The Disney Channel frequently churns out the kind of cutesy, overly positive kids’ shows most of us grow out of around the age of seven. Currently awash with the likes of Austin & Ally – in which the biggest threat to the main characters is that they may not get their homework in on time or find a date to the prom – it’s the last place you’d expect to find something teasingly subversive.
Neither has the Channel been one to take chances on something wickedly clever like Nickelodeon’s short-lived but essential, Ned’s Declassified School Survival Guide (itself a victim of watering down, with the recent 100 Things To Do Before High School spin-off). When it comes to The Disney Channel’s animated output, you’d be shocked to discover something as almost-adult as Cartoon Network’s kooky Adventure Time, or the even more outlandish Regular Show on the schedule alongside the super-safe Phineas And Ferb.
However, lurking among the usual all-singing, all-dancing, all-slapstick contenders is Gravity Falls, a spooky-cute, hilariously funny little cartoon that not only challenges the traditional Disney formula but utterly changes our perception of the channel itself.
The brainchild of writer/director/executive producer/voice actor and steadfast kidult Alex Hirsch, Gravity Falls is a love letter to the fun weirdness Hirsch loved as a kid, from Spielberg to The X Files.
Gravity Falls follows tweenage twins Dipper and Mabel, who are sent to stay with their grumpy great uncle, or ‘Grunkle’, Stan in Gravity Falls, Oregon for the summer. Upon discovering what appears to be an ancient text detailing the many secrets and mysteries of the town, the kids embark on various misadventures in an effort to better understand their surroundings and, by extension, the mysterious Stan.
Given that this is a kids’ show, the family element is strong. Hirsch, a lively and enthusiastic interviewee who gives essays instead of answers, has emphasised many times over that, although Mabel and Dipper may bicker on occasion, they love each other unconditionally.
Immediately, the central relationship is different to 99% of other, similar offerings. Ostensibly about solving mysteries, at its heart the show is more concerned with the twins’ relationship. Often it facilitates the action, instead of the other way around.
A host of colourful, magical creatures populate Gravity Falls, particularly in the enchanted forest just beyond the rickety Mystery Shack – the place the twins call both work and home that itself is crawling with intrigue.
Each episode introduces something new (vomiting gnomes! Living waxworks! A sea monster!), but clever writing and likeable, well-developed characters save it from being simply a conveyor belt of oddities.
This isn’t a nightmare realm, either, like the kids’ horror of Coraline, or any of Tim Burton’s animated escapades. Gravity Falls is refreshingly candy-coloured, with a heart of pure gold, and the laughs come hard and fast.
Many of those laughs can be attributed to the various characters that populate the titular town. From the gloriously-named, but short-lived Mayor Befufflefumpter (R.I.P.), to town hoodlum/emo romantic/Dipper’s nemesis, Robbie, the attention to detail is jaw-dropping. If you found out tomorrow that Hirsch had a 400-page novel dedicated to each person’s backstory, you’d believe it no questions asked.
It’s no surprise, then, to learn that he based many of the characters on his own friends and family. Most notably, Mabel, and her many glorious sweaters, is based on his own twin sister.
The show may pitch many of its jokes at bored parents stuck watching with their kids, but it’s not cynically psychedelic like Regular Show or so naff it’s kind of endearing, like others we could name.
There’s a warmth to it, an understanding of what makes both kids and grown-ups laugh. Hirsch gets why the kids who wonder about the unknown carry that awareness into their adult years, because he is one of those dreamers. This is intrinsic to the show’s appeal, as well as being unique to Hirsch’s approach.
He communicates these feelings so well because he has an innate understanding himself, he’s not simply trying to replicate something he hasn’t experienced in twenty years. Hirsch has discussed at length how he wants the show’s paranormal elements to be sincere, not wacky. Yes, Gravity Falls is silly, but the character interactions keep it grounded.
It’s this idea of mixing the impossible with the possible that makes Gravity Falls so utterly charming. Unlike virtually any other kids show, it’s sincere instead of smug, smart instead of dumb, with real laughs that aren’t reliant upon characters walking into things or shouting at each other.
Hirsch has already built up a super-cool mythology, the idea being that episodes need to be watched again and again just to catch all of the little nods. Add to this the fact there isn’t a duff in the bunch and Gravity Falls becomes dangerously addictive.
The show already has an army of die-hard fans of all ages behind it, trying to decipher the multitude of clues scattered across its two impeccable seasons. The second series kicked off with a ridiculous reveal, which was later mocked in one of the shows-within-the-show, Ducktective (he’s really quacked the case).
Gravity Falls strikes the perfect balance between wacky cartoon gags aimed at kids and the kind of observational humour more suited to adults. Seamlessly blending in elements of action, adventure, horror, sci-fi, mystery, comedy and family drama, it somehow manages to throw a million things at the audience while still leaving them wanting more.
The gaps between episodes are often tortuously long, but if it means Hirsch and his team getting it as right as they do, it’s more than worth it. And, as cliched as it sounds, their hard work truly is all up there on the screen.
This season saw JK Simmons join the cast, rounding out a group of talented voice actors including Kristen Schaal, Jason Ritter, Linda Cardellini and, of course, Hirsch himself, voicing two of the most beloved characters.
Although Gravity Falls is as sweet and kind-hearted as the perennially happy-go-lucky Mabel, it’s also as dark and creepy as town villain Lil Gideon. The kids often find themselves in what the BBFC would term ‘mild peril’, and even though we’re smart enough to know they probably won’t perish before the summer is out, the danger is still very real.
The fact the show is broadcast on the Disney channel, of all places, is a total coup for both parties. Hirsch jokingly compared trying to make the series he wanted for the network to “trying to paint a picture while a chimp constantly hits you in the head with a wiffle bat”.
He should be applauded for sticking to his vision, even if it means sacrificing some of the more dubious content (a reference he made during a Reddit AMA, to a joke involving a Satan-themed cereal, feels like a cruelly missed opportunity).
Likewise, Disney has done well by allowing him to run riot, to an extent. The show is arguably the strongest of their current line-up, its popularity growing consistently.
Gravity Falls would be best described as a must-watch for the full-grown adults who anxiously await the Halloween Lego mini-figures collection each year. It really is just that bloody good.
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