You hear cartoons and you groan. Cartoons aren’t the masterpieces they were when you were a kid. What happened to a good old fashioned cat and mouse chase (of course, the mouse always wins in the end) or those three kids who could fit ginormous gobstoppers in their mouth? They just don’t make cartoons like that anymore.
I don’t blame you. If you caught two odd minutes of Adventure Time you’d probably think ‘what **** are kids watching these days?’ and I’d forgive you… for your momentary lapse of judgement.
Cartoons have always had their share of insanity. Some still do. But lately they’ve grown far more inclusive, praised for diversity and interesting storylines. So put your brain on a back seat while I tell you about some cartoons that may change your perspective.
Yes. This is the craziest cartoon that will be on the list, it’s essentially about a boy and a dog who are heroes, fight monsters and often aid the Candy Kingdom. It’s takes all the classic fairytale elements of rescuing princesses as a kid and rolls with them and inverts them at the same time. Sure the princesses need rescuing sometimes but the Ice King who kidnaps them is more like a pest than a real threat. Plus what other show has genderbent fanfiction of the main characters written by one of the antagonists and an implied past lesbian romance between a Princess and a vampire?
Miraculous Tales of Ladybug and Cat Noir
Shhh don’t blame me for enjoying this. This is half a superhero cartoon and half a Western version of the magical girl animes. It’s also the only show on this list that isn’t American, it’s actually French. Set in Paris and featuring a Diverse cast (the main character is half-Chinese and her best friend’s family are originally from Martinique – a French territory in the Caribbean) and a female character with a male sidekick. Each episode the villain, Hawkmoth, ‘acumatises’ someone, which essentially means he uses their negative emotions to turn them evil and give them powers and instead of solely defeating them, the heroes – Ladybug and Cat Noir – save them. It may be very simple as it’s aimed at younger viewers, but it has quickly amassed a large fan-following on tumblr. While the episode in season one were all standalone, the creators have said that the second series will feature a series arc which could be very interesting considering the mythology of the ‘Kwami’ that give Ladybug and Cat Noir their powers.
Gravity Falls is my favourite of favourites. Seriously this show is beautiful. It’s about two twins who go to visit their Great Uncle Stan in Gravity Falls, Oregon. They help him run the Mystery Shack and learn about all the mysterious things that happen in Gravity Falls, from lake monsters to time-travellers. All the characters have such distinctive personality, while Dipper is the smart one he still acts like a young boy and Mabel is just the right side of crazy, add in conman Grunkle Stan and you have a perfect trio. But the reason I love this show so much, is its attention to detail. There is an overall series arc that features prominently in the second (and final) season, where the show reaches a natural conclusion. As the finale hits, a lot of things in previous episodes come together. This show is a really good example of planning and how it’s clear that show creator Alex Hirsch knew exactly how the show was going to end from the beginning. Plus Bill Cipher is a fantastic villain.
Steven Universe in some way resembles a ‘magical girl anime’, except it’s the male protagonist Steven that embodies this role. Steven lives in a city with three magical humanoid aliens called ‘the Crystal Gems’ (he is half-Gem himself) and goes on adventures with his friends and the Gems. The series has been praised for characterisation, worldbuilding and even more notably, queer representation. Unlike other kids shows that have only suggested queer relationships (Adventure Time) or subtly showed the relation (the Legend of Korra), the LGBT themes in Steven Universe are far more prominent in the second season. It’s approach to gender is also far more fluid and it’s important their queer youth (and adults) see a representation of themselves.
Star Wars Rebels
After watching the second season I’m forced to remind myself how much I doubt that this is truly just a ‘cartoon’. While shown on Disney X D and perfectly appropriate for children to watch, the emotionally driven season finale (Twilight of the Apprentice), seems to have set the series on a far darker path. Star Wars Rebels is set in the years before Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope and tells the story of a band of rebels fighting against the Empire, including Ezra, a jedi-in-training and his master Kanan. With the change of old Star Wars properties becoming classed as Legends, it’s given Disney the opportunity to build their own canon and Star Wars Rebels fits within that. As well as featuring characters from the Clone Wars TV show (which introduced the brilliant Ahsoka Tano and features one of my favourite episodes of anything ever, ‘the Wrong Jedi’) it also includes appearances from characters from the films, like Lando Calrissian, Leia Organa and of course, Darth Vader. Rebels is delving deeper into the mythology of Star Wars, the jedi and the sith, don’t let its status as an animated show scare you away. Rebels is a must watch for any Star Wars fan.
The Last Airbender
The Last Airbender is a story about Aang, frozen in an ice cap for several years and thawed by Katara and her brother Sokka. The world the story is set in, is one in which many people have the ability to ‘bend’ a specific element, with Katara being a waterbender and Aang, an airbender. But Aang is also the Avatar, someone reincarnated each generation who has the ability to control all four elements. The world has been taken over by the Fire Nation and Aang must learn to control the other three elements in order to stop the Fire Nation. This show has incredibly strong characterisation, and all the characters (including the main antagonist at the start of the series, Zuko) go through a large amount of character development. As well as the shows excellent use of humour, the Last Airbender was one of the first cartoons that really showed children, and adults, that animated shows could be more than just purely episodic sequences.
The Legend of Korra
Having mentioned the Last Airbender, I can’t go without talking about its sequel series, the Legend of Korra. Set after Aang’s death and Korra becomes the Avatar, it tells her story in a changing world. Being set decades after its partner series, it’s not necessary to see the Last Airbender beforehand, but it does expand on the lore of the original. More importantly it’s one of the few fantasy series (across any medium) that show a genuine progression across time, with the Legend of Korra taking place in a time that mirrors the industrial revolution, with automobiles taking to the streets in the places of mounts. Unlike Aang who was only a child in the Last Airbender, Korra is a teenager when the series takes place. Though aired on Nickelodeon, it’s very clear that Korra’s intended audience were in the teen years. As well as prejudice and terrorism that is approached in the first series, in regards to character development it focuses on issues that may more commonly fall under the ‘YA’ bracket. One of which being an approach to love triangles, however, it’s tackled in a much more mature way than in any other medium (particularly novels) and over the course of the four ‘books’ it accepts that relationships change and end, portraying a far more realistic view than any other medium. It also goes on a more emotional journey than you’d find in most television shows and at the heart of it is the portrayal of Korra, that though skilled in her powers, is flawed in so many ways that it brings a great truth to her character.
Having ended that on a deeper note than I started, this hopefully demonstrates the breadth of stories told in cartoons today. The past decade of films have demonstrated that animated films can appeal to people of all ages, with films like Shrek featuring hidden adult jokes and more recent films like Zootropolis (or Zootopia, depending what country you’re from) focusing on heavy themes like racism and prejudice. With so many kids channels and programs available, it’s just as important to consider children’s animation. Whether you’re watching cartoons because you genuinely fancy checking these out or because your child wants to watch them, cartoons have also started to cater for adults and I think it’s important to acknowledge that even if the intended audience isn’t you specifically, it doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it.
But what do you think, are cartoons just as capable of telling compelling stories and reaching wider audiences as any other medium?