Earlier this month, Netflix won its first Emmy for Outstanding Animated Show, for “Arcane.” Just over a week later, Netflix Animation fired 30 people.
The news stories weren’t quite in sync – the layoffs were in the film division, not serials – but the symbolism was valid. Animation, in a wide variety of styles and audiences, has always been a strong point of the Netflix catalog. But it never got the attention, or promotion, for the service’s cookie-cutter dramas and true crime documentaries.
To get into the spotlight of Netflix, animated shows had to be more than just good. ‘Bojack Horseman’ and ‘Big Mouth’, previous nominees for the outstanding series Emmy, attracted attention with voice casts of well-known TV comedy stars. “Arcane”, a spin-off of the League of Legends video game franchise, had a built-in audience.
Meanwhile, other adventurous, inventive, good-looking animated series come and go with little attention. (Netflix’s anime series, many of which were distinctive — “Dorohedoro,” “Baki Hanma,” and “Aggretsuko,” to name a few — are in their own category and can be quite noisy within the anime fanbase. ) In a week when the streamer’s self-reported top shows are “Monster: The Jeffery Dahmer Story” and “Fate: The Winx Saga,” here are some of Netflix Animation’s lesser-known series (all with recently posted new episodes) that deserve to be to be seen.
‘The Cuphead Show’
Dave Wasson’s slapstick series about a bunch of rambunctious brothers with heads for heads looks like nothing else, unless you happen to be looking at 1930s American animation, especially the pulse-pounding work of Max Fleischer. Based on a video game that inspired a cult-like fervor, “The Cuphead Show” is a lovingly, almost maniacally detailed tribute to a classic tradition that vibrates with its own thoroughly modern energy.
Like the cartoons it honors, “The Cuphead Show” makes everything sway and sway on screen, from the fancifully constructed characters to the vehicles, buildings, and landscapes, often turning into vocal characters on their own. The beautiful designs are rendered in rich, saturated colors and set in motion to jazzy music by Ego Plum, who also scores ‘SpongeBob SquarePants’.
Somewhat in the vein of Mickey and Goofy or Popeye and Olive, Cuphead is the troublemaker and rule breaker who drags his more fearful brother, Mugman, into constant misadventures. Some of them involve a comically evil devil who longs for Cuphead’s soul; others revolve around the Betty Boop-esque Miss Chalice or the torch-singing sea monster Cala Maria, who brings Hollywood glamor with Dietrich accents.
Wasson and his collaborators produced 36 episodes, which Netflix has released in batches; 25 are now available. They can be a little tiresome – another similarity to 1930s cartoons is the evenness of the stories and the one-dimensionality of the characters, and episodes can feel longer than their 10- to 20-minute runtimes. But if the art grabs you – and it’s hard to imagine it doesn’t – time doesn’t matter.
‘Bee and PuppyCat’
Natasha Allegri’s fleeting tale of a seemingly ageless young woman named Bee and her companion — a moody, perpetually frowning cat-dog who falls on her head from space — began appearing in 2013. However, its arrival on Netflix this month feels timely. Before her time, Bee was a gig worker and aspiring retiree.
The pilot and first season of “Bee and PuppyCat”, which appeared on YouTube from 2013 to 2016 and lasted about an hour and a quarter in total, was a minor miracle – delicate but tough, drawn in a catchy, upbeat psychedelic style that called anime, video games, and flowery cartoons for kids like “My Little Pony.”
In the field of storytelling, the primary reference was ‘Adventure Time’, where Allegri worked in the art department. “Bee and PuppyCat” was a similar magical-heroic story, part science fiction and part lifelike, but from a young woman’s perspective. The plots, in which Bee and PuppyCat paid the rent (to their solemn childhood landlord) by taking temporary orbits on other planets, were elliptical and cryptic, but there was a consistent emotional logic; any erratic jump or illogical trap felt good.
Those original episodes are still on YouTube and you should check them out before starting the 16-episode season on Netflix. The “new” series – take note – consists of three new episodes, produced last year, in which Allegri reworks the original series; and then the 13 episodes of “Bee and PuppyCat: Lazy in Space,” a second season that was officially distributed briefly in 2019 and has since been available to those who can track it down online.
The new episodes condense and rearrange the adventures, adding exposition and explicit clues to the history and true nature of Bee and PuppyCat; they are kind of a grind. The others are beautiful, although they are also fundamentally different from the first series. Using Japanese directors for the first time, “Lazy in Space” looks and moves like well-budgeted mainstream anime; although it is more superficially refined than the original, it feels less mature.
However, Netflix’s abbreviated view is still a gift (as long as you watch it along with the original series). “Bee and PuppyCat” continues to be a blissful and dryly comical meditation on the joys of aimlessness and the possibility of transformation.
‘Dogs in space’
There may not be a more enjoyable current series than “Dogs in Space,” a science fiction comedy adventure that is the first project of Jeremiah Cortez, a young artist who allegedly drove a forklift and worked on time at Starbucks while painstakingly developing the show. .
“Dogs in Space” is a “Star Trek” homage, part of the unofficial family of shows, such as Hulu’s “Orville,” which float beyond the franchise’s boundaries. The premise is that humans have sent dogs to explore strange new worlds, in search of a world that could serve as a new human home. Their mission: get a planet. (The “Trek” connection is enhanced by the small voice employment of franchise stars like Michael Dorn, Kate Mulgrew and Wil Wheaton.)
The show, which added a second season this month, is part of Netflix’s “family” offering, officially approved for viewers ages 7 and up. But for adults it is a bull’s eye. The intersection of space exploration formulas and talking animal humor is always clever and nimble – just snarky enough, just dumb enough, and just sentimental enough.
The throwback 2D animation from the studio Atomic Cartoons (“Jonny Test”, “Little Demon”) is bright and endearing. And the voice cast is great, starting with Haley Joel Osment as the overzealous, Kirk-esque captain, Garbage (a corgi), and including Kimiko Glenn as the hyper, firearms pilot (Shih Tzu) and Chris Parnell as a double-hearted scoop-contact specialist ( terrier). “Dogs in Space” won’t take “Squid Game” or “Stranger Things” out of the Netflix Top 10, but if you’re looking for a subconsciously fun time, this is the smart choice.