Welcome to The Attic of Animation! In each installment of this series, we’ll sift through the forgotten boxes sitting in animation’s crawlspace and pull out the films that deserve re-discovering! If you have any suggestions for future installments, please mention them in the comments below!
Let’s imagine it’s the mid-1980s. It’s a Sunday night, and you’re not looking forward to going to work in the morning. You want to get your mind off of the upcoming workweek, and you’re looking for the perfect diversion. Finally, you decide that a little TV is just what the doctor ordered. You head to your living room and plop into your favorite chair. You pick up your remote and switch on the tube.
Now, however, there looms another question: what will you watch? You start channel-surfing, looking for just the right show. (Of course, being an animation addict, you’d probably go right to The Disney Sunday Night Movie. That kind of hurts my intro, though, so let’s pretend you didn’t see it was airing.)
Suddenly, you stop flipping through channels. Why? You just happened upon this:
What is this crazy thing you’ve found? Why, it’s Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories!
During his teenage years, Spielberg found himself drawn to Rod Serling’s seminal TV series The Twilight Zone. With the dawning of the ’80s, sci-fi was very much in vogue, and Spielberg apparently saw this as a golden opportunity to introduce a new generation to the wonders of TZ-esque sci-fi and horror. Spielberg initially tried a feature film approach, teaming with three fellow directors (John Landis, Joe Dante, and George Miller) to make 1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie. Unfortunately, the movie was greeted coolly at the box office. This was probably partially due to negative publicity stemming from the tragic deaths of three actors on the set. Even with the tragedy aside, however, reviews were still mixed.
After Twilight Zone: The Movie‘s release, the film’s screenwriter, famed horror/sci-fi author Richard Matheson, stated his belief that TZ-style stories “work best in short bursts” (as quoted in Marc Scott Zicree’s book The Twilight Zone Companion). Spielberg obviously took this advice to heart. Three years later, the very Twilight Zone-like series Amazing Stories hit the airwaves!
Spielberg’s name drew a lot of remarkable talent to Amazing Stories, people who might not have worked in television otherwise. Here’s a few of the big names who directed episodes: Clint Eastwood (“Vanessa In the Garden”), Martin Scorsese (“Mirror, Mirror”), Burt Reynolds (“Guilt Trip,” starring his friend and Don Bluth pal Dom DeLuise), Danny DeVito (“The Wedding Ring”), and Robert Zemeckis (“Go to the Head of the Class”).
Oh, and there was also this guy named Brad Bird…
Bird had graduated from CalArts in 1979 and quickly established himself as the “Golden Boy” among his peers. After a brief tenure at Disney Animation, Bird struck out on his own and quickly became acquainted with Steven Spielberg. Bird probably first met Spielberg while pitching his adaptation of Will Eisner’s The Spirit. That project didn’t come to fruition, but Spielberg was apparently still impressed with the young filmmaker. Five years after The Spirit died, Bird re-teamed with Spielberg to work on Amazing Stories!
Over Amazing Stories‘s run, Brad Bird co-wrote a teleplay with Mick Garris (“The Main Attraction”), which became the second episode of the series. He also co-wrote a treatment for the series titled Batteries Not Included. This treatment was so good that Spielberg decided it should be expanded into a theatrical film. Batteries Not Included was released in theaters in 1987, garnering Bird his first feature-film credit.
However, Bird’s biggest Amazing Stories credit came through nothing we’ve already mentioned. It came through the animated season-two episode “Family Dog“!
“Family Dog” started life as part of a demo reel, created by Brad Bird not long after leaving Walt Disney Animation in the early ’80s. Tim Burton – another Disney outcast – helped contribute to the design of the film. Upon seeing the demo reel, Spielberg was so taken with the pup that he asked Bird to storyboard the film. Bird did so, intending to produce “Family Dog” as a theatrical short. However, animated theatrical shorts were out of vogue in the early 1980s, so nothing came of those plans (Not right away, anyway. We’ll get to that, though!)
Flash forward to the Amazing Stories days! After enjoying “The Main Attraction,” Spielberg approached Bird about turning “Family Dog” into an animated episode of the series (the only animated episode, as it would turn out). Bird readily agreed!
Bird was given a crew of twenty-one people and a budget of one million dollars. With these resources, Bird was able to turn out “Family Dog” in just under a year.
The episode tells the story of a family dog (imagine that!). Unfortunately, this particular dog isn’t really appreciated by his family, the Binfords. He’s tormented by a psychotic boy with a vacuum cleaner, a father who is EXTREMELY critical of the dog’s smell, a mother who resents having to feed the dog, and a little girl who dresses the dog in doll clothes. It’s not the ideal life, but the dog gets by.
Things come to a boiling point, however, when burglars empty the home and the dog fails to stop them. The dog is given another chance to redeem himself, but, despite his best efforts, the home is burglarized again. In anger, Mr. Binford takes the dog to a dog boot camp, where the mild-mannered dog becomes a vicious killing machine. When the burglars visit the house for a third time, the dog attacks, following them home. When the dog attacks an arresting cop, however, the burglars decide that they can use the pooch…
Will the dog turn away from his life of crime? Will he ever return home? You’ll have to watch the episode to find out!
There are lots of reasons to love Steven Spielberg, but one that’s not often mentioned is his respect for the art of animation. Spielberg could have easily told Brad Bird to follow the then-typical TV-animation production model of cutting corners and costs. However, Spielberg did no such thing, allowing Bird to produce the short as he saw fit. Bird took advantage of the opportunity, producing a short that stands head-and-shoulders over other TV animation of the time. Bird and his crew adopted a Tex Avery-esque visual style for “Family Dog” and they have a lot of fun with it, going full-bore on the goofy character designs, exaggerated reactions, and LOTS of squash and stretch!
However, while “Family Dog” does feature lots of crazy humor, there are also touches of slice-of-life comedy, moments that are funny because we’ve lived through similar experiences in our own life. When I talk about this, I’m thinking primarily about the scene where the family sits down to watch their Christmas home movies, complete with running commentary by the family members. Every part of the scene rings true, from the over-excited kids to the unstated critical messages between the parents. It’s my favorite part of the episode!
“Family Dog” was heavily pushed by NBC’s marketing department, and guess what? The ads worked! The episode did well ratings-wise, creating a bright spot in Amazing Stories‘s troubled second (and final) season. The short also enjoyed a short theatrical run when it appeared before The Land Before Time in 1988!
Really, the show is like nothing Brad Bird has made before or since. It’s worth seeing (and you’ll be able to at the end of the article)!
Ordinarily, the article would end here. We’ve talked about the history of “Family Dog,” discussed the quality, and wrapped things up in a neat little bow. However, if we ended now, you wouldn’t know THE REST OF THE STORY! (Thanks, Paul Harvey!)
Remember how we were in the mid-1980s earlier? Let’s move forward a handful of years, to 1991. The Simpsons was burning up the ratings, and every other network was clamoring for their own animated sitcom. CBS hit upon the idea of turning “Family Dog” into a sitcom and ran with it, producing plush toys, clothing, and dinnerware featuring the title character.
However, all was not well in the sight of CBS’s all-seeing eye. When CBS approached Brad Bird about working on the series, Bird declined, citing his workload with The Simpsons as an excuse. Undeterred, CBS decided to move ahead with the series. However, when crediting the original creators, the marketing left Bird’s name out of the equation, mentioning only Spielberg and Tim Burton (remember how he designed the characters?). Bird was incensed over the snub.
He needn’t have worried. Family Dog (the sitcom) was savaged by critics upon its release in June 1993. The series only lasted ten episodes before leaving the airwaves.
However, that sad story doesn’t detract from the original short. It doesn’t bear much resemblance to Brad Bird’s other work, but it is fun to see what he did before he became famous. It’s worth a watch, and you can do so below!
What do you think of “Family Dog”? What other relics should we dig out of The Attic of Animation?
Edited by: Hannah Wilkes