Joe Strike takes a ride with Doogal to discover the long journey the classic British TV series, The Magic Roundabout, took to arrive in U.S. theaters.
In 1964, Le Manège Enchanté, a five-minute, stop motion-animated childrens show premiered on French TV. It jumped the English Channel and premiered the next year in Great Britain as The Magic Roundabout. Four decades and hundreds of episodes later, a CGI feature based on the series premieres in the U.S. Feb. 24, 2006, as Doogal. Its roundabout route from French TV short to U.S. feature film is almost as complex as the quest its heroes set out on in the movie
The shows whimsical characters were created by Serge Danot and animated by British stop-motion legend Ivor Wood. (Wood went on to animate the Wombles and Paddington stop-motion series.) At different times the show has been accused of being a satire of French politics and (like any number of childrens series) a druggy psychedelic romp.
While its surrealistic stories and imagery may have lent themselves to that interpretation, The Magic Roundabout became a cult hit. (In the U.S., a roundabout is known as a traffic circle; in England a magic roundabout is a collection of several interlocking individual ones, although the original French title might have referred to the carousel that is part of the shows setting.)
Roundabouts success was in no small part due to Emma Thompsons dad Eric, at the time a presenter on the BBC kids series Play School. Charged with narrating the episodes and providing the characters voices, Thompson tossed the French scripts and came up with his own stories, based entirely on the episodes visuals. His version of the show became a multi-generational hit that guaranteed it a long life one that has so far outlived Danot, Wood and Thompson himself.
In 1972, Danot created a stop-motion Magic Roundabout feature. Thirty years later, the French film company Pathé Cinema began production on a new CGI version that premiered in England in 2004. That film is now reaching U.S. shores courtesy of the Weinstein Co., hoping to repeat the surprise success it enjoyed with Hoodwinked earlier this year. But before it could premiere here, it had to be retrofitted for the ears of American audiences.
The Magic Roundabouts first cultural transformation came with its BBC premiere and Eric Thompsons re-imagining of the show. In the process, the characters lost their French names the bovine Azalée became Ermintrude, the hippy-ish rabbit Flappy was rechristened Dylan and shaggy dog Pollux was now called Dougal (a spoof, some said, of French president Charles DeGaulle)
Big-name British talent all well-known to U.S. audiences replaced the films original French voice performers for its U.K. release: Joanna Lumley, Robbie Williams, Jim Broadbent, Bill Nighy and Tom Baker of Dr. Who fame. A new script, one that matched the characters lips movements and replaced French cultural references with British ones, was written; once again, The Magic Roundabout was receiving an English-language makeover.
However, a second makeover was in the works, this time for U.S. audiences. (Doogals characters may look familiar to viewers of Nickelodeons long-ago Pinwheel series, where the British episodes had their U.S. airing during the networks early years.) For starters, Dougal lost its u and gained a second o. Then, the entire British voice cast (with the exception of Kylie Minogue as little girl Florence and Sir Ian McKellen as the spring-loaded Zebedee) were swapped for equally well-known American actors: Whoopi Goldberg replaced Lumley as Ermintrude, Jimmy Fallon took over from Bill Nighy as Dylan, and Daniel Tay was substituted for Robbie Williams in the starring role of Doogal.
William H. Macy and (in an increasingly rare acting appearance) Daily Show host Jon Stewart also took over from British performers while Clerks Kevin Smith came aboard to voice a previously silent moose. Finally, a narrator was added to fill a few story gaps: the very British Dame Judi Dench.
Now it was time for an Americanized script to be written, preferably by someone intimately familiar with U.S. pop culture and contemporary kids tastes. Harvey Weinstein picked up the phone and called Butch Hartman.
Harvey had this movie he wanted me to watch, recounted Hartman, creator of Nickelodeons Fairly OddParents and Danny Phantom. He wanted to remake with an American sensibility and cast.
Hartman found himself impressed by the films beautiful animation and appealing looking characters. The dog looks like Ringo Starrs haircut. If you took one of the Beatles haircuts and put a nose on it, thats pretty much what he is. Eager to work with Weinstein and on a longer-format project, Hartman started work on the film last June.
It was like writing in a straightjacket. One of the stipulations was we really couldnt change it that much. Im so used to starting with blank page, and I couldnt do it this time. My pages were blank, but there was sort of like ink underneath it.
Once an idea for a live-action framing story à la The Princess Bride a little girl hearing a bedtime story from her grandfather fell by the wayside, Hartman focused on characterization, dialog and dealing with lip sync. Thankfully some of the characters had their back to the camera, that helped out a lot. Kevin Smiths previously mute moose was rewarded with an interior monologue that neatly sidestepped the problem of his motionless moose mouth.
Hartmans Americanization of Doogal involved replacing Briticisms like, I thought he was a shaggy dog story, with, I thought he was fake like wrestling. Whoopi Goldbergs Ermintrude was a prime (beef?) example of this process. The cow in the original version was a veddy Queen Elizabeth sort of upper class London woman, Hartman explains, adopting her accent himself. Then Harvey had the idea to make her a sassy African-American woman, like a diva. Once Whoopi got into it we started writing it for her. Besides, who better to write urban black dialog than a white kid from Michigan, thats what I always say.
Retaining McKellans and Minogues dialog from the British version meant the characters interacting with them couldnt stray too far from their original lines. Fortunately, McKellen only appeared in part of the film and was easy to dance around. Hartman called his recording session with Jon Stewart (who replaced Tom Baker as the villainous ZeeBad) one of the funniest Ive done his riffs between takes were just very, very funny. Considering Stewarts Daily Show habit of using character voices to riff on the news (his version of Dick Cheney turns the vice president into Batmans Penguin villain), perhaps his participation in Doogal is not as unexpected as it might seem. Or perhaps the reason for it was, as Hartman suggested, I think there was a kidnapping of his child or something, a ransom thing.
Hartman reflected on his experience with Doogal. Would I do it again? Only with Harvey. Id like to do what I said, work from a blank page. But Im such a TV-holic, Im on a TV schedule Ive got to have five shows a month done where they [the Hoodwinked creators] can tell one story every two years.
After Hoodwinkeds unexpected success, Harvey Weinstein is undoubtedly shooting for a second animation bulls-eye; bringing in talents like Hartman and the Hoodwinked team is one way of improving the odds along with some savvy marketing. Cracking the lucrative animated/family film market is incentive enough itself, but its not out of the realm of possibility that Harvey has another goal in mind too: letting his former bosses at Walt Disney Pictures know they have another competitor for those box office dollars.
Joe Strike lives in New York City and writes for and about animation; hes this close to finishing his childrens novel.