I know that Toon!

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Luis Dias

During the Christmas break, several movie channels simultaneously broadcast ‘Tom & Jerry The Movie’, the 2021 Warner Bros Pictures live-action/computer-animated slapstick comedy film based on the titular cartoon characters of the same name created by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera.

I must admit I was underwhelmed for quite a few reasons. To start with, pre-release publicity compared it to that iconic live-action/animated comedy from several decades ago, ‘Who framed Roger Rabbit’ (1988) produced by Steven Spielberg. Despite all the advances in animation technology, the latest cat-and-mouse outing was not a patch on ‘Roger Rabbit’. For those interested, the latter is still watchable in full on YouTube. The cartoon characters are skillfully worked into the live action sequences with great wit and humour, and have an excellent soundtrack to accompany the slapstick action. In contrast, Tom and Jerry too often seem like photoshopped superimpositions just tacked on.

In 2014, Steve Abrahart, senior lecturer in animation at De Montfort University, Leicester UK told the BBC that the quality of animation in the early Tom and Jerry films was “superb” but the attention to detail of the early versions was lost in some of the later re-makes.

There are a lot of negative criticisms of cartoon films in general, the main one quite rightly being the normalisation of violence. Violence is embedded into the very nature of slapstick comedy. In his paper ‘Cartoon violence and aggression in youth’, psychologist Steven J Kirsh concluded that “comedic violence …. may increase aggressive thoughts and desires in children and young people”.

The other big one is racism. The Tom-and-Jerry cartoons of my generation had many casual instances (such as Mammy Two Shoes, a caricaturised heavy-set middle-aged African American woman who although not explicitly stated, is the housemaid, not the owner) to such a degree that today they are accompanied by a warning that they may depict scenes of “racial prejudice” or just taken out of circulation. Some think this is political correctness getting out of hand, but I think it is a reflection of how attitudes have, thank goodness, changed over time.

Re-watching ‘Roger Rabbit’, there was subtle racism here too with segregation between toons and ‘humans’ (virtually exclusively white, of course) reflecting the Jim Crow segregation in the United States in 1947, in which the film is set.

What I miss most about contemporary cartoon films, apart from the attention to detail that Abrahart mentioned is the quality of the accompanying soundtrack, which (to my ears) has dropped markedly.

Three factors influenced the use of classical music in the heyday (the 1930s and 40s) of cartoon films. For one, it was a continuation of practices used in silent films. Secondly, as most of the ‘hit tunes’ from classical music were from a long time ago, they were in the public domain and therefore royalty-free, saving studios money. Lastly, the contrast between the ‘serious’ music and the madness unfolding on screen only enhanced the comedy.

For decades, therefore, children have had their first introduction to classical music through cartoon movies without even realising it.

In these films the soundtrack wasn’t just a backdrop, but often was the driver of the animated action.

The best example of this is ‘Fantasia’, the 1940 Walt Disney animated film comprising eight animated segments set to pieces of classical music conducted by Leopold Stokowski, seven of which were performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra. The lengths to which the production team went make fascinating reading. It is no wonder that it became such a classic that it got digitally re-mastered and re-released decades later. There is even a tribute clip in ‘Roger Rabbit’, a reference to ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’.

Several classical musicians have acknowledged their debt to cartoons in having introduced them or inspiring them to classical music. The most iconic of them all that comes to mind is the Chinese pianist, Lang Lang, whose cult following has been compared to that of a rock star.

The first time he ‘saw’ a piano was when he was just two years old in a Tom and Jerry cartoon on a black-and-white television set in his home in the industrial city of Shenyan.

The episode he watched was ‘The Cat Concerto’ (1947). The featured piece of music is Franz Liszt’s ‘Hungarian Dance number 2’. The artistic liberties taken with the score only highlight how well the animation team knew the music and were able to cram as much zaniness into the seven-minute clip.

Watching ‘The Cat Concerto’ in a public setting in Vancouver in 2015, Lang Lang quipped that Jerry was “a great pianist” but that he liked Tom’s long-tailed tuxedo, and got one just like it when he was five. He added that Tom’s playing was “flat-fingered, like [the great pianist Vladimir] Horowitz”. Horowitz when complimenting students would say they “played like a cat”, which “had a lot to do with Tom”, felt Lang. He also lamented the absence of classical music in today’s cartoon films.

“Playing music is like a motion picture. Every time I perform, I try to think of a moment in a cartoon or in a movie, which brings us to somehow have action. When the harmonies become warmer, I see a colour change. You can try to tell a story. Make sure the music is not flat, not just a note. As a musician, we need to always look at what is ‘behind the note’.”

Funnily enough, at the same time ‘’The Concerto’ was released, Warner Bros Pictures came up with ‘Rhapsody Rabbit’, featuring Bugs Bunny, using the same Liszt Rhapsody, and with near-identical gags between Bugs and an unnamed mouse. Allegations of plagiarism and studio espionage flew back and forth, and it’s still unclear whose the original idea was.

Even in ‘Roger Rabbit’, the same Liszt piece gets an outing, with a ‘piano duel’ between Daffy and Donald Duck.

As there was no television in Goa in my childhood, and cartoon feature films rarely came to the big screen (I still remember a Woody Woodpecker film at Cine National in perhaps mid-1970s), I made up for lost time watching cartoons in adulthood.

One Tom and Jerry episode that stands out is ‘The Hollywood Bowl’ (1950), featuring the famous overture from Johann Strauss II’s ‘Die Fledermaus’ (The Flitter-mouse or The Bat). Again, an intimate knowledge of the music gives flight to its brilliant exploitation for comedic effect, as the duo vie to wield the baton on the podium.

When our son was younger, he loved watching DVDs of ‘Oscar’s Orchestra’, a British children’s animated TV series (1995-1996), a futuristic setting where a piano called Oscar (voiced by comedian and composer Dudley Moore) and his fellow musical instruments rebel against the evil dictator Thaddeus Vent, who has banned music. It was designed to delight children with classical music and uses famous works from the great composers. I hope that Oscar’s Orchestra gets revived, with not just digital re-mastering, but fresh episodes.

Just as children’s animated films have a legacy of entertaining children, this other legacy of educating children to classical music should also be borne in mind and revived by contemporary studios.