The Power of Children’s Cartoons

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“Who would have thought that child could win a children’s card game?”

— Seto Kaiba, from Episode #11 of Yu-Gi-Oh! The Abridged Series

I think a lot of people underestimate the power inherent in children’s cartoons.  When they hear the word “cartoon,” they picture something light, fluffy, and utterly vacuous, filled with loud noises and sight gags. Or they might think of the painfully awkward and cheerfully grating tones of newer “edutainment” shows, most of which are not nearly as good as classics like The Magic School Bus or Wishbone.  (Or maybe that’s just the nostalgia talking.)  Either way, cartoons tend to serve as a kind of temporal placeholder to keep little kids occupied while the grown-ups go do important grown-up-things.

This woefully misrepresents and denies the kind of narrative impact that cartoons can possess.  After all, cartoons are a staple of childhood, often giving kids their first real taste of serial storytelling.  Obviously different age groups will be drawn to different types of shows; one can’t expect a two-year-old to have the same attention-span as a six-year-old.  And to be fair, there is a place for cartoons comprised of stand-alone episodes and humor, both physical and verbal, like Looney Tunes, Rocky & Bullwinkle, or Tom and Jerry.  Such cartoons don’t require a viewer to invest a lot of time in order to get the payoff, and with no over-arching plot to worry about, it’s very easy to introduce newcomers to the show.  But I do believe that longer forms of story-telling can and should be presented to children at a young age so they can come to appreciate the art in all its forms.  Unfortunately, animated story-telling gets ignored because a lot of people still think that anything drawn, and in some cases even CGI, as a “cartoon” and therefore “just for kids.”  I have heard people refuse to watch Avatar: The Last Airbender, one of the greatest TV shows ever made (in any style) simply for the sin of being animated.  And that’s a real shame.

The most successful cartoons are the ones that appeal to both children and adults, the ones that try to tell a story or explore fun, interesting characters.  Part of the reason Rocky & Bullwinkle has survived to become a classic is because kids enjoy the visual humor while adults enjoy the puns and socio-political satire.  Both age groups can appreciate the show on different levels and as the kids grow up, the re-watch value persists because there are new aspects of the show to be discovered.

However, when a show is created that is deliberately “made for kids,” people can tell and it usually leads to derision.  (Witness the hilarity of the 4Kids dubbing and censoring of Yu-Gi-Oh! or Dot Matrix’s “monobreast” in seasons 1 and 2 of ReBoot.)  Even the best cartoons can have less-than-stellar moments, episodes, or even entire seasons suffer from this prejudice.  For example, I was recently introduced to the Canadian cartoon ReBoot, the first fully CGI-animated television show, and I absolutely love it!  But the first season feels very different from the third.  In the beginning, it feels more like the traditional “for kids” kind of show with lots of humor, fluff, and few lasting consequences.  But as the show progresses, it deepens, growing richer and more mature with its storytelling.  (And to be clear, I don’t mean “mature” in the sense of blood, guts, and sex.  “Mature” doesn’t equal “R-rated.”  It just means that the actions, reactions, and consequences surrounding and affecting the characters take on more weight and meaning, which, in my opinion, leads to even greater investment in those characters and the outcome of the story.)

We need high-quality characters and storytelling in all aspects and levels of media.  While we should keep the age of the intended audience in mind, stories shouldn’t be “dumbed down” with the assumption that kids can’t understand or appreciate nuanced storytelling.  It is best to craft something with multiple levels that children and adults can enjoy together, transforming what could be a mindless activity into quality time that expands the imagination.

What cartoons did you enjoy as a kid?  Are there any you recently discovered that you found entertaining? Do you enjoy more classic cartoons or modern ones?  Do you prefer traditionally animated or computer generated?  Please share your thoughts below (but please remember your spoiler tags!)

The cast of ReBoot, Season 1



Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005-2008) and its sequel series The Legend of Korra (2012-2014)

ReBoot (1994-2001)

Green Lantern: The Animated Series (2012-2013)

Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995) and Batman Beyond (1999-2001)

Justice League (2001-2004) and Justice League Unlimited (2004-2006)

Samurai Jack (2001-2004)

Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008-2013)

Gargoyles (1994-1997)


The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius (2001-2006)

Dexter’s Laboratory (1996-2003)

The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show (introduced to me on VHS as The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle)

Tom and Jerry (1940-1958)

Heckle and Jeckle (1946-1981)

George of the Jungle (1967)

Classic Looney Tunes (1930-1969)

The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1988-1991)

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