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THE BEST FIVE KIDS CARTOON EPISODES OF 2015

5. All Hail King Julian – “Crimson and Clover”

All Hail King Julian attempting to mine observational commentary on the relationship between science and religion was a colossal failure, but that didn’t make the entire show from falling apart. In fact, it had a better (if not perfect) handle on more grounded topics, like the ridiculousness of fashion trends, or the absurdity of capitalism at its most callous. It’s difficult to cull that commentary out of something so wildly wacky, though; but character work is another matter.

What makes “Crimson and Clover” such a surprise is how it managed to explore and deepen the silly, but solid, relationship between two wacked-out characters: the nonsensical King Julian and his loose-cannon bodyguard, Clover. Crimson, Clover’s sister, arrives and hits it off with Julian (leading to a not-at-all subtle, off-camera sexcapade), whom Clover suspects is using for nefarious purposes. In a clever use of a narrative twist, Crimson and Julian’s relationship IS genuine (Julian’s unbounded energy matches Crimson’s constant need for entertainment), up until the the latter’s fear for commitment comes through. Sure, it ends with a cliche “men hate commitment!” climax, but the episode manages to delve into some real truths about its characters, from the broken bond between Crimson and Clover themselves, and the clear, friends-only (as in, non-loving) connection between Clover and Julian themselves. It’s the only episode with that level of emotion in the entire run so far, but it’s note-worthy.

4. The Mr. Peabody and Sherman Show – “Peabody’s Parents/Galileo”

Bet you didn’t expect this! Well, honestly, neither did I. The Mr. Peabody and Sherman Show, Netflix’s “updated” take on the original segment from Jay Ward’s Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, hardly had much of a marketing push, and to be clear it’s not really that great show. But it is fascinating, primarily how it establishes itself: as a late-night talk show with an assortment of insane characters, variety show bits, and mid-show shenanigans. It’s inspired, for sure, if not always effective, but it works better than it has any right to, especially if you factor in how it both matches and improves on the original show’s animation style.

“Peabody’s Parents/Galileo” takes all that into consideration with rich episode of visual niftiness and narrative intuitiveness. The normally confident Mr. Peabody becomes flustered when his parents – two regular, non-talking dogs – come to visit, their generic barks interpreted as a series of forceful, embarrassing comments. The seemingly “flat” visuals, culled from Ward’s original designs, get some delightfully clever upgrades, like a 360-camera shot around Mr. Peabody as the audience laughs at him, and some John K.-esque expressions as the normally-composed canine professor goes crazy. It’s funny and inventive, with a bit of character-study to boot. The entire show doesn’t match that level of sharpness, but it’s definitely an episode that showcases it at its full potential.

3. Gravity Falls – “Not What He Seems”

It’ll be sad to see this show go, but Gravity Falls has been such a funny, inviting show that, in its own way, going out on its second season feels like the right choice. Part of me is disappointing – for as great as this show is, it never really managed to reach its full potential (a lot of side characters never got past “cliched comic figure” and about forty percent of the episodes, while fun to watch, are mostly irrelevant). Still, nothing will take away from Alex Hirsch’s signature, influential show.

“Not What He Seems” is probably the show at its best, in which a shifty Grunkle Stan finally comes “clean” after a season and a half of secrecy. The full explanation of his actions occur in “A Tale of Two Stans,” but “Not What He Seems” has the smart-mouth senior citizen kicking ass and taking names (particularly in a fantastic animation fight sequence in a gravity-shifting interrogation room) as he desperately tries to convince his wards – Mabel in particular – that his behavior is all for a truly important reason. Stan’s sketchy antics all season are put to the test against genuine, familial trust, and viewers are the winners.

2. Steven Universe – “The Test”

I know this is going to turn some heads but hear me out. Steven Universe has been a revelation, not just in its massive, universe-expanding world-building, but in its exploration of gender/sexual identity and relationships. Choosing a “best” episode of Steven Universe is like choosing a “best” slice of pizza from a whole – it depends on the a host of personal reasons and really, it ultimately doesn’t matter. Still, I tend to be less interested in the overall storyline and more interested in the small, individual explorations of coping with new, unidentified feelings (Peridot’s story has been a highlight.)

So, yes, “Jail Break,” “Sworn to the Sword,” and “Cry For Help” are excellent, but “The Test” felt truly transitional, the moment the show acknowledged a lot of rich, bubbling tensions to the surface. Steven is sent on a mission by his Gem guardians only to realize it was a can’t-fail farce. Upset, he manages to sneak a view of the Gems discussing their actions, which dovetails into a honest, complex admission of their utter cluelessness on how to handle someone like Steven. These Gems are complete novices to raising a half-Gem, half-human kid, let alone the full concept of love itself, with Amethyst admitting in full honesty how terrible they are. Parenting is hard, a complicated act made all the more confusing with aliens involved – which Steven realizes when he plays into their farce in order to lift their spirits. It’s just a perfect moment, which, in its own way, leads to more trust, more missions, and more epicness.

1. The Amazing World of Gumball – “The Egg”

I’ve been singing my praises of The Amazing World of Gumball for ages now, as its pure, audacious animation, it’s pin-point humor, and its surprising forays into genuine emotional/social commentary are quite frankly some of the best narrative/visual choices on TV today. It takes its cues from The Simpsons and South Park, but channels them through its own unique, insane visions, unafraid to be cartoon-y and wacky, while thoroughly exploratory on its central family, lower-class living, the absurdity of suburbia, the inane school politics, the artifice of TV cliches, and so-on. It can do anything, which tends to clutter other shows, but Gumball has been, for the most part, on point.

“The Egg” is essentially everything I mentioned above distilled into one 11-minute episode of hilarity and pathos. Gumball can be as sad, depressive, and as dark as any other “Golden Age of TV” show can be, but not only does it keep one sure foot in the realm of positivity, it actively pushes back against those depressive forces. Nicole’s desperate acts to showcase her family as perfect to the eyes of a snooty mother named Felicity is immediately crushed by said mother’s pure, direct, vitriolic read of Nicole’s darkly sad life. The thing is, Felicity isn’t wrong, but instead of wallowing in the sad truth of questionable life choices, Nicole turns into a dragon and eats her. It’s pure cartoon aesthetics but representative of the family’s (and the show’s) refusal to reflect in regret, especially on the backs of one’s family. In other words, “Fuck that sad sack noise.” Add to it some genuinely great jokes and a sweet, if kind-of screwed up, connection between Anais and William, and you have a great episode that manages to say so much in so little a timeframe.

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THE WORST FIVE KIDS CARTOON EPISODES OF 2015

5. All Hail King Julian – “He Blinded Me with Science”

All Hail King Julian is a cluttered, messy show, but its commitment to its ridiculous cast and concept keeps it chugging along, even if not many of the jokes work. It struggles with any character beyond its main four (Julian, Mort, Maurice, and newcomer Clover), however, and it can be tough to support the show when an episode is working with a bad idea that it can’t completely wrap its narrative around. It’s also a show that seems to struggle with filling a full 23-minutes, with awkward pacing and clear narrative stumbling blocks.

Take for instance, “He Blinded Me with Science,” an episode that tries so hard to engage with the interplay between science and religious. Far be it from this show to attempt such a risky topic, but All Hail King Julian handles it so sloppily, especially considering how silly the show handles topics in the first place. Masikura, the religious-figure stand-in, is just not-compelling, and it’s clear from the onset the writers hardly take her proclamations with any type of seriousness – the kind of seriousness that would be needed to make this thing work. Timo isn’t a great character either but the show is a lot more sympathetic to him, and its ultimate thesis – that religion and science can indeed work together – barely holds up at the end, when it’s Timo’s scientific know-how that really saves the day, way more than Masikura’s prophetic visions. It’s the type of issue that needed some sense of nuance, and there’s no way King Julian would be equipped to handle it.

4. Dreamworks’ Dragons: Race to the Edge – “Reign of Fireworms”

Nothing is more disappointing, overall, that the TV show spinoff of the How to Train Your Dragon franchise. Cartoon Network was always sketchy, but even they had to know that Riders of Berk and Defenders of Berk were not good shows, what with barely advertising or airing them. Netflix picked up the slack with Race to the Edge, but it’s bizarre they also didn’t get the other two seasons for viewers to catch up. (Maybe they know it’s not a good show as well, as I expound upon all the problems here.)

Really, most if not all the episodes are fairly terrible and/or boring, but “Reign of Fireworms” is arguably the worst. The twins, Tuffnut and Ruffnut, are comic relief idiots as best, and at no point during all three seasons are they provided with much depth or nuance. (Which is fine if they were funny, but they’re not.) But to give them fake “real” power when they find themselves the rightful ruler of the island the riders find as their home base? It’s an exercise in patience, watching these two morons become assholes as they boss the others around and ruin everything until – surprise, surprise, they realize that they need help and shouldn’t be dicks. There’s nothing too this lesson or the episode: the twins don’t really grow from the experience, we don’t learn anything more about them, and the episode isn’t narratively or visually interesting. It’s just not good, which is representative of every issue this series has.

3. My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic – “Party Pooped”

My Little Pony has always, always struggled with how it handles groups outside its Mane6, and this season didn’t really do much to show it has gotten any better at it. There were some highlights in MLP’s fifth season (I think “The Cutie Map” two-parter is stronger than most people feel it is, especially when connected to “The Cutie Re-Mark” two-parter finale, and “Crusaders of the Lost Mark” is genuinely great), but some episode were just weirdly… random. Since when was Rarity such a bookish nerd?

“Party Pooped” is pretty much garbage, though. In an attempt to connect diplomatically to a new society of Yaks, the show pretty much portrays them as destructive, spoiled monsters. It’s gross to watch the ponies not only tolerate this behavior, but actively try to find a way to appease the Yaks’ nonsensical requests. Pinkie-Pie, who strangely received a heaping helping of development this season, bore the brunt of this task, and the episode opted to focus on her commitment to making people satisfied at the expense of their own health and well-being. The true lesson of the episode should have been to tell those Yaks to piss right off, but it’s yet another example of MLP’s weird self-satisfaction of being morally and knowledgeably right (and therefore superior) over everyone else.

2. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – “Turtles in Time”

Has any television show had a bigger drop in quality than Nickelodeon’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? It’s first season wasn’t great but it showed promise, but it squandered that promise with some of the laziest and dumbest episodes in a while. “Pizza Face” was a previous low point, and managed to make last year’s worst of list, but at no point did the show get better. The “April’s Farmhouse” episodes are some of the worse examples of television in a while. “The Croaking” is an awful parody of Napoleon Dynamite for some reason, and “Race of the Demon” is crappy knock-off of Christine. Arguably that latter episode would have definitely made the worst-off list this year if it wasn’t for the fact it aired in 2014 (“Pizza Face” was worse though). With its ambivalent use of “My ninja” jokes, it’s practically unwatchable. (Seriously, how did those “my ninja” jokes not get called out?)

2015 episodes were not better, and while “Meet Mondo Gecko” made a hell of a case with a terribly annoying portrayal of a teenage skateboarder weirdly cool with his horrifying transformation to a 90s-era, video game gecko mascot, “Turtles in Time” wins by ruining an intriguing premise (and, by proxy, the name of one TMNT’s best games). The 2003 version of TMNT handled Renet’s time-twisting screw-ups with an epic scope and an endearing wink; while Renet herself was annoying, it worked because she redeemed herself, especially against a truly terrifying, motivated Savanti Romero. “Turtles in Time’s” take on the story callously tosses Renet into the Turtles’ time on a whim, makes her annoying without a sense of redemption, completely makes Romero a stilted, unmotivated, weirdly-bored bad guy, and overall just tells a crappy story. (There’s a part where the Turtles ride horses into a skeleton army battle and the horses run off, scared. Then… the horse just come back.) It doesn’t lead to anything in the long term and it doesn’t really make for a good episode in and of itself. It has a potential romance between Mikey and Renet, which is shit because literally every female character is reduced to this dynamic (Donny and April, Leo and Karai, and apparently, Ralph and Mona). Instead of opening up knew avenues of storytelling, it does nothing with it, which probably why this fourth season is delving into an epic space venture. At least that’s something.

1. The Adventures of Puss and Boots – “Duchess”

I wrote here about how inessential The Adventures of Puss and Boots is. It’s kind of a strange show that didn’t even bother to cull much from its source (itself a spin-off of the mediocre Shrek franchise),  opting to focus its premise on a mysterious town that’s pretty much filled with jerks and idiots. Still, it could work if those jerks and idiots were compelling or interesting. They are not. Its biggest issue, though, is that it clearly struggled with filling a full 23 minute time frame, spending way too much time with clunky joke-telling, bad characterization, poor art direction, and, quite frankly, just bad writing.

“Duchess” exemplifies everything wrong with this show. First of all, The Duchess is voiced by Maria Bamford, a huge waste of a comedic actress and voice talent. Secondly, the episode spends an exorbitant amount of time explaining her plan in perhaps the worst, most exposition-filled scene in television history. Seriously. It’s long, it’s repetitive, and it’s bad. It’s almost shocking that they let it go. It’s not like the episode gets better from there, as the episode then pairs her up with Artephius, who is just too stupid a character to work. The two have a conflict but it’s pretty irrelevant and, once again, lasts way too long. Not a single character is compelling in anyway, and it’s not until the second half of the season do things get interesting, if not necessarily better. The season finale literally blew things up for the future, but “Duchess” was a hot mess from the past.

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Why Creators Struggle with Modern Takes on Classic Characters

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Back in the early 2000s, game designer Warren Spector announced he was working on Epic Mickey, a new game from his brand new video game company, Junction Point Studios. Spector’s early remarks about this new venture included a lot of commentary about returning Mickey to his more mischievous roots, a comment that, not surprisingly, got taken out of hand by the most of the public. The term “mischievous” was, for some reason, interpreted as “dark and adult,” and it didn’t help that a lot of the early press about Mickey “controlling life and death” seemed to imply that Mickey was to be some Grim Reaper arbiter of mortality. Spector never quite denied the thrust of this out-of-control hype; an early idea included Mickey sporting an “angry” look when you made “bad” choices. Oh, that’s right – Epic Mickey included a morality system, a game design that, outside Mass Effect, Dragon Age, or Fallout, shouldn’t exist in any game ever.

And certainly Epic Mickey. While the first game did okay financially (while not being as dark or adult as the hype made it out to be), the second game did so poorly that Disney cancelled all future iterations of the game and closed down Spector’s studio. Part of that, of course, is due to the gameplay and camera issues being problematic and unfixed, but beyond that, there’s something blatantly disingenuous about that hype – the idea of Mickey Mouse, of all people, being some kind of tortured, complex anti-hero. What’s worse is the fact that so many people believe that this was part of Mickey’s identity before Disney “sanitized it,” an idea that completely misinterprets both Mickey Mouse and the company that birthed him; clearly, no one actually bothered to re-watch the old Mickey shorts. How the idea of mischievousness became some kind of hardcore miscreant is a perfect example of writers and creators struggling with bringing classic characters to modern audiences – your Supermans, your Bugs Bunnies, and, currently, your Muppets. It’s not the personalities, and the so-called dated ideals those personalities represent (an idea that’s overly-cited as to why these characters struggle to capture today’s audiences). The problem is one hundred percent in the execution, in the writers’ and creators’ unambitious, restrained settings and premises that prevent these characters from thriving.

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The strangest thing I’ve read in the last year was when Erik Kuska, a producer on Cartoon Network’s new Bugs Bunny cartoon, Wabbit, wanted to avoid cliches like the anvil gag, preferring to utilize “modern heavy objects to cause pain.” I’m not even sure where to begin to respond to this. Should I start with the fact that anvils were dated even back in the 40s/50s, when they were first used as animated comic props? Should I emphasize their datedness even back then was part of the entire joke? Should I point out “modern objects” were always used to cause pain regardless? (Safes, cars, tanks, TVs, computers, and ships all have been used to flatten/hurt cartoon characters.) Or, perhaps most confusingly, should I mention that Wabbit doesn’t exactly use that many “modern heavy objects” in the first place?

Bugs Bunny has been going through a struggle himself. For all the problems in Space Jam – and there are a lot – that probably was the most accurate take on a modern Bugs in years. Bugs is passable in Back in Action but is drown out by the rest of the animated figures and an overly-frantic human cast. He spends too much time trying to figure out other people in The Looney Tunes Show, a cartoon that loved circuitous dialogue for some reason, the kind of dialogue where people would talk at each other and poke holes in the very exchange that was happening (whenever it broke from that, it was occasionally watchable). And in Wabbit, Bugs spends a bit too much time being confused, even, strangely enough, when he’s confidently in control of the situation.

The thing is, personality ticks aside, these modern takes on Bugs aren’t inherently a problem. Bugs’ original incarnation was a wacky loon, an instigator of chaos before being toned town into a more snarky, self-aware jerk whose power is defined by unleashing his comedic wrath at anyone who slights him. His more recognizable personality is a take on the Marx Brothers (with a smidgen of Clark Gable), so it makes sense to evolve it in a new perspective, particularly for an audience that isn’t familiar with 1950s Hollywood. (Yet, personally, I do question Bugs’ laid back, semi-pushover personality in The Looney Tunes Show, if only because he’s defined not by a specific personality but a complete lack of one.) But the bigger issue isn’t him; it’s the kind of stories he (and the rest of the cast) are involved in, which were no more then slightly elevated sitcom cliches. Pets that acted differently in front of various people. Annoying neighbors. Trouble with women and dating. The DMV being shitty. Only when the episode allowed its inherent cartoonness to do its thing did the show finally exhibit some life, something to stand out beyond its sitcoms cliches (which is odd, since The Simpsons, Family Guy, and American Dad managed to do what The Looney Tunes Show never bothered to embrace, and they came before that show).

That’s what makes it all the more baffling. The Looney Tunes characters were not only defined by their own personalities, but by their personalities as inserted within an insane, absurd, wacky plot, which The Looney Tunes Show lacked. Wabbit, god bless its soul, attempted to be more ambitious, but still seem to struggle with making its scenarios truly loony. It’s at this point I could get into a whole thing about basic animation principles, including exaggerations, anticipations, and squash-and-stretch techniques, but the gist of it is that Wabbit fails to really employ any of those techniques to full effect (a result of an overall industry adverseness to those kinda of visual tricks). But those tricks are paramount to what makes the Looney Tunes characters and scenarios work, and denying them will only lead to a bland, unambitious show – a show where its characters, no matter how you adjust them, can’t actually do anything to make them stand out.

It’s a lesson that ABC is learning with the sudden drop in ratings with their recent take on The Muppets, a drop so significant that one of the showrunners left the show in anticipation of a new-new reboot. There’s a lot of issues with the show, and there’s plenty of pieces out there attempting to point to the core problem: was Kermit/Piggy too mean? were the other characters wildly underused? was it too sitcom-y? did it need to be more variety-based, even though variety shows are no longer viable forms of entertainment? Part of that, again, has to do with how we (mis)interpret the original show. There’s a lot of arguments out there, for example, that Kermit was always mean, but there’s very distinct difference between “variety show” mean and “sitcom” mean. (There’s a very lengthy argument to be made about how “meanness” on TV has become this weird, confusing sticking point among audiences, but I digress).

But, again, personality changes to the Muppets isn’t the core problem. Pepe, Gonzo, and Rizzo had some minor tweaks, and they came out quite good. In fact, I’d argue that by the final three episodes, the show itself made just enough adjustments to right the ship: the weirdly controlling Kermit became a softer, more endearing frog, and the show overall had hit the right notes between its sitcom trappings and its more loony aesthetics, with more absurd situations and antics in the mix. Still, I feel as if it’s still a bit too sitcom-y, as forced through ABC’s primetime slot. Here, I would suggest they might take a cue from Mongrels, and open up the characters and their experiences outside of the central locale of the Miss Piggy show. Something that could allow the puppetry and the rich cast comprised of that puppetry to shine. The variety show may be dead, but the musical show is making a comeback, and it might help the show to push more puppet routines into the sitcom narratives, to really let the Muppets thrive. It’s not just the Muppet characters that people liked, it was the whole, whiz-bang showmanship of Jim Henson’s creations in action.

We can end this here by comparing the Epic Mickey failure to the success of the new batch of Mickey shorts. In fact, it might be good to look at the three rounds of these shows – the originals, the shorts culled from Mickey Mouse Works/House of Mouse, and the current batch that’s winning Youtube. (We could also examine the various ways in which Disney remixed, re-issued, and re-purposed its shorts for various generations). Each iteration worked very well, not only by placing Mickey (and the gang) into situations that connected to the current audience, but also by never losing sight of the gang as who they truly are (also, adjusting the look and designs to match current visual standards helped). It’s all of that, really: Mickey has always been loose and broad enough to fit within any template, but the truth is, so have the Muppets and the Looney Tunes characters. It’s just that certain templates have restraints that don’t always work in the characters’ best interests, like sitcoms or morality-based games. If current creators look past those restraints, they’d be able to combine what made these characters shine in the past, re-contextualize them in new situations for the present, and allow them to succeed in the future. I assure you that anvils are not the problem.

 

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