February 21, 2017

GOULDTHORPE | One Year After Gravity Falls, I Look Back Fondly

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On June 15, 2012, I remember watching the premiere for a new Disney cartoon titled Gravity Falls. It was pretty wacky and funny, and had a twist that actually made me raise my eyebrows. But again, it was a Disney cartoon, and after a few episodes I shrugged it off. It was definitely better than anything else on Disney Channel at that time, yet it wasn’t anything special, right?

On February 15, 2016, I remember watching the finale for Gravity Falls. I screamed when the villain neared victory, I cheered for my favorite characters and I cried. Oh boy, did I cry. But it was also a happy cry: the show hadn’t just ended, it had concluded. Alex Hirsch, the showrunner, had chosen to end his show voluntarily while it was at its peak. That means we got closure, so much satisfying closure. But, what did this show do right?

For those not in the know, the basic premise of Gravity Falls revolves around a pair of fraternal twins. The brother, Dipper Pines, tends towards paranoia and suspicion. He is obsessed with both the supernatural and maturing as fast as possible. His sister, Mabel Pines, is a free spirit that showers everyone with love and positivity. Underneath her happiness, though, she harbors a fear of the future and growing up. The two of them are sent on a summer trip to see their Great-Uncle (or “Grunkle”) Stan, an old man obsessed with money who runs a tourist trap out in the middle of the sleepy woodland town of Gravity Falls. It’s a dull time… until Dipper discovers a mysterious journal hidden within a secret compartment in the forest. Its pages are filled with unusual things that happen in Gravity Falls, and the twins soon find themselves wrapped up in a series of bizarre encounters that end up coming together in  a mystery bigger than anything they imagined. This setup could have easily been used for cheap gimmicks, a “monster of the week” kind of deal, and at first it may feel like that. However, the show sets itself apart through its execution, which I’ll tackle bit by bit.

I want to start with the show’s tone, which can be summed up in a single word: weird. Gravity Falls mixes together the best of science fiction and fantasy with a pinch of outright bizarreness. Have you ever wondered what a multi-bear would look like? Or a centaurtaur? No, that isn’t a typo there. It just goes to show all the mad things that exist in this town. You’ll see gnomes and time travelers; ghosts and insane AIs; not to mention government cover-ups, demons, and child psychopaths. There’s no such thing as a boring episode of Gravity Falls! Mixed in with all this fun, though, is also a tinge of horror that gets stronger as the show goes on. One of the most dramatic examples is in an episode where the kids investigate a haunted mansion. They enter a room full of mounted animal heads… and then the heads begin to drip blood from their eyes and mouths, chanting “Ancient sins, ancient sins, ancient sins…”

This is a Disney show, mind you! But, it’s exactly this break with classic Disney tropes that makes Gravity Falls so refreshing. It lampoons High School Musical, it jabs other Disney shows. It even takes an entire episode to mock boy bands in a clear jab at Disney’s record label. Simultaneously, it also takes the time to build a mature story that isn’t afraid to scare its audience, puzzle them and on top of all of that still deliver a fun and enjoyable experience.

This ties into the next two parts of the show I want to highlight: the brilliant plot, and the secrets that permeate every level of the show. One of the biggest mysteries of Gravity Falls revolves around the journal that Dipper finds: who wrote it, and why? It takes thirty episodes to find the answer, and oh boy does it pay off! The brilliance of it all is that the clues are all lined up for you, but they are hidden extraordinarily well. Lines that you believe are jokes are in fact major clues, tiny details hint at broader connections, and characters you think are simply comic relief turn out to be vital players. There are many other mysteries that unfold, and I don’t want to spoil anything for you. I’ll simply repeat the show’s tagline: “Trust No One.”

Gravity Falls also engaged its audience in the mystery by offering codes throughout the episodes and at the end of the credits. These codes started as silly jokes: for example, the second episode ended with one that reads “NEXT WEEK: RETURN TO BUTT ISLAND.” Over time, they began to get darker, such as one that translates into “IT STARTED WITH BAD DREAMS WHICH BECAME NIGHTMARES. I WAS FOOLISH, I WANTED ANSWERS, I PAINTED THE SYMBOLS, I SAID THE WORDS: WHEN GRAVITY FALLS AND THE EARTH BECOMES SKY FEAR THE BEAST WITH JUST ONE EYE.” And of course, one very obscure one that showed at the beginning of every episode, flashed for just a second after the title card, that translated to “STAN IS NOT WHAT HE SEEMS”. These codes elevated the show and made it feel so much more real and gripping. What did they mean? Who were they talking about? What was going to happen next? It was a brilliant move, no doubts about it.

I have to say, though, that the single most important key to Gravity Falls’ success is the characters and the heart brimming in each episode. Take Dipper and Mabel: on so many other DIsney Channel shows, family interactions are filled with snide remarks and rude comments. That’s why it’s so refreshing to see a brother and sister actually care about each other. To be sure, there are some episodes where they have a conflict, and it’s perfectly normal and healthy to have sibling conflicts. For every episode where they butt heads, though, there are four others where they work together to solve an issue facing both of them. It’s a heartwarming dynamic that builds a strong emotional core, which is necessary for the drama that the show pulls off. At the same time, their Grunkle Stan forms the third part of a heartfelt triangle. Sure, he may not be a shining example of Disney parenting — a cutaway gag in the second episode reveals that he passed off counterfeiting as a family fun day — but he genuinely cares about the kids. The Pines family and their relationships with each other are the most important part of Gravity Falls, and without it, nothing else would have mattered.

Of course, that isn’t to say there aren’t other characters running around. One of my favorites is Wendy Corduroy, a teenager that Dipper becomes infatuated with. I can hear you now, “Ugh, a romance subplot?” Yes, but it resolves itself in a very unconventional way, which I have to say is also the best possible route they could have taken. Plus, Wendy is her own character outside of being a love interest, which I highly appreciate. There’s Soos, a handyman working for Grunkle Stan that appears to be a lovable oaf, but also looks up to Stan as a father figure for reasons that become clear as the show progresses. Old Man McGucket is the town’s crazy hillbilly, but turns out to be a lot more than he appears. Even the background characters breathe life into the show, and are often the weirdest parts of Gravity Falls. You think the idea of a multi-bear is weird? Try a teenage boy that has an intimate relationship with his hand puppets. With such a colorful cast, the show brims with delight and drama, and it’s truly the human element that makes it work the best.

I usually don’t write about television series because I don’t watch them often; they take up more screentime, and I barely manage to fit feature-length films into my schedule as it is. Gravity Falls was something special, though. I’ve been rewatching it with my roommate the past several weeks, which has really reminded me what the show means to me. It showcases a gripping story with wonderful characters, who are real role models for everyone. Even Grunkle Stan, who can’t go an episode without hoodwinking someone and bending the law, is admirable through the way he sacrifices for his great-niece and -nephew. Along with Zootopia and Inside Out, it’s inspired me to go into animation as a career, and from the bottom of my heart, I want to thank the entire crew for delivering an amazing experience. I echo Hirsch’s parting words here as a tribute to this amazing show:

Stay Weird.


David Gouldthorpe is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at [email protected]. Animation Analysis appears online alternate Tuesdays this semester.