Mighty Mouse, a tiny caped mouse with the strength of Superman, appeared in theatrical cartoons in the 1940s, had his own television show in the fifties and sixties, and was revived in the late seventies and early eighties. Then Ralph Bakshi came calling.
Bakshi, best known as the director-animator of the X-rated 1972 animated feature Fritz the Cat , has a packed résumé, including American Pop , an animated Lord of the Rings and Cool World , in which live-action humans (Brad Pitt, Kim Basinger) jump in and out of a cartoon universe. But he spent much of the fifties and sixties working for CBS's Terrytoons division on such kid-oriented characters as Deputy Dawg , Rocket Robin Hood and, briefly, Mighty Mouse . In the 1980s, when he tried to get back into children's animation, ABC, NBC and CBS said no, no and no - until he made one last pitch: What about Mighty Mouse? Yes, CBS said, not knowing Bakshi didn't hold the rights. He quickly secured them.
The result, being released on DVD next Tuesday as Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures, The Complete Series , was 19 Saturday-morning episodes that aired in 1987-88. Seeking animators who would work for peanuts, Bakshi raided the graduating class of Cal Arts and found such youngsters as Andrew Stanton, who went on to make Finding Nemo and Wall-E , and Bruce Timm, who reinvigorated the Batman franchise with Batman: The Animated Series .
He had already found an apprentice in John Kricfalusi, soon to make the series Ren & Stimpy . With inventive minds allowed almost total freedom, an off-the-wall show was born. As one animator says in an excellent retrospective in the three-DVD package, "It really was the first foothold for what we now take for granted for Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network." The show's DNA can be found in Ren & Stimpy , Animaniacs , The Powerpuff Girls and other wacky series that followed.
The show had many anarchic antecedents - Tex Avery's cartoons of the 1940s, Chuck Jones's cartoons of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, Bob Clampett's Beany and Cecil cartoons - but this was wilder, paced like lightning and stuffed with pop-cultural references. In one episode, the mice are led by a "mouse" (really a spider) with a voice modelled on Kirk Douglas, who sends a giant robot that looks like Pee-Wee Herman against Mighty Mouse and his girlfriend, Pearl Pureheart.
"I've been waiting a whole season to do this," Mighty Mouse says as he snaps the robot's bow tie. Another episode stars Bat-Bat (a parody of Batman) and his tiny sidekick, Tick the Bug Wonder. Whenever CBS complained that Mighty Mouse was barely getting any time on his own show, writer Jim Reardon recalls, "Ralph would say, 'Have him stop a train.' … That got to be a running gag."
In a nice touch, the set includes a 1960 Mighty Mouse cartoon that Bakshi worked on and two others from 1943 and 1945. The mouse got more screen time in those.
Clarification: Last week, I said Michael Moore's film Capitalism: A Love Story would be released this week. It turns out this was a U.S. release. Alliance Films will release the Canadian DVD this spring.