***This story was written for the August ’19 issue of Animation Magazine (No. 292)***
If you like Akira Toriyama’s colorful Dragon Ball creatures and are a fan of vibrant animation with fast and witty dialog, then you are going to love Mao Mao, Heroes of Pure Heart, the latest addition to Cartoon Network’s summer lineup. The high-energy new toon, which is the brainchild of Parker Simmons, follows the madcap adventures of a samurai cat/sheriff named Mao Mao and his sidekicks Badgerclops and Adorabat as they try to protect the super-cute residents of Pure Heart Valley from the evil Orangusnake and his pirate clan.
The origins of Mao Mao go back to 2014, when Simmons entered Titmouse animation studio’s famous Five Second Day event, where employees are encouraged to create their own project. Simmons’ original short sparked a lot of interest, so he and his friends began working on a seven-minute version of the short, which was later used as a pitch to Cartoon Network.
“Back then, I was directing animation for Netflix’s Turbo series,” Simmons recalls. “My friends and I were all in a place where we wanted more individual work, so when the opportunity came up, I started drawing stuff that I liked. Basically, the idea was to get the ideas up on the screen to see if they are funny, to see if the characters are interesting and does the story work.”
After pitching the project to Cartoon Network CCO Rob Sorcher in June of 2017, Simmons got the official greenlight, and now, TV audiences can finally enjoy his colorful and off-the-wall creation this summer. “I know five years may seem like a long time to some people, but for animation that’s pretty fast, and in this time, there was never a moment when I wasn’t thinking about it or working on it or talking to other people about the show,” says the 32-year-old artist. “We looked at Mao Mao as a bit of an experiment from the very start, we wanted to make the kind of cartoon we’d all like to work on as animators.”
Simmons is very grateful to Titmouse founders Chris and Shannon Prynoski, who encourage a creative environment and want everyone at the studio to be involved in the artistic process, a spirit which is reflected in the Five Second Day enterprise. “There are so many great storytellers at the studio and so much raw and untapped creativity on display during the screening of the projects,” recalls Simmons. “In a way, that was one of the inspirations for us. I wanted to come up with a show that we could all work on together. It might be corny, but it’s true, and now we are happily working on this show together. We’ve worked together on so many projects, and there is this beautiful sense of camaraderie between us. We’re making this show happen together.”
Building a Heart-Felt Kingdom
Mao Mao, which is produced at Titmouse with overseas help from Malaysia’s Inspidea studio, is animated using Adobe Animate and After Effects (for compositing). “Our compositors and retake artists are truly heroes, and they do amazing work on the back end,” says Simmons. “The team at Inspidea is also excellent and they create some beautiful works of art.”
So, how did Simmons come up with show’s premise and characters? “When someone said I should come up with a show, at first I thought, wait I can’t do that. But then, I thought maybe I could. So I started drawing what I like — which is fantasy, action, animal characters. I drew a cat with a sword, and then I gave it some friends and pretty much doodled what I like. It just happened.”
Simmons is the first to tell you that he and his team are huge fans of the Super Nintendo games from the late 1990s. “They were very bright and colorful and had this sense of scale that we really enjoyed,” says the show creator. “We were inspired by the world of Akira Toriyama which has a lot of goofball action comedy. His roleplaying videogame Chrono Trigger has robots and swordsmen and cavemen and flying vehicles. Dragon Ball and Dr. Slump totally informed our childhoods.”
Of course, there’s that other obvious influence! “You can obviously tell that I’m a huge fan of Batman’s,” admits Simmons. “Look at Mao Mao — a gritty bat-shaped hero with a very low voice, but that’s where the similarity ends. We all love Batman: The Animated Series, there’s no question about it. At a certain level, there was a core aspect of heart to that show as well as some questions about the lead character’s identity, and we explore that on our series, too. With Mao Mao, I figured what if our character was like Batman, but he actually listened to what Robin had to say every once in a while!”
Simmons, who is the youngest of nine siblings, says he loves providing the voices for Mao Mao and two of the other characters (boomerang rat pirate Ratarang and the foppish lion King Snuglamane). “We are kind of a weird vaudevillian family, so doing voices comes naturally to me,” he says with a big laugh. “The first time I felt validated as a voice artist was when people asked me to do voices for their projects at the Five Second Day at Titmouse.
With his booming, expressive voice, Simmons was a natural to play the hero of his show. Next up for casting was Badgerclops, Mao Mao’s best friend and sidekick, which naturally went to Griffith Kimmins, another animator and director at Titmouse, whose credits include China, IL, Superjail and Metalocalypse.
“Griff is one of my best friends and one oe my long-time collaborators on a million projects. Badgerclops (which used to be called Bearclops) had to be a good foil for Mao Mao, and Griff is mine,” explains Simmons. “Griff and I just naturally get into these arguments — which actually end up on the show. The cute blue Adorabat is voiced by Lika Leong, who used to be our production coordinator on Turbo [FAST]. We needed someone who sounded absolutely adorable, and Lika is also incredibly funny, so she got that part.”
The show also features the voices of veteran actors Tommy Blacha (Metalocalypse) as Chubbum, Lucky and Steel Wing; Chris McCulloch (Ballmastrz: 9009) as Orangusnake and Boss Hosstrich, and Debra Wilson (MADtv) as Ramaraff, Ketchup and Muffins. “It’s really not just about coming up with silly voices with them,” says Simmons. “There have been so many countless times when we are in the booth, and we ask the actors, ‘So, what would you say in this situation?’ and they do come up with lines that are simply fantastic, and we keep them!”
When asked about the lessons he has learned in this five-year process of creating his own animated show, Simmons has an interesting response. “This might sound odd, but I actually learned that I really care about animation more than I ever thought before,” he explains. “I’ve been working in animation since 2009 — my first job was on BET’s Black Panther animated series. I always loved working in the field, and I was quick on the uptake. I think you are the sum of the people around you, and what you can learn from them. But for the longest time, I tried to convince myself that animation was just my job. But now, after seeing how passionately I responded to everything about this show, I realize that I love nothing more.”
Working with a team of about 40 people at Titmouse’s Los Angeles shop, Simmons says he feels privileged to be surrounded by a passionate team that feels the same way about Mao Mao and what they create every day. “We’re all up to face whatever challenge that might come our way,” he adds. “There’s nothing more satisfying to achieve a goal shared by everyone and working on a show that everyone is proud of being a part of. I guess what I learned is that everyone loves art in a different way!”
Mao Mao, Heroes of Pure Heart premieres on Cartoon Network on Monday, July 1 at 6:10 p.m. with new episodes premiering Mondays thru the summer.