Toon In: Animated Highlights for July, from Exploding Kittens to Star Trek: Prodigy’s Resurrection

TV Lists animation
Toon In: Animated Highlights for July, from Exploding Kittens to Star Trek: Prodigy’s Resurrection

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. 

Star Trek: Prodigy Season 2 (July 1)

After a surprise cancellation at Paramount+ in 2023, the computer-animated, original series Star Trek: Prodigy returns to fly again for a second season on Netflix. Executive producers Kevin and Dan Hageman tell Paste that their teen-centric adventure series places the kids who stole the USS Protostar in Season 1 inside Starfleet this time around, as cadets learning how to work as a more formal team. However, they’re whisked away by Admiral Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) on a mission that will continue what they started on the Protostar, but this time on the USS Voyager-A

“It was threading the idea that now they’re in Starfleet and the adult world,” Kevin Hageman says of this season’s arc for Dal (Brett Gray) and his friends. “And while that’s exciting and cool, it’s not as cool as when they used to have their own ship and could go on their own adventures, right? We didn’t want Season 2 just to be in the adult world because we felt that started to take away the youthful tone.”

“We followed the idea of the interesting story that could happen with the kids into the adult world,” Dan Hageman continues. “If you’re on a Starfleet ship, you have to follow all orders and you really have no wiggle room to have too much fun. But then we go, ‘the kids are going to learn something from the adults, but the adults are going to have to learn something from the kids.’ And that’s something that Kate [Mulgrew] always talks about, that we can learn so much from the next generation and from children as they have a lot to teach. So that was a message we wanted to get across. We knew we had to have the kids have some fun and get them into shenanigans so they essentially dragged the adults into the world of shenanigans.”

Throughout the second season’s 20 episodes, the Hagemans say the team of Dal, Gwyn (Ella Purnell), Jankom (Jason Mantzoukas), Rok (Rylee Alazraqui), Murph (Dee Bradley Baker), and Medusian Zero (Angus Imrie) will all be tested, grow, and come to rely on one another even more. “The stakes are always big. But now that they’re in the adult world, things are getting bigger and bigger and bigger,” Kevin says. “Yes, we have these funny characters, but we always treat the threat as serious.”

And that threat is Season 1’s returning character, Asencia (voiced again by Jameela Jamil). “It was such a joy to bring her back,” Kevin says. She’ll join fellow Season 1 castmate John Noble, who voiced a very different version of the Diviner. “To have him come back and not be the main villain now, that was beautiful and interesting and cool,” Kevin teases. “And then, we felt because of all the politics or because of the father/ daughter relationship from Season 1, we also wanted our monsters. We wanted something very simple for kids to go: these are the bad guys. Villains come in all shapes and sizes, so it’s fun to have just that visceral monster also.”

Chicken for Linda! (July 2)

GKIDS continues to platform some of the most creative theatrical animated films from around the world. From French directors Chiara Malta and Sébastien Laudenbach (The Girl Without Hands), Chicken for Linda was released in North America in the spring and is now available on VOD. Gorgeously brought to life in an impressionistic, color block style, Linda is a character piece exploring a young girl and her mother as they navigate their very human relationship in the wake of loss. Charming and full of human foibles, Linda captures the complexities of parent/child relationships in a visually bold and entirely artistic way.

The Imaginary (July 5)

the imaginary review

Studio Ponoc, the Japanese animation studio founded by former Studio Ghibli producer Yoshiaki Nishimura, releases its second animated feature this month: The Imaginary, adapted from A.F. Harrold’s children’s book of the same name. It tells the story of Amanda, a young British girl trying to cope with the death of her father through her friendship with Rudger, her best friend that no one else can see. The world is brought to life in a traditional hand-drawn style, but it also incorporates some CG animation and an entirely separate final pass of lighting and shading, which is a first for the studio.

At a recent Netflix-hosted Q&A for the film, Nishimura said the book appealed to him because of its unique perspective. “In many cases in animation, a person from this world encounters a person from the alien world, or a person from this world encounters an imaginary figure like in My Neighbor Totoro,” he explained. “But in this story, it is told from the perspective of the boy who is an imaginary person. I thought it would be very challenging to make an animation film with this perspective.”

However, he knew that he would have a tough sell in convincing his intended director, Yoshiyuki Momose, and the Studio Ponoc artists. “In Japan, the concept of an imaginary friend isn’t that common,” he explained. “The staff at Studio Ponoc, including Momose, were unfamiliar with it. I had to convince them that this would make a good film, so I set out to write a four page synopsis of the story of how to create it into a film. But it turned into a 40-page treatment, where I had the camerawork and the music all intertwined in that story. When Momose saw this, he said, ‘Well, this is pretty much a screenplay, so you should write the screenplay.’” As such, Nishimura earned the screenplay credit and worked closely with Momose to produce the story into a shared vision. 

Where they totally agreed was in pushing the familiar style of animated features that come out of Japan. “In Japanese animation, the background art is drawn very detailed and beautifully. But the characters remain kind of flat when you see them in front of the background animation,” Nishimura detailed. “Momose and I both wanted to make that something different. We thought that if we could bring more texture, and more light and shadow into the characters themselves, then we could just convey their psychological aspects much more as well.”

They turned to French animation studio Les Films du Poisson Rouge to take their 140,000 drawings and enhance the lighting and shading throughout. “We would have had to draw that three times more in order to get that effect,” Nishimura explained. “But with their technology, we could more efficiently and more effectively do the texturing that was necessary.”

While The Imaginary is a film geared towards children, Nishimura said he and his team all hope that families around the world will watch it together and understand the lessons of connection humanity seems to be missing now. “I think it’s a worldwide phenomenon, that we have people that are right next to us, but we don’t really see them and we don’t really interact with them,” he observed. “We’re not close to each other. I think we’re afraid that we might be completely alone and that engenders some sadness and loneliness in us. And I think it becomes necessary to then have an imaginary friend, or something imaginary, that we can relate to, to help us through this very isolated kind of time.”

Psi Cops (July 7)

With the success of Adult Swim Canada’s hit Psi Cops in 2023, comedians and animators Bart Batchelor and Chris Nielsen are introducing their paranormal investigators comedy to the U.S. on Adult Swim and Max. The series is best described as a silly version of The X-Files, following the secret paranormal investigations of “stupid Mulder and Scully,” Agents Kydd (Nielsen) and Felixx (Batchelor).

After the success of their comedy series World Doctors, Skybound Entertainment reached out to the pair to have them pitch a new series in the genre space they could produce with them. Batchelor tells Paste that the idea for Psi Cops hit all the right buttons for everyone, and it was greenlit shortly after. 

“A show about paranormal investigation that’s a comedy is like limitless and fun,” Batchelor says. “We put together a short writers’ room that was basically circling around world building. It was just a bunch of creative, hilarious people talking about every possible paranormal stupidity out there. But we found that because Chris and I have worked together comedically for 20 years, when it came to actually writing the scripts, it was hard to onboard people without them having the vision of what the show is. So, Chris and I ended up writing all 24 episodes, which was a little intense. But now that it’s out and it exists, we feel like if we get a second season, it would be really easy to bring writers in, because it’s out there to see now.”

Aside from its comedic sensibility, Psi Cops also has a really unique look that is both hyper realistic when it comes to gore and carnage, but very cartoony when it comes to character design. Batchelor says, on all their projects prior to this one, they were heavily involved when it came to producing their online shows. They carried that through to the show’s overall look and design.

“We like janky, bad 3D, but we wanted to kind of grow it up a bit, mature it a bit, and we landed where we did with Psi Cops,” Batchelor says of its signature look. “It was very much with the intent of separating the look from what is popular and going on right now. It’s so hard to be seen, and I think that, with new people coming to it that are familiar with other styles, it’s a little bit like, ‘What is this?’ But once you watch a few episodes, you really get into it. It’s a fun mix of 2D and 3D, and it absolutely comes from our personal art style.”

Nielsen adds, “One of the reasons that we gravitated towards the janky 3D in the first place was that we can get these characters that are sort of photo real, but they live in that uncanny valley of weirdness. It gives you that natural look and then you have the ability to push things that are way too stupid. Really, it’s a 2D show, but it’s got the ability to go full 3D.”

With a 24 episode order, the duo said they had to hire a team to help them produce, design, and voice the series. They curated an in-house creative team to do all the character designs and the backgrounds in the overall scope of the show using a number of fresh-out-of-art school animators who could be mentored in their unique style. Working with Wind Sun Sky Entertainment and Oddfellows Labs, the pair said the show was a huge learning curve for them in figuring out how to retain their improv vibes on the page, maintain it the recording booth, and then eventually in the edit, where they really went to town in honing the jokes and comedy for all it was worth. 

It obviously worked because Psi Cops has become a huge hit in Canada, and they’re hoping it translates to the U.S. Adult Swim audience. “Bart likes to say we have a high inner conversion ratio,” Nielsen laughs. “It’s a slight learning curve, but once you kind of get our vibe, I think people respond really well. We started really enjoying having a back and forth with the audience and that helped us grow quite a bit.”

When asked what their best calling card episodes of the season are, Nielsen cited “Murder House” as one of their strongest. “It’s a haunted house that drives people to kill. It’s a very Stephen King sort of vibe,” he teases. “But it fully follows the stupid plan to investigate this thing. There’s some great moments of physical absurdity in it. And it’s just a real encapsulation of our brand of silly.”

Citing the episodes that blew up on TikTok, Batchelor says “The Facility” and “Faith Healer” are real crowd pleasers. “In ‘The Facility’ they investigate a facility of psycho monkeys. It’s so simple,” he laughs. “And ‘Faith Healer’ is where they go purposely to injure themselves to see if this faith healer can do what he says he can. They’re such simple concepts and such simple investigations, you get what they’re doing right away. And then how they’re doing it wrong  becomes apparent within the first 20 seconds. These guys are morons.”

Exploding Kittens (July 12)

If you’ve read the webcomics of The Oatmeal or played his hit card game, Exploding Kittens, then you know Matthew Inman, even if you don’t know Matthew Inman. He is The Oatmeal, and has been sketching and writing fascinating stories, hilarious human observations, and science explainers in his own comedic voice since 2009. But it took until this year for his work to get developed into an actual series, the Netflix animated original Exploding Kittens

Inman tells Paste that he spent years trying to figure out how to adapt the standalone The Oatmeal comics into something else. But it was Exploding Kittens’ concept of placing God inside a cat’s body, mixed with a personal story, that actually triggered a series idea separate from the game. 

“In my early 20s, I was seeing this girl and she had this really, really weird cat,” Inman shares. “He looked strange and he sounded strange. He was an odd shape and behaved erratically. So, her parents were super religious and they became convinced he was possessed by the devil. They actually had an exorcism for him. So in my notebook of a million ideas, I’ve always had this ‘God and the devil trapped inside a cat body’ thing.”

Writer and producer Shane Kosakowski (You’re the Worst) was brought in to help develop the premise with Inman, which evolved into the idea of an arrogant God being punished by his peers in heaven by getting sent to Earth to be humbled by his flock. “We just thought there were so many possibilities of where the storytelling could go and the commentary we could have on humans and how stupid we are,” Kosakowski laughs. 

Of course, landing the high concept meant finding the exact right voice for God, which they found in Lucifer’s devil, actor Tom Ellis. “What’s funny is that Matt and I talked for a long time about our overall vocal perspective,” Kosakowski says of their hunt. “We talked and talked and talked at a grand scale about what God could sound like, so we had kind of a vocal motif that we were looking for. When we came to Tom and we started listening to him in a bunch of different roles, he just seemed like he had amazing comedic timing. And he had this beautiful, velvety Welsh accent, that was very addictive the first time you heard it. Then, we started meeting with him and talking and did not realize until then that he’s one of the funniest people that we could have ever considered.”

For those who have prior experience with The Oatmeal or the card game, the Exploding Kittens’ animated style retains Inman’s familiar, exaggerated, comedic cartoon style. Inman says, “In terms of style, I always wanted it to look like The Oatmeal because I like the way that looks. And I learned that you have someone doing the art direction who can really mimic your style and the line work around your characters. We worked with Brian Sheesley, who’s been in animation forever. He just looked at my comics and could very clearly figure out how to clone it. Then, that would get passed down to all the artists so you can create this style.”

As for what audiences should expect with their show, Inman and Kosakowski cite fellow Netflix animated original Bojack Horseman as a series they modeled their story arc serialization after. “We tried to thread the needle, where you’re following God Cat’s journey of trying to refind his empathy for humankind and his interaction with this family does that,” Kosakowski teases. “We wanted it to feel like the episodes live on their own individually, but build towards this big crescendo at the end of the season.” 

“And we structured the show in a way that there’s a lot more storytelling we could do on the second or third season,” Inman hopes if audiences respond well.

Hit Monkey Season 2 (July 15)

Fans of the Marvel Comics character, Hit-Monkey (Fred Tatasciore), had their dreams come true when the well-dressed Japanese macaque with wicked martial arts moves got his own adult animated series on Hulu. Aided by his ghost mentor, Bryce Fowler (Jason Sudeikis), Hit-Monkey moves from Tokyo to New York City in Season 2, where he takes on assassinations for hire. There’s also a massive supernatural threat coming to take down the city, so the stakes and action are bigger than ever. Comedian Leslie Jones and actress Cristin Milioti join the cast as personal motivators for the pair, as they all coalesce into the weirdest found family in Manhattan. 

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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