Who The Heck Are Animorphs?

Posted by | Filed under Science Fiction | Aug 30, 2015 | Tags: , | 2 Comments

There’s a scene at the end of an early episode of The X-Files TV series in which Agent Mulder says, “They’re here, aren’t they?” And the mysterious informant (a government insider most likely, though we aren’t told for sure) responds over his shoulder as he turns to walk away, “Mr. Mulder, they’ve been here for a long, long time.”

Personally, I don’t have any idea whether they’re here or not. My question is, why have we become so fascinated by THEM in the past few years?

The extraterrestrials-among-us craze began even before the fiftieth anniversary of the Roswell Incident last July, when the alien autopsy became a hot topic of conversation again. The X-Files and movies like Independence Day already had viewers glued to the screen (when they weren’t outside scanning the sky for suspicious weather balloons). Then children’s booksellers around the country began receiving cryptic messages from Scholastic: “The Yeerks are among us” and “Animorphs have invaded this store” and “Step inside a morph. It’ll change your world.”

Call it the Invasion of the Shelf-Snatchers, the way the instantly popular Animorphs series by K. A. Applegate began gobbling up space once occupied by the now-floundering Goosebumps. Had the youth of America finally tired of Mr. Stine and his impersonators? Did it take more than suburban swamp monsters and tight-fitting Halloween masks to up their adrenaline? Was what I overheard from parents in the checkout line at the bookstore true, that these Animorphs were much better written than “that other trash”?

I decided to investigate.

wthaaBefore reading Animorphs, I did a little thinking about science fiction’s current popularity and realized that it didn’t surprise me much that sci-fi flicks and TV shows had swum into the mainstream, special effects being what they are today. You don’t have to have an alien fetish to enjoy watching the White House explode. Or to think it’s cool when the skin peels away from Martin Short’s sexy date in Mars Attacks! to reveal the not-so-sexy Martian underneath.

Yet this doesn’t explain away the fact that the standard spaceship-and-alien science fiction book usually does not appeal to the masses. I still had to wonder how the Animorphs series has managed to suck such a large number of girls, as well as boys (the more typical sci-fi readers), into its complicated universe of Yeerks, Andalites, Taxxons, and Hork-Bajir. How has it turned science fiction into the latest hot genre for kids?

The answer, I found as I began to read, has something to do with a mixture of hi-tech Bug fighter ships and plain old squishable bugs. It has to do with taking the classic childhood dreams of flying and talking to animals and updating them for the post-Jurassic Park nineties.

In book one, The Invasion, five adolescents stumble upon a dying Andalite warrior (think Jedi Knight with a blue centaur body, antennae, and a scorpion tail) on their walk home from the mail. The powers he leaves them with are in no way vague or mystical. To help them fend off the evil Yeerks, who he says have arrived to take over the earth, he gives them the ability to acquire DNA patterns. Simply laying their hands on a lobster allows them to absorb its DNA and “morph” themselves into its exact replica. If they remain in a morph for any longer than the very arbitrary sounding period of two hours, they are toast. Or. more literally, they are lobsters–or hawks or cockroaches–for the rest of their lives.

And to make things even trickier, the Andalite throws in a conspiracy theory. You can’t always recognize a Yeerk because, as Rachel, one of the two female Animorphs, explains in book seven, The Stranger, “They can be in anyone. Your best friend. Your favorite teacher. The mayor of your town.” For example, it turns out that the assistant principal at the Animorphs’ school isn’t just creepy and humorless. He is a Controller. He has an “evil, parasitic slug” in the driver’s seat of his brain.

At first, this mishmash of elements didn’t fit together for me. I didn’t buy that becoming a bunny–or even a mightier beast, like an elephant or a tiger–would help much in a fight against any extraterrestrial menace worth its salt. If the Yeerks, could figure out how to infiltrate minds, surely they were handy with a ray gun and some rat poison. The whole set-up seemed too reliant on cheap Hollywood tactics, too obvious in its attempt to win the audience over with something cute and furry or gross and scaly.

But after a few more books I began to grow more receptive. The animals-as-ideal-spies concept began to win me over, perhaps because I became caught up in Applegate’s gutsy, apparently well-researched attempts to imagine how the world might appear from the vantage point of everything from a dolphin to a flea. Each disguise an Animorph adopts brings with it different kinds of tension. The most obvious kinds involve whether the Controllers will catch them and discover their true identities, and whether their two hours will run out before they have a chance to morph back to human form. The more unique and compelling tension, in my opinion, comes from the unpredictability of the animal mind. Once Marco becomes an ant, for instance, he has no guarantee that he will be able to calmly scuttle into his assistant principal’s unoccupied study and help steal the Z-Space transponder, as planned. He might succumb to the powerful ant impulse to embark on a separate mission: “Food … Find it. Take it. Return to the colony with it.” Of course, in such situations the human mind always eventually retains control. Still, the promise of unique challenges accompanying every new morph–would the Animorphs lay eggs next? Spin webs? Eat maggots?–kept me going through the otherwise formulaic, cartoon-style theatrics of the plot.

Judging from the detailed winning entries of the “Draw a Picture of an Animorphs, Alien” contest, posted on the Animorphs web page, not every reader shares my opinion that the outer space contingent in this series is a pack of forgettable, hokey, B-movie monsters. Also, the fan letters segment of the web page shows that others see a lot more in the human characters than I do. To me, despite their carefully delineated superficial differences, the kid narrators are as alike as one Gap store is to another. But I would never try to argue this with the passionate fan who likes “sweet and gentle” Tobias best because “his struggle to hold onto his humanity makes the books deep and realistic.” I would never poke fun at the college and high school students who wrote in to say they enjoy Animorphs as much as their younger siblings do. I guess it’s because I don’t want to wreck the spirit of inclusiveness that is the main key to the success of the Animorphs; series. Readers can take what they want from it–the animal info or the aliens or the realistic adolescent dilemmas of crushes and problem parents. They can skim over the rest.

Maybe I’ve absorbed a bit too much of the Animorphs’ everyone-is-in-really-big-trouble paranoia, but I can’t help suspecting with dismay that these perfectly fine books, with their incredible visual potential, will soon morph into a TV show. The signs aren’t good. Already the original series has spawned Megamorphs. (books in which the kids alternate narrating chapters), the Andalite Chronicles (devoted to the history of the centaur guys), a computer game called the Yeerk Pool, and who can keep track of what else. Next thing you know it’s merchandising overkill–plastic Animorph toys and Animorph turtle (did someone say Ninja?) Halloween costumes on the fifty-percent-off rack.

Sifting through Animorphs’competitors, I couldn’t find one that didn’t have some relation to television. Hyperion’s Monday Night Football Club series by Gordon Korman, in which sports-obsessed boys morph into NFL stars such as John Elway and Barry Sanders, screamed advertisement so shamelessly that I could only stand a page or two before spiking it back into my book bag. I had hope for Avon’s kitschy little Eeerie Indiana series–kind of an X-Files with training wheels–until I flipped to the back and saw the Fox Kids’ network logo, followed by the command to “Watch the #1 hit television series every week!” And the X-Files books, published by Harper for both intermediate readers and young adults, are based so faithfully on teleplays that all I could think about while I was reading them was how I wished I were watching TV.

2 Responses to “Who The Heck Are Animorphs?”

  • Violet Cafarelli says:

    I am not really sure if I’ll be happy that my kids are so fascinated by these characters or not. Sometimes I think it’s weird but I’d like to believe that it’s still better than what the other kids are busy about.

     

  • Pia Khalsa says:

    I heard the kids and my husband talk about animorphs many times. They seem to be enjoying it a lot. The kids are safe knowing my husband is around whenever they penetrate the world of these weird animorphs.

     


 

 

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