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Outrage over Cartoon Network’s Thundercats reboot resorted to a strange, old insult: ‘CalArts style’

Thanks to Twitter, an animation criticism goes off the rails

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[Ed. note: This essay originally posted when Thundercats Roar was announced as an upcoming series. It has been updated and refreshed to coincide with the release of the first episodes of Thundercats Roar on the Cartoon Network website.]

There’s always a debate raging in the world of animation, whether it’s the presence of women in the writers room or a cartoon geek’s constitutional right to Szechuan sauce (thanks to the rowdy Rick and Morty fandom). But the announcement of Cartoon Network’s animated parody series Thundercats Roar saw the animation fandom butting heads over a rare topic: college.

ThunderCats Roar is Cartoon Network’s reboot of the classic 1980s sword-and-sorcery animated series featuring feline humanoid aliens. Where the original show took its alien battles and good-vs.-evil conflict seriously, Thundercats Roar is a hyper, kid-focused take on the same characters, setting, and world. And the initial trailer sent a number of fans to Twitter to gripe about its artistic style by targeting a handful of alma maters. One school in particular, the California Institute of the Arts, was in the hot seat, as fans complained about how this lighter take on ThunderCats was drawn not in the muscle-rippling “realistic” style of the original show, but rather in something they derisively called “CalArts Style.”

What is CalArts Style? That depends on who you ask. Over the years, prickly animation buffs have come to use the term as a catchall for what they see as a cookie-cutter style of thin-frame animation that has dominated the 2010s. Pointing to shows like Disney XD’s Gravity Falls and Star vs the Forces of Evil, and Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe, The Amazing World of Gumball, and now ThunderCats Roar, those fans note the similarity in the designs of the shows’ characters, charging that the originality and artistic quality of cartoons from back in the day has been lost.

Most animators, however, agree that the label is total hogwash. Rob Renzetti — who created the 2000s Nickelodeon show My Life as a Teenage Robot, and who’s directed on shows ranging from Dexter’s Laboratory to Gravity Falls to the new DuckTales reboot — fired back against criticisms by explaining that the use of “CalArts Style” has become utterly bled of any meaning other than “I don’t like this.”

Consensus pins the proliferation of “CalArts style” as a pejorative on John Kricfalusi, better known as John K, the disgraced creator of Ren & Stimpy who was accused of underage sexual abuse in 2018. Although Kricfalusi had been reportedly using the phrase since the early 1990s, a 2010 blog post where he wrote about the style helped the criticism take off. The post embedded a number of character designs from Disney movies and alleged that those designs had been essentially regurgitated by CalArts grads ever since.

“[Disney’s] Nine Old Men had a lot of skill going for them but the animation and design by the time they were truly old was decadent and formulaic,” wrote Kricfalusi. “They kept doing the same things over and over again — and that’s what all the animators copy today — the decadent stuff, rather than the skills. Unfortunately the people who grow up inspired by copies of copies of ‘60s Disney animation learn to accept these few superficial stylistic things and don’t realize they are doing it. They unconsciously absorb it and regurgitate it in their films until the next generation comes along.”

CalArts and the Walt Disney Company have quite a history. Walt Disney himself essentially co-founded the school in 1961, and since then, it’s developed a reputation as a feeder school for the animation industry. That reputation, according to an animator and CalArts MFA graduate who asked to remain nameless, is mostly unfair:

“One reason CalArts is an easy target for people like this is the (largely perceived) idea that CalArts is a direct funnel into the large animation studios like Disney, and that alumni from the school (who can be found in every major studio) tend to hire each other over other qualified people (the colloquial term for this is ‘the CalArts mafia’),” our source wrote. “Spoiler alert: it’s not a funnel. It has a lot of famous alumni, and a good name, and some continued connections to the industry based on its prestige and geographic location. But, as with any academic institution, those things are not a guarantee of employment.”

“The reality is that there is not, and has never been, a unified “’CalArts style,’” the source continues. “There are trends in animation, just like there are trends in any artistic medium. They grow and change over time … So ‘CalArts style’ means whatever the current general direction of animation happens to be, based on maybe a few influencers in the industry who happen to be from CalArts. But the perception of CalArts controlling the course of animation is pretty overblown, and easily disproved.”

That’s the kicker. Categorizing all contemporary shows as “CalArts style” isn’t just inaccurate on an artistic level, but wrong on a technical level as well. Steven Universe’s former supervising director, Ian Jones-Quartey — who also ran his own show, OK K.O.! Let’s Be Heroes on Cartoon Network from 2017 to 2019 — has been reminding fans for years that he and his partner, creator Rebecca Sugar, both attended the New York-based School of Visual Arts. They’re part of a generation of major cartoon creators that cut their teeth on CalArts graduate Pendleton Ward’s seminal Adventure Time, and thus would have influenced each other’s styles. That generation does include CalArts alums like Gravity Falls’ Alex Hirsch and Over the Garden Wall’s Pat McHale, but many current high-profile creators simply did not attend CalArts.

For instance, Kyle Carrozza, the creator of Mighty Magiswords, attended the Art Institute of Philadelphia. The veteran John McIntyre, who helms the animation on Cartoon Network’s Ben 10 reboot, went to the New York University Tisch School of the Arts. (Neither Victor Courtright nor Jeremy Polgar, the producer and director, respectively, of ThunderCats Roar, have their alma maters publicly listed on IMDb.)

Then again, if those fans really wanted to know what CalArts styles actually look like, maybe they should actually watch some work from recent graduates.

Many of the fans disgruntled about this “CalArts style” also use another word, “chibi,” to derisively describe characters from shows like Steven Universe and ThunderCats Roar. The word is used to describe characters in manga, anime, or Japanese-influenced animation who have big heads, tiny bodies, and saucer-sized eyes — characteristics that the protagonists from the above shows, in addition to those from Gravity Falls, Star, and Gumball, all share. It also, as a Tofugu article from 2016 thoroughly and helpfully points out, has some offensive connotations of its own.

Thundercats 1985 vs Thundercats Roar 2018 Warner Bros. Television/Cartoon Network

The frustration, in many ways, seems to stem from fans who disapprove of the “cute-ification” of characters they’re used to seeing as more realistically drawn — or at least with more muscles. ThunderCats Roar is under a special sort of pressure thanks to its status, alongside fellow Cartoon Network program Teen Titans Go!, as a remake of a beloved superhero property that drastically changed up the original’s artistic style, tone, and intent. Many of these fans were also frustrated by the Powerpuff Girls reboot for similar reasons, even though the major characteristics of the character models for its heroines are essentially unchanged.

The pushback against Thundercats Roar is a fair critique. Art is all about preference, after all! But art is also about evolution and personal instincts. Rebecca Sugar’s designs for Steven Universe come from her own love of video games and Bauhaus theory. The idea that Thundercats Roar’s style is part of a monoculture produced by college instruction fails to examine history; characters from Charles Schulz’s Peanuts also share those characteristics, as does Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes. In fact, there’s plenty of proof that so-called “chibi” style has been prevalent in American comics and animation arts for the better part of a century. (Marvin the Martian, anyone?) There’s a little irony here, too, as fans often also point to the hyper-realistic style used in many anime as an “antidote” to these so-called inferior styles, while rarely noting the ways in which works in that style, also reuse certain aspects in character design — especially for women characters.

Ultimately, though, all the hubbub boils down to this: fandoms love to toil over the unknown, and people on the Internet drift toward the caustic. Just wait until Dunkin’ Donuts takes a page from McDonalds’ Rick and Morty playbook and releases a Pink Lars donut as a publicity stunt. Then the real fun will begin.


John Maher is digital editor and associate news editor at Publishers Weekly and co-founder and editor of The Dot and Line. He has written for Time Inc. Books, Esquire.com, Real Simple, Pacific Standard, Thrillist, Kirkus Reviews, Electric Literature, The Rumpus, and Hyperallergic, among others.