The phrase “Disney cartoon” conjures up a lot of images: a cheerful, red-shorted mouse whistling his way down the street. A pale, dark-haired princess sleeping in a metaphor-laden glass box. A weirdly hot princeling lion bounding through a swaying jungle. A pale, white-haired princess belting out her loneliness from the top of a metaphor-laden glacier. Happily ever afters? That’s a Disney cartoon. Wholesome family bonding? That’s a Disney cartoon. Hard-but-adorably-merchandisable lessons about growing up? That, maybe more than anything else, is a Disney cartoon!
But cryptid hunting? Supernatural conspiracy mapping? Grifter geezers? Cosmic (and/or demonic) body horror? Were you to go out and survey a hundred random people you found on the street, you’d be hard-pressed to find even one person offering up images like those when prompted to describe what they think of when they think of a “Disney cartoon.”
And yet, since Gravity Falls debuted on the Disney Channel ten years ago, delivering tweenage twins Dipper and Mabel Pines (Jason Ritter and Kristen Schaal, respectively) to their con artist great uncle’s (Alex Hirsch) tourist trap doorstep in the paranormally active forest just outside Gravity Falls, Oregon, every one of those things has become a legit Disney cartoon staple. What’s more, so has the series’ signature long-game storytelling, exuberantly weird characterization, and gleeful willingness to just be gross. When you queue up a Disney Animated Original Series on your Disney+ app these days, you’re as likely to find a chaos-demon protagonist making a witchy, bone-chomping, anarchist flim-flam artist their mentor as you are to find a quirky, palatably rebellious modern Disney princess racing off to have adventures in between made-for-TV musical numbers—and it’s all thanks to those weirdo tweenage twins chasing Bigfoot and investigating cosmic mysteries out in the fictionally paranormal woods of cartoonist Alex Hirsch’s chaotic imagination.
Before we get to the self-segmenting grifter witches of Disney Channel today, though, let’s back up. While many of us have been excitedly keeping up with Disney’s linear spiral into deeply unsettling, frequently occult, existential weirdness since Gravity Falls took its final bow, there still exists a segment of the animation-loving populace that only has a passing familiarity with Hirsch’s short-lived mystery series at all, nevermind the enormous (and enormously weird) animated swings that have become its Disney Channel legacy. To those folks I say, give this primer from Paste editor Garrett Martin a quick scan. If you aren’t swayed by his description of Gravity Falls—which only lasted two seasons (36 episodes) before ceding the multidimensionally chaotic floor to the battles for good in the face of monster genocides, amphibian wars, and demonic fascism that would soon follow—as a “short-lived beauty [that] summons up thoughts of BoJack Horseman, Bob’s Burgers, Adventure Time, and Rick and Morty, not to mention live-action inspirations such as Twin Peaks, The X-Files, and Lost,” then there’s unlikely to be much for you here in the rest of this retrospective.
For everyone else, though, I invite you to take Garrett’s summation of Gravity Falls’ legacy as stemming from “its emphasis on familial relationships both healthy and broken, its heady admixture of sci-fi, horror, humorous pop culture references and profound emotion, even its central, ever-looming truth (Summer ends)” as something like gospel. I mean, Disney Channel certainly did: where Hirsch laid the groundwork for shaggy animated worlds constructed of of ideologically gray complexity and endless paranormal impossibility, creators like Daron Nefcy (Star vs. the Forces of Evil), Matt Braly (Amphibia), and Dana Terrace (The Owl House) built palaces of skulls, tadpoles, and laser-puppies. Where Hirsch made space for nuanced storytelling about found family, queer-coded and otherwise, Nefcy, Braly, and Terrace (among others) filled it with the kinds of relationships kids who grew up on a frustrated diet of Kim Possible v. Shego could hardly have dreamed of. And where Hirsch said, Yeah! Sure! Let’s give these kids a stable of believably oddball and/or emotionally damaged adults with whom to empathize over extremely adult problems! his future colleagues said, GREAT; HERE YOU GO.
That said, for all that Gravity Falls broke plenty of weirdo ground for Disney’s linear programming, it wasn’t the first un-Disneylike oddball on the Disney Channel/Disney XD block, with Fish Hooks having launched its short, weird run in 2010 and Phineas and Ferb its much longer, even weirder one in 2007. But where Fish Hooks and Phineas and Ferb set the stage for Disney XD and Disney Channel to break free of the big screen’s more anodyne “Disney cartoon” image, it’s hard to argue with the ostentatiously odd legacy Gravity Falls, specifically, has left behind. I mean, where the fun summer adventures Dipper and Mabel got up to in Gravity Falls eventually morphed into cosmic villain Bill Cipher manifesting the kinds of monsters that are nightmare fuel for *adults*, with whom the Pines family (and friends) had to battle for the very existence of the universe, Star vs. the Forces of Evil went two steps further, not only featuring a protagonist that was a club-hopping, nightmare-inducing disembodied My Little Pony head, but also sending Star and Marco (and, when she had time between parties, the aforementioned Princess Pony Head) to spend their time early in the series taking down a misogynistic, anti-trans princess jail from the inside, and at the end of it, waging a war against bloodline monarchies and xenophobic genocide. The Owl House, meanwhile—which has taken the dare of “nightmare fuel” so far that it’s just set in a world literally sprung from the blood and bones of a giant demon—has taken as its central battle that of freedom against magical (but again, literal!) fascism.
I mean, the range! And even where questions as heady as “how to stop generational trauma” and “should we maybe not do genocide/fascism” aren’t as central a conceit to other Gravity Falls successors—your Big City Greens, your Wander Over Yonders, your The Ghost and Molly McGees—the willingness to go big and weird and even, frequently, not that likable is.
This is great! I mean, kids like weird, a fact that Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, and Kids’ WB (RIP…ish) have been well aware of for ages.
This, of course, makes news like The Owl House’s premature cancellation all the more frustrating. Of all the Disney Channel Original Animated Series that have thrived in the fertile ground Gravity Falls broke ten years ago, The Owl House has been not just the most aesthetically ambitious, but the most successfully groundbreaking, with its awkward teen protagonist, Luz Noceda, a proudly bisexual, neurodivergent, Domincan-American girl who Mabel and Dipper Pines would just die to be best friends with. Not to lean too hard on cliché, but the Pines twins walked (or at least, stumbled headlong) so characters like Luz Noceda could run.
Still, the thing about legacy in pop culture is, once you’ve established it, it’s hard to root out. So here’s to the cranks and cons and curses and cryptids that, thanks to Gravity Falls, have made the “Disney cartoon” designation so much more interesting than it’s canonically been. May your righteous anger against classism, fascism, and bigotry of every type linger in the cultural memory, regardless of whether Disney Channel itself can keep the courage to make space for you. It’s been a fun ten years.
Gravity Falls (along with every other weirdo Disney Cartoon listed above) is streaming on Disney+.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.