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Cartoon Aims Young With Slick Titans

Holy sidekick! Batman's loyal partner, Robin, will moonlight as the team leader of four other young superheroes in Cartoon Network's ambitious new action-packed, half-hour series Teen Titans.

The show, slated to debut Saturday, July 19 at 9 p.m, is based on the DC Comics entry The New Teen Titans. It will also gain exposure via a noon encore the following Saturday on Cartoon, and third Saturday-morning play on The Kids WB beginning next year.

But unlike recent Cartoon superhero series, Teen Titans
isn't out to capture the tween audience of kids aged 9 to 14. Although the show — which melds American and anime-styled animation — aims at the cable channel's 6-to-11 target demographic, the bull's eye this time is the seven-year-old still new to the genre, according to Sam Register, Cartoon senior vice president of original animation.

In order to snare that group, Cartoon has altered the look of its animation and adjusted the story lines to make the plots more understandable to this younger audience.

It is also looking to drum up the aspirational appeal toward the group's insatiable appetite for all things teenage.

"This looks like no other animated action show that people have ever seen," said Register of the show, produced by Warner Bros. Animation. "Cartoon Network is a creator-friendly company. We encourage our people to push the envelope."

Teen Titans' producer, the Emmy-winning Glen Murakami concurred.

"Teen Titans
is different than any other superhero show created for an American or Western market, because no other show has been so heavily influenced by anime," he said.

Given its 9 p.m. premiere time slot on Saturdays, other household members presumably will tune in as well. Indeed, Murakami insisted, there's something for everyone in Teen Titans.

"There's action; there's humor," he said. "The stories are about how people feel and I think everyone can relate to that."

Teen Titans
has been variously dubbed "Superhero Breakfast Club" or "Real World
Meets Power Rangers." According to Register, seven-year-olds "aspire up" to teenagers, and the series plays on this seemingly endless fascination.

Robin — along with Cyborg, Beast Boy, Starfire and Raven — live alone in a high-tech command center reminiscent of a chaotic freshman dorm.

Bruce Wayne's mansion it is not. Dirty dishes abound. They squabble. Sibling rivalries ebb and flow and the characters cope with typical teenage problems: fitting in, jealousies insecurities and bullying.

They are, in Murakami's view, "real teenagers who just happen to have super powers."

Less-epic conflicts

In older-skewing superhero shows, Register explained, the conflicts are epic. Villains are often bent on world domination; explosions cram the screen.

"Kids can see that on CNN these days," he said, alluding to Sept. 11 and the war in Iraq, "Those things are a little scary now."

Instead, Register says they chose to stress local conflicts and more mundane villains, such as bank robbers — plot elements that a 7-year-old can more easily grasp and digest.

Both Register and Murakami emphasize the show's character-driven components.

"Conflict doesn't always originate from an outside force," noted Register. "Some of the conflict emerges from the teenagers. They get on each other's nerves."

Murakami added that the villains help the characters "learn more about themselves."

But don't get the impression that Teen Titans
is reminiscent of sanctimonious after-school specials, or has been somehow stripped of its testosterone.

"Sometimes when people create superheroes for 7-year-olds they think they have to soften the action. We disagree," Register said. "We think 7-year-olds like heavy-duty action. They want to see cool stuff.

"They want to see these characters as powerful, and empowered, teenagers. And we want them to get excited, turn off the TV, run around and emulate these superheroes."

"Cartoon Network has experienced great success with Justice League, so we know we have a loyal audience ready to embrace this exciting new show," Cartoon general manager Jim Samples said.

Cartoon began airing Justice League
in a 10 p.m. weeknight strip this spring, and it's become the No. 1 show in that timeslot among kids 6 to 11. Cartoon scored a 3% gain with this demo overall in primetime, averaging 682,000 such viewers during the second quarter.

Anime touches

To balance out this hyperkinetic energy of Titans, producers inserted plenty of comic relief, often juxtaposing humor and action. Anime techniques are employed to graphically convey humor and emotions.

"We use some 'super-deformed' kind of takes, which I think of as a Japanese equivalent to the Tex Avery approach," said Murakami.

Animation aficionados will recognize the influence of illustrators Bob Peak and Coby Whitmore in the loose, painterly style of the backgrounds.

The Japanese influence can also be found in the original title song performed by Puffy AmiYumi, a Japanese power-pop female duo unearthed by Register in typical Hollywood serendipitous fashion.

Register first stumbled across their music video while watching an obscure Japanese cable channel.

"They were awesome, but the name was in Japanese so I had no idea who they were," he said.

Luckily, while driving in L.A., Register caught an interview with the band on National Public Radio. He pulled his car off the road to listen.

"I became obsessed," he laughed. "I knew they were perfect for Teen Titans."

He subsequently tracked the group down at Sony Music. In partnership with the duo and their American songwriter and producer, Register and Murakami commissioned the series' title song.

Register is clearly stoked about the music.

"It has an infectious Brady Bunch
kind of feel. It's the kind of music kids could be singing for the next 25 years."

The release of Puffy AmiYumi's album Nice, which includes the show's title track, will likely coincide with the Titans
TV bow.

Register also said an original animated pilot is in production, based on the duo and their music that he described as "Yellow Submarine
meets the Olsen Twins."

Such synergies seem par for the course, particularly stemming from Teen Titans.

"I know I'm using marketing-speak here," said Register, a Parsons School of Design graduate. "But Teen Titans
truly is a great example of a vertically integrated project. It's a DC Comic property, produced at Warner Brothers Animation, developed by Cartoon Network for Cartoon Network.

"It has a second play on Saturday afternoon and it will be broadcast on Kids WB six months later on Saturday mornings. It's four entities working hand in hand."