Technically Not A Teen: The Universal Appeal of Gravity Falls

Curator's Note

Animation isn’t just for children—The Simpsons hopefully put that notion to rest for good about twenty years ago, with a little help from Batman: The Animated Series. But there is still a perception that a cartoon’s channel likely determines its crossover appeal. In terms of animated comedy, Fox and Comedy Central are home to what I will (somewhat imprecisely) refer to as “adult” shows, ranging from late-period Simpsons and Bob’s Burgers to South Park and Futurama, whereas Cartoon Network offers sophisticated absurdism for all ages with Adventure Time, Regular Show, and its Adult Swim lineup—what we might very broadly term “crossover” shows for sake of categorization. Against those, the Disney Channel certainly appears to be the bastion of cartoons aimed directly and near-exclusively at kids, as typified by its flagship program Phineas and Ferb—a fine show, but one that requires the adult viewer to recalibrate for its more juvenile sensibility to really enjoy.

That’s why the Disney Channel’s new show Gravity Falls is such an unexpected pleasure. The show follows 12-year-old twins Mabel and Dipper Pines as they spend the summer with their great-uncle Stan in secluded Gravity Falls, Oregon, a town teeming with supernatural creatures. Creator Alex Hirsch lists a trio of acclaimed “adult” shows as his key influences: Twin Peaks, The X-Files, and, yes, The Simpsons. Story editor Dan McGrath is a golden-age Simpsons writer, and primary director John Aoshima is an American Dad veteran. The show also enjoys a full half-hour format unusual for non-adult animation, which gives it more room to develop elements with crossover appeal.

Consider this climactic clip from “The Inconveniencing”, the show’s best episode thus far. The bravura sequence seamlessly incorporates a dozen different elements, each able to entertain an adult, a child, or both. The possessed Mabel is both scary in its own right and an homage to iconic horror movies like The Exorcist. The ridiculously mild yet lethal rap song taps into the playful absurdity that often characterizes Cartoon Network’s crossover program, not to mention the meta-humor often found in Futurama or American Dad. And Dipper’s Lamby-Lamby dance is equal parts funny and adorable, not to mention a good lesson for children that there’s nothing wrong with being younger than the “cool” kids—indeed, it might save them from vengeful ghosts. That layering of tones is crucial to the universally accessible charms of Gravity Falls.


Maybe "angry young people with giant boom box threaten shopkeeper" is on my brain today.

I do find it striking how the tone of "children's" animation has changed in the last decade or so towards character death.  Ma and Pa Shopkeeper here are killed in a comical way, but they're clearly dead as dead can be.   It's a pretty far cry from the shockingly violent but incredibly bloodless and consequence-free action of a GIJoe or Thundercats. (This is, not coincidentally, something I'm talking about tomorrow.)

As far as the "reference stuff for grownups/only grownups will get" goes, I think that goes all the way back to the vintage Looney Tunes shorts - some of them are now almost incomprehensible without a working knowledge of period pop culture. Sesame Street has always done it, on some level. It's practically a requirement for contemporary film animation.

I wonder what specifically has changed, culturally, to allow this sort of "layering" in shows ostensibly for kids? The current generation of animation creators (assuming a cohort in their early 40s or younger) probably came of age on Sesame and early Simpsons....

(Also, seriously - it's really cool to see someone from AVC around here.  I spend far more time there than I probably should.)

You're absolutely right that there's a long history of sneaking jokes for adults into child-geared entertainment. The key, I think, is the layering needs to be done skillfully, and each reference should have some function in the story beyond simply being an in-joke. Otherwise, you're left with not much more than a string of lazy references for their own sake, and that likely ends up detracting from whatever charms the rest of the story might hold. For me, the quintessential example of this is the Shrek franchise, which at some point (you could argue exactly when - even the fairly well-regarded first movie hasn't aged all that well) became preoccupied with stringing together crass innuendo jokes and lazy reference humor instead of building a coherent narrative. The layering in Gravity Falls works because you don't need to know Mabel's possession parodies The Exorcist in order to enjoy it in the context of the scene. It's a cool moment for adult (or even precocious child) viewers who really know the horror genre, but first and foremost it's scary on its own merits.

 And I agree completely - the Shrek product (and I use that term intentionally) focused on the "adult" jokes to the point where it became snide and yet trite at the same time.  

I feel the same way about Family Guy.  Perhaps this is what separates the classic Looney Tunes from the johnny-come-latelies; you don't really have to "get" Wagner to appreciate "What's Opera, Doc?" but it surely doesn't hurt.

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