Archive for category Childhood Revisited
Sporadic and uneven, it’s clear that production issues and the lack of executive/creative cohesion ruined Bonkers’ potential. Why Bonkers never could quite get off the ground. Part 1 of 2.
The story of Bonkers is one for the ages.
The behind-the-scenes drama that occurred during the development of Bonkers would make one hell of a book – or at the very least, a crazy oral history. The fact that this show even made it through production is a miracle. It has been difficult to piece together a clear look on exactly what went wrong with the show, as I’ve been parsing information from Wikipedia, Greg Weisman’s archives, and a bit from Jim Cummings appearance on Rob Paulson’s podcast. Any more details on this would be appreciated, but I’m going to give it my best.
Bonkers started out as show called “Toon Cop.” It was indeed the human/toon hybrid show we know today, but its primary focus was on the relationship between Bonkers and Miranda. Bonkers himself was a toon star that became a cop, but it looks like that at this point he simply “decided” to be cop (as opposed to him being fired and forced into police work). During development, the decision was made to animate actual He’s Bonkers cartoons, to portray the character’s work before he left the studios. These shorts, which aired on Raw Toonage, were done separately from “Toon Cop.” The idea behind this is actually pretty brilliant, sort of a precursor to the online side shorts we see today online. “Toon Cop” was given to producers Bob Hathcock and Duane Capizzi, and He’s Bonkers was handled by Larry Latham. I should also point out that Bonkers was never intended to be a Who Framed Roger Rabbit TV show. The may have ripped off the idea, but actually tooling the movie into a series was never in the works.
When the first nine episodes of “Toon Cop” came back from overseas, there was a huge internal uproar. Apparently, there were a ton of issues – relating to character designs, scripts, animation, etc. – but executives overreacted to minor issues and downplayed the major ones. What these issues were are unclear, but it seems that one of them was the fear that kids wouldn’t be able tell the difference between the human and toon characters. This I think was the minor issue that executives overreacted to, as the difference has always been obvious. Once you tell kids that X is a toon and Y is a human, they’re going to get it. Sesame Street realized this years ago. Why executives pushed the panic button over that, instead of the script/animation issues, is baffling. Unfortunately I couldn’t get my hands on a number of the first nine episodes, so it’s hard to really gauge how problematic they were. But of what I did see, there were problems, mostly in terms of filler, pacing, and inconsistencies.
The original team was fired. They then brought in Robert Taylor and a new team to retool Bonkers, who brought in a new look and feel to the show. Bonkers’ look was refined – it was cuter, more appealing. Miranda was dropped and replaced with Lucky, a clear Eddie Valiant knock-off. The idea of the show now seem to ensure that toons were brightly colored and elastic, while the human characters were muted and more static. This isn’t an unreasonable change. The Disney animation studios really bring out the cartoon/human dynamic beautifully, and at the very least, make it wonderful to watch (the early Lucky episodes as least were an abject lesson in expressions and fluidity, exploring how different TYPES of characters should move within the same animated space).
Unfortunately, Taylor’s overall aesthetic is utterly depressing. The show’s color palette is greys and blues and the characters are all in this weird, nebulous, melancholic state. The Miranda episodes are not as beautiful or refined as the Lucky episodes, but the palette is brighter and friendlier, and the relationships between characters are comfortable and endearing. Lucky episodes feel like the characters are two-steps away from putting a gun to Bonkers’ head and splattering ink & pain all over the walls. Both sets of episodes have their strengths, for sure. But both sets also have some insanely glaring weaknesses. If somehow they could have combined those strengths, Bonkers would have been a much more pleasing, memorable show, but only rarely do either batch of episodes congeal to make the disparaging ideas work. The only way to really look at this show is to examine each set on their own terms, then to look at how the show attempted to bridge that gap.
The first thing I noticed about the Miranda episodes is that they’re distinctively for a younger audience. The tone and feel actually fits the Raw Toonage/Marsupalami template, which is more emphatic on high-stakes wackiness. Because of which, the actual plots are relatively simple, focusing on easy-to-swallow crimes centering around stealing and burglary. There’s some forays into bigger-scaled danger, like deranged people with bombs or master criminals, but they’re aggressively toony, in that the threats are more playful than sinister. “Tokyo Bonkers” contains a powerful toon that can control any machine, but it never approaches Terminator-like darkness. The villain is ruthless, but the episode’s “Ninja Kitties” and the charmingly cute (if stereotypical) Japanese culture keeps the episode light. Or take “Dog Day AfterToon” – the obvious parody stars a toon threatening to blow up a bank when he’s fired from his own cartoon. Any real tension is taken in stride, with plenty of ridiculous ransom demands and good ol’ Bonkers silliness. That bank was never in real danger.
Miranda episodes play around with human/toon dynamic with merely a passing interest, using the contrast to set up some fairly interesting ideas. Unfortunately they tend to beat episodes into the ground. It’s pretty obvious that the core plots of most of these episodes would be better suited for an 11-minute show. There’s a lot of elaborate, wacky sequences that run way too long, creating less of a comedic sideshow and more of a desperate attempt to pad time. Some episodes, for example, overplay the absolutely terrible “Rubber Room” song, which is from a He’s Bonkers short, and there’s no appeal to this what so ever. “Do Toons Dream of Animated Sheep” opens up the idea of toons having dreams which are physically malleable, but it spins its wheels with lengthy, uninteresting chase sequences. This certainly would work for younger audiences, but anyone past the age of eight would be bored out of their minds.
Disney cartoons are capable of many things, but “wackiness” was never their strong suit. The strength of Disney Afternoon’s cartoons lie in its characters, strong and iconic, who feel like they belong in the world laid out before you. In this regard, Miranda and Bonkers, together, work rather well. It’s a partnership that, despite everything, actually functions nicely – when the writers will it that way. When watching this, I was curious if Miranda was in some ways a precursor to Gargoyles’ Elisa Maza, which was confirmed by Weisman himself. Miranda is a great, low-key character. She’s confident, single, and badass when she needs to be. She makes a great cop. She also possesses an amicable relationship with Bonkers: the show’s best moments are when the two simply sit in the cop car and shoot the shit. Bonkers, himself, of course can’t stay verbal for long, and will often find himself in the wacky, absurd, out-of-control scenarios that many people can’t tolerate. As someone who watches cartoons all day, I guess I have a high tolerance for insane characterization – your Dudley Puppies, your Spongebobs, your crack-addled early Daffy Ducks – so Bonkers’ antics didn’t bother me too much. They just tended to be uninteresting and poorly executed by storyboarders and animators who seemed in over their heads, which probably was another issue that the show had early on. The “look” of the show didn’t quite match the feel. The other recurring characters here – Al Vermin, Sgt. Grating (voiced by Ron Pearlman!), Bucky Buzzsaw, and Dr. Von Drake – are all fine if forgettable, shoved into their roles to do whatever the plot needs them to do. (Although I did like Bitters, the physically put-upon dog who is just always in the wrong place at the wrong time.)
At its worst, the Miranda episodes are a mess – poorly framed and lazily plotted. “What You Read Is What You Get” is just abysmal and nonsensical, made even worse with its unnecessary “It was all a dream” ending (endings, in particular, will be the bane of Bonkers’ existence, but we’ll get to that). Yet when the show takes its time, putting in the work to enjoy its premise and characters, the show becomes – dare I say it – likeable! It never becomes great, but it become passable. “Quibbling Rivalry” is by far the best episode of the entire show. Miranda’s sister, Shirley, arrives, a news reporter who at first seems to want to discredit the toon cop on the news for ratings. It’s revealed that she’s genuinely concerned that her sister having a toon cop for a partner is too dangerous, and her reports were made to entice the bobcat to quit. I liked the idea that Bonkers, being a toon, was unaware how his behavior and antics could be putting humans in peril. I also loved the arguments between Miranda and Shirley – they’re petty, but in an understandable, adult way. The ending works wonders, as Miranda showcases some badass cop skills rescuing an old lady in a fire, and Bonkers’ “tooniness” is utilized as he stretches himself as a ladder to allow Miranda and the lady to climb down to safety. It’s an episode that just is running on all cylinders, distinctly noting how both human and toon can have their differences and unique uses, giving both Bonkers and Miranda a real purpose and drive. “Witless for the Prosecution” makes a close second, as Miranda almost goes crazy hiding out at Bonkers’ house as a witness. I like Bonkers’ desperation trying to comfort Miranda getting out of control (as is the nature of his tooniness), and Miranda almost losing it shows she even has her limits. But they have a heart-to-heart at the end and come to an understanding, and Bonkers uses his tooniness to his advantage when he commits to protecting Miranda (not that she needed it – she basically beats down the assassin on a moving truck like that shit was Tuesday).
Unfortunately episodes like “Quibbling Rivalry” are the exception rather than the norm, as the other Miranda episodes run the gamut between silly and mediocre. I wouldn’t say any of them were truly bad (save from “What You Read”) but nothing even come close to the heights of “Quibbling”. Part of the problem is that instead of focusing on the characters (Disney’s stock in trade), it spends a lot of time establishing/explaining “toon rules,” being exceedingly wacky, and trying to be clever in its Hollywood self-awareness, very little of it working like it should. I mean, Darkwing Duck tried that three times and it never quite work (and its no coincidence that Darkwing Duck makes an appearance in the show.) Weisman, Hathcock, Capizzi, and company tried to do their own version of “cartoon characters as film actors,” less Who Framed Roger Rabbit and more along the lines of Tex Avery/Chuck Jones. Take “The Toon That Ate Hollywood,” which had a clown stealing toons’ “funny” in order to make himself relevant again. The stolen “funny” ends up inside his frog partner, and an extremely long, lengthy, confusing sequence follows where the frog grows giant and tells terrible joke. This goes nowhere. Of course, they stop him, but (animation-wise) it didn’t look good doing it, and it wasn’t funny enough to enjoy watching it.
Both “Toon For a Day” and “Cartoon Cornered” contain long, uninteresting chase sequences through fabricated Hollywood studio backlots, mainly just so they can try playing around with goofy genre styles while also making up various toon rules to pass the time. There are some interesting ideas – the “toon” storage closet; stage 13 where the zaniest cartoons are shot – but the action is bland since the character stakes are non-existent. “Love Stuck” tries to ridicule dating game shows, and “Springtime for the Iguana” introduces an otherwise insignificant side character named Roderick to take potshots at the thespian elite. Very little of this actually works, although Roderick take-down of a prisoner about to shank him was amusing, and “Love Stuck” did end with a nice moment re-enforcing Bonkers’ and Miranda’s partnership (despite the plot forcing Bonkers to act out-of-character, which is a something the show does way too often).
The Miranda episodes are only at their strongest when it really reinforces that idea of Bonkers and Miranda being good partners and good friends, two characters that work well together, justifying both their roles as members of law enforcement. Too often the show would make Miranda disappear for more Bonkers antics, which was always a mistake (the show drops Miranda so often because she GETS it. She actually is competent and works well with the various toons, and the writers JUST CAN’T HAVE THAT since it would interfere with their half-assed cartoon comedy.) Despite all that though, if Bonkers just stuck with the “Miranda episodes” aesthetic, at worst, it would have been just a basic, forgettable cartoon. No one would have been talking about it these days, like no one discusses Raw Toonage or Marsupilami in any context. And that would have been the best fate for the cartoon, really. But Taylor’s retooling placed it on a different, higher, more ambitious level, which made the fall so much worse. Next week we’ll be looking at the Lucky episodes, which had higher aspirations. In all honesty, the attempt was admirable – but when it failed, it failed HARD.
[A note on the He’s Bonkers shorts – they’re actually not so bad, but mostly as forgettable as most of the shorts that came out of young-skewing Raw Toonage. I did like when they play around with the form, like in “Sheerluck Bonkers,” when his inked form sprints off, leaving his colors behind. It’s such a random, absurd visual gag. I think, overall, the strongest short is “Goggle Goggle Bonkers,” which has the most fun with the format and revels in its stupidity, like when Jitters names his turkeys after failed movies like Ishtar, Bonfire of the Vanities, and Howard the Duck. None of them are particularly memorable or distinct, though.]
After so many weeks of being absent, I have finally returned. Part of my disappearance was due to an increase in work (which has since died down, kind of). Some of it was due to the sheer number of TV shows finishing up their seasons, which of course I had to catch. Some of it was general fatigue – between work, television, and the gym, my body was beginning to wear itself down. I needed to mentally and physically rest. But now I’m back, and not only are essays on their way, but there should be some other things coming too.
But this isn’t about that – this is about the “World Tour” ventures that Goliath, Angela, Bronx, and Elisa are embarking on in the wake of the Avalon saga. As Tom yells to Elisa: “Avalon does not take you where you want to go, Avalon sends you where you need to be.” In other words, while we’re still in the midst of season two, this feels like a new season, or at least a reboot of some sort, a mystical way to create some breathing room between all those crazy, complex, wild events from before and the events coming up. While it’s bit early to tell how things will go, right now it feels like a good idea. Fewer characters, fewer schemes, fewer plotlines – not that Gargoyles was a particularly tough show to keep up with, it was just coming dangerously close to crushing itself under its massive complexity. With episodes like “Shadows of the Past,” the show gets some room to breathe.
“Shadows of the Past” is a unique episode not just of Gargoyles, but of animated TV in general. There’s no real action until late in the episode; instead, there’s a lot of pondering and rumination. It’s no coincidence Disney brought in their A-TEAM animation crew for this, to signify the “reboot” nature of this series and to give the necessary visual panache to an episode dedicated to thinking and talking existentially. It was the details I love most; Elisa almost tripping when she’s climbing a cliff, the wind blowing through her and Angela’s hair, Goliath panting in fear and fatigue – and the strong visuals match up to a strong character-driven episode.
Working with such few characters helps this show immensely, in particular how it focuses on Goliath’s attempt to keep his sanity and Elisa’s and Angela’s attempts to calm him now. Goliath taking stock on his past and his role in the events that happened in “Awakenings” is powerful stuff, and kudos to Michael and Brynne Chandler Reaves to really work and break down his mental state. Gargoyles are driven by both the need to protect and the need to avenge. Without the former, they’re aimless and lost; without the latter, they’re lacking and dishonored. “Shadows of the Past” brings up the latter point to great effect; by not being there for his clan when they were killed, and failing to adequately seek revenge on those who betrayed/killed his clan, has Goliath truly failed in his role as leader?
Essentially, the answer is yes, he failed, but it was far from his fault, and it’s true that Goliath has to come to terms with. But it’s hard, and the two mysterious energy spirits that grant Goliath his fevered visions aren’t helping. I love how the episode lets the weirdness drives the stakes here; it’s pretty obvious that everything he sees is fake, especially when the stone-versions of his former clan appears before him, but to Goliath, all of this is real. The tension isn’t in the audience trying to figure out what is real and what isn’t, but in hoping that Goliath can figure it out for himself. That’s a bold move, letting the audience root for Goliath and not the narrative.
The visions being perpetuated by two green spirit “things,” revealed to be Hakon (the leader of the Vikings which destroyed the gargoyles) and the Captain of the Guard (who betrayed the gargoyles to the Vikings). I’m not sure if the show will get into it, but the episode barely pays lip service to explaining how and why the two are in spirit form, and how they are generating the magic ability to cause such visions. It’s irrelevant thought, as the point is that these two are trapped souls driven by hate and revenge, working in tandem to draw Goliath’s life force out and apply it to themselves, restoring it to them. It doesn’t really make sense (the location where this all take place is nebulous at best), but it doesn’t have to. The point is that Goliath’s guilt is being exploited by Hakon and the Captain.
Once again, the theme of purpose and drives are full force and center, but here, the question of that drive is brought into focus. Gargoyles hasn’t really put a lot of stock into the thought of whether the ideas that drive a person to continue on is justified, at least not until this episode, and I’m curious if that something the show will explore later on. Here, though, as the Captain watches Hakon draw Goliath’s life force away, he too takes stock of his role in the gargoyles’ destruction, and realizes his own failures. He attempts to atone for this by attacking Hakon, and in a visually strong moment, the two spar within the strange, hieroglyphic-laden structure as everything glows and surges around them. Again, there’s no clarity as to exactly what’s going on, but the idea is clear. Everything explodes, and when the smoke clears, the Captain is finally granted the freedom to move on into the afterlife. He and Goliath, after thousands of years, finally come to, if not an understanding, then at least a peace.
Goliath and company head back out into the waters to try and head home, and Hakon is trapped in rock, and its telling that what upsets him the most is not being trapped, but not having anyone to hate. For you see, having nothing to drive you is a fate worse than being stuck somewhere for all eternity, a fate that, as Goliath mentions, he chose for himself. It’s a strong episode, one of the best since “Awakenings,” really. I kinda feel bad for Elisa at the end though, who has to wait by the stoned gargoyles all day before they can move on.
After such a great outing with “Shadows of the Past,” “Heritage” is a letdown. The A-TEAM animation is replaced with Sun Min, who do passable work, although I’m not sure they were given a strong script to work with. “Heritage” is a lot more episodic, attempting to be something like the really fun “Protection,” where the Elisa and the gargoyles appear in a random locale with problems, get involved, and fight their way into saving the day. With a little more work and time Gargoyles will most assuredly get better at this during this “reboot” period, but “Heritage,” comparatively speaking, feels sophomoric.
Part of the issue is that it kinda plays uncomfortably in the “Native Americans are all about their past and closeness to the earth!” cliche, with only a few moments of depth that allow it to surpass it. Adam Gilad, the episode’s writer, most likely meant well when writing this episode, but a lot of the developments border on generic stereotypes, like Natsilane (who’s Westernized nickname, Nick, is portrayed as being distancing from his heritage), who is so engaged in Western ideas (he graduated Harvard, ya’ll!) that he isn’t able to connect to his Haida history, and as a result the land is dying.
“Heritage” isn’t a bad episode per se, but it’s definitely lacking. After a weird sea monster attacks their boat and simply swims away (the gargoyles put up a good fight but there’s no way in hell they could’ve bested that beast), they find themselves separated from Elisa. Elisa, near-dead, is nursed back to health by Nick’s grandmother, who is referred to as Grandmother, while the gargoyles side with a creature-gargoyle named Raven. For a chunk of the episode, there is an interesting grey area, the story blurring the line of who’s the real villain: Raven claims Grandmother is persecuting his brethren, while Grandmother claims Raven is sucking the land dry and taking it for himself. The episode isn’t a moral quandary though. It’s clear that Raven is the true villain.
The episode doesn’t explain who he is outside of a dangerous evil being, and even though there’s always the chance we’ll see Raven in the future, the episode doesn’t hint at anything significant, or even why he’s wants the land in the first place. Part of me thought he was one of Oberon’s children, the dark elves that pop up from time to time to just cause trouble (like Puck), but it’s revealed that Grandmother is actually one of Oberon’s children. (SPOILER: some research revealed that Raven is a children of Oberon, which raises the question why Raven and Grandmother were fighting in the first place. I mean, we could get into a whole thing about Oberon’s relationship to the Haida history and the land, and I’m eager to see if Gargoyles will get into that, but I have my doubts).
There are some things I like about this episode. I like that Angela noticed what looked to be an animation error – a wing from a flying monster moving through one of Raven’s fake-gargoyle – as an illusion and played it cool, revealing it to her father later. It’s only been two episodes (not counting “Avalon”) and we don’t have a real sense of who Angela is, but she seems to be a bright, self-sufficient character who can kick ass. We haven’t passed the Bechdel test yet, since Elisa and Angela so far have talked mostly about Goliath and other males in the show, but I don’t think it can quite apply here. Still, I’m curious to see if they both move past that and grow as characters. Angela is still a blank slate, but any more development on Elisa is always welcome!
As for the episode… well, after Angela exposes Raven for the sham he is, all the layers come tumbling down. Grandmother exposes herself as a child of Oberon, the gargoyles reveal themselves to Nick, gaining his trust and restoring his belief in “the old ways,” and he gains all the necessary magic powers to defeat Raven, in a surprisingly anti-climatic fight scene. Again, it’s a bit unclear what Grandmother’s connection to the land is – the ending sequence, where Grandmother’s hair turns into water that restores life to the land is oddly not commented upon – and while the show’s commitment to accuracy is commendable, correctly placing the Haida tribe in western Canada, it isn’t exactly on point when it comes to clothing.
“Heritage” feels like a placeholder, an episode designed to given the whole “World Tour” premise some context – that is, to display the kind of episode adventures these core characters will find themselves in. I do hope things from a narrative perspective will improve though. The potential is there. Hell, I even enjoyed Raven, with his sassy remarks, he makes a for a entertaining villain who seems to enjoy himself, a nice addition to the self-serious badguys of Gargoyles’ rogue gallery. But “Heritage” focus on “Othering” without giving characters like Nick something to build on other than the “get in touch with your roots!” type of agency that he has in the entire episode makes it overall disappointing. I’m hoping we’ll see Nick, Grandmother, or Raven again, but I feel like, other than Raven, this is a narrative thread the show won’t be coming back to. It’s understandable – Avalon most likely have more significant events for our characters to deal with. I could be wrong though.
“Shadows of the Past” A / “Heritage” B-
Cartoon Network’s “DC Nation” is a joke. Literally. As of this post, the only cartoon aired in during this block is Teen Titans Go!, along with a smattering of various DC shorts, which are cute, but primarily entertaining to the Youtube crowd (this is not an insult – most of the DC shorts are great). Yet with Young Justice, The Green Lantern, and Beware the Batman cancelled, there is something sad in listening to the deep, booming voice announcing the intense, upcoming “DC NATION” during the interstitial graphic, only to be led to another wacky episode of Teen Titans Go!. Teen Titans Go! is actually a really funny show (albeit from the Adult Swim template); its hated reputation stems from how its goofy approach to superheroism is really the only thing on Cartoon Network that’s related to superheros.
I wrote about this briefly over on my tumblr, but I wanted to expand upon this more, especially in light of a recent comic post made by the showrunner to The Green Lantern, Giancarlo Volpe. I sort of wish Volpe had a bit more insight on the superficiality of the testing process, and the portrayal of Bruce Timm as a cigarette-smoking, too-cool-for-school badboy irks me at a gut level, but the directness of testing and its poor scientific procedures (everything is geared towards a specific outcome, from the lack of a control to splitting boys up by ages but not girls) is notable. If testing is a creative hell that animation showrunners are going to go through, then they’re already at a disadvantage. That being said, testing is only a part of the issue – toy lines, marketing, ratings, and word of mouth is another. Beyond that, let’s be honest: Cartoon Network was never committed to DC – that much is obvious. The general vibe among all the kids’ network is clear:
1) The action cartoon is dead. Of course, I’m exaggerating. But let’s take stock of the action cartoons currently on the air. There’s Ben-10, Legend of Korra [NOTE: as of July 24, 2014, Nick has removed this show from its schedule], Agents of SMASH (UPDATE: no longer on hiatus), Ultimate Spider-man and Avengers Assemble (which apparently is terrible), and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (and, if we’re reaching, Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness). Note that everything has a strong comic element to it, save for Legend of Korra – none of the other shows listed delve into more serious, dramatic matters. (It’ll be a while before any of those cartoons pull a “The Man Who Has Everything.”) All of these shows have mixed reviews; Legend of Korra tends to have the most buzz when it airs, and even so, there have been issues with the current books. Time was that the major kids networks aired a block of action cartoons that mixed well with the comedy entertainment. Now, it seems like networks are scrambling to get rid of them – or, at the very least, to make them sillier and cartoony. I like my cartoons to be cartoony. I don’t like my action cartoons to be cartoony.
2) MARVEL killed the action cartoon. It’s the sad truth. The thing that made action cartoon thrive in the 90s was their ability to engage directly with their comic book aesthetics, delving to the more bizarre conceits like time travel, aliens, robots, and multiple dimensions. CGI was pretty much shit back then. Cartoons were where you went to see the cool stuff. Advancements in CGI took place in the 2000s, but movie studios still believed that superhero fare could only succeed with the right degree of campiness (give or take a Batman Begins). The seeds were planted when X-Men and Spider-man did well at the box office; Marvel simply doubled down on their movie properties, to great success. The kind of rich visual aesthetics that were only available on the animated screen were now visible on the big one. Of course, these films were PG-13, so children of all ages could see it, and they were so enamored with the films that the cartoons look like crap in comparison. It doesn’t help that the writers, producers, animators, and executives of the last vestiges of the action cartoons were amateurish, working with low budgets and dwindling ratings and mediocre scripts. As Marvel films took their products seriously, action cartoon creators didn’t.
3) Action cartoons didn’t help themselves. Going up against a behemoth like Marvel is a daunting task, but it’s doable. The cartoons didn’t do themselves any favors though. Marketing research has emphasized comedy – apparently this is exactly what kids want to watch. So everyone – from executives to creatives – got caught up in the need for their action cartoons to be a few action scenes inserted in the middle of a vaudeville act – heavy on the jokes, goofy on the visuals, and silly on the set pieces. Which, in all honesty, is fine. The last thing we want is the brooding male mentality to seep into our animated fare. That being said, not every episode and not every scene need to be built around a million punchlines. Action cartoons have room for drama, for heart, for real character development, and of the shows mentioned above, I hardly see it (again, save for Legend of Korra).
Beyond that, the actual action is questionably portrayed. The thing about action scenes is that they’re a physical extension of the dramatic beats of the current scene (it’s why thugs in Batman are dressed similar to the current rogue Batman is up against). Action scenes, like any scene in entertainment, needs to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They need to have a clear goal and clear obstacles. What is the protagonist trying to physically accomplish? How are the villains actively trying to stop him/her? My rant against the second season of TMNT is antagonistic but clear, and I’ve questioned a few action scenes in Legend of Korra. Thundercats failed because it never took full stock of the seriousness of its premise; Beware the Batman took way too long to get to its admittedly intriguing story arc.
The future of action cartoons look grim, but there may be a way to save them. Primarily, we need networks willing to commit to them, in a way that goes beyond toy sales. From a critical perspective, though, action cartoons need to do the following:
1) Hit the ground running. You have about two or three episodes before you lose the attention of kids. So your first few episodes should hit some serious dramatic beats. Don’t only establish the world you built. Establish the characters we’ll be introduced to AND the kind of action scenes we’ll be seeing. Go big, don’t go ridiculous. It doesn’t have to be dark, but it does have to mean something. It has to be appealing. Blow their minds. And everything that you establish – action, drama, comedy, world-building, tone, and atmosphere – has to travel to the next few episodes. Beware the Batman had tonal issues and its rogue gallery had potential but never amounted to anything but various villains with different voice actors. All that has to be clear in the aesthetics, so make sure to —
2) Bring your A game (in storyboarding, animation, and writing). I find myself noticing more and more hiccups in storyboarding – the staging of the action is unclear and muddled, the animation tends to get lazy at time, and the writing feels forced and goofy. Both Beware the Batman and TMNT have passable action beats, but it’s obvious that both shows feel the need to have brawling actions scenes all the time, despite the fact that the heroes of these shows are ninjas and should be working more in the shadows. There’s a discrepancy here, when everything has to be working on all cylinders. The writing has to display why action is happening, the boarding needs to make every move and beat clear (why is he jumping out the way vs. running away?), and the animation should make every impact and near miss feel real and tense. That being said —
2) Stakes must be huge. Early and often. Thundercats’ pilot was dark, deep, and intense. It involved the murder of a leader of a kingdom, a kingdom that was isolated from the rest of the world and treated outsiders like shit, which was then followed by the mass genocide of said kingdom. Subsequent episodes pretended like that didn’t happen. It took till the second season before actually characters were developed, the genocide/hated-strangers-in-a-strange-land aspect was downplayed, and what started as a murky grey area quickly changed into black-and-white heroes and villains. (Probably due to that stupid testing?). The lesson we can learn from this is —
3) Don’t pander. Kids will know when you pander. Enough with mustache-twirling villains, charmingly-vague heroes, solitary female companions, and goofy sidekicks. How are we still working with this template in this day and age? I suppose that there’s plenty of marketing out that saying kids want to see goofy, comic versions of themselves in the characters on-screen. That may work now, but kids – especially those older kids – need to be challenged if we’re ever going to “earn” their respect for cartoons. If we can show them that cartoons can be as dramatically appealing and audaciously diverse as their live-action counterparts, we can work towards breaking down those “anti-cartoon” barriers. Do you know what else would help with that? Action cartoon should —
4) Appeal to adults and “trickle” the admiration down. Cartoons have a “trickle up” approach right now. Appeal to a specific demo – 6-11 boys mostly – and hopefully bring in girls, older boys, and ultimately, not irritate the adults who watch them with their children. Maybe we should work backwards. I’m not saying action cartoons should be super-serious. But maybe if action cartoons caught the attention of adults first and spread across word of mouth, then children (who want to be “grown-up” like their parents) would follow suit, watching it along with their parents instead of parents watching it along with their kids. That’s a bold call, but in some way, that’s exactly what Marvel is doing. I would argue that’s what Dreamworks managed to do with Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon as well (in some ways, this is exactly what WB did with their DCAU properties in 1990s-2000). Applying this approach to action cartoons today may save them. With so few studios willing to commit, though, this most likely may not happen anytime soon.