Alex is a School of Visual Arts graduate with a passion for media, writing and animation. He writes reviews for film, television, and games.
Background and Conception
When watching Cartoon Network, there are plenty of shows that left a huge impact and those that came and went. After Ed, Edd n Eddy, two other shows were premiered around the same time on November 12, 1998. The first was Courage the Cowardly Dog and the other was Mike, Lu, & Og. Although Courage succeeded, Mike, Lu, & Og was considered forgotten and stranded as the islanders themselves.
The concept was based on a comedic short film about island primitives by Russian animator Misha (then Michael) Aldashin. Come to think of it, this may be historically the first Cartoon Network show to be co-created by a transgender animator. It’s amazing when you conduct research. The project was then presented to Rugrats producer Charles Swenson. Impressed, Charles became executive producer, added characters and story elements, and pitched the show to Linda Simensky after attending a film festival. After the deal, production was then outsourced between co-creator Mikhail Shindel's studio Kinofilm in Venice and Moscow company Studio Point. Out of the shows so far, I give credit to how collaborative the production process was between these studios during that time, giving how Charles Swenson had connections with Russian animators throughout his career.
Sadly, the show was canceled after two seasons. Some people nowadays are polarized on this show upon discovering or revisiting it. I do remember watching the show as a kid and found it alright. What I wrote was the short version; here's the long version...
The Island Life of Albonquetine
The show is about a foreign exchange student from New York who embarks on adventures and shares customs with the natives on a deserted island. Conceptually speaking, the idea of being stranded on an island is nothing new. Anyone who has seen an episode or an entire show about island natives would expect some cliches and tropes that have been done before.
However, with Charles Swenson co-writing almost every episode, the execution helps expand on the world-building, characters, and comedy. The idea of a New Yorker as a "foreign exchange" student is humorous with sharing or teaching the natives simple activities, such as watching television or playing baseball. While all the jokes don't hit bullseyes, the characters' dialogue and exchanges help bring out some chuckles.
At first, there isn't much of a narrative. But, as the series progressed with season two, we get certain episodes and contexts that explore the history, society, and culture of Albonquetine Island. For example, there is another society living on the island where their population is larger than the regular natives because they don't get along. On top of that, they live in caves and act more primitive (with one exception). As for the regular natives, since they are descendants of a British shipwreck, they behave with a mix of Polynesian and English mannerisms. It's almost like they believe in surviving to the fittest. Sometimes, the series would incorporate some supernatural elements like ghosts and myths, but for the most part, it relies on "culture sharing" aspects for comedic potential.
Even if the concept alone doesn't hook you in, you can sense that Swenson and the others put some effort into making the island stand out from the rest.
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Harmless Yet Inventive Animation
One of the common criticisms that the show received is that the animation style resembles the works of Klasky Csupo, the same studio behind shows like The Wild Thornberries, Rocket Power, and especially Rugrats. Since Charles Swenson is involved, it is understandable why the animation and the character designs look crude rather than realistic. Then again, the art style looks like it was more influenced than plagiarized.
On their own, the human characters look simple and fine with each having their distinctive heads, noses, and hairstyles. The animal characters have a more cartoon-like appearance to convey emotion and comedic behavior, whether it is Lancelot or Og's animal friends. Some characters do have a creative design that stands out from the rest. For instance, there is a pirate wearing two eye patches, two wooden legs, and a cane. You cannot go beyond that description. With Og being the inventor, his inventions visually help spice up the story and conflicts in many episodes. The character animation is television quality yet kicks up whenever an action sequence or natural occurrence happens. Once in a while, the animation would speed up at the most unexpected timing.
The most visual highlight is the background animation of Albonquetine Island. The backgrounds are watercolored and detailed to help give that tropical and laid-back feeling. The intro sequence is also neat with the accompanying theme song by the Red Elvises. Without the aforementioned context, anyone tuning in would find this island dull and not interesting to look at. However, when compared to other Cartoon Network shows around that time, the visuals are conceptually executed rather than going all-out. It is clear that Swenson and the animators from both Italy and Russia emphasized more on story rather than making the animation look unique. Since this show takes place on a deserted island, I believe its simplistic art direction kind of fits the mellow and relaxing mood without going too extreme. While many up-and-coming shows continue to have their own identities, this show proves that great minds think alike.
An Interesting and Vocal Cast of Natives
Upon rediscovering this show, the one element that helps benefit it from being completely forgotten is its cast of characters. With the concept intact, each character is diverse with their own trait and personality, outside of just being islanders.
Beginning with the titular characters, Mike, short for Michelanne, is the island foreign exchange student from Manhattan. Though she misses home, she enjoys living on the island and shares her customs with her new friends. Her best friends are the avowed "island princess" Lu and the scientific inventor Og. Admittedly, Lu would be called a knock-off of Angelica from Rugrats due to acting spoiled and bossy towards other characters. Theoretically, that may be the case. Yet, the major difference is Lu would usually learn her lesson in modesty at the end of each episode. She also had a pet turtle named Lancelot. While he is the "butt-monkey" of Lu's abuse, Lancelot is surprisingly a likable character known for his brave nature whenever the characters are in danger. For example, there's an episode where he and the other animals made a path to safely get the others off an erupting volcano. Because of Mike’s ideas, Og is characterized as a subdued and curious genius whose inventions often backfire. He would sometimes get addicted to his newfound discoveries. In one episode,Og built a video game based on himself, but accidentally got too focused on it during a flood and ignored his friends for help. The most interesting about Og is where he befriends his pet goat, pig, and porcupine during his spare time. Unlike Lancelot, these animals can secretly speak and form philosophical society meetings where they talk about famous theorists (i.e. Socrates). ...See what I am talking about earlier in terms of concept? And that's the tip of the icebox.
For the rest of the natives, we have the island "governor" and Lu's father, Wendell. Because of Lu's behavior and personality, we can easily guess how Wendell would handle his responsibility as both a ruler and a father. If you could ask for a more suitable ruler, you would turn to Old Queeks. Queeks is an elderly witch doctor who is usually against Mike's culture and a self-proclaimed "psychic". In fact, he is the sole character that was able to conjure up supernatural elements in certain episodes, like summoning ghosts. Og's parents are also a diverting case. His mother Margery is a caring and skillful chef. Besides cooking and serving tea, Margery has a talent for sculpting, particularly when it comes to the island's ancestors. His father Alfred is an odd hunter that constantly tries to hunt down a wombat as a meal for his family...despite his family being vegetarians. I found that to be a fairly humorous homage to the Looney Tunes.
The only recurring characters that would make occasional appearances are a trio of pirates who would attempt to capture Lancelot for turtle soup and the primeval, dim inhabitants on the other side known as the Cuzzlewits, with Hermione standing out as the smartest member and only other friend Mike has made.
The key factor that provides memorability among these characters is the voice acting. Some of these actors had past experience working with Swenson and each delivered a distinctive voice for their respective characters. Dee Bradley Baker is a prime example where Og speaks in a more raspy voice when comparing the voices he did for Cow & Chicken and SpongeBob. Nothing else is said, but these characters did leave one heck of an impression to remember.
Conclusion & Legacy
Overall, Mike, Lu & Og is an average show among the Cartoon Network lineup with components that anyone would both remember and forget about. Yes, the concept sounds recycled and the animation looks too familiar. However, the glue that holds the show steady is the synergic connections and ideas between Swenson and the animators, some nice and resourceful animation, memorable characters, and idiosyncratic voice acting.
Despite making two seasons, it did not reach the marks on what the previous Cartoon Network shows did. There was even a video game planned, but it never came to fruition. On the lighter side, the show did go through reruns on Boomerang...only from 2006 to 2011. The last time that the show was available to watch was on Cartoon Network's On Demand service on Spectrum. Today, the show has fallen to obscurity, and is unlikely that the show would be added to HBO Max or Boomerang's app. Whatever the case, we can admit there was an admirable effort put into it. As for the other show that premiered the same day...
Special thanks to Charles Swenson for providing me with detail and background on the show's origins. He's a sweet man and has done amazing paintings throughout his later career. You can visit his website in case you want to check out his works.