3. Tex Avery’s Golden Era and the Dark Age of Animation (1940-1987)

Tex Avery’s usage of slapstick, quick motion blurring, as well as his mastery of stretching and squashing, imbued cartoons with greater life and vigor than ever previously possible. The animator was responsible for the creation of the modern incarnation of Bugs Bunny in 1940’s “A Wild Hare” cartoon, as well as the Droopy McPoodle and Wolfy characters. Cartoons would continue to explode with different studios from the 1940s onwards through the 1980s with the creation of still memorable characters such as Tom & Jerry in the 1960s, and Hanna-Barbera’s plethora of classic cartoons such as Scooby-Doo, the Jetsons and the Flintstones in the 1970’s. Some have argued that in contrast to some of the cartoons done in until the 1960s, the cartoons of the 1970s and 1980s seemed far more hastily animated by comparison, mainly because of the deaths of two major animation studios (MGM and UPA) as well as the end of Hollywood’s Studio system. This era from the late 1960s through until the mid-1980s would become known as the Dark Age of animation, as the cost of animation went up as animation transitioned from animated shorts shown in theaters to syndicated television shows. The demand for the cartoons seemed to outstrip the ability of animation studios in Burbank and elsewhere to compensate for.

Classic Tex Avery material. Droopy and Wolfy Northwest Hounded Police(1946)


Hanna-Barbera Cartoons dominated the late 1960s through the 1970s

The dark age of animation would be known for the stiff, shoddily animated, yet at times popular character creations from Hanna-Barbera and others such as, Bill Cosby’s Fat Albert cartoons, the Smurfs. Despite the decrease of quality of the cartoons of this era, the era had an a large quantity of cartoons to select from, and some like Yogi Bear were hits, whereas others were not as fortunate, the major animation studios were suffering from a major creative drought until the end of the 1980s, until which animation studios simply shelled out cartoons regardless of production quality in hopes of appealing at least a few to a new audience: children. As in-theater animated shorts slowly died off and animation became further associated with and stigmatized as being “just for children”, very few animations were made to appeal to a more adult audience, with one of the few exceptions being the works of Ralph Bahkshi, which consisted of 1972’s controversial Fritz the Cat as well as Watership Down. Fritz the Cat was notable for being the very first X-rated animation, featuring nudity, and explicit animated sexual scenes, all the while tackling social issues such as racism, drug use, the free-love movement, gang violence, as well as police brutality. Written and directed by Ralph Bahkshi, Bahkshi through these films sought to challenge the growing stigma throughout this era that casually dismissed animation as mere “kids’ stuff”. It was also during the early 1980s (’83) that Disney Channel started broadcasting.

The mid to late 1980s was known particularly as an era featuring cartoons that were essentially glorified toy commercials, which upset some parents, but were somehow widely popular during the end of the dark age of animation. However, this era also saw the introduction of Japanese animated shows, however its influence is minimal at this point. The mid to late 1980’s in contrast to the previous era things started to gradually look brighter, as animation studios had adjusted to syndication and how to appeal to a wider audience than before. Higher quality animated action cartoons such as Transformers and He-Man started to slowly replace and phase out the cheesy and shoddily animated cartoons from the previous era. These shows still occasionally showed some signs of the animation Dark Age, and Disney’s 1985 animated flop The Black Cauldron, which was critically well received, and the most expensive film created by Disney at the time on a production cost of $44 Million, however, the film barely managed to make back half of this money domestically ($21.3 Million), despite the production value, and was in fact so bad that it couldn’t even be released on home video for more than a decade afterwards. Adding insult to injury was the fact that the Care Bears movie out grossed Disney’s Black Cauldron and the failure almost saw Disney fall off completely. Despite this previous failure by a major studio, succeeded by a couple of minor successes, Disney would recover in 1989 with the success of The Little Mermaid, and ushered in the new Renaissance Era in theatrical animation.

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