'Home Movies': simple yet smart
Just what we need, another animated sitcom with a cute kid as the hero. Happily, "Home Movies" (premiring April 26, 8:30-9 p.m. on UPN) really is an amusing, smart addition to the also-for-grown-ups cartoon roster.
This family show offers a child's view of the world as imagined by adults - a little wise, a touch wiseacre, yet still oddly wholesome.
The stories revolve around third-grader Brendon (voiced by Brendon Small), an undersized, socially awkward yet precocious child, who compensates for his lackluster extracurricular soccer career by making film-noir with his absent dad's video camera.
Part of the fun of this 'toon lies in thinking about other precocious filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas doing the same thing at his age. Brendon even refers to his mom (voiced with amiable irony by comic Paula Poundstone) as executive producer, his friend Melissa as coordinating producer, and his neighbor Jason as "talent."
The whole premise is taken from comedian Brendon Small's own childhood.
"When I was in third grade, my dad bought a video camera," Mr. Small says.
"He left, and I tried to figure out how to use it - basically what this [cartoon] kid is doing. I forced my friends to act in my movies. It went on from third through the sixth grade."
Small likes the device because the little home movies often reflect and parallel the larger story the show is trying to tell.
"UPN wanted a show about divorce from a kid's point of view," says producer Loren Bouchard. "Brendon Small as a performer calls on that childlike quality - he is that little kid. And it was easy to design that character for him.... UPN wanted a strong-voiced single mom, and we knew right away we wanted Paula Poundstone, who works with us on SquiggleVision [a Saturday science show on ABC].
"In developing her character, we went to her strengths right away, just as we did Brendon's. [Ms. Poundstone] is involved in adopting kids, and she has foster kids. So she was a natural."
The animation is deliberately simple: wobbly, even childlike.These images are a trademark style of Tom Snyder Productions, which also makes the award-winning "Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist." They are delightfully suited to the show's creative intentions.
"There is no script," Small explains. "Loren and I sit down and agonize over the stories, ending up with a two-page outline that describes each scene in two or three sentences.
"Then [the actors] go in a studio ... and I will sit there and improvise for an hour and a half, out of which we will get a few minutes of dialogue.
"We call it retroscripting. The whole idea is you improvise and then [the dialogue] is all loaded into a computer, so you can clip it up and move it around. It seems natural if you watch the process."
After the script is set, the images are drawn to fit the dialogue. "It's a minimalist style of storytelling," Bouchard says. "It's all hand drawn on computer. We don't do painted cells - that's too time-consuming. We are fast and low-budget for the sake of being expressive."
"Home Movies" is the latest in a long line of new, innovative TV cartoons. Bouchard credits Matt Groening and "The Simpsons" with paving the way.
"The Simpsons made possible the acceptance of a certain kind of humor that animation allows, an incredible imagination and a new speed for comedy. It broadened the audience's expectations.... [Among] the creative community, the networks who bought these things, and the audiences who were tuning in - there was a trickle-down effect ... for us."