When singer-songwriter Alicia Keys wanted to create an animated children's television series about the exploration of music, she turned to Burbank animation firm Bento Box for ideas.
Bento's producers suggested an alternative: Instead of a TV show, how about an interactive storytelling app?
That idea became "The Journals of Mama Mae and LeeLee," which was released through the iTunes store last fall for $3.99 and expands to Android mobile devices and tablets this month. Featuring original compositions from Keys, the animated series uses music, games, rewards and a journal to tell the story of a relationship between a young girl and a mystical grandmother.
"I feel it's so important to tell the story through this interactive universe because it can be ever-evolving," Keys said. "Each time you get into another story, specific to that story there are games, music and so many special things to discover and interact with."
Taking a novel, multi-platform approach to animated storytelling has been a calling card for Bento Box, a fast-growing animation company that is now a $20 million-plus-a-year business.
Like the traditional Japanese box lunch after which it is named, Bento Box prides itself on presenting an assortment of offerings in one package.
"We didn't want to be just a traditional animation studio," said Scott Greenberg, president and co-founder of Bento Box Holdings. "We saw it as an opportunity to do a lot of different and interesting things in the entertainment space, each one building on the other."
Capitalizing on the popularity for adult-oriented animated shows such as "The Simpsons," "Family Guy" and "South Park," Bento partnered with Fox on "Bob's Burgers," a popular comedy, now in its third season, about a family that runs a restaurant, and on "Murder Police," a dark Sunday night police drama that is expected to air on Fox this fall. Bento produces "Brickleberry," which follows a group of hapless forest rangers and a talking grizzly bear, for Comedy Central.
"The Awesomes," an animated superhero series from "Saturday Night Live" star Seth Meyers, will premiere this summer on the Hulu online streaming service. Bento is also producing "Out There," a new IFC series about a teenager growing up in a small town.
Bento Box has also partnered with National Geographic Kids on a three-hour morning block of Spanish-language children's programming on the new U.S. broadcast network MundoFox, and on developing characters and programs tied to National Geographic brands such as the popular book series "Weird But True."
"We see animation as a fantastic interface between the kids audience and our factual, nature-oriented documentary content," said Adam Sutherland, senior vice president of corporate strategy and development for the National Geographic Society.