In every generation, there is a chosen talking animal, beloved by non-furries and furries alike. And I’m not talking simply funny animals; we’re talking about animal people who laugh, cry, and, uh, feel love.
Foxes are a perennial favorite (Disney’s Robin Hood, who you would 100% marry, don’t lie, and Zootopia), as are cats. But in the '90s, for some reason, that animal was kangaroos. And animation alone could not capture their appeal: only entire dozens of painstakingly constructed live-action kangaroo suits would do.
After viewing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, my '90s nostalgia gene roared to life, spewing Surge and Baby Bottle Pop powder right and left. My nostalgia gene is, of course, Reptar. As a bad movie buff who loves nothing more than production designers refusing to not go all in on even the silliest of premises, it was perhaps inevitable that I would come face to face with Warriors of Virtue.
Warriors of Virtue is so blissfully weird that I, for years, assumed it was based on something I’d just never heard of, maybe an Animorphs knock-off or some forgotten TV show that came on after The Mystic Knights of Tir Na Nog. But, no, it’s not an adaptation of Pre-Teen Dirty-Gene Kung-Fu Kangaroos, but a completely original property, which spawned a sequel and some books. It’s mostly a riff on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Power Rangers with an extra side of Orientalism.
But Warriors of Virtue does have its charms: the production design is over-the-top, the martial arts sequences are delightful, and the villain, Komodo, is amazing. He somehow looks like a rejected Final Fantasy villain and a rejected Mortal Kombat villain at the same time. He’s prone to screaming things like “I AM CRUELTY!” and also just screaming. He is exactly the kind of character screenwriters used to code as gay just so you knew he was evil, but as a screaming gay lunatic myself, I found him intensely relatable. Nice try, homophobic '90s screenwriters! It didn’t work with Scar and it’s not going to work here! I loved him immensely.
The Rooz… I loved less.
First, props must be paid to Tony Gardner, who, along with his studio Alterian Inc., created and operated the Rooz suits (you may know Gardner’s work from The Return of the Living Dead and Hocus Pocus.) Gardner and company had to take kung fu kangaroos from design sketch to reality, keeping in mind the many demands a sixty pound animatronic suit would put on both actors (like Doug Jones!) and stuntmen. In that regard, Alterian succeeded wildly; you do believe them, especially during the action scenes choreographed by Siuming Tsui.
They’re just sort of… terrifying? In the face? Trying to build a long-snouted kangaroo face on a human face while retaining an actor’s emotive capabilities is a very tall order, and Alterian’s solution was to rig up expressions in the heads themselves for puppeteers to operate. This is pretty standard for this type of work; you’ve seen it before. What’s not standard, however, is leaving the soulful human eyes uncovered. Many people remember being scared by these animatronics, despite their obvious high quality, and I think this is why; the illusion breaks in close-ups, and suddenly you’re thinking about kangaroo skulls and horse skulls.
Now imagine your brain trying to negotiate all of that and then realizing that Yun (the Virtue of Benevolence/Water) and Tsun (the Virtue of Loyalty/Earth/Being the Designated Girl) kind of have a thing going on. Tsun, unfortunately, suffers from a common error in designing monster women; trying to prettify a monster design instead of just letting them be monsters. The eyelashes and lips are exaggerated, and her face is so smoothed out that it starts to feel… alarming. Yun and Tsun occasionally exchange touches on the arms, and I was legitimately afraid that they were going to kiss at some point.
But, of course, Warriors of Virtue is a children’s film that just wants to have some weird fun. It would never show kangaroo people being physically affectionate in ways that might be alarming or upsetting.
For that, we must turn to Tank Girl.
For the uninitiated, Tank Girl is a British punk comic started in 1988 brought to us by Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin. It stars the eponymous Tank Girl, an outrageous outlaw in a post-apocalyptic Australia whose hedonism knows no bounds. If the comic looks familiar, that’s because Hewlett went on to co-create Gorillaz.
In 1995, director Rachel Talalay succeeded in bringing Tank Girl and company to the screen with a film adaptation starring Lori Petty, with production design by Catherine Hardwicke (yes, that Catherine Hardwicke). While a flop upon release that has left a permanent sour taste in the mouths of Hewlett and Martin, Tank Girl has gone on to become a cult feminist genre classic, thanks to Petty’s charismatic turn as the titular terror, its empowering script, and Hardwicke’s excellent work in realizing a bonkers '90s-inflected post-apocalypse. It’s the rare film that feels like both a roundhouse kick to the future and a perfect time capsule of its era.
The kangaroos get involved almost late in the film. Prior to their introduction, the characters speak in hushed tones to each other about Rippers, an unseen, superhuman threat. When Tank Girl needs an army in her quest to save Sam, a little girl previously in her charge, she seeks out the Rippers, and that’s when we discover they are peak '90s bros. Who are kangaroos. Kangabros?
Tank Girl’s Rippers are more successful than Warriors of Virtue’s Rooz for one simple reason: they are designed around the idea of getting as much of an actor’s facial performance through as humanly possible. In the comics, the mutant kangaroos look, more or less, like people with kangaroo heads. But in a medium where getting away with that would be next to impossible, Talalay asked Hewlett for a design that was more human. And then, despite Talalay being certain that he would never respond, the legendary Stan Winston stepped in and insisted that his studio work on the film. He even gave the production a discount as to stay under budget, he wanted to work on the Rippers so much.
The resultant Rippers strike a good, if appropriately grotesque, balance between man and kangaroo. By smashing in the snouts and saving the animatronics for the ears and tails, the actors playing the Rippers (like Doug Jones! WAIT A MINUTE) are able to, y’know, act, expressions reading clear as day. Perhaps the grotesquerie and the graphic tee over a long-sleeved shirt may turn you off, but you can look at these Rippers and feel like you definitely went to high school with them.
And, to put it indelicately, these kangaroo men frak. They express clear sexual desire for Tank Girl and Jet Girl (Naomi Watts) when they arrive, but, as usual, it’s Tank Girl who takes it up to eleven and sleeps with Booga. The post-coital scene is quite tame, but that wasn’t the original plan. Apparently, a fully anatomically correct naked Ripper suit was constructed for that scene, and MGM, for some reason, wanted it cut out of the picture. I can’t imagine why!
From the tame touches of Warriors of Virtue to the full-on kangaroo man sex of Tank Girl, we’re left wondering: why were the ‘90s so hot for kangaroo men?
Well, the '90s are infamous for being the decade of the X-TREME, and kangaroos are essentially the X-Games of land mammals. While female kangaroos are often associated with motherhood and fertility in pop culture — see Roo from Winnie the Pooh and Kangaskhan in Pokémon — male kangaroos are associated with hypermasculinity. I mean, they’re jacked during the late 19th century, there were traveling shows in the wilds of Australia featuring human men boxing with kangaroos, who, I feel obligated to remind you, can kill a man. For the '90s, only the most extreme of animals would do.