A month ago, I got a much-needed eye examination. While he worked, the optometrist asked me if I’d seen any good shows lately. I asked him if he liked animation.
This is a code word, obviously, and he did apparently speak the code, because he proceeded to let me talk about She-Ra and The Princesses of Power for the next thirty minutes, and how he should definitely watch it.
There is definitely something weird about talking about “animation” today. Every day on Twitter, someone in my timeline or blogs a tweet with the line, “aren’t you a little bit old to be watching cartoons?” and every single comment contains a snarky response. Did these people apparently not watch cartoons? Assuming we are roughly the same age, didn’t they watch the same cartoons we watched growing up? Didn’t they like them? Were live action shows, Jersey Shore, and America’s Next Top Model really that much more interesting? I know Robot Wars definitely was, but that was just one hour a week. What were they doing that took up every other time slot that they missed the cartoon boom of the late 90s and early 2000s?
Turn of the century ushered in a new generation of cartoons that formatively shaped the next generation of cartoonists. Though He-Man was still on TV the first ripples of what would become the anime boom in the West we’re starting to become more obvious to the more casual viewer, the merchandise driven cartoons of the 70s and 80s were fading. The 1992 film FernGully: The Last Rainforest was just on the edge of beginning computer animation, a handful of the later-animated scenes have thicker edge lines around the characters, showing them to have been animated on computers. According to behind-the-scenes interviews, once it was available they were using computer animation as much as possible, because of how much faster it made the animation progress.Eventually, this slowing of merchandise driven cartoons and the rising availability of faster, quicker ways to make animation, culminated in a golden age of cartoons where experimentation with the new tools were not just possible, but financially reasonable, especially with the economy of the late 90s being relatively stable. This left things open for the “ugly” cartoons, as I call them.
Calling them ugly isn’t a judgment as much as a comment on their style; go take a look back at Rugrats, or Rocket Power, or Ed Edd n Eddy. The smooth curves of early animation and stiff lines of the 70s and 80s fall away for loose, complicated designs, and with a unique sense of motion. Kids with lumpy head shapes and over-exaggerated stretch, and lines that could flicker back and forth between frames.
(There were plenty of other ugly cartoons, but things like Ren and Stimpy and Rocko’s Modern Life are sometimes best left alone.)
The Uglies experimented with style, and character design, along with earlier shows as cartoons and their cartoonists felt out what was newly possible. Shows with blockier or extremely implied shapes also began to emerge as people realized the ability to draw perfect straight lines or circles on a computer helped mitigate the risk that perfect shapes otherwise ran with inconsistency. Powerpuff Girls with perfectly round heads, Dexter’s Lab with perfectly flat heads or shaped like lightbulbs, and dare I say it– SpongeBob did a lot with multimedia before The Amazing World of Gumball decided to take that to its logical conclusion.
What I’m trying to say is this: the 90s and early 2000s did a lot of groundwork and experimentation which started to slow down as the years went by. Now, though, the kids who watched these shows growing up are the cartoonists, remembering the experimentation of their childhood, and we are reaping the benefits of those early laborers.
Modern cartoons are so good, you guys.
I don’t really remember if I ever actually learned anything from cartoons while I was younger. I definitely enjoyed them, but I’m not sure if I actually learned anything, or if one of them ever really made me think. I learned in the aftermath that shows like Arthur had done an episode on 9/11, relating it to a school fire and how all of the kids reacted differently to the sun frightening events in their lives. I know that Lazy Town was specifically created to introduce kids to sports and encourage them to be active and have fun. Of course there are things like Blue’s Clues, Dora the Explorer and Diego, but those are geared to an even younger audience, while cartoons for slightly older kids (theY7+ demographic) seemed to lose this element almost immediately, switching tracks to “purely for entertainment”.
It’s a common criticism in conversations about cartoons today: that kids just want the zany violence, and flashing lights, and don’t really care much about substance. If these people had ever spoken to a child for any length of time, they would probably eventually figure out that kids tend to watch what is available, and when zany violence is mostly what they have, that’s what they’ll tend to watch. It’s a holdover from older eras of fun cartoons, bu also of preconceived adult notions about what kids want.
That’s part of why modern cartoons are so exciting. Many of the show runners are young cartoonists who still remember what they wanted a cartoon of in their childhood to be: now they are making it. I personally remember being upset and frustrated when cartoons didn’t continue a plotline, or characters would immediately forget something they’ve learned in the previous episode, and so the emerging anime boom filled that slot for me, where most anime shows were sequential storylines. The closest thing might’ve been Teen Titans and Avatar the Last Airbender, which was so early in storylines appearing and in such an unusual style for a western show, people did indeed think it was an import for a while.
Then, Gravity Falls came on the scene, along with shows like Adventure Time, which while they may have their zany episodes and out of sequence story plots, they are following an overarching pattern, eventually building to some sort of reveal or climax. Along the way, these shows also started to talk to kids. Not in the direct way Blue’s Clues or Dora the Explorer might, but in a more subtle way that we start teaching in early lit classes in school.
Adventure Time is fairly famous for its struggles with children connecting to their parents, whether your parent is an evil wizard with amnesia who loves you dearly but forgets you for long stretches of time ala dementia, or if they are just a really big jerk. Kids maybe don’t know what it’s like to be a vampire living forever, but they do know what it’s like to have struggles with their parents, and can follow the characters through their struggles, learning how to cope by watching someone else struggling with it and gathering information through them. Gravity Falls also focuses deeply on family– blood family in their case– and the struggles of negligent and abusive parents, broken relationships, and estrangement, to the point where the only thing in the climax stopping the world from being saved is a decades old grudge between siblings.
Those shows have all ended, but unlike the the gradual slow down after the early 2000s cartoon boom as the starting shows petered out, things are still going strong right now. Steven Universe (whose showrunner Rebecca Sugar drew fan art of Invader Zim, a cartoon from 2001) released a movie in October which not only Recaps over 600 episodes of content in under 15 minutes, but ties it into a story about finding your own identity, grief, and how sometimes subduing the Tyrannical Space Empire is a little bit like dealing with your extremely racist aunt. While there have been criticisms against Steven Universe for putting too much responsibility on the central character, a fourteen year old, there were episodes about teaching Steven about self-care, mindfulness, and an entire episode where a character refuses to tell Steven her problems, because he is a kid and it’s not his job to worry about them. It carries a focus on showing kids how to say no when things are too much for them, and how to survive those days when maybe they can’t say no to dealing with them.
Parental and family relationships are obviously a pretty big deal for modern cartoons. Dexter’s Lab and My Life as a Teenage Robot might’ve had some interactions with the family, but things were always fairly status-quo the whole way through, while modern cartoons are very clearly trying to be somewhere different than they were at the beginning.
That’s not the say the old standbys aren’t still going strong: She-Ra on Netflix espouses the power of friendship.
Don’t laugh, it also deals with personal responsibility, the corrupting influence of power, and the values in people who may not immediately seem familiar or “normal” to us. But most of all, She-Ra is very into the anime power of friendship, maybe even moreso than Kim Possible, which has its protagonist completely fall apart as son as her best friend moves away. Even as the world collapses around them in season 4, She-Ra’s friend Bow is sitting in the middle of it all demanding to know why everyone thought it would be easy to be a friend.
“Friendship is something you need to work at” he screams no less than three times during the season finale. And he is right, the whole show is very much a negotiation of relationships, and how both sides must be willing to negotiate somehow, and if one person is unyielding, send that isn’t so much a relationship as a drain, even if you think you are doing the right thing by supporting them. This is a lot of the big difference between older cartoons and the modern ones.
In older cartoons, people started out as friends, to the point where it was sometimes not much more than an informed attribute, where some characters just showed little animosity, so, presumably, they were friends. Cartoons now are talking about those relationships and how to build them and make them stronger, whether it’s with a friend, or a parent, or an estranged relative. And if it doesn’t work out well—they’re also providing kids with someone ‘going through that’ who they can relate to and watch how the character deals with it, and feel a little bit less alone.
Maybe even more importantly, these aren’t morals in the story in the way a Sonic Says segment would present them, or how Sailor Moon might try to explain the point of the story we just watched at the end of the show with a quick friendship or fashion tip. These are arcs that the characters go through, struggles they face, and they are all written into the text and plot line. The cartoons of my youth were absolutely great, but I definitely did not learn anything about racing by watching Speed Racer, and I certainly didn’t know anything about what being in a suburban neighborhood might be like from Ed Edd and Eddy, or how to deal with relationships from Dexter’s Lab. Maybe these older cartoons had very special episodes, like after-school specials, but there is a reason that ‘very special episode’ sounds a little derogatory. They weren’t always the best written, and tended to be about drug abuse or accepting people who were a different race or sex than the main characters, or accepting someone with a disability— it’s was meant with good intentions, but usually went about it by having an episode where someone was different, and the main characters treated them badly before learning the error of their ways. And then that new person was never seen again.
The new cartoons don’t really need those very special episodes. The characters are already there and recurring. There are characters like Entrapta who don’t relate to others well, or Wendy and Mabel, who are objectified for being girls and their emotions not taken into consideration, Della Duck with her prosthetic leg, and the wildly different families of Beach City. They’re there, maybe not every episode, but always in the story all the same.
And best of all with modern cartoons: they’re still exciting, full of color, magic, and zany violence as they go.