What Does Any Of It Matter?

What does any of this matter, my past two blogs? The animation companies get to make what they want to, they make money (to an extent), and the kids that they’re targeted at are entertained. So why should I care? Am I just speaking because I like the feel of air leaving my lungs? Why make a big deal of most people don’t?

First, let me see if I can identify certain executive philosophies that go into the cartoons that are made. They are deeply conservative, not in the sense that they are socially conservative, but conservative in the sense that there’s no innovation, or that innovation is, at best, a copy of a previous success. There’s a constant drive to create the next (name of popular franchise here), and not because of the love of the characters involved, or the desire to write a quality story using those characters, but to bank on name recognition. That’s why there are currently 4 Shrek movies in existence, with a 5th in development I do believe. Not because Shrek is such a beloved character, or because the writers had enough material to constitute five movies worth, but because Dreamworks made Phat $tack$ of ciz-nash off of the Shrek branding. Dreamworks knew the first one was worth a mint, so they contract a second, and a third, and so on. The second one performing the best, and then each successive one performing worse and worse. In fact, there’s a good chance that a movie will perform in the red in the theaters, but it will still get made. Why?

Merchandising. With each Shrek movie made, there are toys, pajamas, books, DVDs, stuffed animals, clothing, cards, video games, music CDs, lunch boxes, sleeping bags, stickers, snack and food branding, variously branded toiletries for young’n’s, pup tents for kids, iPod skins, earbuds, jewelry, and happy meal tie-ins. I’m sure there are things I didn’t even list that I have seen before. I tried to mentally go through Target department by department and list the contents therein. At any rate, merchandising is another Disney inheritance. Back when Walt rolled out his first animated feature, all of his film buddies told him he was crazy, there’s no way an animated feature will succeed. Walt replied that the money was in the merchandising, and not the film itself. The prospect of an animated feature not succeeding today (no matter how abysmal) seems totally unintuitive of what we have successfully observed.

So, it’s more or less the philosophy of merchandising that prohibits most experimental and creative properties (animated or otherwise) from being moved. Whenever a person approaches a major animation studio with a concept or a script, the studio wants to find out who they can market the movie to (like how Coraline got marketed to a younger audience than is responsibly acceptable), and if there isn’t a demographic, or there’s not a lot of space for cross promotions, interest wanes, and chances are the project gets axed. If one is willing to search, they can find many accounts of entire crews being assembled, many important names being attached to a project, but the project being give the red light because there wasn’t enough visible room, in the executive’s eyes, for viable marketing. Hence the large influx of independently created movies today.

Because of this desire to bank on previous success, companies are hesitant to try out an untested formula. Joe Murray (Rocko’s Modern Life), John K. (Ren and Stimpy), and Johnen Vazquez (Invader Zim) have often discussed the difficulty they had getting their properties on the air. Despite the fact that all three (and others not listed here) proved to be runaway smash hits, companies still proceed with this tentative and creativity squashing method.

I think there’s also more of an unspoken societal view that the public at large holds that the cartoon, by its very nature, is an inferior format. Since it’s innately inferior, certain things like crappy characterization, poor plot progression and sloppy writing are all excusable. It’s similar to how we don’t hold fan fiction up to the same scrutiny we hold literature; because one is an amateur attempt, and the other is professional. This philosophy assumes that cartoons are strictly a kid’s medium, while ignoring things like the fact that the most influential cartoons have been universally praised, such as original Warner Brother’s cartoons (which set the standard for what’s considered “cartoony”), and Ren and Stimpy (whose influence is still seen in any cartoon shown on Nickelodeon after 1994).

I would also venture to say that there’s a societal belief that kids are incapable of dealing with subtlety, which is totally inaccurate if you’ve ever actually dealt with kids. Kids are remarkably perceptive. As an example: I remember watching an informercial with my brother, he was five or maybe six, for some mixing implement. Later on, my brother was telling my mom how she needed to buy this mixing implement because it could do this or that thing that he knew she often did in her own cooking. He himself connected concept A with concept B with no prompting from any source. Because kids are so obviously incapable of handling subtlety, we have to spell things out for them, which is why cartoons have so much preaching.

That is some relatively new thinking among human kind. Think back almost three thousand years ago to the ancient Greeks. What did they do for fun? They listened to orators and storytellers, people who told stories or gave speeches. This was big entertainment back in the good old days. One of the best storytellers was a guy named Homer who made a couple of epic poems known as The Iliad and The Odyssey. These were seriously popular, as can be evidenced by the fact that they are still read today. If we think back to an ancient campfire, everyone’s there. Including the kids. Before anyone says anything, the point of this isn’t how kids were treated, so a statement along the lines of how the kids were there, but there wasn’t any kid’s entertainment might be true, but doesn’t refute my point. My point is that children were with the adults absorbing the adult entertainment. If you went to a temple or synagogue, the kids and the adults would all be in the same place watching whatever play, or hearing whatever oration. And it was this way, or close enough to it, until recent times, when we started making philosophies that said kids can’t handle subtlety, and they certainly can’t handle what we can, so we have to make watered down and cheapened content for the kids. And much in the same way jazz eventually resulted in death metal, and there is little resemblance between the two, Disney eventually resulted in Dora the Explorer, and there’s little resemblance between the two.

So, what does any of it matter? First, it matters because cartoons have become a platform for politics, and it’s not fair. Even though I think most kids ignore or just completely do not care what the preached and pathos message is, but it’s not fair because these companies are preying on a kid’s desire to see something wacky and turning it into something political. Even though I bet the ratio of kids who personalize the messages and those who don’t, say 1 to 15, is pretty low, it’s still unfair that they’re kind of being preyed upon by the studios.

The second is that it seems symptomatic of a failing philosophy. I’m not certain what exactly that philosophy is, and I couldn’t point to it by name, but it does certain things, like making us preach to kids through cartoons, like remaking the same thing over and over to make just a little bit more, like avoiding the unproven because it’s untested. It’s very much a blanding process that seems to homogenize culture. And this philosophy isn’t exclusive to cartoons, and it’s not a cartoon philosophy, it’s a philosophy that seems to dictate a number of things, of which cartoons is one.

And the third is that I just kind of miss it. Don’t you? Don’t you miss an old good Disney cartoon? Don’t you miss a bizarre and nonsensical Bugs Bunny cartoon? How about when there was more than one cartoon studio pumping out quality character driven shorts? There used to be Disney, WB, Fleischer, MGM, Upo, and Bashki. All of them turning out shorts, 5-7 minute cartoons, based on characters, and then engineering ridiculous stories around these characters. I miss the creativity and the variety. Half hour shows can be good, feature length is rarely good, but those shorts were gold. Nothing has achieved that popularity or that notoriety and name recognition. When was the last time you saw a Popeye cartoon? Betty Boop? Mighty Mouse? Probably the 50s, and yet everyone still knows who they are. They still appear on clothes, backpacks, dolls, toys, and lunch boxes. They haven’t done anything new in close to 60 years, but everyone knows who they are. I’m not saying that these characters should be brought back, because we’d screw it up. They were characters made by people of the time for the people of the time, and in many regards, can only be understood in the context of the time, but I am saying that perhaps we should try to recover a little bit of that creative energy and that experimental philosophy, and then let the creative folk do what they do best.

That’s what I’m talking about.

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One Response to “What Does Any Of It Matter?”

  1. I’m with you, and I think the popularity of comic books continues even to today because of their “episodic” nature… it’s why people crave a series of books rather than just one. They don’t, in all cases, fall in love with the world or the author, but the characters and concepts really give them something to latch onto and relate to. These old school characters you mention, they had something that a preachy vehicle on Cartoon Network will never have. Frankly, this is the only explanation I can come up with for the Spongebob phenomenon… a cartoon that I honestly just can’t understand but the character is lovable and unique and catchy (and easily marketed on every piece of merchandise in the spectrum of kid’s consumables).

    Lots to chew on here, as usual.

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