Case Study 24: We Bare Bears, Episode 18–“Emergency”

Original Airdate: October 16th, 2015 on Cartoon Network

Way back in my second review, I bemoaned the fact that I’d found the low end of the 10 point scale very early. I’m happy to say I’ve finally found the high end and in a rather unexpected place to boot. This blog is teaching me not to judge a book by its cover when it comes to TV–I was stunned by how amazing Hindsight was, for example. It doesn’t help that so far my luck with children’s programming has been decidedly spotty. Nevertheless, I’m pleased to say I’ve finally stumbled upon something that truly deserves a 10/10.

That doesn’t mean We Bare Bears is for everyone. Some adults will simply not lower themselves to watching anything made for children that doesn’t speak to their own nostalgia, and Bears is very profoundly silly. It doesn’t exactly speak to the human condition, if that’s your standard for great television. However, this episode does everything it sets out to do, and it does it perfectly. I also like to think that it’s a good moment for adults interested in delving into what would traditionally be considered all too kiddie-bye. Bears definitely has the pedigree for appealing to that crowd–it’s the creation of Pixar vet Daniel Chong, and if anyone can get grown-up butts in seats for G-rated fare it’s Pixar. Television cartoons are also undergoing a renaissance in terms of adult appeal–just ask the legions of 21 and over adherents to the churches of Adventure Time, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic or Avatar: The Last Airbender. So what does that look like when it’s firing on all cylinders?

Strengths

  • Character design. One easy way to score points right out of the gate is to have attractive, distinctive character design, and adorableness helps tremendously in this regard. Bears are adorable, and this probably helped along by the fact that many people have positive childhood memories of bear-shaped stuffed toys. Sure, in real life bears are quite dangerous and often gross, but for the softened visual language of cartoons, bears are a great choice. It doesn’t just come down to the animal selection, either. The bears are meant to be brothers despite being different species, and the similarity in the character design reflects that, but as you can see here, their modes of expression and the small detail work sets them apart based on their personality. We’re off to a good start if we’ve got charming visuals with a good sense of aesthetics.
  • Attention to detail. In animation, what’s being presented to the viewer can be as precise or as abstract as the creators desire. Whichever style is chosen, the medium demands a painstaking eye for detail to reach maximum potential. Hilarious signs and business names seen in passing pack more laughs per minute into an episode of The Simpsons than you’re likely to find elsewhere on TV. Shows like Bojack Horseman and Ugly Americans take full advantage of their uniquely deranged universes in ways that only cartoons could. Bears understands this. In the great opening credits sequence, which is scored with a lovely, bouncy number from the excellent Estelle, the bears are shown walking in their signature stack through a quickly changing variety of situations. In one, the bears stumble into a ball pit and emerge festooned with children clinging to them like barnacles. Grizzly (Eric Edelstein, The Hills Have Eyes 2) is on top of the stack and dislodges the children with the action of opening an umbrella, which transitions seamlessly into the next clip, where the bears trundle along on a rainy day. Of course, Grizzly is swept away from his position on top of the stack when the wind catches his umbrella. In this episode, we briefly catch a glimpse of the fact that Grizzly has 911 programmed into his phone as “The Po-Po.” Hee!
  • Technology integration. It’s something of a stroke of genius that this show takes it as a given that its characters exist in a world just as technologically sophisticated as our own. Many cartoons seem to sanitize modern technology from their universe as if they hold some sort of puritanical worldview about ubiquitous gadgets being inherently corrosive, as though many of these shows aren’t currently being watched on those ubiquitous devices, as though television itself isn’t a ubiquitous and arguably corrosive device. Bears makes no apologies for its characters living in a thoroughly modern world. They use laptops. The opening credits features Panda (Bobby Moynihan, Saturday Night Live) checking a Tinder-esque mobile dating app only to discover he has 0 matches. In this episode, they even take an ill-fated ride with an unhinged ride-sharing service driver. The show is a great example about how a kid’s show can be clever and unique without making any concession to the fact that its characters live in a world very similar to our own.
  • Funny. This is pretty essential for a comedic cartoon, isn’t it? Thankfully, Bears delivers. The story here is about Ice Bear (Demetri Martin, Important Things With Demetri Martin) desperately trying to get some time to himself chilling out in his home (a refrigerator, natch) watching ice skating and knitting. Alas, the antics of his idiotic brothers will take him on a journey far from his fridge, and this begins as Panda intrudes into his sanctuary with the goal of digging around for ice cream pops. Because it is a fridge, after all. Aside from the great visual of Ice Bear scowling as Panda climbs over him and shoves his gigantic poofy-tailed ass in Ice Bear’s face, we get a golden moment. Panda is searching for a French vanilla ice cream pop. Ice Bear taps him and produces the desired dessert. “Hey! You found it!” says Panda. “…Do you have any green tea ones down there?” He resumes rummaging. Ice Bear continues to scowl. In addition to the comedy of Panda cheerfully misreading the social cues, the mental image of a panda bear enjoying a green tea ice cream pop is delicious. Eventually, the main plot commences–Grizzly has purchased a “pet” crab from the grocery store, despite the advice of the grocer. Ice Bear is dubious–with good reason, since the crab promptly latches onto his ear. His brothers hasten to get him medical attention, which involves an odyssey across the city. At one point, they disembark from a subway train, only to realize that they’ve lost Ice Bear–because the crab has used his other claw to grab a piece of subway station infrastructure. That crab is an asshole. So the brothers tug, and tug, eager to make a crucial train transfer. Ice Bear winces. Finally they dislodge him–and the crab takes a chunk of metal with him. Asshole crab. Again, great visuals combined with slapstick are the bread and butter of silly comedy, especially in the cartoon form. The dialogue sparkles, as well. Eventually Ice Bear manages to go rogue and dislodge the crab on his own. Now his brothers are panicking because they don’t know where he is, so they head to a psychic (Edi Patterson, Partners) with crab in tow, of course. Grizzly wouldn’t abandon his pet! At first, it seems like the psychic is going to be helpful–she sees something white, covered with fur, beady eyes, doesn’t say much…and he’s at the pier! He’s scared and confused and headed towards a boat! “Where’s he going?” Grizzly exclaims. “Back to the place where it all started. Back to his wife, Guadalupe!” Grizzly gasps. “…Wait, who?” “He’s not a white-haired divorced man named Esteban?” Oh, man.
  • Excellent voice acting. This can make or break a cartoon, and Bears delivers in spades. I’ve often held that it’s harder to do comedic roles than dramatic acting, because a comedic actor has to both sell a punchline with perfect timing and delivery and invest their routine with genuine characterization, emotion and motivation in order for a bit to truly sing. Stand up comics can get away with general drollery with no particular voice coming from outside of a narrative space, but in the world of fiction the stakes are higher. Edelstein in particular manages to make many of Grizzly’s lines seriously funny solely through performance while still being convincing as someone deeply concerned for his brother’s welfare. It’s all too easy for actors in children’s programming to phone it in–see practically every other example I’ve reviewed here–but the cast knocks it out of the park here, and I think we’ll definitely be hearing more from Edelstein in particular in the future.

Motivation: Survival. And I’m not referring to Ice Bear’s injury–he’s never in any serious danger despite the mad rush to the hospital. When Grizzly and Panda finally find Ice Bear, he’s lying on the floor of an ice skating rink, totally blissed out. He just wanted to chill (see what I did there) and be himself. Of course, Grizzly and Panda are motivated by family, but this is truly Ice Bear’s story.

Final Episode Judgment: 10/10. I’m so pleased to deliver a review where I have absolutely no criticisms. This is what a great cartoon for kids looks like, and silly grown-ups like myself will love it as well.

NEXT TIME: I finally get a chance to cover name-brand superheros as I review Teen Titans!

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Case Study 24: We Bare Bears, Episode 18–“Emergency”