The Weird History Of Films That Became Cartoons (Part Two)
Updated: May 15, 2020
This is part two of a three-part analysis/lazy history lesson on cartoon programmes that have been spawned off of popular feature films. Click here to read part one, in which we discussed the inception of the format and the quality going into the 90s.
Bright Colours and Morals Above All Else
After Tim Burton and Warner Bros. Television blessed us with the Beetlejuice cartoon, the very notion of a children’s cartoon seemed to shift. The Simpsons dominated over on Fox, and became an instant classic with audiences of all ages thanks to smart writing and razor-sharp wit. This is what the medium was building to, but unfortunately some production companies didn’t get the memo.
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventures was the first adaptation of the 90s to already feel somewhat dated. Based on the 1989 film of the same name, Hanna-Barbera produced a Saturday morning cartoon on the two teenage rockers who are sent back in time by Rufus, an all-knowing traveller from the future. It’s another high-concept rush job for the most part, though Barbera’s typical animation style is always a sight for sore eyes. The first season of the show even had the balls to bring back the main cast, including Keanu Reeves, Alex Winter and George Carlin as Ted, Bill, and Rufus respectfully. Unfortunately they were all replaced after the initial season, and as production on Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey wrapped up, such effort was moved to a live-action kid’s show instead – one that expanded on the initial time-travel premise and allowed the duo to travel in and out of famous works of art and fiction too. US network CBS snatched up all the properties they thought could help expand young minds, as noted with our next example…
Another classic 80s time-travel property. Back to the Future had just rounded off its trilogy with a western adventure that saw Doc. (Christopher Lloyd) jet off in a steam train time machine. Instead of focusing on that, the series takes more of a ‘what if’ continuation and ponders over a future in which Doc and his wife Clara have a family – whilst of course still getting into shenanigans with Marty McFly. Unlike Bill & Ted however, the cast didn’t stick around for their animated counterparts (except for Thomas F. Wilson’s Biff), though interestingly enough Christopher Lloyd reprises his role in live-action segments across each episode where he introduces and demonstrates a different scientific experiment with the help of Bill Nye.
The presence of Doc’s two kids Verne and Jules, one a scientist like himself and the other a cheeky jock, often feels strangely forced when Marty would have done just as well. But as an entry-point for young audience members it makes sense, especially considering the ‘schooling effect’ of each episode. As I wrote last week networks were always interested in educating during their programming, whether that be intellectually or morally and Back to the Future often toyed the line between both on CBS. It was cancelled after two seasons due to low ratings in 1992 but was the project that started Universal Animation Studios – and this isn’t the last we’ll be hearing of them!
Taking a note from Universal’s book, other distributors jumped at the chance to turn their family-friendly feature hits into syndicated cartoons. Short-lived series’ like Beethoven and Free Willy took the quickfire approach of tailoring the source material to fit this new format. Free Willy was now about Jesse and Willy doing battle with an evil cyborg man who blames Willy for the accident that made him half machine. Yes, really. All the while it managed to continue (albeit to a lesser extent) the conservationist message of the film.
In a stark contrast to something like Beetlejuice, all of these leftovers featured similar colour-palettes and animation styles with muted highlights and rigid character designs that filled the void between realistic and cartoonish. It didn’t help that many of these shows were taken from films with basic human characters. No matter how high the concept was, the base protagonist and cast were all varying forms of person. Occasionally the studios would shoehorn in a comedic anthropomorphic sidekick for good measure and marketability, but it lacked the creative freedom source material like Beetlejuice had to inspire such lucid and fluid animation. Of course, it’s also a time where the ‘cartoonification’ of adult-themed films was more present. But those times would soon return…
Too Much of a Good Thing
The Disney Renaissance Effect and Synergy
Elsewhere in the feature-film world, Walt Disney Pictures had begun to experience a comeback. Thanks to the success of The Little Mermaid in 1989 we were now in what would later be called ‘The Disney Renaissance’ – a time in which Disney produced their most commercially (and critically) successful films since the early 70s. Aladdin, The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Mulan, all of these films dominated the 90s animation scene and immediately went down as classics. For the first time in a while the company was sitting comfortably in the green and recapturing the imagination of families everywhere – and they needed to ensure they stayed comfy for the future. It seems weird to think about now, considering Disney has monopolised the entire entertainment industry, but this was really a make it or break it moment for them. It made sense from a commercial viewpoint to franchise everything that became a hit…so that’s just what they did.
The formula was flawless. Disney’s theatrical output had hits which often became synonymous with their musical soundtracks – they already had theme songs for the shows. They already had art styles too (though of course the TV budget meant a more limited quality of animation and colour without the depth). The broad range of characters also meant for a wide variety of offerings, mostly adhering to either the comedic or adventure genres. It was a case of picking and choosing. Timon and Pumbaa from The Lion King were given their own show for their wacky adventures across the globe.
Disney also saw this as an opportunity to strengthen their hold on cable TV with the Disney Channel, and franchised their old intellectual properties, mining them for gold. It’s most likely nostalgia as these were the shows I grew up with but it didn’t feel cynical at the time. 101 Dalmatians, The Mighty Ducks (kinda) and Hercules continued the storylines of their feature-films, and The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh still manages to bring a smile to my cold heart to this day.
Some were less-inspired, of course. It’s important to remember at this time rivalry from Cartoon Network and the emergence of Nickelodeon meant that Disney had to diversify their output. Hits for other stations like Dexter’s Laboratory, Rugrats and The Angry Beavers featured characters and ideas that might have felt out-of-place for a Disney property. Side note: I will also not be talking about the various comic-book adaptations in these explorations because they’re not strictly based on films, that’s for another time.
Spinoffs were instead the way to go it seems. The bumbling sidekicks from The Hunchback of Notre Dame were expanded upon to a full universe in order to create the awesome (and surprisingly dark) Gargoyles. It’s not difficult to see that the house of mouse wanted some of that sweet Batman action. Elsewhere films like The Jungle Book were spun-off multiple times. Talespin featured Baloo the bear and other characters incorporated to a 1930s-style aerial war with planes, helicopters and more engines than you could shake a fist at. It was a…weird choice but made for a cool bit of experimentation. Unfortunately, at the same time there were also shows like Jungle Cubs which just asked ‘what if the characters were friends when they were younger?!’.
What’s interesting about Disney’s home-releases of these shows however, was that they mostly featured exclusive, newly-animated wraparound segments that strengthened ties to the source material. Growing up I had a couple of Jungle Cubs videos and they features Mowgli the human, as an adult alongside his brethren from The Jungle Book introducing the episodes themselves. This practice soon became commonplace to create a synergy between the different texts, and Disney often merged their network productions with their features for some direct-to-video release sequels. The Aladdin TV show was crafted by the same team as The Return of Jafar – a straight-to-video sequel and allowed them to bookend the series with the feature-length Aladdin & The King of Thieves. This entire practice soon became the norm for the company, and wouldn’t end until midway through the 2000s.
Out of Place
Relics and Experimentations
The scramble for intellectual properties was much like a group of vultures plucking at the corpses of franchises which they could somehow warp into kid-friendly entertainment. Every now and then though, before the creative boom of the late 90s, there were glimmers of hope and entertainment. A show so dumbfoundedly strange that went against the grain you’d wonder how it got greenlit. Cue Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. Not only was this cartoon based off an obscure B-movie franchise that many wouldn’t discover and adore until the rise of the internet, but it also actively went against one of the core lessons present in so many of these shows – that fruit/vegetables were your friends. Here they weren’t. They were evil and wouldn’t hesitate to ruin your day. Hell, they’d even disguise themselves as attractive, scantily-clad women in order to lure you into their traps!
In the wake of He-Man and The Masters of the Universe, many shows attempted to recreate the fantasy genre with such aplomb that they’d inspire merchandise for the next thousand years. Rather than making up a world, why not just adapt one? Gaumont Multimedia resisted the Conan: The Adventurer pitfall and instead chose to go for Highlander, the Christopher Lambert/Sean Connery 1986 action fantasy film. Good choice. With some dense mythology it could have made for a really interesting extension, set in the 27th century and following the exploits of the ancient warriors. However, it was unfortunately too tied-up in adhering to its young audience to become anything more than a colourful distraction.
Taking a leap from Disney, Don Bluth’s 1989 film All Dogs Go To Heaven managed to spawn a Bluth-less sequel in 1996, and then that in itself spawned an animated series. The series followed the basic premise of dogs Charlie and Itchy who have returned to Earth as angels from dog heaven, to help other canines accept their passing whilst having wacky adventures. Much like all of Bluth’s work, the premise itself is rather downbeat and existential, but the show always managed to find a nice midway point between comedy and tragedy. It’s another one of the shows that I grew up with, and MGM even managed to cap the series off with a feature length version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
The Jim Carrey Variety Hour
In 1994 Jim Carrey exploded and took over the world. After starring as a number of madcap characters on the sketch show In Living Colour he transitioned to a certified leading man thanks to a trio of hits that stormed the box office months between each other. Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Dumb & Dumber and The Mask were all released in the same year, and each was a huge hit. Not only did Carrey as an actor become the most wanted man in Hollywood, but his projects became a market’s wet dream. All three spawned their own animated counterparts (none with the involvement of Carrey, of course) and experienced their own degrees of success.
Hanna-Barbera’s adaptation of Dumb & Dumber just didn’t work. It exaggerated the characters’ appearances and actions to a grotesque proportion, and the title sequence took heavy influence from David Feiss’ previous works including Cow & Chicken. The Farrelly Brothers’ film worked due to its dependence on gross-out humour that, when combined with the duo’s idiocy resulted in a barrage of laughs. Without being able to be necessarily gross, the show ended up being a lame cash-grab that was a lesser-version of other shows at the time. It also gave them a pet beaver, for some reason. Because that’s funny. Right?
Although The Mask was based on the batshit insane and violent comic of the same name, The Mask: The Animated Series was in fact a pure sequel to the family-friendly Jim Carrey film. Still produced by Dark Horse (the company responsible for the original dark comic), the series featured Stanley Ipkiss and his masked alter-ego taking on a number of fantastical jobs whilst also attempting to keep the magical mask out of the hands of evildoers. It took huge inspiration from Beetlejuice by picking and choosing certain elements from the film to keep. Although it’s based in reality, the zaniness of the Mask himself allowed the show to play with a Tex Avery-style, much like Looney Tunes or Animaniacs. The series was a success and even lead to a limited run comic-series of its own (obviously with less violence and…sexual deviance).
Finally came Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. More of a straight adaptation than the other two, Morgan Creek Productions leaned into the comedic aesthetics of the existing film, and the series incorporated and piggybacked off the sequel When Nature Calls that was released shortly before the series. For example, Ace’s sidekick monkey Spike became his sidekick for the TV show, and many of the characters return from both. Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane was one of the show’s writers too, alongside his work for Johnny Bravo and Dexter’s Laboratory occasionally. Ace Ventura was actually a strangely good fit for his comedic sensibilities, as it often walked a very fine line between garish toilet humour and anachronisms. Both this and The Mask were aired in an hour-long block, and the two even had a cross-over event at the end of Ace’s second season and The Mask’s final season. Despite airing for three seasons and even spawning a PC game, viewership was never very high for the show. Despite this, both The Mask: The Animated Series and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective have become small cult hits among Carrey fans for their reliability to the source material and comedic value.
‘Oh don’t worry, we know what we’re doing’
During the latter half of the 90s, children’s cartoon adaptations seemed to finally accept the oddities that Burton had introduced almost a decade later. Thus, the style of many shows became darker to fit into the more downbeat aesthetic of the modern zeitgeist, where possible at least. Characters became more angular, and more time was taken during the animation process (especially in title sequences). In particular, Adelaide Productions (a subsidiary of Columbia Tristar) nailed the new tone for kids cartoons during this period. Their shows weren’t afraid of the dark, and often incorporated transformative monsters and themes that many animated series’ in the future would be praised for. Five of them in particular are amazing.
90s Blockbusters had also become more violent, prompting adaptations to follow suit. It wasn’t uncommon for the only difference between an R-rated film and a PG-13 one to be the presence of blood, and therefore many cartoons were free to load up on as many guns and gadgets as possible. I’m going to get this out the way now – this whole period was my jam. What worked has stayed with me even now, and this period includes some of my favourite cartoons of all time. So let’s just take all the praise I have for these shows with a pinch of salt, shall we? Let’s start off with their first stab at the format…
Before Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson turned it into a billion-dollar franchise, 1995’s Jumanji was a blistering blockbuster with great effects and some scary creatures that still holds up wonderfully well. But the only problem was that, unlike its sequels, it never showed us the world inside Jumanji. That’s where the cartoon came in. After Judy and Peter Shepherd play the sentient board game, they’re sucked into Alan Parrish’s dangerous jungle-world. All the elements from the film are present, including Van Pelt the hunter and dozens of deadly animals that highlight how the game has killed people in the past. It was full of mythology for the history of the board game too, as the kids help Alan discover why he’s trapped inside it, even going as far as to retcon the end of the film and stop the game from ending anyone else’s life in the process.
In 1997, it had been six years since The Real Ghostbusters finished, and the franchise was still a healthy source of income for Columbia. So it only made sense to make a sequel series, right? Extreme Ghostbusters (or Ghostbusters Dark as it was sometimes called) looks like a joke from the outside. It took the face value of ‘edgy’ 90s kids’ culture and amplified it tenfold. As a new quartet of ghostbusters come in to take the load of an aging Egon (gotta have that continuity, kids! Despite a change in art style!), the first thing you notice is the appearance. There’s bright neon spikey hair and everything on a checklist of appearance quirks that were designed to make parents at the time go ‘ooft! Kids today are so reckless!’.
However, after you watch it all these things become necessary. Not only did Adelaide Productions nail the title sequence, managing to bring back some of the inherent scares that come from the concept of ghost-hunting, but the show is actually one of the most diverse and respectable portrayals of other cultures/races/disabilities ever. I’m serious. And they don’t even mention it because…well, it’s not a big deal. Garrett, the wheelchair-bound Ghostbuster, is the jock of the group and spends his spare time competing in extreme sports competitions, Roland’s struggles with racists are brought up multiple times with a sense of calm dignity, and Eduardo’s Latino heritage is a natural part of his identity. Hell, even Kylie’s presence as a woman (before the female-led reboot) isn’t even questioned because she’s naturally the one who takes command throughout the series. It was a great modernisation of the status quo and one that the 2016 film could have taken a few notes from…
Now this next one is my favourite. I firmly believe that 1997’s Men in Black is one of the most entertaining films ever made, and Men in Black: The Series is a continuation of everything that made it great, without sacrificing some of the threat that made it so much fun (looking at you, sequels). Instead of following the film’s ending, Agent K remains in MIB and the two go about hunting down dangerous aliens and dealing with extra-terrestrial threats. Simple. You can’t mess it up. And they really didn’t. The title sequence alone is gorgeous and other-worldly. It’s captivating and cool, scary and fluid (I keep using that word, but I can’t stop). Just look for yourselves.
HOW COOL IS THAT?! Aside from inspiring the almost-as-cool Batman Beyond intro, Men in Black: The Series nailed the cartoon-version of The X-Files feel. Of course, the actual show could never recapture the effortless cool of the title sequence (they had a limited budget, of course) so they subsidised it by choosing to tell interesting, often thought-provoking stories that presented some hard sci-fi concepts to kids. Kids wanted to be in the Men in Black, and the series managed to make them look as cool as possible. What a show.
Unfortunately, due to the limited success of the series (and the lack of cool Ips left for Columbia Tristar to adapt) many of Adelaide Production’s other shows failed to meet the same standard. That’s not to say they’re bad though. Far from it. In fact, Godzilla: The Series is arguably stronger than the 1998 film its based upon (even though I love it, it’s not that hard). It features the same visual style as Men In Black: The Series and focused on the last remaining hatchling of Godzilla’s from the film, teaming up with the madcap group of scientists to stop the giant mutant creatures that attack New York. Y’know…Godzilla stuff.
Godzilla’s marketing was so prevalent during my upbringing that I constantly associated it with that neon, lime-green the logo is infused with. To the point where whenever I saw a glimpse of it I harkened back to both the show and the film. The show itself was an initial success but was quickly overshadowed by the war raging between Pokémon and Digimon at the time. However much like Men in Black, it managed to spawn various pieces of merchandise – including a video game.
To cap off the 90s however, Adelaide Productions went into the unknown with a CGI adaptation. With TV animation budgets as limited as they were, this was considered a fools’ choice. There was no way a show could manage to capture any real essence of movement and character when the base technique was so expensive – you’d only have to look at Beast Wars to realise that (just kidding Beast Wars, I love you). Add onto that it’s an adaptation of a hard-R violent sci-fi political satire war film, and I’d argue you’re doomed from the start. Yes…this was Roughnecks: Starship Troopers Chronicles.
If it had been made now, Roughnecks would be a success. Despite now looking like a Playstation 2 cut-scene, the animation quality was top-notch. Lighting effects combined with just how many bugs were on-screen at once really sold the epic scale of galactic war at times. Obviously the series had to get rid of the gore and political satire and instead focused on the manned missions of the roughnecks group themselves, but this didn’t mean the narrative wasn’t engrossing. It’s funny too that after two direct-to-video sequels, the Starship Troopers franchise has since become a CGI franchise that lacks the connection and punch of this original adaptation. Much like my affinity for Men in Black, my love for Starship Troopers knows no bounds, and if you’re a diehard fan I’d definitely recommend checking this out.
But that leads us to the new millennium! It’s an interesting time for sure, and in part three I’ll be talking about the changes in moral that heavily truncated much of the zany fun of the 90s, as well as the renaissance of the cartoon that the 2010s treated us too. It’s going to be a fun ride!
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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