Years before Harry Potter was warned not to speak the name of the dark wizard who killed his parents, there was one name you were explicitly forbidden from saying once, let alone three times: "Beetlejuice! Beetlejuice! Beetlejuice!"
A horror comedy that mixed live-action with stop-motion and replacement animation, along with the use of retro blue screen, Tim Burton's second feature, Beetlejuice — released 30 years ago this week — was the 10th highest grossing film of 1988. The film established Burton as a major talent, and helped boost the careers of both Michael Keaton and Winona Ryder into the stratosphere. Three decades after seeing Keaton pull out all the stops and Ryder dance in the air to the sounds of Harry Belafonte's "Jump in the Line (Shake, Señora)," Beetlejuice has become one of Burton's best and most beloved films.
There have been rumors of a sequel in the works for decades now, but even with news of a rewrite this past November, there hasn't been any indication that Burton, Keaton and Ryder will take us back to the netherworld. However, "the most eligible bachelor since Valentino came over" has not fully been absent since the final year of the Reagan administration. Beetlejuice has appeared in a number of video games released for the Nintendo Gameboy and Super NES, a now-defunct Universal Studios theme park attraction, a newly announced musical adaptation, and most prominently, an animated series.
The Beetlejuice animated series, which took the same name as the film, ran for four seasons on both the ABC Saturday Morning and the FOX Kids cartoon-programming block from 1989 to 1991. During its 96 episode run, Beetlejuice was being shown on both blocks, making it one of the first animated programs to be shown simultaneously on two different networks, with new episodes premiering on ABC and reruns being shown on FOX. According to Michael Hirsh, one of the founders and former heads of Nelvana, the iconic Canadian animation studio that produced the series, this process was called "stripping a show."
Hirsh, with writers Patsy Cameron and Tedd Anasti, and animator Robin Budd, who directed many episodes of the series as well as the two incredible show intros, came up with the concept of the show. Lydia and Beetlejuice, now best friends, would explore "The Neitherworld" and come into contact with the many different monsters and creatures that inhabit it. Burton and Warner Bros. liked the pitch and commissioned the show to ABC.
Hirsh, who was a huge fan of the original film and said over Skype that the series "was one of the best cartoons we did working with another studio," also showed Burton how Nelvana would present Beetlejuice. The series has him wearing his iconic black and white striped suit, red fingertips and broccoli-colored teeth, but also presented him as a character who is "constantly metamorphosing." Beetlejuice does change form in the film, but in the animated series he changes into different shapes, objects and other characters at will — and at a much faster pace thanks to the freedom of animation. Burton, who would serve as executive producer on the series and Nelvana "got on the same wavelength" early on, according to Hirsh, so the animation company with the polar bear logo won the project, with Burton approving both the concept and the voices.
Stephen Ouimette, a Canadian theater and voice actor, voiced Beetlejuice. Lydia Deetz was voiced by Alyson Court, who Hirsh says, "was one of our top kids voices," at the time. For Court, who started voice acting for Levana in 1985 with her role as Malani the Ewok in Star Wars: Ewoks and went on to do voice work in both film (The Care Bears II: The Next Generation) and television (The New Archies — she voiced Veronica Lodge — and The Garbage Pail Kids) saw the role of Lydia as more than just another addition to her resume. "That was the first time I saw a role that I wanted," Court said over Skype.
Court studied Ryder's performance in the original film with the same level of concentration as athletes do when they're studying game tape. "I studied all of Wynona Ryder's dialogue, her voice, her speech pattern, everything," she says. Court saw the original film and became obsessed with it, seeing herself as the girl Beetlejuice called "Edgar Allen Poe's daughter."
"I wasn't full blown out Goth," she says, "but it was my first year of high school, so all the cute stuff went out the window." Court described herself at the time as "dressing in all black, moping around and just being cynical toward everything." Looking back, she is well aware that the Goth phase "was fairly cliché, but it was that age, so I'm so thankful I was that age when that movie came out; because that movie just made everyone in that mindset say, 'HEY! WE MATTER! WE GOT REPRESENTATION!' in a movie and its freaking awesome."
Court auditioned for the part and while she thought she nailed it, she almost lost it when Nelvana wanted her to come back for callbacks. At the time, she was unavailable because, of all things, she was on vacation at Disney World — the very opposite of the Neitherworld — and suffering from, as she says, "a terrible sunburn."
Court did inform Nelvana about her vacation in advance, and told them she was in no condition to fly back to Toronto (where Nelvana is based). By the time she returned, they had already recorded the pilot with Ouimette and another voice actress, none other than Tara Strong (Harley Quinn from Batman: The Animated Series and many more). However, the pair of Ouimette and Strong did not work for Nelvana so they redid the pilot with Court back in the role she wanted. Strong wounded up voicing Lydia's real-world best friend Bertha and her real-world rival Claire Brewster.
Talking on the Saturday Morning Rewind: Cartoon Podcast in 2013, Ouimette — who could not be reached for comment before publication — said that he had to do a total of nine callbacks before he could fully secure the role. Court described him as "a phenomenal actor," whom the young actress use to follow around during the time together working on the program; "I adored him and idolized him and looked up to him," Court says. "We always had a very good time in the booth."
Beetlejuice was one of a number of animated programs that were being released between the mid '80s and '90s that were based on live-action films. The idea of wasn't new, but in the '80s and '90s the number of cartoons based on live-action movies were in the dozens. There were cartoons based on Back to the Future, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, Police Academy, RoboCop, The Karate Kid, Highlander, Ghostbusters, The Addams Family, all three of Jim Carrey's '90s hits (Dumb and Dumber, The Mask and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective), Jumanji, Men in Black, the 1998 Godzilla, and many more.
Unlike many of those series, Beetlejuice was a huge hit, ran for a number of seasons, and is still the only animated program based off a live-action film to win an Emmy for Outstanding Animated Program (an award it shared that year with The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh), Nelvana's first.
What made Beetlejuice stand out among the many other cartoons being shown at the time and for years afterward was its mixing of traditional 2D animation along with CGI (which came in the form of Barry MeNot, a character who appears on Neitherworld TV), which was innovative for TV animation in the late '80s. "That was something that Tim [Burton] had wanted because he had mixed media in the movie" Hirsh says. "He wanted to have an element of that in the series so we came up the idea to use some early CGI to capture that flavor.
Another big get for the series was a new version of the iconic theme provided by none other than Danny Elfman himself, who also provided music for the series. "That was another great experience for us," Hirsh says.
The series wrapped up in 1991, going to syndication on FOX Kids and later the Cartoon Network. Ouimette went to voice characters in Dog City, X-Men: The Animated Series, the '90s Adventures of Tintin animated series and more before sticking to theater. As for Court, she went to star in the live-action children's program The Big Comfy Couch for six of its seven seasons as well as continuing to do voice work in both video games (she is the original voice of Claire Redfield in the Resident Evil series) and television most notably as Jubilee in X-Men: The Animated Series.
It was the role of Jubilee that helped get Lydia out of her system, because Sidney Iwanter, an executive producer at FOX Kids, put Court through what she described as "boot camp," during X-Men recording sessions; making her do take after take to stop sounding like Lydia. She describes it today as "a challenge and I'm very thankful for it," because due to Iwanter's insistence that she change her voice for Jubilee, she was able to "find a different place for my voice." She currently is voice directing the new Magic School Bus series for Netflix among other projects.
The series was released on DVD in 2014, but as of this writing, like many animated programs, it has not made the jump to streaming. However, almost three decades later, both Hirsh and Court still hold the series is very high regard, with Hirsh saying that the series "was the perfect example of a creative kids show," and Court saying that the series is "timeless" and that the role of Lydia will "always have a special place in my heart."
While talks of the movie sequel will probably go on till we all reach the netherworld, when asked if Warner Bros. would ever make a new version of the cartoon, Court let it be known that she would be more than welcome to go back into those Goth years and bring that version of herself back.
"You better believe it! There's definitely still some Lydia Deetz in me."