We interrupt this program to bring you...Courage the Cowardly Dog Show, starring Courage the cowardly dog! Abandoned as a pup, he was found by Muriel who lives in the middle of nowhere with her husband Eustace Bagge. But creepy stuff happens in Nowhere. It's up to Courage to save his new home!
Thus the TV reporter begins another episode of Courage the Cowardly Dog, a half hour animated series airing (as of 2002) on the Cartoon Network. As such things go, it pretty much gives the basic premise.
These people really live in the middle of Nowhereand that is the name of the place as one can see by Eustace's habit of reading the Nowhere News in his rocking chair (there is a town called Nowhere, but they don't live anywhere near Nowhere). The farm house sits starkly in a vacant wasteland with only a barn (sometimes) and a windmill to keep it company. Not even plants (nothing's grown there in fifty years, according to Eustace, not even weeds). Sometimes there will be a fence or a henhouse if its needed for the plot. And every night a full moon.
And Nowhere is about as normal as Eerie, Indiana or the Twilight Zone. At one time or another they deal with the supernatural: mummies, Bigfoot, a giant foot with James Cagney's voice, a sorceress, a snowman with Sean Connery's voice, an evil mattress (well, they're all pretty evil), zombie filmmakers ("Benton Tarantella"). Other times, the bizarre: poultry from outer spaceducks (with vaguely Beatle-esque accents1) and chickens, plus a "goose god"), an evil puppeteer, a robot that almost has Christopher Walken's voice, a hog who sculpts with meat (that's okay, they thought he was going to eat them), and Muriel's nephew Fred who has a mania for barbering anything he sees (if you've seen the episode, the word "naugh...ty" will be ingrained in your head). There's sentient eggplants and bananas, and on a visit to the city, a giant cockroach.
And, of course, Katz. Yeah, Katzwe'll get back to him.
No matter how weird and frightening things get, Courage manages to save the day, all while Muriel keeps her cool and Eustace goes on about the "stupid dog!" And they never seem surprised at the events (events that often go unnoticed by the humans) or consider moving. Not that the money-grubbing, toothless Eustace would spring for new accommodations. When a giant robot shows up to conquer the earth, Muriel only seems concerned at not being prepared for "company."
The characters and premise were first conceived by creator John R. Dilworth in 1995 with an animated short, sponsored by Hanna-Barbera and airing on the Cartoon Network as a World Premiere Toon. Titled, The Chicken from Outer Space, the short went on to win an Annie Award, a Cable ACE Award, and even an Academy Award nomination. It was so popular that in 1999, the Cartoon Network gave him a series. It has remained popular and is currently in its third season. Dilworth tries to write and/or direct each episode.
One of the things that sets it apart, aside from the ability to maintain quality and interest despite what would appear to be a limited premise, is the animation. While the character work and such is done with standard animation, most of the backgrounds are textured computer graphics, giving it all an eerie, almost luminescent third dimensional effectperfect for the subject matter. And it is blended exceptionally well, enhancing the regular animation without overshadowing it.
As Dilworth puts it:
We're actually using CGI and texture-mapping to create a sort of realism that's balanced with the color scheme... It isn't like we're putting flat character colors on 3-D backgrounds, because that's very obvious. We've adjusted the color of the characters to fit within the world that they're existing in, that's full of textured sand and wood and wallpaper and sky, so that the end result is sort of a believability level.
The intended effect is to "achieve some sort of believability, so that you wouldn't think that you were watching a cartoon and would get into its world." And what a world it is.
(It's pretty funny, too.)
Courage is a pink-purplish little dog shaped like a short fat sausage (or legume, take your pick), with thin, spindly legs ending in paws that look like small three leaf clovers. Of course, his most noticeable feature is his mouth since he spends so much of his time screaming, moaning, sighing, yelling, and showing general panic & paranoia (he can speak and often does, but the majority of his "dialogue" is wordless). And why he has that hole in one of his molars, I have no idea. Nor why it's on the left sometimes and sometimes on the righteven in the same episode.
Given the name is Courage, it's unsurprising that he's neurotic and afraid most of the time. On the other hand, that's what makes him a hero. Despite all that, he braves the most fearsome (and silly) creatures and situations to rescue his ownerseven Eustace who often terrorizes him by donning fright masks and shouting "booga! booga! booga!" Whether it's letting himself be turned into a giant prehistoric kangaroo monster (to defeat Eustace who was turned into the same), doing a breakdance competition with a robot, or playing handball with Katz (soon, I promise) for the lives of his owners, Courage manages to overcome his fears and live up to his name. "The things I do for love...."
Which is probably part of what makes him so sympathetic and endearing. Unlike the main characters of so many cartoons, he is neither stupid nor a sarcastic smart aleck (not that those are necessarily bad things). He is caring and resourceful, and in the end, actually brave. Besides, the sarcasm is covered by his talking computer which berates him whenever he tries to get some information that can help him save the day. Maybe the condescension comes from it having to sit all alone in the corner of the empty attic. Or it's just mean.
Muriel is, of course, Courage's real ownershe's the one that cares about him and keeps everything from falling apart. The bespectacled, white-haired old woman is always dressed in her apron and inexplicable black rubber boots. She is the calming influence over both Courage and Eustace (perhaps a bit too much or she could get them out of trouble). She is kind and sweet and plays the sitar. Yeah, the sitar. I also can't explain the vaguely Irish accent, either. But it's those little eccentric details that help make the show what it is.
Eustace is old, ill-tempered, malicious, and bald (he has a Charlie Brown-style baseball cap on all the time). For an apparent farmer, there's not really any farming going on, mostly eating, reading that newspaper, watching television, and tormenting Courage. He's so greedy that he allowed Muriel to be used as bait for the dreaded Carmen, an Amazonian "fish" that looks part eel, part dragon (and sings a mean aria) because the Captain of the boat said that money was to be had for catching her. He also refused to give up the slab of King Ramses ("the man in gauze, the man in gauze") said to be worth a million dollarsdespite the mummified king returning and raining down upon him his ancient curses (flood, loud annoying music, and locusts).
There aren't many recurring characters (I think we can skip the space chickens' second appearance when they come for their revenge). Shirley, the gypsy-sorceress (a pale greenish Chihuahua) makes a few appearances. The hog butcher (mentioned above) is an incidental part in a fewsort of a stock character (like the policeman, the old guy, and the "mayor") that is used without actually being an established persona. Sorta like Carl Barks' use of similar "dog faces" as stock characters in the Disney comics. Also, there's Dr. Vindaloo M.D. Quack (that's what the sign says), a physician of questionable abilities and ethics.
There is one villain who returns at least three times: Katz. Angular, head like a triangle, this feline has even spindlier legs than Courage. He is suave and sinister like Bond villains wish they could be. A red being of pure evil, he sets up schemeslike a motel suspiciously like the one in Psycho or an island resortwhere he is able to sadistically play God with his victims (like setting mutant spiders loose on his guests or turning them into vehicles or appliances and making them battle in a stadium).
And he has his own theme music. Every time he makes an appearance or has the upper hand, there's a cool synthesized rhythm track that plays along. Add his voice which is like a smooth, animated, evil upper crust British sociopath and you have an unforgettable nemesis for Courage. Even if he isn't used in future episodes, Katz is the Courage villain.
It was nominated twice for the Golden Reel Award for Best Sound Editing in a Television Animated Series. The two episodes lost in 2000 but it won in 2001 (tied with Spongebob Squarepants). It also won Dilworth an Annie Award for Outstanding Individual Achievement for Production Design in an Animated Television Production (for "A Night at the Katz Motel").
In an interview on 20/20 some years ago, Ralph Bakshi described his intention for his (excellent) animated The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse. He said he hoped to bring a little surrealism to Saturday Morning cartoons. Courage carries on that spirit, bringing us little nightmares that we can laugh about.
1The episode also manages to reference the Three Stooges, Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots, and the Terminator movies.
(Sources: special thanks to my sister who introduced me to the show and taped most of the first two seasons, Dilworth quotes from www.awn.com/mag/issue4.08/4.08pages/millerdilworth.php3, general fan sites www.angelfire.com/ga3/courage/zone.html and couragede.tripod.com/courhome.html)