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.
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.
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.
Buzzfeed got the animation world talking quite a bit with its recent article “Inside the Persistent Boys Club of Animation.” And while it fits perfectly within the contemporary, aggressive call for more women (and PoC) creatives in the entertainment business – a call I agree with one hundred percent – it’s Lange’s exploration of how certain genders depict certain types of narratives that has my interest piqued. She writes:
And that difference shows up on our screens. According to a 2012 study from the Geena Davis Institute, female characters made up 31% of speaking characters in primetime children’s shows — less than a third. Only 19% of children’s TV shows had an approximately equal number of male and female characters.
And this mentality is drilled into women studying animation. In a class at CalArts, Cotugno recalled, an instructor lectured on the difference between “feminine” and “masculine” story elements — “which is a little hard to describe, mostly because it’s fucking bullshit,” she said. Elements such as linear storytelling and big external stakes were “for men,” while relationships and emotional storylines were “for women.”
The whole thing is a must-read, but those two paragraphs struck me because it clarified a lot of thoughts I had about how women characters function in cartoons. As you can tell, I watch a lot of animated “stuff,” and what’s weird is how, overall, male characters are fairly developed from the start while women characters tend to fluctuate. This is in extremely broad terms, but part of me wonders if the kinds of stakes that we’ve inadvertently gendered is a bigger issue than just poor, outdated teaching ideas. It’s a top-down problem worth exploring in deeper detail.
A few weeks ago, I watched Flushed Away, an Aardman/Dreamworks collaboration that did mediocre at the box office, so as to assure that Aardman and Dreamworks would never work together again. It was a film that garnered mixed to poor reviews, but with my current run to catch up on animated films, I thought I’d give it a go, with the requisite that I would Twitter rant about its flaws. And while it was flawed, I was struck by how fascinating the “secondary” character, Rita, was. Rita was an extremely strong, well-developed presence, much more than Roddy, the titular main character. She was voiced by an extremely game Kate Winslet, and had the tenacity of Lara Croft with a warm, engaging emotional appeal like Pearl from the early episodes of Steven Universe. With a few tweaks, Flushed Away could’ve been an precursor to Mad Max: Fury Road – a generic film masking a strong, almost-feminist bent, in which Rita was the real star and Roddy, at best, an annoying sidekick. I can’t tell if it was Dreamworks or Aardman who missed that narrative, but it goes to how we perceive certain narratives and gendered character roles within a piece of entertainment.
I’m not sure how anyone, within the pre-production period of a film, not look at the development of Rita and recognize that she is the star, full stop. She possesses the “big external stakes” and the main thrust of the film is built upon her goals. Yet placing Roddy as the film’s lead is just part of the overall trend with large-stake narratives (he’s front and center on the DVD cover). There are plenty of great female characters, but they feel isolated, the lone feminine figure in weirdly, excessively male-driven worlds. Yet there’s a little bit more going on here, because opening up certain types of characters to the feminine sphere might cause a bit of hand-wringing. In the past 35 years, how many villains, or even antagonists, in films have been female who aren’t mothers? And what about the henchmen?
(The role of henchmen is worthy of a talk of its own. From second-in-commands to the lowly grunts, being a henchmen is a seriously male-driven occupation. How much of this is Standard and Practices, though? How much of this is the overall fear of placing female characters in positions that is primarily set up for bumbling and red-shirting? Because animation has become a medium driven to appeal to kids, the fear is that placing women in roles that usually get abused would be disrespectful and cause kids to follow suit, but that’s damaging to both boys and girls, since it ignore girls completely as well as encourages that kind of disrespect among boys. But I digress.)
One of the most important aspects of the early Disney Afternoon cartoons was its general focus on appealing to a broad, mixed fanbase. Both The Wuzzles and Gummi Bears clearly were looking to appeal to both boys and girls, but the focus shifted as Ducktales hit the airwaves. The shows that came after – Rescue Rangers, TaleSpin, Darwking Duck – had enough content to keep young women hooked, but they were mostly the fare of boys. In addition, the grouping dynamics of the primary cast of cartoons shifted. Girl-to-boy ratios went from 2:3 to 1:3; if a show present a group of mixed-gendered characters as the show’s leads, it has never provided more girls characters than boys. Mostly all kids networks mimicked this, despite hit shows like The Powerpuff Girls showing the potential of female character-driven shows. And really, not since Hey Arnold! have a show really explored a rich, varied group dynamic.
It’s clear that gendering narratives is both harmful and lazy. But what is insidious is how ingrained this idea has become. Not only are certain “types” of stories have to be told from the perspective of boy characters, but the minute details of those stories have to fit certain parameters. There’s very little focus on emotions or vulnerability, although that is getting better: Wander (Wander Over Yonder), Steven (Steven Universe), and Gumball (The Amazing World of Gumball) are much more prone to wearing their emotions on their sleeves, and acknowledging that those explicit feelings are valid.
Female characters are getting better as well. From the Mane6 of My Little Pony to the spunky silliness of Star from Star Vs. The Forces of Evil, TV animators are not only allowing women characters to star as leads, but to engage in their audacious adventures while also letting their emotions out for all to see. The wall limiting what types of stories one can tell with gendered characters is changing, albeit slowly, without necessarily falling into the kind of traps that hurt other narrative forms – restructuring the “Strong Female Character” as “Masculinized Female,” for example.
The biggest problem seems to be that in our attempts to push down gendered limits in entertainment, we’re pushing more and more into segregated content. Strong, singular leads are great, but shows that demand broad, mixed casts struggle intermixing gendered characters, from the testosterone-driven brotherhood that is the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, to the female-coded Gems of Steven Universe. Which, inherently, is fine, but it hinders creative insight into how a full group of boys and girls can manage a situation and keep true to themselves. It’s a top-down problem, again – there’s an upcoming all-female Ghostbusters and an all-male one coming soon. There’s an all-female Transformers on the way, along with an all female DC-superheroes series coming as well. Genevieve Koski over the (sadly now-defunct) wrote about the problem with the “distaff counterpart,” but at the level of younger viewers, it implies that not only are the two genders markedly different, but that they can’t even interact without some kind of problematic “Mars/Venus” dilemma, as if two different genders thrive in two different parallel universes.
These ideas, taught to us as kids, have become de facto lessons, that the decision of creating a certain character male of female automatically define the basic beats of a story – beats that cannot embrace multiple genders in any narrative way. An evil force that wants to destroy the world has no ties to male or female characteristics, but more often than not, male characters are the heroes, thematically linked to paternal-leadership-protector themes. For the few women heroes that save the day, they’re linked to more emotional-maternal-caregiver themes. And it’s that core, basic thinking is more troubling than we realize. Thematic resonance is important to all narratives, but not when they’re built on vague stereotypes and gendered segregation.