Spoiler free I promise!
With a 1985 birth, I’m a child of 90s animation.
I can’t recall the amount of times having drinks with friends or people I just met and getting swept up talking about the cartoons of our childhood. Discussing Animaniacs, Freakazoid, Dexter’s Laboratory, Tiny Toon’s Adventures, Rugrats, Recess, Gargoyles, X-Men, Goof Troop, Captain Planet, Eek! The Cat, Earthworm Jim, Garfield and Friends… I could go on. Seriously, I could just make this me listing cartoons from the 90s. Heck I didn’t include claymation masterpiece Bump in the Night or 3D pioneer Reboot. Or the more teen/adult orientated cartoons I watched like Duckman, Ren and Stimpy, Daria, Spawn, Simpsons, South Park…
Okay okay I’ll stop.
Samurai Pizza Cats (Oh yeah!)
Okay now I’m done.
A big reason why us 90s kids have an advantage over the 80s kids is because a lot (not all, I mentioned Spawn) of our cartoons hold up over the ages. G.I. Joe, Thundercats, Transformers and the majority of other 80s properties just don’t hold up on re-watching. I own the DVD sets for Animaniacs and Freakazoid and when I show it to people they never feel like I’m exaggerating their quality. The jokes are still solid. The pacing is still quick. Jokes might get dated due to reference but never due to quality. While I’m sure some cartoons don’t hold up anymore without our nostalgia, we don’t need nostalgia to enjoy the best of them.
It’s because of this that you’ve most likely heard someone claim that cartoons today don’t hold up to our 90s nostalgia. And a few years back that might have been true. There was a point where it felt like with exception to Spongebob Squarepants, there wasn’t much out there for kids. I watched YTV in Canada from time to time to see if there was anything good on anymore for kids. I know there’s a lot of stuff that just wasn’t my generation like Teen Titans so I wasn’t going to get into it. Anime sort of took over kids imaginations with Legend of Korra and Avatar, something which picked up steam with the animes of my childhood (I didn’t mention Pokémon, Dragonball or Sailor Moon! So many!) and really started to take over the sensibilities of western animation. Even looking at Teen Titans you can see the anime influence.
Anime is fine because it can connect to universal themes that any kid can understand and connect to. But I feel it isn’t natural to what I mean. It isn’t North American animation. I know I’m being very limited on that and the experience might not connect with everyone the way it connects to me, but that’s what I’m focusing on. When people say, “There’s no good cartoons for kids anymore”, they are not referring to anime. They are referring to what we had on Saturday morning.
I feel that can’t be true anymore. At the top of the reasoning? Gravity Falls.
Gravity Falls first premiered in 2012, created by Alex Hirsch, born the same year as I in 1985. It shows too. Set in a fictional Oregon town where 21st century technology may exist but kids still play in arcades and go outside for adventure, the series focuses on Dipper and Mabel Pines, two pre-teen twins who look for mysteries or sometimes accidentally stumble upon them. Just as important to the twins is their Grunkle Stan, owner of the “Mystery Shack”, a tourist trap they live in. The show is set at a TVY7 but features so much more in not just jokes and references but in depth and emotion.
When I first heard of the show, it shocked me it was on Disney. The most mature cartoon I recall on Disney was Gargoyles and even that was just a dark setting most of the time. At my age I have little understanding of Disney having different levels of maturity for their shows. Disney is for kids and that’s that! But Gravity Falls proves that Disney is willing to let Hirsch express his show and tip toe the line between what’s for kids and what’s for someone older, and I feel that allows kids to grow up with the show.
There are so many topics touched upon that punch you in the gut, from Dipper having a crush on a girl he’ll never have (the older, cool teen Wendy) to the difficulty of trusting other people (a topic that comes up quite often). The show has that 90s sensibility but doesn’t feel dated. If you’re 15 I doubt you know what Twin Peaks or the X-Files are, but anyone double your age might and they know how this show deftly uses those inspirations to build the setting. Eventually you get to know the people in Gravity Falls and feel something unique about all of them. More importantly, you get close to Dipper and Mabel and their relationships, with others and each other as twins.
With 31 episodes aired at the time I’m writing this, no episode has been more significant in its power to a viewer than the latest. “Not What He Seems” answers big questions poised at the beginning of the series, rewarding long term viewers. Every episode there are hidden messages to decode, symbols and messages in the background. If you have Disney XD you should watch it on there, but this is a show made for pausing and rewinding. There are far too many little details you can miss. “Not What He Seems’ puts everything in front and in answering major questions rumoured by fans for years now, the real power isn’t in the revelation but in the relationship the Pines twins have with their Grunkle Stan. The “Not What He Seems” is Grunkle Stan and it all comes to a head on whether everything experienced can lead to a macro trust when every sense of micro trust has been shattered. It’s a beautiful episode that got me choked up on second viewing and that sort of quality is something that I don’t recall from my childhood or teen years from watching cartoons. Gravity Falls comes from a guy who grew up on the same 90s animation I did and used that to create something better.
One show could feel like an exception, but Gravity Falls is simply at the top of the heap for me (It also won the 2014 Annie Award for Best Animated TV). The Over the Garden Wall mini-series was absolutely fantastic as well and a must watch for anyone. Adventure Time might get weird for some but that doesn’t mean weird = bad. Millions of kids are growing up on Adventure Time and yes, it’s quality weird. Other shows with acclaim today include Phineas and Ferb and more adult orientated animation like Archer and Ricky and Morty. While I don’t care for it, I know a lot who love Regular Show.
Gravity Falls is not just my favourite cartoon airing today. It makes a great argument for being the best in entertainment. Some might not be able to get their head wrapped around a cartoon aimed at pre-teens being of the quality of Justified, True Detective, Game of Thrones and The Americans but I can let an episode of those shows sit for a couple hours for the best time to watch it. When Disney’s moronic schedule finally gives me a new Gravity Falls episode, I can’t let it wait. It has to be watched immediately. And watched again the next day. It’s that good. Oh, and it has a pet pig named Waddles who in one episode was voiced by Neil deGrasse Tyson. WHAT MORE DO YOU WANT?