We were in a slump. Cartoons weren’t as bright, clever, or appealing anymore…at least to me they weren’t. I thought that, maybe, I just grew out of cartoons. There were a few gems here and there, but nothing I could get truly excited about. Nobody seemed to care about them. It was kind of a shame.
Then, back around 2008, I saw a pilot for a show pitch for Nickelodeon on YouTube. It was a young boy in a white rabbit hat saying ridiculous lines with his wacky, stretchy dog all the while trying to save a candy princess. The 15 year-old me loved it so much. I thought it was a hilarious short, and I showed it to all my friends and even teachers (I was quite an ecstatic child). I was obsessed with it, however, I never knew if it got picked up or any more news about it. It disappeared.
It wasn’t until two years later that I saw it being promoted as a brand new show on Cartoon Network. I freaked out. I couldn’t believe that little funny show actually got picked up. I also didn’t know how huge of a phenomenon it would become. Within the coming years, this show became so popular. I saw merchandise based on the show everywhere. Characters on shirts, backpacks, toys, and even bumper stickers (a personal favorite).
So why does something like Adventure Time get so much acknowledgement? Why does it become so popular?
Well for one, it’s the story arc! You’re wrapped up in all of Finn’s silly and epic adventures in the Land of Ooo in each episode, but there’s an underlying plot that connects them all together. Without spoiling too much of the show, there’s a dark enemy called The Lich that haunts many of the characters throughout episodes. We also learn more about the Land of Ooo, and it’s secrets about being a post-apocalyptic world.
Similar cartoons that also have a huge following cater to the same format. Gravity Falls is another show where each episode is different, but also follows a deeper plot that allows to know more about twin’s situation in a strange town in the North West. Cryptic messages, American myths, and Illuminati mentioning. They’re quirky enough to keep fans attached and wanting to know more. Avatar: The Last Airbender has a HUGE cult following, but it’s format is a little different. Instead of quirky individual episodes with a hidden bigger plot, the plot is more upfront yet follows like an epic. Three separate books, or “chapters” if you will, that follow Aang and his friend’s adventures and watching Aang master the natural elements.
You want people to get attached to your characters, follow along with them, learn along with them. We love that stuff.
Another reason why this new wave of cartoons have become so popular is the representation of minorities is growing. Steven Universe is much like Adventure Time and Gravity Falls in that it follows the same story build with wonderfully fleshed out characters. They also have a huge cast of predominantly, non-white voice actors. LGBTQ members are also represented within the characters. Though portrayed mostly feminine, Rebecca Sugar (creator of Steven Universe) claim that the “crystal gem” characters are genderless, and there are partners in the show that illustrate queer relationships. This is a huge step for this industry. If people see a show they relate to, the more they’re going to follow and become fans of said show. If people feel represented, they’re going to feel supported, especially when there is lack of support, love and care. That’s what Steven Universe does.
Then there’s the art. Art is a HUGE proponent for me, as well as other people. Companies and crew members that take the time to make sure their show looks good really does pay off. The Marvelous Misadventures of FlapJack had a great style during it’s run, with 2-D, computer drawn animation as well as some traditional work for the title cards.
Steven Universe’s character designs and backgrounds are gorgeous. Most of their works in progress are posted on their blog on tumblr. Art is important because it’s what going to catch our eye and make us initially interested.
This is why I would call this new age of animated shows “The Renaissance of Cartoons”. Our favorite 90’s cartoons had fantastic style, and might take a political stance, but this new wave of cartoons have really catered to their audience without completely selling out. You have to remember that the creators now were inspired by the same shows we used to love, and wanted to make something just as good or even better.