Stephen Metcalf from Slate wrote a good piece entitled “Beyond Bugs Bunny: The Quest to Find the Perfect Children’s Cartoon“. It reminded me to write about my own thoughts on the issue.
Unfortunately, Stephen’s piece falls short of the truth. While I agree with him on one aspect, that “one is faced with an uninviting… choice: insipidity or carnage” when trying to pick from among the choices, I disagree with his characterization of what constitutes inspidity or carnage in cartoons.
Most Walt Disney cartoons aren’t insipid, in particular the classic ones. I have great respect for the art, and the way in which Disney chose to portray certain things. Look, he was trying to make commercial movies. There was a path to be followed if commercial success was to be the result, and he knew what needed to be done. I don’t think the overwhelming majority of people would consider his movies a compromise, or an example of insipidity.
You want to talk about insipid? What about Ed, Edd and Eddy? What about Codename: Kids Next Door? What about Pokemon? What about Beavis and Butthead? What about Ren & Stimpy? The list is endless. Cartoons like these are a veritable waste of time. They’re not funny, their plots are mediocre, their art is ugly, and one gets up from watching them feeling like they just lost a few hundred brain cells.
I’ve also heard talk of Looney Tunes and Tom & Jerry being violent, and I disagree with that line of thought. There’s a huge difference between the violence portrayed in those cartoons and the violence one finds in the cartoons of today, in particular some of the action cartoons, or the anime, which can be extremely violent, to the point of brutal cruelty.
The violence to be found in LT or T&J cartoons was rubbery. Nothing really ever happened to the characters. They emerged unscathed. It was all done for fun and with great comedic timing, and even as a kid, you would know it – I did, at any rate. You also can’t call them children’s cartoons. They were created at a time when cartoons would get shown before movies in theatres. Adults were expected to watch and enjoy them. Some of them won Oscars. The brand of humor to be found in them is a mix of pratfalls and other physical jokes, which appealed to everyone, and jokes that only grown-ups would get. Unfortunately, all of that has been lost on the cartoonists of today, who seem to produce only violence and insipidity.
You want to talk about risqué? What about the Max Fleischer cartoons, which Stephen touts, in particular the Betty Boop ones? Would you call those children’s cartoons? Not by far! They treat themes such as adultery (albeit with subtlety) and theft. Betty has many gentlemen callers, most of them old and rich, and some are married. In some of the cartoons, she’s only in her negligé. There’s a scene in “Poor Cinderella” that would make the fellows whistle even nowadays. What about Felix the Cat? In “Felix in Hollywood”, he peeps into the dressing room of a star, then whistles and exclaims, “Oh, Boy!”. In “Neptune’s Nonsense”, Neptune has a mermaid do a belly dance for him. In “Sultan Pepper”, the same character that fools around with Betty Boop in one of her cartoons now tries to sleep with the entire harem of a visiting sultan. This is clearly not kid stuff. Sure, some of Fleischer’s cartoons are safer, but you’d have to pick and choose.
One has to do the same nowadays. Stephen seems to have stumbled upon a good find with Charlie and Lola. I would also recommend Little Bear, which is an absolutely charming show that doesn’t get aired often these days, unfortunately.
The truth is, cartoons made specifically for children, and in particular cartoons made for infants and young children, to the age of 4-5, are a relatively new thing. Even Disney didn’t make his cartoons just for children. He said that himself. So there’s no point in criticizing the man or the other existing art because it doesn’t work for something it wasn’t originally intended for.
There’s a good reason college kids can’t stand Barney, but little kids love him. His TV show is specifically intended for very young audiences. It’s the same with The Wiggles. I go bonkers watching them, but my friends’ little daughter (who’s also 3 years old) loves them. So you see, one should look at what’s on the market today, and make an intelligent decision based on facts and personal preference.