In a world in which cartoons have taken a massive decline in overall quality (Cartoon Network is showing live action shows! Live action! Cartoon Network! I’m not getting over this), it’s nice to know there are still mainstays in the industry that keep churning out quality shows. Enter Butch Hartman, the animator most famous for creating the Fairly OddParents, also known my favourite modern cartoon of all time (Favourite cartoon overall: Looney Tunes. Can’t beat the classics). The humour is off the wall, the characters and sets are creative, and it works on several levels. It was, and still is, a great show. There’s a reason it’s the longest running show Nickelodeon has, after all.
But everyone already knows about Fairly OddParents. Today, I’m going to take a look at his second animated endeavour: Danny Phantom.
Danny Phantom, which aired from 2004-2007, was Hartman’s attempt to create a non-traditional superhero cartoon. Instead of having traditional super powers, the protagonist would be a half-ghost/half-human hybrid capable of using ghost powers. The series follows the familiar superhero cartoon tropes of having the main character struggle in his efforts to balance his crime fighting with his high school life, but the added element of the ghost world gives it non-traditional flexibility, even if it doesn’t really do anything new at its most basic level.
The cast of characters is exactly what you would expect from a show like this. The geeky best friend that has been there since childhood (Tucker). The female friend that rebels against traditional femininity/social norms and eventually ends up becoming the love interest about a full season after the fan base knew it would happen (Sam). The superficial popular girl on whom our protagonist has an unrequited crush that is as vapid as she is conniving (Paulina) The high school bully that always seems to aggravate the protagonist most when he’s also struggling in his crime fighting duties, and provides motivation for the hero to use his powers for selfish reasons before learning that such actions aren’t right (Dash). The bumbling parents who have their heart in the right place but also hate the protagonist’s alter ego without knowing that’s their son (Jack and Maddie).There are a lot of characters that simply serve stock value like this, and they sadly never rise above it.
There are a couple characters with distinct story arcs, however, and they deserve special mention. Danny’s sister, Jazz, grows from a bossy know-it-all that refuses to believe in ghost’s to a caring sister that tries to do whatever she can to help. Jazz based episodes are among the series best, including one of my personal favourites “The Fenton Menace”, in which she learns that while being a mature adult is important, staying a kid at heart is equally important.
In a stunning move given Nickelodeon’s usual portrayal of teachers, Mr. Lancer, voiced by Ron Perlman (Ron Perlman!), is actually given a personality beyond disciplinarian. At first, he acts like the antagonist you would expect a high school teacher would be in this kind of show, but you soon realize that he genuinely wants his students to be successful and learn something from him. He ends up being much more supportive and acting as a positive influence on Danny and the school as a whole. The only true Lancer themed episode, “Teacher of the Year” is a must watch, as it emphasizes the importance of education in becoming a well-rounded person (and it dispels that whole ‘girls don’t game’ thing that should have been squashed about six years ago. Seriously. Everyone is pretty much a gamer now thanks to the internet. This should not have to be a punch line anymore).
Villains steal the show
The stars of this show, however, are easily the villains. Because Danny Phantom is a ghost based super hero, the villains he faces have an incredible amount of range. There are inept ghosts like the Box Ghost that bring humour to the table (until the epic “Boxed Up Fury”, when he finally becomes a serious threat). There are ghosts that are serve to annoy and cause chaos wherever they go, like Youngblood (a child ghost that can only be seen by other children and hates grown-ups) and Amorpho (a ghost that likes to take the appearance of a person, pull a prank or two, then leave to watch the ensuing chaos). There are power hungry ghosts like Ember (a rock star who gains power when people chant her name) and Technus (who wishes to control all technology to, you guessed it, take over the world). And that doesn’t even include ghosts who are just plain terrifying, like the Fright Knight, Pariah Dark, and Danny’s evil future self. The art design on all of these villains is incredible, and the battles are animated beautifully, making each episode enjoyable despite whatever hiccups some plots may have.
The two best villains, however, are the recurring schemers who tend to assault Danny at every turn. First up is Walker, a ghost warden who runs a prison in the ghost zone that is incredibly strict and unforgiving. After Danny helped free the ghosts in the prison earlier (“Prisoners of Love”), Walker has spent several episodes hunting Danny down while trying to bring order to both the ghost zone and Earth itself. Walker’s tactical mind ensures that even if his plans fail, Danny still loses. Never is this more evident than in “Public Enemies”. Sure, Danny repels the ghost invasion, but Walker’s last act ensures that Danny will remain public enemy number one in the town’s mind regardless of the good he does for them.
The most memorable villain, however, is Vlad Masters, another man with Danny’s abilities, except he’s had much longer to practice and hone his skills. He is obsessed with taking down Jack and getting Maddie to fall in love with him. After several failed attempts to get Danny to convert to his side, he gives up that tactic and uses other means to force Danny to help him out when assistance is needed. Most notably, in “Masters of All Time”, Danny is forced to save Vlad’s life when Vlad infects Sam and Tucker with the same virus from which he is suffering. That’s just cruel. He’s not my favourite villain, however, because he seems to get weaker as the show goes on so that Danny doesn’t always get beaten up by him. I get wanting Danny to rise as a protagonist, but the third season has Vlad acting as a non-threat in his ghost form, which isn’t quite as menacing (though he does get himself into the mayoral seat and harass Danny from there, so maybe that’s just a personal quibble).
My favourite antagonist in the whole series is definitely Valerie Gray. Valerie used to be one of the popular kids, but thanks to a series of mishaps between Danny and ghost dog (“Shades of Gray”, which is by far the funniest title in retrospect), her father loses his job, and she loses her friend group. She swears vengeance on ghosts, and her endeavours are fuelled by Masters’ financing, which gives her all of the tech she needs to take Danny Phantom on. Because we see her fall, we as an audience understand where she’s coming from, and her character is far more compelling as a result, especially when she becomes a romantic interest for Danny.
Given I’m 1200 words in, you’re probably wondering why I haven’t really discussed our central protagonist…at all. Well, Danny is a rather boring character, honestly. His growth is stereotypical at best, and his maturity varies to the will of whatever the writers wanted that particular week. He usually has to play the straight man to the wackiness of the ghosts he must face, so there isn’t much room for character development. It’s a shame, but it’s honestly not necessary to the enjoyment of the show.
At the end of the day, Danny Phantom is a beautifully animated show with imaginative villains that fell short on characterization of some of its side characters and presented a dull, predictable protagonist. It’s still worth a watch for those of you who love super hero shows and would enjoy a non-traditional look at the genre, but if you’re just looking for a quality cartoon, Fairly OddParents is an equally well-animated show that is more consistently funny and interesting.