We are very excited to present the first installment of our new four-part series from resident animation expert/philosopher Jeremiah Lawson aka Wenatchee the Hatchet, this time exploring the roots of Hollywood’s increasingly absurd obsession with 80s cartoons (Transformers, Alvin & The Chipmunks, GI Joe, etc etc etc).

“Say not, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.” Ecclesiastes 7:10

It is an irrefutable cultural law that popularity waxes and wanes in twenty year cycles. Twenty years being roughly the amount of time it takes for a generation of children to become adults who, in turn, want to introduce their own children to what inspired them when they were young. This means that the first decade of the 21st century has been one of inevitable cinematic revivals of 1980s properties. Indiana Jones, one of the most iconic heroes of the action film genre, was the subject of films that formed the bookends of the 1980s. Despite various adaptations in the 1990s for television, he did not return to the silver screen until 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Star Wars, the original trilogy of which was predominantly an 80s franchise, was continued in 1999 in the form of hotly debated and often risible prequels. The Terminator franchise has produced at least one movie per decade since the original dystopian sci-fi story was released in 1984. The list goes on.

But perhaps most conspicuous in the ’00s were the feature film adaptations of 1980s cartoons. We got a G. I. Joe movie, two Transformers blockbusters (and this year’s third), two movies about Alvin & the Chipmunks, and two featuring Inspector Gadget. We even got a pair about Garfield, of which the only positive thing that can be said is that they inspired a short conversation in Zombieland. 2011, of course, marks out the year in which, among other things, we were smurfed. And I’m not even going to count all of this century’s installments of the revived Strawberry Shortcake franchise. Who knows – we may yet get a reboot of Jem & the Holograms or the Snorks (but I’m not holding my breath). Suffice it to say, at the dawn of this century the floodgates opened and deluge upon deluge of revived 1980s animated properties have come upon us.

Of course, some 1980s cartoons had their own (terrible) feature length films within their original decade. Witness Transformers: The Movie from 1986 and Masters of the Universe from 1987. Of less memorable quality (good or bad) were the feature adaptations of My Little Pony and The Care Bears. There’s precious little I remember about the G. I. Joe movie some twenty-seven years later other than that even as a kid I found it disappointing. I had to actually go look up whether or not Rainbow Brite had a movie (she does). Gobots: Battle of the Rock Lords came and went and, even as kids, my friends and I couldn’t help but notice that they seemed like a low-budget variation on Transformers. You may, I hope, be getting the impression that 1980s cartoons were full of ephemera and that even the best of the best has not always yielded what most people would consider entertainment, let alone great art, either thirty years ago or now.

Not too surprisingly, one of the chief complaints about the current wave of cinematic reboots is simply how bad most of the films have been. There’s been widespread critical agreement that these returns have been anything but welcome. Even among fans of the original shows reaction has been mixed, with some going so far as to express overt hostility. Sure, Michael Bay’s Transformers movies have done well enough that a third and supposedly final film has been made. And despite the beating they got from critics both the Garfield and Inspector Gadget movies got sequels. Alvin & the Chipmunks movie got a squeakquel. While few contest how bad these films are, the question has definitely been raised as to whether the issue has to do with the source material being adapted too poorly… or too well.

I have heard many men in my own generation lament that the Michael Bay Transformers movies are junk, and that Saturday morning cartoons aren’t what they used to be. They look back on Transformers and G. I. Joe and remember them as the quintessence of Saturday morning children’s entertainment. Some of them claim that cartoons have stunk since the 1980s, period. I even have heard more than one man in his thirties express the sentiment that, “Michael Bay raped my childhood.” Others have gone so far as to declare that their childhood ended when Optimus Prime died in the 1986 Transformers movie. Such statements reveal the clearly enormous amount of emotional investment that goes on vis-a-vis cartoon characters. These are not complaints of something being done poorly, they are allegations of sacrilege.

I would argue that only a very powerful and selective cultural amnesia would allow these men (and it is normally men) to forget that the 1980s gave us a lot more than just Transformers (G1 for the cognoscenti) and G. I. Joe. Those two cartoons tend to be viewed as the best of the best, at least when filtered through the prism of childhood memory and nostalgia. Yet the 1980s also featured cartoons of wildly divergent quality such as He-Man, Thundercats, Ghostbusters, Silverhawks, Jem, My Little Pony, Pac Man, Donkey Kong, Pole Position, Turbo Teen, Dungeons & Dragons, Thundar the Barbarian, The Gary Coleman Show, The Mr. T. Show, Ducktales, Rescue Rangers, Ewoks, Droids, Spiderman & his Amazing Friends, Voltron, the Snorks, Gummi Bears, Strawberry Shortcake, the Adventures of Teddy Ruxpin, and even Rubik the Amazing Cube. All of these were cartoons from the 1980s but how good were they? Were these cartoons really better than the ones made in the 1990s? Have film adaptations of 1980s cartoons erred in betraying the high quality of their source material? Or is the problem that all these terrible Garfield and Inspector Gadget and Transformers movies are actually bad because they have paid proper homage to the substance and style of the originals?

So maybe the majority of Saturday morning cartoons in the 1980s weren’t actually as brilliant as some men in their thirties remember them being. Some claim that, since in the 1980s most cartoons were made in America (and not farmed out to overseas firms), the cartoons may not have been as great as they could have been but at least they were American cartoons, not the anime nonsense that has since made inroads into American television. Or so the argument goes. Now the case is being made even by American anime fans that 1980s anime was better than the stuff made in the 1990s, and that the 1990s anime is better than the junk made in the last ten years. Right?

Well, no, not exactly. Ironically, 1980s cartoons were about more than just shilling toys to children; they also repackaged foreign ideas to Americans from France or Japan, for example. Anime notably first began to find an American audience in the 80s, most notably through Star Blazers. Another cartoon that had material imported from overseas that became hugely popular was The Smurfs. Nostalgic Americans forget that in most cases the “better” cartoons were either blatant merchandising campaigns for toy lines or Anglicized renovations of foreign properties. Transformers was not only a cartoon made to sell toys but toys that were originally manufactured in Japan. In fact, 80s cartoons were in several respects more blatantly derivative of foreign properties than 1990s cartoons. Just because Transformers had a ready-made backstory penned by Budiansky did not mean they were less of an import than the mid-1980s syndication of Tranzor Z. If the “real American hero” toy line of G. I. Joe hadn’t done so well, Transformers may never have hit the United States.

So despite the nostalgia of men of a certain age, the cartoons of the 1980s as a whole were more beholden to simply selling toys and games than the ones that have come since, and the juggernaut of 1980s toy culture, Transformers, was more conspicuously scavenging foreign content than anything in the 90s. So there has been a double irony at work, it would seem crass commercialism and reliance on derivative material was more pronounced in the golden 1980s than in the preceding or subsequent decade.

Thirty years since Star Blazers and The Smurfs were presented to American audiences, we now have the Academy giving awards to best animated feature film. We have foreign films such as Persepolis or The Secret of Kells in the running for the award against American films. Whereas fifteen years ago Americans complained about the encroachment of anime into the American sensibility, now we have an American cartoon, Powerpuff Girls, being adapted to Japanese aesthetics. Indeed, most critics acknowledge that we have witnessed a cartoon renaissance. In terms of style and substance, we have access to an unprecedented variety of material, both within the United States and abroad.

Why then would people persist in arguing that the cartoons of the past twenty years are inferior to those of the 1980s? What made cartoons shilling toys (or videos games) from thirty years ago so much better than cartoons made sixteen years ago with no merchandise to promote? A full explanation will take some time, of course. It has to do, primarily, with the role that pop culture plays in the story of self. In the next three installments, and since we’re about to be bombarded for the third time with Shia and co, I will use Transformers and its accompanying lore to discuss how this works.

After these messages… we’ll be right back! Part Two entitled “Let Us Now Praise Famous Toys” comes at you next week.