The Pilot Program is a look at various merchandise-centric cartoons that were released as specials in the 80s & 90s; while they were clearly set up to go to series, they never did. Every entry will look at a new show, who made it, what it was selling, and whether it would’ve made a good series.
FLUPPY DOGS (1986)
SUMMARY: The Fluppies are dogs that talk like humans, can switch between being bipedal & quadrupedal, and come from a land of ice with a perpetual aurora borealis (a “rainbow sky”, as they put it). A band of five, however, have been pulled from their home and are stuck bouncing around dimensions. Using a crystal key & Ozzie’s ability to sniff out the doorways, they eventually make their way to Earth. Once there, they are caught and taken to the pound, where their leader Stanley is adopted by a woman. This woman, Mrs. Bingham, is getting her son Jamie a dog for his birthday, but Jamie is disappointed that his new dog isn't “tough, like a police dog”. However, after Stanley saves Jamie from an accident at a construction site, the two become friends & Jamie realizes he doesn't have a normal dog. And then they discover that petting Stanley’s head gives off a magic glowing dust that makes things float, such as Jamie’s bed. In other words, magic dandruff. Jamie convinces his teenage neighbor Claire to adopt one of the Fluppies & start helping them get out of the pound. Meanwhile, the town’s resident rich-asshole-trophy-hunter-who-controls-everything, J.J. Wagstaff, plots to steal a Fluppy for his captive menagerie of exotic animals. After a false alarm with a door in Jamie’s house letting a gentle giant creature called the Lumpus loose and Jamie having some disputes with his mother because he can’t just tell her what’s going on, the Fluppies finally find the door home by the town library. Unfortunately for them, their crystal key is starting to burn out and will eventually stop working; worse, thanks to the light from their aurora borealis, Wagstaff is able to find them & kidnap Ozzie. The kids, Fluppies, and the Lumpus go to rescue him, get captured, and then use the magic dandruff to rip the upper floor of Wagstaff’s mansion off, free the animals, and drop it by the library. The Fluppies run off to get home, with the Lumpus shoving Wagstaff & his butler in along with them. After a flash forward to winter, the kids are reunited with the Fluppies, who have now brought all their friends along to enjoy Earth with them.
MISCELLANEOUS: This is where I note various things I observed while watching, usually in bullet format.
- This is another one-hour special, and more so than Star Fairies, this feels padded to reach that time.
- The Fluppies are “mythical creatures that can walk and talk like humans” according to Wagstaff’s guides. Our band consists of Stanley (blue, the cheerful leader), Tippi (pink/purple, the girliest and most determined to get home), Ozzie (green, the one who can sniff out the doors to other worlds), and twins Bink & Dink (yellow & red, respectively).
- The Lumpus looks like a cross between one of the Wuzzles and the dragon from Pete’s Dragon, while one of the dogs in the pound (the one the Fluppies try to converse with) resembles hound dogs seen in movies such as 101 Dalmations and The Fox and the Hound.
- The producer & director of this special is Fred Wolf, one of the founders of the Murakami-Wolf-Swenson Studios (a.k.a. Fred Wolf Films). It’s probably best remembered for the 1980s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series. This is the first I've heard of the founder of one studio doing work for another, unless this meant that Disney outsourced the actual making of the special to MW.
- As someone who works with a dog rescue, I appreciate that this show portrays Mrs. Bingham adopting her son’s dog from a shelter instead of buying one from a pet store.
- Why doesn't Jamie tell his mother about their magic blue dog? Because Stanley urges him not to. Why? Story reason is “they’ll think we’re freaks”, meta reason is to pad out time and justify some forced wackiness & drama with Jamie’s mother.
- So... I guess we should just assume Wagstaff and his poor, poor butler just froze to death in Fluppiland? We never see them again.
- This is the only show I have ratings info on, and it was the lowest rated prime time program for the week of Thanksgiving in 1986. Sadly, I’m not surprised.
PRODUCTION COMPANY: Oh, c’mon, you know Disney. This was one of their works in the 80s, when the then-new management of Eisner & Wells started to expand into television. They had other successful specials such as Mickey’s Christmas Carol (the second-best version of the tale) and a successful TV show with The Wuzzles, which was reportedly only cancelled because one of the lead voices, Bill Scott, passed away. This special aired while Gummi Bears was still airing and pre-dates the seminal Ducktales. For more information, as usual, please see this database for a breakdown of Disney’s still-thriving TV work.
VOICE ACTING SPOTLIGHT: There’s a few actors I want to talk about here, but let me get to one of my favorites of all time first. Lorenzo Music is so incredibly underrated. He never needed to do voice acting (he’d made more than enough from producing), and he didn't have a vast range, but it was the work he loved doing the most. Probably best remembered as the voice of Garfield until his death, he was also featured in numerous ads (most memorably as one of the Crash Test Dummies) and will always be the definitive voice of Peter Venkman in my heart thanks to Real Ghostbusters. His work here as the dependable Ozzie is no less charming than any of these. When he wasn't voice acting for fun, he was volunteering to help others at suicide hotlines, and his friends in the VA field all talk about him as the kindest man ever. I still use his sweetly laid back voice as a basis for characters in my work to this day, and I wish I could’ve met him.
As usual, the other VAs warrant a mention for their work as well. Amusingly, Marshall Efron was Music’s costar as the villainous Synonymess Botch in Twice Upon a Time and does a charming job as Stanley. Hal Smith, best known as Otis the Drunk on The Andy Griffith Show and both Flintheart Glomgold & Gyro Gearloose in Ducktales, provides solid work as Dink (the boy twin) and hapless butler Hamish. Finally, this makes our third straight show to have Susan Blu in a featured role. It’s a voice actor hat trick!
THE MERCH: I owned a Fluppy Dog. It looked like a stuff doggy with black shiny-button eyes and yarn hair; yes, it was as cute as you’d expect, and I wish I still had it. Craft companies even sold sewing patterns for making them little clothes. Fluppy merchandise is weird – none of the dogs have the same names or design conceits across the different kinds of merchandise (for instance, Ozzie was “Green Flup” or “Cool Flup” in books & on packaging). Also, the art was a lot softer & (for lack of a better descriptor) cutesy on books, lunch boxes, and the like. Even the name of the toy line was different – outside of printed materials, they were originally called Fluppy Puppies. As usual, Ghost of the Doll has a great guide to the line. Even the origin and number of Fluppies is different in the toy-verse. Only the four-pack of story books appears to take its cue from the TV show.
Maybe the reason the interest level for this wound up being so low is that Disney actually didn't quite know how to synchronize the merchandise and creative arms like they do now. It’s hard to believe now, given they’re so ubiquitous, but back then was when they were just starting on the strategies we now see. I can imagine kids who watched this & wanted toys from it being a bit baffled. It’s worth sharing this quote from the Wikipedia page on the special: “Based on these designs it would appear that the Fluppy Dogs were originally targeted to young girls, and by the time it reached post-production, the focus was changed dramatically, but it was not enough to form a concrete target audience, which might explain its failure to become a regular series.” Pretty much spot on, Wiki author.
COMMENTS: This special made me sad. There were so many things I like in it – a solid VA cast, magical doggies, tied to a toy line I actively liked. But as I said on Twitter, my disappointment in it was so tangible that I could adopt it as a pet. There were just so many things that didn’t gel in this and took what good elements there were down with them.
Let’s start with the plot. There is just not enough plot to sustain the length of this special. We have five chase scenes, only two of which are plot relevant; we have visits to three dimensions - one before reaching Earth that’s unnecessary, one where there’s just a lot of water, & the one with the Lumpus; we have the unnecessary “you must lie about our abilities to your family for... reasons” subplot with Jamie and his mother. Each of these is drawn out to the point where it stops being interesting even with plot relevance, and the padding is excruciating. At least in Star Fairies you got a vague sense of world-building and a traditional fantasy quest, and that had a similar if less noticeable feeling of being stretched thin. And stuff just doesn’t get explained. The magic dandruff is justified by Stanley saying, “Yeah, this happens sometimes when we’re in other dimensions”. It feels like stuff kept being changed mid-production and no real effort was made to patch the seams.
The characters are likable enough, if a little bland. The villains are the only ones with personality, and sadly, those personalities are “generic rich jerk” & “poor put-upon sidekick”. Worse, there aren’t really any jokes that work except for two – Ozzie’s subdued “Oops, wrong door” reaction as they’re launched in a geyser (which I credit entirely to Lorenzo Music) and the expression on Wagstaff’s face after it’s crushed by the Lumpus’s butt. Stanley has the most personality of the heroes as a perennial seeker of adventure, but he’s really it from the heroes as far as unique personality traits.
The animation is, as you would expect, fluid & vibrant, and the Fluppies are well designed. The humans, however, have an oddness to their designs that I have trouble placing. Jamie & his mother look pretty grounded, Wagstaff & most others look really cartoony, and Claire has eyes way too large for her design, making her look like an early attempt at mimicking anime. They all have solid black irises that blend into their pupils as well. Also, like I mentioned in the Miscellaneous section, some of the ancillary designs feel like they were borrowed from bits & pieces of other things. And the score is worth mentioning, since it really doesn’t fit. A wacky chase in a grocery store is scored like a majestic battle, while a scene of the Fluppies cleaning Jamie’s house has music more suited to footage of a mountain climbing expedition. When you’d expect music, such as the Fluppies’ farewell, there’s silence.
I’d love to know more about what happened with this series behind the scenes. There’s a weird, disjointed tone to it that makes it feel like the plans were changed at least once during production. I doubt anything is out there, though.
WOULD IT WORK AS A SERIES: This is the first time I have to say that it wouldn’t. Everything that would make for an interesting series – the hopping across dimensions, meeting the inhabitants, having an adventure – happens before the opening title screen. The ending just offers an Earth where humans now hang out with dogs who have magic dandruff. Unless it was a prequel series and really played up the light adventure aspects, it wouldn’t be strong enough. While the Fluppies have solid enough bases for personalities, the kids are kind of bland and Wagstaff is a dull one-note villain; worse, a lot of the drama & humor would come from one of those execrable “I must keep this a secret just because” plots, like we saw with Jamie & his mother here. It would need some serious tweaking to make for a good ongoing series.
Next time, we have a shift of focus away from pilots based on girl-targeted toys as we head towards the Nineties. So... Battletoads.