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Dave Willis and Matt Maiellaro Talk ‘Aqua Teen Forever: Plantasm’

The creative geniuses (for want of a more colorful plural noun) behind one of Adult Swim’s longest running series are back, along with favorite fast food item rascals Frylock, Master Shake, and Meatwad (plus perverted neighbor Carl), in a brand-new animated feature, out today on Digital, 4K Ultra HD, and Blu-ray.

For fans whose thirst for Aqua Teen Hunger Force was not slaked by the new animated shorts released on YouTube earlier this year by Adult Swim, today’s your day to quaff heartily.

That’s because those rascally anthropomorphic fast-food items are back in an all-new original feature-length animated film, Aqua Teen Forever: Plantasm, releasing today, November 8, on Digital, 4K Ultra HD, and Blu-ray. It will stream on HBO Max and air on Adult Swim in 2023.

In the film, the Aqua Teens - brainy Frylock, mouthy Master Shake, and loveable Meatwad – along with perverted neighbor, Carl, split up, then get back together to fight everyone’s favorite corporate overlord, Amazin, led by everyone’s favorite tech mogul, Neil, and his trusty scientist sidekick, Elmer, whom we’re not sure is anyone’s favorite.

The film stars Carey Means (Aqua Teen Hunger Force, The Brak Show) as Frylock; Dana Snyder (Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Squidbillies) as Master Shake; and Willis (Squidbillies, Your Pretty Face Is Going to Hell) as Meatwad. The film also stars Peter Serafinowicz (The Tick); Paul Walter Hauser (Black Bird); Natasha Rothwell (White Lotus), Robert Smigel (Bob’s Burgers); and Tim Robinson (Detroiters). Series creators and directors Dave Willis and Matt Maiellaro wrote and directed the film, which was produced by Williams Street Productions.

The long running Adult Swim series quickly found a large fan base who fell in love with the show’s odd characters – Frylock, Master Shake, and Meatwad – who live together next door to their sex crazed neighbor, Carl. Spun off from characters first introduced in the seminal Adult Swim series Space Ghost Coast to Coast, on which Wills and Maiellaro were writers, Aqua Teen Hunger Force (and it’s variously named later editions) ran for 11 seasons – 139 episodes - from 2000 to 2015. It was Adult Swim’s longest running series until Robot Chicken eclipsed it in 2019. Each episode was written and directed by the pair, who also voiced various characters.

Seasons 1-7 were set in South New Jersey. Season 8, in Seattle, though the location looked identical to the previous seasons’ setting… except for a “Seattle” caption fronting each episode. Seasons 9-11 were subsequently set in Seattle, New Jersey. You do the math. With Season 8’s location shift came a name shift to Aqua Unit Patrol Squad 1; Season 9, Aqua Something You Know Whatever; 10, Aqua TV Show Show; and 11, Aqua Teen Hunger Force Forever. More math here.

Their first spin-off animated feature film, Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters, hit theaters in 2007. There was an ill-fated guerilla marketing effort we won’t talk about. This past April, Adult Swim published 10 Aqua Teen Hunger Force shorts – one per day - under the Aquadonk Side Pieces moniker on its YouTube channel. And now, a second feature. These three simple characters without legs continue to sport some rather serious programming legs.

Recently caught in rather playful moods, Willis and Maiellaro displayed their signature wit and odd sense of humor with AWN, sharing some tongue-in-cheek spoilers while discussing their long-running series and new film they hope audiences enjoy.

Dan Sarto: I'm one of these folks that was into the earliest Adult Swim stuff. Like Space Ghost Coast to Coast. It went over so many people’s head with its absurdist humor. I loved it. My understanding is that your Aqua Teen franchise, these characters, all started as fast food characters on Space Ghost. How did that all come about?

Matt Maiellaro: Well, you're right. They did start as fast food characters in a Space Ghost episode that we wrote. The idea was that Space Ghost went and ordered a ton of food and then he didn't have the money to pay for it. So in lieu of having the money, the Burger Trench place put their mascots on his show. Dave and I had been doing Space Ghost for so long, when we started writing this episode, we wrote more about these characters while Space Ghost was kind of diminished. They kind of took over the show. It didn't get made for a long time, that episode. And then when Space Ghost went on hiatus, we came to them [Adult Swim] and said, "While it's on hiatus, we want to do the show with the milkshake." And they were like, "Worst idea we've ever heard." But we pushed along and we took almost a year and they gave us enough money to hang ourselves with and we got it going.

DS: What was the jump like from characters to an actual narrative driven series? It's not like narratively, this is “War and Peace,” but how did the series get its legs?

Dave Willis: Did you just say that narratively, it was not like “War and Peace?”

DS: Well…

MM: Because we think it kind of is.

DW: We tailored it after Tolstoy.

MM: We did. This interview is over...

DW: We spent three years with a bulletin board and index cards making this... It's a two-part thing. This new film is the war, this whole first movie is the war aspect. And then we're doing peace next year.

DS: Got it.

MM: Yeah, exactly. That's why you were confused.

DS: Well, that's why I wanted to talk to you guys to set the record straight and correct my erroneous assumptions.

DW: I think we sort of realized that the first movie we did [Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters] was maybe self-indulgent and a little intense and long and crazy and maybe hard to grasp. But [on this new film] we wanted to write something tighter and quick and funny. We were cutting gags at the last possible minute to get down to something that's just really fun and fast and tells a great story. And it's almost like a reinvention of the show a little bit. We're real proud of it.

MM: Totally.

DS: Well, when you say reinvention, for some time during the last handful of years on the original series, you gave each new season a new title. To put a new spin on things for reasons that were apparent and not necessarily apparent. So, it sounds like with this new movie, you’re trying to keep it fresh and put these great characters in front of a new audience as well as fans of the show.

MM: Completely. We kept changing the opens after a few years because we got tired of the old one. We loved the old one, but we just wanted something fresh and that helped out. And then for this movie we really wanted to tell a real story but with a structure to it. And I think the journey of the characters is going to be globally identifiable.

DS: And along those lines, what can you share with regards to this globally identifiable story that we're soon going to get in front of us?

MM: Well, they all die at the end.

DW: And it's sad.

MM: But they're alive in the beginning.

DW: It's super sad. When it happens, you're going to be like, "Oh man, I was with them. That's just... for this whole hero's journey. And then they die." Also, they're fighting dragons.

We shouldn't have told you any of this stuff. It ruins it for you.

DS: Well, when you say they all die, that's pretty much the ultimate spoiler, isn't it?

MM: Yeah, but who knows if we're telling the truth?

DS: Well, of course, as creatives, it's your job to stay several steps ahead of all of us, so…

MM: Yeah. We're already onto our next interview. We don't even know how you're on here still.

DS: Well... this’ll be over soon enough, I promise. I know with regards to some of the early Adult Swim stuff you guys did, you had a minimal budget, you had minimal time, and you're trying to make some stuff that might be funny. There's this bizarre, surreal stream of consciousness style of humor that was early Adult Swim currency for some time. You guys were involved in some of that truly odd work. Where did that all come from and does that still serve you well 20 plus years later?

MM: Yeah, I think it comes from having no money to make Space Ghost. And we couldn't afford any animation, really. It was rare that we had new stuff in there. When Space Ghost would walk across the set, he would just kind of bob.

And then with Aqua Teen, we took a different approach at how we made the show. It was fun to have more animation, even though I wouldn't say it's animated. Having limited resources to make something happen on screen helps with the charm of the whole thing, looking at Space Ghost. But with this movie, we're able to throw it into a really pro software program and now it's kind of fun to have liquidity to it. And God, we came this far with it and now it looks great. So I think we're going to... they ordered 12 more seasons, so we're going to just probably stick with the Harmony aspect on it.

DS: Wonderful. I'm sure all your fans would love to see at least 12 more seasons of this.

MM: Yeah. So would we.

DS: Does the film act as a stand-alone? Does it continue or build on any previous story arcs or anything from the series?

DW: I think it sort of builds on your memory of the show. There's not really an arc, per se. We're not tightly laid out like Breaking Bad or something. But I think it sort of builds on your collective nostalgia for the show in a way too, and sort of resets it in an interesting way.

MM: Yeah. It's not like we're wrapping up a season with a [Twin Peaks] Fire Walk with Me or anything. We're actually doing a nice reset. But they all die at the end, so we don't know how we're going to bring them back.

DS: Right, right.

MM: Dan, I'm serious. They die at the end.

DS: I believe you.

MM: Okay, good.

DS: There's so much animation being produced right now, especially animation that, I hate to use these words, is edgier or more adult or whatever you want to call it. In many ways, your show is as adult as anything with regards to the mindset that you might need to really understand the layers of humor. Where do you see more mature, odd, animated series and specials like this headed in the next handful of years? Where do you see yourself going?

DW: Wow, that's a deep question. It's...

DS: I apologize. I know it's a really...

MM: Dave, we might need an hour or two…

DW: I think for this show... if we get an opportunity to make more of these movies or episodes, certainly I think we'll challenge ourselves. Yeah, it's a different environment than when we first came out. And I think it helped that it was just me and Matt, and Adult Swim was a small group of people, and you were on a kids' network so you could be silly but willfully weird, but you couldn't just drop an F bomb like South Park, which was great in its own way, but it's like we had to be insane in another way. And I think we found humor in non sequiturs and stuff like that.

But now, with streaming, there's just so much stuff out there. And during COVID… we made this whole movie during COVID, which is crazy. We made the whole movie remotely. And so animation exploded and there's a lot of great stuff out there now and there's a lot of not so great stuff out there. But I don't know if I answered your question, but...

DS: You're sharing some of your insight. That’s fine. There's no expected answer to that question.

DW: It's always been me and Matt making the show and writing it. And we've been mostly left to our own devices. So, I think we'll take it wherever we can challenge ourselves to take it. And I feel like the movie, we pushed each other to really make something unique and great and do something better than what we've done in the past. I think we did it. I hope.

DS: One last question. And one last comment. I wanted to let you know that in all my years, 26 years of this business, the best swag I've ever been sent is a set of Squidbillies shot glasses. They're special to me, just so you know.

DW: Oh nice. Yeah, our in-house Adult Swim department always comes up with great stuff. I feel like they're always 18 months ahead of the rest of the world in streaming and digital and all that.

DS: If there's any one thing that you could point to that's key to the incredible longevity of these characters and your franchise here, what would you say it is? What makes this franchise such a fan favorite all these years?

MM: Man, I don't know. I feel like Dave and I just got together and wrote what we thought was funny because we didn't have anybody supervising us. And we're just fortunate enough that it gravitated to all those people who love it. I don't know if there is a key, I don't think we would know what the key is. It's just how we structure these episodes and what we put down that's feels like it's making us laugh.

DW: And I think it was cheap enough that they kept renewing it.

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.