‘Beavis and Butt-Head,’ ‘Chip ‘n Dale,’ and ’90s Cartoon Revivals

There is a moment in the recently-released Beavis and Butt-Head Do the Universe where the titular duo, having been transported to 2022, encounter an iPhone for the first time. At first, they’re not really sure what to make of it, believing it to be a tiny television. It’s an idea that I’m sure leapt from the minds of the filmmakers, as what possible invention best summarizes this specific time and place in history? As such, how would these two characters who spent a good chunk of the 1990s riffing on music videos respond to such a device?

As much as I thoroughly enjoyed and laughed at the new Beavis and Butt-Head movie, I feel like I’ve seen variations on this scene many times before, particularly in continuations of classic cartoons rebooted for the sake of millennial nostalgia. One of the first times I noticed this trend was in a 2019 Netflix special meant as a continuation of one of my favorite childhood shows: Nickelodeon’s Rocko’s Modern Life. Entitled “Static Cling,” it follows Rocko (voiced by Carlos Alazraqui) and his best friends Heffer (voiced by Tom Kenny, best known as the voice of Spongebob Squarepants) and Filburt (voiced by Mr. Lawrence) as they return to Earth after floating in orbit for the 20 years since the series finale.

There are a couple of scenes in Rocko’s Modern Life: Static Cling that remind me of ones in Beavis and Butt-Head Do the Universe. “Uh, fellas, I don’t think we’re in the ’90s anymore,” Rocko comments in a meta-moment to his two friends after they’ve successfully landed back in their hometown of O-Town. The trio then proceeds to guzzle down obvious-Starbucks-parody “Buzzbucks,” drink a Red Bill-esque energy drink called “Schlam-O” that’s radioactive, help themselves to strange food concoctions made by food trucks, and watch an intensely gritty reboot of their favorite superhero, Really Really Big Man. There’s even a scene where they compare the latest versions of a tech device known as the “O-Phone.”

When I think of “fish-out-of-water in a different decade,” the template was set so well when the first Austin Powers movie came out in 1997. It was from a point of perspective: how would someone who seems to be the living embodiment of the Swinging ’60s respond to a more cynical ’90s where there were no more Soviets to defeat, no more Beatles, and the hippie ideals of peace and free love were replaced by a thriving corporate America and the rise of the yuppie?

But Austin Powers was an original creation, he didn’t have the weight of expectations or nostalgia put upon him in that first movie. He was merely interacting with and commenting on the new reality he found himself in. Austin even wanted to discover the things he had missed: he tries to play a CD on a record player; he plays with top-of-the-line sneakers until they explode; he watches footage of the moon landing.

However, in this current animated revival trend, not only are beloved cartoon characters shown to be interacting with the world of the 2020s, but they also have to seemingly be genuine and authentic to the shows they originated from. Beavis and Butt-Head have been voiced by creator Mike Judge since their inception, even while he was working on shows like King of the Hill, as well as movies like Office Space (1999) and Idiocracy (2006). The duo already had an acclaimed previous theatrical outing, Beavis and Butt-Head Do America (1997), which got the highly sought-after “two thumbs up” from Siskel & Ebert.

But when Beavis and Butt-Head had a short-lived TV revival in 2011, the music videos they would commonly critique were replaced with clips from reality shows, with only the occasional music video. If Beavis and Butt-Head was released today, I wonder if the two teenaged idiots would be YouTube vloggers. Would the media they lampoon be in the form of TikTok videos? Thankfully, the movie doesn’t have to do that legwork: they were in the ’90s, went to NASA, went to space, got sucked into a black hole, and ended up in 2022. Simple as that.

And then there’s the meta element of it, such as in the recent Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers movie, based on the cartoon which first aired in 1989. Rather than try to find a reason for the titular chipmunks to end up in 2022, the movie reveals that the original Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers cartoon show was a fictional show within the universe of the movie. Both Chip (voiced by John Mulaney) and Dale (voiced by Andy Samberg) were actors who made it big when the show was first airing but have subsequently fallen on hard times.

Their world is one very similar to the one depicted in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? where cartoons and humans live alongside one another. This means constant cameos from everyone from classic Disney characters, including an evil, middle-aged Peter Pan voiced by Will Arnett, to even Butt-Head himself, who is serving as a senator. Chip is an insurance salesman, while Dale has gotten surgery to upgrade himself to CGI as he hits up the convention circuit to make a living. There, he encounters, among others, the backlash-worthy original design for Sonic from the Sonic the Hedgehog movie, dubbed “Ugly Sonic” and voiced by Tim Robinson of Netflix’s I Think You Should Leave.

There is a popular theory that suggests nostalgia follows a 30-year cycle that Hollywood exploits right when properties hit that 30-year mark. It’s why ’80s cartoons like Transformers and G.I. Joe all had big-screen blockbuster movie adaptations towards the end of the 2000s, and why beloved ’90s cartoons like Animaniacs and Rugrats have had recent continuations or reboots. Beavis and Butt-Head represent an MTV that, quite frankly, doesn’t exist anymore, and hasn’t for quite some time. On the other hand, Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers originated as a Saturday morning cartoon, another concept that hasn’t existed in years, as the rise of cable and streaming means that kids today can access cartoons whenever they please. These two properties represent bygone eras, so creative solutions, whether bringing the boys into 2022 or turning the show into a cameo-filled Hollywood farce, are needed.

In the 1990s, Beavis and Butt-Head were countercultural symbols, and their success paved the way for the likes of South Park. South Park has been able to outlast Beavis and Butt-Head in part because of its ability to adapt to the times. Fans consider the episode of South Park made in the aftermath of 9/11, entitled “Osama bin Laden Has Farty Pants,” or the episode made in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to be some of the show’s highlights. It’s downright morbid to think about how Beavis and Butt-Head would have responded to either of those two events.

Even South Park is capitalizing on its fame by creating specials exclusive to stream on Paramount+. Three have now aired: two called “Post Covid” and “Post Covid: The Return of Covid” from last year, and another called “The Streaming Wars” debuting just this past month, with “Streaming Wars Part 2” set to debut in a matter of days. These specials usually have intriguing premises, but just feel like two-part episodes alongside the regular show concurrently airing on Comedy Central, potentially showing that even South Park is struggling to adapt to the streaming era.

Nostalgia can be powerful when looking back at the relative easiness of decades past in contrast with current tribulations, particularly through the eyes of engaging with childhood media. How these characters have adapted to a more cynical age has been fascinating to watch. Sometimes, there are hints of progress: for example, in Rocko’s Modern Life: Static Cling, a long-standing character comes out as transgender, having transitioned during the 20 years Rocko and his pals were in space. Some of them wear more modern influences, it’s easy to see the effect Rick & Morty, with its dimension-hopping infinite versions of characters, had on Beavis and Butt-Head Do the Universe, particularly the introduction of new characters “Smart Beavis” and “Smart Butt-Head” who come from a higher plane of existence.

We go back to stories and characters that meant a lot, as sophomoric or immature as they may be. I think there is plenty of room for Beavis and Butt-Head to comment on modern pop culture trends, just as there is with Chip ‘n Dale to be fictional versions of washed-up TV stars. Looney Tunes stayed relevant for decades while not tweaking the formula too much, at least until Space Jam in 1996. That gives me confidence that these animated properties cannot just survive, but thrive in a present that doesn’t resemble and isn’t as laid back as the 1990s were, but nevertheless offers tons of comedic potential.