The 95th Academy Awards will always go down as “The Everything Everywhere All at Once Year”.
The modern sci-fi-family-drama-comedy went home this past March winning seven awards out of the eleven it was nominated for. Although Everything Everywhere All at Once dominated the night with wins for Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Editing, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress and Best Original Screenplay, it was the ceremony opener that had cinephiles reeling.
Upon receiving his award for “Best Animation” for the work he did on Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio (2022), which took an extensive 14 years to complete, director Guillermo del Toro, with the Oscar in hand and eyes glued to his peers, stated: “Animation is cinema, animation is not a genre, and animation is ready to be taken to the next step…We’re all ready for it. Keep animation in the conversation.”
Animation, unlike any form of art, can completely transport you into a world that is both tangible and out of reach from reality. From the first known animated short by French artist Émile Cohl, “Fantasmagorie” (1908), to the delightful spectacle of Del Toro’s stop-motion masterpiece, animation has been present for multiple generations and is only increasing in popularity.
Enter the scene: Toon Con.
Toon Con is “the only convention in Los Angeles dedicated to cartoons & animation” which took place at the Burbank Convention Center on October 8th, 2023. The convention is organized by Scott Zillner, an avid toy collector and pop culture enthusiast who hosts multiple conventions throughout the year all across the LA region. Toon Con provides an intimate atmosphere for animation fans of all ages to meet their favorite voice actors and animators, while getting a Funko Pop figure autographed and a selfie to brag to all their social media followers.
This year’s guest lineup at Toon Con covered the gamut of generations’ interests, even going as early as 1942!
For the very first time ever, the voices of “Young Flower” (Stan Alexander), “Young Thumper” (Peter Behn) and “Young Bambi” (Donnie Dunagan) from the Walt Disney classic Bambi assembled for a panel to reflect on their time on the film. As an audience member, sitting in the crowd listening to these men, who are nearly 90 years old, share experiences of their voiceover work as 4-year-olds like it was yesterday was quite remarkable. During the conversation, Dunagan described how the Walt Disney Studios called his mother on the phone and as he recalls, “My mother didn’t know the difference between Disney and peanut butter.” At this time Dunagan, despite being just 6 years old, already had a slew of acting credits to his name including: “Son of Frankenstein” (1939) starring Boris Karloff as “The Monster”, Basil Rathbone as “Baron Wolf von Frankenstein” and Bela Lugosi as “Ygor.” Disney was ringing the Dunagan family phone to see if Donnie was interested in being the facial model for a deer in their upcoming “cartoon”. However, what Dunagan’s mother wrote down on the notepad by the phone was “cartoon beer”, an historic note Donnie still has in his possession.
Growing up during the 1990’s, the appeal and charm of Bambi was lost on me as a kid.
In comparison to mutant turtles defending New York City or teens controlling mega-sized robots to overcome grotesque monsters week in and week out, an emotional tale of a young deer overcoming the loss of his mother wasn’t going to grab my attention. The sentiment is echoed in the 1993 classic film The Sandlot, which is about a group of neighborhood boys who love playing the game of baseball. It was this movie in which I was introduced to Bambi as “That wimpy deer?” 30 years later, that kid is now an adult, sitting with appreciation for Bambi and the immortal work that Alexander, Behn and Dunagan all contributed to. So it is no surprise that once I returned home from the con, it was indeed Bambi that I chose to watch.
Toon Con’s premiere guests of the day were the voice actors and writer from Nickelodeon’s Fairly Odd Parents (2001-2006, 2009-2017).
Daran Norris, who voiced “Cosmo”- the overly-emotional, dim-witted but oh-so-loveable fairy godparent to main character “Timmy Turner”, Susanne Blakeslee, who voiced “Wanda”- wife to “Cosmo” and the more responsible out of the duo, Butch Hartman, writer of the series, and legendary Carlos Alazraqui, the voice of “Mr Crocker,” Timmy’s school teacher and one of the major antagonists throughout the series, all had meet-and-greet booths and a panel together at the con. If you are not familiar with Alazraqui’s name, there is no doubt that you know his work. Alazraqui has been in the business for decades with accolades such as voicing Nickelodeon’s “Rocko” from Rocko’s Modern Life (1993-96), “Winslow” from Catdog (1998-2005), and Insomniac Games’ iconic video game character “Spyro the Dragon” (1998) and performing on screen as Deputy James Garcia” from Comedy Central’s Reno 911! (2003-09, 2020-). If those weren’t recognizable enough, you’ll know Alazraqui’s work as the “Yo Quiero Taco Bell Chihuahua”. Do you remember the Taco Bell Chihuahua craze of the late 1990’s? No one could resist the temptation of mimicking Alazraqui’s memorable delivery of something so simple, yet it will always be synonymous to anyone who consumed a Mexican Pizza in the 90’s…Yo Quiero Taco Bell (I know you just said this in the voice).
Towards the end of the con, I was able to have a short interview with Alazraqui to discuss the importance of animation as an art form. In response he stated the following, “It allows people from other cultures to portray other cultures. On camera, we’re now becoming more honest with who portrays certain people…But here’s a guy named Carlos Alazraqui, my parents are from Argentina, but my first job was ‘Rocko’ (said in the iconic voice), an Australian wallaby”. What a fascinating perspective! We’re currently in a time where Hollywood is emphasizing representation from diverse voices , which is absolutely necessary and far overdue. But just decades before, a son of immigrant parents experienced the life-changing power of animation forever because he was able to do an impression of an Australian accent.
In closing, I will quote actor Scott Whyte (from The Mighty Ducks franchise and also a prolific voice actor) who shared with me the following:
“(Animation) for me in my childhood was a way to tap into my imagination..it allowed me to dream and to think what I want to do one day. I just wanted to do voices and have fun in life…It’s so important to people. You learn so many things and learn so many skills just by watching animation. It means everything to me”.
Toon Con at its core isn’t just about stimulating the nostalgic feelings of your childhood; it is much more than that. Toon Con celebrates the skill, the rigorous discipline, and the incomprehensible creativity that it takes to create any form of animation. And one thing is for sure: Toon Con must have a fan in Del Toro, because Toon Con is definitely “keeping animation in the conversation”.
For more information about Toon Con or the other conventions Scott Zilner produces, be sure and visit his site here.