Do You Remember Bonkers?by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
"Once upon a time in Toontown, there was a cat that had it all:
Fortune and fame, top of the game, up until he hit the wall.
Now he makes a living downtown, walking to a brand-new beat,
Slippin' through the new day, trippin' on a two-way ticket down a one-way street.
Let's go Bonkers, yeah, totally nuts. Bonkers, no if's, and's, or but but's" —Theme song for Bonkers by Mark Watters
Did you celebrate the 25th anniversary of Bonkers D. Bobcat? It wasn't this year or even last year. It was in 2017 and even the most avid fan of classic Disney Afternoon programming seems to have missed that milestone including myself.
Bonkers was an original Disney animated character from Walt Disney Television Animation who appeared in a theatrical short, several shorts in the CBS Saturday morning Raw Toonage show as well as his own half hour animated series that was part of the Disney Afternoon block of syndicated shows.
He was an anthropomorphic spotted orange bobcat with a red clown-like nose.
During his short life span from 1992 to 1995, he physically changed his appearance (large-knobbed ears and spotted tail with a white tip and brown colored spots on his fur morphed into smaller ears with black spots and a striped tail among other changes including his blue eyes becoming black), changed his supporting cast of characters, inspired an aspect of the much more popular Gargoyles (1994) animated series and more because…well, he was bonkers. Crazy. Nuts.
By 1992, the relationship between the Walt Disney Company and Steven Spielberg's Amblin entertainment company had soured almost completely over their joint ownership of Roger Rabbit and his supporting cast. This discontent for a variety of reasons on both sides had been bubbling since 1990 and was one of the reasons a sequel film to Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) was never made.
CEO Michael Eisner cancelled all Roger Rabbit projects, including future animated shorts and a proposed addition to the theme parks that would have featured attractions based on Roger Rabbit and his friends.
Artist Peter Emsile remembered that he had just completed the image of Roger Rabbit for the WDW 20th Anniversary press kit cover when word came directly from Eisner to stop any projects that featured Roger.
The Disney solution was to create its own loveable, wacky animated character in the spirit of Roger Rabbit. So, Bonkers D. Bobcat was born as trouble started brewing.
The plan was to produce the standard 65 half hour episodes to be included in the popular two hour Disney Afternoon syndicated cartoon block of cartoons that was broken up into four separate series, one of which rotated out each year with a new installment taking its place. Reruns would be shown on the Disney Channel.
Bonkers D. Bobcat was an animated star of WackyToon Studios and was designed to be as frantic and extreme as Roger Rabbit in the style reminiscent of the classic Tex Avery directed cartoons of the 1940s.
The animated short Petal to the Metal was released on August 7, 1992, to theaters to accompanying the live action Touchstone feature film 3 Ninjas.
Directed by David Block, this eight-minute animated cartoon was a production of Walt Disney Television Animation and was meant to introduce the new character of Bonkers D. Bobcat (voiced by Jim Cummings) to audiences before his television series. While the original pre-production work took place in California, the animation was done in France.
The official synopsis was "In delivering a bouquet of flowers across town to a stunning starlet named Fawn Deer, a delirious delivery cat named Bonkers D. Bobcat turns a relatively easy assignment into a catalog of catastrophes. Racing against the clock to meet his five-minute delivery deadline, Bonkers encounters a wide array of ridiculous roadblocks, ranging from banana peels to the world's slowest taxi driver, in his frantic attempts to meet the deadline and keep his job."
The proposed series featuring Bonkers for the Disney Afternoon block ran into several difficulties and would not be ready in time. One of those problems was that the animation had been outsourced to 10 artists at Toon City Animation Studio, an independent studio in Manila, because it was cheaper than doing it in the United States. It was the studio's first job for Disney as it had just opened although over time, it gained more artists and worked on many future Disney animated projects from Kim Possible to Disney direct-to-video features like Mickey, Donald, Goofy: The Three Musketeers, Belle's Magical World, Fox and the Hound 2 and many more.
Eisner had purchased the rights to a popular Belgian comic strip featuring an unusual creature called the Marsupilami. To take advantage of this asset, it was decided to produce an interim show of 12 episodes titled Raw Toonage for Saturday morning.
The half hour that debuted September 12, 1992, on CBS included a short cartoon of Marsupilami, a segment called Totally Tasteless Video story edited by Tom MInton to satirize popular culture like movie trailers, Magnum P.I., chicken exorcism and more as well as a segment entitled He's Bonkers that were supposedly episodes from WackyToon Studios to give more credibility to the fact that Bonkers was an actual animated cartoon star.
In the shorts, he unsuccessfully tried to win the attention and love of the oblivious Fawn Deer during frantic activities while his nervous but loyal best friend Jitters A. Dog gets blown up, hit by an anvil or run over with a bulldozer. "I hate my life," Jitters would say in deadpan like the much more famous Droopy.
Each week, the show had a different animated host introduce the show. Bonkers introduced the show once as did Jitters A. Dog, as a stuntman for other Disney Afternoon shows.
Larry Latham produced and directed the He's Bonkers shorts. Each of these shorts were eventually compiled into four half-hour episodes and were included as part of the 65 episodes of the half-hour Bonkers television series. The Marsupilami shorts (except for three) were also compiled when that character got his own half hour show.
Going Bonkers was a two-hour television special, airing September 3, 1993. Directed by Robert Taylor (who had been put in charge of the television series), it was meant to introduce the new half-hour cartoon series and how Bonkers went from cartoon star to rookie cop.
Using animation from the theatrical short, the show begins with the studio filming it. The head of the WackyToon Studios, W. W. Wacky, comes in and fires everyone. It turns out that a rival studio has replaced WackyToon Studios as the top animation studio with its The Bicep Bill Squad series. The studio boss will not tolerate being "No. 2." Bonkers and his friends—Jitters A. Dog, Fawn Deer, and arch-enemy Grumbles Grizzly—must now find new jobs.
Through sheer dumb luck, Bonkers unwittingly comes to the aid of Donald Duck and, at the same time, helps veteran human cop detective Lucky Piquel (also voiced by Jim Cummings) arrest the mugger who attacked Donald.
This heroic act results in a Citizen of Valor award and lands Bonkers a new job as a rookie on the Tinseltown Police Force, where he works with the reluctant Piquel in the newly-formed Toon Division to handle crimes involving toons.
The clueless police chief Leonard Kanifky, who is hoping to run for mayor, makes Bonkers a policeman because of his bragging about his experience in a cop cartoon that helped him capture the mugger and in hopes of the chief securing the "toon vote" for his possible campaign. Ironically, Bonkers' familiarity with Toons and their behavior proves to be very helpful in solving crimes.
Like Eddie Valiant, Piquel does not particularly care for Toons and their hyperactive sensory overload, but sees his new assignment as a way to impress the police chief so that he can be promoted to captain. Basically the mismatched partnership was meant to suggest the Lethal Weapon (1987) movies with a sedate officer with a family (wife and daughter) teamed with a much more manic one who acts crazy.
The new partners track down and arrest The Collector, a human-disguised-as-a-Toon who's laminating Toons for his private collection—including Bonkers' friends and this first case begins a memorable partnership.
Bonkers was given a new Toonish supporting cast, including Fall Apart Rabbit (who literally falls apart when startled or excited) and objects like Toots, the bulb horn that behaved like a pet dog; a police light wearing a Chevalier boater hat, spats and tap shoes who spouts bad vaudeville jokes; and Broderick (a tribute to actor Broderick Crawford's portrayal of a policeman on television) the police radio.
Jitters had become a delivery boy with a girlfriend who was an elephant. Fawn Deer has found work as a commercial actress. but still just thinks of Bonkers as some nice guy she worked with once at WackyToon Studios. Grumbles has become Bonkers' loud-mouthed, complaining neighbor.
One of the aspects of Who Framed Roger Rabbit that audiences loved were cameos from cartoon stars, and so Bonkers also had some cameos including: Jasper and Horace (101 Dalmatians), Big Bad Wolf, Br'er Bear, Lady and the Tramp, Darkwing Duck, Marsupilami, Beagle Boy, Pete, Goofy, Dumbo, Hyacinth Hippo, Ben Ali Gator, Ferdinand the Bull, Monstro the Whale, Mad Hatter, Ludwig von Drake and several other Disney characters.
Perhaps one of the cleverest cameos was the episode I Oughta Be In Toons where Mickey Mouse is kidnapped and impersonated by a human (voiced by gruff comedian Brad Garrett) in a large, slovenly, rat suit and Piquel doesn't notice the difference. Mickey's name is not said, nor is he seen except for his iconic shadow silhouette in the beginning, but he is heard occasionally off screen and from the inside of a pet carrier where he is being held captive.
Originally, the series was to team Bonkers with the blonde policewoman Sergeant Miranda Wright (a take-off on the term "Miranda Rights" that have to be read to suspects when arrested and voiced by singer Karla DeVito, wife of Robby "voice of Disney's The Beast" Benson, who had been filming the animated feature around the same time). It was this teaming of a female policewoman with a non-human partner that reportedly inspired a similar teaming in the series Gargoyles.
They were part of the Hollywood Police Department—Toon Division. Originally, they would have patrolled Toon Town but that was changed so as not to upset the relationship with Spielberg.
Just before the series debut, the Disney Channel Magazine advertised the show with an image of Miranda as Bonkers' partner in a racing squad car with the following blurb: "Los Angeles, the City, Ol' Ellay. Down its mean streets have prowled private dicks the likes of Raymond Chandler's Phillip Marlowe. And now joining the ranks of L.A.'s classic crimefighters is none other than – Bonkers T. Bobcat!?! (Note: Yes, they got the middle initial wrong.)
"A former toon star, Bonkers is a rookie cop for the Hollywood Police Department, and he and his senior partner Lucky Piquel are charged with investigating all the crimes committed by – Toons! Bonkers is a heady mix wherein animation ala 'Roger Rabbit' meets the hardboiled genre of '40s film noir. We say it's 'just for kids' – NOT!"
However, when the first episodes featuring Miranda came back from animation overseas, Disney did not care for them or the direction of the series was taking. so it was given to a different team and reworked.
Bonkers was now teamed with Piquel for 42 episodes whereupon Piquel got promoted to an FBI post in Washington, D.C., when he helped an agent apprehend a bomber and Bonkers was re-assigned to the less abrasive Miranda, who had been shown in the Piquel episodes to be the secretary to Chief Kanifky and had been finally promoted to policewoman as she always wanted.
Interestingly, this episode was removed from rotation in the United States after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing due to its bombing/terrorism plot, and was consequently not included in the rerun package.
This change was accomplished in an episode titled New Partners On the Block that aired October 1993, and then followed by the 19 original episodes that had been made with Miranda. Piquel took along with him to Washington Fall Apart Rabbit, the toon horn, radio and light so it would help explain why they were not in the Miranda episodes that had been animated before those characters were created.
Bonkers ran from September 4, 1993 to February 23, 1994 and then in reruns on the Disney Channel through 1995. Bonkers did appear in stories in the 1994 Disney Afternoon Comic Book published by Marvel as well as issues of Disney Adventures magazine.
Burger King also issued a Kids' Meal toy of a two inch tall Bonkers PVC figure in uniform as well as a set of five Crash Apart Cars driven by the characters. There was also a Super Nintendo and a Sega Genesis game with the character. In the first, he needs to find three lost Toontown treasures and in the second capture four criminals to get the Employee of the Month award.
There was even a costumed character Bonkers who made appearances at Disneyland and Walt Disney World. He also performed in the Magic Kingdom show at Mickey's Starland in 1993-1994 as did other Disney Afternoon characters.
"Bonkers is really about what happens when two worlds collide," said Supervising Producer Bob Taylor when the show premiered. "The toon world and the human world each have a different set of rules, different behaviors, and a different look. We've tried to bring out these differences in every aspect of the show, from design and animation to scripting and recording.
"Bonkers brings a toon's childlike enthusiasm to everything he does. He's a naïve 'wanna-be' whereas Piquel is a 'used-to-be' or 'thought-he'd be'. Life has kind of crept by Piquel while he wasn't looking, and Bonkers' single-minded, full-speed-ahead approach baffles his jaded partner – especially when it works," he said. "Piquel will fit a piece into a puzzle by carefully trying all the possibilities. Bonkers will drop an anvil on it from the ceiling. The rest of the puzzle may be destroyed but the piece fits!"
While part of the popularity of Who Framed Roger Rabbit was the combination of live-action and animation, the restricted budget for Bonkers meant that both the human and Toon worlds were done in animation.
The production notes tried to make this limitation sound like an advantage:
"While humans are rendered in simple, greyed hues, Toons are drawn with bright primaries and no shadow colors, giving them a more two-dimensional look. Toons appear to leap off the screen as their vivid colors contrast with the muted palette of the humans.
"Both Toons and humans have trouble fitting in with the other's world. The hazy, smoggy Los Angeles of the humans is a slightly sinister place for Toons, whose obvious colors and simple take on life can make them targets for more sophisticated and unscrupulous humans. Toons can't even steal away in the night, because they glow in the dark.
"On the other hand, humans can be injured; Toons get flattened and pop right back up. The laws of gravity don't apply to Toons, whereas humans are confined to the earth. To convey their earthbound limitations, humans are animated with minimal movement – a hand gesture here, or a raised eyebrow there. Toons are constantly in motion and incapable of subtlety. Surprise a Toon and he jumps ten feet in the air; make him cry, and you'd better have a life raft handy.
"Toons are not only childlike in their passions, they're also – with rare exceptions – child-sized. When Bonkers drives the patrol car, his head barely clears the dash. Toons and children get along especially well, as evidenced by Bonkers' fast friendship with Piquel's 8 year old daughter, Marilyn.
"Bonkers and Marilyn share a child's innocent enthusiasm and an immense admiration for Piquel, who endures their antics with stoic resignation."
In actuality, the show never achieved a clear artistic distinction between animated humans and Toons.
As Greg Weisman recalled on his website:
"I helped develop Bonkers in my role as director of development at Walt Disney Television Animation. That is, I helped develop the original Bonkers/Miranda series, i.e. the episodes that wound up airing last, after the Bonkers/Piquel episodes. But I wasn't the producer or even a writer on the series, so I didn't name any characters.
"The show was originally called Toon Cop not He's Bonkers. The name was changed to 'Bonkers' in part to avoid any conflict with Steven Spielberg over the word 'Toon' and in part because somebody felt that naming the show after the lead character worked well with kids.
"Raw Toonage [that featured short segments with Bonkers] had a slightly shorter production schedule, but the main reason it wound up airing first was because the main series was troubled and delayed.
"We were of course inspired by Roger Rabbit, but we knew our entire show was going to be animated, so we needed to emphasize contrasts both visual and otherwise. I developed the series with Bonkers, Jitters, Miranda, Sgt. Grating, etc.
"We later decided to prequel ourselves by putting He's Bonkers! shorts in another show I developed, called Raw Toonage to help establish Bonkers as a real animated cartoon character.
"Meanwhile on Bonkers, I handed the series over to Duane Capizzi and Bob Hathcock, and they produced the first Bonkers episodes—i.e the ones that ended up airing last, the Miranda episodes. I had little or no involvement in what was for me the painful Piquel episodes. Jeff Bennett's Jitters A. Dog is still one of my all-time favorite performances.
"Disney saw the first few episodes that came back animated overseas and—PANICKED. I think the main problem was the overseas animation, but there were some art direction issues, a couple of minor voice issues and some problematic scripts. But mostly there was an overreaction, allowing problems in animation to tar the entire production.
"There was a LONG attempt to work with the current producers, but they were slow to realize the magnitude of the PERCEIVED problem. Let me be clear on that. They very rationally reacted to the real problems, which were minor. But didn't get the extent of the panic.
"They under-reacted to that and continued to under-react, until it got to the point where even I was thinking that we'd need to make a change—because we could not proceed at all the way things stood.
"Some (Miranda) episodes that weren't very far along were probably left unfinished. I don't remember the specifics, but any episode that was near completion was completed—though not by the original production team. The series was handed off to another team to complete the order of 65 episodes."
It is an urban myth according to Weisman that Disney intended to do a Roger Rabbit animated television series and then replaced Roger with Bonkers. It is clear that Bonkers was meant to be a fully-owned Disney version of a loony cartoon character but that audiences did not respond with the same passion and affection to Bonkers and his supporting cast of characters.
Today, while some of the Disney Afternoon characters and series have become nostalgic cult favorites with even DuckTales being revived, Bonkers remains a trivia footnote in Disney animation history.