2007 will be remembered as a vintage year for animation that centered on food. Ratatouille brought a French restaurant kitchen to vibrant life, celebrating the joys of great cuisine along with the usual mix of laughs and heart we’ve come to expect from Disney/Pixar. Now, Cartoon Network brings us C.H. Greenblatt’s Chowder, a charming new series that combines strong visual style with a quirky sense of humor to produce a show with tremendous potential. However, situating the action in a kitchen is where the similarity ends for these two cartoons.
The series is named after its lead character, an apprentice at Mung Daal’s Catering Company in Marzipan City. He makes up for any lack of culinary skill with boundless enthusiasm, even if he often ends up making more mess than meal. He is mentored by the kindly head chef Mung Daal, while unintentionally tormenting the stone, gibberish-spouting straight man Shnitzel. In the first episode, “The Froggy Apple Crumple Thumpkin,” preparing the intricate dish of the title is the springboard for all kinds of kitchen-based mayhem. “Chowder’s Girlfriend” introduces Panini, a rabbit whose unshakable belief that Chowder is her boyfriend leads to increasingly desperate and funny attempts to convince her otherwise.
Of the two episodes, I found “Chowder’s Girlfriend” to be stronger and funnier. “Froggy Apple Crumple Thumpkin” is entertaining slapstick, and has a delightful opening sequence where Chowder scampers through Marzipan City with two sacks of groceries. However, “Chowder’s Girlfriend” has the same kind of energy and pacing that a really good Bert and Ernie sketch or Looney Tunes short does, where Panini’s determination not to let reality get in the way of a good pre-conception slowly drives Chowder crazy. An extended spit-take that takes overdoing it to hilarious new heights is only topped by the Bob Fosse lookalike that drives a truly bizarre musical number. In both shorts, the show’s best achievement is that the humor is kid-friendly without being juvenile. It maintains its high-energy level without slipping into the attention-deficit disorder hyperactivity of many other kids’ cartoons, and it gets its laughs without resorting to an excess of toilet humor, even if Chowder’s pet happens to be a sentient fart cloud. Interestingly, the show also gets funnier the more times you watch it.
One thing for sure is that the animation for Chowder is terrific. The wonderfully hand-drawn animation combined with creative use of computer coloring techniques produces some really trippy, creative environments. Marzipan City is an architectural acid trip that throws architectural influences from all over the globe into a giant blender, purees them to a fine paste, and then applies a tie-dye candy coating to the whole thing. The visual crazy quilt is paired with a terrific voice-acting track and a catchy retro soundtrack that is reminiscent of the 60’s and 70’s rock and soul. Young Nicky Jones is a real find as the voice of Chowder, with his charm and underlying sweetness combining with crackerjack comic timing to remind us of classic Charlie Brown cartoons.
Its unabashed enthusiasm, boisterous energy, and plentiful laughs don’t come without some flaws. While it’s off to an extremely strong start, the show still seems to be finding its footing. It’s a satisfactory dish that needs just a dash more salt and a few more minutes in the oven to become perfect. Also, the fact that Chowder reminds us of so many other great cartoons is a double-edged sword — good in that it more than holds its own against such esteemed competition, but bad in that it hasn’t quite managed to stake out its own, unique territory yet. Even so, Cartoon Network hasn’t had a cartoon with this much potential out of the gate for a while. One only hopes that the show gets the audience that it deserves. Through no fault of its own, Chowder seems to have been saddled with the weight of great expectations, both from the network executives looking for a hit and from animation fans who are more critical of the network than ever in the wake of its increasing live-action content.
If Ratatouille was a four-star meal at a gourmet restaurant where you can’t pronounce or identify half the ingredients that went into dinner, then Chowder is the equivalent to a freshly made gourmet burger done to a perfect medium-rare, with fresh, crisp lettuce, a juicy, sweet tomato, and hot, crispy fries on the side. It may look like familiar territory — the kind of thing you can get anywhere — but it sets itself apart from the forgettable fast food through its excellence of execution. It is both comforting and quite satisfying, and a strong and encouraging start to what one hopes will be the next hit show for Cartoon Network.
Chowder premieres tonight, November 2, 2007, at 7:30 PM (Eastern/Pacific)