The cartoon mystery that took the internet by storm
During a recent fifth anniversary dinner with my girlfriend, the conversation turned to a mystery that has driven us both crazy for most of our relationship. It’s a cartoon character who appears on a crappy TV in the background of an old family photo. The character is an elf-like man in a red shirt and white overalls. He has pointed ears and a gray beard. Her eyes are closed and she seems to be talking, or maybe sneezing. Given his red shirt, he could be one of Santa’s helper elves, or he could be an eccentric inventor or crazy grandpa or a citizen of the larger elf universe. We were convinced that the photo was taken in Ontario, Canada, in the early nineties. But its exact origin was unknown, and solving the mystery became a pet project for thousands of people online. No one had ever succeeded, though many had spent fruitless hours trying. Back in 2019, a friend of mine asked if I would post a photo on Twitter. I did, to no avail. Now, at dinner, he asked if I would try again. Maybe this time someone would finally have the answer and we could move on with our lives.
There’s something about a cartoon that’s specific enough that virtually everyone who sees it believes they recognize it, but vague enough that no one actually can. It looks like it was animated in the late eighties or early nineties. It’s not like Disney. It looks like it could be the work of Don Blatt, the one-time Disney animator who went on to direct An American Tail and A Troll in Central Park, except those films have been seen and re-watched by millions. , and even their minor characters are sure to be instantly recognizable to many. The Canadian origin of the photo suggests the image may be the product of Canuck animation studio Nelvana, which helped create Saturday morning fillers like “Rock & Rule” and “Star Wars. Droids.” I’ve seen dozens of people speculate that it might be from the mid-eighties TV series The Little Ones. This seemed possible to me, but just as I was about to double down on every episode of The Littles, someone pointed out that the Littles have five fingers on each of their hands, while the character in question only has four. Please stop recommending The Little Ones.
When I first posted the picture, I still didn’t fully understand the long and complicated history of what one traveler called the “cursed elven chasm.” I mistakenly thought the original photo belonged to a friend of my girlfriend’s because the friend made a Facebook post trying to identify the character, garnering hundreds of responses over several years. After looking at the photo history, I found out that it actually belongs to a friend of mine, Emily Sharett, who works in marketing communications and lives in Ottawa, Ontario. A family photo featuring the cartoon shows Charette as a young girl with her two older siblings. They are sitting on the floor and grinning at the camera with the TV behind them. Sharett first posted a zoomed-in image of an elf man in his Slack office in May 2016 and asked his colleagues if they recognized it. A colleague shared the picture on Facebook and it began to circulate widely among her extended social circle. A few days later, comic artist Sophie Campbell produced perhaps the most important scholarship on the image; long. Tumblr post which listed and ruled out every possible candidate: Thumbelina, The Smurfs, The Wizard’s Hat, Teen Wolf, and, of course, The Little Ones. (Campbell recalled that of all the old shows he sifted through, “It was my full-time job for a week.”) Many of these titles were recirculated and rejected when I shared the image on Twitter in 2019, and again, when a small number of threads appeared on reddit. If you do a reverse image search, you’ll mostly find social media posts from these previous viral moments. The bigger the hunt, the harder it became to find any information other than the hunt.
After much frustration and too many hours spent watching horrible episodes of Stop the Smoggies, my loved ones and I resigned ourselves to never learning 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’ll bet a month doesn’t go by that I don’t think about that elf. There is something about a little boy that penetrates the brain. From one point of view, it was comforting to think that some mysteries are so deep that even the Internet can’t solve them. But, on the other hand, the elf seemed to violate the utopian promise that the Internet contains the answer to literally any question. Anyway, I wanted to stop thinking about this.
So on September 2nd, I reposted the photo. It caught fire immediately. For the first few hours, the usual suspects were revisited: Rock & Rule, various Don Bluth movies, those miserable little ones. Many who saw the post for the first time began to suggest an entry level. Have you considered Google Christmas specials from the nineties? Could it be an elf? But dozens of others reported falling down YouTube rabbit holes, watching Nineties commercials to see if our man could be the Keebler Elf, or following companies like the obscure Atkinson Film-Arts the shows. Someone manipulated the image to sharpen and brighten it, but the enhancement raised more questions than answers; Was the yellow blob in the lower right corner of the image another cartoon character or just some light? Within twenty-four hours, blameitonjorge, a YouTuber with over 1.5 million subscribers, posted: video surveillance called “What is this Canadian cartoon from the 90s?” Within a couple of days the elf man was being sold to A T-shirt. A not inconsiderable number of people told me that image would ruin their Labor Day. For our part, my girlfriend and I went to work watching 1981’s Trolls and the Christmas Express. My tweet generated thousands of comments and millions of impressions. However, no one had identified the image.
Among other things, this exercise recognized how much mediocre children’s entertainment has been produced in recent decades. Go to your local Goodwill and you’ll find vast graveyards of VHS tapes and DVDs containing many generations’ worth of children’s programs that have been all but forgotten. And it was one of those unknowns that turned out to hold the answer we were looking for. When blameitonjorge retweeted the image, a follower with the handle @Rasuran1 answered just, “I think I know what you’re looking for” and posted four more images of the character. Then another Twitter user, @just_mayhair, is right has been identified the title of the show.The Soulmates: The Gift of Light,” a 1991 television special boasting 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 all exclusive to YouTube. It’s about a reindeer comet who joins forces with two alien “soulmates” to defeat the forces of evil and bring Santa Claus back to the North Pole. The elf was one of Santa’s helpers. On the movie-centric social media platform Letterboxd, where the app has garnered thirty-six views, a user named Kelvin Kempf wrote that it was “a mediocre children’s film that brought the world together in true holiday spirit for a moment of gratitude and reflection.” It has been said that we are a civilization in decline, that humanity’s greatest achievements are behind us, that as a nation we are irreparably polarized. However, in September 2022, millions of people saw an image and had the exact same reaction and came together to achieve a common cause. As another, better-remembered Christmas icon once said:God bless us all“. ♦