Toon In: Animated TV Highlights for May, from the Return of Smiling Friends to Jurassic World: Chaos Theory

TV Lists animation
Toon In: Animated TV Highlights for May, from the Return of Smiling Friends to Jurassic World: Chaos Theory

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 Wars: Tales of the Empire Post Mortem (Aired May 4)

may animation - star wars tales of the empire

Almost two years after Dave Filoni’s Tales of the Jedi anthology series premiered on Disney+, the guru of all things Star Wars animation returns with Tales of the Empire. This fresh batch of six episodes expands the stories of fallen Jedi Barriss Offee (Meredith Salenger) and General Thrawn’s handpicked enforcer/Nightsister of Dathomir, Magistrate Morgan Elsbeth (Diana Lee Inosanto).

Featuring the same animation style and structure as Jedi, Empire gives each character three vignette-style episodes that dip into their lives at key moments that shape their paths. Actress Diana Lee Inosanto originated Elsbeth in the second season of The Mandalorian as she faced off against Ahsoka Tano (Rosario Dawson) on Corvus. Then, the rest of her arc played out rather definitively in Ahsoka, a fact which Inosanto tells Paste she accepted.  

“I knew early on that Morgan was going to die when we were doing the Zoom readings,” the actress reveals. “But then, I think Dave made some kind of comical mention of doing animation so I could go to work in sweatpants, which I thought was funny. But I forgot about it. So when I got the call [about this],  I’m like, ‘Oh, wow! I get to do this incredible role again!’”

In “The Path of Fear,” “The Path of Anger,” and “The Path of Hate,” audiences will finally get the back story on why Elsbeth embraced such a dark road of anger and vengeance. “I think the world will fully understand why this poor young girl, back on Dathomir, became the woman she did,” Inosanto says with emotion. “Just to see, in real time, her mother being killed by General Grievous, to see her Nightsisters being mowed down and her trying to just survive was such a powerful opening for an animation. I was just thrilled just reading it. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is incredible.'”

In preparation to voice Elsbeth, Inosanto says the animation team sent her a package of early drawings of Morgan in different aspects of her life. “I got an idea of what she would look like, and I was just amazed,” she says. “I thought, ‘This is really wild to see me in animation form. My heart just leapt for joy. It was so cool. But the approach is still the same for me as an actress. When I’m in that booth, I’m getting the breathing down. I have no problems grabbing something to make it represent like a spear and doing the movements.” 

“And I do have a Morgan Elsbeth soundtrack,” she continues. “I love collecting music, and if there’s something that I feel conveys a certain emotion, I add it.” 

Inosanto says John Williams’ scores and cues from The Mandolorian and Dune made it into her playlist. “I did this in the live action as well. Sometimes if I had to wait for the next set-up, I would just put on this music and it kept me emotionally within the context of what was happening with Morgan Elsbeth.”

Keen audiences should also listen out for Inosanto doing double duty in “The Path of Fear” as Morgan’s slain mother, Selena. “I’m a mom, so to get to play the heaviness of knowing that she’s doing everything in her power to go against Grievous and protect Morgan and the other Nightsisters,” she says. “Her fierceness and the fact that, in essence, she is Morgan’s role model for being a woman warrior. Standing her ground, no matter how much it hurts or how painful it is. You’re gonna fight to the death to protect your child and to protect your people. And that’s what I loved about playing Selena as she’s going up against General Grievous.”

Blood of Zeus Season 2 (May 9)

For everyone who got sucked into the depravity and chaos of the Greek myths as a kid, Netflix basically said, “Why aren’t they the basis for an adult animated series?” and now we have Blood of Zeus. The first season debuted in December of 2020 and introduced the original character of Heron (Derek Phillips), the demigod son of Zeus (Jason O’Mara), who is valiantly trying to save both worlds from destruction. Populated with a roster of familiar gods and Greek characters, including Poseidon (Chris Diamantopoulos), Hera (Claudia Christian), Apollo (Adam Croasdell), and many others, series creators Charley and Vlas Parlapanide have stayed within the spirit of the source material by featuring plenty of graphic violence, familial machinations and power brokering. 

The first season cliffhanger saw Heron using Zeus’ lighting to kill his twin brother, Seraphim (Elias Toufexis), who then awakens in the underworld and is asked to swear fealty to Hades (Fred Tatasciore). Season 2 promises to expand on Seraphim’s soul struggle, while Heron tries to find his place amongst the gods and demigods of Olympus without the counsel of his now-dead father, Zeus. Featuring dynamic animation from Powerhouse Animation Studios (who also work on Castlevania), Blood of Zeus is well-written, creative with how it reframes its ensemble of familiar gods and has plenty of jaw-dropping moments. 

Smiling Friends Season 2 (May 12)

After an almost two-year hiatus, Adult Swim’s gleefully silly and surreal Smiling Friends returns with the continuing adventures of the eponymous business that exists to make people smile. Employees Charlie, Pim, Allan, and tiny Glep work for the mercurial Mr. Boss, and service a very weird spectrum of clients. 

Created by Zach Hadel and Michael Cusack, Smiling Friends proved in a single season that rules don’t really exist in their world. They’ve already introduced different styles of animation, from stop-motion to full puppetry, just to land a gag. And they stretch the boundaries even more in this pack of episodes, all written by Hadel and Cusack. 

Assessing what they learned from Season 1, Hadel tells Paste that they usually find their best stories in one of two ways. “The two places that we generally draw from are 1) what do we find funny? To the point of saying to ourselves, maybe every time: ‘is this good to anyone besides us?’” he admits with a laugh. “Will anyone like this? But then the other angle we come from is from the audience, like, ‘Oh, this will surprise people.’”

Cusack says Season 2 was also about changing up the established character dynamics and then seeing what happens. “Season 1 was very Pim and Charlie. We play those characters so we can just improv back and forth,” he says. “So it was very much focused on them because that’s what we were interested in getting across. For this [season], it was building the world out, showing more character dynamics. Doing that thing of like, let’s make Pim and Allan team up this time, or what it’s like when Mr. Boss just talks to Pim one on one. Seeing how characters react when we shake it up a little bit, that was fun to us. It’s just a fun sandbox to play in.”

This season will feature eight episodes centering on new clients like Gwimbly, an out of work ‘90s video game character down on this luck; or Allan’s ridiculous quest to find a box of paper clips for Mr. Boss. The team even try to make the President of the United States smile. And just about every episode has some animation technique surprise awaiting audiences. 

“It is a difficult show to make, and we’re slowly learning how to make the show because it’s trial and error,” Cusack admits. “We’ll come up with a 3D character or live-action thing, then it’s like, ‘Oh, we actually have to do that,’” he jokes. “Zach and I are from YouTube so we didn’t go to film school, so a lot of this is learning as we go. Luckily, we’ve got a great team around us who can facilitate that. And if there is a specific animation style we’re looking for, we’re lucky enough where we came up in the YouTube world where there are other animators that we became friends with who we can utilize their styles and get them on board to do little moments.”

When asked how long they see Smiling Friends potentially going as a series, Cusack says, “We talk about this a lot. This is the set-up for a show that could theoretically go for a long time. Here’s our world and you meet new characters, and they make them smile. But Zach and I kind of have the mentality where we want to wrap it up when we feel like we’ve made a quality amount of seasons, and it’s not too long and we’re like 60-years-old still making it. I think we want to find a sweet spot where it’s like a nice DVD boxset.”

Thelma the Unicorn (May 17)

There’s an animated Netflix movie starring powerhouse singer/musician Brittany Howard as the voice of a singing pony pretending to be a unicorn? Sign me up! Thelma the Unicorn is a CG animated feature adaptation of children’s author Aaron Blabey’s book of the same name, directed by Jared Hess (Nacho Libre) and Lynn Wang (Unikitty!). Featuring original songs performed by Howard, and other cast members including Fred Armisen, Jemaine Clement, Ally Dixon, and others, this has all the pieces to be an eclectic and delightfully weird take on figuring out who you are in the world. 

Mulligan Part II (May 24)

In the first season of Netflix’s adult animated comedy Mulligan Part I, audiences got to see what happens next after an Independence Day-level alien attack wipes out most of humanity and just about all infrastructure, leaving the people who were never Earth’s finest specimens the task of rebuilding life as we knew it. The first animated series created by Robert Carlock (30 Rock) and Sam Means (Kimmy Schmidt), Mulligan assembled an incredible voice cast including Nat Faxon and Chrissy Teigen as the de facto first couple, with Tina Fey, Sam Richardson, and Dana Carvey voicing their barely qualified Cabinet members. 

The first season ended with a cliffhanger as the beleaguered citizens of the very beat up Washington D.C. are shocked to see a cruise ship arrive on the Potomac River chock full of partying survivors. In Season 2, that boat—The Thirsty Princess—will fold in new voice talent like Holly Hunter and Amy Sedaris playing characters who will test lunkhead Bostonian Matty Mulligan (Faxon), while also giving former ultra conservative Senator LaMarr (Carvey) hope for a constituency much more to his liking. 

“The cruise ship was a way to introduce lots of fun new characters, and a new situation for everyone to deal with,” Means tells Paste about Part II’s first big story arc. “And for the first time, it was to confront if there was another way we could have been doing this? Did we go down the right path here?” 

Carlock then laughs, “The idea that people on a cruise could maybe have done it better, it hurts.”

The first episode of the season opens with a brand new musical number that does double duty as an audience recap of what’s come before, and a way to get the cruisers up to speed. It’s also indicative of how the season embraces musical numbers even more than it did in Season 1. 

“With [composers] Giancarlo Vulcano and Jeff Richmond, we’re just so spoiled,” Carlock says.  “It’s easy for us as we write silly lyrics. They fix them a little bit because they get how the music services the joke and the story all at the same time. We didn’t go into the show thinking we’re gonna have a lot of music. We knew we’d have a great score because we’ve always counted on music to help explain what we’re trying to do. But I don’t know if we thought we were going to write numbers like we did, Sam?”

“We’re lovers of musical theater,” Means confirms. “Jeff Richmond is obviously steeped in that so it was just fun to collaborate with him and his love of Annie, Oliver, and Grease to fill our world with music. And I will just say that the coolest thing I’ve ever done in my career is having written a song in Episode 1×10, and then in Episode 1×12, writing and having Weird Al Yankovic sing the Weird Al Yankovic parody of that song. It was just a dream come true.”

The series also leans even more into its sci-fi mythology with Axatrax (Phil LaMarr), the lone alien left behind on Earth embracing his new human friends and worrying about his kind coming back to finish the job. “We hope we’re carving our own niche with our own mythology,” Carlock says. “It’s so fun to go to those places and to build like a love triangle, but then ask how does it change when there are aliens out there somewhere who still want to blow up the Earth?”

When asked if a Part III is their intention, Carlock says, “We do have a plan. It is a big cliffhanger at the end of Part II and I hope we get to play it out. We like cliffhangers and stakes. In this world, we try to keep the core of it small and about these people, so there’s a love triangle and work machinations going on. But at the same time, you can make the stakes life or death very quickly because of a destroyed world. And that’s where we are at the end. Who is gonna end up together? Who’s gonna be the boss at the office… but also, is everyone gonna die?”

Jurassic World: Chaos Theory (May 24)

Surprise! After five seasons of DreamWorks Animation’s hit canonical Netflix series, Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous, the story of “The Nublar Six” came to a close with a two-year time jump revealing where Darius and his pals landed after surviving their extended stay, and eventual rescue, from Isla Nublar. The last shot of the series implied that it had caught up to the events of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, meaning that the dinos had eventually followed them back home. A banger of a coda and a job well done, thought executive producer Scott Kreamer about how they landed the show. Until he got lured back to kick around ideas for a sequel series that would eventually become Jurassic World: Chaos Theory.

“It all started with the little thing of Universal saying that the Department of Fish and Wildlife is in charge of dinosaurs,” Kreamer tells Paste about a plot detail featured in Jurassic World Dominion that was presented to him prior to release. “I thought, ‘Oh, that would be a job for Darius. But you don’t want to see Darius do what you’d expect him to do. So why would Darius not do that job anymore?’ I just started thinking, and I couldn’t get it out of my head,” Kreamer says. 

He brought his gestating idea for a more intense, noir mystery/thriller series to his Camp Cretaceous team, including executive producer Aaron Hammersley and writers Bethany Armstrong Johnson and Rick Williams. “They said, ‘This seems dark. Is this for kids?’ And I’m like, ‘I think it is. I don’t know. But if I’m going to do another one of these, this is a story I’d want to tell.’ And here we are.” 

Jurassic World: Chao Theory is set six years after the events of Camp Cretaceous so “The Nublar Six” are now adults who haven’t been around each other much due to some unexpected baggage. This time around, the audience rides shotgun as the main threat is revealed on a road trip undertaken by Darius (Paul-Mikél Williams) and a much hunkier Sam (Sean Giambrone). The series is more mature in tone and scares, yet continues to dive into the emotional lives of its characters as they face the realities of “adulting” in a dinosaur infested world. 

Of the unexpected series idea, Kreamer says he talked to Colin Trevorrow about how it got the greenlight. “He goes, “It was sort of like this perfect storm of Universal’s not being sure what they’re doing next. And there was a big clamoring for people wanting Camp Cretaceous.” 

Kreamer says they ran with the approval and started writing it immediately. “You normally get a lot of run-up time. But we didn’t have that. We were literally building the plane while we’re flying it over the Pacific,” he jokes. “At the time, it seemed really hard because it was. But I think it afforded us to do something different. By the time people sort of realized that they should be nervous about it, then it was too late.”

Kreamer hopes kids and families who grew up watching Camp Cretaceous together will embrace Chaos Theory’s ambition in both its storytelling and evolving the character’s arcs. “They are figuring out who they are and where they fit in the world,” Kreamer says of the older “Nublar Six.” “You layer that into these kids who were terrorized by dinosaurs, and now the dinosaurs have followed them back to the mainland. And then we go a different way of telling the story, to really lean into the mood and the tone of these conspiracy thrillers that I love.”

“It’s like we always said on Camp Cretaceous: you come for the dinosaurs and stay for the kids,” he continues. “We love these kids and we know them so well by now, so it was definitely fun putting them in this unsteady phase of their life. Yet, still being true to the characters that we’ve set up so long ago on Camp Cretaceous.”

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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