When Netflix announced it was adding Inspector Gadget to its ever-expanding roster of kids’ shows last month, fans of a certain age got very nostalgic. Among the cartoons Millennials were raised on, hardly any was more beloved than the bumbling bionic Gadget.
But Netflix isn’t bringing the old Gadget back. And neither is the show’s production company, DIC Entertainment, which was acquired by Cookie Jar Group in 2008 and ultimately sold to Canada’s DHX Media four years later.
The new DHX-produced series, which premieres on March 27, now looks drastically different thanks to a CGI facelift, new characters, and—sigh—a new theme song. Question is, will modernizing a well-known character like Gadget fall flat? And with Andy Heyward, one of the show’s three original creators out (Bruno Bianchi passed away in 2011), can co-creator Jean Chalopin retain its old sensibility?
Steven DeNure, president and COO of DHX Media, was thrilled to acquire the rights to Gadget in 2012. But he worried the old Gadget wouldn’t appeal to its target audience of young children.
For starters, the pacing was painfully slow. Kids today are used to fast-moving commercials, quick cuts, and a thing called the Internet. (Kids in the ’80s, it seems, had more patience.) “If you do a show that’s slow-moving today, you lose the attention of your audience,” Chalopin says, “so we had to accelerate the pace.”
To do so, he turned to 3D animation. He also cut the 24-minute plots down to two shorts that clock in at 11 minutes each.
In doing visual research, Phillip Stamp, vice president of DHX Media and head of the Halifax studio where the new Gadget was made, found an “infinite supply of fan art of Gadget, Penny, and Brain,” from anime styles to renderings of their old look, suggesting fans would be open to changes. However, in order to retain the spirit of the original series, many aspects were kept the same. In the remake Gadget still wears his trench coat and cap, while Penny, always in pig tails, still dresses casually, albeit now in a hoodie.
Their personalities are mostly what you remember, too. “If [Gadget] is going to get a tissue or sneeze or something like that, he’s not going to use one of his hands but the hand that comes out of his hat,” Stamp says. Gadget remains as clueless as ever, and Penny remains just as brainy.
At table reads “Gadget would do something and Brain would react, and one of the directors would say, ‘Wouldn’t Brain be running alongside him trying to make sure he doesn’t hurt himself or anyone else?'” Stamp says. “We worked hard to preserve those elements of the original.”
Still, this being a revival of a 35-year-old series and all, changes had to be made. Gadget’s antagonist Dr. Claw is now more kooky in his old age. And Penny has a whole lot more attitude. “We felt that these were natural evolutions of both the style of storytelling, and also just a natural evolution of what you’d find with the characters,” Stamp says. “We also did have to be a little courageous and step out and put our mark on it.”
“What we wanted to do was make Penny a little older,” says Chalopin, who estimates she was between 10 and 12 before and is now in her mid-teens. She also has a new love interest: Dr. Claw’s spiky-haired nephew, Talon. “He’s more of a kid of today,” Chalopin says. He makes a great counterpart to Penny with his good looks and his charm.
Speaking of Penny, her ’80s technology needed an upgrade. “Penny had a smartphone way before it existed,” Chalopin says, so that wouldn’t impress children today. To get around the problem, he created “holographic protection” for Brain and a computer that appears out of thin air when Penny needs it.
Asked how the process of making the cartoon today differs from the past, Chalopin is quick to say everything’s easier, thanks to technological advances in animation. “Jean loved that everyone was under one roof,” says DHX president DeNure, who agrees the “immediacy of feedback and ability to adjust and change things as you’re working in a 3D world and environment” has been a game-changer.
But financing remains an uphill battle. Much of what’s selected today, at least for content streaming services like Netflix, must not only reach a broad group of viewers but transcend countries and age groups as well. As Erik Barmack, Netflix’s vice president of global independent content, says, “The things we look for in general is if the shows transcend countries, have a new story to be told, or a new way of reimagining characters.” Gadget, he says, ticks off all three criteria.
As an older Millennial who grew up on Gadget, I’ll be the first to admit I was skeptical, not just of the remake but of its appeal. Watching the show is like being on speed, with gags every second and crazy-fast dialogue. More than once I felt my age and had to go back just to catch what I’d missed.
But despite all the changes—of which there are plenty—there was one thing that stayed the same for me. The triangle of Gadget, Penny, and Brain was as strong and adorable as ever. I found myself rooting for all of them, laughing along as Gadget gave them more trouble. It reminded me of the old times I cherished. And I was happy to have my friends back.