Sunday, November 20, 2016

Nostalgia Theater: Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures!

For this week's entry I look back at the late '80s return of one of animation's most iconic characters in an incarnation that initially soared creatively before flying headfirst into an impassable wall of paranoia and stupidity. That's right, it's finally time for Nostalgia Theater to tackle Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures,  the brainchild of legendary animator Ralph Bakshi, which aired as part of CBS' Saturday morning lineup from September of '87 to October the following year.

Mighty Mouse began his life in a series of theatrical shorts in the 1940s, produced by Terrytoons (where Bakshi actually got his start in animation), but the character didn't truly come into his own until the shorts began airing in TV syndication from the '50s through the '60s (he was also briefly revived by Filmation in the late '70s). However, the '80s take foregrounded the gonzo sensibilities of Bakshi and his team (including Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi). Here's the intro:

For this series, the titular hero was given the secret identity of Mike Mouse, regular blue collar worker, who dons the red-and-yellow tights when duty calls. In addition to flirting with love interest reporter Pearl Pureheart and hanging with sidekick Scrappie, Mighty Mouse also hung out with fellow superhero Bat-Bat and even Bakshi's own defunct '70s creations the Mighty Heroes. As you can tell from the visual style, they went all out to make Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures stand apart from the rest of the kidvid landscape.

With layered satire that was aimed just as much at grown-ups as the kiddies, critics applauded, audiences were paying attention, and the series was generating a lot of buzz initially (Marvel even launched a brief tie-in comic based on the show). Even now, nearly thirty years after it aired, it still plays. That it was so far ahead of its time allows it to feel utterly of a piece with a lot of the stuff aimed at kids today. However, it wasn't long before things took a bizarre turn in the real world -- even more bizarre than anything on the show!

Given Bakshi's previous association with adult-themed animation like Fritz the Cat and Fire and Ice, you just know that Saturday morning watchdog groups were waiting for an opportunity to pounce. That opportunity ended up presenting itself unexpectedly with a segment in the seventh episode, "The Littlest Tramp," showing Mighty Mouse sniffing the remains of a crushed flower given to him by a fan. This was taken by some as an endorsement of cocaine use. (To be clear, there's no way anyone watching the actual episode could even remotely come away with that interpretation.)

Soon enough, folks were protesting and threatening to boycott advertisers. And though CBS stood by its team, perceptually the damage had been done. Mighty Mouse did get a second season renewal, but by then Kricfalusi had left to work on a revival of Beany and Cecil at ABC (which ended up facing its own plethora of problems that I'll discuss one of these days). The ratings dropped, and The New Adventures went away after its six-episode second season (though it was briefly re-aired as part of Fox's Saturday morning lineup in fall of '92).

And while the rights to the character are currently owned by CBS, The New Adventures was the last time Mighty Mouse really had a substantive presence in pop culture. (It was finally released on home video in 2010, and it's absolutely worth buying at this price.) I don't doubt that we'll see him again in some form before too long, but I think whatever comes next will have a tough time measuring up to the sheer madcap silliness of the Bakshi show, when the mouse was at his mightiest. If you're interested, you can check out the first episode below (for now):

One Year Ago in Nostalgia Theater: I Pity the Fool Who Remembers T and T

Two Year Ago in Nostalgia Theater: Ripley's Believe It Or Not

Three Years Ago in Nostalgia Theater: Airwolf Edition

Four Years Ago in Nostalgia Theater: The Fall Guy -- Remembering the Unknown Stuntman

Five Years Ago in Nostalgia Theater: The Untouchables Edition

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