Back in 1983, Hallmark Cards busted out Rainbow Brite to counter Muriel Fahrion’s older Strawberry Shortcake line from American Greetings. The character had been in development at Hallmark for about two years prior, starting in 1981. Beginning as a greeting card line, the Rainbow quickly stretched into various forms of character merchandise, licensed products, dolls, and toys- even cereal, and a traveling show!
Seven unique Color Kids as well as Rainbow Brite and an army of Sprites – each representing a particular hue in the spectrum– and snarky talking horse Starlite protected Rainbow Land from the bumbling and histrionic Murky and Lurky, a pair of goofy evildoers from Rainbow Land’s ‘bad side of town’, the Pits.
Hallmark credits 16 individuals with “character development” in the credits of the 1985 Rainbow Brite movie, and out of that list two individuals appear to have been particularly critical to the line’s overall creation.
Artist G. G. Santiago claims the lion’s share, stating she was the creator of the original Rainbow Brite collection. She also created the My Little Kitchen Fairies figurines for Enesco.
Another important name is Kora Oliver, who appears in several credited places throughout the years of the line ; not only in the credits for the 1985 movie but also as “Creative Consultant” on a second video from that year, and as the illustrator for the adorable 2004 children’s book Rainbow Brite Saves Christmas.
Meanwhile the TV series, though only 13 episodes in total, has a complex and interesting pedigree with a lot of significant names attached to it.
Negotiations between DIC and Hallmark began in August of 1983, and by December the deal had been signed- DIC would develop a series based off Santiago and Hallmark’s IP, with all copyrights reverting to Hallmark.
DIC contacted All in the Family and The Carol Burnett Show head writer Heywood “Woody” Kling to create the premise, outline, screenplay and rewrites as needed for three formative episodes. He was paid $20,000 for each script. These were “Peril in the Pits”,“The Mighty Monstromurk Menace” and “The Beginning of Rainbowland”. He passed away in 1988, and later, his widow would file suit against the companies involved over creative credit and royalty issues.
“Peril in the Pits” aired first, as a 30 minute special in June of 1984. It was directed by Osamu Dezaki. (Astro Boy 1980, Oniisama E, Rose of Versailles, Black Jack, Space Adventure Cobra, Ashita no Joe, Aim for the Ace! and recently, Clannad and Air).
Dezaki isn’t the first or last big-name Japanese animator to ‘slum it’ for US productions – at some point I hope to compile a more definitive article about this – both Toei and Tokyo Movie Shinsha studios did a metric ton of contracted productions for the States, and their work dominates a lot of the 80’s and 90’s cartoons we all remember so fondly. Toshiyuki Hiruma (Galaxy High, Bionic Six), Satoshi Hirayama (Cat’s Eye), Yasumi Mikamoto (Lupin III), and Shigetsugu Yoshida (ass’t director of Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro) all did stints as unit directors on Rainbow Brite.
In December 1984, “The Mighty Monstromurk Menace” debuted, and like “More than Meets the Eye” for Transformers, the episode ran over consecutive days – in this case, the 4th and 5th. Bernard Deyries helmed this and the subsequent two parter. He was also the co-writer of Mysterious Cities of Gold and Ulysses 31, and he was staff on other 80’s-era DIC shows like The Littles, MASK, and Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors. He did not, however, work on The Real Ghostbusters.
It wasn’t until April 1985 that the final of the Kling-scripted episodes, “The Beginning of Rainbowland”, was shown. In November ’85, the series’ theatrical spinoff, Rainbow Brite and the Star Stealer, directed by character designer Rich Rudish, opened to an utterly abysmal box-office take of slightly under $5M domestic. How badly was it received? During the Kling court case, Kling’s lawyer wrote DIC’s lawyer to say they didn’t want name association or credit with the film: “After reading the Los Angeles Times review of the motion picture… it behooves my client not to be associated with that medium as produced by your client.”
The truth is that all the other 80’s toy-based franchise movies tanked as well – Hasbro’s Transformers: The Movie only took in $5.8 million, and My Little Pony: the Movie made somewhere around $6m. Cynical and dismissive press reviews plus a vocal parent’s movement decrying ‘toy commercial shows’ depressed the box office.
Despite the failure of the movie indicating Brite was beginning to lose steam, 8 more episodes were created, airing in 1986. These were all directed by Rudish, and written by Howard R. Cohen, a schlock writer who had also scripted the movie. Rotten Tomatoes doesn’t rank his works any higher than 17%, but to his credit, he did pen the lyrics for the monstrously ear-wormy “Rainbow Brite and Me” ending theme!
With increasingly low ratings and shrinking sales, the line quietly vanished around 1988. And then things get … tricky. Various attempts have been made to reboot the series since the 90’s.