The Amazing World of Gumball and the Deconstruction of Visual InformationThe Amazing World of Gumball’s bizarre, multi-level visual style is intentional, leading to an out-and-out assault on your senses. Before we go to as to how and why, let's take a look at another animated series that is similar to this one – at least in premise: Comedy Central's Drawn Together.
A three-season send-up of such reality TV shows as The Real World and Big Brother, Drawn Together had the unique premise of putting various characters of animation and all the tropes associated with them and their media into one central location and watching them play off each other. The characters themselves are different enough: Clara, the pretty, but socially ignorant (and later, very prejudiced) Disney-esque princess; Toot, the bitchy, vice-ridden, self-destructive Betty Boop expy; Foxxy Love, a sleuthing, black teen straight out of a late 1960s-early 1970s Saturday morning cartoon (notably Josie and the Pussycats, Scooby Doo and its spin-offs, or any of the knock-offs of Scooby Doo, such as Speed Buggy or The Funky Phantom); Wooldoor Sockbat, a SpongeBob rip-off (with elements of Stimpy from The Ren and Stimpy Show and any of your classic, theatrical wacky cartoon characters, like the early incarnations of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck or Tex Avery's Screwy Squirrel), Captain Hero, a brash, destructive, amoral Superman clone; Xandir, a homosexual video game explorer modeled after Link from Nintendo's Legend of Zelda games; Ling-Ling, an angry Japanese fighting monster based off Pokemon's Pikachu, and Spanky Ham, a crude, Flash-animated Internet mascot meant to represent raunchy adult cartoons both online and on television. These tropes-as-characters were fun start-off points for something that could have been interesting, potentially in relation to how affecting and/or limiting such tropes might have on the audience.
For reasons only known to the show creators and writers, however, Drawn Together did little to nothing with this idea. Very little of the humor actually reflected the specific animated nature of the characters. It did in broad strokes, like on the episode “Gay Bash,” when Xandir, depressed over confessing his homosexuality to his damsel-in-distress girlfriend who wants nothing to do with him, commits suicide repeatedly because of his near-endless video game lives, but for the most part, the humor was more in line with what you would find in the oeuvre of Seth MacFarlane: shallow parodies galore, crass racial and sexual humor that often disgusted viewers more than made them laugh, and outlandish, often violent, non-sequiturs, such as a scene where Toot intones that her life is flashing before her eyes...only to be treated to a picture montage of food and horrific Vietnam War imagery. Drawn Together's premise was heavily invested in the world of animation, but said little about it.
This may not be the creators' or writers' faults, however. Most audiences and critics think little of animation and its impact on the screen. To many, animation is a genre, not a medium (but don't tell that to Brad Bird), and creators and viewers alike see and use the “genre” for preschool edutainment, kid/family-friendly entertainment, and adult contemporary satire. It’s extremely rare to see something akin to a modern-day cartoon play around with the physical medium to various affects, regardless of whether the content is strictly for adults or children.
Enter The Amazing World of Gumball.
Created by French-British artist Ben Bocquelet for Cartoon Network's United Kingdom division as a means to save his rejected work while working in an advertising agency, Gumball came out around the time that Cartoon Network was trying to win back viewers who have abandoned the channel due to its failed foray into featuring low-budget Canadian Flash animation and live-action shows by going back to basics and airing original, animated programming, such as Regular Show, MAD note and Adventure Time, was originally conceived as, coincidentally enough, a cynical, yet family-friendly version of Drawn Together centered on rejected cartoon characters forced into a remedial school/rest home/rehab center for bad animation in the hopes of becoming well enough to be featured in an upcoming animated show. Cartoon Network UK executive, Daniel Lennard, found this premise to be too depressing, prompting Bocquelet to quickly retool the show to make it center on a blue cat (Gumball) and his family, consisting of another blue, workaholic mother (Nicole), a lazy, yet jovial pink rabbit father (Richard), a brainy, yet childish younger sister rabbit (Anais), and Gumball's adopted brother, an amphibious goldfish (Darwin), who was originally from an abandoned show idea about a society of two-legged fish-like cryptids who live in a little boy's backyard (think The Smurfs meets Disney's The Little Mermaid).
The show’s first season was all about putting the pieces into place, for the characters, the narratives, and the visuals. Compared to later seasons, the first didn’t seem comfortable with what it had, focusing on silly plots emphasizing the various degrees of dumbness and insanity of the central characters. Despite this, there was a low-key confidence that the visuals could be something more; a lot more daring and expansive, something that could bring fresh life into the most clichéd of plots. The second season has a much-needed focus, as each episode focuses on one character and their relationship to their world. We learn Hector, the hairy giant, is coddled by his witch mother because of the very real concern that an upset giant could be dangerous. We learn Teri, the bear who is made of paper, is a hypochondriac because she’s made of paper and prone to injury. Tina, the dinosaur, has no friends because she’s a genuinely a beast, but incredibly lonely with a possibly dysfunctional family – like Hey Arnold’s Helga taken to the animated extreme. We learn Nicole struggles with anger and control issues, which mask a deep insecurity about her role as a mother. And we learn that Richard’s stupidity is a result of his mother’s own questionable overparenting.
Through all these developments, the animation is as equal to these reveals and as important to the structure of the the expanding world in which Gumball resides. Teri has the luxury to draw a mask on her paper face to block incoming viruses; the act doesn’t work for Darwin. In the same episode (season two's “The Virus”), Gumball and Darwin ridicule Teri by not only impersonating her voice but by becoming flat-paper cutouts themselves, à la Paper Mario. First-person POV rapid cutting styled after The Prodigy's music video for the song “Smack My Bitch Up” is used when Carrie possesses Gumball and forces him to binge eat in “The Ghost”. Masami, a cloud, rains when she cries (or, in the case of season four's “The Gift”, urinatesnote ) and causes a lightning storm/hurricane when angry (cf. "The Storm"). Gumball’s jealousy of Leslie the effeminate flower possibly being Penny's love interest manifests into a demon that spreads among his friends, representing the jealousy and insecurities that lies inside them all as seen in "The Flower". Gumball even adds a spark to a typical freeze-frame gag by adding distortions at the top and bottom of the screen, simulating the old-school pausing of a VHS tape as seen in "The Car".
There’s a scene in Who Framed Roger Rabbit where Roger Rabbit is handcuffed to Eddie Valient, and Eddie starts to saw the cuffs apart. He yells, “HOLD STILL!” to a fidgety Roger Rabbit. Roger slips out of the cuffs and responds. This ticks Eddie off. “You mean to tell me you could’ve gotten out of those cuffs at any time?” “Not at any time,” Roger replies, “Only when it's funny.” This reveal ticks Eddie off even more, but Roger tells an important truth – a truth that Eddie probably knew but failed to remember due to his depression. Roger, as a toon, is forced to live by the comedy rules. His reveal is not just comical, it’s literal. Physically removing himself from the cuffs wouldn't work unless the moment presented itself in comic fashion. Roger is beholden to the rules of cartoons as we are beholden to physics, and Gumball is in the same way.
Cartoons have been calling attention to themselves for years now, from Sam & Max: Freelance Police, Tiny Toon Adventures, various Looney Tunes shorts, and the epitomes of self-awareness, Animaniacs and Freakazoid. These shows would comment to the audience via winks and nods to too-cool-for-school gags, as well as point out other behind-the-scenes foibles related to writing staffs, direction/production decisions, censorship issues, obvious plot holes, historical animation tropes, and other elements related to production. The actual animation was rarely talked about and commented upon, and, when it was, it’s played for laughs.
Gumball, however, surprises by using its animation not only for gags, but for drama, character development, and satire. Like Roger Rabbit and the handcuffs, the show is beholden to toon physics and its multiple animated elements are thoroughly ingrained in the show’s DNA, showing it off through novel and incredible ways, from Penny (post-"The Shell") shapeshifting from negative emotions and distress (and her ability to control it proving ineffective as seen in "The Romantic") to Gumball pausing Darwin like a video game and reseting him (and the world) when the latter glitches to Richard's credit card getting sucked dry (in the style of a vampire exsanguinating his victim) after paying for groceries he's buying for a holiday dinner in "The Lie".
The show is visually complex, disturbing, and fascinating all at once. The sets are live-action photos from the San Francisco Bay Area and parts of London, England. The main family, The Wattersons, are cats, rabbits, and fish drawn in that late 1990s-early 21st century Westernized take on chibi anime, as seen in Cartoon Network's first wave of original programming (specifically Dexter's Laboratory and the 1998 Powerpuff Girls). Some of the characters that dot this amazing world are Sussie, a socially awkward live-action chin puppet (played by Ben Bocquelet's girlfriend and storyboard artist, Aurelie Charbonnier, with British comedian, Fergus Craig and Bocquelet himself voicing her as of season two) who drools on everything and may be dumb due to childhood brain damage; Teri, a hypochondriac paper-cut-out bear, Tina Rex, a CGI dinosaur who may be a brutish bully, but actually feels bad about it due to her father's reputation (compare with Jamie, who is also CGI-animated and a bully, but is more of a violent brute than Tina, doesn't think twice about her actions, and has lousy parents — one of which is Elmore Junior High's craggy-voiced gwho don't do anything about her behavior); Ocho, a pushy 8-bit spider-like space invader; Banana Joe, a clownish stop-motion banana who makes lame jokes (similar to how slipping on a banana peel is used as the lazy slapstick comedian's way of getting a laugh); Alan, a goody-goody computer-generated balloon who is dating a 2D-animated cactus named Carmen, Mr. Steve Small, a hippie guidance counselor made of clouds who was initially Flash-animated, but has since been traditionally animated with digital ink and paint as proof of concept, a claymation doughnut cop who sounds and sometimes acts like a less corrupt, but still incompetent version of The Simpsons' Chief Clancy Wiggum, and Carrie, a goth/emo 1950s-style 3D ghost who possesses people so she can binge eat. Everyone looks and is designed completely differently (and yes, while in the end, a computer clearly put together all these elements, separately the characters are clearly representative of different forms of the medium) and its commitment to graphic disunity is what makes it a very interesting watch, not just visually, but in the narrative and characterizations as well. It’s a show that passionately embraces the full, variable styles of the animation medium and lovingly puts them together, suggesting the moot point of even arguing one form over another. Characters are not only what they’re made of; they are the full manifestation of their animated style.
Nothing on television has incorporated the power of the animated frame like Gumball. Gumball’s “amazing” world is not just a product of animation; it is defined by animation. Its unique cast of characters, all designed in different animated styles (puppetry, stop-motion, and pixel art, for example), are defined by their visual nature, and so is the world of Elmore, an elastic setting both amplified and trapped by the medium. The animated nature of Gumball isn’t metaphoric or representative of people or ideas. To the residents of Elmore, this animated essence is their world. Tina Rex may be the show’s stereotypical bully, for example, but she is also a dinosaur and a 3D-generated animated construct, and they can’t be separated from each other.
That dedication to that level of detail allows Gumball to attack the screen with visual, thematic, and narrative ideas that you will just not see anywhere else. It’s the nature of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, if CGI, stop-motion, and pixelation were included alongside the 2D animation of Disney and Warner Brothers.
Understanding all of that is the key to grasping not only Gumball’s comedy but also the show’s perspective. The diversity of styles is not solely for comic purposes, as in, say, Teen Titans Go! — it’s essential to the show’s world. The animated frame is used for elaborate song cues, exploration of grand ideas, deep character studies, and elaborate metacommentary on animation and/or TV as a whole, as well as specific, in-world plot points, conflicts, obstacles, goals, and resolutions. The animation and the narratives of the show’s setting/characters are one in the same, and acknowledging only one aspect of this is a mistake.
“The Money” is a perfect example. The Wattersons are a tight-knit family driven and trapped by the suburban ideal, a false construct of sorts held together by many things, but particularly cash (more on the false construct idea in a moment). It’s sweet, in its own way, to see the Wattersons support Gumball’s phase of maintaining integrity in the face of refusing to sell out to do a commercial for Joyful Burger after Richard once again loses the family's money (mainly because Gumball’s phases rarely last very long) while at the same time waffling over whether they actually agree with him or not.
Gumball himself is at his best when he’s unreasonably idealistic, somehow convincing his family not to participate in a cheesy commercial for money for the sake of preserving their integrity (which, against the backdrop of a family known to be particularly self-serving and exploitative, is doubly pathetic). Nicole clearly hates this, tossing her hostility towards the repo demons (who look like the prisoners they met in season two's “The Finale”, which also broke the show's fourth wall and the concept of series continuity) and barely masking her anger (it was her money that was lost after all). There is something about refusing to exploit one’s family for crass commercialism, but then again, they don’t even have food in the fridge, and Gumball’s annoying song about the power of imagination isn’t going to fix things. That counts as the episode’s general smackdown of the children's show's penchant for using “imagination” as a fix-all for hopeless moments.
Just when the Wattersons have nothing left that can be taken from them, the animation itself begins to deteriorate. This moment is where The Amazing World of Gumball truly shines. The line “When you don’t have money, your whole world falls apart!” is bluntly to the point—and it shows it by destroying the cartoon itself as the Wattersons’ make their mad dash to sign that contract. It’s a mind-blowing sequence, with the colors draining and the CGI breaking down, the characters reverting to their paper designs, then everything falling apart into storyboards, then into the writer’s room “Post-It” planning stage. It’s similar to the infamous scene from the Chowder episode “The Shopping Spree”, but by primarily focusing on the animated process caving in on itself, Gumball emphasizes the medium’s connection to Elmore and its inhabitants, and the false construct of middle-class living, so closely tied to money and appearance.
It’s in the little, subtle ways that Gumball deconstructs visual information, asking its audience to not only enjoy its visual spectacles, but embrace them as part of the show’s structure and aspect of its world.