Amid a spate of live-action comedies featuring boys as the protagonist, Cartoon Network’s animated “Clarence” arrives as a nifty little gem, so quirky and idiosyncratic as to feel fresh, even if it treads in well-worn territory. The characters aren’t much to look at — indeed, they’re generally grotesque — but its two mini-stories in the premiere are certainly a lot of fun. If only some of that creativity rubbed off on the channel’s new and wholly unnecessary “The Tom and Jerry Show” reboot, which, to the target audience, will probably just feel like a watered-down “Itchy & Scratchy.”
Created by wunderkind producer Skyler Page (who also provides the voice of the title character) through the network’s digital-short initiative, “Clarence” focuses on a young boy who, for once, actually acts like one. That is to say, he’s cheerfully oblivious to almost everything except eating and trying to enjoy himself, while his mother (Katie Crown) sounds OK with him doing just about anything as long as it doesn’t end with him getting hurt.
The premiere focuses on an outing to a burger joint/play space with a group of Clarence’s friends, who are equally odd, including one who is positively phobic about anybody touching his French fries. A second yarn involves Clarence spending the afternoon hanging out with a girl, which sends his buddies into a tizzy, unleashing a strange mix of jealousy and outrage. One frets that the two might be making out, even though he’s unsure what exactly that means.
By contrast, “Tom and Jerry” relies on the same old cat-and-mouse sight gags and slapstick, without adding the kind of wrinkles to the chase that would justify digging up the 74-year-old concept. Nor should it be overlooked that the shorts baby boomers were weaned on actually originated in movie theaters, where adults watched them every bit as much as kids.
The animation is fluid, certainly, and the voice cast includes Jason Alexander. Beyond that, these mostly silent shorts feel like a throwback and, with apologies to the cat half of the equation, they simply didn’t scream out for additional lives.
As for “Clarence,” the TV market has become so glutted with cheeky animation — Comedy Central seems to premiere a new show every week, whether or not anybody’s asking for it — that it’s nice to see someone conjure something with a genuine creative spark and relative lack of cynicism.
By that measure, “Clarence’s” eponymous star might be a pretty dim bulb, but he casts an unexpectedly warming light.