Let me say from the start that I was disappointed to find that Ellen DeGeneres is not an actual presence in “Little Ellen,” a new animated series from HBO Max and Cartoon Network, as Louie Anderson played his smaller self in “Life With Louie.” (Let me also say that you won’t find any toxic workplace observations in this review of a cartoon.) DeGeneres’ comedy is, among other things, a way of talking, one that adapts in a lovely way to animation — she is so well used in “Finding Nemo” and “Finding Dory” — and I would have liked to hear her zig-zag locutions in the mouth of a 7-year-old. That is not the case — Little Ellen is played by Laurel Emory, 16 — but what’s here is, if fairly conventional, very appealing and easy to recommend. (That it is fairly conventional will for much of its intended audience also amount to a recommendation.)
The series comes as part of the re-launch of Cartoonito, a shared programming block — streaming on HBO Max and running Monday through Friday, 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., on Cartoon Network — aimed at a preschool audience. (Press releases describe the block, which also includes some new “Thomas the Tank Engine” cartoons and fresh episodes of “The Not Too Late Show with Elmo” as “WarnerMedia’s biggest commitment to preschool in 100 years.” In other words, since even before Warner Bros. studios existed. That is commitment.)
As was her human model, Little Ellen is a child in the city of New Orleans. She wears a shirt bearing the image of a rainbow, a recurring motif — both as a symbol, obviously, and sometimes just as a rainbow. Her socks are mismatched; there is a Band-Aid on her knee. She lives, seemingly, with her grandmother, Gramsy (June Squibb, 91, whose voice you know), who juggles and roller-skates but will also sit herself down on a bench to do nothing while Ellen and constant companions Freckle (JeCobi Swain), who plays the trumpet, and cousin Becky (Johanna Colón), who dreams of being old enough to order coffee, get up to unattended fun. There is also, prominently, a cat.
At times Ellen will grab a scrub brush or a flashlight as though it were a microphone to foreshadow her adult occupation.
“My Gramsy always says it’s raining cats and dogs, but what does that even mean, anyway? … It makes just as much sense to say it’s raining giraffes and naked mole rats. … Why not say it’s raining crayons and spatulas? And what’s the idea with umbrellas anyway?” (That last line may be more Little Jerry than Little Ellen.) She will also say “See what I did there?” and “Wow, tough crowd.”
While it is not exactly “Treme,” the series does not take its New Orleans setting for granted: The architectural details are right; there’s a streetcar in it; beignets are a recurring theme; there is jazz. The setting suggests that we are in some earlier time — an age of tube televisions and landline telephones, absent the modern tech with which its small-fry audience will already be familiar — without ever being specific. There are departures from reality too: a penguin ice-fishing in the refrigerator, a Storm King (Ellen’s tough crowd in the monologue above) whose tears fall like actual rain. In its textures and abstraction and lack of outlines, the 2-D design has a midcentury, Little Golden Book, Charlie Harper feel to it. I would have made the grownups’ heads smaller, but in every other visual respect it’s a pleasure to behold. (Happily, it is not computer-animated, which had become a go-to for preschool series.)
Most crucial, the series avoids the (literally) giggling sweetness lesser shows use as a shorthand for childhood. Children here are not always happy. (Though they are not unhappy for long.) Indeed, its lessons, at least in the four episodes I’ve seen, are all about mental flexibility, to quote Gramsy: “Sometimes plans change, and that’s OK”; “Sometimes we just can’t fix things, and that’s OK”; “Sometimes it’s OK to let someone be sad.” Briefly put: It’s OK, kids.
The last of those four episodes, which I realize even as I write is a nod to DeGeneres’ “Ellen’s Game of Games,” is a well-executed lesson-free farce in which Ellen, Becky and Freckle try to crash Gramsy’s “adult game night.” It involves the old dodge of children standing on each other’s shoulders to imitate a tall person (“I know this has never worked in any movie we’ve ever seen,” says Ellen, suggesting it), and lets in a few jokes about adults who “have really deep voices and they say things like, ‘This traffic is out of control’ and ‘Becky, stop jumping on the dresser.’” In a song called “Groove Like an Oldie” (co-written, you might like to know, by Jason Nesmith, son of Monkee Mike, who has been composing for DeGeneres projects for years), one finds the lyric, “Do the Mashed Potato/ ‘Cause that’s a real soft food that you can chew.” Laugh all you want, children. One day you won’t find it so funny.
In the meantime, enjoy this amiable cartoon. And eating with your own teeth.