The secret of the cartoon that shook the Internet

A recent fifth anniversary dinner conversation with my boyfriend turned into a secret that has been driving us both crazy for almost the entire duration of our relationship. It’s an image of a cartoon character appearing on a messy TV in the background of an old family photo. The character is an elf-like man wearing a red shirt and white overalls. He has big ears and a gray beard. His eyes are closed and he is seen talking or sneezing. Judging by his red shirt, he could be one of Santa’s helper elves, or an eccentric inventor or silly grandpa, or a citizen of the larger elf universe. We were sure the picture was taken in Ontario, Canada in the early 90s. But its exact origins were unknown, and solving the mystery had become a pet project for thousands of people online. Although many have spent fruitless hours, no one has succeeded. Back in 2019, my friend asked if I would post a picture on Twitter. I did, but it didn’t work. Now at lunch he asked if I would try again. Maybe this time someone will finally find the answer and we can move on with our lives.

There’s something about him in the cartoon that’s specific enough to make almost anyone who sees him believe they know him, but vague enough that no one else can. It definitely looks like it was revived in the late eighties or early nineties. It’s not like Disney. It sounds like it could be the work of one-time Disney animator Don Bluth, who directed Tails and A Troll in Central Park, except those movies have been watched and re-watched by millions. , and even their minor characters will surely be instantly recognizable to many. The image’s Canadian origin suggests the image may be a product of Nelvana, the Canuck animation studio that helped create Saturday morning slot fillers like “Rock & Rule” and “Star Wars: The Droids.” I’ve seen dozens of people think it might be from a mid-eighties TV series called The Little Ones. It seemed possible to me, but as I was about to read every episode of The Littles at double speed, someone pointed out that the Littles have five fingers on each hand, while the character in question has four. Please stop offering “The Little Ones”.

When I first posted the photo, I hadn’t fully grasped the long and tangled history of what a friend called the “cursed elf abyss.” I mistakenly thought the source image belonged to my boyfriend’s friend because the friend had created a Facebook post trying to identify the character that had garnered hundreds of responses over the years. When I looked more closely at the history of the photo, I learned that it was actually a friend of my boyfriend’s friend: Emily Charette, who works in marketing communications and lives in Ottawa, Ontario. The cartoon’s family photo shows Charette as a young girl with her two older sisters. They sit on the floor and smile at the camera, with a TV behind them. Charette first posted a zoomed-in image of the elf man in his office Slack in May 2016, asking co-workers if they recognized it. A colleague of mine shared the photo on Facebook and it went viral in her large social circle. A few days later, comic artist Sophie Campbell created perhaps the single most important piece of scholarship on the character: a lengthy Tumblr post that listed and ruled out every plausible contender: Button, the Smurfs, the Wizard’s Hat, the Teen Wolf cartoon the movie and of course “The Little Ones”. (Campbell recalled that of all the old shows he reviewed: “It was my full week’s work.”) Many of those titles came up again in 2019 when I shared the photo on Twitter and were dismissed. A small thread popped up on reddit. If you do a reverse image search on the photo, you’ll mostly find social media posts from these previous viral moments. As the hunt grew, it became more difficult to find information about anything other than the hunt itself.

After much frustration and many hours spent researching terrible episodes of Stop the Smoggies, my loved ones and I gave up on never learning the truth about the elf man. But in reference to the girl in white in Mr. Bernstein’s Citizen Kane, I bet not a month goes by when I don’t think of that elf. The little boy has something that gets into his head. There was a sense of comfort in the fact that some mysteries were so deep that even the Internet couldn’t solve them. But on the other hand, the elf seemed to violate the utopian promise that the Internet contained the answer to any question. At least I wanted to stop thinking about it.

Emily Charette (pictured center) first posted a zoomed-in image of the cartoon to her office Slack, asking her colleagues if they recognized the elf.Photographer Michael Anthony Charette

So on September 2nd, I posted the photo again. It burned immediately. For the first few hours, the usual suspects were revisited: Rock & Rule, various Don Bluth movies, those poor Little Ones. Seeing the post for the first time, many chimed in with entry-level suggestions. Have you thought about Googling “90s Christmas specials”? Could it be an elf? But dozens of others reported falling down YouTube rabbit holes, watching Nineties commercials to see if our guy was the Keebler Elf, or watching obscure shows from companies like Atkinson Film-Arts. Someone manipulated the image to sharpen and brighten it, but the enhancement raised more questions than it answered; was the yellow spot in the lower right corner of the picture another cartoon character or just some kind of light? With over 1.5 million subscribers in twenty-four hours, YouTuber blameitonjorge asked, “What is this 90s Canadian cartoon?” released a video study called Within a few days, the elf man was on sale in a T-shirt. So many people have told me that this image will ruin their Labor Day weekend. In turn, my girlfriend and I went to work watching Trolls and the Christmas Express in 1981. My tweet generated thousands of comments and millions of impressions. Still, no one had identified the image.

Among other things, this exercise felt how many old-fashioned children’s entertainments have been abolished in recent decades. Go to your local Goodwill and you’ll find vast graveyards of VHS tapes and DVDs containing generations of forgotten children’s programming. And it was one of those obscurities that held the answer we were looking for. A follower with the handle @Rasuran1 when Blameitonjorge posted the photo on Twitter he answered simply posted, “I know what you’re looking for,” along with four more images of the character. Then another Twitter user, @just_mayhair, right is defined show title: “Soulmates: The Gift of Light,” a 1991 television program featuring the vocal talents of Canadian entertainers Al Waxman and Sheila McCarthy. Of course he was Canadian.

On September 5, someone named Joshua Rastia uploaded the entire feature to YouTube. It’s about Comet, the reindeer, 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 Letterboxd, a movie-centric social media platform, where the program has garnered 36 views, user Calvin Kemph wrote that it was “a mediocre children’s film that brought the world together for a moment in true holiday spirit. gratitude and reflection”. They said that we are a civilization in decline, that the greatest achievements of mankind are behind us, and that we are irreparably polarized as a nation. Back in September 2022, millions of people saw a vision and had the same reaction, coming together to achieve a common goal. Another, better-remembered Christmas icon once said: “God bless us all.” ♦

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