Friday, June 15, 2012

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Storytelling is back!

What I wanted to post about today is the glory that is the current crop of Saturday morning cartoons.  Four in specific: The Legend of Korra, Tron: Uprising, Green Lantern: The Animated Series, and Young Justice.  For years I've whined (offline) about the lameness of cartoons, from the meager pickings on networks on Saturdays -- which used to be a kid's paradise -- to the annoy-a-tron that is Cartoon Network.  There's still too much talk, too little art on CN (I can't even stand the ads for Adventure Time), but there's hope, in these four at least. Not only do all four have style, but they're telling intricate stories that don't expect an attention span of under ten minutes.

CN has created a one-hour block they call DC Nation, which includes Young Justice and Green Lantern: The Animated Series, and some short-short segments which are mostly pretty lame (although the anime-style Teen Titans and the Batgirl/Supergirl/Wonder Girl segments are pretty good).  GL is all CGI, and has some great character designs.  I'm not following any DC superhero comics these days, so I have no idea how closely it follows what's happening in the comics (except for the introduction of Red, Purple, etc. lanterns).  The plot is galaxy-spanning, and one of the keys is the design and characterization of Aya - the AI of their ship, doing a good Pinocchio process of turning her into a "real live girl."  I've got one major beef with this show, though: Of the four cartoons I'm watching, this is the most kids-oriented, yet almost all the female characters are extremely sexualized: wasp-waisted, sloe-eyed, and bikini-clad.  Sure, Hal Jordan is also an overly-male stereotype (ultra-wide shoulders, jutting chin) -- but no bulging package. For the audience this is aimed at, I'd have expected some restraint.

There's something to be said about the same issue in Disney Channel's (also CGI) Tron: Uprising, but if anything, they've toned down the hyper-sexualization of females in Tron: Legacy.  It's also aimed at an older audience (on Disney's XD block), and I'm more fond of the spindly-thin cell-shaded stylization of all the characters.  I've only seen two episodes (I think there's a third on the DVR), but they've put together a pretty rich world with more emphasis on the life-experiences of a basic program.  The main character is a mechanic leading the uprising against Clu, and has a slick little device for analyzing and modifying vehicles.  He's taking on the role of Tron, who for unknown reasons is taking a mostly offstage role (still voiced by Bruce Boxleitner) -- the most obvious reason is that he needs to hang back until the appropriate time in Tron: Legacy.  Style plays a big part here, between the character designs and the disc combat and lightcycle runs.  Happy to see it, have to see if the plot holds up over time.

Young Justice, also part of the DC Nation block, is in its second season, and to some degree, YJ is a continuation of some plotlines in the previous Justice League series' on CN (hey, why aren't those on Netflix?).  They definitely have strayed from DC canon (for example Beast Boy has his powers from an infusion of Miss Martian's blood), but in ways that drive the plots nicely.  Characters are pretty rich, and the plot is a long story arc that not only spanned the entire first season but carried over into the second -- with a five-year (story) gap in between! There's romance, intrigue, double-crosses, clever and stupid villains, basically everything you'd want in a superhero story.

But none of them hold a candle to Nickelodeon's The Legend of Korra. It's a 70-years-later sequel to Avatar: The Last Airbender, and I think it's the best-written show on TV right now. They advanced the civilization of A:TLA 70 years, going from early steam age tech to a somewhat jazz-age, deco-styled "Republic City." Lots of nods to the original series (Cabbage Industries' logo is the hapless cabbage vendor whose cart was repeatedly destroyed in the first series, sports teams named Fire Ferrets and Wolf Bats), and the world is one I'd want to live in: Pro Bending League is a spectator sport somewhere between fencing and team handball; metal-benders run the police force (swinging on balletic cables which can be controlled to coil around evil-doers); and a deep plot around Equalists, protesting the status of benders over ordinary people.  It's a little more grown up than A:TLA (more romance, the violence is a little harder-edged), but not as much as Tron: Uprising, and it's certainly funnier, more clever, and just plain great.

If you had to add only one cartoon to your DVR, I'd say add Korra. If you had to leave one of these out, probably Green Lantern.  But we've hit a renaissance in animation, folks: Story is king again.

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