If you’ve seen much of this blog, you’ll know I like animals, cartoons and pop music. It’s a shame those three things rarely work well together. We’ve had that terrible John Lewis hare and bear advert with Lily Allen clearing her throat to the tune of a Keane song last year. I can’t think of many times animals, cartoons and pop music together has actually had a good result. The Gorillaz I guess. They are an animated band, but not actually gorillas. Unless you count their single ‘Clint Eastwood’ which has ZOMBIE GORRILAS!!! in the video.
There seems to have been more examples of cartoon animals in pop music during the late ’80s/early ’90s, like Paula Abdul singing with a cartoon cat MC Skat Kat for the US number one single ‘Opposites Attract’ in 1989. Then there was the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles releasing a hair metal album in 1990, and Am I Cool Or What?, a jazz album released in 1991 where acts like The Temptations, Patti LaBelle, The Pointer Sisters and B.B King recorded songs which were inspired by Garfield. (No, I’m not making this up).
Garfield and Rupert Bear were my first childhood obsessions, at least as far back as I can remember. Rupert himself starred in a cartoon to promote a pop song, and at the time the track did well. It was Paul McCartney’s 1984 single ‘We All Stand Together’, featuring the Frog Chorus, which reached number 3 in the UK charts. The song is remembered, often in lists of “worst hit songs ever”, but hardly anyone remembers Rupert having anything to do with it.
It wasn’t the first time Rupert had been in the UK charts. The theme song to his ’60s/’70s TV series The Adventures of Rupert Bear, titled ‘Rupert’ reached number 14 for Jackie Lee in 1971. It’s that one that goes “Rupert the bear” if you don’t recognise it.
As a kid growing up in the late ’80s and throughout the ’90s I vaguely remember the ’80s cartoon series narrated by Ray Brooks, and the long-running ’90s animated series. Rupert and The Frog Song came out before I was born, so I’m not sure when I saw it exactly, but I know I saw it on video.
The voice cast includes Paul McCartney himself as Rupert, with June Whitfield as his mother and Windsor Davies as his father. It was directed by Geoff Dunbar and Raymond Taylor.
It starts with a live action sequence with Paul McCartney in an attic finding an old Rupert Bear book, blowing dust off it which turns into magical glittery sparks with a sound effect. It then goes into the cartoon, and when the cartoon ends end he returns, closes the book the magical glitter sparks and sound effects come again, and he looks to the camera and says “Magic”. It’s super cheesy. But it reminds me of those versions of The Snowman where there’s a live action introduction by David Bowie in an attic as the adult version of the boy in the cartoon, where he finds the scarf the Snowman gave him.
Anyway, in the cartoon proper Rupert leaves his house, meets Edward Trunk and Bill Badger briefly, then goes to walk in the fields. He’s sitting under a tree and sees a butterfly, and it turns out all the leaves on the tree are butterflies which fly around him. He follows them away, leaving behind the dead leafless tree. Then the music turns ominous and a sinister white barn owl with red eyes perches on top, and two black cats appear from behind the tree. What this says about what sort of kid I was I don’t know, but this was always my favourite part of the cartoon. The butterflies are a pretty pastel colour, and there’s something delightful about the sight of a flutter of butterflies. I was even more fascinated with the owl and the black cats for whatever reason. The owl just looks evil, he has a bit of a Grim Reaper vibe, while the cats look just like the ones you might see belonging to cartoon witches. I think I liked the contrast, going from a nice image to a creepy one.
Rupert then stumbles upon a pond of frogs hopping towards a cave, with one frog rowing in a cracked mug using spoons as oars. The cave says only frogs allowed, that all non-frogs must be kept on a lead and there are guard frogs, so Rupert goes in and hides to watch what’s going on. It turns out the frogs are having some sort of concert, which a grumpy dad frog with a pipe tells his son only occurs once every 200 years. The frogs start ribbiting and singing the song ‘We All Stand Together’, which is the main part of the film. During this sequence we see frogs dancing on lily pads, a frog couple kissing, frogs in hot air balloons, and a goldfish coming out singing operatically. I wonder if she was trying to upstage everyone else?
Meanwhile, the owl and the cats have also sneaked in. The cats join in the song, and the owl tells them to shush. The owl is waiting for the finale, where a human sized king and queen frog with lily crowns, wearing robes and carrying glowing orbs come out from underwater. When they do, the owl swoops down, Rupert cries “Look out”, the king and queen frog duck down, and the owl flies off without catching them, and the cats following him. Then the cave seems empty, Rupert hears his mother calling him and returns home.
That’s the entire plot. It isn’t much of a narrative, but then it is meant to be more of a music video than a story.
Rupert and the Frog Song is nice, it looks very old fashioned these days, but Rupert Bear has been old fashioned for most of its run. It started in 1920, and the setting has never moved from there. It’s in an idyllic version of an early 20th century English village with anthropomorphised animals. Being “old fashioned” has always been part of its charm, and seeing this cartoon today the fact that it is drawn using traditional hand drawn animation adds to that. The animation looks very beautiful, the colours are bright, but not overwhelming. There are some nice ideas in the cartoon. I liked the villains, in fact I’d have liked to have seen a bit more of them. I have seen other people say they could have used them in some way in the ’90s TV series, which I would have liked to see too, although I wonder if copyright issues might have come into that. It’s one thing to own the rights to make Rupert Bear and all the settings and characters in the newspaper comic, it’s another to own the rights to use characters made specifically for a particular film. For example, King Louie from Disney’s The Jungle Book doesn’t appear in the original Rudyard Kipling novel, so while the story and the characters from the novel are in the public domain, there have been legal issues for Disney with the estate of Louis Prima, the voice actor for King Louie in the original film, of whether they can use the character in other Disney stuff.
With regards to this cartoon, its centrepiece is the song, which I don’t like much myself. Like a lot of Paul McCartney’s music outside of The Beatles, it’s just blandly cheery, and for a lot of people the fact that it’s sung by cartoon frogs puts it in the novelty hit folder. But I still think the cartoon itself is underrated and should be more remembered than it has been.