[8 June 2009]
Every morning before catching the bus to middle school, my friend Mike and I would hang out in my living room and talk about gettin’ laid and droppin’ acid and wildin’ out to the thrash-metal anthems of Suicidal Tendencies, Exodus and Slayer.
We’d also talk about Disney’s Adventures of the Gummi Bears.
Understand: This was 1990. Nirvana had yet to christen our generation’s revolution with Nevermind, and Beck had yet to offer that most counterintuitive of calls to arms: “I’m a loser, baby, so why don’t you kill me?” In other words, the youth culture in the United States had yet to choose those great gods Irony and Sarcasm as its golden calves. Mike and I fancied ourselves double-tough muhfuggas, and yet our passion for the goddamn Gummi Bears cartoon was 100 percent earnest.
I remember that Mike seemed shaken one day as he summarized the plot of that morning’s episode, which I’d inexplicably neglected to watch. When he told me that the evil Duke Igthorn had located and even pillaged that sacred gummi bear sanctuary Gummi Glen, I was more upset at missing that morning’s episode than I was when Rosie Graziano later refused to go out with me. (Perhaps Rosie only opted not to love me on accounta my having missed such a pivotal entry in the Gummi Bears canon.)
What qualities could this cartoon have possibly boasted to have inspired such sober loyalty from two junior high school stoners? I’d been a Gummi Bears fan since fourth grade, so perhaps habit and nostalgia partly accounted for my affection. But on the other hand, I wasn’t still clinging to other aging animated series, like Kissyfur or Muppet Babies. Was the writing in Gummi Bears so uniquely deep and challenging? Did its dialogue crackle with wit and energy uncommon in children’s animated fare of the late ‘80s? Or were our expectations merely… low?
Eager to determine whether Disney’s Adventures of the Gummi Bears was a timeless animated classic or merely another embarrassing cultural relic of the better-forgotten ‘80s, I bumped disc one of Gummi Bears Volume One to the top of my Netflix queue and invited my five-year-old daughter to watch with me, so that I could later claim to have rented it for her.
I ultimately chose to undermine my own alibi by watching the pilot episode by myself while my daughter slept, before I’d even notified her that the disc had arrived. I didn’t want to be distracted by her inevitable barrage of questions, you see; I am as earnest as ever in my Gummi Bears fandom. And guess what? The dialogue in Gummi Bears cartoons is energetic, even today. Indeed, while I am not going to suggest that Disney’s Adventures of the Gummi Bears is challenging or deep, it holds up remarkably well on every level.
I knew back in fourth grade that, regardless of its quality, Gummi Bears was special just because it marked the first time that Disney had ever produced an animated television series. (Various internet sources suggest that The Wuzzles aired at the same time, or perhaps even predated The Gummi Bears; I maintain that I knew more as a fourth grader in 1986 than the internet knows in 2009.)
What I didn’t realize was that Gummi Bears represented an unprecedented commitment on Disney’s part; TV Tropes is just one of many sites that notes that the animation budget for Gummi Bears was considerably larger than that of any other animated series of the ‘80s. And 20-some years later, you can tell; the characters move in a very fluid manner, and human, ogre and bear cub faces are all incredibly expressive.
The series also offers many quiet moments of inspired slapstick silliness. In my favorite example, a group of towering, dimwitted ogres watches, utterly baffled, as an invading Gruffi Gummi runs through their camp, popping in and out of visibility thanks to a half-assed spell from senile gummi sorcerer Zummi.
The energetic dialogue in Gummi Bears would perhaps be merely serviceable in any other series, but the talented cast keeps every exchange engaging; one of the ogres eventually captures Gruffi in the camp, and marvels, “Never see nothing like you. What is you?”
Meanwhile, gummi glutton Tummi is voiced by Lorenzo Music, who admittedly used the exact same Zen/stoner tones in his portrayals of Garfield and Ghostbuster Peter Venkman, but since he was so endearing in each role, we won’t hold it against him. (A curious bit of trivia: Lorenzo Music voiced Garfield and Peter Venkman in their respective animated TV series, and Bill Murray portrayed both characters in their respective live-action movies.)
Gummi nemesis Duke Igthorn seems to have inspired Gaston from Beauty and the Beast; both characters are barrel-chested, self-aggrandizing, egomaniacal and hilarious. Igthorn marvels in the pilot’s opening scene, “How did I get so brilliant? It hardly seems fair to the rest of the world.”
Later, having received a power-up after downing a vial of gummi berry juice, he wastes the opportunity to conquer Dunwin Castle by choosing instead to start monologuing, but somehow, we find ourselves rolling our eyes with Igthorn, not at him.
Ah, gummy berry juice; only the ‘80s could have produced a concept so delightfully nonsensical. If a gummi bear drinks the juice, his entire body becomes bouncy, which affords a cute little bear more offensive heft than you might expect. If a human drinks the juice, he enjoys a brief jolt of super-strength. (Is Gummi Berry juice MonaVie?) Alas, the juice only works on humans once a day; one is reminded of the rule that one must never feed a Gremlin after midnight.
Meanwhile, Igthorn was not the only source of inspiration for Beauty and the Beast. I always liked that Beauty and the Beast’s Belle is such a bookworm, and a subtle highlight of the Oscar-nominated classic is when she sings (to an attentive but politely indifferent goat) a loving plot synopsis of her favorite tome: “Here’s where she meets prince charming. But she won’t discover that it’s him ‘till chapter three.”
Earlier, she describes the book thusly: “Far off places, daring swordfights, magic spells, a prince in disguise!” Belle is clearly describing her own story, and this in 1991, before self-aware metafiction became all the rage along with irony and sarcasm. (Aladdin’s Genie was of course nothing but such postmodern playfulness, albeit in a much less subtle fashion.)
But Gummi Bears was there first; in “The Sinister Sculptor”, the titular artist uses a magic powder to turn animals into statues, which he then sells as “amazingly lifelike” works of art. In his opening scene, this sculptor places a freshly frozen rabbit on a shelf in his cart, alongside blink-and-miss-it statues of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.
TV Tropes also rightfully points out that Gummi Bears contained unusual feminist idealism for the time period (“the female characters avoid The Smurfette Principle sexism, with multiple characters with strong, well-defined personalities who bow to no one.”) Princess Calla introduces herself not by brushing her hair or pining for a prince, but by leaping dangerously from a castle tower into a pile of hay.
In a later episode (“Girl’s Knight Out”), her father King Gregor learns the value of equality when Calla, whom he’d denied a chance to participate in a test of physical strength and skill, enters the contest incognito and proceeds to win. (Ironically, the contest was meant to determine who would have the duty and honor of protecting the girl who eventually won the contest.)
Little surprise, then, that the gummis proved equally enchanting to my daughter; while she failed to grasp the subtler jokes, and while she insists that the opening theme’s lyrics are not “high adventure that’s beyond compare” but rather “high adventure that’s beyond their hair,” and while her entire critical justification for citing wee Cubby Gummi as her favorite character is, and I quote, “He’s pink,” she has spent this entire week practicing her bouncing skills with all the grim focus of an aspiring Olympic athlete.
Still, do any of its postmodern gags or feminist plots make Gummi Bears a transcendent work of art? Hardly. But they prove that the Gummi Bears animators, writers and voice actors were all willing to try a bit harder than their competitors, and that they were clearly having fun at their jobs, with the result that, two decades later, Disney’s Adventures of the Gummi Bears is still cute, funny and entertaining, which is more than one can say about most shows from the ‘80s.