The cartoon mystery that swept the internet

At a dinner for my fifth anniversary with my girlfriend recently, the conversation turned into a mystery that drove both of us crazy for almost the entire duration of our relationship. It’s an image of a cartoon character, appearing on a clunky TV in the background of an old family photo. The character is an elfin man wearing a red shirt and white overalls. He has pointy ears and a gray beard. His eyes are closed and he seems to be in the middle of a conversation, or maybe sneezing. With his red shirt, he could be one of Santa’s help-elves, or an eccentric inventor, or a crazy grandpa, or a citizen of a larger elf universe. We were sure that the photo was taken in Ontario, Canada in the early 1990s. But its exact provenance was unknown, and solving the mystery had become a pet project for thousands of people online. No one had ever succeeded, though many had spent fruitless hours trying. In 2019, my girlfriend had asked me to post the photo on Twitter. I did that, in vain. Now, during dinner, she asked if I would try again. Maybe this time someone finally has the answer and we can move on with our lives.

There’s something about the cartoon that’s specific enough to make pretty much anyone who sees it believe they recognize it, but vague enough that no one can. It definitely looks like it was animated in the late 1980s or early 1990s. It doesn’t look like Disney. It looks like it could be the work of Don Bluth, the one-time Disney animator who went on to direct “An American Tail” and “A Troll in Central Park,” except those movies have been watched and rewatched by millions, and even their minor characters would certainly be instantly recognizable to many. The Canadian origin of the photo suggests the image could be a product of the Canuck animation studio Nelvana, which helped create Saturday morning slot fillers like “Rock & Rule” and “Star Wars: Droids.” I’ve seen dozens and dozens of people suggest it could be from a mid-1980s series called “The Littles.” This seemed possible, but just as I was about to binge every episode of “The Littles” at double speed, someone pointed out that the Littles had five fingers on each of their hands, while the character in question only has four. . Please, stop suggesting ‘The Littles’.

When I first posted the image, I didn’t fully understand the long and confused history of what a fellow traveler called the “cursed elf abyss.” I mistakenly thought that the source photo belonged to a friend of my girlfriend’s, as the friend had created a Facebook post trying to identify the character, garnering hundreds of comments over several years. When I looked further into the history of the photo, I discovered that it actually belonged to a friend of a friend of mine: Emily Charette, who works in marketing communications and lives in Ottawa, Ontario. The family photo on which the cartoon appears shows Charette as a young girl with her two older siblings. They sit on the floor, grinning at the camera, with the TV set visible behind them. Charette first posted a zoomed-in image of the elf man in her office Slack in May 2016 and asked her colleagues if they recognized it. A colleague shared the photo on Facebook and it began to circulate widely in his extensive social circle. A few days later, comic book artist Sophie Campbell created arguably the most important piece of science about the image: a lengthy Tumblr post listing and excluding every plausible contender: “Thumbelina”, “The Smurfs”, “The Magician’s Hat”, the cartoon ” Teen Wolf” and of course “The Littles.” (Campbell recalled, of all the old shows she flipped through, “It was my full-time job for a week.”) Many of these titles were relaunched and rejected when I posted the image on Twitter. shared in 2019, and again when a small number of threads sprang up on Reddit.If you do the reverse search, you will mostly find social media posts from these earlier viral moments.The bigger the hunt got, the harder it became to find information about something other than the hunt itself.

After much frustration and too many hours spent combing through horrible episodes of “Stop the Smoggies”, my loved ones and I were left to never learn the truth about the elf man. But in the words of Mr. Bernstein in “Citizen Kane,” referring to that girl in the white dress, I bet not a month has passed since that time that I haven’t thought about that elf. There’s something about the little guy working his way into the brain. From one point of view, there was comfort in the idea that some mysteries are so deep that not even the internet can solve them. But from another, the elf seemed to violate the utopian promise that the web holds the answer to literally every question. Anyway, I didn’t want to think about it anymore.

Emily Charette (center of photo) first posted a zoomed-in image of the cartoon in her office Slack and asked her colleagues if they recognized the elf. Photo of Michael Anthony Charette

So on September 2, I reposted the photo. It immediately caught fire. For the first few hours, the usual suspects were re-examined: “Rock & Rule,” various Don Bluth movies, those miserable Littles. Many who first saw the post agreed with entry-level suggestions. Have you considered Googling “90s Christmas Specials”? Could it be an elf? But dozens of others reported falling down YouTube’s rabbit hole, watching compilations of 1990s commercials to see if our guy could be a Keebler Elf, or tracking down obscure shows from companies like Atkinson Film-Arts. Someone manipulated the image to make it sharper and clearer, but the improvement raised more questions than it answered; was the yellow spot in the lower right corner of the image another cartoon character or just some kind of light? Within twenty-four hours, Huiditonjorge, a YouTuber with more than 1.5 million subscribers, posted a video survey called “What is this Canadian cartoon from the 90s?” Within a few days the elf man was for sale on a T-shirt. A significant number of people told me the image would ruin their Labor Day weekend. For our part, my girlfriend and I went to work to watch ‘The Trolls and the Christmas Express’ from 1981. My tweet generated thousands of comments and millions of impressions. Yet no one had identified the image.

Among other things, this exercise gave an idea of ​​how much mediocre children’s entertainment has been created in recent decades. Go to your local Goodwill and you’ll find huge cemeteries with VHS tapes and multi-generational children’s program DVDs that are all but forgotten. And it was one of those ambiguities that turned out to have the answer we were looking for. When guiltitonjorge reposted the image on Twitter, a follower with the handle @Rasuran1 simply replied, “I think I know what you’re looking for,” and posted four more images of the character. Then another Twitter user, @just_mayhair, correctly identified the show’s title: “The Soulmates: The Gift of Light,” a 1991 TV special featuring the vocal talents of Canadian entertainment royalty Al Waxman and Sheila McCarthy. Of course it was Canadian.

On September 5, someone named Joshua Rastia uploaded the entire special to YouTube. It’s about comet the reindeer who joins forces with two alien “soulmates” to defeat the forces of evil and bring Santa back to the North Pole. The elf was one of Santa’s helpers. On the movie-focused social media platform Letterboxd, where the program has been viewed thirty-six times, a user named Calvin Kemph wrote that it was “a mediocre children’s film that brought the world together in true vacation mood for a moment of relaxation.” gratitude and reflection.” It has been said that we are a civilization in decline, that humanity’s greatest achievements are behind us, that we as a nation are irreparably polarized. But in September 2022, millions of people saw an image and reacted exactly the same, coming together to achieve a common goal. As another, better-remembered Christmas icon once said, “God bless us, everyone.”

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