Review: Amazon Pilots “Knickerbock Teetertop,” “Lost in Oz,” “Lily the Unicorn,” & “Bear in Underwear”
Amazon Studios debuts six new kids pilots, four of them animated and all of them delightful in their own distinct ways (and, while they won’t get full reviews here, both live-action pilots are pretty good, too).
The Adventures of Knickerbock Teetertop is a pre-school series that sits in the space between reality and fantasy familiar to many in the nursery-to-elementary school set. The title character is a young boy who yearns for the life of adventure and discovery recounted in the tall tales told by his grandfather. The pilot story sends Knickerbock and his best friends Holly and Otto on Knickerbock’s magical Wonderboggan, as they journey to a wonderous parade of rainbow lightning slugs. Creativity and discovery color their encounters along the way with a magically windy forest, a strange magical creature outside even his grandfather’s knowledge, and a cave a bit too for Otto to fit through.
Throughout all of Knickerbock Teetertop, we’re never quite sure if what he’s seeing and doing are real or just the vivid elements of a child’s imagination brought to life. However, that distinction is also irrelevant, since the pilot has the same sense of wonder that you hear when real children babble out their mish-mash of reality and fiction that’s never quite coherent but sure sounds like a heck of a lot of fun. Karrot Animation also makes the Flash/After Effects animation work for them, making the inherently flattened shapes of the tools look and feel like a child’s picture book come to life. Add in some excellent voice acting by the child actors who carry the show and you get a show sure to contribute some oddball fantasy of its own to the kids watching it.
The very best thing I can say about Lost in Oz is that I really, really hope Amazon picks it up for a full season because I’m absolutely dying to find out what happens next. This update to L. Frank Baum’s classic book series turns young Dorothy Gale into a suburban Kansas teenager with a penchant for cobbling together oddball Rube Goldberg contraptions to solve everyday menial tasks. Discovering a strange green notebook hidden under the floorboards of her house unleashes a giant green tornado that tears the whole house off its foundation, stranding Dorothy and her dog Toto in the magical land of Oz. However, the series soon strikes off in unexpected directions that will throw off anyone familiar with the books or the Judy Garland movie. The Yellow Brick Road has turned into the Yellow Brick Line, a train system that seems long shuttered and unlikely to take Dorothy anywhere. Dorothy soon befriends a sarcastic, street-smart girl named West and a surprisingly big munchkin named Ojo, while also learning of the mechanics of magic and the dire magic shortage in Oz. Before the pilot episode is through, Dorothy will have made some surprising new friends and a potentially dangerous new enemy, losing one opportunity to get home in the process.
Throughout it all, Lost in Oz is fleet and sure-footed, packing an enormous amount of adventure into its half-hour running time and ensuring all its story beats hit home with reassuring solidity. It more than makes up for a slightly slow start by running fast and hard once Dorothy lands in Oz, turning her plight and the troubles in Oz into engrossing viewing. This thoroughly modern Dorothy also makes a winning lead character, confronting this world of impossibilities with ingenuity and pluck. However, she is perpetually upstaged by the scene-stealing West, with her magnetic self-assurance and a sense of snark that never curdles enough to make her unlikeable. She may be the show’s most interesting character, for reasons that become abundantly clear in the climactic third act. My one and only nitpick is that sometimes, the CGI animation reveals its budgetary limits, sometimes falling just short of fully conjuring the grandeur in the setting that the script seems to call for. But these moments are few and far between, and generally outweighed by the moments when it’s clear that Flaunt Productions stretched every penny they had to the breaking point to create this rich and fascinating world. Lost in Oz is one of the most thoroughly satisfying premieres I’ve seen in a long time, and the pick of the litter among the four animated premieres.
The shortest description I have for Lily the Unicorn is that it’s Adventure Time for the kindergarten crowd: gleefully surreal and unapologetic in its oddball sensibilities, but with gentler sensibilities and without the occasional nightmare fuel. It also shares the oddball whimsy of Nickelodeon’s Oswald (a show I only discovered through Amazon Prime reruns). Based on the book by Dallas Clayton, the lead character is an irrepressible ray of sunshine in a giant city populated by animals large and small. The pilot episode involves a new food cart run by two of Lily’s friends to sell falafel waffles, a silly jingle that goes viral, and the thwarted plans of Lily’s fastidious penguin friend Roger to spend his day checking off items on his “To Do” list. The pilot episode is as breezy and appealing as its lead character, ensuring that we have fun hanging around with her even if we have no idea what she’s talking about half the time.
Lily the Unicorn also shares Adventure Time‘s indie comic art style, with the deliberately flattened animation making the show look like Dallas Clayton’s picture book come to animated life. The show’s sense of humor is also quite unconventional, opting to avoid the obvious big belly laughs in favor of jokes that are quirky and sometimes non-sensical, with an eye for the oddball non-sequitur or the amusing anachronism. It is also thoroughly modern in a way that may even make it dated rather quickly, with the smartphone cameras playing a major part in Lily’s first adventure. Still, it’s endearing fun.
I am also rather pleased that between Lost in Oz and Lily the Unicorn, fully half of this batch of Amazon Studios premieres are anchored by female leads while avoiding the clichés of “girl cartoons” (as described by Lauren Faust). It’s nice to see other studios actively filling glaringly empty niches that other networks and studios avoid out of the misguided, sexist reasoning Ms. Faust describes in that interview.
If Lily the Unicorn avoids the obvious in its comedy, Bear in Underwear gleefully charges headlong into comedy that’s as big and broad as possible. Another show based on a series of books (this time by Todd Goldman), Bear in Underwear centers on Eddie Behr, an energetic and imaginative young cub who, like almost all the animals in the forest of Shady Glade Woods, has adopted human tighty-whities as “pants” in the latest fashion craze. It’s an absolutely ridiculous reason to justify the title, but it seems emblematic of the overall sense of humor. Which is perfectly fine, since several times during the pilot episode, it’s particular brand of comedy reminded me a lot of the anarchic freewheeling jokes in classic Looney Tunes cartoons, only without the emphasis on physical pain. The pilot episode sees Eddie Behr determined to make his mark as an inventor, where adopting marshmallows as a building material after he finds a bag of them on a campsite. I find it interesting that both Bear in Underwear and Lily the Unicorn both center on plots involving the whims of becoming fashionable, but while Lily the Unicorn is blissfully unconcerned with her own popularity (or even aware of it for most of the episode), Eddie becomes obsessed with it when his preposterous marshmallow hats become the latest fashion craze in the forest. There are the usual lessons about the value of your friends and how you can find the best things in life without actively looking for them, but the real draw of the series is its willfully raucous sense of humor. I found the consequences of Eddie’s all-nighter building marshmallow hats was particularly amusing, along with the utter silliness that ensues.
Bento Box animation nicely adapts Todd Goldman’s art in the Bear in Underwear books, interestingly turning some of the art more detailed than the way it looks in print and breaking the usual animation rule that art gets simpler as it turns into a cartoon.