We've seen quite a few examples of old children's cartoons finding their way to the big screen in big budget, live action format of late. But for a while, especially during the Saturday morning cartoon glory days of the 1980s, the reverse was more often the case. Big blockbuster films would spin-off into animated series to continue the adventures (and the merchandising) of whatever big name hero had been huge that previous summer at the box office. It's mildly insane to think about in 2011, but back in the '80s, there was surprisingly little uproar from parents about R-rated characters being turned into products marketed at children.
The fascinating thing about this trend was always guessing which movies would make the jump. The answer was rarely obvious. After all, who would have expected the ultraviolent Vietnam veteran Rambo to assemble a team of ethnically diverse soldiers to go around saving the world each week? Or for Paul Verhoeven's biting satire of consumer culture and violence in the media, Robocop, to be shrunk down to a 30 minute series in which slapsticky comedy intermingled with the crime of the week?
While there are numerous examples of this trend, I just want to highlight a few of the best, and in some cases, the weirdest examples of this former trend. Journey with me, if you will, into a world where ghosts become best pals with humans, and an animated Steve Guttenberg can even exist.
Robocop: The Animated Series (1988)
Purely on paper, a Robocop cartoon makes a bit of sense. The central character is, after all, a giant robot who fights crime. He's got a kick ass gun, a cool cop car, and a slew of easy-to-market catchphrases. This all, of course, assumes that you've only ever seen Robocop the character, and never seen Robocop the movie.
Paul Verhoeven's film is Rated R (down from an original X rating, which required some edits to get), largely for multiple scenes of grotesque, brutal violence. Much of that violence, along with many of the commercial asides featured throughout the movie, were intended as social commentary on the media's penchant for hyping violence through the news and various commercial products. Not that the studio would care, of course. And thus, the ultimate irony fulfilled itself when Robocop himself became a cartoon product, ripe for the merchandising.
The weird thing about Robocop: The Animated Series is that it actually retained a decent amount of the movie's darker themes. Murphy's killing and subsequent rebirth as Robocop is actually alluded to in the opening credits of each of the 12 episodes, and Robocop even had prejudice in the workplace to deal with from a rival cop, who viewed him as a "ticking time bomb."
Most of the movie's characters remain in the show, including Robocop's best friend and partner, Nancy Lewis, and even the vile Clarence Boddicker, who as most will recall, is dead by the time the movie is over. Here, he's reimagined as some kind of supermaniacal criminal genius, but at least maintains the nasally voice and fondness for skullduggery.
Still, this was a kid's cartoon, and by and large, the action remained pretty tame. It's just impressive that it managed to retain any of the film's flavor, especially when you consider the hyper-cartoonish trainwreck that was the second Robocop animated series, Robocop: Alpha Commando.
In the film Beetlejuice, the movie's titular character, played by a wonderfully vile Michael Keaton, is awful. Even among other ghouls, he seems ghoulish by comparison. He's sex-crazed, sociopathic, and has a hard-on for getting rid of the living. He even tries to trick Lydia, the young daughter of one of the film's families, into marrying him, largely to exploit an afterlife bureaucratic loophole that will allow him to escape into the living world. In short: He's the worst.
So how weird is it that in this ABC cartoon series reimagining of the film, Beetlejuice is the good guy? He's still a grifter and scam artist, but by and large, he's been morphed into a kind of lovable scamp, who flits between our world and the afterlife purely at the whims of adorable goth girl, Lydia Deetz.
Yes, the same Lydia Deetz that Beetlejuice tried to make his child bride in the film. That's all been retconned or forgotten here, as the series depicts the two as best buds who go on adventures throughout the Neitherworld.
Forgetting that the show effectively ignores most of the movie (and even completely cuts out the stars of the film, Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis' deceased couple), Beetlejuice was actually a decently creative bit of Saturday morning entertainment. The series featured a wide variety of spirits and ghouls for the pair to interact with, and there was something strangely pleasing about a major series starring a sort of disaffected goth chick. Keep in mind, this is long before the days of Daria. While Lydia's cynicism is dialed back a whole bunch here compared with Winona Ryder's portrayal, she's still far from your average cartoon heroine.
And hey, at least they kept some version of Danny Elfman's iconic theme song.
Conan the Adventurer (1992)
To say that Conan the Adventurer bears little resemblance to the first of the Conan the Barbarian films, and even less to the fantasy fiction novels that spawned the film series, is quite the understatement.
In some ways, it resembles the silly, almost unwatchably dumb antics of Conan the Destroyer, the sequel that turned its predecessor's propensity for over-the-top violence and fantasy mythology into a comedic sideshow. That movie was not unlike a live-action cartoon, so the comparison does make some sense.
At the very least, Adventurer was a half-decent sword-and-sorcery series, filled with magic, adventuring and, uh, serpent men. Yes, the bad guys of the series are Set-worshipers, as in Conan the Barbarian, but sadly, no sign of Thulsa Doom ever appears. Instead, we get a lame sorcerer who looks a little too much like Serpentor for comfort.
While there is plenty of muscly, loinclothy sword-swinging to be found, the cartoon version of Conan is a bit of a limp noodle. None of Schwarzenegger's rage, nor the verbose personality of original author Robert E. Howard's works really feels infused here. He's just kind of a gruff dude on a revenge quest with a rainbow coalition of other barbarian friends and a talking phoenix sidekick. Yeah, a talking phoenix. And he's wacky, too!
Still, at least it's better than the follow-up series, Conan and the Young Warriors, in which Conan has to babysit a bunch of bitchy kids. Yuck.
Police Academy (1988)
By the time the Police Academy cartoon series came around, there were already five movies in the series. All of them were R-rated, and despite the wacky brand of slapstick humor frequently on display, nothing about the films screamed "kids show!"
But, hey, when has that ever stopped anyone from enacting a dastardly money-making scheme aimed at America's children? In 1988, we got a Police Academy cartoon, complete with all the familiar characters--Mahoney, Tackleberry, Jones, Hightower, Laverne, and what have you--as well as some new characters, including a legion of talking dog cops and The Fat Boys (who also did the theme song).
The show itself hovered somewhere around the lower tier of Hanna-Barbara quality, with stiff animation, barely-existent plots, lame-brained villains-of-the-week, and voice acting that resembled a dinner theater production of Police Academy. Actually, a dinner theater production of Police Academy would have probably been way better.
As a final aside, the action figures developed for this show were some of the crappiest figures of the '80s. I should know: I owned a few.
Rambo: The Force of Freedom (1986)
Speaking of inappropriate for children, hey, did you ever see any of the Rambo movies? Holy shit! So many dudes die in those! Especially II and III! But then, John Rambo is a symbol of America's willingness to kick foreign ass in the name of freedom and whatever, so I guess he's perfect for a kids cartoon, right? Right? Hello...?
Look, he's got muscles, he carries big guns, and he can punch dudes. In the '80s, that's all a cartoon about heroes fighting terrorists needed. Plus, Rambo is a popular, recognizable name! Producers would have been insane not to make him a cartoon hero!
And make him a cartoon hero they did in The Force of Freedom, a hyper-generic rip of G.I. Joe that pitted Rambo and his rainbow coalition of associates--which included at various points a black race car driver and engineer, an Asian chick who knows martial arts and disguises, a ninja named White Dragon (whose rival was, of course, Black Dragon), a former football player named "Touchdown" Jones, and an Indian named, of all things, Chief--against the hyper-generic terrorist organization S.A.V.A.G.E., headed up by the vile General Warhawk and some other evil dudes.
The plots, of course, revolved around the usual terrorist threat of the week, with Rambo, and sometimes his buddies, running into the heart of danger to stop some threat against America. The best part of the show was trying to figure out if the actor portraying Rambo would or wouldn't be trying to affect a Stallone-inspired accent that week. Most weeks he wouldn't even bother, but eeeeeeevery so often, you'd get a little bit of that Sly flavor thrown in for no good reason at all.
Otherwise, the show was pretty much junk.
The Real Ghostbusters (1986)
And finally, after all that crud, we come to the cream of the crop, the very best of all the children's cartoons developed from decidedly adult-oriented films. I am, of course, referring to The Real Ghostbusters.
Produced two years after Ghostbusters became a major hit at the box office, the continuing adventures of Peter Venkman, Ray Stantz, Egon Spengler, and Winston Zeddemore actually saw surprisingly little in the way of changes to the traits of the characters, both physical and in personality. Venkman became a bit more handsome than Bill Murray was (sorry Bill), but otherwise the aspects we knew of the characters were simply exaggerated according to cartoon law.
Even the storylines on the show felt very much in the vein of the movie, with a mixture of goofy humor and creatively designed ghost villains that, at times, were actually pretty scary. Some plots were downright dark, mixing creepy monsters with surprisingly emotional storylines that make the show surprisingly watchable to this very day. There are even plenty of references to the movies. Gozer and (eventually Viggo the Carpathian are both frequently mentioned, the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man makes multiple appearances, and Slimer takes on the role as the team's sidekick (which they even go to the trouble of explaining in the episode "Citizen Ghost").
The show's relatively high quality probably had a lot to do with a mixture of a great voice cast (including such luminaries as Lorenzo Music, Arsenio Hall [who actually beat out Ernie Hudson in an audition for the role of Winston] and Frank Welker), and the team of writers, which most notably included veteran sci-fi writer J. Michael Straczynski. He wrote many of the show's best episodes, but even after departing the show, The Real Ghostbusters remained largely of solid quality all throughout its 134 episode run. Yes, that's right. 134 episodes, over the course of six seasons. And that doesn't even include the added Slimer shorts that came toward the end of the series run, nor the abysmal Extreme Ghostbusters series that popped up in the late '90s.
If you want an example of how to turn a movie into a TV show the right way, look no further than The Real Ghostbusters. It is honestly, without question, one of the best kids' cartoons ever produced.
Any personal favorites I forgot? Just want to talk about how great The Real Ghostbusters is? Then by all means, hit up the comments!