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Dexter’s Laboratory wins with character and story

For all the justifiable fuss that is being generated by the first fully computer-made animated feature, and, for all the seemingly limitless, ever-changing assortment of information and imagery that is being delivered through new media such as compact discs and the...
January 1, 1996

For all the justifiable fuss that is being generated by the first fully computer-made animated feature, and, for all the seemingly limitless, ever-changing assortment of information and imagery that is being delivered through new media such as compact discs and the World Wide Web – for all of that – there remain some fundamental laws of nature that continue to govern the entertainment world.

‘The old saws are completely true,’ says Fred Seibert, president of Hanna-Barbera Cartoons. ‘Great characters and great stories still work.’

Seibert uses the observation to help explain the particular appeal of Dexter’s Laboratory, a charming seven-minute cartoon short that was developed by Hanna-Barbera for the Cartoon Network’s World Premiere Toons project. Now it has been given a whole new life. Six half-hour episodes have been ordered for Turner Broadcasting Systems’ TBS, TNT and Cartoon Network to be aired in April, and there is already talk of a possible strip series for 1997.

The Dexter storyline follows a morning in the life of the slightly nerdy Dexter, a young boy-scientist whose off-limits room happens to include a laboratory that would have made Young Frankenstein proud. The excitement develops when Dexter’s older sister, DeeDee, walks into his room and begins interfering with his latest experiment.

While the plot line may not be new, it is told in an engaging, classically filmic way that allows identification with both the story and the characters, says Seibert.

‘It’s about great stories, and it’s also about talent,’ says Seibert, in praise of the work of first-time director, Genndy Tartakovsky, the soft-spoken Cal Arts grad who created the Dexter story.

‘Too often in this business we talk about the deal and the property, whereas the first thing to discuss should be the talent,’ says Seibert, who adds that the Premiere Toons program was created to help cultivate new talent and encourage innovative work.

Seibert says that when one looks at ‘the great cartoons – and not just the successful cartoons – you will find that they are not fixed in time.’

The Toons program represents an attempt to create an environment to encourage the development of those kinds of cartoons, he says. ‘Not fixed in any time or trend, but following the basic rules of drama, comedy, character and story.

‘There aren’t many places,’ says Seibert, ‘that are doing truly original work today, or that are able to truly develop audience. Most people must get audience or die.’

Tartakovsky, 25, who has also worked on The Critic, Tiny Toons, Batman (the animated series) and Hanna-Barbera’s 2 Stupid Dogs, admits to being a bit daunted by the prospect of turning his Dexter story into a series. He feels he can make it work if he stays true to the origin of the story.

Sincerity remains the key element, he says.

‘I didn’t do it for kids especially, nor for adults. And there’s nothing deep about it. I just had fun. I think cartoons try too much to talk to kids.’

Styles change and even media change, as evidenced most dramatically by Disney’s Toy Story.

‘But,’ says Tartakovsky, ‘if you look at Toy Story what really makes it work is that it still has good character acting in it.’

Tartakovsky’s watchwords? ‘Trust your instincts. No gimmicks, and keep it simple.’

For Seibert, the answer to breaking through today’s hotly competitive and cluttered environment is equally uncomplicated.

‘When we talk about the new sophisticated kid, that means to me kids with a great number of inputs, dozens of things that are formulating their aural and visual memories. They have a huge number of things that they can call their own.

‘Kids are exposed to so many things that they really are discriminating. They know the difference between what’s good and what’s bad.

‘So the only thing that matters is that thing we can loosely call talent.’

The six new episodes of Dexter’s Laboratory will be paired with a Dexter spin-off, Dial M for Monkey, also created by Tartakovsky, Craig McCracken, director of Toon’s The Powderpuff Girls and Paul Rudish (Super Secret Secret Squirrel.)

The Premiere Toons program has more than lived up to its expectations of introducing fresh projects and attracting new talent, says Cartoon Network president Betty Cohen.

Of the 18 seven-minute stories that aired in its first year, one more in addition to Dexter may go into series, and a third show, which is part of the 15 Toons scheduled to air this year, looks like a good prospect.

Cohen says in total 48 Toons have been green-lighted into 1997.

‘Out of the 48, we had hoped to get three or four (to go to series), so we’re pretty happy,’ says Cohen.

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