Last month, I went to Austin for a weekend and attended RTX, a yearly convention organized by Internet production company Rooster Teeth Productions. It’s a convention devoted to gaming, cosplay and other modes of geekery.
But the main reason I went this event was to check out the convention’s second annual animation festival. Mostly taking place in a pair of upstairs conference rooms, the festival had various online animation teams coming in, showing off their latest videos and discussing how they created such twisted material. (Yeah, a lot of it was not G-rated.)
But it wasn’t just YouTube animators who showed up. Netflix screened two episodes of its newest animated series, “Castlevania,” based on the vampire-killing video game. The following day, Adult Swim, the Cartoon Network’s nocturnal alter-ego, showed up with a whole block of shows, including some unseen pilots, a new “Squidbillies” episode and the premiere episode of the network’s new show, “Apollo Gauntlet.”
As I took in a lot of the two-dimensional action, I was immediately struck by, well, how adult animation has become. Both online and on the small screen, there are cartoons that appeal more to grown folk than the little ones.
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While I’m sure people will point to “The Simpsons,” “South Park” (which hit the airwaves 20 years ago this month) and “Family Guy” for breaking new ground – and proving that animation can be for adults just as much as children – cartoons have been entertaining the adult crowd since the good ol’ days of hand-drawn animation. Silent film-era cartoons were often aimed at mature audiences, with their risqué humor and titillating characters. (Two words: Betty Boop.)
After the Motion Picture Production Code (aka the Hays Code) was enforced, cartoons had to lose the raunchiness and be somewhat respectable. (That didn’t stop the Looney Tunes crew from dropping bugnuts-crazy shorts throughout the decades that landed fans big and small.)
Once Walt Disney started making shorts and full-length features for adults and their offspring, cartoons began getting a rep for being safe, family fare.
With the exception of the films that come out of Studio Ghibli, home to Japanese animation legend Hayao Miyazaki (a lot of his movies look like they were made just for stoned art students), practically every animated movie that comes out is aimed at young people. Thankfully, there are some films, usually made by those computer-animated groundbreakers over at Pixar, that are smart and sophisticated enough that adults dig them as well.
But as I mentioned, adult animation is mostly a small-screen thing. Fox still runs “Simpsons” and “Family” on Sunday nights, but it also airs my favorite animated show currently on TV: “Bob’s Burgers.” Just like “Simpsons” and “Family,” it’s centered on a working dad and his eccentric, sarcastic family, but the dad slings burgers at his own burger joint, with his family serving as his loyal employees. H. Jon Benjamin, who voices the titular Bob, also voices Sterling Archer, the titular character of the animatedFXX spy spoof “Archer.”
Speaking of cable, Adult Swim just began airing the new season of “Rick and Morty,” its very own dysfunctional-family, Sunday-night comedy. Created by Dan Harmon (“Community”) and Justin Roiland, the show follows a mad scientist and his nebbishy grandson (both voiced by Roiland) as they explore alien planets, alternate dimensions and other sci-fi ephemera. As wacky as this show sounds, the show can get very deep. Once you get past all the insanity these two go through week to week, you’ll find that it’s really about a selfish, practically sociopathic scientist whose adventures often end up hurting his loved ones the most.
As over-the-top as “Morty” can get, it’s a prime example of how an animated show can get away with dispensing the sort of emotional, human subtext you probably couldn’t churn out in a live-action program. Netflix’s “BoJack Horseman” is another cartoon comedy that mixes the absurd with the angsty. The title character is a humanoid horse (voiced by Will Arnett) who used to be a ’90s sitcom star. Unfortunately, his flair for self-sabotage often prevents him for making a big comeback.
“Morty” and “BoJack” are two shows that have gotten critical acclaim and a loyal following for exuding cleverness amongst the cartoon chaos. They’re also a reminder to audiences that just because a show is animated doesn’t mean that it can’t get real.