Friday, 13 January 2017

Bottersnikes and Gumbles (2016)

To a lot of people, in this day and age, most animated shows are starting to look and sound the same. But if you look hard enough, there are at least a few somewhere that are completely different from the rest. Better still if one such series is based from something almost totally obscure and unheard of, and achieving success as a result of it. - sort of like what Marvel have done with Guardians of the Galaxy.

Here is such an example...

Way back in the late 1960's, Sydney Alexander (S. A. ) Wakefield wrote a series of books that would become a classic in Australian literature. The first of these told of the ridiculous but funny adventures of the Bottersnikes and Gumbles (1967), two races of fictional creatures that live deep in the Australian Outback.

Bottersnikes are fat long-tailed things with scaly skin, cheese-grater noses and pointed ears which turn red when they become angry. They shrink when they get wet, live on a diet of mattress stuffing and make their homes in rubbish heaps because they are too lazy to bother about digging or building homes of their own. But that's not a problem when there are Gumbles about.

Gumbles are the happiest, cleverest, friendliest creatures in the bush. They're also rather rubbery, meaning they can be squashed into any shape without being harmed. And because they are much smaller, it makes it easy for the Bottersnikes to catch any Gumbles close by, squash them into tins and only take them out when there is work to be done. So the Gumbles need plenty of resource to avoid being captured or to escape when possible, while also trying to have fun out in the bush.

Wakefield only wrote four books about the Bottersnikes and Gumbles, but they are still fondly remembered today; not just because of the imagination of the stories and characters, but because both creatures represent the opposing attitudes towards the environment. The 'snikes hate trees, animals and plants; so much so they once attempted a 'Dump Development Scheme' to turn the outback into one giant rubbish heap. Whereas the Gumbles are always willing to help an animal in trouble, and always put their rubbish in bins, or at least find a proper use for whatever they may find whilst "gumbling".
In short, these four books were almost the Australian equivalent of The Wombles. And like the original Womble books (in addition to the environmental message), they each have a self-contained ongoing storyline throughout each of them;

  • Gumbles on Guard (1975) sees the Gumbles volunteering to guard a lyrebird's nest from a fox;
  • Gumbles in Summer (1979) tells how the Bottersnikes try to replace their vulgar King, first by attempted poisoning then by a very odd election;
  • Gumbles in Trouble (1989) involves the Gumbles becoming trapped in a barn with the Bottersnikes, which also sees a rather odd newspaper created by the 'snikes themselves...

An omnibus volume would later be printed in 1993 (and again in 2016) as The Complete Tales of Bottersnikes and Gumbles - which is far from "complete" as it only contains selected stories from each of the four books above.

But even so, it's great to see characters like these being reprinted again for a new generation to enjoy, or for older fans to rediscover. All of which still contain the original illustrations as drawn by Desmond Digby - which would become very useful several years down the line as inspiration.

In 2012, development on an animated series based on the books had begun, which took the combined efforts and talent of up to four animation / media companies - Cheeky Little MediaCAKE Entertainment, Kickstart and Mighty But Nice. Quite a lot for one series alone, but it all paid off when the show was eventually released; first on Netflix in 2015, before being broadcast in 2016 on CBBC in the UK and 7TWO in Australia.

And from what I've seen of it so far, it hasn't disappointed!

The animation truly looks stunning - from the 2D-animated opening sequence to the energy and detail put into the CGI, which involves a lot of lovely squash-and-stretch from the Gumbles. Of course, even though both the 'snikes and Gumbles each have individual, quirky characters, the original illustrations showed them all looking very similar, as also shown in this early pilot from 2013. So big thumbs up to the animation team in designing them to appear different from one another, while also respecting Digby's style at the same time.

And because the series is aimed at 6 to 9 year olds, as one might expect, there is toilet humour involved - aka; snot and fart jokes. But don't be alarmed; these jokes are used sparingly, for the episodes concentrate more on the characters to tell a story. Most of what has been aired in the UK so far seem to have grasped feel of Wakefield's own stories, especially in the absurdity department - right down to the use of wordplay for either 'Gumbling Games' or 'Sniketraps'.

But my favourite area of this series is the voice acting - or to be more specific, the British-Australian cast. Oh Grasshoppers, what a voice cast they chose! They all sound brilliant and true to the characters they play; nothing feels forced or over the top. With a blend of young actors - Akiya Henry, Jason Callender, Kathryn Drysdale - and old - Miriam Margolyes, Jeff Rawle, Richard Grieve - their combined performance had me grinning halfway through the first episode. Not surprisingly, the cast members playing the 'snikes have been particular favourites...!

It is quite rare to see an animated series aimed at kids nail all three areas with such impeccable quality: solid writing, a strong cast and stunning animation. But it was thanks to this which prompted me to buy and read the omnibus book from Amazon - although as I mentioned earlier, it would be better still if all four original books would be republished and enjoyed in their eternity.

In a time when we're all in need of a good laugh, this series is just what we need - it's unashamedly silly, just as the original books had been. Everyone else seems to think so, too, as it nabbed quite a number of TV awards last year. And I dearly hope it continues to do well, going by the amount of care and attention from everyone involved in its making. All in the name of ridiculousness!