When Cartoons Had Something to Say
When I was a child cartoons were the primary reason to wake up in the morning. I would scurry downstairs and plant myself in front of the television for hours of Voltton, Transformers, Thundercats, G.I. Joe and He-Man. The giant robots and heroic deeds were what drew me in as a child, but as an adult I'm surprised at the maturity of the content. Characters died or were seriously injured. Story lines unfolded in massive arcs that encompassed the entire series. Betrayal and intrigue lurked around every corner. At the same time there was a moral lesson to learn at the end of nearly every episode.
These lessons ranged from a closer look at the days episode and some moral conflict that was present therein or a completely random life saving non-sequitor. G.I. Joe was awesome in the last one. Who could forget such important lessons as, "Don't play in abandoned refrigerators" or what to do if you fall in the water and can't swim? Taking the time to teach a moral lesson at the end of an episode seemed to be a standard nearly every cartoon at the time agreed on. And who didn't love quick little lessons from tertiary characters like Orco?
In the 90's cartoons continued to evolve being heavily influenced by the success of anime. They kept the progressive story arcs and added the feature of slowly developing romances. Any one remember the awkward exchanges with Guinevere in "King Arthur and the Knights of Justice"? Characters still died, just off camera, in horrific ways at the mercy of various monsters. There was hardly an episode of "Mighty Max" that didn't start like that. Still amidst the suggestions of love and gore the effort to educate the youth persisted in each of these series. Others, like "Roswell Conspiracy" , built on a progressive storyline that was ripe with betrayal and intrigue. In hind site, at least by today's standards, it's difficult to imagine shows that well written being intended for kids. Do kids understand jokes like, "That's part of being an American Lad, you'll be buying anything"?
Later in the 90's two things started happening. First, more programs started airing that were live action like "Power Rangers" and "Young Hercules". At the same time animators seemed to cheapen up a bit and recycle animation loops from episode to episode. The coloration got worse and in some cases the art was horrible, like "Extreme Dinosaurs". There also seemed to be a larger push toward merchandising. "Street Sharks" was another show with horrible art and animation and largely catch phrase based writing but had awesome action figures. Transformer's returned with a new, entirely cg series, called "Beast Wars" that remained true to the brand and focused on merchandise. "Mighty Max" was entire series that started as a toy. Take that Polly Pocket.
The Merchandiser's Millenium
Started in the late 90's, "Pokemon" is still a tenacious force in the juvenile market. It seems to be a right of passage for young gamers. For the breadth of it's reign there has been a cartoon to back it up and push it's influence for every new installment to the series. Lately it seems more and more Saturday morning cartoons are designed around some product. "Yu-Gi-Oh", and "Chaotic" are two series actually designed around card games with real world counter-parts. Sadly "Yu-Gi-Oh" was originally supposed to be about gaming in general, no branding included. As soon as a game that was meant to be a variation on "Magic: The Gathering" was shown that became the focus of everyone. From then on every effort went into designing the true game mechanics and selling a product. Not every cartoon has had the lasting affect of Pocket and Duel Monsters but many have attempted the formula.
Apart from the blatant merchandising, the more sophisticated themes have been sapped from the cartoons. No moral lessons ends the weeks adventures. Everything is done quickly and digitally without the painting errors so common in the 90's. Yet the soul seems to have been wrung out. If it's not some character we've seen before than it's kids using some magical/prehistoric creature to battle with. There are no more "grown up" Saturday morning cartoon characters like "The Tick". When adults are shown they are typically there as comic relief aside from the expected mentoring or villiany. Did the FCC choke the life out of the morning line up? Or has the convenience of technology and merchandising taken the heart out of American animation? Regardless, we've dumbed down our content for what is suppose to be a brighter generation.