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 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.
Mad Jack the Pirate shows that even the funniest cartoons need to have more going for it to be something memorable.
I decided to check out Mad Jack the Pirate after finishing up Eek! The Cat. Bill Kopp, who co-created Eek, conceived of Mad Jack after working for Disney with The Schnookums and Meat Funny Cartoon Show and part of Toonsylvania. His work on Eek was strong enough to warrant following, and while I’ve heard mixed things on Schnookums and Meat and Toonsylvania, I’ve heard nothing about this one-season show about a pirate’s constant failure to find treasure. I’m also fascinated by under-the-radar cartoons, so getting a whiff of one from Kopp’s mind made me crazy curious about it.
There are a lot of brilliance to Eek! The Cat, with appealingly goofy characters and an absurd world that mixes nutso humans with even mosre nutso talking animals, all couched in various permutations of satire, farce, and parodies. As insane as the world is, it is at least grounded in elements that the writers and animators could build off of, utilizing witty dialogue and well-timed visuals. “Paws” for example had a lot of fun with its characters within a Jaws parody, but also played stupid-fun with the kiddie-pool locale re-imagined as a deadly, endless ocean. Everything came together with confidence; even its weaker episodes were committed to its narrative and characters.
Mad Jack the Pirate is… less so. There’s either a budget issue or a general creative malaise to this show. With networks slowly moving away from Saturday morning animated content, it may quite possibly be both. There are a lot of potential ideas here, and there a quite a number of genuinely funny moments, but there’s a sense that the show doesn’t want to explore anything past its most basic of premises. It’s a show that can be extremely funny, but it’s also extremely unsustainable.
There are three reasons for this. The main problem is the lack of commitment to the world that’s been created. I don’t necessarily mean the internal, in-show world per se; there’s just this really odd, half-assed approach to everything that occurs on the screen. It’s often funny at times but it’s not “correct.” Eek! The Cat’s Metropolis was an absurd but vibrant world where characters could be anything and encounter anything. I can’t even remember the name of the “world” that Mad Jack explores, which is a just a bunch of islands, and the occasional random location, like Megamouth Studios. It’s not that anything here is bad, since these locations are built mainly to put Mad Jack and his partner Snuk through the ringer, but they’re perfunctory, and only a few of them feel worthwhile.
Maybe it’s less the locations and more the lack of dynamic characters. The second main problem? The cast is boring and non-existent. Mad Jack desperately needs a diverse, comedic crew – a cast of semi-regulars to bounce off, characters that can produce multiple viewpoints to this world around them. It seems like the pilot episode, “The Terrifying Sea Witch Incident,” is leading to that – a talking, arrogant chicken ranting about his “mascot” role in the show; three random crew members with potential to be unique and interesting; the arrogant “hero” prince Flash Dashing, who talks like William Shatner taking the role of the “hero-antagonist” to Mad Jack’s “villain-protagonist.” Even the crow in the crow’s nest, while an obvious dumb joke, has potential as a character:
But looks what happens – the chicken is presumably eaten and the crew just runs off (the show ends with an elaborate tag where the chicken rants about not being killed, which tries to come off as a smart-ass putdown on executive meddling, but really comes off as the writers forgetting about him in the first place). Flash Dashing is only used in one other episode and the crow is recycled in a later episode again without any other lines. When all is said and done, the show is solely a Mad Jack and Snuk affair, and it’s a dynamic that really goes nowhere. It’s cute, sure, but with Mad Jack constantly shitting on, abusing, and otherwise exploiting Snuk, it’s a one-sided affair that doesn’t lead to anything palpable.
As the examples suggest, the show also engages in a darker, more vicious tone; there are a lot more explicit descriptions of murder, violence, and sex than one might expect from a cartoon. Mad Jack, in fact, is not a pirate with a heart of gold (not at first), but a criminal through-and-through, who cheats, lies, and steals with little to no shame. This creates a lot of comic moments – there’s a lot of hilarity in putting criminals in lead roles, only to watch them fail miserably and constantly – but without some kind of redeeming factor, it’s particularly hard to stand behind him. In fact, in “The Strange Case of Angus Dagnabbit,” Mad Jack straight-up kills the guy he’s trying to rob. It’s a startling event, and the show kind of glosses over it when the murdered Dagnabbit comes back to haunt Mad Jack, but there’s a difference between redemption and revenge; both can be funny, but the latter leads to dwindling audience support, while the former shows the character’s willingness to change, which is more dramatically interesting. “Darkness” in and of itself is neither a hit for or strike against the show, but Mad Jack’s lack of progress as a character is another example of the show’s lack of dynamics.
The third and final issue against the show is the lackluster staging and art direction. It’s something more people wouldn’t recognize in a cartoon until you watch it and find yourself… bored by something, but struggling to say what exactly. Mad Jack the Pirate has the appearance of a visually interesting cartoon, with its vibrant colors and potentially interesting locales, but the actual direction is bland, with most scenes animated straight on full shots, with characters walking left-to-right or right-to-left. There’s very few dynamic zooms or close-ups, creative montages or audacious dream sequences, or even simple visual cues like running toward or away from the cameras. Eek! the Cat had a lot of unique views, so it’s disappointing to see Mad Jack, rich with potential, fall so short in the animation department.
Combining all three issues – lack of world exploration, character dynamics, and directorial diversity – leads to a show brimming with potential but constantly falling short. The “pirate world” premise with wacky/absurdist trappings feels undercooked and random, and while there are funny moments, it never feels committed. I laughed quite a bit at “Lights, Camera – Snuk,” where Mad Jack, in a desperate attempt to show a film producer how real pirates live, constantly gets hurt after every showcase, and ends with him eaten by a dinosaur. Every set piece ends with him eaten by a dinosaur, which is part of the “hard-to-pull-off” gags of repetition, but it works up to a point; beyond that gag, there’s no “uniqueness” to the approach, narratively or visually. It’s less “how many funny ways to be eaten by a dinosaur” and more “we don’t know how else to do this bit”. There’s no real satire to the movie-studio parody either, so there’s nothing else going on here except the one gag, which dies as soon as the episode is over.
That “funny but bland” aesthetic continues throughout the show. “Happy Birthday to Who” is just Mad Jack getting abused at a carnival (after a bit about Mad Jack wanting to go to a brothel, which is part of the show’s dark edge without doing anything with it). “The Horror of Draclia” is a flat tale that pits Jack and Snuk up against a lazy Dracula parody (which also forgets about about a separate monster in the woods that essentially kills a guy). The show does kind of picks up around episode thirteen (which, as I’ve mentioned before, is usually when cartoons are retooled for the better) in “The Case of the Crabs,” which pits Jack and Snuk up against a civilization of hostile underwater sea creatures. Part of the uptick is they introduce a new character, Chuck the Imitation Crab, who’s easy-going characterization brings a fun dynamic to Snuk’s push-over vibe and Mad Jack’s cruelty. It helps, too, that Jack’s cruelty has been toned down a bit here, with the pirate opting to actually help Chuck escape as well. It also helps that this underworld of Crustacia has vibrancy and energy that the show’s other locales lacked.
Later episodes have a bit more going for it, but they never feel complete. Flash Dashing, Dagnabbit, and Chuck all return in other episodes, who are all fun characters, but because they’re never really part of the main cast, they feel perfunctory and underused. I also think the vague, overarching plot of Mad Jack needing to pay off a vicious debtor Sharkface Willie to his ship the Sea Chicken is a sound idea; some kind of constant threat would give the show a more grounded edge. Yet we don’t see Willie until “Mad Jack and the Beanstalk,” a bit that’s tossed aside as a Godfather parody and nothing else. Broad “parodies with nothing else” become the show’s bane; “Uncle Mortimer” could’ve been an exciting pot-shot at Hanna-Barbara cartoons (the plot is about delivering a dog named Scabby Doo to the Isle of Hanna Barbarians after all), but it’s stuck with a predictable Scooby-Doo, “guy-in-monster-costume” story. The fact that they don’t even have fun with HB’s limited animation bit goes to the show’s uninteresting visual style. I wonder if that’s the issue though; the lack of a B-story, or a B-anything, to give the show some kind of narrative or visual heft. The few times it does have them, like in “The Case of the Crabs” and in “Jack the Dragon Slayer,” where a dragon and a princess humorously connect at a platonic-then-romantic level while Jack figures out how to slay the dragon the the behest of the princess’s father, the show improves immensely and starts to utilize the full extent of the show’s premise.
Unfortunately the show rarely feels like it wants to. I’ve learned via Wikipedia that Mad Jack the Pirate is more-or-less a parody of Blackadder, stealing lines and dialogue wholesale from the British show. This is nothing new, really; TaleSpin cribbed from Tales of the Gold Monkey, and Bonkers is a clear rip-off of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Yet Mad Jack the Pirate feels like that’s the only thing it’s really interested in, because only rarely does it seem as engaged in its cartoon world as it does in copying Rowan Atkinson’s infamous program. Had Mad Jack the Pirate put more effort in building a dynamic cast, a developed world, a creative direction, or some kind of narrative rhythm, it could’ve been special, a one-season wonder with a more adult bent. As it is, though, it’s a show with a lot of mature comic standing, but lacking anything else to stand on.
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.