Nelvana Enterprises is a studio that hovers around the perimeter of geek culture awareness without quite piercing the Zeitgeist. You might vaguely recall their logo with a polar bear sniffing a star, but can’t quite place where you’ve seen it. Nelvana’s saga is rich in geeky discoveries, so join us for this voyage into the deepest roots of animation history with many points of interest along the way.
The first familiarity most geeks will have with Nelvana is in the segment “The Faithful Wookiee,” better known as the animated portion of none other than the notorious Star Wars Holiday Special (1978). We’ve covered that part of the story on one of our Star Wars posts. Briefly, it’s the first broadcast debut of the character Boba Fett, and it eventually helped land Nelvana a contract to produce the animated TV shows Ewoks and Star Wars: Droids: The Adventures of R2-D2 and C-3PO, both in the mid-’80s.
We know you Jedi geeks already carve the Death Star into your pumpkin every year for Halloween, so you might as well put the Ewok candy bowl right next to it.
George Lucas was already familiar with Nelvana’s work. Legend has it that somebody showed him a Nelvana film and that impressed him enough to hire them for the 1978 TV production. This was early in Nelvana’s career when they had a couple Christmas specials to their credit and one short film called The Devil and Daniel Mouse (1978), which would have come out right around the time they were spitballing the TV special. The Devil and Daniel Mouse, as the title suggests, is about a singer who sells her soul for fame and fortune, in a typical retelling of the Faustian tale. The important part about that short is that Nelvana later expanded the idea into a full-length animated film called…
Most notable thing about this animated passion play is the music talent. Start with the legendary Blondie, with Debbie Harry herself and her sidekick guitarist Chris Stein. Add in Iggy Pop and Cheap Trick, and then top it with the late, and much-revered, Lou Reed of Velvet Underground fame. He even does the villain song! What we end up with here is a late Punk / early New Wave rock opera.
Music geeks will also tell you that Nelvana just missed being part of the ill-fated animated Heavy Metal (1981), something to do with missed phone calls and conflicting schedules. Given the chaotic fiasco that film turned out to be, Nelvana as good as dodged a bullet on Heavy Metal and indeed Rock & Rule is exactly the movie Heavy Metal should have been.
By now you’ve noticed Nelvana’s animation style favors cuddly animal people. Indeed, that became the basis for the cash cow franchises they’re most notable for in mainstream film and TV: Care Bears, Herself the Elf, Babar the Elephant, Strawberry Shortcake, and Franklin (the turtle cartoon). Hey, everybody has to pay the rent somehow.
You have to bag your laptop in something, it might as well be with the iconic duo that carried Nintendo into the 21st century. Why not view a level of the SNES game while we’re on the subject? Wasn’t this the most awesome thing ever seen on Super Nintendo?
Another item on the peripheral geek radar is Beetlejuice, the animated series running at the turn of the 1980-1990 deacde.
Nelvana certainly managed to come a long way from Care Bears on that one, didn’t they? That’s why we say you don’t appreciate Nelvana enough. They’re a versatile studio that gives 110% effort at everything they put their hand to, even if it’s cute bears with hearts on the their butt.
As deranged as Beetlejuice is, that was not the most demented cartoon Nelvana ever made! The most demented cartoon ever produced by Nelvana is actually a special, secret, Easter-egg corner of pop culture known to the select few. Pity any kid who ran across this show on its first run during the year 1997, because his friends would never believe him. It was only on for 13 episodes. It’s a cult classic, but that cult is tiny because even today it’s too post-modern for most people to get on its level. Even Rick & Morty fans run away from this show, screaming in shock and confusion.
The show and game got their popularity from the underground comic by Steve Purcell. If you don’t get it, you probably don’t get Robert Crumb either. Nelvana tries to explain itself here. We’re not going to try to sell you on this. Instead, we’ll let the Nostalgia Critic speak for it, because it shocks and confuses him too. It’s his own fault for overthinking it so much.
Two more things to note about Sam & Max. There’s a character literally called “The Geek.” And the video game is an adventure game by LucasArts that is one not to miss. There’s George Lucas back in the story again! On a final note for appreciating this work, turn to Toonipedia.
So Nelvana carried on through the 1990s, and on into the 21st century with their reliable mainstream franchises. However, for a studio which produces some of the safest, mall-friendly content out there (Franklin is prescribed as a sedative), they also make an effort to get deep into some of the screwiest niche cartoon fandoms ever produced. Maybe in your days wandering the coin-op arcades, you ran across one game called Cadillacs and Dinosaurs.
Random, isn’t it? It was based on yet another obscure underground comic, and of course, Nelvana did the animated series, which also lasted 13 episodes.
Portfolio: The Complete Various Drawings by Mark Schultz
The comic was the freshman project of illustrator Mark Schultz, who has gone on to work for the top comic publishers, so it’s not like they didn’t pick a show with promise.
Perhaps better known to you geeks – but still bizarre as hell for the same studio that made Strawberry Shortcake or Ewoks for that matter – is Tales from the Cryptkeeper, which actually racked up a total of 39 episodes, miracles never cease. Yes, this is Tales From the Crypt, the EC Comics horror anthology that spawned numerous TV shows and films. Only an animated version, for kids. How’s that for pushing the envelope?
Just to confront you with the fact that this exists, here’s a whole dang episode. We’ll leave you with that. Goodnight!