MEN IN BLACK and JACKIE CHAN ADVENTURES (Mania.com)

By:Steve Fritz
Date: Monday, September 18, 2000

About a decade ago, television networks began absorbing and/or tying up independent animation studios. The payoff is it's now much harder for independent animation studios to survive. Networks that used to be interested in buying new series from them are now thinking twice, three times, sometimes (in the case of ABC and CBS) never. This is a crying shame as a number of these studios produce high quality TV animation. One of them is the Sony Family Entertainment Group (formerly Columbia Tri-Star), whose two main executive producers are Jeff Klein and Richard Raynis.

Sony Family has produced some surprisingly good animation. This year, it has four different series either on or coming to the air: MAX STEEL, JACKIE CHAN ADVENTURES, MEN IN BLACK and the upcoming HEAVY GEAR. In the past it's also given us such solid entertainment as ROUGHNECKS: STARSHIP TROOPERS, JUMANJI and GODZILLA.

We'll look at JACKIE and MEN IN BLACK this column, with more on the other two in the very near future.

BACK IN BLACK FOR AN AMAZING FOURTH SEASON

'The only reason why we have been consistently able to get on the air is we always seem to be able to get some big name property like a MEN IN BLACK, GODZILLA or JACKIE CHAN,' says Klein. 'Then once we get on the air we tend to stay on the air because the programs are good.'

MEN IN BLACK began its fourth season last weekend. This is virtually unheard of in the Saturday morning arena, where a program is darn lucky to make it for a full seasoneven if it's a network-owned property. These days most nets will only make commitments for thirteen 30-minute episodes. Raynis and Klein originally worked on the show together. Raynis has since stepped down to concentrate on HEAVY GEAR and an upcoming movie project with Adam Sandler.

The series continues the adventures of Agents J and K from the Tommy Lee Jones-Will Smith movie of the same name. In the animated world, J still isn't allowed to drive the LTD, Zed still rules the agency with a gruff, rough iron fist, and Agent L has become comfortably settled as the main researcher.

'You just can't kill that show!' Klein happily boasts. 'Our fourth season of all new episodes just started. We are already talking to Warners about doing either a fifth season and a spin-off.'

It doesn't exactly hurt that Smith, Jones and the creative team of the live-action film are all now committed towards doing a sequel. Still, it takes more than a successful movie franchise to insure a successful animated series.

'The core group of characters have turned out to be surprisingly popular,' opines Klein. 'Also, people have come to love seeing a different group of aliens every week, the fantastic technology and weaponry, and the overall magical elements of the show. I guess the idea is that with alien technology you can do almost anything.'

Another integral element is the way Sony sets up the series every week. 'Says Klein, 'The core appeal of the show is that on Earth the things you take for granted may not be what they appear to be. They could be aliens or the results of aliens. We haven't wanted to stray too far from that concept.'

As for the fourth season, Klein is making some changes in order to keep things interesting. 'This season we will actually introduce a number of new characters to the show,' says Kline. 'They will be new alien leads that mix up with the Men In Black. L is also going to get promoted to a field agent, and her partner is going to be one of those new characters, an alien agent named X. Let me just say that X is incredibly good on the job, but he's also a little bit of a wild card. Also, humans aren't his favorite species.

'The person who replaces L in the lab is another alien named Zeeltor. He's very much a nutty professor. He's a genius, but the stuff he creates doesn't always work right. Of course, the person who this usually happens to is J, who is also the person Zeeltor loves to test this stuff out on. As you can imagine, this is another new thing to make J crazy.'

While Zed, K, Fred the Pug and the Worm Guys will probably carry on as usual, Klein warns us we should expect to see a lot of growth in Agent J. 'One of the things we are trying to do is not make J be the rookie in the field any more,' says Klein. 'We feel that over four years he has gotten very, very good at being a Man in Black. The science lab is obviously a great place for J to still act like a rookie, and Zeeltor will take full advantage of J. The other important thing is still after four years J still hasn't seen everything, and he never will. The beauty of MEN IN BLACK is there's always another planet; there's always another alien; there's always something new we can make a story out of.

'Another thing is the MEN IN BLACK may be an Earth-bound organization, but they are also part of a bigger galactic organization. They are the Planet Earth's extraterrestrial police force. There are other planets with other versions of them. We haven't really done to many crossovers with the cops of the other planets, but we will do a little bit more of that this year.'

To top it, sources at the Kids WB, where MEN IN BLACK currently airs, state the show is pulling in better numbers than ever. 'I would not be surprised if MEN IN BLACK will continue for many years to come,' Klein boldly predicts.

With the track record of the series so far, it's hard to argue with him.

Purchase Men in Black books and trading cards in the Fandom Shop.

JACKIE CHAN KICKS INTO HIGH GEAR

One of the freshest new shows to hit the airwaves so far this season has got to be another Sony project, JACKIE CHAN ADVENTURES. Having made its debut on Saturday, September 11, it's a surprisingly fresh mix of Hong Kong action cinema with Fant-Asia fantasy elements.

The creation of the series is also a case of extreme serendipity: 'A bunch of people from across the continents had the same idea,' recalls Klein. 'Over the last few years, Jackie was reevaluating his film career and decided he wanted to age his audience down a little bit. The latest films he's committed to, SHANGHAI NOON (2000), THE BELLBOY, and STRETCH ARMSTRONG (the latter two in production) are all geared towards a younger audience. All were a conscious effort on his part. He realizes there's an audience who loves him but can't go to see his more R-rated action-oriented efforts.

'His managers in America, Blue Train Entertainment, had the same idea in an even more pro-active way. They wanted something for Saturday mornings. They approached us here at Sony, because we're always looking for some sort of name or title. When we heard the name Jackie Chan, we got excited.'

As it turns out, the final product is a departure for both Chan and Sony. 'JACKIE CHAN ADVENTURES is the furthest departure for us since JUMANJI,' says Klien. 'Stylistically it's very different from anything we've done before. It's much more out there and uses more anime style. It also has a totally different color scheme, different backgrounds and design style. That's both been fun and frustrating because the studios who have worked with us before try to deliver a kind of show based on what we did in the past. So it's been a little bit of a learning trip for all concerned.'

The payoff is a series that's part Indiana Jones with a healthy, heaping dose of Chan's Charlie Chaplin-inspired humor, Hong Kong action and Asian mysticism thrown in for kicks. 'There's this secret society called the Dark Hand. They are led by this ultimate evil character named Shen Du,' says Klein. 'Jackie is an archeologist who has a history with a gentlemen named Captain Black. Black runs a secret organization called Section 13. Section 13 recruits Jackie because of his archeology skills, but underneath there's this covert op activity.

'Now Jackie's uncle, called Uncle, runs an antique shop. Uncle is Jackie's mentor and kind of a combination Zen master-nutty professor-mad scientist type. He's responsible for some of the magic of the series as well as the occult knowledge. He's the one who figures out that the Dark Hand are out for these twelve mystical talismans that are based on the signs of the Chinese zodiac. Each one possesses its own special mystical power. One gives you extreme strength. Another gives you the power of levitation. One can turn you invisible. Uncle not only can figure out which talisman is what, but can also research ancient texts and activate it. The only problem is with Uncle, the information isn't always perfect.'

To make matters even more complicated for Chan, Uncle presents him with a 'niece' named Jade who's a pint-sized pile of trouble. She's too smart for her own good and always disobeying Chan and Uncle. That isn't the worst of it, however.

'The catch is if Shen Du can get his hands on all twelve talismans, he can achieve ultimate power and rule the universe,' says Klein. 'So what we have is Jackie traveling the world, searching for the talismans. Sometimes Jackie gets there first; sometimes the Dark Hand gets there first. As the adventure continues, the interaction between the two will bring on new wrinkles.'

Regarding the fantasy element (which has been notably absent from Chan's live-action films), Klein adds, 'I don't see him in something like Chinese Ghost Story. He's more tongue in cheek. We see a lot of humor in JACKIE CHAN'S ADVENTURES. We're aiming more to the people who responded to RUSH HOUR, that same kind of pratfall comedy. Besides, I don't think the WB really wants something that is hardcore action. This series is more Indiana Jones-ish.'

According to Raynis, the other key thing helping the series is its head scriptwriter is Duane Caprizzi. 'A lot of the humor springs from Duane Caprizzi,' says Raynis. 'He and I used to work at DIC Entertainment on the ALF animated series. We also worked together on the first season of MEN IN BLACK. He has such a commitment to quality in kid shows. JACKIE really benefits from having him.'

'We've actually been pretty lucky when it comes to the censors,' adds Klein. 'One of the reasons was we started talking about this issue pretty early in the process as opposed to when it was too late to do anything about it. We are actually pretty happy with the way things have turned out because Warners has been pretty lenient.

'Part of this is just the beauty of working with Jackie Chan. When it comes to his projects, he's not the one who goes looking for a fight. He plays characters like a piano player, TV chef, a character who get wound up in loads of trouble for trying to do the right thing. Knowing that, Warners gave us a little more leeway. The fights are always defensive for Jackie. He's usually trying to protect himself. In fact, we guarantee at least two fights per episode. They are often with super-powered villains. Jackie also often fights these shadowy, mystical ninjas named the Shadow Khan.

'Another thing, because this is based on Hong Kong, there aren't that many big guns, bombs or other things that get standards and practices upset. We weren't fudging the rules when we would have Jackie take on a bunch of villains with a pair of windshield wipers. Most of what Jackie uses as a 'weapon' is something he picks up that was lying around the room. That helps immensely. It allows us to do a little more hand-to-hand. It also provides its share of comedy because a pair of windshield wiper blades aren't the best things to use when you're up against swords.'

At present, the Kids WB has made a commitment for 13 episodes of JACKIE CHAN ADVENTURES. I wouldn't be surprised if they go for more in the very near future.