Five years ago, I went a bit overboard. In a 2017 story on the Viceland series Nirvanna the Band the Show, I wrote that the new comedy might “save its upstart network, cement the bona fides of its polarizing co-creator, and, just maybe, revolutionize the Canadian television landscape.”
Well, Viceland no longer exists, Nirvanna the Band the Show hasn’t aired episodes past Season 2, and the Canadian TV sector – while hot, in a warm-and-fuzzy Schitt’s Creek/Kim’s Convenience kind of way – doesn’t look like the subversive, form-breaking revolution heralded by NTBTS. But, in the time since my wildly optimistic column was published (I was excited, people!), the show’s co-creators, the voluble Matt Johnson and the more reserved Jay McCarrol, have been busy trying to revolutionize, or maybe just refresh, another entertainment landscape: children’s animation.
On Oct. 14, Amazon Kids+ will release the first season of Matt & Bird Break Loose, a new cartoon that is as much a pseudo-sequel to NTBTS as it is a whimsical rebuke to the state of contemporary children’s TV.
Each episode follows two zoo animals – excitable monkey Matt (voiced by Johnson) and a quieter bird named Bird (McCarrol) – who attempt to escape into the outside world. Combining hand-drawn animation that recalls Canadian studio Nelvana at its Babar peak with an improv-comedy sensibility familiar to the NTBTS fanbase, Matt & Bird is both nostalgic and refreshing. There is no garish CGI (hello, Cocomelon and Pinkfong), no irritating cutesy performances (stop it, Blippy) and no corporate mandate to push toys (Paw Patrol, Bakugan).
”It’s like Calvin and Hobbes, capturing the naivety of who Jay and I were as kids, and who we were on Nirvanna the Band the Show,” Johnson says during an interview at Toronto’s Trinity Bellwoods park, close to the offices of Zapruder Films, the production company behind NTBTS and Johnson’s films, The Dirties (2013) and Operation Avalanche (2016).
Johnson, McCarrol and producing partner Matthew Miller had long tossed around the idea of making an animated series. But it wasn’t until NTBTS was put on ice by Viceland’s closure – and then the group’s third feature film was delayed by the pandemic – that the trio had the time and energy to focus on a cartoon. The project was initially going to be an animated riff on NTBTS, the cult series in which Johnson and McCarrol played heightened versions of themselves who roped real people (passersby, unsuspecting professionals) into their increasingly outlandish schemes to play a gig at Toronto’s Rivoli nightclub.
”But as the cartoon came together, we embraced the genre of the warm and pure children’s book,” says McCarrol, who provides the music for the new series. “There’s a sentimentality to it, and we backed away from the edgy fake-documentary elements.”
Name-checking Curious George, but also Pinky and the Brain, Ren & Stimpy and even The Epic of Gilgamesh, Johnson adds that, “the existence of this thing is at war with itself, because it shouldn’t exist. In the same way that you watched Nirvanna with questions, you’re wondering here, ‘How serious is this? Is this actually for children? Is it safe to show to my kids?’ ”
Having shown the series to my seven-year-old son – and thus risking his exposure to Johnson and McCarrol’s tendency for extreme ribaldry – the answer is an enthusiastic: yes. This is zippy, warm storytelling that offers a lesson on the power of perseverance. Matt and Bird end each episode exactly where they started, but they’re never defeated – only excited to try again the next day.
Johnson, McCarrol and Miller first pitched the show to the CBC, which streams NTBTS on its Gem service. But the idea “didn’t connect.” This led the trio to Amazon, which is beginning to produce original kids content. The group sent in a 90-second improvised audio scene with some rough character designs.
“The world of the show was all there,” says Veronica Pickett, head of original content for Amazon Kids. “We love how the voices of Matt and Bird feel like adults who never quite grew up. There’s a level of sophistication to their personalities, as well as childlike wonder and curiosity about the world around them.”
Matt & Bird was green-lit last December, with, according to Johnson, “no template, no rules.”
The only problem: no one on the team had ever made a cartoon before.
After enlisting an animation producer, the trio connected with a handful of independent U.S. artists, along with the upstart Israeli animation studio Plonter. Seven months later, the completed first season was submitted to Amazon.
”A year ago, I would’ve thought animation was a big scary thing that no indie filmmaker could do,” Johnson says. “But the way technology works now, it’s so accessible. It’s an amazing place for young filmmakers.”
While Amazon has yet to approve a second season – “We want people to watch it so that we can make more,” Miller says – the team has enough recorded material for “about 100″ episodes. Which is 84 more than NTBTS produced, despite the devotion of what McCarrol calls a “small but incredibly loyal” audience.
And for those hardcore NTBTS viewers, some long-awaited good news: Zapruder Films has obtained the rights for the series back from Vice, including some half-finished episodes for the never-aired third season. The team is now trying to find a new home for the first two seasons and “anything that comes beyond” – the only difference being that the show will air “under a new title,” Miller says.
Meanwhile, Johnson is in the midst of shooting Matt and Mara, the new movie from acclaimed Canadian filmmaker Kazik Radwanski (Anne at 13,000 ft.), which, “like all of Kaz’s movies, is a very long process.” But, mostly, Johnson’s mind is preoccupied by the exploits of a monkey and a bird.
”We thought Matt & Bird would be a pandemic-era exercise. And maybe we’re fooling ourselves into thinking this is more than it really is. But the process feels like rediscovering our childhood,” Johnson says. “It’s like banging your toys together to come up with a plot, but as an adult knowing what a three-act structure looks like, too.”
Matt & Bird Break Loose streams on Amazon Kids+ starting Oct. 14
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