Wander Over Yonder

Craig McCracken is responsible for one of the most revered primetime cartoon series of the past 20 years. He and Genndy Tartakovsky each created one of the two greatest shows from Cartoon Network’s late ’90s golden age—Dexter’s Laboratory for the latter, and The Powerpuff Girls for the former. But while Tartakovsky continued on with expanding, ambitious projects like Samurai Jack and Star Wars: Clone Wars before transitioning into feature film directing (with the lukewarm but financially lucrative Hotel Transylvania), McCracken followed Powerpuff Girls with another Cartoon Network series, the equally imaginative Foster’s Home For Imaginary Friends. Both of McCracken’s shows hit the 78-episode mark and won Emmys for a bevy of different animators, including McCracken. And his implied to desire to stay at Cartoon Network for the long haul positioned him to be the standard bearer for decades to come.

But when Cartoon Network attempted to branch out from its namesake style, however ill-advised, into live action programming (a move that has been more successful for its sister channel, Adult Swim), McCracken quit, and on the way out took some parting shots at the network he called home for 17 years for briefly exploring something other than cartoons. Now, after four years of pursuing other projects with other production companies, he returns to television on Disney Channel with Wander Over Yonder. His wife, My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic creator Lauren Faust, serves as a producer and story editor, bringing together a dynamic animation duo together unlike any other.

To tamp down expectations right away, let’s make one thing very clear: Wander Over Yonder isn’t as fully realized or intricate as the world of Foster’s Home or Powerpuff Girls right from the start. But if either half of this episode had aired as a part of What A Cartoon back in the ’90s, I would’ve voted to see more the idea. Wander (Jack McBrayer, dialing up his Wreck-It Ralph performance to 11) is a torturously optimistic and friendly explorer traveling the galaxy with his faithful steed Sylvia (April Winchell). The skeletal villain Lord Hater (Keith Ferguson) aims to take over all the planets in the galaxy, but Wander thwarts his plans at every turn. It’s a familiar and simple setup: space, obliviously positive force with wisecracking sidekick on one side, increasingly frustrated antagonist on the other.

But if the first segment shows anything, it’s that McCracken hasn’t lost a beat with his dynamic and overwhelmingly bright visual style. The first world Lord Hater lands on—populated by colorful smooching aliens—falls within minutes, its inhabitants enslaved by Hater’s many eyeball-shaped minions to build a giant statue in tribute and abandon any fun. Cue lone cowboy music, and in walks the old west hero—as an alien riding a horse-type creature called a Zbornak, to save the day. And in typically trippy McCracken fashion, that doesn’t involve anything like a Western or traditional confrontation. Wander simply convinces all Lord Hater’s minions that they’d rather play all the fun carnival games the Binglebops were playing.

That angers Hater, who desires to be the “greatest in all the galaxy” that he accepts Wander’s challenge to a series of carnival games and activities you probably remember from Field Day in elementary school. It’s a delightfully madcap sequence, as Wander racks up wins in hot dog eating, ring tossing, pitching, dart throwing, the strong man game, musical chairs, sack racing, push-ups, and staring. At the beginning of Powerpuff and Foster’s Home, there was some element of childhood picked at and explored, whether it was the incorrect perception of young girls as weak, or the idea of kids outgrowing imaginary friends. Wander doesn’t have that element as of yet.

Demonstrating a bit of range, the second segment shows that Wander and Sylvia won’t always be battling Lord Hater or foiling one of his hostile planet takeovers. Instead, “The Egg” is a standalone story for the pair that at times functions as an extended parenting metaphor. As Wander and Sylvia battle against a giant fire-breathing dragon monster, they attempt to return an egg to its nest in order for it to hatch. Sylvia grows frustrated, but Wander pulls out his banjo and plays a song to pass the time as they struggle to allow the egg to hatch. Though it likely won’t seem like more than a narrow adventure to kids, that message—that the struggle of bringing a child into the world is arduous and mentally tasking—should resonate with adults as well. Wander doesn’t look like a show that will engage as heavily with pop-culture tropes as Powerpuff Girls, and that’s okay, since it does demonstrate some kind of emotional depth and understanding. This isn’t as subversive, and thus not as gleefully fun as Powerpuff Girls, but it’s still wildly entertaining. The highly saturated colors, amplified highlight animations when characters emphasize words or actions, and fast-paced camera moves keep the shorts from getting boring.

Like any pilot, Wander Over Yonder is just testing the waters and establishing a structure. But this is yet another intriguing creation by McCracken, with help from Faust (who co-wrote the second segment with her husband), that carries on the zany legacy of Cartoon Network’s Golden Age on a competing network.

Stray observations:

  • I can’t decide which part of the new Powerpuff Girls special makes me more skeptical: the lack of Craig McCracken’s involvement with the property for the first time, or the presence of Ringo Starr, contributing a song titled “I Wish I Was A Powerpuff Girl” and voicing a character named Fibonacci Sequins.
  • Aside from McBrayer, Winchell, and Ferguson, the rest of the voice cast includes Tom Kenny, Aziz Ansari, James Marsden, and Edie McClurg.
  • I couldn’t shake the feeling that the initial segment was a lot like the introductory short to Spongebob Squarepants. Sure, this show isn’t as likely to spawn a massively popular series, but like Spongebob rescuing the Krusty Krab with his frycook abilities and a three-pronged spatula, I liked the strange way Wander saved the day.
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