Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Galaxy, Use Your Light!

It's simply not true that every TV show has been on DVD -- this will never be true as long as WKRP languishes unreleased -- but we are seeing some releases of shows that I really never thought we'd see again. Case in point: Rhino has just announced My Little Pony: The Complete First Season (already up for pre-order at Amazon).

This is a hard thing to have to confess, but when I was a child, My Little Pony was probably my favorite cartoon. I didn't dare admit this to anyone at school; for a boy to admit to liking My Little Pony was like a girl admitting to watching... well, actually, I don't think even girls admitted to watching My Little Pony. But watch it I did; it was for My Little Pony, which was on every weekday morning at about seven a.m., that I learned to get up early: I'd wake up before anyone else, run downstairs, watch Pony, and then eat breakfast and get ready for school. And who isn't better prepared to get an education after watching a half-hour of the adventures of a bunch of multicolored female mini-horses based on children's toys?

Now, I can't really remember, after all these years, why I liked that show so much. (Maybe I'll have to try to borrow a copy of the DVD set and try to figure out what I liked about it.) I do remember that the stories were serialized over the week; each Pony story would be told in five fifteen-minute segments, so they'd encounter a problem on Monday and solve it by Friday. The rest of the half-hour was taken up by isolated cartoons about a bunch of cutesy glowworms, plus the usual public service announcements (as in, "We can't actually mention drugs, but if we could mention them, we'd be telling you not to take them"). I remember that the ponies lived in their own special community that most humans didn't know about, a la The Smurfs, but they had a few human kids for friends, suburban kids who somehow found their way to the Pony land when they wanted to have a respite from their dreary real-world suburban lives. Every story had at least one original song in it, but perhaps fortunately, I can't remember any of the songs. I remember that the ponies had high, squeaky voices, and that there was a distinction between the regular ponies, who just ran around a lot, and the unicorns, whose horns gave them environmentally-friendly magical powers ("Galaxy" could produce light, "Gusty" could produce wind -- and yeah, I know, most ponies can do that). Finally, the only plot I really remember from the show was the one where all the ponies and their friends were up against an evil and super-powerful villain named "Grogar," who was a giant blue goat with scary horns and glowing red eyes. He threatened to banish them to "the land of darkness -- FOREVER!" but in the end, he failed. Oh, and this was the show that introduced me to the word "rambunctious."

If there was something this show had going for it to keep me watching, it can be summed up in five little letters: M-A-G-I-C. My favorite cartoon shows were not the funny ones, nor the action-packed ones; they were the ones drenched in magic. Little kids, particularly little kids growing up in the suburbs, love magic and magical lands and magical powers, even villans with magical powers. When you're that age, you're learning how the world works, and coming to terms with the fact that there are all sorts of rules you have to follow and things you can't change. What a pleasure it was to turn on the TV just before school, or just before your parents woke up on Saturday, and see a world where those rules don't apply, where you can have magical friends and worlds that nobody else knows about, and where possibilities are unlimited. Even today, I have a soft spot for that kind of thing; that's why my favorite fantasy stories tend to be stories about normal kids in magical situations, not something like Harry Potter which places magical kids in depressingly normal settings like school.

I don't know if you've noticed this too, but among people of my generation I've noticed an increasing tendency to be nostalgic for the morning cartoons of the '80s. I'm torn. I much prefer the cartoons of the early '90s, and, objectively, cartoons like Batman and Animaniacs were infinitely better than almost anything made in the '80s: better animation, better writing, better acting, and not created to sell toys. But the thing about '80s cartoons was that they were truly kids' cartoons, made to appeal to little kids and to deliver what little kids wanted to see. Kids' cartoons got more sophisticated in the '90s, but the price they paid was driving away the kids. Batman and shows like it ran into trouble in the late '90s when advertisers realized that they weren't really all that popular with very small kids. And why should a show like Batman, with its darkness and moral ambiguity, appeal to little kids? That show is for their big brothers or even their parents. My Little Pony was just for them, just like a magical friend that their parents didn't know about.

One more thing: looking back on the '80s cartoons, it's hard to see why parents' groups made such a stink over the existence of cartoon shows based on toys (to the point that this kind of thing was banned, or at least made more difficult). A cartoon show is going to be merchandised one way or the other, so what's the difference whether the toys come before the cartoon, or after? I know it's crass, and I know that it sometimes led to decisions being made on a pure merchandising basis, e.g. Jem was cancelled even though the ratings were good, because the toys weren't selling. But let's face it: action figures and toys were a pretty good basis for a kids' cartoon, because in the '80s, the real imagination in kiddie entertainment went into the creation of toys. The real problem was that all too often, the cartoon didn't live up to the imagination of the toys. He-Man was a great, dark toy concept, where a muscle-bound guy battled genuinely creepy villains for control of the truly scary, trapdoor-filled Castle Grayskull. The cartoon was like Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood by comparison. And believe me, little kids don't really like Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood.

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