The animated adaptation is an odd duck. The requirements of a cartoon can be at odds with the original work. Sometimes, the results can be head-scratching, such as the Rambo animated series*. However, not every decision comes from left field. In 1991, Universal Studios wanted to break into family entertainment, and decided to create an educational series based on Back to the Future, the third movie of the series having been released the previous year.
Back to the Future starred Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly and Christopher Lloyd as Doc Emmett Brown. Set in Hill Valley, the movie starts with showing the trouble that Marty’s father has with his employer, Biff Tannen, played by Thomas F. Wilson. His mother isn’t faring much better, being depressed. Marty meets up with his friend, Doc Brown, who is either a crackpot or a brilliant mad scientist. Doc has a new invention, a flux capacitor built into a DeLorean, turning the car into a time machine. To achieve the 1.21 gigawatts** needed to power the flux capacitor, Doc had stolen plutonium from Libyan terrorists, who arrive to retrieve the material. Doc and Marty get in the DeLorean to escape the Libyans and achieve 88 miles per hour, triggering the flux capacitor.
Doc and Marty arrive in Hill Valley of 1955. Without spare plutonium, they need to find the Doc’s younger self to get his help to produce the energy needed to activate the flux capacitor. Time travel can be tricky, though. Marty meets his mother’s younger self, and accidentally changes history and risks his own existance as his mother becomes infatuated with him. The energy is easy to find; the town’s clock stopped working when it was struck by lightning. Restoring Marty, though, requires making sure his parents meet and fall in love. Biff unwittingly provides the circumstances, and after Marty’s father decks him, Marty’s own existance is saved. Doc takes Marty back to 1985 before taking the DeLorean to the distance future of 2015. The movie ends with Doc returning, needing the help of Marty and his girlfriend, Jennifer, to fix a problem with their children.
Back to the Future Part II picks up where the first movie left off. Marty’s son is being pressured into crime by Biff’s grandson, Griff. Marty poses as his own son, preventing his arrest and resulting in Griff being taken into custody instead. Afterwards, Marty picks up a sports almanac that includes the results of matches after 1985. Jennifer, though, discovers that her future marriage isn’t as wonderful as she’d want. The future Marty is being goaded, much like his son was, into a shady deal. The future Biff notices the time machine and steals both it and the almanac and travels back in time to give the book to his younger self before returning with Doc and Marty none the wiser.
When Doc and Marty return to 1985, Hill Valley is not like it was when they left. Marty’s father died in 1973 and Marty’s mother was forced to re-marry, this time to Biff, who is the wealthiest and most corrupt person in the town. Marty and Doc escape, using the DeLorean to go back to 1955. Realizing what happened, Marty retrieves the almanac from Biff while avoiding being seen in the middle of the events of the first movie. Before Marty can join Doc in the DeLorean, the car is hit by lightning and disappears. Moments later, a courier arrives with a letter from Doc in 1885.
Back to the Future Part III, filmed with Part II, continues right where the previous movie left off. Doc’s letter details where the DeLorean can be found and, with the help of 1955’s Doc, the car is repaired. However, Marty notices Doc’s tombstone dated six days after the letter; Doc was killed by Buford “Mad Dog” Tannen, Biff’s ancestor. Marty travels back to 1885, arriving in the middle of a cavalry charge. The fuel line is damaged, so Marty hides the car in a cave and walks into Hill Valley. Marty runs into Buford, but is rescued by Doc. With the knowledge of his fate, Doc agrees to leave 1885, but he needs a way to get the DeLorean up to 88mph, since gas isn’t available yet.
The solution is to have a locomotive push the car to the needed speed. While exploring a rail spur that could be used, Doc and Marty see a runaway wagon. Doc rescues the passenger, Clara, played by Mary Steenburgen. They fall in love. During a town festival, Buford tries to kill Doc, but Marty intervenes. The name on the tombstone disappears, but the date doesn’t. Someone is fated to die, but who it is unknown. Doc tries to explain to Clara that he’s from the future, but she doesn’t believe him. He goes to the saloon to binge, has one shot of whiskey and passes out. Buford arrives, but Marty, having learned his lesson from the previous two movies, refuses the duel. Buford has his gang kidnap Doc, forcing Marty to fight him. During the fight, the tombstone is broken and Buford is defeated.
Clara, heartbroken, leaves town. On the train, she hears about Doc in the saloon and how sad he was. She heads back to town to Doc’s home and sees the model of the time machine. Realizing that he was telling the truth, Clara chases after him. Meanwhile, Doc and Marty have acquired a locomotive and are getting it in position. Doc has created explosives to give the locomotive the boost it needs to reach 88mph. Clara catches up and boards the locomotive just as Doc climbs into the DeLorean. Doc goes back to help her, but the DeLorean reaches 88mph, sending Marty back to 1985. Doc and Clara, though, escape the locomotive’s demise thanks to the hoverboard Marty picked up in 2015.
Back in 1985, the DeLorean arrives in front of a diesel locomotive. Marty escapes the car, but the DeLorean is destroyed. He returns home to discover that the timeline has been restored to the way it was after the second movie. The next day, he and Jennifer return to the wreckage of the DeLorean. The warning signals start, though no train can be seen. Moments later, a steam locomotive appears, with Doc, Clara, and their sons, Jules and Verne. Marty’s future has changed, and the future remains unwritten. Doc leaves with his family in the train to an unknown time.
The Back to the Future cartoon continues the adventures of the Brown Family, with Marty tagging along. Doc and his family have returned to Hill Valley of, well, if not 1985, shortly afterwards. The DeLorean has been rebuilt, and the locomotive is also around. Both vehicles are used to get the Browns and Marty to the adventure. Christopher Lloyd returns as Doc Brown for the live action segments, and Mary Steenburgen and Thomas F. Wilson reprise their characters in the cartoon. Playing Marty is David Kaufman, who also took over another Michael J. Fox role, that of Stuart Little in the TV series of the movie of the book of the same name. While Lloyd was in the live action segments, Dan Castellaneta played the voice of the animated Doc, sounding so much like Lloyd that one episode had a jump cut from the animated Doc speaking to Lloyd as Doc commenting without being jarring.
The change of focus from Marty to the Brown Family takes advantage of Doc being a mad scientist. Educational content is easier to introduce when the starring character is a scientist. The episodes aren’t just educational, though. Over the two seasons of thirteen episodes each, the Brown Family uses the time machines to visit different eras. The eye to detail for the different years helps with the series. The episode “Swing Low Sweet Chariot Race” features dialogue in Latin that sounds authentic***. Fashion is appropriate for the years featured.
Characterization, critical for an adaptation of any stripe, is kept. The characters are recognizable by their actions. Even the character designs are decent. Marty looks like Marty, and, given the live action segments, Doc looks right. Even the various Tannens, from Biff to his ancestor, Lord Biffington of Tannenshire, are recognizable. The animators put in an effort to create designs that could be animated without losing who each person was.
Each episode stands alone, unlike the movies. This is more from the nature of an educational animated series that could be rerun out of order than from anything else. However, the series avoids using time travel as a deus ex machina. Time travel is just as often the cause of problems as anything else, and only once is a time machine, in this case, the locomotive, used to fix a problem. Even then, the solution needed the locomotive more than it needed the flux capacitor. Do the episodes feel like watching the movies? Not really, but that’s a function of the time available. Thirty minutes, including commercials and science segments, isn’t enough to delve into complex temporal mechanics. The format works against the adaptation, even taking into account that the Brown Family is scientifically minded to begin with. There isn’t enough time to delve into the use and abuse of temporal mechanics and deliver a physics lesson while still working in a bit of adventure. The writers did make the effort, though.
The live action segments feature Lloyd as Doc Brown, either introducing the episode or setting up the science experiment. Lloyd remains in character through the segments, even while narrating the experiment. The experiments themselves were created by and starred Bill Nye the Science Guy, and were based on an aspect introduced in the episode proper. While temporal physics weren’t touched, possibly because of difficulty recreating temporal experiments in a kitchen safely, the sciences involved were physics and chemistry. The experiments could stand alone as part of a lesson.
The Back to the Future cartoon was ambitious for its time. Universals first foray into family entertainment and educational cartoons worked, thanks to the core characters from the movies. The result was entertaining, though time travel wasn’t used as thoroughly as the movies. The animated series had some rough spots, but it did make the effort to keep the feel of Back to the Future.
* A cartoon aimed at the pre-teen crowd based on two R-rated movies.
** Or possibly jiggawatts.
*** Though someone more familiar with Latin should weigh in.