Badly animated ’80s cartoons are taking over Hollywood. G.I. Joe: The Rise of COBRA, opening Aug. 7, is the latest movie to have its roots in a cartoon that kept children occupied on Saturday mornings and weekdays after school. We’ve had the two Transformers movies (which owe more to the ’80s cartoons than the toys), and studios are developing films based on The Smurfs, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, and even Hong-Kong Phooey, about a kung-fu-fighting dog. These shows reused animation over and over, and censors forbade them to show any violence. But they have a bigger audience than cartoons that were good.
It seems like the more poorly animated an old cartoon it is, the better it sells. Warner Brothers ended its series of Looney Tunes DVDs, but announced plans to market more episodes of Saturday morning cartoons like The Herculoids and The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan. It’s become common for fans and writers of such shows to refer to them as classics, arguing that they deserve to rank with prestigious, well-produced animation. On Shout! Factory’s DVD of the G.I. Joe cartoon, head writer Ron Friedman tells us that the good guys’ fight against poorly voiced baddies from COBRA is symbolic of “the Greek ideal of democracy.” Cartoon history is being rewritten before our eyes, with G.I. Joe and He-Man as the classics and Bugs Bunny or Disney cartoons as forgotten rarities.
Some animation fans are frustrated at the adulation for shows that exemplified everything that was wrong with TV animation: poor production values, unsubtle voice acting, characters created by toy companies. But while Andy Mangels, who produced the DVD features for He-Man and other shows, admits that many TV cartoon producers only saw children “as potential markets,” he understands the affection people have for them. Many of these cartoons produced 65 episodes per season so that syndicators could run them every day; like soap operas, Mangels says, they provided “a story that you could follow every single day,” and people still feel like “those characters were their friends.” It’s easier for people to feel an emotional connection to cheap cartoons with hundreds of episodes than good cartoons that only delivered 13 episodes a year; Transformers and G.I. Joe are fondly remembered because unlike Mickey Mouse or Ren and Stimpy, they never ran out of adventures to keep kids entertained.
Besides, these cartoons do have one quality we associate with classics: their style is still being imitated today. The G.I. Joe and Transformers movies follow the template set by the ’80s cartoons, even to the extent of including ’80s-style comic relief. The Transformers movies have received many complaints about the characters of Skids and Mudflap, illiterate robots who speak in fake “jive” slang and have gold buckteeth. But they’re a lot like stock ’80s cartoon characters such as Wheelie, a robot on the original Transformers cartoon who spoke with a bad accent and rhymed all his dialogue. The G.I. Joe movie will feature bad comedy, over-the-top acting, and blatant plugs for toys—just like the cartoon.
There might even be an argument that the movies don’t live up to the quality of the old cartoon scripts by the likes of Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski (he wrote many He-Man episodes). Mangels points out that the Transformers and G.I. Joe cartoons were serialized epics that “could introduce the planet the Transformers were from in one episode and then expand on it in a four-part miniseries.” The G.I. Joe movie, by contrast, had a script that rejected the complicated mythology of the cartoon and originally didn’t even include the evil COBRA organization. It was rewritten to please fans of the original, but they’re still saying that the cartoon was better written than the big-budget movie.
Yet even if fans are disappointed by the badly produced movie adaptations, they’ll still go see them; Transformers 2 was hated by every critic and still made money. “They are now adults with disposable income of their own,” Mangels says of the people who grew up with these characters, “and they can go to see the movies and take their kids with them.” Studios seem to have discovered that nostalgia for childhood cartoons works better at the box office than anything, including quality. And Mangels doesn’t think it’ll stop with ’80s cartoons. “Ten years from now,” he says, the kids of today will be grown up, and “we’ll have the SpongeBob revival.” Just as long as nobody green-lights a movie version of the ’80s cartoon Rubik: The Amazing Cube.