The Raccoons: Season 1 Review
One of the best things about growing up when I did in the late Eighties and early Nineties was that Saturday morning TV was its peak. Not only did you have Going Live, the greatest morning show ever (and don’t let anyone else tell you differently - did Swap Shop or Tiswas have Trev and Simon, hmmm?) but the shows beforehand always seemed perfectly attuned too to the needs of the viewers. Even then it took a lot to get me out of bed at seven in the morning, but every Saturday I’d be at my station in front of the box without fail, ready to slowly wake up with the gentle adventures of Babar and The Raccoons before things were ramped up a bit at eight thirty with something a bit more active like Turtles (still in their “Hero” phase) or Thundercats before the live show kicked off. The Raccoons was the perfect intermediary stage, being neither as benign as the elephant king nor as full-on as the fighting anthropomophic mammals that followed, and is a show that over the years I’ve looked back on with a tremendous amount of affection. Unlike Thundercats, which was on nearly every day at one time, it was unique to Saturday mornings (at least, I never remember it being shown at any other time) and, while I never indulged in any merchandise, bought any videos or indeed acknowledged its existence at any other time of the week, there would still have been a very big hole had it suddenly disappeared from the weekly schedule. Although before receiving this set I hadn’t seen it for must be getting on for fifteen years, I still seemed to have a vivid memory of it, and I was intrigued to discover both why that was, when so many other shows I watched as a child are now no more than vague impressions, and whether it really had been worth getting up for week after week, all that long time ago.
The most notable thing one sees now is that Kevin Gillis’s series, which began life as a series of one-off specials in the early Eighties before becoming a regular show in 1985, is very much a product of its time. In an era which saw Newsround telling us weekly about the hole in the ozone layer and the introduction of the green Blue Peter badge, this was one of the first eco-toons, a series all about the dangers rampant commercialism posed to our natural habitat. Set in the “quiet, peaceful, serene” Evergreen Forest, the show follows the adventures of best friends Bert, Ralph and Melissa Raccoon as they run up against the arch capitalist Cyril Sneer, a pink aardvark version of Gordon Gekko who is constantly hatching plans to exploit the forest’s resources to bolster his already-overflowing coffers. Fortunately the Raccoons have as allies Cyril’s well-meaning but rather downtrodden son Cedric and girlfriend Sophia which, combined with the fact that Sneer Sr is rather cack-handed and has for henchmen three pigs who make The Three Stooges look like consummate professionals, means the old meanie never gets very far with his nefarious schemes.
Indeed, in spite of the fact Sneer is a guy who would quite happily torch the Raccoons’ world if it turned a quick buck, this is never a very threatening show. Intentionally so, Evergreen Forest is a very homely, happy place to live (hooray for the outdoors!) and while Bert might be placing himself in constant danger in his eternal quest for excitement (such as attempting to climb an impassable mountain or going hunting for a long-lost treasure) one never really believes everything can end up as anything but happily ever after. From its opening spiel on, this is a soothing world to visit, one which will ultimately protect you no matter what problems you find yourself in: “luckily,” the narrator tells us, “(Bert) has some good friends to help him out.” The message is obvious: Mother Earth nurtures and keeps us safe, and we must do the same for her, and for each other. In tone if not in style, it’s very reminiscent of Fraggle Rock, the contemporaneous show which also featured a bunch of happy-go-lucky characters with minor flaws which had an intense desire to promote a decency and charity to its young audience. However, whereas Fraggle Rock is somewhat funky, The Raccoons is resolutely strait-laced, literally in the case of the music: while Red and co were always jiving to some exciting new beat, every episode of the Raccoons features some montage accompanied by a New Wave-esque number. The most famous of these, the show’s theme Run With Us, is actually very catchy (and memorable: even before rewatching the show this week I could still recite the tune and some of its lyrics) but the rest hover on the edge of being cloyingly saccharine. Certainly of the two Fraggle Rock’s rock-and-roll style has stood the test of time far better than The Raccoons’s easy-listening alternative. At times, the latter can be rather earnest, with most episodes feeling the need to spell out the life lesson which has been learnt this week. This could be a real turn-off for the more cynical observer if it wasn’t for the fact it’s so patently wearing its heart on its sleeve: kicking it would be like kicking a youthful aid worker who believes he can solve the world’s problems if only people would just stop and listen. It might be naive, and at some point will have to grow up and face reality, but that's not this particular show's well-meaning raison d'etre and shouldn't count against it.
Besides which, the preaching is not sufficiently overbearing to take away from the pleasures of what is a generally well constructed and entertaining programme. One of its strengths are its characters: while Ralph and Melissa are somewhat anodyne, they and dogs Schaeffer and Broo are there for the youngest audience members (as is the somewhat superfluous Ranger Dan and his two children) and are a necessary counterweight to the more rambunctious cast members. The star of the show for most is, of course, the cigar-chomping Cyril, voiced with raspy gusto by Michael Magee (perhaps one of the last mainstream characters in a kid’s show to actually smoke). Cyril is a notable forerunner of that other animated capitalist Montgomery Burns, and the similarities are so numerous (right down to their both having not-dissimilar musical cues) that one can’t help but wonder if he influenced the later character. Likewise, his son Cedric would appear to be the aardvark equivalent of Milhouse, down to his thick-lensed glasses and dodgy blue haircut. What’s interesting is that both Cedric and Bert, who are the main heroes of each episode, have voices which initially sound as though they should be intensely irritating: Marvin Goldhar gives Cedric a constant whine which makes everything he says sound like a complaint, while Len Carlson’s Bert has a nasal, jarring tone. That they don’t says wonders for the two artists involved. I suppose, if nothing else they contrast favourably with Ralph and Melissa’s reassuring “everything’s going to be alright” deliveries, but irregardless the pair have plenty of charm of the classic opposites-attract style.
This is in line with the fact that, while on the surface this appears a rather formulaic and ultimately disposable series, burrowing beneath the surface shows that there’s actually a great deal of thought gone into its make-up. The character designs are sufficiently different to be distinctive, and yet accessible enough to not alienate its target audience. The animation is far more fluid and vibrant than many other, more high-profile shows of the mid-Eighties, and the backgrounds are often very artistic and attractive to look at on their own - even throwaway scenes have a level of detail to them that is not usual for the era. Like much else in the series, the visuals strike a delicate balancing act: just as the voice artists manage to give their characters enough humanity to ensure they don’t irk, so the animation manage to capture both the bursts of activity Bert and Cyril produce with the more serene, tranquil aesthetic which is the forest’s natural state. The sound design too is more subtle than one might initially give credit for, the undulating, seductive sounds of the forest canopy a constant backdrop to the action, with only the overuse of the various musical cues being a problem. The frantic desperation of the pigs’ trotters as they scuttle from one crisis to the next is another good example, just another of many little touches that bring the series up above the average.
And perhaps that’s why it’s lived on in my memory. This is a warm, lovingly designed show which has slightly more depth than one would expect and makes for a far richer watch than by any rights it should. Although very naïve and somewhat dated, even its sickly sweet sentiment can’t count against it for me and I greatly enjoyed this chance to revisit it now. (It's also a considerably better effort than the most overt of eco-teens, Captain Planet.) An unusual cartoon in many ways, the overriding feeling one has is that is genuine, not feeling committee-driven or designed purely for commercial purposes, but rather that it has a soul which is a rarity itself. Looking back, it probably wasn’t quite worth forsaking a precious lie-in for, but to my surprise Evergreen Forest was certainly worth coming back to one more time.
All eleven episodes of the first season are presented in this set on two dual-layered single-sided discs, six on the first and five on the second. The Main Menu is simple but pleasant enough: on the brow of a hill in the forest, Broo is watching clips of The Raccoons on a TV (and evidently enjoying it, as he’s barking away happily) while the theme plays. If you wait long enough without doing anything (aside from, say, transcribing said menu for a DVD review site) someone gets rather impatient with you, but I won’t say more. The options are Play All (always welcome), Episode Selection and, on Disc Two, Extras.
Unfortunately, the Video transfer is one of the worst I've seen for an animated series. The colours are at times badly faded, lacking the vibrancy the look of the thing should have, and the image is at times desperately soft, with large amounts of detail going AWOL. Coupled with the fact there's a huge amount of interlacing, it's safe to say this is the big disappointment of the release. Fortunately the Audio is somewhat better, in that it does its job properly. The dialogue and music both sound clear and unmuffled, and while you would never mistake the track for one of a modern-day series, it's perfectly fine.
The Extras are slight to the point of negligibility. There are short Biographies of all the main characters (and Gillis) to flick through which are evidently aimed at the very young, while the Create-a-Scene I’m afraid baffled me: unless I’m missing something one is given the option of one of six scenes, which one can then flick through and see either advance one frame at a time or have characters added, which seems somewhat pointless as they don’t lead anywhere. There’s also some DVD-Rom content, in the form of a collection of various production materials such as stills (which look far nicer than the episodes on these discs), early sketches and animation try outs, and a few admin documents and wallpapers, none of which I’d guess will excite anyone.
A good series which deserves more is let down by a very mediocre release. It even upset these three...