Infinity Train and the Genius That Is Cartoon Network
As a rule, I have basically let animation in all its forms fall to a sideline in the majority of my reviews here. This isn’t because I don’t appreciate, but more often it’s due to the fact that it is difficult to adequate pay tribute to the often stunning visuals that make up the best of today’s often great animation. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of it out there. And I think the best way to pay appreciation to one particular show that has just emerged is by looking at its source: the Cartoon Network.
I am old enough to remember when the network originally debuted in the autumn of 1992. Like so many other networks of the time, it was steeped in the nostalgia of an earlier era, most often used to let a new generation have access to the wondrous worlds of Tom & Jerry, Bugs and Daffy, and the Flintstones and the Jetsons. It didn’t go much beyond that until the mid 1990s, when it began to dabble in original animation. Some of it was very good: Dexter’s Laboratory and Powerpuff Girls had remarkable staying power, but a lot of it was hit or miss.
The network didn’t start to reach its sweet spot until the century turned, and it officially created Adult Swim, cartoons that aired late night, usually on weekends. Again, there were moments of genius — Robot Chicken, a very dark satire of motion-capture animation is one of my all-time favorite shows — but a lot of it was still bizarre without being entertaining. I never did understand what the appeal was of Sealab 2021 or Aqua Team Hunger Force, two of their longest running hits. But overtime, their original animation for young adults became stronger as well: sometimes in likely places, such as with Teen Titans and Justice League; other times with more daring material like the legendary Samurai Jack.
Then in the last decade, they began to fire on all cylinders, and some of their cartoons are among the best I’ve ever seen, even if I only occasionally watch them. My favorites include Teen Titans Go!, a general satire not just of the superhero genre, but of so much pop culture in general. (Teen Titans Go to the Movies was an incredible superhero movie parody that, unfortunately, didn’t find the audience that so many comic book movies do.) Others favorites include Steven Universe, a half-comic, half epic story about a group of heroes called the Crystal Gems who work with a adolescent named Steven to protect the world, that has gone beyond its usual source material to become a bastion of equality, and The Amazing World of Gumball, a slightly less ambitious but no less funny world that takes the idea “What if The Simpsons took place in a world where everybody was an animal”, and has gone to some pretty ambitious places.
If there is a flaw with any of these series, it is that which has plagued so much animation in general: these series are so popular and the characters never age, so why bother ending them? The Cartoon Network has often avoided these by bringing many of their more popular and imaginative series (I am thinking of Adventure Time and Regular Show) to conclusions after long enough runs. They also do limited series, which often air all of their episodes over the course of a week. And it is one of those series I wish to discuss, because in its way it represents everything the Cartoon Network is capable of.
Infinity Train is one of the rare shows where the title actually tells you what you need to know. The story is centered on a pre-teen named Tulip, who trying to make her way to computer camp in Osh Kosh, boards a train, and then finds she hasn’t gotten on Amtrak. Each car is even more bizarre than the last one: one is made up entirely of a crossword puzzle, one is populated by Corgis, and one is entirely filled with ducks. Tulip’s goal is simple: she wants to get off the train. And there may be urgency to it: when she boarded, a luminescent number appeared on her right hand, and it seems to be counting down, though she can’t figure out what the correspondence is.
Her main aide is a half depressed, half childlike artificial intelligence called One-One, sort of a cross between Hal and Marvin from Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. She also so far has encountered a salesman cat, and Atticus, a dog ruler of a kingdom called Corgopolis. And while much of the dialogue is very funny (when Tulip learns that an unsolvable puzzle just involved turning a doorknob, the Corgi king said: “It’s puzzled our people for generations!), there’s also a lot of suspense and genuine poignancy as Tulip, who is a science geek at heart, tries to realizes that so much of what she has to do goes against the rules of logic.
But all of this pales from the dazzling visuals, which often remind one of a Del Toro film crossed with the Impressionists. Every car is basically its own TARDIS, but each also unique in its detail that you almost wish Tulip would slow down just so the eyes could marvel at what’s she seeing. The last episode took place entire in a car of crystals, and the flora and fauna were at a level that would make Chuck Jones weep.
I don’t know how Infinity Train will end, but its handled at a level that so many mythology series could learn from. Brief fifteen minute episodes, one overriding problem, several small steps to get there. The Cartoon Network is brilliant when it comes to entertaining series with great visuals. With Infinity Train, they do series with confined stories so well it puts so much of J.J. Abrams work to shame.
My score: 4.75 stars.