Thursday, June 16, 2016

recent Atlantic feature about She-ra opens with one of the more readily disputable claims about animation in the US of the last forty years "The 1980s were a golden era for TV cartoons". I beg to differ

 
The 1980s were a golden era for TV cartoons. Animated shows including The Smurfs, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and The Real Ghostbusters featured vivid landscapes and a variety of strange heroes, from blue forest people to human-cat hybrids to sewer turtles. But they had one significant thing in common. As the writer Katha Pollitt noted in The New York Times in 1991, most cartoon series featured a legion of male characters but only a single female, a phenomenon that Pollitt called the “Smurfette Principle.” Because the animation industry and the children’s toy market were so closely linked at the time, the trope of a token girl amid a troupe of boys dominated not only television, but also the shelves of toy stores.
 
having actually been a kid from that time the era was not exactly a golden era for TV cartoons.  It was a golden era for fully integrated mass media marketing campaigns that had as their singular aim the promotion of toys, video games, and things like that ... but in terms of animation as an art form that aspired to more than making new ways to sell Diaclone toys that's another matter.
 
The article focuses on She-ra as a kind of proto-Powerpuff triumph.  The thing is, the case that cartoons were some kind of boy-centric thing comes off as slightly overstated.
 
it's been drubbed by film critics but the Jem and the Holograms live-action film suggests that for those who remember the cartoon from the 1980s it was not strictly some boys' club.  The existence of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is predicated on its 1980s-era forebear.  The Care Bears got TWO movies inside of the Reagan era and an animated show.  Rainbow Brite had an animated show.  Strawberry Shortcake had an animated world to explore.  The fact that middle-aged men with more money than aesthetic sense may keep giving Michael Bay an incentive to make Transformers movies isn't in itself a proof that the 1980s were a golden age for `toons.
 
This day I considered the shows from the 1980s I could remember readily.
 
There was a Care Bears show.  Lotso from Toy Story 3 was, a rumor has it, intended to be an evil Care Bear. 
How about Pole Position? Remember playing that video game?  Check out the cartoon series!  If your tastes veered more toward Pac Man or Donkey Kong (and associated games) there were cartoons for those, too.  If we wanted to float the idea that cartoons could incorporate primarily minority cast characters there's always Rubik the Amazing Cube but the show was, to put it nicely, nothing more than an advertisement for, you know.  Dan Riba would go on to work on far more memorable stuff later!
 
Actually ... as animated spin-offs from a live-action tie-in go ... Mister T had a catchy theme song and is a couple of steps up from Rubik (in my opinion, obviously).  Maybe people won't remember Cavadini's work in this cartoon but maybe they'll remember her (deservedly so!) for her work as Blossom.
 
Then there's Turbo Teen. There's the Gary Coleman Show.Thundarr the Barbarian was pretty solid for a Ruby Spears production.
 
And who could forget Alvin & the Chipmunks from the 1980s?  And that franchise spawned a few live-action features, as did, obviously, the Smurfs.  Now we could easily establish that in the 1980s some juggernaut franchises emerged that led to many live-action films being made in this century film critics wish they didn't have to review ... but to say of that age of Reagan that it was a golden era for TV cartoons ... that's not how I remember it and I was a kid in that era.  If you want to get the Gummi Bears adventures on disc I'm sure you can.  Surely, by now, you're sensing a theme with variations.
 
I mean, once you get past the obvious toy commercials like G. I. Joe, Transformers, He-Man ... when you factor in Thundercats and Silverhawks it's ... still hard to say confidently the 1980s was a golden era for TV cartoons.  There's those, and Ducktales and Tailspin were memorably solid shows.  Disney's TV line was far more steady in the 1980s than its feature film `toons.  The franchises that keep coming back with live-action films are the ones that had genuinely bankable toys.  I'm not reading anything in any trade magazines (even if I read those) about a Gummi Bears revival just yet.  The Jem movie may have been pilloried by film critics but somebody thought the premise could work.  And Jem could be said to have taken up an element from, say, Josie and the Pussycats. 
 
Whereas in the 1990s we can throw in The Simpsons, Batman: the animated series, Animaniacs, Tiny Toons, Tailspin, Gargoyles, Superman: the animated series.  Beavis & Butthead, Freakazoid, The Powerpuff Girls, Ren & Stimpy, Static Shock, and South Park.  We could even throw in Transformers: Beast Wars and that's not even remotely comprehensive for a list. 
 
If you want to make a case that there was a golden era for TV cartoons the 1990s seem like a stronger candidate.  While Maria Theresa Hart is welcome to think of the 1980s as a golden era for TV cartoons, for this kid who was around for that era there was a lot of cut-rate stuff.  And arguably things have gotten vastly better as people began to treat animation as an art form that had a purpose besides getting kids to persuade parents to shell out money for toys, video games, snack foods and so on.  It's just impossible for me to see the 1980s as a golden era for TV cartoons.  The golden era for animation for TV toons was the 1990s.  For that matter even feature animation in the 1980s was often not that good.  The Transformers movie from back then is barely ... you know ... I have to admit I could never finish watching it.  The Bayformer films hold up better.  Whereas I'd watch The Last Unicorn again.  And in the 1990s?  Well, some studio called Pixar made some film about toys and, in contrast to the 1980s precedent, got it to have some more artistic weight to it for ... some reason.  It's not that you can't make animation that ends up selling toys, it's that there's other stuff that has to happen, too.  Jem was not the token girl, for instance, she was the whole point of her show. 

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