The Animated Spinoffs That Rebooted ’90s Movies
From Men In Black to Free Willy and Jumanji, here's how these '90s movie properties ended up as Saturday morning cartoons.
As wise old Yogurt tells the heroes in Spaceballs, the money is really made in the merchandising of a movie, parodying the revolutionary drive for tie-in products and media that followed George Lucas’ savvy handling of Star Wars. Yogurt’s prophecy fulfilled itself when the film’s writers Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan oversaw a short-lived and underwhelming spin-off, Spaceballs: The Animated Series in 2008.
When the film was originally released in 1987, the writing was already on the wall and one way in which studios could exploit their properties under the banner of an expanded universe was through animated spinoffs aimed at youngsters, with a view to selling toys and cereal based on that property too.
This was especially common with movies released in the 1990s, even though some viewers may not have seen the movies on which the series were based. For those of us who are young/old enough (delete as appropriate, keeping in mind that most of this year’s 15-year-olds were born this century) to have grown up watching some of these shows, the deviations from the main franchise are more noticeable with hindsight. In most cases, these series would keep the most basic concepts and dump everything else. Here’s a look back at how some series rebooted the films they were based on to varying degrees, progressing to those which may actually have out-weirded Rambo: The Force For Freedom.
Timon & Pumbaa(1995-1999)
Based on: 1994’s The Lion King – as a spinoff for a duo of comic relief characters, you might say this was Rosencratz & Guildenstern Are Dead to the movie’s Hamlet, but the comparison wouldn’t get you very far.
How did it change? As you might expect, there was less emphasis on spirituality and the circle of life than in the movie. There was a 2004 parallel sequel centered around Timon and Pumbaa, called The Lion King 1½, which was (loosely) in continuity with the other movies. On the other hand, this series is the softest of reboots, using most of the characters while remaining disconnected from the story of the movie.
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But in the main, each episode would feature two 10 minute instalments of the title duo Hakuna Matata’ing their way around the African jungle and also globe-trotting all over the place. The other major difference from the movie is that they run into human characters too, most frequently their macho adversary Quint, who antagonises them in a number of different occupations depending on the setting.
Ernie Sabella reprised the role of Pumbaa for all three seasons, but voice actor Quinton Flynn took over from Nathan Lane as Timon.
Notable episode: Though it’s not representative of the longer stories, the segment I personally remember best is the “Stand By Me” video parody embedded above, as Pumbaa falls victim to some calamity at every use of a certain line in Timon’s heartfelt musical number. It’s a silly bit of slapstick that also introduced a bunch of kids of the right age to a classic track.
What happened with the films? There were two direct-to-video sequels to The Lion King – 1998’s Simba’s Pride and the more comedic 2004 Timon & Pumbaa-centric parallel film, The Lion King 1½. The property is returning to television on Disney Junior this November with an hour-long pilot for a sequel series The Lion Guard, with the series itself starting in January.
Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1995-2000) and The Mask: Animated Series (1995-1997)
Based on: The 1994 double-whammy of movies that made Jim Carrey a box office superstar. Unsurprisingly, Carrey didn’t reprise his role in either case – Michael Daingerfield voiced Ace and Rob Paulsen voiced Stanley Ipkiss, aka The Mask.
How did they change? In both cases, they ramped up the cartoonish quality that was already there in spades in each of the live action films. Carrey’s style is already so animated, the animators probably had plenty of reference material to make it even more ridiculous.
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In the case of Ace Ventura, the concept fits the detective procedural genre like a glove, with the wacky pet detective solving absurd animal-related cases. However, cases like finding Santa’s reindeer and clearing a gorilla who is falsely accused of crimes transcended any grounding that the original movie and its sequel may have had. Amongst the writing staff was a young Seth MacFarlane, who also worked on Cartoon Network shows such as Dexter’s Laboratory and Cow & Chicken on his way to creating Family Guy and American Dad!, which explains a lot.
The Mask was arguably even more suited to animation. The film didn’t keep much from the more mature comic books on which it was based, but instead presented a superhero unbound by any meaningful rules of reality, with a predilection for Tex Avery-style humor. The series continued in much the same way, adding a rogue’s gallery of mad scientists and supervillains with tragi-comic origin stories, to make for a series even further removed from the source material by Dark Horse.
Notable episodes: Aside from the Carrey connection, the real reason we’ve grouped these together is because they were aired one after the other on CBS and even crossed over for an episode of Ace Ventura and the series finale of The Mask. If anyone was wondering – yes, they have a scene where Ace puts the Mask on his butt so that it can literally talk.
What happened with the films? Terrible sequels ensued in both cases, with the lead actor noticeably absent in each of them. Son of the Mask, starring Jamie Kennedy and Alan Cumming, emerged from a development hellmouth in 2006 to critical revulsion. Ace Ventura Jr: Pet Detective was a kid-friendly sequel released in 2009 by Warner Premiere – it largely went under the radar.
Nothing’s happening with them at present, but given the current trend for revamping franchises, we wouldn’t be surprised if a reboot of either of these properties was announced tomorrow.
Men in Black: The Series (1997-2001)
Based on: The 1997 smash-hit sci-fi blockbuster about a secret agency that regulates alien activity on Earth. Like The Mask, that makes it twice removed from the comics, although the basic premise remains the same.
How did it change? The characters from the film are mostly present and correct here, but with a couple of key changes. Perhaps anticipating the choices made in the sequel, the series disregards the ending of Men in Black, in which Tommy Lee Jones’ Agent K gets neuralized so that he can retire, having passed the torch to Will Smith’s Agent J. Partners J and K are both in active service here.
Events from the movie are referenced here, but there are subtle differences – for instance, Agent L is re-imagined as a morgue worker who worked for the Men in Black before J, contrary to Linda Fiorentino’s character in the movie. The in-universe explanation for this is that every now and again, some creative type catches a glimpse of them and makes a movie about them, which gives the writers a clever way to cherry-pick elements from the established continuity.
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As the series found its feet, it made a couple of other departures, including making K younger after season one by giving him red hair and changing voice actors. Differences from the original aside, it’s quite uncanny how often the series anticipated the direction of the live action sequels, released in 2002 and 2012, especially with many of the antagonists having some connection to K’s past and J continuing to be the rookie/audience viewpoint character no matter how long he was an agent.
Notable episode: “The Alpha Syndrome” marks the first appearance of former MiB chief Alpha, who has grafted multiple alien body parts onto his own in a quest to become immortal. Voiced by the one and only David Warner, he goes on to become the Big Bad of the series.
What happened with the films? Most would agree that Men In Black II and IIIdon’t really live up to the original movie. Neither did the tepidly recieved Men in Black: International.
The Mummy/Secrets of the Medjai (2001-2003)
Based on: Stephen Sommers’ 1999 remake of one of Universal’s oldest horror franchises and specifically its 2001 sequel, The Mummy Returns, in which Rick O’Connell and his family have to break the curse of an ancient bracelet to prevent the release of the Scorpion King. It just squeaks in as a 90s movie spin-off, we reckon.
How did it change? The more kid-friendly series shifts focus to the O’Connell’s son Alex, who was the most annoying part of the live action sequel – perhaps if Spielberg and Lucas had seen it, they might have realized the pitfalls of introducing Indiana Jones’ son.
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With the Manacle of Osiris stuck on his wrist, Alex uses his historical know-how and technical genius in globe-trotting adventures with his parents as they try to find the Scrolls of Thebes and release the Manacle. They’re pursued by Imhotep and his Renfield-like lackey Weasler and also face a number of other supernatural threats.
The first season didn’t really capture the audience’s imagination, so upon renewal, it was re-tooled under the title Secrets of the Medjai, with Alex joining a number of other young students under Medjai warrior Ardeth Bay in order to learn how to fight Imhotep and the forces of darkness.
Notable episode: Season two’s “Like Father Like Son” introduced Alex’s grandfather and Rick’s father, Jack O’Connell, (not to be confused with the brilliant actor) a self-styled ‘historical entrepreneur’ who runs into trouble on the trail of a Scarab Amulet.
What happened with the films? Sommers didn’t return for the third instalment, The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor, which was released in 2008 and wound up paling in comparison even to that summer’s Indiana Jones & The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull. A reboot is in the works at Universal as part of the budding cinematic universe that started with last year’s Dracula Untold.
Based on: Joe Johnston’s 1995 family adventure starring Robin Williams as a man who is released from the jungle inside a magical board game when two children, Judy and Peter, decide to play it. Alas, many of the wilder inhabitants of the game come with him and mayhem ensues as the players battle the elements to finish the game.
How did it change? Rather than having Alan and the creatures in the jungle come into suburbia, each episode would focus on Peter and Judy getting sucked into the game with each roll of the dice and having to solve the clue they’re given in order to escape. Alan still grew up inside Jumanji, but having never seen his clue, he has no way of knowing what he needs to do to win the game.
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Judy and Peter visit him and go on adventures while trying to help him figure it out. Over the course of three seasons, the series also explored the culture of Jumanji and built up a number of threats in the already inhospitable environment, adding villains like Trader Slick, Professor Ibsen and Captain Squint alongside big game hunter Van Pelt from the original movie.
Notable episode: The series finale, “Goodbye Jumanji”, closes Alan’s arc and the series in a very satisfying way. Perhaps reflecting one of the more memorable moments of the movie, the nominal Big Bad of the series is the Lion, a big-ass jungle cat that has been chasing Alan since he first entered the game at the age of 10. The final episode explores the connection between this enemy and Alan’s clue.
What happened with the films? Jumanji has actually done pretty well for itself in recent years. 2017’s The Rock, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, and Karen Gillan-starring Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle was well received and will be receiving a sequel with Jumanji: The Next Level shortly.
Godzilla: The Series (1998-2000)
Based on: The character of Godzilla, who has appeared in countless films since Toho’s 1954 original, but specifically following up on the 1998 American version, directed by Roland Emmerich.
How did it change? Touted as a direct sequel to the movie, this might be the spin-off on this list that is closest to the original inspiration, but with a few adjustments. TriStar intended the 1998 movie to be the first of a trilogy when they first acquired the rights to make a Hollywood version in 1992, and went as far as hiring a writer for a sequel that would have seen Godzilla’s surviving offspring from the first film fighting a giant insect in Australia.
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The film was a global hit, but it was met with such indifference and outright derision from fans and rights owners that the sequels were abandoned and the option was parlayed into this spin-off, in which the human characters from the first movie team up with the giant mutant iguana and fight off giant monsters around the world as the research agency H.E.A.T (Humanitarian Environmental Analysis Team).
Many elements of the original movie are still present, but the addition of other giant monsters and a robot (yep, again) called N.I.G.E.L make it enough of a soft reboot for us to include it. The series was a moderate success when it landed in 1998, a few months after the movie’s release, but wound up as a casualty of the Pokémon/Digimon ratings war with Kids WB, with Godzilla: The Seriesgetting bumped around the schedule for the latter until its eventual cancellation in 2000.
Notable episode: Season two’s “End of the Line“, in which Godzilla falls in love with a mutated Komodo dragon called Komodithrax and the two team up to fight off mutated turtles as the US military lines up to destroy all monsters in the area. You wouldn’t have seen that in the summer blockbuster bastardization, would you?
What happened with the films? We didn’t see any more films based on Emmerich’s much maligned take, but Godzilla has never been out of production since 1954, so he’s doing just fine. We’ve since had an acclaimed American reboot from director Gareth Edwards and Godzilla: King of Monsters in 2019.
The Mighty Ducks (1996-1997)
Based on: The popular trilogy of hockey movies that starred Emilio Estevez as a coach to a bunch of misfit kids. Premiering on ABC at the same time as the third movie, D3: The Mighty Ducks, was out in cinemas, we wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out the writers of this one had never seen the movies.
How did it change? Disney made lots of animated spin-off series from its films from the 1990s, largely in continuity with their big screen inspirations. Aladdinand The Legend of Tarzanboth took place after the events of their respective movies, Buzz Lightyear Of Star Command pitches itself as an in-universe animated series that inspired the toy from Toy Story, and Herculeswas a mid-quel (a term that seems to have been invented expressly for Disney’s spin-off media) set during Herc’s school days.
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We’ve already mentioned Timon & Pumbaa as a soft reboot, but that looks like the most reverent adaptation of a film ever, next to the in-name-only lunacy of The Mighty Ducks. Shows like DuckTales and Darkwing Duck were popular and so, in an act of mad literalism, the show became about a team of superpowered anthropomorphic ducks.
The Ducks, led by Wildwing Flashblade, based their whole culture around the game of hockey and used gadgets in keeping with that theme to fight off a race of evil aliens who look like dinosaurs. This goes so far from the original brand that we can scarcely call it a reboot, but it came out under the Disney banner – and we can’t stress this enough – at the same time as the completely unrelated third movie was in cinemas.
Notable episode: Er, have you heard what this show is about? It’s quite notable enough that this thing exists without getting picky with the episodes.
What happened with the films? The original Mighty Ducks franchise is another that might get rebooted any day now. We doubt that they’d use the anthropomorphic ducks as a springboard for any new films, but hey, it’s not even the weirdest animated spin-off ever made…
Free Willy (1994)
Based on: The 1993 family drama that follows Jesse, a young delinquent who helps to liberate a captive orca from a local amusement park. That’s what happened in the film, but there’s really very little else carried over…
How did it change? In the course of researching this article, we were surprised to discover that there was a Beethoven spin-off series in which the dog could talk. But honestly, it pales next to the insanity of the Free Willy spin-off, in which Jesse’s ability to talk to Willy is probably the least strange addition.
Apparently, Jesse is a ‘truth talker’, which means he can magically communicate with animals. As you can imagine, this didn’t exist in the original film, but neither did the Patrick Stewart-looking cyborg known as The Machine, who serves as the main antagonist of the series.
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The Machine is a Captain Ahab figure who wants revenge on Willy for destroying his submarine(!) while he was minding his own business, committing crimes against the environment. He has some sidekicks who are genetically engineered from poor pollution and continues to don a human disguise and run an oil company alongside his super-villainy.
You couldn’t make it up, but somebody had to, in order to get a whole animated series out of Free Willy. The show ran for one season of 13 episodes, aired between the original film and 1995’s sequel Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home. It even foreshadowed certain environmentally inclined plot points of the second film, despite completely disregarding any grounding that the films may have for a crazy Captain Planet-esque detour.
Notable episode: Christmas specials can be an excuse for some shows to get a little sillier and “Yuletide or Redtide” might mark the peak craziness of the series. It starts with the gift of a biodegradable jet-ski, which is actually part of the Machine’s plot to release a toxin that will cause global warming. It ends with those pollutant henchmen turning into Christmas trees and singing carols. We swear we’re not making this up.
What happened with the films? The trilogy concluded with 1997’s Free Willy 3: The Rescue and as with Ace Ventura, Warner Premiere released Free Willy: Escape From Pirate’s Cove as a direct-to-video sequel starring Bindi Irwin and Beau Bridges in 2010. It doesn’t seem like a franchise in need of a reboot, but out of morbid curiosity alone, we’d watch a remounted live-action take on the animated series in a heartbeat.