In general, classic cartoon characters hit Dork Ages when their owner studios tried to make them cuter and "safer" - visually symbolized by the once Half-Dressed Cartoon Animal (or human) gaining a full middle-class wardrobe. Mickey Mouse and Betty Boop are the best examples.
When you see Mickey fully dressed with a hat and long pants, you know he's not going to be any more interesting than your neighbor. Disney historians fully admit the increased emphasis on Donald Duck and Goofy was partly caused by Mickey's iconic fame making him slightly inflexible and too 'sweet' to put in funny cartoons or as anyone's foil. Earlier — and thankfully, more recently — he was a mischievous adventurer (Kingdom Hearts, ironically, is fairly close to this depiction). Dork Age Mickey sits at home and gives Pluto orders like a bossy, boring parent. Another indication of Dork Age Mickey is if he had eyebrows on him. Eyebrows below face bordersnote The lines that separates Mickey's black fur from his white or cream face that normally function as eyebrows.
A New York Times article in 2000 described how boring Mickey was. Disney's overly restrictive guidelines prevent writers from doing much with him. Disney tried to inject some creative juices by having Mickey redrawn by various artists (big fan of Mickey with "M-shield" a la Captain America) but they haven't moved ahead until recently, with Warren Spector's Epic Mickey video game. Said game takes advantage of Video Game CaringandCruelty Potential, where you could either let Mickey remain an everyman, or go back to his original personality of a mischievous and reckless troublemaker. And a little bit of horror. Observe.
Lampshaded in the Disney Vault TV Funhouse sketch ("You're supposed to be funny?"). That line came about from Robert Smigel's puzzlement of Mickey Mouse being such an iconic kids character when most kids can't actually name a defining trait or characteristic for him.
It should be noted that Epic Mickey was widely considered a disappointment—while the game is darker that most Mickey fare, it hardly lives up to the steampunk post-apocalypse depicted in the concept art, which generated huge amounts of hype.
What happened to Betty Boop, who used to be a sexy chanteuse, was that the Moral Guardians forced her to be Bowdlerised. This led to a serious drop-off in the quality and popularity of her shorts, since her character is a sex symbol (yes, even with her big, giant head). When you see Betty dressed like a businesswoman, you are in for a boring cartoon.
Popeye had this happen as well, after the shorts became headed by Famous Studios. Granted, it didn't get too bad until 1950 or so, when Seasonal Rot set in and the writers just didn't know what else to do with Popeye, ending up resorting to Recycled IN SPACE! plots.
Woody Woodpecker fell into this during the 1950s—apparently, Walter Lantz wanted Woody to appeal more to kids, so he slimmed down Woody's design into a pinty, stiff looking "cute" design. On top of that, Woody was completely derailed as a character - whereas earlier he was a selfish heckler who only stood for himself, this Woody was watered down into a bland hero-type character. On top of that, from the mid-1950s onward, Paul J. Smith took the directorial reins and brought the series down even further with sloppy animation, not to mention lousy jokes and timing (surprising, considering his earlier efforts such as "Hot Noon" were among Lantz's best cartoons). It's a wonder the series was able to last through 1972 in theaters.
Looney Tunes suffered in the Sixties as well (you know something has gone terribly wrong when they have Daffy Duck chasing Speedy Gonzales around for some reason) after the original animation unit was shuttered and work was turned over to DePatie-Freleng Enterprises. Fortunately, this Dork Age comes with fair warning: if you catch a cartoon that opens with a weird version of their theme song set to trippy graphics spinning around, and the cartoon is not Chuck Jones' Now Hear This (or maybe Norman Normal), you're going to get to see their Dork Age.
"The Larriva Eleven" is the name given to a series of eleven Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner cartoons produced by Rudy Larriva, who had animated for Warner Bros. in the 1940s (but hadn't worked on anything Looney Tunes-related for about 15 years), after he took over the series from Chuck Jones. Larriva's character designs were very Off Model, the loss of Maurice Noble robbed the desert landscapes of all their scale and range, and the less said of William Lava's music, the better. The more complex schemes were replaced with sluggishly-paced crude gaggery, and to accommodate them the Roadrunner was completely derailed into actively fighting back against the Coyote, firing cannons at him and so forth. Watch "The Solid Tin Coyote" for a good look at how far off-base the series got. Better yet, don't (and just so that you know what we're dealing with here, keep in mind that "The Solid Tin Coyote" is pretty much universally regarded as the best of Larriva's efforts in this series).
If you ever see a cartoon with the opening described above, except with a company credit that reads "Warner Bros.-Seven Arts" instead of just "Warner Bros." and with an even stranger version of the opening theme, then you should run for the hills. Because in most cases, there is absolutely nothing good that will result from the cartoon that you are about to watch.
In 2003, Warner Bros. Animation produced several new Looney Tunes cartoons intended for theatrical release. Because the current crew had no experience with the characters, the cartoons had such problems as over-the-top violence, Flanderization of existing characters, amateurish jokes and more. They wound up never being released theatrically after Looney Tunes: Back in Action failed miserably.
And then, there was Loonatics Unleashed in which the descendants of the Looney Tunes characters are Animesque superheroes in the far-future akin to Teen Titans though with a less clear direction on what they were doing given the radical Tone Shifts from previous incarnations of the Looney Tunes franchise.
To someone who never saw the 1975–77 shorts (which, yes, does say a lot in and of itself), the Gene Deitch shorts are the Dork Age.
If you see Jerry wearing a red bowtie... run, just run.
Interestingly, CN Asia now airs the 1970s TV shorts every now and then... as well as the 1980 Filmation era shorts (though they no longer run Deitch's shorts). Now that is a Dork Age.
The 1996 Flash Gordon animated series, in which Ming was green and Flash and Dale rode hoverboards. Then there's the second season of the 1979 Filmation series, also known as The New Animated Adventures of Flash Gordon. The first season is frequently considered to be both the best screen version of the character and the best Filmation cartoon. The second season gave us Gremlin the Dragon.
Someone at Turner Broadcasting must really dislike the 1980s episodes of The Jetsons and Jonny Quest, because Boomerang's rerun rotation of the shows go up to the last episodes of their first seasons, but then goes back to the beginning like nothing happened afterwards. Yet they still show the Jetsons' Christmas Episode every December. Thankfully, though, this contempt for the later years of The Jetsons and Jonny Quest isn't shared by the rest of Time-Warner, because the episodes are being made available in every other place where one can watch the show.
While each new incarnation of the Transformers franchise has its detractors, the Beast Wars sequel Beast Machines is almost universally loathed by the fandom. For one, the writers were told to not actually continue any story threads from Beast Wars because they wanted there to be its own story. They also brought in the idea of Cybertron as an originally organic planet, a state that the Maximals were fighting to return it to (never mind that the dominant race of Cybertron has been robotic for millions of years), horribly uncharacteristic derailment of several beloved characters, and a number of spiritual aspects that were never present in any of the previous series. This was compounded by the fact that Beast Machines supposedly exists in the same continuity as Generation 1.
Beast Machines has gained ground with many fans in recent years. Compared to the dodgy storylines and iffy animation quality of Armada, Energon and Cybertron, the writing and certainly the CGI animation of Beast Machines looks pretty good in comparison.
During the late 1970s and early 1980sScooby-Doo went through one. The addition of Scrappy, the removal of the entire gang except for Shaggy (himself no longer a hippie) and with every episode featuring "cousin so and so", well, there's a reason that the original 60s version is the most well known.
Some people consider What's New, Scooby-Doo? to be a second Dork Age for Scooby Doo, though it's arguably a case of Broken Base for some; while considered slightly better regarded as it stayed true to the franchise, many just felt it was bland, too realistic and not scary. Shaggy & Scooby-Doo Get a Clue! is considered a dork age as well for the Art Shift and changing the entire premise to a drastically flanderized Scooby and Shaggy living together with a bumbling robot butler and fighting a Mad Scientist, to which many consider this a radical departure from the previous incarnations of the franchise.
The Flintstones has that show where they get new neighbors—the Frankenstones, who were basically a prehistoric version of The Addams Family or The Munsters—only with an unsympathetic Frankenstein's Monster as a head. Most of the episodes were about Fred having a fight with Mr. Frankenstone. Yes, in the original cartoon some monstrous neighbors were mentioned, but only episodically and never as major characters. It didn't help that the show also featured shorts that were ripping off other shows, so we could watch Captain Caveman imitating Superman (he was even Clark Kenting) with Betty and Wilma as two Lois Lanes, teenage Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm solving Scooby Doo Hoaxes with Dino, as well as Fred and Barney in a Buddy Cop Show, patrolling the streets with a goddamn Shmoo, which was constantly molesting Fred.
The My Little Pony cartoons had a Dork Age that lasted for nearly two decades. It started with the My Little Pony Tales series, and continued with the Lighter and Softer Generation 3 and the Spinoff Babies Generation 3.5. Tales was a short lived Slice of Life series which threw the rest of the continuity out the window and was set in a world where the ponies were essentially humans in horse bodies. Generation 3 lacked essentially everything the original series had (action, villains, a plot, etc) in exchange for a somewhat Slice of Life version of the series that Tastes Like Diabetes. Generation 3.5 was essentially deformed "chibi" versions of the Generation 3 cast as babies, though it didn't even try to make sense in the series continuity. Eventually the series got out of this Dork Age when My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic came along and restarted the franchise, being more like the original show.
My Little Pony Tales and Generation 3 have their fans and defenders, but you're unlikely to find anyone who disagrees that G3.5 was a Dork Age. It was created solely to fill in the gap between the proper end of G3 and the arrival of Friendship is Magic so they wouldn't have a gap without toys or a show marketing them out there, and it shows.
Ironically, many Friendship is Magic fans now argue that the show has gone into a dork age of its own after the departure of series creator Lauren Faust. Specifically, it includes season 3 (which introduced the major development of Twilight Sparkle becoming an alicorn) and the Equestria Girls movie (a humanized spinoff set in a high school). Season four is generally regarded as a recovery, although the Broken Base and Fan Dumb remain.
Ultimate Spider-Man is already starting to be considered this to the Spider-Man franchise on the animated plan: this series bears no similarities with the comic of the same name, or, for the matter, with any incarnation of the character. The tone is Denser and Wackier with a lot of comedy slapstick while all drama and dark aspect is removed, Spider-Man is a SHIELD agent learning how to be a superhero with Nick Fury as The Mentor, he is part of a team of annoying sidekick superheroes, and most villains from Spidey's actual Rogues Gallery are dropped in favor of other comic villains. Not at all helped by the fact it replaced The Spectacular Spider-Man which was largely considered to be epic, and despite the fact Ultimate had no control over Spectacular's fate, people are prettyupset.
Many fans consider The Simpsons to have been in one since Season 11: Seasons 9 & 10 had relied very heavily on Black Comedy, but 11 was about where the show devolved into a Family Guy and South Park clone, with absurd plots and nonsensical twist endings. Other seasons are also guilty of this, but 11 did a horrible job with the transition: the show either couldn't or wouldn't commit to being more like Family Guy or South Park, so it never reached those shows' levels of vulgarity or absurdity, and its occasional attempts at staying fresh without aping other shows, or going back to the tone of earlier seasons, didn't work-even if the rest of an episode was a step in the right direction, at around the 20-minute mark any pretense of realism would go out the window for cheap laughs. Seasons 13-16 are an odd case: they actively tried to emulate Seasons 1-8, in contrast with Denser and Wackier seasons 9-12, but did a poor job with uninspired and recycled plots as well as you can't go two episodes without a "Guest Star" appearing, which seems the writers are using that as a desperate crutch for ratings.
Dexter's Laboratory's season 3 and 4 are seen as this. They introduced a polarizing new art style, Flanderized several characters, different Stock Sound Effects (mostly Hanna-Barbera sounds instead of the Warner Bros./Looney Tunes sound effects of the first two seasons) and removed several characters such as Mandark's little sister. They're also disliked for what they did to Mandark's character. He was turned into a stereotypically evil Harmless Villain and got a disproportionate amount of focus (when he appeared in less than half of the previous episodes). There were also several shorts such as "A Mom Cartoon" and "A Third Dad Cartoon," and the less said about those the better.
Family Guy changed its tone, structure, and material around Season 6. Episode plots began to focus on random celebrities, unlikely romantic pairings, and current events, while the humor became more political (the show has since been called a vehicle for McFarlane's views) and sociopathic. The characters have changed personalities, with Peter becoming an unlikeable bigot, Lois even more crazy and dysfunctional, Brian a specific voice for McFarlane's views (the words "liberal douche" come up frequently when the subject is discussed), Stewie a flamboyant and openly gay de facto adult who has almost abandoned killing his mother, Meg an annoying dependent, and Chris a little more like Peter.
The Powerpuff Girls post-movie episodes are considered to have worse plots and characterization. They also dropped most of the action elements and made the show a cheap gag comedy.
It's almost universally agreed that Canadian cartoons are in a dork age, as Canadian law forces them to be constantly churned out with very little regard to their actual quality or entertainment value. And due to the fact that the Canadian goverment is too cheap for traditionally drawn fare, we only get all-CGI cartoons and cartoons made with Adobe Flash. It's very telling that less than a handful of them made in the last 10 or so years are even remembered, let alone considered decent. American cartoon channels also are relying on them due to their cheapness, so they may be even contributing to American animation's dork age. Though subverted a little bit as Canadian voice acting is still well regarded.
This also brought along Johnny Test, one of the most widely despised cartoons ever.