Those who grew up in the 1990s and early 2000s probably remember the Cartoon Cartoon label as a small group of original animated series that Cartoon Network grouped into a block on Friday nights. Less remembered may be that the Cartoon Cartoon program came from a showcase series designed to offer an opportunity for animators to get their short films and TV pilots in front of an audience. That series, originally titled What a Cartoon!, first aired in 1995. Each episode featured three cartoon shorts, either from in-house production company Hanna-Barbara or an independent studio. Based on audience response, cartoons featured on What a Cartoon! could be spun off into their own series. The early episodes of What a Cartoon! saw the pilots for Dexter’s Laboratory, The Powerpuff Girls, and Johnny Bravo.
As more series came out of the program, the Cartoon Cartoon banner was established, and What A Cartoon! was eventually rechristened The Cartoon Cartoon Show. In 1998, under the new name, it premiered a cartoon episode called “Crash Lancelot,” the pilot for Mike, Lu & Og. Created by Mikhail Shindel, Mikhail Aldashin, and Charles Swenson, it has a seemingly familiar premise: misfits on a desert island. But this is no Robinson Crusoe story, or even a Gilligan’s Island: there was a shipwreck involved, but it was centuries ago. The island inhabitants in Mike, Lu & Og are the descendants of British shipwreck survivors, who ever since have carried on a pre-industrial lifestyle on their island of Albonquetine, a lifestyle that blends the customs of English gentry with Polynesian culture only somewhat successfully. Into this comes Michelanne “Mike” Mazinsky, a streetwise New York girl in the student exchange program who wants to go to a tropical island. She’s sent to Albonquetine, “the island where nobody goes,” and where the only other children are Lu, spoiled brat daughter of the governor (allowing Lu an excuse to declare herself “princess”) and Og, an introverted genius who can build practically anything out of coconut shells and palm leaves.
The pilot for Mike, Lu & Og aired in November, 1998 and the series was announced the following January, alongside Courage the Cowardly Dog and I Am Weasel, and premiered in late 1999. Episodes tended to follow a familiar line: in the course of a day, something would make Mike remember a modern convenience from New York; Og, intrigued, would build a version of whatever Mike had mentioned. The islanders, whose grasp of modern life is even more tenuous than their pretense of Polynesian life, would struggle to understand the innovation and Lu, being a selfish brat, would try to turn things to her own advantage. Not exactly high stakes conflict, and it was all played in a very laid-back fashion. Even the most cartoon-esque elements, from Og’s impossible inventions to talking animals (there were exactly three – the rest were mute), were underplayed. But if the series was light on plot and action, it led with the interplay between its small cast of quirky characters.
Those characters were played by a strong voice cast. Heavyweights in the voice acting community like The Simpson’s Nancy Cartwright (Lu), Dee Bradley Baker (Og), and Kath Soucie (Og’s mother Margery) were on board with fine interpretations. Lu cycles through attempts at royal dignity, grating shouts, and petulant whines, and Og – who rarely speaks – does so with a bizarre, quiet rasp. But there were less well-known VA names in the cast as well. British stage actor Martin Rayner played a number of roles, from Og’s bumbling father Alfred to Og’s articulate porcupine companion Spiney. But, headlining the cast was Nika Futterman.
Several years away yet from her turn as Asajj Ventress in The Clone Wars, Futterman gave voice to the sarcastic, bemused, but ultimately good-natured Mike, who struggles to remain the voice of comparative reason among her new friends. The back-and-forth between her and the islanders meant the show often led with dialogue, and Mike’s very individual expression of New York dialect gave her, and the show, a lot of personality. The islanders were played as an eccentric collection of Brits, each with their own verbal idiosyncrasies – except for Lu and Og, who had American accents. All the voices bounce off one another well, and while the personalities were clearly defined, the interplay between characters remained at a level appropriate to the show’s small stakes. An average episode of Mike, Lu & Og really does feel like kids out on a late summer day, idling away the hours until something comes by to spark a silly, safe adventure.
The artwork feeds into that vibe as well. One of the best things about Cartoon Network’s original programming in the late 90s was the diversity of design. Mike, Lu & Og was an independent production, a partnership between Shindel’s Kinofilm in Los Angeles and Studio Pilot in Russia, which provided the animation. Their background art for the series, rendered in watercolor, gave it a much softer look than its peers on Cartoon Network at the time, and the styling on hills, trees, waves, and clouds is suggestive of children’s drawings. This carries over into the character design as well (though they were rendered with traditional ink and paint). It isn’t the most expressive animation from the Cartoon Cartoon shows; no wild takes or elastic bodies here; and the silhouettes and posing aren’t the strongest, but there is impressive work in reinforcing personality through stance and movement; for example, Og’s frequent “thinker pose” on a rock, jingling his nose ring, or the stooped, shuffling walk of island elder Old Queeks.
Of course, an easygoing series more about character than plot can have its limitations. Within a few episodes, Mike, Lu & Og began drifting from its here-comes-modern-technology formula. Stories might have Mike reacting to island traditions instead, or the jungle was explored. Antagonists were introduced in the form of three pirates, though they rarely appeared and weren’t much of a challenge for the kids. And in the second season, the other side of the island was revealed to contain another clan of shipwreck survivors, the Cuzzlewits, engaged in an ongoing feud with the Albonquetanians. Even this didn’t lead to much new conflict beyond Lu’s jealousy of Mike’s friendship with the rivals; the kids kept on riding elephants, putting on plays, learning about the joys of hot dogs, and having a good time under the tropical sun.
However, the series struggled with ratings, and after two 13-episode seasons, it was cancelled, the last episode airing in May, 2001. I suppose that’s to be expected; a show that never got good ratings isn’t likely to claim a good share of the audience twenty years on. Yet it’s still worth the effort to track down copies of this series if you can. The characters are so well-defined, and play off one another so nicely, that they can carry nearly every episode despite the thin stories. The odd hodgepodge of a culture that the Albonquetanians cobbled together for themselves – and barely make sense of – is loaded with odd quirks that make for amusing, if not uproarious, viewing. Most of all, the show conjures up that euphoric feeling of a late summer day when you’re a kid, unstructured and carefree, and that runs through every adventure Mike and her two friends embark on in the island where nobody goes.
By choosing crime instead of war room debates, the series shows the dangers of fascim are part of everyday life.
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