Nov 262012

Polar Bear Cafe. Hanna Barbara animal cartoons. Same universe. Different time periods.

Boomerang, Cartoon Network’s “let’s sluff off all this old shit onto a station no one can watch because these things don’t sell toys anymore” channel, had a little Yogi Bear marathon on Turkey Day. I hadn’t really watched any of those old HB animal cartoons in a while, so I sat down and watched a few episodes. It’s just as charmingly cheap as I remember, with the limited animation, reused backgrounds, and same two or three voices used for every incidental character.

In the midst of all of the comfortable familiarity I noticed something for the first time: Yogi Bear’s existence is pretty damn bleak. He and the other bears in Jellystone Park possess all of the intelligence and emotions of humans, but they’re treated like property. On several occasions Yogi refers to himself as “property of the government.” He isn’t a “person,” despite possessing many of the emotional and mental traits we associate with that concept– Yogi Bear is a thing in the eyes of humanity.

You could call Yogi’s situation slavery. He isn’t expected to do much in the way of labor– he’s only expected to pose for photographs with tourists and not steal their food– but he’s constantly threatened with being shipped off to the zoo if he steps out of line. Yogi doesn’t even have the right to live where he pleases. He has to depend on the grace of the government to determine if he gets rewarded with continued housing in his natural habitat.

But what makes matters all the worse is that Yogi and his fellow bears aren’t trusted by the government and its park rangers. Check this out. One episode deals with the Army running some war games in Jellystone Park. One side of the “war” decides to don bear costumes to infiltrate the “enemy” side. Yogi and Boo Boo get conscripted into the Army, since the soldiers can’t tell the difference between a real bear and some dude in a costume. They’re assumed to be lazy soldiers slacking off. One thing leads to another and Yogi teaches the soldiers how to “live off the land,” which means “stealing picnic baskets.” Thing is, these soldiers do it at gunpoint.

Ranger Smith’s conclusion: the bears have risen up and are revolting. First gut reaction. Those damn dirty bears are getting uppity and want to start a race war.

Things get worse. Smith and a few other rangers arm themselves and go to see if all of this is true. They run across some of the soldiers in bear disguise. Said soldiers fire blanks at the rangers to scare them off, since they don’t want civilians getting involved in their war games. The rangers, who apparently don’t realize there are tanks and shit in their forest, panic and hole up in the ranger office, thinking everything’s falling apart around them. When a tank driven by Yogi comes barreling down on the station, the rangers start talking as if they’ll be remembered like the soldiers at The Alamo– falling for the greater good to protect humanity from the bear uprising. Never mind Yogi’s trying to stop the tank and save the rangers. Nope. The humans in control of the bear population assume the worst every chance they get.

Bears aren’t trusted. There’s an entire episode devoted to Ranger Smith trying to trick Yogi into breaking the rules, so he can have Yogi shipped off to the zoo. Smith goes undercover as a polar bear and pretends to be a fellow bear who wants to live in the Park. He tries to get Yogi to steal picnic baskets, all while constantly reminding Yogi of the rules. He’s clearly baiting Yogi into committing a crime so he can be rid of the Park’s ringleader, and he isn’t afraid to use underhanded tricks to prove his assumptions.

Given that Yogi’s from the late 50s and early 60s, you could look at it as the early days of an animal civil rights movement. Yogi’s a free-thinking bear who wants to be treated as an equal. He’s no saint, but he’s no worse than any of the humans around him. Despite being “smarter than the average bear,” he just wants to be like everyone else– eating the same food, living in the same modes of shelter, and afforded the same rights. He’s something of an early activist for his kind.

Fast forward to the present and look at the world of Polar Bear Cafe. Animals are integrated into society. They still get the odd look, since not everyone is used to socializing with animals, but they don’t appear to be treated any differently as a whole. They can get driver’s licenses. They can own their own businesses. They can own their own homes. There might be some places in society where they aren’t fully accepted, since we see that animals are only fully accepted in roles and jobs humans consider animal-appropriate, so in a way they’re more or less in the same position as most minorities who live in countries with a dominant culture.

You could say that Yogi Bear takes place in Polar Bear Cafe’s past. Animals haven’t always had it this good, and at one time were nothing more than pieces of property to be sold and traded at will. Since then, animals have been able to integrate into human society and be accepted the way they are in Polar Bear Cafe.

There would be no Polar Bear Cafe or Bar the Grizzly without the zany struggles of Yogi Bear and Boo Boo.

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