The video game “Cuphead” wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for vintage cartoons, namely the wacky, even sadistic works of the 1930s. With its escape-from-Satan setup, the independent game channels the insanity of Walt Disney Pictures’ “Silly Symphonies” and the surreal, rough-around-the-edges work of Fleischer Studios.
Audiences responded, and the game, available for the Xbox One, home computers and Nintendo Switch, has sold more than 4 million copies globally since its 2017 release.
Now, the modern, interactive take on retro animation will be joining the ranks of the more traditional media that inspired it : Netflix has signed on to bring to life a “Cuphead” animated series.
While a premiere date has not been set, Dave Wasson, a veteran of the recent “Mickey Mouse” shorts, and Cosmo Segurson, a principal on Netflix’s upcoming “Rocko’s Modern Life: Static Cling,” will serve as executive producers.
The series will aim to channel the spirit of ’30s-era works, but certainly won’t be re-creating them — one probably shouldn’t expect the questionable gender politics of a “Silly Symphony” such as “King Neptune” or the Kafkaesque journey and hellish images of Fleischer’s “Swing You Sinners!”
“The thing that really makes the cartoons of this era so special is they were created from pure inspiration,” Wasson said. “The medium was pretty brand-new, so there was a lot of experimentation, as the animators and directors were figuring out what worked. They tend to be some of the wildest and most surreal. It was not yet a medium that was thought to be for children. It was more aimed at adults. Consequently there was a lot of sexy, outrageous stuff in them.”
In the game, Cuphead and his brother Mugman — their names accurate descriptors of their look — are our unlikely heroes, who went gambling at the devil’s casino and lost their souls. To be free of Satan’s clutches, they must round up those who owe the horned, furry brute a debt.
The original “Cuphead,” which also boasts a big band jazz soundtrack, was envisioned in part as a love letter to the earliest days of hand-drawn animation, where a fluid, so-called “rubber-hose style” lent a constant feeling of motion to the works. Chad Moldenhauer, who with his brother, Jared, started the small Canadian firm Studio MDHR that developed the game, strove for that same sense of activity.
But the Moldenhauer brothers emphasized insane, excruciatingly difficult action rather than narrative. The characters Cuphead and Mugman do battle with are always wild — a pair of cannibalistic boxing frogs that turn into a slot machine or a mermaid-turned-medusa who can use fish-like machine guns — but the tales behind those creations largely live in the player’s imagination.
The TV show, said Chad, may refer to certain events and characters from the game, but the goal isn’t to re-create the latter’s story of two siblings working to pay off a devilish debt. “They exist in the same world, but we don’t want to have any time-line mash-ups,” Chad said. “We want the cartoon to stand on its own and the game to stand on its own.”
Wasson and Segurson said the show will be crafted with a mix of modern and old-fashioned approaches. Expect, they said, the loose rubber-hose look, as well backgrounds crafted with the use of stereoscopic stop-motion techniques. Segurson said the two want a sense of “anarchy,” but Wasson added that it will feel of-the-moment rather than choppy and experimentally surreal as it was in the 1930s.
“While our team of cartoonists will be inspired by the shorts of that time period, our storytelling will be more contemporary,” Wasson said. “As opposed to the stream-of-consciousness, fever-dream logic of the 1930s shorts, our stories will have definite beginnings, middles and ends, with clear and relatable character goals and stakes. There will be wild sight gags and physical comedy, certainly, but much of the humor will be derived from the characters personalities.”
Chad said he and his brother weren’t actively pursuing an animated series. (The studio is busy working on updated content for “Cuphead.”) It was Hearst Entertainment Group’s King Features, an agency that also represents such “Cuphead” influences as “Popeye” and “Betty Boop,” that saw a TV series in the game.
While King had been licensing “Cuphead” merchandise, it was King’s recently appointed president C.J. Kettler, also an executive producer of Netflix’s well-received game-inspired show “Carmen Sandiego,” who spearheaded the creation of “Cuphead.”
“When I came in, the team had already started to partner with Studio MDHR. I remember walking in and seeing the visuals on ‘Cuphead,’” Kettler said. “I said, ‘We gotta go talk to the brothers, because this is television.’”
Its throwback look, says Kettler, is an asset — not something that makes “Cuphead” feel anachronistic. “From my perspective, it’s pretty distinctive in the landscape of properties today. It has incredibly appealing and relatable characters,” she said. “It’s got great physical comedy, gorgeous production design, and, really importantly, this very authentic reverence to the golden age of animation.”
While Chad thinks part of the game’s appeal was making decades-old animation fully playable, the focus now, for the Netflix project, is on fleshing out the contrasts between characters — the “semi-innocent, a little bit oblivious” Mugman and the more “devious” Cuphead.
Kettler is well aware of the current trend in making television interactive, lincluding Netflix’s experiments with “Black Mirror” and “Puss in Book: Trapped in an Epic Tale.” But she stressed her goal isn’t making television more game-like.
“We’re very much creating a TV series,” she says. “We’re not re-creating the game.”