Cartoons Aren't What They Used to Be

Jesse Richards - April 16, 1999

These aren’t your parents’ cartoons. They aren’t yours, either — at least, not the cartoons you grew up with. No, television cartoons today are entering a whole new dimension of quality. While poor animation, boring slapstick, bad writing, and forced educational values still run rampant, there is are several lights on the horizon. Cartoon characters

Even our favorite cartoons from childhood were not that innovative (excluding classic Warner Brothers cartoons and DuckTales, we have examples like He-Man, Transformers, and The Smurfs); but cartoons today are pushing the envelope in many different creative directions. True, low standards from gratuitous ’80s commercial tie-ins (such as Punky Brewster, Thundercats, My Little Pony, ad nauseam) are still around (101 Dalmatians, Mighty Max, Jumanji). And uncreative stories — you have to admit Scooby Doo defined the recycled plot — are still easy to find decades after their heyday. But elsewhere in the TV realm, the bar is steadily being raised.

TV cartoons are encroaching into prime time more often, and intelligent characters and storylines are getting more exposure. Big-screen computer-generated musicals do not have a monopoly on animation innovation and intelligent cartoon writing. It’s all on the small screen, if you know what you’re looking for.

The Simpsons

This incredibly accurate, wry, and gut-wrenchingly funny show is satire at its best. After 10 years, it still never misses the mark. This show not only has the largest supporting cast in any medium but also some of the most well-developed characters. It does a good job of mixing its one-joke, throw-away characters with its well-rounded regulars. The Simpsons practically refined the throw-away gag, with more and more jokes unfolding upon multiple viewings.

Cartoons have been prime time before (The Flintstones), but without the success of The Simpsons, they wouldn’t be currently flooding those time slots. Opposed to the many new shows that copy live-action sitcoms, cartoons emulating The Simpsons have so far realized that its success is due to good writing and real humor, not any sort of formula.

Family Guy

These two new shows both have a lot of potential. Futurama is visually exciting, with great characters, gags, and plots similar to The Simpsons. Family Guy has a boring setting, run-of-the-mill characters, and less innovation — but is somehow as funny as Futurama.

The PJs
King of the Hill

You have to give King of the Hill a little credit for trying out that crude Beavis and Butthead animation in prime time. And I’d be willing to overlook it if the show were funnier. Though some of the characters are well-written, the jokes are few and far between, and the stereotypical accents get grating fast.

Animation-wise, The PJs gets even more credit, thanks to its cool foamation. But if you think King of the Hill has stereotypes, just watch five minutes of this show. At least both these shows show a willingness to try out new stuff in prime time. They just have to try a little harder to be funny.

Batman Adventures
Superman Adventures
Batman Beyond

Kid-oriented cartoons still make up the bulk of the cartoon field. But an increasing number of shows are proving to be just as stimulating for adults, with their only claim to “kid” status being their time slots.

The original Batman: The Animated Series revolutionized children’s cartoons, introducing serious drama to the field. Recently, the creators redesigned the show, streamlining the characters and art. Now Batman, composed of only a few brush strokes, glides seamlessly over his city, his shadows melding into Gotham in an amazing film noir tribute.

A few years later, Superman was launched as well. The series, starring Tim Daly (Wings) and Dana Delaney, became a huge success as well and is now also serving as a showcase for other superhero guest stars. The animation is still great, but the plots aren’t quite as biting as in Batman.

Batman Beyond is a new interpretation, featuring a Gotham City 40 years in the future. Bruce Wayne has passed his mantle to a teenage Batman who wears a mechanical bat-suit. This show has a lot of cutting-edge animation, with cool computer effects over a Blade Runner-meets-Japanimation setting.


Histeria’s premise is simple: Make learning history fun. It succeeds wildly, by combining historical fact and characters with modern-day settings and personalities.

If you think U.S. presidents and ’70s blaxploitation films don’t mesh, you haven’t heard the groovin’ “Theme to Taft” sung to Shaft’s theme. The same president-oriented episode featured a fake commercial for “Raggedy Lyndon Johnson” — along with a hippie protestor doll.

Betsy Ross’ flag design firm. Frank Sinatra as Julius Caesar, with the rest of the Rat Pack as his friends and countrymen. Molly Pitcher’s “Got Water?” ads. Alexander Graham Bell lost in ... The Telephone Zone, complete with deadpan voice-over. J. Robert Oppenheimer on a talk show, trying to explain that the Manhattan Project was not a band, and that Einstein didn’t play bass.

Everything about the show is genius. The lessons are subtle, not gratuitous — almost a bonus for the great comedy. Other “educational” programming has a lot to learn from Histeria.

Pinky and the Brain

These shows, along with Tiny Toons, invented the pacing and style of humor that is so successful in Histeria. Again, knowledge and learning are thrown into the mix, but never at the expense of good comedy.

An example: a recent commercial for the show had the three Animaniacs stars attempting to fix the “Y to K” problem. Their computer solved it — with the conclusion that Animaniacs was now airing Mondak through Fridak.

The spin-off Pinky and the Brain is usually hilarious, though some of the plots are becoming repetitive and senseless. Slapstick is replacing the wittier rapport that marked earlier episodes.

Men in Black

I mention these as examples of shows that don’t have the extra intelligence marking them as worthwhile for adults but are still good children’s shows. Hercules features lots of celebrity voices, and both have intriguing and creative animation. But the plots are dry and predictable.

Most of these cartoons feature some innovation in the cartoon field. The best cartoons feature creativity unrivaled on any television show. A recent article in Entertainment Weekly featuring the death of the sitcom, mentioned that cartoons are becoming successful because they take risks that live-action can’t. Cartoons also try harder for validation, while live sitcoms just aren’t trying to be innovative or funny, resulting in repetition — good-looking 30-something actors hanging out and regurgitating one-liners.

Celebrity voices are a good example of why current cartoons are so fun. Of course, everyone who’s famous has been on The Simpsons. If they can get Jasper Johns to play himself, as in the last episode, they can get anyone. But the phenomenon has branched out to other shows. Batman and Superman have celebrities in every episode. Mark Hamill of Star Wars fame is a regular as the Joker, and William H. Macy had a fun part as a quirky scientist in a recent episode of Superman.

The Cartoon Network is bringing a lot of fun to the table, too. Rather than just rerun old classics, they have a lot of zany new shows: Dragonball Z, Johnny Bravo, Cow and Chicken, PowerPuff Girls, etc. They also started a trend that the WB has picked up — using old cartoon clips with new voice-overs for clever commercials.

Inside jokes are another reason why adults should be watching more cartoons. Again, The Simpsons is well known for it, but Histeria is a good example, too. Every time Catherine the Great guest-stars, she’s with her horse, who spouts out sexual innuendos. Hopefully, only adults get the joke. Little homages abound as well. On Batman, all the streets in Gotham City are named after famous comic book writers and artists.

Perhaps the most significant proof cartoons are growing up are their touching tributes to other cartoons. One of the funniest episodes of The Simpsons featured a dream of Homer’s in which he was Yogi Bear, and Boo-Boo was replaced by Bart-Bart.

And besides making constant references to famous coyote-road runner chase scenes, Histeria once did an opening that perfectly mimicked The Simpsons’. This postmodern reflection reveals the creators’, writers’, and animators’ love of the media they grew up with. It should makes us realize, “Hey, we always loved this stuff, so why stop watching now?”