"Gravity Falls" doesn't sound like classic Disney animation.
The new cartoon comedy series follows twins Dipper and Mabel, whose school vacation plans are dashed when their parents ship them off to spend the summer with cranky old Uncle Stan in Gravity Falls, Ore., where pterodactyls swoop overhead and gnomes plot to abduct Mabel and make her their queen.
"Disney wasn't the first place I would have thought of going to," said the show's creator, Alex Hirsch, who grew up watching Fox's irreverent animated comedy "The Simpsons." But the Disney Channel is where the show will debut in June.
"Gravity Falls" is loosely based on the summers that Hirsch and his twin sister spent camping in Northern California with their great-aunt Lois — minus the gnomes and pterodactyls and "all the magical strangeness I wish would have happened." The imaginative series is among the new animated projects highlighting the Disney Channel's television upfront presentation to potential sponsors Tuesday in New York City.
Disney television animation struggled for years to find success, despite founder Walt Disney's place in the cartoon pantheon. The Disney Channel's breakthrough began in 2007 with "Phineas and Ferb," a concept other networks rejected as too odd and too complicated — the geometric shapes of the characters' heads gave the series a radical look, and its intersecting plot lines were deemed too difficult for children to follow.
The series' success proved the skeptics wrong and became a creative inflection point for the Disney Channel and its network sibling, Disney XD, which have emerged as magnets for top-flight talent.
Producer Craig McCracken, creator of the Emmy award-winning animated series "The Powerpuff Girls" and "Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends" for Cartoon Network, has taken his latest project to Disney. His new TV series is "Wander Over Yonder," a comedy about an intergalactic traveler named Wander and his steed, Sylvia, who travel from planet to planet helping free people from the oppression of the evil Lord Hater and his army of Watchdogs.
McCracken isn't the only eminent TV animation veteran to migrate to the house the Mouse built. Emmy-winning artist and director Paul Rudish, whose credits include the Cartoon Networks' "The Powerpuff Girls" and "Dexter's Laboratory" and Warner Bros. Pictures' "Star Wars: Clone Wars," has a deal with Disney Television Animation. Charlie Bean, former creative director of the Cartoon Network's U.K. studio, is executive producer of the forthcoming animated Disney XD series, "Tron: Uprising," based on the 2010 Walt Disney Studios' sci-fi film, "Tron: Legacy." Mike and Matt Chapman, creators of the popular Internet cartoon "Homestar Runner," also have a development deal with Disney.
"A lot of the talent that had been part of Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network have embraced this new style of development that's happening at Disney," said Zac Simmons, a Kaplan Stahler literary agent who represents writers in film and television animation. "They've created this cool culture for themselves."
Gary Marsh, president and chief creative officer of Disney Channels Worldwide, said that by taking creative risks, the network has been able to connect with audiences.
"By creating a broad slate of programming that is unique as it is diverse — animation, live-action, series, movies, even unscripted reality... we are not only creating ratings success," Marsh said by email, "but we are amplifying the level of engagement our audience feels with our content and our characters."
The Disney children's network once was perceived as a place of infinite hurdles, where new projects had to be "reverse engineered" to fit the studio's strict template, Simmons said. Now, he added, the Disney Channel has become "the first stop, not the last stop," for the writers he represents.
Simmons and other animation insiders credit Eric Coleman, the15-year veteran of Nickelodeon who had championed such hits as "SpongeBob SquarePants" and "Avatar." He was recruited by Marsh in January 2008 to serve as senior vice president of original series for Disney Television Animation.
Coleman transformed the culture into one that is creator-driven, said author and cartoon producer Jerry Beck, who edits the animation-centric website Cartoon Brew. The executive has reached out to his personal network of animation talent, inviting creative types to bring him the projects they previously wouldn't have shown Disney, Beck said.
"Before Eric got there, [Disney Channel] had a couple of mild hits, like 'Kim Possible.' They were doing derivative things. They were following trends," Beck said. "Now, they're leading trends."