I’ve gotten so old that I’m watching a lot of cartoons again. Not the shows that I used to watch, of course, which are absurdly violent by today’s standards. No one gets flattened by a safe or blown up by an acme rocket or conformed to the inside of a frying pan. It’s just not possible anymore. Cartoon physics has changed. Today’s characters are more solid. They don’t contort, though they may occasionally transform. It represents a certain scientific mindset prevalent today. While there is seemingly no need for a cartoon to make any sense, there is an overwhelming need to explain the nonsense in a consistent internal system. They’ve rejected the inherent absurdity of my childhood shows. No one tried to explain how Wile E. Coyote survived falling off a cliff or how Tom the cat could go through a meat grinder and keep chasing Jerry after he congealed on the other side. It wasn’t necessary. We understood it was a cartoon that required no explanation but amusement. I think today’s animators are worried, somewhere way in the back of their mind, that kids will get the wrong impression. And they’ve absorbed decades of warnings that television is harmful and brain-rotting, which is why their creations are so educational and scientific and sterile. These are the next generation’s minds we are talking about, so they must be carefully sculpted to become good members of the modern age. It’s not like parents are going to do anything, so the task has fallen to our entertainment. Welcome to cartoons in the Technological Age.
The cartoons aren’t any less magical or fantastical than they were. Animals still talk and people still transform. A bundle of balloons will still carry you away if you aren’t careful. But everything is covered in a technological venier. Whereas people used to transform into animals as a matter of course, because it was a fun thing to do, perhaps the result of a superpower or witch’s spell. Today the Kratt brothers utilize a high-tech creature power suit with special disks that must be constructed to bring out the animal powers. It makes no more sense or is any more possible than the spell; it’s just a different kind of sense. Old cartoon could walk up walls as long as they weren’t paying attention and walk on air as long as they didn’t look down. Now cartoons climb up cliff faces with ridiculous suction cups and float in the air with improbably rocket boots. Science has become the new magic. There’s an old saying that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, but we’ve turned it around and concluded that any amount of magic can be attributed to sufficiently advanced technology.
This would be nothing but a curiosity, a interesting sign of our technological times, had the scientific assumptions not also infected the heart of these shows. Science and technology and nature can be incredible playgrounds for our imaginations, but when they are used not to stimulate the mind and explore the world but to demystify the absurdity of life (or cartoons), then they are ultimately destructive of the imagination. This is, I think, intentional. As adults, we fear the imagination of children. We fear they will be afraid of what they imagine, of monsters in the closet and ghosts in the dark, which will be bad for them and a hassle for us. We fear that if they watch cartoon violence that they will become bullies, that if they play violent games they will turn into mass murderers, that if they see a mysterious world then they will become superstitious, that if we don’t explain everything then they will believe anything.
I blame Scooby Doo, a surprisingly prescient cartoon, which combined old school animation with modern ideas. Surely you remember it. The show featured a group of meddlesome teens (and the titular dog) who solved “mysteries,” which always involved some seemingly supernatural monster causing mayhem. Each episode ended with the monster being unmasked, quite literally, revealing it to be, far from supernatural, the disguise of a greedy or power-hungry adult. Shaggy and Scooby were always terrified at first, but in the end there was no reason to be afraid, as the cooler, smarter teens proved, because monsters and ghosts aren’t real. As an exception, Scooby Doo is charming and funny and mostly harmless. The problem comes when every show is like this, and the more cartoons you watch, the more you get sense that they are. The supernatural and mysterious and absurd things are only pretend or merely costumes or just for fun. But once that is established, what does it make the other parts of the cartoon, which are just as unreal and imaginary and absurd as anything else in their own ways? So we end up with PAW Patrol, a show with talking dogs, running an episode to make sure kids know that ghosts don’t exist and that there is nothing to fear. The result can only be the devaluation of the entire realm of imagination and mystery and spirit as something less than the physical world, which is safe because it can be explained and controlled. But what if there is something to fear out there? How do I teach my kids that ghosts might be real?
You can find cartoons that teach your kids about math, about science, about nature, about animals, about being nice, about not bullying, about sharing, about going potty, and about anything else you can want to teach a kid. Educational shows have always existed (thanks, Sesame Street), but now it’s as though most cartoons can only justify their existence by being educational, teaching life lessons if not school lessons. Because what good can television be if it is just a mindless distraction, if it doesn’t teach anything worthwhile? We’ve lost faith in the value of art and beauty and even amusement and joy, and so the only purpose left is to educate, to be practically useful, like technology itself. For this reason so much of our literature, our art, our music, and our television, even and especially for children, has become so pedantic.
Listen to the stories children tell. They don’t have a point—half the time they don’t have a plot—and they aren’t trying to teach you a lesson, and though they are often fanciful and frequently absurd, there is always something you can learn from them and joy you can find in them. The value of storytelling is in the story, not the moral, as art is in the beauty, not the scene. We need to trust our kids’ imagination. Let it run wild. Let them be afraid. Don’t be afraid for them or you’ll smother a piece of their humanity. Indulge them, deepen the mystery of life, broaden their sense of the possible, cultivate their creativity, and be willing to rock them to sleep, if necessary. If nothing else, you can at least watch more Peppa Pig.