overthinking the idiot box

July 11, 2005

Animation on television, child-safe and otherwise.

When Auteurs Go Wrong

by Adam Lipkin

One of the best things about the success of the Cartoon Cartoon line on the Cartoon Network is the return of the cartoon auteur. It's not that there weren't strong creative forces behind the cartoons of the '70s and '80s, but they were certainly kept a lot more behind the scenes than, say, Bill Wray or Tex Avery. But after the success of shows like Genndy Tartakovsky's Dexter's Laboratory, Craig McCracken's Powerpuff Girls, and Van Partible's Johnny Bravo, hyping the creator of a new cartoon became commonplace, and recent shows such as Star Wars: Clone Wars and Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends have benefited from this.

Unfortunately, one of the drawbacks to the superstar system is that it increases expectations. That's fine when they're met. But when a big name drops the ball, it's a lot more noticeable than when a show anonymously bows.
Unfortunately, one of the drawbacks to the superstar system is that it increases expectations. That's fine when they're met — when Tartakovsky gave us Samurai Jack and Clone Wars, we were all suitably impressed. But when a big name drops the ball, it's a lot more noticeable than when a show anonymously bows. And two of Cartoon Networks bigger recent debuts — Paul Dini's Krypto the Superdog and Judd Winick's The Life and Times of Juniper Lee — have gotten off to noticeably weak starts.

Krypto the Superdog should, by all standards, have been a blast. Dini, one of the producers and writers behind Batman: The Animated Series, broke through for most people when he created the character Harley Quinn, one of the best Batvillains in ages. He also produced Superman and the current Duck Dodgers series, and wrote Batman Beyond: The Return of the Joker, one of the best animated movies ever to hit the small screen. So when Cartoon Network announced that Dini was going to give us a show (starring Superman's pet dog, one of my favorite Silver Age comics concepts growing up) aimed at children, I figured we'd have the next Powerpuff Girls or Tiny Toon Adventures (a show Dini also worked on) — something aimed at the pre-K and early primary school crowd, but that was intelligent enough to scale to the older viewers as well.

Alas, after a solid pilot episode, the series falls surprisingly flat. The concept is solid — we've got Krypto, former pet of Kal-El on Krypton, landing on Earth and becoming the pet of a local boy, Kevin. Thanks to a Babel Fish-like translator device, Kevin can communicate with Krypto, although most of Krypto's adventures are on his own, or with next-door neighbor Streaky (Supergirl's cat in the comics, here a feline who accidentally absorbs some of Krypto's powers) and Ace the Bat-Hound (exactly the super-pet you're expecting). Unfortunately, Ace never truly manages to convey the sense of darkness and cynicism that would properly balance the fun-loving nature of Krypto, and Streaky is merely every cartoon's "annoying sidekick" character rolled into one.

And even taking into account the target audience, it's hard to read any menace in Brian Dobson's Lex Luthor, especially following up Clancy Brown's amazingly evil take on the character in the Superman and Justice League Unlimited cartoons. The episodes are generally overly simplistic, the kind of fluff that Powerpuff and other shows should have made obsolete, with long introductions of new characters, overdone exposition and no real sense of adventure.

The show does get serious points for being the first preschool cartoon I can recall to actually have the names of the writers spoken out loud (something I heartily approve of, given how under-appreciated they are), and it wouldn't be fair to ignore the look of the series itself, which is gorgeous and stylized, conveying a perfect Silver Age comics feel. But, at this point, the show has a long way to go before it will be remembered as fondly as the other classics with which Dini is associated.

My hopes weren't quite as high for The Life and Times of Juniper Lee, mainly because, other than his original stint in front of the camera on The Real World: San Francisco, Judd Winick doesn't have a TV track record. But in comics, he's got a damned fine one (ignoring his current Batman run, of course), having given us the cynical Frumpy the Clown, a solid run on Green Arrow and (most importantly) the incredibly brilliant and adult-only The Adventures of Barry Ween, Boy Genius, the most foul-mouthed and funny comic book ever. So when Judd announced he was producing a show about an 11-year-old girl who is destined to fight the forces of evil, I had visions of the long-lost Buffy the Vampire Slayer animated series, mixed with a little more over-the-top comedy.

There are moments in Juniper Lee that live up to that, from the 6-foot hippie leprechauns in the pilot to the Batoot, a monster who eats everything. Alas, the show often loses sight of what makes it special, instead throwing in annoying sidekick after annoying sidekick, most notably Juniper's classically pesky little brother Ray Ray, and her Scottish familiar in the form of a dog, Monroe. Throw in a few more silly plot devices — like the fact that Juniper's parents somehow don't know about her power/responsibility, even though it was handed down from her grandmother — and annoying minor characters like a bullying older brother and best friends who constantly forgive and ignore Juniper's disappearances, and you've got a show that weighs its original and fun side down with way too much derivative baggage. Again, the solid animation (the setting, Orchard Bay City, is clearly San Francisco, and looks gorgeous), and nice voice work are pluses, but mediocre writing still trumps pretty visuals and voices.

That's not to say that either show can't be salvaged. Both have solid core concepts, great looks, and tons of potential. Krypto's core cast wouldn't even need to be changed — just some better writing on the episodes and a resistance to the dumbing-down that the current concepts are being subjected to would take it a long way. Juniper, although currently the more watchable show, needs to shift the focus away from the family life of the lead and onto her friends (there's a reason the Buffy formula worked so well) and the monsters themselves, who more often than not get the best lines and are the most interesting characters.* That's more work, certainly, but retooling now would pay huge dividends later. As things stand right now, though, neither show has the breakout potential that a show like Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends — the last huge all-ages show from CN — did. Here's hoping they have more success with Camp Lazlo (which will have made its debut after this column is put to bed, but before any of you read it).

*That doesn't excuse the show for presenting Loki and Thor as brothers — Stan Lee's anti-educational curse lives on!

Email the author.

Return to Vol. 1, Episode 8.