Aladdin's "Garden of Evil" And Other Cartoon Episodes That Built Me

Being born in '98 puts me squarely between two generations. I'm old enough to remember the sound of dial up, but young enough that I don't remember being told to get off the internet so that someone could use the phone, or vice versa. I'm old enough to remember when the first iPhone came out, yet I'm young enough that I hadn't hit double digits by its release date, much less owned my own cellphone. That is, unless my Barbie's miniature Motorola Razor counts.

When it comes to pop culture, the line is even more blurred. I'm young enough that I watched The Suite Life of Zach and Cody, but old enough that The Suite Life on Deck never interested me. I'm old enough to know that "shipping" came from the X-Files, but young enough to know the term was made popular by Pokemon. Jesse and James, anyone? Yeah, no, me neither.

The benefit to my dueling generational influences? I get to enjoy the best of both. I got to watch reruns of DuckTales, Recess, and Talespin, while I got to watch Kim Possible, Danny Phantom, Codename: Kids Next Door, Invader Zim, and many others live. I was the kind of kid who would stare down the channel guide and make sure that if The Little Mermaid came on at 5 am, I was up by 4:55.

My cartoons meant the world to me. I don't think I got just how much of influence they were on me until I grew up, and they slowly stopped airing. While I loved many shows, animated or otherwise, there are some episodes that stick with me, even now, for one reason or another.

 

  1. 1. Aladdin, "Garden of Evil"

     

    After the reveal of what shows would and would not be on Disney+, I was on cloud nine about being able to watch so many old favorites, until I noticed one huge omission: Aladdin. The rare Disney animated series that is as good as the movie it was based on, Aladdin picks up shortly after the events of The Return of Jafar but before Jasmine and Aladdin's wedding in Aladdin and the King of Thieves. Featuring the voices of *almost* all of the original movie's voice cast, Aladdin told memorable stories that expanded on the foundations of the world established in the film. Our favorite characters went on daring adventures where they met mermaids, more genies, zombies, wizards, you name it.

    Aside from everyone's favorite Disney boyfriend Aladdin, the villains were the real scene stealers of this series. Though trademark emo villain Mozenrath had angst that put Kylo Ren to shame, easily the most interesting antagonist is the vengeful Arbutus. 

    Introduced in the series's eighth episode, Arbutus is a being who can create and control plants, which he considers living art. Twenty years before the start of the episode, the Sultan happens upon Arbutus's garden in the desert. He wanders through and discovers a beautiful flower, which he picks to take home to his wife. Arbutus confronts the Sultan, and in exchange for sparing him, the Sultan offers his greatest treasure as a repayment for the flower. Arbutus swears he will visit the Sultan in twenty years time to reclaim his greatest treasure.

    The Sultan relays this story to Aladdin who agrees to guard the Sultan's treasury alongside Genie, Iago, and Abu. After experiencing night terrors, the Sultan realizes that his greatest treasure isn't his gold, it's Jasmine; the "heroes" rush in to save Jasmine but fail to do so. Jasmine is taken to Arbutus's garden, with Aladdin and friends in pursuit. While there, Jasmine at first attempts to escape, but after talking to Arbutus, realizes that he means her no harm. Every action he took was to protect his plants. Unfortunately, Aladdin arrives on the heels of this realization, determined to save Jasmine. He hacks and slashes and destroys Arbutus's plants to get to her, sometimes accidentally. Jasmine tries to tell Aladdin and Arbutus that they have no need to fight each other, but her pleas fall on deaf ears. In an unfortunate accident, Aladdin's attempt to listen to what Jasmine is saying results in Arbutus's death.

    "Garden of Evil" is a powerful episode on many levels. It forces the audience to acknowledge that plant life is in fact life. The most haunting part of the episode is the sound made every time a plant is destroyed: a shriek of pain. This is most moving during the segment of the episode where Aladdin is entering the garden. His actions towards the plants are destructive and careless, exemplifying every negative view of humans that Arbutus expresses to Jasmine. Aladdin's role in the episode flips the script on what we are used to; normally, we as the audience root for our protagonist to win. This time, Aladdin is in the wrong, so you find yourself questioning whether Arbutus really is the villain of this story. Even more interesting: by the end of the episode, Aladdin himself admits that he didn't understand, and Jasmine explains that Arbutus loved his plants just as  Aladdin loves her. Ending on an optimistic note, Aladdin expresses remorse, and the group plants Arbutus's last surviving flower.

    Perhaps the moral of the story is heavy-handed, but as a kid, I found myself thinking harder about the world around and how we could all stand to listen and be kind. As an adult, I feel much the same.

  2. 2. Hey Arnold!, "Field Trip"

    Quite simply put, Hey Arnold! is one of the best children's series of all time.  Not one character on the show was perfect; they were all delightfully flawed and realistic. Helga had an undeniable mean streak, but she did truly care about Arnold and her friends, and she always came through for them. "Our very own keeper of the tale," Gerald, had a great sense of humor and made an amazing best friend, yet he did on occasion have selfish tendencies, especially when it came to his siblings. The adults on the show ranged from hilarious to insane, yet there were always moments where they looked out for the kids. Even Arnold himself had a fatal flaw: he was too nice, often leading him into worse and worse situations.

    Beyond its cast, the biggest appeal of Hey Arnold! is that it never shied away from telling dark stories. From the ostracism of Pigeon Man to Mr. Huang being separated from his daughter to Lyla's poverty to Arnold's missing parents, this show never fails to bring the feels. The one episode that I have never been able to forget, however, is "Field Trip."

    The second episode of the series sees Arnold and his classmates going on a field trip to an aquarium. While there, they visit "the infamous terror of the deep," who was actually an old turtle covered in graffiti, called Lockjaw. Arnold's classmates berate and harrass the poor animal, which launches Arnold into a crisis of conscience. When he gets home, his grandmother comforts him and is enraged at how Lockjaw was treated by both the aquarium staff and its guests. Arnold and his grandmother then decide to stage a break out and free Lockjaw.

    While Arnold's grandmother is vaguely insane to take her nine year-old to commit what is probably a felony, I found the episode hilarious yet emotional. Arnold's concern for nature and treating animals fairly prompted me to think about the moral implications of animal captivity. This may seem dark for a children's show, but it inspired me to have a deeper empathy towards all creatures. Additionally, the episode put Arnold's relationship with his grandmother front and center, which is nice given that some cartoons about older kids focus more on friendships than familial relationships.

  3. 3. Batman: the Animated Series, "Robin's Reckoning"

    Dick Grayson is the gem of the Batfamily. There, I came out with it from the get-go. Nightwing is my favorite superhero, an opinion that came from watching a little cartoon you might have heard of: Batman: the Animated Series. Grayson's Robin was semi-present in the earlier seasons of the show, and after he became Nightwing and was replaced as Robin by Tim Drake, his appearances were fewer and fewer. 

    Nonetheless, those early episodes were enough to grant me a vested interest in the character, but none resonated with me as strongly as "Robin's Reckoning." This Emmy-winning two part episode told the story of teen Dick Grayson seeking revenge against the man who killed his parents, a tragedy shown via flashback with ten year-old Grayson. A heartbreaking examination of Grayson's character, "Robin's Reckoning" gave him the depth that the series had previously denied him.

    As many Batman fans are aware of, Grayson grew up in a circus as part of a family of acrobats called "The Flying Graysons." While performing a show in Gotham City, Grayson's parents perish in a trapeze accident. Unbeknownst to his parents, Grayson had seen a man, Tony Zucco, threaten the owner of the circus and chosen to say nothing, which festers into guilt over time. The accident was witnessed by Bruce Wayne, who agrees to take in Grayson out of sympathy from being a fellow orphan. Wayne becomes obsessed with solving the murder of the Graysons, to the extent that he regularly leaves Grayson alone, physically and emotionally. After failing to catch Zucco, Wayne is reminded by his butler Alfred that Grayson needs him, and the two grow closer. Eventually, Grayson pursues Zucco on his own, which leads to his discovery that his guardian is in fact Batman. 

    While the flashback tells the story of how Wayne and Grayson bonded over their shared loss, the main story is much the opposite, showing how the duo has grown apart with time. Zucco has resurfaced after many years, and Batman tries to hide the truth from Robin. Naturally, this backfires, and Robin is hurt that Batman treats him like a child. This crisis reaches its boiling point when Robin is able to corner Zucco and it is up to Batman to talk him down from becoming a murderer. The emotional lynchpin of the episode occurs when Robin realizes that Batman is the only one who really could understand what he is going through and that Batman only distanced him from the investigation because he was afraid that Zucco might kill Robin.

    This episode was the first time that I truly understood Dick Grayson as a character or his importance to Batman. He was more than a goofy sidekick or some kid that Bruce Wayne babysits; he was his partner, or more importantly, his son. Beyond that, "Robin's Reckoning" was the episode that made him a true hero, who could make the decision to do the right thing even when it was painful. What kid wouldn't resonate with such a moment?

  4. 4. Rugrats, "Mother's Day"

    Rugrats is considered the penultimate NickToon, a reputation that is well-deserved. The perspective of the show being that of a gaggle of toddlers is hilarious and heartwarming, and it made for entertaining moments for kids and parents alike. That being said, the point of view of Rugrats was what enabled it to bring on the waterworks when it did go dark.

    "Mother's Day" was a special aired in 1997 that chronicled the babies, Tommy, Phil, Lil, and Chuckie, as they share their favorite memories about their moms. Except that Chuckie does not have a mom, something that prompts the babies to find him a perfect mother. Lil and Spike the dog try to fill this role, but both fail. Tommy's older cousin agrees to be his mother if Chuckie can finish the macaroni scultpure she is making for her own mother. Unfortunately, Chuckie destroys her sculpture, and she locks him and the rest of the babies in a closet. While being consoled by his friends, Chuckie realizes that he does have someone who cares for him like a mother: his father, Chas.

    Grab your tissues, because at this point in the episode, Chuckie finds a box with a photo of his mother. He decides to give it to Chas, and upon his doing so, Chas and the rest of the adults get uncomfortable, hurting Chuckie's feelings. Chas starts to hide the photo again, but he is stopped by Tommy's mother who reassures Chas that while Chuckie will miss his mother, they can "miss her together."  Chas later takes her advice, and he shows Chuckie his mother's diary, which includes a poem she wrote to him on her deathbed. Chuckie proudly tells his friends that he does have a mom, and that she is "right here in the flowers and in the clouds and in the grass, too, and in the sun."

    "Mother's Day" is probably the episode that made me cry the most out of any show. I love my mom more than anything, and I always have, so the concept of a child without a mom was foreign and tragic to me. That being said, I credit this episode with explaining the concept of death in a real yet comforting way that kids can process. It is painful yet optimistic.

  5. 5. Teen Titans, "Spellbound"

    As I mentioned above, my all-time favorite superhero is Dick Grayson, and my love of his character started with Robin. While Batman: the Animated Series was my first exposure to the character, Teen Titans cemented Robin as  what I thought a hero should be. The absence of Batman and other adult superheroes in Teen Titans is one of the aspects of the show that gave Robin and the other young protagonists room to grow, and the series benefitted from not just solid storytelling, but solid character development as a result.

    In a role completely separated from Batman, the Robin of Teen Titans leads his own team of heroes to varying degrees of success. Despite being young, each character has a rounded out backstory. Robin, of course, lost his parents at a very young age. Not only was Beast Boy an orphan, but an attempt to cure a terminal illness  as a result of a monkey-biting incident left him with mutated genes. Starfire was betrayed and sold into slavery by her own sister. Cyborg was unwillingly made half-robot by his father after a car accident that should have killed him. Raven's father was a literal demon. This may not sound like a children's show, but believe me, it was.

    Picking a favorite episode is nearly impossible, but thinking back to my childhood, a season three episode called "Spellbound" comes to mind. While episodes such as "Haunted," which tackles Robin's PTSD, are darker, "Spellbound" held more appeal to me. This Raven-centric episode involves Raven becoming emotionally distant with her friends after discovering a wizard, Malchior, who became trapped in a book by an evil dragon. Throughout the episode, Raven's point of view shows the audience her often-hidden emotional side. 

    Her descent into isolation is spurred on by a fight she has with Beast Boy when asks her why she can't "just have fun like normal people" and why she is "so creepy." Sensing her sadness, Malchior speaks up and begins influencing her to free him. He teaches her new spells and showers her with the attention that she feels she has lacked. Raven's spirits are lifted for a time, but she begins to doubt Malchior after she realizes he has been teaching her to use dark magic. Even so, she frees him from the book, revealing that he was in fact the evil dragon not the wizard. Her heart is broken, but she is able to summon the strength to defeat him after her teammates fail to do so.

    At first glance, "Spellbound" may seem like a superhero version of Catfish. To me, however, it meant a lot more. I'm not too proud to admit that I was the resident weird girl throughout my childhood, so an episode dealing with Raven feeling like she doesn't belong with her teammates helped me feel a little bit less alone. Malchior was not a real friend; he was only using her, but despite the pain, Raven was able to realize that she did have people who cared about her. Beyond that, Raven had people who cared about her for her, not for what she could do for them. 

    The takeaway from this episode is best stated by Beast Boy himself: "you may think you're alone, Raven, but you're not."

  6. 6. Avatar: the Last Airbender, "The Tales of Ba Sing Se"

    Avatar: The Last Airbender is my favorite television show, children's or adult. Our protagonist, Aang, is a twelve-year-old boy who discovers that he is the latest reincarnation of the Avatar, a being who can harness the power of each of his world’s nations: Water, Earth, Fire, and Air. After he chooses to run from the responsibility, he falls into a slumber for one hundred years. He wakes to find that in his absence, his monastery and race, the Airbenders, have been eradicated, and the Fire Nation has been conquering the other two through military force. With the aid of siblings non-bender Sokka and Waterbender Katara, Aang trains to become the hero that the world needs in order to defeat the Fire Lord.

    The strength of this show rests in its characters. Aang is immature and innocent, but as the show progresses, he grows to become a more capable and determined hero. His comrades, Katara and Sokka, have their own struggles to overcome, such as grieving for their mother and searching for their father, who was held captive by the Fire Nation. By far the strongest character in the series, however, is the antagonist of the first season, the disgraced prince of the Fire Nation, Zuko. His development mirrors Aang’s perfectly; he progresses from an immature outcast trying  to win back his father’s approval to a loner searching for meaning after losing everything to a force for good whose true value rests in his ability to put his ambitions aside.

    The reason this show is impactful is that each and every character is on a journey of their own. While Aang is the protagonist of this story, the writers treated each character as if they were the hero of their own story. As a result, the viewer grows with the characters and has a deeper investment in the outcome.

    "The Tales of Ba SIng Se" is only one of many resonant episodes of this series. Though it includes entertaining segments about every main character, one story within the episode stands out as potentially the single best of the series: "The Tale of Iroh." Iroh is the uncle of Zuko, and he frequently serves as both the voice of reason and the comic relief to his nephew. This episode is a rare look at his less upbeat side as it follows him through a typical day in the Earth Kingdom city of Ba Sing Se. Being the giving soul he is, we see Iroh help a shopkeeper, a crying child, and even a man who attempted to mug him, offering him guidance despite the fact that he had tried to hurt him. 

    He comes to rest underneath a tree and begins laying out several items he purchased earlier, including incense and a cloth. Finally, he sits a picture of his son, who perished years before in the Siege of Ba Sing Se. Iroh wishes him a happy birthday and laments that he wished he could have helped his son. Iroh begins to sing a song he used earlier to comfort the crying child, sobbing uncontrollably.

    The segment then ends with a dedication to Iroh’s voice actor, Mako Iwamatsu, who passed away two months before the episode aired. While it is a tearjerker, “The Tale of Iroh” is a prime example of the depth of Avatar: the Last Airbender, and it serves as an amazing tribute to Mako.

    Morever, this episode was especially impactful to me because it took one of the happiest characters on television and showed the deep burden he carried with him. Iroh suddenly came into focus as a character; his actions to help people, especially his nephew, were derived from his helplessness to protect his son. This complexity of character lead me to two conclusions:  first that you never know what someone is going through, and second, in Iroh’s own words, that “while it is always best to believe in oneself, a little help from others can be a great blessing.”

Sometimes being caught between generations can feel a bit like a curse, but when I think about my childhood, I realize that being both a 90's kid and a 00's kid isn't so bad after all.