A retrospective on Disney XD’s short-lived animated series Motorcity has been a long time coming on this blog, half to express how dear it is to me and half to hopefully introduce it to other people. After rewatching it last year with a friend who had never seen it before, I started writing in-depth looks at episodes. I lost steam on the project as I felt I couldn’t do such a wonderful show justice in my analysis, but with the recent possibility Motorcity could return I’m willing to try again.
Before we get into an episode-by-episode retrospective, we first need to ask: what is Motorcity? Whatever happened to it? Why is it relevant again? What made it so special? And what now?
What is Motorcity?
Chris Prynoski had the idea for a cartoon titled Motorcity about rebellious driving in a future Detroit, Michigan where cars are obsolete for over a decade. An action-packed, if crude, proof of concept was produced for MTV following Prynoski’s Downtown in 2000, but was never picked up. Years later, now the owner of the dynamic animation studio Titmouse, Prynoski partnered with the channel Disney XD to finally develop Motorcity.
It premiered April 30th of 2012. The Disney XD series takes place in a futuristic Detroit, owned and operated by the billionaire engineer Abraham Kane, constructed on top of the old city. The dystopian Detroit Deluxe offers safety and sanitation to its citizens, at the unseen cost of personal freedoms such as artwork, fashion, and of course automobiles. In Motorcity, corporations are literally built on top of the people kept out of sight and demonized. The Burners, a diverse gang of drivers headed by their fearless leader Mike Chilton, turn their backs on Deluxe to fight for the people below and dismantle Kane’s tyranny. However, the show is anything but dreary. It’s heart-pounding, vibrant, and hilarious!
Motorcity isn’t so much about cars as the autonomy, creativity, and rebellion they symbolize for the characters against oppression. The infectious energy put into the production by Titmouse embodies that philosophy too. Motorcity, the remains of Detroit, may not have a skyline, but has freedom of expression and a rich cultural history. It’s not hard to read social commentary into a story where the technologically advanced society is the literal “upper” class. Four of the five main characters were born into Detroit Deluxe and complicit in its system, but now resist in their own ways: Mike the organizer, Chuck the programmer, Julie the infiltrator, Texas the brawler, and Dutch the artist. In Motorcity, no one is above being exploited by evil, and anyone is capable of redemption as long as you fight for what’s right. However, that doesn’t mean the issues and conflicts are always black and white.
Whatever happened to it?
Motorcity was cancelled after a single season of 20 episodes, after being treated unfairly by the network. It was released out of order, the schedule was constantly changed, and there was little promotion. The cancellation news broke on November 5th of 2012 when People of Motorcity, a blog run by one of the show’s animators and a friendly ambassador to the fandom, shared the message from Chris Prynoski. After a summer hiatus of the growing fandom desperately hoping for the show to be renewed, it all came crashing down. I was heart-broken. It was the last thing I needed to hear when I was already brimming with anxiety and dread over the US presidential election and my birthday the same week.
The Titmouse crew was just as disappointed as the fans to see the show end. We tried to remain optimistic as six episodes were left to air. The finale aired January 7th of 2013 to bittersweet applause. Some plot threads were left for future seasons, but the episode ends on a note that’s heartwarming and triumphant enough to conclude the series. The possibility for the show to be resurrected by Disney (like Kim Possible) or the legal rights be given to Titmouse was up in the air. Unfortunately, none of that came to pass and Motorcity faded into obscurity despite being one of the best cartoons of all time.
Why is it relevant again?
On August 1st of 2018 People of Motorcity returned proclaiming, “a small spark can bring the coldest engine roaring back to life.” POM promised more information once 1,000 comments with the hashtag #FIGHTFORMOTORCITY were left on an unofficial YouTube upload of the show’s opening title sequence. After years of silence from Disney, the fandom–including myself–was jolted out of the acceptance stage of grief. Two days later with the YouTube comments full of love and longing, POM returned with reassurance that “they have been listening and we have been heard. They know we are still here after all these years and thanks to the volume of our roar, an opportunity to allow new fans to find the show is… Being entertained… so to speak.”
It sounds like Motorcity‘s first season could come to home video or online streaming, whether it be on Netflix or Disney’s upcoming service. I’d buy a bunch of DVDs and spread the Motorcity gospel by gifting them to everyone I know. That or it would convince me to subscribe to the mysterious Disney service. I would watch it over and over in hopes of renewing interest in the show for a potential second season, because I never get tired of it anyway. Just like how Greg Weisman, co-creator of the cancelled cartoon Young Justice, encouraged fans to rewatch his show on Netflix to spur a third season. It was eventually revived for the DC animation streaming service thanks to “the affection that fans have had for ‘Young Justice,’ and their rallying cry for more episodes,” according to Warner Bros. Animation President Sam Register. The cancelled Star Wars: The Clone Wars TV series was revived for a seventh season for Disney streaming as well, announced with “#CLONE WARS SAVED” to the fans who wanted more. Even Samurai Jack got a conclusive season after thirteen years. More Motorcity could happen with enough fan support!
What made it so special?
As the outpouring of #FIGHTFORMOTORCITY showed, Motorcity still means a lot to a lot of people. The amicable staff who communicated directly, organized public meetups, held fanart submission contests, celebrated and even purchased fanworks, gave away free merchandise, and took fandom trends in stride formed an unbreakable bond to fans. From the beginning, you could tell the show was something special. The cutting edge studio behind gruesome cartoons on Adult Swim like Metalocalypse and Superjail were creating something for a squeaky clean Disney network. The two realms of animation gelled into a kid-friendly story of the power of teamwork, with plenty of spark and grit. The geometric, grungy, colorful world was ahead of its time.
The visuals are still some of the highest quality in television animation, created almost entirely in Flash in-house at Titmouse. The technology was innovative, such as the one of a kind Facinator plugin for Flash that allows every angle of the character’s heads to be rotated like a CG rig. The rest of their bodies were hand-drawn and integrated seamlessly, as all the 2D and 3D animation was. The crew–design, storyboarding, animation, etc.–were encouraged by Prynoski to go all out. FX animator Edward Artinian called it “a ‘once in a lifetime’ sort of show” for the freedom allowed in its creation. The passion shrines through in the dynamic, often superfluous, motion of the show. Legend has it they were forced to watch Redline every day to get the right feel.
Prynoski and Titmouse worked hard to create the striking visuals of Motorcity, but it’s not a case of style over substance. The character designs launched by Robert Valley (of Gorillaz fame) and continued by other staff, brimming with attitude, go hand-in-hand with the individuals and their bonds at the heart of the story. The show represents Detroit as it is: a population diverse in ethnicity, convictions, and ways of life. The true power of the Burners lies in their friendships and belief in each other, though they may butt heads or feel lost sometimes. Without giving too much away, they struggle with their lingering connections to Deluxe as well as the rival factions within Motorcity.
Motorcity doesn’t talk down to its audience. The visuals, music, and acting convey more tone and information than spoken exposition ever could. Its not without its flaws (we’ll get to them), but the writing remains one of the show’s greatest strengths. The conflicts are believable, the interactions are endearing, the jokes are laugh out loud funny, and the world is well-developed. It devotes multiple episodes to each of the Burners, building an season-long arc for them all. It takes full advantage of its premise, exploring the locations and culture of a cyberpunk Detroit. In an increasingly rationalized and authoritarian society, Motorcity‘s themes are more palpable than ever. Social issues can’t be solved by violently paving over them like Kane does. To combat people like him we must resist conformity and embrace freedom.
So what now?
For now Motorcity lives on through iTunes, split into two volumes of ten episodes each. While iTunes follows the order of episodes as aired on Disney XD, it’s best to watch in the “Titmouse order” based on episode production. Watching in air date order won’t kill you (after all it’s how the earliest fans experienced the show and we didn’t love it any less), but the Titmouse order distributes character focus and development much more naturally. It’s best to respect the thought that went into the story’s structure and rebuke how Disney tried to erase it.
Next in this retrospective comes an in-depth look at Motorcity with the first four episodes (of Titmouse order): “Battle for Motorcity,” “Power Trip,” “Ride the Lightning,” and “The Duke of Detroit.” Stay tuned for exploring the brilliance of the episodes, reflecting on what still resonates, and reminiscing on the fandom.
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