Toon In: Animated TV Highlights for April, from ARK: The Animated Series to Knuckles

TV Lists animation
Toon In: Animated TV Highlights for April, from ARK: The Animated Series to Knuckles

Welcome to the ink, paint, and pixel corner of Paste TV, where we’re highlighting some of the best premium animation projects on streaming or direct-to-video aimed for teens and adults. This monthly column not only provides an overview of the new animated series to check out, but we’ve also collected some of the finest creators and voice talents in the medium to give updates, or introductions, to their series. 

ARK: The Animated Series Post Mortem (Aired March 21)

If you’re a gamer and play Ark: Survival Evolved… Surprise! An original 2D animated series based on the world and mythology, by the creators of the game, dropped on Paramount+ in late March. ARK: The Animated Series gives players and non-players alike a serialized, hard sci-fi story to dive into, with more episodes on the way later this year. 

Series co-creator Jeremy Stieglitz tells Paste that he and ​​Jesse Rapczak released the game in 2015, and it wasn’t until 2019 that the idea of a companion series took hold. Because the game is open world and played in either first or third person, Stieglitz says they knew they couldn’t really explore the backstory with any emotional depth in the medium of origin. Plus, they also found that overall, episodic storytelling featuring cool dinosaur tales was lacking. So, they worked out a budget and an outline for the show they wanted to make—and then the pandemic hit. 

Stieglitz says they thought they would have to shut down, but instead, the animation industry was able to shift to work from home and ARK: The Animated Series went into full production as a traditionally animated series. While that decision may puzzle some gamers, Stieglitz says two things brought them to their 2D animation. 

“I think hand drawn ages better,” Stieglitz says of the timeless quality of the medium. “But also, we said the video game is already 3D and we do not want to be confused visually with the video games. We said, if we go CGI, we’re going to be too tempted to use our models from the game, or to take assets directly from the game. And ultimately, it’s just going to feel like a cutscene for the game.”

For the 2D animation, they hired California based studio Lex + Otis, and veteran animator Jay Oliva, who found the balance of capturing the spirit of the game while making the show its own thing. Stieglitz says writers Marguerite Bennett and Kendall Deacon Davis helped them make sure the story arc stayed character driven rather than just action based. 

“Marguerite, who’s an LGBTQ writer, really made—among many other things—the character of Helena feel completely authentic,” he details. “Even with the villains, especially in Part 2, we get to know more about them and what drives them. And she’s also an academically trained historian and I am definitely a history buff, so we had many discussions about the Roman Empire and the Victorian era, which features more in Part 2. Also about indigenous cultures, and for those episodes, we brought in cultural consultants to help us visually with those scenes, but also with some of the plot aspects with the flashbacks of those cultures. And the language as well.”

Stieglitz says Davis came from the video game world, particularly Halo, and drilled down on how to take the more dramatic elements of the game world and turn that into a moving narrative. “The adaptation aspect and the plot mechanics of how that’s going to work were very well thought through by him,” he says. 

As the originator of all of the game and show content, Stieglitz says he’s been most excited to get into the head and heart of Helena (Madeleine Madden) and Meiyin Li (Michelle Yeoh). “In the original game lore, Helena was very important to this background in the game, but you never get to know her as a person,” he explains. “I really liked the idea of getting under someone’s armor, so to speak, and learning that they’re tough physically, but they have vulnerabilities in other areas. You can never really explore that in the game in a meaningful way. So seeing how their relationship evolves, and continues to evolve over the show is something very meaningful to me.” 

At the end of “Element 6,” there are plenty of cliffhangers to keep audiences guessing, from the return of Helena’s assumed dead wife, Victoria (Elliot Page), to the impending battles to come. Stieglitz promises in Part 2, there will be emotional closure for audiences. 

“It was very important to us that over this run of episodes, we don’t leave it with some kind of bullshit: ‘tune in next time for the satisfying good resolutions you want to see,’” he says. “Yes, there’s more story to tell. But we were like, just in case we never get to tell any more story than this, it won’t feel like anybody wasted their time. They’re gonna get the kind of narrative and emotional closure they want out of this run of episodes. And that very much relates to Helena’s backstory, and not just about Victoria either. It’s very important to us that the pilot sets that up, but the rest of the episodes really continue to address that.”

Last but not least, when asked how they got a voice cast absolutely stacked with A-list actors the likes of Yeoh, Gerard Butler, David Tennant, Jeffrey Wright, and Monica Bellucci, Stieglitz admits that was their silver lining to the pandemic shutdowns, as actors were available to record at home. He says Oliva went through his contacts from previous projects and they assembled this dream cast. Teasing what’s to come on that front, he says, “​​Russell Crowe is only in Part 1very briefly, but he’s hella in Part 2. And he did something very fun, I won’t spoil it, with his character that is a lot of fun. I think people will really enjoy it.”

Fright Krewe Season 2 Post Mortem (Aired March 29)

Season 2 of Fright Krewe, the Eli Roth and James Frey creation for DreamWorks Animation, brought to a close the first adventure of five teens from New Orleans imbued with the supernatural powers of the loas, or Voodoo spirit guides, to stop the evil, ancient spirit, Belial (Jacques Colimon).

In the finale, Soleil (Sydney Mikayla) mustered the power of all five of her friends and their loas for a battle royale of the spirits, which found good prevailing over evil once more. The kids relinquished their loa powers in the aftermath, but a very new threat was teased if the series gets picked up. 

Will that happen? Frey tells Paste that more stories is the goal. “All the way through, we’ve always hoped that we would be like Scooby Doo, making Fright Krewe for 10 or 15 years,” he says. “We did try to create a mythology in a world that would support that idea. Clearly, it’s not our decision as to whether that will happen or not, but I hope it does because I love what DreamWorks allowed us and the crew and the cast to put together. I think it’s exceptional work.”

Looking back at this second season, Roth says they and showrunners Joanna Lewis and Kristine Songco created a two-season arc of chills and growth for the teens. “The first one is definitely about finding your voice, finding who you are, finding a real place and that acceptance of who you are and who your real group of friends are,” he details. “Season 1 is definitely testing those friendships and testing those strengths and how strong are those bonds when times are tough? And what happens when you don’t have those powers? What are the foundations of those friendships? And those friendships that get tested, sometimes they make things stronger and sometimes they drive you apart.”

Roth says they’re all proud that they created a mythology that leant on the deeper aspects of New Orleans folklore and local legends. “It was a great group of writers. Credit to everyone from the artists to the animators. It felt like the right energy,” he enthuses. 

As a horror aficionado, Roth says he particularly loved the Season 2 monsters, like the evil Mardi Gras Jester and the blob from the first episode. “You know, that jester, when I first saw that animation, I said, ‘This is insane. This is a crazy, crazy monster.’ And for each one, you want to give just enough of the monster that you wish there was a whole spinoff just about it,” he says. “But the trick that I think that they really did was not just coming up with the ‘monster of the week,’ but how does it progress Belial’s agenda? And how does it get them further into trouble?” If you or your teens loved the series, rewatch on Hulu or Peacock for the execs to see interest from viewers.

Kaiju No.8 (April 13)

The month of April kicks off Crunchyroll’s Spring 2024 roster of Japanese anime, as it brings 40 new, returning, and continuing series to the streaming service. Depending on your anime taste, there’s literally something for everyone, from rom-coms to sci-fi adventures. One of the most-anticipated is Toho Animation’s adaptation of the manga, Kaiju No. 8.

With Kaiju all the rage in theaters again with Godzilla Minus One and Godzilla x KongKaiju No. 8 allows for the serious fans and the “monster curious” to dive into a fresh story about the humans fighting on the front lines for the legendary Defense Force. The elite group becomes the obsession of Kafka Hibino and Reno Ichikawa, who hit some majorly unexpected bumps in the road getting to their goal. 

Justice League: Crisis on Infinite Earths – Part Two (April 23)

Part 2 of Warner Bros. Animation’s three-part film adaptation of Marv Wolfman and George Pérez classic comics crossover series, Crisis on Infinite Earths, picks up where the first installment left off, with Harbinger (Meg Donnelly) realizing they may have changed time when the Legion of Superheroes start disappearing from existence. 

In this next epic chapter, the logline teases, “an endless army of shadow demons bent on the destruction of all reality swarms over our world and all parallel Earths.” Directed by Jeff Wamester and featuring another all-star lineup of voice actors including Jensen Ackles, Matt Bomer, Jimmi Simpson, Alexandra Daddario, Lou Diamond Phillips, and many more, Part 2 has the superheroes provoked by an entity to battle one another as multiple alternate worlds fall. 

Knuckles (April 26)

With two theatrical Sonic the Hedgehog films winning over gaming fans and the box office, Paramount Pictures and SEGA of America have officially birthed a successful “Cinematic World of Sonic the Hedgehog.” And that means the characters have earned a little extra love in the form of in-universe Paramount+ limited series, the first being Knuckles

As a reminder, Knuckles in this iteration is the Idris Elba-voiced character introduced in Sonic the Hedgehog 2, who helped save the world and now has to figure out his next purpose. Turns out, hot mess human Wade (Adam Pally) is in dire need of some training in the ways of the Echidna warrior.

Franchise and series executive producer Toby Ascher tells Paste that this six-episode series came after the success of Sonic 2. “We got really excited about the idea of expanding our characters in our world into television, specifically, because it gives us a platform to really do character studies,” he explains. “We knew that, with Shadow coming into Sonic 3 and some of the bigger things that we want to do, the Sonic franchise on the movie side is going to be these Avengers-level events. They’re going to be these big, exciting stories that have a lot of different characters. And so what television did for us is it gave us time to go into some of the more supporting characters in depth and really build them out in cool ways.”

In other words, you don’t hire Idris Elba and not use his talents for all their worth. Ascher says they also really loved how the fish out of water comedy came off at the end of Sonic 2, and that’s the vibe of the series. “We thought we could translate that into a full series. I think it’s by far the funniest version we’ve had in any of the Sonic movies so far. It leans into weird comedy partially because of Adam Pally and because of wha Idris brings in a really great way.”

“We also really, really liked the idea of going linearly through the games, and then in the third movie, being able to do a Sonic 3 and Knuckles super Easter egg,” Ascher adds referring to the Sonic & Knuckles + Sonic the Hedgehog 3 video game sequel.  

The series will follow the style and aesthetic of the films, with the CG Knuckles existing in our world with humans from the film universe, like Wade and Maddie (Tika Sumpter), and new additions like Cary Elwes, Rory McCann, and Christopher Lloyd. 

“First and foremost, the goal going into the series was: how do we replicate the movie quality in a much more condensed timeline?” Ascher says of what fans should expect. “We knew that if, all of a sudden, this looked like a rip off series or something that was really shoddily put together, not only will fans reject it, but it’ll damage what we’ve made.”

The reality was they had to essentially animate three hours of story instead of two (like the films) in just a year. How did they make it work? “Ultimately, we had a couple of advantages,” Ascher explains. “One is, as we’ve been making these movies, we’ve been refining assets and character models as we go along. So we actually pulled our assets in-house.” 

All vendors from ILM to Fin Design worked with the existing film character models and assets in their system which helped with efficiency. “It allowed us to use our internal animators and story team, who have massive pose libraries at this point on how Knuckles and Tails should emote, how they should act, how they should engage, and to basically build off that,” Ascher continues. “Really, we’ve created a good machine at this point. We know the characters, how they need to look, and we know how to animate them really quickly. The Knuckles show is about 1600 visual effects shots, which is 300 more than Sonic 1.”

As for plans regarding future seasons of Knuckles, or limited series centered on other characters in the universe, Ascher says, “If something is working really successfully, and we have a really great story to tell, we’re definitely going to expand on it. I don’t think there’s any closed doors on future television, future seasons of Knuckles, so everything is wide open. I think it’s important to us that we’re not just making stuff to make stuff.” 

Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, NBC Insider, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written official books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe, The Story of Marvel Studios, Avatar: The Way of Water and the upcoming The Art of Ryan Meinerding. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett or Instagram @TaraDBen

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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