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Cartoons and Escapism

Master Inika


Originally, this blog post was going to focus on Code Lyoko, but I have decided to expand it to be about escapism and fiction in general, since I have recently begun watching (and binging) Twelve Forever. There is a lot of behind-the-scenes drama regarding the show's creator that I won't be talking about. The show was first recommended to me by a former friend I no longer talk to back when it aired around 2019, but I have not sat down to watch it until now.

If you read my previous entry, in which I get all existential about BIONICLE and the passage of time, you won't be surprised to know that Twelve Forever resonates with me in a deep way. It captures in a visceral way how alluring and tempting remaining in childhood is. Personally, I think people have a bad habit of using "growing up" as a catch-all for a variety of unpleasant and frankly unnecessary aspects of modern life. It is nothing more than a thought-stopping technique meant to convince themselves that alienation from one's emotions is the norm and "adult." I never accepted it and never had any good reason to.

Twelve Forever and Code Lyoko both focus on a group of children (three, to be exact) who regularly travel to an extraordinary land. In Code Lyoko, this escape-world is the digital realm of Lyoko, where they must travel to fight X.A.N.A. and his monsters to save the world. Naturally, since it's a children's action/adventure show, it glosses over a lot of the unpleasant aspects of Lyoko that I'm sure are there--there is a broadly accepted theory that every time they "die" in Lyoko and get rematerialized back in the real world, all their injuries "catch up" with them and put them out of commission for a while. The purpose of the show is that, despite the fact that the kids are in life-of-death situations that kids shouldn't be in for real, the show's aesthetic and the way it is framed make fighting on Lyoko look awesome. In this respect, there is a significant gap between how the escape-world is perceived by the characters in the show and how it is meant to be perceived by us. BIONICLE and especially Pokémon are other examples of this type of storytelling. (In the case of BIONICLE, it depends: the Toa, for instance, are coded as adults as opposed to children. When we watch Tahu fighting the Rahkshi, the child viewer is meant to understand that this is more appropriate than, say, Hahli or Turaga Vakama fighting a Rahkshi. That does not mean that, at other points such as MNOG, the combat between Matoran/children and dangers is not similarly idealized as in CL.)

The Hunger Games is an example of a non-cartoon that does its best to subvert this kid-friendly combat aspect, to the point where it is something of a joke in the fandom that, if you glamorize and want to fight in the Games, you don't understand the point of the story. (Idealizing the violence is explicitly what the Capitol citizens, who while not evil are useless and naïve, do.)

Twelve Forever is not like Code Lyoko or BIONICLE. Endless Island is an escape-world for the main characters in the same way that the show itself is written to be an escape-world for the viewer. This offers its own unique comparisons to BIONICLE, however. Perhaps I was just a weird kid, but I always found the aspects of BIONICLE that were mundane to the characters in the story, like their homes and occupations, just as interesting as the major plot events and battles. I was so fascinated by the idea of lava farming, or the various mining disputes in Onu-Koro. MNOG in particular leaned into the everyday aspects of life on Mata Nui, the kind of things whose real-world equivalents children find painfully boring. SpongeBob SquarePants is another example of this method of storytelling: how much narrative finesse it took that show's writers to make working at the Krusty Krab, a greasy fast food joint, feel exciting for kids to learn about. As I grew up and did work service jobs, I was stunned to realize just how much actual real-world aspects made it into SpongeBob, and yet how relatable it still felt to watch. That, I suppose, is the ideal mark of good children's entertainment, something that does have meaning for adult viewers to recognize but, if it is unrecognized, does not make itself known.

The Fairly OddParents is on the other end of the SpongeBob spectrum. TFO is on a category of shows including Code Lyoko, Rick and Morty, or Regular Show, that are set in the "real" world until a catalyst, generally at the end of the first act, that signifies the "transition" to the fantastical. The difference here is that, at least in a show like TFO, the "point" is often that the fantastical has no meaning except in the ways that it mirrors the mundane. The show's formula involves Timmy having some problem, making a wish to try to fix it in an easy way, and the wish backfiring. The point of each episode is that Timmy either has to find a non-magical solution to his problems, or accept them as a fact of life. (At least at first, I haven't watched the show since Wishology.) In this way, Timmy Turner is the Zillennial's Sisyphus. In hindsight, what makes Cosmo and Wanda stand out most as characters is their status as Timmy godparents. They give him the emotional support that his actual parents are in most episodes too cartoony to meaningfully provide. The fact that they are magical beings feels almost like an afterthought, a non-personal role they just happen to fill.

Another show which Twelve Forever will remind the viewer heavily of is Adventure Time, the difference being that Twelve Forever explicitly contrasts the mundane and extraordinary. In the case of Adventure Time, which takes place begin to end in the extraordinary, the responsibility falls to the viewer to supply their own mundane reality as a contrast to the whimsical world of Ooo. That does allow Ooo to have its own BIONICLE-esque "mundane within the extraordinary." In a show like Adventure Time, that throws so much nonsense in the viewer's face, what remains in my memory the most are small details about Finn and Jake's everyday life, like how they have a non-electric icebox as opposed to a fridge, but ice is apparently valuable enough in Ooo that an established social convention is guests bringing their own ice. Another interest point which has lived rent-free in my head is the delicious food Jake is always cooking, like the everything burrito or bacon pancakes--weirdly normal human food in a world devoid of other meaningful references to modern real-world location and concepts.

There is a dark side to Forever Twelve. One thing which I have found vindicated in online reviews is just how weird, sometimes in a troubling way, Endless Island is. In the case of Adventure Time, since the weirdness is 24/7, it invites the viewer to "translate" the weirdness into a certain normality that Forever Twelve does not have, since Forever Twelve explicitly contrasts the weirdness with mundane reality. What Forever Twelve reminds me of most is Jack Stauber's OPAL. If you have not seen it, and enjoy psychologically unnerving horror, I strongly advise you to watch it. It's quite short and free on YouTube. All I will say is that, while the escape from reality into fantasy is normally whimsical and comforting in fiction, in the case of OPAL, it is horrifying. Forever Twelve takes place somewhere in the middle, with Reggie's dependence on Endless having a certain similarity to a drug addiction. The bland, colorless, and depressing way the real world is sometimes drawn in Forever Twelve only solidifies the concept. (See also: Coraline.)

This entry ended up being a bit longer and more rambling than I anticipated. Most of these thoughts are thoughts I have had in some capacity for years, which Forever Twelve only recently gave me the impetus to put to text. I increasingly feel that I myself use outlets like BZPower as my own Endless Island, or Time Before Time, escaping the constraining loneliness of artificial modernity.

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