The Beatles had already starred in cartoons on TV and the big screen, and the Osmonds would soon follow, but in 1971, Motown, Rankin/Bass Productions, and ABC decided that the Jackson 5 needed to be featured in a Saturday morning animated series.
The result debuts on DVD and Blu-ray this week: "The Jackson 5ive: The Complete Animated Series" (Classic Media), a collection of all 23 episodes of the short-lived (1971-72) series that found Michael Jackson and his brothers embroiled in various high jinks.
When the family band from Gary, Indiana, wasn't being accidentally called to military duty (the "Drafted" episode), getting turned into "Wizard of Oz" characters in Michael's imagination in the "Wizard of Soul" episode (seven years before Michael starred in "The Wiz"), or, in a rather clever nod to "Rashomon" (really), breaking up and finding out from each brother's perspective what would happen to them if they stayed split up, the episodes also featured performances by the Jackson 5.
Jackie, Marlon, Tito, Jermaine, and Michael didn't provide the voices for their characters -- the group's schedule, as we all know from that oft-aired "Jacksons" TV miniseries that showed Papa Joe working them around the clock, didn't permit it -- but the two songs that pop up in each episode are the Jackson 5 at their best.
The musical interludes, as well as the rest of the series animation, are bold and colorful and kinda trippy (it was the early '70s), and if that style is reminiscent of the Beatles flick "Yellow Submarine," there's a reason: "The Jackson 5ive" 'toon's animation director was Robert Balser, who was also the animation director on "Yellow Submarine."
The now semiretired Balser, an AMPAS and BAFTA member who was also a director on "Barney," an animator on "Heavy Metal," and an animation supervisor on "The Charlie Brown and Snoopy Show," talked to Yahoo! TV about his experience with "The Jackson 5ive," calling it "one of my great pleasures in my career. That and 'Yellow Submarine.'"
How did your work on "Yellow Submarine" inspire you on the "Jackson 5ive" cartoon?
Well, it's very interesting. "Yellow Submarine" was basically interpreting the songs … those songs are just beautiful, and so when we did "The Jackson 5ive," every episode had one or two songs in it. Basically, I used about a dozen or two dozen studios in Europe to do the songs because I had complete freedom. I gave the songs to a lot of very, very important artists and said, "Make me a song, as long as it follows in the theme of what the [episode] is." I briefed them on everything that I wanted. Some of the songs are really wonderful. We did [that] stuff long before there was computer animation, in terms of the images and so forth. If you look at it, you'll see some weird stuff that had never been done before.
Watch "Yellow Submarine":
Do you feel like the music scenes were sort of pre MTV music videos?
The songs are exciting. We wanted to do something as free as can be. Some of the songs, naturally, are better than others, and some of the images for the songs are just really terrific. If it's a circus theme, it's a circus song, but it's completely abstract with all kinds of crazy things happening. Yeah, I suppose it was a predecessor of the MTV concept, that they just followed up with promoting their songs commercially with images.
The animation is really fun, and the stories are fun, too, with some better writing than we remember on a lot of the later Saturday morning cartoons.
When they called me to come in on the project … they had started the project in the United States. They had taken a lot of time and weren't happy with the first episode. They were worried about the delivery, because ABC had a definite broadcast date. When they called me, and I looked at it, I just said, "No." I would not do it, because it had several scripts that were violent. This was the first time a black group was going to be featured (on Saturday morning television). The effect that that was going to have had to be positive. They've got to solve their problems with music or with intelligence, in clever ways. I'm really proud of the fact that I was able to change the whole direction of the series and that it became what it is, in terms of the songs, in terms of the themes. It was all very positive.
Diana Ross recorded her voice for the first episode of the show, which loosely tells the real-life story about how she helped discover the group, but the Jacksons themselves didn't provide any of the voice work for the show beyond the music. And the voice work was recorded completely in the United States while you were working on the animation in London … was that difficult to work around?
It depends on what you're doing. In terms of this kind of a show, I had pretty much tied the story down before they had even gotten to a recording situation. Any problems of dialogue would have been solved in the script. It's just a question of, you've got maybe [a different] interpretation. When I did "Yellow Submarine," I was involved in all of the recording sessions with the actors who did the Beatles' voices. That, of course, was a completely different kind of thing. When we did "Yellow Submarine," it was a film in flux. There was no script. All of the things I'm telling you were done on [the Jackson 5 cartoon] weren't done in "Yellow Submarine." The film was done without a script, without a storyboard. It was just done by the seat of our pants.
Watch the first episode featuring Diana Ross:
That sounds both exciting and nerve wracking.
I'll tell you, it was probably the greatest year of my life.
How long did it take you to complete an episode of "The Jackson 5ive"?
A little less than a year.
To make one?
No, to do the whole thing. To do the 17 half-hours for the first season. I was supervising director of the series, and what I did was, I put together four or five units with directors to do each episode. So I would work with each director in terms of doing the episodes, and there were four or five episodes being done at a time.
Were you a fan of the Jackson 5 when you signed on to make the animated series?
You know, I didn't know the Jackson 5. I didn't even really know the Beatles. I was in Spain. I moved to Spain in 1960, and that music just wasn't in the Spanish scene. I had heard of them, but I certainly didn't -- couldn't say I was a fan, because I didn't know the music. But naturally, when you get involved with it, you know, it's a completely different thing.
Did you become a fan of the music?
Oh, of course. Love, love their music.
What kinds of things do you watch now? Is there particular animation that you're a fan of now?
You know, it's changed so completely. Certainly I love animation. I'll catch an episode here and there because I want to see, you know, what's being done. I'm in the academy, the short film and feature animation branch, on the nominating committees for the short films and the animated films, so I've seen everything.
But you know, it's just too -- it's gone so far beyond. I mean, I've given lots of seminars, and when I'm talking in a seminar, I'm talking about what's basic to communication in filmmaking. The idea, the story, communication, the planning, all of those things are universal. It doesn't matter what technique you use. What's happened in computer animation, though, is it's gotten to the point where even the people that are in it can't keep up with it, because it's moving so fast. I don't know if you saw "The Life of Pi," but that tiger does not exist. That is creative. I thought that was an incredible job. That's animation now. It's pure animation, but done with computer and with various programs. The way that it's being done now, in terms of structuring the internal movements, and the muscles on top of it, and the skin on top of that, and the fur on top of that -- they've just gone so far.
I can only be in awe, the same as anybody else would be in awe.
Other noteworthy TV DVD releases this week:
"Men of a Certain Age: Season 2" (Warner Bros. Home Entertainment)
Fans of this Ray Romano/Scott Bakula/Andre Braugher dramedy are still bummed that TNT dropped it after just two seasons, especially since the understated buddy series had really found its groove in Season 2, with Joe pursuing his dream of becoming a golf pro, Owen asserting more leadership at the car dealership, and Terry trying to use his considerable charms to sell cars. But now, at least, both seasons of the Peabody Award-winning show are available on DVD, with bonus materials like a gag reel, deleted scenes, and audio commentary for all 12 episodes.
"The Story of Math Collection" (Acorn Media)
Math, fun? For those of us who never thought such a thing was possible, this collection of BBC documentaries from Oxford University professor Marcus du Sautoy is proof that it's true, as cool computer visuals, humor, and examples of math in truly interesting contexts combine to show the history and, yes, fun of numbers. The five-disc set features "The Story of Math" and "The Code," as well as a bonus documentary, "The Music of the Primes," viewer guides, bios of famous (OK, influential) mathematicians, and three "Math Shorts" features, including "The Mathematical Art of M.C. Escher."
"Being Human: Season 4" on Blu-ray (BBC Home Entertainment)
Annie and her new housemates Tom and Hal are left to take care of baby Eve in the fourth season of the U.K. drama (which inspired the Syfy remake). At the same time, they are battling the threat of exposure of werewolves and a plot by vampires to take over the world, leading to a major twist ending to Season 4's eight episodes. Bonus materials on the three-disc set include interviews with the cast and crew, deleted scenes, and a behind-the-scenes featurette.
"Merlin: The Complete Fourth Season" on Blu-ray (BBC Home Entertainment)
Season 4 picks up a year after Morgana ran off with Morgause, and Arthur is acting as king of Camelot. But with King Uther in sorry shape after Morgana's departure, everyone is gunning for Arthur, so that Merlin and his other cohorts have to step up their loyalty to protect him. This results in a battle for control of Camelot, complicated by the arrival of Sir Lancelot and Tristan and Isolde.
"Simon & Simon: The Final Season" (Shout! Factory)
This is the eighth season of the 1981-89 CBS drama about Rick and A.J. Simon, a pair of Oscar-and-Felix-ish brothers who run their own private eye agency and are played by Gerald McRaney and Jameson Parker. By the way, for those "Simon & Simon" fans who may have missed it last fall, check out Adult Swim's homage to the series, in which Jeff Probst hosts while "Mad Men" star Jon Hamm and "Parks and Recreation" star Adam Scott re-create the memorable "Simon & Simon" opening sequence, shot for shot.
"Bill Moyers: Becoming American" (Acorn Media)
Moyers's Emmy-nominated documentary makes its debut on DVD, illustrating the history of Chinese Americans, from the first wave of immigrants who came to California expecting to find the "Gold Mountain" to the modern-day Chinese Americans who have worked hard to become an "integral part of the American mainstream" while still honoring their native culture. The double-disc set includes three episodes of Moyers's PBS series, as well as a viewer's guide and a bonus episode, "Becoming America: Personal Journeys with Bill Moyers," which includes Moyers's interviews with people who share their life stories with him.
"SpongeBob SquarePants: Extreme Kah-Rah-Tay" (Paramount)
Eight eps of Bikini Bottom madness hit DVD for the first time, including "Squid Defense," in which Squidward asks SBSP and Sandy to teach him karate after his groceries are stolen; "Extreme Spots," in which SpongeBob and Patrick try to join an extreme sports team; and "Face Freeze," in which SpongeBob and Patrick bet on who can make and hold a funny face for the longest time … until their faces freeze in those positions. Just like Mom always said they would.
"Life's Too Short: The Complete First Season" (HBO Home Video)
Not as polarizing as HBO's "Girls," but still, not everyone loved this Ricky Gervais mockumentary, starring "Willow," "Harry Potter," and "Star Wars" actor Warwick Davis as a fictionalized version of himself, sharing what life is like for a little-person actor in Hollywood. Gervais also stars as an exaggerated version of himself; and with a never-ending string of awkward situations and cringeworthy moments, the show was at times funny, painful, and, to some viewers, offensive. The series -- which included cameo appearances by Johnny Depp, Steve Carell, Sting, Liam Neeson, and Helena Bonham Carter -- will not return for a second season, but it will wrap up with a special later this year.
"Perry Mason: The Eighth Season, Volume 2" (Paramount)
Features the final 15 episodes -- digitally remastered -- of the penultimate season of the 1957-66 Raymond Burr legal drama.
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