Thursday, 31 July 2014

A Bit Of Variety

These days, many animated shows have episodes that play out between 11 minutes to a full half-hour, if anything to fill the required time slot for American broadcasting. Call me a stick-in-the-mud, but there was a time when episodes were no longer than 6 to 7 minutes, just as the original theatrical shorts that were played before the feature-length picture are (and still do, thank goodness).
Of course, it really depends on the type of shows that need a longer time format to tell a full beginning, middle and end, which is understandable. But what I really miss these days is seeing the classic "variety" format.

Just a handful of Bill and Joe's television stars...
To put it simply, a "variety" show is a TV Series with more than one segment, each featuring different sets of characters - Hanna-Barbera and Jay Ward established this format for their made-for-TV shows, which introduced the world to Quick Draw McGraw and Rocky and Bullwinkle among others.

These "varieties" continued as far as mid 2000 with various other channels having a go - Disney Channel (Raw Toonage), Fox Kids (Toonsylvania), Cartoon Network (Dexter's Laboratory) among others. But as time went on, the three-to-five variety format slowly dwindled away to two (Cow and Chicken, Grim and Evil, Pink Panther and Pals), until for whatever reason the other segment would quietly fade away after the first season.

Based on viewing rates, it would depend on which segment / characters proved to be the more popular. And in most cases, along with a lot of luck, some of the more popular characters would be given their own spin-offs. Case in point with Shaun the Sheep, Pinky and the Brain or even Yogi Bear.

    Animani...Totally insane-y!
One of the most recognisable "variety" series has been Animaniacs. Here, Tom Ruegger and his team experimented with and developed a huge selection of characters, each with their own settings yet based with the same "universe". In fact, one episode that remains a personal favourite is the "Animaniacs Stew", which saw the cast-members deliberately "mixed-up".

Even Cosgrove Hall Films got in on the act, bringing to life Vampires, Pirates and Aliens, based on the series of books by Colin Hawkins and Jacqui Hawkins. As the title suggests, it follows three different sets of characters from the seven seas to outer space to the usual "spooky castle" setting.

What I'm trying to say is that these sort of shows are worth watching because there is no "main character" to follow, there aren't any ongoing storylines that interconnect with one another like some soap opera, and we're allowed to jump from various worlds with - if lucky - potential crossovers from one or more segments.

But what's more important is that there is no risk of exhausting certain characters for further seasons down the line. At least with a variety show, the writers and storyboarders aren't shackled to a set local and wind up either repeating themselves or "jumping the shark".

Then again, there have been rare occasions when a creative writing team can still make the most of a limited cast - whether it's 11 minutes of Ed, Edd n Eddy or 5 minutes of Oggy and the Cockroaches, both shows which have managed a sizeable number of episodes between them. But I still stand my belief that a few additional characters and "worlds" would really add some new flavours to television for kids.

In fact, what prompted me to write this blog post came about after reading an interview from Vice President of Warner Bros, Jay Bastian, on the latest Tom and Jerry Show (2014). The show itself isn't too bad, but what rather irked me was this section in terms of "changing things up";

"…we’re also doing something with this show where we’ve got four rotating scenarios. There’s one what we call it the “classic” scenario, where they’re in a house, and they have reoccurring owners…Then we’ve got one where Jerry is a mouse in a lab, where there’s a professor always trying to come up with new inventions whether giving one another super powers or the ability to fly…The same with another scenario where we’ve got Tom is the cat of two witches, and Tom has access to spell books and magic wands that he and Jerry can get into all new trouble with. Then the fourth scenario is cat and mouse detectives, where they’re essentially working together, which they did in a lot of classic shorts to try and solve a mystery…"

And there lies the issue. Four different scenarios, three of which could have gone to entirely different characters, and instead they stuck with the T&J cast. Wasted potential, in my honest opinion. This was why I liked Tom and Jerry Kids for a time because there were different characters to watch, new settings and tales to explore. There wasn't just one cast for two eleven-minute episodes - heck, T&J Kids even gave secondary characters a few lead roles for a change. That, my friends, is how you "mix things up" for better watching, because in some cases watching the same characters for a prolonged amount of time can get quite boring.

...and confidentially, Warner Bros, you already have a cat-and-mouse detective duo. Look through your Hanna-Barbera Library and you may find Snooper and Blabber somewhere.

If ever I'm given the chance to pitch a show one day, I intend to give the old variety format another shot for possible redemption - pretty much how 3D Glasses for Cinematic viewing have made a quiet return to the theatres. The demand might not be as high as it once was, with today's generation turning to action heroes (Ben 10) or overly-weird concepts (Uncle Grandpa), but all I ask is for one cartoon show that offers three or more individual segments to swap between. It'll keep your audience interested and give the production team a lot more to work with.

After all, "Variety is the spice of life."

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Revivals - The Why and the How

You know, it's pretty amazing how many TV Shows are being revived nowadays, a vast quantity being animated shows of yesteryear. Whether as a new series entirely or, if the producers are daring enough, a feature-length adventure to enhance a new generation.

However, the vast amount of characters past being dug up these days is staggeringly high, many of these being British or American properties. And every time the same old questions and belly-aching are brought up also;

"Will it be exactly like the old series?"
"Will INSERT NAME / COMPANY be involved?"
"Ahh, not another one! It'll be lame! It'll suck!"
"Does nobody have any original ideas anymore?!"

To be honest, so many classic shows are being revived nowadays that there really is no point for me alone to argue or whine online just like everybody else. There are some revivals that, if it gets my attention, I may watch and draw my own conclusions. But for any others, I'll chose not to watch and pretend that they never happened. And for that, I am happier.
So why do particular studios choose to adapt / revive a children's book or cartoon character? And why do long-time fans sometimes have a good moan of it?

For a long, long time, I've been trying to figure this out. And while it's not perfect, I believe that my theories may be part of the answer.

First off, let's look at the argument reg; original ideas in Hollywood. People complain that there is not enough originality in movies or television (scriptwriting clich├ęs aside) and when a different concept with wholly new characters does pop up, they still complain and remain suspicious even before they've seen one trailer or draw up speculations from a lone piece of concept art.

Most of the time, those who do complain of new shows usually repeat similar arguments;

"Why can't cartoons be more like Tex Avery or Chuck Jones?"
"The style of this show reminds me of Ren and Stimpy…"
"Why can't they do more shows like THIS or THAT?"

The fact is, as is the way of human nature, many of us despise change when we're comfortable with how things currently stand - whether seeing new characters take over or watching old friends going through "different phases".

This leads into my Second point - why many prefer older content than new. Some studies show that Nostalgia plays an important part in our lives. Remembering happier times helps to "increase self-esteem, strengthen social bonds and to imbue life with meaning".

This is how events like Comic Con come into play, to allow other nostalgic fans to share their memories with one another. So depending what year you may have been born in, you will remember specific shows from that particular time of your childhood, what you loved about them and how you wouldn't want to see them in any other shape or form.

Others learn the phrase "respecting the past to make the future". This, drawing key elements from particular shows for their own creations. It could be a type of visual style or how a writer structures a plot or joke. Craig McCracken's newest hit for Disney, Wander Over Yonder, draws a lot of elements from the original Looney Tunes in terms of look, feel and storytelling, whilst also embracing the technology readily available to make something amazing and new.

And now the Third reason - why revivals actually happen.

Many companies realise that Nostalgia is, above all else, a goldmine for profit. It's all down to the longevity and popularity of particular characters that makes the world cry out for "more, more, more!"

When one company buys up another that contains nostalgic characters or properties, they're more than free to do what they want with them. Putting the original shows to DVD is one thing…but it's well aware to one and all that if "new" shows were added, it would mean more merchandise to sell, drawing in a whole new audience.

Such is the case when Dreamworks bought up Classic Media a few years back, whose library contains many UK and US properties of old, and how Star Wars was bought out by Disney - both have already made use of their newly-acquired franchises since.

But "with great power comes great responsibility". And sadly, not all revivals work out exactly as we would like. In many cases, as often enough, the wrong decisions are made where some people try too hard to make them more "contemporary" for today's audience - yes, even changing up to CGI animation - or they just go for a full-out "re-imagining", for better or worse.

"George of the Jungle" (2007) and "The Mr. Men Show" (2008) are some examples where too many changes don't always work out. Both shows received radical revamps in art styles while the scriptwriters tried to "reinvent" them to a new audience by nearly abandoning the original source material with (they assume) the type of humour the current viewing audience might like. Farts, snot, etcetera.
However, in case of the Mr. Men Show, at least Renegade Animation tried to make amends in Season 2 with subtle changes relating to feedback from Season 1 - such as bringing Mr. Pernickety much closer to his original persona, Mr. Fussy.

Then of course there are various properties that are more famous for their quantity than their quality - franchises that have been continuing for decades and which try to adapt or "reinvent" themselves to keep up with the times. Some have hit a few rough patches yet manage to improve themselves with time and patience...and proper understanding behind the scenes.

These didn't quite turn out well...
Warner Bros, though, is a different story. Their main long-running properties to date have been Scooby-Doo, Tom and Jerry, Batman and the Looney Tunes - and many of their attempts to keep each franchise fresh with numerous reboots and direct-to-DVD movies have been a very mixed bag. Most companies would allow five to ten years to try reviving a particular franchise - but these days, it's usually shortened from three to five years! Again, more "new" episodes mean more DVDs mean more money...

…but I'm beginning to ramble, so let's get back on topic.

The point is revivals are happening left, right and sideways, and older fans will always be drawn either out of curiosity or pure joy to see an old friend. And at the same time, many will still remain sceptical and will cover up any optimism by moaning.
So yes, there will be a new Danger Mouse series, with the merest possibility that certain characters MAY receive a sex change, and there will be a new Powerpuff Girls show without Craig McCracken involved. And no amount of angry mobbing will stop either from happening.

...unless by chance, some proposed revivals are canned, shelved or quietly fall by the wayside.

But is there a way to handle all this? How can fans accept the reality that revivals of their favourite childhood shows won't be exactly as they remember them?

The obvious answer would be not to watch them. But there is another way...

It was round about the time when Paul Rudish's hugely popular "Mickey Mouse Shorts" first came out and, out of curiosity, I asked one of my favourite cartoonists, Andrew Dickman, his opinion on them. I think that everyone should try and pay attention to the following text. It may help you manage in the future as it's the type of advice that we often forget about;

"If my thoughts on how different takes and styles on a previously established franchise didn’t hit the nail on the head before, THIS SHOULD.
For years, I always thought that Disney cartoon characters were being led the wrong way, same with Looney Tunes, and Looney Tunes have always been different depending on the director and the artists working on them. So why not Mickey Mouse and etc?
These are great because they bring a new take on Mickey, made by different artists and styles and they WORK because they bring new personalities to the established characters that have different takes to make them WORK.
What we always neglect is that things do change, it’s good to have the old ideas and looks, but it’s also good to take them in different directions, and we should never forget that IT’S OKAY TO HAVE AN ALTERNATE. Because for one, we’ll always have the old stuff to look at and enjoy, but the new ideas aren’t canon either. It’s not like we’re getting a permanent staple, otherwise it’ll grow stale and slowly uninteresting. We can have Adam West Batman, Movie Batman, Cartoon Batman, Silly Crazy cartoon Batman etc etc and they are ALL their own entities. To stay with one formula makes it stale and limited. Let’s not be closed minded to our own wants and “needs”
So we can have classic Mickey, we can have modern Mickey and we can have silly crazy Mickey! I love it! They are their own entities, so let ‘em have it."

LINKS OF INTEREST (or alternative views):
Icon Reboots are freaks of nature
These revivals could lead to Zombie Takeover
Kids React To Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1987)

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Snails of Animation!

Before Dreamworks even came up with Turbo, snails haven't really made much of an impact in the animation world with so few being pushed as lead characters. But many have featured in secondary roles - Timon and Pumbaa made friends with "Speedy" (whose mannerisms were inspired by Bing Crosby), Mr. Harrison was one of the stars of 'Creepy Crawlies', Spongebob has his pet sea snail Gary, and of course there is that one little snail hidden in every episode of Adventure Time.

However, it's still a rare treat when a series based around this particular mollusc does turn up. In fact, there have been a few such cases that I remember well;

Snailympics, a Spanish / Canadian 2001 series, was based around a group of athletic snails training for their own tiny versions of the Olympic Games. Very little of this series can be found anywhere as it only had limited airings on YTV and Nick Jr / CBBC respectively, with regular airings overseas such as Japan. But from what I have seen of the show here and there, I found it quite amusing in terms of the premise and the fun character designs of this stop-motion animated show. And as with most shows centring on sports, it also encouraged kids the values of teamwork, perseverance and the importance of exercise.

Almost around the same time at 2003 came Snailsbury Tales from Maverick Entertainment. It focused on the odd goings-on of the residents of Snailsbury, from the pompous Mayor to skateboarding teen Eric. I found this show much more memorable as, being perfectly British, it had its own bizarre sense of humour - for instance, how it would take everyone from a week to 10 days to travel to the shops and back!
And the series itself did its creators very well, topping even Bob the Builder at the time it first aired. Mercifully, several of the best episodes survive today with two "rare" DVD releases floating somewhere in cyberspace...

And then in 2011, voice-actor and scriptwriter Tim Dann created Compost Corner for CITV. Continuing the mad British-type humour for kids, it's a series of short "skits" featuring old Major and young Moss as they embark on the impossible in their little home at the corner of a garden. While it features some brief "potty" humour for today's generation (farts, etc), the stylish models by Mackinnon and Saunders and the rapid-fire scripts have made it a memorable little series.
In fact, it gained additional attention in 2013 when it gave viewers the chance to design a third character to feature in the show - you can find out the results here!

There are very likely a few other snail-related characters I may have left out, but with Dreamworks pushing Turbo into the forefront with the attached-TV Series "Turbo FAST", would we see more snails putting their best foot forward? If so, then it could take a while at the pace they go...


Thursday, 10 July 2014

Little Robots (2003)

It is no stranger to all in the media biz that these days, any series or movie that features a "big time celebrity" is instantly branded a hit - when in truth, it is partly used as a marketing ploy in order to get the public's attention to what the producers hope will be the next best thing.
That all depends on the quality of the show or the performance of the celebrity (or more importantly, if said celebrities are chosen because they fit the character rather than how important they are). If neither manages to hold up then the efforts of the production team involved will be for none.

However, this show, from what I have seen, succeeds in both categories...

As with many kid's shows, Little Robots started out life as a children's book written and illustrated by Mike Brownlow way back in 1999. It's a cute little read full of rhymes about various types of robots - spotty ones, messy ones, noisy ones of all colours and shapes and sizes. And it caught the eye of Cosgrove Hall / Create TV & Film Ltd at some point, who brought Mike on to adapt his little book as an animated series, which involved designing and defining a full cast based on the many robots he drew.

The series focused on 12 little robots, who create their own special world beneath a scrapyard, proving that it's not just the Wombles who can recycle junk! Next to the fun scripts and the colourful stop-motion models crafted by Mackinnon and Saunders, the cast list is just as impressive - and it's helped greatly that each have a comedy or acting background to boot;

  • Tiny, the helpful little mechanic, was played by Hayley Carmichael (co-founder of theatrical company Told By An Idiot), who lives in the Nut and Bolt tree with his dog Messy
  • Lenny Henry played Sporty, a fitness fanatic
  • The grumpy but organised Stretchy was played by long-standing writer and voice actor Jimmy Hibbert (of Cosgrove Hall fame)
  • Rusty, the shy little lass, was played just adorably by Morwenna Banks (who these days is kept very busy playing 'Mummy Pig' for Peppa Pig)
  • The gentle giant Stripy, who is never without his Teddy, was played by Martin Clunes (who is best remembered for his work on Men Behaving Badly and Doc Martin)
  • Su Pollard (Penny Crayon, Hi-De-Hi!) fits into her role very nicely as questions asked!
  • The (literally) well-rounded Spotty was performed by Emma Chambers. Very different to her role as the naive Alice Tinker from The Vicar Of Dibley!
  • Comedian Mike Hayley played one of my favourite characters - the theatrical Scary, with a touch of Donald Sinden involved...and like Tiny, he has his own companion in the form of Flappy the Bat
  • The Sparky Twins were played by comedian duo Mel and Sue (Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins respectively) Mel has also lent her voice for Mist: Sheepdog Tales and is currently the presenter for the 4 0'Clock Show for BBC Radio 4 Extra, whilst Sue became recognised for her work presenting The Great British Bake Off.

As I've said before, unless celebrities involved in any production don't fit their characters at all (or at least perform them well) then the show or movie will very likely flop. As it is, for this series, each and every one played their parts just beautifully. With so many characters to play off from, each with their own distinctive personalities, it allowed the writers to come up with many clever episodes, enough to teach the kids a subtle moral while also giving their parents something to giggle at, too.

And it has since paid off - the series became more recognised when it was broadcast overseas via BBC Worldwide, and the characters have even taken part in Peter Kay's All-Star Animated Band for Children in Need.

All four seasons can still be watched today on the cBeebies digital channel - proving how an electrifying series like this can make proper, careful decisions when casting celebrities into their ideal roles. It helps as well that pre-school shows such as these don't have to be Dora the Explorer clones to keep kids amused ;-)