***This article originally appeared in the August ’22 issue of Animation Magazine (No. 322) ***
Never underestimate the creative powers of a doodling animation genius! Take, for example, the case of Dan Povenmire, who was putting the finishing touches on Phineas and Ferb The Movie: Candace Against the Universe back in 2020. That’s when he found himself doodling a hamster superhero character. “I realized that I had done a lot of these doodles on the 3 X 5 cards we put on the board in the writers’ room,” recalls the creator of the five-time Emmy-winning show Phineas and Ferb. “One night, as I was tucking my daughter in her bed, I showed her the picture and I told her the story of a super-hamster, and we both couldn’t stop laughing!”
Cut to a few months later, when Povenmire pitched the idea to the development team at Disney Channel — and wouldn’t you know, he got the greenlight for his new show, Hamster & Gretel. The charming music-filled series, which premieres this month on the cable outlet, centers on a brother and sister named Kevin and Gretel who are about to gain super powers from space aliens, but things don’t go as planned: It’s Gretel and her pet hamster who get the magical abilities. The talented voice cast includes Povenmire’s own daughter Meli as Gretel, Michael Cimino as Kevin and Beck Bennett as Hamster.
Povenmire, who is best known for co-creating Phineas and Ferb and Milo Murphy’s Law with Jeff “Swampy” Marsh, has worked on a wide range of animated shows including The Simpsons, Family Guy, SpongeBob SquarePants and Hey Arnold! He says the new toon is different from his previous work because it’s loosely based on his own family life.
“My wife is from Venezuela and I have these two blond and red-haired Latin daughters,” he explains. “So the mom and dad on the show look like me and my wife. The heart of the show is also about the relationship between a brother and a sister, which is similar to the one I had with my youngest sister. We had 10 years between us, and there was no competition. I could be the cool older brother who had pillow fights with her.”
The 2D-animated Hamster & Gretel, which is produced by Disney Television Animation, with the help of Snipple Animation (Manila, The Philippines) and Synergy Animation (Shanghai, China), features lots of funny songs and has the same visual style as some of Povenmire’s previous hits. “The characters and the color scheme are different, but it feels like it’s part of the same family as my other shows,” he notes. “I have a signature style — and who knows, maybe we can do a crossover episode with Phineas and Ferb one day!”
He does point out that you may notice more of the classic Disney style in Gretel’s design. “You can see it in her eyes, which accentuates her cuteness. It’s part of the reason we all liked my daughter’s Meli’s voice for the character. She sounds like a little girl, but she has this toughness about her, too. She originally did the temp voice for the pilot, but when we tried to find a well-known actress for the part, we couldn’t find anyone that was as funny as her. She knows my sense of humor and always nailed the reads. She became the voice of Gretel and she loves it!”
Since the show was created and produced during the pandemic, Povenmire said he has simply communicated with everyone via Zoom over the past couple of years, but he’s looking forward to going back to in-person collaborations. “We have somewhere about 60 to 70 people on staff, and they all appear in boxes on the Zoom screen,” he notes. “When you’re in the studio, you get to know everyone, but we only see each other at meetings now. We’re going to have a big lunch soon and I am looking forward to meeting all the artists in person.”
According to Povenmire, while the show has a writers’ room, it also is flexible enough to incorporate storyboard ideas. “It’s kind of a hybrid,” he notes. “When I was a lot younger, doing a storyboard-driven show was a lot of fun. You’d get a bunch of people in the room and sometimes, the story would just go off on a tangent. Then, we had to write it to make sure the story would fit, and we had to lose a lot of the funniest gags. Then, we had to punch it up, and someone had to draw it all, so there was a lot of triage. When we did the Phineas and Ferb movies, we used a script first and had a story that worked, but we were welcome to add to it. It wasn’t set in stone. The movie felt just like one of the episodes. The humor was there and the story remained solid. So, I think what works is giving people the freedom to elaborate and add to the script after it’s done.”
The show creator says he misses working with his old Phineas and Ferb animation partner Jeff “Swampy” Marsh. “Swampy has his own studio in Venice, and we talk all the time,” he notes. “He is working on another show for Disney — [we] couldn’t get him to drive over the hill to Disney for another show! But we talk all the time, and he’s doing a voice for our show! I miss seeing him every day. I do have other collaborators that I write and work with so I feel like this new show has the same kind of collaborative humor.”
When asked about the unpredictable nature of the animation business, Povenmire says that the toon boom has been incredible and the biggest he’s witnessed since he started out in the business. “Netflix canceled a few of their shows last month, but that means we have more of a talent pool to staff our shows,” he notes. “It took longer for us to staff because everyone is working on something right now. There’s a lot of good stuff coming out on a regular basis. I don’t have the time to watch all the good shows I want to watch! Maybe one day I’ll retire and be able to catch up on all the great animated shows my friends are working on!”
He also points out that it has never been a more egalitarian time for people to put their content out into the world. “If you want to make cartoons or any kind of entertainment, you can do it and find an audience. You don’t need to wait for a studio to hire you like I had to when I was entering the field. Now you can put your material on TikTok and YouTube, or have your portfolio on social media. If you do good work, you’ll get some eyeballs on it, and if you’re not, you can find out what you’re doing wrong, and keep at it, until you get better.”
For now, Povenmire is happy that audiences get to discover his new show and memorable characters this summer. “I’m proud of the fact that Hamster & Gretel has a lot of heart,” he says. “Just like Phineas and Ferb, it’s a very funny show and it has a lot of songs. We have the same kind of humor, but I wasn’t expecting how moved I would be by a lot of the material, and the interactions between the characters. It’s a superhero comedy, so it also has a lot of action, but then, you have this sweet core that is about family relationships. I think It’s perhaps the best thing I have done.”
Hamster & Gretel premieres on Disney Channel on Friday, August 12.