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In the 1980s, two major developments happened in the world of American media. First, the administration of President Ronald Reagan abolished the FCC's fairness doctrine and deregulated most aspects of the broadcasting industry, making it much easier for companies to churn out programming designed primarily to deceptively advertising things to impressionable young children. Reagan's appointed chairman of the FCC Mark S. Fowler decreed that children's television should be dictated by the marketplace, which led to a plethora of familiar nostalgic favorites like G.I. Joe, Transformers, My Little Pony, and the Care Bears, all of which conveniently came with vast amounts of toys, games, and assorted paraphernalia for sale to the masses.
Second, it became far easier and cheaper for networks to produce animated shows, often outsourcing the bulk of the work to overseas companies in Asia. The end result was a strange media landscape of brand expansion disguised as wholesome kid-friendly viewing.
If it could be franchised or turned into a fun new product for the children of the '80s and '90s then you better bet it got a cartoon spin-off series. One could write an entire thesis on the weird and wonderful shows of this era, but we're here to focus on some of the more inexplicable choices. It's not hard to see why Disney would make a show out of the Gummy Bears, but not everything seems tailor-made for the peppy cartoon spin-off treatment. Hell, some of these shows defy belief on that front, whether it was for its entirely unsuitable-for-kids content or the incomprehensible creative choices they made to turn their stories into smiley-faced morality tales with a hefty side of merchandising opportunities to sweeten the deal.
Toxic Crusaders (The Toxic Avenger)
Lloyd Kaufman, the king of Troma cinema, is not a man who you would have at the top of your list for warmhearted family-friendly entertainment. His work is typically defined by extreme gore and surrealism, deliberately shocking imagery, and a B-movie schlock appeal that fits well with movies titled Tromeo and Juliet (written by James Gunn!), Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead, and Blood Junkie. Troma had a surprise breakout hit in the form of 1984's The Toxic Avenger, a proto-superhero comedy about a New Jersey weakling who turns into a deformed muscle man after being dumped in a vat of toxic waste.
There's nothing kid-friendly about The Toxic Avenger, a movie that features sex, drugs, and a man's organs being yanked from his body. Yet it still managed to get an animated spin-off! Toxic Crusaders decided that Toxie, as he was fondly known, needed his own Captain Planet-style team of misfit superheroes to help him combat pollution and fight aliens. Only 13 episodes were ever made and the kids of the '80s were sadly denied cartoon takes on Chopper Chicks in Zombietown and Class of Nuke 'Em High.
The heartwarming tale of a young boy and his orca best friend inspired generations of kids to simultaneously become eco-warriors while demanding their parents take them to SeaWorld to watch imprisoned killer whales do tricks set to power ballads. Free Willy evolved into a multi-film franchise so, of course, it also got an animated series. That doesn't explain how utterly bizarre it was.
In the two-season run of Free Willy, Jesse can not only talk to the eponymous whale but a whole assortment of colorful sea creatures. This ability originates from Indigenous mythology but it’s still a white kid who has the power. They work towards a variety of marine biology-related goals, all while battling a cyborg villain who blames Willy for the loss of his face — yes, really. Said bad guy, The Machine, looks like a cross between Michael Jackson and the Borg, and he has evil henchmen created from toxic waste. Oh, and he genetically modifies giant squid. And he loves to spill oil. You know, for kicks.
Attack of the Killer Tomatoes
Remember Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, that parody of 1950s monster B-movies that introduced George Clooney to the world and was definitely intended for kids? Well, Fox must have thought that the youths would be all about those homicidal fruits as they commissioned two whole seasons of this sequel spin-off. The cartoon actually happened in part because the Muppet Babies series showed a clip of the movie and the episode became so popular that they asked for a sequel. No seriously, this is how TV shows get made.
Taking place five years after the original movie, tomatoes are outlawed by one mad scientist (because there's always one) is still causing havoc on the world. It falls upon his failed experiments, including a tomato turned human and a furry tomato who pretends to be a dog, to put an end to his evil plans. It's not quite as pointed in its satire of schlocky old movies as the film was but there is a lot of entertainment value in seeing a tomato dressed like the Phantom of the Opera.
In Tim Burton's beloved horror-comedy, the eponymous Beetlejuice is a depraved deviant who loves brothels, grabbing his own crotch, and trying to get a teenage girl to marry him. Shockingly, the cartoon spin-off didn't include these elements. Rather, he's a more traditionally lovable goofball than an undead lawsuit-in-waiting.
Still, Beetlejuice the animated series is actually rather delightful and retains much of the film’s style, as BFFs Lydia and Beetlejuice go on madcap adventures through the netherworld together. It was even critically acclaimed enough to win an Emmy. It’s still a lot of fun to imagine parents letting their kids who loved the series check out the movie, only to have to spend a few minutes explaining to them why you shouldn’t yell out “Nice f**king model!” in public before gripping at your genitals and honking.
James Bond Jr.
The most iconic spy in modern pop culture has been the subject of countless movies, books, spin-offs, and shameless rip-offs. Charlie Higson wrote a series of novels imagining the adventures of an adolescent James Bond long before he got his hands on a gun and the concept of dirty puns, but prior to that, we had James Bond Jr.
This young Bond, however, is James' bratty nephew, and his best friends are conveniently the relatives of his uncle's colleagues. Espionage starts at all ages, apparently, as Jr. takes on the evil terrorist organization S.C.U.M. (Saboteurs and Criminals United in Mayhem), fights some of the most famous Bond villains in the series' history, including Jaws and Dr. No, and has access to a ludicrous amount of technologically impossible gadgetry. The body count is noticeably lower, too. While this Bond isn't old enough to be the absolute dog his uncle is, he still gets to save a lot of gorgeous women with ridiculous pun names. Even in kids' entertainment, the Bond girls are less capable than a literal child. Yikes.
Long before it became a toe-tapping musical, Little Shop of Horrors was a Roger Corman horror-comedy, one of four movies the B-movie legend released in 1960. That is what forms the basis for the cartoon Little Shop (no horrors), which ran for one 13-episode season on Fox in 1991. Audrey Jr. is far less murderous a plant in this series and Seymour has been de-aged to a dorky teenage boy. There's still a lot of musical numbers to enjoy, however, and Seymour isn't being blackmailed into providing corpses for his plant buddy to feast on. Rather, they're BFFs with a snarky side.
Of course, because this is an American kids' cartoon series from the late '80s and early '90s, there's a whole lot of environmental messaging going on here. Also, the plant rapped. Like I said, it was the early '90s. Nothing said funky fresh flavor like a giant meat-eating plant spitting some bars. The series itself is cheaply drawn but reasonably cute, even if it lacks the obvious bite of its predecessors. This mean green mother needed a little more malice.
We here at SYFY FANGRRLS can’t get enough of The Mummy, the endlessly enjoyable action-adventure monster movie that gifted the world with the perfect on-screen hero in the form of Brendan Fraser’s Rick O’Connell. While the movies weren't really for kids thanks to all that demonic face-sucking and flesh-eating bug stuff, it's not tough to see the intrinsic kid-friendly appeal of a show about adventures with ancient Egyptian mythology. How do you screw that up? You add an adorable moppet.
Yes, Alex O'Connell is a key character in The Mummy Returns but come on, was he who you wanted to spend all that time with? The show itself is often quite fun but it falls into that age-old trap of kids TV by centering everything on the sassy tween because he’s meant to be relatable. All that and we don’t even get Brendan Fraser (he was replaced by the guy who played Bo in The Dukes of Hazzard because sure, why not?).
This series has become pop culture lore thanks to its mysterious origins and recurring questions over whether or not it truly existed. Leading up to the release of Alien 3, 20th Century Fox reportedly received a pitch for a Saturday morning cartoon based on the series from Kenner Products. The toy and merchandising company were known for producing action figures for some of the biggest IPs in the business, including Star Wars, Ghostbusters, and the Batman series. This was at a time when toy companies and the profits they drove were so major that studios often allowed them passes at scripts before production began to make sure the merch opportunities were strong enough.
In 2017, former Fox Kids executive Margaret Loesch admitted that she couldn't recall when the series was actually pitched to the network but that she probably would've turned down offers of a full season since the Alien franchise is notoriously a hard-R rating and it's kind of impossible to sell that to children (or their harried parents.) Still, rumors swirl that Kenner went forward and had a pilot made themselves through an unknown Korean studio. Some animation stills exist, suggesting that at least some form of the pilot was available to view, probably for executives. The company still released a bunch of toys tied to this potentially non-existent show, so job well done?
The mere potential of this show opens up so many possibilities for how one would make Alien into comfy viewing to eat cereal to. Maybe the facehugger is Ripley's sassy sidekick?
What’s more unsuitably for kids than a horror movie about acid-spitting aliens of phallic designs bursting through your stomach? How about an animated take on a Paul Verhoeven movie? The man is practically allergic to making anything below an R rating. RoboCop remains one of American sci-fi cinema’s most scathing indictments of capitalism and the government-approved militarization of the police. It's also violent as all hell, shocking to audiences even 33 years after its release, to the point where it was initially rated X by the MPAA. How do you even try to make that fun for kids?
Basically, you can’t, so you just take the concept of a cyborg police officer and turn him into Captain Planet. It so wildly misses the point that it ends up being the kind of rose-tinted copaganda that the original movie lambasts. This RoboCop doesn't blow anyone's heads off but he does take on polluters — seriously, it was mandatory for kids' cartoons in the '80s — and helps play a crucial part in the Middle East peace process. Yeah, we don’t know either.