He Has a Way with Words!
Wally, the star of the new preschool series Wallykazam!, magic on Nick this month. by Ramin Zahed helps spread some preschool literacy
Wally, the star of the new preschool series Wallykazam!, helps spread some literacy magic on Nick. by Ramin Zahed
If you were going to teach kids about words and literacy, what better way than to get some help from a clever forest troll, his pet dragon and a cast of magical creatures? That’s exactly what Wallykazam!, a new preschool animated series, sets out to do on Nickelodeon this month. Created by Adam Peltzman ( Emmy-winning writer of popular toons such as Backyardigans, The Octonauts, Peter Rabbit and Bubble Guppies), the show embeds a literacy curriculum into a full-length adventure as Wally the troll, with the aid of his magic stick, shows kids how to form words using a specific letter, sound or rhyme.
Peltzman says he began his new venture by asking himself the question, “What’s fun about words?” Then, he came up with this idea of a kid who could use words to playfully transform the world around him. “It seemed like a great way to make words fun and powerful for kids, and it fit so well with animation — lots of opportunities for gags and surprising story twists,” says the show’s creator. “Then I started figuring out who this kid was and what the world around him was like. For a brief minute, I considered setting it around a boy and his dog in the modern world, but quickly scrapped that for a more fantastical take because I liked having the freedom to invent new creatures with weird names, like Borgelorps and Fruzzlewuzzles. So the boy became a troll, the dog became a dragon and the troublemaker kid in the neighborhood became a goblin with exceptionally large ears.”
Visual cues for the series came from classic fantasy worlds like Middle-earth as well as beloved properties like The Muppet Show and Looney Tunes cartoons. Thanks to the work of the show’s art directors, Jeff Tucker and Jennifer Taylor, Peltzman was able to zero in on the whimsical and memorable look of the show.
The Evolution of Wally
The development process for the CG-animated series began about three years ago, with a five-minute short that was designed to tease the idea and introduce the main characters. “Originally, it was supposed to air as a short, but Nickelodeon thought the idea had promise as a series, so they held the short and commissioned a longer pilot,” says Peltzman. “As always, there were some changes throughout the process. Wally had other names, and the show had other titles. But despite the time and the changes, it was a really fruitful period — we learned a lot, and were able to hit the ground running when we got to series.”
One of the stand-out qualities of Wallykazam! is the way the literacy curriculum is cleverly mixed with strong narrative and comedic elements. As Peltzman explains, the story never stops for a game or for a stand-alone curricular segment. Instead, the narrative leads, and when Wally needs a word, there will be a curricular beat that moves the story forward and keeps preschoolers laughing and engaged.
“Each episode features a rule for the magic words of the day — for instance, words that start with ‘M’ or ‘H’ or words with a certain rhyming sound,” he says. “So one day, Wally and Norville (his pet dragon) are on a mountain of marshmallows drinking milk, the next they’re on hopping hamburgers. We’ve catapulted into castles and walked on waffles and parachuted from a pickle with a propeller. Many times during the first season I’ve looked at a scene and said, ‘Well, I don’t think that’s ever happened on TV before.’ So there’s sort of a playful, delightful absurdity that I think (hope!) kids will enjoy.”
Of course, the first season of a show is often the most challenging since there are so many different problems to solve and questions to answer. “We’re always trying to figure
out a process that works best for our particular show — for instance, how to integrate the 3-D and 2-D elements, or how to work with smaller sets so that we can travel to more places without breaking the budget,” says Peltzman. “Because so much of it is new and different from other shows we’ve all worked on, there’s no road map, so we’re simultaneously creating the show and the road map as we go.”
Putting It All Together
The results of the production team’s labor (based at Nickelodeon Studios in Burbank) has made it all worthwhile. Peltzman says he really enjoys watching the show, even though it’s for young children. “There’s always something that makes me laugh or smile,” he says, sounding like Wally’s proud father. “That’s the result of having a lot of extremely talented people working on the show who all put their own creative stamp on the work. … It’s really rewarding to see all the separate elements of the show — the writing, the voices, the art, the music — all come together in the finished product.”
A huge fan of evergreen shows such as Looney Tunes, Rocky and Bullwinkle, Woody Woodpecker, The Jetsons and The Flintstones, Peltzman says he always really loved Saturday-morning animated comedies. He also says he’s very pleased with the great variety he sees today in the kids’ TV animation landscape. “I have a lot of friends writing and working on various animated shows, and some of them are so weirdly wonderful and absurd,” he says. “I do wish there were more opportuni- ties in New York — there are a lot of talented animation artists here, but not quite as much going on as there was a decade ago.”
Of course, we won’t leave Wally and Norville’s creator alone until he shares some good career advice for aspiring children’s show creators. He says, first of all, you have to start with an idea that genuinely sparks something for you. “With preschool, it’s certainly important to know the audience — there are certain ways that young kids process information and learn that are very different from how older audiences think and learn,” he says. “But once you have a handle on that, you really have to trust your own storytelling instincts. Because if you don’t find what you’re working on funny or interesting or exciting, chances are the 4-yearolds watching won’t either. So they’ll turn off the TV, or switch over to Downton Abbey. Preschoolers love Downton Abbey!”
Maybe, but something tells us Wally is a lot more fun to hang out with than those uptight, upper class Brits! Wallykazam! premiered Feb. 3 and airs weekdays at 1 p.m. on Nickelodeon.