‘IT’S A SMALL WONDER’ : THE POPULAR CULTURE FIXTURES OF MY CHILDHOOD THAT MADE ME(AND US)

These troubled and indefatigably inscrutable times have injected a heavy dose of nostalgia in our everyday situations. Life, per se, never seems devoid of complications of diverse kinds as an adult and a year like this has only compounded our anxieties about our place in the world. But you know something: as we look at the children around us as they too embrace the ‘new normal’, we keep heading to the past, the nostalgic portal opens up and we yearn to become kids all over again, back to the glory days where innocence reigned supreme quite literally.

Our popular culture fixtures in the form of animation and live-action shows were there to guide us through trails of mischief and bonding, the beauty and ugliness of the world at large. But quintessentially, they knew the pulse of childhood and kinship among friends, knowing that we all shared our interests and the characters on the televised pantheon were our lifelines. From exchanging WWE cards to Pokemon tazos, passing the parcel to Name Place Animal Thing sharpening our mental capabilities, those were the days. In all senses. Truly unforgettable.

It makes me think about the kind of content that children receive in terms of cartoons now and a lack of substance and changing mores, whether they be guardians relying on tutors or refusing to acknowledge the problems of technology within a predominantly ‘smartphone generation’ for their kids. Innocence can never be truly lost so I take this trip down memory lane to resurrect some eternal favourites that children around the globe recognise as cultural totems and wish that this collective power of imagination is never lost on the current generation.

In short, these are the popular culture fixtures of our childhood that made us.

***

SMALL WONDER

In naming this essay after this timeless show, I have tried to take back its sway over a whole generation of Indians who loved it equally as their international counterparts. In the 1990s and 2000s, there wasn’t a single child who didn’t know about this American classic airing at 5.30 in the evenings. We discussed about it at recess in school and while playtime was on in the evenings.

The theme song, the music, the characters, namely parents Ted and Joan, siblings Jamie and Vicky, Jamie’s best friend Reggie and the overbearing but cute as hell neighbour Harriet or even her mother’s refrain of ‘no no no no no’, the novel concept of an ‘actual new normal’ in the family dynamics was all thanks to SMALL WONDER. You see, Vicky was a pre-AI model of a robot and that’s all the fun that this premise occasioned.

It all made us merry and united; there was no boundary to consider where the show aired or where it originally aired from or was created. It was the shorthand for childhood. Period. To be honest, I think it last aired here around 2002 and I cried when I realized it wasn’t on the screens. But the fact that every beat and laugh track is fresh in our minds is enough to tell us of its irrepressible place in our hearts. New kids on the block, you better start with this one. It’s a technically simple but unforgettable family experience, full of laughs and emotional connect, reeking of a time when these were not oversimplified emojis. (You can watch SMALL WONDER on YouTube)

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TOM AND JERRY

A literal cat and mouse battle of wits, wiles, mayhem and peerless humour, which had me marvel at the sheer limitless store of comic brilliance, imagination or naughtiness of its creators who stayed true to the pulse of childhood, this one will always remain etched in human consciousness till the world stands.

The fact that it’s like vaudeville, where actions replace words and the silent central figures never truly speak, add to its legendary status. This and Chaplin have always made it possible to know that the child in us is ever-present in every and any four corners of the globe. As for the titular superstars, they can’t live with each other or without each other and that’s the true enigma and tenacity of their almost century old relationship in annals of popular culture.

**

WINNIE THE POOH

I have already written once about the way the series of books by Mr. MILNE and the 2011 movie impacted me. In fact, WINNIE THE POOH, that adorably gentle specimen of innate decency and his coterie of friends, all with their own distinct set of traits, always have captured my attention wholeheartedly since my earliest years. The cartoon series falls in the same category.

Here’s to the author’s stamp of originality, his gift of understanding the innocence of children’s daily concerns and issues, all beautifully incorporated in characters as timeless as PIGLET, TIGGER, RABBIT, EYORE, MAMA AND BABY KANGAROO and OWL. In today’s landscape of crass cartoons and lack of imaginary worlds to root for, it’s still like a balm on the senses. Calm and free of worldly corruptions. Just like the wonder of childhood.

***

OSWALD, NODDY, PINGU, THOMAS AND FRIENDS.

I remember how children’s network POGO had launched the above-mentioned slate of shows and they all became staples for all of us.

Be it the gentlemanly worldview of Oswald, the blue octopus with a heart of gold, a bowler hat, oodles of mannerisms and his pet Vinnie, replicating the dignified style of WINNIE THE POOH for me, the colourful world of Noddy and his toy friends, THOMAS, THE ENGINE and his stationary but interesting conversations with his locomotive friends or the brilliant non-verbal and behavioural approximation of penguins in PINGU, it was a treat, a time when good morals and the efforts of toonmakers to go beyond animation tropes and implement larger visual visions came of age. I am indebted to all of these.

**

THE ROAD RUNNER SHOW

A menacing but ultimately naive coyote’s efforts to catch a road runner- an actual bird, maybe, who I always assumed was an ostrich (ha,ha) and then getting burnt and detonated and thrown down cliffs into a cloud of dust underneath, signifying the futility of his gestures (and efforts) is essentially the same premise recycled in episodic loops but it’s fun. That ‘beep, beep’ cry from the Road Runner is a mark of overconfident triumph, for sure. Come on, admit it, we’ve all grown up with it just like Tweety’s refrain on seeing Sylvester,” I think I just saw a pussycat”

The Warner Bros. canon gave us these frenemies/ mismatched adversaries for life.

***

THE POWERPUFF GIRLS

The story of three superheroes – BLOSSOM, BUBBLES and BUTTERCUP – created by a concoction of everything sweet, spicy and more by a scientist father- as told in the cartoon’s iconic prologue- is perhaps the pre-IVF success story ever created, resting in the hands of a rare father figure and a single one at that.

Its flashy style, unforgettable theme song and simian villian MOJO JOJO have been memorised by a whole generation. It’s like Cyndi Lauper’s mission statement on her iconic song GIRLS JUST WANNA HAVE FUN, only it served both genders because childhood saw the world through no sexist discrimination going by the title.

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THE FLINTSTONES

A Stone Age family complete with a pet dinosaur and feuding but always reconciling best friends, told with contemporary terms, was a success story that became a novel bedrock of our lives. Also, do you remember those stone age cars operated by kinetic legs of the protagonists, as shown here?

Maybe, the creators opened up a facet no archeologist ever could. (I’m kidding, of course)

**

THE LAND BEFORE TIME

From THE FLINTSTONES to THE LAND BEFORE TIME, animation efforts created wonderful creative marvels by imagining the sound, fury as well as the stakes and dignity of prehistoric times.

THE LAND BEFORE TIME was about the generational story of dinosaurs and such was the emotional impact that we were all left teary-eyed and even bawling at crucial junctures. I cried to this long before THE GOOD DINOSAUR devastated me with its emotional heft. I will always love these universal tales that mimick the progress of civilization and bonding among kindred so beautifully. Truly, they just can’t make them like this anymore.

***

To conclude, lots of other classics like MICKEY MOUSE AND FRIENDS, PINK PANTHER, SCOOBY DOO, THE ADDAMS FAMILY, JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS, FANTASTIC FOUR, ALADDIN, JUNGLE BOOK all occupied our mainstream but the ones above defined the cream of the lot.

I know this essay will inspire you to revisit these titles, age no bar, and hopefully share them with uninitiated members of the younger lot too.

*****

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