Over the last few years Cartoon Network has seen an astounding resurgence (in terms of quality at the very least). Greenlighting cartoons such as Adventure Time, Regular Show, and Steven Universe, the network has near single-handedly launched a “renaissance” in children’s television entertainment; one in which these cartoons tackle emotional concepts in a sophisticated manner so rarely seen in the entirety of television. It is because of CN’s strong line-up that I took notice of We Bare Bears, the latest series to be released by the network. Created by Daniel Chong, We Bare Bears follows three sibling bears named Griz (voiced by Eric Edelstein), Panda (voiced by SNL’s Bobby Moynihan), and Ice Bear (voiced by Demetri Martin, a personal favorite comedian of mine). Set in the San Francisco Bay Area, the show revolves around these bears as they try to assimilate themselves into human society.
After watching the We Bare Bears bomb (a week-long event in which two new episodes debut on the first night, and a new episode debuts each night afterwards), it is readily apparent that having 6 episodes debut in the same week to celebrate its debut was a brilliant decision, as this series is certainly a slow burner. The first three episodes, “Our Stuff,” “Viral Video,” and “Food Truck,” presented a rather standard children’s cartoon affair in terms of plot. “Our Stuff” has the bears spend the episode searching for their stolen belongings and unintentionally get into trouble, “Viral Video” has the bears try to become internet famous by uploading videos on Youtube, and “Food Truck” has the bears start up a food truck with mixed results.
It should be noted that the three bears exude charm. The art style (with a simple, Adventure Time-style design for the bears contrasting with a more detailed world) and excellent voice work come together to create characters that have surprisingly wonderful appeal. Griz, a sort-of leader figure of the three, is the loudest and most passionate of the bears, although such vehemence is never overbearing (no pun intended) or abrasive and instead makes him all the more likable. Panda is the, for lack of a better term, pathetic one of the bunch who is timid in nature and very self-conscious, yet the writers use such timidness as a means to make the character incredibly endearing. Ice Bear is the odd and mysterious one in the group who is a jack-of-all-trades and owns a variety of bladed weapons; a character who will without a doubt become the fan-favorite.
Despite such likable characters, the end-product is a middle-of-the-road experience where the humor is very weak (although like many other shows directed at kids, I am sure there will be laughs from those of a much younger age). As I watched these episodes, I felt nothing. I didn’t feel delight nor did I feel disgust, instead only mild amusement. I had no strong feelings or opinions about the quality of We Bare Bears, rather the show felt inoffensive with it certainly far from being bad, but not great either.
Then I watched the episode, “Chloe.”
This episode introduced the viewers to the character, Chloe. Chloe is a Korean child prodigy attending college at the age of 12 who meets the bears in order to research them for a college class report. The character, voiced by Charlyne Yi (who also voices a fan favorite character in Steven Universe), continues We Bare Bears’s trend of endearing characters as her sweet and geeky predisposition makes her instantly engaging. Interestingly, the show plays up a rather common Asian stereotype of the medium with her small stature and unusually strong intelligence, although her short stature may possibly be the normal height of 12 year olds as there have been no other humans shown at that age in the show. This isn’t meant to be a criticism against the show, but rather an observation that others may potentially choose to see as troubling (something that I hope would not occur given how well the character is portrayed). Over time her interactions with the bears causes a friendship to blossom between the four characters, and what results is a captivating relationship that strongly resonates with the viewer. Like both Steven Universe and Adventure Time, We Bare Bears displays promise in providing lighthearted fun while also completely willing to delve into sentimental territory from time to time.
The episodes that follow, “Panda’s Date” and “Everyday Bears,” return to the formula presented in the first three episodes, but a significant improvement in comicality further reinforces my optimism for the future. However, the return to standard form makes me realize that this series and its development team may not have any intention of tackling deeper themes on the level of Steven Universe or Adventure Time, and even though I place significant value on thematic maturity, that lack of ambitious subject matter is far from problematic. What is presented is a middle-of-the-road cartoon that neither tries to push the industry forward nor does it play it safe by using crude humor or gross-out factors to appeal to the lowest common denominator in the vain of Spongebob Squarepants. Instead We Bare Bears stands on its own with a plot that is heavily dependent on the lovable and capable cast of characters it so expertly depicts, which is a quality that I find admirable. Overall, We Bare Bears, while certainly not on the same caliber as Steven Universe, stands to become a worthy addition to the Cartoon Network lineup, and I look forward to how it continues from here.