Why Mike, Lu & Og is a forgotten cartoon delight
Those who grew up in the 1990s and early 2000s probably remember the Cartoon Cartoon label as a small bunch of original animated series that Cartoon Network put together on Friday nights. It may be less remembered that the Cartoon Cartoon program grew out of a showcase series designed to offer animators the opportunity to present their short films and television pilots in front of an audience. This series, originally titled What a cartoon!, first aired in 1995. Each episode featured three cartoon shorts, either from in-house production company Hanna-Barbara or from an independent studio. Based on audience reactions, the cartoons featured on What a cartoon! could be derived in their own series. The first episodes of What a cartoon! saw the pilots for Dexter’s Lab, The Powerpuff Girls, and Johnny Bravo.
As more series rolled out of the program, the Cartoon Cartoon banner was created and What a cartoon! was finally renamed The cartoon show. In 1998, under the new name, he premiered a cartoon episode titled “Crash Lancelot”, the pilot of Mike, Lu and Og. Created by Mikhail Shindel, Mikhail Aldachine, and Charles swenson, it has a seemingly familiar premise: misfits on a desert island. But this is not a Robinson Crusoe story, nor even a Gilligan Island: there was a shipwreck, but that was centuries ago. Islanders in Mike, Lu and Og are the descendants of British shipwreck survivors, who have since led a pre-industrial way of life on their island of Albonquetine, a way of life that mixes the customs of the English gentry with Polynesian culture quite successfully. That’s where Michelanne “Mike” Mazinsky comes in, a wise New York girl in the student exchange program who wants to go to a tropical island. She is sent to Albonquetine, “the island where nobody goes”, and where the only other children are Lu, the spoiled daughter of the governor (leaving Lu an excuse to declare himself “princess”) and Og, an introverted genius who can build virtually anything from coconut shells and palm leaves.
The pilot of Mike, Lu and Og aired in November 1998 and the series was announced the following January, alongside Courage the cowardly dog and i am weasel, and premiered in late 1999. The episodes tended to follow a familiar line: over the course of a day, something would remind Mike of modern New York comforts; Og, intrigued, would build a version of what Mike had mentioned. Islanders, whose understanding of modern life is even more tenuous than their claim to Polynesian life, would struggle to comprehend innovation and Lu, being a selfish kid, would try to turn things to his advantage. Not exactly a high stakes conflict, and it all played out in a very relaxed way. Even the most cartoonish elements, from Og’s impossible inventions to talking animals (there were exactly three of them – the rest were silent), were underestimated. But while the series was light on plot and action, it led with the interaction between its small cast of quirky characters.
These characters were played by a strong cast of voices. Heavyweights in the dubbing community like The simpsons Nancy cartwright (Read), Dee Bradley Baker (Og), and Kath Soucie (Margery, Og’s mother) were on board with beautiful interpretations. Lu goes through attempts at royal dignity, squeaky cries and irritating moans, and Og – who rarely speaks – does so with a strange, silent grater. But there were also lesser-known VA names in the cast. British theater actor Martin rayner has played a number of roles, from Og’s goofy father, Alfred, to Og’s articulate porcupine companion, Spiney. But, the headliner of the cast was Nika futterman.
Still several years from his turn as Asajj Ventress in The clone wars, Futterman gave the floor to the sarcastic, perplexed but ultimately good-natured Mike, who struggles to remain the voice of comparative reason among his new friends. The back-and-forth between her and the Islanders meant the show was often conducted with dialogue, and Mike’s very individual expression of New York dialect gave him and the show a lot of personality. The Islanders were interpreted as an eccentric collection of Brits, each with their own verbal idiosyncrasies – except for Lu and Og, who had American overtones. All the voices bounce well, and while the personalities were clearly defined, the play between the characters remained at a level appropriate to the small stakes of the series. An average episode of Mike, Lu and Og it really feels like kids at the end of summer, slowing down the hours until something happens to spark a silly and safe adventure.
The artwork also fuels this vibe. One of the best things about Cartoon Network’s original lineup in the late ’90s was the diversity of the design. Mike, Lu and Og was an independent production, a partnership between Shindel’s Kinofilm in Los Angeles and Studio Pilot in Russia, which provided the animation. Their wallpaper for the series, rendered in watercolor, made it look much softer than its peers on Cartoon Network at the time, and the style against hills, trees, waves and clouds. Suggests children’s drawings. This is reflected in the character design as well (although they were rendered with traditional ink and paint). It is not the most expressive animation of the Cartoon Cartoon series; no wild holds or springy bodies here; and the silhouettes and poses are not the strongest, but there is an awesome job of strengthening the personality through position and movement; for example, Og’s frequent “thinker pose” on a rock, ringing his nose ring, or the stooping and shuffling step of the elder of Old Queeks Island.
Of course, a relaxed series more about the character than the plot can have its limits. In a few episodes, Mike, Lu and Og began to derive from its here-comes-modern-tech formula. The stories might make Mike react to the traditions of the island instead, or the jungle was explored. The Antagonists were presented as three pirates, although they rarely appeared and weren’t much of a challenge for children. And in the second season, the other side of the island was revealed to contain another clan of shipwreck survivors, the Cuzzlewits, engaged in an ongoing feud with the Albonquetanians. Even that didn’t lead to many new conflicts beyond Lu’s jealousy of Mike’s friendship with rivals; the children continued to ride elephants, put on plays, experience the joys of hot dogs and have fun under the tropical sun.
However, the series struggled with ratings and after two 13-episode seasons it was canceled with the last episode airing in May 2001. I guess that’s to be expected; a show that has never achieved good ratings is unlikely to claim a good audience share twenty years later. Still, it’s still worth looking for copies of this series if you can. The characters are so well defined and play out so well that they can wear almost any episode despite the slim stories. The bizarre hodgepodge of a culture that Albonquetans have cobbled together for themselves – and barely understood – is loaded with weird quirks that make viewing fun, if not tumultuous. Above all, the show evokes that euphoric feeling of a late summer when you are a child, unstructured and carefree, and which goes through every adventure that Mike and his two friends embark on on the island where no one goes.
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Let Jon Snow play Iceman, cowards!
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