Huh. We should have never doubted you, Nate Wright. You really were destined for greatness after all. I think.
So, the Big Nate television series was released not on Nickelodeon, but on Paramount+ this February, and it is…interesting to say the least. The series has received positive reviews for its animation, art style and most of the character design, while receiving negative reviews for some of the voice roles, the slight inaccuracies to the strip and books, and perhaps worst and most unexpectedly off all, its use of, well…bathroom humor. 🤮 (Guess we’ve learned nothing after all these years.)
I couldn’t help but to notice that there has been a lot less discussion on the series compared to the animated Diary of a Wimpy Kid film for Disney+, which I find somewhat odd because there is actually a lot to discuss. It’s not the only thing Lincoln Peirce has been working on either, with the third and final Max and the Midknights book, The Tower of Time, having been released in March, along with the announcement of a Max and the Midknights television series. Before we begin, I’d like to give a heads-up to obvious spoilers to the series. I also might as well mention that this post ended up being a lot longer than I anticipated, so you’ve been warned of a particularly long class session. 😉 Anyway, it’s time to get out your Cheez Doodles and steer clear of that egg salad once more as we explore this (admittedly debatable) fulfillment of Nate’s destiny!
The Late Developments
A month after my last post about the Big Nate television series in March 2021, it was announced during the Nickelodeon Virtual Upfront Show that the Big Nate television series would be released in September 2021. This contradicted the previous statement with the initial announcement of the series that it would be released last summer. It was a fitting release date for Big Nate‘s school setting, but oddly enough, September came and went without a single update, prompting some concern that Nickelodeon was not keeping their promise on the series.
However, by October 2021, the first footage of the series was leaked on the Nickelodeon game show Tooned In, which revealed Nate’s voice for the first time and reassured fans that Nickelodeon did not forget about the series. By November 2021, Nickelodeon made not one, but two surprising announcements: that a Max and the Midknights television series was greenlit, and that the Big Nate television series would be released in 2022, farther adding to the hype.
In December 2021, it was announced that the series would premiere on Paramount+ instead of Nickelodeon. While this might limit the number of people that could watch the series (at least until it potentially airs on Nickelodeon later on), I was excited for this news as I had subscribed to Paramount+ months ahead of the announcement, and it’s been years since I have tuned into weekly premieres of a television series on cable TV anyway. Having a relatively popular property like Big Nate is also a pretty good portfolio booster for a streaming service that could probably use it. The cast and the 3-D animated models of most of the other main characters were also revealed, including Ben Giroux, who voiced Nate in the footage leaked on Tooned In. The official synopsis of the series was also revealed, which was pretty much in the spirit of the strip and books:
Paramount+’s Big Nate animated series will feature brand-new original storylines centered on Nate, a sixth-grade kid who has a never-ending need to prove his awesomeness to the world. Whether he’s dealing with disasters at home or detention at school, Nate Wright is no stranger to a challenge. Luckily, he’s able to express himself through the world of cartoons that he creates. Charming, mischievous and a magnet for misadventure – trouble is always fun when Nate is around.
By January 2022, the official trailer for the series was released, which revealed the voices of most of the other main characters, as well as the 3-D animated models of a couple more characters. Paramount+ also revealed a February 17 release date and new details about the series’ first episode, titled “The Legend of the Gunting”, which I’ll get into later. It was also announced that a sneak peek of the series would air on Nickelodeon during the halftime show of the NFL playoff football game between the Dallas Cowboys and the San Francisco 49ers the following Sunday, officially kicking off its marketing campaign. Later that month, Paramount+ began releasing short clips for the series on YouTube. The first of these shorts was titled “Theater Antics”, which featured the footage of the series that was leaked on Tooned In. Obviously, I watched all the shorts, and some were definitely…better than others, which I’ll also get into later.
Poptropica also got in on the action with their own advertisement for the series, though it was a bit ironic that Big Nate Island couldn’t coexist with the advertisement. Had the island not been deleted, it could’ve been neat to see Poptropica do something interesting with it to farther celebrate the release of the series. The series ultimately began streaming with the first eight episodes, with the remaining eighteen episodes to be announced at a later date. The show’s second season was ultimately announced in late March.
The day the series was released, GoComics announced that Andrews McMeel Universal will publish a graphic novel series adaptation of the television series. The first installment, Big Nate: Destined for Awesomeness, will release in August 2022. While the prospect of a Big Nate graphic novel is exciting, I checked out the sample provided, and it appears to be a frame-by-frame translation of individual episodes as opposed to offering something new, so I’m personally not that interested in getting it. However, it was also announced that the following installments will drop twice a year through 2024, which may be an indicator of how long the show may run.
Just How Good Are Those Character Designs and Voice Roles?
Before I discuss the series itself, I really want to talk about the character designs, which was a big deal breaker for the fanbase since the franchise had never been 3-D animated before, in a similar way to the animated Diary of a Wimpy Kid film. I also really want to talk about the voice roles, which was an even bigger deal breaker for the fanbase since voices had never been given to these characters before. Generally speaking, the Big Nate characters actually translate to 3-D much better than the Diary of a Wimpy Kid characters do because Peirce more frequently depicts his characters in a 3-D perspective, such as drawing them front-faced more often. As a result, they hardly look as jarring, and there is actually very little to say about most of their designs, which look mostly great, save for some design features that slightly deviate from the strip and books.
Nate’s distinctive spiky hair looks great in 3-D, with the smallest spike at the top of his head placed at the center of his scalp. Notably, a hairline was added to the back of his head, which he does not have in the strip and books. Realistically speaking, the hairline makes sense, especially when compared to Francis’s and Teddy’s hairlines which they do have in the strip and books, so I think it was a good idea. His jeans being torn at one knee is also a nice touch. Francis wears shorts all the time for whatever reason, and I’m curious to see if there will ever be a moment in the series in which he wears pants.
But the most problematic design features are undoubtedly Teddy’s and Dee Dee’s skin tones. Teddy’s skin tone is lighter than in the strip and books, while Dee Dee’s skin tone is darker, which seemed to have been done to emphasize the characters’ respective Hispanic and African American ethnicities. Here’s the thing about Teddy’s design, though: I actually thought he was African American for years before I discovered that he was actually half Mexican and half Puerto Rican. I still consider him to be Afro-Latino and making him lighter diminishes a relatively uncommon example of Afro-Latino representation in media.
As for general design features, it’s time to address the elephant in the room: the characters’ eyes, which is the most distinctive change from the strip and the books. It turns out that I was proved incorrect that the lined eyes would be featured in the series, but I considered it relatively wishful thinking anyway. The only characters that have lined or dotted eyes are those that wear glasses such as Francis and Dee Dee, which the animators probably figured created enough detail on that part of the face. Even in these cases however, the lined eyes appear more oval shaped. Nevertheless, there is one moment in the short “Theater Antics” in which Nate’s eyes briefly become this somewhat lined oval shape, but there are no such moments in the actual show, at least not yet. The detailed eyes do look pretty good though, and I got used to them rather quickly, probably due to how long-ago Nate’s design was revealed in the Nickelodeon “Next-Gen” poster. I also like how the characters get lines in their faces whenever they move their eyebrows or widen their eyes, a neat little detail that the animators really didn’t have to do.
Now let’s talk about the voice roles, of which the main criticism from fans is that the boy characters’ voices sound too deep compared to what they imagined them as sounding in their heads after all these years. This is because the cast consists entirely of adults as opposed to the animated Diary of a Wimpy Kid film, whose high-pitched voices are unconvincing. But here’s the thing: Peirce himself actually likes the adult voice roles. And believe it or not, there is actually precedent for a deeper voiced Nate in the book trailer to the first Max and the Midknights book from 2019, three years before the series premiered, which I’ll show below:
With that being said, I too have imagined the characters with higher pitched voices, and it admittedly took some time to get used to. But this does explain why the characters sound more like eighth graders than sixth graders at best: they were apparently always meant to sound that way. Even if you could accept that, I do think that some of the voice actors’ dialects (the way lines are spoken, not the pitch) could be better for their characters, which I’ll get into later.
The Pilot Episode
Just like I did for The Magic School Bus and The Magic School Bus Rides Again, I’m going to discuss the pilot episode, before discussing the portrayal of the characters, the art style and animation, and the most notable moments in the other episodes and shorts. “The Legend of the Gunting” is one of the better episodes of the series, which is a relief considering that it is the first episode of a television series that determines whether new viewers will keep watching it. The episode begins in Mrs. Godfrey’s class with Nate complaining about how much he hates her while making it clear how great teachers are. I thought this was interesting, as it seems to be a message to parents that may get the wrong idea about Big Nate, even if it felt a bit out of character for Nate to say. Mrs. Godfrey then gives Nate detention for a doodle he made of her as the devil, which is the best depiction of the relationship between the characters in the series so far. It is these moments of the “battle eternal” Nate describes that I hope we’ll see more of.
After this, the theme song plays, and I have to say, it was pretty surreal to hear a song (outside of the musical) that I can associate with Big Nate. The song itself, while kind of short, is pretty great, evoking Nate’s rebellious nature while implementing 2-D animations of Nate’s art style. While I was also proved incorrect that 2-D animations of Peirce’s illustrations would be implemented in the series, it’s just as great to see 2-D animations of Nate’s illustrations being implemented. The part with Ultra-Nate (who oddly enough hasn’t been mentioned by name yet so far) fighting a monstrous test was my favorite. The song ends with Nate being squashed by his own logo; a hilarious final scene that nicely represents how things don’t always work out of him despite his self-proclaimed awesomeness.
After class, a
peanut cashew-clad Dee Dee tells Nate about how drama club is doing a quite literal reimagining of the play A Raisin in the Sun, accompanied with the first of many collage-like animations that, while neat and funny in their own silly way, feel out of place with the 3-D animation style and the 2-D animations of Nate’s art style in my opinion. Francis then arrives, who receives the news of the detention and warns Nate that he will get “gunted” if he gets another detention before the end of the week. Dee Dee asks what that means, leading Nate to tell her, in the first full 2-D animation sequence of Nate’s art style, about Brad Gunter, his prankster inspiration. In a pleasant surprise, Gunter is voiced by Jack Black in a guest appearance, with Gunter’s design giving off some genuinely neat Black vibes.
According to the episode’s titular legend, Gunter was an old student from P.S. 38 who disappeared after becoming the first to get five detentions in a single week. In a subtle callback to In A Class By Himself, Francis clarifies to Nate that he’s already gotten four detentions in two days, making him fear that Nate will disappear as well if he gets another detention. This leads Nate to try to avoid getting any new detentions for the rest of the week, which is disrupted when Principal Nichols asks students to show new student Bentley Carter around P.S. 38, who is apparently rich. Nate is eager to take up the task, until he discovers that Carter is also a troublemaker who is more insane than he is. While I like this interesting new spin on the novel Lives It Up, Carter’s design and mannerisms consist of gross-out humor such as dandruff and mucus that make him unsettling to watch. While I get that it’s meant to be a visual representation of his behavior, it’s a bit extreme compared to say, Nick Blonsky’s spitting. But that’s not even the worst gross-out humor in the series, which I’ll get into later.
Carter begins a series of exceptionally cruel pranks that Nate fears he will be blamed for. This leads him to tell Francis, Teddy and Dee Dee about his concerns, making an already suspicious Dee Dee decide to look into his transcripts. After a hilariously perfect introduction to Marty, Dee Dee changes into a James Bond outfit that echoes her spy outfit in Flips Out to sneak into Nichols’ office for the transcripts, where she discovers something shocking. By Friday, Nate attempts to convince Carter not to proceed with an elaborate prank at an assembly, but he threatens to become enemies with Nate if he continues to get in his way instead. Nate releases his anger in a bathroom stall, where he talks to a man that he soon realizes is an older Gunter. And I got to say, Gunter’s voice really does give off the vibes of a legendary figure while not sounding quite like Jack Black, a reminder of just how great a voice actor he is.
Nate tells Gunter how he fears of getting gunted if he tries to stop Carter, but also fears that he isn’t destined for awesomeness after all if he doesn’t try to stop him, an internal conflict that gets at the heart of his character. After Nate discovers that the man was Gunter, he tells Nate that people who are truly destined for awesomeness never keep their head down. After Nate questions whether Gunter was actually there, he decides to take his chances and try to stop Carter, basically realizing that he won’t necessarily disappear if he gets gunted. Nate gets to the assembly, where he sees Carter about to dump a “vegetarian surprise” from the lunchroom on Nichols. Nate tries to stop the prank, but Mrs. Godfrey gets in the way, triggering another 2-D animation sequence of Nate trying to avoid her before he pushes Nichols out of the way, becoming the victim of the prank instead. While Nate’s drawing of himself as a knight is pretty cool, it could’ve been even cooler if it was Ultra-Nate fighting Mrs. Godzilla.
Nate’s friends come to his rescue, where Dee Dee reveals that Carter was actually an escapee from a juvenile correctional institution named Merl Lazenbee, who was faking his identity as a rich kid on his transcripts to get into P.S. 38. Apparently, Nichols was too excited about getting Carter’s family to fund the school to look at the transcripts, which have some pretty hilarious issues. Carter is expelled, and Nichols not only doesn’t give Nate detention, but he revokes all of the detentions he received throughout the week, to Mrs. Godfrey’s disappointment. Curiously, “Don’t You” by Simple Minds plays next, the first of many 80’s songs that briefly plays throughout the series. While the show’s target audience will probably just dismiss these songs as being old, I actually really like this idea, as it is a surefire way to keep parents interested in the series. It also follows a recent trend of older songs in movies and television shows started by Guardians of the Galaxy. Call me one of those people, but I also really like older songs myself, and personally feel that many newer songs wouldn’t be as fun to hear.
Now believing he was destined for awesomeness after all, Nate catches sight of Gunter in person at dismissal, confirming that he really was there. Gunter promises Nate that he was destined for awesomeness before he and his friends run off, followed by Nichols accidentally hitting Gunter with a quadcopter and apologizing. It’s a bit odd to see a legendary prankster get hit by something you’d expect him to easily avoid, but at least Nichols gets to have something of a last laugh, even if he wasn’t aware that it was Gunter. The credits then roll, which features a comic strip drawn by Peirce himself that references the episode’s plot. It is easily the best homage to the source material in the series, but because it was such a great idea, it really only works well when an episode is particularly good. When an episode isn’t as good, its comic strip suffers as well, ultimately making the source material appear worse than it is, at least the earlier strips. As for the other episodes, you’ll see what I mean shortly.
The Other Episodes, The Shorts and Everything Else
Sure, “The Legend of the Gunting” does a good job at telling an original story by subtly retreading original territory. But as the series progresses, its issues become increasingly apparent, such as the slightly inaccurate portrayals of many of the characters. Let’s start with the Nickname Czar himself. It’s pretty clear that Ben Giroux loves the role of Nate, who improves on his voice in the Max and the Midknights book trailer. The core part of his character – a kid who’s always getting in trouble for rebelling against the school system in his pursuit to live a life of awesomeness – is also faithfully presented. The bigger problem with Nate is the smaller details about his character that are either not depicted, such as his hatred for figure skating and egg salad; or are depicted but are not accurate to the strip, such as him eating Cheezy Snacks instead of Cheez Doodles and his ailurophobia.
In the strip, Nate got his fear of cats at four years old when he visited a pet store and was attacked by a four-month-old kitten named Cinnamon. In the series, however, he gets his fear of cats because of a lie Marty told him to discourage him from wanting a cat when he was younger, as revealed in the episode “CATastrophe”. I actually didn’t know about this detail until other fans started complaining about it, though, so while it doesn’t bother me that much, it does make me question the full extent of the writers’ research into the strip.
Another (admittedly more superficial) detail I really wished we could see more in Nate is the outlandish facial expressions he often makes in the strip and books whenever he reacts to something particularly shocking. It’s actually a huge part of what endeared me to the strip in the first place, as these facial expressions offer some of the best visual gags in the strip. I might blame this on the more detailed eyes, which probably cheapen the impact of these more extreme facial expressions, though it’s not like the animators aren’t trying. In the episode “Go Nate, It’s Your Birthday”, there is one face Nate makes that gets pretty close, but he looks more like a zombie than anything else, which actually gave me a bit of a jump scare before I laughed. Okay, so perhaps they’ll give anyone jump scares no matter what in this medium, but I remain eager to see Nate make a facial expression that’s closer to those in the strip.
Daniel MK Cohen never really tries to give Francis a nerdy or nasal dialect in his voice that I would expect him to have. He’s a lot nicer to Nate than he is in the strip and books, which makes the sometimes-complicated friendship that they have less interesting. However, I think that this is probably because of the relative lack of attention given to his character development. An interesting exception is the episode “Time Disruptors”, in which Principal Nichols tasks him with tutoring a student at Jefferson Middle School that he develops feelings for named Sabina Shah. While their relationship is cute, it’s inaccurate to Francis’s girlfriend in the strip, Shelia Stapleton, and it takes the focus away from his friendship with Nate in the one episode that is about him. Also, there is hardly any mention of his Book of Facts, though it will probably make its debut in future episodes. I really hope that later in the series, more attention is given to Francis’s friendship with Nate so that we get a story emulating that of the drama of Flips Out.
Teddy is also nicer to Nate than he is in the strip and books, which I also believe is due to the relative lack of attention given to his character development. I also found it interesting how the writers really wanted to make it clear to anybody else who hasn’t figured it out by now that Teddy is Hispanic, from the accent Arnie Pantoja gives him to his Uncle Pedro getting a lot more screen time than I expected. Rob Delaney’s role as Marty is pretty much perfect, and he remains his clueless, awkward self. But he is also much goofier and even less serious now, to the point that he feels more immature than Nate at times, which sometimes makes his parenting moments not as convincing. And of course, we can’t forget when Marty told Nate that cats apparently suck people’s souls out of their noses.
What they did with Ellen was pretty interesting. A relatively minor character in the strip and books, she spends much of her time being either rude or indifferent to Nate. In the series, she has a lot more screen time than I expected, creating more room to really explore their sibling rivalry. As a result, she feels nicer to Nate than in the source material in a similar way to Francis and Teddy, but I actually kind of welcome it because of this attention given to her character development, particularly in the short “How to Annoy Your Older Sister”. Like Marty, Dove Cameron is also pretty much perfect in the role. This approach to Ellen doesn’t always work though, particularly in the episode “The Pimple” when she gets a bit too intrusive in Nate’s life and is easily the worst episode in the first season, which I’ll get into later. And I do wish that more attention is given to Nate hating his teachers telling him to be more like Ellen, as well as her love for cats and figure skating, though it will probably be explored in future episodes.
Like Nate, Carolyn Hennesy improves on Mrs. Godfrey’s voice in the Max and the Midknights book trailer, to the point that it’s actually my favorite voice role in the series. She also retains her strict and cruel demeanor, as well as the hatred she and Nate have for each other. However, her screen time is surprisingly limited, which is odd because the relationship between the two characters is such a huge part of the strip. Other than “The Legend of the Gunting”, the only other episodes that give relatively significant attention to Mrs. Godrey are “Belles A Ringin” and “Wilderness Warriors”, neither of which feature Nate’s schemes taking place in her social studies classroom or Nate directly antagonizing her. I never expected Principal Nichols to have such a deep voice, but it makes sense, and it was pretty cool that Kevin Michael Richardson was cast to play him. He is also goofier now to a lesser extent than Marty, rather than simply being a kind yet serious victim of Nate’s pranks, which is particularly evident in the episodes “Valentine’s Day of Horror” and “Wilderness Warriors”.
It appears that Bryce Charles is having a lot of fun in the role of Dee Dee. The shorts initially gave the impression that her personality would be too over-the-top. Luckily, this didn’t end up being the case in the series, as her character is pretty much perfect. Her role as a mediator to Nate and his friends is especially apparent in “Valentine’s Day of Horror”, where she directly addresses the issue of Nate’s extremely unhealthy obsession for Jenny, which I absolutely loved. And while Dee Dee is one of my favorite characters, she has just a bit more screen time than I expected, making me suspect that she is the writers’ favorite character as well. This is particularly clear in “The Pimple”, which features a whole subplot around her to probably deemphasize the awkward main plot of, well…Nate’s pimple. And it’s less apparent in “Wilderness Warriors”, where the subplot at least ties back into the main plot and goes surprisingly deeper into what it is about Dee Dee that the other characters consider annoying (at least the female characters), which I really liked.
What they did with Chad was kind of odd. There is little to no emphasis on some of his most important character traits. His love of food is mentioned in “Valentine’s Day of Horror”, but mostly in passing, while his cuteness and the Power of Chad aspect of his character has not been mentioned yet. The short “How To Get Ripped or Die Tryin” reveals that he has chest hair which echoes a 2020 strip in which he grew a beard, yet he’s hairless in the locker rooms in “The Legend of the Gunting”. The random statements he makes and his behavior are also much weirder than they are in the strip and books. This is most striking in “Belles A Ringin”, where he accidentally ends up in the girl’s bathroom and ends up going insane from staying there too long due to not wanting the girls to catch him leaving. All of these are easy to improve upon, though, and I think Charlie Schlatter gives him the perfect dialect.
Todd Haberkorn gives Artur an accent that perfectly suits his broken English, and Nate’s uneasy relationship with him for dating Jenny is very well depicted in “Valentine’s Day of Horror”. But instead of being from Belarus, he is now from a fictional country called Stylgravia. The change definitely wasn’t done in light of recent world events, as the series was released before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (
whose flag Nate wears proudly on his shirt), but for what it’s worth, the name “Stylgravia” actually sounds pretty cool. Chandni Parekh pulls a dialect fitting for a love interest like Jenny, and she is nicer to Nate than in the strip and books, a change that compliments a Nate that shows more restraint in his obsession with her than in the source material.
I’m actually disappointed to see that Gina has even less screen time than Mrs. Godfrey, as the hatred she and Nate have for each other is another huge part of the strip. The only episode in the series in which she directly antagonizes Nate is “Belles A Ringin”, where she threatens to publish a graphic novel using Nate’s life as inspiration as a punishment for his prank, but even here, her role is a bit undermined. She also does some antagonizing in “Time Disruptors”, but to Francis instead, and to a lesser extent in “Wilderness Warriors” to Dee Dee. Nate does prank her in the shorts “How to Pull a Proper Prank” and “Picture Day”, with the latter even depicting a direct confrontation between the characters, but nothing to the extent of Gina making fun of Nate’s poor grades or Nate expressing just how obnoxious he thinks she is. I also think Lisa Kay Jennings gives Gina a voice that’s too high pitched for her assertive demeanor and hostility to Nate, but I guess it’s meant to reflect the innocence the teachers believe she has.
Speaking of voices, it’s time to address the second elephant in the room that is…um…Randy. Nik Dodani makes Randy sound like his voice is cracking a dozen times per second, often making it hard to hear what he is saying. This deliberately terrible voice was apparently meant to reflect him being a bully, in a similar way to Bentley Carter’s voice. Fans immediately declared it to be the worst voice role in the series, but I actually think this was an interesting idea, at least in theory. In practice, it cheapens any serious moments between him and Nate, which will make a story emulating the masterpiece that was his character arc in Blasts Off that much more difficult. He’s also more of a bully to Nate in the shorts than in the actual show, namely in “Spitsy’s Barking Lessons” and “Locker Makeover Day”, even thanking Nate for pizza in “Valentine’s Day of Horror”. If they do give him a Blasts Off-style redemption arc, I think it would be cool if Dodani toned down the more obnoxious parts of his voice to reflect the changes to his character.
As for the other characters, Mr. Galvin’s authority feels a bit undermined as Nate’s strictest teacher, who even complains of the disrespect he’s given in “The Legend of the Gunting”. His seriousness is also toned down, but only slightly, most notably how frequently he smiles. Mr. Rosa is pretty much perfect, though I would love to see more moments between Nate and his favorite teacher. There isn’t much to say about Coach John either, as well as Kim Cressly, who are as crazy as ever. The same goes for School Picture Guy, as well as Spitsy, other than the fact that I’m eager to see Mr. Eustis. Other characters I’m really eager to see are Ms. Clarke, Mr. Staples, Mrs. Czerwicki, Coach Calhoun, Mrs. Hickson, Peter, Gordie, Wayne, Marcus Goode, Breckenridge Puffington III and especially Chester Budrick, whose trait as an aggressive unseen character could be really fun in this slightly more over-the-top adaptation. It would also be really cool to see Nate eventually get over Jenny so Ruby Dinsmore can show up as well. I’m sure many other fans would prefer Angie or maybe Trudy to show up instead, but I’m personally more interested in Ruby.
And if we’re not getting a Poptropica adaptation anytime soon, at least give us a Cap’n Salty cameo.
Now let’s talk about that beautiful animation. Being a 3-D animated Nickelodeon show, it was very likely for the animators to give the series a relatively bland, uninspired art style. But when the trailer first came out, the first thing everyone noticed was an art style that was distinctly unique. Many fans still preferred a 2-D animated show, but it cannot be denied that this was pretty much the best possible route a 3-D animated adaptation could take. The characters almost look as though the animators had created figurines that could’ve been used for stop-motion. This can best be seen in close-ups, where you can see what almost looks like visible traces of paint on their faces. You can also see the leather in some of the characters’ clothes, as if the animators actually sewed them to put on the figures. Even the way the characters interact with their environment stands out, such as when Nate dents the bathroom stall after he bangs it in “The Legend of the Gunting”. The detail given to the terrible condition of P.S. 38 is also admirable, a fact that I admittedly overlooked until I remembered how it was described in Lives It Up. It definitely exceeds Nickelodeon standards and could have easily been used for a film adaptation. In fact, it’s even better than the passable but bland art style of the animated Diary of a Wimpy Kid film, an outcome I certainly wasn’t expecting.
While some episodes in the first season are pretty well written, other episodes have subpar writing that are mostly bogged down by gross-out humor, which is unfortunately exaggerated thanks to the stellar animation. “Go Nate, It’s Your Birthday” is a good episode that depicts the antics of Nate and his friends outside of P.S. 38 pretty well. “Valentine’s Day of Horror” was a great introduction to Artur, Jenny and Nate’s relationship to both characters, and did a great job at toning down Nate’s obsession with Jenny. It even presented a good chance to depict how Nate’s attempts to impress Jenny fail, but it did so by making vomiting a particularly heavy theme, which undermines the episode’s strengths. Thankfully, “CATastrophe” handled that better.
I’m also on the fence about the way Jefferson Middle School and the P.S. 38-Jefferson relationship is depicted in “Time Disruptors”. The school’s appearance looks drastically different in the series than it does in Goes For Broke, rejecting its museum design in favor of a Greco-Roman motif. While undeniably impressive, especially in this art style, it’s not the Jefferson we know. Principal Nichols also seems to have betrayed P.S. 38, with his idea to fund the school by having Francis tutor a Jefferson student and even sneak into Jefferson pretty traitorous. At least Nate points this out to Nichols, and he seems to realize the error of his ways. This, along with Francis’s relationship with Sabina, makes the episode feel like an attempt to mend P.S. 38-Jefferson relations. While I think this is an interesting idea, it’s too early in the series to foster peace between the schools. The least we should get before this rivalry ends is a story closer to that of Goes For Broke so Nichols can spend as much time in Jefferson as he wants.
But the worst episode of the first season, at least in my opinion, was without a doubt “The Pimple”. It’s true that acne has been mentioned in the source material every now and then, but not to the point that we needed an entire episode about it. And it’s also true that Nate deeming his pimple lucky echoes Chad’s lucky foot in In The Zone. Ellen pranks Nate about the pimple, but once the pimple’s apparent luck turns sour, she just walks into P.S. 38 with little explanation in order to pop Nate’s pimple to stop the students from doing it themselves. Dee Dee’s detached subplot also suggests a lack of confidence from the writers that anyone will care about this main plot, and should’ve honestly been the focus of the episode instead. The episode does have one redeeming quality: Nate uses the Stink Bomb from Big Nate Island in one scene, a reference that suggests the writers are in fact aware of it and gives me a little bit more hope in a Poptropica adaptation, however fleeting. The Stink Bomb is mentioned in a 1993 strip, but the bomb’s design is clearly taken from the game.
I also have incredibly mixed thoughts on the shorts, of which there are many things about them that are both really good and really bad. On one hand, the shorts actually depict many parts of the Big Nate mythos better than the actual show does. I’m not sure if it’s an indicator that shorter episodes may work better for the show, but at least there are always opportunities for the show to feature them. These include Nate’s locker in “Locker Makeover Day”, Mr. Rosa’s waffle coma in “Picture Day”, and the numerous other examples I previously mentioned. On the other hand, the shorts amplify the goofier parts of the show at times, such as the behavior of Nate and his friends in “Theater Antics” and “How to Get Ripped or Die Tryin”, and parts of “How to Pull a Proper Prank” and “Spitsy’s Barking Lessons”. But nowhere is this more acute than in the third elephant in the room that is…uh…well…
When I first watched the shorts, I initially believed that they were actually clips from the show itself. So, while the goofiness of the other shorts was a bit off-putting, I was convinced that they were simply showing us the goofiest parts of the show, and that the parts they weren’t showing us would balance things out. Then I saw the brain-numbing, heart-shattering horror that is “The Butt Cheeks Song”. The short is about Enslave the Mollusk – oh, I mean Fear the Mollusk. This change was apparently made out of fear that slavery is too mature a topic for children, despite the fact that the show’s target audience has likely already learned about it in school by now. The reference in Big Nate is more figurative than literal, and even if it was literal, I believe that there are ways to address the topic of slavery in children’s media with care, nuance and respect.
But it’s the song that’s far more problematic. This is a band with songs that hardly feature any bathroom humor, such as “Baa Baa Black Sheep”, “It’s a Pen’s World, and I’m a #2 Pencil” and “Wipe Out”. Okay, so “Hot Cross Buns” might mildly imply it, but did that seriously call for what is easily the worst instance of bathroom humor in both the shorts and the show? For a show that features old songs, you’d think they’d at least have
Enslave Fear the Mollusk sing a cool remix of a Beatles song or an AC/DC song. It would be even cooler if they sang an equally cool remix of a song from the musical. But instead, we have a better solo performance in Francis’s song about Sabina in “Time Disruptors”, even if it isn’t perfect. Obviously, “The Butt Cheeks Song” immediately convinced me that we had a disaster on our hands. And you wouldn’t believe my relief to see that the shorts were not only separate from the show, but that the show itself wasn’t quite as goofy as the shorts were. The Butt Cheeks Song is featured in the credits of “Belles A Ringin”, though, an appearance we can only hope is its last. The day we get an episode about Enslave Fear the Mollusk, let’s have a song that references the episode’s plot instead like we saw in In The Zone.
Finally, I have some thoughts on the show’s humor, in which I couldn’t help but to notice that the slapstick humor of the strip is now a lot more frequent and exaggerated, while there is less emphasis on the more subtle humor of the strip’s one liners. This can be seen in the massive ball of bubble gum in “The Legend of the Gunting”, but it’s especially apparent in “Belles A Ringin”. The blacktop scene feels more like something Nate would have drawn a comic about, from tornadoes to octopus tentacles attacking the students. It does work sometimes, though, such as a scene in the same episode in which Nate orders a literal tiger, which feels more believable considering the numerous cases of Nate releasing large animals on P.S. 38 on Prank Day. And I might as well mention that Peirce is certainly doing his part to keep the strip’s one-liners relevant as a consultant on the show, who gets to look over scripts and throw extra jokes in the dialogue, such as Principal Nichols mentioning that he sold his own plasma to help fund the school.
Ultimately, Big Nate is an above average television series with an assortment of strengths and weaknesses that makes it a relatively decent effort at adapting the strip and books. Its choice to tell original stories instead of adapting existing ones was a unique and bold idea, but it required an ability to fully replicate the spirit of Peirce’s writing that doesn’t always shine through. It has a firm grasp on the basics of the source material but a looser grip on the finer details, making it feel different from what’s come before but not always in the best ways. Its tolerable and even entertaining at times for seasoned fans, and it will probably bring in new fans, but they may be surprised to see that the strip and books are just a little bit better.
Is Nate Still Destined for Greatness?
Okay, so the Big Nate television series didn’t fully meet up to expectations. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The good thing about a television series is that unlike a film series, in which you have to wait a considerably long time for a sequel to improve upon its predecessor, a television series releases new seasons within a shorter time span, as indicated by the announcement of a second season a month after the show’s release. This means that we won’t have to wait too long to see if the second season, if not subsequent seasons of the show, improve upon the first.
With that being said, the outcome of the show does have me a little concerned about the Max and the Midknights television series. If the Big Nate television series is anything to go by, it seems likely that the Max and the Midknights television series could suffer from the same issues, and it’s not like the books don’t have a shortage of tame bathroom jokes to amplify. But it’s the structure of Max and the Midknights‘ storytelling that has me more concerned. With the Big Nate television series, self-contained stories work for it because most storylines written for comic strips are short enough to be told within a half-hour format. I think original stories can work for the Max and the Midknights television series, but I also think that a more story-driven show would work better for it given how big the Midknights’ adventures are. Maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised if Nickelodeon can make self-contained stories work for it as well, but I really hope that they take advantage of the extra hours television grants to capture the true scope of the Midknights’ quests.
As far as the Big Nate television series is concerned, while it’s still too early to tell, I have a gut feeling that the show will improve, as most of its issues are easily fixable. And as clearly explained above, there’s still so much of the strip’s lore that future episodes need to explore, which will really help. Maybe that’s a bit too optimistic for some people, but the fact that Big Nate finally has an adaptation after waiting all these years still feels kind of surreal to me, so I can’t help but to be hopeful for a progressively better show. And if I am proven right, I think we will be able to safely say that at least on the small screen, Nate will have truly surpassed all others.
Wow, that sure was a long class session, wasn’t it? I’m pretty sure I didn’t forget anything. And before you point it out, I did in fact cover Max and the Midknights: The Tower of Time, just not on the blog. I will be posting my review of The Tower of Time to my Goodreads shortly, as this already long post would’ve kept you in class past the dismissal bell if I included it here. So, if you do want to stick around after school, you can check out the review if you want to see my thoughts on the Midknights’ final adventure.
Until Mrs. Godfrey yells at us again, folks. 😉