Ask Chris #165: Cartoon Theme Songs And Other Delights
Q: Outside of the opening credits to Batman: The Animated Series, what's the most effective opening to an 80s/90s "kids" show? --@chudleycannons
A: You know, Chudley, I like that you went as far as putting the quotation marks around "kids" as though being a 31-year-old who gets up every morning to watch an episode of Jem and the Holograms over a cup of coffee is something that is perfectly normal for my demographic. But there's no shame in my game, friend, so let's talk a little about cartoons and how they open.
There are, of course, more to kids' shows than just cartoons, but if we expanded out into live-action shows, it would just be me spending the next 1500 words trying to figure out why Zordon needed "teenagers with attitude" to fight against a moon-witch, and why that "attitude" mostly turned out to be "helpful and responsible." Besides, I like cartoons. Or at least, I used to. I saw five minutes of Johnny Test yesterday and now I don't know if I like anything.
Before we go any further, I want to take a moment to engage in the Internet's favorite activity: Correcting someone when you know full well what they meant, and know that they also know what they meant! And yes, I do recognize the irony of doing the very thing that sends me into an apoplectic rage whenever someone does it to me. It's one of the privileges of having my own column.
Anyway, C.H.U.D., you talk about the "opening credits" to Batman: TAS, when that opening sequence -- which I've covered pretty thoroughly here before as one of the all-time greatest achievements in human history -- doesn't actually have any credits. It doesn't even have the title of the show, which is one of the many, many great things about it. Like I mentioned in that other column, there's no break from the "reality" of the show in that opening, something that goes against pretty much every other cartoon intro I can think of going all the way back to the Flintstones. Everyone else felt the need to sum up the entire premise of the show with a catchy song. Don't get me wrong, I love those as we'll see in a few minutes, but with Batman, they skipped right over it and just got to showing you who this guy is and what he does. That might be because after the '89 movie (and fifty years as a pop culture icon), everyone was familiar enough with Batman that nobody needed to be told what his deal is, but it works. It might as well be a prologue showing you what Batman was doing the night before the individual episode started, which makes it really distinctive, even before you get into how economical it is.
I really like that intro is what I'm saying here. It's undoubtedly the king, and anything else is going to be a distant second.
Quick sidenote: It's a real shame that Warner Bros. didn't follow that model for their other DC shows. Batman Beyond gets a pretty cool intro that does a nice job of getting the idea of a Teenage Future Batman across through the medium of a Teen Dance Party...
...but other than that, those shows tend to have just the worst kind of generic openings. Justice League and its weird standing-around-while-guitars-squeal intro is goofy as all heck, and as much as I love Batman: The Brave and the Bold, Batman climbing around on a bunch of people's names is a weird way to get that show's core concept across to a viewer. It looks more like Batman's going to teach kids to read, and while I'd be totally into that (literacy is fun-damental!) that's not exactly what the show's about. The worst, though, is Superman. That Superman: The Animated Series didn't have a B:TAS style intro that elegantly explained who he was and what he did is downright criminal. You could even set it up to mirror the Batman one, with Krypton exploding the way the bank does at the start!
As for which one ranks in at second best, there's a lot to choose from. It's tempting to go with one of the memorable classics like Pokémon or DuckTales, but when you get right down to it, those were shows with great theme songs (and great attendant video games) that went along with intros that actually weren't so hot. And then there's Jem, which gains points by having the Misfits just flat-out show up to announce that they're better than the star of the show (they are correct), but then tanks everything else by having animation that gives you extremely unrealistic expectations for the quality of the show you're about to see. I've developed a pretty strong affection for the intro to X-Men over the past few months, but again, most of that is church bells and not Cyclops trying to shoot his own name. It's a tough field to narrow down, but I've thought about it, and I'm pretty sure that there are three solid candidates for the best of all time -- and purely by coincidence, they're all from when I was a kid.
Funny how that works out.
First up is the obvious choice: 1987's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles:
A few weeks ago on their podcast, CA pals Chris Haley and Eugene Ahn talked about how this intro still gets them pumped up to this day, and they're not wrong. If what you want in an opening sequence is explosion and ninja weapons, the TMNT intro is right up there with B:TAS. And if what you want in an opening sequence isn't explosions and ninja weapons, then what are you even doing with your life?
The TMNT intro is one of the all-time greats in terms of summing up the plot of the show in song, and the best thing about that is that they're working with a premise that is both completely frigging bonkers and also completely accurately summed up in the title of the show. As a result, they just have to say the title a few times, and then jump right into the best dumbest lines that any theme song, ever. I will never not laugh at "they're heroes in the half shell -- and they're green!" I thought this idea was crazy, but... green, you say? Now you have my attention.
Plus, it's the song that taught a generation about the Cool But Rude/Party Dude axis that so many of us based our personalities on. Also, it's not just me, but whoever's singing this song definitely sounds exactly like Huey Lewis and the News, right? Right.
It's a solid choice, but pal Benito Cereno brought a worthy contender to my attention: 1985's Thundercats:
If you're like me and haven't watched Thundercats since you were four years old, you may have also been surprised to learn that holy s**t this is awesome. But in a way, that's also a strike against it.
Watching this intro, you'd get the idea that Thundercats was a beautifully animated show that was all about badass cat-people kicking the living hell out of super mummies with ninja weapons. Panthro alone is tearing ass through a desert in a tank, swinging around nunchuks and doing Rider Kicks! Cheetara has a guitar solo! It looks amazing!
And then the show starts, and only half of that stuff is accurate, and then only on a technicality. There may in fact be a "super" mummy, a ghost and weapons that may resemble some used by ninjas, but they sure ain't doin' no Rider Kicks. Taken on its own, the Thundercats intro is dope as hell, but like Jem, it sure does lose a lot when you see it next to what it was actually introducing.
Finally, we have my favorite, which will surprise no one: G.I. Joe!
These things are awesome. They redid it every year that the show was on, swapping out characters as needed but keeping the same formula, and it is seriously one of the most exciting pieces of animation that was ever made for the exclusive purpose of getting children to bug their parents for toys. Like TMNT, it takes the route of just flat-out telling you all about America's daring, highly trained special missions force, but like Batman, it does so by showing you a complete adventure.
Seriously: The intro to the GI Joe cartoon is a battle between all of GI Joe and all of Cobra, often involving airships, and at least on one occasion, a thoroughly unironic bald eagle attack. Part of that is because they're showing off as many of the toys as they can, but at the same time, that's kind of the genius of it. G.I. Joe, both as a cartoon and a comic, is about taking these goofy military toys -- which are really only "military" in the way that some of them wear green cargo pants -- and turning them into pretty exciting stories. And when you want excitement, it doesn't get a whole lot better than Cobra Commander being thrown through the window of a gigantic spaceship that then crashes and explodes before the actual episode starts.
The only thing that could possibly hinder it is that the intro to the movie creates what is very much a Thundercats situation. It follows the same formula as the show, but drops a longer, bigger version of the theme song with Cobra trying to blow up the Statue of Liberty and then getting punched in the face by American soldiers on Jetpacks, and man, that will make you think you are about to see something that will blow your mind out through the socks that it will also blow off. And then Nemesis Enforcer and Golobulous show up, and the whole thing goes to hell. But, y'know, we can't have everything.
Besides, it's the only cartoon intro that features Destro. That makes it win pretty much by default.