Friday, July 30, 2010

The End of Toontown

I’m a big fan of cartoons. Done right, cartoons are the purest form of escapism. They are also a fascinating storytelling medium because they literally have no bounds. You can use any type of characters, any style of drawing, and any storylines. The story need not even make sense or follow conventional story-telling techniques, and deus ex machina reigns supreme. At least, that’s how it was. Modern cartoons depress me because they’ve surrendered their unreality and they replaced it with an uncomfortable mimicking of the real world.

Now before I start, let me say that there are a handful of amazing cartoons today. For example, Up and Wall-E are incredibly subtle and intelligent movies. And South Park is the best social satire since Rocky & Bullwinkle, and Futurama is what The Simpsons once was. But then it starts to get a little iffy.

The problem with so many modern cartoons is that they’ve discarded the very things that made cartoons such a wonderful medium. They've tried to grow up, and in the process they lost the fairy dust. Consider what modern cartoons have lost:

1. Cartoon Physics: The biggest loss to the cartoon world is the loss of cartoon physics. What is cartoon physics? It’s the physical reality in which cartoons used to operate. In other words, this is what let toons run off a cliff, but not fall until they became conscious of their mistake. This is why traps never sprang on good guys, only bad guys, why good guys could pass through solid walls painted to resemble tunnels, but bad guys couldn’t, and so on. This was the innocence of their world.

(FYI, many of these rules are on display in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, an excellent film that really shows a love for its subject matter. . . “You could [escape from those handcuffs] the whole time?!” “No, only when it was funny!”)

Unlike cartoons of yesteryear, today’s cartoon characters live in a world that largely approximates our own. The physics of their world is slightly exaggerated, but not by much, and certainly nowhere near as much as it used to be. If you run off a cliff, you fall. If you walk into a wall, you hit the wall. Thus, many of the most memorable moments from cartoons of old could not be repeated today. But more importantly, this has made modern cartoons much more “real-world” in their look and feel, and this has killed their essence. Indeed, there is little distinction today between cartoons and live-action movies.

In addition to the sadness of this loss, there is a danger element as well. If we take at face value the complaint people used to make about kids not being able to tell the difference between cartoon violence and the real world, what should we make of modern cartoons? In the past, when you smacked a cartoon cat in the face with a frying pan, something unreal happened: its face took the shape of the frying pan before it returned to normal. Nothing similar happens today. In fact, the outlandishness of the violence is gone today, i.e. it is much more real. But since cartoon violence still doesn’t result in realistic injury, are we not sending a worse signal today than we were in the past?

Also, doesn’t the violence seem a little more disturbing? When Jerry smacks Tom with a hammer, we laughed. But would we laugh if someone smacked Dug from Up with a hammer or would we recoil?

2. Indestructibility: By the same token, cartoon characters have lost their indestructibility. I’m not saying modern cartoon characters can be killed, but you certainly get the feeling they could. Think about it. In the past, you could blast a toon full of holes and water poured out when they drank. They could take an explosion, a shotgun to the face, a dissection from falling knives or any one of a dozen other Rube Goldbergian deaths. . . but they never died. They weren’t even hurt.

Yet, today’s characters get hurt when they are assaulted. They scream and try to avoid the danger, rather than facing the inevitable with a sarcastic stoicism and a sign that reads “Help!” Modern cartoonists even wrap their injuries in bandages and let them express the pain they’ve endured. Seriously, think about this: is there anything you can think of that could kill Bugs Bunny? Now, what about Buzz Lightyear?

Once again, the problem here is that we are wiping out the consequence free world that makes cartoons so escapist. In their place, we are seeing real world consequences, that change the look, feel, spirit and purpose of cartoons. Indeed, rather than dealing with fantasy, cartoons now become nothing more than live action films done on the cheap with computer graphics instead of film and sets.

3. That’s “Daffy,” Not “Stupidy”: Something else that really bothers me is the change in the kinds of defects cartoon characters display. It used to be that toons suffered from a variety of defects, all brought about by “bad” characteristics. In other words, their flaws were the result of inflated egos, hubris, obsessions, and other negative human traits. This made them daffy, and it made it easy to laugh at the egotistical jerks as their elaborate schemes blew up in their faces.

But modern cartoons are different. Now villains all suffer from megalomania and sidekicks all suffer from low self-esteem. Gone are the overly-elaborate plans, the Yosemite Sams who blinded themselves with anger, and the Elmer Fudds who could always be talked into making a huge mistake. Gone are the "tragic" villains, in the classic sense of having a tragic flaw. In their place are characters who are simply stupid, pathetic or rotten. Consequently, the very nature of the characters has become more nasty and less interesting.

4. Voices In My Head: Modern cartoons also have given up on finding talent like Mel Blanc. Instead, they now use famous actors to play the majority of the parts. This is done to help market these cartoons. But in the process, we’ve lost the believability of the characters. Indeed, you no longer see Bullwinkle or Scooby Doo, you see Robin Williams, Dan Aykroyd or a dozen pop stars. It’s like hiring Tom Cruise and Arnold Schwarzenegger to star in Star Wars just because they’re famous, not because they fit the part. This makes it so much harder to “get into” the cartoon. Also, doesn’t this just reinforce our vapid celebrity culture?

5. $$$$: Finally, we come to the blatant commercialization. In the past, cartoons were drawn to satisfy the creative process. Animators created what they envisioned and they pioneered various interest techniques to improve their processes. Today, cartoon characters are designed to make merchandizing easier. When sales considerations trump creative considerations, we all lose.

That’s my problem with modern cartoons. At one point, these were pure escapist fun, though they often held interesting satire and hidden meanings. But today, they’ve mostly become disturbingly realistic and bland. In fact, part of what made cartoons so fun in the past was seeing how creative the cartoonists could be. But today’s cartoons are so restrictive that they might as well shoot them as live action films and just convert them to cartoons with a paint program.

To me, this represents a real loss of innocence and creativity.


Tennessee Jed said...

Andrew - I couldn't agree more. My personal favorite was Uncle Scrooge. I suppose that is not surprising since you know how much a free market capitalist I am.

I also love The Phantom and Prince Valiant, although they were not animated animals. Also, in the 50's, I was a regular for Superman, both the comics and the George Reeves television series. I pay no attention to what is out there today

CrispyRice said...

"Indeed, rather than dealing with fantasy, cartoons now become nothing more than live action films done on the cheap with computer graphics instead of film and sets."

You mean like Avatar??

StanH said...

My favorite toons were “Loony Tunes!” As a kid in the ‘60s I couldn’t get enough of them. Another cool aspect was my parents knew some of the same cartoons, from the ‘30s and ‘40s many of which were only shown at Saturday matinee’s as there was no TV. As the ‘60s came to an end, you began to see Scooby Doo, The Archie’s, etc. and the quality began to slip, and even as a kid it was noticeable. True cartooning was simply to expensive to create, the characters with their exciting three dimensional surreal qualities disappeared, and became two dimensional with a PC twist…boring! With technology they’ve overcome the dimensional problem, now they drip with PC…yuck! Along with the cartoons two other shows dominated a kids life, The Three Stooges, Little Rascals, not Our Gang that was the Little Rascals starting to find PC. Cartooning a true American treasure,

darski said...

To this day, classical music reminds me of cartoons I watched as a child. Love the music and still love the classic cartoons

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I grew up a little later than that, but even when I was growing up, the older stuff was still better. Loony Toons, Scooby Doo, Disney, etc. they all had similar characteristics even though they were very different in style and content.

But in the 1980s, things were changing. At that point, it was all about commercialization. You suddenly had cartoons that literally looked like product placements. Boomerang had one the other day "Centurions" where they literally show you how to assemble the toys during the commercial.

And then when computers came into play, realism became the thing.

Today, there is very little "cartoon" left in cartoons.

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, Same principle, LOL!

Actually, I'm talking about almost every cartoon that comes out these days. They are either adult oriented (and usually poorly drawn) or done by computer and soulless.

AndrewPrice said...

Stan, I think you're right about the timeline of cartoons, but I would add that it really started to get bad in the 1980s. In the 1980s, they realized that they could use cartoons to sell products and they started to think that they could send overt PC messages in cartoons. That's when they really started to tank.

But the real loss has come in the past two decades when computers came into vogue and you started seeing much more lifeless cartoons that all obeyed the laws of physics.

AndrewPrice said...

darksi, I think a lot of people think of cartoons when they hear classical music, largely because cartoons were the perfect vehicle for "animating" classical music.

Tam said...

I think it is interesting that my kid's favorite cartoons are the old Tom & Jerry and the classic Pink Panther. He loves Penguins of Madagascar and Phineas and Ferb and SpongeBob, but given the choice, he always chooses the classics.

AndrewPrice said...

Tam, I've heard that from several people. When given a choice, kids seem to gravitate toward the older stuff.

I think everything about the older stuff appeals to kids on their level. The stories are simpler, the characters are more goofy, and the cartoon worlds are more fantastic. Today's stuff is simply too real, and I think that makes it more dull.

Ed said...

Bullwinkle is awesome, especially the Fractured Fairy Tales. There hasn't been anything like that in a long time, and it doesn't look like there will be looking at the bland or obnoxious cartoons they're making today.

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, I think there are some good things going on, but they aren't the norm. As I mention above, I think South Park is one of the best social satires in decades. And Up and Wall-E were truly impressive story telling. But there isn't much in the way of cartoony-cartoons anymore.

LL said...

I don't think we have the wit and wisdom left in Hollywood remaining to create the likes of Loony Tunes.

A lot of thought went into cartoons such as the Road Runner -- and today they'd have to pass through censors from Greenpeace, PETA and would never pass.

It's a pity. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Unknown said...

Andrew: I am suddenly faced with having to entertain grandkids. The younger ones are relatively easy, since you can give them simple games and basic toys, and they're happy as clams. But here is the wisdom of a four-year old. I have the DVD of Disney's Dumbo. The grandkids watched it intently. They laughed at the funny scenes, "awwwed" at the cute scenes, got teary-eyed at the sad scenes, and cheered at the triumphal scenes at the end. The four-year old asked me afterwards "how come they don't show those cartoons on TV?" They instinctively understood exactly what you've written about. A flying elephant--aww, c'mon. Now what happens next?

AndrewPrice said...

LL, "Sic transit gloria mundi" -- very nice!

I agree that the process has changed. When you see shows about how they did it in the past, the animators at the time were literally inventing the genre. And the key was that they were "experimenting," i.e. trying everything to see what worked and what they could achieve.

There's little experimentation today. What you have instead, is everyone following well worn film formula and striving only to perfect what has already been done. And I think that really harms the level of creativity.

I see the same thing in the music world, where they've stopped experimenting and are instead simply tinkering with a proven model. . . which creates nothing but dullness and sameness.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I think you've made a great point -- kids get this! They can easily separate good from bad and they gravitate to the good, which is why the old stuff continues to sell.

When I was young, I remember people complaining "old cartoons are often too scary or too sad or too violent." But it was the emotional moments that made them great and no one ever took the violence seriously. Nobody thinks you can smack your cat with a frying pan and you'll see stars.

What they've done is to suck the soul out of modern cartoons. They're slick and progessed, but they're not fun and the don't really reach you anymore.

That's one of the things I thought was so great about Up and Wall-E, is that both were very emotional. . . very well done.

Tennessee Jed said...

To Darski's point, possibly the greatest example was Fantasia--- way ahead of it's time. Can anyone argue that Mickey Mouse as the scorcerer's apprentice was as good as it gets?

Tennessee Jed said...

Hawk - I entertained my grand daughters (11 and 7) with Fess Parker as Davy Crockett. I don't know if it was the east Tennessee connection or not, but they actually loved it. Strangely, it actually held up quite well for 62 year old young at heart types as well.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I love Fantasia! The marriage between classical music and the animation they've done in Fantasia is absolutely perfect. It really is a masterpiece!

And while I agree with you about Mickey, my favorite moment is actually that moment when the poor crocodile is waiting for the impact as the hippo ballerina flies through the air towards him!

Great stuff!

Unknown said...

Tennessee: I had a Davy Crockett leather jacket, fringe and all. But I demurred on the coonskin hat.

Andrew: They can indeed figure out quickly who the good guys are. Sneakiness (a common trait among Congressional Democrats) was a particularly undesirable trait derided in cartoons of old. Not nuanced enough today.

Also, I knew things were going downhill when the best cartoons (and the most fun) were being criticized for being "too violent." As if a kid can't figure out that Wile E. Coyote wasn't really being blown up with Acme Dynamite and Yosemite Sam wasn't really filling his opponents with lead.

And now you know why my favorite cartoon character is the Tasmanian Devil.

wahsatchmo said...

It’s funny, because I’ve seen Spongebob, Dexter’s Lab, Invader Zim, etc., and while they have some of the mania and spit-takes of old, they lack a certain something that was there in yesteryear. Maybe it’s heart, maybe it’s a certain sense of style; I’m not really sure.

That said, Nick Park’s Wallace & Gromit claymation series is just about spot on for modern day animation that has that flavor of the old school. I showed “A Matter of Loaf and Death” to my niece and nephew, and they loved it. Yeah, it’s not a cartoon, but it’s done so lovingly that I hate for anyone not to see it.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I can imagine you in a raccoon hat. . . scary! LOL!

I know what you mean about the loss of subtlety. It's amazing how stupid they seem to think their audiences are today, compared to how much credit they used to give their audiences. Sad.

And you're right about the cartoony violence. No kid that I've ever come across thinks it's real. . . but quite a few liberal college professors apparently do.

AndrewPrice said...

wahsatchmo, I am a HUGE Wallace & Gromit fan. In fact, I rate Gromit as the most expressive "cartoon" character of all time -- and he doesn't even have a mouth. It's just incredible work! Plus, I think the shows have been so well done. I really hope they do more.

BevfromNYC said...

LawHawk - I spent many years working in "children's theatre" and what your 4 year old grandchild says about cartoons translates to the stage as well. You can always tell when you lose their attention - children don't lie and are not polite. They get loud and fidgety.

And it's a misconception that children need fast-paced, frenetic action to hold their attention. As a matter of fact, it is just the opposite. They will watch grass if you tell a good story about growing grass. If it is a good story told well, they get it. Walt Disney built his empire on it.

Joel Farnham said...


You are right, and some of the old ones have been banned because of racism.

What lost me was the animation. When the animators started dropping the number of cells per frame, it became harder to watch and then harder to enjoy. Now, I do watch some because I have kids who enjoy it, but it isn't the same.

AndrewPrice said...

Bev, I think that's true as well. Holding someone's attention (children included) is about engaging their mind and pulling them into the story. Substituting frenetic action for quality storytelling can keep people interested for a little bit until the novelty wears off, but it can't hold anyone long term. . . though too many people today seem to think it can.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, I've had a real problem with the switch from hand-drawn to computer drawn. The hand-drawn animation felt very real and often gave you the sense of an immersive world. But the computer stuff is sterile and moves strangely.

As for the racism issue, yes, the problem with cartoons is that what is considered acceptable changes a lot in the world of PC childrens programming. Thus, things that were once intended to be politically correct positive displays of foreign cultures are now considered racist. Cigarettes are being digitally removed from all cartoons in England. Violence is being removed in some places, characters deleted in others.

Even "Sesame Street", the ultimate purveyor of political correctness now comes with a warning label that it's "not intended for children" when you buy the early episodes because what was considered progressive then is now seen as racist and evil by the new progressives.

Individualist said...

I think the main problem today with cartoons is that the creators are trying to hard to be childrens cartoons.

Daffy Duck, the Coyote, Elmer even Mickey, Minnie and Goofy were still played as adults in zany situations. Many of the cartoon had adult themes behind them that went over the kids heads and made them enjoyable for all ages.

Today they go two ways. They try ti be too gross or intentionally to childish. The children see through it. The only cartoon that does not fall into this category that I can think of is Phineas and Ferb.

AndrewPrice said...

Individualist, I think there is something to what you say. The level at which cartoon are drawn seems to be different today.

Older cartoons tended to have a great deal of nuance in that they were obviously aimed at children, but they were crawling with adult themes. It's like the creators were doing something that would entertain themselves and then had to tone it down a bit for the kids.

Today's cartoons are either totally aimed at adults, in which case they usually stink, or they are completely aimed at kids and they're done at a very simpleton, childish level. It's like they've all gone to the See Spot Run level, when they should be aiming for Animal Farm.

Anonymous said...

I love Roger Rabbit. It's like a movie that celebrated cartoons. Love it.

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