2015: The Cartoon Renaissance

Children’s animation is hitting an all-time high

Olivia Gallmeyer, Opinion Editor

I’ve got a confession to make. Most people see me as a sophisticated, responsible person. After all, I’ve had quite a few accomplishments. I’m a straight-A student, I’m assistant directing our fall play Diary of Anne Frank, and I oversee this opinion section you’re reading right now. So you likely expect me to spend my free time doing responsible things like studying and learning and being fancy and mature.

Unfortunately, no. For the last three months, I’ve spent the majority of my spare time watching children’s cartoons.

I can’t help it, it’s become an addiction. I’ll eagerly await every Thursday night for the newest Steven Universe episode. I make up theories in my head about whatever new mysteries are being spun on Gravity Falls, and I’m constantly scrolling through the Tumblr tag for Sailor Moon looking at cute fanart.

But why not? Cartoons have become so much more refined and interesting since the initial days of Felix the Cat and Mickey Mouse, and children’s media in general has grown so much. Just looking at the ubiquity of films like Frozen and Toy Story, it’s easy to see how heartwarming, thought-provoking, and enjoyable children’s animation has become.

Instead of being strictly for one age, cartoons now are aiming to bridge the gap between adult’s and children’s media in innovative ways. Animated media doesn’t have to contain streams of curse words and innuendos to appeal to the older crowd anymore; now, innovative stories and creative characters are taking over to give cartoons widespread interest. Take a look at Gravity Falls, a series produced on Disney XD focusing on twins Dipper and Mabel Pines as they spend their summer working at their great-uncle or “grunkle” Stan’s roadside tourist trap, the Mystery Shack.

When Dipper finds a mysterious journal in the woods, the twins decide to investigate the odd happenings in Gravity Falls. Dipper and Mabel end up encountering all sorts of mystical phenomena, from a copy machine that creates clones, to a horde of zombies only defeatable by a three-part-harmony, to Quentin Trembly, the long-lost 8 1/2th President of the United States.

One of the unique aspects of the series is how viewers are able to figure out the mysteries of Gravity Falls along with the characters. During the credits of every episode, a ciphered message is shown; when decoded, it reveals a unique phrase pertaining to the episode.

The episodes are always providing hints as to what to come. Being a fan of the show is like solving a complex puzzle to figure out what’s next, and upon paying attention you can figure out all sorts of upcoming plot points – I was particularly proud to notice in advance a shocking reveal that was shown in the season 2 midseason finale.

Another excellency modern cartoons have brought is the rehashing of older series. Two of my favorite childhood shows, Sailor Moon and Teen Titans, currently have remakes on the air. Unfortunately, neither of the new shows (Sailor Moon Crystal and Teen Titans Go!) have the same fascinating charm as the old. Crystal’s animation can be particularly lackluster compared to the colorful, quirky style used in the 90’s anime, and Titans Go! has had many an episode that makes me scoff in disappointment and wonder how this plotline got through the network executives.

Still, the nostalgia and familiar, entertaining characters don’t fail to pull me in. Both of the shows focus on young superhero teams fighting against evil, and I find the fantastical battles and quirky situations perfect for times when I just want to curl up in a bunch of blankets and relax.

The one show that single-handedly made me realize the greatness of children’s animation is Steven Universe. When it comes to this cartoon, there are too many things worth praising to count. The series is set in Beach City, a fictional boardwalk town with many unique characters. The show focuses on the young boy Steven as he learns to use the magical powers he inherited from his mother Rose Quartz, with the help of his caretakers, the Crystal Gems.

Made up of Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl, the Crystal Gems are a group of interstellar female warriors protecting the Earth from evil. Over the course of the series, Steven learns to better control his powers as he fights more dangerous foes, such as the Gem Homeworld.

The big thing about Steven Universe is that it’s honestly way more progressive than any show geared towards adults. It’s huge for diverse representation, which children’s media is often lacking in. Unlike animation such as Frozen, which was famously criticized for its design choices regarding female characters, all of the female characters have distinctly different designs and personalities, and yet none are depicted as lesser for it. For example, Steven’s mother Rose Quartz is plus sized, but this is never played as a joke. Instead, Rose is highly respected for her beauty, grace, and strength. There are even two major characters in a lesbian relationship, something absolutely unprecedented in a children’s show.

More than all this though, Steven Universe is simply brilliantly crafted. It has compelling stories and engaging humor that keeps me watching every episode. The animation is gorgeous, especially its backgrounds of pastel colors and beach sunsets. The voice acting is amazingly well done, especially Estelle’s stoic yet sweet Garnet and Deedee Magno Hall’s ability to make you both laugh and cry as Pearl. Overall, it’s the kind of masterpiece you’d never expect to come out of something like Cartoon Network.

I think that’s one of the things I love so much about cartoons now – they subvert expectations. They do one thing when I think they’re about to do another. They aren’t concerned simply about what will appeal to marketing, but what will make a good show that more than just children will enjoy. They may still be silly, but no longer are they shallow.