Dr. Toon back in time to look at the creative and cultural trends in animation in the 1980s.
It was indeed enlightening to read fellow writer Tom Sitos recent take on the cyclical nature of the animation business. Although times are currently not easy for those who wish to labor in the world of toons, Sito has a cogent point: Downturns have happened before, followed by flourishing eras of plenty. For this months column I thought it might be interesting and, perhaps, informative to track some of the creative and cultural trends in animation over the past 20 years or so.
I chose the decade of the 80s because I believe that many animators working today (and, I suspect, many of our readers) bore close witness to this era of animation. I also believe that cycles of entertainment styles have roughly a 20-year span before the next definitive moments tend to occur. In researching and writing this months piece a few interesting facts surfaced that can indisputably be linked to evolutionary changes in both culture and entertainment since the 1980s.
Perhaps the most salient change was the saturation in cartoon fare that resulted from three networks presenting round-the clock animation. During the 1980s animated cartoons were limited to Saturday morning or the afternoon syndication market during weekdays. The thought of even one network devoted entirely to animation was unthinkable. Cable and satellite television, plus refined techniques of determining audience demographics proved abundantly that the market was there. This alliance between broadcast technology and niche marketing led to an explosion in animated series. At first much of the new networks broadcast time was filled with old theatrical shorts, cheaply made imports or superannuated TV shows, but within a short time original creator-driven series began to appear.
The diversity encouraged by the cable and satellite channels cannot be underestimated. There is no doubt that if only the big three networks existed into the present decade there may have been little chance for cartoons such as the original incarnation of Ren & Stimpy, Invader Zim, Courage the Cowardly Dog, Grim and Evil or Samurai Jack to ever crack the lineup at ABC, NBC or CBS. The ruckus that followed the Religious Rights smackdown of Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures in 1987 would have led to caution not only at CBS but among its competitors as well; shows that played it light and kept it safe would have been the rule. The Fairly OddParents, The Proud Family, Powerpuff Girls and Kim Possible may well have had a shot at Saturday Morning or UHF syndication, but I would be willing to bet that most network execs would have considered anything as offbeat as SpongeBob SquarePants a reach.
One very noteworthy change occurred in the concept of depicting games. The mid-1980s were rife with cartoon versions of videogames. Those tired of plunking down quarters at the local arcade could connect with Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., Super Mario Bros., Dragons Lair, Q*Bert, Frogger, Lazer Tag Academy or Pitfall Harry on the Saturday morning screen, trading joysticks for the joys of animation instead. What happened to this popular genre and how did this trend evolve over time? To begin with, videogames are no longer the astonishing novelty they were in the early 1980s. The games mentioned above were unprecedented entertainers in their day, but the introduction of advanced technology and graphics made that day a short one indeed. Soon bulky arcade games could be compressed onto ones television screen at home beginning with the first primitive gear by Atari. The videogame became domesticated and its novelty eventually disappeared.
To continue, the videogame characters mentioned above were depicted in simple form due to the limited graphic capacity of early videogames. At best they could walk across a screen, jump or perhaps give an unhappy grimace when killed. These actions were accompanied by a blooping carousel score that was often deadly in its repetition. In other words, these videogames were a close approximation of the earliest known animated films. They were simple to adapt to animation, and the results were more handsome and realized. Animating todays best-selling videogames in their digital format would be so prohibitively expensive that no studio is likely to take it on. Turning, say, BloodRayne from a digital to a 2D production would have the opposite effect of what was accomplished in the 1980s: The television product would actually look worse.
Speaking of BloodRayne, there are probably few truly best-selling videogames that could be adapted to TV animation. Many of them are gleeful, gore-spattered shoot-em-ups or extended exercises in sanctioned antisocial behavior featuring fetching females which is fine, except that the Standards and Practices divisions of virtually every network would not allow them to air. The current trends in diversity, cooperation and empowerment, leave scant room for blowing foreign operatives to bits, the mass slaughter of zombies or high-speed chases with the law.
It is now more likely for a TV show to be converted into a videogame than the opposite; the day of videogames converting to the small screen most likely died with the decade. That does not mean that the animated gaming genre disappeared; it merely evolved into another form. As Cardcaptors, Pokémon and the nearly incomprehensible Yu-Gi-Oh! proved, role-playing and/or character card games could be nicely adapted to animation. Anime productions seemed to lend themselves extremely well to this trend, and even shows such as Dragon Ball Z (which were not originally card games) ended up on cardboard, endlessly played in comic book shops across America.
Another defunct 80s trend was the conversion of television shows and movies into animated series. Smile if you remember Mork and Mindy, Laverne and Shirley and the Fonz, Punky Brewster, Rambo, RoboCop, Police Academy and The Real Ghostbusters. There are no equivalents on the animated networks today. Toon Disneys series based on Aladdin, The Lion King, Hercules or Tarzan cannot be said to count; those were originally animated feature fare in the first place. The changing face of primetime television, which is hipper, sexier and more adult-minded than ever, likely has quite a bit to do with this. The humor may be just as juvenile at times, but the subject matter and storylines are certainly not. The growth of reality TV, another mid-2000s trend, cannot be logically transcribed to animation except as parody.
As for the movies, most of those that would translate best into animated TV shows typically feature enough vfx and CGI to belabor the point. Lets take, oh, Harry Potter, as an example. Why make an animated series (replete with second-rate runaway animation) when the movies are visually far richer? Besides, Harry Potter movies can now be owned for repeated viewing on DVD, another artifact that could not be had in the 1980s. The DVD Potters also have a much quicker post-theatrical release time; one had to wait two to three years for a film to come out on VHS (whatever that is). By the time a Harry Potter animated series could be developed, the entire country could own the movie and perhaps a sequel on DVD.
An exception can be found in series derived from what else? Star Wars. The 1980s featured cartoon series such as Ewoks, All-New Ewoks and Droids: The Adventures of R2-D2 and C-3PO. The galactic grandeur of George Lucas vision weathered changing times and found its animated apotheosis in Star Wars: Clone Wars. Genndy Tartakovskys 2003 series might have been the best (and best-looking) animated project ever adapted from an original film concept. While were on the subject of science-fiction...
Where have all the giant robots gone? A mere 20 years ago animations heavy industries were turning out mechanical men by the megaton. The Mighty Orbots, Robotech, Challenge of the Gobots, Transformers and Voltron joined Macron 1 and Tranzor Z in the fight against evil (or, at least, against robots every bit as gargantuan). Today the small screen is largely devoid of mechanoids, although the genre may be making a limited comeback with Cartoon Networks Megas XLR. This may represent a trend that simply ran its course, but it is also likely that anime, the prime inspiration for giant cartoon robots since Gigantor, has taken new directions since the 1980s. These changes left American imitators short a few quarts of robot oil. Besides the gaming card cartoons already mentioned, anime imports began to concentrate on action-adventure (Dragon Ball Z, Sailor Moon), wild comedy (Tokyo Pig) or adult series such as Cowboy Bebop and its companion shows now running on Cartoon Network.
The passing of some trends mentioned above may bring a nostalgic tear and a pang in the heart to many, but one trend that died with the 1980s will be mourned by no one but toy executives. When the television industry was deregulated in 1984, toy companies were free to flood the market with animated versions of dolls, action-figures and other plasticine playthings ad nauseum. Thus, My Pet Monster, Strawberry Shortcake, Rainbow Brite, The Care Bears, My Little Pony, The Adventures of Teddy Ruxpin and He-Man and the Masters of the Universe made a play for eyeballs and wallets during that gilded decade of greed. Tighter regulations and watchdog groups have greatly reduced the damage in the present decade. It can be argued that many of todays toons eventually do go the videogame route, but they at least had the decency to appear first and develop a following before being adapted.
Amazingly enough, one cartoon that survived every change, cycle and evolutionary impetus is Scooby-Doo. I admit that I have never been a fan of this dross or its endless variations, and I invite any debate that this cartoon was a positive, or even important influence on the subsequent history of American animation. Still, the Great Dane and his human quartet are more beloved and marketable than ever before. Recent animated efforts are admittedly an improvement over the dreary Hanna-Barbera house style of the 1969-1984 era. While the two live-action/CGI features were lamentable at best, one has to be impressed at the staying power of this cartoon. No doubt Scooby and the gang will continue to schlep the Mystery Machine into the 2020s, bringing entertainment to those marking time between kiddie cartoons and more sophisticated fare.
Twenty years is not a very long time, unless one considers the ever-increasing speed of cultural shifts and changes in popular tastes. On the whole, American animation has progressed considerably since the 1980s. Despite demands that cartoons provide education and infuse young audiences with the spirit of diversity and cooperation while raising self-esteem at the same time, there has been a growing artistic and narrative sophistication to animated entertainment. It has always been my contention that animation will not become an adult medium overnight. However, a look back at the 1980s provides a good perspective on how far cartoons have come since then.
Martin Dr. Toon Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.