Cartoons in the late 20th century were known as toy-sales vehicles and nothing else. From the dawn of motion pictures, however, animation has been transformative art. Betty Boop as well as the original Looney Toones had narrative significance far beyond selling figurines. The Flinstones’ first season was even nominated for Best Comedy at the Emmys.
Today, many creators and viewers have embraced animation’s power (please watch Infinity Train before it’s gone) even though the corporate advertising strain is still alive. This results in talented creatives being assigned to shows that are made to hawk merchandise.
Since corporate knows that kids aren’t discerning, they don’t care about the quality or content of their programming–so long as it works. This leaves talented creatives to their own devices while being given little to no direction. Below are five shows that were conceived to sell toys, but were staffed by creatives who ran the extra mile–over a cliff and onto thin air… without anyone to remind them of the rules of physics.
–and we could all use one last hilariously fun hangout before summer ends (or begins if you’re in Australia or South Africa).
Sonic the Hedgehog can run faster than the speed of sound, but he’d much rather hang out with his pals at their bungalow complex on Bygone island. These pals include Tails “Miles Prower”, Knuckles, Amy, and Sticks (a jungle badger, whatever that means). Together, they play soccer while giving feminist lectures, eat chili dogs at a food court located in the middle of the rainforest, and use carefully constructed sentences lest they receive a visit from the fastidious grammar beaver.
Their hangout time is frequently interrupted, however, by Dr. Robotnik and his robotic minions. If only Sonic were out of the picture, Robotnik could terraform the island and make his theme park.
Once again, I have delivered a normal synopsis of a ridiculous premise. Fitting, because this show delights in juxtaposing the mundane with the insane. That Sonic BOOM often does this while following primetime sitcom plot beats adds to its layered contradictions. An episode could start out as simply as Miles being scared of thunder. The development is Sonic agreeing to live with his best friend. Hijinks ensue, and the two decide friends don’t always make good roommates. They come to this realization as Miles discovers treatment for his fear. The hijinks entailed, though, are Miles using his twin tails to eviscerate the house every time thunder rumbles, and Amy using her enormous hammer to simulate thunder for “exposure therapy.” Rarely did I find myself thinking an episode was a bust, and, while the show certainly has peaks and valleys, its baseline runs along the well-executed line.
One major detraction, however, is the show’s animation budget. I have a sneaking suspicion that the lack of money on the visual side drove Sonic BOOM‘s sitcom feel because many episodes take place on the same sets with base-level effects. After watching a few episodes, however, I doubly appreciated the show’s quill-sharp writing and characterization. That this show can deliver the episodes it does with such paltry resources makes Sonic BOOM a chaotic gem of a show.
“No Robots Allowed” – In this self-aware and, frankly, avant-garde plot, Robotnik must prove to the city council that he has no robots on his lair’s property. That’ll be hard to do, considering he has scores of robots on his property.
“Spacemageddonocalypse” – Knuckles is sent to land on and smash a falling meteor because he’s too dumb to remember one can’t breathe in outer space. Meanwhile, Robotnik extorts the island’s residents for rent in his apocalypse bunker.
“The Biggest Fan” – Sonic agrees to have an author shadow him, but things take a dark turn when the author wants to witness Sonic’s every waking move. The result is both a parody of Misery and a sharp commentary on the spicier Sonic fan communities.
Barbie, her family, and friends have all agreed to have their lives filmed for a documentary. The result is a pitch-perfect satire of trashy reality TV. The big twist? All of Barbie’s history is canon. All of it. Midge, Barbie’s friend from 1960’s Wisconsin? Real. Barbie’s bid for presidency? Happened. Ken’s tenure as astronaut? Fact. All of these outlandish adventures are presented like it’s just another day for the eligible bachelorettes of Malibu, complete with a confessional room and catty rival sabotage.
The repeated, astonishing genius of Life in the Dreamhouse lies in its ability to flip between the tedious, manufactured drama of shows like Real Housewives to the absurd contradictions of Barbie’s plastic reality. It’s a lot harder to take a dramatic storm-off seriously when that character then has to manually crank the mansion’s elevator down to the main floor–because that’s how the elevator works in the toy version in real life. Nearly every beach scene is worth a laugh as the characters get sand in their articulated joints. New cars come in plastic boxes, and the pets waddle around the house as fully cast figurines.
The best decision of this show, however, lies in making Ken the perfect boyfriend. He lives to serve Barbie, though he’s tried to do other things. In one episode, Ken even goes so far as to give up his closet space to make room for Barbie’s overflow wardrobe. After all, she can’t part with her disco-era outfits.
The only caution I have for this show is that it was originally a series of web shorts, but has been thematically collected into 12-30 minutes episodes on Netflix. This means that continuity is occasionally out of order and some shorts that fit multiple themes get repeated. The short length of many of the episodes also creates a hyperactive effect that left me exhausted after one or two full episodes (though I wanted to watch more). Regardless, I have recommended this show to men, women, young, and old. All of them have told me that they’ve enjoyed it, so get ready for the magenta cones in your corneas to be overloaded because you’re about to spend some of your life in the dream house.
“Trapped in the Dreamhouse/Perf Pool Party” – Barbie’s going to be the star model in Teresa’s fashion show–that is, if her sentient closet will let her out first. The second half is a rare story that features the entire cast and gives each member a chance to shine, a difficult feat for ANY sitcom.
NOTE: Though this episode is listed first on Netflix, I’d recommend watching a few others beforehand due to this episode’s frequent callbacks.
“Best of Ken” – This collection of shorts contains peak sketches such as Barbie getting a new car, Ken dealing with his super senses, and a dressing-room makeover for customers’ boyfriends.
“Best of Friends” – Midge strolls into town, but still dresses like she’s from the 60’s. Even her skin is monochrome! Barbie tries to modernize her temporally stuck friend while Skipper tries to find the source of sitcom laughter that follows Midge wherever she goes. In another segment, Barbie’s friends try to get gifts for the girl who has everything. They also foolishly try to guess their friend’s age…
Batman has been around the block as a DC superhero, so he gladly donates his time teaming up with other heroes and fostering young talent. Each episode features a different team-up, which means each episode features different dynamics and different approaches to problem solving.
The first episode, for instance, has Batman ally with Jaime Reyes, A.K.A. The Blue Beetle. Jaime’s inexperience and anxiety must be overcome, but that leads to overcorrection on the young hero’s part. The second episode deals with Plastic Man, a thief turned reformed hero whom Batman tries to rehabilitate. Plastic Man’s problem is regression and overcoming his baser instincts, so Batman’s methods with Jaime don’t apply here. The Caped Crusader’s pretty crafty, though, and he always seems to have a way out of a jam.
This program had unfortunate timing, releasing just after Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. While that film rightfully sits atop not only superhero film lists, but also overall film lists, its shadow oppressed any variance in tone or execution of the character. Consequently, many absolutist Batman fans took to the, at the time, rapidly expanding Facebook and the newly established Twitter to voice their utter loathing for Batman: The Brave and the Bold.
A little over a decade later, this version of Batman remains a ludicrously pulpy delight. I was also surprised that it distinguished its own identity apart from the 1960’s Adam West show, though its subject matter frequently occupied the same space.
I can also see why many fans rejected Bold at the time. The characters change every episode, so viewers can’t invest in a guest character. The show, by its team-up nature, shies away from serialization, something television was gravitating towards at the time. The world of Bold is also disarmingly accepting of all the quirks and offshoots that DC comics has accumulated over its history. Batman and Plastic Man, for instance, must stop the super-sentient ape, Gorilla Grodd, from turning humans into gorillas–all while infiltrating his lair on an island populated by dinosaurs! The plot sounds like the writers were eavesdropping on six-year-olds smashing together all of their LEGO sets, but the end product is charming, if wonky.
Batman’s self-serious brooding, then, is built alongside tones introduced by the character of the episode. Sometimes, the resulting mash-up feels like Batman was undercut or drowned out.
While these criticisms are valid, detractors of this show lose Gotham for the skyscrapers: travel with Batman, and you’ll get to see the universe. This show throws everything at its audience–Gentleman Ghost, Ace the Bat Hound, and Crazy Quilt all get dedicated screen time. As a fairly well-versed DC comics fan, I was blown away by the deep cuts this show pulled out and gave attention to. And if you don’t like an episode, most of it gets reset in the next one.
“Terror on Dinosaur Island” – See the above nonsense that passes for a plot description.
“Mayham of the Music Meister” – Neil Patrick Harris guest-stars as the villain in this musical episode. Good thing that Black Canary’s powers disrupt sound waves…
“Triumvirate of Terror!” – While giving the obscure characters of DC is all well and good, Batman teams up with Superman and Wonder Woman in this episode. Their foes are Joker, Lex Luthor, and Cheetah, but the villains don’t want to fight their usual nemeses.
Four teens–Fred, Daphne, Velma, and Shaggy–along with their semi-talking dog, solve mysteries in their small town of Crystal Cove, dubbed “The Most Hauntedest Place on Earth” by their bumbling parents. Every episode, a monster terrorizes the town, but the teens uncover that the monster is actually a human in disguise, none other than–
Yeah, you’ve heard this one before. Here’s the catch, though, Mystery Incorporated KNOWS you’ve heard this one before, so its creative team does something no other iteration of the show has: give its hitherto stock characters actual motivation. Fred is still the leader of the bunch, but he feels obligated to do so because his dad is the mayor. Daphne is still a princess, but she joined the gang to stay grounded against her flighty parents and pageant-show sisters. Velma’s still a loner, but it’s because she’s exhausted by her huckster parents, small town, and Troglodyte-level boyfriend, Shaggy.
Incorporated‘s other weapon is its ability to play the absurdity of the Scooby-Doo world straight. In one episode, a goblin wanders Crystal Cove’s streets, playing it’s seductive instrument, luring children with its hypnotic tones…
Cut to Daphne: “A pan flute? At this hour?”
Sharp writing like this got a hearty laugh out of me at least twice an episode. That’s more than I can say about the average sitcom, making this eleventh iteration of Scooby-Doo‘s reveal as a quality show a twist no one saw coming.
“Beware the Beast from Below” – The pilot sets up everyone’s character traits as well as the town’s atmosphere. The villain also has a tragicomic reason for their actions.
“The Secret of the Ghost Rig” – In this Duel spoof, the gang must outdrive a flaming ghost-truck. The chase reaches Roadrunner-level lunacy.
“The Grasp of the Gnome” – At a renaissance fair, an evil gnome punishes guests for historical inaccuracy in their costumes. For once, Shaggy discovers the main lead in the case; you can guess about how well that goes for him…
Princess Rapunzel has gained her magic hair back! It doesn’t heal people anymore, though; instead, it has super strength. How’d she get her lengthy locks back? She snuck out of the castle with her friend Cassandra and stumbled upon some creepy, black spikes. Now she’s got a duty to investigate this mystery with her beau, Eugene, and Cassandra in tow.
Though there are elements of continuity in the other shows on this list, Tangled is a fully serialized show with a pilot movie, Before Ever After, to kick the story off.
“But wait,” you may be asking, “wasn’t Tangled a hit movie? How does its show fit this list?”
I’ll counter that hypothetical question by stating that, while Tangled was indeed a success for Disney, it was massively overshadowed by the release of Frozen a year later.
Thus, this show was expected to stay in its tower, but given the budget to escape its trappings. The movie’s original cast returns–Mandy Moore and Zachary Levi providing connective strands through the animation and structural changes– and are given imaginative material to bring new dimension to their characters.
While events from one episode to the next carry the central mystery, the B-story of each episode lends itself to classic sitcom hijinks, oversimplifying them for children. The hybrid achieved manages to hit a surprising number of demographics. Those looking for romance have Rapunzel and Eugene’s wholesome yet quirky relationship. Those looking for adventure have Rapunzel and Cassandra’s investigation. Those looking for comedy have wonderfully dumb “problems” to watch the characters overcome. (Eugene can’t keep a secret, so to prove he can, he helps a reckless scientist cover up an impending disaster. Rapunzel tries to ignore the opinion of one hater, but he happens to be the most well-liked person in town! She must get his approval, incurring ludicrous amounts of government expenses to do so.)
This show is obviously geared towards children, but adults “forced” to watch with their kids will be as eager as their offspring to watch the next episode. For those without children, you were probably burned by a brain-dead spinoff of a Disney movie during your formative years–Aladdin, Tarzan, and Hercules come to mind, no matter how I try to repress them. Tangled is that concept executed correctly, and, in a refreshing surprise, doesn’t trip over itself as the episode count gets longer.
All of them. Since the show’s serialized, you have to start with the beginning movie, Before Ever After, then watch straight through.
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