Nelvana is a Canadian animation studio founded in Toronto in 1971 by Michael Hirsh, Patrick Loubert and Clive A. Smith, and while the company has done a variety of things in the decades since they first arrived on the scene, they are known most primarily for making animated TV shows aimed at kids, and there have been many. I will point out some of their most popular shows but first I will dive into the studio’s origins.
Nelvana co-founder Michael Hirsh was born in Belgium and he emigrated to North America, attending York University in Toronto as an adult and discovering his passion for filmmaking when he made student films alongside classmate, future business partner and future Nelvana co-founder Patrick Loubert who was an author and a comic book fan. Hirsh and Loubert loved making small and experimental films so they decided to form an independent company called Laff Arts. That led to a meeting with animator Clive A. Smith. Smith was an animator from London who had previously worked at Halas and Batchelor (the British animation studio behind Animal Farm) and on the animated Beatles TV series as well as the animated Beatles film Yellow Submarine. Getting word that they were hiring animators in Canada, Smith decided to pack his bags and see what Toronto had to offer, but he didn’t really have a lot of success until he got his foot in the door at Laff Arts where he was hired to design their business cards. An ad agency actually said the name “Laff Arts” was too wacky to be taken seriously, so Hirsh, Loubert and Smith all decided to found a new studio in 1971 called Nelvana, named after the Canadian superhero Nelvana of the Northern Lights, created by English-Canadian cartoonist and illustrator Adrian Dingle and the first female superhero from Canada.
Speaking of comics, one of Nelvana’s first projects was a documentary called The Great Canadian Comic Books, which highlighted even more great superhero characters from Canada. The studio actually started out making several documentaries and live-action films so that they could save enough money to make animated films. Although an early CBC series of shorts called Small Star Cinema (1974-75) actually combined both mediums. This eventually led to Nelvana’s first television special Christmas Two Step (1975) which also combined live action and animation, and A Cosmic Christmas (1977) which was directed by Clive A. Smith as Nelvana’s first fully animated production and which told a story that put a space alien twist on the Biblical story of the Magi.
George Lucas actually liked A Cosmic Christmas so much that he hired Nelvana to create an animated sequence for the Star Wars Holiday Special (1978) on CBS called “The Faithful Wookiee,” which featured the voice acting of Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Anthony Daniels and James Earl Jones who all reprised their roles from the 1977 film, as well as the screen debut of the character Boba Fett, two years before his big screen debut in The Empire Strikes Back.
After making their second animated TV special The Devil and Daniel Mouse (1978), Nelvana started working on their first animated feature film Rock & Rule directed by rock ‘n roll enthusiast Clive A. Smith and largely inspired by their previous work on The Devil and Daniel Mouse. The apocalyptic musical fantasy came out in 1983 and it was ambitious, but it came and went and made little money at the box office. Nelvana basically saved themselves from going bankrupt by deciding to work on animated TV shows full-time. They made series and specials based on toys like the animated Strawberry Shortcake TV specials, but their biggest success came with the Care Bears franchise, which was first introduced to the public via greeting cards. In fact when The Care Bears Movie first came out in 1985, its box office success gave Nelvana a significant financial boost. It even made more money than Disney’s film The Black Cauldron that year, so there was a brief moment in history when Nelvana actually outshined Disney.
It was a steady stream of TV shows after that. They teamed up with DIC to produce the first season of Inspector Gadget (1983) and later made animated shows like Star Wars: Droids (1985-86), Star Wars: Ewoks (1985-87), Babar (1989-91), Beetlejuice (1989-91), The Adventures of Tintin (1991-92), Rupert (1991-97), Fievel’s American Tails (1992-93), Eek! The Cat (1992-97), Tales from the Cryptkeeper (1993-99), The Magic School Bus (1994-97), Little Bear (1995-2003), Stickin’ Around (1996-98), The Adventures of Sam & Max: Freelance Police (1997-98), Ned’s Newt (1997-99), Franklin (1997-2004), Bob and Margaret (1998-2001) and Rescue Heroes (1999-2002). A lot of these shows were like typical animated shows of their time, often based on pre-existing books, movies and toys, although they had success with original shows like Eek! The Cat and Ned’s Newt. Nelvana also made a lot of live-action programs in the eighties and nineties like Mr. Microchip (1983-85), The Edison Twins (1984-86), T. and T. (1988-90) starring Mr. T, The Hardy Boys (1995-96) and shows that used puppetry like Jim Henson’s Dog City (1992-94) and TVOntario preschool series Elliot Moose (1999-2000). Plus Nelvana made a Clifford the Big Red Dog video series from Family Home Entertainment around the early nineties and started producing computer-animated shows like Donkey Kong Country (1997-2000) and Rolie Polie Olie (1998-2004) starting in the late nineties.
In 2000 Nelvana had their own block on PBS Kids called Bookworm Bunch, featuring the shows Corduroy, Timothy Goes to School, Seven Little Monsters, George Shrinks and Marvin the Tap–Dancing Horse, and they continued to have success with shows like Maggie and the Ferocious Beast (2000-02), Braceface (2001-04), the first five seasons of Cyberchase (2002-07), Max & Ruby (2002-19), Clone High (2002-03), Jacob Two-Two (2003-06), 6teen (2004-10), Miss Spider’s Sunny Patch Friends (2004-09), The Backyardigans (2004-13), Being Ian (2004-08), Jane and the Dragon (2005-06), Class of the Titans (2005-08), Handy Manny (2006-13), Mike the Knight (2011-17), seasons 2 through 4 of Bubble Guppies (2011-16), Detentionaire (2011-15), Ranger Rob (2016-21), Hotel Transylvania: The Series (2017-20), Bravest Warriors (2017-18), Esme & Roy (2018-21) and Thomas & Friends: All Engines Go (2021-present). Nelvana also obtained the rights to the English dubs of anime like Cardcaptor Sakura (known as Cardcaptors in North America), Medabots and the Beyblade series so they have really conquered television animation left and right. If you grew up in the United States, many of the shows I just mentioned often aired on Saturday mornings and weekday afternoons in syndication and on networks like CBS, FOX, Nickelodeon and Disney Channel, but most of them originally aired on the Canadian networks YTV, Teletoon or Treehouse TV, a result of Canadian mass media company and YTV and Treehouse TV owner Corus Entertainment buying Nelvana in 2000, causing Corus to eliminate 50 jobs and co-CEOs Loubert and Smith to leave the company a year later with Hirsh resigning the year after that, putting YTV head Paul Robertson fully in charge of managing Nelvana, although Hirsh accepted an advisory role at the company.
Nelvana was successful enough in its formative years that it served as a launchpad for a few future animation stars, including The Lion King co-director Roger Allers, Dinosaur co-director Ralph Zondag and his brother Dick Zondag who directed We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story and worked as a supervising animator at Amblimation and Disney, Turbo and Captain Underpants director David Soren and animators like Tom Sito, Anne Marie Bardwell and Charles Bonifacio whose work has spanned Disney, Don Bluth and DreamWorks, as well as Lenora Hume who would go on to oversee the Disney Afternoon programming block as senior VP of Walt Disney Television Animation in the nineties.
Another important thing to note about Nelvana is that at the time of its founding in the early seventies, most Canadian television was produced locally and Nelvana was actually one of the few freelance animation and television production companies, which is partly why Hirsh, Loubert and Smith founded the studio in the first place. Very few shows actually produced by Canada were airing in the U.S. in those days but now it’s hard to imagine an American kid of my generation who doesn’t remember growing up seeing that neon bear look up at the night sky after the end credits rolled.