"I had to bring everything I know to this. I could relate to what Robin went through with his ex-wife, girlfriends, kids. I have three kids. When the riots broke, out I was driving with them through the intersection at La Brea and Rodeo. We saw people looting a bank and rocking a truck. That scares you. You've got to be able to ground your kids, to say, 'See this? Don't do it.' And we need role models. What happens when a black entertainer starts to get hot--even a comedian? The moviemakers give him a gun. Eddie Murphy understands this.
"There comes a point when everyone's gonna have to take responsibility. That's what Robin does in 'Bebe's Kids.' He may not like them. They get on his nerves. But he realizes that they need someone to guide them."
Animators Jamie Lopez and Lennie Graves are also mindful of the need for authenticity in dealing with a social topic, even if it's in a cartoon.
"Typically, animated films research other animated films for style and design," Graves said. "We went to live-action films reaching back to early in the century to study movement and find out how much is generic and how much is specific. There are lots of variations even within type. For instance, Robin in the movie is 40, which means his physical attitude toward things is a lot different from hip-hop kids.
"In my opinion, everybody in the black community knows everything about everyone else," Graves added. "The young know about the old, men know about women, and vice versa. Frankness is very common. But it's a difficult world for whites to empathize with. In this film we broke a lot of barriers. We tried to create a climate of empathy instead of a climate of opinion."
"I didn't know about Robin or about black culture, so it was scary at first," Lopez said. "This is a film where you see kids throwing signs. I wondered if I should be working on it at all. But to do animation you have to understand feelings. Eventually I began to understand. This is definitely not birds and bunnies."
Wilhite, 39, was head of film production at Disney before Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg joined the company, and is producer for "Bebe's Kids," which he thinks holds relevance for the '90s--particularly in light of recent political claims on what constitutes "family values" and what doesn't.
"I think the depiction of family that came out of the Reagan years is an out-of-touch portrait," Wilhite said. "Non-conventional families can be just as powerful as conventional families in the shaping of an adult.
" 'Bebe's Kids' is an appealing story of this put-upon single guy who spends a day with the kids of his girlfriend and another woman who's not around. Out of this amalgamation they form a spontaneous nuclear family. Whether he likes it or not, he has to take responsibility.
"This is a subject that's never been dealt with before in an animated feature," Wilhite said. "Aside from the message, what we've tried to do is create a film where the subject influences the design--that's why we looked so long at African-American art. When we formed this company in the mid-'80s, the industry was gearing up for the baby-boomlet generation, and when we made 'The Brave Little Toaster,' animation was a distinctly non-chic business. Suddenly it's become a new discovery. I think there's a chance to do something exciting if you think of it as filmmaking and not baby-sitting."
There are people who think that, had he lived, Robin Harris may have exerted a calming influence during Los Angeles' recent civil unrest. Certainly he was fearless, he spoke the language of the street, and there wasn't anyone he couldn't disarm with a joke. If "Bebe's Kids" achieves what its creators have set out to do, it could help foster the climate of understanding most people realize is essential in the attempt to rebuild. And Harris himself will have earned a few more rounds of laughs.