The Amazing World of Gumball’s bizarre, multi-level visual style is intentional – leading to an out-and-out assault on your senses. How Gumball’s stylistic, relentless, incredible attack demands an new understanding on the kind of information we can receive from the screen.
Let’s talk about Drawn Together for a second.
Drawn Together was a three-season show on Comedy Central with the unique premise of putting various characters of animation tropes into one central location, all played as a ridiculous reality TV parody, and watching them play off each other. The characters themselves are different enough – the pretty princess, the black-and-white Betty Boop parody, a sleuthing black teen, a Spongebob knockoff, a stereotypical superhero, a Legends of Zelda Link-like elf, a Pokemon-ish monster, and a rude Internet mascot figure. These tropes-as-characters were fun start-off points for something that could have been interesting, potentially in relation to how affecting and/or limiting such tropes might have on the audience.
Drawn Together had no such aspirations. It’s a funny show, quite often hilarious – although it’s definitely humor in the Family Guy wheelhouse. Very little of the humor, however, actually reflected the specific animated nature of the characters. It did, broadly, like when Zander dies and keeps coming back, but for the most part, the humor was parodies galore, crass race-and-sex-and-violence based humor, and outlandish non-sequiturs, such as a scene where Toot intones that her life is flashing before her eyes – only to be treated to a picture montage of food and horrific Vietnam War imagery. Its premise is heavily invested in the world of animation, but says little about it.
It’s a tough sell, though, since most audiences and critics think little about animation and its impact on the screen. Cartoons, to many people, is a genre, not a medium, and they see and use the “genre” for family fare and adult contemporary satire. It’s extremely rare to see something akin to a cartoon directly (well, more indirectly) play around with the physical medium to various affects. Yet, seemingly out of nowhere, The Amazing World of Gumball is doing just that.
Gumball didn’t start out that way. Created by Ben Bocquelet for Cartoon Network UK, Gumball, like Regular Show and Adventure Time, started out somewhere between being an Adult Swim show and being a bridge to the Adult Swim block, part of a failed line up of cartoons that aimed for a more teenage, non-stoned audience. It was retooled, no longer a retirement home for rejected cartoons (a bitter version of Drawn Together), but a school/suburban community of multiple-designed characters – like Doug filtered through a Kablaam! episode. The first few episodes didn’t seem comfortable with what it had, focusing on silly plots emphasizing the various degrees of dumbness of the central characters (save for Gumball’s mother, Nicole, who clearly was gearing to be a breakout character). But there was a low-key confidence that the visuals could be something more; a lot more daring and expansive, something that could bring fresh life into the most cliched of plots.
There’s a scene in Who Framed Roger Rabbit where cartoon character Roger Rabbit is handcuffed to Eddie Valient, and Eddie starts to saw the cuffs apart. He yells “HOLD STILL!” to a fidgety Roger Rabbit. Roger slips out of the cuffs and responds. This ticks Eddie off. “You mean to tell me you could’ve gotten out of those cuffs at any time?” “Not at any time,” Roger replies, “only when it was funny.” This reveal ticks Eddie off even more, but Roger tells an important truth – a truth that Eddie probably knew but failed to remember due to his depression. Roger, as a toon, is forced to live by the comedy rules. His reveal is not just comical, it’s literal. Physically removing himself from the cuffs WOULD NOT WORK unless the moment presented itself in comic fashion. It’s why SHAVE AND A HAIRCUT was so powerful. Roger is beholden to the rules of cartoons as we are beholden to physics. In some ways, so is Gumball.
Cartoons have been calling attention to themselves for years now, from Sam & Max, The Wuzzles, Darkwing Duck, Tiny Toons, various Looney Toon shorts, and the epitome of self-awareness, Animaniacs and Freakazoid. These shows would comment to the audience via winks and nods to too-cool-for-school gags, as well as point out other behind-the-scenes foibles related to writing staffs, direction/production decisions, obvious plot holes, stupid moments, historical animation tropes, and other elements related to production. The actual ANIMATION was rarely talked about and commented upon, and even when it is, it’s played for erroneous gags, like when Freakazoid comments on a bad lip-syncing animation via the most ridiculous cutaway you will ever see. Gumball, however, surprises by using its animation not only for gags but for drama. The multiple animated elements are thoroughly ingrained in the show’s DNA, and it shows it off through novel and incredible ways.
Gumball is visually complex, disturbing, and fascinating all at one. The sets are filmed live. The main family, The Wattersons, are cats and rabbits designed in a chibi-anime/Powerpuff Girls style. The characters that dot this amazing world are puppets, paper-cut outs, CGI dinosaurs, pixel-art spider-like invaders, stop-motion bananas, toast, balloons, clouds, monkeys, and ghosts. Everyone looks and is designed completely differently (and yes, while in the end, a computer clearly put together all these elements, separately the characters are clearly representative of different forms of the medium).
But that’s what makes it so impressive. Gumball COMMITS to those differences, not only within the narrative, but into the visuals. It’s a show that passionately embraces the full, variable styles of the animation medium, lovingly putting them together, suggesting the moot point of even arguing one form over another. Characters are not only what they’re made of, they are the full manifestation of the animated style they are created with. Gumball is not just a cat, but specifically a chibi-anime/PPG cat. Tina is not just a dinosaur, but a 3D-animated dinosaur. That dedication to that level of detail allows Gumball to attack the screen with visual, thematic, and narrative ideas that you will just not see anywhere else. It’s the nature of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, if CGI, stop-motion, and pixelation were part of the same world.
“Halloween” is a good example. In this episode, Gumball and his brother, Darwin, sneak off to a Halloween party populated by ghosts. The scene plays with a myriad of styles of apparitions, giving the surreal moment a more darker and disturbing edge to it – akin to the bizarre monsters in the PowerPuff Girls episode “Boogie Frights”. The end of the episode, which has a set piece involving running through a zombie-infested graveyard and a massive, glowing wormhole into the underworld, is scary, exciting, and remarkably well done. “The Job” takes it a step further, a narrative red herring that begins in typical fashion, with Gumball and Darwin picking up the slack of their incompetent and moronic father, Richard, as he delivers pizza. The twist, to Nicole’s horror, is that the universe cannot allow perpetually lazy Richard to have a job. Time and space is torn asunder as the Wattersons race to stop Richard from delivery his first pie. It’s an incredible set piece, with floating cars and giant lights exploding from the swirling clouds from the void of existence, a power so great that with every step Richard takes, the fabric of their reality changes their stylistic forms – from paper mache to puppets to real-life kittens/rabbits. It’s honestly a breath-taking moment, and it’s rare to see something on animated TV that visually provocative.
The episode “The Words,” however, is a tour de force of not only the show, but of TV in general.
“The Words” is mind-blowing, a visual, comedic, and narrative of discordant yet delicious ideas and styles that come together in surprising and detailed ways. It’s exactly the fusion of elements that, in all ways, should not work, but it completely does. Animation, and animation tropes, come to the forefront, and its best moments take up only, maybe, six or seven minutes. It begins with Darwin, who has trouble speaking up when bothered by someone. Gumball, who is certainly okay with speaking his mind (which has gotten him in trouble in the past), teaches Darwin to be more assertive, and it works, but too well. In “The Words” first great moment, Darwin launches into a choreographed song about his new-found verbal freedom, complete with auto-tune (that’s used so subtly as not to over-play it), much to Gumball’s chagrin. In fact, in a random, wonderful moment, the entire school gets into the singing spirit, playing to the comically “run around the corner towards the screen” trope that most cartoons – hell, most musicals – use.
Of course, his verbal assertiveness immediately drives everyone away. Darwin gets so caught up in the power of telling it like it is that he enters another song, eyes red and deep-voiced, praising his decent into evil. Again, the visuals and editing is so tightly designed just like any “villain’s music cue” would be, and then Gumball snaps him out it. This is then immediately followed by, single-handedly, the greatest fighting game parody in the history of entertainment. Better than Scott Pilgrim. Better than that Family Guy bit where Peter Griffin fights E. Honda. Better than the entirety of Gravity Fall’s “Fight Fighters.” It has:
— Opening “Darwin vs. Gumball” graphic
— Repeating cheering crowd in the background
— Two different “entering the battle” animations
— Darwin representing a player spamming the same move
— Three rounds
— Breakable background objects
— Gumball pausing the screen (the pause screen lists “NEW CHARACTERS” and “COMBO LIST”)
— Darwin cheating and “unpausing” the game
— Gumball’s victory animation (complete with “Ya-tah!” victory cry)
— Gumball’s devastating final move
— Continue screen (complete with count down)
There’s no set up to this marvelous scene. Gumball takes the extremely bold move and just DOES it, and even in the comic momentum of the entire scene, Gumball takes it even a step further and contextualizes Gumball’s final move with a harsh, cruel statement – announcing that Darwin is NOT his brother, but a fish that grew legs. In those words, visually utilized as the ULTIMATE COMBO, Gumball hits the unspoken harsh truth. Darwin, technically, isn’t a blood relative of the Wattersons, but is indeed a fish that just grew legs. He IS (for lack of a better term) adopted, so Gumball’s final strike is indeed as painful as the ULTIMATE COMBO would imply. In effect, Gumball has not only used the “fighting game” mechanic as an over elaborate joke, it uses it to strike a chord at the conflict that divides the siblings.
Gumball’s first season was all about putting the pieces into place, for the characters, the narratives, and the visuals. The second season has a much-needed focus, as each episode focuses on one character and their relationship to their world. We learn Hector, the hairy giant, coddled by his mother because of the very real concern that an upset giant could be dangerous. We learn Teri, the bear who is made of paper, is a hypochondriac BECAUSE she’s made of paper and is easily injured. Tina, the dinosaur, has no friends because she’s a genuinely a beast and monster, but incredibly lonely – like Hey Arnold’s Helga taken to the animated extreme. We learn Nicole struggles with anger and control issues, which mask a deep insecurity about her role as a mother. And we learn that Richard’s stupidity is a result of his mother’s own questionable parenting.
And through all these developments, the animation is as equal to these reveals and as important to the structure of the the expanding world in which Gumball resides. Teri has the luxury to draw a mask on her paper face to block incoming viruses; the act doesn’t work for Darwin. In the same episode, Gumball and Darwin ridicule Teri by not only impersonating her voice but by becoming flat-paper cutouts themselves, a la a Paper Mario video game. First-person POV rapid cutting is used when Gumball is possessed by Carrie, an emo ghost, who has an eating disorder compound by the fact, as a ghost, she can’t eat. Masami, a cloud, rains when she cries and fires lightening when upset. Gumball’s jealousy manifests into a demon that spreads among his friends, representing the jealousy and insecurities that lies inside them all. Hell, Gumball adds a spark to a typical freeze-frame gag by adding distortions at the top and bottom of the screen, simulating the old-school pausing of a VHS tape. I could continue all day, but the point is that Gumball’s brilliance is not only in its development of the characters and its world, but how the animation itself is part of that development, and not just a crutch.
There are still 21 episodes of the second season that have yet to air. They’re airing them throughout the summer. I am greatly looking forward to it and the very amazing ways that Bocquelet and his staff will really open up not only the great cast of characters this show has, but how they will use the actual animation styles as a significant part of that development. It’s in the little, subtle ways that Gumball deconstructs visual information, asking its audience to not only enjoy its visual spectacles, but embrace them as part of the show’s structure and aspect of its world.