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Salvador Dali Meets Saturday Morning

In 1946, Salvador Dali and Walt Disney began a collaboration on a short film called Destino, a groundbreaking marriage of Dali's surrealist art and Disney's world-class animation studio.

A mere 18 seconds of completed footage later, the project was scrapped. Which probably tells you something about the marriage. Destino would not be completed for nearly six decades, until its premiere in newly reconstructed form at a French animation studio in early June.

In the 60 years between Destino's conception and completion, the world has changed by leaps and bounds. And Dali, were he alive, might twirl his notorious mustache in delight to see that so many of the surrealist ideals he championed are alive and well and cleverly disguised as TV cartoons.

Not on the Disney Channel, mind you. Though Disney TV animation is making a very quiet comeback with the likes of The Proud Family and the sublimely witty Kim Possible, the House of Mouse has always skewed more cuddly than weird. No, for quality brain-melting, you've got to turn to Cartoon Network -- specifically, Courage the Cowardly Dog and Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law.

When I first saw the promos for Courage a few years back, I thought it was a lame, watered-down piece of tripe. An easily frightened, talking dog matching wits with the supernatural? Oh, that's original. Having seen the show, I now feel like that guy at IBM about thirty years ago who said that no one would ever need a personal computer.

Courage is the adopted dog of Eustace and Muriel, an elderly farm couple who live in a ramshackle house on the barren, apocalpytic outskirts of a town called Nowhere. Muriel, with her Scottish brogue and vinegar-intensive cooking, is a matronly bundle of sweetness and light, while Eustace is a crabby, petulant sourpuss. You can practically taste the Freudian mother-figure symbolism as Courage and Eustace compete for Muriel's attention and affection, each wanting her all to themselves.

On most shows, that would be the extent of the weirdness -- the sort of subtle nuance you only notice after you've seen a few episodes. On Courage, it's merely the tip of the iceberg. A gigantic iceberg. I don't know what frequency creator John R. Dillworth's brain is tuned to, but my mental radio certainly can't pick it up. The creatures that menace Courage and his family on an episodic basis seem to spring directly from some very twisted fever dream.

Let's start with Randy, the giant robot from outer space. Sure, he puts Courage, Muriel and Eustace to work as his slaves, constructing a monument to his glory. But his heart's just not in it -- you see, deep down, all Randy wants to do is carve little wooden reindeer. Yes, little wooden reindeer.

Did I mention that Randy is voiced exactly like Christopher Walken?

Then there's the Italian-accented alligator with a handlebar mustache, who runs a sinster traveling theater troupe that transforms all its amateur performers into lifeless puppets. The rotund Peter Lorre lookalike with thin spidery arms, who nearly conquers Nowhere with his hypnotic ads for flan. The Sean-Connery-ish snowman supervillain, seeking revenge for the frosty friends he's lost due to global warming. The snarling menagerie of fanged mutant peapods and giant killer lettuce, like a Hunter S. Thompson acid trip at a farmer's market. The lonely mad scientist with Roy Orbison hair, whose enchanted house gets murderously jealous of neighbors? That sort of thing is barely the surface of Courage's mind-boggling oddness.

Perhaps the strangest part about Courage is how honestly sweet it is. Courage, despite his perpetual terror, always looks for the best in his adversaries. Some are irredeemably rotten, but many can be swayed by Courage's selfless compassion. Throw in an eerie, twangy soundtrack and digitally collaged backgrounds reminiscent of Terry Gilliam, and you've got 30 minutes of the most fearlessly original, thoroughly charming family entertainment on TV.

As befits its rural setting, Courage lacks any trace of the smug, postmodern hipness that infuses many of TV's live-action and animated comedies. Wondering where it all went? Stay up late for a screening of Harvey Birdman: Attorney At Law, which blessedly seems to have gotten a double helping of snark on its way through the TV assembly line.

I remember Birdman from my preteen days watching USA's Cartoon Express. Superhero, bird sidekick, needs sunlight -- yeah, yeah, yeah. You don't need to have watched his lame '70s cartoon. You don't even need to familiarize yourself with the new show's premise, that Harvey Birdman is now the most inept lawyer at a staggeringly incompetent firm. In fact, you don't even need to try to follow any sort of plot.

Nothing matters on Harvey Birdman but the laughs. Every ten-minute episode hurtles by, packed with gags that doesn't have to make sense as long as they make you laugh. Sealab 2021 and many of the other comedies on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim block are well-versed in the same sort of gleeful nonsense, but Harvey Birdman's use of familiar characters add a whole new layer of subversive mirth. It's a comedy smart bomb, dead set on violating all your beloved cartoon memories.

Your inner child (or possibly your actual child) will doubtlessly turn to you, wide-eyed and shaken, and present you with any number of troubling questions during the average Harvey Birdman episode. Why is George Jetson in jail, blearily telling his visiting family that "Daddy will be home soon"? When Scrappy-Doo appears to holler his signature line, why is he snatched up and carried off screaming by a hungry-looking falcon? When Harvey wakes from a one-night stand with Boo Boo the bear, why is his pint-sized paramour dressed as a cowboy, offering him breakfast from astride a magnificent white horse? And why, for the love of God, is Harvey summing up his latest successful case to a nun, a bear, and the Superfriends' Black Vulcan?

The answer to all these questions is, simply, because it makes you laugh. Harvey Birdman bypasses the brain and heads directly for the funnybone. The end result is less a sitcom than a stream-of-consciousness collage of lunacy. It's funny for funny's sake -- the sort of pure artistic ideal that might well have appealed to the great Salvador Dali.

And, given the artist's habit of sleeping with his head in a birdcage, Dali and Harvey would probably have gotten along famously.


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