My least favorite decade in the history of animation was the seventies. The early sixties signaled the ending of animation’s golden age and the late eighties signaled the beginning of animation’s renaissance. The decade in the middle was a dark period that offered plenty of animated films and TV shows, but very few classics. There was an explosion of American Saturday morning cartoons on TV thanks to studios like Hanna-Barbera and Filmation, but they were all made on the cheap and largely unmemorable. However one animation studio would rival both of them and maintain the “cheap and lousy kids’ cartoon” crown while seemingly refusing to acknowledge how much Roger Rabbit, The Simpsons and The Little Mermaid had pushed the medium forward all the way until 2008. I am of course talking about DIC, the French animation studio responsible for such cartoons as Inspector Gadget, Heathcliff and countless other cartoons from the eighties to the 2000s, essentially taking Hanna-Barbera and Filmation’s place in the late 20th century as television’s go-to animation studio for cheap, simplistic and formulaic cartoons. If you grew up watching Saturday morning or weekday afternoon cartoons in the eighties or nineties, you have likely seen their logo.
DIC (Diffusion, Information Communications) Audiovisuel originated in Europe in 1971 when a company called Radio Television Luxembourg (later The RTL Group) hired producer Jean Chalopin to write programs which would be animated by overseas studios (outsourcing always being a cheaper method), the first program released being a series of educational shorts called The Adventures of Energy which aired on TF1. These would soon be followed by such cartoons as Cro and Bronto (1978) which depicted the comedic antics of a caveman who continuously fails to capture a dinosaur (it was like Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner only not funny). After that came Archibald the Magic Dog and Beulebeul Hermit in 1980 which were both similarly unmemorable (I’ll try not to roast these shows too much).
Beginning in 1981, DIC Audiovisuel partnered with Japanese animation studio Tokyo Movie Shinsha (TMS), who DIC would continue to work with until 1996, on the sci-fi drama Ulysses 31, which put a futuristic spin on Greek mythology and was the studio’s most ambitious production up to that point, and in 1982 they followed that show up with another French-Japanese cartoon called The Mysterious Cities of Gold, which followed a boy on a quest to find the Seven Cities of Gold and his father. DIC co-produced that series with Studio Pierrot, which would later go on to work on the anime series Naruto and Bleach.
Also happening that year, former Hanna-Barbera writer Andy Heyward founded DIC Audiovisuel’s U.S. arm DIC Enterprises in Burbank, California to help translate DIC productions into English and to help produce animated shows for American audiences. The first of these shows was Inspector Gadget (1983-86), a comical series created by Heyward, Chalopin and show director Bruno Bianchi about an absent-minded half-man, half-android who undertakes secret missions with help from his niece Penny and dog Brain, with the evil Dr. Klaw often being the main antagonist behind the conflict.
It starred Don Adams (Get Smart, Underdog) in the lead role and it was even Cree Summer’s first gig as a voice actor, and she launched her career by impressing everyone with her incredible vocal work as Penny.
DIC co-produced the show with Canadian studio Nelvana and the animation was done by TMS and Taiwanese-American studio Cuckoo’s Nest, which was owned by Hanna-Barbera from 1978 to 2001 and would later be known as Wang Film Productions and provide CG animation for such projects as Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Tales of Arcadia, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2012), My Friends Tigger & Pooh and the Bionicle movies.
Inspector Gadget was DIC’s first huge hit in the U.S. and for an animated series from the early eighties it was actually one of the better options. The writing provided plenty of chuckles and the characters were full of charm. The show was a bit like a cross between Jonny Quest and Mr. Magoo and it worked. In addition to The Littles, which premiered on ABC the same year, the show established DIC as a company worth investing in and they soon took over children’s television with a steady stream of programming.
In the tradition of He-Man, Transformers and My Little Pony, DIC made many shows based on toys such as Popples, The Adventures of Teddy Ruxpin, Dinosaucers, Sylvanian Families, Ring Raiders, G.I. Joe and Street Sharks, but they also made shows based on video games (Pole Position, The Super Mario Bros. Super Show!, The Legend of Zelda, Captain N: The Game Master, Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog, Double Dragon), films (The Real Ghostbusters, The Karate Kid, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure) and even celebrities (Wolf Rock TV, Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling, Camp Candy, New Kids on the Block, Hammerman, Mary-Kate and Ashley in Action!)
Aside from Inspector Gadget, here are some DIC shows you may have seen or heard of, especially if you are the same age as me.
The Littles (1983-86)
Rainbow Brite (1984-86)
Heathcliff and the Catillac Cats (1984-86)
Care Bears (1985)
Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors (1985-86)
Dennis the Menace (1986-88)
The Real Ghostbusters (1986-91)
Beverly Hills Teens (1987)
ALF: The Animated Series (1987-89)
The Super Mario Bros. Super Show! (1989)
G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (1989-91)
The Wizard of Oz (1990)
Captain Planet and the Planeteers (1990-92)
Swamp Thing (1990-91)
Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog (1993)
Street Sharks (1994-97)
Where on Earth Is Carmen Sandiego? (1994-99)
Inspector Gadget’s Field Trip (1996-98)
The Wacky World of Tex Avery (1997)
Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century (1999-2001)
Sabrina: The Animated Series (1999-2000)
Archie’s Weird Mysteries (1999-2000)
Super Duper Sumos (2002-03)
Liberty’s Kids (2002-03)
Stargate Infinity (2002-03)
Knights of the Zodiac (2003-04)
Strawberry Shortcake (2003-08)
Sushi Pack (2007-09)
Most of these shows were produced cheaply and aired in first-run syndication. And the cost-cutting was apparent on screen. Aside from outsourcing the animation (something that many animated series have started doing in the eighties), DIC hired staff on per-program basis and even actively fought against unionizing! So there was strain both financially and artistically behind the scenes. Not all these shows were bad and there were even a few gems (like Liberty’s Kids), but most of these shows are bottom-of-the-barrel in terms of the animation medium’s potential.
DIC has undergone a lot of transformations through the years (DIC Animation City, DIC Entertainment, The Incredible World of DIC, etc.) due to some flimsy management. After Heyward purchased Chalopin’s stakes in the company in the late eighties, DIC was struggling with debt, but it picked up around the time when animation’s popularity rose in the nineties. In 1993, Capital Cities/ABC Inc. (which was known as Capital Cities Communications until it purchased the American Broadcasting Company in 1985) formed a joint venture with DIC to control their library, with Heyward owning a 5% stake and Capital Cities/ABC owning the other 95%. DIC also expanded into live action, interactive entertainment and a China unit in this period, and following Disney’s acquisition of Capital Cities/ABC in 1996, Disney owned DIC and launched DIC Films the same year, which had a first-look deal with Disney and ended up making the films Meet the Deedles (1998) and Inspector Gadget (1999) starring Matthew Broderick.
Heyward bought back DIC from Disney in 2000 and the company became independent again, teamed up with Lions Gate on a home entertainment division in 2001 and became its own parent company when DIC Entertainment Corporation was founded in 2002.
In 2008, the DIC label went defunct after Canadian distributor CINAR (now Cookie Jar) acquired the company, which means that Cookie Jar’s owner, children’s entertainment company WildBrain (formerly DHX Media) now owns the DIC library, although the DIC brand has now folded into the Cookie Jar brand.
I honestly do not look back at many of these shows with much fondness because I was spoiled by the animation mastery of Disney, Warner Bros. and Nickelodeon which consistently eclipse DIC in quality. Unless you are talking about the theme songs! Which were often the best part and sadly often the highlight of the entire show. That’s actually the one thing these shows have over modern cartoons, and I don’t mind it. If you are going to melt my brain and rip away my soul with a 22-minute toy commercial featuring a lame story and a barrage of unfunny jokes, at least give me a reason to dance. Anyway, rest in peace DIC.