I’ve seen two kinds of action cartoons. Those that are mature and treat their audience seriously, and those that are trying to act like they’re mature and treat their audience seriously.
What does it mean to take an audience “seriously”? To me, it meant not holding back a message because you think it would be too close to home, or too shocking. It means not making all of your endings happy because your audience are children, and not trying to force a tone on a plot that it doesn’t fit in. A show that treats an audience seriously will think about their story and storytelling carefully before animating it. If the beginning and middle builds up for a sad ending and doesn’t foreshadow or set up for an optimistic happy ending, a story that treats its audience seriously won’t force one onto it. If the story is talking about an extreme subject, it won’t tone it down (story wise, it makes sense to tone down sexual things like rape), and will tell both sides of the story. It won’t force an opinion onto the watcher.
A good example was Batman the animated series and (I know I talk about this all the time) Neon Genesis Evangelion.
Because even I get tired of talking of NGE, I’m only using Batman as an example. The show Batman the Animated Series was a fun series. It had action, it had plot, and it could be either dark, funny, or both. It had character development and original ideas. But one thing that it did was not hold back. There were sad endings. Not all of the stories ended with all the problems solved. And the thing about those sad endings was that they made sense.
I don’t remember the episode, but there one from the New Animated Series that struck a chord with me. In the story, an ex-model’s career was ended when the modeling industry execs continuously insulted small portions of her face, causing her to try an “improve” herself with surgery after surgery. This is quite unsettling on its own, dealing with industrialism forcing the view of beauty onto others, the act of preying on one’s “perceived flaws” and many other issues that aren’t what’s expected to be talked about in children’s shows. But the real kicker is the ending. The women became a villain wearing a mask to cover up a face that’s been distorted by years of surgery. In the end, when the mask is removed it is revealed; her face is completely normal, beautiful in fact. But she can only see the flaws.
…Wow. Brilliant. It’s an adult issue but told in a way that’s comprehensible to children. It’s chilling, but not through blood or horrific scenery, but moving plot. It’s a great story that would move adults as much as children. This is what I mean by treating the audience seriously.
The second kind of action movie I know is the kind that tries to be like Batman TAS by being “dark” and “dramatic” and having a “scary tone”. Let me tell you outright, I don’t think “darkness” is what makes a story mature. When I say that a story should address adult situations and not hold back because it’s aimed at children, I do not mean tell them about sex, and drinking, and show them bloody images.
What I mean is that the story treats the situation they have chosen to tell about realistically and not ignoring a huge factor of the subject if it’s too dark or depressing for the young viewers. If you’re having an anti-smoking ad, it would be smart and somewhat surprising to show that the smoker in the story will Not quit smoking just because he was warned of all of the risks by the main character. It would be smart to ed on a bittersweet note because smoking is a serious issue. It would Not be mature to have the character start spitting out blood and start having a realistic illness attack onscreen.
One example of a tool that cartoons seem to use to make their stories “mature” or realistic nowadays is to add swearing, or darkness into a situation that’s completely unneccesary.
Another is assuming that adding drama into a scenario will make your story mature. Drama is good, but it won’t automatically make the situation a really shockingly realistic one. As an example, lets say that the villain as tied bombs onto two of the main character’s loved ones. A plan to save both of them is made but ends in disaster, killing off either one or both of the loved ones. Shocking? Yes. But what was the message, or the deep analytically look at the character? Was the message, don’t get into fights with terrorists?
A mature story doesn’t need to kill off characters, or even be depressing to be mature. All it needs is to deal with an issue responsibly without holding back any points of views that could be considered controversial.