5 Nostalgic Cartoons That Should Stay Dead
Boy, we bank a lot on nostalgia, don’t we? Nowadays, it seems we can’t go a week without hearing about some remake, reboot, or revival of a past property. In recent years, however, we’ve seen a particular resurgence of popular/cult classic animated shows from the 1990s and early 2000s, which isn’t all that surprising. Not only were these works well regarded by both critics and their target audiences, but those audiences are now adults who can look back on these series with fond reflection and potentially share them with their own children. It practically guarantees a built-in viewership, whether you want to continue the story or update it from the ground up. Successes include Ducktales, Hey Arnold!: The Jungle Movie, Rocko’s Modern Life: Static Cling, Invader ZIM: Enter the Florpus, and Samurai Jack.
On the flip side, though, we’ve seen a ton of failures, either financially or in how they were received by fans. I’m talking about misfires like The Powerpuff Girls, Teen Titans Go!, Ben 10, Kim Possible, and The Magic School Bus Rides Again. If anything, the mixed record of these reboots tells us that reviving a childhood favorite is not always a cause for celebration. The creators may pepper the series with topical trends and modern sensibilities to vainly connect with today’s youth; they could excise characters and cast members whom audiences had grown attached to, or they might completely change the tone and style of the show to be utterly unrecognizable. Any number of things can go wrong here. Instead of truly bringing the series back to life, the showrunners simply reanimate its rotting carcass and expect us to enjoy it.
With that colorful image in your head, it might be healthier to approach these works with caution. Join me in making ‘90s kids everywhere feel old as we look back those animated shows that are better off in the realm of nostalgia. Here are 5 nostalgic cartoons that should stay dead.
5. Johnny Bravo
I believe in keeping entertainment as apolitical as possible for fear of dividing people unnecessarily, especially with the oversaturation of Trump jokes these past four years, but there’s simply little choice in this case. That’s not to say that this show itself deliberately set out to be political, but I doubt it would be seen as wholesome fun in today’s landscape. Johnny Bravo is a muscular moron who is completely wrapped up in his own self-image. He constantly admires how pretty and herculean he is, often oblivious to the plights of those around him. However, this doesn’t stop him from clumsily hitting on any attractive woman in sight. No matter how many times he gets punched, he doesn’t seem to learn his lesson.
With a protagonist like that, you can see how this would likely spark controversy if brought into the modern-day. On one side, we’d have people shaming the show for “toxic masculinity” and supposedly making light of sexual harassment in the #MeToo era. In response, we’d see opposing parties referring to these detractors as “snowflakes” and “SJWs,” which would further escalate hostilities and close any avenues for peaceful communication. That’s assuming that the creators don’t attempt to update the show to be more politically correct. This would also result in negativity from the audience due to a lack of faithfulness to the original. When faced with all of this, it’s just less of a headache to let the series rest in peace. Instead of making people laugh at his goofball antics, Johnny Bravo would ignite a Twitter war over how “problematic” he is.
4. Dexter’s Laboratory
We’ve all seen the “boy genius” archetype done in numerous works before, but none are quite like Dexter’s Laboratory. Focusing on an arrogant little inventor with an indeterminate accent, this show derives much of its comedy from the imagination and visual style of Genndy Tartakovsky, the animation veteran behind works like Samurai Jack, the Star Wars: Clone Wars serial, Hotel Transylvania, Sym-Bionic Titan, and the recent Primal. As a result, every shot has such personality and purpose that you don’t even need the dialogue to know what’s going on.
Unfortunately, Tartakovsky left the show after two seasons, but Cartoon Network still saw dollar signs in the property and kept it going without the original creator. As a result, the series lost most of its visual flair and creativity. Whenever they weren’t being weird for the sake of being weird, the characters would often stand in front of a boring backdrop, letting static gags run on for far too long. Adding to fans’ disillusionment was the fact that Dexter’s voice actress, Christine Cavanaugh, retired from showbusiness and was promptly replaced by someone who couldn’t quite capture her unique vocal quirks.
She’s since passed away, so any hope of her coming out of retirement for a revival is gone. On top of that, Tartakovsky is also unlikely to come back; the only time he’s ever dug up a dormant project was when he gave fans a long-awaited ending to Samurai Jack. As such, that would leave Dexter’s Lab in someone else’s hands. Unlike other entries on this list, we’ve seen the lackluster content that produces.
Before SpongeBob SquarePants, Nickelodeon’s flagship franchise focused on a bunch of babies. We follow the titular Rugrats as they experience everything the world has to offer for a growing child. To an infant with an active imagination, even the most mundane events can seem overwhelming and catastrophic. For instance, they think that their parents getting fired means they’ll actually be set on fire. A premise like that provides a golden opportunity for surreal creativity while tackling growing pains that everyone can relate to, and the creators took ample advantage of that opportunity… for over a decade. Not only did the original run last from 1991 to 2004, but it also spawned three theatrical films, a myriad of merchandise, and even a sequel series chronicling the characters’ teenage years.
Like SpongeBob, The Simpsons, Modern Family, The Fairly OddParents, and the slew of CBS cop shows, Rugrats was such a financial success that it went on for far longer than it should have. It’s hard to believe that there’s much more material to be mined from this concept. True, life is full of unexpected obstacles, and you could implement some modern phenomena into a remake for a bit of novelty, such as children being more adept at smartphones than their parents. However, most kids still go through the same milestones, be it their first haircut, potty training, or some other hurdle. Because of that, resurrecting Rugrats for a new generation would likely lead to familiar territory more often than not.
Alternatively, they could continue the story with the original cast as they get older, but this would defeat the purpose of seeing the world through a baby’s eyes. Unfortunately, keeping them the same age isn’t very appealing, either. Instead of injecting new life into the franchise, it would only cement its stagnation. The writers were already running out of ideas for what to do with these eternally youthful babies the first time around; it’s why they kept introducing new characters and movie parodies. Further complicating things is the fact that several members of the cast have since died off, including the aforementioned Cavanaugh.
This is the only show on this list that’s been confirmed for a reboot, but it’s probably better to let the storied series stay within the innocent realm of our childhoods. After all, you can’t say that it didn’t have a good run.
2. Rocket Power
Personally, I hate the phrase “hasn’t aged well.” I think that praising something at one point and retroactively dismissing due to some arbitrary decision that it’s “out of date” is an exceedingly limited lens through which to view art. That being said, perhaps no greater argument can be made for such a mindset than Rocket Power. This animated time capsule is quite possibly the most late-‘90s-and-early-2000s show ever produced. Capitalizing on the extreme sports craze of the time, the series revolves around a group of kids in a California beach town who practice seemingly every edgy sport under the sun. They’re adept at skateboarding, surfing, snowboarding, biking, roller hockey, and more. It all looks so easy to them, but these kids don’t simply use such sports for fun. Surely not. Their goals are simple: pull off the sickest tricks and make the competition look like a bunch of “shoobies.”
Add to this the fact that the aesthetic just reeks of the era, or at least a studio exec’s interpretation of the era. We’ve got the ridiculous hair; we’ve got the bright and colorful clothes; we’ve got the nonsensical lingo splashed onscreen in onomatopoeia cutaways. Even worse, there’s not enough substance here to help you overlook these elements. The plots are formulaic, and the characters are as deep as a puddle. They are merely caricatures designed to facilitate the sporting events, but the average animation doesn’t justify devoting so much effort to the action.
Everything about this series seems manufactured by a committee to attract followers of a topical trend. As is often the case with fading trends, looking back on it is sure to make you cringe in embarrassment or laugh with bemusement. It’s as if some middle-aged writer is constantly saying, “Hey, kids! I’m hip with the youth!”. Granted, other works like Bill & Ted have also used overtly flamboyant stylings of the day. However, the Bill & Ted movies played these stereotypes ironically, contrasting its titular idiots with a host of other characters and scenarios. We don’t see a hint of irony in Rocket Power. Every absurd aspect of this show is presented in a straight-faced way as a natural part of this world. If that was ever brought back to today’s audiences, then it would be laughed off the screen.
1. Justice League/Justice League Unlimited
It’s not like these shows wouldn’t work in the modern-day. They have some of the best storytelling and characterization of any superhero show or animated series in general. The problem lies in an integral member of the creative team being no longer with us. After achieving success with Batman: The Animated Series, Superman: The Animated Series, and Batman Beyond, the folks at Warner Bros. Animation started work on the next chapter in their superhero universe: Justice League. Although held in high regard, this team-up show was somewhat impersonal at first and rarely reached the dramatic heights of its predecessors.
That all changed when they brought in Dwayne McDuffie, a comic book writer who had already proven capable at character-centric tales in his own show, Static Shock. He was devoted to stories about human beings. When he came on board and penned several episodes, these larger-than-life heroes became much more relatable, with their flaws and personality quirks emphasized to further flesh them out as real people.
That continued into the sequel series, Justice League Unlimited. Despite an expanded roster of crimefighters, the personal struggles remained at the forefront. McDuffie wrote most of the episodes, and it shows in the focus on smaller adventures with a few characters over colossal battles with the entire League. Even the politically charged conflict with Cadmus is viewed from the perspective of the everyday citizen, giving it a palpable weight that it would have otherwise lacked. Although the show (and the long-running DC Animated Universe) ultimately ended in 2006, it remains one of the most beloved versions of these classic heroes.
Sadly, McDuffie passed away in 2011, and with him seemed to die any hope of a true series revival. Admittedly, a few entries in this animated universe have come out in recent years: Batman and Harley Quinn and Justice League vs. the Fatal Five. While these are definitely not without their merits, the characters and their interactions don’t feel quite as natural as they once did. Bringing these shows back in a larger capacity, such as a full-fledged TV series, would presumably amplify that issue. Without McDuffie’s personal touch, Justice League and Justice League Unlimited could come off as shadows of their former selves. Perhaps it’s better for everyone to let them rest in peace.
Do you agree with this list? Which nostalgic works do you think should be left untouched?
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