- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 20, 2003

He’s the biggest thing on cable television. Bigger by far than Tony Soprano or any of the “Sex and the City” gals. His face is on more products these days than Michael Jordan’s. Everything from boxer shorts to lunchboxes to video games. You can’t walk through a department store without seeing his bucktoothed smile staring back at you.

How popular, you ask? Check this: Kellogg stock is up on news last week that the breakfast company has signed a deal to put this star on boxes of Pop-Tarts.

He’s SpongeBob Squarepants — absorbent and yellow and porous is he, as the words to the goofy-but-irresistible theme song go — and he’s a phenomenon. A confusing phenomenon, perhaps, if you’re not in that demographic slice comprising American households with an elementary student or two, but a phenomenon nonetheless.

For the week ending Nov. 2, four of the top 15 most-watched shows on cable were episodes of Nickleodeon’s biggest animated hit, “SpongeBob Squarepants.” A typical episode pulls between 4 million and 5 million viewers (compare that to HBO’s Sopranos: a repeat of the mobster drama pulled in 3.8 million).

And SpongeBob’s not alone. Another wickedly funny cartoon, “The Fairly OddParents,” had five episodes ranked in the top 15.

What’s going on here?

Call it a new golden age of American animation. These shows are wackier, more colorful and more entertaining than anything animation fans have seen since the heyday of Bugs and Daffy, and before they’re through they may give those two a run.

Since the 1989 debut of “The Simpsons” on Fox, we’ve seen a renaissance of American cartooning. Disney rediscovered animated motion-pictures with hits such as “The Lion King” and “Beauty and the Beast.” We’ve seen Pixar’s groundbreaking “Toy Story” and this year’s “Finding Nemo” and Warner Bros.’ charming “The Iron Giant.”

But it’s on the small screen that cartoons are hotter than ever. “The Simpsons,” which some critics have called one of the best television shows ever, is still going strong on Fox, which also has the long-running and underrated “King of the Hill,” and “South Park” is still a fixture on the Comedy Channel.

The cutting edge, however, is on networks like the WB and Nickelodeon.

If you’re the kind of person who watches more CNN than the Cartoon Network, you might not realize, for example, that “Samurai Jack” is, hands down, the coolest action cartoon since “Johnny Quest” in the 1960s. Perhaps you are unable to name the three super-heroine stars of the gloriously drawn “Powerpuff Girls.” You might not know that a gray-haired Bruce Wayne has retired from active duty as a crime fighter and handed the Batman costume over to some hotshot teenager named Terry.

Me? I’ve got three youngsters ranging in age from 6 to 11 years old. They’ve got a VCR in the van, cable in the house and a granny who has 1(800)DISNEYVIDEO on speed dial. Trust me. I know cartoons.

Here’s some of the best of what you’re missing:

• The Cartoon Network’s “Samurai Jack.” Imagine that Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood had made a cartoon instead of spaghetti Westerns. That’s “Samurai Jack.” Jack, for now, is Gennady Tartakovsky’s masterpiece. Mr. Tartakovsky, who also created or helped create the “Powerpuff Girls” and “Dexter’s Laboratory,” aims his sights much higher here, coloring a swashbuckling samurai tale with meditations on duty, honor, courage and generous swaths of comedy.

Part samurai adventure tale, part science fiction, part “Star Wars” epic, Mr. Tartakovsky’s creation is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful and funniest cartoons on the air.

The show has a cult following that, speaking of “Star Wars,” includes George Lucas. The filmmaker hired Mr. Tartakovsky to create 3-minute, self-contained animated episodes starring Obi Wan Kenobi and the rest of the “Star Wars” gang fighting in the Clone Wars. Currently airing on the Cartoon Network, the little cartoons are supposed to bridge plot lines from Episode II to Episode III. It’s a measure of how good “Samurai Jack” is, though, that fans of Mr. Tartakovsky find his dabbling in the “Star Wars” universe to be something of … well … a step down.

• Nickelodeon’s “SpongeBob Squarepants.” I suppose it’s nice that youngsters come away from cartoons such as PBS’ “DragonTales” or “Clifford the Big Red Dog” with lessons about sharing, environmentalism, diversity and understanding, but, man, after a while, the preachy subtexts that infect so many of those shows just make your teeth hurt.

That’s why SpongeBob is so refreshing. The creative people behind the bright-yellow nerd who lives at the bottom of the sea with his dysfunctional friends seem to be in the game for one thing and one thing only: laughs. And they’ll do anything to get ‘em. Slapstick. Parody. Wordplay and puns. Visual jokes. Live action mixed with animation. One episode, for example, riffs for 15 minutes on SpongeBob’s bad breath (he ran out of chocolate sauce for his ice cream sundae, so he uses ketchup and onions). Yes, you have to dig deep to find an uplifting moral behind the inanity that rules in Bikini Bottom.

• Nickelodeon’s “The Fairly OddParents,” created by veteran animator Butch Hartman (in the ‘80s he worked on “My Little Ponies and Friends”), is about a little boy named Timmy who has his every wish granted by two scatterbrained fairies named Cosmo and Wanda.

The show has that smart, hipster sheen about it that will remind some viewers of the best 1960s work of Rocky and Bullwinkle creator Jay Ward. More than other cartoons out there, “OddParents” features lots of lines and characters aimed at adult funny bones (Jay Leno as a villain named the Crimson Chin, for example.)

Mr. Hartman has said he wanted to do a series where anything — absolutely anything — could happen to the characters, so putting a couple of magic wands into the hands of a couple of idiots seemed like a good idea. It was, and the results are hilarious.

• The WB’s “Batman Beyond.” Like any self-respecting baby boomer, I’m a little uncomfortable with the idea of a retired Batman watching from the sidelines as a much younger protege pulls on the famous cowl and tights. But this series, set in the near future, eases the old guy out gracefully and replaces him with a troubled teenager struggling to survive high school and the Joker at the same time.

The future’s Gotham City is still a dark and dangerous place, and the new Batman’s battles with villains are thrilling and well-staged, but what makes this show special is its commitment to showing a high school that’s sometimes as treacherous as the crime-ridden city surrounding it. The teenage Batman has to deal with bullies, drugs, absentee parents and homework.

Those are my favorites, but there are dozens of smart, funny cartoons flourishing around the dial. Many of them, such as “The Simpsons,” “SpongeBob” and “OddParents” are written with intelligence, grace and wit.

If only the same could be said of their live-action counterparts.

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