I’m Too Old to Be This Upset About Cartoons

Up until the time I was in 10th grade (2002-2003), my family did not have cable. This, combined with the fact that I lived in a neighborhood with no kids, had no pets until 3rd grade and no siblings ever, confused and confounded my elementary school peers. “What do you DO all the time?” was the most common inquiry made by my grade school friends. I usually responded with something along these lines: “Play outside, ride my bike, play with my Barbies and stuffed animals, and watch TV.” Most of my friends did these things too, but when I said I watched TV, they often asked “What do you watch if you don’t have cable?” My answer? “PBS.” While my colleagues grew up watching “Are You Afraid of the Dark?”, “Doug”, & MTV shows, I spent my afternoons watching “Square One,” “Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?”, “Wishbone,” “Lamb Chop’s Playalong,” “Shining Time Station,” and “Reading Rainbow.” Eventually I think the local FOX syndicates picked up some of the Disney Channel shows, like “Duck Tales” and “TaleSpin,” (both of which I intend to buy on DVD if I ever see the full series in a boxed set) and I watched those too. But there was something about those PBS shows that made them awesome. They knew the ultimate trick to education: If you’re having fun, you’re more likely to learn and remember. “Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?” sparked an interest in geography for me, while “Ghostwriter” taught kids about writing and how useful it is. “Wishbone” and “Reading Rainbow” both encouraged my love of reading, and “Shining Time Station” reinforced ideas like friendship, patience, and how awesome Ringo Starr is.* Unfortunately, “Square One” went off the air while I was still pretty young, so I don’t remember a lot about it, other than their series-within-a-series, “Mathnet,” a clever little “Dragnet” parody where detectives used math to solve crimes in LA. These shows were educational, but also fun and entertaining. They made you laugh and had endearing charachters, much like many of the 1990s cartoons my friends were watching on cable (and which I watched on ABC on Saturday mornings until the time I was 12 or 13).

It seems to me that cartoons/children’s shows (and maybe TV in general) were better in the 1990s. As I mentioned in my post about “The Princess and the Frog,” most cartoons on TV today are visually unappealing. Nickelodeon seems to be particularly egregious in its proliferation of ugly cartoons (“Sponge Bob”, “Hey Arnold”, and “Rugrats” were some of the earlier ugly cartoons, though “Hey Arnold” and “Rugrats” were at least fun to watch [at my friends’ houses]). These shows, which are now quite lovely compared to some of the newer ones on Nick and Cartoon Network, had characters with WILDLY disproportionate heads and bodies, ugly faces, and unappealing backgrounds. The quality of the animation has only gotten worse. In addition, there are less cartoons on TV nowadays, good OR bad. TV channels that typically played all (or mostly all) cartoons, like the Disney Channel & Nickelodeon, all rely almost exclusively on live-action shows now. Cartoon Network has even started showing live-action shows outside of the Adult Swim block. Traditional Saturday morning cartoons that millions of Americans grew up watching have vanished. None of the major networks show cartoons on their local affiliates anymore.

It makes me a little sad to know that my kids are going to grow up watching lame kids’ shows. My generation has already started having kids, and many young parents that I’ve talked to agree that there aren’t many kids’ shows they like to let their kids watch. Even my other non-parent friends say it makes them sad that kids don’t have good shows to watch anymore. I say it’s time for a cartoon revolution! Boycott the new shows & support syndication and reruns of the old ones. It’s time for animation studios and children’s programming executives to look back to old shows for inspiration. Combine the fun and education of old PBS kids’ shows with the good animation of 1990s Disney/Warner Bros animation.

*Ringo Starr, for a while, played The Conductor on Shining Time Station. He was, for some reason that I cannot remember, about a foot tall in the show. Everyone else was a normal height, but he was pocket-sized.

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The Princess and the Frog

I am really looking forward to seeing Disney’s newest movie, The Princess and the Frog. Yes, I’m serious, and no, I’m not 8 years old or African-American. I am a 22-year-old white kid who grew up during  the height of Disney’s animated movie revolution. While Disney made some of its most beloved (and most awesome) movies between 1937 and the 1970s (101 Dalmatians, Cinderella, Snow White, Peter Pan, Pinocchio, Dumbo, The AristoCats, Robin Hood, etc), the 1980s and 1990s brought about two very awesome things in the world of Disney: 1) the re-release of all the old classics on VHS for home enjoyment, and 2) a wave of amazing fun new animated movies to cherish.

Among these “new classics” were The Little Mermaid (which really got the ball rolling in 1989, though Oliver and Company and The Great Mouse Detective were two early 1980’s classics that are often overlooked), Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. These new Disney movies offered the same things that made the classics just that – classics. They had fun, catchy songs, beautiful animation, and an exciting and engaging story that appealed to both children and adults. The animal characters were cute, and the human characters… looked human.

And then something happened. That something was Toy Story. In 1995, Disney teamed up with a then-unknown animation studio named Pixar to release the first fully computer animated full-length movie. And it was great. It was a fun movie, a touching story about a friendship that emerges between two rivals. It also brought to life that possibility that every child wonders about when they leave their room: What if my toys come to life when I’m not looking? Yes, Toy Story was a delightful movie. The only problem was that Disney realized CG was cheaper than old-fashioned animation, and so it began making less traditionally animated movies, and the ones that it DID make were of lesser quality than those of the early 1990s. Instead of the beautiful and detailed animation that we got in Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, we got Hercules and Tarzan. Even the songs were not as good. Can you remember a single song from Tarzan? I can’t, but I can sing you a rousing rendition of “Be Our Guest” from Beauty and the Beast. Eventually, Disney abandoned traditional animation altogether in favor of new-and-improved computer animation. Even movies starring characters who were traditionally hand-animated began showing up in CG instead (Winnie the Pooh and his gang, for example).

While the full length movies were cranked out in CG, cartoons for TV were still done in traditional animation, both in the world of Disney and in other networks, like Nick and Cartoon Network, but it was not the same. These cartoons were not cute. In fact, many were downright ugly. The animals were scary-looking or just gross, and the humans didn’t look human. The backgrounds were plain, ugly, or undetailed. My main examples of this phenomenon are Spongebob Squarepants and The Fairly Oddparents. Both shows are just weird and ugly, not at all like the cartoons I grew up with, and even these animated shows are the last of a dying breed. Both Nick and Disney are replacing many of their kids’ cartoons with live-action shows like iCarly, or, God forbid, Hannah Montana.

But then something happened. That something was The Princess and the Frog. It is important for two reasons: 1) It features Disney’s first African-American princess (and she’s pretty cute, from what I’ve seen), and 2) It is traditionally animated. I must admit, I was not entirely honest with you earlier. Disney does tend to put out one or two old-fashioned animated films per year. However, most of these are either sequels to a previous Disney film (Cinderella II , The Little Mermaid III, The Lion King 1 1/2 [wtf?]), or an otherwise minor film that generally goes straight to video. The Princess and the Frog is different. It is a bona fide full length film about an original character that is based on a timeless story. It has cute animated animals, who sing and play instruments. It has a young girl with big dreams who has big adventures. It basically follows the same formula that created so many other Disney classics. And that is what I hope this movie will be: an instant classic. I am deeply hoping that this movie will drum up a dormant love of traditional animation in older viewers, and will be immensely popular with the younger kiddies who have grown up on a steady CG diet.

So go on, Tiana. Take your rightful place on my movie shelf next to Cinderella, Belle, Jasmine, Aurora, Snow White, Mulan, and Pocahontas. And may you usher in a new era of animated Disney awesomeness to replace the horrible decade of bad animation and manufactured music stars that they’ve been pumping out. I think you just might be Disney’s saving grace, little Cajun queen.