By Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
This year, DreamWorks Animation celebrates its 20th anniversary. To mark the occasion, Callum Petch is going through their entire animated canon, one film a week for the next 30 weeks, and giving them a full-on retrospective treatment. Prior entries can be found here, should you desire.
In the 20 years that it has existed for, DreamWorks Animation has gone from another wannabe pretender to Disney’s animated throne to one of the biggest and most influential animation companies on the planet today; one responsible for helping shape the face of Western Animation for a good decade and one with a considerable pop culture presence even long after the Shrek effect has worn off. See, the company’s influence doesn’t just reside in the realm of film.
Even before the release of Antz, DreamWorks Animation was trying to stake their claim on the land of television, in Jeffrey Katzenberg’s continued attempts to beat out Disney across all possible fronts. Not that you’d know that as the company’s first… scratch that, every attempt prior to 2008 to break into the half-hour animated television show market was swiftly and unceremoniously cancelled. The company has even expunged their existence from their own website entirely, like they’d rather everybody forget about them and focus on the stuff that worked instead.
Well, such selective memory is not how we do things here at the DreamWorks Animation Retrospective – although certain weeks really make me wish we did – so that’s why I’ve spent the last few weeks going through enough of the company’s first attempts at television to get a feel for each show in order to theorise why nobody turned up to them. (I am excluding Alienators: Evolution Continues as they were one of several companies involved in that show, and this series is only looking at DreamWorks specifically.) The next time we reconvene to look at their television output – which will be at the end of this series – we’ll be looking at the shows made post-The Penguins Of Madagascar. Today, though, we look at the three made prior.
Number of Episodes: 19 across 2 seasons with 2 unaired
Original Run: 2nd February 1998 – 21st December 1998
Have you ever seen Freakazoid! or Tiny Toon Adventures or even Animaniacs? Toonsylvania is basically a horror-tinged mediocre version of those. I mean, this isn’t really a surprise, Steven Spielberg was the show’s executive producer, but it also very easily explains why the show came and went within a year. There’s no real unique voice here, nothing to truly separate it from the other shows that I just compared it to and which were gone by the time Toonsylvania debuted (Animaniacs was wrapping up its run that year).
Not that there wasn’t some good old fashioned network meddling to help speed along that process, of course! The show first debuted on Saturday mornings, as was the norm for animated shows on network television, at the beginning of 1998, usually paired with Goosebumps and re-runs of Eerie, Indiana. By the time that season two came around, however, Toonsylvania’s original guiding voices, creator Bill Kopp and director Jeff DeGrandis, had left and were replaced by former Animaniacs writer Paul Rugg who threw out most of the show’s established style and replaced it with something less anarchic and more sitcom-y. Couple this with a move to Monday/Tuesday afternoons (conflicting sources on that info) – which is basically Fox admitting that they’d rather burn through the episodes and be done with it – and it likely surprises no-one that the show was cut down quickly after.
I do not know just how much the show changed in its second season; I haven’t seen any of it. I couldn’t find it. I can’t find much of Toonsylvania on the Internet at all because the show has basically disappeared off the face of the Earth. The most that I could find – in English, the series is now streaming on Mexico and Brazil’s Netflix – was a VHS rip of a Best Of Season 1 collection. Each of the shows that we look at today have been buried in some way shape or form, but Toonsylvania might as well be about five feet away from the Earth’s core.
Therefore, I have only seen four full episodes of the show – the lowest amount out of the three we’re going to discuss – and even then they’re not the actual episodes; they’re random cherry-picked segments ordered and placed like how they would end up in a regular episode of the show. That being said, I have a good enough grasp on the show to talk about it. That’s probably more of a testament to the bland, forgettable averageness of the show, mind.
Anyways, each episode is split neatly into four segments. The first involves the adventures of Igor (voiced by Wayne Knight, whose voice I apparently never tire of) and Phil (better known as Frankenstein’s Monster) as they attempt to serve their master, Dr. Frankenstein, although Igor would rather the roles were reversed. Although this observation can be applied to every other segment on the show, these segments primarily derive their humour from slapstick and absurdity, albeit a very restrained and formulaic kind. For example, one episode involves them looking after Frankenstein’s grandmother who spontaneously transforms into a werewolf at the slightest appearance of a moon of any kind. This sounds like a bountiful set-up for a nice variety of gags, but the structure is the same for six straight minutes, right down to the animation of Granny swallowing Igor’s head looking suspiciously identical every single time it happens.
After that we get Night Of The Living Fred, created by award-winning cartoonist Mike Peters – as becomes abundantly clear the second one claps eyes on the art style. The gag for this segment, the one gag, is that it’s a terrible 50s-style sitcom but the family we’re focussing on are zombies. That’s the gag and, unsurprisingly, it wore out its welcome with me long before the end of the first of these, let alone the fourth. Not helping matters is the stilted delivery of pretty much everything in each instalment – lines, pacing, physical humour – everything feels too off-beat and in a way that’s really distracting instead of humour adding. These segments would sometimes be replaced by a B-movie parody instead, but none were included on the VHS so I can’t comment.
Igor’s Science Minute is up next and is basically those brief little educational segment breaks from Animaniacs only less witty. Finally, there’s Melissa Screech’s Morbid Morals, where the kids at home are taught life lessons via a Dr. Seuss-style rhyming storybook. These segments are fine if unremarkable, notable only for the instances where the show skimps on its rhyming metre and for the fact that Melissa Screech herself is voiced by Nancy Cartwright in one of those fun little “hey, it’s that voice!” moments (also prompting that reaction: Billy West who seems to have used this show as a training ground for his various Futurama voices).
In fact, that basically describes Toonsylvania as a whole: fine if unremarkable. There really is little to differentiate it from the other, better Spielberg-produced animated shows it too closely resembles. It lacks personality, it lacks anything particularly great, and it lacks the amount of big laughs required to get over its derivative nature. I get the feeling that’s a big reason why the show never caught on. The network meddling can’t have helped, and the rise of cable cartoon programming with Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon undoubtedly was responsible for said meddling, but a show that isn’t particularly distinctive in the first place isn’t really going to receive mass tears of anguish when it gets dropped at some point. Unlike DreamWorks’ 1998 films, there was no personal personality in Toonsylvania, just a hollow attempt to emulate what worked elsewhere before.
2) Invasion America
Network: The WB
Number of Episodes: 13 across 1 season
Original Run: 8th June 1998 – 7th July 1998
I have absolutely no idea who Invasion America is supposed to be for. I have watched 7 episodes of this show and I have absolutely no idea who the thing is supposed to be for. On paper, I get why The WB must have whipped out the chequebook faster than a man on speed. “Steven Spielberg, major filmmaker Steven Spielberg, and Harve Bennett, the man who came up with the story for Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan, want to create a prime-time animated sci-fi action show for our network! This must be some kind of wonderful dream!” And it was, because in practice Invasion America is a dreadful dull mess.
There. That’s why I could only make it 7 episodes through a 13 episode show. Now, Invasion America has a lot of problems, and we shall look at them in due course, but they all add up to create the show’s easiest and most tangible flaw: its complete and total mind-numbing boringness. For every last one of the 20 minutes that each episode runs for, I sat there in completely and total boredom; never engaged, never interested, just bored. I’d get my phone out and browse Twitter or the Internet, I’d go to the toilet without pausing, I’d do laundry, pretty much anything whilst paying the bare minimum of attention, which is really all one needs as stuff only ever ends up happening in the last two minutes of each episode.
Yes, Invasion America is a show with a formula and that formula is as follows: cliffhanger wrap-up, exposition, big action scene that takes up the majority of the episode, short little comedown exposition leading into cliffhanger. Now, of course, that’s not really a complaint as every television show has a formula of some kind – that’s sorta how TV works – but Invasion America’s formula is the bad kind of formula – the episodic mystery television show that keeps resetting to its default status quo to heighten stakes. Questions are never answered, the villains never receive any setbacks at all, and lead character David is forever alone. Not kidding; aside from about three people who somehow keep making it through episodes where they meet him, everybody that David comes into contact with dies. All of them, all of the time, because David being alone apparently makes for better drama, and the show treats each and every one of their deaths as a huge shocking thing we should be torn up over.
Naturally, a point came where I just simply stopped caring. It’s very, very hard to balance a show where the heroes have to remain the underdogs for a very, very, very long period of time. Get it wrong, you see, and the audience just decides “well, what’s the point, then?” and switches off, because it becomes clear that nobody will ever win and that watching and rooting for the cast is pointless. A show that offsets that really well is The Legend Of Korra where the screws keep getting turned tighter and tighter, to such an extent that one can wonder if Korra and co. will ever catch a break, but apathy in the audience is abstained thanks to constantly granting little victories and having a strong cast of characters who are lovable and entertaining.
Invasion America, as previously noted, doesn’t do the former enough, whilst the latter is foiled by the fact that it has no characters. Oh sure, there are characters in the sense that everybody has a name, face and voice, but a deep and complex personality? Their sole plot trait is their personality. David’s character trait is that he’s our protagonist. His mother and father exist to disappear and die, respectively. He has a mentor figure who vomits exposition at him and then heroically sacrifices himself. There’s a grumpy fellow alien hiding out in the desert with a good animal alien as a pet; his role is to bump into David shortly after mentor figure bites it and then “I’m too old for this sh*t” his way in and out of the show as required. David has a best friend from high school who just keeps wandering in and out of the plot, there are two good government agents, a whole bunch of interchangeable evil government agents, a whole bunch of interchangeable evil aliens, and a brother-sister alien pair who get the closest thing to an actual personality in this plot dump.
This, arguably, is the show’s biggest problem. With no actual characters, and so many of those blank husks running about the place, the show simply devolves into watching unimportant things happen to people you don’t care about. That’s why all of the dialogue is so unbearably clunky, because it really is all just exposition. That’s why none of the show’s giant action sequences excite on any level despite the great melding of the hand-drawn with CGI, because none of it means anything. It’s why none of the frequent deaths carry any weight, because nobody was a character to begin with. It’s why it takes the sight of a crazed near-death alien general trying to run over our hero with a spaceship the size of a hundred haemorrhoids combined to get a “so bad, it’s funny” reaction from me, because the show is so frickin’ joyless – including line readings that have less emotion than the population of The Neutral Planet from Futurama.
So, who is Invasion America for? The relentlessly serious and miserable tone, and prime-time television slot, indicate a desire to appeal to adults. But the lead is a teenage boy (who is The Chosen One, obviously), so they clearly want teenagers watching as well. But the art style too closely hews to action cartoons that were popular with kids, like 90s X-Men specifically, so maybe kids are supposed to find all of this exciting? But then they’ll be turned off by the grim tone and the painfully dull stretches of expository dialogue, whilst older audiences looking for something intelligent will be turned off by the overlong action sequences and the lack of anything going on under the surface. Maybe it’s supposed to be aimed at families? That would explain David’s pointless reflective internal monologues that keep bookending each episode…
The WB didn’t really have a clue what to do with it either, as it turns out, and they burned off the series in hour-long double bills (triple-bill in the case of the finale) over a month in the Summer. The show was then kicked down to Kids WB! in an edited form for a second run before disappearing entirely, although the Internet has been better at saving this series than they have Toonsylvania – the whole thing is on YouTube if you want to simulate going brain-dead for 13 half hours. Would Invasion America have caught on if it were scheduled properly? I highly doubt it – it’s a show that clearly only exists to capitalise on The X-Files being a thing and audiences can smell terrible cash-ins a mile away. Ultimately, the show is just a slog to sit through and one that has no idea what it wants to be, except maybe all things to all people, and ends up doing nothing well.
I do, however, know that its final episode ends with the text “End of Book One”, like everyone involved thought that they were guaranteed a renewal, which I find hilarious.
3) Father Of The Pride
Number of Episodes: 15 over 1 season with 2 unaired and 1 unfinished
Original Run: 31st August 2004 – 27th May 2005
Father Of The Pride was doomed from the start. On October 3rd 2003, long before the show went to air and about a year into production, Roy Horn, of famed lion-based magician act Siegfried and Roy, was mauled on stage by one of the pair’s tigers and was inches away from death. Overnight, an animated show based around the question of what the lions in Siegfried and Roy’s magic show got up to when not performing went from an intriguing if slightly cynically designed for cash money show idea, to an incredibly tasteless and extremely awkward affair. Even with the pair urging the show to continue production, it was all but guaranteed that a large subset of Americans would tune out immediately.
It must be stressed, though, that Father Of The Pride would likely have been doomed to failure even without that undeniably tragic event. For one, DreamWorks, like it or not, had made their name by this point with animated films aimed primarily at kids. With the DreamWorks connection front and centre on this one, many families will likely have tuned in expecting more of that on a weekly basis and immediately been horrified by a show that heus closer to Family Guy than Shrek – that being the view of animation in this day and age. For two, advertising was apparently through the roof on this one, NBC pimping it like crazy during the 2004 Summer Olympics, and over-exposure is just as likely to turn people off of a show as it is to get them to tune in (again: fine balance). For three, each episode cost between $2 million and $2.5 million to produce. Sure, the primetime CG sitcom sounds like the kind of “well that sounds new and original, let’s tune in” sellable premise that execs dream of, but you’re still gonna need a sh*t-tonne of viewers to break even, let alone generate the tiniest slither of a profit.
Therefore, Father Of The Pride’s one season run – complete with a skipped pilot, a swift pulling from the schedules, outright cancellation shortly after that, and several episodes never making it to air in the US – will come as no surprise to anybody who could read the giant glowing neon signs from miles away. The fact that critics tore it to shreds and that it’s generally looked upon with nothing but disdain by many animation fans to this day should also surprise nobody. That DreamWorks Animation have culled any and all mentions of it from their website and anything affiliated with them also shouldn’t be too surprising, but shocked me regardless. I get not wanting to have your major failures sticking too hard to your resume, but to deny you ever had any involvement in something that clearly had a hell of a lot of time and effort and money put into it seems a bit disingenuous.
But, in any case, let’s not get wrapped up too much in the ways in which this was doomed to fail from the start. I mean, that is a through-line for all of these shows – all set to fail before they even got out of the starting gates – but shows also get cancelled based on quality, or lack of, so mismanagement isn’t always completely to blame. So, Father Of The Pride had sealed its fate long before it hit the air, we know that much. Unfortunately, the episodes that did make it to air didn’t exactly provide a good counter-argument for said treatment.
The problem, quite simply, is South Park Syndrome. You see, animation is typically seen as something near-exclusively for kids – a really f*cking infuriatingly incorrect assumption that I have refuted here and will likely do so again many, many more times to come – and so the quickest way to break out from that assumption is to be as offensively adult as humanly possible. Drugs, sex, violence, rape jokes, as much political incorrectness as you can get away with. The Simpsons may have shattered that glass ceiling before, but its strong child fanbase meant that it didn’t really change anything. Hence: the South Park. Now, of course, South Park always had something more going on than just vulgar humour and mean-spiritedness, but remember our talk on the quantifiable from way back when?
So Father Of The Pride goes as South Park as it can within network television restrictions. Except that it also marries those vulgar tendencies with continued forced attempts at heart that come off as unnatural – the marriage between Larry and Kate is the kind where the pair spend all of the time bickering hatefully at one another until it’s time for the heartwarming serious stuff; a dynamic that is never believable, with the only sitcom that I can think of that doesn’t partake in it being How I Met Your Mother – and situates these vulgar jokes in plots ripped straight from Baby’s First Sitcom Outline. Despite that show premise, Father Of The Pride instead gives us plots about the lions trying to not be racist to some new friends of a different species, Kate and Larry suspecting their teenage daughter of being a drug addict, setting up a friend with another friend but said other friend actually having the hots for the person doing the setting-up, parent-teacher conferences, a disapproving father moving into the family home, and so on.
To put it bluntly, it’s like the show is still stuck in the 80s and no amount of drug references, fancy 3D computer graphics, and inexplicable Dick Cheney appearances and pot-shots could disguise those creaky old bones. Audiences had seen this before and they’d seen it done better, especially since laughs were rather thin on the ground. All this being said… I don’t actually mind Father Of The Pride. Oh sure, it had some terrible episodes (the Thanksgiving episode is awful), an almost admirable commitment to going through every cliché sitcom plot in the book, and a pair of blatant cross-over advertisements/ratings stunts (The Today Show’s Matt Lauer in one episode, Donkey from Shrek in another), but I still rather like it for three reasons. For one, I got a couple of decent laughs out of most of the episodes, which should always count for something.
For two, the CG and storyboarding. Now, obviously, this is never going to win any awards for animation quality or fully convince the eyes of the viewer – Siegfried and Roy, in particular, look like humans halfway through the process of being converted into Ken dolls – but the money has been well-spent in getting the animation to be as close to movie quality as one can manage – Donkey in this show is only some extra detail on his fur and more fluid movements away from being dead-on with his movie counterpart. Well, most of the time, anyway – there’s a rave scene where the extras look like they’ve been ripped from a budget PS1 title, it’s pretty funny seeing just how blatant the drop in quality is in that scene.
Specifically, however, I want to praise the storyboarding and camera placements. Have you ever noticed in primetime animated sitcoms how the majority of them have very standardised, uninspired and generic shot styles and placements? Primarily wide-angle backgrounds of flat-looking rooms where the cast stand slightly side-on to the camera with little movement, the only change coming from the occasional Medium Close Up on a character talking before we cut back to that master shot? I’ve probably done a poor job explaining it, but pay close attention the next time you watch Family Guy, American Dad! or Archer and see if you can tell what I mean.
Whilst Father Of The Pride does sometimes indulge in that – albeit with backgrounds that actually have depth – it also takes advantage of the 3D CGI aspect of the show to create more interesting storyboards and set layouts. Say two characters are talking in a room. That master shot, with the wide angle and such, will rarely be deployed outside of the beginning and ending of a scene. Instead, we get plenty of over-the-shoulder shots, MCUs that come in from a slightly different angle, full on pans through a room, and many instances of the camera dollying along to shoot the scene from a different position. It ends up livening up scenes of characters talking at each other, makes things visually more interesting, and overall gives the show a visual identity that both ties into and goes beyond its 3D CG DNA.
Finally, for three, there’s Siegfried and Roy themselves who are undeniably the best part of the show. Now, considering the fact that this show was conceived, essentially, around them in what can be perceived as a marketing stunt, this is a major surprise in its own right, but what is truly surprising is just how far the show goes with them. At no point does it paint the duo in reverential light, like a lot of shows do to celebrities who show up to play themselves (although the duo here were voiced by impersonators). Instead, it is nearly always taking several mountain-fulls worth of piss out of them, but in an affectionate way that adds to the comedy.
The Siegfried and Roy of Father Of The Pride are heterosexual life partners who are pompously egotistical, announce their entrance to anywhere with their own theme song and usually some overly-elaborate magic trick, are almost childlike in their petulant attitudes, total lovebirds for the capitalist wad-shot known as Las Vegas, and who both love each other even when they’re bickering. Therefore, not only do they end up as the heart of the show, weirdly enough, they are also a lightning rod for its more ridiculous and off-beat jokes and subplots. One of them involves the pair attempting to “save” Vegas from a family-owned B&B, treating it like Patient Zero of a plague that will wipe out their way of life, whilst the ones that are clearly designed for marketing opportunities, the aforementioned Matt Lauer appearance and one entirely dedicated to Siegfried wanting a Big Gulp from 7-11, are saved by their ridiculous behaviour.
They’re entertaining, on a consistent basis, no less, and it’s because the show demonstrates an off-kilter and silly fun sensibility – likely helped by the real Siegfried & Roy apparently loving everything the show did with them – that rarely comes through in the rest of the show. That being said, though, unlike Invasion America and Toonsylvania, I managed to remain interested throughout my time with the show, even genuinely entertained at points. Father Of The Pride was a fool’s gambit, one that was going fail no matter what it did and one that likely still would not have truly found its voice even if it did miraculously make it to Season 2, but it’s a darn interesting one and I prefer interesting failures to dull-as-all-hell failures, if nothing else.
Plus, you know, John Goodman was in it. I like John Goodman. I mean, who doesn’t?
We will pick back up the television output of DreamWorks Animation in about three months’ time. Next week, we return to their filmic output and look at the last film before their commonly cited creative rejuvenation period: 2007’s Bee Movie.
A new edition of DreamWorks! A Retrospective will be posted here every Monday at 1PM BST!