Childhood cartoons uncovered

Examining the messages behind your favourite sandbox soaps

Disney’s Recess

During an undercover sting operation, contraband is traced back to an infamous gang. An officer looking to make her mark goes undercover to join them, with the intention of taking them down from the inside out. Instead, she finds herself slipping away from her former identity, becoming drunk with power.

This may seem like a synopsis of Law and Order, or any other police procedural on TV, but it’s actually from a 15-minute episode of Disney’s Filmore! Swapping drugs for candy, gangs for girl guide troops and police officers for a middle school safety patrol.It seems that just about anything can be woven into a G-rated children’s show.

Cartoons operate on two levels of understanding because, at the end of the day, parents are the ones who decide which shows they let their kids watch. 

If a show is going to succeed, it’s going to have to capture a child’s attention and sustain it, while simultaneously being bearable for the fully-developed brain of their parent who’s likely watching alongside them. 

Not that I’m making an excuse to binge-watch cartoons — well, maybe. But the plot and visual stimulation that we all loved to get absorbed in as children, often offer up smart and  sometimes compelling allusions and messages running alongside. Even if it’s silly on the surface, a quality children’s cartoon provides some engaging questions for the big kids too.

Disney’s Filmore! may be set at a middle school, but that doesn’t detract from the witty dialogue — which is riddled with puns — and complicated plots of this police procedural for kids. Episodes tackle organised crime, betrayal, corruption and even a femme fatale or two. 

The appeal of this show is that it takes itself so seriously you can’t help but laugh when a perp is nailed for trafficking maple syrup. On a deeper level, the audience is often asked to question the integrity of the law and the pitfalls of looking at the world as if it was black and white. 

Disney’s Recess is a 2000’s Family Channel classic that you probably watched long after you would like to admit. The long running animation features main characters with unique interests and intricate backstories who interact with a world on the playground that’s both extremely familiar and completely absurd. T.J. and his friends deal with their own versions of fascism, demagogues and corruption. 

For instance, Ms. Grotke, the fourth-grade teacher who’s consistently shown teaching her students about feminism and racial equality and is best known for the line, “take these textbooks with a grain of salt, as they primarily focus on western males.” Occasionally, the showrunners even dip their toes into the ethics of psychological torture, such as the episode where T.J. Dettweller is put in the time-out box. 

Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time is a worldwide favourite for its spontaneous humour, post-modern storytelling style and charmingly simplistic art style. While certain 13-minute episodes involve extreme games of charades or quests for recipes, others literally delve into hell — it’s a place called the ‘Underverse’ that’s perpetually on fire and filled with genuinely terrifying soul-eating demons — and explore the nature of evil, mortality, healthy relationships, self-love, body positivity and a wealth of other things that even fully-grown people still struggle with. 

Getting nostalgic and revisiting your childhood can transport you back to a time when everything seemed a little simpler. Your favourite TV shows may have seemed mindlessly fun back in the era of the sandbox, but watching them as an adult you may just realize you were taking in some pretty grown-up content. 

You don’t need to be a kid to love them, but you may need to be an adult to really understand the deeper implications of their plotlines. 


Culture commentary, Entertainment, Lifestyle

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