Animation Wednesday: Steven Universe

This post is part of the Animation Wednesday series, a regular column which looks at animated TV series and movies of the past, present and future.

One of the highest bits of praise I can give an animated series is that it provokes a genuine emotional response from me. Now, I’m a soft touch when it comes to these things. Adventure Time, Regular Show, and Gravity Falls have all had episodes here and there that have pulled on my heartstrings. But in terms of making me feel, really feel, I have to tip my hat to Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe, one of the best new shows of last year.

Steven Universe follows the Crystal Gems, a group of Sailor Moon-like magical warriors tasked with protecting their town/the universe. The group consists of stoic leader Garnet, fun-loving Amethyst, fussy Pearl, and our hero, Steven. Steven is the pre-teen son of the former team leader, Rose Quartz. He’s viewed as a little brother to the team, and often ends up causing trouble, despite his best efforts.

There is a lot to love about this show. The character designs are fun and expressive, reminiscent of the best parts of the Cartoon Cartoon era of the 90s. The backgrounds, both visual and musical, are lush and convey tons of little bits of information and tone. The style of the show homages video games and shojo manga comics without becoming an overly specific reference fest. As the first Cartoon Network series created by a woman (Adventure Time‘s Rebecca Sugar), it’s a strong step for the network, and it blurs the line between a “boys’ cartoon” and a “girls’ cartoon” in a satisfying and necessary way.

But as I said before, the thing that makes Steven Universe stand out among other Cartoon Network shows is its ability to touch on deeper emotional truths in an honest and effective way. In one episode of the show, Steven hangs out with his traveling musician father while looking for the episode’s McGuffin, and the humor of the scenes is undercut with a sense of loss and melancholy over Steven’s absent mother. Steven tries to learn to shapeshift in another episode, and it goes from being fun and silly to tense and legitimately scary as he loses control of his abilities. This isn’t to say the show isn’t still a blast; every episode is still full of jokes and goofy stuff. But Steven Universe is never afraid to make bold choices, and to trade some of what could be easy laughs for harder to classify musings on concepts like loss and adulthood.

Steven Universe airs on Mondays at 8:00 on Cartoon Network. It’s currently in the middle of its first season, with another season likely. If you’re a fan of cartoons, you should check it out, but even if you’re not (maybe especially if you’re not), give it a shot. It may surprise you.

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