Saturday-Morning Revolution: When Ralph Bakshi met Mighty Mouse

By on September 30, 2015

On Sept. 19, 1987, CBS-TV unleashed a new Saturday morning animated show on unsuspecting moppets and their undoubtedly boggled and probably delighted parents: A fresh rendering of the old Terrytoons cartoon superhero Mighty Mouse, directed by the notorious filmmaker Ralph Bakshi.

Though it ran for just two seasons and 19 episodes before the network pulled the plug, “Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures” was an historic event in American television. A wild and utterly unpredictable show whose sophisticated material usually soared way over the heads of its intended juvenile audience, it was not unlike Jay Ward’s similarly revolutionary “Rocky and His Friends,” which had seduced the previous generation.

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Daring, manic, and proudly post-modern, “The New Adventures” set the tonal stage for such succeeding, usually cable-bred series as “Ren & Stimpy” (whose creator John Kricfalusi was Bakshi’s right-hand man on “Mighty Mouse”) and sly feature-length cartoons like Wall-E and Shrek (whose directors, both of whom won Oscars, also worked on the CBS show). It set the stage for the barrier-busting animation that would follow in the next three decades.

“Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures” was the (literally last-minute) inspiration of Bakshi, who had established himself as animation’s most maverick talent in the ‘70s. The Brooklyn-born artist was himself a product of Paul Terry’s studio Terrytoons, where he labored in the ‘50s and early ‘60s. His superhero spoof “The Mighty Heroes” aired on CBS for one season in 1966-67.

It was after he founded his own studio, Bakshi Productions, in New York in 1968 that he began to hit his personal stride. Through the ‘70s, he helmed a series of animated features – some of them highly personal – that broke new ground and scandalized many. Fritz the Cat (1972), an adaptation of R. Crumb’s underground comic rife with sex and drugs, became the first full-length cartoon to be slapped with an X by the MPAA; its successor, the semi-autobiographical Heavy Traffic (1973), was similarly pilloried by the ratings board.

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After pushing the envelope repeatedly, Bakshi moved into milder and more fantastical fare; his 1978 adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings – which took in just the first half of the English author’s trilogy – was a huge box-office hit, grossing more than seven times its production cost. But, after the production of Fire and Ice (1983), a flop collaboration with fantasy artist Frank Frazetta, he began sidling back towards TV, without initial success.

In an agonizing process he would later spoof, Bakshi pitched several ideas for new cartoon series to CBS programming exec Judy Price, who rejected all of them out of hand. Desperately, Bakshi lied to Price and told her that he held the rights to Mighty Mouse. Price greenlighted a show, and Bakshi scrambled to secure rights from Viacom, the owner of the Terrytoons library. To his relief, they granted his request.

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In his Hollywood production studio, Bakshi assembled a fittingly oddball corps of writer-animators for “Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures.” His accomplices were all young and hungry, and either jaundiced veterans of the Saturday a.m. cartoon mills or imaginative recent graduates of the California Institute of the Arts.

They included Kricfalusi, Lynne Naylor (a future partner in John K.’s production company Spumco), Vicky Jenson (who went on to direct Shrek), Rich Moore (later a director of “Futurama”), Jim Reardon (the writer of Wall-E and a director on “The Simpsons”), Tom Minton (subsequently a guiding force on series like “Tiny Toon Adventures” and “Duck Dodgers”), and Andrew Stanton (who later wrote or directed Toy Story 2 and 3, A Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo, and Wall-E).

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Bakshi was a difficult, demanding, and explosive boss – few who worked on the show failed to be fired and then rehired by their temperamental overseer – but he gave his charges almost unlimited freedom. Unique among network animated shows, “Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures” was usually written and storyboarded by its in-house staff of artists. They were encouraged to try and get away with murder; if Bakshi received complaints from CBS’s standards and practices department, which supervised the shows’ content, he would invariably tear up the notes.

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The “New Adventures” bore little resemblance to the stolid and generally joyless Mighty Mouse cartoons that Terrytoons had produced for movie houses in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s. The airborne, super-powered titular hero was of course retained; he was given an alter ego, “Mike Mouse,” who worked on an assembly line in a factory owned by Pearl Pureheart, Mighty Mouse’s returning love interest. He was also saddled with a recurring sidekick, Scrappy the Mouse, an orphan who was the vehicle for mocking the sentiment of funny-animal cartoons in the Disney mode.

Otherwise, it was “anything goes.”

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The show’s debut episode gave a hint of things to come. “Night On Bald Pate” introduced recurring self-made super-villain Petey Pate, a shrieking, drooling, gibbering maniac whose outbursts made the excesses of classic Warner Bros. cartoons look subdued; in one delirious moment, he bounded around the screen against a background that was a carefully rendered pastiche of a Salvador Dali canvas. The accompanying “Mouse From Another House,” Mighty Mouse’s origin story and a lampoon of Superman’s comic-book roots, was the first of many digs at DC Comics and the superhero genre in general.

The pre-adolescent tykes who were the primary audience for the show probably missed almost all the gags, but may have been carried away by the lunatic energy of the animation. For adults, “Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures” was a feast that demolished various pop-cultural institutions – old movies, comic books, TV shows, animation itself – with gleeful abandon.

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In short order, the show would take on and take down, among other things, the ‘60s “Batman” TV show (with the introduction of wisecracking, hyper-stylized superhero the Bat Bat and mooing archvillain the Cow); the black-and-white TV antiquities “The Honeymoooners,” “Perry Mason,” and Edward R. Murrow’s “See It Now;” the movies Frankenstein, Mutiny On the Bounty, The Amazing Colossal Man, Fantastic Voyage, Conan the Barbarian, and (unbelievably) the adaptation of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead; and the beloved Disney animated features Pinocchio and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (the latter of which was transplanted to modern-day Detroit, complete with a homage to Tex Avery’s over-the-top 1943 MGM short “Red Hot Riding Hood”).

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One of the most crazed and brilliantly designed segments, “Mighty’s Benefit Plan,” was a pure product of Bakshi’s personal animosity. It spoofs cutesy ‘50s pop act, and subsequent Saturday morning stars, Alvin & the Chipmunks – seen here as “Elwy and the Tree Weasels,” managed by David Seville doppelganger “Sandy Bottomfeeder”).

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At the time the show was in production, Bakshi’s facility was adjacent to the company run by Chipmunks creator Ross Bagdasarian (aka “Seville”), whose dog would regularly wander into Bakshi’s office and defecate on the carpet. The animal was subsequently run over on the street outside the building; the inclusion of flattened canine “Mashie the Pup” is an allusion to the incontinent critter’s demise.

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Terrytoons’ own creations were not safe from Bakshi’s lance. Gandy Goose, one of the studio’s minor ‘40s stars, emerged from a block of arctic ice for some anachronistic adventures; his feline co-star Sourpuss was depicted as a Skid Row bum. Mighty Mouse’s old-school adversary Oil Can Harry returned for an obsessive pursuit of Pearl Pureheart. (Bits and pieces of old Terrytoons shorts were repurposed in several music video-styled montages in both seasons.)

Even Bakshi’s Mighty Heroes were taken as satirical fodder: In “Heroes and Zeroes,” the quintet of oddball superheroes reappeared 20 years later – as the members of the accounting firm “Man, Man, Man, Man & Man.”

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The swarthy, stubbled, cigarette-chewing Bakshi himself came in for some ribbing: He was drawn into the show in portraits seen fleetingly on walls, on the backs of cereal boxes, in crowd scenes, and as a “bit player.” In the show’s final episode, “A Star is Milked,” he was finally given a starring role, as “R.B.,” the director of a Hollywood feature based on Mighty Mouse’s life story.

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It was obvious from the first that a show as unhinged and impolite as “The New Adventures” would take some fire from humorless protectors of public morality. In late 1987, “The Littlest Tramp,” a demented take-off on “The Little Match Girl,” came under fire, after Mighty Mouse was shown inhaling the crushed stem of a dried-out flower.

Rev. Donald Wildmon, head of the the American Family Assn., created an uproar over the gag, which he perceived as a reference to snorting cocaine. Somewhat disingenuously, Bakshi and his staff denied the assertion, and the controversy (pardon the expression) blew over after three seconds of offending footage was lopped for future airings. But it was clear that the show probably wasn’t long for this world.

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During its truncated second season, on which Bakshi served as the principal director, “Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures” upped the satirical ante significantly; episodes that took a whack at TV pitch meetings and movie production were so impossibly inside that their jibes may have eluded even some adult viewers.

The show may have reached its pinnacle with “Don’t Touch That Dial,” which aired in October 1988, just three weeks before the series ended its run. (It is seen at the top of this story.) It is Bakshi’s equivalent of “Duck Amuck,” Chuck Jones’ 1953 Warner Bros. classic starring Daffy Duck, which tore down cartooning’s fourth wall once and for all. Three decades later, Mighty Mouse — trapped in a TV set controlled by a remote-wielding brat — becomes a victim of existential torment worthy of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit.

Bakshi’s Mighty Mouse was predicated on the notion that network cartoon shows were formulaic, boring, and humorless, and “Dial” illustrated that point with elaborate and spot-on parodies of Hanna-Barbera’s “The Flintstones” and “The Jetsons” (conflated into “The Jetstones”), the same studio’s “Scooby-Do Where Are You!,” and Columbia’s “The Real Ghostbusters.” (Ward’s “Rocky and Bullwinkle” received a more affectionate nudge – the original flying squirrel was replaced by Sylvester Stallone’s like-named pugilist.)

The moral of “Don’t Touch That Dial”: TV rots your mind, you can find something better to do with your time, and in the end it’s all about advertising.

And thusly, “Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures” went off the air with a fitting swan song, biting the hand that fed it. In the space of just 13 months, it managed to kick-start an insurrection in American animation, one whose shockwaves are still being felt today. Happily, it lives on via YouTube, where the series can be viewed in its entirety.

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About Chris Morris

Chris Morris is the author of Together Through Life: A Personal Journey with the Music of Bob Dylan (ROTHCO Press) and the critical biography Los Lobos: Dream in Blue (University of Texas Press). He is also a contributor to X bassist-vocalist John Doe’s bestselling book about L.A. punk, Under the Big Black Sun (Da Capo Books).
  • Patrick Benoit

    It’s also on DVD for those who want to own it.