Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2019/ Cartoons Aging Well (and Poorly)

Cartoons Aging Well (and Poorly)

A while ago (I guess at the beginning of March) I stopped by the Kitchener Comic Con. In addition to the cosplay and the vendors, some people were projecting old children's cartoons on a screen. I revisited two specimens from my youth: the last half of an episode of GI Joe from the 1980s and an episode of Rocky and Bullwinkle from the 1960s.

My goodness. GI Joe was a terrible cartoon. The animation was bad, the plot (involving a kuzdu-like plant that takes over things) was stupid, and there was a whole lot of violence where nobody really gets hurt. (The animated movie came as a real shock after that.) After being in peril and shooting things with big missiles and hand lasers, everybody laughs at the end. All of the soldiers in the army dress differently, with their own style (which is the opposite of the real army.)

GI Joe was never my favourite cartoon, but I did watch it voluntarily. I remembered the catchphrases. I remembered the laser guns and the theme songs. I may have been aware of how formulaic the plots were as a child, but they were more apparent now. I probably did not recognise the animation as being so bad. Clearly I either did not understand how manipulative the cartoon was, or I didn't care. Even at the time, I knew full well that GI Joe was produced by Hasbro, which had a vested interest in selling me toys. But in rewatching the show with my old-person brain I don't think I saw all the ways it was manipulating me. The plots were formulaic for a reason. The good/evil narrative was there for a reason. People fired lasers and nobody died for a reason. The good guys (?) were good and the bad guys had inscrutible motivations, all for a reason. The entire show was carefully targetted to my impressionable brain, and it worked. To this day I am shocked to see that real-world violence is not anything like the cartoons, and that in real life the good guys and bad guys are difficult to tell apart. I actively resent the way cartoons like GI Joe (and Transformers, and He-Man, and even The Flintstones) shaped my perceptions.

To my surprise, Rocky and Bullwinkle has aged well, despite being 20 years older. The episode involved a monster that was eating all the television antennae in town, and the way the townspeople suffered without television. It was a clever satire, and funny today even though TV antennae (or TV, for that matter) is no more. The animation was no great shakes, but unlike GI Joe the clunky animation is part of the show's charm. I guess there were Rocky and Bullwinkle toys too, but selling those toys did not appear to be the point of the show.

Honestly, I am astonished that in this age of social turmoil most of the silly jokes remain funny. There is a lot of humour from 10 years ago that doesn't seem entertaining any more. There was one clunker in the episode -- an "honest Injun" pun -- that felt tone-deaf, but the rest of the jokes held together (even though I did not get all the references).

I do not really understand how Rocky and Bullwinkle aged so well and GI Joe so poorly. Both were shows for children. Uncle Wikipedia says the GI Joe series lasted only two seasons but produced 95 episodes, which might explain its quality. Meanwhile, Rocky and Bullwinkle lasted five seasons. Uncle Wikipedia says it was sponsored by General Mills, which makes it even more surprising that the show was any good at all.

In defense of Hasbro, I watched a lot more Transformers than GI Joe, and I owned some of the toys (which I remember fondly to this day). I can't tell you how much the TV show influenced my enjoyment of the toys, but it was likely nontrivial. I am an easy target for consumerism. I regret watching the TV show, but I am not sure I regret owning and playing with the toys.