In the lead up to their first full-length movie and forthcoming hour-long finale, Karen Raugust digs up the scoop on the making of Cartoon Network's long-running series, The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy.
Just as the Cartoon Network series The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy prepares to wrap up its seven-year run, the channel is debuting the first feature-length movie based on the property. A three-hour marathon of episodes will lead up to the March 30 on-air premiere of Billy & Mandy's Big Boogey Adventure, to be followed by a DVD release from Cartoon Network and Warner Bros. Home Video a few days later, on April 3.
Billy & Mandy got its start as a never-aired short film that creator Maxwell Atoms, a former storyboard artist on Cow and Chicken and I Am Weasel, made in college. Because the Grim Reaper was a major character, "I actually never throught [Cartoon Network] would go for it," Atoms says.
But in August 2000, Grim & Evil -- which consisted of two Atoms creations, Billy & Mandy and Evil Con Carne -- won The Big Pick, an online and on-air vote-in contest held during a 53-hour Cartoon Weekend original programming marathon. Grim & Evil beat out two other contestants, Whatever Happened to Robot Jones? and Long Hair and Double Dome, by a margin of two to one. The next August, Grim & Evil became the network's 12th original series and, in June 2003, The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy split from Evil Con Carne and premiered as a separate half-hour series.
The show's early history was somewhat rocky, according to Atoms, who reports it went on and off air a number of times before becoming established. "We had a really rough first couple of years. I'm not sure even Cartoon Network wanted it to live."
Viewers started to discover the show once it expanded to the half-hour format, and extending each storyline from seven to 11 minutes "made a big difference," Atoms says. "Seven's not really room enough to tell a story. It's just a couple of gags and that's it."
Produced at Cartoon Network Studios, Billy & Mandy tells the story of two young friends, cynical Mandy and carefree Billy and their best buddy, The Grim Reaper. The three pals deal not only with unwanted visitors from the spirit world, but with the usual challenges that face suburban kids as well. The show will wrap up after 76 half-hours and an hour-long finale that is currently being finished; over its lifetime the series has become one of the longest-running and most popular shows on the network, especially among boys.
In the two-hour Big Boogey Adventure, billed on the DVD package as "the year's best scary pirate robot comedy," Grim is stripped of his powers. To restore them, the three friends must race the Boogey Man to capture The Hand of Horror. As is true of the series, the film is full of jokes and references to horror movies and pop culture icons -- including Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans -- that have influenced Atoms. "That's what I like about animation," he says. "I can remember what I liked in my childhood and bring it back."
The feature came about when Cartoon Network was looking for some longer-format material to air. At the same time, Atoms had been thinking about pitching a longer story featuring the characters. His first pitch, Billy & Mandy Vs. the Martians, was declined by the network -- "There were too many zombies," Atoms says -- and became an episode in the series instead. Atoms' back-up idea was Big Boogey Adventure.
"It's sort of our Wrath of Khan tale," he explains. Like the Star Trek film The Wrath of Khan, which centered on a villain that had appeared in just one episode of the classic television series, Big Boogey Adventure features the Boogey Man, the series' only real villain, who also appeared only in one episode. (The 2004 original short, Bully Boogie appears on the DVD as an extra, along with a behind-the-voices featurette.) "I hope it will be a fun movie that the fans will really like," Atoms says. "You'll learn some things about the characters, and there are a lot of good jokes in it."
While the show is about to finish its run and Atoms is creating a new pilot for the network, the Billy & Mandy characters will continue to live. Atoms has a Halloween special in the works that he describes as sort of a spin-off of Billy & Mandy. Billy, Mandy and Grim will make an appearance in the special, but it will focus on some of the series' secondary characters, such as Irwin.
Atoms believes Billy & Mandy's longevity is due in large part to the three main characters and their relationship with each other. "At its core, it's about three friends," he says.
Karen Raugust is a Minneapolis-based freelance business writer specializing in animation, publishing, licensing and art. She is the author of The Licensing Business Handbook ( EPM Communications).