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‘Teen Titans Go’: Animation for All Ages Celebrates Major Milestone Ahead of Feature Film

Teen Titans Go
Courtesy of Cartoon Network

Warner Bros. Animation may be best known for a legacy library of titles that range from “Scooby Doo” to “Tom and Jerry” to Bugs Bunny and Batman, but “Teen Titans Go!” is quickly inching up on the list of important players for the studio. Just in time for Cartoon Network’s 25th anniversary, the animated youth hit is celebrating its 200th episode.

“One of the things ‘Titans’ has been very great for is it allows us to be very current, not only in the humor but the style,” says Sam Register, president of Warner Bros. Animation and Warner Digital Series. “I think that’s great for a studio that leans on legacy to be able to have something that really feels contemporary.”

Based on DC Comics characters Robin, Starfire, Cyborg, Raven and Beast Boy, “Teen Titans Go!” was developed as a loose spinoff to Cartoon Network’s “Teen Titans” series, which ran from 2003-6, but with a new animation style and solidly comedic tone.

“To subvert the genre in a comedic way, the genre has to be super popular,” says executive producer Michael Jelenic. “Early on we had this idea of, ‘what if we treated the superheroes almost as the villains?’ Not that they’re bad but that they can be more destructive.”

Register acknowledges that some of the “secret sauce” to “Teen Titans Go!” is that five-character team, all of whom come with their own very distinct personalities. “All together they’re just engaging and endearing, and people love to see what they’re going to do next,” he says.

Despite having roots in DC, the show, which premiered in 2013, was not approached as a “comic book show,” says executive producer Aaron Horvath. “They’re comic book characters, and we play with a lot of tropes, but it was never intended to be something like the original show would have done with, ‘who’s the villain and let’s save the world.’ The joke is taking a small idea and blowing it up — like going to get a sandwich but having to get parts from the four corners of the universe.”

While Horvath calls earlier episodes a little more “traditional” in storytelling approach, team members became more confident in themselves and their audience as time went on. This allowed them to expand outward from stereotypical youth programming topics into things adults would want to watch, as well — like real estate, the danger of pyramid schemes and an upcoming tale that tries to explain quantum theory in superposition. This posed a fresh creative challenge in making those topics accessible to younger ages, but it was one the producers welcomed.

“That’s something we haven’t seen before in kids’ shows, so we feel like we’re breaking new ground,” Horvath says.

The answer was to take really specific stories and build them out in a “high energy and fun way, and with characters that you like,” Jelenic says.

Setting has been important to the show, too — not only as a way of grounding the story in a brightly colored familiar place that kids would want to come back to, but also to create episodes that are “reasonable to produce” at the speed at which the show works, Horvath notes.

“Since we focus on the characters and making their interaction funny, you can set that anywhere,” he says. “The scale grows in the third act, but for the first two acts, the bulk of the episode can just take place in their bedrooms or kitchen. That grounds it but still has a wish fulfillment factor of superhero kids living in a place with no supervision at all.”

The team Horvath and Jelenic have assembled works fast and furiously to churn out short-form animated episodes at double the speed of many other programs. That is how in only four years they are already hitting 200 episodes.

“If we want to do something that looks amazing, everyone has to be super efficient at their jobs,” Jelenic says. “But there is a joy in working so quickly, and we’re immensely proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish.”

And while episodes of “Teen Titans Go!” on Cartoon Network are short-form in length, the team behind the hit show is embarking upon a feature film journey next.

Due to bow in 2018, “Teen Titans Go! to the Movies” will star the series cast alongside some heavy voice-over hitters including Kristen Bell and Will Arnett, the latter of whom is also a producer.

“It was fortuitous timing,” Horvath says of the film deal. “We keep thinking the show has hit its peak, but somehow it keeps going and the audience keeps getting bigger.”