In the CW cult favorite Supernatural, Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles play brothers Sam and Dean Winchester, who travel the country hunting down demons and trying to foil apocalyptic supernatural plots. Supernatural is an entertaining show: exciting, cleverly written, funny at times, and acted with an appealing swagger by Padalecki and Ackles. I’m not a regular watcher, though I do plan to catch up with the whole series someday. For now, I just drop in on Supernatural from time to time when it airs in repeats on TNT. And in all the times I’ve watched the series, never once have I thought, “This should really be animated.”
Yet now here’s Supernatural: The Anime Series, a DVD (and Blu-ray) set collecting the 22 half-hour animated episodes of Supernatural that began airing in Japan earlier this year. Some of these half-hours are adaptations of Supernatural live-action episodes; some are original. All follow the basic formula of the original show, with sometimes-dangerous, sometimes-lighthearted demon-hunting set against an overarching story about the Winchester brothers’ ties to a strange family legacy. Padalecki and Ackles introduce the episodes and provide voices for their characters on a few of the English-language dubs. The end result is… odd. And instructive.
For example, one of the charms of the live-action series is the fraternal give-and-take of Sam and Dean, which is largely lost in Madhouse studios’ choppy animation. The animation on the anime Supernatural isn’t bad necessarily, but it’s more suited to dynamic comic-book-style action and horror than it is to scenes of two low-voiced, deadpan guys exchanging wry comments and knowing looks. (This also illustrates that there’s more to voice acting than just sticking a famous-sounding person in front of a microphone; as nice as it may have seemed to have Padalecki, Ackles, and their soundalikes on the English dub, they lack the vitality of professional voicers.) The monster effects here are wonderfully disgusting, and do make good use of the format, but for the most part the creative team behind the Japanese Supernatural never satisfactorily proves why this series needed to be rendered in pen and ink.
Still, this Supernatural is fascinating, because who would’ve guessed that turning live-action TV shows into cartoons would still be on the showbiz docket in 2011? It seems like such a ’70s and ’80s thing. Decades ago, repurposing popular primetime TV for the Saturday morning crowd was all the rage: Star Trek: The Animated Series; The Brady Kids; The New Adventures Of Gilligan; Laverne & Shirley In The Army; Partridge Family 2200 A.D.… the list goes on. The thinking of animation studios and network heads back then seemed to be that since kids were already watching the flesh-and-blood versions of those shows, surely they’d love them all the more if they were 25 percent nuttier, 50 percent stiffer, and featured cute animal sidekicks.
I grew up with those cartoons, but rarely watched them because, well, they were terrible. They’re even hard to watch now as nostalgic kitsch. Nevertheless, when Warner Archive offered up an MOD set of The Dukes Of Hazzard’s animated spin-off—autographed by James Best, who both played and voiced Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane—I succumbed in a weak moment and bought a copy.
The Dukes aired in 1983, running for 20 episodes, spread across part of two Saturday-morning seasons. When The Dukes debuted, The Dukes Of Hazzard was in the middle of its fifth season and trending downward, in part because original stars Tom Wopat and John Schneider had left in a contract dispute, and in part because the whole handsome-rednecks-drive-real-fast genre was in decline. When The Dukes Of Hazzard first appeared in 1979, Burt Reynolds was one of the biggest box-office stars in America, and a decade of car-chase comedies had prepared the television audience for stories about colorful Southern boys dodging corrupt local lawmen. But by 1983, a condition called “Needham Fatigue” had set in.
The Dukes barely resembles the show that became one of the biggest TV hits of the early ’80s. Following the lead of its live-action counterpart, The Dukes featured the voices of Byron Cherry and Christopher Mayer as Coy and Vance Duke. (Schneider and Wopat later replaced them, voicing Bo and Luke after returning to the main show.) And though the cartoon Dukes still feud with Sheriff Coltrane and Hazzard County commissioner Boss Hogg, the action goes global, with the heroes and villains racing each other around the world. At times the show is a lot like Yogi’s Space Race, only with happy hicks instead of hat-sporting woodland creatures.
Like the various Yogi Bear shows, The Dukes was a Hanna-Barbera product, and it shows. The animation is painfully limited, and the art is dim and ugly (similar to Robert Smigel’s parodies on Saturday Night Live). The sound mix is even worse; the music is wall-to-wall, making the dialogue hard to hear. And the stories proceed from one comedy or action sequence to the next with very little connective tissue. The only reason I can think of that anyone would’ve watched this show back in 1983 would’ve been if they just liked to be reminded that The Dukes Of Hazzard existed. (It’s the same reason people put up posters or carried Dukes Of Hazzard lunchboxes.)
But how different are cartoons like The Dukes or The Brady Kids from something as ostensibly “cooler” as Supernatural: The Anime Series? Stylistically, of course, they’re very different. The Dukes takes the already broadly comic The Dukes Of Hazzard and adds even more silliness: Boss Hogg making a typewriter noise while eating corn on the cob, Uncle Jesse talking to a mischievous raccoon, and so on. At their core though, both series are really just ancillary products. They’re souvenirs, not vital parts of the franchise. The same could be said of the various comic book versions of some TV shows (which exist in Supernatural’s case), or the “motion comic” versions of comic books (which the anime Supernatural resembles).
Critic Richard Schickel, writing in his 1968 book The Disney Version, complained that animators tend to be overly concerned with realism and fail to take full advantage of the unique properties of the medium. I agree with that, to a point. A few weeks ago I watched the Blu-ray of Mars Needs Moms, and was tempted to switch it off after 15 minutes. I respect motion-capture animation as a tool, and think Robert Zemeckis has used it creatively in the past. But the characters in the Zemeckis-produced Mars Needs Moms are so close to live-action in their facial expressions and gestures that there doesn’t really seem to be any point to animating them. (Later in the movie, weird-looking aliens appear. Maybe director Simon Wells and company should’ve Wizard Of Oz-ed the movie, and saved the animation for when the story moved to outer space.)
Supernatural: The Anime Series and The Dukes aren’t excessively realistic by any means, but they both demonstrate a lack of understanding of what makes a cartoon a cartoon. Animation can be as varied as any visual art form, and there’s no reason why animators shouldn’t feel free to work with ordinary human characters in non-wacky situations. But they should still recognize that animation isn’t live action. There will always be limitations to what can be expressed in a drawing, and there should be limitations. That’s what makes animation such a magical medium: seeing what a thoughtful artist can express with just a few lines and symbols.
And yes, animators should feel free to draw what no cameraman could photograph. For example: While the anime Supernatural has better stories, The Dukes has Smokey The Raccoon walking on his hind legs and getting into all sorts of hijinks.