There are certain eternal questions in life that I doubt we’ll ever find an answer to. Who was Jack The Ripper? What happened on the Mary Celeste? How have there been five Resident Evil movies? And the question we’re going to look at now, why do they make kids’ cartoons out of very adult movies?
In some ways it makes sense. As a kid, there are very few moments more exciting than watching an ultra-gory action film or a dodgy sex comedy that you know you’re not supposed to be watching. Everyone knows this, the studios especially. But surely they can’t be that blatant about it? You can’t make a show for kids based on RoboCop! Have you seen RoboCop? Won’t somebody please think of the children?
Rambo: The Force Of Freedom (1986)
Based On: First Blood, Rambo: First Blood Part II
Adult Themes Not Suitable For A Kids’ Cartoon: Post traumatic stress disorder, the Vietnam war, violence
We’ve already looked at the bizarre 1988 children’s annual based on Sylvester Stallone’s grizzled veteran, but the animated adventures of Rambo appear to be the first instance of a cartoon for children being developed from an R-rated movie.
It’s easy to forget how dark the original First Blood film is. Not intended to launch the on-going adventures of an unstoppable action hero – Rambo dies at the end of David Morrell’s original novel – it is instead a downbeat thriller about a disturbed veteran unable to readjust to life outside of a warzone. The second film turned Rambo into an invincible superman, and the animated series spins out of that, but it’s still crazy to think that Morrell’s PTSD-suffering anti-hero ended up becoming a hero for kids.
Rambo: The Forces OF Freedom recast John Rambo in a rather obvious GI Joe knock off. He was joined on The Force Of Freedom by a group of stock 80s cartoon clichés – a weapons expert, a master of disguise, a ninja – and Colonel Trautman, the only other character from the movies to appear. They battled the very Cobra-like S.A.V.A.G.E., a generic bunch of bad guys with vague, take-over-the-world schemes.
While Rambo looks the part, the character is drastically neutered. As silly as the later films got, Rambo was always a stoic loner, a man who has to be reluctantly coxed out of Tibetan monasteries. Promoting the show in 1985, a spokesperson for the producers told New York Times ”It’ll be a total departure from the film. There won’t be any violence. He will have giant muscles and all of that. But he will be a guy who loves nature and won’t look for trouble.” The Rambo of the cartoon is a lovable square-jawed all-American good guy, hanging out with his buddies. Sigh.
Police Academy: The Series (1988)
Based On: Police Academy 1 – 4
Adult Themes Not Suitable For A Kids’ Cartoon: Sex, Nudity, General raunchiness
The few R-rated movies that have adapted to cartoons for kids have generally been action films. This make sense really – no matter how violent it is, Rambo blowing away wave after wave of bad guys appeals to the eight-year-old in all of us. But R-rated comedies? That’s a very different proposition.
If only the trend continued. What else could we have had? Animal House: The Animated Series? There’s Something About Mary? Anchorman?
Set between the fourth and fifth Police Academy film, the animated show includes most of the franchise’s (beloved?) characters – who by this point are no longer in training and actually police, so the title is somewhat invalid. The show takes advantage of the animated medium to turn the wackiness up to eleven. Instead of just foiling regular crooks or whatever as in the movies, the animated series introduces cartoonish supervillains like Numbskull, a bank robber with a big drill for a head. Or Dr Deadstone, a safari suited guy with a massive snake. Or Kingpin, who is basically just a copyright-free version of Marvel Comic’s The Kingpin.
If that’s not enough for you, they also had a team of comedy police dog sidekicks.
RoboCop: The Animated Series (1988) & RoboCop: Alpha Commando (1988)
Based on: RoboCop, and its sequels
Adult Themes Not Suitable For A Kids’ Cartoon: Ultraviolence, Razor-sharp satire
In Paul Verhoeven’s peerless original film, when RoboCop foils a liquor store robbery early in the film, both Iron Man and Rom: Spaceknight comics are clearly visible in the magazine rack. It’s a clear shout-out to the great history of crime fighting robots in popular culture, and it’s not really a surprise Alex Murphy was malleable enough to go on to have adventures in different media.
The problem with every RoboCop since the first movie though, is that Verhoeven was making a demented gonzo parody of these types of stories. Making a straight version of RoboCop is like making a straight version of Airplane. And that’s exactly what happened in 1988’s RoboCop: The Animated Series.
It’s a relatively faithful adaptation of the first movie, just with the violence and the fun shorn out. Anne Lewis, OCP and ED-209 are all in there, and there are even TV news reports littered throughout, though they’re just used to advance the plot instead of having any satirical intent. It’s as dry and serviceable and completely indistinguishable from any other 80s cartoon about robots – and there were a lot of cartoons about robots in the 80s.
A decade later, Murphy got another shot at animation in 1998’s RoboCop: Alpha Commando. Quite what the logic of producing a cartoon for kids who might not even have been alive when the first film came out isn’t quite clear, but whatever. It’s as 90s as the previous series was 80s, and not in a good way. Everything is bigger and bulkier, and there’s plenty of bright blue, green, purple, and anime inspiration. RoboCop himself gets a pretty terrible redesign, a ‘roided-up new look with a massive chest and shoulders that makes The Rock look like Mackenzie Crook.
The series sets up RoboCop being revived five years in the future, meaning he has new sidekicks in the shape of a sassy young police woman and a wisecracking cool guy scientist with floppy David Beckham curtains. Alpha Commando reaches its nadir in the episode where RoboCop takes a cruise on an ocean liner and wears a fishing hat and shorts over his metal armour.
Toxic Crusaders (1990)
Based On: The Toxic Avenger
Adult Themes Not Suitable For A Kid’s Cartoon: Melting flesh, crushed heads, removed intestines, lots more violence and nudity
Every other show on this list, while not exactly what you’d call suitable for children, was at least based on a mainstream box office hit. The Toxic Crusader, however, was a notorious, crazily violent independent exploitation picture from cult schlock merchants Troma. The tale of a weedy gym employee hideously disfigured and then going around murdering jocks was not on anyone’s list of potential toy and animation properties.
But on the other hand, I suppose there is a certain amount of logic. Troma founder Lloyd Kaufman has never had any shame about chasing a cheap buck, and seeing the success of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (whose indie comics origins aren’t a million miles away from Troma), thought he could knock a few friends together for Toxie and shift a few toys.
Obviously the show is toned down from the films, but it’s still pretty gross for a kids’ cartoon. This was the early 90s, when Ren & Stimpy and Animaniacs were showing that children’s animation could be more than just toy commercials and there’s a decent amount wry self-referential humour and snappy energy about the show. The cartoon also had a pretty positive environmentalist message (debuting the same year as Captain Planet), tricking parents into thinking the series was worthwhile as opposed just introducing their kids into underground exploitation movies.
Highlander The Animated Series (1994)
Based On: The Highlander franchise
Adult Themes Not Suitable For A Kids’ Cartoon: Decapitation
Highlander is an odd franchise. The original 1986 movie might not be a classic, but it’s a very fun piece of 80s trash. There’s a whole mythology spanning multiple sequels, TV shows, novels, anime and more, and a hoard of hardcore fans, totally off the mainstream radar.
This is probably what lead to this strange French-Canadian produced animated version in the mid-90s. Instead of featuring any characters from the film, it instead focuses on an irritating teenage descendent of the Christopher Lambert character in a boring post-apocalyptic future. The change in setting might have been because they weren’t sure how to make a film about people running around New York trying to cut each other’s heads off palatable to nine year-olds.
Whatever the reason, the derivative setting – basically Fist Of The North Star with some high fantasy thrown in – boring European style animation and just all-round cheap feel didn’t really do it any favours.
Roughnecks: Starship Troopers Chronicles (1999)
Based On: Starship Troopers
Adult Themes Not Suitable For A Kids’ Cartoon: Violence, Nudity, Satire of military policy dressed up as fascist propaganda
Much in the same way that subsequent adaptions of RoboCop have failed to grasp Paul Verhoeven’s sharp satire, his film of Robert A Heinlein’s classic 50s sci-fi novel so subtly skewered the militaristic fetishism of the book that many critics didn’t even realise at the time it was a parody.
The CGI animated series that spun off from it, much like the RoboCop shows before it, eschewed the satirical elements for a more faithful take on Heinlein’s novel. This gave the show a cult following amongst Heinlein’s fans, but after Verhoeven so savagely took down the fascist tendencies of the source material, it just feels icky to got back to a straight-on heroic version of it. (Heinlein has many fervent fans and detractors – we won’t go into it here and leave you to discuss the merits of the film and book in the comments…)
The biggest problem with the show though, is that it’s saddled with some very dated early CGI animation. This was the point around the first attempts to create realistic CGI humans in a non-comedic context, as opposed to the plastic toys or insects of early Pixar. All the characters have that uncanny valley plastic look – remember Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within? – and everyone looks like a sex doll, making it hard to empathise with any of them. Plus they all walk like they’ve soiled themselves.
Based On: Alien 3
Adult Themes Not Suitable For A Kids’ Cartoon: Facehungers, Chestbursters
In 1979, having made an unexpected killing with their Star Wars action figures, Kenner was eager to sign up the next big sci-fi movie to merchandise. That movie was Ridley Scott’s Alien. And then the movie came out, and the line was cancelled after just one Xenomorph toy was released, allegedly because they realised the film wasn’t really suitable for kids… (That didn’t stop most of the cartoons on their list, though.)
Come the early 90s, 20th Century Fox thought the world’s kids might be ready to experience Alien. Kenner were now happily producing toys based on Alien 3, and a Saturday morning cartoon was allegedly in production at a Korean animation studio. A few stills are online, but no clips have ever surfaced, so we can only guess at when it would have been like.
Based On: Watchmen
Adult Themes Not Suitable For A Kids’ Cartoon: Violence, Rape, Blue full-frontal nudity.
Okay, this isn’t real. But it’s no crazier that most of the shows on this list…