In honor of March Madness, I thought I’d hold my own little tournament. Eight teams, win or go home, and the eventual champion will answer the question:
What is the best cartoon universe of all time?
By “cartoon universe” I mean a fictional world inhabited by characters rendered through art (drawn in most cases; puppets in a few). I didn’t use “cartoon show” as the qualifier, because some of these universes have spawned multiple television series or movies. The classifications are still not very clearly drawn; two of the franchises I’m comparing were created purely for adults, and I include all of the Disney, Warner Brothers, and Hannah Barbera works as separate “universes” (so all of the Scooby-Doo and Flintstones characters count for Barbera, and Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse both count for Disney), while other universes only have one flagship show (like The Simpsons). But putting it together the way I did balanced many different factors, I think.
I will judge each head-to-head matchup based on six criteria:
Overall popularity—I weigh heavily towards how popular the universe is now with adults, compared to whatever initial popularity they might have had. I will also skew heavily towards television programming as opposed to movies, adjusting this rule depending on the degree to which the movies is associated with a franchise’s central characters (so Disney will get minimal credit for making a fantastic movie like Beauty and the Beast because the characters are not originally Disney, but I will count all of the Muppet movies).
Strength of nostalgia—when an adult comes across one of these universes today, in a rerun or a commercial or a reference, what degree of fond remembrance does he/she experience?
Quality of programming—how good, in a critical sense, were the TV shows/movies in which we originally encountered the universe?
Appeal of main characters—the popularity and cultural endurance of the headline characters of each universe
Appeal of secondary characters—the popularity and cultural endurance of the sidekicks, villains and background characters
Full realization of universe—How completely and appealingly are the fictional worlds these characters inhabit drawn? Are there consistent aesthetic, logical, philosophical, social, and moral rules which govern the universe, and which informs the characters and explains their appeal?
Because of the disparity in the types of contenders, these categories will often skew heavily to one side or the other, and even maybe seem unfair, based on the match-up. But put together they offer a decent way to compare very different things, I think.
FIRST ROUND: #1 Disney vs. #4 Hannah Barbera
#2 Warner Brothers vs. #3 Sesame Street
#1 The Simpsons vs. #4 The Family Guy
#2 The Muppets vs. #3 South Park
MATCHUP ONE: #1 Disney vs. #4 Hannah Barbera
An old-money traditional powerhouse vs. a scruffy but tough underdog; like North Carolina playing Cincinnati or Marquette.
Disney is the oldest cartoon franchise we’re still familiar with today (Walt Disney, who began as a cartoonist working for Universal, came out with Steamboat Willie, the first released cartoon starring Mickey Mouse, in 1928, barely beating out the introduction of Betty Boop in 1930 and Porky Pig in 1935). And the Disney brand is one of the most emblematic of the 20th century. Looks like a blowout? Let’s see:
Disney is as omnipresent as any cultural phenomenon of the century, and is probably the biggest single entertainment brand in America for the past sixty years. Two theme parks, the biggest animation studio in Hollywood, one of the biggest motion picture studios in the world, its own cable channel, dozens of shows in production right now. The Disney characters are immortal: Mickey, Daffy Duck, Winnie the Pooh, Goofy. More recently, all of us remember Duck Tales, Goof Troop and maybe even Chip and Dale’s Rescue Rangers and Darkwing Duck. I will also give partial credit for the movie franchises, although they aren’t connected to the central cartoon universe as Mickey and Friends are.
But Hannah Barbera gives Walt a run for his money: the original Barbera franchise is Tom and Jerry, which you probably don’t remember all that well, but it established the concept of absurd violence and mean-spirited prankstering which somehow translated to effective children’s programming for fifty years or more. And the flood of Barbera shows which remain implanted on our collective memory is immense: The Flintstones, Scooby-Doo, The Jetsons, Yogi Bear, The Smurfs, Space Ghost, and many of us may also remember The Powerpuff Girls and Huckleberry Hound. Arguably all of the Barbera shows put together have more resonating impact on current pop-culture discourse than Disney does (e.g. a comedian is probably more likely to reference Scooby Doo than Mickey Mouse) But still, Disney is Disney.
Strength of nostalgia—
This is tricky to judge. Disney is fundamental to the culture. But seeing the Mystery Van rocking along or a clip of Fred Flintstone paddling away with his bare feet to drive his Stone-Age car still evokes strong feelings in me. I’ll call this one a wash.
Quality of Programming–
The throwaway quality of all of the Barbera shows—the ease of the jokes, the simplicity of the art, and the comforting, predictable resolutions of the plots—would perhaps indicate shoddiness, if all of the elements didn’t somehow come together to form an impression of a kind of genius. The quixotic nature of some of the premises—anthropomorphic bears who lust after campers’ food, Prehistoric families who live just like modern ones excepting that dinosaurs and other Stone-Age trappings replace heavy machinery and technology—are accepted without question by children, but they seem to make perfect sense to adults, as well. Hannah Barbera Studios came of age in the 60s and 70s, when it began to dominate cartoon programming, and there is definitely a strong undercurrent of counterculture sensibility running through all of their shows. I’m pretty sure some of the inspiration for those inexplicable Scooby-Doo episodes came from marijuana.
Disney has always been Disney. Their programming aims to make accessible to everyone the joy of the fairy tale. That the central metaphor of the Disney empire has always been the vacation parks themselves makes perfect sense—the programming is absolutely an escape, too. And of course there was Walt Disney himself, who was a staunch anti-union, anti-communist activist who happily helped HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) carry out its business, ferreting out Communist sympathizers and blacklisting talent.
Championing America vs. slyly inculcating counterculture with eight-year olds. Hmm. Artistically I would have to say Scooby Doo is probably way more interesting than Duck Tales.
ADVANTAGE: Hannah Barbera
Appeal of main characters—
Mickey Mouse, Daffy Duck, Snow White, Peter Pan Winnie, and many more, vs. Shaggy, Scooby, Yogi, Boo-Boo, Fred Flintstone, et. al. As much as I love some of those Barbera characters, the sheer weight of the empire wins this one for Disney, I think.
Appeal of secondary characters—
This category doesn’t mean as much for this matchup, because so many of the separate shows are self-contained.
Full realization of universe:
This is where Barbera really suffers. The individual shows are all interesting and maybe informed our sensibilities in more ways than we realize, but they were also often somewhat hastily put together. Disney really created a fairy-tale universe for its characters. And there are arguably even two real places where Mickey and Snow White actually exist—Walt Disney Land and Walt Disney World.
So, Disney wins three out of six categories, Barbera wins one, and the rest are a wash. Disney moves on. Simpsons vs. Family Guy next.