Canadians have many things in the entertainment world to be proud as they celebrate Canada Day today. To name one example, SCTV was one of the most brilliant shows ever made. And then there are pieces of Canadiana best left forgotten.
One of them is Rocket Robin Hood.
Yes, the show had the smooth Bernard Cowan and the very funny (under normal circumstances) Carl Banas as part of the voice cast. But after watching in horror and disbelief at the first two minutes of one show at the age of 11 or so, all I felt was sorrow for those poor kids in Canada’s hinterland who could only get the CBC and were therefore forced to watch it.
Where better to get an opinion on this Canada Day about a Canadian show on Canada’s national network than from Canada’s national magazine? Douglas Marshall reviewed Robin in the March 1968 edition of Macleans magazine. Marshall touches on the Canadian aspect, though he ignores the fact the reason Steve Krantz produced the series in Toronto is doing so cost less than animating it in New York. He also lumps the show in with other superhero cartoons, and dismisses the whole works of them. Limited animation at Hanna-Barbera’s factory is one thing. But there was no excuse for Rocket Robin Hood being as ugly, boring and stiff as it was.
A VERY UNFUNNY THING happened to television cartoons for children on the way to 1968. Bang! Zap! Pow! With flashing laser beams and crackling doomsday machines, the deadly-serious superheroes swarmed out of our pop-cultural past to win control of Saturdays.
Long gone is Huckleberry Hound, with his multi-level wit and humor. Say a melancholy prayer for those delightful cartoons that combined zany animation with educational themes. Poor Roger Ramjet, that valiant non-hero, is fighting a rear-guard action against the Neitzschean onslaught. And even the irrepressible Top Cat, perhaps the best cartoon character ever conceived for TV, is clearly on his last legs. Only the Oscar-winning Bugs Bunny, now in what seems to be his fifth season of repeats on the CBC, remains strongly entrenched to defend the cause of comedy against the invasions of gratuitous violence.
The program that immediately precedes Bugs Bunny on Saturday afternoons, Moby Dick and the Mighty Mightor, is a prime example of the cartoon world’s New Order. The plots, regurgitated by a one-cell computer in the Hanna and Barbera factory, are unbelievably moronic. The basic formula is some variation of the Clark Kent-Superman switch, followed by a five-minute burst of mayhem. Television invariably adds a junior super-hero, so kids can identify, and a cute little animation figure—monkey, seal, elephant, auk—to remind us there was once a Walt Disney.
The utter pointlessness of the super-hero cartoons is appalling. So is the poverty of imagination. The only idea that went into Mighty Mightor, for instance, was the initial brainwave: “Hey, let’s refight World War II in the stone age.” The result is a crudely animated war movie. The villains, grotesque cavemen or snarling vulture men, all look like 1940 comic-book drawings of Nazi goons. The stone-laden pterodactls zoom down like Stuka dive-bombers and the tyrannosauri reges charge like panzers. In the background are disguised flame-throwers, howitzers, machine guns and all the other artifacts of slaughter. Mightor is obviously General Eisenhower.
Don’t get the idea there is any subtle message in this. The war analogy is purely mechanical. The creators simply can’t be bothered to change last year’s scripts, which probably deal with a Sir Lancelot hero on the Normandy beachhead. The same crab-like saucer smashed by Moby Dick reappears minutes later to be smashed again by Space Ghost. After all, it takes 5,000 separate drawings to make a 30-minute show of this jerky trash, so why waste a good flying saucer profile?
Are superheroes just the latest example of degenerate American values?
What’s more, the latest Canadian superhero, the CBC’s Rocket Robin Hood, is an all-Canadian program animated in Toronto by Allen and Claire Guest. The 30-minute series (there will be 52 episodes) is probably the most widely distributed Canadian TV program in history. Rocket Robin Hood is currently being shows in the United States and is scheduled for Britain, Australia and South Africa. A French version is going out on the CBC French network. A Spanish version is being prepared for South America.
Canadians can console themselves that Rocket Robin, an intergalactic protector of the poor, is the least offensive of the superheroes. But that’s not saying much. The series was commissioned by New York distributor Stephen Krantz. He chose Canada for the production because it gives the program 100-percent Canadian content (making it easier to sell here) and qualifies as 50 percent British content in Britain. One happy result is that the Guests now employ 140 artists and have the third-largest animation studio on the continent.
Claire Guest tried to persuade Krantz that Canadians could write imaginative scripts and would be able to work more closely with the artists. Krantz turned the idea down. “So all the scripts are written in the States and they’re garbage,” Guest admits. “I think the superhero genre has been overworked and will soon die. Human beings are three times more difficult to cartoon than animals and it’s all just talk, talk, talk.”
It’s also all pow, pow, pow. The repetition is so monotonous that it’s hard to believe anyone over the age of six wouldn’t be bored to tears. And many pre-school children I know simply won’t watch superheroes. They say the programs are nasty. So who does the CBC think is enjoying Rocket Robin Hood? The corporation, which bought the series when it was still only an idea, won’t release ratings. But unofficial figures show that some 600,000, two thirds of them children, are tuning in. Which is sad indeed.
Al Guest says he is anxious to return to cartooning animals. The sooner the better. Meanwhile, if Rocket Robin Hood is being broadcast just because of its Canadian content, I’d sooner have my children watch reruns of Hatch’s Mill. It should have been shown on Saturday afternoons in the first place.