‘Penn Zero: Part-Time Hero’ creators flash back to ’80s on Disney XD

Feb. 12, 2015 | 4:41 p.m.
138120 30 Penn Zero: Part Time Hero creators flash back to 80s on Disney XD

Sashi (Tania Gunadi), Penn (Thomas Middleditch) and Boone (Adam DeVine) make up the central trio in the new series, "Penn Zero: Part-Time Hero." (Disney XD)

138120 31 Penn Zero: Part Time Hero creators flash back to 80s on Disney XD

Alfred Molina voices Rippen in the new animated series "Penn Zero: Part Time Hero." (Disney XD)

138069 017 Penn Zero: Part Time Hero creators flash back to 80s on Disney XD

Penn (Thomas Middleditch), Boone (Adam DeVine) and Sashi (Tania Gunadi) make up the central trio in the new series, "Penn Zero: Part-Time Hero." (Disney XD)

138069 024 Penn Zero: Part Time Hero creators flash back to 80s on Disney XD

Penn, Sheriff Scaley Briggs (voiced by Beau Bridges), Sashi and Boone in a scene from "Penn Zero: Part-Time Hero." (Disney XD)

138069 013 Penn Zero: Part Time Hero creators flash back to 80s on Disney XD

Rippen (Alfred Molina) and Larry (Larry Wilmore) in the new animated comedy "Penn Zero: Part-Time Hero." (Disney XD)

penn creator Penn Zero: Part Time Hero creators flash back to 80s on Disney XD

Sam Levine, left, and Jared Bush are the co-creators of "Penn Zero: Part-Time Hero." (Disney)

138122 18 Penn Zero: Part Time Hero creators flash back to 80s on Disney XD

Rippen (Alfred Molina) and Larry (Larry Wilmore) in the new animated comedy "Penn Zero: Part-Time Hero." (Disney XD)

138122 152 Penn Zero: Part Time Hero creators flash back to 80s on Disney XD

An exhausted Penn (Thomas Middleditch) is relieved when the team, including Sashi (Tania Gunadi) and Boone (Adam DeVine), is zapped to a shopping mall and given "normal" jobs ... until the zombie uprising begins in a new episode of "Penn Zero: Part-Time Hero." (Disney XD)

Jared Bush and Sam Levine, the creators of Disney XD’s “Penn Zero: Part-Time Hero,” drew inspiration from childhood memories to craft the new animated series.

At the age of 12, Bush discovered that his parents worked for the Central Intelligence Agency, while Levine, the child of a New York City film projectionist, would routinely sit beside his father to watch classic movies and new releases.

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FOR THE RECORD

In an earlier version of this article, it was stated that Alfred Molina and Larry Wilmore were either guest stars or recurring actors. They are both regular cast members on the show.

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“One of my favorites was ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark,'” Levine said in a recent interview. “I remember watching it four times back to back, and covering my eyes every time the faces melted off at the end.”

Those formative experiences turn up in unexpected ways in “Penn Zero,” which centers on a regular kid (voiced by “Silicon Valley’s” Thomas Middleditch) who sets out to follow in the footsteps of his part-time heroic parents, who are were trapped in an alternate dimension called the Most Dangerous World Imaginable. Along with his friends Sashi Kobayashi (voiced by Tania Gunadi) and Boone (voiced by Adam DeVine), Penn is transported — via a souped-up movie projector in an old theater called the Odyssey — to other worlds in order to save them from destruction.

The series is set for a simulcast premiere Friday on Disney XD and Disney Channel, with three additional episodes premiering over the holiday weekend on Disney XD.

The premise lets the writers and animators create and explore countless fictional planets, while allowing the characters to morph from superheroes to underwater creatures, from pie-throwing clowns to dinosaur-riding cowboys.

Both Levine and Bush cited favorites from 1980s cinema as key influences.

“Anyone could be a hero back in the ’80s,” Bush said. “You look at ‘Goonies’ and ‘Back to the Future.’  ‘Ghostbusters.’ Just regular kids or regular people doing extraordinary things.”

“Honestly, ‘Back to the Future’ was so big to me. I can think of my life in terms of pre-‘Back to the Future’ and post,” Levine added. “It was a perfect story and a really funny movie. And it took this guy that we’d watched on TV … So that guy, Alex P. Keaton, could be this guy running around, traveling in time and being a hero.”

What Bush didn’t want was a show about “the cool guy going to a world and doing something cool.” When it came to casting the character, the creators said Middleditch brought a goofy sort of bravado to the role.

“[Penn] is not a nerd — he’s just a regular kid trying hard. If it was me and I was suddenly zapped into a world and fighting aliens, I don’t think that I’d be awesome at it right off the bat,” Bush said.

"Brainzburgerz" - An exhausted Penn is relieved when the team is zapped to a shopping mall and given "normal" jobs…until the zombie uprising begins. This episode will air Monday, February 16 (9:15 pm - 9:45 pm ET/PT), on Disney XD. Pictured are Penn (Thomas Middlditch), Sashi (Tania Gunadi) and Boone (Adam DeVine). (Disney XD)

An exhausted Penn (Thomas Middleditch) is relieved when the team, including Sashi (Tania Gunadi) and Boone (Adam DeVine) is zapped to a shopping mall and given “normal” jobs … until the zombie uprising begins in a new episode of “Penn Zero: Part-Time Hero.” (Disney XD)

As for Penn’s friends, Boone is the clueless loyal best friend and Sashi is the no-nonsense tough girl mission specialist rounding out the trio. Sashi was cast as the creators watched Honda’s popular “Hoodie Ninja” ad, noting that the woman in the ad would be perfect for their character — and through no real machinations of their own, that’s the actress that they cast with Gunadi.

“Sashi is really the most overqualified sidekick, and really just wants to get the job done. We needed an adult in the room, in a way,” Levine said. “She really wants to be the best sidekick, though. She could be the hero, but she gets sidetracked kicking butt.”

And Boone … well, he means well.

“Whatever world they go to, he’s going to love that world,” Bush said. “He’s like, ‘I get to play here! I can do magic? I can turn rocks into cupcakes? Well let me do that for a while.'”

“We do find ways for him to find a wisdom of his own — not all the time — but accidentally he can often find something that’s really important and valuable,” Levine said.

For “Penn Zero,” Bush and Levine opted for a mini-episodic format to help the stories feel like small movies. Working with Mercury Filmworks (“Jake and the Neverland Pirates”), the duo elected to use a kind of “super flash” computer-generated image for the show that would be reminiscent of the work of certain mid-20th century greats.

“The art gets so pretty when it gets to the final rendering, but right before that there’s this playful zone that looks super-entertaining and great,” Bush said.

“I loved the visual style of Disney and some others in the ’50s and the ’60s. ‘101 Dalmatians’ and the background style of Walt Peregoy, a genius who just passed away, Eyvind Earle, Mary Blair,” Levine said. “For this show itself, we wanted to go for that graphic style. Technology and timing lined up and we were able to crack this style that we really wanted to achieve.”

The duo has recruited an impressive supporting voice cast to appear on the new series in guest spots and recurring roles: Alfred Molina, Larry Wilmore, Lea Thompson, Gary Cole, Rosie Perez, Henry Winkler and Wanda Sykes all appear on the “Penn Zero” roster, with Adam West (featured in the clip above) turning in a performance as Captain Super Captain.

“We have a great writing team, and we go in with great scripts, but we have great improvisors,” Bush said. “Larry Wilmore is a hilarious improvisor. And Alfred Molina is this big ham actor who really enjoys goofing around. So we end up with a lot of improv. It creates a lot of real natural spontaneous moments.”

“We see the show as every episode, they zap into the third act of a movie,” Levine said. “That requires that there’s a level of stakes and realism. These actors help draw that out. We’re feature guys with feature experience and we really wanted to bring that. Each world should be a different movie.”

— Jevon Phillips | @storiz@LATherocomplex

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