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Saturday Theme Songs: DuckTales

Ah, the DuckTales theme song. In the minds of our generation, it has easily outlasted the series it accompanied with its ultra-catchy “Whoo-oo” refrain. My memories of that series (which ran from 1987-90) are limited mostly to what’s in the opening sequence: Donald Duck’s nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie would go on adventures with his uncle, the fabulously wealthy Scrooge McDuck; they’d sometimes be aided by Launchpad McQuack or Donald himself; they’d occasionally solve mysteries or rewrite history. I remember watching the feature-length final episode, Treasure of the Lost Lamp, at Club Kid (a glorified daycare) very early in my life.

So: why is this an awesome opening? Because it succinctly and appealingly conveys the nature of the series. DuckTales, loosely based on Carl Barks’ duck-centric Disney comics, was pretty much an old-fashioned adventure serial about the McDuck clan and their various quests – whether geared toward protecting Scrooge’s present lucre, or obtaining more. The opening gets this across through a fast-paced best-of montage, demonstrating the sheer scope of these tales – which, mind you, are not “pony tails or cotton tails.” They’re duck tales, a fact that’s emphasized through most characters (and the town and world in which they live) having “duck” somewhere in their names.

It’s genuinely impressive how many kinds of adventures are on display here: we’ve got dragons, mummies, lava pits, sharks, aliens, tigers, robots, and more. DuckTales was at once all-inclusive and unfocused, skipping from one realm of magic and fantasy to another. Where most such children’s shows confined themselves by setting or genre, it grabbed freely from sci-fi, Arabian Nights, Tarzan, Kipling, Arthurian legend, etc. – basically plundering western literature for all available exoticism or dangerous Others, who became the “stranger[s] juts behind you.”

All this was (from what little I know), more or less, in keeping with Barks’ original comics, which engaged in innocent Tintin-style globetrotting while blending eras and technologies (like “race cars, lasers, aeroplanes”). And DuckTales‘ 100 episodes became a condensed, TV-friendly way to absorb Barks’ many decades of stories. The comics (and DuckTales by extension) are a sort of underexplored mini-domain under the Disney umbrella, jumping into very traditional, vaguely imperialist adventure stories; through this opening sequence, we get a little taste of this. And it’s a duck blur.

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Saturday Theme Songs: Bill Nye and The Magic School Bus

Sorry about last weekend’s lack of a theme song, but this should more than make up for it: a double feature! It’s like chocolate plus vanilla. Or in this case, Bill Nye the Science Guy plus The Magic School Bus. They’re both über-educational PBS shows that got me into science at an early age. Both shows’ main tactic was to prove to kids that, as Nye would say, “science rules!” I’m so grateful to have grown up in an era when educational initiatives were filling the airwaves. Every time I turn on PBS now, it’s nothing but Caillou and Clifford. I have nothing against those shows, but they’re indisputably missing the je ne sais awesome that defined my pre-preschool weekday mornings.

Just look at Bill Nye, for example. The show ran from 1993-98, with a total of 100 episodes, but no amount of Bill Nye could be enough. The man was a born TV personality – wise, trustworthy, and believable – as well as an honest-to-goodness scientist with a BA in engineering from Cornell. He could poke fun at himself, make science-themed song parodies, and point out all of science’s cool everyday applications, but still retain a veneer of serious authority. He coupled funny sound effects with real, repeatable scientific experiments like no one else ever has. The intro, with a theme song by Mike Greene, showed kids all the trappings of science – from telescopes to dinosaurs – before any of them had a chance to change the channel.

The Magic School Bus had a similar mission, to teach kids fun science and real science at the same time. But instead of doing it directly through flashy tutorials and montages, its technique was somewhat more… immersive. I.e., it made its cast of third-graders participate in whatever scientific phenomenon was being discussed. They turned into bats, lizards, and salmon; they traveled across the solar system; they delved quite literally into the specifics of the human digestive system. Basically, MSB was the narrative counterpart to Bill Nye’s didacticism. But the show wasn’t just about learning through magic-enabled experience; it too had an authority figure in the form of Mrs. Frizzle, or “The Frizz,” voiced by the wonderful Lily Tomlin. Eccentric and lovable, she was without a doubt the teacher every kid wanted to have.

I should also mention an awesome recurring feature of The Magic School Bus, in which “The Producer” (voiced by Malcolm Jamal Warner) would field phone calls and admit which parts of the episode were scientifically inaccurate. Not only was the show a fantastic blend of fun and education, but it also pointed out its own inconsistencies! And I could listen to that theme song, performed by the great Little Richard, until I wear out the YouTube video. Both of these shows were perfect introductions to the world of science, using quirky characters to teach kids that science does, in fact, rule. Did you know that? Well, now you know.

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Saturday Theme Songs: Are You Afraid of the Dark?

Children’s television, obviously, is not always cute and friendly. Sometimes it can be a little dark or daring. But one children’s show surpassed all others, to the point that it was explicitly nothing but a bottomless source of Nightmare Fuel. Are You Afraid of the Dark? debuted on Nickelodeon in 1990, and was basically a Twilight Zone-style horror anthology series for kids. Each episode was pretty formulaic: a different member of the Midnight Society would tell a story, in which an average preteen would be put into a strange or scary situation. Each episode would generally have a moral about overcoming personal weaknesses, making a sacrifice, or befriending someone you’d previously disliked. All pretty typical stuff for child-oriented storytelling in the ’90s.

Alongside these morals were the scares, which were equally relevant to the target audience (i.e., kids age 7-12). The show was carefully based around their fears, which usually involved middle school, parents, friends, etc. Look at “The Tale of the Vacant Lot” (season 5, episode 10) for example: a girl trades herself away in exchange for everything she needs to be popular. Eventually, though, she has to pay the price in the form of hideous sores across her face, and is only redeemed when she gives up her most prized possession for her sister. It’s pretty straightforward, fable-like storytelling, where selfish behavior leads to negative consequences. The selling point is the sores across her face, and by extension, the money shot of something terrifying at the climax of each episode.

For me, the creepiest of these came from “The Tale of the Ghastly Grinner” (season 4, episode 9), where a drooling Joker-like supervillain stepped out of a microwaved comic book, but everyone who watched the show had their own favorite AYAOTD? moments. (Ashley mentions “The Tale of the Dollmaker,” in which a girl turns into a porcelain doll.) But the show’s opening sequence preemptively beat out everything, since it’s 30 pure seconds of audiovisual terror. It’s the ultimate hook for the whole series, a catalog of everything that makes us afraid of the dark. Creaking swing set? Check. Windows slamming shut in the rain? Check. Childish laughter from nowhere? Shaft of eerie light through a window? Scary clown doll?? Check, check, and double check.

In fact, I would easily describe this as the scariest children’s show opening of all time. It’s so well-made, with every sound and shadow calculated to scare the shit out of you before you even meet the Midnight Society. Granted, the show itself was pretty uneven, and the silliness could often drown out the horror, but it basically kept with the spirit of the opening. It was about normal kids being subjected to the world of “the dark,” where something was always slightly off, and where nothing could quite be trusted. Maybe the girl you thought was your sister was actually an alien, or maybe your best friend’s place had been taken by a chameleon. But no matter what the story was about, that opening had you ready to be scared.

So, dear reader, were you afraid of the dark? And if so, any favorite episodes?

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Saturday Theme Songs: Sailor Moon

Sailor Moon, as I’ve written in the past, was one of the most important cartoons of my, and many others’, childhood. Most people in my age bracket that I talk to who are or were into anime at some point typically claim that one of three animes were the gateway: Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball Z and Pokemon. All three aired in the US at around the same time (Sailor Moon in 1995; DBZ and Pokemon in 1996) and immediately preceded, ushered in and fueled the great anime boom of the mid-nineties.

Although the opening theme changed each season (and of course, had its Japanese counterparts) it’s this opening from the English dub of the first season of Sailor Moon that most American fans remember with fond nostalgia. The opening is a hodgepodge of some of the season’s best animated moments merged with a lyrically dubious song; they try to find the right moments to match up with the words of the song but some of it is just a little off in regards to the actual character of Sailor Moon. For example:

Fighting evil by moonlight/winning love by daylight/never running from a real fight/she is the one named Sailor Moon.

Now if I wanted to get really technical, the only true statements in regards to the first season there are the first and last one. Yes, she fights evil (but not always by moonlight) and yes, her name is Sailor Moon. The whole, winning love thing though…Serena and Darien didn’t begin to have a relationship until the second season. They didn’t even know they loved each other until the very end of the first season. And Serena, the girl and the hero, is a huge wuss in the beginning of the show; on more than one occasion she expresses her desire to not fight. The song skips over the details about Serena being a flaky, unreliable, obnoxious teenager and about the in-fighting between the Scouts (read: between Raye and Serena).

And for some unfathomable reason, the song shows (and has a roll call!) for all five of the Inner Scouts! The Japanese opening goes the smart route and only lets on that there’s going to be three scouts initially; after Sailor Mars comes along we don’t get another scout until Jupiter-14 episodes later. But American kids already knew who Jupiter and Venus were and that eventually they were coming, thanks to the opening.

But despite all of that, the opening and the song does reflect the strongest themes of the show: the importance of friendship; finding love in the unlikeliest of places; and most importantly, for our hero Serena, growing up. Serena’s character arc is the most important and developed of the series; it happens not just over the course of the first season but the entire show. She grows into herself and her responsibilities as a friend and a super hero and the opening song details those more stellar qualities, even if they are something that she develops later on.

And it’s got that kick-ass guitar solo, amirite?

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Saturday Theme Songs: Powerpuff Girls

The Powerpuff Girls, maybe along with Dexter’s Laboratory, epitomized everything good about Cartoon Network’s output in the 1990s. Maybe some of their shows were a little too repetitive, or sophomoric, or smug, but the channel was committed to producing original and interesting cartoons for our generation. Like the decades-old cartoons they once aired, Cartoon Network took a more absurdist approach to animation. Unlike, say, Fox Kids or Kids WB, which were more action-oriented and toyetic with only a few exceptions, Cartoon Network’s roster as a whole was premised around either very unusual situations, or twisted adaptations of familiar scenarios. Dexter’s Laboratory and Courage the Cowardly Dog were both totally new and bizarre; The Powerpuff Girls was a fresh, humorous look at one of the oldest concepts in cartoon history – the superhero.

The show is based around a historical gender divide: little girls are supposedly gentle and demure, while superheroes (i.e., men) are tough, powerful, and sometimes brutal. Craig McCracken knew better. He plays on the old cliché of girls as being made of “sugar, spice, and everything nice,” but then adds Chemical X, which derails any and all expectations. The girls maintain their “girliness” – in fact, when Professor Utonium is knocked against the wall, it happens in a burst of hearts and stars – but it’s still very compatible with their superheroism and violent acts. Kick-Ass‘s Hit-Girl was nothing new; the Powerpuff Girls have been doing the same routine for years.

As if to underscore the girls’ comfortable fusion of girlish innocence and manly violence, there are gender divisions within their ranks. These are all communicated from :33-:41 in the video solely using musical leitmotifs and the girls’ unchanging facial expressions. Blossom is marked as the standard, the perfect balance of power and puff. Bubbles and Buttercup, meanwhile, represent the opposite poles within the girls’ unusual range of gendered behavior – the giggly maiden and the sneering tomboy. Nonetheless, both of them take equal pleasure in savagely beating up villains. The way that their rogues gallery is presented and then dispatched hints back at their origins as the “Whoopass Girls”; they may be little girl superheroes, but they’re still willing to take out Fuzzy Lumpkins with more than a little sadism.

The opening abridges a lot of the show’s psychological complexity, especially as the girls’ childish outlook is put up against Townsville’s harsh realities. (This would most often happen with their greatest foe, Him.) But it gets across a pretty good one-minute synopsis laying out the show’s huge appeal. They’re extremely violent superheroes, but they’re cute little girls, and they’re served up with a very ironic edge. So boys, girls, and jaded college students can all find something to enjoy. As effective as the opening may be, though, I actually enjoy the closing theme more, mainly because it’s a full-blown song by the Scottish band Bis. Enjoy!

What about you, dear reader? Have any fond Powerpuff Girls memories?

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Saturday Theme Songs: Power Rangers

Granted, it’s Sunday, but the point is the same. This is the opening from the first season of the original Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, which ran from 1993-95. By buying tons of footage from Japanese tokusatsu shows, Saban Entertainment (which had a very bizarre logo) was able to brand a new product – one which was aimed directly at the American youth market of the mid-’90s. Embedded in the Power Rangers opening in a strange saga of cultural appropriation, national differences, and how to win over kids with awesomeness. It’s also a warning to those who would spell gerunds with no “g” and no apostrophe. But hell, it was still part of my early childhood.

Here’s a challenge: watch the Power Rangers opening side by side with the one for Kyōryū Sentai Zyuranger, the show from which it stole most of its fights and special effects. Now look at the significant changes in the Japan-to-America transition. Every weird Japanese touch has been left out, from the lifelike dinosaurs to any distinctly Japanese shooting locations to the traditional costumes and weapons of the original rangers. Saban strips away any non-American cultural specifics. Power Rangers begins with blunt exposition wherein comical hag/villain Rita Repulsa (formerly the Japanese “Bandora”) sets her sights on a really low-rent rendition of “earth,” and the wise face Zordon tells his robot buddy to “recruit a team of teenagers with attitude.” Ah, attitude, that ’90s zeitgeist.

One major difference between the Japanese and American iterations is the pace of the editing. Whereas the Japanese version, especially toward the end, has a relatively leisurely pace, Power Rangers takes its lightning bolt logo to heart. The characters are introduced in very brief snapshots, even using split-screen to get more information across faster. At times, shots go by so fast you can barely perceive them on anything but a subliminal level, as they cram in as many special effects as possible per second. Kenta Satō’s Japanese theme song is relaxed and triumphant; Ron Wasserman’s quasi-metal theme is far more repetitive and urgent. (Wasserman notably composed theme songs for other Saban series, like X-Men.) Lightning really is emblematic of what this opening is trying to do – it’s a sensory overload, striking kids with hyperactive music and flashing lights while emphasizing the Zords’ abilities to transform and unify.

So the transition from Japan to America is manifested not just in the language and the characters’ national identities, but also in the visual iconography and style. Zyuranger is another entry in a long-standing tradition of Japanese television; Power Rangers is the consummate American kids’ show, with attitude. As many have observed since the show began, Power Rangers‘ cast is a hilariously unsubtle attempt to recreate the American melting pot within a California suburb, including the likes of Trini Kwan, the generically Asian-American Yellow Ranger, to Kimberley Hart, the ultra-feminine Pink Ranger. It’s a curious collision between an America that’s supposedly beyond race and the need for extremely legible characters in such a fast-paced show. In the end, though, the individual Zords merge to form the Megazord. So maybe, in Saban’s America, an individual’s race is transcended by the awesomeness of the group.

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Saturday Theme Songs: Pokémon

Starting around 1997-98, American children could not turn their heads without seeing that fuzzy little yellow rat we called Pikachu. Once the anime and video game were released in the United States, we had Pokémon fever, and the ensuing blitz of merchandise and advertising didn’t hurt one bit. For those few years in my life, Pokémon was as much “a part of my childhood” as walls or running water; such was the power of Pokémania. And the anime, which was probably the most mainstreamed anime ever to be broadcast in this country, was a huge part of that. (Though that’s not to say I didn’t also enjoy the video game, card game, action figures, board games, magazines, books, stickers, conventions, and much, much more.)

Rewatching the anime’s opening sequence again after all these years reminds me why I loved it so much in the first place. Not because it was good, per se – I suspect that if I watched it now, it would feel childish and formulaic. But that’s just why I loved it: if you’re in that 7-12 demographic, Pokémon contains so much of what you want out of life. It’s a chance to be a cool kid, and to have power over your surroundings, just by virtue of some high-tech Poké Balls. It’s a chance for low-risk adventure with your friends (and lots of preadolescent romantic tension!) without worrying about parents or responsibilities. And look at how many varieties of terrain and Pokémon we’re exposed to in one minute! (I count about 30 different species.) The opening promises the viewer that they’ll be “travel[ing] across the land, searching far and wide.” For a kid with a big imagination and a yen for faraway lands, this is a godsend.

Just look at how this sequence progresses. We start out with the two most mysterious and powerful Pokémon of all, Mewtwo and Mew, flying through some bizarre outer space setting. So right away, we’re given intimations of something big and awesome: the three first seconds are nothing but money shot. Then we move to Ash pledging himself to a vague dream of being “the very best,” which would later be called being a “Pokémon Master,” followed by a rapid-fire series of Pokémon. It’s a marvelously edited opening, relying on fast cuts that keep time with the music, as well as constant movement in different directions across the screen. Squirtle goes right, Cubone goes left, Pidgeotto goes right, then Rapidash goes left, Zapdos goes right, Articuno goes left, and so on. It’s extremely dynamic, throwing off and then reestablishing the composition’s balance, and it suggests that the show’s all about nonstop motion, or even nonstop conflict. It’s an appealing idea for a high-energy 9-year-old whose mind can’t sit still.

Then, as we enter the chorus, we get a sense of the plot. “You’re my best friend, in a world we must defend,” is sung over images of Ash between Brock and Misty, then Team Rocket, then Ash’s rival Gary. (Because of animation’s unique abilities, this happens without any visible cuts; each set of characters just rise up and block out the previous one. It’s a very fluid procession.) Several successive images convey progress (Pikachu leaps into the air), community (the nodding elders), danger (Charizard breathing fire), and friendship. We end on Ash, alone, hurling a Poké Ball into the title. It’s a coming-of-age show: finding a compromise between our aggressive individualism and the need to locate ourselves in the wider world. Ash (and us as preteen viewers) want to be “like no one ever was,” but it can’t be at the cost of our friends, both human and Pokémon. It’s a sappy moral, and sappy morals are what the show traded in, but it speaks to greater problems that kids deal with. Pokémon solved those problems through friendship and a little dose of total fantasy.

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