Does animation transcend cultural differences? Yes. No.

Yesterday I happened to catch the mention over at Toon Zone of this article in the Wall Street Journal about the changes being made to popular American animation before shipping it overseas.

Big round heads and tiny bodies make the Powerpuff Girls instantly identifiable to their fans in America. The preteen karate superheroes star in one of the top-rated shows on cable’s Cartoon Network.

Last year, though, the “Powerpuff Girls” showed up in Japan with a whole new look. On “Demashita! Powerpuff Girls Z,” the heroines have grown up, sprouted long legs and wear skirts well above their knees. In the original American storyline, the girls were created of sugar, spice and everything nice; their Japanese counterparts are normal girls who acquire superpowers from a chemical reaction initiated by a rice cake.

Once, American entertainment companies exporting characters just dubbed them into other languages. But in recent years, Asia has become the testing ground for character reinvention, a process called “transcreation.”

That Powerpuff Girls is the flagship example of transcreation surprises me, because I’ve always sort of found the animation style very anime-ish and I’m not an anime fan. In fact, I’ve been known to yell at the television “How can you possible fight crime when you don’t even have fingers?! And when your head is bigger than your body??” (I am a joy to watch TV with, let me tell you.) Further down in the article I get more information, though:

When Craig McCracken created the Powerpuff Girls show, he deliberately gave it what he thought was a “Japanese look.” But when the show first aired in Japan in 2001, it failed to attract a wide audience. So Cartoon Network decided to reinvent the characters to boost its appeal in Japan, an idea Mr. McCracken welcomed.

In their transcreation, Blossom, Buttercup and Bubbles got Japanese names and the lives of typical Japanese junior-high-school students. Since Japanese kids like to dress up like their favorite characters, the girls got more realistic outfits, with miniskirts, matching vests and hip-hugging belts.

While I understand the premise, I suppose, I am disturbed by the fact that part of this reinvention is making the girls older. My understanding of the American version (granted, we don’t watch it all that often) is that the girls are much younger than junior high. Why the age change? Is that cultural, or does making them older allow for racier themes and clothing, and appeal to a, er, wider audience? To whit:

“In Japan, girly love themes are a must,” Ms. Seki [a producer at Toei who helped create the show] says. When “Demashita! Powerpuff Girls Z” was launched in Japan a year ago, the executives at Cartoon Network soon realized that the revamped plots and skimpier outfits not only attracted young girls, they also broadened the audience to include animation-obsessed adult men known in Japan as otaku, or geeks, who were also fans of the original.

That last bit sort of creeps me out, quite frankly. Look, I don’t have a problem with grown men who are obsessed with cartoons, and don’t even particularly have an issue with grown men who are obsessed with sexy cartoons, but if it’s all the same to everyone involved, could we not market the same shows to my children as to those guys? Please? Sheesh.

Do go read the entire article; although the discussion of Powerpuff Girls is perhaps the most compelling/controversial, changes made to Big Bird of Sesame Street are also touched on, as well a brief discussion of how Spongebob Squarepants managed to thrive in Japan as is (and against expectations).

So that’s the scoop on transcreation. Learn something new every day, I guess.

2007 prime-time Emmy nominations announced

Yesterday marked the announcement of this year’s prime-time Emmy nominees, and so this seems like a good time to confess that I’m a total awards show junkie. Can’t get enough of ‘em. I mean, there are always shows I love which are overlooked by the awards committee(s), but sometimes the right show is recognized and there’s nothing quite like seeing something you really enjoy being recognized for the hard work that goes into it.

(The fact that you can also see a bunch of expensive dresses, outrageous hairdos, and funny commercials doesn’t hurt, either.)

Anyway, Animated News was on the scene immediately with the list of animation nominees.

Outstanding Animated Program (Programming Less Than One Hour)
Avatar: The Last Airbender – “City Of Walls And Secrets” (Nickelodeon Animation Studio)
Robot Chicken – “Lust For Puppets” (ShadowMachine Films)
South Park – “Make Love, Not Warcraft” (Central Productions)
SpongeBob SquarePants – “Bummer Vacation / Wig Struck” (Nickelodeon Animation Studio with United Plankton Pictures, Inc.)
The Simpsons – “The Haw-Hawed Couple” (Gracie Films with 20th Century Fox)

My take: I think Avatar deserves to win, but I don’t know that it will. There’s been a lot of buzz about Robot Chicken, and with the Simpsons movie about to come out—despite the series having been around forever—people are sort of rediscovering it. So I just don’t know.

Outstanding Animated Program (Programming One Hour Or More)
Foster’s Home For Imaginary Friends – “Good Wilt Hunting” (Cartoon Network Studios)
Hellboy Animated: Sword Of Storms (Starz Media with Revolution Studios)
Secrets Of The Deep (Impossible Pictures with Discovery Channel)
Camp Lazlo – “Where’s Lazlo?” (Cartoon Network Studios)

My take: If Foster’s doesn’t win this one, my faith in a just deity will be shaken. I know I went into that one already loving Foster’s, but Good Wilt Hunting was even better than I expected it to be. To me, it’s the clear front-runner. But I don’t get to vote. (Which is a travesty in and of itself. Clearly.)

The 2007 Emmy Awards Show will air this year on Sunday, September 16th at 8:00 PM. Mark your calendars and get ready to make fun of famous people. (Oops. Did I say that last part out loud? My bad.)

Robbed, I tell you

Do you recognize this sponge? Do you really?

Oh, sure. You’re most likely thinking that this is a no-brainer; that’s Spongebob Squarepants. But are you sure? Look closely.

Might it be… Bob Spongee?

Well, as it happens, this particular picture is Spongebob Squarepants. But there’s a man in northern California who begs to differ about that.

Cartoonist Troy Walker created a comic strip in 1991 about a sponge with a personality.

Bob Spongee had eyes, legs and arms. He lived on Apple Street with his wife, Linda, and their daughter, Bubbles.

Walker, of Fairfield, Calif., then produced 1,000 dolls: yellow sponges with a “drawn-on” face that he sold as collectibles in flea markets and through the mail.

In 2002, he learned about Nickelodeon’s buck-toothed animated character, “SpongeBob SquarePants,” who lives underwater in the fictitious city of Bikini Bottom.

You know where this is going, right? Walker only wants what’s rightfully his, of course.

The 40-year-old cartoonist has filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in San Francisco against Nickelodeon, Viacom, Paramount Studios and Stephen Hillenberg, the creator of SpongeBob SquarePants.

Walker has demanded $1.6 billion in damages, alleging that the defendants used his idea without his permission.

Well, it all makes perfect sense. I mean, the two characters sound completely identical. Gary the Pet Snail is clearly the wife, Linda; and Patrick the Starfish is obviously Bubbles. Also, Apple Street? Pineapple under the sea?

Why, the blatant thievery is shocking.

And I’m sure that I don’t have to tell you that when I notice that someone has infringed on my intellectual property in 2004 (5 years after the series launched), I wait until 2007 to file a lawsuit. I just think that increases my chances of winning, what with all of the additional pain and suffering.

In fact… well, I think I can share something with you, seeing as how we’re so close and we’ll just keep it between us, Internet. I’m not going to move on this one for a little while, yet, but just so you know, these backpack clips? Totally my idea. Why, once in eighth grade I removed a barrette from my hair—a yellow barrette, as it happens—and clipped it onto my backpack. It had a couple of ribbons hanging down and I ended up drawing on some eyes and then… well, it’s very painful to talk about. I’m still reeling from the theft of my unique idea, as I’m sure you understand. But in a year or three, I’ll be seeking retribution.

Yeah. Um, good luck with your lawsuit, dude.

Snoopy has left the mall

Have you ever been to the Mall of America? I suppose folks living in the greater Minneapolis area go there as a matter of course. Me, I visited for the first time just a few years ago and thanked my lucky stars that the kids weren’t with me at the time—I doubt they ever would’ve wanted to leave. (Not that I would blame them. When I got to the Lego area I didn’t much want to leave, myself.)

Anyway, I guess it was bound to happen: MOA is going to be Nick-ified.

The Mall of America has signed a branding-rights deal with the cable television network Nickelodeon for the megamall’s indoor amusement park, according to the Star Tribune.

The park used to be called Camp Snoopy, but the mall’s 13-year partnership with the “Peanuts” gang ended last year. Since then, the amusement park has been simply named, “The Park at MOA.”

Hmmmm. I wonder what they’ll call it now. Nickelodeon at MOA? Major Network Branding at MOA (MNB at MOA!)? Don’t Be Scared Of This Here Giant SpongeBob at MOA? The possibilities are endless, really.

And should you be taking the time to mourn the loss of the “Peanuts” characters, you might be interested to know that Avatar is moving in along with SpongeBob, Jimmy Neutron, and Dora:

A new roller coaster is planned based on the animated series, “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” Construction on the upside-down roller coaster will begin this year.

I… don’t really understand how you make a rollercoaster themed. It’s based on the Avatar? Do people come shoot fire at you while you’re riding it? Do the cars resemble flying bison? Does the track get bent right before your eyes? (I am a wealth of fabulous ideas, no?)

My guess is that some of these more “modern” characters will increase the appeal of the place, sure. Though I can’t help wondering if anyone will miss Snoopy and Woodstock. And also if I’m the only person who thinks that the SpongeBob in the photo above looks more like a hunk of cheese than a sponge.

Want to live in a pineapple under the sea?*

Nickelodeon, made even more interesting by the fact that they more or less decided not to bother advertising it: Nickelodeon has thrown their hat into the interactive online kiddie environment ring with the brand-new world of Nicktropolis.

Yesterday, this article detailed the launch, ending with this rather vague bit:

Nicktropolis will launch without advertising, but it expects to incorporate marketers in myriad ways, according to Stephen Youngwood, executive vp at Nickelodeon and MTVN Kids & Family Group.

Has anyone seen any advertising or “incorporated marketers” in association with this? No? Me neither. (But wait; I’m talking about it right now. Somehow I’ve become an unwitting pawn in their game! Aiiieeeee!)

The Yahoo! News article had a few slightly more informative tidbits, as well:

In Nicktropolis, kids can customize the appearance of an avatar, the onscreen character with which they navigate a digital world complete with its own currency. The environment includes branded regions like Nicktoon Boulevard, where surfers can visit rooms inspired by such Nick shows as “SpongeBob SquarePants” and “Danny Phantom.” Avatars can interact with icons representing characters from the shows or cue up episodes for viewing.

I’m experiencing deja vu. What does this remind me of? Oh, right. It’s sort of like Penguin Island meets Webkinz. Except with licensed character tie-ins.

It’s hard to know how I feel about it, really. On the one hand, I appreciate that it’s completely free (unlike Webkinz, which requires purchase of a stuffed animal), and I like the safety features (Nicktropolis offers various restricted levels of chat, much like Penguin Island). On the other hand, wouldn’t I rather that my kids not spend their time on the computer watching more cartoons?

Then again, if I’m going to let them watch SpongeBob SquarePants, isn’t it sort of cool to let them play a game where they can go hang out in his pineapple?

I’ll be very curious to see if Nicktropolis develops the sort of following that other sites of its kind have, or if Nick has just overreached and produced a pale imitation of the great communities already giving our kids a safe place to play and interact. I guess time will tell.

*I apologize for sticking the SpongeBob theme song in your head. I didn’t want to feel so alone, is all. (P.S. Absorbent and yellow and porous is he!) (Sorry.)