Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Think of the Children! Tuesday: 'We Bare Bears' Is Simply Simple


I think that Steven Universe and Adventure Time and Gravity Falls and Over the Garden Wall have spoiled me, chickadees. I've started to take for granted that any given animated children's show will have an overarching plot that expands on a larger mythos, some great conspiracy, or gives the characters intense emotional arcs for me to follow. I've stopped thinking of that as a weird trend and now I just assume that all kids cartoons are going to go there. This is bad.

It's bad because now when I see a perfectly reasonably good show like We Bare Bears, I assume that there must be hidden depths and I'm disappointed to realize that, no, it's just a nice cute show about nice cute bears. I was genuinely quite upset to realize that, and on looking back, I shouldn't have been.

Nothing in the promotional materials suggests that the bears in We Bare Bears are secretly alien princes living in exile on earth while trying to get back to their home. They're definitely not working to uncover a conspiracy that could undermine the foundation of western civilization. And there's not much chance that a devastating revelation about their past will have consequences that reverberate throughout the show, possibly breaking the bears up for good.

No, they're kind of just bears. Bears who like basketball and pancakes and enjoy viral videos. Bears who laze around the house and have wacky misadventures. That's really all the show is doing, and there's a part of me that finds that really disappointing. There is, fortunately, a bigger part of me sitting on that part, telling it to shut up. Don't worry guys, We Bare Bears might not be deep, but it's cute as all frickety frack.

Okay, so the basic premise is like this: Grizz (Eric Edelstein), Panda (Bobby Moynihan), and Ice Bear (Demetri Martin) are three bear brothers who live in the San Francisco Bay Area. Preternaturally intelligent for bears - though in this world it seems that animals talking and interacting with humans isn't super unusual, the three brothers live together in their cozy cave but emerge every once in a while to have wacky adventures. From trying to become viral video stars to sneaking onto a college campus to becoming vigilante heroes to get their stolen backpack back, the bears pretty much never do anything normal, but it's all funny and heartwarming and ends well.

The bears of course have different personalities that then play into their storylines. Grizz is the most dominant personality, loud and kind of brash, he wants to be internet famous and constantly dreams of glory and fame. He's also usually behind the madcap schemes that characterize the show. Panda is more "sensitive", if by that we mean that he's weirdly obsessed with girls and finding a date. And Ice Bear is my favorite. Ice Bear speaks pretty exclusively in the third person, likes cooking and cleaning and caring for his brothers, and also carries around ninja stars and sleeps with a fireman's axe. I like Ice Bear a lot.*

There are other characters, though not many. Chloe (Charlyne Yi) is the bears' only human friend and occasional voice of reason. Charlie (Jason Lee) is a mildly neurotic bigfoot. And Nom Nom (Patton Oswalt) is a koala internet superstar who hides a vile personality under all of his absolute adorability.

But for the most part it's the bears who are at the center of it all, always the three of them against the world. Every once in a while an episode will come that splits them apart and we feel understandably bereft and sad, but then by the end of the eleven minutes, they're back together again and everything is fine.

So, no, We Bare Bears isn't deep and it's certainly no successor to Steven Universe or Over the Garden Wall. While the animation styles are similar, the stories couldn't be more different. And you know what? That's okay.

It's hard for me to admit this because I tend to like sad things about sadness and deep social issues that make you have trouble sleeping at night, but sometimes it's okay for things to just be pleasant. Ugh. I feel dirty saying that. But it's true! Even in children's media, which I fervently believe should give kids more credit as thinking individuals, not every show has to deeply enrich their lives. Sometimes things are just plain fun.

That does not, however, mean that we can't still hold these fun things up to a high standard. And I think this explains why I still like We Bare Bears even though it's not deep or meaningful or emotionally devastating. It's good. It's light and fluffy and cute, but it does it all very well. The moments when the bears actually face an obstacle are quite heartfelt and the characters are well-realized enough that you do really care about them even if the stakes are never particularly high. 

In other words, simple is okay, as long as simple is done well. 

This is not, unfortunately, to say that I have no complaints about We Bare Bears. I'm still myself and the aliens haven't eaten my brain, so there's stuff I don't love here. First off, this show is really going backwards in terms of Cartoon Network's commitment to diverse casting. While the voice actors on this are spectacularly talented, they're also almost exclusively white men and it's a little frustrating to realize that Chloe is basically the only female character with any form of personhood in the whole show. That's not great, guys, and I don't approve.

Second, there's not enough Ice Bear. I would watch an entire show of Ice Bear reacting to things, but sadly the narrative seems to think I care more about Grizz and Panda. I don't. Give me Ice Bear.

But no, I don't have a huge big point today. We Bare Bears is a sweet little show that you'll probably enjoy no matter how old you are. The episodes are only eleven minutes long, which is plenty, and they're a nice little break from whatever soul-crushing angst you've got on some other show. Simple is fine every once in a while. It can be a palate-cleanser and refresher. But simple doesn't mean low-quality. Simple doesn't mean bad.

Simple should be, like anything else, good. It's like that thing about how the simplest foods are always the hardest to make. Simple shows are, in a lot of ways, harder to pull off than complex ones because there's so much less margin for error. We Bare Bears has done a really good job so far, but it's still really hard to take such a little concept and spin it into an actual show. 

And I don't love everything here. I don't love the unconscious bias creeping back in that says that "neutral" characters should automatically sound like white men. I don't love this idea that female characters should be reserved for cute little girls and potential love interests. In other words, I'm cool with where we are right now, but We Bare Bears has a lot of room to improve too.

I am not morally opposed to fun things. I just believe that fun, like everything else in life, should be held to a higher standard. Even when it's a little show about silly bears made for children. In fact, especially then.

Seriously, though, I need more Ice Bear.
*It's entirely possible that all of my taste in cartoon characters goes back to years of being warped by Sluggy Freelance in my formative youth. Bun-Bun forever.

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