Thursday, October 26, 2006

cartoon renaissance

It seems obvious to me, on the release of Justice League Unlimited volume 1 on DVD, that for the last, oh, fifteen years we've been living in a cartoon renaissance. I'm obviously biased toward Burce Timm and Paul Dini's creations, especially as a Batman fan from days of yore. But the 1990s ushered in an age of cartoons like no other. Sure, I'm acknowleding that Looney Toons are classic and that Bugs and Daffy and Disney did great stuff in the Golden Age but I think we're easily in a new one.

In the early 1990s you had stuff ranging from Animaniacs, Duck Tales (hey, really, it wasn't at all bad), Tiny Toons (at least early on before they sucked), Freakazoid, Batman: the animated sereis, Superman: the animate dseries, Gargoyles (that I never saw but heard good things about), Beast Wars (frankly, better written overall than the firs Transformers cartoon), and eventually Justice League. I don't really need to mention the Simpsons because their cultural significance is indisputable but I'll mention them anyway. And then there's South Park, only recently become a favorite of mine. Yes, I like cartoons, and I obviously don't discriminate based on restrictions about style or content. I enjoyed Ranma 1/2 and what I've seen of Samuai Champloo. I do want a good story and interesting characters.

Then there's Pixar and the ascendancy of Miyazaki's work into American animation markets and Brad Bird's Iron Giant and, of course, the SOuth Park movie. It's hard to imagine a wider variety of styles, subjects, and stories available in animation now. But some people seem to think things were better fifty years ago. I submit that they were just as good but in a very different way.

I think to some degree we can credit the surge in good cartoons to people who get blamed for bad movies: Lucas & Spielberg. I don't know if this was always intentional or directly caused by these two guys but I read somewhere in some interview with Paul Dini that he thought these two guys had behind the scenes credit for getting a lot of great cartoons started. I suppose some could snipe that glorified cartoons are what those directors are good at. I think that's a bit unfair. On the one hand such a move presumes that animators working on Looney Tunes knew they were making classics. Maybe they did but the fun of those cartoons is they weren't acting as self-important as "important" film-makers have sometimes come across.

And the insult "glorified cartoon" is passe because it makes an assumption about a whole field of art that, if applied to two different groups of people instead of two fiels of artistic expression, would be seen as being as stupid and ethnocentric as it is. Putting down cartoons for being cartoons is sort of like ripping into American Indians for being American Indians. Harsh overstatement, perhaps, but I'll stand by it. I've seen some more real human emotion in The Incredibles than in stupid films like American Beauty. If people wonder where all the intelligent films have gone since the 1970s (as I see a few bemoaning) I wonder if they would stop looking only at live action once in a while.

Speaking as a single guy I have heard some people lament how sometimes there seems to be a meat market around them. I think this is analogous to complaints about a loss of "intelligent" film. The thing I ask is, by analogy, is the meat market always there or did you bring it with you? Did the intelligent film-makers stop making intelligent films or did you overestimate them based on the best sampling of their work when their just like all the others, fallible artists who got lucky?

I'll admit I can be snobby about a few things but even I know that sometimes having fun is the first prerequisite to discovering something is art. Fun and art don't have to be contradictions in terms. But not everyone is going to have fun with Messiaen at first hearing. The best education is an invitation to find new ways to have un rather than impose a definition of fun on the student and that's a problem everyone can stumble into.

Well, I've had my rant for the day.


JS Bangs said...

Ooh, I'm glad you mentioned Animaniacs. Better, on the whole, than the original Looney Tunes, IMO. But how could you have overlooked Pinky and the Brain?

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

I thought it would be easier to mention Animaniacs and let a reader dig around to find out Pinky and the Brain was part of that show. Plus I didn't get to see enough of Pinky & the Brain's spinoff show to know how well it worked. I remember something about Brain having a rare record of Rush Limbaugh singing an a capella version of "Dream Weaver", though. :)

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

I also overlooked The Tick, which I didn't see (literally) until this last weekend. It's not quite as awesome as Freakazoid but it's still worthy and Ben Edlund's Angel episodes were cooler than anything Joss Whedon did with season 7 Buffy.