Dr. Toon: Turning Points
Watch out America. Astro Boy was charming, Speed Racer was fun, and Kimba the White Lion certainly was cute, but Katsuhiro Otomo’s cyberpunk version of bio-techno Armageddon changed American perceptions of Japanimation (later known as anime) forever. Scripted from Otomo’s own manga, Akira exploded into US theaters and created the first true generation of American otaku. It would not take long for anime influences to permeate American animation in both stylistic and narrative form. If you seek the origins of popular TV series such as Ben10, look no further.
THE SIMPSONS (1989-Present)
The longest running and arguably the most popular animated TV sitcom of all time. The Simpsons took root in and contributed to the fertile soil generated by the animation revival of 1987-90. The show initially seemed to spotlight Bart Simpson, but a conceptual reworking gave each member of the family – as well as supporting cast members – star turns. The Simpsons was easily the most satirical and self-referential animated series ever aired, surpassing even Jay Ward’s Rocky and His Friends. The sophisticated humor had a payoff: The Simpsons was a prime time offering, paving the way for adult-oriented animation to compete with live-action evening entertainment.
There was a downside to this success. The Prime-Time Animation Summer of 2000 took inspiration from the long-term success of The Simpsons. However, too many poor-quality shows, pitched by hopeful auteurs with no experience in the art or business of animation, were green-lighted by the networks. Almost none of them lasted thirteen episodes. These steps backward in animation’s New Wave did not occur because animation was losing steam; rather, they were the result of inexperienced and naïve creators and undiscriminating network executives.
The Revival Triumphant
Between 1990 and 1995, several high-quality series graced the small screen. As mentioned earlier, Steven Spielberg rolled out imaginative material such as Tiny Toon Adventures (1990-92), a witty re-imagining of the Warner universe. The Animaniacs (1993-98) continued the Warner revival. The Tick (1994-96) was an absurdist take on the superhero genre suitable for adults as well as kids. The underrated Freakazoid (1995-97) followed in The Tick’s mighty footsteps.
Most influential of all was the “dark deco” revival of one of America’s most beloved superheroes. After working on some of Warners’ best new shows, Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski unveiled Batman: The Animated Series (1992-95). By far the most mature, complex handling of the character to date in an animated series, BTAS completed the bridge from dreary animated toy commercials to a full-fledged revival of televised glory. In theaters, 1991 saw Beauty and the Beast gain the first nomination of an animated film for Best Picture.
Now that the revival of American animation was underway, it was perhaps no coincidence that the tide raised higher with the advent of Cartoon Network (1992) and Nickelodeon (rebranded 1984-90, 1990-present). Classic cartoons, including many not televised in many years, were now available 24/7 on Cartoon Network. The purchase of the Hanna-Barbera studio by Turner Broadcasting added more programming. It is ironic that many of the same cartoon series featured came from the floundering era before the revival, now cast in a nostalgic glow. Nickelodeon was quick to initiate original programming, and two of their cartoons, Rugrats and The Ren and Stimpy Show (both 1991) were notable examples of animation’s new capabilities to entertain.
The Cycle Ends
The revival, then, had its roots in the period 1987-90 and continued until 1995. In that final year, Pixar’s Toy Story began an astonishing parade of feature films consisting entirely of computer-generated images. Technical proficiency was only part of the film’s appeal; the superlative script and endearing characters made Toy Story the definitive springboard for future CGI successes, many of which belonged to Pixar. The wonders of animation software soon extended to television productions, and series such as Reboot (1994) and The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius (2002) gained extensive popularity.
That is not to say that animation went into decline once the revival ended; indeed, it is flourishing in novel ways. 1987-1995 can best be considered a time of renewal, a period where animation’s decline ended and its fortunes reversed for the better. This era also demarcated the line between animation solely cherished by children and animation that adults can freely enjoy. Animation critics may find marring and rough spots in this era, shows that did not reflect the overall creative efforts of the time, but for every one of them there is a Batman or a King of the Hill vying with Futurama to refute them. In the end, animation is a cyclical art form; it will ever be the job of the animation historian and critic to chart and comment upon the changes.
Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.