How ‘The Cuphead Show!’ Brings the Golden Age of Animation to the Modern Day

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When the video game “Cuphead” was released in 2017, it became something of an instant classic in the animation community. Studio MDHR’s shoot ‘em up indie platformer, in which players take control of the title character as he goes on a quest to defeat the devil, is a loving tribute to the Golden Age of animation, with graphics that mimic the rubber hose style of the earliest Mickey Mouse and Fleischer Studios shorts. Even Dave Wasson, who doesn’t normally play video games, kept his eye on the game when it was first announced in 2013. And when he sat down to play it, he was completely blown away.

“They just nailed it in a way that I don’t think anybody else really ever has in any medium since the original 1930s,” Wasson says.

Wasson is now the executive producer and showrunner for “The Cuphead Show!” a new Netflix animated series that adapts the original game. The show is set to launch Feb. 18, with 12 episodes that run around 10 minutes each, telling the story of Cuphead (Tru Valentino) and his brother Mugman (Frank T. Todaro) as they navigate the colorful and often dangerous Inkwell Isles.

The developers of the “Cuphead” game, brothers Chad and Jared Moldenhauer, serve as executive producers on the Netflix adaptation. According to Chad, Netflix approached them about creating a “Cuphead” series shortly after the game launched, and while they initially assumed a deal would never come to fruition, their licensing company King Features and its president C.J Kettler worked to eventually make it a reality for them. The brothers conducted extensive interviews to find a creative head for the show, but knew when they met Wasson that he and his co-executive producer Cosmo Segurson that they would be a perfect fit to translate their game to television.

“We knew that was going to be the key, that we could find talented people that understood the same kind of language, talking about these early cartoons,” Chad Moldenhauer says. “We interviewed a lot of people, and Dave and Cosmo stood out as the perfect team, where it got to a point where we knew they knew how to roll with it without needing much input.”

Luke Millington-Drake as The Devil in “The Cuphead Show!” COURTESY OF NETFLIX

Prior to working on “The Cuphead Show!,” Wasson was best known for creating “Time Squad” for Cartoon Network. But he also spent six years working as a writer and director for a series of Mickey Mouse shorts that ran on Disney Channel from 2013 to 2019. Those shorts, like “Cuphead,” were deliberate throwbacks to the style of early Disney cartoons, and Wasson credits his experience on them for helping him hone his short-form storytelling and visual humor as an animator. For “Cuphead,” he assembled a team of storyboarders and animators who were all fans of the game and fans of the era of animation it evoked.

According to Wasson, the rubber hose style of animation is defined by characters who lack shoulders and knees; the style is called “rubber hose” because their limbs are essentially bouncy cylinders that don’t have to obey anatomical rules. The shorts of “Cuphead” features a hybrid of the rubber hose style and more modern animation techniques, in order to pull off stories and shots that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. The show was done on computers, via a process called Harmony Animation, but the entire series was handmade and drawn, and the drawing count was incredibly high in order to evoke the spirit and feel of traditional hand-and-paper animation.

“That animation style is really no-holds barred,” Wasson says. “It’s real animation, the backgrounds are all hand-made watercolors. So we basically had to figure out how to digitally pull that off.”

“The Cuphead Show” is filled with references and homages to classic Golden Age cartoons. For example, a memorable short in the middle of the season features a recreation of “The Skeleton Dance,” one of the most famous shorts in the history of Walt Disney Animation. But beyond the references, all of the techniques, from the art direction to the Kansas City Jazz-inspired score, is lifted as directly as possible from that period of animation.

One of the most striking techniques the show uses is stop motion backgrounds for a few key scenes and establishing shots, giving the show a certain storybook feel. This aesthetic choice is based on old Fleischer Studios shorts where the animators built 3D sets on rotating panels in order to shoot panning shots. Wasson says the models were designed by the company Screen Novelties, and the designers of the shots were harcore fans of the Golden Age cartoons who jumped at the chance to design them.

“As soon as we met those guys they were like ‘Oh my God, the Fleischer backgrounds!’ We’ve been waiting our entire careers to do this,” Wasson recalls. “And we were like, ‘All right, these are the guys, clearly.’”

Frank Todaro as Mugman, Tru Valentino as Cuphead and Joe Hanna as Elder Kettle in “The Cuphead Show!” COURTESY OF NETFLIX

While “Cuphead” gave Wasson and his team a strong basis in terms of its visual style, they had more to experiment with in terms of story and character relationships. The original game is very focused on gameplay, with a minimal plot that mostly serves to justify its murderers’ row of colorful, challenging boss battles. As such, the characters didn’t have much in terms of defined personalities, and the writing team was free to flesh out both the central figures of the show and the story that connects them.

Wasson pitched every idea for the characters to the Moldenhauers, who had guidelines and rules for the basics of how their creations should behave. But he and his team were given relative freedom to reimagine the characters and play with what the audience knew about them from the original games. For example, the boss characters Ribby and Croaks, two frog brothers and boxers, were turned into restaurateurs trying to give up their boxing profession out of love for their mother in their spotlight episode named after them.

The central relationship in “The Cuphead Show” is that between the impulsive, reckless title character and his paranoid, somewhat nerdy brother Mugman. Over the course of the 12 episodes, the two constantly bicker and fight, but ultimately always have each other’s back. When the characters were first conceived by the Moldenhauers, their dynamic was based somewhat on their own relationship as brothers. While the characters in the show are exaggerations, according to Jared, the depiction still holds some truth to real life.

“There’s always something for any set of siblings that has that same angst, it’s all about love but at the same time there’s always going to be something where there’s a little bit of conflict,” Jared Moldenhauer says. “And as far as personality goes, it’s sort of true. My brother’s the more headstrong chap with determination, and I’m just a hair-bent dork with a giant beard which can be interpreted as a big blue nose.”

Wasson, meanwhile, used his two teenage sons as inspiration for defining Cuphead and Mugman, and based the personality of Elder Kettle (Joe Hanna), their loving but oafish caretaker, on his own. The characters also gained definition by being modeled after different famous people and 1930s archetypes: Cuphead behaves like a stereotypical ‘30s wiseguy, Mugman is modeled after Lou Costello from Abbott and Costello, and the campy musical Devil (Luke Millington Drake) is heavily inspired by Tim Curry’s performance in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

Although “The Cuphead Show” painstakingly evokes the Golden Age of Animation, in its storytelling it splits the difference between the episodic format many classic cartoons run on and more modern-day, serialized storytelling. Over the course of the first 12 episodes, there are plenty of stand alone comedic shorts, but there’s also an overarching storyline involving Cuphead and Mugman’s run-ins with the Devil as he tries to steal their souls — including a memorable two-parter involving a magic anti-devil sweater. The last episode, which features the debut of the “Cuphead ” DLC character Ms. Chalice (Grey DeLisle), even ends with a cliffhanger teasing the second season of the show.

Tru Valentino as Cuphead, Grey Griffin as Chalice and Frank Todaro as Mugman in “The Cuphead Show!” COURTESY OF NETFLIX

Originally, Wasson wanted the series to be entirely episodic, but he realized a season-long storyline would help better accommodate the binge watching model that Netflix utilizes. The series has already been renewed for more episodes, and Wasson says the show will continue its larger arc and introduce more of the bosses that made the video game famous.

The original “Cuphead” was not necessarily a video game for children, in spite of its colorful aesthetic: It was way too hard for most kids, for one. And although “The Cuphead Show” is rated TV-Y7 by Netflix, Wasson hopes that, through its gorgeous animation and its well defined characters, it can attract an audience of all ages, from older animation buffs to hardcore fans of the original game to younger kids curious about the history of animation.

“If you’re familiar with those cartoons, then you’re gonna get a real nostalgic feeling from the show,” Wasson says. “But if you don’t know anything about 1930s animation, I think this show completely stands on its own. And hopefully it will introduce a whole new audience to this style of animation.”