Creatively, the Saturday-morning CBS cartoon “Cadillacs and Dinosaurs” is a curious mix of action, merchandising and political correctness.
“The machinery of life is a balance,” intones the hero of the futuristic tale, an ecologist-adventurer named Jack Tenrec. “We have to maintain it.”
Such dollops of environmentalism are hardly the overwhelming content of the children’s show--they are dropped in here and there amid the adventure and commercialism that over the years have become trademarks of Saturday-morning cartoons.
But Southern California viewers have not been able to get much of a look at the show because of preemptions, which will continue with CBS’ coverage of the Winter Olympics next week. “It’s preempted a lot,” acknowledges a network spokeswoman.
“Cadillacs and Dinosaurs” is, however, scheduled to make one of its rare appearances here at 10:30 a.m. today (Channels 2 and 8). And if the environmentalism doesn’t exactly match the slam-bang action, the series nonetheless is yet another pertinent example of how the much-criticized use of kids’ programs as 30-minute commercials to sell related products is being upgraded for the interactive computer age and beyond.
The co-executive producers of the half-hour “Cadillacs and Dinosaurs” include Steven de Souza, screenwriter of such movies as “Die Hard” and “48 HRS.,” and Sasha Harari, who produced the film “The Doors.”
Their Saturday children’s program--now in its first season, with renewal up in the air--has made a deal granting licenses for the show to the new Palo Alto, Calif.-based firm Rocket Science Games Inc. for such technology as Sega CD, Sony CD and CD-ROM, disks that combine audio, video and text.
“Understanding that games are serious business is the new revolution in Hollywood,” says Mike Backes, a co-founder of Rocket Science whose credits include display graphics for “Jurassic Park” and writing for the film “Rising Sun.”
“Key players are beginning to see that when kids spend more money on Nintendo and Sega games than they do for movie tickets, the future in entertainment may be in game software,” Backes adds.
So are we solely into a mind-bending, unfolding maze of technology, or is the play still the thing? For Harari, there is no doubt: The key to “Cadillacs and Dinosaurs"--whether it is picked up or remains in television syndication--has been the creator, Mark Schultz, the noted comic book artist on whose work the series is based.
If “Cadillacs and Dinosaurs” has the requisite good guys, bad guys, chase scenes and the like, nonetheless, an analysis of the CBS Saturday morning schedule by Esther Sinclair, UCLA associate professor of psychiatry and bio-behavioral sciences, had some favorable words for the show.
“Jack is altruistic, does not have aggressive impulses, resists temptation and is sympathetic toward others,” she wrote, also noting the attitude toward protecting animals: “The viewer may draw an analogy to other endangered species such as eagles and condors. . . . There is an emphasis on the interconnection of all living things. Jack respects all life forms.”
In the series, as CBS describes it, Jack and scientist Hannah Dundee, in the 26th Century, cruise the landscape “in their classic Cadillac, searching for the remnants of ancient technology that can tame their savage world. Pitted against them are dinosaurs (as well as) tyrants and warlords, poachers and mutants.”
With TV violence and commercialism of kids’ shows deservedly being targeted, Harari maintains that the mayhem of the comic book version was toned down: “We absolutely adjusted it. We did reduce this. We tried to have Jack reacting to choices.”
But he concedes that “these kinds of shows are primarily oriented to boys. Kids need to see some forward-moving adventure, and I think we did it quite well. And through this we try to weave messages and introduce the goals of proper social behavior and the environment and ecology. If it gets preachy, you lose most of the audience.”
In addition, he says, CBS programming standards also brought pressure to bear. He adds, however, that the network “did not support the show” the way ABC and Fox promote their children’s programs and that CBS “management is primarily oriented toward prime time.”
Although promotion is important to building overall merchandising impact, the challenges are probably more diverse in the growing world of video games and interactive TV. For the game versions of “Cadillacs and Dinosaurs,” alternative scenes and endings and other viewer involvements will build on Schultz’s work--as with the original output of other creators.
Harari, discussing “Cadillacs and Dinosaurs,” told Forbes magazine last year: “Our only care is to create a digital database of content because down at the bottom of everything, digital content is oblivious to its means of transportation . . . to the consumer. It doesn’t care if it plays on a videotape recorder, a video game, a compact disc or a compact disc interactive. Content doesn’t care if it is networked through cable, microwave or satellite.”
The former owner of a computer business, Harari does not argue the point that children’s shows like his are in large part commercials to enhance merchandising in other forms: “Unfortunately, it’s true. The stakes are very high.” He notes that even the high-minded “Sesame Street” is “a major, major industry.”
He adds: “What’s happening in the new digital world is that we’re witnessing the birth of a more complex and non-linear storytelling. You can take a world created through comic books or other entertainment properties and, through computers, have the ability to fast-access any angle of this world, which doesn’t have to be sequential or linear. That’s the way it’s been until now, reading a book from page one.
“It’s not the death of linear storytelling, but forming a new form of storytelling.”
Fine. But I want to read “The Great Gatsby” in a book, starting on page one.