"When was the last time you saw an animated show on prime time that didn't focus on a holiday?" asks Brad Bird, the writer and director of "Family Dog," an animated episode of "Amazing Stories" that airs at 8:30 tonight on NBC (Channels 4, 36 and 39).
Over the last two decades, prime-time animated specials have degenerated into formulaic programs centered around holiday themes or comic-strip characters. Countless little animals have helped Santa Claus "save" Christmas in very limited animation; anthropomorphized cartoon animals seem to sleepwalk through routine gags.
"Family Dog" represents a major departure from these threadbare premises: The show combines good animation with an original story and new, unfamiliar characters.
"When was the last time you saw a cartoon dog that was really a dog?" Bird queries. His is.
"He doesn't talk or have a voiceover; he doesn't stand on two legs or put on funny clothes; he doesn't do any 'wink, wink, nudge, nudge' at the audience," Bird explains. "He's definitely a caricature of a dog, but the caricature is achieved through the animation alone--which is a lot more difficult to do."
A sense of offbeat caricature pervades "Family Dog." It's a skewed vision of Middle American domesticity that resembles "Leave It to Beaver" run through a Veg-O-Matic.
Father is a laid-back, lumpish nonentity; impatient, broad-hipped Mom laments being "a short-order cook for a dog." Their son, Billy, is a goggle-eyed little hellion, and his chubby baby sister looks like a fire plug with long hair. Their long-suffering pooch suggests a New Yorker cartoon by George Booth come to life.
The rather peculiar designs were created by Bird's friend and fellow CalArts alumnus, Tim Burton. Burton made the delightfully macabre animated short, "Vincent" (1982) at Disney and later directed "Pee-wee's Big Adventure."
"Tim came up with this very unusual dog that kind of looks like a cross between a bull terrier and a large rat," says Bird. "I had pictured more of an all-American Fido, but it took all of 30 seconds for me to go, 'This is the dog!' At CalArts, we had always joked about suburbia, because the school is an island in a suburban sea (Valencia). Tim was totally in touch with a sort of twisted, slightly horrifying, caricatured suburban aesthetic; 'Dog' needed that kind of edge to it."
The characters in "Family Dog" look odd, but each one moves with an individual style. The title character not only walks like a dog, but he also walks like a specific dog, with a personality of his own. No other TV show--and few recent theatrical features--have offered this kind of character animation.
"Dog" actually grew out of the 30-year-old Bird's frustration with the conditions he found at the Disney Studio when he worked on "The Small One" and "The Fox and the Hound" during the late '70s:
"I figured I was at the best place in the world, and I still wasn't satisfied," he says. "The films were an unbelievable amount of work and no one was happy with them when they were done. (Steven) Spielberg and (George) Lucas and (Francis) Coppola were all doing fantasy in a much more modern, exhilarating fashion in live action, and we were sitting there saying, 'Why can't we do this in animation?' "
"So I took the money I had saved and decided to do a crude sample reel and see if anybody would go for it. John Musker, Jerry Reese, Tim Burton and Daryl Von Citters (all CalArts graduates) contributed work to it. A rough version of 'Family Dog' made up one part of the reel."
When Spielberg optioned "Family Dog" five years later, Bird quickly assembled an animation unit in Los Angeles.
"I was able to get some very good people simply because they wanted to do something that was outside the norm like this," he explains. "There's a lot of animation talent out there, but it's buried in the industry. If the right projects ever materialized, the artists to do them would materialize too."
Spielberg's production company and Universal TV are holding a contest to name the pooch in "Family Dog," which has led to speculation that they may be planning further animated adventures or a line of toys. (The former would be more welcome than the latter.) Meanwhile, viewers have a rare opportunity tonight to watch good, original animation that isn't trying to sell something.