Alex is a School of Visual Arts graduate with a passion for media, writing and animation. He writes reviews for film, television, and games.
Background and Conception
The show's history began with animator John R. Dilworth, whose works were influenced by the comedic cartoons of the Golden Age, the surrealism of Salvador Dali, and the fantasy elements of Studio Ghibli. Similar to Danny Antonucci, Dilworth created his own studio Stretch Films in 1991 where he originally made his funded cartoons during his spare time (i.e., the "Noodles & Nedd" shorts on Seasame Street) and performed side jobs for major networks, such as openings for Nickelodeon and Disney shows.
In 1996, Dilworth pitched and submitted an animated short called The Chicken From Outer Space to Hanna-Barbera's What a Cartoon! showcase. The short was about a cowardly dog named Courage who must save his farm from an evil alien chicken. Unlike other Cartoon Network pilots at the time, the short was nominated for an Academy Award, yet it lost to the Wallace & Gromit short A Close Shave. Coincidentally enough, the short was influenced by the Wallace & Gromit short The Wrong Trousers due to having similar bird villains. Because of the short's accomplishment, Cartoon Network greenlit the project into a show called Courage the Cowardly Dog under Stretch Films' wing.
Creepy Adventures Outta Nowhere
If the show's intro or this video clip I have randomly chosen wasn't clear enough, this show took a more dark take than what the previous Cartoon Network shows did. Courage the Cowardly Dog is a prime example of a simple yet effective concept. The show has a unique formula where a timid dog must protect his owners and farm from strange and paranormal events occurring in Nowhere, Kansas. Each episode is as atmospheric as a horror movie where it is usually built on suspense and thrill, and the payoff usually results in both adventurous and humorous manner. Rarely, the show would parody horror movies like The Exorcist or ballets like The Nutcracker. Comparing this and Scooby-Doo, this cowardly dog takes on the supernatural more serious and scary.
We are all familiar with tales involving monsters, aliens, and folklore. But, this show gives its own take on these aforementioned creatures to help distinguish its own identity. For example, we know stories about werewolves, but in the episode "Night of the Were-Mole," the monster of the week is a mole monster that acts like a werewolf along with its own curse and weakness. Sometimes, Courage encounters creatures that are either misunderstood or aren't really mean and act as his friends. The darkest and riskiest that the show took at the time was the season four episode, "The Mask." In that episode, Courage must save a dog-hating cat's friend from dog gangsters. As simple as I wrote that synopsis, this episode tackled the issues of prejudice and abusive relationships.
Thankfully, Courage does balance the scary elements even with comedy. In fact, there are some lighthearted episodes that are a homage to the Looney Tunes cartoons, such as a fox trying to cook Muriel into a stew or Courage turning into a fly. Many of the laughs come from Courage's reactions, the catchphrases, visual gags, and even from dark humor. Due to Dilworth's influences, the dark humor fits well into the show's surreal nature, whether it would be the slapstick or Eustace getting his comeuppance in the end.
I have so many favorite episodes that I could make it its own article. Each season remained consistent with some minor changes here to there. The most notable changes were Courage having less dialogue and the end title cards. Regardless of how you would feel about whatever situation Courage and his family get into, there's always a sense of fun and satisfaction in the end.
Scary and Comedic Fun Animation
If the writing was the heart and soul, the show had a team of talented animators that brilliantly visually craft this world to live.
Each character has its own distinctive design to stand out from the crowd. The human characters are a mix between realistic and abstract. Some would have a down-to-earth face while others would have eyes literally bigger than their stomaches or have smaller feet. Animal characters are more cartoony and anthropomorphic. Whoever supervised the animation team on Courage, deserves huge awards. Courage is the most animated and expressive character in the entire series. Outside being a bean-shaped magenta-colored Beagle, Courage‘s facial expressions, morphing, and energetic poses go beyond the animators’ capabilities that they deliver huge laughs and appraisal.
Whatever the scenario may be, the animators executed these strange and paranormal characters in a creative and scary manner. There would be simple living eggplants or normal-looking chickens that would trigger space weapons. Others would leave an uncomfortable or grotesque yet satisfying impression like a man with an almost permanent, big grin on his face or a giant floating head animated through synchro-vox.
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In fact, another visual highlight was the experimentation of other animation mediums. CGI was primarily the most recurring medium where it was used for creating vehicle and depth effects, but also made to entire animate a few characters, including King Ramses. Though a bit dated by today’s standards, they were revolutionary to help set the creepy mood. The most exploratory that the animators did was during the show's final episode "Perfect" where Courage has a series of nightmares in different animation styles.
As average as it looks, the Bagge farmhouse really gives a cozy feeling. It makes us feel how Courage feels when he is safe and protected with his loved ones. Not to mention having a primitive-looking computer in the attic gives it a timeless identity. Sometimes, the setting would change whether Courage goes on vacation or runs errands. No matter where they go, these locations would become an easy target for surreal and supernatural occurrences. The simplicity of the backgrounds also benefits both the scary and cartoon sides of the show. For the scary side, the camera angles, shadows, and colors take their time to build up what's coming. Once the cartoony side kicks in, each episode delivers an action or chase sequence that makes us gets either entertained or laugh. I'd also like to add attention to detail where John's name would be featured in products and have himself a cameo in both animated and live-action appearances. Like I said before, no matter what the situation is, there will always be satisfied in the end.
The only criticism I would give to the visuals (or this is probably intentional from the start) is sometimes that the animators had to cut corners due to either time or budgetary reasons. These include reusing or repainting existing character models and recycling voice clips from the primary characters. It is evident when you hear Arthur Anderson's voice recording mixed with Lionel Wilson's archived recording. Similar to Ed, Edd n Eddy, I personally don't mind the latter and it really helps with the comedic nature. With everything said, the animation alone is truly a visual marvel.
One Dog, Two Bagges, Some Friends, & Many Baddies
Having a cast of characters can be challenging in handling quality and quantity. Fortunately, the show handles both where the characters are distinguishable and memorable for a variety of reasons.
As self-explanatory as the title itself, Courage is a genuine soul whose happy, new life living on the Bagge farm motivates him to help and save anyone from any forthcoming threat. Once you get past his fears, he soon understands and plans a solution out of a sticky situation. As Courage says it best, "the things he does for love." He lives with his elderly owners Muriel and Eustace Bagge. Muriel can be best described as the grandmother you ever had in your life. While her naivety or obliviousness would lead her into trouble, Muriel is still a sincere woman who can sense good within others, no matter who or how they are. She would offer tea, play the sitar, and show a taste of her Scottish heritage. Eustace Bagge is the bitter and cynical farmer that dislikes Courage either for fun or jealousy and calls him a "stupid dog." You would constantly see him in his chair reading the paper, and before you know it, he would wear a giant witch doctor mask and go "Ooga Booga Booga!" just to scare you. Eustace is also greedy and would desperately do anything for attention, despite the consequences. In fact, he's characterized as one of those characters you love to hate when he either gets into misfortune or is punished for his actions. Even when it looks like he's gone, Eustace returns in the next episode alive and well. Classic cartoon logic. Then again, there are moments where I do feel sympathy for Eustace once you get to know his past.
Besides living on the farm, Courage does have a handful of friends and allies whenever the situation is dire. In his attic, he consults his Computer for help. Though the Computer can be sarcastic, it acts exactly how a computer would act: knowledgeable and informative that helps Courage solve the issue. For medical-related issues, he turns to the friendly yet lacking physician Dr. Vindaloo. There's also the fortune teller Shirley the Medium. Despite helping Courage with advice, she can have her limits when she curses those that annoy her, especially Eustace. So, she can be described as an anti-heroine. Even a couple of recurring characters would eventually have an antagonistic role whether it is the rude passerby Di Lung that always shouts, "Watch where you're goin', ya fool!" or Eustace's dual-sided mother Ma Bagge.
When it comes to the antagonists, there is a huge roster of villains that no one will ever forget. The most recurring villains are Katz and Le Quack. Both are con artists where Le Quack was devious and persuasive while Katz was more sadistic where he ran a motel full of hungry spiders, turning people into machines, and planning to blow up his submarine cruise with everyone onboard! Even the one-time villains can leave a memorable impression. The most famous example is Freaky Fred. He is Muriel's nephew and a barber with a dark obsession with cutting hair which makes him "naughty." Not only is his design and big creepy smile memorable but his psyche makes him a fascinatingly disturbing character. We also had the ghostly pharaoh King Ramses, the unhappy scientist Dr. Zalost, the cojoined Stitch Sisters, and so much more. Again, like the episodes, these villains deserve an article dedicated to them.
Unlike the previous shows so far, Courage the Cowardly Dog has a unique sound direction from both the voice acting, sound effects, and music. Firstly, this has the most authentic and genuine voice acting. Sure, we rarely get recognizable voice actors as guests, like Charlie Adler and Jim Cummings. But, the primary actors present give their characters more personality than the mainstream voice actors. Marty Grabstein is amazing how he provides the screaming and occasional speaking bits for Courage. The late Thea White does a sweet and lovely performance as Muriel. The actors who've portrayed Eustace send off a devilish yet comical feel as Eustace. Even John Dilworth would lend his voice every so often.
Secondly, the sound effects and soundtrack composed by Jody Gray & Andy Erin are phenomenal. With assistance from sound designer Michael Giesler, John avoided stock sound effects and constructed new material suitable for his approval. As for the music, the show orchestrally went through a variety of genres. They would compose themes for key characters and arrange classical music as a tribute to the Looney Tunes cartoons. Whenever a scene gets funny, the music is lively and bouncy. Whenever a scene is scary or dark, the music is slow and chilling. Whenever an action scene occurs, the music goes out epic. Seriously, I posted two music samples above; they are worth listening to.
Foggy & Dooby-Doo Reunions
While Johnny Bravo made a comeback in the most obscure manner and The Powerpuff Girls had two comebacks into the most commemorative manner, Courage made two returns in the most unexpected manner.
The first of his grand return was the 2013 CGI animated special "The Fog of Courage." In this special, Courage finds an amulet, which belonged to a ghostly fog spirit searching for its lover. Now, Courage must return it before the fog completely engulfs the farm.
Although the original show had experimented with CGI before, the animation quality here was an impressive transition. Not only do the character models translate into 3D decently, but the character animation remains smooth and enthusiastic to their 2D counterparts. The Fog Monster is a welcoming addition to the villain roster with a solid design, neat fog effects animation, and chilling performance by Dilworth himself. Speaking of the performances, the main actors returned voicing their characters and they knocked it off the park. The major exception among the voice cast was Eustace Bagge since Arthur Anderson retired from acting around that time and was replaced by comedian Wallace Shawn. Generally speaking, I personally enjoy Wallace Shawn, especially as the voice of Rex in the Toy Story franchise. However, without taking it the wrong way, I found his performance as Eustace a little distracting. I understand it's not easy to replicate a distinctive voice with both previous actors passed away. Though Wallace has his own unique voice, he sounds more like Wallace Shawn than Eustace. Personally, it's not his fault and tried his best what direction was given to him.
However, there was also a catch to this short's existence. It was intended to be a pilot for a revival of the show, but fully CGI. With the new art direction it had, I wouldn't mind and love to check it out. Unfortunately, it came out at the wrong time where Cartoon Network was under different management and had no interest in rebooting old properties...yet. It didn't even air in America but in its Southeastern Asian channels instead. Thankfully, the full short is available to watch online.
There was even one rumor floating around where Dilworth wanted to pitch a prequel series about Courage's younger years to Boomerang. Admittedly, I find the idea to be a little odd and unnecessary since the show's final episode established Courage's backstory enough. Then again, like the CGI special, it is highly evident that Dilworth is very passionate about his work and really wanted to bring Courage back for the fans. The only possibility I would see this work if it were a series of shorts that are long as the Paul Rudish Mickey Mouse cartoons and exclusively stream on HBO Max.
Suddenly in 2021 and literally straight out of nowhere, Courage made an official return, and this time, he met Scooby-Doo and the gang in the direct-to-video film Straight Outta Nowhere: Scooby-Doo Meets Courage the Cowardly Dog. It was a Scooby-Doo crossover NO one saw coming and received quite a reception from fans, especially with no involvement from the creator himself. I already talked about this movie in a separate review. To give you the short version: Despite the direct-to-video quality and tamed tone, the movie was respectful to both source materials in a fun and nostalgic experience. For a full and analytic version, here's my review.
Conclusion & Legacy
In conclusion, Courage the Cowardly Dog still holds up as an appealingly frightening and hilarious entry in the Cartoon Network library. From the writing to the sound, everything is creative and funny in any shape or form. John R. Dilworth has influenced many newcomer animators in terms of surrealism and humor. Although the pilot didn't win the Oscar, it eventually won an Annie Award and a couple of Golden Reel nonimations. Aside from the merchandising, this is, by far, the second original Cartoon Network to have all its four seasons released on DVD Unlike the PowerPuff Girls, it lacks supplementary material, such as behind-the-scenes and the original pilot. The series is also currently available to stream on HBO Max.
With much recent news and a growing fanbase, it's hard to imagine where the series would go. It came back-and-forth with mixed results. But, we can all agree, that a cartoon about a cowardly dog can lead to surprises.