Between 1996 and 2001, K.A. Applegate, her husband Michael Grant, and a bunch of ghostwriters bestowed upon America’s children ANIMORPHS, an epic-scale book series about kids given the power to morph into animals in order to fight a guerrila war against parasitic aliens who hang out inside your brain. It also had terrible cover art.
But I’m not going to talk about the book series, which I loved as a kid and which had a huge influence on the way I viewed fiction. Instead I’m going to cover the 1998-2000 live action Nickelodeon adaptation that everyone hates. If you want to read about the books, I suggest Cinnamon Bunzuh, where two funny people reviewed every last one.
I’ve seen all of these episodes before, but even though I watched them only a year ago, the entire experience is almost nonexistent in my memory—a confusing blur of terrible special effects, plots that alternate between being lopsided book adaptations and nonsensical original content, and Shawn Ashmore. Oh, yeah, a lot of Shawn Ashmore.
Let’s go! Episode 1: My Name is Jake, Part 1.
First of all: Regardless of the show’s quality, the opening credits and theme song are totally awesome. A super-’90s rock song blares NO PLACE TO HIDE, NO ONE TO TRUST, NO ONE TO HELP YOU WHEN YOU’RE LOST over shadowy shots of our heroes running through the dark and alien spaceships and LIONS. It’s super rad. I know they eventually replace this with a shortened instrumental version of the song and a Shawn Ashmore voice-over explaining the plot, so I’m going to enjoy this while it exists. IT’S ALL IN YOUR HAAAAAND.
We start off with our lead, Jake (young Shawn Ashmore) walking down a suburban street, looking nervous as shit, probably because the camera keeps freaking out and threatening to smack him in the head. A voice over tells us how quickly everything in your life can change.
Weird cut to…footage of the N64/PS1 Beast Wars video game, with a voice over about “Galactic Warriors.” This is actually a pretty funny gag the show threw in, but it’s really bizarre to look back upon. How much did they pay to use the Beast Wars gameplay but not actually call it Beast Wars?
Anyway, this is earlier then Jake’s scary street strut. He’s at the arcade (#90s) with his best friend, Marco, and his dog, Homer, because Animorphs exists in a bizarre alternate universe to our own in which Jake is allowed to bring his dog literally fucking everywhere. Marco is like “let me play, Jake” and Jake is like “Go to hell, Marco, you’re my sidekick,” but he eventually gives in.
Also in the arcade is this guy, who looks like a low-rent Shawn Hunter and has a posse of background actors watching him play the same game.
His screenname is “Wolf.” Though he has a leather jacket, Wolf has to quit the game when the computer demands more coins be inserted despite the computer being a computer. While leaving to go beat up some kids for more change, Wolf awkwardly bumps into two girls entering the arcade. The duo immediately joins up with Jake & Marco and begin to establish their broad personalities: Rachel is pretty and sporty and shoppy, and Cassie wears overalls.
Because they’ve already owe Hasbro too much money, Homer the Dog runs off and into the street, almost as if animals in crowded public places with easy access to the outdoors should be kept on a leash.
The kids give chase but Homer is all, “Fuck this, I’m gonna go audition for 100 Deeds for Eddie McDowd.” Homer leads the four into an abandoned construction site, which Wolf is coincidentally sneaking into as well, hoping he can flip his hair at a homeless man and earn 50 cents to keep blowing shit up as Optimus Primal. After some searching, it turns out Homer is just chilling with Wolf, staring off into the dark, being a weirdo.
Jake is like “Thanks for dog,” and Rachel goes, “Hey you’re mysterious do you want to be in love forever?”, but Wolf points out into the sky and is like “Shut up there’s a spaceship.” And there is. I would take a screencap, but everything in this episode is incredibly dark and really hard to make out, especially in the grainy VHS-sourced copy I possess.
Scooby-Homer and the Mystery Morphs follow the ship until it crashes nearby. Cassie, Rachel and Jake want to investigate in case someone needs help, and Marco is all, “No, we should do literally anything else.” He caves under peer pressure and they all check out the wreckage together.
The downed ship produces a lot of wind and smoke and fog for unexplained reasons. The gang watches as a door opens and an alien comes stumbling out. Here’s one thing about Animorphs: there are a lot of aliens in this show, and they didn’t have the budget to show any of them. This one in particular is portrayed by repeating the same shows of stumbling blue hooved legs and a shadowed head again and again until he falls over. From there, he’s only shown as a shadowed torso. This is because the aliens are described in the book as furry blue centaurs with long, bladed tails, no mouths, and stalks on their head with extra eyes attached. The costume designer killed himself after reading that description, and here we are.
When it’s clear the alien is too injured to eat them or anything, the gang goes over to check on him. Marco is a huge asshole about it the whole time. The alien starts speaking to them telepathically, telling them he means no harm. They all lose their shit over this and the alien is like, “Guys, chill out, you’re about to turn into birds or whatever, telepathy doesn’t mean shit.” His name is Elfangor, and he’s an Andalite. Dr. Cassie applies Jake’s shirt to Elfangor’s wound; Rachel promises he’ll be okay, because “Cassie knows a lot about animals.” What a bitch. Elfangor tells them he’s gonna die, it’s fine, whatever, but there are more aliens coming, and the camera zooms in on him and augh goddamn it stop stop stop
So Elfangor uses his alien magic to create a CGI diagram of the plot. The incoming bad aliens are the Yeerks, little parasitic slugs who crawl into through the ear canal and control your brain, like Plankton in that episode of Spongebob. Those taken over by Yeerks are called “Controllers” and the Yeerks have already enslaved like 8+ planets, so it’s real bad news for Earth. Marco complains about how crazy the show’s premise is, and Elfangor is all, “Shut up, I’m going to give you superpowers.” He pulls out a magic blue box that I guess he was just keeping in his skin-pocket.
Elfangor wants to use the cube to give all five of the kids (but not Homer, despite how cool it would be to base the series around a dog who can turn into a different dog) superpowers and probably radiation poisoning. They all agree except Wolf, so Elfangor says, “Tobias, stop being an asshole” and Tobias goes “How do you know my name?”. Wolf is a pretty cool name, too. Tobias touches the cube as well and now “the power of change is in your flesh.” Elfangor explains that basically, they now have the power to absorb an animal’s DNA pattern via touch, after which point they can take on that animal’s shape. But they can only stay in animal form for two hours before they become trapped within it forever. Then another spaceship shows up, apparently belonging to Visser Three.
Everyone wants to keep learning about magic alien dog powers but Elfangor sends them off so they can live to fight another day. He tries to throw Tobias another plot device pulled from within his ass, basically a CD jammed into a remote control. Despite being told to “guard this with your heart and your soul,” Tobias totally butterfingers it and the device is lost during the escape. The kids take shelter behind a bunch of bullshit.
Visser Three emerges from his ship. He looks exactly like Elfangor and is shot similarly shitty. Also his voice sounds way worse, which is great since he will be our main villain.
The two aliens banter and explain the situation to each other and us. Visser Three is the only Yeerk to ever take over an Andalite body, and for that he thinks he’s real hot shit. Elfangor thinks he’s an asshole. Visser Three plans to enslave billions of weak-ass humans to form a huge army, and then he’s gonna march on Planet Andalite and shove slugs into the ears of Elfangor’s entire family. Then he morphs into a shadow puppet and eats the shit out of Elfangor.
Rachel screams “NO!” in anguish, and when that attracts a gaggle of human-controllers with flashlights, she adds, “They’ve seen us!” No shit, Rachel, maybe try not undermining this rad alien’s ultimate sacrifice by announcing your position fifteen seconds later. Maybe Rachel can morph into someone with goddamn common sense.
The kids run for it as one of the human-controllers tells another to “Release the Hork-Bajir.” Cassie trips and gets her foot stuck in some irrelevant cables so there can be a dramatic slow shot of the Hork-Bajir advancing. Maybe this alien will make up for the last two looking kind of cheap.
Jake distracts the Hork-Bajir and runs off in a different direction because Cassie’s stupid foot is still stuck. The idiotic alien gives chase. He eventually punches Jake in the back, tearing his shirt and looking terrible. Given a thousand different directions in which to run, Jake manages to get himself stuck inside of a pipe.
Luckily, Homer shows up inside the pipe, too. From their hiding spot they watch a human-controller walk by and itch his leg with his food in what can only be foreshadowing. Jake realizes he needs to use his superpower, so he acquires Homer’s DNA with a touch and then turns into a dog or something. The effect doesn’t look too bad—compared to the alien costumes, it’s worthy of an Emmy. But only a daytime Emmy, not one that people care about.
Homer is super creeped out by this, which is pretty funny. Once he is a dog, Jake and Homer bolt the fuck out of there and go home.
The next day, Tobias enters the school cafeteria looking lonely. Rachel flags him down to the Animorphs table and he wonders if he will finally get laid and stop hanging out at that weird arcade all the time. Marco is like, “Hey, does anyone know if Jake is dead?”, because it’s 1998 and no one has a cell phone or the internet. Funny to think that only two decades ago, a teenager had to walk into school every day with no idea whether or not their friends were still alive.
Jake tells his friends, “I am dog. It was weird.” Tobias adds, “Elfangor totally tried to give me something important last night. I fucked up.” They agree that finding this disk is probably important to the plot. Then Vice Principal Chapman shows up and itches his leg in a familiar spooky fashion.
The gang resolves to live the rest of their lives in paranoia and misery. The end.
This is only the first part of the premiere, but it was pretty good. By the time I was into Animorphs as a kid, the show had already come and went; this is one of the only episodes I ever saw back then, and despite the total let-down alien costumes, it was pretty satisfying in 2000, and still is now. The story—minus the special Andalite disk thing—is taken directly from the first book. Everyone is characterized pretty well for the screen-time they get, and the actors are fine—though I’ve never thought Boris Cabrera was a great fit for Marco, who I always pictured as more boyish and less 30 years old. They even go out of their way to foreshadow some later events in the series. The premise is treated very seriously and things are pretty suspenseful.
Adaptation Rating: 4/5. This isn’t an accuracy-to-the-book rating, because that’s different–it’s about how well this episode adapted the book’s story to a different medium. This episode is based on like the first third (at best) of Book #1, The Invasion. I think it does fine. The shit about Homer coming to the arcade and Jake morphing him in a pipe doesn’t happen in the book–they’re just taking a shortcut through the construction site to get home, and they escape easier–but whatever, they needed to have SOME action in the first episode. There was a lot of exposition to run through in this episode, and they distilled it into TV form pretty well. Keep in mind that this rating is comparative to how fucking stupid I remember later book-to-show conversions turning out.
Special Effects: 1/5. Everything looks like shit, except the Beast Wars footage, that was rad.
’90s Bullshit: Arcades. Beast Wars. Taking your dog to the mall. Nonexistent cell phones and internet. Shawn Ashmore.
Overall Rating: 4/5.
I’m pretty sure it’s all downhill from here.