In recent years, a degrading trend has struck modern cartoons. Influenced by parents who want to avoid discussing thorny subjects with their wide-eyed offspring, the bigwigs leading most networks have consciously opted to favor a brand of shows of empty plots, blank characters, and pale humor. While the conservative nature contained within those works makes the hearts of most adults be at ease due to the sanctity of the entertainment their kids are consuming, it also turns children-oriented TV into one dull pasteurized mass.
No channels have been a bigger display of such philosophy than Disney’s vehicles. If some eighty years ago Mickey Mouse engaged in animal harassment just for the sake of producing fun sound effects and Donal Duck exposed attitudes of questionable moral values, a supposedly more open-minded society was now being treated with doses of unadulterated clean jokes.
As it turns out, one of the key components of laughter is absurdity, and no remarkable punchline has ever been born out of situations that are not utterly self-mocking or pattern defying. All great humor either has to look inward in order to come up with a concise, precise, true, and ridiculous conclusion; or look society in the eye and dare to do the unexpected. Humor is witty rebellion against defined standards.
A morally sterile landscape is, therefore, not the perfect ground for the birth of anything that is genuinely funny. However, if something truly hilarious is able to bloom in the midst of so much holiness, it becomes all the more extraordinary. Disney’s “Gravity Falls”, a stellar cartoon that has just reached its second season, is exactly that: an oasis of hilarity and clever writing amid a wasteland of handcuffed creativity.
The show’s premise is rather simple: two twelve-year old twins, Mabel and Dipper, are sent by their parents – at the beginning of summer – to spend their vacation alongside their great uncle Stan. Mabel is sweet, silly, loving, and honest; while Dipper is intelligent, brave, and somewhat self-conscious. The two, however, share a common trait: they are adventurers, and it is that sense of exploration that powers the show.
In addition, differently from most clichéd brother-and-sister relationships, their rivalry is practically non-existent. They are unstoppable partners that love to spend time together, and although natural mockery occasionally occurs, the two are willing to sacrifice themselves to save the other or give up anything they might have obtained in order to favor the other sibling. Their selfless friendship is truly heartwarming.
Unluckily for the pair, and luckily for viewers, the tiny town inhabited by their uncle is far from normal. In fact, its uniqueness often escalates to life-threatening predicaments. Seemingly unbeknown to most of Gravity Falls’ dwellers, their home is filled with supernatural events, weird creatures, and mysteries that – apparently – carry world-changing power.
Dipper quickly discovers such truth when, on the first episode, he comes across a diary written by an unknown author that catalogs the many bizarre occurrences and beings roaming through the land. In a sinister twist, the book’s text turns increasingly more paranoid, culminating with the warning sentence “Trust No One” inked in huge urgent calligraphy.
The choice of the setting is masterful: a town situated in a real-life geographic location – somewhere in Oregon – and whose paranormal background supports the weirdest happenings. Zombies, gnomes, minotaurs, vampires, leviathans, mermen and other creatures are able to coexist as logically as possible, and – as a bonus – Dipper and Mabel’s progressive investigation into the origins of the diary and the truth behind Gravity Falls gives viewers hope that every otherworldly happening on the show will eventually be explained via one glorious series of slowly revealed twists.
Even if “Gravity Falls” ends up like the infamous “Lost”, on which no satisfactory answer could have possibly been given to tie everything up together, fans will still be able to look back on a lot of wild surprising entertainment fondly. And, most importantly, since we are talking about a wacky cartoon, whatever puzzle it will unveil when its ending comes will have more wiggle room to work with and sound plausible due to the more light-hearted and suspended nature embedded in the color-infused animation art.
The show is able to use its mystical prowesses cleverly to muster distinctive atmospheres. Some episodes are downright sinister and are bound to send chills down the spines of even its most adult viewers. Those include the twins’ encounter with the Trickster, an overwhelmingly creepy being who curses infants who soil Halloween; the Shape Shifter; a couple of poltergeists with a gloomy back-story; and even threatening dinosaurs.
At the same time, other tales focus on more whimsical occult powers, like a gang of gnomes with a habit of kidnapping girls, a gimmicky carpet with body-switching powers, and wax figurines with a dark purpose.
As a statement to the quality of “Gravity Falls” the show is able to pull off both extremes of the mood palette with ease, and it is impossible to say which of its facets tends to be the best one. There are great episodes that are grim, and there are outstanding ones with a much lighter temper.
Dealing with unnatural matters is not the only element on which the show shines, for it also has an incredible knack for stepping well over the line that separates the morally acceptable from the deplorable in order to pull off major stunts. Those moments are mostly achieved through the character of Stan, the kids’ great uncle.
Though his affection for the duo and other secondary characters with whom he interacts frequently is palpable, even under his grumpy demeanor, it is a wonder how two responsible parents left their children under his care through the summer. During the show’s two seasons, it has been implied that Stan has undertaken in money-forgery schemes, tax fraud, and numerous other financial crimes, some of which with the aid of the twins themselves.
Additionally, it is blatantly shown that he deceives his customers – portrayed as brainless tourists – by tricking them into believing the items he sells in his Mystery Shack are genuine, when they clearly are not; and openly steals other people’s property without any remorse. The cartoon also delightfully toys around with other morally dubious subjects in other occasions, such as on Mabel’s recurring addiction to forbidden sugary treats that cause her to hallucinate and foam at the mouth.
Touchy subjects are not always approached with humor and sarcasm, though, because the show knows reasonably well to touchdown from its frantic lunacy in order to explore topics of a greater emotional depth. Even if it is not bound to make anyone cry, “Gravity Falls” can – at its finest moments – tug on its audience’s heartstrings regardless of their different backgrounds.
Structurally, “Gravity Falls” is also somewhat unique and a pleasant achievement. The cartoon possesses an underlying plot dealing with the origin of Dipper’s diary and the mysteries that surround the town that is developed from time to time, with some episodes focusing on it more than others. However, it remains decently accessible to anyone who is not following it closely due to how each chapter is able to stand on its own.
If the general dullness of the Disney Channel was in need of a serious shake-up, then that movement has already found the head of its rebellion. “Gravity Falls” is the best kind of rebel, for it has both a cause and a purpose. Its root is the completely uninspiring and morally pure nature of the network’s main offerings, something that has been going on for quite a while, and its goal is to get away with morally dubious situations, add macabre twists to a children’s animation, provide deep storytelling in a cartoon, and break away from the mold.
It delivers humor by being silly and bringing down moral walls, crafts a set of lovable characters, and – if successful – might end up ushering in a new era of animations that know how to make people laugh and mix the stand-alone episodes of a sitcom with deeper threads of plot that run across the show’s whole extension. An uprising may be brewing.