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Worldwide Ace » Nostalgic Dissonance

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Nostalgic Dissonance

12 November, 2010 (12:54) | Media

Transformers
The Transformers cartoon was slightly less than meets the eye.

“The Michael Bay film was better than the original cartoon.”

They gasp. I expected that would happen. That’s right, I said it, I think, knowing the can of worms I had opened.

For a long time, I held my childhood favorites in high regard and looked back fondly on them. I anxiously awaited the day when those silly I Love Lucy and Happy Days reruns would give way to the great shows from my childhood. But now I know better. My favorite cartoons were awful. They simply don’t deserve the air time when compared with true classics.

I still have a great deal of love for all things 80s, yet I can’t deny that going back and re-experiencing my fond childhood favorites has mostly resulted in pain and disappointment.

G.I. Joe was an awful cartoon and I have no clue how I enjoyed it after revisiting it. Still, the revamped G.I. Joe animated mini-series/movie (written by comic maven Warren Ellis) entitled G.I. Joe: Resolute was phenomenal. The live action film, while reprehensible in many ways, is exactly the type of movie I would’ve made when I was eight (minus the icky love plot, of course). I can’t claim it was good, nor do I really want to defend it, but at least it did a certain justice to the show, which just goes to show how bad the cartoon really was. It’s even sadder that the best thing to come from the show was the series of public service announcement spoofs that flowed across the internet a few years ago like a wave of post-modern absurdist humor.

Transformers, on the other hand, had some semblance of merit, but not during our childhood. Beast Wars was far and away the best and possibly the only good incarnation of the show. I have plenty of friends who still profess their love for the original series (and the cartoon movie), but trying to watch it again makes it painfully apparent how poorly made it was. The cartoon revamp this decade was equally disappointing, and as mediocre and strange as the Michael Bay film was, it stands as the most entertaining and best made version of Transformers excluding Beast Wars (the sequel was truly awful, however, nearly invalidating the passable grade the first movie received).

The list goes on: Rainbow Bright, Masters of the Universe (aka He-Man and/or She-Ra), Strawberry Shortcake, The Smurfs, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles… The 80s were a wasteland for good cartoons and I was simply too young and naive to realize it, especially given how amazing the early 90s were (though still not quite up to 30s-50s Looney Tunes, Tom & Jerry, Tex Avery, and Rocky & Bullwinkle standards).

There’s a brilliance to the classic cartoons in the way they were written on many levels for many audiences all at once. Their animation, writing, and recording showed a care and respect for the audience. That isn’t to say there weren’t flubs or mistakes. The cheaply made 1960s Tom & Jerry was a travesty. Rocky and Bullwinkle, while an excellent example of great writing and clever humor, lacked great animation and featured stilted voice acting when compared to its Warner Brothers competition. And for all the credit I give Nicktoons, Pinky & the Brain (seriously, just watch this), and Animaniacs for their witty post-modernism and excellent writing, the 90s had its share of duds (Swat Cats anyone? Rocket Power, really?). No era is perfect, but outside of European cartoons like Lucky Luke (and to a certain extent the Smurfs, which spawned from a classic Belgian comic), the 80s is truly a disappointment in retrospect.

Therein lies the problem: my warped child-like sense of the world has been proven flawed. As I’ve grown, so have my tastes and understanding of the world. Watching these shows again, or their revamped counterparts, only serves to show me how naive and blind I once was. I still have love for one of my favorite childhood movies, Big Trouble in Little China, but it’s a love now tinged with jaded comedy based on the all too terrible dialog. As a child, I never realized how bad the dialog was, instead concentrating on the action and fanciful nature of the world.

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic
My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is making waved online.
Image snagged from Toonbarn.com

My Little Pony recently released a new cartoon; one which has received enough praise that it’s appeared on the radar of several of my friends. I’m skeptical that My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic deserves the excited cries of “finally, they did something right,” but perhaps they actually have. From TVtropes.com:

The current series, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, is easily argued to be an all-too-rare example of how to update a retro cartoon the right way. It brings clever self-aware humor, a more streamlined (and even cuter) art style, strong characterization, and (egads!) an overarching plotline. The pilot proved an overnight sensation on the internet, leading to piles of fanart, countless threads worth of speculation and discussion, and lots of males having existential crises about enjoying a “girl’s cartoon” so much. The show focuses on Twilight Sparkle, an anti-social bookworm pony who must come out of her shell and bond with five other ponies so they can use the power of friendship to overcome a prophecy of doom.

To see a flurry of mixed emotion from males in regards to a “girl’s cartoon” gives me hope, but every My Little Pony series, like all the 80s cartoons, remains a glorified half hour advertisement shilling toys at its heart. And that is the crux of the problem.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles spawned from a dark and clever comic book, but by the time it became the phenomenon it was, it had converted into just another sales pitch. The films (or at least the original film) moved slightly closer to the source material, but still remained childish and disappointing in comparison. More recently, the TMNT animated movie proved that even the greatest of source material can’t guarantee that a show will eventually be taken seriously.

Transformers and G.I. Joe were both preceded by their action figure lines, the shoddy animation and poor writing a money grubbing technique to enhance profits. Only more recently have the same people who fell in love with these fanciful worlds been able to take them and turn them into something beautiful and glorious (Thank you Warren Ellis). And yet the toys are still Hasbro and Matel’s primary concern.

According to Gary Kurtz, even Star Wars, many a geek’s beloved series, was admittedly more concerned with it’s Kenner (now owned by Hasbro) line of action figures than with producing great sequels.

Reconciling these capitalist roots with cartoons and film as art is extremely difficult and separating them is an impossibility. All I can hope is that a talent with a fervent love for the source material eventually steps in and saves my childhood from itself.

“You’re crazy,” he tells me, though he doesn’t actually provide a counter argument.

“Have you gone back and watched any of the old Transformers cartoon? I have. It’s terrible.” They shake their heads and scoff. In truth, I don’t expect an answer.

Nostalgia doesn’t work that way. Not for us. Our parents have nostalgia for their childhood, but all we have is a need to replicate this nostalgia. We want to look back on our childhood with the same reverence as our parents look back on theirs.

Unfortunately, when we do, what we see isn’t pretty.

Perhaps My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic will help create some glory right where we need it most. Then again, perhaps it would be better if we just got over the 80s and moved on. Assuming, of course, that’s even possible.

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  • I remember watching the animated Transformers movie on DVD with a friend and during the scene where Weird Al’s “Dare to be Stupid” is playing, we shouted “just because a song told you to is no reason to make a movie.” The best part of the DVD was the chapter titled “A Dirty Word” because a “Shit” got left in.

  • I remember in high school having a friend watch the movie twice in a weekend because one version was edited and the other wasn’t. Not my favorite weekend.