The Name’s Oso, Special Agent Oso

A new animated preschool show on Playhouse Disney pushes the visual envelope while gently spoofing secret agent movies.

James Bond and all the other Cold War-era spies have inspired their share of clever spoofs throughout the years. However, you’ll have to look really hard to find a preschool show that delivers a spot-on homage to the classic genre. This month, viewers will be able to enjoy a very young take on the smooth international globetrotters when Special Agent Oso begins his animated adventures on Playhouse Disney.

Centering on an accident-prone but motivated panda bear plush toy voiced by Sean Astin, Special Agent Oso helps kids accomplish everyday tasks such as mailing a letter, using a library card or brushing their teeth. Maintaining a positive attitude (Oso’s favorite catch-phrase happens to be ‘It’s all part of the plan!’), our hero gets his assignments at the beginning of each segment by the unseen Mr. Dos. Helping him with his many missions is his computerized sidekick, Paw Pilot, and the robot video-cam bug, known as Shutterbug! Clever, right? That’s not all’the 11-minute episodes have tongue-in-cheek James Bondish titles like ‘Gold Flower,’ ‘Live and Let Ride,’ ‘A View to a Book’ and ‘Carousel Royale’ and feature theme songs that may create a bit of nostalgia for older viewers.

The show’s creator and co-exec producer Ford Riley says the inspiration for Oso came one day as he was watching TV with his own kids. ‘Back then I was working in animation, but not on preschool shows,’ recalls Riley, whose credits include Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles, Recess, Teacher’s Pet and Higglytown Heroes). ‘I saw what my own kids responded to and what they didn’t. I thought to myself, if were to do a preschool show, I was going to have secret agents and spies in it’and I would have stuffed animals help kids with tasks that they could really relate to. For example, I remember how excited my daughter used to get when she got to help out with simple tasks like mailing a letter or putting the milk back in the fridge.’

Another important aspect of the show is that the creators break all of Oso’s missions into three simple steps. Riley says when his son was diagnosed with autism at age three, he learned about the three-step method for his special curriculum. ‘This teaching method had a big impact on me and my outlook on children’s television,’ he notes. ‘If you’re a parent of a child with autism, you’ll recognize this three-step method in the special therapy your child receives. Our show helps break down everyday tasks to three simple steps’it’s not designed for special kids, but we feel it’s accessible to every kid on our planet.’

Farewell to Interstitial Form!

Riley pitched his idea to the development execs at Disney TV back in 2004, but the studio didn’t actually greenlight the project until three years later. ‘We developed it as an interstitial, and we teamed up with Korea’s Sunwoo Animation and the design outfit CrazyBird Studio to create the special look of the show,’ he notes. ‘It’s inspired by stop-motion but it isn’t'it’s actually digital cut-outs and Flash, but for some reason, it reminds me of the Rankin-Bass shows.’ Disney liked the project so much that it was decided to produce it as a regular preschool series.

One of the challenges faced by Riley and the show’s director and co-executive producer Jamie Mitchell was how to keep the show interesting for the parents without complicating the content for the youngsters. ‘We were walking a fine line between an action-adventure show and an educational show,’ says Riley. ‘There were things that the network’s Standards and Practices [office] would say no to ‘ like no, Oso can’t be hopping on hot stones in a volcano! Or we’d have an episode with Oso in a library, so we thought it would be fun to have him belly flop on one of the kicks on the stools with a library card, so they said, no, that’s imitable behavior and you can’t do that on a preschool show, so now he flies with a jetpack in the library. I think the challenge is to rein in those ideas and find a creative way for our special agent to solve his dilemma.’

For Mitchell, one of the most important aspects of the show was creating a tangible universe that was full of textures and authentic images from the real world. “We were trying to break the barrier between the audience who’s watching and the characters on screen, so viewers feel like they can reach in and pick the characters right up,” he says.

Mitchell, a veteran of the TV animation scene who has worked on shows such as Hey Arnold!, DuckTales, The Little Mermaid and House of Mouse, says he was thrilled to work with the Seoul-based design studio CrazyBird to develop the special visuals of the show’which is a nice mix of digital cut-outs, 3D Photoshop and Flash animation. “When we started on the pilot, we were going back and forth about the texture of a sidewalk. It was just like this sidewalk you’d see in New York City and I thought it was cold. I said, ‘It needs to be edible,’” says Mitchell. “A couple of days later, we came up with the idea of using a pie crust. We photographed it, digitized it, and now all of the sidewalks and all of the buildings are edible foods.”

This quest for authenticity takes Mitchell back to his boyhood, when he used to watch Gumby on TV. ‘I loved Gumby’s car’it was totally real to me and I wanted to ride in that car,’ he recalls. ‘That’s why Oso gets to drive a real car. We actually got a car designer to work with us’he rendered the car in 3D. In another segment, Oso puts on head gear based on a real World War II mask.’ (One other special triva bit: The airplane piloted by Oso’s colleague, Dotty, is based on the jet Chuck Yeager used to break the sound barrier in 1947!)

Both Mitchell and Riley point out that although the TV animation landscape is quite different from the world they knew a couple of decades ago, they feel that the toon biz is in a healthy place today. ‘Back when I started out, the animation scene was very compartmentalized ‘ today, the more versatile you can be, the more successful you become,’ says Mitchell. ‘We are working with a very small crew in L.A.’at the height of production we have about 20 people, but back then, it was normal to have about 90 people working on a show here in the studio. In today’s world, crews are going to be smaller, and you have to do a lot more. So my advice to people who want to get into TV animation is to become a Renaissance person’be more versatile. Overall, you can say that I’m very optimistic about our industry. There’s an insatiable appetite out there in the world for what we do!’

Special Agent Oso premieres on Disney Channel on Saturday, April 4 at 8 a.m.