How Courage the Cowardly Dog Unsettles… in a Good Way

American animated series Courage the Cowardly Dog tells a strange tale, with even stranger characters. Small pink dog Courage lives with his owners, elderly couple Muriel and Eustace, in the middle of nowhere – a place that plays host to all manner of supernatural and creepy entities which need to be kept at bay by our titular canine. While at its core a simple premise, Courage the Cowardly Dog is coated with layer upon layer of expertly crafted storytelling and animation. With this, it has built a cult following since it first aired in 1996, becoming one of the most easily recognisable Cartoon Network shows over its four seasons.

The atmosphere and Halloween vibe of this series is one that lends itself so well to the creepy, spookiness of a children’s show. It isn’t scary, but there is an unsettling nature to it that would definitely unnerve even the least sensitive children. Courage fits in that small bracket of weird kids’ shows that explore the supernatural and macabre, sitting up there with Goosebumps, Are You Afraid of the Dark? and Grizzly Tales for Gruesome Kids.

Although visually friendly, the series still manages to throw in some oddities to its plot and style. We see an abstract, almost Dali-esque stark scheme in terms of colour. It gives us a slightly unsettling feeling as we watch hues that do not match sit side by side on the screen. This is coupled with an original musical score that sometimes sounds like something out of a gothic horror story and at other times fits a theme of action or comedy. Even the show’s sound effects were created from scratch, with series creator John R. Dilworth working closely with sound designer Michael Geisler to create the perfect audio.

The setting of this series is a lonely farm in a desert backdrop. The use of this space immediately gives the viewer a feeling of isolation, as the show takes elements from the horror genre which place viewers alongside the characters as they work to stop the villain of the week. Meanwhile, the character designs are slightly off-kilter, boasting a strange appeal – large heads and contorted body shapes. Nothing is quite scary but everything is weird.

Viewers are treated to family-friendly cartoon violence, but there are touches of surreality within these weird and wonderful movements that fit with the show’s exploration of ghosts and paranormal activities. In this respect, Courage often feels like a precursor to the Tim Burton stop-motion animations of modern-day or the Laika productions such as Coraline and ParaNorman which evoke old Universal monster movies.

The animation is fluid but often contains strong contrasts through the use of mixed media. Stop-motion is often the go-to for feelings of the uncanny and when Courage adds this into the mix, we get dragged from the show’s visual norm into a place that makes us feel like something just isn’t quite right. Although used for a more comedic effect, Courage also does this through using live-action clips and photographs which, when added to the surreal 2D animation, gives its audience a little less Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and a little more The Twilight Zone.

Across over 100 segments, Courage defended his loved ones against everything from vampires and aliens to demons and mad scientists. All of these encounters are treated with wacky zaniness and a love for the unusual, as well as a passion for storytelling and gorgeous animation. Yes, it is weird, but it is fun. Sure, it creeps us out, but that is what makes Courage the Cowardly Dog so good.

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