Every once in a while, independent forces come together to create a perfect storm of meaning. That's why this week I'm featuring two classic shorts from the MGM cartoon studio. The first is "Peace on Earth" from 1939, directed by Hugh Harman. The themes of the end of mankind, anti-violence, and the joy of Christmas feel all too relevant right now in the wake of the tragic events in Connecticut and supposedly imminent Mayan apocalypse.
You won't see me sing the praises of Hugh Harman or his partner Rudolph Ising very often. Even though their careers spanned the length of the Golden Age of Animation, the majority of their work is little more than a pale imitation of what Disney was producing at the same time. It was all cutesy stuff with little humor unless you count the over-the-top innocence of it all. In 1939 however, Harman created "Peace on Earth," an inspired short recounting the self-destruction of mankind told against the backdrop of the Christmas season. While some of the scenes come off as silly and typically Harman-esque, others are nothing short of chilling. The deaths of the last two men on Earth was shocking in 1939 and still sends a chill up my spine to watch.
In 1955, Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera (creators of Tom & Jerry, The Flintstones, and countless other classic characters) remade "Peace on Earth" and tilted it "Good Will to Men." The new version featured modernized violence that incorporated Cold War fears and the increased arsenal of World War II. The grander scope creates a much stronger short than the original for modern audiences, even if the ending is a little religious by today's standards. The climax of nuclear annihilation however does not impact me as much as seeing the last man drown in a mixture of mud and his own blood.
Both shorts were widely praised and were nominated for Academy Awards in their respective years. The bittersweet message of both shorts reminds us to be mindful of ourselves and each other, especially in times when the almost comical juxtaposition of seasonal joy and unimaginable cruelty make us question who we are and what we are to become.
In case you missed it last week, I began my two-part examination of some trends developing in the hit Cartoon Network show Adventure Time that, if left unchecked, may lead to an untimely demise. I've already looked at the shows attempts to establish continuity, and now it's time to look at an even more insidious force at work: the fandom.
The fact that "fan" derives from the word "fanatic" is not lost on me, and with the uniting efforts of the internet, fandom has reached an unparalleled level in popular culture. This is not a bad thing unto itself; what other people choose to be enthusiastic about is their own business. This is not to say that they are a perfect bunch. Fans are never completely satisfied with the thing they love and always crave more of it. It's less about appreciating the product that is being produced, and getting the next hit of their popular life-blood.
Adventure Time's immense popularity has naturally spawned legions of fans that celebrate the show through fanart, fanfic, and fan-everything-else. They love the show and the show loves them. The best expression of this is the creation of characters Fiona and Cake, gender-swapped versions of Finn and Jake that feature in a fanfic written by the Ice King. The single episode that stars these two has made them as popular as the two actual stars of the series. Now, there is a second one in the coming weeks that feels like nothing less than fanservice with it coming out so soon after the first one. The problem here is not that there are fans. The show deserves fans because it is a great cartoon. The problem is what happens when fans become the central focus and the core of the audience. Too many in-jokes and other efforts to please fans is a surefire way to turn off the casual viewer, the most crucial demographic for keeping a show afloat. Don't believe me? Ask a fan of Doctor Who. One of the reasons that the show's original run was cancelled back in the 80's is that it became more concerned with its own continuity and pleasing fans rather than staying in touch with contemporary issues and keeping a broad audience. It's why the show's revival has only increased in popularity every year. Not every program gets that lucky though, and most simply fade away forever.
It seems though that the Adventure Time crew is aware of the perils of fandom. A recent episode titled "All the Little People" is a deliberate jab at the obsessive and self-serving nature of many hardcore fans. Finn discovers a bag of miniature sentient versions of himself and every other character from the show. He then spends literally every waking moment manipulating each one into bizarre dramas featuring ridiculous and completely illogical pairings, ignorant of his own slow descent into madness. "OTP" run amok much?
Pretty much sums it up.
My theory is that Pen Ward and the rest of the Adventure Time gang are acutely aware of what is going on, hence the making of "All the Little People." We're starting to get a new generation of animators that are a part of the millennial generation. They're just as into Twitter and internet memes as many of their fans, and it shows in their work. YouTube is full of shorts that they make "just for the lulz." Need proof, check out this funny bit featuring Pokemon. Maybe there's hope yet. I just hope they don't overdo it.
There are two trends that are increasing in popularity that have me worried about one of the best animated shows on TV right now. I'm talking about Adventure Time, the zany, incredibly original series from the mind of Pendleton Ward. If you haven't seen it yet, do yourself a favor and check out one of the funniest, most unique animated shows in a long time. You'll probably want to do so sooner rather than later, because I fear that the show may be approaching the dreaded shark that many an acclaimed series have jumped.
Season three kicked off not too long ago, and I've seen some worrying trends start to occur. The show is starting to flirt with two of the deadliest trends in popular storytelling: story arcs and fan service. There is nothing wrong with either of these devices per se, but all too often they spell doom. The Land of Ooo has not yet been fully overrun by these menaces, so hopefully my observations may nip things in the bud, or at least spread the awareness. This week I'll be discussing continuity and next week I'll conclude with catering to the fandom.
My concern here is not simply me complaining that a show I love has changed in a way that I don't like. These sorts of behaviors can lead down a slippery slope that slowly but surely turns away the casual viewer, which is the key demograhic for keeping a program on the air. My goal is to try and keep Adventure Time on the air as long as possible, because shows like this need to stick around for a while.
Perhaps the lesser of these two evils is establishing a story arc. It works for several shows and is a startlingly effective way to keep viewers tuning in. It's kind of an all-or-nothing game; either establish the arc early and stick with it (occasionally allowing a standalone episode is fine), or keep each episode unique. Adventure Time started out as the latter. Finn and Jake would just have random adventures involving manly minotaurs, crying mountains, and princesses of every imaginable shape and demeanor. There would be occasional flashbacks, but they were usually just a means to make a poop joke and not be taken too seriously.
More recently, plot elements are introduced, and sometimes even retconned, to contribute to a larger story. There are cliff-hangers that create a backstory to the Land of Ooo, referred to in whispers as "The War." The Ice King, previously a ridiculous and incompetent foil/villain has become a tragic hero and popular subject of fanart.
This shot has inspired more internet artists than that angry-looking cat.
Cartoons that are largely comic in nature don't need to worry about continuity. You don't need to know the chicken's backstory and prior relationships, all you need to know is why he's crossing the road. The argument can be made that these types of plots are aimed more towards the adult viewers, but my rebuttal is why not just enjoy the funny action and jokes without worrying about complex character relationships and why the world is the way it is?
These are all of the ingredients of canon, the dirty word of continuity, and leads directly to...
The topic of next week's post. I'm not trying to create a cliffhanger, I just don't have the time or space to focus on both topics this week. Stay tuned and share your thoughts!