Naked No More: A TV Rodent Teaches Families About Tolerance

Mo Willems’s picture books often feature committed nonconformists — not the human kind, but the animal variety. Over the last two decades, he has invented a pigeon that’s determined to drive a bus, a pig that wants to fly and a cookie-baking dinosaur that doesn’t care that she’s extinct. Now, one of Willems’s most gently adventurous creatures is about to shed its inhibitions on television.

That intrepid soul is Wilbur, the toothy protagonist of “Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed: The Underground Rock Experience,” a special that begins streaming on HBO Max on Thursday. (It will air on Cartoon Network next year.) A rock opera for families, this animated comedy hinges on Wilbur’s discovery of tiny garments floating down like manna — or rather men’s wear — from heaven, and the scandal that follows his rapid evolution from naked mole rat to natty clothes horse.

The television special adapts not only Willems’s 2009 best seller, “Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed,” but also “Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed: The Rock Experience,” a stage musical version that debuted in 2018 and is still playing in theaters. But in any entertainment incarnation, this oddball species, whose hairlessness is only one of its unusual attributes, doesn’t have to worry about similarly themed competition.

“It’s the same thing with a pigeon,” Willems, who lives in Northampton, Mass., said in a phone interview. “Nobody wants to make a book about a dirty urban bird. So that territory is yours, right? Everybody else is doing sloppy bunnies and happy bears.”

So, he added, “I love the idea that is so outrageous that it becomes sublime.”

Having begun as an Emmy-winning writer and animator for “Sesame Street,” Willems, 54, is now one of his generation’s most acclaimed children’s authors and illustrators, with his papers archived at Yale and two solo museum retrospectives to his credit. Admirers compare him to titans like Dr. Seuss and Willems’s own idol, Charles M. Schulz. (Willems drew “Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed” with a nib from one of Schulz’s pens, given to him by the cartoonist’s widow, Jeannie Schulz.)

In Willems’ work, “you have the sweetness of Fred Rogers and you have the hilarity of Dr. Seuss,” Amy Friedman, the head of programming for Cartoon Network and HBO Max Kids & Family, said in a phone interview. But, she added: “He doesn’t need to be somebody else. He’s just Mo.”

Friedman’s team wanted to embrace that singular vision when it approached Willems about working together. Although HBO Max already streams short films based on Willems’ work and “Don’t Let the Pigeon Do Storytime!,” a live-action sketch comedy special, “Naked Mole Rat” is both their first creative collaboration and the first hourlong animated television production that one of his books has inspired.

As Willems explained it, “Naked Mole Rat” explores themes — self-acceptance, tolerance, celebrating others’ passions — that relate directly to his own experience, both as a cartooning-obsessed child of Dutch immigrants and as the parent of a 21- year-old son, Trix, who is transgender. This is n’t, he emphasized, “a coming-out story”— even though Wilbur shocks his peers by revealing his fashion-forward desires his — but an “accepting-in story,” he said.

“The people around Wilbur, the mole rats around Wilbur, have to do the work,” Willems said. In the TV special, the plot is as much about how Wilbur’s best buddies — they are in a band with him called the Mole-ing Stones — grapple with Wilbur ‘s new identity as it is about his own self-discovery his.

And grapple they do, at peak volume and emotion. Anyone who is familiar with children’s television knows that a rock opera is about as common as a naked mole rat in a purple tuxedo. But Deborah Wicks La Puma, the composer for “Naked Mole Rat” — the stage and TV versions have the same songs — shares Willems’s enthusiasm for full-on, arena-style, headbanging tunes.

The story “is a little subversive,” La Puma said in a phone conversation. And rock, she added, is “just a little more edgy, but totally fun and full of energy.”

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This energy fills the television adaptation, which uses new arrangements, background music (by the composer Keith Horn), more musicians and a cast with a vocal range “that allowed us to make the music more intense,” Willems said.

That intensity is also part of the humor. Jordan Fisher, an alumnus of the Broadway casts of “Hamilton” and “Dear Evan Hansen,” who voices Wilbur, said he used the lilting vocal patterns of a family friend’s 11-year-old to develop Wilbur’s speech, which “is kind of affable and goofy,” Fisher noted. But when this almost cherubic cartoon rat sings, he added, it’s as if “Aerosmith is seeing out.”

Willems, who wrote all the stage and TV lyrics, acknowledges that young viewers won’t know bands like Aerosmith or the musical numbers’ other influences, which include the Who, Heart, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie and Queen. But that doesn’t bother the shows’ creators.

“One of the things that we talked about,” La Puma said, was, “’How can this be kind of a fun rock primer for kids?’”

The TV special may also function as an amusing primer on art history. In one scene, Wilbur’s bandmates drag him into the Moleseum of Art, a huge, Met-like institution, to prove that no self-respecting mole rat has ever worn clothes. Here, an array of masterpieces, including the Mona Lisa and Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus,” all with naked mole rats as subjects, come to life digitally to express their displeasure.

The idea was, “’How do we turn these songs into music videos?’” said the animator, writer and producer known professionally as Mr. Warburton. (Tom in private life, he enjoys the formal title because, he said on the phone, “it sounds so official, and I’m so not official.”) With onstage actors, he added, the visual options are limited, but in an animated music video, the sartorially inexperienced Wilbur can manage to sing and dance while first putting on a button-down shirt backward and a lilac-colored fedora upside down.

Mr. Warburton, who wrote the TV script with Willems and is, like him, an executive producer of the special, also worked with Oddbot Animation to create a vast, computer-generated subterranean colony of three-dimensional mole rats — this, after all, is the “Underground Rock Experience” and not just “the Rock Experience” — that still resemble the creatures in Willems’s original drawings.

“We wanted to have them sort of look like little puppets,” Mr. Warburton said. Whereas computer-generated imagery frequently appears “super smooth,” he added, the digital effects here are almost like that of stop-motion animation.

In translating the original material to television, the men, who are longtime friends, also made one scientific correction: The mole rat society is now matriarchal, led not by a grand-pah but a grand-mah, voiced by the venerable actress Carol Kane . They have also answered a longstanding question: What is the source of that floating fashion that so tantalizes Wilbur? (The answer is a spoiler, so no clues here.)

But perhaps most important, they have given the project enough sophistication — it has a running joke about oxymorons — to make it an all-ages viewing experience, even though it is premiering as part of Cartoonito, HBO Max and Cartoon Network’s preschool programming block.

Willems said he hoped it would inspire not only family dance parties but also family conversations about art, music and identity. “I would love it if this special sparked kids to see themselves differently and to act on it,” he said.

“Whatever that is: ‘I like to draw,’ ‘I like to dress up,’ ‘I like to dance,’” he continued. “To be able to take whatever their definition that they had before” and, he said, “add one new one, one exciting new piece of who they are.”

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