Inside ‘Animaniacs,’ ‘She-Ra’-Led New Wave of Animated Kids TV Reboots
Reboots aren’t just for grown-ups anymore.
The proliferation of streaming platforms reliant on free-flowing programming pipelines has led to the development of new versions of shows such as “Battlestar Galactica” and “True Blood” that last aired when Barack Obama was president. That same industry-shaking shift away from linear and toward streaming, coupled with the emergence of nostalgia and geekdom as dominating cultural forces, has turned kids TV — already accustomed to regularly reimagining corporate-controlled IP — into a hotbed of reboots.
“We’re in an interesting time right now, where, probably more so than ever before, adults who grew up with certain properties are able to still be a part of those fandoms and talk about them and participate in those fandoms very actively,” says Noelle Stevenson, creator of the DreamWorks Animation-produced “She-Ra and the Princesses of Power” for Netflix. “In the past, it was maybe a little bit more of a niche thing. But there is so much community around the nostalgic properties from the ’80s and the ’90s.”
Stevenson’s show takes its inspiration from the ’80s Filmation animated fantasy series “She-Ra: Princess of Power,” a girl-targeted spinoff of “Masters of the Universe.” The show ran for two seasons but carved out a lasting niche.
“You could still go to Comic-Con and still see people dressed up as She-Ra when our show came out,” says Stevenson. “There were still people engaging in this subculture.”
“She-Ra” is by no means the only character enjoying a comeback. While some of the best-known properties such as Batman, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and My Little Pony have been reiterated so consistently that you can hardly find a time when some family-friendly series based on them wasn’t on the air, recent years have seen kid-vid programmers digging deeper into the vault than ever.
November saw Hulu premiere a new version of Steven Spielberg’s “Animaniacs.” The original was a highlight of ’90s afterschool animated lineups, known for sharp gags and a vigorous pace. But the property sat dormant for two decades before being revisited — a lifetime in today’s media environment.
Warner Bros. Animation and Cartoon Network Studios president Sam Register had shied away from “Animaniacs” for years, knowing that the budgets necessary to reboot the show in a way that would satisfy Spielberg’s Amblin Television and live up to the original could not be supported in a linear universe. But the universe changed.
“It was only when streaming showed up that I approached Amblin about rebooting it,” Register says.
Streaming made kid-parent co-viewing a reality. In a linear, ad-supported world, children’s cable networks carved up the days into a preschool block, a kids 6-11 block, and a primetime block.
“If you got parents and kids to view those shows together at any given time, that was lucky, but not the goal,” Register says. But for “Animaniacs,” Register could count on adult Hulu subscribers who grew up with the original sampling the show with their children.
In a streaming world, shows for all ages are available to watch at all times of day. And with the COVID-19 pandemic having rendered time a meaningless construct, co-viewing is more likely than ever.
“We approached it like ‘Jurassic World’,” says Wellesley Wild, executive producer of the new “Animaniacs.” “It was as if there were a huge gap since the last good ‘Jurassic’ movie and the parents who had seen the first ‘Jurassic’ were bringing their kids to see the new movie.”
The new “Animaniacs” contains jokes aimed at kids and others — such as send-ups of Donald Trump and the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre — at their parents. “We exist right in the middle of those two things,” says co-executive producer Gabe Swarr.
The explosion in the volume of content that has accompanied the dawn of the streaming era has also made programmers mindful of finding any way they can to stand out.
“There’s a noticeable uptick right now in brand-name content,” says Matt Youngberg, executive producer of Disney’s “DuckTales.” “All these streaming services are getting their footing, and they all want to have something that they can point at and say, ‘Hey, we have this thing that you’ve heard of before.’”
The new “DuckTales” is based on the ’80s series of the same name, which itself was based on the Donald Duck and Scrooge McDuck comic books of Carl Barks and, later, Don Rosa, which themselves were based on the cartoon shorts Walt Disney Animation’s Donald Duck cartoons. Nostalgia and reinvention have ben parts of the “DuckTales” characters’ lives for decades. But the internet has given powerful platforms to fan communities that can be excessively critical of what they view as deviations from their favorite versions. Still, “DuckTales” co-executive producer Francisco Angones preaches patience.
“I look at Batman,” he says. “Batman has been interpreted as Batman ’66 and the Tim Burton Batman and the Christopher Nolan Batman and the animated-series Batman. You can push them and stretch them in different ways. If you believe that a character is good and you love a character enough, then you have to believe that it can withstand a little bit reinvention without fully breaking the character.”
Even in a streaming era, however, kids remain the core audience for kids programming. Paul DeBenedittis, executive vice president of programming and content strategy for Nickelodeon, points to the recent reboot of sketch-comedy series “All That” as an example of how a reboot of an old show must ultimately offer fresh appeal to an audience likely unfamiliar with the original — in this case by being funny.
“At the end of the day, the show has to speak for itself,” DeBenedittis says. “It has to go above and beyond all the bells and whistles and the nostalgia plays. It has to be a great show.”
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