One exchange really stuck with me. My aunt is an emergency foster carer for children aged 0-4, and she currently has a 2-year-old girl in her care. Like many young children today, she loves watching YouTube, specifically Masha and the Bear - which my aunt doesn’t really approve of. She thinks Masha is a very badly behaved child, and thus sets a bad example. To ‘balance things out’, she shows the girl classic Polish cartoons when possible, either online or when they’re airing on television. I found it fascinating that cartoons from the 1970s - the same ones I watched as a child and the same ones my parents grew up with - were still airing today and were still so beloved.
When we think of a golden age in children’s TV animation, we think of the US in 1920-60s, which gave us Looney Tunes and various Hanna-Barbera productions (and of course the beginnings of Disney). I’d never really considered or appreciated that Poland had its own golden age of animation spanning the 1960s and 70s. Cartoons primarily made by two studios, Se-ma-for in Lodz and the Animated Film Studio (Studio Filmow Rysunkowych) in Bielsko-Biala, have embedded themselves in Polish culture in a fascinating way. The majority of the bigger hits were sold and aired abroad, but have been forgotten by now. But in Poland? The beloved characters of Bolek & Lolek, Reksio the dog, the cat duo Filemon and Bonifacy, and Mis Uszatek (Teddy Drop Ear) have been immortalised in the form of monuments erected in their respective cities, and it is not difficult to find licensed consumer products. In addition, while many iconic characters receive the reboot treatment and are reimagined over time, these Polish cartoons have never been rebooted; the original classic versions continuously receive airtime even in 2019.
The airtime these cartoons get is interesting in itself. Starting in the 1950s, the Polish public broadcaster had a daily children’s evening block called Dobranocka, later renamed Wieczorynka - to translate into English, the “goodnight story” and “evening story”. In the 1970s internationally produced shows were added to the lineup (e.g. Tom & Jerry), but classic “golden age” Polish cartoons have always reigned supreme. This evening block still runs today, although in 2013 it was moved from TVP1, the main public channel, to TVP Polonia, a widely-available channel originally aimed at the Polish population living abroad. In addition, the cartoons are also aired on TVP ABC, the broadcaster’s children’s channel, alongside more current international series such as Chuggington or Peppa Pig.
Since these cartoons are so beloved in Polish culture, and my aunt expressed how much more she approves of them over today’s series that depict naughty behaviour, I wondered what my parents’ perspective on children’s content was; how do they feel about cartoons today versus these golden age cartoons? As I mentioned, I grew up with a mixture of content to choose from; Cartoon Network and Fox Kids were both introduced in Poland in 1998, and other channels aired Polish and international cartoons in their respective children’s blocks. I didn’t just watch Mis Uszatek and Reksio the dog - I also watched The Care Bears, The Smurfs, The Flintstones, and classic Czech cartoons such as Krtek (The Little Mole). There were also cartoons my parents didn’t approve of: Cartoon Network’s I Am Weasel and Cow & Chicken were both banned in our household, for being both “stupid” and “ugly”. Funnily enough, these are their criticisms of much TV animation today. Exaggerated and angular features of characters earn themselves the label of “ugly”, whereas the amount of action and violence in cartoons alongside a perceived lack of plot earns them the critique of “stupid”. Classic Polish cartoons, unsurprisingly, evoke a feeling of nostalgia like no other, as do the aforementioned American “golden age” cartoons such as Tom & Jerry and the Looney Tunes.
Are these critiques fair? Animation styles have changed and evolved over time, and it’s normal to have aesthetic preferences. The complaints about lack of plot, too much violence, or bad behaviour (in the case of my aunt) may be a little exaggerated though. As far as I remember, Wile E. Coyote got crushed by countless anvils in his pursuit of the Road Runner, Tom got hurt many times in his pursuit of Jerry, and the protagonists of Polish animation frequently break rules and get up to some hijinks as well, including unpleasant pranks. Nostalgia truly does work like a pair of rose-tinted glasses.
All in all, classic Polish animation remains a key part of Polish media and culture, as the love for the characters is passed down from generation to generation and classic cartoons continue airing. I do not envisage this will change any time soon, and I do not expect anyone would dare touch the legacy of these iconic characters either. Polish politicians recommend that parents show their children these classic cartoons instead of current ones, the studios behind the cartoons have set up official YouTube channels, and this month the cartoons were shown at a festival in France. There are no reboots on the horizon for Bolek & Lolek or Reksio, but I’m sure they will stick around for a few more decades.