When Thunderbirds first appeared on the ATV back in 1965, mankind had yet to land on the moon. Star Trek hadn’t boldly gone where no man had gone before. Walt Disney, the man behind the world’s most famous mouse, was still alive.
It’s been almost 50 years since Gerry and Sylvia Anderson debuted their sci-fi TV series set in the year 2065 that followed the adventures of five brothers living on a secret island. Each brother was assigned a rescue machine—be it for land, sea, air or space—known collectively as the Thunderbirds. The show opted not to use live actors, but instead featured a cast of marionettes.
Next year, the brothers will return for a reboot of the classic series under ITV Studios and Pukeko Pictures. The backgrounds and buildings are miniature models, while the water surrounding Tracy Island is real. And like the original, the new iteration will be non-violent in nature and take place in the year 2065. Not all aspects of the classic, however, will remain the same.
“We always knew we would have to dispense with the marionettes because they weren’t going to fly in 2015,” says Giles Ridge, executive producer of the new Thunderbirds are Go!
Thunderbirds is hardly the only franchise with an upcoming revival. Companies are breathing new life into classic characters from every decade since the ’60s for today’s generation of kids.
In the UK alone, there’s 1970s stop-motion Morph from Aardman Animations, most recently revived with a new series of shorts funded through Kickstarter, while 1980s hit Danger Mouse is getting a second life courtesy of FremantleMedia Kids & Family Entertainment and CBBC. The pair were encouraged by a 2013 airing of the original Danger Mouse series that drew 569,000 viewers for UK diginet CiTV, and a new 52 x 11-minute series is set to air next year. Even relatively newer properties that debuted in the 1990s—Powerpuff Girls and Teletubbies—are being prepped for a comeback.
These shows may have an existing base of older fans, but when joining with a full slate of reboots from competing entertainment companies, nostalgia alone won’t cut it. Storylines and products need updating for today’s kids, without drifting too far from what made the franchise so beloved the first time around. That means even Ms. Frizzle, the energetic teacher from Scholastic’s Magic School Bus that was last produced as a TV series in 1997, must prepare some fresh lesson plans.
Magic School Bus debuted to US audiences on pubcaster PBS in 1994. When Magic School Bus 360 launches in 2016 with 26 new episodes, it will be on Netflix—so it’s safe to say times have changed. To bring the storytelling up-to-date, not only will the bus need some technological upgrades, but the character Carlos might also don a smart suit that can record his body temperature or movements. After all, many kids could very well own some wearable tech by then. “When we told the original [Magic School Bus] stories, YouTube didn’t exist. Google Glass didn’t exist,” says Leslye Schaefer, Scholastic Media SVP of marketing and consumer products. “Technology wasn’t front-and-center when we did the original series.”
Danger Mouse was once the super-spy of British kids cartoons, but like any secret agent, he still needs state-of-the-art gadgets to thwart his foes. “Just as James Bond has evolved, I think Danger Mouse will evolve,” says Rick Glankler, Fremantle’s EVP and GM of Kids & Family Entertainment. For starters, Danger Mouse’s old eye patch will be replaced with an iPatch, which offers new opportunities for storytelling and consumer products.
But while technology can be at the forefront of plot lines, it’s important to stay ahead of the curve so that series resonate with kids for many years to come. In 2006, for example, Netflix was still a DVD-by-mail company that had yet to start streaming video; Blackberry was approaching its peak, while MySpace was the most visited website in the US—ahead of Google. Eight years is an eternity for technology. Will kids in eight years know about the iPad or iPod?
“When we do the new [Magic School Bus] series, as much as we want to include cutting-edge concepts, we don’t want it to outdate itself within two years,” Schaefer says. That means also staying at the front line of technology for consumer products. “We hope to see more of an emphasis on digital products in terms of licensed goods,” she adds, be it games, apps or even camera technology. “Hopefully there will be a line of licensed wearable technology.”
And a franchise revival, with its built-in brand awareness and marketing, can generate a lot of interest from risk-averse licensees and retailers. A brand’s survival and future growth depends on re-interpreting it as opposed to protecting it. “We’re not trying to curate something like a museum,” says Tim Collins, head of brands at UK-based DC Thomson Consumer Products. “We’re trying to nurture things and grow them to appeal to different people from different places.”
While storylines and products are retooled for today’s generation of kids, it’s important not to lose sight of what made the original property popular to begin with. Ten years ago, Jason Tammemägi was tasked with directing Roobarb and Custard Too, a comeback for the beloved British animated dog Roobarb, who first appeared on the BBC in the ’70s. Instead of drastically changing the IP, the team decided to keep many of the same characteristics that made Roobarb so beloved decades before. “What we were all worried about was that the first thought of parents would be, ‘What on earth have they done to my beloved childhood memory?’” says Tammemägi, now creative director of Dublin-based children’s media company Mooshku. “And then you’re starting from a very negative place.”
Just look at what happened to Paddington Bear. As images of the upcoming movie started to appear on the web, there was noticeably little talk about the star-studded cast that includes Nicole Kidman. Instead, the focus became Paddington’s new CGI look that many found disconcerting. Pretty soon, there were memes featuring the friendly bear photoshopped into terrifying scenes from classic horror movies like The Shining and Silence of the Lambs. “Creepy Paddington Bear” even has his own Tumblr account.
“I hear the term risk-averse about [revivals] a lot, but they do come with risk,” says Tammemägi. “You don’t have to live up to the original—you have to live up to everyone’s rose-tinted memories of the original.”
On the other hand, Paddington’s new look might be what it takes to resonate with the new target audience, even if some computer-savvy teens will poke a little fun at the bear. When Tammemägi showcased his updated Roobarb series at a preview screening, he remembers the industry people loved it—but they were adults. “Nostalgia means something to parents and buyers,” Tammemägi adds. “As soon as you get it on air, it has no relevance to children.” So for him the true question becomes: Who are you ultimately making it for?
When the original Magic School Bus was first born as a book series, it met a need to introduce a fun way to teach kids about science—particularly girls and minorities, says Scholastic’s Schaefer. “As we looked today, when we were evaluating whether it made sense to do a new Magic School Bus, it was the same evaluation process, where we saw that STEM learning is a really important concern right now.”
In 2009, the US ranked 25th in math, according to a global assessment administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). By 2012, it had dropped to 31st. Similarly, the country ranked 20th in science back in 2009, but dropped to 24th in three years.
Parents and teachers had also been asking Scholastic for new Magic School Bus episodes, Schaefer says. “The numbers were just a confirmation that there’s a need.”
Arguably, Cartoon Network has even more ’90s classics than Scholastic to refurbish—Johnny Bravo or Dexter’s Laboratory come to mind. And while they’re from the same era as Powerpuff Girls, the net believes there’s more to staging a reboot than simply grabbing any well-remembered show from the past.
“We looked at the trends and gaps in the marketplace right now, and there’s a void out there of new strong girls properties,” says Peter Yoder, CNE VP of consumer products for North America. With more than two million Facebook fans, Powerpuff Girls has already established rapport with the social media-savvy generation. Yoder adds that not only will opportunity exist for a robust program of online content and apps, but there will also be lots of CP opportunities, particularly around apparel with a program focused on finding fashion designers who can reinterpret the franchise for today’s audience.
And DreamWorks Animation is reaching even further back—way, way back. It recently acquired Felix the Cat, which first appeared in 1919—and not solely to put the feline back on the big screen. “We plan to make him one of the most desired fashion brands in the world,” said DreamWorks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg at Licensing Show in June.
The purchase, in fact, comes on the heels of Felix finding a home on higher-end apparel in fashion-forward countries like South Korea. “We’ve inherited a brand where the next year’s worth of creative is already done,” says Michael Connolly, head of global consumer products at DreamWorks. “It’s literally cut-and-paste.”
In addition to Felix’s sartorial potential, his revival comes at a time when IPs based on cats are among the bestselling for girls. Think Hello Kitty or newcomer Grumpy Cat. Then there’s Felix’s black-and-white look, which has remained recognizable throughout his near 100 years of existence. “Very few characters have been historically made in a way that symmetrically looks fantastic on merchandise,” says Connolly. “You’ve got Mickey Mouse, which looks fantastic. You’ve got your Hello Kitty. Outside of those two, every potential of reinvention to create this beautiful symmetrical vintage-feeling character has been lost.”
Being remembered by retail buyers is one thing. Being loved by the right demo is another. The most successful revivals for that all-important toy category, according to BMO Capital Markets analyst Gerrick Johnson, are those franchises that were popular roughly 20 to 25 years ago. “The parents of today were kids back when those properties were popular,” he says. “So you get the parents saying, ‘Hey, I loved Transformers when I was a kid, so you’re going to love it, too.’” It’s tough to argue with the success of Hasbro’s Transformers reboot on toy shelves or at the box office. The first of four movies that relaunched the franchise bowed in 2007, exactly 23 years after the Transformers TV series and toys first launched in 1984. A 10-year-old boy who loved the original, for example, would have been 33 years old at the time of the reboot, and perhaps had a few young children who he persuaded to watch the Autobots and Decepticons do battle. This year’s fourth theatrical instalment, meanwhile, was the first movie of 2014 to crack the US$1-billion mark in global ticket sales.
Timing may not be on every franchise’s side, however. Take Speed Racer, for example. The Japanese series about the world’s top racing champion with his high-tech car was hugely popular when it first launched in 1967. For its 2008 movie revival, the Wachowski siblings were tapped to direct, fresh off their successful groundbreaking Matrix trilogy. Despite an existing Speed Racer fan base and proven directors, the reboot crashed on retail shelves for master toy licensee Mattel.
“The toys did not sell at all. They were the biggest stiff in the world,” Johnson says. “Why was that? It’s because Speed Racer was popular in the ’60s and early ’70s. In 2008, none of those kids’ parents even knew what Speed Racer was. It was the crazy uncle or the grandfather who did.”
So does this spell trouble for a property like Britain’s The Clangers, which first appeared in 1969? Not necessarily. A recent poll conducted by Radio Times and the British Film Institute voted the property’s characters as the third-best BBC kids characters from the ’60s, and a new series will be back next year with BBC Worldwide as the international distributor.
The Clangers owner Coolabi Group is already well underway with signing licensing deals for the 45-year-old property that will be modernized for a new generation of British kids in its debut next spring. Coolabi tapped Immediate Media to create a standalone Clangers magazine title, while Gemma International will create and distribute a range of Clangers greeting cards and gift wrap. There will also be Clangers umbrellas and purses, thanks to Trade Mark Collections. “Even if [retail] buyers don’t remember it from the first time around, we can make sure they’re aware it’s something that’s been around before,” says Steve Perry, a product development manager at MV Sports, whose company is producing Clangers-themed scooters and trikes. “We know the history of the brands, and in the current climate a lot of retailers are looking for safe properties.”
On the flip side, some franchises appear almost too young to be a “classic” ready for a comeback. Powerpuff Girls, for example, first flew onto Cartoon Network in 1995. Blossom, Bubbles and Buttercup have since had their own movie release in 2002, while the original series’ run ended less than a decade ago. At Licensing Show, CNE announced that the trio will return again to fight crime before bedtime starting in 2016. When reaching for a new audience, however, the relaunched Powerpuff Girls may not have the luxury of parents who will introduce the show to their offspring. “It’s new to kids, but hasn’t been gone long enough for those kids who played with it in the late ’90s to have children of their own now,” says Johnson. “Some things have to be put away long enough so that a generation of kids are not exposed to it.”
And what does all this mean for a property like Felix the Cat, which first rose to fame during the silent film era? “It’s almost a blessing in disguise that [Generation Y] doesn’t remember him,” says Connolly. “We know Felix the Cat, his best friend is Kitty, he has a bag of magic tricks, and he’s funny. With those being your parameters, everything else can be touched upon or evolved and driven to the cool factor.”
DreamWorks’ initial program for Felix won’t target young kids, however, but rather tweens, teens and adults. The plan is to also keep products in upper-echelon retailers before signing an exclusive agreement with a higher-end mass retailer. “We don’t want to homogenize Felix,” says Connolly. “We want to make buying a Felix product an event…and a little bit of a treasure hunt.”
Angry Birds was born from an app game and now has its own TV shows, apps, videogames and activity parks. YouTube stars can become celebrities. There is no shortage of ways for consumers to find and engage with new content. And in this climate, licensors reviving classics contend that these storied IPs offer instant recognition. “Tried-and-true brands help break through the clutter,” notes Fremantle’s Glankler.
But the TV-driven properties discussed here need more than just nostalgia and brand recognition. They need strong storytelling that resonates with viewers of the current generation. Reruns simply won’t do. For example, in addition to the new gadgets, Danger Mouse is bringing aboard an independent female character—something that wasn’t prevalent for the ’80s show. “Having a female voice, just as strong and capable as Danger Mouse, is critical in our storytelling,” Glankler says. Meanwhile Powerpuff Girls, already relatively modern with its strong female characters, will see an updated animation style that resonates better with today’s kids. What those changes will be, however, remains to be seen.
“There’s a lot of pressure because everyone remembers what a great show it was,” says CNE’s Yoder. “No one wants to be the one who touched Powerpuff Girls and screwed it up.”
This article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of Kidscreen. An earlier version of this online article incorrectly stated that the original Thunderbirds series first appeared on BBC.