Creating art isn’t easy — never mind a thousand of frames of it.
Sometimes we forget just how much effort and love goes into animation. We didn't realize it when we were kids watching Saturday morning reruns of SpongeBob SquarePants, but each episode of our favorite cartoon was crafted by a team of artists and took up to a month to animate. That’s why it’s so sad that cartoons are dismissed by people. A misconception exists that all animated T.V. shows are either A. a way to sell children's toys or B. "adult" cartoons that are nothing but shock humor. As cartoon fans know, however, animation is simply a storytelling medium, and a gorgeous one at that! Here are a few amazing modern cartoons that are just as (if not more) sophisticated than any other show on T.V. They're definitely worth a binge watch or two.
1. Steven Universe
Our first animation gem is “Steven Universe,” a Cartoon Network show from “Adventure Time” writer and storyboard artist Rebecca Sugar.
Here’s the comedic setup: Steven, a naive, donut-loving kid, haplessly stumbling into adventures with three ethereal superwomen called the Crystal Gems. As the series goes on, however, Steven matures into bona fide Gem himself, with powers and all; this makes “Steven Universe” primarily a story about growing up, but there are a lot of other complex themes on offer as well. Oh, and don’t forget the tears! So many tears, guys.
“Steven Universe” boasts brilliant and flawed characters, fascinating lore, a charming sense of whimsy and some gobsmackingly BEAUTIFUL animation. And its diversity is, in a word, extraordinary. There's nothing else like it on a major network. Gender issues and LGBT characters are strongly emphasized in the show, right in the foreground. Two of the main characters are a same-sex couple, and gender tropes are thoroughly defied. As if that isn't awesome enough, the voice cast includes Estelle, Nicki Minaj and Uzo Aduba. This quirky all-ages fantasy tale doesn’t just sparkle — it shines. It’s no wonder that the subreddit for “Steven Universe” fans has over 60,000 followers (and a ton of fan theories)!
2. Over the Garden Wall
The ten-episode miniseries “Over the Garden Wall” premiered on Cartoon Network as a Halloween event. It aired without much fanfare and subsequently disappeared into the woods. The miniseries follows brothers Greg and Wirt, wandering lost in a strange antebellum-era land called the Unknown. The art and music drips with 19th century autumn atmosphere and proves a perfect watch when October rolls around. Just don’t blame me when you have to hide under a blanket.
“Garden Wall” is the closest Western equivalent to a Studio Ghibli movie. It relishes in its own atmosphere and demonstrates a specific artistic vision. Like a tale from an antique children’s book, the stakes are deadly, mysteries are revealed, and it threads the viewer through a suspenseful and dark narrative. The series also has a unique curio quality. In fact, the only notable piece of merchandise was a cassette tape (not making this up), only 1,000 copies of which were ever made. Oh, a vinyl record was created for the series’s press kit, but is unavailable for purchase. See what I mean about this series being weird, obscure and wonderful?
3. Gravity Falls
“Gravity Falls” features twins Mabel and Dipper as they visit their Grunkle Stan's tourist trap curio shop for the summer. Little do they know that they’re stepping into a world of weirdness, magic books and an adorable pig named Waddles. Welcome to Gravity Falls.
On the surface, “Gravity Falls” is just a cute Disney XD show about a pair of siblings in a quirky little town having adventures. And sure, it’s primarily a comedic and highly enjoyable family-friendly cartoon. But if you go in thinking it’s that simple… honey, you got a big storm comin’. Did I say storm? Oops, because I actually meant apocalypse. It's totally nigh.
During the show’s run, episodes contained hidden ciphers and hints for fans to unscramble. The series ended gracefully this February after two seasons, not because of lack of interest but because “Gravity Falls” had told the story it set out to tell. Or maybe not — series creator Alex Hirsch decided to end the show with an international real-life mystery to end all mysteries. Clues have already been found in places from Russia to Japan, and online communities are working to solve the puzzle as I type. That’s right — the Internet hasn’t figured it out yet. That’s how you know GF had some brilliant minds at the helm.
4. Bob's Burgers
“Bob’s Burgers” takes the classic animated family sitcom formula and adds zest. It’s an enjoyably simple comedy with a dry, everyone’s-talking-over-each-other style of humor.
There’s a reason this goofy family has a special place in viewers’ hearts — you may have even seen T-shirts featuring the character Tina for sale. Tina holds the distinction of being very, very relatable to all of us. The show avoids relying too much on parodying celebrities and pop culture, ensuring that the humor is always fresh (unlike Bob’s actual burgers).
My family and I used to watch “The Simpsons” every Sunday night. Nowadays, as Fox execs somehow keep modern “The Simpsons” alive with adrenaline injections and electric shocks, we would probably gather around the T.V. for the Belcher family instead. They've proven themselves as worthy successors.
And with that, I proceed to the world of Adult Swim and Comedy Central. No kids allowed below this point!
5. Bojack Horseman
Check out Netflix original series “Bojack Horseman” for lots of visual puns, a pastiche of Hollywood culture and the crushing feeling of existential despair that comes with realizing that you’re an irredeemably flawed person (or, um, horse). Cartoons are fun!
Protagonist Bojack is a minor celebrity from his role on “Horsin’ Around,” a popular 90's sitcom a la “Full House.” Now he’s a miserable middle aged horse(man) trying desperately to regain the fame he once had and destroying everything around him in the process. “Bojack Horseman” is a dark comedy, and this description doesn’t make it seem like a super fun watch, but there’s a really genuine, intelligent — and, later on, uplifting — element to it that really resonates with people. Oh, and the main characters include a dog named Mr. Peanut Butter and a cat named Princess Caroline. The series is criminally underrated — it’s one of those shows that takes a season before its identity as introspective character drama really starts to gel. If you stick it out with Bojack, however, that patience will be rewarded in spades.
6. Rick and Morty
“Rick and Morty” is by far the edgiest show on this list. Seriously, it’s not for kids. Or adults with sensitive hearts/stomachs. Still, it’s extremely noteworthy. Some adult-oriented cartoons try to distinguish themselves by bathing in guts and gross-out jokes; others (“Family Guy,” “Archer,” etc.) go for pure laughs. While these cartoons certainly succeed in their goal, “Rick and Morty” is an adult cartoon with more conceptual complexity and emotion than perhaps any other currently on air. It takes classic sci-fi plots and deconstructs them to the molecular level. It explores philosophical concepts that make my brain spin. And it does all of this while managing to be a hilarious mix of low- and high-brow comedy.
Admittedly, the art style is a little odd (seriously, what is up with those pupils?), but the writing more than makes up for it. That’s all one can expect from a cartoon captained by Dan Harmon, the storytelling genius responsible for “Community.” The show is gross and deranged, much like Rick himself; and continuing that simile, the intelligence it demonstrates is superhuman.
So ends an explanation of six amazing pieces of media are able to tell unique stories through animation. So go forth and watch them! It's awesome to be able to appreciate just how painstaking the process of animation is, because it makes you really appreciate what went into each one of these exceptional shows... or maybe it's not so great, because now, every time a terrible cartoon comes on you'll be sitting there imagining all the wasted paper, dreams and wrist injuries that went towards creating it. In the words of Rick Sanchez, "Just don't think about it."
Lead Image Credit: Cartoon Network Studios