First of all this article is not about having a go at the Nostalgia Critic. I love him, he’s awesome and great fun. Plus his latest video arguing that kid’s shows are now better than ever raise some valid points (watch it here.) However here are a few points I would like to bring up.
1. “You still get some mindless shows”
This is my first point- generally speaking with any era of cartoons we remember the classics and forget the junk. However I would argue even something silly like Captain Planet at least had its heart in the right place. Yes there were the celebrity cartoons (Hammerman? New Kids on the Block?) and baffling spinoffs (Little Shop) but these did not detract from the fact the late 80’/early 90’s had some great shows from the darkness of Batman: The Animated Series to the kooky oddball antics of Earthworm Jim.
While Doug rightfully highlights quality like Adventure Time in some respects it means the shows of lesser quality can be more painful- no amount of intertextual snarkiness or kooky random bantz makes up for that.
2.”The more effort in the show the bigger the hit it is”
I think the makers of Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, Young Justice and any number of unfairly cancelled shows would disagree on this. Also from my perspective as a British viewer without satellite TV a lot of these shows I’m either denied access to or take longer to get to.
In Britain we also have the issue of less funding for production of kid’s shows, something that partially came about as an unintended consequence of clamping down on junk food promotion for kids. This means that we rely more on imports and remakes (Thunderbirds, Dangermouse, The Clangers and Teletubbies have all either been remade or will be remade.)
Please don’t take this as an anti-American rant. A lot of the cartoons I love are American and I would love to work on that kind of scale (also if there is some magic way I could meet Andrea Romano that would be awesome).
3. ” Cartoons focused more on what’ll sell toys”
Again we go back to Young Justice- according to a recent interview with the creators the show was cancelled because executives felt it was directed at both girls and boys, fearing this wouldn’t sell merchandise.
Also I would argue the shift has been to a different style of selling- shirts, novelties, collector items etc.
4. “Creators were going through a transitional period”
I would argue all creative work is always a “transitional period.” Hanna Barbera cashed in on trends in the Seventies (Kung fu, Jaws etc), we had a period of kiddie versions of older shows (including Roseanne for some bizarre reason) and so forth.
However a lot of those shows were great because they established formulas- The wacky nature of Adventure Time would not be possible without Tiny Toons and Animaniacs, while Batman The Animated Series not only influenced subsequent cartoons but also the comics themselves.
A good example of this is Sonic- in effect we had a cartoon that grew up with us, going from slapstick to a darker adventure series (again arguably paving the way for shows to push the boundaries a bit more).
5. “Not always comedic/not always dramatic”
Real Ghostbusters was a good example of this blend, plus plenty of live action kid’s shows in the 90’s did this (Grange Hill, Byker Grove being two examples in the UK of shows that did confront real life issues but did so in a realistic way.)
6. “Designs are simpler than ones in the past”
True but that does also mean those shows can seem a little crude. There is also the odd moment that can take you out of the action when something doesn’t seem to fit the tone or is a little too random.
7. “Shows from back then wouldn’t touch these issues”
As stated before maybe not cartoons but there were definitely shows that did (as I say in the UK the aforementioned Grange Hill and Byker Grove). Also shows like Animaniacs actually did manage to subtly put in educational messages without being overly annoying about it.
8. “People got tired of rewarding repeat programming”
How many remake shows have we had? Don’t get me wrong the latest CGI Ninja Turtles is great and what I’ve seen of MLP: Friendship Is Magic is a quirky and silly show that is nonetheless well made. But equally we have also had the snarky Ultimate Spiderman, the ambitious but ultimately flawed remake of Thundercats and any number of incarnations of Transformers. While Sonic Boom is great fun it exists as a promotional tool (albeit a well written one that’s pleasing to watch).
This video is fab but what it seems to highlight is one thing- the high points of the current crop of kid’s shows are very high indeed and they do indeed deserve praise. But equally there is something to be said for the artistry of Batman, the charm of the Disney Afternoon era cartoons and the oddball nutty of shows like Earthworm Jim, Samurai Pizza Cats and Animaniacs. Also shows like Mighty Max pushed the boundaries (for a show plugging the boy equivalent of Polly Pocket it was super dark!)
I don’t think this is a golden age because I don’t believe in them- inevitably for every one or two brilliant shows there will be about a half dozen that are bunkum.
It’s good to see boundaries being pushed but I do think there are other issues that need to be addressed. One reason I want to make Reynard City is because there are 90’s cartoons that did have heart and weren’t just money making machines. And it would be an honour to pay homage to an era I love.