So over the weekend I had the chance to overdose on cartoons on a 20-inch screen. I should have cleaned the place, cooked a nice dinner and gotten enough sleep for once, but what would I blog about then? It’s been a while since I’ve hung around Cartoon Network, but I used to be quite familiar with the homegrown shows; Dexter’s Laboratory; Courage the Cowardly Dog; Cow and Chicken; Ed, Edd, and Eddy—as well as old guards like Tom & Jerry and the Space-Jam-fall-from-grace Loony Toons. I was never as cool with Futurama and The Simpsons, though they were enjoyable; they stopped short of the true cartoony, or did it with a flair that rubbed me wrong. There’s an art to this, something a little deeper than making money off kids who beg their parents for the corresponding merchandise.
You know what’s happened to cartoons today? They cut corners. Yeah, they have nice 3D-enhanced effects (Futurama, Invader Zim—tell me you noticed how cool the spaceships looked) and brilliant animation is getting easier and cheaper. But they stopped being good. Which brings us to what makes a cartoon good in my book:
- WTF potential. Courage the Cowardly Dog is a good example. The style is dark wacky; a brave, purple-hued dog belongs to old people who live on a farm in the Middle Of Nowhere, where all sorts of Goosebumps horrors seem to congregate. Courage screams an average of 150.8 times for every 22 minutes of show, and his screams are quite inventive; his head stretches like a balloon, his ears go stiff, and the teeth fly out of his mouth one by one. I love his screams, whether they’re over a tarantula-filled hotel, a ghostly Harvest Moon appearing in the basement, or a were-rabbit that bites Courage’s beloved Muriel and turns her into a monster that eats the doctor they take her to when her leg swells to four times its normal size. Face it, cartoons were meant to be insane.
- Humor. This is where kids’ television really screws up nowadays. Most of it is due to the copy being neutered and dumbed way, way, way down. I’m talking under the dinosaur bones. The cigar-smoking (I always imagine them smoking cigars ‘cause there ain’t no Pez in Hollywood) adults who make these shows think that kids (who apparently are stuffed with so much Ritalin and Micky D’s they need diagrams to take off Velcro shoes) need to be told everything.
Too much information kills every joke. This includes characters saying thoughts out loud as they think them when the thought is obvious (“Oh no! I can’t let that 5-ton rock crush Janet!”) a gasp, exclamation, or facial expression is enough. And that goes the same for characters explaining the plot function over and over, which ruins any surprises (because humor is really a figment of surprise).
Then, there’s corniness. Remember Nacho Libre? How jokes revolved around stupid-for-stupid’s-sake actions, or the friar trying his own cooking and spitting it out? Corniness is a mixture of clichéd, ugly, and annoying; it infects more than humor. Sure, all jokes are old, but don’t resurrect them with anything other than a lightning bolt.
- Concept. This is the big one. It has to be original, no question about it, or at least relatively unique. It’s true that the sci-fi masterpiece Invader Zim has a well-worn concept—a downtrodden (racist alien) youth is ostracized by his society and struggles to prove himself—but it’s not a clone of Naruto because of the dark, satirical style it comes with, and Zim’s lovely personality. He and his robot helper Gir (who harms more than helps, which is not original but seems so in context) try to conquer planet earth with a combination of advanced machinery, (justified) disgust for the human race, and the research he gets from posing as a normal boy in a normal (but heavily satirized) school.
It works because of the aforementioned WTF potential: Zim’s spoiled-but-intelligent-child voice quips about the filthy dirtworms as he pokes a diseased-looking roast beef in the cafeteria, his UFO-nut rival Dib throws the meat at him, and Zim twitches in agony as his skin sears. Gir, who masquerades as Zim’s dog, serves waffles to his alien master nonstop as Dib, who has planted a camera in Zim’s kitchen to find out his devious plans, watches in growing impatience. Dib’s sister Gaz seems to be the devil incarnate; purple-haired with a murderous, quiet voice, she enjoys video games so much she stalks a boy who bought the last one in the mall through a climactic battle in a skyscraper where she uses the forces of thunder and Hades against him to get the game back.
- Violence. Does this one surprise you? I’ll have to quote SNL’s Weekend Update again: “Remember the new Tom & Jerrys? When they were friends, and it sucked?” The golden age of cartoons died with parents having the idea that kids were growing up to blow up administration buildings not because of poor education funding, not because of their fathers’ workaholicism, not because they grew up in a society that glorified guns and fighting for ‘liberty’ but because of cartoon violence. Remember the old Daffy Duck and Tom, when their faces were round and they really looked respectively like a duck and cat? Remember how, in the well-made ones, Tom would scream like a teapot having a heart attack when Jerry dropped an anvil/hot iron/safe onto his paw? Remember how the Coyote never talked, he just suffered while the sadistic Road Runner beep-beeped in glee?
No, you don’t, because you’re probably twelve and your parents aren’t home and you’re Googling erotic blogs, but those were awesome. Those toons are immortal, not just because they couldn’t die until it was poker night in heaven, but because they weren’t conceived by a committee that surveyed the most popular cartoon elements and mixed them with 3D effects in a genetically-engineered ploy to make millions. They were born before their parents could say things like, “Joe Lieberman won’t like this, either.” They were made by
The trends in sharp animation are sweet, but 3D is just a lemon zester—it can make something that’s already good gorgeous. It’s a pity if cartoons lose their
If I could put the problem in a nutshell, it’s that TV executives either underestimate ten-year-olds, or fear the parents who watch shows with them. Their own kids probably look dumb to them (their kids feel the same way the other way around, I assure you), because they don’t say anything that a millionaire who thinks golf exciting categorizes as smart. If grown-ups are reading this, rest assured that your child simply doesn’t trust you enough to let you know he’s got a brain in there, which is understandable since grown-ups bomb countries for oil and drug money, perpetuate a world in which their kids often grow up serial killers, and still put saccharine in toothpaste.
At least, here they do. It’s supposed to cause cancer, right?