Why Craig McCracken is a Genius
Anybody who follows my work as well as my most frequent postings and discussions knows that I LOVE animation. I sincerely and confidently say it is the greatest art form in the world, simply because in one way or another it’s every art form combined. It’s drawing, painting, acting, film making, special effects, literature and music all at the same time, and while cartoons get the unfortunate shove as being nothing more then non-intellectual “kid’s stuff”, the field has produced some of the finest achievements in art of the 20th century as well as the 21st so far. But much like any art form, the field is only as great as it’s artists and what they bring to the table. There are many great animators and animation directors that any enthusiast can point to for inspiration like Rebecca Sugar, Lauren Faust, Genndy Tartakovsky, Don Bluth, Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, Hayao Miyazaki, Sitoshi Kun, and of course the most obvious answer Walt Disney. While I have great admiration and nothing but respect for the artists above, I’d like to take a moment to appreciate the genius of the man behind the shows I bring with me throughout my childhood and even adult life. The creator of such shows as Powerpuff Girls (which incidentally he collaborated with Faust and Tartakovsky on), Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends and Wander Over Yonder, Craig McCracken.
Make no mistake; there is a reason this man is so heavily respected and regarded in the current landscape of western animation, and you know a McCracken cartoon when you see them. But what exactly makes his work stand out? What is it about the cartoons McCracken has produced and directed that makes it so accessible to such a wide audience of kids and to an extent adults? How is it that whenever I put on an episode of Fosters or Wander Over Yonder I’m immediately put in a good mood and am enthusiastic about life? Well, after watching and studying his work I think I can boil it down to a few elements which, incidentally I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts before.
1. Beautifully Simple Character Design
Aesthetically speaking, what do the Powerpuff Girls, Bloo from Fosters Home and Wander all have in common? The answer of course is that they are deceptively simple designs that all take a very minimalist approach. So many household names from cartoons are memorable but their designs can often be so complex that if one were to try and draw them from memory, even as a skilled cartoonist, they’d have just enough trouble that they may forget a few key aspects of the design. With McCracken’s designs you can draw them likely in less then 2 minutes, especially ol’ Bloo from Fosters Home. You just draw a little pac man ghost with little flipper arms, circular eyes, a grin and a straight line at the bottom and you’re done. One might think these designs are very limited because of how minimalist they are with how you can express them, and if you’re feeling particularly like a snobby Jackass you might call it lazy. But in truth these design choices are the most practical you can get as they give you all the essentials of the character with nothing superfluous. First, because of how quickly you can draw them by that very nature they are also SEVERAL times easier to animate, and with the added aid of glorious modern day technology (when it’s not crashing that is) producing high quality entertainment quickly has never been easier. Second, all the essential parts of the character are there. Each character in a show is a distinctive shape not replicated by any other character, meaning that if you were to put them in a silhouette you could easily recognize who is who. Also, the whole art of animation is expressing character and personality through motion, which is where the acting part of the field comes in. Just by mannerisms, typical distinctive poses and even the very nature of their walk cycles we know exactly what kind of person each character from these shows is. We know the Powerpuff Girls are only innocent on the surface level and in truth are actually quite violent and gruesome (unless you’re watching the new horrendous show that completely misses the point of what makes the original so great), we know Bloo from Foster’s Home is a mischievous egotistical little trickster who is always causing trouble and we know Wander is a happy go lucky optimist who only seeks to bring happiness to all. Sometimes the best way to go is to not think too hard about it and let the main points of the character come through with no additions holding them down or distracting from the point.
2. Creative Yet Broad Show Premises
*This is my new favorite Gif*
I have to imagine each one of these shows had beautifully smooth pitches to get them funded (except maybe Powerpuff Girls because of the violence) because they have such imaginative and original premises that can be summed up so quickly to anyone who wants to watch and they leave themselves open to so many different types of stories.
*A boy visits his Imaginary Friend at a Foster Home where he and many other Imaginary Friends go on all sorts of hijinx or adventures, along the way saying goodbye to imaginary friends who find a new home*
*a superhero parody where a bunch of seemingly innocent and adorable little girls are actually quite violent and aggressive, and the show plays off of superhero stereotypes while also challenging typical gender roles*
Done. Great simple premise with unique concept not explored before. Take my money.
I’ve said before that it’s important for a show to have an easy to grasp premise, especially for children, because the easier it is to understand the more accessible it is to a larger audience. Plus because of the broad nature of the summary you can tell any kind of story you want between episodes. Premises like these have story ideas that just write themselves; it’s why the family sitcom of middle class family with idiot father and hot overcompensating wife exist, because everyone can relate to having a family and the dichotomy of a couple where one is the straight man putting up with the ceaseless antics of the other. Wander Over Yonder is a particularly good example of this because quite honestly all you need to know is “A couple of do-gooders wander the galaxy making new friends and incidentally run into an incompetent arch enemy a lot”. It’s basically just Road Runner but it takes place on a new planet every episode.
Craig McCracken KNOWS how to use color. It gives all of his shows such a warm inviting feeling because it’s all so bright and either blends nicely or makes decent contrast. This may seem like a minor point, but You’d be amazed how quickly a bad color palette can ruin a show for an audience. the color choices of these shows immediately attract the attention of the viewer with it’s positive vibes and satisfying placement. Plus each character has a color scheme appropriate to their personality (or more accurately they contrast, appropriating a common theme in McCracken’s work; polar opposites hanging out with each other). The goodhearted reasonable and well behaved Mac is red, but his mischievous trouble making fun loving imaginary friend Bloo is, well … . blue. The happy-go-lucky Wander is orange, but his logical and pragmatic best friend and steed Sylvia is blue. The leader Blossom is pink, the innocent Bubbles is baby blue and the tough tomboy Buttercup is green. They remain consistent with these choices and much like the contrast of these characters physical appearance it makes it all the more apparent that the characters themselves contrast too.I don’t know what else to say about it, but just TELL me you don’t watch the intro to Fosters Home and get all hyped up in the process!
4. Surrealist Humor
One thing you’ll notice about these shows is that they aren’t afraid to be weird, Fosters especially. They take every chance they can get to have something surreal happen only to play it off moments later like it never happened. I think that’s always been a great strength of McCracken’s shows. A huge part of comedy is playing with expectations: nobody ever gets a laugh out of something predictable. But another great and common aspect of comedy is stark, jarring contrast. I once read a WONDERFUL book called The Humor Code by Joel Warner and Peter McGraw, that was all about studying what makes people laugh, and they brought up a theory in the book that comedy is all about violation + benign. Something is jarring to our senses but we quickly find out it’s actually nothing to be afraid of. Hence why being tickled by someone we love makes us laugh: it’s a violation of our personal space, but we know our loved one wouldn’t actually hurt us. But it wouldn’t be funny if we tickled ourselves because it’s not a violation, and it isn’t funny with someone you don’t trust tickles you because the violation isn’t benign. This can also happen in reverse: something that initially lowers our defences turns out to actually be harmful or annoying or bother us in some way. I’m not necessarily saying this is the be all and end all of comedy as it’s only a theory, but I think you could apply it to McCracken’s work. His cartoons are littered with moments where a character does something strange or random or out of the ordinary and nobody bats an eye, or maybe it’ll shift in perspective about how large the situation at hand is. An immediate example that comes to my mind is the episode of Wander where a planet is attacked on a huge scale by a destroyer of planets called “Buster” …which actually when you zoom out it turns out it’s an adorable little puppy just playing with a ball. Humor is largely subjective, but if you ask me . . that shit is funny.
has been making numerous contributions to the field of animation throughout his career and has gained notoriety for the shows under his belt . . and rightfully so. He understands pure and simple what cartoons are all about: simple, down to earth, easy to access entertainment that’s fun and leaves you in a good mood. Some television can be considered junk food like reality tv shows (cheap to produce, quick to make, advertised well but loaded with garbage), and others can be considered fruits and veggies like Breaking Bad or The Simpsons (they make you a better person and challenge your sensibilities), but sometimes all you really need is a light simple snack. One that’s colorful, sweet, and maybe even a little nutritious. McCracken delivers in his work with original premises, accessible characters, bright inviting colors and a delightfully weird sense of humor. God bless ya, Mr. McCracken!