Last week, Lost in Translation took a look at animated adaptations with a high level view. It’s time to delve into a specific one to get a better view of how such things turn out.
Thanks to the success of Star Wars merchandise in 1977, toys and toy licensing became another way to make money from a movie. Sure, prior to Star Wars, there were toys made for some franchises, but not to the same extent and success. However, many of the most toyetic movies were also R-rated, meaning that the target audience for the toys were not likely to have seen the movie except in ads. However, the reduction of FCC regulations against using children’s entertainment as advertising presented a new way to introduce the characters to the new audience – cartoons. Thus, among other animated adaptations, RoboCop the Animated Series.
The original RoboCop was a violent, over-the-top satire of the Reagan era. Everyone has a gun. Automation destroys jobs. Detroit is bankrupt. The Detroit police get privatized, bought up by Omni-Consumer Products, who saw the city as a test bed for automating law enforcement. The movie wasn’t subtle. Officer Alex Murphy is shot with the symbolism of the Crucifixion. Scenes had to be trimmed to avoid the dreaded X rating, preventing the movie from getting into any theatre. Blood was shed by the barrels.
The perfect movie to adapt for children.
The 2014 remake, with its PG-13 rating, had its violence toned down. No more graphic deaths. No one getting shot with hundreds of rounds by a robot still in beta. It was one of the problems fans of the original movie would cite about the remake. The violence was reigned in. There still was violence. Drones got destroyed. Murphy got shot and burned. But the gore was gone. The remake’s satire hit closer to home, but the violence of the original allowed audiences to take a step back. The PG-13 rating was seen as the problem by fans of the original, not allowing for the over the top violence of the original.
With that in mind, if there was a backlash against the 2014 remake, how do things shake out for 1988’s RoboCop: The Animated Series? If a PG-13 rating forced the 2014 remake to focus the violence on drones, how much is lost for a weekly cartoon? Repeatable violence isn’t allowed. Shooting a gun is repeatable. Punching is repeatable. Running someone over is repeatable. And forget language. Even in syndication, there are words not allowed anywhere near children’s entertainment. “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me,” won’t be heard.
How well did RoboCop survive the translater to animation? First, a look at the the characters themselves. While Orion could license the characters, the studio couldn’t license the appearances of the actors. The actors own their looks. It’s the same reason why the character design for The Real Ghostbusters changed so much. However, the costume for RoboCop hid most of Peter Weller, so the character could be animated as accurately as the production could. Likewise, the ED-260, the upgraded version of the ED-209 from the movie, was accurate, with the new number allowing for differences due to animation.
For characters like Officer Anne Lewis and Sergeant Ross, the animation tries to be close to their looks without necessarily copying their actors. Lewis lost her curls, but the costume – body armour and a helmet with a visor – is close enough. Other characters, like the Old Man, have more extensive changes. However, Clarence Boddicker, the man responsible for killing RoboCop in both the movie and the series, has only minor changes. Boddicker appears in the opening credits and in the episode “Menace of the Mind”.
Animation helps with showing RoboCop’s abilities. The original movie used practical effects and stop-motion; the suit Weller wore slowed him down just from mass. An animated character doesn’t have that limitation, so having RoboCop lift a van by its bumper or run after a perp is easier to show. The technology of the future of Old Detroit changed, too. RoboCop and the rest of the police force use lasers. Some of the criminals still used guns, but since they were shooting RoboCop, there were no bullet wounds, no arterial sprays, nothing to worry parents about what their children were seeing.
Characterization of the characters was off. RoboCop comes off as his RoboCop 2 incarnation after community input forces several hundred new directives installed. Murphy acts more as Murphy’s cheerleader. However, the focus of the series is on action; dialogue is kept to a minimum. Bursts of dialogue aren’t much to build a character on. A few characters do change. SWAT commander Lt. Roger Hedgecock gets promoted from being a minor character in the original to a rival. Hedgecock isn’t a fan of automation and is trying to outshine Murphy. Casey Wong returns as the talking head of “Media Break”, the three-minute news segment that appeared in the movie.
A few characters were added. Dr. McNamara, an OCP designer working on the ED-260 project, wants RoboCop shelved in favour of his Enforcement Drone, and is the mastermind behind the plot in several episodes. The Vandals were a gang that caused problems in Old Detroit until stopped by RoboCop.
The series did try to work with some themes from the movie. Biting satire is out, but some still slipped in. A section of Old Detroit was called “Trickledown Town” and was where the old abandoned factories were. One episode, “No News Is Good News”, had a Geraldo Riviera parody, chasing non-stories until he focused on destroying RoboCop’s reputation. Even the idea of automating jobs came up for satire with ED-260 being pressed into traffic duty and causing collateral damage after an illegal lane change. Outside the satire, Murphy still had to come to terms with his humanity. While Lewis still saw Murphy as Murphy, others, including Hedgecock and McNamara, saw him as a machine or as a product.
RoboCop is a tough movie to turn into an animated series, especially one aimed at an younger audience. What is allowed in an R rated movie doesn’t get on television in prime time, let alone weekend afternoon for kids. RoboCop: The Animated Series had its fangs pulled because of the the new format. It tries, but the focus is more science fiction action, not violent biting satire of the Eighties. If it was a standalone work; it would be an entertaining series on its own. Tied to the RoboCop movie, the series is sanitized.