Joe Strike swings through the jungles of production (misses a tree) and finds the details behind Classic Media's revamp of the TV classic, George of the Jungle.
Boom, boom, boom-ba ba-ba boom...
The most recognizable theme song (except for The Simpsons, of course) in TV cartoon history is back. After a close to 40-year absence, Jay Ward's George of the Jungle has swung back onto the screen -- and once again, face-first into that tree.
The song is familiar, but George doesn't look quite the way boomers remember him The Schwarzeneggerian physique is gone, replaced by a younger, spindly-limbed and somewhat less awe-inspiring body. Age discrimination, perhaps, but for the time being in kid-TV cartoonland, adult heroes need not apply...
"The old kid shows were totally different. Back then they were about adult characters and the subject matter was often adult," explains Evan Baily, EVP of Entertainment Rights group's Classic Media, the outfit behind George's return. (For AWN readers doing double-takes at the moment, "adult subject matter" back then meant something quite different from what goes down on Fox or Comedy Central these days.) "In some ways they were grownup-oriented, grownup-centric sitcoms for kids. Kids don't know from having a job or making a sales target, or romantic love in an adult way; a lot don't even really understand what money is. That subject matter affords less opportunity to connect with an audience that comes from a more kid-relatable context.
"When we started [reviving George] we wanted to make the characters younger. The original George was a big muscle-y guy, with a deep voice -- a grown-up; Ursula was a grown woman -- a babe."
The characters soon shed a few years. "I think dad's George was in his 20s and this George is 15 or 16," says Tiffany Ward, daughter of the legendary Jay Ward and one of the new series' executive producers. "My dad always said, 'I don't write cartoons for kids -- I write for adults and the kids will get it. They'll hear the great voices, the funny-looking characters and they'll be entranced. The parents will be laughing at the inside jokes and the kids will be striving harder to get them.' The new George is maybe a little less sophisticated than the old George, but there are still plenty of jokes and humor in there for all ages."
"The challenge with George is how you keep him clueless but still a hero," Bailey muses. "Once you shrink down the muscles it becomes less incredibly obvious he's a hero. What we came to was George is a light switch stuck in the on position. He's brimming with energy, enthusiasm and optimism. He can talk to animals, he's super-strong, but his innocence is his greatest strength and his greatest weakness. It enables him to be constantly gulled, conned, rooked, fleeced and taken in a zillion different ways -- but it also enables him to see or look for the good in everyone. When things are ridiculously bleak he only sees the positive side of things and always keeps trying; that's his super power."
Why did George get the call when Ward's other classic characters -- including the moose and squirrel themselves -- languish in the vaults? A good part of the credit goes to the successful 1997 live-action film starring the hunky Brendan Fraser as the thick-headed (and bare-chested) jungle king, followed by a direct-to-video effort in 2003, both of which raised the character's profile. By contrast, Fraser's 1999 turn as Dudley Do-Right went all but unnoticed, while the Robert DeNiro-produced live-action/animated Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle buried the famous duo under an avalanche of celebrity casting. ("Everyone at Universal was passionate about it. It just didn't fly the way we all thought it would," Tiffany Ward admits. "We're still proud of it.")
"It was terrific to work with Tiffany Ward on George of the Jungle," says Baily. "She knows this world and these characters better than anyone. She pushed us to stay true to her dad's vision and gave us a lot of insight into what made George work in the first place. We were lucky to have her on the team.
"There were a bunch of reasons [we chose George]," he adds, ticking off a few of them. "Number one is what are we most excited about, creatively? George is one of the greatest properties under our wing. There's a rights component as well -- do we have all the requisite international rights and rights to the ancillary businesses?
"The audience awareness is a huge plus. The kids know him not from the cartoons but from the live-action movie and the DTV sequel. It's a blend of considerations, but it seemed like we'd be idiots not to do it."
Classic partnered up with Tiffany's Jay Ward Productions to create Bullwinkle Studios, which is co-producing George with Vancouver-based DHX Media Ltd. subsidiary Studio B, where the show is animated. Four years of discussion and development led to the new series; animated in Flash, the new show has a more relaxed look than the original. "From a design standpoint," Baily says, "the original had a looseness and fluidity that I think was one of its principal charms. There was a lightness, a quickness in its writing, directing and acting which all tied together nicely.
"We wanted to do something design-ier for this series. J. Falconer drove that. He's a brilliant director and he sketched iteration after iteration of the characters. He found our way to this look. From a character design perspective, it's more in tune with Cartoon Network or Nickelodeon.
"The background look, which I think is stunning, came from J. and our art directing team led by Josh Pong. It feels like it's rooted in classic UPA, but with more detail. There are echoes in there of PowerPuff Girls and Samurai Jack, shows I admire tremendously."
Studio B's Chris Bartleman, who, with founding partner Blair Peters and Studio B CFO/GM Rob Simmons, shares exec producer credit, also praises Falconer for the show's look, which he says the director had "all in that big lovable head of his."
As for the use of Flash, he says, " [Studio B] adopted Flash very early on and were one of the first to produce a series with it (Yakkity Yak). We loved the medium, as it applied the exact same principles that Blair and I learned in college and at H & B. If you design great characters, have a strong story, great voices, and are thoughtful in how you pose out the animation, you can really make it work. It's not even about the economy. It's a style that is bright and snappy and is the type of animation that we have always loved."
Only 17 episodes of the original George were produced, and as part of a three-segment show (co-starring with racer Tom Slick and feathered hero Super Chicken) their running time was in the seven- to eight-minute range. As befits a super-strong hero, George carries the new show single-handedly and stars in all 52 11-minute segments. In the original series, George battled adult jungle interlopers and evil-doers. This time around, the interrelationships between the core characters take center stage, while, as befitting a cartoon show set in the wild, many episodes focus on George's run-ins with attitude-fueled wild (and crazy) animals.
"We made a conscious decision to go that route," says Baily. "We felt that if we had a guest character as the organizing principle or the driver of a story, then we're probably falling down on job because there's still so much of the core dynamics we can develop and share with the audience. To me that's what makes people fall in love with a show: connecting with and caring about the characters, being part of their world. We get to know the characters as well we do our own family by drilling into their relationships."
Now a teenager like George, Ursula spends most of her time palling around with jungle gal Magnolia, daughter of Witch Doctor, the local witch doctor -- who in turn enjoys a bickering relationship with Ursula's scientist father. (Fans of the original show will be relieved to know that, along with an updated version of the classic theme song, the ape named Ape, George's faithful elephant-who-thinks-he's-a-dog Shep and even the Tookie-Tookie bird are still on hand.)
Baily is generous with praise for the writers who whipped up George's new adventures. "Our story editors Evan Gore and Heather Lombardo did an incredible job. All 52 scripts were freelanced; there weren't five people in a room throwing paper at each other. Evan and Heather had 20 different writers juggling stories and made sure they were coming up with coherent, consistently great stories.
"Andrew Nicholls and Darrell Vickers wrote 20 scripts together. They've written for shows like Jimmy Neutron, Fairly Oddparents -- hundreds of episodes -- and bring passion to it every time; they're just the funniest guys. I laughed out loud 10 times reading every script. A lot of animation writing is kind of dialog-y, but one of my favorite gags from them is George underwater swinging on kelp instead of vines -- that's the kind of visual writers they are.
"The show shines because they shined. J. Falconer directed lots of shows over the years, including Ed, Edd n Eddy. He's a completely seasoned pro -- so obsessive. He'll take a great script and make it better. When the animation process isn't working, the writers give their script to board guys and when it comes back the writers say, 'They didn't get it, they made it worse.' Then when the board guys pass their work onto the animators, 'They didn't get it, made it worse' and so on. Here it's the direct opposite: every step of the way the work is plussed and plussed. J. fusses over every single tiny detail and finds ways to put in jokes where there shouldn't have been a joke. It's a treat to work with him."
Cartoon Network and Canada's Teletoon came aboard early on in pre-production. "We went to Cartoon Network with a bible, scripts and designs from Studio B. They liked it but they weren't completely sold -- it wasn't totally there yet from their perspective. Then we did an animatic that pushed them over the top: 'We gotta have this show.'
"Teletoon was also on board from the very early stages of development, even before we went to Cartoon Network. Both channels were such believers and supporters, with us every step of the way, looking at designs, casting, etc. -- they were phenomenal partners." According to Baily, everyone was on the same page as to the show's creative direction: "Both channels understood how important the kid-relatability thing is. A lot of cartoons are good at storytelling, warmth and heart. Others shine at being wacky and cartoony. We set out to be both -- really story-driven, without throttling back on the cartoony/funny stuff. It's tough to do, but both Teletoon and Cartoon Network shared that vision and wanted to tell stories that resonated and traveled farther than your typical eleven-minute cartoon, relentless from a gag standpoint but with more character beats and emotional content."
Cable channels on every continent (with the interesting exception of Africa) are vine-swinging with George, including Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network affiliates in the UK and Europe; Disney Channels in Latin America, Japan and Southeast Asia; and local networks in countries including France, Australia and New Zealand. Even though George was a follow-up to Jay Ward's legendary Rocky and Bullwinkle, the klutzy jungle lord will be seen by millions more people than the moose and squirrel could ever imagine.
Still, the Riddle of Bella and Ursula remains unsolved. Anyone who's familiar with the original theme song has heard the lyric "... while Bella and Ursula stay in step." The accompanying sight of identical-twin jungle girls dragging off a dazed George has an entire generation of baby boomers still wondering, "Who the heck is Bella?"
The new series dodges the question entirely by replacing "Bella" with "Maggie," who is indeed in the show. "I think this is sort of an 'excuse me while I kiss this guy' situation," says Baily, referencing a famous misreading of a Jimi Hendrix lyric. "It's actually 'while fella and Ursula stay in step.' The joke is George is so dumb he thinks Ursula is a guy who doesn't shave." But what of the two Ursulas? "You know... yes, I think you're right," Baily replies, temporarily flustered. "I need to ask Tiffany again, because she explained it to me and I never understood it."
"There wasn't an explanation for a lot of things that happened with Jay Ward characters," says the father's daughter. My inner Comic Book Guy wonders, could the original concept have been George shacked up with twins he couldn't tell apart, an idea shot down by ABC after the opening had been animated? "I don't think it was ever thought through," Tiffany Ward answers. "I'm just going to chalk it up to the crazy, wacky world of Jay Ward."
The twin gals onscreen may be nothing more than an hallucination suffered by a temporarily dazed George who's recovering from a full-tilt collision with Shep's backside. (And the first shot of George in the opening does show dozens of Georges vine-swinging past each other, a surrealistic touch right off the bat.) But track down the original version (easily found on the Internet) and give it a listen: that "F" in "fella" sure sounds like a "B" to me.
Joe Strike is a regular contributor to AWN. His animation articles also appear in the NY Daily News and the New York Press.