Comedian Robin Harris was on the verge of a major breakthrough when he died of heart failure two years ago at 36 in a Chicago hotel room. The public at large knew him only from a couple of small film roles, principally his oracular Sweet Dick Willie in "Do the Right Thing," but in the Los Angeles African-American community he was a sensation, one of the hottest club secrets in black America.
When Harris took the stage at the Crenshaw District's Comedy Act Theater, he would see a number of the Los Angeles Lakers cooling out after a night at the Forum (as well as other NBA players from around the league), or Mike Tyson (when he was champ), or Spike Lee, or Branford Marsalis, all of whom at one time or another proudly withstood Harris' mock show of surreal, withering scorn ("Who you think that is sittin' over there," he once said of Lee, "Mr. Magoo?"). To them and the rest of the audience, which doubled over with laughter when one of his zingers curved low and inside, he was family.
Harris left few career tangibles behind. There were the film clips, and a single CD recording of his live performance, "Bebe's Kids." But he did leave an unforgettable spirit, and "Bebe's Kids" has now been converted into a feature-length animated film, opening nationwide Friday.
It's the first full-length black feature in animation history, and is distributed through a joint venture between Hyperion Animation and Paramount. Warrington and Reginald Hudlin, who are the principal creative forces behind "Boomerang," are also signed on with this one. Warrington Hudlin is executive producer. Reginald Hudlin is executive co-producer, and as screenwriter has fleshed out what was originally a mere sketch in which Harris, as a surrogate dad, has to shepherd a comically horrific bunch of kids through an afternoon at an amusement park.
In a summer in which the idea of opportunity--either lost or hoped-for--is in the air, "Bebe's Kids" offers a number of relative unknowns a leg up in their careers. Chief among them is Bruce Smith, who at 30 is directing his first feature.
"Every studio has its own style, whether it's Disney, Warner Bros. or the old Tex Avery shorts," Smith said in Hyperion's Glendale studio. "The same is true with 'Roger Rabbit,' 'Beauty and the Beast' and 'The Little Mermaid.' 'Bebe's Kids' is very different, and not only because it's an African-American film."
Smith said that Tom Wilhite, president of Hyperion, brought him a book dating back to the Harlem renaissance. "There was a different sense about color and its roots which was very Afro-centric, full of reddish-browns, deep greens and blues. There's nothing quite like it."
Smith is a tall, soft-spoken man who seems collected in a spirit of unusual tranquillity, perhaps developed out of the professional animator's need for deep reservoirs of patience. He drew cartoons for the school paper at George Washington High in Los Angeles before studying at CalArts, and then went to work for a couple of small animation studios, gaining the experience that eventually helped him hire on as one of the animators for "Who Framed Roger Rabbit." He also worked on "Rock-a-Doodle" and an earlier Hyperion feature, "Rover Dangerfield."
"In 'Bebe's Kids,' I designed the characters and other animators gave me ideas on how they should move," Smith said, by way of explaining what a director in this instance does. "Then I laid down the foundation on how the feature will look. If you compare the process to live-action features, you have story-board artists equivalent to cinematographers--they give you your shots. You have layout artists who design the sets, then background artists who produce the mood and lighting and fill out the color. Then I have to direct the voices, which you do before you start any characters. It's very precise. You have what's called an X-sheet, which shows how long it takes a person to say a word, so that you can make the drawing fit.
"Then there's the scoring of the film, which in this case involves a lot of rhythm & blues and rap. (The character representing) Robin does a blues rap number, and a love song. It's a very eclectic mix."
Method and technique aside, what Smith hopes for most out of "Bebe's Kids" is that it will convey the truth of real experience.
"Comedy not only allows you to laugh at yourself, you can analyze too," Smith said. "Comics do ask questions, and make observations. When I was a kid, I grew up with the kind of humor Robin had, talkin' about someone's feet, or like the fat lady who goes into Lane Bryant and says, 'I'd like to see a dress that'll fit me' and the saleslady says, 'Me too.' I can remember doubling up in tears when someone's roasting someone else. The humor of the street was all we used to do as kids.