Ghouls and Robots Rebooted: The New Age of Nick’s ‘Monster High’ & ‘Transformers: EarthSpark’

***This article originally appeared in the December ’22 issue of Animation Magazine (No. 325)***

Fall is the perfect time to bring back some classic animation franchises in an all new form. Just ask Nickelodeon, which has updated two beloved properties for young audiences.

Up first is Monster High, the first TV series of any kind based on the popular franchise that debuted in 2010. The first season is made up of 26 half-hour episodes, each with two 11-minute segments following the adventures of Clawdeen Wolf, Draculaura, Frankie Stein and Deuce Gorgon, as they discover who they are in the hallways of Monster High. The series premieres Friday, October 28 on Nickelodeon, with international and Paramount+ premieres to come later this year.

Check out a new clip released ahead of the series premiere:

The voice cast includes Gabrielle Nevaeh Green as Clawdeen Wolf, Courtney Lin as Draculaura, Iris Menas as Frankie Stein, Tony Revolori as Deuce Gorgon, Kausar Mohammed as Cleo De Nile, Valeria Rodriguez as Lagoona Blue, Alexa Kahn as Torelei Stripe, Alexander Polinsky as Heath Burns and Debra Wilson as Headmistress Bloodgood.

This is an all-new take on Monster High, but one that’s trying to preserve the qualities that made it a hit in the first place, says showrunner and co-executive producer Shea Fontana, a veteran of DC Super Hero Girls and creator of Polly Pocket. The new series is a co-production between Nickelodeon and Mattel Television.

At the show’s start, each of the main characters is a mere 15 days old, and they come to Monster High completely new to the world, Fontana explains. “As they start to explore the high school hijinks of the world, it’s really about the community, acceptance and belonging that they find together at Monster High,” she says.

Monster High
Monster High

High-Energy Empowerment

The new series is primarily a comedy, but also has plenty of action — resulting in a fast-paced ride. “At the heart of every story, we have our characters learning about accepting, creating and empowering their identity — it really is a show all about identity,” Fontana says. ”But then we wanted that comedy just to be rapid fire throughout, and have that really fun, cartoony, silly comedy carry us throughout the stories.”

Finding that heart that helps make the show relevant to today’s kids requires a lot of effort and emotional honesty from the cast and crew, Fontana notes.

Shea Fontana
Shea Fontana

“The writers room, the storyboard artists — all of the storytellers on our show — are really bringing a lot of themselves to the show,” she says. “Our writers room starts out with [questions] like, what is the most terrible thing that happened to you in high school? What are these funny but kind of very universal truths that we can find about ourselves?”

Those honest bits keep the show relevant, as do more specific changes made to reflect social changes in the world and in the animation industry over the past 10 or 12 years. For example, the character Clawdeen, who was Black in previous versions of Monster High, is biracial in this new series. And having the characters be the children of classic movie monsters makes them well-suited to that approach.

Art director Scott Kikuta and supervising producer Nick Filippi were instrumental in updating the visuals for the characters and their world, Fontana says.

Monster High
Monster High

In seeking a look that conveyed power and strength, the characters have larger lower limbs. For example, Clawdeen the werewolf parkours all over the school, so that approach gave her a look of strength, allowed for powerful postures and also was kind of grounded.

As for the world, Monster High takes place mostly at night, allowing for lighting that helps it stand out. “We really wanted to push the darkness of the shadows, make it feel like there could be monsters hiding in those shadows,” Fontana says. ”It really helps make this world feel unique.”

Transformers: EarthSpark
Transformers: EarthSpark

Mechanical Morphers

Just like the ghouls of Monster High, some familiar robots in disguise are also getting a new life on Paramount+. Transformers: EarthSpark introduces a new generation of the morphing robots called Terrans — the first Transformers robots to be born on Earth — who are taken in by a human family now that the war between Autobots and Decepticons is over.

The first 10 of the debut season’s 26 half-hour episodes debut November 11 on Paramount+. The new series features the voice talents of Sydney Mikayla as Robby Malto, Zion Broadnax as Mo Malto, Zeno Robinson as Thrash, Kathreen Khavari as Twitch, Jon Jon Briones as Alex Malto, Benni Latham as Dot Malto, Alan Tudyk as Optimus Prime, Diedrich Bader as Mandroid, Danny Pudi as Bumblebee and Rory McCann as Megatron. Ant Ward and Nicole Dubuc (voice of Skywarp & Nova Storm) are executive producers, with Dale Malinowski as co-executive producer.

Preproduction work on the series, including writing and storyboards, is done in Burbank, as is post-production. Animation is by Icon Creative in Vancouver.

Malinowski, who heads up the writing side of the show, says Transformers owners Hasbro wanted a fresh take on the franchise that was aimed at a younger audience. They also wanted new robot characters and an Earth setting, he says. So he, Ward and Dubuc turned for inspiration to such kid movie classics such as The Goonies, The Iron Giant, E.T. and the general output of 1980s power producers Amblin Entertainment — all of which have themes of friendship, adventure and people being more than they appear to be.

Dale Malinowski
Dale Malinowski

“All those stories are told from a kid’s point of view — there’s adventure, there’s the secret wish fulfillment of living out your wildest dreams in real life,” Malinowski says. ”A lot of those themes from those stories and movies that we loved as kids applied to Transformers and the franchise.”

The key question that sparked the show was: What if a normal human family adopted new bots that are born here on Earth? “Those bots wouldn’t be 100 percent Cybertronian, like their Autobot and Decepticon relatives; they wouldn’t be 100 percent Earthling, like the human brother and sister duo who bond with them,” Malinowski says. “The new bots would exist somewhere in the middle of it all, and they would have to decide for themselves who they’re going to be.”

That formed the backbone for the series premise: Young Robby and Mo Malto are struggling to adapt to life in their new small town home of Witwicky, Pennsylvania, when they find a strange object in a cave that grants them mysterious robotic gauntlets and gives life to Twitch and Thrash — the first Transformers to be born on Earth. Bonded to the bots via the gauntlets, the Maltos adopt the bots and help them learn and grow, with help from some familiar Autobots, while protecting them from new threats from both Decepticons and humans.

The show is set in a contemporary small town that is more organic and provides a contrast with the Transformers’ high-tech hard metal, Ward says. That walked the extremes the franchise at times has gone to back to a more organic, human scale. “When we have action in the show, it’s very much character driven,” Ward says. “We try to have fun in our action wherever possible.”

Transformers: EarthSpark
Transformers: EarthSpark

That extended to the animation. “We focused on just solid character acting,” Ward says, acknowledging the influence of Amblin-style films on the rhythm, cadence and even camera placement of the show. “As the season evolved, we did start to push [the animation] and we found a place that was more dynamic than when we started off. And we found a really good balance with some more contemporary animation influences.”

There is an arc throughout the season, Malinowski says, with four two-part episodes spaced out through the first season. “That intensifies the closer we get to the climax of the season, which is a direct influence on what Ant was describing as the evolution of the look and feel of the show,” he says.

The result is a new, more grounded and more intimate approach to the Transformers, Ward says. “It offers a really unique opportunity to explore what a relationship between Cybertronians and humans would be, with the war being over,” he says. ”And family is the heart and center of the show.”

Monster High premieres on Nickelodeon on October 28.

Transformers: EarthSpark premieres on Paramount+ on November 11.

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