Martin Dr. Toon Goodman pitches his suggestions for adult animation.
More people ought to create adult animation. This was the discussion five years ago, three years ago, a year ago, yesterday. On the whole, it does seem to me that we are getting closer all the time. Every series that failed in primetime, gotten lost in the obscurity of independent animation, or even succeeded (say, King of the Hill) has pushed American commercial animation closer to becoming an adult venue. The zeitgeist is well under formation, and if the animation business was a kinder place for independents it might be happening even faster. Meanwhile, heres an idea to kick around for the next month: If we want some adult animation, why not just grow our own from the material already available in animated network programming? Of course, my take on this idea may need a few years to reach fruition; but what else have we got to do, wait for The Land Before Time XXXIV?
Grow our own? Of course. How? By following the simple rules of maturity and development. Every adult started out as a child, reached an adolescent stage, came into early maturity, and finally morphed into adulthood through a series of painful blunders, wrong career paths, inappropriate sexual behavior, shaky personal choices, embarrassments, and hey, those are the lucky ones! Why cant our toons be expected to do the same? This is not a particularly new idea I am espousing; its actually been attempted on a modest scale. In 2001, Nickelodeon celebrated the 10th anniversary of Rugrats by airing a one-shot special, Rugrats: All Growed Up. The titular characters werent exactly as advertised; they were growed up to roughly 13 years old (I guess there are some things one cant rush). The special proved popular enough to warrant 13 episodes of a spin-off series, the first of which aired in September of 2003.
Cartoon characters typically do not age a minute. Oh, sure, there have been exceptions, such as when Walter Lantz presented Woody Woodpeckers entire life cycle in Born to Peck (1952) or when Bob Clampett carried Bugs and Elmers feud into senescence in his brilliant short, The Old Grey Hare (1944). On the whole, however, a cartoon character only changes appearance over the years due to differences in animators, not aging. Wouldnt it be interesting to change all that? Have cartoon characters grow up, age, face the same issues adults do and engage in the same ambiguities, adventures, sex and violence that we see in adult series?
Giving characters eventual maturity wouldnt be too difficult, and its a much cooler idea than making established cartoon characters into baby versions of themselves. Gradually make the scripts a bit heavier, darker and sexier; redesign the characters to appropriate ages, and let the adult fun begin. I submit for your consideration three series aimed at the tween audience (one from each major animation network) that have at least some potential to make the leap. Some of you readers may differ or have even better candidates, and if you do so much the better; were stimulating ideas and having fun, right?
Lets start with Disney. In June of 2002, the TV division began airing a show about a teenage girl who split her time between cheerleading and saving the world from nefarious plots. Kim Possible, as the story goes, was created spontaneously in an elevator by Mark McCorkle and Bob Schooley when the pair were under press to come up with a show for Toon Disney. Kim, an irrepressible young redhead, teamed up with a nebbishy but stalwart sidekick named Ron Stoppable who in turn carried an intelligent naked mole rat named Rufus in tow (and you thought elevator music numbed the brain).
McCorkle stated in an early interview that Kim was not part of a secret spy organization and possessed no super powers. Ms. Possible, when not solving the typical dilemmas facing high school youth, faced off against a bevy of (occasionally competent) do-badders using her smarts, courage, acrobatic martial-arts skills and sundry cool gadgets. Kim, Ron and Rufus spring into action when alerted by Wade, a comrade of comparable age who somehow manipulates a computer surveillance system the Pentagon might envy. Plausible it may not be, but popular it surely is.
It wouldnt take much redesigning to age Kim about, oh, six years or so. She could be a beautiful college student who is secretly a highly trained operative for... oh, wait a minute, isnt there some live-action show with a storyline something like that? Well, if nothing else, that proves how possible (so to speak) the whole idea could be. OK, Kim doesnt ever have to be part of the CIA or a secret spy organization. She and Ron can remain freestyle, independent world-savers. Of course, the evildoers would evolve from the petulant Dr. Drakken and sinister Shego to more complex villains. Kim could run across some other operatives from our own government, or those of our allies... or enemies. This adds plenty of opportunity for thrilling, tense adventures, romances and betrayals, high-level clandestine hijinks and all the sex a glamorous agent can grab on the run.
Some seasons could feature a slowly building, erotic tension between Kim and Ron (hey, it kept people guessing on that freaky live-action show about the aliens and those two agents). Or perhaps we could go the other way, and have Ron torn apart by his love for Kim, his duty and Kims attraction to other men. In later seasons Kim can play the dangerous game of double agent or clever mercenary since she operates independently. Heres an adult animated series with all the danger, excitement and jaw-dropping plot twists espionage lovers adore. And its the same Kim Possible they grew up with, even more savvy, sexy and self-reliant. Note: Rufus may have to be replaced frequently. Naked mole rats are not especially noted for their longevity.
Lets skip over to Nickelodeon, where we can use our imaginations on another tweener series. Cartoon Network veteran Rob Renzetti (who did duty on Dexters Laboratory and The Powerpuff Girls) got a shot on Nick after his short, My Neighbor is a Teenage Robot, had a great tryout on Oh Yeah! Cartoons. When the series premiered in August of 2003, it was renamed My Life as a Teenage Robot, but the premise was the same: Mrs. Wakeman, an addled scientist, creates the penultimate cyborg defense system XJ9 (or Jenny, if you please).
This powerful arsenal comes in the form of an anime-flavored teenage girl, and it has a personality to match. Of course, there are obligatory subplots about the misfit at school, several buddies next door, mean kids, etc. Teenage Robot has much better writing and animation than the similar series Whatever Happened to Robot Jones, and you can understand the robots voice. I have yet to figure out why the critics have been kicking this sweet UPA-meets-Fleischer show, but it was renewed for another season and could become even better if it grows up over time.
In fact, there are some hints that Renzetti may be headed in that direction. Mrs. Wakeman has already experimented with human-like exo-skins and more advanced eyes for Jenny; reports of future episodes involve dream chips, artificial nerve endings, and possible dates and romances. One could easily see Jenny continuously redesigned by her creator as her artificial intelligence matures, leading to a sexy, increasingly complex cyberpunk series that redefines adult animated sci-fi once the series finds its way out of high school and adolescent misadventures.
Look, we all loved Ghost in the Shell, didnt we? Perhaps Jenny begins to question her existence as a Global Robotic Response Unit and has to defy not only her mother but a government (or governments) attempting to procure her for their own purposes. Mrs. Wakeman could find an equally eccentric genius for a husband who can help take Jens cybernetics and adventures to the next level. Perhaps XJ9 tires of life on a chaotic Earth and departs to find her destiny among the stars after one of her encounters with aliens on Earth. Rob Renzetti can send Jens pals Brad and Tuck off to college after a couple of seasons, juice up the scripts for adult viewers, and develop the series into My Life as a Freebooting Galactic Cyberbabe.
OK, Cartoon Network, your turn. Remember Mission Impossible? I refer to the terrific series from the 60s, not that crap on cruise control that Hollywood so predictably mangled. Well, Cartoon Network has the next Impossible Missions Force in the making, and theyre the kids next door. Since December 6, 2002, these five multicultural mini-operatives have been waging war on adult rules and regulations as Codename: Kids Next Door. The mysterious Numbahs 1-5 under the command of Nigel Uno (Numbah One, of course) include a female tactician, and a hand-to-hand combat expert, a superbrain and a techie genius. Utilizing their exclusive 2 x 4 technology (weapons cleverly crafted from junk and common household objects) and an impregnable hamster-powered treehouse, these kids are truly R.A.D (Radical Adult Disrupters).
Unfortunately, time marches on and so do hormones and growth spurts. The young revolutionaries begin to M.A.T.U.R.E (Make Adult Transitions Under Realistic Expectations), graduate college and take jobs. Some of them marry, but that doesnt mean that the fun is over. Nigel and crew have been watched for many years by a clandestine international security force that does behind-the-scenes work in the worlds hotspots. Realizing the potential of a group of operatives that have been honing their subversive skills since grade school, the organization contacts the former KND members and proposes a reunion.
At first it doesnt go well; some of the young men and women have misgivings or want to leave the past behind. Their first mission is a disaster even though they are armed with high-tech weapons. A senior Chinese diplomat is killed. Vowing to make things right, the young operatives disdain their new equipment and institute their old M.O. Teamwork and makeshift technology save the day and an underground nuclear material exchange is thwarted. Nigel, Hoagie, Kuki, Wallabee and Abby decide that even though the world is run by adults, they are part of that world and have the savvy and responsibility to keep it in one piece. Your assignment, Nigel, if you choose to accept it
This series would most likely need the most radical revision in artistic style of the three, but hey, those guys at Curious Pictures are pros, just like the crew at Toon Disney and Frederator. As long as theyve got pencils, they can draw anything. What the three series would need are long enough runs and tight continuity (at least better than that typically found in comic books). It took Rugrats more than a decade to even attempt moving the kids into middle school, but when they did the audience was very aware of the extensive backstory. Then, of course, the writing would have to reflect emotional, social and psychosexual changes in the characters. One way this could be done is by moving writers off the show every two years and leaving them in successive creative control while an entire new team comes in with a fresh take on the characters and cast as progressively older versions of the originals. Or the same team could stay intact for a considerable length of time, following a prewritten bible that ages the characters.
Either way this might be an idea worth playing with, and there is at least a partial precedent. Our future crop of adult cartoons might evolve from the toons that kids are watching today.
Martin Dr. Toon Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.