Why 80's and 90's Cartoons Are So Great
Don’t you hate when an older generation goes on and about how much greater things were when they were younger? I don’t want to be that person, but I would like to reminisce about the great cartoons that I watched in late 80’s and early 90’s. Call me biased, but this was the golden age of cartoons in my opinion, and they are shows that I still enjoy watching when I can find them.
Sadly, the cartoons that air on TV these days cannot compare in my eyes. I can’t help but think that if kids were exposed to older cartoons, they’d get a lot more out of their TV time. Here are some of the reasons why I believe this.
They were inspired by movies and other established characters of the day.
The Disney Channel had access to an arsenal of characters that they used to turn into animated TV shows. Back in the day (if your parents were “rich” enough to subscribe to The Disney Channel or you had a free preview weekend), this station was loaded with TV shows based on its famous films, both animated and live action (remember Adventures in Wonderland and The Super Mario Bros. Show?). Other stations followed, developing kid-friendly, animated story lines surrounding some famous movies of the day. I already knew these characters, and it was interesting to watch them go on 30 minute, kid-friendly adventures each week.
Examples: Beetlejuice, The Real Ghostbusters, TalesSpin, The Little Mermaid
They had great animation.
When I see a new cartoon on Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network, I can’t stand the stiff, bland animation. Though not every older cartoon was a work of art, they didn’t feature a group of simply drawn characters on flat, uninteresting backgrounds. They also didn't rely on CG animation or stills colored by a computer. These were unique, detailed worlds that became iconic and works of art. They had the over-the-top movements of a WB cartoon and were set by colorful, detailed backdrops.
Examples: Batman: The Animated Series, Hey Arnold!, The Busy World of Richard Scary, Inspector Gadget
They created smaller versions of beloved characters.
Just as cartoons based on movies were successful, so were cartoons based on the younger versions of classic characters. It was fun to see the tradition of the Muppets and Looney Tunes continue on in pint-sized forms and updated for a new audience. My parents took me to see The Muppet Babies live when I was about two years old, and one of my earliest memories was of breaking away from my mom after the show was over to try to go meet Baby Piggy. The Muppets were my Beatles, and The Muppet Babies were my way into this lifelong obsession.
Examples: The Muppet Babies, Tiny Toon Adventures, A Pup Named Scooby-Doo
There were more superhero shows than you could count.
Even before the superhero movie boom that came from the success of the Spider-Man franchise, kids were watching animated versions of their favorite comic book heroes as well as newly created heroes that ruled the 90’s. Animated superhero shows have come before and since, but Batman: The Animated Series in particular is still widely regarded as one of the greatest adaptations of the character of all time. You can see the influence that these shows had in the Batman comics and films that were released after the show. Just because a show is animated and geared towards kids doesn't mean it isn't great art.
Examples: Batman: The Animated Series, Superman, Spider-Man, X-Men, Captain Planet and the Planeteers, Darkwing Duck, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
They had fun plotlines involving regular kids.
Kids love shows whose main characters are talking animals and people with super powers, and I don’t blame them, but some of my favorite shows growing up were about real kids. These protagonists were just worried about trying to get through a tough homework assignment or trying to keep themselves from getting sucked down the bathtub drain.
Examples: Doug, The Rugrats, Hey Arnold!, Bobby's World
There was still that old-school slapstick and pun-filled humor.
The eliminating violence in cartoons campaign must have won out because aside from the action shows for boys, there isn’t a lot of that quick-witted, Looney Tunes humor and anvil-on-the-head violence that used to dominate the cartoon world. It was funny to watch Beetlejuice say that he had a splitting headache and then watch his head split in two or see Gogo Dodo hit himself in the face with a mallet to get a rise out of the audience. The Animaniacs were always torturing Dr. Scratchansniff with pranks and harmless insults. My parents never complained about the violence. In fact, cartoons kept us kids from being violent with each other for at least half an hour.
Examples: Animaniacs, Aaahh! Real Monsters, Beetlejuice, Tiny Toon Adventures, Pinky and the Brain, Heathcliff
They let kids be kids.
There wasn’t always a moral or lesson to be learned. There were educational shows back then, but today’s cartoons seem so much more sophisticated and filled with forced morals and educational value. That doesn’t seem like something to complain about, but there is plenty to learn from cartoons without having to force it down a kid’s throat. Isn’t that was school is for? Cartoons expanded my vocabulary, loaded me with historical facts, and though I didn’t realize it at the time, introduced me to classical music that I learned later were masterpieces. Cartoons are supposed to be a fun, schooless escape after a full day of school or a morning of Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood.
Examples: Captain Planet and the Planeteers, The Animaniacs, Maya the Bee, The Busy World of Richard Scarry
Old school cartoons were still part of the daily lineup.
Nickelodeon and The Cartoon Network, were always playing reruns of The Looney Tunes, Tom & Jerry, Grimm’s Fairy Tale Classics, Bullwinkle and Gumby, showing how well a good cartoon show can hold up over the years and still be interesting to newer generations. Everyone was wearing Looney Tunes merchandise in the 90’s. It didn’t matter that the characters were as old as our grandparents. There were bits and catchphrases and tunes that we could discuss with both our parents and grandparents. In this way, it unified the cartoon-watching generations.
The changes in cartoon programming for children can seem sad to reminiscing adults. However, when it comes down to it, if a kid is enjoying their favorite shows, then what does it matter how they’re drawn and what they’re about? What is upsetting is the realization that our childhoods are over. While my favorite childhood TV shows are accessible thanks to the Internet and DVD's, re-watching them gives me a great nostalgic feeling, but it will never fully transport me back to the life and worldview that I had when I watched cartoons as a kid. Reminiscing is the best I can do. Then, I will sit back and laugh as children today grow up and shake their head at future programming, insisting that their era of cartoons was so much better.
What were your favorite cartoons growing up? Leave your answers in the comments below!