I like to think video games and cartoons are two sides of the same coin. If you like one, odds are pretty good that you like the other. Many will tell you that the era of great animated shows has passed, but such a flimsy claim is one that I've never been able to get behind and this is coming from someone that adores a lot of children's programs that came out in the 1980s and 1990s. The past five years have given us plenty of superb cartoons, both of the comedic and serious variety. Cartoon Network, originally, the go to place for cartoons has been through some network decay over the years but there's still some quality programming on this channel. I'm always up for Adventure Time, Regular Show and the Amazing World of Gumball, and Steven Universe, one of the new kids on the block.
Created by Rebecca Sugar, one of the writers of Adventure Time, she left that show during it's fifth season to work on Steven Universe full time. The central character is based off of her own little brother, Steven Sugar, who actually works on the show. The show centers on the misadventures of Steven as he accompanies his companions, the Crystal Gems, as they save they day. Don't think they can? They'll always find a way. Steven Universe is currently my favorite show on Cartoon Network and if you read on, I'll tell you why this is one of the best things to hit the small screen.
The titular character, Steven Universe is a lovable goofball with a appearance that contrasts most main characters of animated kids shows and anime. Rather than being a slender, spiky haired hero that we've seen dozens of times in the past, Steven is a heavy set, tag along kid that acts like the younger brother of the other Crystal Gems. It's a wonderful breath of fresh air and is much a needed reminder that heroes really do come in all shapes and sizes. While Steven does indeed have much potential, he doesn't really know how to use his powers, which is one of the focal points of the series. Steven can pull off a feat with his gem powers once and have great difficulty doing it again.
|Steven Quartz Universe, quite possibly|
the most adorkable ten year old in the
history of western animation.
Amethyst laid back attitude can put her at odds with Pearl, team mom and Garnet, the leader of the Crystal Gems. While it may seem like Pearl and Garnet's criticism of Amethyst doesn't really get to her, in the episode Tiger Millionaire, we see that she really is taking what they say at face value and she's sick of them always busting her chops.
|From left to right, Garnet, Amethyst, Steven|
Even side characters have depth to them. In Bubble Buddies, we're introduced to Connie, a girl that is very lonely. How lonely? She has no friends. After some bubble shenanigans with Steven, she makes her first friend. The show takes it a step further. Before the show even began, Steven saw Connie at a parade. Steven was posing in one of the floats and he looked out and saw Connie as she was leaving, dropping her bracelet. He hung onto it for a whole year in hopes of giving it back to her. It's a touching moment, that makes their new friendship all the sweeter. In Lion 2: The Movie Connie shows us that she has some insecurities when it comes to being friends with Steven. His life is full of magical things and adventure. Compared to Steven, she feels she's "uninteresting" and questions why he'd even want to hang out with her or be interested in the things she's interested in. Well besides the fact that Steven has a crush on Connie, which is made pathetically obvious to the viewer in Bubble Buddies, Steven genuinely likes being friends with Connie. Also, it helps him to have normal, ordinary people in his life so it isn't consumed by magic and adventure.
A Fine Balance Between Humor and Seriousness
Despite the rather simplistic character designs that no doubt give off a childish vibe, Steven Universe gets a TV-PG rating. Yeah, this is a show aimed at kids, but it isn't afraid to flaunt it's much darker moments. So Many Birthdays starts off very lighthearted with Steven trying to get the other Gems to enjoy birthday parties, but it quickly shifts gears when Steven starts to believe that he's too old for child-like birthday parties. Since Steven feels old, his gem reacts to his state of mind and as a result, he begins aging rapidly. In a very short amount of time, Steven goes through teenage years to a very old man. Advanced aging is nothing new in kids shows, but this is the most depressing use of it I've ever seen and this is shown via the way Steven's aged state affects the other Gems. Steven gets so old that he nearly dies. Garnet, the stoic, can actually be seen crying and Pearl becomes an emotional wreck. Things turn around when the gems learn Steven's aging is triggered by how old he feels and he reverts to his original age, but man, this episode hits you so hard in the feels. So Many Birthdays is certainly one of the best episodes, but it's also more the likely going to be the one that reduces you to tears.
Cat Fingers is another episode that starts out innocently enough. Amethyst shows off her shape shifting abilities to Steven, taking the from of a cat. Steven tries his hand at it but only succeeds in turning his fingers into cats. Things spiral out of control when his entire body starts morphing into a hideous mass of cats that is best described as the worst form of body horror in a kids show. So Many Birthdays takes a turn for the pitch black, but Cat Fingers? Hoo boy, this is just a tough episode to sit through. The cats are all over Steven's body and he's in so much agony, telling his father that he's a monster. No 10 year old boy should ever have to endure that, certainly not Steven. I'm not even going to post a picture from the episode here. If you're brave enough, just go to YouTube, type in Cat Fingers and brace yourself. It isn't pretty.
|Well, that certainly looks unpleasant.|
|Steven and Connie make a pit stop to some|
Batcave-like training area on the way to
Steven the Sword Fighter, another one of my favorite episodes has Pearl demonstrating the proper way to sword fight. While practicing with Holo-Pearl, Pearl gets distracted while lecturing Steven on the ways of the sword. Holo-Pearl thrusts her sword right through her and again I say, even though this is a kid's show, the impact of this moment is not lost in the slightest. Pearl is just as shocked as the audience is when she gets stabbed, dropping her sword. By the way, this all happens right in front of Steven, who is only a few feet away from Pearl, who looks like he's about to have the biggest heroic blue screen of death in his life. What's more, there's even a shot of the sword sticking clean through Pearl! There's no blood, but again, this is still a very shocking moment. Just as Pearl is about to explain the regeneration process to Steven, she vanishes in a puff of smoke, much to Steven's horror. There's a moment where Steven is on the ground in tears, holding Pearl's gem as his hands are shaking, thinking it's all his fault that Pearl has died. Garnet and Amethyst comfort Steven and reassure him that even though Pearl was injured, she will recover and return to them. As Steven waits for Pearl to regenerate, you can really tell how much he misses her, taking care of her gem and even trying to get Holo-Pearl to act like the real Pearl, which goes horribly wrong since Holo-Pearl has a one track mind that's only focused on sword duels.
There's plenty of funny moments sprinkled throughout each episode. Arcade Mania has Steven trying to get the other Gems to unwind after a mission by taking them to the local arcade. But since he's used to playing video games and the Gems aren't, hilarity ensues. Pearl completely misses the point of Road Killer, a game in which you're supposed to smash your car into everything and Garnet ends up smashing each game Steven puts her in front of until he introduces her to Meat Beat Mania.
The simple-looking characters make things easier to animate, and I quite like them. The character designs actually underwent a change after the show was picked up and I think Steven Universe is all the better for it. The background images in this show are in a word, spectacular. Really, words cannot do justice to the way the environments look in this show. I mean, just look at them!
Think back on some of your favorite cartoon shows. What's coming to mind? That catchy opening theme, I bet. The opening theme to Steven Universe, We Are the Crystal Gems, is quite short, but still very well done and will have you singing along at the start of each episode. But that isn't the only piece of music that will get stuck in your head when watching this show. Oh sure, there are other great lyrical tracks like Let Me Drive My Van (Into Your Heart) and Giant Woman, but honestly, all of the music, yes, all of the music in Steven Universe is great. Not passable, OK or so-so, but great. We're talking one of the best soundtracks for an animated show. There's lots of variety here and some tracks give you gaming vibes but since composers Aivi Tran and Steven Velma have background in gaming music, I guess that's only natural.
Dance of Swords
Alright, every cartoon has shout-outs, but I still find the ones in Steven Universe worth mentioning.
In Laser Light Cannon, when Steven is looking for Rose Quartz, well, Laser Light Cannon in his dad's garage, you can see what appears to be a Super Mushroom among all the junk.
In Onion Trade, Onion uses Pearl's duplicator to to flood Beach City with Guys capsule toys, Amethyst wonders who they're supposed to move around in the sea of toys. Steven's suggestion? Act like a rich duck.
Again from Onion Trade, when Steven is describing his Guys toys to Amethyst, they are presented in the style of a Mega Man stage select screen, complete with Steven's face in the middle, looking at each Guy as he reads off their names.
In Steven the Sword Fighter, Pearl's sword fighting scene against Holo Pearl is basically a homage to Utena of Revolution Girl Utena.
In Lion 2: The Movie, the iris out the closes each episode closes out on Lion and looks like the Metro Goldwyn Mayer logo, complete with Lion letting out a roar. Bonus points for the episode closing out while they're at the movie theater.