For a while there, Bob Balser was the man, at least if you were talking animated pop stars.
This is the man, after all, who went from the Beatles to the Jackson Five, and almost, to the Osmonds.
Yes, back in the late ’60s and early ’70s, musical acts starred in cartoons, and Balser had a hand in directing the best ones. And now, more than 40 years after its creation, “The Jackson 5ive: The Complete Animated Series” arrives on DVD, Blu-Ray and iTunes Tuesday. It includes all 23 episodes and 46 remastered Jackson Five songs.
“I got a copy of some of the episodes,” Balser says. “I was going through them smiling. I’m so excited.”
Balser has had a career that includes prestige animated projects such as “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” “Around the World in 80 Days,” and work with the Peanuts gang.
In 1967-68, he co-directed the classic cartoon “Yellow Submarine,” starring the Beatles. That memorable work led to his title as supervising director on the 1971 cartoon for Motown’s famous family act.
“It was started in the United States, and it was taking forever,” says Balser, who was then based in London. “They called me in, and they wanted a full season done in 11 months or less.”
Balser tossed out the work that was already done (“I looked at them and really disliked them.”) and decided that it was important that the Jackson Five solve all their problems with music and intelligence. “It was the first series with a black group,” he says. “I thought it should be positive.”
Each episode features the adventures of the singing Michael, Marlon, Jermaine, Tito and Jackie Jackson — usually centering on Michael and his pets rats Ray and Charles, plus pet snake Rosie. Motown head Berry Gordy made appearances, as did Supremes star Diana Ross.
The Jackson brothers were too busy being teen idols to voice their characters, so Balser never met them. (Ross did voice her lines, but they were shipped to Balser, so he didn’t meet her either). He never met the Beatles, whose singing voices were used in “Yellow Submarine,” either. But he did meet the Osmond brothers, who had a cartoon in 1972. Balser was asked to help with that show, but when the Jackson Five series got a second season he had to pass.
Although boomers may remember the cartoon, today’s youth may not only not know about them, some may not even know the King of Pop was in a family group. Still, with its groovy ’70s psychedelic vibe and wholesome messages, Balser is confident the cartoon still has appeal.
“They do know Michael Jackson, and the music is terrific. It’s not going to disappear,” he says.
Jackson Five photo courtesy DreamWorks Classics