The 80s brought us one of the most peculiar eras in animation. Disney was undergoing a slump with its animated films, which would end later in the decade with the premiere of “The little Mermaid” heralding the Disney renaissance. This slump allowed studios such as Don Bluth Productions to start making a name for themselves, bringing non-Disney alternatives with films like “Secret of Nimh” (1982) and “An American Tail” (1986).
And yet, despite these important events, the one that stands out the most began with the deregulation of children’s television by then president Ronald Reagan…. yes, the actor (Reagan Vetoes Bill Putting Limits on TV Programming for Children. The New York Times, Nov. 7, 1988). I’ll give you a moment to stop gasping.
This allowed companies to market toys from the television cartoons, something which prompted immediate action from any studio executive with two cents worth of a brain. The result was an unprecedented flow of tv animated shows for the purpose of marketing anything executives deemed could be sold in children’s toy isles. Shows about soldiers, cars, robots, robot cars, teddy bears, post card mascots, rubix cube, and even crash test dummies among others competed for children’s attention and their parent’s money.
It’s this marketing surge which helped cement the appeal of these shows for decades after, as it provided a physical link between the viewer and the fantastical adventure he would see every weekend on the screen, and ensured that the toy would serve as a reminder of their existence, eventually becoming collectibles and prized memorabilia or would be passed down from parents to their children.
The most relevant and known of all these are known as the big 3- G.I Joe, He-Man and Transformers; however, there were other shows which kicked at their heels and which kept a strong fan base years after the shows were discontinued.
While some shows such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a transitional cartoon 80s to 90s and transformers have maintained a relatively steady presence in animated television, with continuous cartoons being commissioned, others had all but disappeared, with only sparse and in most cases fruitless attempts to revive them; and yet the impact of these shows left a fan base that has lasted beyond their respective generation and has convinced some production companies to try and revive the shows for modern audiences.
Among those beyond the big 3, to get a reboot is She-Ra Princess of Power (1985), created as an extension of the He-Man mythos to appeal to a girl-based audience just as He-man had garnered a boy-based audience. The new show She-Ra Princesses of Power (2018) is a vivid example of the contrast between two eras and how the show has needed to adapt to meet the evolution of animated shows.
The challenges that shows like She-Ra must overcome are many, among them a dedicated and often unforgiving fan base which grew up with these shows and hold any changes to them as an affront to what made the show great. Thus producers and writers will see themselves with the unenvious task of dealing with the critique, that will inevitably come their way, and having to prove that their vision for the show, is the right one.
And indeed, these reboots have had to endure the ire of wrathful fans of which, I sadly must admit, I have been one at one point or another, and even in at least one instance, still am. Cough! Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, cough! But that’s just how things are sometimes.
Furthermore, the evolution of children’s television established an interesting dilemma. The audience that would receive it now is not in the same socio-political environment as the ones in which these shows were created, but even more, those writing the new shows are the ones that grew up with these shows. So how to proceed regarding story? What envelopes, if any, to push? Do they address the social change, or do they choose to adopt a more carefree neutral political stance?
The reboot of She-Ra for instance, has been praised by some and heavily criticized by others, for its tackling and inclusion of LGTB characters and some politically sensitive issues; But the advent of Netflix and private streaming services and animation studios, which are willing to take chances, have allowed shows like She-Ra to circumvent many of the challenges, limitations and censorship that its predecessors faced through public television.
The shows now deal with stronger topics that its predecessors could only get away with on sparse occasions. Many of the episodes of She-Ra deal with topics that hint on abusive family relations, isolation, depression, social anxiety, etc. the antagonists themselves are blurred in their motives, the lines of good and evil remain clearly drawn but the antagonists themselves are not cookie cut bad guys, they are living beings who ended up there for diverse and very human reasons, there is an argument, a discussion to all the characters (good and bad) motivations and actions.
The new shows have distinguished themselves through cohesive storylines that span across various seasons rather than a standalone episodic format. They also are no longer subject to the – lesson of the day- gimmick which was present in 80s cartoons to appease regulation committees.
Another vital aspect of the transition aside from the technology used in their production, is the audience; as said before, the writers and producers of these shows are in many cases people that grew up with the shows themselves, and despite their intent on making this a children’s show, the audience itself is very diversified in respect to age range. You can not produce a children’s cartoon, specially one with nostalgic sentiments, without considering that it will in all due likelihood attract an adult audience as well as the intended kid viewership.
One can speculate that this was foreseen and thus it’s the reason why the shows have a stronger narrative even being evident in the fact that the toy lines are themselves of greater quality, like with the intention to attract older consumers for the purposes of collecting the toy line just as many 80s kids have since become toy collectors, animators, storytellers all thanks to 80’s dreams.