On Kids’ Cartoons (And Why They Rock)

I’m a fairly big nerd – let’s just admit that up front. That means I’m liable to geek out over the meta aspect of anything, not least of which is this blog, which is largely me writing about writing, and about how I have to be OK with that, because that’s clearly where my brain is now, so embrace it and blah blah blah…

It also means I get carried away with things, but that’s not what I’m trying to get at. Tangents!

As a nerd, I like to dissect things, to see what makes them tick. This usually results in a certain amount of objectivity, where I’m willing to enjoy and even love a movie that I know is crap in every sense of the word. It also means I can see why something is amazing, even if I hate it. (Was I alone in finding Hurt Locker dull as drying paint?) And thus do I arrive at kids’ cartoons, those unsung sources of humour, irreverence, genius and occasional darkness that put so much of adult prime-time dramas to shame. And that many adults shun why? Because they’re for kids, duh.

The fact is, for all their surface-level immaturity, kids’ cartoons are written by adults. Often incredibly intelligent, learned, savvy adults who manage to get their own age-appropriate kicks in while still pleasing the young ‘uns. Think of it as the Pixar effect – how many adults paid to see Finding NemoThe Incredibles and WALL-E. for themselves, no children in tow? Plenty, and for one simple reason: kids and adults can appreciate the same content for entirely different reasons, and just as often exactly the same ones. Tell me you haven’t had the Simpsons experience of watching a classic episode only to discover a dozen brilliant new jokes that you didn’t even know you’d missed as a kid.

All of which brings me to Danny Phantom. Now, the lifecycle of any television show is dicey to begin with, and I’m sorry to say that Danny only lasted two three seasons, but at least it got a couple of feature-length special episodes for its troubles.

The best kids shows for adults, in my experience, deal with some aspect of your standard coming-of-age tale. And no matter how zany, candy-coloured or irreverent the show, at some point the main character will come face-to-face with a defining moment that involves a good, hard look in the mirror. And those moments can be incredibly powerful. Because as responsible adults, our job is to look at our own ugliness daily and actively choose to do better. And man, some days that is tough work.

Danny Phantom features Danny Fenton, son to ghost-hunters extraordinaire Jack and Maddie Fenton. One standard science lab accident later and Danny is half-ghost, a fact known only to his two closest friends and all of his enemies. On top of the standard action-hero stories you expect, there’s razor-sharp, rapid-fire wit and humour (at one point, his father invents Fenton toast, which is just toast shaped like himself) that make you smile no matter your age. There are brilliant characters, including a relatively useless villain known as the Box Ghost and an ever-expanding cast of humans who become increasingly aware that ghosts exist, ratcheting up the pressure on young Danny to keep his secret. And it’s real pressure, the kind you can feel weighing on his shoulders more and more.

What’s impressive is how the writers never temper Danny’s angst. There are few quick fixes, and his darkness often persists despite the requisite happy endings. Sure, specific issues get addressed in a given episode, but overall, Danny genuinely and consistently changes despite the status-quo reset button you’d expect the show to hit. In its Christmas episode, an angry Danny pisses off the Ghost Writer, who creates a rhyming narrative of Danny’s ruined holiday. Danny is trapped in the story until he resolves it, and the all-is-forgiven finish doesn’t come across as treacly or saccharine. This is mostly because even after he saves the day, he’s still miserable. Heroics don’t fix your problems at home, and the episode lets that hang for a minute or so before the final hug-a-thon. Plus, the rhyme scheme was dope.

In another episode, some time-travel hocus-pocus allows present Danny to face a future, evil version of himself, and the creation of this self wasn’t arbitrary. In one possible timeline, young Danny causes the death of his parents and in a fit of genuinely affecting misery, separates his ghost and human halves in an effort to end the pain (resulting, naturally, in Evil Danny). Present Danny nearly gets killed by his evil self in a brutal sequence that is seriously no fun. Like, 27 Hours-level, about-to-die harrowing, and he has to dig deep to fix things. Kids can handle that kind of danger when given the chance. It’s good stuff, as effective as any of the best drama for grown-ups on HBO.

And did I mention the guest stars? Danny attracted names like Will Arnett, Ron Perlman and David Carradine, so, come on. Ever wondered what happened to Worf after Star Trek? Turns out Michael Dorn’s a good voice actor.

In the finest tradition of the AV Club and Television Without Pity, methinks I’ll start recapping my favourite shows, starting with Danny Phantom. Expect updates once a week, in addition to the two I’ve already promised to keep on delivering. Maybe on weekends? I’ll figure that part out…

~Mike!