Four Great Cartoons with Terrible Premises

At some point, every animated TV series is little more than a few lines of text on paper. Some of these short pitches sound amazing, almost begging to be made. Others….not so much. The weird thing is, not every cartoon that sounds bad on paper ends up being a terrible show. Here are four examples of cartoons that sound awful in theory, but went on to become amazing in practice.

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1. The Real Ghostbusters

The  Premise: “That live-action horror-comedy where the main characters joke about the bad guy having no genitalia should really be a cartoon for kids.”

Why it sounds bad: Kids certainly saw Ghostbusters in the theater and there have been TV cartoons based on less kid-friendly flicks. But standards for what was okay on children’s television at the time were much stricter than in movies and the quality of the resulting cartoon could be a total crapshoot. On top of those potential issues, a rival animation studio had already made a cartoon called Ghostbusters, based on a live-action TV series from the 1970s.

Why it’s actually good: Not every second of the Ghostbusters movie is appropriate for kids, but it’s impossible to deny to kid appeal of heroes who battle the things that haunt children’s nightmares. The Real Ghostbusters got that appeal and a surprising amount of the movie’s humor and charm, along with some genuine scares. Thanks in part to well known animation and comics scribe J. Michael Straczynski, who served as story editor for most of the show’s run, the series was a smart and entertaining take on the source material. Even the title forced on the show by the existence of the other Ghostbusters cartoon made sense: it was both the version of Ghostbusters more viewers were familiar with and the story of the “real” characters who inspired the movie, judging by one episode where the team goes to Hollywood for the film’s premiere.

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2. Muppet Babies

The Premise: “it’s the Muppets, but they’re babies!”

Why it sounds bad: Creating younger versions of existing characters is an oft used and rather lazy way of injecting a few more years of life into an existing brand. The results have varied, with some shows turning out pretty well and other proving to be real stinkers.

Why it’s actually good: Muppet Babies had a little more legitimacy than the average “baby” show, though it still doesn’t fit into Theoretical Muppet Canon established by either The Muppet Movie or The Muppet Show. It’s based on a fantasy sequence from The Muppets Take Manhattan where Miss Piggy imagines what life would be like if she and Kermit had know each other as babies. But what really saves the series is it’s strong theme of imagination. The young Muppets would use their imaginations to go on adventures and solve problems. Many of the imagination scenes featured the animated characters interacting with live action footage, a clever device that gave the show a unique look. The result was a series that was way more entertaining than just cute babies doing cute baby things.

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3. Mighty Max

The Premise: “Let’s make a cartoon based on Polly Pocket for boys.”

Why it sounds bad: Prior to the cartoon, that’s all Mighty Max was: a version of the toys featuring tiny plastic figures in pocket sized playsets aimed at young boys. Even if you disregard the show’s weird origins, a series about a kid with a magic baseball cap does not sound promising.

Why it’s actually good: As any kid of the 80s will tell you, never underestimate the possibility that a toy-based toon might actually be good. The show turned out to be a surprisingly epic globetrotting adventure, starring an ordinary kid, his wise birdlike mentor, and his Viking bodyguard. Over time, the show ditched the “if I tell anyone about this, I’ll be putting them in danger” trope and allowed some of Max’s friends and even his mother to share his secret. Smart, exciting, and occasionally dark, it’s a far better show than you’d expect it to be.

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4. TaleSpin

The Premise: “A handful of characters from The Jungle Book work in and around the air cargo industry in a vaguely 1930s seaside town.”

Why it sounds bad: This is my go-to example of a cartoon that sounds awful on paper. Beyond the personalities of the characters, there’s zero connection between the TV series premise and the original film. Plus, Baloo, King Louie, and Shere Khan are all realistic talking animals in the movie, but fully anthropomorphic human stand-ins in the show. And they fly planes.

Why it’s actually good: There’s a reason why this is my go-to example. Despite the seemingly ridiculous premise, TaleSpin works. The Jungle Book characters are really just a hook to lure in viewers and executives. The show’s real strengths are it’s exciting adventure stories and the relationships between the characters: whether it’s the surrogate father and son bond of Baloo and his young navigator Kit, the frequent clashes between Baloo and his surprisingly mature and business minded boss Rebecca, or the many other character interactions you’ll find in a given episode. Like a boxy aircraft that looks like it should never be able to get off the ground, TaleSpin defies expectations.

Share your own examples of amazing shows that sound bad on paper in the comments.

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