Sunday, October 17, 2010

can't stop the littles

North American anime fans impatiently await a release date for Studio Ghibli’s new picture ARRIETTY THE BORROWERS, based on Mary Norton’s children’s books. But didja know that this isn’t the first time a Japanese animation studio has produced work based on Western stories about a race of tiny people that live in our walls? Huh? Didja?

THE LITTLES was one of the earliest animated series produced by DIC Entertainment – once the entertainment powerhouse responsible for INSPECTOR GADGET, THE REAL GHOSTBUSTERS, part of CAPTAIN PLANET, some of the English dub of SAILOR MOON, and many others – now, after mergers and buyouts, a completely different beast altogether. But in the glory days of the 80s DIC was the kidvid king, responsible for giving many Western cartoons a distinctly international flair. Their Japan connection, producer Tetsuo Katayama, spearheaded Miyazaki’s CASTLE OF CAGLIOSTRO over at TMS. This relationship would pay big dividends as the Japanese studio was tapped to provide animation for a wide variety of DIC projects, including the aforementioned INSPECTOR GADGET, the Homeric SF adaptation ULYSSES 31, the video game tie-in POLE POSITION, Cousin Oliver’s comeback show KIDD VIDEO, and of course, THE LITTLES.

A loose adaptation of the children’s books by John Peterson, DIC’s THE LITTLES began a three-year run on ABC in 1983. The adventures of Tom and Lucy Little, their parents Frank and Helen, Grandpa and goofy aviation enthusiast Cousin Dinky as they survive inside the walls of the Bigg family house – with the help of normal-sized Henry Bigg – were popular enough to spawn both a feature film and a TV special, as well as resurrection in the syndication television afterlife and on DVD.

Up against Saturday morning cartoon rivals like THE GARY COLEMAN SHOW, RUBIK THE AMAZING CUBE, DUKES OF HAZZARD, MR. T, BENJI ZAX & THE ALIEN PRINCE, and of course BISKITTS, television viewers couldn’t help but notice THE LITTLES’ clean-line look and solid animation backbone. Unlike THE SMURFS, THE LITTLES had to ground its fantasy elements firmly against the real world of 1980s suburban housing. You can’t cheat your way through animating a series about tiny people that live in crawlspaces and underneath floorboards. The show’s versimilitude proved the fantasy staple of magical beings lurking in the nooks and crannies of the ‘real world’ translates well to television. Personally I was a little older than the target audience, but I enjoyed THE LITTLES regardless; how else was I gonna kill time before the premiere of MIGHTY ORBOTS?

There’s a strange appeal in tales of hidden creatures living on the margins of the human world – MRS FRISBY & THE RATS OF NIMH is still a juvenile SF favorite (and would get a big-screen animated adaptation around this time, though Disneyfied with enough magical fairy dust to make my teeth itch) and I’m pretty sure I read at least one of the original Littles novels to be at least familiar with the concept.

Henry and the Littles (with pet turtle Slick), the Bigg family, Dr. Hunter and his life partner Jeffrey

Viewed 25 years later THE LITTLES is aggressively 80s, from the lowercase font of its title to the pastel colors of the characters clothes, from the boxy compact cars the Bigg family drives to the dirt bike (and helmet, can’t forget the helmet) Henry uses to get around town from one Littles-infested crisis to another. Chased by Doctor Hunter and his assistant, LITTLES author John Peterson (!!), the Littles civilization is always at risk of being exposed to the outside, giant-sized world. This doesn’t stop them from using the big people as a template for their own lifestyle – there are apparently enough Littles living in our cellars and attics to require Littles-sized highways, filled with Littles traffic, running through our cities. One hopes the Littles are thankful for whatever zoning board decreed all structures needed lots of air vents and steam tunnels. When they aren’t going about their mysterious Littles business, Tom and Lucy always have time to help Henry out of a jam - complicated as usual by the antics of Cousin Dinky- and Grandpa can always deliver a lecture about how drugs are bad or how stealing is wrong, except when the Littles use it as the basis of their civilization. Well, that’s not really stealing. We didn’t need all that stuff anyway, go ahead, take it. THE LITTLES – charming children’s fantasy, or commentary on the wasteful nature of Western civilization? You decide.

Miyazaki's 'Famous Detective Holmes' makes an appearance

Episodes were capped with a “make it yourself” segment usually involving pipe cleaners, balloons, straws, scotch tape, and elementary laws of physics. In the third season of the series Henry’s family travelled the world (with Littles in tow) and the end segments became history or geography lessons. I’d quit watching by that time. My Friday nights were lasting a lot longer – movie theater popcorn isn’t going to pop itself, y’know – and my early Saturday mornings were spent sleeping instead of watching cartoons. Did the little people living inside our HVAC system shed a tear as one more viewer succumed to creeping teenageism? Only THE LITTLES know.


Don't Call Me Brony (Please) said...

God help me, I watched this show, too. I wasn't aware of it as anime at the time (Since Robotech was the first series to do that for me), but I did remember being impressed by all the 3D motion in the opening credits. Oh, and I'd also been a fan of the books when I was about 10, so there was that bit to drive my curiosity about the cartoon. I remember being sort of taken aback by the Littles' elfin appearance, since the illustrations in the books showed them as just being little humans, with the addition of tails. I suppose 1950's children's book illustrators were playing it safe, sparing us from the truth about the Littles' alien nature.

Chris Sobieniak said...

That 3D opening sequence certainly clenched it for most of us, even though it was relatively short, and the show itself had to prove itself in a hurry if it wanted to keep my 6 year old interest from waning!

I never did read the books however the show was based on, but often saw the covers as I comb through the shelves of a grade school library in my time. I think the one interesting change I've heard of was letting Henry in on the secret with the Littles than to be left in the dark the way the books were written. The TV series certainly wanted to make that connection positive.

I think I stopped watching the show before it's final "world trip season" myself, though I have fonder memories of enjoying the movie "Here Come The Littles", for which I see most of the images used for this entry came from.

Rather surprised I didn't catch that Sherlock Hound insignia seen here, though I do remember some rather silly moments in the film concerning the Engrishy writing that caught my attention, like a jar having "Nekojiru" written on it like someone wasn't going to notice back in the states!

Creginald Vandercleve said...

Holy Crap!

I never watched Kidd Video, always wondered what the heck it was (re-runs seemed to last forever up north!)

The Littles was an okay show, but probably not exciting enough to keep my attention before Mighty Orbots!

Jeremy A. Patterson said...

Cookie Jar has gottten some flack lately: They canned their syndicated block, their remaining blocks (on CBS and This TV) tends to focus on NEWER shows, and seems to give the blocks their weakest material!

wizard55 said...

Definitely many tiny nods throught the series to it's animation origin. Dinkys Facial Expressions and Lucy's Eyes at time tend to really lean towards the anime-style moreso than not, and definite style can be seen in crowd scenes for the better animated episodes.