Throwing Popcorn features reviews of all ages shows, movies, theater shows, and performers.
Wander over Yonder
Disney & Craig McCracken
Fans of Cartoon Network’s heyday CARTOON! CARTOON! original shows will recognize Craig McCracken’s name from Powerpuff Girls and Foster’s Home For Imaginary Friends.
This new series is a brightly-colored, high-energy romp through cartoon outer space as viewed by the titular Wander, a furry, orange, big-eyed do-gooder who travels with his best friend Sylvia the Zbornak (think horse + dinosaur).
The two BFFs travel through space together having fun and helping people. They are pursued intermittently by the bad guy—Lord Hater. He is pretty much a skeleton in a long robe (with funny boxers and Chucks on his feet), who wants to take over the universe. Working for him are his watchdogs: an uncountably huge army of little humanoid aliens whose heads are one big eyeball. His major domo is Commander Peepers.
Wander is an unrepentantly, incurably good-natured optimist. Sylvia is fearless, tough, and short tempered. Wander’s tendency to always want to do friendly and kind deeds gets him into trouble that Sylvia must frequently get him back out of. Sylvia’s short temper tends to get in her own way. Oh, and did I mention Wander’s magic hat that produces whatever he needs when he needs it—not whatever he wants, specifically whatever he needs. Best. Plot Device. Ever.
This show does a really good job of handling deep issues in a fun way. Wander could be interpreted as OCD and as having anxiety issues based on his reactions when his tendency to do kind things or his curiosity are thwarted. Sylvia could be construed as having anger management issues. But the two back each other up in healthy ways. When Wander is starting to get anxious, Sylvia gently talks him down and reminds him that she believes in him. When Sylvia begins raging, Wander finds ways to focus her attention on other things than what’s upsetting her. Sylvia is also very much a feminist. As with the best cartoons the 2000s have to offer, this is another one for all ages but with a lot of tidbits and sidebars that will make it easily watchable and fun for an adult viewer with or without a kid.
Created by Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett
Why can’t Super Grover just be Grover? Why are the girl muppets so cartoonishly feminized? Why is there a fairy school? And if the fairy school can fly why does it land on the ground? Shouldn’t fairy schools fly all the time (or at least land on top of a tree)? Why is Elmo’s World so abstract? I feel like I’m taking crazy pills during that segment. And why, for the love of Pete, does Mr. Noodle exist?
If you aren’t familiar with Mr. Noodle yet, he is a middle-aged man in a vest that stands in front of Elmo’s window. Sometimes Elmo will look outside and ask him a question and Mr. Noodle will respond by dancing or miming, but he never talks. His movements have a strobe light quality in that it appears to be done in stop motion. Why do they include Mr. Noodle at all? Who is this actor?
The first thing my research turned up is that there were two Mr. Noodles (Mr. Noodle and his brother, Other Mr. Noodle). (Other Mr. Noodle passed away in 2003, this post is focused only on the first Mr. Noodle.) Mr. Noodle is played by Bill Irwin, a circus performer and Broadway actor known for his roles in Accidental Death of an Anarchist, The Seagull, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and Don’t Worry Be Happy. He studied theater arts at Oberlin College, is a graduate from Barnum & Bailey’s Clown College and has worked with hundreds of talented mimes and vaudeville actors. Irwin has won several awards including the National Endowment for the Arts Choreographer’s Fellowship, the Guggenheim Fellowship, a MacArthur Fellowship, and a Tony. To put it simply, Bill Irwin is a well seasoned performance artist.
Now we understand WHY Sesame Street would add Irwin to the cast, but why did they choose to create creepy Mr. Noodle in the first place?
When the show introduces a human character they either have a specific function in the neighborhood (fruit vendor, librarian, shopkeeper) or they are there to represent a type of performance art. The two person comedic team was covered by Buddy & Jim, Larry & Phyllis, and Wally & Ralph. Almost every human and muppet on the show sings and dances. It seems like an inevitability that a show as inventive and versatile as Sesame Street would experiment with a silent comedic performance.
Mr. Noodle’s gimmick is that he takes simple directions from Elmo and misinterprets what to do. One reviewer put it concisely: “Mr. Noodles is a mime featured in the Elmo’s World whose mistakes empower viewers to, as writer Louise Gikow puts it, ‘call out instructions that allow them to feel smarter than the adult.'”
The Elmo’s World segment is designed to appeal to children under the age of 3. Production took Elmo, the most baby-like of the muppets and gave him a simplified format to investigate commonplace themes. He even regularly talks to newborns in his apartment, and the apartment itself is a crayon drawing come to life. The room contracts and expands to the beat of the music; it is completely unstable and outside of reality. The only living thing in the room is a goldfish named Dorothy, but even her fishbowl is outside reality as objects appear in the water at random. Mr. Noodle fits into this abstract world through looking like a caricature of a stressed out adult.
Another aspect of what might make Mr. Noodle appealing to toddlers is that he (the adult) can never understand what Elmo (the baby) is asking him to do, a conflict that every caregiver/child go through. It gives toddlers a chance to roll their eyes at how ridiculous and panicky adults are.
Still, no matter how artistic the execution is, Mr. Noodle is disturbing because he’s always lurking outside of Elmo’s window. He isn’t in another apartment, he isn’t outside; he exists in a bubble only accessible to Elmo. The only positive way to take it is that this also touches on the dynamic between a baby and caregiver. They don’t know exactly why adults are there, they just are, and they’re funny to watch.
We should feel lucky to see such a creative performance from Bill Irwin, if your kid watches TV it’s a harmless show, and it’s fascinating to see the layers of thought that went into creating a skit for toddlers.