A while back, Lost in Translation reviewed the 2015 Jem and the Holograms film. Today, let’s look at the cartoon that people were expecting to be the base of that film.
As mentioned in the movie review, the Eighties saw rules and regulations over children’s programming relaxed, allowing toy manufacturers to create animated series that were effectively ads for the toys. Hasbro saw success with both Transformers and G.I. Joe, thanks to the collaboration with Marvel Productions and Sunbow Productions. With the boys’ line of toys comfortable, Hasbro turned to its girls line.
The fashion doll industry is dominated by one company, Mattel. Mattel’s Barbie line dominates the doll aisles at stores. Hasbro decided to try to get a piece of the action by introducing its own line of fashion dolls, Jem and the Holograms. The initial line in 1986 featured Jerrica Benton, her rock star alter ego Jem, her younger sister Kimber, and foster sisters Aja and Shana, all of whom made up the band. A rival band, the Misfits, also received dolls – Pizzazz, Roxy, and Stormer. To round out the line, Jerrica/Jem had a boyfriend doll, Rio. The dolls and fashions were inspired by the music videos of the time, with wild coloured hair and pastel tones. The initial dolls came with music cassettes with two songs each from the Holograms and the Misfits.
The doll line lasted two years before Hasbro discontinued it due to lack of sales. Mattel’s introduction of the Barbie and the Rockers line the same year Jem and the Holograms debuted didn’t help matters. However, by the time the Jem line wrapped up, twenty-four dolls were released, including two releases each of the Holograms, the Misfits, and Rio and three sets of Jem and Jerrica.
To help with sales, Hasbro went with the Marvel/Sunbow team up that had success with G.I. Joe and Transformers. Christy Marx, who had written scripts for both prior cartoons. became the story editor for the new series, Jem and the Holograms. The series revolves around Jerrica Benton, Starlight Music, and the foster home, Starlight Girls. Jerrica starts the series as co-owner of Starlight Music, her late father’s company, along with Eric Raymond. Eric, though, sees Starlight as a means to an end, getting rich, and is using the company to line his pockets. To this end, he backs the Misfits, a punk band made up of Pizzazz, Roxy, and Stormer. Jerrica discovers Eric’s duplicity and tries to find a way to take full control of Starlight Music. The answer is a contest highlighting new bands.
Jerrica, though, doesn’t have one immediately available. She discovers, though, that her father had been working on a secret project and tracks it down to an abandoned drive-in theatre. Inside, her father’s computer, Synergy, reveals itself and its advanced holographic capabilities to Jerrica, allowing her to become Jem. Her sisters Kimber, Shana, and Aja, join Jerrica and become the Holograms. The contest boils down to one between Jem and the Holograms and the Misfits.
Pizzazz wants to win. She’s in music for the fame and has no scruples in how she gets it. She’s perfect for Eric’s purposes, sabotaging Jem’s public appearances. However, the key element is performance, and Jem and the Holograms edge out the Misfits, letting Jerrica get the money to fully own Starlight Music and fund the Starlight Girls. Thus ending the first five episodes of the series. Eric is arrested and the Misfits are looking for a new label as a result.
The series continues in a similar vein. Eric gets out thanks to being able to afford the best lawyers money can buy. The Misfits become rivals to Jem and the Holograms, trying to sabotage the latter group’s efforts any time they can. Eric continues to try to retake Starlight Music, using evvery avenue of attack he can, at least until he starts up Misfits Music with the Misfits. Meanwhile, Jerrica’s relationship with her boyfriend Rio Pacheco becomes complicated thanks to Jem. As much as Jerrica wants to tell him the truth,. Synergy insists that her technologies remain secret. The lives of the Holograms are no less complex. Kimber has her own love triangle develop between a British singer and an American stuntman, while she tries to live in the dual shadow of her sister and her alter ego.
In the third season, a new band appears. The Stingers, comprised of lead singer Riot and musicians Rapture and Minx become a rival to both Jem and the Holograms and the Misfits. Working with Eric, the Stingers take over Mistfits Music and rename it Stinger Sound. The third season ran shorter than the first two, in part because the Hasbro had discontinued the toy line. No toys, no need to advertise. However, the cartoon was a ratings success.
Each episode featured two or three songs, either as a montage related to the scene it appears in or as a more traditional 80s music video. The Misfits appear in most of the episodes, one key exception being the anti-drug “Alone Again“. Some of the draw for the series was the music; the show revolved around two bands, after all. Each band had a distinctive sound, with the Misfits having a harsher tone than Jem and the Holograms.
Ultimately, while the series was popular, that popularity didn’t translate into sales. The sheer size of the line of dolls, which included three of the Starlight Girls, Synergy, and two friends of Jem, Danse and Video, may have spread what sales there were. Availability was an issue in some areas, where the cartoon aired but the dolls weren’t in stores. Mattel’s Barbie and the Rockers may have also eaten into the sales, having a known name despite the lack of cartoon. From this view, Jem and the Holograms failed on what it was supposed to do, sell dolls. However, a cartoon that still draws in viewers over twenty-five years later, that is truly outrageous.
Lost in Translation has analyzed the two American-made Godzilla movies, both the 1998 version and the 2014. The history of Godzilla and Gojira are expanded in those, but the short version is that title kaiju began as a message about the horrors of the atomic age, espeically the atomic bomb. As the franchise progressed, Godzilla became the defender of the Earth, though not necessarily of humanity has he rampages through Tokyo leaving massive collateral damage in his wake. The 2014 Hollywood version changed the message, from the dangers of the atomic era to the dangers of climate change.
However, the 1998 and 2014 versions were not the first American adaptations. Prior to them, the animation studio Hanna-Barbera licensed the character in 1978 from Toho to create the Godzilla cartoon. What better way to entertain young children on a Saturday morning than watching a giant monster rampaging through the cities of the world? Considering that local stations, particularly in the UHF band, had more control over their time slots than today and had more hours to fill with local programming, both weekend afternoons and late-night and overnight hours, the very same young children watching the Godzilla cartoon would be able to watch an older Godzilla movie later the same weekend.
The series followed the crew of the Calico, a research vessel travelling the world’s oceans. While Captain Carl Majors was in charge of the ship, Dr. Quinn Darien was the head of the unspecified research project. Quinn had two members of her team, Brock, her research assistant, and Pete Darien, her nephew. Rounding out the team is Godzooky, Godzilla’s young nephew. When the crew of the Calico is in a tight spot, they summon Godzilla himself.
A typical episode would have the Calico in a location by the ocean making a new discovery, usually related to the giant monster of the week. The crew investigates, with Pete and Godzooky often told to remain behind because of the danger. If they were told, eventually they disobey and follow. The giant monster is found and Godzilla is summoned. The first fight between titans is a draw as the newcomer’s abilities either force Godzilla to back down or allows it to run away. The team tracks the giant monster and summons Godzilla one more time for the final fight. The draw of the show, though, is the battle between giant monsters, and the cartoon does deliver.
While the crew of the Calico was created for the cartoon, Godzooky is based on an existing character in the Godzilla mythos – Minilla. First appearing in Son of Godzilla, Minilla, known as Minya in some dubs, is the son of Godzilla. Both Minilla and Godzooky share some traits, including blowing smoke rings instead of fire and being young giant monsters. Godzooky was in the cartoon to appeal to the kids; he is very much a lovable pet who gets into trouble but is too cute to be angry with for too long. He is also very much child-like in that he wants to help even if he isn’t able to be effective.
The animation of the rest of the cast is along the lines of Hanna-Barbera’s own Jonny Quest. Techniques developed with the various Scooby-Doo series can be seen, particularly as the crew runs as a group. Godzilla is very much in line with his cinematic appearances. However, one of the draws of the movies, the casual destruction of cities as Godzilla stomps through, was reduced or completely removed, thanks to Broadcast Standards and Practices.. BS&P had strict guidelines on what could and could not be shown, and things like breathing fire on people and crushing buildings and cars underfoot were against the guidelines. As a result, Godzilla tended to use laser beams from his eyes more this is atomic breath, which was turned into a flame breath.
While Toho licensed the character, they didn’t license Godzilla’s roar. The studio worked around that limitation by hiring Ted Cassidy, best known as Lurch on The Addams Family and Ruk on the Star Trek episode, “What Little Girls Are Made Of”, to give voice to Godzilla. Cassidy’s work, combined with the animation of the title character, gave weight to the monster, keeping the fierceness associated with Godzilla.
Given that the cartoon was meant for a younger Saturday morning audience, Hanna-Barbera succeeded in what they set out to do. Godzilla lasted two season, and ran until 1981 on NBC. While not the best adaptation it could have been, the studio’s limitations, imposed from within by format and target audience and from outside by Broadcast Standards and Practices, meant that the production was going to hit diminishing returns. It’s not a perfect adaptation, but the Godzilla cartoon did remember the key elements to the kaiju‘s fame.
The Eighties were a weird time in entertainment. Popular original works outnumbered popular adaptations for the first time in movie history. Regulations about advertising to children were relaxed, leading to animation adaptations of toys and anything that a toy could be made from. The latter meant popular movies became fodder for cartoons, even if the film wasn’t originally meant for children, like Rambo and Robocop. Lost in Translation has already looked at one animated adaptation from the era, Back to the Future. Another series, though, was more successful.
The Real Ghostbusters ran from 1986 until 1991, undergoing a title change to Slimers and the Real Ghostbusters in its third season. Despite being tied to the film, Ghostbusters, a court case between Filmation and Columbia/Sony forced the adaptation to change its name as Filmation had the name first, leading to adding The Real to the title. The Real Ghostbusters was licensed out to DiC, who farmed out the animation to several Japanese studios, giving the series a unique look. While Columbia had the rights to the movie by virtue of being the production company, the studio didn’t have the rights to the actors’ appearances, leading to main characters who had a passing resemblance to the original cast. One episode, “Take Two”, goes as far to explain the differences – the movie is an in-universe adaptation of the characters’ lives. Venkman even goes so far to remark that Bill Murray doesn’t even look like him.
The cast was small, cosnisting of five voice actors total. Arsenio Hall, best known now for his talk show, was starting out in his career when he voiced Winston Zeddmore, the guy the Ghostbusters hired when business picked up during Gozer the Gozerian’s invasion of New York. Maurice Lamarche, who has played roles such as the Brain on Pinky and the Brain, played Egon Spengler, scientist and inventor. Lorenzo Music, best know for playing Carleton the Doorman on Rhoda and Garfield the cat* in the cartoon based on the comic strip Garfield, portrayed Peter Venkman, scientist and all-around smarmy dude. Laura Summer got her first work as a voice actor playing Janine Melnitz and almost every other woman in the first two seasons. Frank Welker, who has made a career out of being a non-human voice, including Megatron in the original Transformers, among others, played Ray Stantz, scientist and inventor, Slimer, and a large number of other ghosts and supernatural creatures. Summer was replaced by Kath Soucie with the name change to Slimer and the Real Ghostbusters, but, for the purpose of this review, the renamed series will be treated as a separate work to come later.
Adapting Ghostbusters to a weekly format wasn’t a problem. The nature of the movie allowed for further adventures for the team. Ghostbusters was a business; the team could easily continue busting ghosts in an adaptation. Indeed, the “ghost of the week” plot carried the series. The series also treated the events of the movie as occurring in-universe. Peter did get slimed by Slimer at the hotel and the team did fight Gozer the Gozerian in the form of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man The goal to adapting well is to bring the core of the original, in this case, Ghostbusters into the new medium, even with all the restrictions on the adaptation. A number of elements of the movie just wouldn’t fly. Venkman’s lecherousness was toned down, but didn’t completely disappear; his casual cruelty was removed. Janine kept her crush on Egon until executive orders in Slimer forced the writers to excise it. Repeatable violence isn’t allowed, but very few children would have access to backpack-sized unlicensed nuclear accelerators*. The Ghostbusters also only shot at ghosts to pull them into their traps, reducing the potential harm further. The action could thus match what was shown on screen, complete with slime.
The main characters, despite not being allowed to look exactly like the original actors, did have enough details in common to make it easy to see who was who. Egon had glasses and the hair style, along with Lamarche’s Harold Ramis impersonation. Peter kept some of Bill Murray’s smarmy charm**. Summer recreated Janine’s accent. Ray still had his weight. Winston was still the workman of the group, the one who was more down to Earth. Equipment matched what was shown on screen. And to add to the accuracy, the design of Slimer in the 2016 reboot movie was partially based on his appearance in the cartoon.
As mentioned above, the series could have kept to a “ghost of the week” plot, mirroring the jobs the Ghostbusters had in the movie prior to the containment system shutdown and the fight against Gozer. The writers, though, went beyond that. The first episode, “Ghosts R Us”, had a trio of ghosts working a scam to drive the Ghostbusters out of business. The team fought Samhaim, the spirit of Hallowe’en, in “When Hallowe’en Was Forever”, written by J. Michael Stracynski of Babylon 5 and Thor fame. Even with “ghost of the week” plots, not every ghost was busted. Several were able to move on after completing a task that kept them tied to the land of the living.
Going beyond the above, the writers delved into myth, legend, and classic literature. Samhaim was but one character based on myth and legend. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse appeared in “Apocalypse — What, Now?” Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was adapted as “The Headless Motorcyclist”, updating the legend for modern times. The team accidentally busted the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come in “Xmas Marks the Spot”.***
Then there’s the adaptation within the adaptation, “Collect Call of Cathulhu”(sic). Written by Michael Reeves, the episode goes beyond just using the trappings. The episode acts as an introduction to the Cthulhu mythos as created by HP Lovecraft and other writers. Guest characters are named after other writers who had contributed to the Mythos; Clark Ashton after Clark Ashton Smith and Alice Derlith after publisher August Derlith. Lovecraft himself is name-dropped as the creator of the Mythos, with his writings in Weird Tales cited in-character by Ray. Cultists of Cthulhu appear, along with Spawn of Cthulhu and a Shoggoth. The episode even quotes Lovecraft, specifically “The Nameless City” – “That is not dead which can eternal lie,/And with strange aeons even death may die.” The episode climaxes with the awakening of Cthulhu, a being that, to quote Egon, “makes Gozer the Gozerian look like Little Mary Sunshine”, and the Ghostbusters fighting to just stop the Elder God, using the Mythos as a guide.
Even when not using classic literature for plots, the series has references to works that would be unexpected in a TV series aimed at a younger audience. In “Ragnarok and Roll”, the spell used to begin Ragnarok is the Elven inscription of the One Ring from JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Franz Kafka’s Metamorphisis is referenced in “Janine Melnitz, Ghostbuster” as Janine reads out some of the jobs that have come in; “And some guy named Samsa says he’s possessed by the ghost of a giant cockroach.”
The Real Ghostbusters puts an effort into continuing the story from the movie, even while explaining away the differences. The series sets itself up as an alternate continuity where the original movie is a movie about the animated characters. The characterization builds from what was shown in the movie and expands on what was originally shown. The Real Ghostbusters is a worthy adaptation, taking into account the limitations imposed on it by the medium and expanding the ghosts thanks to not needing special effects beyond ink and paint.
* In an interesting twist, Bill Murray would later voice Garfield in the movies based on the strip.
** And if a child did have one, repeatable acts would be a minor concern.
*** While almost every TV series has had an episode based on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, few had the Ghosts of Christmas running a gambit to teach a main character about the meaning of the season while still having Scrooge around.
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.
Back in March, I reviewed Mr. Peabody & Sherman, the big screen animated remake of the old Peabody’s Improbable History shorts. The movie worked out well as an adaptation of the shorts, building on top of the formula set down by Peabody’s Improbable History of a trip in the WABAC to meet a historical personage and help them to do what history says they did, wrapping up with a pun. So, why a second look?
Part of preparing for Lost in Translation is finding the work to be reviewed. Most of the movies reviewed are found on DVD by wandering the aisles of the music and video store, looking for anything that stands out. A few weeks ago, I found the complete collection of Peabody’s Improbable History, standing out along with Mr. Peabody & Sherman on DVD. Ninety five-minute short cartoons, featuring fractured history and weaponized puns, well worth watching, leading me to agree with my earlier findings. The ninety-first short, or, properly, the first short is the reason for the second look.
That first short, entitled “Show Opening” in the collection, set up the entire premise of Peabody’s Improbable History. The short shows Mr. Peabody adopting Sherman and why he built the WABAC. The collection was my first time seeing it. I had been working on memories of reruns of The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show when it was on YTV. My viewing was hit and miss, so I got the gist of the show without getting full details. Having access to the first short and, indeed, the entire collection means reassessing the review.
Turns out, the movie was a better adaptation than original review said. Mr. Peabody & Sherman mined “Show Opening”, using it almost verbatim in the opening minutes. Mr. Peabody’s apartment in the movie is a larger budget version of his apartment in the shorts. The puns are as wonderful in the movie. Compare*.
From “Henry VIII”:
Catharine Parr, Henry’s fifth wife, is along the wall for her execution, facing a firing line aiming golf clubs. Sherman naturally asks about her and Mr. Peabody explains.
Sherman: “But the guards are aiming at her with golf clubs?”
Mr. Peabody: “How else would you shoot Parr?”
From Mr. Peabody & Sherman:
After escaping Robespierre at the start of the Reign of Terror, Mr. Peabody remarks on how the French Revolutuion could have been prevented.
Mr. Peabody: And think, Marie Antoinette could have avoided the whole revolution if she simply issued an edict to distribute bread to the poor. But then she couldn’t have her dessert.
Sherman: But why, Mr. Peabody.
Mr. Peabody: Because, Sherman, you can’t have your cake and edict, too.
It’s obvious that the writers watched the original series, all of it. They started at the original concept, of a dog adopting a boy and Mr. Peabody needing a way to channel Sherman’s energy, leading to the creation of the WABAC. The CG animation was used to tell the story about a dog and his boy instead of being the reason for the movie. There were a few updates; it’s been fifty-five years since “Show Opening” first aired and a lot more history has happened, but Mr. Peabody is still a genius. The effort was made to keep the core, and the movie leans heavily on the first short as its main source. Mr. Peabody & Sherman is a far better adaptation than expected.
Next week, the November news round up.
* Neither of these comes close to the pun ending the “Mata Hari” short. The fourth wall was broken to warn viewers of the quality of the final pun.
It’s said that a writer should write what he knows*. For Scott Adams, a contract at Pacific Bell was an inspiration. The result, Dilbert, was picked up by United Media Syndicates. While the artwork was simplistic, the situations hit home with working readers. Adams based the characters on people he met on his contract. Dilbert is an amalgam of the engineers Adams worked with, while Alice and Wally were based on specific people. Alice was modelled on the lone woman engineer at the firm who felt she had to out-perform the men in all areas**. Wally, that model of corporate laziness, was based on an engineer at PacBell who couldn’t be fired after making a major mistake but was told he’d never be promoted; the engineer turned his intellect towards doing the least amount of work possible.
The strip focused on the day-to-day life of working at an unnamed tech firm and introduced a few terms into the English language. Anyone who has spent time in a large enough company has run into a Pointy-Haired Boss, or PHB, who has absolutely no understanding of what his people or even his department does. When Dilbert isn’t working, he spends his time with Dogbert, a dog with all of Dilbert’s intelligence and none of his morality. Dogbert gets to be the cynical part of Dilbert, saying what Dilbert would only think while abusing people for fun and profit. Meanwhile, Ratbert often represents the general public being abused by Dogbert.
The popularity of the comic strip comes from readers being able to, if not empathize with Dilbert, recognize similar situations in their own lives. Even if they’re not engineers, readers have dealt with PHBs, evil heads of human resources, and lazy co-workers. Dogbert says what many people think but can’t vocalize at work if they want to stay employed. The strip is meant for an adult audience, readers who are or have been in the work force, though people at tech firms get a bit more out of the situations.
In 1999, Scott Adams teamed up with Larry Charles, showrunner for Seinfeld, to create a TV series A live-action series was considered but the ultimate decision was to go with an animated Dilbert. The show aired on the former UPN, now part of The CW Network and lasted two seasons. The animated series had a head start on how the characters would look, thanks to the comic strip, but had a few other concerns to deal with. The first was mouths. In the strip, Dilbert, Dogbert, and Catbert, the evil head of HR, had no mouths. Facial expressions and, for the animals, wagging tails were enough to convey emotions. Word bubbles made it clear who was speaking. In an animated series, though, people expect to hear the characters speak and know which one was speaking through mouth movements. The decision was made to add the mouth when Dilbert, Dogbert, and Catbert were speaking, with the mouth disappearing when they were silent.
The other concern also comes from the characters speaking. Readers would have an idea of what the characters sound like. Even Adams stated as much in one of the DVD extras. The casting search needed to find actors who were, well, not that manly*** and, in Dogbert’s case, would sound like the voice came from a small, egg-shaped, cynical dog. The search resulted with Daniel Stern as Dilbert and Chris Elliot as Dogbert, both of whom fit the characters well.
The series brought in as many of the supporting cast as possible, though Bob the Dinosaur wound up with just a cameo despite appearing in the opening credits. Ted the Generic Guy was replaced in importance by Loud Howard; Howard’s schitck, being loud, was easier to do with an audio track. The episodes tended to focus on Dilbert’s office life, as he dealt with annoyances from Marketing down to the trolls in Accounting, but did highlight his home life and go to Elbonia. All the elements of the comic strip were in the show.
Helping to keep the the series close to the feel of the comic strip was Scott Adams’ involvement. He was listed as a producer and wrote or co-wrote several episodes. Being on UPN also helped; the network needed viewers and wasn’t willing to drive away existing fans by adding a love affair between Alice and Dilbert. The animation allowed Adams to experiment away from the three-panel format of the strip, giving him a chance to try out stories that would take weeks or even months in newspapers. The animation also let the scripts bend and ignore physics as needed.
Dilbert the series lasted two seasons on UPN. While it did well for UPN at first, the schedulers managed to channel the PHB in the second season and placed the show after Shasta McNasty, a series about a three-man rap band whose label goes bust when the band moves to LA. The audience for Shasta was unlike the audience for Dilbert, leading to the end of both shows.
As an adaptation, the animated Dilbert kept the feel of the comic strip. Adams and Charles worked to make sure that the voices fit the characters. The episodes had the mix of whimsy and cynicism found in the comic, and, ignoring the look of the computer equipment, are timeless****. Respect for the fans of the comic could be seen throughout the series.
Next week, Robocop.
* To a degree, it’s true, but it might be better to say that a writer needs to know about what her writes. Otherwise, all that would ever be published are autobiographies and coming of age stories, and that would get dull.
** Sadly, a state of affairs common in engineering due to the heavily male-dominated field.
*** Except for Alice, really.
**** “The Return” is funnier today thanks to the proliferation of online shopping. “Ethics” predated the Diebold voting machines and served as a predictor of the inevitable.