A New Never Land For A New Generation
Walt Disney Television Animation
With the reconstruction of Disney’s youth oriented channel "Disney Playhouse" into "Disney Junior" – a channel geared specifically towards children two through seven, executive producer Rob LaDuca and story editor/head writer Mark Seidenberg were approached to re-imagine some classic Disney characters.
Their show, "Jake and the Never Land Pirates," evokes the spirit of Peter Pan and features the classic villain Captain Hook and his sidekick Smee. Three main characters, Jake, Izzy and Cubby, with the aid of a lookout parrot named Skully, take their young viewers on a fully interactive journey. Viewers are encouraged to speak with the characters, scramble through the island mazes, and continue lessons on the show’s website.
411 Publishing recently spoke with Rob LaDuca and Mark Seidenberg to learn about the appeal of the show and their relationship with Captain Hook.
411: What made you want to get involved with this show and bring it to the Disney Jr. channel?
Mark: When (Sr. VP Disney Junior Worldwide) Nancy Kanter said she was interested in developing an animated show with Captain Hook, I said right away count me in. It’s been such a great privilege and honor to work with Captain Hook and Mr. Smee and the mythology of Never Land.
Rob: Peter Pan is one of my favorite movies, and I’ve watched it over and over again. I’m still able to watch it and be inspired by all the characters that were created in the original movie. And we’ve tried to remain faithful with Captain Hook and Mr. Smee and all the pirates for our show.
411: Do you feel that the story had to go through any sort of modification to bring it to a new audience? It’s been some 30-40 odd years after the original story first appeared.
Rob: If you watch the original Peter Pan movie, it it’s not very preschool friendly; there are a lot of knives flying around and the original lost boys were a little more violent than what would fit our show’s needs.
Mark: But we have spoken with a lot of children and they all recognize Captain Hook and Mr. Smee because they know the film. It’s amazing how many families that we’ve come across all have Peter Pan in their libraries.
Rob: It’s a recognized story
Mark: The world we’ve created is really similar to the Never Land you see in Peter Pan, filled with fantastic places and familiar landmarks like Skull Rock and Mermaid Lagoon.
411: Would you both describe some of the experiences you feel have really helped you to create content that is relatable and digestible to such a young audience?
Mark: I would have to say a lot of our experience with the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse really built our expectation of the audience. We had focus tests with three, four, five year olds. So we’re sitting right there with our audience and we really get a sense of not talking down to them, not using words that the kids wouldn’t understand. We see a kid’s sense of humor which is really nice because it’s similar to ours.
Rob: I started as an animator, so my sense of humor is right in there with a seven year old. You have to have a really childlike version of life to relate to.
411: What are some of the elements in design that you really worked towards to capture the world for the younger viewers?
Rob: We originally started with the Peter Pan movie, but we brought it even further back to Mary Blair’s original designs for Peter Pan. She was an influential designer at the Disney Studio and Disney Animation in the 40s and 50s. We incorporated a lot of her design elements: her drippy, hysteria-looking designs. We’ve added a lot of texture to trees and rocks and everything while still keeping it a really simple design.
Mark: Also we’ve made a real attempt to expand the palette, so that it is very colorful.
411: Do you also work with researchers as you come up with the story lines to ensure they will have the right sort of resonance with the young viewers?
Mark: We do work with an educational research group, and we do focus group tests with kids on the stories.
Rob: We come up with the stories and then they test them to see if they are relatable.
Mark: And the research group has been really good with dealing with what kid’s expectations are, how much recall they have for each story, and I must say, they really are very engaged with the show, they understand the stories.
Rob: When you get kids saying "I want to live in that show," then it gets us pretty excited.
411: I like the fact that you’ve incorporated some very modern things that Captain Hook covets, like skateboards, in addition to things someone would associate with a treasure chest or hunt.
Rob: Well, you have to keep it relatable to your audience. Kids know what a skateboard is; they may not know what a sextant is, or something of that period.
Mark: Treasure isn’t just gold and jewels like most movie star pirates go after. Here it’s a kid’s personal treasure, and that might be something as simple as their soccer ball. When Captain Hook takes that, our kids at home become very invested. When Jake says to the kids at home, "Come on mateys, will you help me go get our ball back from Captain Hook?” we know that kids from around the world are going to be going "Yes!"
411: Let’s talk a bit more about the interactive aspect. How does it work?
Rob: it’s a call out simultaneous connection show. When viewing the show, Jake will turn to the audience and say “Will you help us climb on the vines to get across to the valley?" The kids at home want to say yes to join in with the adventure.
Mark: The big element of the show is problem solving. Throughout our episodes, we have what we call Pirate Problems. On screen you will see Jake and his friends try to figure out how to get across the river. One way to get across the river is to jump on the backs of the giant turtles. Jake will turn to the audience and say, “Come on, everybody, let’s all stand up and jump across on the backs of the turtles.” Jake breaks the fourth wall and he talks to the kids who are watching the show. In fact, the show opens up with Jake talking to the kids and asking if they want to join the crew by asking them for the pirate password, which is "Yo ho ho, let’s go!"
411: Is there or will there be a website where the kids will see other activities that might actually correspond with that episode, or build upon the lesson that was presented in an episode or upcoming episode?
Rob: Oh yes, there will be all kinds of games and activities that are similar to what happens on the series.
411: Did knowing that there are a lot of kids out there that aren’t getting the proper amounts of physical exercise inspire you to help promote kids to get involved and be active?
Mark: Rob and I produced these series of shorts called Mickey Mousekersize shorts, where we have our classic characters teaching kids various exercises. We did bring a bit of that to “Jake and the Never Land Pirates” by making sure that kids would get up and do something instead of just sitting as a total passive viewer.
Rob: And that actually came from Nancy Kanter as well. She wanted a show that keeps kids more physically involved. We don’t stop and see if the kids want to do it, we usually try to start it with “Come on get up” so that the kids will get off the couch or off the floor and jump with us or climb with us.
411: Is there a particular topic that you are really hoping to include in an upcoming story line, or that you’ve been working in development?
Mark: That’s an interesting question.
Rob: Yeah, we’ve done so many.
411: Or something you think hasn’t been touched on very much that you aspire to bring to the show?
Mark: The teamwork aspect is what I really want to get across to the kids: working together, that no one should be considered an outsider, that everyone can be included in the adventure. Those are the themes that I try to include in the shows.
Rob: There is still so much about Never Land we don’t know, and we are always discovering new things as well as incorporating Peter Pan, who doesn’t live there anymore but has left little things along the way. These are the kinds of things that we will probably touch on in future stories.
411: How do you handle the topic of developing relationships with adults or people that are a little older?
Mark: You mean the kids’ relationships with Captain Hook and Smee, right?
411: Right, but they are the villains, correct?
Rob: Right, but the kids are being empowered by Peter Pan to watch over Never Land and to watch over Captain Hook and Smee. The kids relate to Captain Hook’s crew members and they are good friends with Smee, Smee has no reason not to like them. Capt. Hook is just cranky. The kids relate very well to Sharky and Bones, who are part of Hooks crew and also part of the Never Land Pirate Band, the guys who play the music in our show
Mark: The kids are very respectful to the adults in the show, and even Captain Hook. Captain Hook may be in trouble at the end of an episode, and Jake will always say "Do you need any help Captain Hook?”
Rob: But the kids are always respectful of adults.
411: I wanted to ask about the videos that come at the end of the shows. Do you incorporate the lessons within the video?
Mark: Sometimes the song is about the theme of the show. If the theme is about flying kites, the song is about the beauty of kites in the sky.
Rob: There sometimes is a thematic connection, but it doesn’t necessarily reiterate the lesson. They are just fun songs that come at the end of the show.
411: Anything else that I might not have touched upon and you want to add a few additional comments about?
Mark: Well, one thing I would like to say is that Rob and I feel that we are the luckiest guys in the universe to work on this show, because it has just been a joy from day one.
Rob: It’s so much fun!