Published on August 8th, 2014 | by Matt Wolsfeld0
The Renaissance of the Mature Children’s Cartoon
Look, cartoons aren’t just for kids. Just because you’re 40 and watch Adventure Time, doesn’t mean you’re in a state of arrested development. Does it?
Cartoon. The word itself undeniably brings to mind a certain image in our minds: Saturday mornings, breakfast cereal and toy commercials, and children. For ages, cartoons have been the dominating empire of children’s media. The bright colours, fast-paced action, and innocent misadventures of primarily youthful protagonists have always been a draw for the childish eye.
Sure, there have always been successful cartoons aimed towards adults. South Park has dominated animated satire on television for nearly 18 years now and this year’s breakout hit Rick and Morty is reaching new heights of self-aware television commentary. Even taking a step back in time and revisiting 1981’s Heavy Metal or any of Ralph Bakshi’s contributions to adult cartoon culture will show that reimagining brightly drawn animated sprites for the purposes of engaging (or titillating) an adult audience is nothing new.
For the most part, however, cartoons tend to fall into one of the two aforementioned camps: bright, innocent, childish filler, or dark, dirty, and concept-heavy adult material. A child placed in front of an episode of Archer will have a similar result to a 40-year-old made to watch an episode of Caillou with their child: there may be an underlying appreciation of the illustrations appearing before them, though it is masked by the complete misunderstanding of the specific nuances that allow these shows to target themselves towards two very different demographics. An adult has mostly lost the grasp of the gravitas a lost toy carries, and a 5-year-old will never understand a quickly delivered Chekhov’s Gun reference.
Rarely will a cartoon come along that will attempt to stride these demographics and allow for a common experience. Most attempts at this fall short by making a facile attempt at injecting elements of adult humor into a childish setting or vice versa. Cartoons like The Animaniacs or Rocko’s Modern Life, both notorious for implanting mature and occasionally downright raunchy jokes into the silliness of a children’s program, go a long way in drawing upon a subsection of the adult television audience; however, the end result fails to stick when the subtle political joke has faded and the adult is left struggling to understand why a group of talking cat…things…would want to live in a water tower.
And there lies the rub. Feel free to blame this failure on an adult audience that has lost its ability to enjoy and revel in basic silliness, but the truth of the matter is that there is little for an adult to connect with among these storylines. As we grow, we begin to find and enjoy new things that are able to contextualize our own lives within the stories we see on TV. Seinfeld gave us the ability to elucidate our troubles with the opposite sex with sayings like “man hands” or “sponge-worthy.” Louis C.K.’s self-parodying Louie has been an amazing example for the idea that even in dark situations like divorce, death, or losing a child on the subway, comedy can be ready to shine a light and expose the smiles that can be waiting underneath. The situations covered in these programs are inherently adult, but the emotions and feelings they draw upon are universal.
The Simpsons will go down in the annals of television for being one of the first cartoons to be able to truly unite the ages in these revelations. Throughout the first eight seasons (yes, I’m one of those Simpsons fans. Bring it on, comments section) the show introduced us to a family that was shockingly like our own and brought us storylines that were not restricted to a certain age range. Think back to an episode like ‘Bart’s Girlfriend,’ which allowed an entire family, regardless of age, to contextualize heartbreak, the need to impress others, and being able to stand up for oneself in the face of a manipulating partner. The internal anguish Bart faced while keeping his bad-boy persona purely for the purposes of maintaining an unhealthy relationship was not restricted to the adults watching the show, just as the elatedness Bart experienced after getting invited to dinner by his grade-school crush could be enjoyed by a middle-aged parent. The genius of The Simpsons was that it was able to recognize that certain experiences are universal, and that the ability to shine a light on the humor embedded in these experiences should not be restricted to a certain audience.
The success of The Simpsons may very well have been a fluke. Not since its heyday have we seen a cartoon enjoy the enormous audience and social adoption it inspired. This, however, hasn’t been because of a lack of effort on the part of cartoon creators. We are currently enjoying a renaissance of mature cartoons that offer a fantastically satisfying experience to both children and adults alike. Adventure Time has offered some of the most consistently heart-warming and poignant insights on the human condition available on television during its six season run on Cartoon Network. Despite being set in the magical land of Ooo and featuring a cast with names like Princess Bubblegum and Marceline the Vampire Queen, Adventure Time has been able to touch on concepts like young love, parental abandonment, dealing with loss, and finding your place in a seemingly madcap and disjointed world. Last season’s brilliant story arc featuring Finn and Flame Princess’ relationship, breakup, and personal rebuilding cause me to do more soul-searching and personal contemplation than any other show on television in 2013. Nickelodeon’s The Legend of Korra is also currently picking up the slack left after Avatar: The Last Airbender’s departure, offering a massive and epic storyline set amidst political intrigue, betrayal, and self-discovery. Its refusal to avoid dealing with heavy subject material has allowed it to offer a mature and complex animated story that can be enjoyed no matter what age (not to mention providing the TV landscape with one of its most sympathetic, fully-developed, and yet still overwhelmingly badass female characters).
We are in a time where animation studios and television networks are once again beginning to embrace the idea of bringing together people of all ages in shared experiences through cartoons. Influences from anime (where innovative and mature storytelling through animation has been occurring for years), the comedy world, and major names in television and film writing have provided the TV landscape with new opportunities to recognize the universality of these stories. Resistance comes in the form of a staunchly defended idea of ‘adulthood,’ in that at a certain age we must shed the bright colours and silly voices of our youth in order to tackle heavier and more important matters. These shows fly under the radar because people are uncomfortable with the idea that an animated character can be used to reflect their own story just as well as a flesh and blood actor reading from the script of an experienced television writer.
Exploring dungeons and experiencing heartbreak; childhood friendship and intense family drama; wizards blasting ice magic and recognizing the sacrifices we must make for those we love; these are not mutually exclusive ideas. Sometimes the best way to deal with a concept that we have difficulty comprehending in our heads is to draw it out, free of the rules of the physical universe we are familiar with and embracing the wonder and sincerity seen through the eyes of a child. Being an adult doesn’t just mean being serious and watching gritty crime dramas or raunchy and prohibitive comedy; it means being able to recognize that people — from ages 5 to 95 — share in experiences and emotions that can still be shown with colorful pens and silliness without losing any of the personal insights we are capable understanding.