February 26, 2024

Ancient Greece and Rome Are Hot in Animation Right Now. Here’s Why.

6 min read

The recent announcement that Rick and Morty co-creator Dan Harmon is preparing Krapopolis, an animated series for Fox “set in mythical, ancient Greece” and focused on “a flawed family of humans, gods, and monsters that tries to run one of the world’s first cities without killing each other” makes it official: Animation inspired by ancient Greece and Rome is enjoying its biggest moment since the 1997 release of Disney’s Hercules.

News of Harmon’s new show follows on the heels of an announcement by Netflix that Blood of Zeus — its popular action-adventure series that chronicles the young hero’s mythical journey after he learns he is the son of Zeus — is to be picked up for a second season. 

Netflix is apparently going all-in on the ancient world: The streaming service just released Centaurworld, a kid-friendly, myth-themed musical comedy series in which according to the press release, “a hardened war horse transported away from battle finds herself in a land that’s inhabited by silly, singing centaurs of all shapes and sizes,” while a reboot of the Roman architect Lucius’s time-travelling bathhouse hijinks in Thermae Romae Novae, an anime series based on the manga by Mari Yamazaki, is coming soon. In France, Netflix is teaming up with publisher Hachette to take on the cultural juggernaut that is Asterix, with a new television series that expands on the 12 animated films about the indomitable Gallic warrior and his village’s magical resistance to Roman occupation.

Centaurworld (2021), Mercury Filmworks (image courtesy Megan Nicole Dong)

Other big media franchises are also seizing the day when it comes to portraying ancient Greece and Rome in animated form: Director Patty Jenkins has signaled that an animated Wonder Woman-spinoff series centered on the Amazons of Themyscira may be in the works. And both The Simpsons and Animaniacs have gotten in on the act in their most recent seasons, with Homer and family acting out a Gladiator-style imperial drama in the episode “I, Carumbus.” And for the latter show, Yakko, Wakko, and Dot adopt the roles of the Greek gods as they torment Odysseus on his journey home (with a Donald Trump-ified Cyclops, among other things) in “Warners Unbound.” 

The Jim Henson Company has teamed up with Webtoon to adapt Lore Olympus, cartoonist Rachel Smythe’s “stylish and immersive”  Eisner Award-nominated webcomic, which, according to the official website, retells the story of Persephone and Hades “as it’s never been told before” — from a modern, female perspective (it will also appear on Netflix). And finally there is Cupid, a feature-length film starring Justin Bieber in the titular role of the Roman god who falls in love with Psyche, a princess “whose beauty intimidates Cupid’s mother, Aphrodite.” This film will be the first production from Mythos Studio’s MythoVerse, a cinematic universe of stories and characters inspired by classic Greek and Roman mythology (and a Marvel spinoff).

What’s behind this epic deluge of antiquity-themed animation coming out of Hollywood and adjacent studios? Apart from the fact that ancient Greek and Roman stories are all in the public domain, which makes them cheap and easy to adapt for film and TV, one practical explanation is the “animation boom” currently happening in Hollywood as a result of the pandemic. Because live-action productions are still struggling with delays and other coronavirus-related challenges, animation has become an attractive and affordable alternative.

A deeper driver of this phenomenon may be the desire to escape from the uncertainty of the present into the familiar and comforting stories of the ancient past. Proof of this lies in the fact that these animated productions are being marketed not to children — the traditional target audience for mythology-related media since the 1960s — but to adults. Many of these viewers came of age consuming modern adaptations of Greek mythology, like the Percy Jackson series of young adult novels and films, and therefore have detailed knowledge of the main characters and narratives they will encounter in these new shows. This familiarity makes for easy-to-enjoy viewing and a welcome distraction from the worries of modern life.

Blood of Zeus (2020), Powerhouse Animation (image courtesy Charley and Vlas Parlapanides)

These same millennial and Generation Y audiences have also grown up on an abundance of superhero-themed media that finds much of its inspiration in Greco-Roman myth and culture, as in the case of Wonder Woman and her Amazon tribe. Producers have been especially keen to capitalize on this link and explore these archetypical tales more fully. Charley and Vlas Parlapanides, creators of Blood of Zeus, explain the trend to me via email this way:

The gods truly were the world’s first superheroes. The nature of their stories speak directly to us and to the superhero aesthetic that dominates popular culture today. In that same regard, their stories were also the world’s first soap operas, with torrid love affairs and wild betrayals. All of that feels very current.

Giving the ancients a modern makeover is nothing new in live-action productions, especially those on the big screen. But the creative freedom inherent in animation, in particular its unique capacity for representing the unreal, the supernatural, and even the impossible, gives it an edge in developing compelling portrayals of hybrid monsters, shape-shifting gods, and realms like Olympus or the Underworld. This edge, combined with animation’s well established appeal to young audiences, makes it an ideal medium for these new nostalgia-filled forays into antiquity. 

Still image of Hades from Blood of Zeus (2020), Powerhouse Animation (image courtesy Charley and Vlas Parlapanides)

At the same time, animation’s creative freedom enables creators of adult-oriented productions to push the envelope in their depictions of sex, violence, and other mature themes that are central to Greco-Roman myth and history. Blood of Zeus, for example, sets its hero’s quest in an anime-inspired world of hyper-stylized gore and brutality, while Lore Olympus highlights “the friendships and the lies, the gossip and the wild parties, and of course, forbidden love” in its R-rated rendering of Persphone and Hades’ relationship. And several shows, like the upcoming Krapopolis, Asterix, and Thermae Romae Novae, aim to deliver laughs through time-travel plots and the comic juxtaposition of then and now. Their humor frequently follows in the footsteps of their ancient comic counterparts by relying on lewd sexual allusions, ethnic stereotypes, and other non-kid friendly fare.  

The variety on display in these examples reveals yet another attractive aspect of these timeless tales, one that is especially well suited to the versatile medium of animation: their inherent adaptability. Since antiquity, these tales have been continually updated and reimagined to cater to the interests of their audiences, to make them relevant to their world and experiences, and these new animated productions are no different. In this case, what they are offering their adult viewers — and what may best explain their resurgent popularity — is a best-of-both-worlds experience: edgy and engaged with contemporary culture, yet still appealing to the kid in us, since they allow us to stay safely situated in the realm of the gods, heroes, muses, and monsters we all know and love. 

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