Cartoons used to be silly, or at least sillier. Animated
shows have matured a lot in the last ten years, but something is being lost
along the way, and that’s the confidence to be just plan ol’ silly fun.
TV shows seem
to feel the need
to prove their worthiness
nowadays, and the easiest
way many have perceived
to do so, is
through weighty themes and
stories. It’s how to capture the ‘mature’ crowd, or to appeal to
teenagers as well as kids. The problem is
that by doing so, the could be painting
animated shows into a corner as difficult to escape from as the ‘just for kids’
stigma that cartoons are still shaking off.
Take for example, these three shows: Adventure Time, Bee
& Puppycat, and Legend of Korra. All three are aimed at a relatively young
audience. (Bee & Puppycat skews slightly older, but semantics, etc.) They
all have their entertaining moments from time to time, but overall, they are
particularly weighty shows given the generally light-hearted nature of animated
My concern isn’t so much that they attempt to portray
particular themes, or stories, but rather that they feel the need to justify
themselves through their use. Take Adventure Time; it began as your usual buddy
show but has recently produced stories with far darker undertones. Bee &
Puppycat had a pilot that was quite down to earth with a mystical theme running
through it, yet the actual series has turned out to be a far more abstract and
less humurous show.
Legend of Korra was at least based on precedent, but unlike
Avatar: The Last Airbender, it makes no bones about wearing serious themes on
its sleeve; comedy played second fiddle. Contrast that with A:TLA, which was
also an action/drama show, but it always injected comedic elements and characters
that ensured the show retained a degree of innocence and fun despite the
overarching wartime plot.
I fear that this has become a trend, and will only continue
to pervade the industry going forward. Ren & Stimpy was unashamedly silly;
ditto for Rocko’s Modern Life. Should Spongebob Squarepants be mentioned in
such company? Sure, but even that show is over a decade old now and nary a true
replacement is in sight. The Simpsons never took itself too seriously, but then
again, it was only serious exactly when it needed to be; the wackiness was
always assured to return.
Thinking back to Steven Spielberg’s Warner Bros. shows —
which were unbridled silly shows if ever there was some — we lack anything
even remotely equivalent today. The shows that are trying to evoke the same
slapstick feeling at least deserve credit for trying, but the energy and
vibrancy just isn’t there; my suspicion is standards and practices is laying
down the law.
Animated TV shows are slowly heading down a road, but one
that will cause us to lose something that made the medium so brilliant in the
first place. The overall disappearance of the concept of childhood could be to
blame. The age range for which kids would find silly shows appealing has shrunk
over the last decade or so, and the rise of the ‘tween’ as a demographic has
robbed a few years off of animated cartoons already limited audience.
Don’t be fooled; the animation ‘age ghetto’ still very much
exists; it’s just beginning earlier than it used to. The end result is that
kids are barely out of the pre-school and early-learning shows before they
graduate to kid-coms and live-action. Animated shows do have their older fans,
but they are a niche of the larger audience and nothing more.
The internet may yet prove to be a saviour, but to say that
the content available to today is of the same level of comedic quality as
either the great shorts of the golden age, or the early 1990s is a hard sell. I
don’t doubt that it may be true someday, but the space is currently lacking.
Silly animated shows fill a special place in everyone’s
hearts. They are pure and unadulterated funniness. They can entertain anyone
with a sense of humour, and maybe even those who don’t. They’re unpretentious
expressions of emotion that can resonate with audiences around the world. They
may appear to offer cheap laughs, but if done right they can outlast everything
else. Sadly, they seem to be slowly disappearing as the desire to have kids
grow up as soon as possible robs them of an audience who appreciates such silliness.