By Scott Sloan
Nearly 20 years have passed since children woke to Saturday cartoons, chanting the He-Man catchphrase "By the Power of Grayskull" or waving Transformers toys as they watched the robots battle evildoers. But if the hopes of cartoonists are realized, a new generation of kids will do the same.
Cartoons such as "He-Man and the Masters of the Universe" and "Transformers" ruled the small screen in the 1980s and, though they fizzled later in the decade, attempts to revive them and others, including the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," begin this fall.
The new versions of He-Man and Transformers, titled "He-Man and the Masters of the Universe" and "Transformers: Armada," will air on Cartoon Network’s Toonami block as early as September. The block features mainly Japanese-animated shows and will be expanded from two hours to three hours each afternoon to accommodate the new additions.
"One reason why the '80s cartoons have come back is these things have recognition and some marquee value," said Sam Register, a development executive at Cartoon Network. "We live in a cluttered market where you have tons of new things, tons of channels all with 24-hour networks."
While most older audiences are likely to recognize the 1980s brands since they grew up watching them, Register and other developers said that with a little updating, the shows will appeal to today's children as well.
For instance, animators will draw "He-Man and the Masters of the Universe" sharper with more vibrant colors and detailed characters, Register said, improving what many longtime fans saw to be a dull use of color in the original series.
A second obvious difference will be in the drawing of the series' protagonist, Prince Adam, who transforms into He-Man by raising his magic sword and saying "By the Power of Grayskull."
In the original series, Prince Adam closely resembled He-Man, though the latter was slightly more tanned and had darker hair.
"It was really bad," Register said, noting that the similarities were closer than those between Clark Kent and alter-ego Superman.
"At least Clark Kent wore glasses," Register said. "In the new He-Man, Prince Adam is a skinny awkward kid who turns into a 27-year-old buff dude."
The promise of more detailed animation, richer character development and intricate plots excited a great deal of the substantial He-Man fan base, many of whom called for the upcoming show’s action to be on par with current cartoons.
"I'm not talking killing and bleeding. I'm talking good sword fighting and fun suspense," said Ben Dick, of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, who runs a Web site dedicated to the series.
New action for a group of sewer-heroes
Developers at 4Kids Entertainment said they believe improved action will also make a success of their revival of "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," the series that gained a reputation as a juggernaut in the late '80s and early '90s. The idea of four crime-fighting turtles spawned three feature films, the first of which grossed more than $130 million, and hundreds of toys that had sales of nearly $500 million in 1990 alone.
"We're going to put the ninja back into ninja turtle," said Al Kahn, CEO of 4Kids Entertainment, which is licensed to program the Fox Kids Network Saturday morning block for the next six years.
"It's going to be less goofy than it was. We want to create a little more edginess to the Turtles. They're going to be a little less bulbous. They're going to look a little tougher," Kahn said.
When 4Kids gained the right to program Fox Kids in January, Kahn said his group immediately began looking for shows that had a "pedigree of success."
The chief target - the Turtles - which will air at 10 a.m. beginning in January 2003.
Kahn said he is confident the new Turtles cartoon will succeed, though a previous revival failed. "Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation," a live-action show, premiered in 1997 on Fox Kids but did not last longer than a season. Kahn said returning the show to its animated beginnings will bring back viewers and success.
In a show of confidence, 4Kids ordered 26 episodes of the new series, hoping it catches on with children similar to their other properties such as Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh!, which both air on Kids WB!.
A computer-animated feature film about the Turtles is also in development, though it is not expected in theaters until 2004 at the earliest. Fans believe the movie could come earlier if the new cartoon proves successful.
Zoinks! A new Scooby-Doo.
The success of this summer’s film "Scooby-Doo" is expected to help launch a new cartoon version of the cowardly Great Dane and his gang of friends this fall, said Donna Friedman, executive vice president of Kids WB!
The new series, "What’s New Scooby-Doo?," is the first weekly series featuring Scooby since "A Pup Named Scooby-Doo" debuted in 1988. It is the twelfth series in which the mystery-solving canine has had a starring role.
Friedman said the animation in the new series will be similar to the Scooby-Doo films released on video in recent years by Cartoon Network.
The new series marks the return of radio legend Casey Kasem as the voice of Shaggy Rogers, a role he originated in 1969 when the first Scooby-Doo series, "Scooby Doo, Where Are You!" premiered on CBS. Kasem did not voice Shaggy in the recent movies.
Frank Welker, a prominent voice artist, also returns to once again voice Fred Jones, a role he originated in 1969, and will also talk as Scooby-Doo, whose original voice actor, Don Messick, died in 1997 of a stroke.
While updated versions of He-Man and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles aim to improve action, Friedman said the new Scooby-Doo series will feature some changes but will retain much of the original concept.
"With Scooby, we felt the best approach was tried and true - not aging down or up the characters or adding new major characters. We felt the core group was really important to kids," Friedman said. "We are amping up the comedy, the mystery, the quality of animation and setting it in a contemporary world that will make it more relevant to our audience and allow us to tell some really cool mysteries."
Though the new series will be primarily marketed to young children, Friedman said she expects a decent following of older children and adults who will want to join their children in watching the show.
"Kids that watched these shows (originally) are now parents who want to share these shows with their kids," Friedman said, comparing Scooby-Doo to the Batman and Superman franchises which have benefited from timeless appeal and are still popular today as evidenced by Cartoon Network's "Justice League," in which the two star.
Register said it is important to realize, though, that Batman and Superman grew popular in a different age.
"Obviously television is more prevalent to today's youth. Comic books were the big things when Batman and Superman came to be. Now we're looking at television. So now He-Man and Optimus Prime (of "Transformers") have kind of moved on and become great characters," Register said.
These ‘80s superheroes now dominate the creative minds in the industry.
"Creators are coming of age - these are the guys who grew up watching this stuff," said Register, who developed commercials for 1980s animated successes such as "G.I. Joe."
Optimus Prime, the protagonist in "Transformers," returns this fall on Cartoon Network in "Transformers: Armada," the third Transformers series since the Hasbro property debuted on television regularly in 1984. A second series, "Transformers: Robots in Disguise," debuted in October 2001 on the Fox Kids Network but is not expected to return this fall.
Among the changes for the new series will be more of a Japanese animation style and an enhanced role for the humans on the show.
"In the old Tranformers cartoons, they were just these little organic things running around. Hasbro's made a real push to have these kids involved with the storylines," Register said.
Becoming a hero
The return of "Transformers" and the other cartoons has not taken place overnight.
The new version of He-Man, for instance, has been in the works for years building up to 2002, the 20th anniversary of the debut of the superhero, said Mark Sullivan, a marketing executive at Mattel, which owns the rights to He-Man.
"This is kind of the crown jewel … and it's been one of the biggest toy lines ever so we wanted to make sure we got it right," Sullivan said.
In planning the new series, Mattel tested fan interest by releasing commemmorative editions of more than a dozen of the original action figures during the past two years. The toys, marketed to adult collectors and produced in low quantities, were priced at more than $10 each. A set of 10 action figures, packaged in a box resembling Castle Grayskull, a key location in the series, sold in stores for $250. The majority of these figures sold out at toy stores within a few weeks and are already drawing high bids on many Internet auction sites.
Mattel plans to release its first wave of new He-Man action figures this fall in conjunction with the debut of the new series and will also have a host of other He-Man merchandise, including the first video game based on the show since a version on the Commodore 64 computer in the 1980s.
The game, "He-Man: Power of Grayskull," will be developed for Nintendo's Game Boy Advance and feature stages where players play as He-Man or drive vehicles from the series. The game could be the first of many as the company TDK Mediactive is licensed to produce He-Man games on the Xbox, Playstation 2 and Nintendo Gamecube, said Stephan Serwe, a TDK executive.
With fan interest piquing in the new series, Register said many may look for the return of the original cartoons, though he doubts they will turn up on television anytime soon.
"Those are really for the nostalgia group - the college guys who are not doing their homework," Register said.
One nostalgic addition to Cartoon Network’s lineup has been announced, though. Beginning July 1, the network will air episodes of "G.I. Joe" at 1 a.m.
Hasbro has produced new action figures based on "G.I. Joe," and an elaborate computer-animated commercial, leading some industry insiders to believe more may be in the works, though Hasbro representatives declined to comment.
Drawing on fans
Though the companies releasing the cartoons admittedly dream of good ratings and financial success, fans said skeptical parents and children alike should look past the commercialization and enjoy the shows for what they are - "epic stories."
Ilya King, who maintains a He-Man fan Web site, said these stories are more than battles between good and evil - they are insights into everyday life and the inner struggles that all people experience.
Together, these themes create a sense of unity among viewers, said Matt Chezem, another ‘80s cartoon fan and webmaster.
"The memories we have now as young adults is what bonds us together," Chezem said.