Tuesday, July 15, 2014

REVIEW: The Animorphs television show. Alternately: My Tiny, Squishy Heart of Feelings.

I'm not even going to give my usual disclaimer here, because if you're expecting a spoiler alert on a fifteen year-old show that hardly anyone watched in the first place, well...you have clearly been sheltered from society to the extent that the FBI is watching you right now.  It's okay.  They're, um, friendly.

When I get asked who or what formed me as a writer, I have four major answers: Joss Whedon, Stephen King, the team of genius/hack lunatics behind Xena, and one Katherine Alice Applegate.  All four of these influences came together when I was about thirteen years old, just as I was starting to nudge around and feel out who I wanted to be as a person and also just as I was starting to realize that I genuinely enjoyed telling stories.  Prior to that, my way with words was hollow.  It got me pats on the head from teachers*, but I really didn't bother with characters after I was done with them.  Animorphs was a big part of that shift.  K.A. Applegate was brilliant in making imaginative aliens, building a diverse cast in the weird gap between progressivism's first leaps and its' last ten years or so of resurgence**, and writing the horrors of war on a level that a thirteen year-old could understand.  That last part lingers to this day.

For twenty-six episodes across 1998 and 1999, Animorphs came to realization as a television show on the then-empiric Nicklelodeon Network.  Being a poor kid, I was only able to witness part of it in snatches and grabs as it aired even though I really, really wanted to***.  I've watched it all now, and I'm here to report.  Thus, Animorphs.

It's basically an endearingly bad series, though the first episodes are intensely bad in an inexcusable way.  At least get your episodes right, guys, Tobias can't be tragically a hawk and then just learning how to morph as a human three episodes later.  But do I think that a lot of what made the television series fail was due to the time and not the talent.  In 1998, on Nickelodeon, you did not have the budget or the technology to really bring to life what K.A. Applegate was trying to do.  She thought about doing the rubber-face thing with aliens because she sensed she might have an idea that would be hard to bring to the screen, was encouraged to be more creative, and then went *balls-out crazy* in a supremely fantastic way.  As a result, there was a lot that simply could not translate well to a television medium without CGI.  Plus, there were the animals.  Big, dangerous predators who can be filmed fighting realistically should...probably not be around humans.  In addition, the half-hour format did the show no favors when they were trying to follow plot lines that spanned an entire book.

Towards the end of the first season, though, a shift started to happen.  The writers start to work within the limitations of their budget and medium rather than against them and came up with some fairly clever solutions.  I bristled initially that destroying the Kandrona wasn't accorded to Rachel, because that was her defining moment in the series for me, but the writers managed work-arounds to bring in major plot points while also realizing that they were in new territory.  They got K. A. Applegate's ultimate philosophy and used it towards their own ends.  And the problem was never with the cast.  Shawn Ashmore is the only person to really have a mainstream career, and that sucks.  Christopher Ralph and Brooke Nevin still take the occasional small role, but most of the rest of the cast has retired.  A shame, as they were a fairly talented bunch for writing that just wasn't there for the longest time.

Man, that was a trip down nostalgia lane.  Apparently I have a lot of feels to share when it comes to my formative influences.

*I went to a state fiction competition at nine.  How no one realized that I was shamelessly glueing The Black Stallion to Standard Little Girl Horse Fantasy, I will never know.  Actually, now that I remember, part of the plot involved building a barn using actual glue.

**I remember her remarking with faint surprise that she hadn't received one single piece of hate mail about Jake and Cassie being in an interracial relationship.  That surprise is still saddening.

***My monthly allowance went to the Animorphs book that I devoured in an hour.  Also, I like footnotes.  It's a thing.

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