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"The Mr. Men Show": Pod People at Play

One always experiences an acute sense of trepidation upon hearing that the sacred cows of childhood are being remade. The knee-jerk response is usually something like: “WHAT?! How dare they?! WHY? What’s wrong with the old one? Why tamper with something that isn’t broken?” And if you’re British you’ll probably add “Are they going to use American voice actors?” Drastic remakes of older shows usually provoke a mixture of moral indignation and outrage.

What are these things, and what have they done to my childhood?!

It’s probably one of those atavistic human quirks—the Greeks probably lamented Roman adaptations of their plays, political systems and gods. Change the objects of our rose-tinted, nostalgia-haloed past? You might as well rip out our stomachs with fishhooks whilst saying rude things about our mothers.

So, I must admit, I was already sharpening my critical pencil even as I accepted the assignment to review the new Mr. Men Show for Toon Zone. What I got, though, was something even I wasn’t prepared for: a show of such staggering awfulness that it’s not even worth hating. But more on that in a moment.

The Mr. Men Show stems, ultimately, from a series of 1970′s children’s books written and illustrated by Roger Hargreaves, which featured a host of colourful, simply drawn characters called the Mr. Men. Each was a living charactonym, with a name and design illustrating his defining personality trait. The round, yellow, smiling Mr. Happy, for example, was always happy; the blue, rectangular, frowning Mr. Grumpy was always grumpy; and so on. Each Mr. Man was the star of his own book, which would typically feature him in a situation where his trait became a problem, leading to such lessons as “You must not be so grumpy or nosey or mean.” They were also marked by their resistance to Hollywood-style character reforms. Mr. Mean, for example, memorably ends his book by giving his brother two lumps of coal for Christmas instead of the usual one. He might have learnt his lesson, but he’s still a mean old git!

The books were tremendously successful, especially in the UK, where they spawned the spin-off “Little Miss” books (featuring a similar set of female characters) and a much-loved animated series. That series, narrated by Arthur Lowe of Dad’s Army fame, was based closely on the books and perfectly captured both their tone and look. Lowe was especially good at giving the Mr. Men humorous voices, and at giving the whole show a distinctly English flavour: a polite and slightly stuffy veneer pierced by a streak of absurdism. It also featured memorably twee title music. A successful American remake in the 1990s featured new title music, narration, actors and live action skits. But while it retained the same character designs and animation style, it also, predictably, removed much of the wit whilst heavily Americanising the characters. But it proved a hit and became the number one watched US kids show that year.

<img src="http://news.toonzone.net/images/2008-02/mrmen/MrNoseys.jpg" border="0" align="center" hspace="5" vspace="3"
The real Mr. Nosey (left) and his ersatz replacement.

Now from Mark Risley (Rugrats, As Told by Ginger, Rocket Power) comes a new remake for a new generation, airing on Cartoon Network in the US and Channel Five in the UK. Unusually, the US and UK versions of the show feature two entirely different sets of voice actors, and the official website is geo-locked so that US and UK viewers can only hear their respective versions of the characters. I dug around the UK website to get a feel for what the UK version is like (quite loud, with regional accents, I can report), but for the show itself I was given the American version to watch.

I don’t know whether to feel privileged or violated.

The makers of the new The Mr. Men Show have made a lot of changes to the original Hargreaves designs, presumably to ‘modernise’ them. Not one of these changes is warranted or successful. The original Mr. Nosey, for instance, was chiefly defined by his nose, and everything about him was designed to suggest that he goes about sticking his nose into anything and everything. Absolutely nothing in the redesign, though, suggests nosiness—certainly not the tie they’ve inexplicably added, whose design is faintly reminiscent of something you might find in The Jetsons. It’s an absolutely pointless re-design which saps the character of all that made him distinctive.

Mr. Lazy (left) and some damn dirty hippie.

Then there’s Mr. Lazy, another big name in the Mr. Men pantheon. The character children have known and loved since the 70s was the living embodiment of indolence: a big pink thing more used to being asleep than awake. The new version—yip!—is a sandal-wearing hipster in a hat. Brilliant! That’s exactly what the character needed, isn’t it?!

The mind boggles.

Many of the more interesting or funny characters seem to have gone missing. Mr. Uppity, Mr. Topsy-Turvy, Mr. Daydream, Mr. Tall, Mr. Skinny, Mr. Dizzy, Mr. Clumsy, Mr. Silly, Mr. Nonsense, Mr. Clever, Mr. Greedy, Mr. Mean, Mr. Jelly, and Mr. Sneeze—all Mr. Men stalwarts—are nowhere in evidence. This is all the more inexplicable when you discover that they have created a few characters as well for no apparent reason. These new creations include Mr. Stubborn (there was already a Little Miss Stubborn; why change the gender?) and Mr. Pernickety (there was already a Mr. Fussy; why bother making a new character?). Out of a possible roster of seventy-three Mr. Men and Little Miss characters, this show apparently utilizes only twenty-five, of which only a handful are remotely faithful to the originals. If they wanted to make a completely new show, which is what they have basically done, why bother to use the Mr. Men franchise at all?

Mr. Men, receiving pain—and bestowing it.

So what about the show itself? Well, I’ll say this in its favour: it does have a certain ironic style. There’s a narrator who reminds me a little bit of the over-the-top narrator from The Powerpuff Girls spliced with the laid-back, sardonic narrator of the Nintendo Wii game Warioware: Smooth Moves. The episode I saw was all about dancing. We’re told that the Mr. Men and Little Misses are all keen dancers, and we’re treated to a series of vignettes showing them in action. The main problem is that the show seems to make very little of the Mr. Men’s various traits—they are seemingly interchangable. Sure, they do a few things that their names might suggest, but for the best part they just goof about; it’s all terribly unfocussed. The show also assumes you already know all of the characters and makes little effort to introduce you to any of them, which is baffling when you consider that they’ve significantly altered most of the established designs and don’t always show the characters behaving to type.

The Mr. Men Show has also been positioned as a comedy sketch show for kids, but it didn’t seem at all funny to me, with painfully slow sketches ending with very little payoff in the way of laughs. These problems are compounded by the episodes’ length: at thirty minutes it’s far too long, and I found myself bored and confused at various junctures.

This show plainly doesn’t appear to have much going for it, and the best I can say is that the makers have made such a hash of it that long-time Mr. Men fans will simply ignore it as a slightly unfortunate irrelevance—a bit like the way hard-core fans of Batman: The Animated Series ignore The Batman.

So does The Mr. Men Show provoke moral indignation and outrage? No, just weary indifference.

The Mr. Men Show airs daily in the US on Cartoon Network and on Saturdays in the UK on Five.

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