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BEST KID CARTOON EPISODES – 2014

I wasn’t planning on doing a best/worst end of year list, which is partly why the episodes here are all relatively recent. I still feel strongly for them though, and I’ll definitely have a more “year summary” type of list for next year. For now though, you should seek out these episodes post-haste.

5. Phineas and Ferb - “Night of the Living Pharmacists”

No one really talks about Phineas and Ferb, which is strange, but at the same time, it allows the show to really have fun and mess around with genres without having the marketing pressure that Nick pushes with Spongebob or Cartoon Network pushes with Adventure Time. Phineas and Ferb is somehow both immensely popular and under the radar, which seems impossible, but that’s how Disney works its TV properties (Fish Hooks has been on the air for years now with nary a peep).

Honestly, it was a tough call between this episode and the Star Wars special. Both are wildly entertaining and immensely funny, but I’d give “Night of the Living Pharmacists” the edge. Despite the goofy set up, where Doofenschmirtz’s Repulse-inator actually transforms its victims to look just like him, the episode leans hard into the horror premise, becoming a genuinely tense experience (as opposed to the Star Wars episode, which was more of a parody/homage to the franchise). The pacing and atmosphere of the hour-long special is air-tight, balancing the show’s usual comic sensibilities with a fairly scary zombie-like scenario. Coupled with the sweet, endearing admission of Isabella’s affections for Phineas, the whole episode really clicks. Unfortunately, the episode ends with a superficial “reset button” development, but even that’s undercut with the show’s rare but pointed moments of surrealism.

4. Gravity Falls – “Into the Bunker”

The already excellent Gravity Falls continues into its second season strongly, pushing forward with its overall mythology while working on its tightly-woven characterizations. While there are some minor issues (mainly that it seems adverse to addressing Mabel’s crush-driven motivations), Alex Hirsch’s show continues to be a high-mark for the Disney Channel.

“Into the Bunker” is the series best episode. Similar to “Night of the Living Pharmacists,” “Into the Bunker” is a genuinely creepy, tense episode while also dealing with Dipper’s crush with Wendy in a mature, direct way. Dipper’s heavy-handed attempts to woo Wendy was always a weak element to the show; the fact that the writers finally dealt with it means we can truly move on. It also helps that Wendy gets a lot of solid characterization and some great ass-kicking moments, and the shape-shifters’ animation is fantastically unsettling. I’m less concerned about the show’s overall plotting than most, but even I’m fascinated in learning what comes next.

3. Steven Universe – “Space Race”

Steven Universe is one of the most charming and endearing shows on TV right now. The unique relationship Steven possesses with his Gem guardians is both wonderful and questionable, allowing the show to play around with the ambiguity of literal out-of-this-world beings and their attempts to connect with the most delightful members of humanity. The contrast between these alien beings and mortal citizens of Beach City keeps things weird but engaging, the show careful to dole out bits of information along with bits of warmth and growth.

Nothing epitomizes that goal quite like “Space Race.” Following the revealing two-part episodes “Mirror Gem” and “Ocean Gem,” and the thematic fallout of “House Guest,” “Space Race” pits the natural paternal instincts of Pearl and Greg (Steven’s biological father) against each other. Or, more accurately, those instincts are set up in contrast to each other — Greg’s uses Steven’s interest in space to fake-build a spaceship mostly to bond, while Pearl does the same thing, but gets caught up in the moment to build a real one. Both “parents” truly want to connect with Steven, but Pearl’s passion to bond Steven to his Gem side goes overboard as she almost rockets herself and Steven into space within a ship that’s not even close to being ready. There’s love, and then there’s understanding, and both Greg and Pearl struggle with that concept when it comes to how best to approach Steven’s upbringing, but it’s that struggle that makes it the show’s most ridiculous events truly heartfelt.

2. The Amazing World of Gumball – “The Man”

There was no way to predict the amount of growth and substance that has been added to The Amazing World of Gumball. What began as a visually-interesting but character-lacking show with mostly lazy gags has transformed into a fantastic blend of animation/graphic-rich aesthetics, crack comic timing, and powerful, distinct insights into surprisingly real characters with real stakes. It’s by far the most impressive cartoon on the air right now, due to how dedicated the writers’ and animators’ commitment to the show’s world are.

Showrunner Ben Bocquelet expressed his passion for “The Shell,” which is indeed a game-changing episode, in reference to the relationship between Gumball and Penny, but “The Man” is truly where the show is firing on all cylinders. Thematically following up on the events on “The Authority” (which revealed that Richard’s mother, Granny Jojo, overprotected him all his childhood, thus explaining his current “mental deficiencies”), “The Man” has Jojo finding a new boyfriend, which gets Richard really upset, since, mentally, he’s still waiting for his father to return from the store — 42 years later. Gumball treads some fairly heavy material with a deftness rarely seen on TV. Unlike, say, Bojack Horseman, Gumball doesn’t lapse into CTRL-ALT-DELETE seriousness by keeping the comedy coming and the characterizations strong; watching the Wattersons work with Richard to come to terms with that truth is a treat, utilizing strong, if wacky, family values.

1. Wander Over Yonder – “The Gift 2: The Giftening”

Wander Over Yonder is a creative smorgasbord, filled with massively unique planetary locales and a host of strange, versatile alien lifeforms. Wander and his partner, Sylvia, travel the cosmos and encounter a variety of beings — but all of that is really an excuse to come fast and furious with great jokes and even greater animated bits. While some of the various characterizations can be a big off-putting — the relationship Sylvia and Wander is strong but can sometimes be a bit unpleasant — at its best, the show is a fascinating visceral treat with some surprisingly pointed, clever commentary.

So how did “The Gift 2: The Giftening” win best episode of the year? By being structurally perfect. The art of the wacky cartoon is all but dead, with arguably, only Spongebob and Breadwinners really thriving in that field; the former is way past its prime, while the latter is merely an ugly, meme-centric knock-off of the former. This episode, by contrast, is a wonderful homage to the fast, loony shorts by Tex Avery, filled with wildly exaggerated expressions and break-neck insanity as Lord Hater zooms around the universe to escape Wander’s terrifying “gift.” It’s just hilarious, and chances are you won’t see anything like it unless you pull up a Droopy Dog short. As a bonus, the episode emphasizes the power of positive reinforcement, just at the expense of the show’s best character. There’s a real lesson behind the comedy, but the comedy itself is just that strong. (With a little tweaking, the episode, posited as a Halloween special, is inverted as a Christmas special in the following “The Gift,” which is the show being immensely clever and well thought-out.)

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THE WORST KIDS CARTOON EPISODES OF 2014

I wasn’t planning on doing a best/worst end of year list, which is partly why the episodes here are all relatively recent. I still feel strongly for them though, and I’ll definitely have a more “year summary” type of list for next year. For now though, you should completely avoid these episodes.

5. Turbo FAST – “Curse of the Cicadas”

Turbo FAST is one of the most underrated cartoons currently airing today. Breaking from its bland, dour, generic film source, Netflix’s animated series is fast, funny, and frenetic. It actually gives the various characters personalities and histories, and it’s a lot more loonier, goofy, and self-aware than you might expect. Even then, the slick animation and on-point sound design make it one of the most entertaining animated shows around, and the final six episodes are some of the funniest, energetic, and liveliest bits of pure “cartooning” I’ve seen in a while.

So it’s tough to admit that “Curse of the Cicadas” is a wild misstep for the show. The Turbo FAST crew discover a time capsule filled with wonders from the 90s – which is basically an excuse to make fun of the 90s. I’m fine with that. Things get uncomfortable when the sleeping cicadas within the capsule wake up and threaten to take over Turbo FAST’s makeshift snail city. Of all the various 90s-pop culture elements to ridicule, they chose mainly Steve Urkle from Family Matters, cliched “urban” hip-hop slang, and a Macarana knock-off (they tackled grunge but only in short, brief visuals). It’s not racist, but it’s lazy, and by being lazy, it kind of comes off as racist. The final sequence is actually a great animated montage, where by the snails use the Macarana knock-off dance to lure the cicadas back into the capsule, but the episode ends leaving a bad taste in the mouth. The show isn’t afraid to go overboard, so why they stuck with three basic gags is beyond me.

4. Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures – “A Hard Dazed Knight”

Not to praise this show too much, Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventure has a premise that’s a hell of a lot more interesting than its execution. Granted, it’s really a knock-off of Harry Potter, but just the mere fact that a show built for seven year-olds possesses so many layers is fairly impressive. Pac-Man’s parents go missing; the yellow orbs are the only ones who can eat ghosts; the secrets behind the Tree of Life and the Repository; the intricate backstory and relationships between various characters; the introduction of “Pointy Heads” that threw in a new wrinkle to Pac’s missing parents — all of that plus other elements give the show a level of prestige that only a few writers can manage.

That’s the thing though: some writers can manage the surprising complexity while maintaining the mandated simplistic comedy, mostly around fart jokes and stupidity. “A Hard Dazed Knight” fails to even utilize the basic elements of the premise, with a contest between Sir Cumfurence and Dr. Buttocks (why would they have contest? They’re mortal enemies!), and it takes way too long to get to the real plot (ghost armor that Pac-Man can’t chew through). The worst though, is the forced King Arthur homage, where Lord Betrayus leads his armor-laden ghosts into battle and talk in terrible old-English dialects. Unnecessary, forced, and lame, “A Hard Dazed Knight” meanders in its randomness until it ends, with not even a modicum of the kind of fun needed for such a childish show.

3. Breadwinners – “A Thug Loaf”

Stop me if you heard this before: two silly, semi-irresponsible characters known to cause chaos; a female character known for her insane inventions; an owner of a diner monstrously known for his extreme love for money; a hoity-toity neighbor who bears the brunt of the main characters antics and abuse; a female authority figure who hates the main characters while trying to “teach” them; a large, scary being who commands a ship and often threatens the world. Yes: shift some details around, and Breadwinners is just a lazy knock-off of Spongebob Squarepants (and yes, I know I’ve been using knock-off a lot), compounded with that ugly, notebook-doodle design combined with mediocre 8/16-bit video game design, with none of the art direction to make it function.

“A Thug Loaf” not only is a lazy episode of a lame show, but it has the uncomfortable addition of portraying “the bad side of town” as an area of little-to-no value. Believe me, I don’t expect any type of social commentary whatsoever from such an inane program, but kids are watching this, and with all the current news stories that are misinterpreting “bad” neighborhoods as blights on society, it’s doubly important to at least have our animation writers explore such areas with at least SOME kind of nuance, even within a pure, comedic context. When Spongebob fell into the “bad neighborhood” in “Rock Bottom,” he may have found it creepy, but it was just due to his unfamiliarity with it, and in the end, it was an unfamiliar creature who helped him go home. “A Thug Loaf” makes no distinction, making a dumb show even more socially problematic.

2. My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic – “Simple Ways”

My Little Pony has its fans and its detractors, of which I am both. For all of the good will it exudes with its six main characters — Applejack, Rarity, Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie, and Twilight Sparkle are all fully fleshed out female ponies with distinct personalities and goals — the show overall seems to struggle with using those characters to explore and flesh out the other ponies within the world around them in a particular meaningful way. This recent season, at the very least, started out as an apology to last season’s rushed and character-broken storylines, and while it had a few flaws, they were minor, and the core characterizations were in tact.

Then “Simple Ways” arrived. Exuding My Little Pony’s worse qualities, the episode shoves Rarity — who was always comfortable pursuing her fashion trends on her own — with an out-of-character secret crush on some hillbilly pony. This leads to some extremely lazy and almost-offensive characterizations of rural folk AND urbanites, pitting Rarity and Applejack against each other as they spout off one stereotype after another. Reducing Rarity to a nonsensical stalker who’s secretly turned on by “Southern” chic is completely out of left field, but to then reduce all the characters involved to their simplest tropes without even commenting on how wrong it is to focus on their class and status make this episode an even crappier version of the already crappy “Over a Barrel.” My Little Pony seems troubled when it does anything beyond its main six (see also: “Leap of Faith,” where everyone in town just listens to Applejack), and “Simple Ways” is the epitome of that.

1. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – “Pizza Face”

Nickelodeon’s CGI revamp of this classic comic series wasn’t amazing — particularly if you compared it to the 2002 2D animated version that ended only a few years earlier — but it was a solid first season, with a strong familial connection between the four reptilian brothers and their master rat. One of the coolest things to watch was the teenage ninjas gradually improve their fighting skills and their teamwork on an episode-by-episode basis, while also recognizing when they were out of their league. The show also purposely avoided the laziest of characterizations that often plagued these characters: Raph’s angry outbursts, Leo’s wishy-washy leadership concerns, Donny’s abject geekiness, Mikey’s unabashed stupidity — they were at least given some sibling-related context to make those one-note emotions work.

The second season destroyed all that almost immediately. The fighting is random and erratic, the plotting and logic is all over the place (I wrote about one particularly awful episode here), and the character decisions are both lazy AND irrational. Not one but TWO episodes were dedicated to Raph’s annoying anger issues, Casey Jones is completely unlikeable, Donny’s crush on April is wildly uncomfortable, and April possesses psychic powers and completely unreliable fighting abilities (although to be fair, the 2002 version of the show did the same thing with her). Yet even all those flaws don’t even come close to the absolute terribleness of “Pizza Face,” a complete failure and rejection of even the basic rules of writing. Stories where no one believes the protagonists claims are bad enough, but coupled with the bad comedy, the strained wackiness, the jarring tonal comedy/horror shifts, and by far the stupidest origin of the mutant pizzas conceivable (a chef finds a broken vial of mutagen and deliberately puts it on the pizza because he wanted to find a new topping [yes this is the explanation]), “Pizza Face” is abysmal on all counts. It’s also emblematic of everything wrong with the current season, which is now nothing but 80 horror movie references. To think this show once held promise.

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CHILDHOOD REVISITED – The Pirates of Dark Water

Pirates of Dark Water made one last attempt at a fantasy-themed cartoon as the appeal of the genre died out – and went out in in spectacular fashion.

Part of the reason I’ve been watching shows like Men in Black: The Series, Project GeeKeR, and Road Rovers is because I’m curious about the rise and fall of the (serious) action cartoon. The Legend Of Korra’s move to online pretty much signaled the end of it, and only Disney seems to have any type of commitment to the genre – safely channeled through their acquired Star Wars and Marvel properties, of course. Between the early 90s to the middle of the 00s, though, creative and original action ‘toons dotted the landscape, and it’s been a treat (of varying degree) to watch them and ponder their influences and status on animated programming. The DCAU has been written about extensively, which is also why I’ve been searching for the one-offs, the shows that came and went with little fanfare.

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Pirates of Dark Water was one such show. Released in 1991 on both Fox and ABC (it looks as if there was some inter-network tweaking), creator and showrunner David Kirschner presented show about three disparaging personalities on a global quest to stop the mysterious “dark water” from engulfing the planet. This world, called Mer, was meticulously designed and detailed, heavy on its self-created mythology and world-building, evoking an almost-Tolkien level of fascination. The 80s were filled with fantasy-based content, which was incredibly popular with young audiences – movies like Labyrinth, The Secret of NIMH, and The Never-Ending Story, and shows like The Adventure of Gummi Bears – and Kirschner sought to bring that genre’s best and most creative elements to the show.

Unfortunately, the budding new genre of the 90s were superheros and futuristic cyberpunk, which the DCAU thrived at. Fantasy died out, which left Pirates of Dark Water fending for itself. Even so, Kirschner, with his team of writers and animators, created an amazing program, with the kind of tight, inter-connected plotting that would make Joss Whedon jealous. Mer and the characters within it are well-developed and wildly appealing, with the appropriate amount of backstory to give them all a strong sense of motivation.

Pirates of Dark Water tells the story of Ren, a young boy who discovers he’s a prince after his father crashes on his home island of Octopon. A pretty crazy set of events leads Ren to discover questionable allies in Ioz, Tula, and Niddler on a massive quest across the planet to find the Thirteen Treasures of Rule, while being chased by a massive pirate ship called the Maelstrom, headed by the one-eyed scourge named Bloth. It would be easy for the show to simply throw the cast into conflict with Bloth in various episodes, but Pirates of Dark Water sets up, little by little, a fully fleshed out world of creatures, species, civilizations, characters, and locations that gives the show a flavor not often seen in even live-action shows.

All of this is cleverly laid out in the first five episodes. Essentially a full-on TV movie, “The Quest” through “Victory” is a remarkable bit of storytelling. Unlike the four/five-parters of the Disney Afternoon series, which were more or less stand alone episodes with an overall plot connecting them, the Pirates of Dark Water TV movie pilot builds with important bits of information which informs characters actions and behaviors in previous and subsequent episodes. We learn about the Maelstrom and its own internal, chaotic “world” of prisoners and monsters (known as the Bilge). We also learn about various characters like Teron the ecomancer, Zoolie the playful but tough gamehouse manager, and Joat, the former owner of the Wraith (which is stolen by Ioz). The pilot is filled with great reveals and secrets that keep the action movie and the plot lively. Events like Ioz’s constant greed and Tula’s betrayal ensure that internal conflicts among the crew is as constant as the external ones.

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First and foremost, the plotting of the show is fantastic. It’s not deep, like Gargoyles, or even Project GeeKeR, so there’s little thematic relevance. Pirates of Dark Water’s primary concern is bringing its world and its characters to life, so we learn about things like Tula’s home and its destruction. We learn Ioz’s relationship with Teron. We learn about Niddler and his race of monkey-birds, a species treated as low-class citizens at best, and slaves at worse. One of my favorite details is how the show handle the titular “dark water.” It’s not even mentioned until the third episode, in a casual throw-away line from Ioz, and it’s in the middle of the first season where we learn about true nature of the dark water – which is controlled by a powerful creature called the Dark Dweller. Yes, even villains are given history. Bloth’s henchman, Konk, lost his leg to the dangerous creature of the Maelstrom, and apparently was the only pirate to survive an encounter with it. Later in the series we learn about Morpho, an alchemist who tried to study dark water but became a monstrous slave to it. There’s also Cray, a woman wracked with jealousy over a failed relationship with Ren’s father. This implies that Primus, the heroic king of Octopon, was not exactly on the up and up, as some relationships between him and others are shown to be toxic, which introduces a grey area to an already multifaceted show.

The characters give all that plotting the weight to carry it. Primus’ history isn’t the only thing that gives the show moral ambiguity. Ioz, for example, has a sense of loyalty but lacks commitment. He’s the literal embodiment of “honor among thieves,” as he’s willing to go after Tula after her betrayal (later clarified), and avenge her presumed death later in the series. Still, he still will risk his life and reputation chasing after errant gold, like in “The Ghost Pirates,” when he’s held captive by some female pirate spirits after boarding a ghost ship for its booty. (An aside: I love that the leader of the ghost pirates keeps Ioz only on basically fuck him for all eternity.) Tula, too, is no saint, despite being essentiallythe love interest. Her betrayal is a real shock, but well-established, as she’s revealed to be a warrior sent to save Teron from Bloth’s clutches. There’s Niddler, who is probably the most loyal to Ren, and has a real tragic backstory, what with his treatment as Bloth’s former henchman and his race being treated so poorly. The show, unfortunately, really struggles with balancing the tragic elements of the monkey-birds with Niddler’s comic behavior. It reeks of network interference, emphasizing Niddler as a goofball and a glutton to appeal to kids. (I think Kirschner didn’t mind a little bit of comic antics from Niddler, but the overbearing-ness of it seems to be pressured during the Fox/ABC switch. Niddler is perfect in the TV movie, but becomes an annoyance for the most part during the actual series).

The animation is a bit stilted, with stiff movements and clunky action, particularly during action sequences. But the art direction and strong music cues create a strong impression of intensity during those scenes. The backgrounds are the show’s real selling point. Places like Octopon and Andorus are extremely well detailed, given a sense of history just by how they look. (These two places also make great contrasting visuals, as they transform from ruinous to vivacious due to the actions of the main crew). Even the inside of the Maelstrom feels alive, beyond the crazy monsters and desperate prisoners that thrive beneath it. If anything, just the look of the show is fantastic, and worth watching just to witness the vibrant art and unique blend of classic pirate fantasy with a slight science-fiction jolt (the Constrictus is such a H.P. Lovecraft-based design that it’s impossible to deny).

The show does have some flaws, beyond the animation and Niddler. Some of female characters fall flat, particularly in the first season. Once Tula is revealed to be an ecomancer (more on this later), she becomes very passive, despite the reveal that she was a warrior from Andorus. The extremely interesting Avagon, who knows more about Ren then she lets on, is unfortunately killed off. And despite being a fairly decent episode, the depiction of Cray could’ve used some work. Luckily, these flaws seemed to have been noticed by the Pirates of Dark Water team, and most of them are fixed within the second season. Tula’s warrior backstory returns, making her both an effective fighter (again) and a decent mage, of sorts. More female characters are introduced – mostly villains, but effective ones. Niddler’s comic antics are also toned down somewhat, making him a lot more tolerable. This might be the first animated show to really “fix” the show with a second season, instead of doubling down on the more kiddie aspects.

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In some ways, Pirates of Dark Water is really a show about environmentalism, about the idea of caring for the planet, handled in a more creative and entertaining fashion, more so than something like Captain Planet. While a lot of shows wore the message of planetary protection on its sleeve, Pirates of Dark Water tied it directly to a legitimate adventure. The connections are clear: dark water is pollution, tied into the corruption of the “world,” and it’s up to the people, despite their differences and diversities, to come together in some way to fix it. The show strongly suggest that people like Ren – individuals – indeed have the power to save the world. There are those forces who seem uninterested (“The Game Players of Undaar” is a good example), and there are those actively encouraging it (Bloth, the Dark Disciples), but keeping the planet pure is an effort worth pursuing. Committing to that effort can restore the world’s natural beauty, like with Octopon and Andorus, and end the corruption of the planet and its people.

Unfortunately, neither FOX or ABC was committed to the show. After two solid seasons, the show was cancelled, with only seven treasures discovered and some major mysteries still left explored (the biggest disappointment? Definitely Bloth’s threat to Ren way back in “Victory,” suggesting that he isn’t human, but something else entirely). While it’s sad that the animation world moved on, paving the way for the excellent Batman: The Animated Series and the DC cartoons spawned from it, Pirates of Dark Water made a rousing, final effort to show that fantasy was still a viable genre. It took until the first Lord of the Rings movie to bring fantasy back into the public conscious, and with The Hobbit films currently going strong, perhaps one day more people will give this series a second chance.

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