11.30.2008

Bonkers (1993)

Swing…and a hit! A series about a popular cartoon movie star bobcat turned crime fighting cop was exactly what Disney needed to recover from their last two flops. Hold on tight – I’m about to hit you with some massively detailed notes about how this show came to be and what it’s all about.

Before even premiering as a half-hour program, the character of Bonkers starred in his own cartoon shorts on Raw Toonage called “He’s Bonkers”. In this first incarnation, he was in love with the Marilyn Monroe-ish Fawn Deer and paired up with his sidekick, Jitters A. Dog, often facing the villainy of Grumbles Grizzly. As stated in my previous post, these shorts represent his life as a toon movie star, before becoming a “has been” in Bonkers. The character’s intent for Disney was to have a fully-owned wacky character of their own, without all the licensing restrictions involved with re-using writer Gary Wolf’s and producer Steven Spielberg’s Roger Rabbit. His personality was obviously modeled after Roger Rabbit, and he even hails from “Toontown” and is partnered with a supposedly real-life detective, Lucky Piquel – whose predecessor having been Eddie Valiant from the 1988 feature film Who Framed Roger Rabbit. In this series Bonkers plays an out of work actor, given a second chance and made an official “toon cop”.

Its interesting to note that before Bonkers and Raw Toonage premiered (but were in pre-production and production stages), Bonkers was first seen in an animated short entitled Pedal To The Metal, originally shown in theatres before the film 3 Ninjas in 1992. This short was never included in Raw Toonage. I never saw it, so I have no idea if the animation quality differed from a television to a theatrical production. Bonkers originally premiered on The Disney Channel on February 28, 1993 with a new episode airing every week for several weeks. This was meant as a “preview airing” and showcased the Miranda Wright episodes. Its official debut was on September 4, 1993 with the hour long pilot “Going Bonkers/Gone Bonkers”, which was later spilt into a two-part episode in subsequent airings. Not only was Bonkers syndicated as part of The Disney Afternoon, but it also aired, out of all places, on Fox, and has been the only Disney cartoon to air on that network since. These episodes ushered in the Lucky Piquel era.

As stated, Bonkers originated from an attempt at a television version of the Who Framed Roger Rabbit film, which never reached production due to legal complications. As a result, the series created original characters in a world where “toons” and humans co-exist. Unlike the film that inspired it, however, Bonkers was entirely animated and featured no live action. Bonkers is a toon that fights crime and is paired up with a human partner, just like in the movie. He used to be a cartoon star, appearing in the Raw Toonage shorts which are cannon in the fictional Bonkers universe. The series lasted 65 episodes, airing its last episode on February 23, 1994; however other sources state December 21, 1995.

The chronological order of the series is somewhat complicated to follow. The “Miranda” episodes were produced first (excluding the two-part series premiere which featured Piquel and Bonkers meeting for the first time). This discrepancy becomes evident when observing the look of the main character in early and later stages – it’s easy to see with the clips used in the show’s opening credits. In the Raw Toonage shorts, Bonkers was orange with dark orange spots, golf club-like ears, and an undone tail. The “Miranda” episodes use his original look from that show, and occasionally featured episodes of cartoons from his days as a movie star, plus cameos from the Raw Toonage cast of characters. He was portrayed as a rather clumsy, somewhat foolish character that ended up being the show’s punching bag. When the “Lucky” episodes were made, the character had a major overhaul with skinnier ears, black spots, black Tigger-like stripes on his tail, and a different uniform. The “Lucky” episodes are more closely modeled after a Roger Rabbit style. He’s less of a buffoon and more of an inspector-type in control of himself (though still hyperactive), and carries an extensive knowledge about toons and their behavior (he is a toon himself after all), which is an asset in cases dealing with rogue toons. In these episodes, the Mad Hatter and March Hare from Disney’s 1951 film Alice In Wonderland make occasional appearances.

Are you with me so far? Good. Anyway, the first set of episodes featuring Miranda Wright came back from overseas animation studios looking less than spectacular. This caused the original team to be replaced, and only 19 episodes of this era survived to air. In “official continuity”, these episodes are shown towards the end of the series. When the new crew came in they threw out the premise of the old show and brought in Lucky Piquel – his episodes being revised and established to occur before the original 19 episodes, and 42 episodes of this era were made including “New Partner On The Block” which attempted to bridge the gap between the two somewhat contradictory storylines. That only makes 61 episodes; but other sources say 65 were made. So who is right and who is wrong? “New Partner On The Block” was a transition episode showing how Lucky was given an FBI job in Washington DC, and how Miranda Wright became his newest partner. The episode was much like the pilot episode using CGI rain and bringing back the characters that were associated with Bonkers, those characters being Fawn Deer, Jitters A. Dog, and Grumbles Grizzly and unlike the pilot had more speaking and screen time. Lucky, his wife and daughter and many other characters relocated as well, allowing them to be written out of the show. Remember – even though Wright is supposed to have replaced Piquel, and the episodes featuring her occur after the Piquel ones in the show’s “official chronology”, the Wright episodes were made first. Make sense now? Excellent, you’ve graduated from Bonkers 101.

Bonkers comics appeared in Disney Adventures; it was also one of the last cartoons to be featured in the Marvel-published Disney Afternoon comic book series. There was merchandising in the form of books, coloring books, action figures, pins, and Burger King toys. Three video games were released; Bonkers for Super Nintendo in 1994, and Bonkers for Sega Mega Drive/Genesis and Bonkers Wax Up! for Sega Game Gear/Sega Master System in 1995. While the rise of Bonkers as a Disney star did coincide with the decline of Roger Rabbit, Bonkers made nowhere near the impact Roger Rabbit did, mainly because his show lacked the melding of live action with animation which had audiences glued to their seats when Roger made his debut. Many barred Bonkers as just being a substitute or plain rip-off. While I’m sure this show grew to entertain many, I never saw a huge fandom come out of it, and Bonkers seems to have been forgotten when people think of that “classic” Disney era of television animation.

Bonkers in my eyes is underrated. It’s aged well and is one of my favorites – up there with Darkwing Duck and Goof Troop. One aspect you can’t ignore is the animation – Walt Disney Television Australia, who gained a reputation for bringing quality to their work for the shows they worked on, did a fantastic job with the episodes they animated (the Piquel era), and their style really fit the zany antics of this cartoon and breathed new life into it. Although I really should have known, I was surprised to find that not only did Jim Cummings voice Bonkers, but also voiced Lucky as well. He did a terrific job giving these characters the energy and expression they needed, and you have to give him props for playing two lead roles in one show.

The last time this problem solving duo was seen in Canada was on Family Channel, anywhere between the late 90’s and early 2000’s. I really can’t pinpoint it any closer but it has been many years since it aired here. Youtube doesn’t have much in the way of episodes but there are a few online. Its opening theme song (and ending theme) is a welcome return to form, and while it may not be as memorable as some other titles, it’s sure a catchy tune nonetheless, and was edited well with fast-pasted clips. Maybe it just needs another five years to grow more nostalgic? As the usual case, the singer is again unknown.

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