When Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures first hit Saturday-morning TV in 1987, it looked more like the result of a dare than the product of a television network. A bold attempt to combine the zany spirit of Looney Tunes cartoons with strands of absurdism, satire, and a distrust of authority inherited from Mad magazine and underground comix, The New Adventures revived a largely forgotten character, then used him as an excuse to express every silly, pointed idea that entered his writers’ heads. A bovine villain known simply as “The Cow” who spoke like George C. Scott? A mean-spirited send-up of Alvin And The Chipmunks? A parody of The Fountainhead? Why not?
In fact, the words “Why not?” could double as the show’s motto. Produced by Ralph Bakshi—an animator returning to kids’ programming after more than a decade making ambitious, sometimes notorious feature films like Fritz The Cat, Coonskin, Lord Of The Rings, and American Pop—and driven by the sensibility of John Kricfalusi, soon to create the simpatico Ren & Stimpy, the show doubled as a hotbed for young, daring, cheap-to-employ animation talent. Among them: The Simpsons’ Jim Reardon, Pixar’s Andrew Stanton, superhero animator supreme Bruce Timm, and others. But even without that pedigree, the show would still look like the secret source of much of what was to come, from the manic silliness of SpongeBob SquarePants to the tidal wave of culture-riffing initiated by The Simpsons to the freewheeling strangeness of Adult Swim.
Putting aside what the show inspired and who it hired, its brilliance remains undimmed. A few early segments of New Adventures feel like they’re struggling to reach the 10-minute mark, and some old Mighty Mouse cartoons repurposed as music videos redefine the word “filler.” Most episodes, however, easily reach the casual brilliance of “Day Of The Mice,” which pits a fat Mighty Mouse against fascists who have made him obsolete, or “The Littlest Tramp,” in which a sickeningly sweet flower-peddler repeatedly refuses Mighty Mouse’s help. (That segment’s image of Mighty Mouse sniffing crushed flower petals led to a ridiculous, fundamentalist-stoked controversy alleging that it endorsed cocaine use. The episode is intact here.) The series’ towering moment belongs to “Don’t Touch That Dial,” which drops Mighty Mouse into a series of dead-on send-ups of the cartoon wasteland surrounding the show, then tells viewers to stop wasting so much time watching television. Kricfalusi recalls Chuck Jones praising the segment as “a bite instead of a lick.” That sounds right. The show only ran 19 episodes, but it drew plenty of blood while it lasted.
Key features: A fairly frank making-of, commentaries, and three original Mighty Mouse cartoons from the 1940s, light opera stylings and all.