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Movie-Based Animated Programs: Hope For The Future?

I have long been a proponent of movie-based animated programs. Perhaps I am unusual in that regard, but if I like a movie, I would like to see as much of its world as possible. Sure, it might not be as excellently portrayed on a TV budget, but at least you get to see its characters long after their theatrical star has burned out. That notion, however, was far more relevant when Disney held the torch. With a few exceptions, they only turned their movies into animated programs once they realized that any future movies based on the property would only be direct-to-video titles. That’s what makes the new torchbearer, DreamWorks Animation, so intriguing. They are actively striving to turn as many of their movies into animated programs as possible, while simultaneously striving to keep new sequels based on those properties in the theaters. Suffice to say, that has muddied the waters exponentially.

It’s all a matter of canon. When a movie gets turned into an animated program, things change. It’s an occupational hazard. The Disney cartoons from the 90s didn’t have to worry about that very much because, in most cases, there weren’t going to be any new theatrical movies. Kids would watch the original movie and then watch the cartoon, accepting any changes and experiencing the transition in a linear fashion. It may not have been perfect, but it made sense. With these DreamWorks cartoons, on the other hand, kids would watch the first movie, watch the animated program, and then watch the second movie. The changes between them are jarring, even for adults. I could excuse The Penguins Of Madagascar because it was handled strictly as a comedy, even if I did grow to like the show’s voice actors far more than their movie counterparts, but the ball was dropped big time on Kung Fu Panda: Legends Of Awesomeness.

It, too, was primarily a comedy, but unlike The Penguins Of Madagascar, they tried to give it some degree of continuity, though it was mitigated by the way Nickelodeon kept airing episodes out of order and aired new episodes sporadically. Unfortunately, the continuity didn’t really fit in with the movies and I’m not even convinced that they tried to make it fit.  The characters’ relationships imply that it takes place shortly after the first movie, but because Po is naturally learning new things and gaining new abilities, it can’t fit in with the second movie and the canon becomes branched. If there were no more sequels, this wouldn’t matter, but the sequels largely defeat the point of having the animated program and it takes away from its entertainment factor to a large degree.  Why should we be invested in seeing Po grow as a warrior if future movies don’t take his new growth into consideration?

So why, then, am I still excited for DreamWorks’ Dragons: Riders Of Berk? Because it appears that they have finally learned from their mistakes and are making an animated program that is simpatico with the movies; one that is, for all intents and purposes, a part of a non-branching canon.  This is a very good thing.   In a recent article about the show’s Comic Con panel, the show’s runners said that while each episode can be viewed as a standalone episode, it will build up the story and set things up for the theatrical sequel, promising that fans who have watched the show will be rewarded when they watch the movie. Additionally the series is using the movie’s voice actors for the main characters, and while the quality of its animation isn’t theatrical quality it’s still a huge step up compared to its Nickelodeon contemporaries.

Cartoon Network has kept a tight lid on the show’s production, so details are still scarce for a show that premieres in less than a month, but I’ve become more and more impressed with everything that I’ve seen. Some are concerned that the show will focus too much on discovering new dragons, similar to the mistake that the Lilo & Stitch series made when it focused each episode on a different alien, but the show’s runners have emphasized that a large portion of the focus will be on the relationships of the characters and their various adventures. There will be new villains as well as, yes, new dragons. Dragons are a key part of the franchise, after all. DreamWorks wants this show to succeed and they want to build upon what they already have, and I wish them luck.

That’s how it should be, after all. Effort, under the watchful eye of the studio to ensure that nothing in the show will contradict the movies. Now, I don’t expect that it will go down that smoothly; as I’ve said earlier, changes are an occupational hazard for movie-based cartoons. But if this show succeeds, it could set a tremendous precedent going forward. Since DreamWorks is currently working on a Monsters vs. Aliens cartoon and are pitching shows based on several other movies, it will be very interesting to see how things progress. We won’t have to wait long to find out, as Cartoon Network has scheduled a sneak peek of the series to air on August 7th at 7:30 PM. It will consist of the first two episodes, with the series premiering in full this September.

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