Spawn of the Screen: Cartoon Potpurri

Over time, as everyone discovers, nostalgia and low-grade forgetfulness can warp your mind into remembering things far more fondly than they have any right to be remembered. Looking back, one may be wistful to be a young kid again, with the innocence and playful imagination that goes with it. Naturally, one may also forget about the bane of young children: the early bedtimes, the orders by parents, the forced spinach consumption. The grass is always greener on the other side of your memory, as they say. Wait, no one actually says that. Yet.

So it is with kid cartoons. Let’s face it: it’s not that hard to impress a little person who still might well believe that Easter bunnies can lay creme-filled chocolate eggs. Cartoons we thought of as The Best Ever back then might really embarrass us today to even be in the same room with. So looking back at a number of movie-inspired cartoons has the potential to be a traumatic land mine for all involved.

Then again, we can just forget the whole “nostalgia” bit and take a wild and wooly ride through the insane minds of TV network mad scientists, as they try to breed popular films with kiddy animation!

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventures (1990-92)

Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventures

It’s easy to claim movie-to-cartoon series are out to make a quick, cheap buck, because it’s mostly true. Because of that, you have to appreciate when the makers of an obvious spin-off marketed to kiddies go the extra distance. What’s probably most amazing about Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventures is that the primary voices (for the first season at least) are the film’s stars: George Carlin, Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter. Good for them, but not for long, as you will see. Fate and the heavy-hand of idiotic studio execs came crashing down on this flimsy show like so much rotten tuna fish.

In 1990, as Bill & Ted were the resident favorite goofy duo of the silver screen (Wayne’s World being right around the corner), it wasn’t a bad idea to translate the film to TV. The characters were all in place, and the lynchpin of the series — the time-traveling phone booth — seemed perfect to provide numerous storylines, as they traveled to ancient China and to meet Leonardo da Vinci. While not showcasing any radically new animation, this was one of the first shows to use computer animation (for the phone booth time travel sequences).

With the actors reprising their voice roles from the film, and a choice Saturday morning spot following the hot Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Bill & Ted seemed poised to succeed. They actually did do well for the first year (making it into the top five children’s shows in

The live-action show

the Neilsen ratings), but CBS mysteriously dropped the show after one season (13 episodes).

Season Two, broadcast following the movie sequel Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, was picked up by Fox and bungled immediately. The principal voice actors dropped out (the voices were provided by the actors from the live-action Bill & Ted series at the time), the phone booth used for incredulous purposes (such as traveling inside a human body), and the writing dumbed-down to the level of very young kids. After a mere eight episodes of the second season, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventures were dropped from TV forever.

As an interesting post-script, the Bill & Ted live action TV series, released in 1992, only lasted seven total episodes, and was reportedly worse than the season two cartoons. Alex Winter even called it out on a talk show, telling the viewers that the show frankly “stinks.”

Back to the Future (1991-93)

And speaking of time travel, let’s definitely not overlook the fairly decent Back to the Future animated series, which also came out in the early 90’s. Continuing somewhat from the end of Part III, the DeLorean was reconstructed and the crew expanded from the two-man team (Doc and Marty) to a veritable troupe of time travelers — Doc’s wife and two kids (and Einstein), along with the time traveling train, were all aboard for this ride. Moving the era of the series forward a bit, Marty was in college and Doc’s kids old enough to be young teens themselves.

Created by Robert Zemeckis (who directed the films), BTTF the cartoon got some serious love by fans and the network alike. Other than the legacy connection to the movies, its strongest selling point was that Christopher Lloyd would bookend each episode as Doc Brown in person (live action); however, his voice for the series was done by some guy named Dan Castellaneta, who’s since gone on to be some Homer Simpson character or somesuch. Also returning from the films to reprise their voice roles were Mary Steenburgen (Clara) and Thomas F. Wilson (who played Biff and all of Biff’s ancestors).

Thw shows weren’t anything too radically different from the movies — travel to a new time period, get into trouble, meet a Biff ancestor and a Marty ancestor, and then return home. Woo-hoo! It’s leftovers each and every week!

As an interesting sidenote, television networks in the early 90’s were pressured to provide more “educational segments” in their Saturday morning line-up — something which eventually contributed to the demise of the glory of Saturday morning cartoons — and the live-action Doc Brown was often visited by Bill Nye (the science guy) to teach kids about science. Yay for progress.

The show was okay… not bad, but not super. I remember watching it whenever I could, and thinking it a bit kiddy (this when I was about 14 myself). The constant focus on Doc’s kids instead of Marty probably contributed to this conclusion.

Beetlejuice (1989-91)

Now this is an odd one. Making a cartoon out of a family-friendly movie is one thing, but creating an animated series based on a dark, horror-themed film about death and the afterlife is quite another. Didn’t think Beetlejuice the movie was so popular with the kiddos, but the networks did, took a gamble on the show… and surprisingly won big.

The sharpest change from the movie to the show was that Beetlejuice himself went from being a nasty villain to a prankish main hero. Along with goth-wannabe Lydia, each episode would feature Beetlejuice getting into trouble in both this world and the Netherworld, and Lydia getting them both out of it again.

While movie-based cartoons traditionally have an extremely short lifespan on the tube, Beetlejuice did make it three complete years, boasting over 94 shows to its credit. It’s a very watchable show, with a catchy theme song (Danny Elfman’s theme with sound effects and some quotes thrown into the mix).

Ewoks (1985-87) and Droids (1985-1986)

Ugh. Double-ugh. This is what gets me about George Lucas. He created some of the most entertaining, quotable, fantastic films of all time which were beloved by people of all age ranges, yet Lucas continually suffers under the delusion that only 8-year-olds are his complete audience demographic. After Return of the Jedi blew theater-goers away in 1983, Lucas somewhat announced that the series was “complete”, and then left Star Wars fans in the lurch for any further on-screen adventures. Fans were hungry, desperate… and then all they got was a fist full of Ewoks.

As is well-documented, the whole Ewok presence in Return of the Jedi was hated by fans as being to patronizing to the kid market and too cutesy for the Star Wars universe. Naturally, Lucas latched on to Ewoks as the primary vehicle for the post-ROTJ Star Wars adventures, and authorized two crappy made-for-TV movies with them, and the Ewok/Droids cartoon duo.

This began as a one-hour animated show, containing two separate series (this sort of occurance wasn’t uncommon in kid cartoon shows, by the way — many series have covered up their weaknesses with sheer variety as compensation). Ewoks, the crappier of the two, focused on Wicket and his clan before the events of Jedi (no interstellar adventures here!). Kind of a low-rent Smurfs, to imagine it. Droids, only marginally better because they weren’t on Endor and confined to stories about teddy bears, took the “gay robots of Star Wars” (to quote The Simpsons) — R2-D2 and C3PO — across the galaxy in events far prior to the original trilogy. Droids also featured the voice of Anthony Daniels for C3PO, who reprised his movie roles for the part.

One of the biggest questions I’ve had about the decision to go ahead with two of the least popular characters/races is: hey, this is Star Wars, why couldn’t you have picked anything cooler from the show to focus on? A Boba Fett variety hour! Or a Wedge Antilles talk show! Or Jabba In Charge! Or Luke and Leia’s Guide To Innocent Incest!

Ewoks lasted longer than Droids, as both shows were expensive to make, and the networks only decided on continuing with Ewoks past the first season. Why Ewoks? Because they hated all kids everywhere. With major retunings, Ewoks limped through a lackluster third season and was cancelled in 1987. Both shows are now out on DVD for must-have collectors who have severe brain trauma.

Police Academy: The Series (1988-89)

Seeing as how Police Academy, by about the fourth film, was exclusively catering to the younger crowd instead of adults, an animated series wasn’t a huge leap of imagination. Using the myriad of one-dimensional characters from the films, the show focused on Mahoney, Lassard, Harris and all of the other weird cops at the academy, fighting crime each week with their “wacky” personalities.

There isn’t much to say, other than the obvious fact if you liked the films, you probably swallowed the show rather painlessly. It wasn’t a bad show — I remember watching it without remembering afterwards any sort of plot points — but it was completely disposable. Two seasons, 64 episodes. Let’s move on.

Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1995-2000), The Mask (1995-97), Dumb and Dumber (1995)

Ah, the Holy Trifecta of Carrey, otherwise known as the three spin-off series of films that Carrey’s actually funny in. Maybe it’s not “otherwise known” as that, but we can pretend, for one day we shall all die and this will be meaningless.

Let’s start with Ace Ventura. Don’t let this show’s six-year run fool you; we’re only talking about a paltry 39 episodes thinly spread over this time span. Seeing as how this show started after I began college, I never got around to watching it. Probably for the best, although I am a closet fan of both films (the stigma against stupid humor be darned!). Pet detective, tons of animals, fart humor. That’s the whole she-bang in a nutshell.

The Mask’s situation is a bit more interesting. Because the film is based on a Dark Horse comic book, the series could not make Stanley look at all like Jim Carrey due to legal reasons. However, seeing as the film is pretty much a live-action cartoon, it translated well onto the smaller screen and became a sleeper hit for the networks. Not to be confused with the much cooler 80’s cartoon M.A.S.K.

Reportedly, there is an episode where a cross-over happens between Ace Ventura and The Mask, although I’m not sure what it’s called.

Dumb and Dumber lasted the shortest of them all, even with the voice talent of Matt Frewer. I think about four episodes were made and shown.

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