Yogi Bear and dozens of other characters. Walter Lantz was the creative force behind Woody Woodpecker, while Max Fleisher wielded the pen responsible for Betty Boop and Popeye.

But regardless of their origin, cartoon lovers agree, one maxim is a constant: A good cartoon is good entertainment. They make you laugh, feature appealing characters and hold up under repeated viewings.

"Chuck Jones [who created Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner] used to say, 'I never did them for kids, I did them for myself.' That's a very interesting quote," says Hugh Kenner, a renowned authority on modern Irish and American literature whose latest book, "A Flurry of Drawings," is a biography and critical assessment of Jones.

Count Dr. Kenner, 71, a former Johns Hopkins professor now teaching at the University of Georgia, among the true believers. He believes great cartoons -- like those in his extensive video collection -- are works of art. His biography of Mr. Jones is the third in the University of California Press' "Portraits of American Genius" series.

The brass ring

One of his favorites is "What's Opera, Doc?" the animated version of Wagner's Ring trilogy that Mr. Jones created in 1957. Its artistry, Dr. Kenner suggests, lies not simply in its artwork or dialogue, but in the way it transcends two worlds. While the music is really Wagner's, the characters are definitely Looney Tunes.

"If you close your eyes, you're hearing the real thing," Dr. Kenner says from his home in Athens, Ga. "If you open your eyes, you're seeing Elmer Fudd trying to kill a Rabbit."

So pervasive has been the influence of "What's Opera, Doc?" that when Dr. Kenner's daughter enrolled in a music appreciation course and discussion turned to the Ring trilogy, the entire class burst into a chorus of "Kill the wabbit, kill the wabbit" -- Elmer Fudd's oft-repeated chant.

But one doesn't have to enter the hallowed halls of academe to find cartoon lovers and theories on why animation has its adult adherents.

Charlie Bowers, a Glen Burnie T-shirt designer and aspiring animator, remembers being awestruck by Disney's "The Rescuers Down Under." "Some of the sequences they created in that film just blew me away," says Mr. Bowers, 24. "The animation, the way characters were incorporated into the landscape, it was like nothing I'd ever seen before."

For Mr. Dennison, the very unreality of cartoons is their greatest asset.

"It's that leap from reality," he says. "Immediately, you suspend belief and you just sit there and watch it and enjoy it. You don't analyze it."

Many film critics would agree with him. In fact, several have theorized that Warner Brothers cartoons, especially, are successors to the slapstick comedies so popular in the days of the silents -- and may explain why that sort of broad film comedy has largely disappeared from the movies. Charlie Chaplin, they note, may have taken a great pratfall, but even his best couldn't match the sight of Wile E. Coyote plummeting off a cliff.

'Innocent romanticism'

Sean Murphy, a film editor and writer who lives in BelAir, favors Disney's feature-length animated features, like "Snow White," "Pinocchio" and the more recent "The Little Mermaid" and "The Lion King."

"They have a sense of innocent romanticism that you don't find in live-action features," says Mr. Murphy, 34, whose favorite is "Beauty and the Beast."

"It's exceptionally well done . . . it's a classic tale that can always endure one more telling," he says.

Dr. Kenner, for one, finds cartoons are better when they avoid humans altogether -- one reason he prefers Warner Brothers to Disney. "The problem with 'Snow White' is the prince," he explains. "In Warner Brothers, you don't get representations of humans. I think they're better for that reason. There's no confusion about what they're trying to achieve."

But for many adults, trying to analyze why they like cartoons -- judging their artistry, looking for levels of meaning -- takes all the fun out of it. For them, cartoons are simply fun, and have been since they were kids. Isn't that enough?

"My generation grew up sitting in front of that cathode-ray tube every morning," says the Cartoon Network's Mr. Lazzo. "I don't think [watching cartoons] is a reluctance to let go or a nod to immaturity. I just think it's something that viewers of a certain age are comfortable with.

"To a great degree," he adds, "these characters became my generation's John Wayne."

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