Updated on July 30, 2022
In 2020, a reboot of the 1980s series “ThunderCats” debuted. “ThunderCats Roar” only aired for one season, but it sparked a lot of debate online about its animation style. Unlike the also-short-lived 2011 revival, the 2020 series featured a simplified animation style, similar to that of “Adventure Time” or “Teen Titans Go.” This met with a lot of criticism from some online.
My history with “Thundercats” is that it was a cartoon I watched as a kid, but not thought much about since then. That, and the character Panthro felt coded as “the Black guy” of the cast (apparently others felt similarly).
This led me to ponder what the prevailing trends were for 2010s TV animation, which I delve into below. Overall, the 2010s were a great improvement over the 2000s in TV animation.
I define the 2010s in TV animation as starting in 2010 with the debut of “Adventure Time.” As of 2022, it’s still too soon to determine if it’s truly ended yet, or if new trends (or the pandemic) have kickstarted the 2020s in TV animation.
Simplified animation styles (“Adventure Time”)
“Adventure Time” debuted in 2010, and soon became one of the most popular and influential cartoons of the 2010s.
One area of influence is the show’s animation style, which TV Tropes dubs “thin-line animation.” “Adventure Time”‘s look is a mix of: simplified, flat designs; rounded limbs/designs (similar to 1920s/1930s cartoons); and Japanese anime influences, such as squat body designs (“chibi“).
This style of animation became quite popular, showing up in a wide range of shows: “Regular Show,” “The Amazing World of Gumball” (mixed with other animation styles), “Steven Universe,” “Gravity Falls,” etc. Some argue it’s simpler and cheaper to animate, but the above shows are still well animated.
Comedy/adventure shows (“Adventure Time,” “Steven Universe”)
The 2010s also saw a rise in the popularity of shows that’re a mix of comedy and adventure, instead of just pure adventure shows. “Adventure Time,” “Steven Universe,” “Star vs. the Forces of Evil,” and other shows often mix adventure elements played straight with some comedic elements. That’s as opposed to back in the 1980s, when “GI Joe,” “He-Man,” and “Transformers” usually limited such humor to comedy relief side characters.
A variety of art styles versus a single “house style”
Older animation studios usually stuck pretty closely to a specific “house style,” out of budget or creativity reasons. Despite some evolution over time, Hanna-Barbera’s house style was pretty recognizable; the same went for Disney, Klaspy-Csupo, etc.
The 2010s saw more openness to different animation styles. For example, the Mickey Mouse shorts that launched in 2013 were done in a flatter style, versus the traditional Disney art style.
The rise of continuity and ongoing storylines
The 2010s saw a rise in ongoing storylines and continuity, even in comedic cartoons. The influences on animation in the 2000s, as well as the rise in streaming services and Netflix’s famous binge model, might have led to this. Even live-action shows have seen a shift away from episodic storytelling. When one can watch a whole season in one sitting, assuming viewers don’t have an attention span or memory (like TV often assumed before the 2010s) doesn’t wash anymore.
“Gravity Falls,” “Star vs. the Forces of Evil,” “Steven Universe,” and other shows all had ongoing storylines.
Reboots and revivals of older franchises
The 2010s saw a boom in reboots and revivals of older properties. I suspect it was Hollywood being, well, Hollywood; the boom of streaming services (by decade’s end) also led to a need for more material.
As such, the 2010s saw a lot of reboots, revamps, and variant takes on many long-runners. Scooby-Doo had “Be Cool, Scooby-Doo” (Scooby done in a “Family Guy”-like animation style); the Looney Tunes had “The Looney Tunes Show” (Bugs, Daffy, and company in a sitcom setting); She-Ra, Mr. Peabody, and Inspector Gadget all got reboots. The trend extended into the 2020s, with shows like “Johnny Test” and “Animaniacs” also receiving revamps.
Modernizing elements of aging characters can be a good thing if done well. Reboots also offer a way to introduce to new audiences modernized takes on classic characters, or change/drop any problematic elements from the original versions.
The downside of reboots, however, are their very nature. Instead of coming up with something original, studios are using resources to reboot stuff we’ve already seen. As much as I liked watching TV in 2002, I don’t want my 2022 viewing to just be recycled versions of what I was watching 20 years ago.
The 2010s saw a lot of changes in TV animation, most of them for the better over the 2000s. As of 2022, we’ll have to see how the 2020s differ from the 2010s.