Sunday, July 19, 2015

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Grin and Bear It

Saturday morning cartoons saw their share of anthropomorphic animals: dogs, cats, horses, apes, even sharks. But bears had their place in the lineup too, and they did more than just steal pic-a-inc baskets. In this episode of the 'rewatch, I'm bear-ly able to suppress the bad puns as I present to you: The Gummi Bears and Pandamonium.

Imagine an evil, inhuman force from beyond our world hell-bent on controlling the universe, who one day turns its attentions on Earth. The thing's less like Cthulhu and more like Sauron — in that it's got a fascination with hunting down pieces of some ancient relic — but not really, and likes to mind control people for shits and giggles. And the only people who can stop it are two American teenagers and a trio of pandas. This would be Pandamonium. Why these kids are the only people in the world who seem to be able to bear-up under the badguy's Jedi Mind Trick is beyond me (perhaps because said badguy has already lulled me with its psychic attack — excuse me while I run for my tinfoil helmet), but the real mystery is the bears. They're not like your normal pandas. They can speak (for some reason, I have a vague memory of the pandas being a kind of Three Stooges rip-off, but I may be wrong), at least one of them wears a hat, and strangest of all, these pandas do more than just laze around eating bamboo all day in a Chinese zoo. They actually participate in the adventures, and possess the ability to combine, Devastator-like, into a single, larger (sort of) entity known as Poppapanda who is better suited to take on the villain. In terms of animals to hinge the plot on, it didn't really have to be pandas to make this show work. It could have just as easily been hamsters, except then the title of the show would've been something like Ham-fisted or Hamstrung, and neither has the ring to it that Pandamonium does. Anyway, here's what Pandamonium looks like:

If you'll bear with me (See, I didn't stop. I could have. But I didn't. And you love me for it.), there's another pinnacle of ursine animation to experience: Disney's The Gummi Bears. For several seasons, The Mouse's machine cranked out this story about a small group of intelligent, bipedal, half-sized bears having adventures in their forest as they hide from a nearby medieval human civilization and an army of dangerous, if stupid, ogres commanded by a rogue human duke. They're joined by a couple of trustworthy human friends. When confronted by enemies, the Gummis have a bit of an advantage in escaping (and sometimes fighting), thanks to the magical gummiberry juice they always keep on-hand.

And yet, for all of Disney's attempts to make these stories fun, there's something deeply disturbing about them if viewers (even kids) pay attention to the backstories and some of the settings (not unlike Adventure Time with Finn & Jake episodes): the Gummi bears of Gummi Glen are (more or less) the last, isolated members of a fallen civilization. Each episode features the bears reading from their precious Book of Gumm, a collection of the history and lore of their people, and every time it's a reinforcement of what the Gummis used to have in the past, and what they no longer have now. We see them travel through the vastness of Gummi Glen, clearly some sort of former city or large outpost colony, with its echoing, but empty tunnels, shafts, and rooms. The half-dozen or so Gummis who are left occupy only a tiny section of the settlement, and frequently have to go out on repair missions to maintain its failing infrastructure, even though there's no-one else to use it. Eerily, we never really find out why Gummi Glen is empty, or why they're the only ones left. Sure, there are episodes that reference other Gummi communities, and sometimes other Gummis wander out of the woods to join our heroes, but never in any great numbers, and never for very long. There are episodes telling about some great past migration of Gummis over the sea, but the Gummi Glen residents never go this new land, and there's no armada of triumphantly returning bears set on re-taking their ancient holdings. Instead, we have just this small group of survivors barely hanging on in the face of human encroachment and ogre attacks. With two of the Gummis being old, and the younger generation consisting of a handful of males and just one female, you know it won't be long before the breeding options become limited, inbreeding sets in, knowledge is lost, and Gummi Glen finally sits dark and empty. This is a really a post-apocalyptic story of a dying people trying desperately, though ultimately futilely, to hang on, cooking up their performance-enhancing substance, living amidst the failing ruins of their civilization, and dreaming of better days.

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