This weekend, the second-to-last episode of “Amphibia” airs on the Disney Channel.
The series, created by Matt Braly (a veteran of classic Disney series “Gravity Falls” and “Big City Greens”) was disarming in its simplicity, at least initially. When the show started out, it was about a young Thai-American girl named Ann Boonchuy (Brenda Song), who is mysteriously transported to Amphibia, a world populated with andromorphic frog creatures, and falls in with the Planter family – Hop Pop (Bill Farmer), young Sprig (Justin Felbinger) and even-younger tadpole Polly (Amanda Leighton).
But what starts out as a fish-out-of-water comedy soon became much, much more epic. Ancient feuds were revealed, more human characters entered the upside-down frog world and in the third season, the Planters were transported to our world, which led to more fish (frog?) out-of-water stuff but here. It’s been a wild ride. And now, after three seasons and 56 episodes and various shorts, “Amphibia” will be no more.
We chatted with Braly about his decision to end the series, what the fans have meant to him, the upcoming “Amphibia” book and what’s next on his own fantastical journey.
How are you feeling? It’s all coming to an end here.
I’m feeling a lot of things, especially because we just had that event and I got to talk to so many people about the show and how much it means to them. It’s bittersweet, because it’s the end of this story and it’s the end of the journey for these characters, but I am so, so satisfied with the fact that I got to end the show on our own terms. Every time you get picked up for a season, it’s, “Oh baby, fingers crossed I get the next one.” You get season 1, fingers crossed you get season 2, you get season two, fingers crossed you get season 3.
I have to say that I only was able to breathe a sigh of relief after we got the season 3 pickup, because I was like, We can do it. We can close the loop on this narrative, we can do it right. The craziest thing would’ve been if we hadn’t gotten the season 3 pickup. Season 2, I would’ve just been scrambling to pull it together somehow at the end and make it click, so I’m so grateful that we got this opportunity to do it right. I feel all sorts of things, all the emotions, all at once.
Did you always intend it to be three seasons or when season three got picked up, did you say, “Okay, I don’t want to push my luck any further. Let’s just do it?”
It’s both. It’s a three-season story, it always has been in my head. This show is obsessed with the number three, it’s three-crazy. There’s three girls, there’s three races, there’s three gems. And three seasons just felt right but also, there’s a little bit of narrative momentum that to me was asking for a resolution. You know how you’ve ever read a book or you’ve watched a television show, and there comes an episode or a story that really feels like, This is the point of no return? The stakes are too high, the momentum is too hot, and I felt like the end of our second season really was that for us, where it was, Okay, this show, it feels like it’s coming to its climax, so it felt natural and good to do it in this third season. For me, I think it’s both. I didn’t want to push my luck because I’m like, Three is what I’ve always wanted. Could I stretch it out to four? Maybe, but why?
The other thing that is so interesting is that each season feels so different, so was it also that thing of having to reinvent the wheel again?
That’s a great point, and it was something that we talked about in the writers’ room, which was, do we see the other dimensions? Do we “Rick and Morty” it? Do we just start going to all kinds of crazy places? To me, I was like, “I don’t know.” The name of the show is ‘Amphibia,’ and I’d love it to stay focused on that. You’ll see Earth, because that’s important to Anne and her friends, but it really is about this specific world and these characters, so it’s exactly what you’re saying. I think a fourth season would’ve been unhinged, and I just really feel like this is a good place to bring everything to a nice, satisfying escalation and climax.
One of the things that impressed me so much about the show was this mixture of deep mythology, which really came to the forefront in season 2, mixed with silly one-off episodes. What it was like figuring out that alchemy and was there resistance to the more serialized stuff?
A lot of this is personal preference and I just like short stories, and the vision for “Amphibia” has always been a bunch of little stories that when you put them together, like LEGOs, it makes this awesome thing. I was in love with that in “Steven Universe,” which was a huge inspiration for me. I loved how you could have these little episodes of “Steven Universe” that were about a side character. “Adventure Time” was the same thing, where it’s, “Oh my God, an episode about that guy? I can’t believe we’re getting it,” and I love that kind of thing.
For me, I love the serialized elements of the show, but this show has always been an episodic show with serialized elements, and I was just loathe to transform it into something it wasn’t, which was a 22-minute, lore-driven epic. I couldn’t do it, I didn’t want to. I didn’t want you to watch season 3, and then look back at season 1 and be like, “Well, that’s meh. That’s a completely different show.” I really wanted them to have lineage, a connection. I wanted you to watch season 3 and still feel the soul of season 1, the heart of it, beating there.
In terms of pushback, there never really was a feeling of pushback, but it’s more that the show always had a certain tone and that was always going to be light and fun. It was cool to have spikes of drama and moments where every so often, we’ll do this big, epic episode, but I think that we really… And I was in agreement about this. The majority of this show is light and fun and breezy and mostly character-driven.
There were a couple of moments, obviously we’ve had our disagreements about, “Oh, was this episode too dark?” or, “Have we pushed it too far?” or, “How do we come back from this? How do we get the tone back to that lighter place?” and there’s some challenges there. There was an episode pairing that, looking back, I’m like, “This is probably our biggest tonal whiplash,” which was “Spider-Sprig” and “Olivia & Yunan” next to each other, and I love those episodes, I adore them.
But we did find ourselves sometimes in this space where it was like, “Oh, it’s really hard to come back from that tone,” or, “It’s really hard to build into that tone.” But again, a lot of that comes from me and my personal taste. I really did not want to ever transform the show into something broody or too information-driven. I just didn’t want too much bloat.
These shows are so hard to make, plus with the pandemic and finishing this last season away from everyone. What was the hardest thing in terms of bringing these episodes home?
It was really difficult to keep us all together in quarantine, and it’s exactly what you’re saying, which is that when you’re all working in a space together, it’s easy to stay connected and all focused, and in quarantine it was harder for leadership to make sure everyone was on the same page, reading each other’s stuff, because it’s really easy not to when you’re all so compartmentalized. And making sure that people were showing up for the storyboard pitches, because that used to be mandatory when you were in the office, but we made it not as mandatory because everybody’s at a different place in the pandemic. I would say everyone had more responsibilities in the pandemic, whether it’s to their family or whether it’s something else they had going on, and we wanted to allow for that, but I will say that it did make it difficult sometimes to really make sure everyone was up to date and caught up and super familiar with the material.
What has your relationship with the fan community been like? There were never any “Amphibia” toys or anything and they really filled in those holes. How has it evolved over the seasons?
I really, really love the community that is behind this show, and I have to say that it took time to build. We have a huge, thriving fan base now, but we really didn’t at the very beginning of this show and, again, a huge lesson I took away from this and one that I can take moving forward is it takes time.
It takes time to build engagement, especially now in 2022 where stuff often just gets completely dumped onto a streaming service and you’ll have your two weeks of, “Did you see it? Yay.” But for true engagement with this world and these characters, we had the advantage of having basically three years on the air of exposure, and that is incredibly valuable towards building a community, building awareness, and I’m really happy and I’m really proud of all the fans of this show. They’re so smart, they’re all writers, they’re all artists, they’re all toymakers, costume builders. Seeing the stuff online, and again, this is not an exaggeration, it really kept me and the crew going because otherwise, it just feels like you’re creating stuff in a vacuum.
The other amazing part of the show is obviously the voice cast and the guest performers. Looking back it was like, “Oh yeah, Kermit was on in season 2.” Do you have a favorite guest performer or vocal performance from the show?
No. A couple of things. First, Kermit. What an experience, him coming in, the Kermit the Frog, and not only doing a voice for us, but he really came in and palled around with the crew. We made a couple of videos where it was this whole bit where he came in and was our frog consultant on the show and that’s the kind of experience I will never forget. I’ll never forget us doing takes of that little video and them being like, “Okay guys, Kermit’s coming in, he’s coming in. All right, here we go,” and I’m just like, “Oh my God, how did I get here? This is such an amazing thing.” And some of the crew members, too, no joke, that was their first day. Their first day on the show, Kermit’s coming in and they’re just like, “This is a magical place.”
I’ve worked with such amazing performers on this show, just the cream of the crop in terms of talents. One particular actor who I’m just so excited to work with, his name is William Houston, and he’s this amazing character actor who’s in all kinds of stuff. I’m obsessed with British TV, so I’ve seen him in all kinds of things. There was a BBC adaptation of “North and South” that he was in and he was just amazing, but most of all, he voiced a character in “Dark Souls II” named King Vendrick, and the voice acting in that video game franchise has always just blown me away. I just remember hearing his voice, the purr of his voice, and the rasp and the gravity and the pathos that it had, and I was like, “Oh, please, please, please, please, can we get this man on the show?” He is the voice of Aldrich, who is King Andrias’ father, and he comes back a few more times and he is just jaw-droppingly good. Amazing performer.
What about Keith David? We need a funny Keith David story.
My only regret… I have no regrets on this show, Drew. But the one big thing is I never got Keith David to sing. Why did I not get him to sing? He’s an amazing, amazing singer and I really dropped the ball on that one. One recording session, he just started singing in the booth. Beautiful, beautiful. The voice director sent it to me and I played it for the team, and we were all just crying because it was just him riffing, he was just in there.
I’ll never forget, too, when I first met him and I was very nervous, I just came up to him and I was like, “Hey, I’m a really big fan of ‘Gargoyles,’” and he just looked at me, twinkle in his eye, and just said, “Me too.” That was it. But he is amazing performer and wait until you hear some of the emotional reads he does in these last episodes he is. He breaks my heart. This guy is incredible.
What are you most excited about fans of the show experiencing with these final episodes?
I got a really funny question from a fan that was like, “Why have you broken up the finale into parts? Why didn’t you just put it all together into a two-hour thing and just put it up on Disney Channel?” I was like, “Because it’s a television show and there are these great cliff hangers, and I want to see the audience on the edge of their seats.” So what I’m really excited for these final episodes is for people to experience that suspense and escalation together.
It’s pretty amazing that it is an original Disney property that first aired on linear television. Do you feel like you are at the cusp of something new or at the twilight of something old? Where do you put “Amphibia’s” place in the continuum?
That is such a great question, and I’ll tell you very specifically how I feel about it is that I feel like I’m at the tail end of what I’ll call the “Adventure Time” Era. It really feels like all of these shows are the children of “Flapjack,” “Adventure Time” and “Regular Show.” These were the shows that set the tone and the direction for I feel like almost everything that came after it, especially this idea that you have all these 11-minute episodes and you put them together, you get something great.
To me, I really feel like, unless I’m completely wrong, that kind of show is on the way out. And it may come back, we may absolutely see it resurface, but I really feel like I was part of that class, that “Gravity Falls,” “Steven Universe,” “Adventure Time” class of shows, and I feel like I am at the end of it. I feel like we’re like we’re one of the last ones of that flavor. I could be wrong, could be dead wrong, but that’s how I feel.
There is an “Amphibia” book coming out soon. What can you say about it?
The book is such an amazing opportunity for me to build out the world, and to also show folks what Marcy was up to off-screen. The book is divided into three chunks, and we’re working on it right now. I’m very excited about it, I think it’s going to be really, really great. The first third is going to be her solo adventures, everything she was doing in Newtopia before she met up with Anne, and I love it because it gives you such an opportunity to get in her head, because we all have this dramatic irony of knowing that Marcy got them stuck in Amphibia in the first place, we all know that. To see that guilt and to see that conflict coming through the pages will be such a delight, I’m really looking forward to that.
The second third will be the episodes you’ve seen but written from her point of view. That’s like when she’s met up with Anne, but you’ll get to see her take on these adventures, especially I was thinking about Third Temple. She’ll be so excited to see, “Look at us, we’re connecting, we’re rebuilding. Coming here was the best decision I ever made.” That kind of pathos will really come through the pages.
Then, the last third is Anne inherits the journal and when she’s on Earth, she will write her own thoughts, so that will bring it all together. There’s so much I want to do. I want to have a bestiary, got to have that stuff. You’ve got to have hidden messages and scrolls that you have to translate that have backstory on the stones and the civilization. It’s going to be a blast, I can’t wait. I’m really going to dive in in earnest now. We are working and building on it now, again, I really think people can look forward to it. It’s going to be awesome.
Is this a world that you are completely done with or is this one that you, should the opportunity arise, revisit from time to time?
It’s the kind of world that I’m more than happy to revisit if it makes sense for where we leave the characters at the end of season 3. I obviously can’t speak in detail about any of that stuff, but as long as it keeps the spirit of that stuff intact, I have no problem. If Disney ever wants to do shorts or little spinoffs, I’m super into that stuff. I love comic books, I love books. I would love to do an art of books, that’s my next pitch that I’m going to try to get going.
It does seem like such a rich world that you obviously have not explored every nook and cranny.
There’s no way. There was someone who was just asking me, “Oh, I would’ve loved to have seen more of toad culture, like a toad city,” and I was like, “That’s a great idea. I would love to see that.” There’s almost too much, it’s like “Lord of the Rings.” You have the “Silmarillion,” it’s like a sandwich with all the stuff falling out the outside and you got to… You really want a place for those extra bits, but at the same time, you do want to leave some stuff for imagination. There’s a common complaint with some of the “Star Wars” content that’s, “Okay, it’s hooking up all just a little too nicely,” everything’s just coming together a little bit too much like puzzle pieces. There’s an interesting balance of you want to know the answers, but you don’t want to know everything. You want some mystery and mystique, but you also want some fun surprises and information.
Do you know what’s next? I know you’ve been agonizing about this. Do you know where you’re going, what’s the next adventure.
I don’t know what’s next, but I do know what I want, which is I want to work on a limited series or a movie. I want to go big and I want to go grand. Speaking of those dramatic episodes you were talking about, I had so much fun doing those. I wouldn’t mind doing a whole film like that or doing something really grand and epic and beautiful that was full of drama and full of action. I would love to take a stab. No pun intended.
The series finale of “Amphibia” airs on The Disney Channel on May 14.