Dr. Toon: When Reagan Met Optimus Prime
Licensed characters like My Little Pony (1986, developed in conjunction with Hasbro) charmed prepubescent female audiences. The American Greeting Card Company, through its "Those Characters from Cleveland" division, managed to develop an entire series based on their licensed characters: Kideo TV (1986) marketed The Get-Along Gang, The Popples, and Rainbow Brite to young girls. That same greeting card company had long since cornered that market for grade school girls with its saccharine production of The Care Bears series in 1985. For those in their tween years, Hasbro helped to develop a show called Jem in which pre-teens could watch a female rock-star fantasy and then go out and purchase the products accordingly.
Another casualty of placing product over story, according to Lamb, was that continuity suffered, at least partly because writers had limited power over their stories.
In short, many of the toy-based series birthed by deregulation tended to be cookie-cutter affairs, with clearly defined good-vs.-evil storylines, recurrent plots, and few attempts to establish backstory or give much depth to characters. Another limiting factor was the fact that one successful formula or toy spawned imitators, and originality was the prime casualty in such cartoons. For example, Hasbro's Transformers (Marvel/Sunbow) and Tonka/ Hanna Barbera's Challenge of the Gobots both aired in 1984 and seemed to share the same storyline: Battling cadres of robots end up taking their centuries-long battles to Earth and find human allies. It is probably no surprise that as late as 1987 the Lightyear/KK&D/Coca Cola production Dinosaucers recycled those exact same elements using alien dinosaurs in the place of robots.
The demands of a 65-episode "season" meant that the animation was farmed out to many sources, and at times it is amazing that some of them look as good as they do. Others, such as Thundercats (Rankin-Bass/LJN, 1985) were marred by stiff and inconsistent animation even when it featured interesting plots. That did not keep Thundercats from becoming America's most popular syndicated cartoon show within a year of its debut, but few would claim that animation reached new heights in shows like Bravestarr, The Adventures of Teddy Ruxpin, Silverhawks or Dragon Flyz.
Perhaps the most lasting legacy of the Golden Age of Deregulation (roughly 1983-1989) was that it dominated the memories of a generation. Many college-age Americans spent their formative years during the Fowler era, and He-Man, She-Ra, and the Transformers are now cherished relics of their childhoods. It was they who collected nearly one billion plastic figures, strained their thumbs on Atari games, wore out batteries by the truckload, and spent dreamy afternoons by the TV watching Voltron and Legend of Zelda.
Deregulation, in the final analysis, did not make American animation any better, did little to further the art, and negated creativity and originality as benchmarks for animated TV fare. It can be argued that the decade prior to deregulation produced few outstanding programs, but at least they engaged some level of the imagination. In the age of Ronald Reagan and Optimus Prime, this claim was harder to prove. Cartoon shows of the deregulation era were too often nothing more than soulless vehicles for product promotion, brightly colored symbols of corporate capitalism's ascendancy over children's entertainment.
This column completes my 11th year as a freelance commentator for AWN. I cannot thank the site enough for giving me the opportunity to share my views on animation, history, and popular culture with you. Everyone seems to have a blog these days, but I hope to bring you, my esteemed readership, something unique and thoughtful every month. Without your hits, comments and support, the column never would have made it this far. Thanks to all!