How this Disney Cartoon Sets the Bar for Animated Entertainment
Most modern cartoons tend to have a set age group associated with them. Some are aimed towards children and attempt to instill life lessons or at the least entertain the youth of America, such as “Dora the Explorer” and “SpongeBob SquarePants.” Others are aimed towards adults and serve as social commentary on modern political and social issues, like “South Park” and “Family Guy”.
So when I heard a fair amount of young adults talking about Disney X.D.’s “Gravity Falls,” which premiered in June 2012, I was a bit skeptical. With the show being from Disney (though on one of its lesser known channels,) you know the boundaries are only able to be pushed so far without the show being deemed unsuitable for children. Then again, there have been a fair share of shows from other networks that have pushed the limits of children’s entertainment, making them favorites among both children and young adults. The two shows that first come to mind are Cartoon Network’s “Adventure Time” and “Regular Show,” both of which have been praised for its humor and characters. Luckily, in turns out Alex Hirsch, the creator of “Gravity Falls,” is friends with “Regular Show” creator J.G. Quintel and previously worked alongside of “Adventure Time” creator Pendleton Ward, so my hopes for Hirsch’s program were fairly high.
Thus, I decided to give “Gravity Falls” a chance, and after watching the 30 episodes that have aired so far, not only is it one of the best animated shows on television currently, it may be one of the best modern cartoons period.
The show follows 12-year-old twins, Dipper and Mabel Pines, who are spending their summer vacation living with their great-uncle Stan (or “Grunkle Stan”) in the fictional town of Gravity Falls, Oregon. While living with their “grunkle,” the twins are forced to help Stan run his tourist trap known as the Mystery Shack with the help of a man-child handyman named Soos (as in Jesus) and a teenage girl named Wendy.
While at first their summer vacation seems boring, things quickly pick up for the twins after Dipper discovers a journal that details strange and unusual occurrences in Gravity Falls. Mythical creatures began making appearances throughout the community, and it is up to our two heroes to defeat these beasts while uncovering the mysteries that lie underneath this seemingly sleepy town.
From the outside, “Gravity Falls” seems like a stereotypical children’s show. A boy and a girl go on adventure and maybe learn a moral along the way. In a broad sense, that is what the show is. Yet as I started getting deeper into the program, I found a lot of interesting characteristics about it that make it stand above modern cartoons.
First, the mysteries placed throughout the show are incredibly intriguing. There are your usual mythical creatures like gnomes and the undead, but then there is also a plethora of hidden secrets placed throughout the show, including a fair amount of cryptic messages. It will most likely take you a few screenings to find all of them.
One of the best examples of this actually comes in the form of one of the main villains, a triangular, one-eyed demon named Bill Cipher. In Bill’s second appearance, he approaches Dipper late one night as Dipper is up working on a puzzle. Upon his arrival, Bill states that he has been “keeping an eye on you [Dipper]” since their previous encounter a few episodes before.
Though that does not sound incredibly creepy, after rewatching the episodes leading up to this one, you start seeing triangles placed throughout Gravity Falls, many of which feature one lone circle directly in the center.
In a few cases, Bill himself is seen, though his appearance is often one marked with silence.
Not only is that disturbing, but it creates a great atmosphere and, as a viewer, makes the show more interesting. After you find out one puzzle, you begin to notice all the little things placed throughout the show, wondering if they lead up to solving the root of the town’s many mysteries.
Secondly, the main characters are fantastic, especially the Pines twins. Dipper is the serious, driven, adventurous brother, while Mabel is the happy-go-lucky, overly positive sister. Each one has their strengths and weaknesses, but both are a refreshing change in terms of children characters. They come off as more realistic and relatable to the viewer.
While discussing “Gravity Falls” with Alasdair Wilkins, who reviews the show for The A.V. Club, one example of an unrealistic animated child character he mentioned was Lisa Simpson of “The Simpsons.” The eight-year-old Lisa focuses a lot of her time not doing things a typical eight-year-old would do, but instead fighting for progressive political causes. While that makes Lisa interesting and multidimensional, Wilkins said she is not a great portrayal of an 8-year-old, which can make it difficult for a broad audience to connect with her.
“Lisa’s typically written without regard to what is technically supposed to be her age,” Wilkins said. “I do think audiences can connect with Lisa, but more as adults connecting with versions of themselves rather than themselves as younger children.”
I have to agree with Wilkins on this. I mean, how many eight-year-olds do you know actually understand and fight for environmental causes? Chances are not many.
Unlike Lisa, Dipper and Mabel actually act like real kids. They joke, act and talk like how actual 12-year-olds would. They actually are portrayed like children rather than adults in children’s bodies, and it shows in their interactions. They annoy each other, they fight, they are getting into trouble, they apologize and make up and they make each other laugh. That is how real children act. Hirsch has previously stated in interviews that a lot of the show’s inspiration goes back to when he was growing up with his twin sister, and that time he spent in his youth shines through Dipper and Mabel perfectly.
“Dipper and Mabel offer much more direct connections with memories of youth,” Wilkins said.
As someone whose brother is relatively close to him in age, I can relate to the chemistry between the Pines twins very well. I know how it feels to get into trouble with my brother, annoy my brother, make him laugh and more. I connect with this relationship because, in many aspects, I have lived this relationship. Hirsch did a fantastic job with Dipper and Mabel, and it really does show. It is satisfying seeing kid characters actually acting like kids, and it really gives the show more heart.
The rest of the main characters are fantastic as well. Stan is often more worried about what attractions to put in the Mystery Shack, but at the same time he is concerned about his grandnephew and grandniece, and has on a few occasions gone out of his way to protect them.
Soos, while not the smartest person in Gravity Falls, does have a big heart and, much like Stan, cares about Dipper and Mabel, often accompanying them on their adventures around town.
Wendy is arguably the best teenage character on television today. She acts how a real teenage girl would act… for the most part. She does help steal a police car in one of the show’s shorts, but besides that, she is a great representation of the American teenager. She can be incredibly lazy, yet she does her best to help others. She follows what her friends want to do, but on many occasions she is also independent. Just like how he nailed siblings with Dipper and Mabel, Hirsch nailed teenagers with Wendy.
Thirdly, the art for this show is top-notch. In my opinion, it is like nothing I have ever seen. The backgrounds of these scenes are absolutely stunning. They help build so much atmosphere into what is happening on screen, and it just makes you want to go to Gravity Falls just to check these places out for yourself. You want to explore the murky forest. You feel tense watching our heroes travel across the eerie Lake Gravity Falls. You are so awestruck while on these adventures, it makes you want to travel to the Pacific Northwest, even for just a little bit.
There is still even more the show has to offer. The side characters, the villains and even the show’s morals are all done fantastically. But all of these are not necessarily original to animation – let alone television – so what makes each trait so great? In all honesty, while none of these are incredibly unique, each one is executed in a perfect and humorous manner that makes it stand above anything else ever produced. None of the show’s characteristics seem forced because Hirsch and his team tweak each one to a point where they add something significant to the show, whether it is an important plot point or something that influences the main characters’ actions. Hirsch could have easily done certain things with the status quo in mind, but because of that extra tweaking and care for each of the show’s traits, “Gravity Falls” has more heart and character than anything else on television, which makes it a more memorable and enjoyable program.
If I had any complaints with the show, it would have to say there are a few episodes where the characters resolve their conflict a bit too quickly. It is like they develop the conflict fully by the end of the second act, but by the midway point of the third act, people and actions are forgiven relatively quickly with little to no strings attached. Then again, I was only able to point out few episodes where this was a problem, so maybe it is just me.
All in all, “Gravity Falls” is not a show you need to be watching; it is a show you should be watching. While at first it may look like just another children’s show, everything about this show makes it great for the older crowd, too. The characters are fantastic. The way the mystery is built up is great. The atmosphere is superb. Everything about this show is fantastic and it just sucks you right in. Give “Gravity Falls” a watch, and I hope you get sucked in like I have.