Jared Bush didn’t watch a lot of television when he was growing up. Instead, his family had a “dress-up box” where Bush could slip into an outfit to be a cowboy one day and an astronaut the next.
That imagination-filled young life has served Bush well. Along with Sam Levine, he has created the latest Disney XD animated series “Penn Zero: Part-Time Hero” about a boy who lives out a wide range of adventures. It kicks off Friday, Feb. 13.
Penn Zero (voiced by Thomas Middleditch) is a regular boy from the suburbs who splits his time between saving the universe and hanging with his friends, Sashi (Tania Gunadi) and Boone (Adam DeVine). When they are called into action, the trio could end up on a variety of worlds from a place where cowboys and dinosaurs roam the range to an underwater kingdom.
Their chief foe is the evil part-time villain Rippen (Alfred Molina) and his part-time minion Larry (Larry Wilmore).
Each day brings a new world, much like the games Bush played when he was young.
“We hope not to run out of worlds. We can go anywhere. We can take two worlds and mash them together. We never want to run out of worlds at the same time we want to be learning more about the guys,” Bush says.
Although the show is a visual explosion, the primary purpose of the program is as a character-driven comedy.
Bush and Levine realized when they met five years go that they shared the same perspective on comedy and that’s why they wanted to work together. Before the collaboration, Bush worked on programs such as “All of Us” and “Who Wants to Marry My Dad?”. Levine’s credits include “Wreck It Ralph” and “Tarzan.”
Bush had been working on an idea about a boy who could jump into different worlds and genres before they pair got together. From that idea, the pair worked on making Penn feel as much like a real kid as you can when he spends a lot of time saving the day. Bush recalls how a lot of the movies in the ‘80s featured kid heroes — such as “The Goonies” — but no matter what adventure they faced, the heroes always came across as real kids.
They also worked on getting the right visual style, which includes crisp characters, sharp lines and a colorful backgrounds.
“We started exploring visual ideas. I was a big fan of mid-20th Century Disney animation like that in ‘101 Dalmatians.’ That was the inspiration. But we now have the technology and software to create these wonderfully textured characters and open up worlds,” Levine says.
They agree that there was no way the could have created the look they wanted one or two years ago because the technology just wasn’t there.
Levine was exposed to animation and films through his father, who was a projectionist in New York. He saw “Star Wars” and “E.T” many times and jokes that people would get mad because his father would allow him to take Italian food into the theater while he watched movie after movie.
Levine also got to hear how important the right voices were in animated works.
TV series tend to bank heavily on the standard group of voice talents. There are some of those in “Penn Zero.” But, there are also some very big name actors, starting with Molina as the bad guy. Also providing voices this first season will be Lea Thompson, Gary Cole, Rosie Perez and Sigourney Weaver.
The creators gave their casting department a dream list of actors to provide voices and were able to get all of their first choices.
Most of the time, they write a character with no certain actor in mind. They did create a tough general character for an upcoming episodes that will be voiced by Wanda Sykes. The comedian has such a distinct voice it wasn’t just chance she got the work. They were thinking of her when writing the script.
“Sometimes we match a guest star to a genre. There’s an episode that reflects the ‘80s and we have Kenny Loggins who performs five original songs for the show,” Bush says. “We want to make sure the show will entertain kids and also be something parents will watch. We still have to make it not too grown up.”