[18 June 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, it was a yearly end of school ritual. We would sit in our living rooms, Libbyland Dinner’s cooling on the TV tray, waiting for the Big Three Networks (yes, we only had ABC, CBS, and NBC back then, along with PBS and various UHF options) to announce their Summer Saturday morning cartoon selections. We would wait to see what was returning, what Sid and Marty Krofft had up their sleeve, and what new offerings would become our watercooler (read: local park and/or playground) conversation pieces. Today, with 24-hour networks devoted to animation and dozens of daily examples to enjoy, there’s an overload that even the most ADD-addled child would find daunting. The same applies to adults who like animation. Certainly there are choices for the mature viewer within the kiddie spectrum, but sometime, the options are adult swim or Comedy Central oriented.
With the release of the amazing Adventure Time on DVD and Blu-ray this past 4 June, we’ve decided to focus this week’s list on the 10 Best Kid Oriented Cartoons That Adults Can Dig as Well. Caveats must be metered out, however. First, we have purposely left off several celebrated titles. You will not find South Park, The Simpsons, Family Guy, Bob’s Burgers, Squidbillies, Venture Brothers, etc. etc. etc. here. While working in the recognizable underage angle, these are clearly more geared toward the over 21 set. We’ve also limited our overview to anime titles which were originally pitched at kids before taking on another life as necessary nerd fodder. There’s just too much to deal with, and we’re not versed enough in the genre to offer an opinion. So sit back, grab a frozen chicken nugget dinner, and enjoy. Maybe even invite your children in for a viewing.
In its original incarnation, many a ‘60s pre-teen ate up the Americanized anime Mach Go Go Go. The road race ridiculousness of the hero’s tricked out car, the Mach 5, made many an elementary school kids brain fry. But the older demo, not necessarily well versed in the jerky Japanese style of cartooning, came to the title to witness its serialized storytelling, it’s brilliant use of color, and its non-stop action. Today, it seems rather tame, especially when compared with the amazing product coming out of both home and abroad. But Speed (along with Gigantor and a few others) laid the groundwork for our Eastern appreciation.
There is a cult around this cartoon that you wouldn’t believe. Naturally, the wee ones enjoy the bright primary colors, simply shape designs on the characters, and the mesmerizing movement, while their parents enjoy the camaraderie between the ponies, the legitimate real world themes, and the emphasis on positivity and the fact that kids seem to “get” what the show is selling. Even better, Hasbro seems to have learned the hard lessons of the past, avoiding the 30 minute commercial conceit of many of its past (and present) shows to give this one a dimensional personality all its own.
Disney doesn’t do multiple demos very well. Their shows are almost preprogrammed to please only a certain select audience…only. But in this case, the story of two stepbrothers having adventures over Summer vacation, has struck a nerve beyond the anklebiters, and for many of the reasons such crossovers succeed. There are the musical numbers, the spy stuff of Agent P—otherwise known as Perry the Platypus—and his battles with OWCA (Organization Without a Cool Acronym) and the people behind the production. Dan Povenmire and Jeff “Swampy” Marsh worked on our number six selection here, and their ageless approach imprint is everywhere.
For young girls in the ‘80s, Jem was… IT! She was an everyday music label entrepreneur wannabe during the day, a hard rocking musician at night. Her band, the Holograms, were always battling the witchy Misfits for pop chart superiority and every episode contained selections from their hit parade catalog. Indeed, it was the tunes that drew adults to the show, songs like “She’s Got the Power” and “Back in Shape” standing alongside other memorable melodies. In fact, while the toy line that was invented to coincide with the show didn’t do so well, the series took off, thanks in part to the older demo.
A lonely wallaby trying to make it in the big city. His best friend, Heffer, was an overweight cow adopted by a family of wolves. Rocko’s worked in a comic book store and had to deal with a daft dog named Spunky who liked to eat whatever—and we do mean whatever—he found on the floor. With this silly, surreal show, creator Joel Murray wanted to shake things up at parent co. Nickelodeon. Thanks to its massive popularity with both kids and adults, Rocko earned raves. They even got the bouffanted band The B-52s to perform the theme song during the final few seasons.
The alternative title, Steven Spielberg Presents Animaniacs, says it all. The man behind multiple big screen blockbusters, including Jaws, ET, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Jurassic Park, wanted to take Warner Brothers back to its Looney Tunes glory days. When Tiny Toon Adventures became a massive hit, he decided to go deeper into “the vault” so to speak. The result was a show built around three forgotten WB icons who, in the modern world of the ‘90s, became a cartoon combination of Airplane! and any Mel Brooks spoof. While the tots took to the simplistic characters and concerns, their parents giggled at the numerous homages and parodies.
John Kricfalusi will argue, to this very day, that he can’t believe how much he got away with during this celebrated series’ initial run. There are jokes that, to this day, never re-aired once the show went into syndication. At the time, Nickelodeon was known for their cutting edge entries into the genre, and kids ate up the goofy gross out humor. But with his constant nods to Ralph Bakshi and the entire underground comics scene, Kricfalusi became an instant icon, and a source of much parental consternation. The show couldn’t survive the hype or the hate, and was quickly lost into the realm of pen and ink legend.
Okay, this may be a bit of a cheat. We recognize that when William Hanna and Joseph Barbera were out to capture a prime time audience, kids were not their primary concern. They were desperate to evoke the adult audience lost on such shows as Huckleberry Hound and Quick Draw McGraw. When it debuted, this Honeymooners mimic became an instant smash with both demos, cementing its status once it hit syndication. It would remain popular for over three decades, spawning spinoffs, tie-ins, and even a proposed reboot by Family Guy‘s Seth MacFarlane. Kids today still love its stone age silliness. For parents, its neverending nostalgia.
Yes, this show is that great. It’s imagination is so limitless and its approach so novel that it presses Pixar for a place at the animated masterpiece table. Two brothers, Jake the Dog and Finn the Human live in the Land of Ooo. There, they have numerous adventures while battling baddies and saving princesses. The show, centered on the unbridled invention of its underage heroes, has such heart and heroism that you won’t believe an episode only lasts 15 minutes. Creator Pendleton Ward cut his teeth on shows such as The Bravest Warrior and The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack. Adventure is his clever classic.
Few entries on this list demand more respect, and earn more resistance, than this oddball undersea weirdness. After an initial run from 1999 - 2001, the series was revived…twice. Once in 2005, and again in 2007. It is such a part of the planetary zeitgeist that individuals of all ages line up to experience Spongebob amusement park rides, get Squidward tattoos, and long for a bite of a real Krabby Patty. In fact, while kids still adore this title, the adults have long since usurped its absurdist qualities for themselves. Some argue that it’s past its heyday, yet it remains one of the most singular examples of kid cartoons appealing to an older demo ever.