Primetime toons stay inside narrow lines

Fox promotes 'Animation Domination'

In typically low-key fashion, Fox promotes its Sunday-night lineup as “Animation Domination.” Yet surveying the state of the genre in primetime, “Animation Stagnation” appears more apt.

For a medium normally associated with young males, TV animation is looking awfully middle-age, maybe even a little paunchy. After some hemming, hawing and hardball negotiating, Fox renewed “The Simpsons” through a 25th season; Comedy Central has been celebrating the 15th year of “South Park” (Omigod! Kenny’s old enough to have survived puberty! And college!); and “Beavis & Butt-head” is about to make its triumphant return to MTV, a mere 18 years after its premiere.

In the midst of a theatrical explosion — driven creatively and commercially by Pixar, and to a lesser extent DreamWorks — TV has narrowed its focus rather than expanded it, repeatedly playing to teenage boys and young men with a bad case of the munchies. Heh, heh heh.

Yes, there’s Seth MacFarlane’s empire on Fox, where the jokes fly so quickly the attitude seems to be “If that one didn’t make you laugh, just wait a second.” Add to his posse a wave of copycats, and the tone of animated comedy is tediously similar — a mixture of snark, slackers and sniggering innuendo.

“Beavis & Butt-head” returns this month, for example, accompanied by “Good Vibes,” a by-the-numbers take on horny 15-year-old boys in a beachside community. A few days later Fox seeks to refresh its Sunday lineup with “Allen Gregory,” a Jonah Hill produced and voiced half-hour about a wildly precocious 7-year-old raised by two gay dads.

Neither show specifically requires or exploits animation as a medium, although there are benefits to not having to hire an actual 7-year-old — and not needing to worry about youthful stars growing up. If you’re going to do an animated show that’s really just another youth-oriented sitcom, frankly, you’d damn well better have “Beavis” creator Mike Judge writing it, or odds are you’ll wind up lost in the pack.

Chuck Jones, the legendary Warner Bros. director, once said, “With full animation, you can turn the sound off and you can tell what’s happening” — a line Pixar’s John Lasseter, not surprisingly, is fond of quoting. Precious little modern TV animation aspires to that level of visual storytelling.

Animation also creates the opportunity to design action sequences on a scale that’s more economically feasible than live-action. Even so, animated sci-fi and adventure remains almost solely confined to channels aimed at children, such as Cartoon Network’s “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” or the Hub’s “Transformers.”

Part of that has to do with a long-standing assumption adults will dismiss animation as kid stuff. While that was certainly true once, the performance of Pixar titles like the “Toy Story” franchise challenges conventional wisdom. Moreover, the ability of animation to cross borders in an increasingly global business — witness “Toy Story 3’s” $1 billion international gross — theoretically provides incentive, both in film and TV, to stretch the form.

Compared to live-action, animation should be liberating. That’s certainly true of “Clone Wars” — whose half-hours are frequently more satisfying than George Lucas’ later film trilogy — and direct-to-DVD titles from DC and Marvel, which, tellingly, are calibrated to adult sensibilities. The newest entry, “Batman: Year One,” hits shelves this week, in a format that consistently allows greater fidelity to arcane comicbook mythology than many theatrical blockbusters would ever dare.

In hindsight, the popularity of MacFarlane’s shows and “South Park” has been more corrosive than helpful, if only for inspiring the me-too wave that followed. And savoring “Beavis & Butt-head” once again merely highlights the shortcomings of the various clones introduced since they left MTV.

Taking these factors into account along with the aforementioned theatrical trends, TV has really yielded more animation diminution than domination — a byproduct of too many series that look and sound alike.

Of course, to quote an animated star of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” — like “The Simpsons” a late-1980s artifact that took more creative risks than much of what’s now on display — that isn’t to say most of the new shows are bad. They’re just drawn that way.

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