Sunday, October 13, 2013

Nostalgia Theater: Beetlejuice -- The Ghost with the Most Gets (Re)-Animated

While director Tim Burton's feature film entree was 1985's Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, the first time most folks got to see Burton really cut loose and be Tim Burton was with 1988's Beetlejuice, a dark, dark comedy starring Michael Keaton as the titular ghoul, a "bio-excorcist" charged by a recently-deceased couple (Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis) with ridding their home of the unwelcome new (living) habitants of their home. The film was a considerable success for home studio Warner Bros., earning almost $75 million stateside against a $15 mil budget.

Naturally, with a return-on-investment like that, thoughts quickly turned to franchising the property, and while Burton would jump straight from Beetlejuice to 1989's Batman (bringing the film's star right along with him), that didn't stop him (and Warners) from spearheading the character's next afterlife. And so, in early September of 1989, mere months after Batman's skyrocketing success made Burton one of the most valuable brands in Hollywood, an animated adaptation of Beetlejuice debuted as part of ABC's Saturday morning lineup. Here's the intro:


Now, given the morose, typically Burton-esque subject matter of the film, turning it into a cartoon show necessitated quite a few changes along the way. For one, the whole "recently deceased couple" angle was dropped entirely. For another, the character of Beetlejuice himself, essentially the film's antagonist, had his raging sociopathy dialed down just a tad. While the movie version tries to force angsty-teen Lydia (Winona Ryder) to marry him, in the cartoon he was Lydia's special buddy, arriving to help her out whenever she summoned him. It's kind of like reverse Stockholm Syndrome.

With Burton's skewed vision of the afterlife (called the "Neitherworld" on TV) uniquely suited to the animation medium, Beetlejuice was a breakout hit on ABC, doing well enough that the then-new Fox Kids picked it up the following year as part of its weekday afternoon lineup. As a result, it aired six days a week for most of its four season run, racking up an impressive 94 episodes. The brand also spawned a set of truly bizarre action figures by (who else?) Kenner, hitting shelves right around the time the show started. Here's a TV spot for the line, which took its cues from the film:


That's some weird stuff, man. As it happens I actually owned one of those. It was a version of Beetlejuice that exploded into pieces when you squeezed his legs together, with his head attached to an insect torso thingie inside his human body. Yeah, pretty messed up. And given that it was the only Beetlejuice toy I had, it was also pretty much useless all by itself. In fact, now that I think of it, Kenner was pretty good at coming up with weird toylines that really didn't make a lot of sense in hindsight (Police Academy, anyone?).

For awhile, there was talk about Burton and Keaton reuniting for a theatrical Beetlejuice sequel, but I doubt very much anything will happen with that. And as far as the cartoon goes, in the two decades-plus since the animated Beetlejuice finished up, it's been rarely seen on TV, though a complete series set made its way to DVD just a few months ago via Shout! Factory as an Amazon exclusive. I haven't bothered to pick it up, but just writing this post has me thinking it might be worth checking it out again to see if it has any kind of an afterlife. 

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