Animation Wednesday: Gravity Falls

People have kind of a weird perception of Disney. Specifically, everyone hates them, but no one knows why. News that Disney has bought entertainment properties like Marvel or Lucasfilm is always met with groans and hand-wringing, but Disney’s done alright by Pixar, The Muppets, and their other acquisitions. People derisively refer to “Disney kids stuff” but wax poetic about the animated films of the 90s. Even their TV offerings like DuckTales or Chip and Dale: Rescue Rangers, which don’t quite hold up under a modern eye, are the subject of countless Facebook pages and tumblr blogs about how “the golden age of cartoons” is over. (False. Just check the Animation Wednesday category. Cartoons are only getting better.) I think a lot of it has to do with conflating the Disney Channel teen sitcom brand (Hannah Montana and the like) with the rest of the global media corporation that is Disney. If we’re going to claim that anything owned by the corporation is “Disney,” then that makes No Country for Old Men a “Disney movie.” I guess what I’m saying is that a movie or TV show being associated with Disney doesn’t make it something saccharine or lowbrow. Case in point: Gravity Falls!!

Gravity Falls tells the story of Mabel and Dipper Pines (Kristen Schaal and Jason Ritter, respectively), twin 12-year-old siblings who have been shipped off for the summer to the town of Gravity Falls, Oregon, to live with their great-uncle “Grunkle” Stan (series creator Alex Hirsch). Stan runs the Mystery Shack, an overpriced tourist trap filled with sideshow oddities and other scams. But when Dipper discovers a mysterious journal written by an explorer in the town’s past, he discovers Gravity Falls holds some mysteries of its own, including gnomes, time travelers, and secret presidents.

I know it may sound kind of dry, but trust me, this is one of the funniest cartoons on TV right now. The new wave of creator-driven animation has taken longer to hit Disney’s studios than others (I feel like Phineas and Ferb is the first real auteur work they’ve had), but series creator Alex Hirsch is clearly pulling from his own vision, as well as his experience and comedic sensibilities from his work on The Misadventures of Flapjack. The humor here veers pretty slapstick at times, but also has a level of intelligence to it, with puns and gags that remind me of golden-age Simpsons. The tone and world of the show is malleable enough to accommodate broad sight gags and small, naturalistic dialog bits. And as much as I love Adventure Time and Regular Show, their sheer level of absurdism and non-sequitor humor can be daunting for the uninitiated. Gravity Falls has a solid, accessible premise and cast of characters, and is easy to pick up for an episode or two.

The characters are cute and well-developed, but the standout here is Mabel. Dipper is presented as more of the lead protagonist, and Jason Ritter does a good job of giving him the awkward charms of adolescence. But this frees up Mabel to be “the wacky one” in the best way, and Kristen Schaal is more than up to the task. I’ve liked her before, both in straight comedy like The Flying Conchords and 3o Rock and doing vocal work in Bob’s Burgers, but Mabel plays to Schaal’s goofy strengths in a way no other character does. Her obnoxiousness and teasing bits are tempered with sweetness and enthusiasm. Both of them are fun and likeable in a genuine way, without the kind of bite you get from Looney Tunes-type characters.

Overall, Gravity Falls is one of the best animated series on TV right now, up there with the best Cartoon Network has to offer. New episodes air Fridays at 9:00, definitely check it out.


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