“Azarath, Metrion, Zinthos!”
These three words, a magic spell, are forever ingrained in my mind. As Raven, a half-demon, half-human superhero, said them in nine-year-old Zoey’s favorite TV show, “Teen Titans,” I didn’t quite understand what they meant. Sure, at the time, just a magic spell. But perhaps that magic wasn’t the forcefield building to protect her friends. Perhaps it was the fact that she had learned to control her emotions, which, in turn, controlled her powers.
Animation is an art form — and just like live-action television, film, and music, it’s important to our culture. Often, I find that the quality of animated television can dwindle because of a “well, it’s just for kids” mindset. However, children and adults alike need quality storylines, characters, and art. The days of flashing colors, incomprehensible storylines, and bad jokes must end. After all, if we’re depriving our children of art, aren’t we depriving ourselves of art?
Here’s some history:
Cartoon Network was the first major network devoted simply to cartoons. It began with a library of MGM and Hanna-Barbera cartoons and soon developed original classics such as “The Powerpuff Girls,” “Fairly Odd Parents,” “Johnny Bravo,” and “Dexter’s Lab.” These beginning shows boasted captivating stories, likeable characters, and high critical acclaim. Creators had free reign to be imaginative and groundbreaking. The early ‘90s was a kind of breeding ground for great animated television, whether you looked at the humble yet powerful beginnings of Cartoon Network, the innovation and ratings of Nicktoons, or the creativity of Disney, premiering classics like “Ducktales” and later “Kim Possible.” This was a time in which a new generation of animators was creating new and innovative television, and great art was being produced. It was art for all.
I remember flicking to Cartoon Network every night at 8 p.m., on the dot to watch reruns of “Teen Titans.” This particular show was a blend of Japanese-style anime and classic American animation, starring a DC Comics team of teenage superheroes. At just nine years old, I was captivated by the evolving characters, the complex emotional storylines, and the overarching plots. This show, however, was in poor company.
Aside from a few new shows airing at the time, (“Phineas and Ferb,” “Regular Show,” etc.) good cartoons were scarce. The ‘90s revolution of animated programming was dying out, and we were left with 15-minute blocks of flashing colors and fart jokes.
It’s not that good cartoons weren’t being made at this time — it was that they weren’t being aired. In its beginning stages, the now critically-acclaimed “Adventure Time” was pitched to Nickelodeon twice. The network rejected this show, instead introducing “Fanboy & Chum Chum” to its 2009 lineup. “Fanboy & Chum Chum” lasted only two seasons, rated 1 1/2 stars on IMDB. “Adventure Time,” picked up by Cartoon Network in 2010, is now seven seasons strong and slotted for two more. But why wasn’t it picked up the first two tries? At this time, the energy and attitude of the ‘90s was nowhere to be found, and television networks were left questioning “What do kids like these days?”
There was no imagination. No thought or meaning. It is infinitely harder for a cartoon to teach a child to deal with his emotional problems through zen meditation than it is for a cartoon to teach a child to punch somebody with super turbo lightning blasts. But taking the time to teach kids kindness and love pays off. Maybe telling kids to respect others means more than selling toy samurai swords. Maybe talking about friendship and family is worth the risk in ratings that one wouldn’t take with ninja fights or robot battles.
I believe that kids can recognize quality storytelling, either consciously and subconsciously. One of the worst things a producer of media can do is underestimate the intelligence of its audience. The media creates smart, kind, and innovative adults by creating smart, kind, and innovative children. It’s all about the kind of media produced. The children’s’ media that adults produce is a reflection of what they want their children to become. “I think a great mistake gets made when a group of adults sits around and says ‘hey, the kids will like this. That’ll be funny.’” Says Chief Content Officer for Cartoon Network, Rob Sorcher. “It puts you at an arm’s length.”
When we create flawed heroes and understandable villains — when we create characters valuing friendship, empathy, and love — when we create stories dealing with real-life problems and solutions — we are creating the world that these kids live in and characters that they relate to. A world where superheroes don’t exist, our greatest super villains are sometimes ourselves, and friendship truly is magic.
I never grew out of cartoons. In fact, I think I’m just growing into them. During the years of 2006 to 2009, my prime cartoon-watching years, quality cartoons were hard to find. But beginning in the early 2010s, I noticed a change in the industry. Disney began airing “Gravity Falls.” Cartoon Network came out with new, innovative material like “Adventure Time” and “Steven Universe.” Whether it was the new art styles, complex storylines, or captivating imagination, there was something different about these cartoons. And suddenly, well past the average age of cartoon-watchers, I fell in love.
Generations raised on good cartoons grow up to produce good cartoons. This is why we saw such a shift in the quality of cartoons recently — these millennials grew up on the exciting beginnings of Cartoon Network. They grew up on “The Powerpuff Girls” and “Teen Titans.” They know storytelling through animation. In a video about the new generation of cartoons, “Regular Show” creator J.G Quintel says “Kids are smart. They’re not stupid, so you don’t need to talk down to them.”
So, we finally got cartoons that could make an audience really think. We got characters that were relatable and complex. We got engaging mysteries, heartbreaking dramas, and witty comedies. Don’t children — the world’s next generation of leaders, artists, and activists — deserve that?