Bill Motz and Bob Roth bring an honest take on issues kids face, such the emotional complexities of reaching puberty, to their 2D kids’ series about an energetic young girl and a grouchy ghost; the new season premieres April 1 on Disney Channel and Disney XD, the next day on Disney+.
Broaching the topic of menstruation is a task few animation creators have ventured into, and certainly never before in an animated series for children. Along with the emotional complexities that stem from girls getting their first period, the topic in general is a bit, let’s say, messy.
“I remember when my daughter was going through it,” recalls Bill Motz, a long-time Disney animation writer who has worked on shows like Kim Possible, Phineas and Ferb, and Big Hero 6: The Series. “And the timing is all different. You have friends who are blossoming way early, and other ones who look eternally 10-years-old. I remember with my daughter, her friends would suddenly sprout up and be twice as tall, and she always felt like she was left behind in some respects. When you are impacted by puberty, or when you finally get your period, all those things, it's a big life change, and it can really change the dynamics between your friendships and even how you relate with your family.”
So, when Motz and friend Bob Roth – another veteran Disney animation writer and producer – were first planning to approach Disney about incorporating a whole episode on periods in their series The Ghost and Molly McGee’s second season, the two co-creators were, understandably, nervous.
“We were all prepared to go to war,” says Roth. “But Disney was supportive from the moment they first heard the idea. We've seen a real shift over the course of our careers about the kinds of topics we can discuss and incorporate into the show. And I'm so grateful for that, because it makes the storytelling that much more fun and authentic and real.”
Season 2 of The Ghost and Molly McGee, which debuts on Disney Channel and Disney XD Saturday, April 1 and on Disney+ the next day, revisits 13-year-old tween girl Molly and her crotchety-but-kind ghost friend Scratch who now co-habits with the McGees as a beloved member of the family. The new season kicks off with the arrival of the McGees’ new neighbors, The Chens, a ghost-hunting family, whose charms make life (and afterlife) even more complicated for Scratch, as well as for Molly, who is crushing on the family’s son Oliver.
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“We'd spent Season 1 always looking at that house across the street,” says Motz. “You see it all the time from the living room window, and we would have these conversations about who lives there. Originally, when we thought of the idea of ghost hunters, they were going to come in as antagonists. But we realized that's not all that interesting, and that it would be more fun to build a relationship between that family and the McGees.”
Along with parties, dances, and talks about a shared pool and family vacations between the Chens and McGees, this chapter of the story features awkward teen romances and everyone on the production side – from writers to animators – were asked to revisit moments in their pre-teen lives that many of them wish they could forget.
“Such as the moment where I was on a school trip and tried to impress a girl by throwing my cup of Coke into the garbage can,” remembers Roth. “I missed, of course, and it spilled all over the Natural History Museum of New York. We told all our writers, ‘Let’s channel our most embarrassing Middle School moments.’ We said the same thing to our board artists. We said to the actors, ‘Bring in the voice cracks. Do all of it. Make yourself as uncomfortable as you can.’ We wanted to find all the moments that were terrible because those moments are universal. There's some really great, awkward stuff coming up this season.”
Motz, in particular, revisited his memories of shopping for his daughter post-period arrival. His experiences as a father to a coming-of-age young lady were harnessed to create Season 2’s episode, “A Period Piece,” which addresses both Molly feeling out of sync with a friend who gets her period first, as well as showcases Scratch and Molly’s dad Pete struggling to choose which brand of pads to buy.
“We're delighted that we actually get to have this kind of conversation [on the show] and a little surprised that it hasn't been a bigger topic sooner,” notes Motz. “This is a key part of the human experience. And a lot of Pete's journey is in that episode, which is very reflective of my own. After all, our wish was for this to be a show for families. And we hoped that families could see themselves in it.”
Beginning with the series’ first season sequence that addressed the Holocaust, Motz and Roth say that Disney has been a trusting partner in allowing them to build a script that dives into sometimes uncomfortable topics. But both creators agree that it makes for an honest show that breeds honest dialogue.
“It's an opportunity for dialogue,” says Motz. “It's a way to initiate conversation. Parents always wonder when they're going to have certain talks with their kids about certain things and it seems so awkward and inorganic in how you try to bring it up. But if you have something that you could watch together and react to together, it makes it easier.”
Roth adds, “We’re the modern day, ‘How to talk to your kids,’ guide. Let's not pack these things away into the corner and pretend they don't exist.”
But Roth believes that his and Motz’s chance to trailblaze for these kinds of conversations has a lot to do with the medium of animation itself. “I think it's harder in live-action because things are more immediately real,” says Roth. “I think that adds, in a weird way, a little bit of discomfort and distance.”
In addition to paving the way for more down-to-earth coming of age stories to be told in mainstream animation, Roth and Motz are particularly excited about the second season’s addressing kids of mixed heritage who are not only dealing with hormones, first loves, and their place in the world, but also balancing different cultures within their home.
“We have an episode coming up about Molly's mixed heritage, being half Irish and half Thai, which mirrors our lead actress Ashly Burch,” says Roth. “When she read the script, she emailed us right away, and said, ‘I cried. I wish I had something like this when I was a kid. Something that made me feel seen.’ That's kind of the magic of it all. We get to help kids feel seen in so many ways.”