A Perfect Union of Animation and Imagination
In my many columns over the last few years, I believe the field I have given the least attention to is animation. This isn’t because I don’t appreciate it — I do — or that there isn’t a lot of good animated programs out there — there definitely are — it’s just because I don’t have enough time to pay attention all of the great series out there.
But over the years I have grown increasingly fond of the animated series that show up on Cartoon Network. I will admit that I never appreciated some of the early original gems — Powerpuff Girls and Dexter’s Laboratory were in their own way, minor masterpieces that I hope this new generations finds — but over the last few years, I have come to appreciate many of the gems that have come out. These include not just the critically acclaimed Adventure Time and Steven Universe, but many of the less heralded series. I had a lot of trouble appreciating Teen Titans GO!, mainly because, like many others I had fond memories of an early incarnation, but over the past few years I have come to love it. This is a series that not only bites the hand that feeds them on so many occasions — the Batman led ‘TV Knight’ episodes are little gems — but have over the years expanded to take swings at a lot of other targets, from the cartoon format they inhabit to various other franchises. (‘Space Adventure’ took a lot of great swings as both the Star Trek and Star Wars universes in a way that I think fans of both franchises could admire.) I’ve always been fond of The Amazing World of Gumball, which takes the idea of ‘What if The Simpsons took place in a world where everybody was a different animal?” and has expanded into many glorious parodies. (In one great episodes, they poked fun not only at the world of the Final Fantasy video game series but the entire culture of gaming itself, something that has been a recurring theme on the show.)
But during the last few weeks, I have become particularly fond of a series that has a certain parody but is more interesting in a real world. Craig of the Creek, by comparison to some of the other cartoons, has a more realistic view. Craig is a young boy, who with his fiends JP and Kelsey go on adventures in an untamed wilderness in a creek. This world is run by ninjas, archers, and has places like Cardboard City and the Kingdom of the Overpass. But while this world is completely real to all the children, the series makes no effort — like say, Muppet Babies did — to pretend that these worlds are actually realistic. They all look like things that eight to twelve-year olds have painstakingly built and while they see them as real, they all go to their homes at the end of the day. Even more amazingly, these children clearly live in the world of today — they have cell phones and read mangas, but they are fully committed to the imagination of this world with an innocence that is not only missing from so many TV shows, but also so many children’s shows. There’s something so pure in the way Craig says ‘Whoa’ when he discovers something he hasn’t known before, and it fills me with joy.
And the plots can be just so simple and heartwarming. In an episode I saw recently ‘Sleepover at J.P.’s, J.P. invites Craig and Kelsey to his home for a sleepover and is ultra focused on staying up to watch a late night TV series clearly modeled on SNL. The group then gets involved in a game of flashlight tag at the Creek, much to J.P.’s increased dismay. Finally, when they have all been taken prisoner and J.P. gets mad, Craig understandably wants to know why he needs to see this show so badly. J.P.’s answer is heartbreaking — he wants his friends to meet his mother, and this show is one of the few times he gets to spend with her. (We learn she’s an airplane pilot and that’s why she’s frequent absent for long periods.) When eventually they manage to get home, the cartoon ends on one of the more moving sites I’ve seen in any program recently — Craig gets a mac and cheese he’s made for his mom, and we see the TV on, unwatched while the friends have an animated conversations with J.P’s mother.
I suppose I should mention that Craig is an African-American child, and indeed that a majority of the characters in this series are either African or Asian Amer0can. In a way, I recognize the significance of this — there have been far too little representation of minority characters on animated series even in the past few years. But in another, more important way, it doesn’t matter at all. Craig at the Creek remembers what it was like to be a child and get simple pleasure of make-believe fights, eating junk food and when a blizzard meant no school. It even remembers what it was like when you old to comfortably play like this any more. Children should watch Craig of the Creek to see how they should spend their childhood. Adults should watch it for sentimental reasons. This is a gem.
My score: 4.75 stars.