Cartoons come in many forms and flavors. Some are for children, some for children of all ages, some for viewers of all ages whether they feel like children or not, and some most definitely for adults only. They may share historical referents and bend to visual trends, but every cartoon literally shapes reality to its own ends.
Creatively, things have been pretty good in television animation for three decades now, dating from Ralph Bakshi’s 1987 weirdsville “Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures,” which opened the door for historically informed individual vision and gave a start to a new generation of excited animators. As with live-action productions, cartoon TV tends to be stranger and scrappier than what you find on the big screen. TV also keeps old-school 2-D animation alive, tapping into visual traditions older than CGI and the birth of Pixar.
And yet, although another good crop has come in, I haven’t managed to write about animation this year. Therefore, in the year-end spirit of rectification, before Baby 2018 drops an Acme-branded safe on the head of Old Man 2017, I offer some more and less recent series worth your while (and, sometimes, your kids’).
“Niko and the Sword of Light” debuted on Amazon in July. The path it treads is broadly familiar — darkness lays on the land, an evil wizard dispatches beastly minions to stop the plucky underdogs journeying to undo him — though it finds its own way through the territory. Niko (Andre Robinson) is a 10-year-old hero, grown for the job but prematurely out of his cocoon; he has only a partial grasp of how the world works. There is a princess-heroine (Kari Wahlgren) and the inevitable furry, wisecracking sidekick (Tom Kenny, who elsewhere is SpongeBob and the Ice King). Even at its darkest, the series feels like fun. Sample line: “Are the waters in the Pools of Destiny drinkable, or are they for external use only?” The animation is economical but fluid; the drawing, which recalls the work of Don Bluth (“An American Tail,” “Dragon’s Lair”) graceful; the backgrounds inviting.
Disney XD’s “Duck Tales” revives the late-’80s series, inspired by Carl Barks’ “Uncle Scrooge” comics, wherein Donald Duck’s rich uncle has adventures with his grandnephews. The reboot, by Matt Youngberg (“The Batman”) and Francisco Angones (“Wander Over Yonder”), is most definitely set in the 21st century, but it has been made both with respect for the canon and the will to revise it. It’s smart and self-aware. Nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie, traditionally distinguished only by the colors of their caps and shirts, have been given individual personalities, celebrity voices (Danny Pudi, Ben Schwartz and Bobby Moynihan, respectively) and oddly square heads. Webby, a cousin by proximity, also gets a personality upgrade and Kate Micucci to play her. Scrooge himself is played by David Tennant, the 10th Doctor, sporting his native Scottish accent.
Assuredly not for tots is “Big Mouth,” a Netflix series co-created by Nick Kroll and starring Kroll and “Oh, Hello” partner John Mulaney as best friends facing puberty. A sort of enlightened gross sex comedy, more “Freaks and Geeks” than “Porky’s,” it gives weight and psychology to boys and girls alike. (Parents are mostly just embarrassing.)
For many reasons, some legal, this series could exist only as a cartoon (or, I suppose, a puppet show), and that it’s animated puts the human characters on the same plane as the walking penises and talking vaginas they imagine; the “hormone monsters” that haunt them; and the ghost of Duke Ellington (Jordan Peele), who lives in Nick’s attic and gives advice. Middle schoolers will know from the inside its catalog of anxieties and humiliations; still, not every parent will be comfortable with “letting them” watch, as if that were something they could stop.
Also not for kids is Adult Swim’s “The Jellies.” From Tyler the Creator — Tyler the co-creator here, with Lionel Boyce — it follows the adventures of a family of jellyfish and their teenage human son, Cornell (Phil LaMarr). The jellyfish part is mostly a visual conceit; indeed, Cornell is shocked to learn he’s adopted.
The show has the carefree violence, sexual weirdness and surreal tenor of the Adult Swim brand, but the episodes I’ve seen tend toward an agreeable, even a sentimental resolution, somewhere between hip-hop satire and O. Henry. The art is elemental yet oddly sophisticated, adaptable to a wide range of pop culture references and parodies. (Director Aaron Augenblick’s credits include “Wonder Showzen,” “Ugly Americans” and “Superjail!”; it was an appropriate hire.)
The rollicking “Home: Adventures With Tip & Oh,” whose third season (in two years) commenced on Netflix in August, is descended from the 2015 film “Home,” adapted in turn from Adam Rex’s 2007 children’s book, “The True Meaning of Smekday,” and is distinct from both. (Thurop Van Orman, who created “The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack,” and Ryan Crego developed it for television.)
Tip (Rachel Crow) is an energetic young teenager with a cigar box electric guitar she calls Lady Oblivion, a single mother (Ana Ortiz) and an extraterrestrial best friend, Oh (Mark Whitten, doing a turn on Jim Parsons’ film rendition). Oh is a sensitive, excitable violet blob, with mop-like lower extremities, whose people live both among humans and in a city floating over Chicago.
The series is loud and bright, rendered in biting oranges, yellows, purples and greens, with patterned backgrounds that do not respect perspective. It goes all kinds of places: a dangerous water park, a cat planet, the mall (“I’m just 13 in a teenage dream,” a pitch-corrected voice sings, “I love capitalism”), an alien DMV. Cher — the real Cher — has guested as Cher from space.
Similarly themed but more delicately rendered is Amazon’s poetical, knockabout “Danger & Eggs.” Phillip (Eric Knobel), an egg who lives in a giant chicken — his mother — in a city park, and D.D. (Aidy Bryant), a girl daredevil with a father in permanent traction, are best friends. Phillip is a brake on her recklessness; she pushes him through his caution. (He is an egg, after all). “To deviate from one’s map is to be adrift for all eternity,” says Phillip, but D.D., whose favorite adjective, adverb and noun is “bananas,” wouldn’t know what to do with a map if she had one.
Press coverage has often pointed to the fact that Shadi Petosky, who co-created the show with Mike Owens, is transgender, and that LGBTQ-plus inclusiveness extends through the cast, crew and into the stories. But the show cheerily opens its arms to the whole wide world; images packed with detail and activity reflect that embrace.
Ian Jones-Quartey, who helped develop “Steven Universe” with its creator, Rebecca Sugar, and is the voice of Wallow on “Bravest Warriors,” is the creator of Cartoon Network’s “OK K.O.! Let’s Be Heroes,” an endearing superheroes (mostly) versus supervillains show set in a shopping center. Like “Steven Universe” and “Bravest Warriors” (and “Adventure Time,” on which Jones-Quartey also worked), it’s about family and friends and love, even as it is full of monsters and robots and creatures from space. The drawing, which uses a rough line, has a handmade feel; there is something appealingly simple (though flexible and expressive) about the design of the characters that makes you want to draw them yourself — makes you want to go out and make more cartoons!