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.
Another attempt was made with the new Mickey Mouse shorts airing on the web and Disney Channel. A Retraux throwback to the Classic Disney Shorts of the late 1920s to the early 1930s, Mickey went back to being the mischievous, yet good-hearted mouse of those times. The results were arguably more successful than Epic Mickey.
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.
More specifially, pre-Hayes Betty would often go on exciting and surreal adventures, where she was sexy but also had a place in the plot and was an active character. Post-Hayes, her shorts can be summarized as "Betty sings, Betty has a problem, Grampy comes to fix it."
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 De Patie 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 notChuck Jones's Now Hear This (or possibly Norman Normal), you're going to get to see their Dork Age.
"The Larriva Eleven" is the name given to a series of eleven Coyote & 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 artist Maurice Noble robbed the desert landscapes of all their scale and range, and the less said of William Lava's music, the better. The complex schemes of the Jones shorts 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.
Basically, 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 Beast Machines 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.
And then there's the monstrosity that is Kiss Players. There's a reason it's never left Japan.
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 1969-70 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 (1992-2009). It started with the My Little Pony Tales series, and continued with the Lighter and Softer Generation 3 and Generation 3.5, which is condered to be the worst part of it.
Ultimate Spider-Man is already starting to be considered this to the Spider-Man franchise on the animated plain – this series bears no similarities to 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.
Even so, most fans are still willing to make an exception for the episode where Deadpool appears.
The Simpsons has arguably entered two Dork Ages in its 25-year run.
Many fans agree that the first Dork Age spanned from Season 9 to Season 12, a four-season period lead by showrunner Mike Scully. Although the ninth and tenth seasons were mostly well-received, they still featured several episodes that never became popular with fans. Season 11 and 12, on the other hand, are infamous for being two of the worst in the history of the Simpsons. In an attempt to compete with the increasing popularity of Seth Mc Farlane's Family Guy, the show's humour became far darker and cruder in these two seasons, with episodes that were considered overly wacky and cartoonish and featured an overabundance of guest stars. This resulted in many fans deciding that the show had Jumped the Shark, and refused to continue watching.
After Mike Scully's tenure as showrunner ended, the quality of the show arguably improved - thus, the first Dork Age ended. From Seasons 13 to The Simpsons Movie, many fans who hadn't yet stopped watching noted that the writing and humour became more consistantly enjoyable, with the good episodes outnumbering the bad ones again. Also, the promise of a theatrical Simpsons film in 2007 allowed older, golden-age fans to become interested in the show again, giving writers good reason to try extra-hard to create solid new episodes.
However, up to and after The Movie's DVD release (Season 19 onwards), the second Dork Age of the show began. This was because the hype of the first theatrical Simpsons film had been lost, giving viewers little reason to continue watching the show. This Dork Age has continued up until the present.
Dexter's Laboratory's seasons 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 leftwing views) and sociopathic. The characters have changed personalities, with Peter becoming an unlikable bigot, Lois even more crazy and dysfunctional, Brian a specific mouthpiece for creator/voice Seth McFarlane (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 whose level of abuse has become uncomfortable to watch, and Chris a little more like Peter.
The post-movie episodes of The Powerpuff Girls 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 that doesn't look to be ending anytime soon. Here's why – Canadian Law† (television channels must devote a minimum of hours each day to showing "Canadian" content; the government did this to keep its people from being media-swamped by their much larger southern neighbour… and to ensure Canadian creative types would always have work) forces them to be constantly churned out with very little regard to their actual quality or entertainment value. And due to the fact that Canadian TV networks and the government are 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 decade are even remembered, let alone considered decent.
American cartoon channels, particularly Cartoon Network, have been exporting the newer Canadian cartoons and are using them as filler programming due to their cheapness, so they could even be contributing to a possible Second Dark Age Of Animation in the States. Though subverted a little bit as Canadian voice acting is still well regarded.
Canada also gave the world Johnny Test, one of the most widely-despised cartoons ever.