When Pokémon hit the scene in 1998 it was practically an overnight sensation. When it came to America you could not escape it and cashiers everywhere were heard ringing away while perplexed retail employees tried to figure out what to make of this strange new thing. Obviously when something becomes that successful you’re going to have companies who try to ape that success somehow. One of the more interesting imitators that came out during this time period was Digimon, when actually had existed years before as a little virtual pet kids could take care of. Virtual pets had come and gone so it’s safe to assume few people noticed Digimon’s inactivity, but once Pokémon blew up the company who owned the property decided they could use that to capitalize on this new success and fast tracked an anime for production in 1999.
When the series premiered it was known as “Digimon Adventure.” An interesting name that was most likely chosen to reference that this was a series that was being created to sell kids toys. It’s clear in the first few episodes that the creators had not been given much to work with. Chances are they were told to use these weird characters, throw in a few humans, and have them do things together. If it worked for Pokémon it would work here. Even as an old school Pokémon fan I have to admit in retrospect that Pokémon, fun as it was, didn’t exactly give their creations much to do other than fight each other. One gets the sense that even though the creative team for “Digimon Adventure” wasn’t given much to work with they also weren’t given many instructions on what to make either.
So long as there were lots of monsters you could make toys out of they were doing their job. Amazingly the staff decided to take this opportunity to make the best children’s toy commercial they possibly could. Under the circumstances I think they did much better than they logically should have. The series revolves around seven kids who are at a summer camp who find themselves mysteriously transported to a strange land called the Digiworld. In this world there are lots of creatures known as Digimon that live there, and all of the kids seem to have one particular Digimon that attaches themselves to each kid. These are strange creatures that can fight, power up, and speak in human talk (this is one area where Pokémon could get especially annoying sometimes).
Yeah, like I noted above, this show was created to sell toys.
It’s clear early on that the creators are more or less mimicking their much more popular competition and have little to no idea where any of this was supposed to be going. Funny enough, all this ambiguity would end up serving the show well in the long run. After several weeks of getting used to what they were doing the creators threw in a villain named Devimon to serve as a foil to the kids (and separate them so that the creators could start to properly develop them). Once the characters were developed there must have been one heck of a brainstorm session during the production of these episodes, because once the “Devimon Saga” came to an end the show started to get really good.
We found out more about the Digiworld and how it worked in union with the real world. We find out the kids are known as the Chosen Children, and that they have been brought here to bring balance to the world (an event in their past connects them all to this task). Maybe this wasn’t Shakespeare, but hey, at least the point of the show extended beyond “go to the store and buy every monster toy you can find.” The biggest saga in the entire show is the “Myotismon Saga,” where a powerful enemy known as Myotismon decided he wanted to take over the human world and kill the children.
By this point the kids have been developed and the show even hinted at troubled lives some of the kids led. Once back in the real world there was still all that action to be seen, but then the show dealt with some big issues that I don’t think Pokémon would ever tackle. Issues such as divorce, death, poor decisions, domestic violence, and (of course) friendship were dealt with. What’s more impressive is how seriously it took all of this. None of it was delivered in the vein of an afterschool special but as topics that were organically tied to the story. Also of note is that in “Digimon Adventure” the parents are useful and the kids love them. I know this sounds strange to hear, but most kid’s shows have the kids going off on their own adventures.
This happens because kids want their independence in life at one point in time, and cartoon shows were the way to do that within the safe relme of fantasy. In reality I think most kids best friends are their parents, so it’s nice to see a show that understood this. By the time “The Dark Masters Saga” finished off the series it was pretty clear that this show was an anomaly: A thirty minute commercial that was more interesting than the product it was trying to sell. The marketing feeling the show started with was pretty much completely gone by the end of the series. By the end you felt like you just went on a huge journey, one with many twists and turns. It presents the kind of adventure kids liked in their shows before SpongeBob Squarepants changed the game and everything had to have a dozen jokes a minute.
I can’t claim that there were no problems with the show though as there were. The budget was essentially that of a…well, infomercial. That means the animation was extremely limited. Lots of animation was reused because the animators simply did not have the time or money to do much else with it. There are times when they try to be as tactful as they can about this, but there are plenty of times it becomes a distraction. There was a sense that while the creators had more freedom to tell whatever story they wanted to tell they had to at least introduce new Digimon on a frequent basis. There’s a new type of Digimon or two that was introduced in almost every episode whether it had anything to do with what was currently going on or not.
The final problem is exclusive mainly to the English version, but we’ll get to that later. Overall though “Digimon Adventure” is a much smarter kid show than it has any right to be. While it’s pretty obvious that it is made for kids at least the creators had enough respect for their audience to send them on a solid adventure with real characters to follow. When the dust settled and other imitators had come and gone, “Digimon Adventure” stuck around a little bit. Letting the creators largely do their own thing ended up being a huge ace in the hole against Pokémon, and while it never dethroned the mighty Pikachu it did highlight how shallow the whole affair could be.
Unlike most animes at the time that took years to come to America, “Digimon Adventure” came to our shores mere months after the show premiered in Japan. At the time Fox Kids wanted a Pokémon type show that could compete with Kids’ WB so they picked up this new production before it was even finished in Japan. They had Saban Entertainment (who made Power Rangers a household name) handle the translation and localization of the show. I’m not sure what Saban employees thought of their new import, but I get a sense they realized early on that they had picked up something that was better than what they were expecting.
They went to great pains to hire memorable voice actors, they composed a new soundtrack that was largely very good, and they even kept the Japanese names (though some of the kids got abbreviated nicknames). When this started airing it was during the last big hurrah for Saturday morning cartoons. Cable and tablets hadn’t taken away from what was still the biggest marketing day for kids so Fox Kids made sure to let kids know that they had this new show called “Digimon: Digital Monsters” that was coming to their network and it was going to kick Pokémon’s butt. To my recollection the premier of the show was something that was watched by all my friends but was otherwise a non-event. It just seemed like Pokémon and…why watch it when you had the real thing next door?
Like in Japan though the story started to pick up and soon “Digimon” was more anticipated by my friends and I far more than the latest Pokémon episode. Heck, I remember one of my friend’s dad watched an episode with us one morning and seemed genuinely surprised that it wasn’t completely stupid. Sadly, while Saban did much better with the dub than we could have hoped for they still fell into that trap of adding lots of corny jokes in random spots where they didn’t belong. The music was also misused. While a lot of it was good it seemed to be played at random, sometimes not matching the tone of the scene at all. Course we had nothing to compare it to, but the thing about music is that when it’s being misused you can tell.
This year I noticed that the uncut, subtitled version of the show was on Netflix which gave me the opportunity to not only revisit the show, but to finally compare it to what we got all those years ago. In terms of changes there were SOME changes and scenes that I don’t remember being in the English version, but the show is still very child friend! I do profess to enjoying the original score more (if only because it seems to be used in the proper spots in this version), but either one of them is fine when you get down to it. I actually felt a little relieved to find out we weren’t completely screwed over when it came to the translation. In the end “Digimon Adventure” is most certainly a kid’s show, but it’s a very good kid’s show.
I’m young at heart so going through this by myself wasn’t painful. If you have to watch cartoons with your kids this is one of those rare shows that actually make your kids think a little bit about life all while having fun. The show proved to be a huge hit and ran for a few more seasons. However, now that Digimon had a reputation of being the anti-Pokémon, the next season would have to do something even more extreme, and the creators went in a direction that surprised virtually everyone.
We’ll take a look at the aptly titled “Digimon Adventure 02” next week!