Continuing our week-long celebration of all things animated, Laura Coppin challenges the long held belief that cartoons are primarily made for children.
Cartoons – you must be kid-ing?
If you’ve read Shaun Ponsonby’s stellar introduction to this week’s celebration of all things animated, you’ll already know (if you didn’t already) that cartoons were never intended to be children’s entertainment – they acted as openers to feature films, a tradition Pixar has kept alive with pre-film screenings of its own award winning animated shorts.
We’re currently in something of a golden era for adult oriented cartoons, with an absolute smorgasbord of fantastic offerings to choose from. Despite this, there still seems to be a widespread feeling that cartoons are ‘just for kids’ – that there’s something unusual or immature about an adult watching them purely for their own pleasure. I’ve lost track of the number of people who’ve been genuinely baffled, or strangely offended, even, when I’ve offered cartoon recommendations during discussions about TV or films.
Thankfully, Disney and Pixar films seem to have escaped these kinds of judgements – perhaps because so many people associate their films with a sense of youthful nostalgia. At the very least, they seem to be easily excusable because they sit safely in ‘family’ territory. But animated series? Not so much.
In a world where one of the most decorated shows in TV history is an animation, it seems insane that so many people seem to dismiss cartoons as silly, or a waste of time – the complexity of both characterisation and plot in some are truly astonishing.
The Simpsons is, of course, probably the best known of all – and unsurprisingly our aforementioned award winner. First screened a mere six days before I entered the world in December 1989, as I grew up The Simpsons were as much a part of my life as the living room furniture. The show provided enough slapstick humour and campy fun to be a firm hit with children everywhere, as well as a rare role model for young girls with the hugely intelligent if oft-despairing daughter Lisa. Yet it’s far from a kids show.
Throughout it’s numerous seasons, the inhabitants of Springfield faced everything from alcoholism and domestic violence to suicidal depression and bereavement – not to mention nuclear disasters and alien enslavement. Hardly family friendly by anyone’s standards. After all, how many parents would be happy if you told them you wanted their child to watch a show about a deadbeat, neglectful drunkard who repeatedly strangled his own son in a blind rage?
Having said that, would I let my own children watch it? Without hesitation.
The need to arbitrarily define and separate shows based on the age of their intended audience ignores the wonderful complexity of those that pull off the intricate dance of having something to offer everyone. Take some of Cartoon Network’s recent offerings, for example.
Adventure Time follows the story of a young boy and his dog in the as they do their best to be heroes, rescuing innocents from monsters and collecting as much treasure as they can in the Land of Ooo. So far so normal, right?
Except our young hero, Finn, is almost certainly the last human left alive, and his dog, Jake, is a coarse, middle aged shapeshifter who can stretch his body into unimaginable shapes. To top it off, the Land of Ooo is a post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland which is at times truly horrifying. The events all take place after ‘The Mushroom War’ (think mushrooms clouds), and instead of God, the characters all refer to ‘Glob’ – the viscous, luminous and still present nuclear waste which gave them their unnaturally long lives and equally unnatural bodies. The scope of the show is remarkable, and it manages to balance a wonderful, often ludicrous sense of fun with truly hard hitting and emotive sub-plots.
Over the Garden Wall on the other hand is a completely different animal, following two brothers who’re lost in a deep, dark wood as they try and find their way home. It’s a dark and atmospheric five part mini-series, which seems to be a loose, music-filled retelling of Dante’s Divine Comedy. It swings between being breathtakingly beautiful and outrageously silly; at times even stepping into the downright bizarre.
It’s hard to give any details without risking spoilers, but what I will say is that it features a completely unexpected and quite revolting guest appearance from Tim Curry – though you’d be hard pressed to guess it was him on first listen. Add that to the fact that the villain of the piece is played gloriously by an American opera singer called Samuel Ramey, and you can easily see why the series has received critical acclaim and multiple awards.
Nor is it just Cartoon Network that’s producing incredible shows – The Disney Channel has it’s gems too.
On the face of it, Gravity Falls seems like your average kids show – two plucky siblings forced to spend their summer holidays with their crotchety uncle, solving mysteries and having all sorts of madcap adventures.
In reality? It’s brilliantly compulsive viewing, and offers one of the most insane plot escalations I’ve ever encountered. Full of hidden masonic messages, complex puzzles, and intricate backstories, the secrets lurking within the eponymous town of Gravity Falls are an absolute joy to unravel; if at times genuinely disturbing. Even just voice-spotting is incredibly entertaining – Larry King, Coolio, Nick Offerman, and Neil deGrasse Tyson are amongst some of the guest stars.
Striding determinedly over to the DEFINTELY FOR ADULTS side of the spectrum is Adult Swim’s smash hit Rick and Morty, a show that’s recently hit headlines after pressuring McDonalds into recreating a limited edition sauce they created for the release of Disney’s Mulan.
It’s similar in many ways to Back to the Future, if Back to the Future was a dystopian sci-fi horror in which Doc was a foul mouthed, vomit crusted, and horribly narcissistic alcoholic (Rick) and Marty was his cowardly, highly strung and desperately hormonal grandson (Morty).
Despite its more overtly adult themes, Rick and Morty has had a few hidden elements that cross-over with Gravity Falls, suggesting they all exist in the same universe – and that some of the characters may even know each other.
Intrigue aside, it’s a clear nod to the fact that the same audience is watching both cartoons – and children definitely shouldn’t be watching this. As hilarious as the show is many of the episodes have an alarmingly high body count, and cast an unwavering eye over the darker sides of the human condition.
Other honourable mentions include Major Lazer, the musical group’s self-titled series following the heroics of their eponymous hero as he battles against the forces of evil in a post-apocalyptic future Jamaica, and Bee and Puppycat, the kick-starter funded story of a lazy young woman and the magical keyboard-voiced catdog that changes her life forever.
There’s a host of other cartoons that are of course widely viewed as adult – South Park, Family Guy and American Dad being particularly well known examples.
South Park in particular is often dismissed as nothing more than offensive and puerile, despite the fact many episodes act as an impressively topical commentary on humanities woes. Some of the humour may well be crass, but there’s a depth to it that doesn’t receive enough credit. They even went as far as alluding to Harvey Weinstein’s crimes several years ago – painting him and his brother as grotesque, sex obsessed aliens.
The latest show to join the highly acclaimed ranks of not-for-kids-cartoons is the sidesplitting Big Mouth. Putting the usually taboo topics of puberty, masturbation, and sexual arousal at its core it takes the grand old tradition of gross out comedy and injects it with feeling, primarily unwanted ones, as we’re dragged back to our most embarrassing and tormented of years.
Even if some animated shows actually are immature, or are simply just profoundly and wonderfully silly, is that really so bad? Should we be looking down on fun for fun’s sake? There’s no door that suddenly closes, separating us from our childhood selves. We are still , after all, every person we’ve ever been – and this giddy little child is going to watch some cartoons.