- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 5, 2005

Two-dimensional animation, the kind good enough for Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse and Foghorn Leghorn, has been all but left for dead on the big screen in the wake of computer-generated marvels like “Shrek” and “Robots.”

Not so on the small screen. There, old-school animation, particularly ‘toons aimed at adults, is doing brisk business.

From the resurrection of “The Family Guy” to the enduring popularity of “The Simpsons” and Cartoon Network’s edgy Adult Swim lineup, today’s animation is often aimed at parents and teens alike.

The Adult Swim block alone draws more teen viewers than MTV after 11 p.m., according to Nielsen Media Research. And it wasn’t disappointed toddlers who snapped up all those “Family Guy” DVDs that drove Fox to rescind the show’s cancellation.

For creative types looking to snare adult viewers, animation offers some important advantages over live action.

Animation lets “King of the Hill” be “more real than real shows,” says John Altschuler, the show’s executive producer. “It allowed us to deal with virtually every social and political topic in our universe in a truly hard-hitting way that we’d never be allowed on a live-action show.”

A recent “Hill” episode found family matriarch Peggy leading a cheerleading squad that whipped up the fans whenever it violently attacked the opposing school’s mascot. The action escalated to the point where issues such as hate crimes entered the equation.

Had the story been told with actors, “the images would have been too ugly,” Mr. Altschuler says. “You wouldn’t get to the heart of what the story is about.”

Comedy Central’s “South Park” has brashly pressed public hot buttons from Michael Jackson facing reports of child molestation to professor Ward Churchill’s “little Eichmann” comments.

“Hill” co-executive producer Dave Krinsky says cartoons offer other practical advantages. “We can tell more complicated stories,” he says. “We’re not hindered with sets.”

Mr. Altschuler says animation production schedules are inherently conducive to preserving distinctive voices. While producers and network executives can frequent the set of a live-action sitcom and bury the creative types in notes, “[Networks] have to commit to 12 episodes” of an animation series, he says, “and they can’t monkey with the process.”

As a result, creative control is more easily retained by people such as Mike Judge, the brain behind “Beavis and Butt-head” and “King of the Hill.”

Bel Air, Md., resident Steve Ogden, who runs AnimWatch, a Web site featuring reviews and commentary on independent animation, says a number of factors are feeding the current resurgence of cartoons.

To make “Shrek” look like “Shrek” takes heaps of cash, and a quickie computer-generated version just wouldn’t work on television, he explains. Viewers tend to be far more forgiving of imperfect 2-D animation. “South Park,” for example, began its life as a series of cardboard cutouts and hasn’t evolved visually very far from that.

“‘The Simpsons’ has never looked great, and it’s always been staggeringly popular,” Mr. Ogden observes. “No matter how bad ‘South Park’ looks, there’s a sort of charm to it.”

Defying the conventional wisdom that adults don’t watch cartoons, the nostalgia of baby boomers is contributing to the rebirth of the low-tech animation they knew in their youth.

“We grew up watching the remnants of the old Warner Bros. cartoons,” Mr. Ogden says, making us more receptive to animation as adults.

Toward the other end of the demographic spectrum, today’s teens, for their part, have proved themselves willing to give worthy animated shows a chance to evolve, according to Mr. Ogden, despite their reputation for having short attention spans.

Shows like “Family Guy,” packed with pop-culture references and sly asides, found a niche with viewers who took the time to learn its peculiar comic rhythms.

“It’s not as much slapstick as it is very cerebral,” Mr. Ogden says. “There’s a stupid quality to some of it, but a lot of the humor would go right past you if you weren’t educated.”

Today’s teens swap cultural references with each other, so it’s hardly surprising they’re attracted to animated fare that does the same.

“They’re speaking the same language,” he says.

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