Since the game drew almost all of its visual influence from vintage cartoons of the ’30s and ’40s, it makes sense that Cuphead would go full circle and earn its own animated series that carried those same motifs. From its visual design to its music and sounds, The Cuphead Show feels like something out of another era.
With characters, jokes, and gags that would be appropriate in the era of Betty Boop, Popeye, and an early Mickey Mouse, the show isn’t afraid to display its inspirations right on its sleeves. And fans of such classic cartoons and characters who’ve explored the best of the genre will immediately catch more than a few references and recognizable tropes.
Sometimes a toon’s best tool of the trade is his face, and colorful characters like Cuphead, Mugman, Elder Kettle, and all of their pals on Inkwell Isle can definitely sport that claim. Whether they’re exceedingly happy, frightened, or at their wit’s end, all of the characters are capable of intense displays of emotions.
A similar practice is seen in modern sitcoms. By making the situation bigger than it needs to be, it opens the door for more comedic exploits. In a way, Cuphead and friends basically “double-down” on their emotional responses to the various animated stimuli.
Over-The-Top Sound Designs
In basic terms, there are so many sounds viewers associate with cartoons, and the show creators know it and utilize the factor. This plays heavily into the show’s sense of slapstick humor, especially when someone is getting physically hurt to a painful degree. Granted, cartoons tend to bounce back with ease, but the attention to sound and music helps sell their weight, gravity, and response.
Every slap, bounce, boing, and explosive noise is planted with purpose. Calling back to the days of foley artistry and vaudeville routines, the attention to detail in the sound department has been tailored to recreate the same sounds and sensations seen in cartoons of the era.
Attention To Period
Like the game, there’s clear and present attention to the time period when presenting the Inkwell Isles. While it’s not particularly possible to say exactly when the show takes place, it carries more than a few details that would have been more prominent in the ’30s and ’40s than in the current decade.
From the language Cuphead and his friends use to the importance of things like the radio, it’s clear that the show is willingly stuck in the past. This also factors into the show’s sense of humor, relying on the atmosphere and culture of the time to give the show its distinctive flavor.
As if Cuphead, Mugman, and Elder Kettle weren’t obvious enough, many Inkwell Isle’s residents are simply objects brought to life through the addition of faces, arms, and legs. This isn’t anything particularly new, but it’s not as common in the 2020s as it was back in the ’40s.
Plenty of famous cartoon studios, namely ones like Disney, used this to their benefit. The artists of MDHR have learned from the character designs of the past and aptly applied them to their world of cups, devils, and cartoonish antics.
Along with giving objects like cups and mugs a life of their own, the series has plenty of animal characters that help give an extra dose of classic cartoon flavor to an already highly-animated cast. Drawing influences from characters like Porky Pig, Mickey Mouse, and others, the series has a whole menagerie of “funny animal” characters mingling on the screen.
The addition of animal characters is as timeless as the cartoon medium itself. From the early days of characters like Felix the Cat to modern contemporaries like Roger Rabbitcharacters like these just seem to offer a different sort of personality than their human counterparts.
Design Influences From Fleischer
Both the game and the show drive a great deal from the works of Max Fleischer, the cartoonist behind characters like Betty Boop and Popeye. While it’s very relevant to the show’s overall design, a sprinkling of the dark and sometimes mature humor from Fleisher can be felt in the world of Cuphead as well.
Fleischer’s cartoons relied heavily on visual humor and slapstick, but they could also be spooky and a little naughty when they needed to be. Case in point, the voluptuous Calamaria or the intensity of some of the more violent slapstick seen with Porkrind. Not the most controversial, but remarkable to many armchair historians.
And Disney Too
As much as the game and the series take from Fleischer, it takes just as much from the works of an early Walt Disney as well. Take a closer look at Cuphead’s red shorts, gloves, and shoes, or at some of the citizens of Inkwell Isle who look a bit too similar to a few Silly Symphony characters. True animation fans will definitely recognize a few creative choices.
Disney is one of the most influential sources in the animated world, so it should come as no surprise that MDHR took a sprinkle of magic from the house of mouse. There are no Hidden Mickeys yetbut perhaps season two might provide a guest appearance by Werner Werman.
Spontaneous Musical Numbers
From Daffy Duck to Mickey Mouse, classic cartoons across the gauntlet of studios are all guilty of spontaneous musical numbers. With titles like Looney Tunes and Silly Symphonies, a certain degree of musicality is undoubtedly expected, and The Cuphead Show is certainly no exception to the rule.
From an improvised Cab-Calloway-styled riffing from King Dice to a full-on song and dance routine about putting on the charm, the show doesn’t step away from the tradition. Harkening back to the days of vaudeville, the musical numbers are both catchy and cartoony enough to fit in Cuphead’s world seamlessly.
Rubber Hose Animation
The biggest factor the show has going for it is its choice of animation style. Everything from the exaggerated movements and expressions to the inclusion of white gloves and stretchy bodies references back to the rubber hose animation style used by early animators in the dawn of the medium. By relying on this design choice, MDHR has recreated a semi-lost artform and brought it back to the forefront.
Disney, Fleischer, Warner Bros., and more have all had experience with this species of cartoon, and it’s perhaps the biggest influence on both the game and the show. To say that Cuphead and Mugman would be able to stand alongside greats of the industry like Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse wouldn’t be untrue.
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