Nickelodeon Hits Netflix in the Nostalgia-Bag
Nickelodeon is animating Netflix this month with feature-length reboots of two of its most iconic cartoons: Rocko’s Modern Life and Invader Zim.
If 80’s cartoons were basically 20-minute Mattel commercials, the 90’s saw children’s cable TV channels like Cartoon Network and Disney making emotional connections through new animation styles, well-developed kid characters, grownup references, and relatable stories. Rocko’s Modern Life aired from 1993 to 1996 during the golden age of ‘Catdog, The Ren and Stimpy Show, The Rugrats, Aaahh!!! Real Monsters, and Hey Arnold!
Not the 90s Any More
In the new special “Static Cling,” the anxious wallaby and his friends Heffer and Filburt return to a very different O-Town after 20 years in space. Rocko is bombarded by touchscreen phones and coffee shops on every corner, poisoned by food truck franken-meals, hounded by surveillance cameras and literally battered and chased back home by laptops, cursors and Facebook “dislikes.” As Rocko exclaims, shivering on his couch, “the 21stcentury is a very dangerous century!”
Rocko’s aim, and the meta-joke of the movie, is to get his favorite TV show back on the air, “a cultural icon that resonated with millions of people! There’s a huge audience out there clamoring for this show to come back!” Kickstarter hints aside, the story plays on its own fans’ retro fetish. In one freakishly fourth-wall breaking moment Ed Bighead says darkly to us – I mean Rocko, “an old cartoon isn’t going to solve the kinds of problems you have.” But as Rocko learns, the only thing that stays the same is change, and he’d better learn to like it.
If Nickelodeon can’t keep it light with Static Cling, at least they’re keeping it real. Real 90’s toon viewers, now adults, are staring down the gaping maw of climate annihilation, staggering generational debt, and large-scale social entropy. It’s the perfect time to reboot a cheeky cartoon that tackles the turmoil and absurdity of modern life.
Invader Zim Launches Phase 2
Zim and Dib are back to battle over the fate of the feeble flesh-bags on Earth in Invader Zim: Enter the Florpus. The TV movie starts with an epic anime-style intro detailing Dib’s mission: to protect humans from relentlessly diabolical alien Zim. But in the 13 years since the early-aughts TV show ended, Dib has become a stinking Hutt atrophying in his chair keeping vigil, and Zim sees his advantage at last.
In the 70-minute special written and produced by creator Jhonen Vasquez, Zim realizes that he’s not an invading warrior preparing Earth for his masters’ domination, but a galactic flunky shooed off to the dunce corner of the universe on a fool’s errand. He falls into a weirdly drunken-sounding depression, while Dib gets fit via montage and sees his chance to beat Zim once and for all.
But Zim becomes even more determined to prove himself and forges his most diabolical plan yet to get his bosses’ attention. There’s no one to stop him but Dib, also coincidentally trying to prove himselfto his father and win hissupport. Heavy!
You’ll recognize favorites from the offbeat TV series like Kevin McDonald voicing the Almighty Tallest, sullen sister Gaz, and hyperactive munchie-loving robot GIR, along with the usual social commentary on American gluttony and ignorance. Fans will miss out on a Skool scene with snarky teacher Miss Bitters, as the voice actress behind her character, Lucille Bliss, died in 2012.
The cosmic struggle plays out with wacky Vasquez touches fans expect like musical numbers, plenty of cheesy snacks, pig costumes, and even live-action pugs. The keys to the plot, nonsensically, are a floating mini-moose and a hambone. And crisper technology shows in a fun dimension-bending scene where the characters are animated in dozens of styles. While we can’t expect a happy ending from the mind of Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, Vasquez pulls together a meaty story that will make any Zim fan happy.
Nickelodeon seems to be approaching the nostalgia market without trying to pick up where characters left off. Instead, creators are letting beloved toons age along with their original fans, and incorporating cultural and temporal changes directly into their stories. Our favorites are back, and they were here the whole time.