Twenty Years Later, The Animorphs TV Show Deserves A Reboot
If you don't agree you're a Yeerk.
This article contains spoilers for Animorphs. The series ended almost 20 years ago, you have no excuse.
Once a week in late 1998 and 1999, a crime occurred. A beloved children’s book series was adapted for TV, and in doing so, destroyed. That series was Animorphs, and twenty years later, it deserves a resurrection.
If you’re a millennial, chances are you’re familiar with Animorphs. Even if you never read it, you likely noticed the covers: each one featured a grotesque picture of a kid turning into an animal in five stages — the cutting edge of what Photoshop had to offer in the late ’90s Inside the books, that morphing process was replicated on the bottom corner of every page, letting you flip through the book to create an animation of sorts. Amongst the nerds at my primary school, this was a beloved pastime. It was a different time.
It’s difficult to summarise Animorphs without it sounding extraordinarily tacky. The series follows five young teenagers who see a spaceship crash as they’re walking home one night. The ship carries a dying Andalite (an alien that looks a bit like a blue centaur with stalk eyes and a scorpion’s tail), who warns the kids that their planet is being invaded by a more sinister alien species called the Yeerks (mind-controlling slugs that enter the brain via the ear and assume total control).
With time running out, the Andalite gives the kids the power to morph into any animal they’ve touched, and tells them to trust no one. Minutes later, they watch him die a gory death, and have to start coming to terms with the fact that they’re the human race’s only chance at survival. Over fifty-something books, they try to use their powers to resist the Yeerk invasion. Mostly, they end up needing those powers just to survive.
As I said, it sounds tacky, and tackiness is mostly what the 1999 TV series delivered. The whole show is now available on YouTube, and I rewatched the entire thing last week. It’s nostalgic, and occasionally heartwarming, but it’s not great (or even good). Mostly, it was just way too ambitious for 1999 — as the books’ co-authors Katherine Applegate and Michael Grant have pointed out, it attempted to combine the three most expensive things in Hollywood: special effects, child actors, and live animals. They were 1990s special effects, too — the aliens were crude puppet heads on sticks, and most of the dramatic morphing had to happen off-screen. As Grant wrote in a 2016 Reddit AMA, “Oh, we hated the TV series. Hated it. We felt it insulted the hundreds of thousands of kids who read the books.”
He was right, because Animorphs was so much more than just a tacky kids’ book series. In 2019, the books still hold up, even for an adult reader. Forgetting about all the aliens and superpowers for a second, you could describe them as a war story: a saga where terrible circumstances force a bunch of unprepared teenagers to assume terrible responsibility, make impossible decisions, and live with the often brutal consequences. At the end of the day, some of the kids don’t even make it through alive. Some of them wish they didn’t.
That sounds dark for a kids’ book, and it is. That’s partly why 2019 is the perfect time to reboot the series. These are dark times, where teenagers are increasingly exposed to horrifying things. Climate change, for instance, hangs over us constantly; the kind of threat that young people see and understand in gorier detail than older generations, because we know we’ll actually have to face it.
Animorphs fits into 2019’s TV landscape in other ways, too. Tonally, I imagine it falling somewhere between hit series Stranger Things and Mr. Robot, part lovable-band-of-kids-coming-together-to-face-mysterious-evil, part exploration of the way fear, distrust, paranoia and trauma knit together to warp reality, making it nigh on impossible to discern — let alone do — the right thing. Animorphs satisfies this moment’s desire for superhero stories while delivering the changes we’re increasingly demanding of the genre: diversity, complexity, and just the right balance of darkness and humour.
Plus, 2019 has something to offer Animorphs: the technology required to actually make a show or film that isn’t shit.
Twenty Years Later, The Characters In Animorphs Hold Up. So Does The Story.
The Animorphs themselves are a loveable, complex bunch.
There’s Jake, the group’s reluctant leader, who starts the series as your average basketball-playing, video-game obsessed suburban kid. Marco, his best friend, is at face value the wise-cracking sidekick, though his humour and sarcasm are pretty quickly revealed to be a shaky defence mechanism: he starts the series trying to hold his family together after his mother’s death, and is terrified by the prospect of alien war before it even gets started.
Jake’s cousin, Rachel, is essentially a prom queen with a violent streak, whose enthusiasm for the war first impresses and later appals her friends. Her best friend, Cassie, is a gentle animal-lover who abhors violence, but fights because she sees no good choice. Tobias is a loner, a troubled weird kid deeply uncomfortable in his own skin — over the course of the series we see him grapple with his self-loathing and surprise himself with his own resilience. Later, they’re joined by Aximili-Esgarrouth-Isthill (fondly known as Ax), a young Andalite whose attempts to adapt to human culture bring the books some much-needed levity.
Over the course of the series, these kids are transformed, and not just into animals. That transformation is aided by the fact that the powers in the Animorphs series are like very few other superpowers, in that they have intense, terrifying limitations, and therefore consequences. The kids have the power to morph into different animal forms, but there are some catches: they need to have acquired the animal’s DNA first by touching it, and they can only stay in animal form for up to two hours, after which they’re trapped forever. This happens to Tobias in the very first book: he spends the next fifty-plus books stuck in the body of a red-tailed hawk.
There are other limitations. Morphing is never just a glamorous, convenient power — it’s hideous, can only be done in tight-fitting clothes (leotards and bike shorts feature heavily in the uniform), and slow. Transforming into an animal also gives you that animal’s instincts, which you have to learn to control.
Depending on the animal, this is frequently gruesome. In rodent morphs, anxiety is overwhelming. As a lizard, Jake is unable to stop himself from eating a live spider before he gets control of the morph; he can feel it moving inside his stomach afterwards, and has nightmares for weeks. Tobias morphs a ravenous alien species and narrowly avoids eating his own friends. The entire group are traumatised when they try to morph ants and discover that social insects have no individual consciousness: they experience their own erasure from existence. This is, to be clear, a book series that was marketed to ten-year-olds.
The brutality of Animorphs didn’t just extend to the powers. As co-author Katherine Applegate would later make explicit in letters to fans, these books were intended as honest war stories. Characters face moral dilemmas with no clear answer, and they face consequences that change them. We see them experience mental illness, grief, regret, PTSD, physical injury, loss, and even death.
The ending of the books is not a happy one. Rachel dies. Tobias is distraught. Every single member of the team is irrevocably changed, and not for the better. It ends on a cliffhanger — the few survivors head into a seemingly hopeless battle, and readers never find out if they survive. “We thought that was about the way a war would be,” Applegate wrote in a 2011 Reddit AMA. “Some soldiers would shake it off, some wouldn’t, and some would be dead.”
In short, Animorphs was a children’s book series that managed to convey the idea that great power is a burden and a dangerous responsibility far better than some of the most “gritty”, “realist” superhero films of today. It’s a war story with real consequences that force its characters to change in order to survive. I think that probably why those characters still survive the test of time today.
Animorphs Has The Power To Bring Real Diversity To The Superhero Genre
We are, thankfully, approaching a time when diversity in superhero stories means more than the tokenistic inclusion of a woman or person of colour on an otherwise homogenous team.
Animorphs, though, was way ahead of the curve. Since its start in the 1990s, fifty percent of the team have been people of colour, and two of the six have been women (it’s worth nothing that of the remaining four, one is an alien centaur and one is a bird).
Within those categories, the characters defy stereotype. Rachel is described as a feminine, beautiful white girl — she’s also unambiguously the best warrior of the group, the most aggressive and at-ease with violence. Marco is a brown guy who strives for conventional masculinity but never really makes it work: he’s often scared, often weak, often vulnerable, and holds the team together with humour. Cassie is a smart black girl with little interest in femininity — she wears her hair short, wears the same pragmatic pair of overalls for most of the series, and is portrayed as one of the series’ strongest characters because of, not in spite of, her gentleness.
There are also unarticulated depths to the series. As a children’s series in the 90’s, it goes without saying that while characters date each other, no one is explicitly queer. Re-reading the books in 2019, though, it’s hard to not read Tobias’ story as one of gender dysphoria. He’s never quite comfortable in his human body, nor in the hawk body he gets trapped in, and for many trans readers the parallels feel overt. Queer fans of the series have also frequently read Marco as bisexual, based on comments he makes throughout the books to and about Jake and Ax. The authors, for their part, have encouraged queer re-readings of the books.
Makes @MichaelGrantBks & me so happy 2 think Tobias & Marco gave solace 2 kids reading #animorphs. In retrospect, tho it was a long time ago, wish we'd done more to overtly support LGTBQ kids. As 4 character backstories, we leave it up to the fans to decide. They're your books!
— Katherine Applegate (@kaaauthor) December 29, 2017
The 1999 Animorphs TV series missed all of this: it took the books at their tacky sci-fi surface level, and delivered a story about Kids Fighting Aliens, stripped of the interior life and complexity of those characters. As a Nickelodeon kids’ show already plagued by the difficulties of depicting aliens and animal transformations, that’s pretty understandable, but it was still a missed opportunity.
The opportunity is still there. On the diversity front, Animorphs has so much to offer because it’s already done the work of getting diverse characters into the room: the space is there now to make that diversity meaningful, to use it to subvert stereotype and explore experiences that are so rarely seen on screen.
And on the story front, the premise and characters of Animorphs are still strong twenty years later. The idea of a truly “gritty” superhero show, one with real consequences and change, is still a new thing in 2019. Animorphs deserves a shot at being that new thing.
Sam Langford is a staff writer at Junkee. You can follow them on Twitter at @_slangers.
All this week, Junkee is heading back in time to relive the greatest moments in pop culture from 1999. For more 1999 content, head here.