My 10-year-old son is a relentless analyst, so utterly right-brained that it drives him insane not to know how things work, the processes and internal clockworks, why they do what they do. He is a born dissector, a critical thinker from the word go.
Cartoons are hell for him. The Coyote takes an anvil to the head, and yet he lives. Shouldn’t the dinosaurs have died out by the time the Flintstones came along? If they’re so smart, why don’t Scooby’s pals just go to the local costume shop and find out who bought a swamp-monster suit? I can placate sometimes by observing, “Why does anything happen in cartoons? Because it’s funny,” but that’s not really an answer and he knows it. That’s not to say he doesn’t enjoy cartoons, only that it takes an effort for him to turn off his critical faculties the way the rest of us have been conditioned to do by the magic flickering box.
Or I should say, most of us. Cartoons have often engaged in metafictional nods to their own implausibility, perhaps most famously, Chuck Jones’s short “Duck Amuck,” where Daffy Duck has to contend with an animator who arbitrarily changes Daffy’s body and situation for sadistic jollies, and 1987’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit, where cartoons share reality with the three-dimensional and the rules governing both dovetail. Similarly, the made-for-Nickelodeon movie, Channel Chasers, asks virtually every one of those questions about cartoons you forgot bugged you but really did.
The movie is basically an extended episode of creator-director Butch Hartman’s wildly popular The Fairly Oddparents, a briskly paced and darkly funny take on the boy who is given magical wishes. This particular Aladdin is a bucktoothed suburban kid named Timmy Turner (voiced by Tara Strong), whose parents’ benign neglect leaves him in the care of sadistic babysitter Vicky (Grey DeLisle). Timmy’s misery is so great that it rates the intervention of fairy godparents — dimwitted Cosmo (Daran Norris) and his more levelheaded wife Wanda (Susan Blakeslee), obligated to grant Timmy anything he wishes.
Each episode revolves around the consequences of giving a 10-year-old power over reality, as Timmy asks for superpowers or the suspension of time to avoid school. When he wishes every day could be Christmas, the nation collapses because everyone has to buy presents daily but nobody can go to work. Timmy wishes his favorite comic book hero, the Crimson Chin, into our world, where he discovers he’s just a character and has a nervous breakdown.
The show is damn funny, primarily because Hartman, much like the folks behind The Simpsons, speaks in a rapid patter of pop culture references (“Where’d you get heat vision, Timmy?” “Internet”), holding them up for appropriate ridicule without dwelling on them, a lesson apparently learned from his earlier venture, Cartoon Network’s Johnny Bravo, which tended to latch onto one joke and wring it dry. By contrast, if you leave the room for even a moment of Channel Chasers, you miss something.
Timmy finds himself stripped of TV privileges after emulating a hyperviolent Dragonball Z-like Japanese cartoon (unlike other kids, Timmy’s fairies allow him to unleash real destruction). When he asks for the ability to escape into TV, the fairies conjure a magical remote control. After one foray into TV-world, where he joins the cast of “Johnny Hunt” and returns with a bazooka, he accidentally blows the roof off his house. Timmy’s parents take his remote and it falls into Vicky’s hands. Now Timmy finds himself being stalked by a menacing hooded figure (Alec Baldwin) who, it turns out, has come from a post-apocalyptic future, à la The Terminator, to stop Timmy from causing the catastrophe that brings the entire world under the dictatorship of… Vicky the babysitter. She will use the magic remote to enter a History Channel marathon of biographies of the world’s worst dictators and learn the skills she needs, so it’s up to Timmy and the fairies to stop her.
In truth, the plot is just gravy. Once everyone is inside the TV, the movie gets down to its real business, parodying as many cartoons as it can. The lion’s share of targets are Hanna-Barbera cartoons of the ’60s and ’70s, easily spoofed because of H-B’s notoriously cheap production values and the ubiquity of its assembly-line product. Running through H-B’s prehistoric sitcom, the heroes pause to wonder, “Haven’t we passed that couch, rug, and lamp five times already?” and “If the cars are all powered by feet, wouldn’t it be faster just to run?” Transported into Space Ghost, Cosmo becomes the monkey mascot, wearing a mask that drives him crazy the way it used to bother me when I was a kid: why the hell would a monkey need to wear a mask?
It’s an equal opportunity barrage. Bugs Bunny cartoons, Tom and Jerry shorts, Batman, and even The Simpsons get the treatment here. Obviously, Hartman and his crew have great affection for these cartoons and every segment is drawn as nearly like its source as possible. A Speed Racer bit, aside from being spank-me funny, is rendered in an early anime style distinct from the late style employed in the Dragonball Z parody. The Blue’s Clues lampoon (“Hi! I’m Jeff! Ignore the shaving cut and the five o’clock shadow. I’m a kid just like you!”) achieves the textured felt cutout style of that show. A trip through Sesame Street includes live action “Muppets” of Timmy and the fairies.
Throughout the movie, the core of Oddparents remains consistent, and that is the chemistry and affection among Timmy, Cosmo, and Wanda. The show takes the term “godparents” seriously, more than the “fairy godmother” of Cinderella, who only breezed in and loaned Cindy some bling for a few hours. Cosmo and Wanda do their jobs as fairies, but also lend advice, reminding Timmy that he is loved, which underpins the resolution of most episodes and is the case here. Silliness, pop parody, and frantic action aside, The Fairly Oddparents is about the importance of (ultimately) doing the right thing. My son gets that, and I couldn’t be happier.