Archive for category Uncategorized

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.

Share

, , ,

8 Comments

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.

Pirates_of_Dark_Water_logo

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.

The Pirates of Dark Water 01

Vezi mai multe video din animatie

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.

The Pirates of Dark Water 13

Vezi mai multe video din animatie

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.

Share

, , ,

No Comments

Raising Adults to Children: How Animated Adults Became Man-Children

Baloo, Bullwinkle, and Behdeuce.

Baloo, Bullwinkle, and Behdeuce.

I wanted to do a piece about kids networks and recent rash of man-children cartoons for a while now – by which I mean, cartoons staring mostly adult-ish characters who have simplistic pleasures and seem more prone to skirt responsibilities in order to engage in juvenile behavior or activities. In some ways, the “man-child” has always been part of the animated landscape – Bullwinkle J. Moose is a fairly classic man-child – but it was tempered with a sense that the character, at least at some level, had a clear direction, an idea that he was doing something right, a guiding voice (in this case, Rocky), and a sense of logic that drove his actions. Bullwinkle was goofy, sure, but he was a loveable goof, loyal and passionate and at least somewhat-down-to-earth. Jay Ward’s titular cartoon was also loose and free with its characters, easily plopped into simple plots that doubled as smart-ass satire against current events. Other cartoons, too, emphasized semi-silly characters who were at least dedicated to their jobs – Super Chicken, Roger Ramjet, Dudley Do-Right.

AO Scott wrote this pretty interesting piece about the fall of adulthood recently, and while it’s a little rambling, it made me think about current cartoons today, particularly on Nickelodeon, and their emphasis on man-children adult characters. After all, Nick’s call for animation pitches only allowed for ‘toons with kids or man-children adult protagonists (mainly due to their research stating that kids today just want comedy). There’s really nothing inherently bad about the man-child adult icon, but the recent batch of cartoons with such characters helming the show are dialed up to eleven. These are not characters who enjoy their childish pleasures while working their way through their (often newly-earned) responsibilities. These are characters who thrive in their juvenile behavior, behavior that is encouraged and often ends up saving the day despite the fact that such behavior would be dangerous and/or illegal. This can only go so far before the true nature of growing up becomes muddled.

To clarify, the rise of man-child entertainment arose from three specific events: 1) the social embrace of “nerd” culture – things like comic books and cartoons, media originally created for kids, 2) the recession, which leaves the younger generation aloof from job/domestic responsibilities due to the difficulty and ambiguity of acquiring them, and 3) what can be described as the “new sincerity,”  which in some ways arose from “ironic culture.” [The best way to describe this would be to think about someone who enjoys something objectively terrible because of its terribleness like The Room, or Saved by the Bell; if there’s a certain self-awareness about liking something terrible, it’s ironic, but if there’s a fondness for that terribleness, its sincere. The line between the two is obviously muddled, but a lot of that tends to cleared up by how much interest in paid into the creation of the entertainment in question – the actors, the crew, the producers, the networks/studios, and so on. Liking The Mighty Ducks might be ironic if you laugh at its awfulness, but it may be sincere if you immerse yourself in Mighty Ducks lore, discuss the writing of David Wise, talk with animators about their time on the show, etc.]

Part of the appeal of the man-child (and a lot of the aspects of Scott’s piece, particularly with his sections on Beyonce and Taylor Swift) is the emphasis of the individual’s stake in his enjoyment. Pushing against the social tract that tended to instill adulthood at one’s mid-20s, which included marriage, kids, a home, a job, a car, and “most importantly,” the dismissal of all forms of children-marketed entertainment, man-children (and their female counterparts) thrive and proudly embrace their love of such pleasures, like video games, comics, cartoons, and young adult books. These are people who absolutely believe they can take care of their responsibilities along with loving what they love, even if such responsibilities will have to occur months or years later. And let’s be clear: these people are one hundred percent right, but there is an asterisk, as that passion can be all-consuming. Criticisms against such behavior and/or the juvenile media tend to come off as a personal attack, which can explain things like more aggressive sides of gamergate, the MLP fandom, and lovers of Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games.

Life’s always been about the balance between one’s responsibilities, particularly the ones associated with adulthood, and pleasures, although back in the day, the pleasures were always of the “adult-ish” kind: fishing, vacationing, playing a sport, reading. There was a distinct line between the two, too – there was a time for work, and there was a time for play. Blurring the line was a strict no-no. Ducktales and TaleSpin, for example, were clear to make this distinction. Scrooge McDuck was absolutely serious about his pursuit for business and financial deals; his pleasure, ironic enough, came from literally dipping into the money he earned. Scrooge has always been an “adult” in that way, and any sense of his business acumen as a symbol of being uptight and suppressed was rare. In only a few instances was his “greed” portrayed as a real issue for the character, and that greed was always set in some “character-removed” manner. In the “Treasure of the Golden Suns” saga, the greed was only a problem when he became fully afflicted with gold fever. Additionally, it’s in this five-part pilot that he gains a real family, the “other” mark of adulthood, emphasized later in “Once Upon a Dime.” Everything about Ducktales was built around characters being and embracing adulthood, and the insanity culled from it.

With TaleSpin, Disney is directly tackling the man-child idea, delineating the idea that pleasures are okay but only up to a point. Going beyond that point is more trouble than its worth, or prone to cause trouble. Baloo is a safe man-child, a lazy, baffoonish bear who thrives solely in his skills as a pilot. His juvenile behavior often masks his crippling insecurity, pushing him to levels of petty ridiculousness, like his conflict with Ace London in “Mach One for the Gipper,” or Louie in “For a Fuel Dollars More,” or even Becky in “The Bigger They Are, the Louder They Oink.” Yet that push also drives him to be level-headed at times and even heroic, like when he called out Becky’s reckless business behavior in “A Touch of Glass” or when he went up against Don Karnage’s laser gun in the pilot. TaleSpin shows often that while there’s a certain value to Baloo’s goofball antics (like in “My Fair Baloo,” where, it should be noted, that the goofball antics are tied directly to hands-on, working class intuitiveness), that there is a limit. When things go too far, things go bad; it’s only when you act like an adult do things fall in line. (Becky learns this lesson in a most serious way in “Her Chance to Dream,” dismissing the pleasure of leaving the stress of life behind in order to stay and raise her daughter).

The Disney Afternoon was emphatic on adults cartoon characters needing to act like adults, comic or cartoony-slant be damned. Gummi Bears was marred in the need to care for Gummi Glen. Darkwing Duck’s more ridiculous pursuits were tampered by his need to take care of his daughter (and his struggles with his girlfriend). Rescue Rangers overall was about its characters coming to terms with various degrees of adulthood – Monterey Jack tackled his addiction, Gadget confronted her insecurities multiple times, Chip often dealt with his role as a leader. Dale might seem the exception, but the show, like TaleSpin, delineates Dale’s behavior. When he goes too far, things go bad (and likewise with Chip, when his practical jokes go too far in “One-Upsman-Chip”). The show makes it clear that Dale’s childishness is necessary in the sense that its unpredictability gives the team an edge, and when it comes down to it, Dale indeed will pull up his metaphorical pants and get to work. (In truth, it probably wasn’t until Donald in Quack Pack did the Disney Afternoon push against the role of adulthood. Goof Troop and Bonkers, despite their problems, emphasized its characters attempting to be responsible grown-ups.)

Adult characters in cartoons were simply adults, flawed and broken of course, but not so much as the crazy world around them. Rocko’s Modern Life was perhaps the clearest example of this, the show about a young adult just simply trying to run his life, notably away from his parents way back in Australia. It’s the world that’s insane, not the character, and the comedy was in watching Rocko try to do simple, mundane, adult things, like the laundry or going to the beach or getting to work on time. Hefer, Rocko’s friend, is definitive the show’s man-child, and at no point does the show suggest that Hefer’s behavior is warranted or ideal. The show’s clearest direction of adulthood, oddly enough, is created through Philbert, the one who literally has to go on a pilgrimage to become “a dolt” (note the play on words here), and he’s the one who ends up getting married. Rocko gets a lot of discussion over the various ways it got away with adult gags, but it’s ironic that a show known for its juvenile gags masks its emphasis on maturity and growth.

Somewhere along the lines, the cartoon philosophy changed, and we can’t quite place the blame on Nickelodeon. CN brought us Johnny Bravo, starring a character epitomizing the worst of the man-child, a walking Dane Cook-esque “bro-seph” who only loves himself and treats women terribly. The show, of course, makes it clear that Bravo’s behavior is absolutely abhorrent, that his sexist actions result in him put through physical pain. Yet Johnny has no job and no prospects, and he lives with his mother (more or less), emphasizing his separation from adulthood. We are meant to laugh at Johnny and in no way look up to him.

Then there’s Spongebob Squarepants. I mean, it’s easy to just call this show as the catalyst for the man-child adult run in animation today, but Spongebob is a curious case. At least prior to the movie, Spongebob relished in his pleasures, such as blowing bubbles, jellyfishing, and karate, all of which are representative of his immaturity (in addition to his complete inability to get a boating license). However, Spongebob owns his own home and he works at a job that he not only loves but he’s actively good at. Spongebob engages in the things he enjoys, but even he knows when things go too far, and he always keeps his job (and taking care of Gary) first.

I think Nickelodeon took the wrong information from show’s popularity. Instead of observing the various components that made the show function so well – in that a character who enjoys his pleasures also is relatively dependable, to a fault – they saw “man-child adult” and doubled down on it. This in some ways explain Spongebob’s current failings – the character is a lot more irresponsible, dangerous, and stupid, like marrying Krabby Patties, and it also explains Nick’s current off-putting shows, like TUFF Puppy and Breadwinners.

The titular lead in TUFF Puppy, in contrast to Johnny Bravo, is supposed to be admired, I think. We’re supposed to laugh at Dudley similarly to how we laugh at Johnny, but while Johnny’s behavior leads to bad, comical scenarios, Dudley’s behavior is, at worst, a comic distraction, and, at best, heroic. The similarities are uncanny – both live with their moms, both are moronic to a fault, both wear black shirts – but while Johnny falls flat on his face, Dudley is rewarded with a new job, friends who tolerate (and accept) him, and amazing ass-kicking abilities. (Note how Johnny’s martial arts are a joke, hyperbolic posturing, while Dudley’s nonsensical movesets can handle all sorts of criminals). In a way, Dudley is more akin to Rescue Rangers’ Dale, but Dale, as mentioned, is distinctly tempered. Dudley, meanwhile, is free to go overboard, and the show goes along with him, with its criminals and fellow agents free to go ridiculous as well, consequences be damned. I’d argue that there was a minor attempt in the first season to bring some sort of pathos to its man-children setup, with the show attempting to establish strong if goofy relationships between Dudley and characters like Kitty, the Chief, and his mother. That pretense was dropped quickly, turning all the characters (even Kitty) into unrepentant goofballs. TUFF isn’t so much a crime fighting agency as an unsupervised playground; the show isn’t so much about balancing work and pleasure as its about unrestrained comic inanity.

Breadwinners, likewise, portrays its workplace and its workers as instruments of chaos. To Buhdeuce and SwaySway, delivering bread isn’t just a job they enjoy but a massive game to them, an endeavor that allows them to be wildly goofy and destructive sans consequences. Breadwinners has a slightly better handle on its character relationships – the strong bond between the main characters; the easy-going connection with their mechanic, Ketta; the tense relationship with the antagonist cop Rambamboo – but again, it’s all a means to an end, excuses to have its characters engage in juvenile behavior within (ostensibly) a working environment. There’s no meaning to their role as breadwinners other than it’s vaguely important, and, like Dudley, their chaotic behavior often saves the day more so than it ruins it. Notably, both Breadwinners and TUFF Puppy can’t define their workplaces or relationships with any clear-cut boundaries, since that would break the protagonists’ hold on their childish behavior. In other words, these are characters who can essentially do whatever they want; forces that try to tamper that down just don’t get it, despite such dangerous behavior. No one even questions it.

It’s sort of why the 7D never feels like it’s getting off the ground. Like TUFF Puppy and Breadwinners, 7D seems primarily concerned with its workplaces and relationships as excuses for its characters to be comically nonsensical. There’s little hint that the dwarfs’ mining or the queen’s ruling is other than a means for hilarious stuff to happen. And, like Kitty and Rambamboo, 7D’s Starchbottom (note the name) is the show’s stick in the mud, since he’s the only one who takes his job with any sort of seriousness. Locales and relationships, again, are ill-defined, since that would interfere with the joke-telling. Grim and Hildy, the show’s antagonists, are married, but there’s no sense that the marriage is anything beyond the comic scolding of Hildy’s aggressiveness to Grim’s submissive stupidity. In 7D, TUFF Puppy, and Breadwinners, (wo)man-children rule, with nary a thought.

There are two holdouts to this questionable trend. My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, for its faults, is refreshing, since its six main characters have real, adult-ish roles and pursuits (even Pinkie-Pie, who pursues her childish passion for partying with an adult-level fervor). The world of Equestria is chaotic, but there are rules and limits, and the characters are forced to pay attention to those limits to thrive. Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness is wildly flawed too, but at its best, it strikes the right balance between Po’s love of childish things and the need to engage in responsibility. It does struggle with this at times, but it does showcase Po’s childishness within a “work” environment as problematic, not rewarding.

I’m ending this this piece by mentioning Wander Over Yonder, which is quite analogous to Rocky & Bullwinkle – a childish “adult” (Wander) who is guided by a more mature figure (Sylvia). Both shows are loose enough allow their man-children characters to behave chaotically unchecked, but, like its forebear, the show is loose enough to plop its characters in random scenarios to let the comic behavior breathe, and the episodes balance the sillier stuff within its own brand of satire (“The Hero,” “The Troll”), and again, it’s clear when Wander’s behavior goes too far or is portrayed as dangerous (“The Void,” “The Box”). Here, man-child behavior is celebrated but is distinctly curbed – there’s a time and place for it. That’s really the issue in a nutshell: the best shows embrace the enjoyment of adult characters and their “toys,” yet understand that there’s a time to put them away. THAT’S the lesson I fear is being lost.

 

Share

, , , ,

4 Comments