The biggest kick for viewers climbing aboard Cartoon Network’s “Infinity Train” is spotting the tributes to classic sci-fi films and fantasy novels as they go whizzing by.
But Minnesota passengers get an extra treat.
The first season, which aired in August, centered on Tulip Olsen, a 12-year-old student from North Branch, Minn., desperate to attend game-design camp in Oshkosh, Wis. She finds herself on a surreal adventure, bumping into the North St. Paul snowman and sitting through a video that pays homage to those Erik the Bike Man commercials. The lead character in Season 2, which airs next week, celebrates a triumphant but exhausting moment by grunting “Uff da.”
That’s what happens when your conductor is Owen Dennis, an animator raised in Minnesota.
Dennis believes specific callbacks to his childhood help keep his characters realistic, which is essential when they’re running away from giant dragonflies or befriending turtles who get to work by gliding across jam ponds.
“When you write about what you know, it starts to become more truthful,” Dennis, 32, said last week from Lake Elmo, where he was visiting his parents for the holidays. “ ‘The Mighty Ducks’ is supposed to take place in the Twin Cities, but the kids have these Brooklyn accents and there’s a montage that has them skating from one end of the metro to another, which isn’t possible. When you do that, you end up with a disconnect.”
Madeline Queripel, supervising director for both seasons, said Dennis was adamant that the Midwest be represented in the show. Tulip’s house, for example, is a replica of a place just three blocks from where he grew up in Lake Elmo.
“How many movies spotlight that area of the country? ‘Jingle All the Way?’ ” said Queripel, who was born in the northern suburb of Ramsey. Like Dennis, she’s a graduate of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD).
“Owen really wanted to show off the region and make sure it’s very accurate,” she said. “I’m really pleased with the online response. People say it looks exactly like the Midwest.”
Dennis’ vision has more in common with “Fargo” than Lake Wobegon.
In “Infinity,” the characters can’t disembark until they survive heart-pounding scenarios that test their ability to confront bullying, divorce and mortality. The evil force in Season 1 could have slithered off the Death Star, while the Mirror Police, the chief antagonists in the upcoming episodes, are as menacing as anything that’s ever chased Arnold Schwarzenegger.
That doesn’t mean this “Train” ride isn’t for kids.
“TV is the safest way to experience fear,” said Dennis, who vividly remembers being terrorized when he saw “Independence Day” as a fourth-grader. “It’s kind of practice for when real scary things happen. ‘I think kids should be scared. It’s good for them,’ said the childless adult,” he joked.
Perhaps the most influential film Dennis saw as a child was an Imax documentary at the Minnesota Zoo in which “Star Wars” sound designer Ben Burtt led an exploration of special effects in film. Dennis went to MCAD planning a career in 3-D computer modeling, but his studies convinced him that the more exciting future was in classic 2-D animation.
He also credits the school’s teachers for showing him that he still had a lot to learn.
“When you grow up in a rural community, you’re the one artist in class. That was me. You take a certain amount of pride in that,” he said. “Then you go to college, and you’re no longer that person. You are just one of many art people. Your same ego can’t exist anymore.”
But before establishing himself as a storyteller, Dennis had to tick off another goal: getting out of Minnesota.
He started planning his escape at age 12, after entering a computer-generated art contest at the Washington County Fair. He got third place, which was fine, until he learned the judges hadn’t awarded anyone first or second.
“I was the only person who entered in my category and I still wasn’t good enough for them,” he said. “That’s when I decided I’m getting out of here. I didn’t feel like this was home for me.”
After graduating from MCAD in 2009, he moved to China, where he taught English for three years. Shortly after returning, he used his art school connections to land a job at Cartoon Network’s “Regular Show,” a supernatural adventure series that earned six Emmy nominations, including one for Queripel.
By then, Dennis’ hard feelings toward Minnesota had started to dissipate, enough so that he began to insert local references whenever he could. In one episode of “Regular Show,” a character offers up some hot dish, something his fellow writers didn’t believe actually existed.
“I really appreciate Minnesota much more now,” he said. “You need to have some perspective that you can’t get until you leave.”
Now that he’s in charge, paying homage to those childhood memories is a lot easier — but not always automatic.
“I’m still trying to figure out how to include Fancy Ray into something,” said Dennis, referring to exuberant Twin Cities personality Fancy Ray McCloney, who bills himself as the best-looking man in comedy. “Haven’t quite gotten there yet.”