Cartoons fell into specific categories that ultimately depended on what network it was broadcast on or what studio produced it. If it was by Disney, it was probably a spin-off of a film. If it was by Hanna Barberra, it probably had at least one talking animal. If it was by Warner Bros, it was either a spin off of a film or another spin-off/reboot of Looney Tunes. If it was on Cartoon Network, it would be original content. The most common type of cartoon you’d find in the 90’s, though, were cartoons based on popular films. Ghostbusters, Men in Black, Beetlejuice, even Back to the Future all found themselves broadcast on the smaller screen covering less controversial topics in order to appeal to a younger demographic. Now, cartoons based on films are less common while original content is more common and preferred by the typical viewer.
Opening themes aren’t as long as they used to be, averaging out to be somewhere between 40 to 50 seconds. Some cartoons don’t even bother animating an opening sequence, opting for a simple title card at the start of the show. Cartoons that do put a little more thought on their opening sequence sometimes even get its run time cut short, like Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends.
Older opening themes had lyrics, and if the opening sequence reused animation from the show proper, its catchy tune would make up for the lack of effort put into animating it. If Duck Tales‘s catchy them tune never once got stuck in your head, then you’re lying. That isn’t to say that modern opening themes forego lyrics completely. Phineas and Ferb had a catchy, jumpy tune matched with non-recycled animation. Steven Universe actually went above and beyond your typical cartoon and had two different animated opening sequences paired with two different opening songs (okay, the second song is a remix, but I feel that it still qualifies). While this is the norm for anime whenever it transitions into a new season, I believe this is the first time I’ve seen this done with a western-produced cartoon.
Homages to Anime
In the past, references to anime were either done subtly or in an over-the-top manner. Now, cartoons are more liberal in their homages to classic anime works, either through simple shout outs or through its animation style. And by animation style, I mean the kind that would blend in with modern anime, not the kind that over-used anime-style expressions a la Totally Spies. Even Teen Titans lessened its use of signature anime expressions once its tone shifted to a more serious one in later seasons.
Where we are Today
Taking one look at the redesigns Mickey Mouse has undergone over the past few decades should give a rough idea of how the art style for cartoons has evolved. Animation style is uniform, as all of the hired animators for current cartoons come from the same animation school, CalArts. Characters are drawn in a smoother manner, favoring circles over squares. Gone are the sharp edges and varied shapes from Genndy Tartakosvky’s time.
Because of their decision to hire animators that have all graduated from the same school, the animation style for a lot of modern cartoons broadcast on television lack the variety they had in the past. They move the same way, they emote the same way, and despite having varied character designs, they somehow retain this signature look to them that prevents any one show from really setting itself apart. But one can hope that this is simply a phase, one that will diminish with time.