So I watched all of ANIMORPHS, and now I’m going to talk about it.
I guess the main question to ask when someone says, “I watched the ANIMORPHS television series” is “Why.” Well, that’s not something I can answer. The second question would be, “Was it awful?”
I’m a firm believer that an adaptation does not need to be a good ADAPTATION to be a good THING. In fact, some of the best adaptations are those capable of being pragmatic–realizing what will work in the new medium, and what will not. ANIMORPHS did not need to be “a good adaptation of the books” to be a “a good show.”
ANIMORPHS is neither.
Fans of the books like to say that this show was doomed from the start, because you just can’t pull off such an effects-heavy, serious-minded series in the format of a low-budget Nickelodean kids show in 1998. I think that’s true to some degree, but honestly, a lot of the blame should be put on the show itself. They could’ve told a decent, interesting story here, even if the effect shots had to look like shit or not exist.
But even though it improved throughout the later episodes, this series as a whole was very poorly put together. So, one last time, let’s take a look at Nickelodeon’s ANIMORPHS so I can disappear into the sky.
Jake (Shawn Ashmore) – Jake was our hero, I guess. And he was fine. Shawn Ashmore has been proven to be a solid actor, and he did good here–but he was given very little to work with. Outside of his storylines with Tom or the episode where he becomes a Controller, TV Jake is very bland. Every so often, a bit of goofiness is allowed to show through–mostly in scenes with Marco. But mostly, he is the epitome of a completely average suburban white boy.
Marco (Boris Cabrera) – Marco is my favorite character from the books, but I don’t think I’m too strongly biased in saying that his TV counterpart is pretty lame. The writing doesn’t allow him to be nearly as funny or as morally conflicted, so he’s left with the most annoying of Book-Marco’s characteristics: being a complainer who is always the first to give up or villainize someone. Initially pretty awkward, Boris seemed to get more comfortable with the character as the show went on–but while he became better at pulling off “Funny Marco,” he was not great in most of the “Emotional Marco” scenes.
Which brings us to Marco’s main ongoing storyline–his Big Bad Yeerk Dead Mom. Like many things on this show, it’s meaningless. She never appears after her introduction episode, and that’s also when his dad–probably the closest thing this show has to a genuine-feeling relationship–vanishes from the story at the same time.
Rachel (Brooke Nevin) – First, I think Brooke Nevin was a great choice for the character. But like everyone else, she never gets much material to work with. Her relationship with Tobias is schmaltzy from the start (Do you ever wish you could just…fly away?), but cute enough; her family drama fades from the plot almost immediately. Her character lacks the edge that defines Rachel in the book; instead of “beautiful warrior girl,” she’s more “beautiful girl who will make fun of you if you make fun of her.”
Cassie (Nadia Nascimento) – Cassie is by far the least interesting of the main cast. I guess her storylines in the book were always the more “out-there” ones, and as a result, she doesn’t get much focus on the show–the only episode for her I can really remember is the one where she can’t stop being a crocodile, and that was based on a Rachel book. Instead of “bleeding-heart activist,” she’s pretty much reduced to “likes animals.” They finally let her try to free all the animals at the testing facility…in the series finale. And Nadia is probably one of the weaker actors.
Ax (Paulo Costanzo) – Ax really put me through the fucking ringer. Despite his introduction episode being AWFUL, Paulo’s performance was so on-point–especially compared to the “uninterested actors playing uninteresting characters” vibe that characterized early Season 1–that he became an instant high point for the show. By Season 2, his shtick had become pretty played out and it really seemed like they were trying too hard with it. But he was still usually capable of making me smile at least once an episode, and honestly, he’s probably the best-adapted character on the show.
Tobias (Christopher Ralph) – What the fuck happened here? I feel like I could write a thesis paper on how much they fucked this character up.
Things started out really positive with Tobias. Instead of only having one book with him before he’s trapped as a hawk, the show gave us three episodes. But then it took like, weeks for him to show up again and reveal his bird-doom. And once he did…he was basically relegated to being a background bird. I get that it must’ve been annoying to work with having one of the characters be a live bird, but man, the show suffered for it. Tobias has almost NO character development from the time he becomes a bird until the Season 1 finale. Outside of that horrendous flashback episode, we don’t get any look at all into how’s he’s dealing with BEING A FUCKING BIRD, and that just makes the situation so much more ridiculous. And that’s not to mention the time they literally KILLED HIM OFF ON SCREEN AND THEN FORGOT ABOUT IT.
On the positive side, he fared MUCH better in Season 2 once they basically gave up on the pretense of him being a hawk (he’s only a bird for like, two scenes in the entire season). Ralph is a little stiff sometimes, but I generally enjoyed him when we got to see him. This must have been such a bizarre role for the kid to play.
The Five WORST Episodes of Animorphs
Honorable Mention: Changes, Part 2 (Season 2, Episode 5)
The Plot: The Animorphs need to stop Harold, the most annoying character ever, from doing whatever.
The Worst: Sandwiched in the middle of an already-underwhelming 3-part finale, I have to deal with this shit?
5. Underground (Season 1, Episode 3)
The Worst: Part 1 of the premiere stills stands as being solid, and while Part 2 disappointed, this was the episode that certified what a mess we were into with this series. Once the gang heads for the Yeerk Pool, everything awful about the show comes right to the forefront. Nothing flows from one shot to another or makes any sense, the “battles” are reduced to kids randomly turning into animals for a half a second and everyone in sight running from fear, nothing gets accomplished or has any meaning…every aspect of this sequence is dogshit, and it was the first of many times I thought, “Should I be watching this?”.
No. The answer was no.
4. The Message (Season 1, Episode 6)
The Worst: While this episode brought us the glory of TV-Ax, it needs to be on this list as the most scream-inducing adaptation of the series. This episode takes a book about a harrowing undersea adventure to a downed spaceship and reduces it to Ax sitting around in an abandoned warehouse (why wouldn’t he just…leave?) and Visser Trent shaking his fists in anger at butterflies.
3. The Stranger (Season 1, Episode 10)
The Plot: After everyone gets trapped under a net (!), a space ghost appears and shows them a shitty alternate future where Rachel is a mean old bitch and Visser Trent ate Tobias. Then he allows them to completely avoid that future with no consequences so what was the point.
The Worst: Let’s see: the Animorphs are nearly defeated by a net. There’s a lengthy scene of Ax being lassoed. The Ellimist appears out of nowhere and looks like a shitty blue space ghost. The Shitty Future is reduced to a couple scenes of people talking In a yellow-tinted desert set, and the resolution is meaningless. Even for an episode of Animorphs, this episode is almost incomprehensible.
2. On the Run (Season 1, Episode 4)
The Plot: Marco’s “Yeerk-free day” (go fuck yourself) at the mall is ruined by a ridiculous, boring misadventure as our heroes try to get the inexplicably-missing Andalite Disk back from the cheesiest Yeerk goons ever.
The Worst: If “Underground” made me question this show, “On the Run” completely broke me. Not only is the “kids in a mall” action completely unremarkable—they can turn into animals! Why are we doing this!—but this is one of those episodes where we go into every commercial break with a cliffhanger, only for it to be meaninglessly resolved off-screen when we return. There are stupider episodes of this show, but none so soulless.
1. Tobias (Season 1, Episode 14)
The Worst: Finally given a chance to explore Tobias’s inner turmoil and past, this episode completely throws it away. What we’re left with is two equally-lame storylines. In one, Human Tobias is revealed to be a whiny little shithead who didn’t bail on the Animorphs only because a magical black janitor told him not to. In the other, Ax’s quirks are ratcheted up to an unwatchable level and we get like 7 minutes of slapstick. It’s like they were an episode short for Season 1, so they just called up Paulo and Christopher over a weekend and shot this shit in someone’s backyard.
The Four BEST* Episodes of Animorphs
5. The Leader, Part 2 (Season 1, Episode 16)
Real talk, guys: I don’t remember much about this episode or why it was good. But in my review, I wrote: “This is probably the best episode of ANIMORPHS.” And that’s good enough to put it on this list.
4. The Front (Season 2, Episode 4)
The Plot: Ax gets a job at Fake Radio Shack, which is actually part of some ridiculous Yeerk scheme.
The Best: As the last non-three-part-finale episode of the series, The Front is a great representation of how much the show improved from its abysmal beginnings. This is just a silly standalone without much depth, but for what it is, the plot is tight and makes sense, and this is as comfortable with the characters as anyone in the show would ever be. The Front gives us a sad glimpse of what the show might’ve become had it not crashed and burned so quickly.
3. My Name is Jake, Part 1 (Season 1, Episode 1)
The Plot: You should know this by now: alien crashes on Earth, kid turns into a dog.
The Best: Let’s think back to the warm summer days when I watched the first episode of ANIMORPHS and thought, “This is pretty good!”. The first three episodes were the only ones I ever saw as a kid (thanks, VHS!), and my memories of the show were pretty favorable; almost entirely due to “My Name is Jake, Part 1,” which does an excellent job of adapting the first book and setting up the series. If the entire show had been of this quality, this would be a very different blog and I’d have spent much less on alcohol.
2. Not My Problem (Season 1, Episode 18)
The Plot: Jake pouts until the Ellimist shows him ANOTHER alternate future. But this time, it’s actually interesting: Marco is a preppy controller, Tobias is a lone freedom fighter, and everything goes to hell.
The Best: The set-up for this episode is pretty silly, but everything in the “what if” world is GREAT. With plot twists that are actually twist, jokes that are actually funny (Preppy Marco will forever kill me), and a seriously bleak tone, this episode managed to be better than the (unrelated) book with a similar plot. Also, this is the one where Jake taunts Tobias for being a bird, which is funny.
1. The Release (Season 1, Episode 17)
The Plot: Jake’s teacher, Mr. Perkins, is revealed as a freed controller raging war against the Yeerks.
The Best: Once in a great while, this show came up with a great original idea. Mr. Perkins was a rad character given more development and personality in one episode than many characters received in 26. This was also one of the few times the show took a serious approach to morality, high stakes, and genuine human drama. The scene at the end, when Mr. Perkins leaves Jake in the woods, is easily one of the most well-executed in the series.
My Favorite Screenshots
Okay, guys, that’s it. I reviewed all of ANIMORPHS, and unless someone mails me the book Scholastic published about the actors and the behind-the-scenes (please do this), I am not going to be touching this shit again!
But PLEASE come back to the site next week, because I have a REALLY special announcement to share with all of you.
Thank you so much for coming along this dumb nightmare maze of a journey with me. It’s been a weird, rough year, and I GUESS laughing at this stupid show with you people has made it somewhat more manageable. Here’s to a 2015 without ANIMORPHS.
I love you all.