Sunday, July 17, 2011

Rocky and Bullwinkle, classic cartoon references War of the Worlds

Rocky and Bullwinkle, the adventures of a Flying Squirrel and his Moose friend is considered a landmark cartoon series that has enthralled generations of children, though it famously slipped in innumerable often obscure cultural references for adults. Indeed the very first episode includes a clever homage to the 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast with the brief appearance of a character called Dawson Bells. Ring any bells?

As the episode opens, a gathering of prestigious scientists are preparing to observe the moon through a giant telescope, pronouncing with certainty that they expect to find no evidence of life, but the first thing they spy is Rocky and Bullwinkle, waving at them from the surface! The flabbergasted scientists believe Rocky and Bullwinkle to be moon creatures, and when Bullwinkle semaphores their intention to come to Earth, a panic ensues. Dawson Bells (looking and sounding a lot like Orson Welles) broadcasts a message on radio, assuring his listeners that this is definitely no play and that people are welcome to panic.

Arriving on Earth, Rocky and Bullwinkle are met by a delegation, but quickly put their minds to rest, explaining that they are residents of the Earth, and had visited the moon to retrieve a stove, which Bullwinkle's new cake mixture had accidentally blasted there when it exploded. This is of great interest to the assembled dignitaries, for it sounds like Bullwinkle's cake mixture might be a revolutionary new form of Rocket Fuel. Bullwinkle is promptly put to work developing the formula, but evil enemy agents Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale are keen to steal the secret.

There is no further reference to The War of the Worlds or Orson Welles in this episode, the first of 40 short 7 minute serialised instalments generally referred to as the Jet Fuel Formula story arc. Created by Jay Ward and Alex Anderson, the show is extremely well regarded for the quality of its writing, though the animation is painfully crude by today’s standards. However it does have a certain charm, and the narration by William Conrad (famous for roles such as the detective Cannon) lends a wonderfully incongruous gravitas to the proceedings.