Wednesday, November 4, 2015


When I try to think back to the things I loved watching the most when I was young, I tend to think back to what my family had on VHS.  Y'see, way back in the 80s, large plastic tapes were the only way to watch something more than once unless you got lucky and the show you liked would air reruns.  This almost never happened when it came to things like most kids cartoons or TV specials.

Here's a real confession, up until I was almost ten, I had no idea how television worked.  I didn't know about "seasons" of a show.  I just knew that sometimes a show I liked was on, and sometimes it wasn't.  Sometimes there would be new episodes, and other times they just aired the same ones again.  Eventually I started to put together that maybe they just wanted to air each set of stories more than once in case somebody missed one, then they could resume airing new ones so everybody would be caught up.  I was so naive.

Which is why, when I was young, I would get so upset when a show I liked was taken off the air.  For example, I distinctively remember being a fan of the Battletoads cartoon, but one day it was just gone, replaced with, if I remember correctly, was the Country Bear Jamboree cartoon.  I tried watching it for five minutes and then left in disgust.

What does this have to do with anything?

Well, one tape I remember us either owning or renting all the time was Rikki-Tikki-Tavi.


Based on one of the stories from The Jungle Books, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi is a miniature masterpiece of animation.  In order to do this short story justice, Chuck Jones had to translate it to animation in a way that was a new challenge to him and to the studio.  From a May, 2015 article on Mental Floss I found that Chuck (hopefully he wouldn't mind my calling him Chuck) struggled to come up with a way to animate Rikki-Tikki so he would be charismatic and personable without losing the fact that he's an animal.

Watching the special again (that's right, it's on DVD!), there is a distinct Chuck Jones style to the animation.  The way the people move, the line work in the backgrounds, to little things like Rikki-Tikki's early struggle against rainwater pushing him down a hill, they all carry that distinctive "Chuck Jones" feel that I grew so familiar with in the days of Looney Tunes, The Phantom Tollbooth, and How The Grinch Stole Christmas.

Rikki-Tikki is bursting with personality on the screen, whether he's simply moving around and exploring, struggling to maintain his balance on a bathtub, or engaged in deadly battle against cobras, every emotion is clear on the character's face, but is still distinctively "animalistic."  There are lots of great little touches, like when Rikki-Tikki is initially afraid of Mab, the male python, until the narrator reminds him that a mongoose is supposed to be brave.  There's the regular way he looks around, culminating in a straight look up, lengthening his neck and bringing his nose to a point before he zips to the next location to stand in and explore.

The voice work in this is amazing.  When I was little I had no idea I was listening to Orson Welles narrate the cartoon and voice the primary antagonist.  I also didn't recognize June Foray (as every female character because, well, it's the industry) either, despite the fact that I heard her voice in Bullwinkle reruns as Rocky and Natasha, as well as her regular appearances as the witch in Warner Brothers cartoons.

Knowing what I know now about cobras, there are some extremely intense scenes in this little short.  Rikki's fight against Nag initially wasn't something I really believed, because as the cobra thrashes around he knocks over large vases.  Then I learned just how powerful a cobra can actually be.  The way it thrashes around with Rikki-Tikki might actually be completely believable.

Does the cartoon still hold up?  Well, the "well-dressed white people living on estates in India" thing might not be as politically correct now as it was then (who tends the garden of this place, anyway?  The only people we ever see are the mother, father, and son!), the fact that it's from the Jungle Books, one of the stories that anybody who speaks English should probably have read at some point in their life, helps it remain a timeless tale.

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