Almost every adult can pinpoint a few key influences from their childhood — a book, movie, or event that shaped who they became. For a small army of ’90s kids, that influence is undeniably the Animorphs book series, co-written by wife-and-husband team K.A. Applegate and Michael Grant.
Recently, it was announced that the series is going to be revived with something fans have long awaited. An actual, honest-to-god movie. This news is in addition to the recent release of audiobooks and a forthcoming graphic novel.
It seems Animorphs is reaching its Renaissance.
Once I was done hyperventilating over the idea of finally seeing Animorphs on the silver screen, I decided now would be a good opportunity to dig into exactly how important Animorphs is, and the impact this reboot has the potential to have (as well as what the movie makers need to get right). Special thanks to my partner, Tara, for helping me compile my thoughts here. Buckle up: I have a lot of them.
I distinctly remember when I laid hands on my first Animorphs book. It was 1997 and I was 10 years old. A few of the books were in my teacher’s classroom library, shoved among Goosebumps, The Boxcar Children, and The Babysitters Club. As an animal-obsessed kid (I was the founder of the Kids vs. Extinction Club and frequently rocked my Save the Whales t-shirt), I gravitated towards the covers, which showed normal kids turning into animals like lizards and gorillas.
What I found inside was so much more than a book about kids turning into animals.
Anyone who has spent any amount of time with these books will be quick to tell you that they go there in a way other children’s books simply never dared.
What is Animorphs?
A quick recap, for the unindoctrinated: Animorphs follows five normal 13-year-olds who are given an alien technological power to turn into any animal they touch. They use this ability to fight against a parasitic alien species, called Yeerks, which are silently and secretly invading Earth. They become animal morphers — Animorphs. Or as one of the main characters puts it, “idiot teenagers with a death wish”.
With a premise like that, the 54-book main series could have gone in any direction. In fact, it easily could have fallen into the category of Scooby-Doo-esque hijinks, or standalone stories (a la Goosebumps) that more-or-less resolve themselves at the end of each book.
But Animorphs was another kind of story.
Animorphs broke the mold of children’s books
Almost every ’90s Animorphs fan carries the distinct memory of their monthly visit to the bookstore. We remember waiting impatiently for the latest cover images to load on our 56 kbps dial-up modems while screaming at siblings to get off the phone. We remember locking ourselves in our rooms to devour the next installment. Some of us even scored our first jobs at Barnes & Noble, so we could be there the moment the latest shipment arrived.
The series was initially published from 1996-2001, and over the years the series built a ravenous, die-hard fanbase. And there was a reason they were so loyal.
For one, Animorphs was serialized, allowing the characters and world to build in the telling. You got to know Jake’s heavy sense of responsibility. You came to identify with Rachel’s brash courage. You understood Tobias’ struggle to connect. Four years later, after every monthly battle and deadly struggle and bout of life-and-death anxiety, you felt the characters’ pain, and you knew the weight of the decisions they made.
More importantly, Animorphs didn’t shy away from real, raw issues. While the premise might sound fun (and there are certainly plenty of laugh-out-loud moments in the book series), it is, at its heart, a war story. Before young adult (YA) books exploded into reality at bookstores worldwide, Animorphs quietly told its war tale while tucked behind fun covers in the kids’ section of your local bookshop.
In a very real sense, Animorphs existed in a place no other comparable book series has existed. It captured the dark, foreboding, serialized grit of pre-teen sci-fi drama seen in shows like Stranger Things, long before Netflix came around.
From the very first book, the authors do not shy away from difficult topics
Over the course of the series, readers are immersed in a world of hope, fear, heartache, and loss. We’re given front row seats to the inner turmoil of normal kids as they’re thrust into impossible situations. We watch as they balance homework with the fate of humanity. As they try to reconcile lives they take and blood they spill.
The authors never talked down to their readers. They never moralized or told their fans what to believe. And they didn’t shy away from the truth, even when the truth was difficult.
In the first two dozen books of the series alone, the main characters face so much more than an alien army. They deal with a loss of identity, suicidal ideation, post-traumatic stress, paranoia, treason, biological warfare, and the terrible reality of what it means to fight in a war. As the series arc progresses it tackles everything from racism and ableism to nuclear war and genocide.
When the series ended in 2001, it wasn’t with fireworks and celebrations. There were no high-fives and pats on the back. The final book left a pit in your stomach. It transitioned the characters (those who survived) from one war to another. It showed the survivors grappling with guilt, depression, and the fallout of a war that had utterly changed them.
Applegate and Grant didn’t give us a happy ending. They gave us a real ending.
What does a reboot mean for Animorphs fans?
For those of us who have been there since the beginning, Animorphs isn’t just a book series. It’s something that has shaped and defined us. I can attest to this personally. I was the awkward, lanky kid who clutched the latest Animorphs book to her chest while avoiding bullies in the school hallway. I would lie back on my lawn, watching the sky for hawks, wishing I could tap into the power to morph and ride the thermals — updrafts of warm air that send birds of prey soaring.
Later on, I met both my business partner and my life partner on an Animorphs forum, where adults gathered to chat about the universe that had given us so much when we were children. I’ve written millions of words of Animorphs roleplays. I even have an Animorphs tattoo.
Yeah, I’m one of those fans.
But there are a lot of us. Many of us are those fans, because the series had such a deep impact on us.
While a reboot is exciting, there’s also a high bar.
This isn’t Goosebumps. It’s not a fun romp in an imaginary world where everyone goes home feeling like everything is alright. It’s closer to Stranger Things or some of the Marvel entries, where young people with great power and heavy secrets are thrown into a fight against truly fantastic odds, and are forever changed as a result.
This also isn’t Scholastic’s first attempt at rebooting Animorphs. In addition to the lackluster Nickelodeon television show it received during the series’ original publication, the first seven books were rereleased in 2011 with flashy lenticular covers. That reboot didn’t quite catch on.
Bringing the series to film means a great deal to those of us who grew up absorbing the fringes of ’90s pop culture. We were the kids who tucked our Scholastic Animorphs fan-club “Sanctuary” necklaces under our shirts and wondered if our teachers were secretly prisoners of the Yeerk Empire. Many of us were misfits, and Animorphs was our escape.
Many of us confronted our otherness, our furriness, our queerness, and our sense of self through the escapism of transforming into another animal’s body or embarking on an intergalactic mission through space and time.
As adults, a huge number of original Animorphs fans have pursued careers in writing and biology and mental health and a slew of other fields as a direct result of the book series.
What they need to get right
While every reboot must make concessions, and it’s impossible to pack a 60+ book series into a single movie, my hope is that it will capture the heart of what this series stood for. The fans who have stuck around did so because of the maturity and the honesty these stories presented. If done well, a movie could provide another avenue for misfit kids to think more deeply about their world and feel understood.
In today’s climate, the message of Animorphs — of finding common ground with those who differ from you, of standing for what you believe in, and doing what’s necessary even when it’s excruciatingly hard — is more timely than ever.
Here’s what a solid reboot needs to get right:
- The Tone: The joy of Animorphs is in the balance it strikes between lighthearted and serious. It tackles dark topics, but it’s not beyond a well-placed joke. The characters are pre-teens, after all. But no matter how silly pieces of it are, the darkness is never far behind. Think Band of Brothers.
- The Characters: Each of the characters brings a unique worldview to the story. This doesn’t apply just to the main characters, but to the villains as well. One of the biggest missteps of the failed Animorphs television show was how it reduced the enemies into two-dimensional villains without the depth and history of the book characters.
- The Plot: Okay, yeah. You can’t cram more than 60 books into a single movie. But there are essential pieces of the plot that are important. I won’t go into too much detail here, because for the first time in almost 20 years I actually have to worry about spoilers. But what’s the plot going to look like? A single movie based on the first book, #1: The Invasion? An amalgamation of the first few books? And then — will there be more films, or a film-to-TV adaptation? We don’t know any of that yet, but we’re putting our trust in K.A. Applegate and Michael Grant, along with self-described frontrunner Erik Feig, the crew at Picturestart, and Scholastic’s dedicated crew.
But we’ve seen Goosebumps, from Scholastic Entertainment. And Animorphs just ain’t Goosebumps.
- The Character Ages: Just like in Stranger Things, the protagonists of Animorphs are kids. Pre-teens who go through a series of coming-of-age war stories. It’s tempting to age kids up when you’re dealing with dark issues, but doing so in this case would be a mistake. Part of the value of this series is the progression from youthful innocent to disillusioned war veteran. Part of the disturbing aspect of the series is the idea that any of us, any young person, can be so impacted by war in a brutal world.
- The Special Effects: Thank God technology has come so far since the ’90s. The effects of the original TV series were dismal. But getting them right? Oh man, it would do so much for the movie. The ugly, disgusting, misshapen grinding and crunching and sloshing of the morphing process is so much weirder and more wonderful than an insta-morph transition. The horror of nearly being stuck in a morph, or trapped half-way between a morph and your human form, provided some of the nightmare fodder many fans still remember to this day. And as for the aliens…let’s just say that ever since Jurassic Park (that’s right, 1993), we’ve had high expectations.
Heavy expectations, we know. But some of us have been waiting nearly 25 years for an adaptation that brings this hallmark of YA literature to life. To give it some of the gravitas that Harry Potter received.
Authors K.A. Applegate and Michael Grant say they will have a hand in the making of the movie. How much of a hand has yet to be seen, but that’s a strong start. The duo are notoriously vocal about what they believe, and they understand how important this series is so for many of us.
(Side note: You know how they tell you to never meet your heroes? That rule doesn’t apply with these two. They’re wonderful people. Yes, my partner and I have shown them our Yeerk tattoos.)
So we’ll be watching. And waiting. With something the series taught us a long time ago.