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Thursday
Jul312014

Tim's Toons: A field guide to animated raccoons

Tim here. Tomorrow, the much-hyped latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Franchise Expansion Plan opens, Guardians of the Galaxy. While reviews have promised a broad, inventive space comedy/adventure, the marketing to date has focused on two specific things:

1) Chris Pratt plays Han Solo.
2) Bradley Cooper voices Han Solo as a raccoon.

And since I take it as axiomatic that two Han Solos is better than no Han Solos (as graphically demonstrated by the Star Wars prequels) I’m actually perfectly okay with that. Anyway, it’s pretty clear at this point that Disney wants the Raccoon – Rocket Raccoon, to give him his proper name – to be the film’s big breakout character, so the time was perfect to launch into a brief history of the talking raccoon throughout animation history.

RJ, Over the Hedge (2006)
To date, the most visible of all anthropomorphic raccoons has been this character in DreamWorks Animation’s noble but somewhat ineffective attempt to break out of their “pop culture jokes ‘n’ celebrity voices” ghetto with a movie looking back to the madcap slapstick of the Looney Tunes shorts...

Disney, Canadian, and Japanese raccoons below the jump!

And for all that he’s played by Bruce Willis (a smart choice for a fast-talking animal conman, basically the wildlife version of Harold Hill from The Music Man crossed with Danny Ocean), RJ is impressively raccoon-like, all things considered. The sly, crafty thief who convinces all the other critters in the movie to take food from suburbanites’ garbage, he’s the one character on this list that entirely resembles the specific version of raccoons that most of us interact with on a routine basis. He resembles somebody’s vague impression of a raccoon more than the actual animal, but this is a film in which a turtle keeps accidentally losing its shell, so biological precision isn’t high on anybody’s list of priorities.

Meeko, Pocahontas (2005)
Having specified “talking” raccoons, I need to walk myself back from that, unless we want to agree that Meeko speaks the international language of pantomime. Which we don’t.

But how could we ignore him? The most successfully designed and animated of the three non-speaking comic animals in Pocahontas, he nicely dodges the trap of being too humanized in his behavior to feel credibly like a wild animal. The sharp, angular aesthetic of all the characters throughout the film is arguably at its very best in Meeko’s design, with his simple color scheme and very fluid face. As executed by supervising animator Nik Ranieri, he’s a perfect little supporting character, given to quick, easily-read gestures and broad comic business that showcases an appealing but not showy personality, and while Disney’s comic sidekicks in the late ‘90s were generally just plain awful, I find that the movie always perks up a little bit when Meeko shows up.

Bert, Ralph, and Melissa Raccoon, The Raccoons (1980, ’81, ’83, ’84; 1985-’91)
The first draft of this article was entirely about this Canadian TV cartoon, which I have been obsessed about for close to my entire life. Upon realizing that absolutely nobody else in the world likely shared that obsession, I felt obliged to stand down. But I still have to owe it a great deal of thanks for starting my other lifelong obsession with Canadian animation generally, even though I didn’t realise until about 20 years later that it was from Canada. And that despite its protagonist wearing a hockey jersey for the entire run of the show.

The bulk of the series concerned the Raccoons squaring off against Cyril Sneer, a hot pink aardvark land developer trying to destroy the forest for some moneymaking scheme or another. Usually, when I’m describing the show to somebody in the hopes of finding absolutely anyone else who remembers watching it, this is as far as I get before they ask if I’m lying.

Fever dream or not, the show was in possession of a wry sense of humor that set it apart from almost all the other ‘80s cartoons in my rotation at the time, and it had a surprising proclivity for using original New Wave songs on the soundrack, which was a real consciousness-raising experience when I was six. The video for its theme song is like having the whole decade mainlined right into your veins.

Since it is an obscure animated property from the ‘80s, and this is the internet, there is Raccoons-themed erotica that I was very sorry to discover while researching this essay.

 

Raccoon, The Nut Job (2014)
Apparently, the villain in this movie that I steadfastly did not see earlier this year was a raccoon named Raccoon, and he was voiced by Liam Neeson. Here’s photographic evidence. Both of the fact that Neeson played the character, and that Neeson was way too damn excited to be voicing the villain in a third-tier animated feature.

The tanuki village, Pom Poko (1994)
Tanuki, an animal native to Japan, are not raccoons. But the American dub of this magnificent and hugely under-appreciated Studio Ghibli film calls them that (it also calls their enormous scrotums “pouches”, because We Must Think Of The Children), so I’m going to wave it in, because there are just not that many cartoon raccoons out there. And their behavior in this film, scampishly upsetting a suburban real estate development, puts them somewhere in between Over the Hedge and The Raccoons, behavior-wise. Anyway, it gives me an excuse to tell everybody that they need to go see Pom Poko, an amazing, amazing film with virtually no profile in the States.

Share your own favorite fictional raccoons in the comments!

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Reader Comments (10)

Pom Poko! Yes!

July 31, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBRB

The character in "The Music Man" is Harold Hill, no? Who knew there were so many animated raccoons!

July 31, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMia

words cant really express how much i love meeko. a support group is possibly needed whenever i watch that movie.

July 31, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I'm obsessed with The Raccoons, too. I used to think if I ever (learned to play guitar, became gifted at songwriting, developed stage presence) started a band, I'd name it The Raccoons, since EVERY Canadian between a certain age and a certain age would get it.

July 31, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

I've been meaning to find a way to dig back into "The Raccoons", since I only really became aware of it's astute environmentalist messages in retrospect. But there are certain episodes I remember vividly. I think the one where they play Cyril's hockey team for the preservation of the lake (besides being my favourite) deserves to be held alongside the shorts of the NFB as the some of most quintessentially Canadian animation ever produced.

July 31, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterN8

I agree with Nathaniel, Meeko is such a fully-realized character in Pocahontas that he improves the movie in every scene he's in. A very good 'supporting' performance, if you can call it that! That raccoon is so cute!

And while I do tend to agree that Disney kind of lost it in the hero sidekicks department for a while, when they're on fire, they strike gold: Sebastian/Lil' Mermaid; everyone in Beast and Beauty; the rug in Aladdin - Apu, not so much; and the tiger even less so; Timon and Pumba are... tiring when reaching half their screentime. The gargoyles on Honchback were TERRIBLE (I've recently rediscovered that movie; it's fascinating to analyze, 15 years after it premiered; so much hidden subtext) and the less to the said of Philoctetes/Pegasus in Hercules, the better. What comes after is too awful for words. Recently, they improved again (coinciding with the overall movies' improvement) - Olaf and Sven, Maximus and Pascal are some fine examples of their recent output.

July 31, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJorge Rodrigues

Mia, you're 100% right. Fixed it, thanks!

Jorge- the Hunchback-Tarzan window was exactly what I was thinking about (the terrible gargoyles, the irritating Rosie O'Donnell gorilla; the dreadful Eddie Murphy dragon in Mulan). But I agree, they've been on a major upswing lately, in Tangled especially.

July 31, 2014 | Registered CommenterTim Brayton

I was obsessed with Fess Parker's once-animated hat in Disney's Daniel Boone...

eww, I know.

August 1, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPam

My favorite website just covered 'The Raccoons'! What a delightful meeting of two perfections.

August 1, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCory Rivard

cory & tim -- i'd never even heard of the Raccoons!

August 2, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

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