February 20, 2015 posted by

Animation Anecdotes #200

Animated Bone. In 1991, cartoonist and animator Jeff Smith released his independent comic book, “Bone”, which immediately received critical acclaim and complimentary comparisons to the works of Walt Kelly and Carl Barks. After being run out of Boneville, the three Bone cousins, Fone Bone, Phoney Bone and Smiley Bone, find their way into a deep, forested valley filled with wonderful and terrifying creatures and adventures.

bone-175Nickelodeon expressed interest in an animated feature. Smith and his animation studio Character Builders had art boards made up and Smith said: “We pretty much showed them the movie that we wanted to make: The Bones get into the valley, they meet the princess, they’re in the cow race, and they defeat the rat creatures. Very simple, straightforward movie.” It would have been a complete film with an ending but also leaving open the possibility for sequels based on the rest of the epic.

At first enthusiastic about Smith’s participation, Nickelodeon felt that the greatest story arc was actually the character of the princess Thorn and that the Bones should be voiced by six year old children in the style of the “Peanuts” animated specials.

They wanted to change the ending and make the mood and tone of the story much more kid oriented. They had seen licensing art that featured Fone Bone wearing green gloves (from a scene in the comic book where he was helping Thorn do gardening) and suggested that Fone Bone could have “magic gloves” so that he could make things grow.

However, the final straw that put an end to the project was when it was suggested that the film include a song by Britney Spears.

Warner Brothers had earlier lost interest in animating “Bone” when Smith said there would be no songs in the film. Disney lost interest when Smith insisted on artistic control.

JeffSmithNickelodeon had agreed, in writing, to no songs and now, almost a year and a half into the project tried to convince Smith to change his mind. Smith was told that they could get twelve million in additional financing for the film if they put in a pop song by Spears.

“I wasn’t willing to make it as commercial as they wanted,” Smith said, “When we first signed up with them to start doing it, they understood ‘Bone’ and wanted to do it. But about two months later the first ‘Rugrats’ movie was released It was a huge success and Paramount who is the umbrella company, said you’re going to make all movies like the ‘Rugrats’ movies.”

Smith said he enjoyed the experience and that Nickelodeon helped him iron out rough spots in the story, had a contract that allowed Smith to keep his rights when the project didn’t work out and that some of the failure to get the film made was the result of his own inexperience in the Hollywood system.

Jeff Smith mentioned his “wish list” for voice roles: Tim Robbins as Fone Bone, Danny DeVito as Phoney Bone, Bill Murray as Smiley Bone, and Tom Waits as the dragon. Smith also produced a limited edition “Bone” flipbook, primarily animated by Tom Bancroft, which he sold at various comic book convention appearances.

Herobear and the Kid. One of my favorite independent comic books, Mike Kunkel’s “Herobear and the Kid” was going to be translated into an animated feature from Universal. However, that project died and Kunkel said the reason was that “they wanted too many creative compromises with the characters turning it into a PG-13 style movie. If you’ve ever read the series, you know it’s one of the few comics that is completely G-rated, and can easily appeal to kids and adults.”

Kunkel said he was in talks to take the project to another company either as a feature or a possible television series and he was much happier with how that studio seemed to be treating his creations. The name of the company? Nickelodeon. Nothing developed at that studio either.


Watch Out for Mr. Jones! Science fiction author Ray Bradbury who had worked closely with animation producer and director Chuck Jones said in 1992,“Chuck (Jones) has violence within him as every man has, but he put it in his cartoons.”

groening-simpsonGroening Going to Hell. On February 25, 1992, cartoonist Matt Groening told the New York Times about his feelings on the success of The Simpsons television series, “I feel like it’s a tidal wave I’m surfing on. And to be honest, the whole Simpsons project was a project to see how far I could go in the mainstream. I may be going to hell, but I did embrace all the stuff—the T-shirts, the Bart phone, the chess set, all of it.

“When I was a kid, my friends and I used to put on puppet shows, make comic books, and I decided that’s what I wanted to do, to play in every medium. I don’t consider anything beneath me. I had a real strong sense of drama as a kid and I couldn’t believe adults didn’t remember what it was like to be a kid. I vowed I would never forget what it was like.

“Bart is like what would happen if Eddie Haskell (the devious boy from the television sitcom Leave It To Beaver) got his own show. He was a deviant.”

Disney Gremlins. In the Disney Archives exists a curious memo on the subject of Roald Dahl’s 1946 book The Gremlins (Dahl’s first book which is owned by the Disney Company because Walt was planning to make an animated feature based on it during World War II.)

The memo from Disney Television Animation to Jeff Katzenberg dated March 2, 1990 states: “Given our rights to Dahl’s book as well as the public domain nature of the underlying folklore, we could develop a television show using Dahl’s gremlin characters. The existence of Spielberg’s movie, however, presents significant problems in using ‘The Gremlins’ as part or all of the title of such a show. Also mentioned as subject for a series.”

The Spielberg movie referred to in the memo was the 1984 comedy horror film Gremlins, directed by Joe Dante, which featured non-aerodynamic gremlins who should never be fed after midnight nor gotten wet. In 1990, Warner Brothers announced it was developing a Gremlins based animated television series for its syndicated block of afternoon programming. That project mysteriously disappeared after a pilot was made.



  • Reading on the problems in bringing Bone and Herobear to the animated medium made me think of the problems I have with the Hollywood system itself. It’s true there’s always going to be those kind of setbacks and compromises many creators face when it comes to adapting their work to another medium. It’s very obvious both Smith and Kunkel fought bravely to keep the integrities of their work intact no matter how much the studios wanted to budge them to comply. Reading of Kunkel’s case with Universal, it’s funny they wanted a more grittier take on Herobear at all (perhaps Smith would’ve had better luck over there). It’s these sort of endeavors that make me rather weary of wanting to deal with Hollywood at all.

  • Gremlin Gus ! Ohhhh, so THAT’s who that is (in plush) at the WWII Museum store (here in N.O.!) Someone even BOUGHT it for me, for my plush collection!! Great Stuff, Jim, Jerry….again, thanks!!

    • Gremlin Gus (and other Gremlins) also appear in the video game Epic Mickey 2. (They may also be in the first Epic Mickey game, but I don’t know since I’ve only played the second one.)

  • BONE’s tragic story continues. Jeff Smith once again struck a deal with Warner Bros to make it into a movie and possible trilogy and they were enlisting Animal Logic to animate it. AL even made a test animation that Jeff said blew him away! That was 3 years ago. AL went on to make The Lego Movie, it was a big hit and clogged up their complete slate for the future, and we haven’t ever heard another word about the Bone movie since!

  • It’s maybe significant (and typical) that Universal wanted to make a G-rated comic into a PG-13 movie. That’s why there’s nothing in most modern comedies except “fat suits” and fart jokes.

  • I have read the Bone series, and I can’t for the life of me understand its appeal. At all. It SHOULD be compared to the work of Walt Kelly, since Jeff Smith pretty much stole his drawing style from him (except when it comes to drawing humans – one would think that Kelly, a Disney alumnus, could do a much better job of it than what we’ve seen from Smith). The story is epically humdrum, the characters bland and uninspired (the Bone family consists of a smart one, a dumb one, and a grumpy one) and the villains run-of-the-mill. Having said all that, it’s great that Smith’s had such success. It’s good for ALL independent comics creators. A rising tide lifts all boats.

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