As a child of the 1980s, Hasbro absolutely owned my Saturday mornings with well-known cartoon properties such as G.I. Joe and Transformers, and lesser-known fare like Visionaries: Knights of the Magical Light and Bigfoot and the Muscle Machines. What the company has managed to do for decades, better than just about anyone else, is craft original stories around their properties that successfully entertain kids of all ages across multiple platforms. In the 80s, that meant Saturday morning cartoons, a boatload of toys, and home movies on VHS. Today, Hasbro is bringing that same proven approach to branding into the 21st century, starting with their first-ever animated digital series.
Hanazuki: Full of Treasures is Hasbro Studio’s newest foray into the digital landscape, and the brand launches today with a series of YouTube episodes featuring the title character; an app and toy line will be released in the coming months. There will be 27 episodes in all, each 11 minutes long, released in three phases that coincide with the full moon (check your lunar calendars). Why this specific release schedule? Well, you see, Hanazuki is a Moonflower tasked with defending a colorful moon and its cute critter inhabitants from a dark force that destroys everything in its path.
Hanazuki was originally a 2005 creation by Dutch art director Niko Stumpo and partner Hanneke Metselaar who later partnered with Hasbro in 2011 to bring the colorful world of the Moonflower to a much bigger audience. And while my 80s childhood shied away from girl-centric properties like Hasbro’s My Little Pony and Jem and the Holograms, Hanazuki has much more in common with them and shows like Rainbow Brite since it’s being launched as a lifestyle brand aimed to draw the attention of young girls. If this first phase of episodes is any indication then Hasbro has a surefire winner on their hands.
The world of Hanazuki is a very colorful one by design because color itself plays directly into the plot. Before we’re ever introduced to the title character in the premiere “A Moonflower Is Born”, a narration tells us all we need to know about the peril facing this particular moon-filled galaxy: A dark, destructive force has been sweeping through space and wiping out worlds, leaving only a monochromatic husk of a moon behind. Previous Moonflowers have been unable to fight against it, but there’s hope for a new Moonflower seeded by a sleepy little kid floating through space known as the Little Dreamer. (He reminds me of Linus from “Peanuts” and has a cute gimmick of appearing in different silly costumes in each episode.)
Hanazuki (Jessica DiCicco) begins her life as a small jewel topped by a rainbow-colored flower which blooms into a fully fledged Moonflower as soon as she touches the moon soil. Her design is simple yet elegant, sporting dark clothes and hair accented with stark white. That design choice provides a nice contrast against the wildly colorful background of the moon and its inhabitants, and also allows for a wonderful touch to the animation when Hanazuki performs some of her special abilities. She can use the various treasures given to her by the Little Dreamer in order to plant and grow Treasure Trees, adding more color and variety to her moon.
That’s all well and good, but the real scene-stealers in Hanazuki are the little bunny-like creatures known as Hemka. If you combine the cute factor of colorful little cartoon bunnies, with the gibberish of Illumination Entertainment’s Minions, and the emotional avatars of Pixar’s Inside Out, you’ll have a good idea of what the Hemka are like. Kids are going to absolutely love them. I fully expect toy store shelves to be overrun with Hemka of all colors in the near future.
The coolest aspect of the Hemka is that they each represent a strong emotion: Red Hemka is quite feisty, Yellow Hemka is unflappable in his positivity, and the Green Hemka is always a bit fearful. Each episode centers on one of these cute critters and has Hanazuki resolving a dilemma based on that emotion. It’s a great way to reinforce the importance of emotion in this story, and in life in general, because none of the emotions are shunned in favor of another; sometimes Hanazuki needs to channel a particular emotion to activate a Treasure Tree (at which point her white highlights glow with the associated color), but other times she needs to keep her emotions properly balanced. The subtext that runs under the episodic adventures is that it’s healthy to express a range of emotions and that helps to stave off darker, more destructive feelings. And as heavy-handed as that life lesson might seem in text, it’s actually handled quite deftly in the episodes themselves.
Where Hanazuki is a little uneven is in its comedic tone. It’s clearly going for the weird and manic humor that’s common in a lot of today’s cartoons, like Adventure Time, but it doesn’t always hit the mark. It’s aimed at a younger audience so the jokes are much safer. Things do occasionally get weird, however, as in the episode titled “Baby Chicken Plant”, which says all you need to know right there in the title. Hanazuki herself doesn’t have too many other characters to interact with aside from the Hemka, but the ones who do exist are delightfully strange. There’s Sleepy Unicorn (Avery Kidd Waddell), a magical unicorn with a dark past (who’s kind of like Eeyore if he was sleepy instead of glum); a dancing, diamond-shaped enforcer of moon laws named Dazzlessence Jones; and even a rival Moonflower named Kiazuki who may or may not be a frenemy.
The real strength of Hanazuki is, surprisingly, in its focus on emotional storytelling, something that’s lacking in most kids’ cartoons. That just goes to show that Hasbro is focused on strong stories anchoring their brand, giving kids a reason to choose to follow these particular characters along their journey in a world that offers so many other options. It also gives parents peace of mind for allowing their little ones to latch on to a brand like this when there’s actually some substance behind the sparkles.
Rating: ★★★★ Very good