The Weird History of Films that became Cartoons (Part One)
Adaptations are hard work. Ensuring a story still works when translated to another medium is often just as daunting as creating a new narrative. However, some films can make the conversion look easy, thanks to naturally-high concepts and pacey action. One of the stranger outcomes of a film’s popularity is the animated spinoff. Whether it’s a re-telling or continuation of the story, many films have lived on within the smaller screen.
The concept of a ‘Saturday Morning Cartoon’ never really took off here in the UK, but the industry was huge over in the states to the point where it managed to singularly keep Disney afloat during a dry theatrical period. From Recess to Goof Troop, cartoons were a hot commodity that paid for themselves if they targeted the right audience; it only makes sense for companies and producers to want in on the action.
In the modern TV landscape cartoons have transcended the common ‘just for kids’ mindset thanks to series like Adventure Time and Steven Universe, but it’s interesting to see that the genesis of such high quality goes back decades. Whilst many of the choices were obviously made for monetary gain only, there’s a few hidden gems amongst the sea of mediocrity. It was a different time too, and I thought I’d take us through some of the peaks and valley of the Saturday morning entertainment, and how some of the most unlikely films became kids’ fodder for the weekend.
I’ve watched at least an episode of each of these whilst researching this, and some of them are…wow, awful. Others were a joy to revisit.
The Transition from the 1960s to the 1970s
So I’m cheating a little bit with this first one. The opening/closing credits of the 1963 Peter Sellers film The Pink Panther featured a 2D animated literal pink panther that eluded the buffoonish Inspector. The short segment of the otherwise live-action film was lauded for its Looney Tunes-style slapstick, and thus The Pink Panther Show was born in 1969. Created by David H. DePatie and Friz Freleng, the show enjoyed enormous success much like similar theatrical short peers like Tom & Jerry. Whilst its connection to the original feature is only tenuous at best, the shorts themselves are still wonderful feats of imagination and comedy, and the character in its cartoon film was still in constant use up until as recently as 2011.
The 70s soon ushered in a change. Syndicated TV cartoons were often hampered by small budgetary restrictions, and the very reason shorts like The Pink Panther Show were lauded was due to their individuality and loosened rules whilst other formulaic shows such as the 1967 Spider-Man cartoon were forced to repeat and reuse various scenes, backgrounds and characters. This was also partly because children’s entertainment wasn’t deemed important enough for such quality control. Then, of all places, Star Trek: The Animated Series premiered in 1973 as a continuation of the much-loved Enterprise crew. Despite its colourful presentation, the cast and writing remained intact. The series told thought-provoking and occasionally hardcore science fiction stories that felt oddly mature for a cartoon. This bolstered interest in the animated adventures of a more-mature world, and soon Return to the Planet of the Apes was commissioned for a Saturday Morning slot.
Following the mythology of the film series and ignoring the previous live-action TV show, Return was heavy with Vietnam symbolism and comments on the notion of humanity and its relationship with war. It was stylistically similar to Star Trek, with vividly detailed backgrounds that stood out despite a limited animation budget. It’s an odd experience, to say the least. The story is strangely enticing and mature, so it wasn’t a surprise that the series wasn’t a hit. Despite ending on a cliff-hanger, the series was cancelled after 13 episodes, and instead the focus reverted back to the child-friendly antics of an easily marketable mascot. Would giant monsters do?
Forever linked arm in arm, both King Kong and Godzilla were given a cartoon makeover throughout the late 60s/early 70s. Whilst the 8th wonder of the world’s crashed and burned, Hanna-Barbera’s attempt at Toho’s kaiju took aspects of the franchise and morphed them into family-friendly entertainment. Not only was Godzilla now helpful, but he had a ‘cowardly nephew’ named Godzuki that kept on running into trouble and showing off for the kiddies. What a scamp he was. He was the equivalent of Scrappy-Doo. Just take a look and see how much the tone shifts in the title sequence alone…
Setting the Rules
Picking and Choosing the Right IPs
Very quickly, a formula started to take place on our screens. The norms of successful cartoon shows had become apparent, and it seemed as though many of these adaptations now followed a strict set of rules. First of all, the actual cast of the film’s themselves would never take part, and instead be replaced by soundalikes (though there are exceptions), preferably some kind of moral or historical lesson would be shoehorned into the character’s dynamic/plotlines and lastly, it needed to be bright and colourful and easily advertised. Marketing and merchandising took precedence over everything else, and a pre-established intellectual property offered up the perfect starting point as audiences would already be familiar with the world and the characters inside it. Speaking of which…
The Star Wars Ewoks and Droids Adventure Hour featured two concurrently-airing cartoons, one following C-3PO and R2D2 before the events of A New Hope and one featuring the ewoks of Endor after two successful live-action made-for-television movie spinoffs of George Lucas’ attention-grabbing trilogy. Whilst Droids placed emphasis on the comedic duo and the benefit of having Anthony Daniels reprise his role of C-3PO, the titular two were hardly protagonist material. Therefore, the show put more emphasis on their fleeting different masters as they’re taken through the galaxy facing off against gangsters, the empire and even Boba Fett.
Ewoks was a different story. After the intelligent and sophisticated storytelling of the initial season was proven to be unpopular with young kids, the show’s entire structure and appearance was given a complete overhaul. Instead of the scrappy, tribe-like relationships they had had before the ewoks were now discount care bears with quippy nicknames that dictated what their defining characteristics were like an offshoot of the seven dwarves. It’s a prime example of a studio attempting to appease a younger audience by stripping quality away.
What’s more interesting however is that due to the association with Star Wars, both series immediately took on a cult-like fandom that encompassed thousands of older viewers. Those same viewers would continue to purchase the show’s merchandise as it was an extension of a galaxy far, far away, and thus an interesting cause and effect came into play. It’s arguably even stronger years later, where the shows are now able to be re-released in special collector’s editions and sold to fools like me looking for an extra fix or for completion’s sake.
It just so happened that the 80s were rife with brilliant IPs to connect to. 1986’s The Real Ghostbusters faced a small challenge thanks to a previous cartoon stealing its desired title, but other than that the show enjoyed great success and a wealth of merchandise. And it was actually good, which helped a lot. That didn’t mean it was completely faithful, however. Slimer, a ghost that had proven to be a hit from the film despite his limited screen time, was bumped up to a sidekick role for the team. The episodes themselves drew heavily on the iconography of Ivan Reitman and Dan Aykroyd’s film too – the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man appears in multiple episodes, and various characters from the world stop by for appearances.
Other shows struggled without such high concepts, and Teen Wolf (based on the brilliant Michael J. Fox film) had to change elements of the film in order to tell stories. For example, in the series Scott desperately tries to hide the fact he’s a werewolf from everyone in town, yet in the film he’s adored for it and flaunts it from the halfway mark. There’s some strangely interesting comments on race in the show, as Scott continuously fights the oppression that ‘his people’ (that’s erm…werewolves, I guess) have suffered throughout history. Whilst it’s nice that the show strived for a different message at the time it’s hidden deep within a fairly generic and soft-edged kids cartoon that fails to leave much of an impression.
At some point in the mid-80s, the US began to fall victim to a small renaissance of war propaganda in its cartoons. The war against drugs inspired countless after-school specials featuring groups of characters crossing over in a kid’s wet dream, whilst the old-fashioned GI Joe-like patriotism bled onto the battlefield. For some reason, everything was becoming an acronym too because…well, I guess acronyms were cool. Saturday mornings needed a new face. One that could abolish evil and protect their sacred country from the scoundrels that threaten her. That’s right terrorists, your days were through! Oh, and you can put down that marijuana cigarette too! Don’t you know drugs aren’t hip? Just look at blood-soaked Sylvester Stallone as PTSD-suffering veteran John Rambo! Look at those abs! Do you think he got them by smoking all the drugs? Of course he didn’t!
And thus, an energy-saving lightbulb went off above the executives’ heads. Rambo: The Force of Freedom was the first children’s cartoon based off of an R-rated property. The intense worries about cartoon violence wouldn’t happen for a few years yet, so the show was free to blissfully animate a gleaming machete in its opening intro. But for what it’s worth, Rambo was actually quite good. It managed to fit in without side-lining some of the serious parts of David Morrell’s character amidst having him fight strange mutant monsters and punch helicopters to death. I never really got into GI Joe but Rambo was a pretty good dose of silly and serious.
Rambo kickstarted an interesting trend in the adaptation of intellectual properties. If a great concept stood up on its own, then it didn’t matter if the source material was R-rated, it could still become a great cartoon. Hell, Robocop followed soon after, and both series had toy advertisements plastered all over the airwaves. It frankly surprises me that we never got a Terminator cartoon (well…the less said about the Machinima series the better) because murderous robots from the future would DEFINITELY be on 8-year-old me’s wish list.
It was a new, explosion-filled age everything else tried to keep up. A cartoon adaptation of The Karate Kid tried to mimic this action-led style when we all know it would have been better suited to a mystical anime show. Thus, it fell into obscurity after a single 13-episode run because it wasn’t able to compete.
But another change was coming. The golden age was soon here. Filmmaker Tim Burton decided to turn his 1988 masterpiece Beetlejuice into a cartoon, maintaining a strict rule of sticking to the film’s playfully dark, Gothic tone. In 1989 the show debuted. And it was glorious. The warping, expressive and fluent animation style blended perfectly with the worlds that Beetlejuice and Lydia Deets traveled in and out of. Danny Elfman reworked his film score as the show’s theme too, and it brings a tear to my eye even now.
Warner Bros. had unknowingly helped usher in a higher quality of spinoff. The animation felt free of the limitations that plagued other projects, and the colour palette was more sinister and expressive. At the start of a new decade we had Burton’s demented example leading the way, and many of those who followed suit would benefit from being risk takers.
Of course, that’s for next week. I’ll be going through the entire feast of 90s cartoon adaptations, including the Jim Carrey trilogy that conquered my childhood. It also means I get to talk about my favourite cartoon adaptation of all time, so I’m quite excited.
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this or have any writing opportunities feel free to get in contact over at firstname.lastname@example.org
You can also find me on Twitter over at @ManicMorris where I mostly…well…I just tweet, mostly.
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