Hey there, Wally Watchers… er, I mean Podcast listeners! This week, we’re talking about Dic’s 1991 cartoon based on Martin Handford’s ‘Where’s Wally’ picture books; a series that probably shouldn’t have been and yet turned out pretty good!
DiC Geeks is our soon-to-be-weekly(ish) podcast in which we journey through the many realms of DiC Entertainment, a company that (for most of the 80s and 90s) was synonymous with both early morning cartoon blocks and generally mediocre animated tripe. This week we look into the early 90s phenomenon that was ‘Where’s Wally’, and brave the weirdness that is the ‘Wally Minute’.
Where’s Wally (or Where’s Waldo, or Wo ist Walter or Hvor er Holger, or any of a vast number of international variations) is a bit of an oddity within the already quite frankly weird Dic canon. Whilst you only had to look in any school library to see the popularity of the books, it’s a series that doesn’t quite lend itself to television for one simple reason.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Where’s Wally was created by the cartoonist Martin Handford; He liked drawing large, complex crowd scenes and had the idea to create a book that was just nothing but those. When he took his idea to a publisher, they suggested adding a hidden character to find in each scene so to tie all of the pages together, and so the Where’s Wally concept was born.
Handford based Wally on the trainspotter stereotype; Trainspotting is a mostly British hobby in which nerdy and eccentric middle aged men stand around on train platforms jotting down the trains they see going past. Thanks to the glories of British weather, trainspotters were generally seen wearing anoraks, warm jumpers and knitted caps, and it is from this look that Wally gets his distinctive bobble hat, stripey jumper and thick-rimmed glasses.
The first book, “Where’s Wally” was published in the UK in 1987, with follow-ups “Where’s Wally Now?” and “Where’s Wally? The Fantastic Journey published in 1988 and 1989 respectively. In the United States and Canada The first three books were published by Little, Brown and Company under the titles of ‘Where’s Waldo’, ‘Find Waldo Now’, and ‘The Great Waldo Search’.
Now, that reason I spoke about: Despite the fact that the books have distinct characters and iconography, there’s no actual story to them; they’re still just a series of unconnected adventures into weird and wonderful landscapes covered with strange people and landmarks. Whilst you would imagine this would provide a challenge to adapt into a coherent cartoon, it actually worked out rather nicely; the show is surprisingly entertaining and watchable even ignoring the low standards of cheap and cheerful 90s licenced cartoons.
The series was developed by comedy writer Rowby Goren, currently the owner of a charmingly awful official website. He had gotten his break more than 20 years previously as a writer for ‘Rowan And Martin’s Laugh-In, a traditional variety show starring the comedians Dan Rowan and Dick Martin. He later became a veteran of cartoon writing rooms, having written the story for a cartoon series in which the Harlem Globetrotters became superheroes followed by multiple episodes of He-Man, Teen Wolf, and The Garbage Pail Kids.
Each episode of Where’s Wally is it’s own little irreverent story, full of dad jokes and running gags. The series’ villain Odlaw (sort of an anti-wally) is a
comic villain so ineffectual that Wally is never actually aware of his existence whilst Wally himself is a mostly oblivious but well-meaning individual who simply stumbles upon the various plot threads. To top it all off, the masterful Jim Cummings (who would later voice Dr. Robotnik in Dic’s own Sonic the Hedgehog cartoons and who would become the official voice of Taz the Tazmanian Devil for Warner Bros) narrates with a distinctly campy, over the top announcement style.
If anything, I suspect that the reason it has aged so well compared to so many other series from the time is that the humour is so purposefully bad. Whilst a good joke can turn bad over time (or more than likely be nowhere near as good as the writers think it is in the first place), a bad joke told knowingly retains its amusing awfulness for longer. And Where’s Wally tells its dreadful jokes with such an effortless, self-aware manner that it’s hard not to get swept along in its torrent of convoluted puns and goofy throwaway concepts.
Sadly the series’ ability to remain genuinely funny wasn’t reflected in the series’ actual performance in the ratings; placed opposite the 90s juggernaut that was ‘Saved By The Bell’, the show never picked up the kind of ratings that would justify its existence and was cancelled after a single season of 13 episodes. It was nominated for the 1992 Young Artist Award for Outstanding New Animation Series, but lost the award to ‘Back To The Future: The Animated Series’.
HIT Entertainment, now a subsidiary of Mattel, retains the rights to the series. There are currently no plans for a DVD release. Which is a gosh-darned tragedy.