By Dan Lalande

“When we set out to create The Raccoons,” says Kevin Gillis, the originator of those animated omnivores, “we told stories that were driven by characters just like us. They had the same dreams, challenges, imperfections, whims and hopes we all do. We held true to those characters and stories and didn’t give in to fads. By doing so, we created a timeless brand.”

Kevin Gillis is the creative force behind the Racccoons, a hit TV cartoon that debuted in the 1980s. Now the restored and remastered shows are back on CRAVE, entertaining a new generation

That Ottawa product—not only the most successful animated series ever to come out of Canada but one of our country’s most successful TV commodities in any genre—can boast a lifespan that has stretched from 1980 to today. Painstakingly re-digitized versions of the four original specials and the subsequent series, which ran from 1985 to 1992, are enjoying a renaissance on Canada’s CRAVE and making inroads, once again, in international markets. (At its height, the original series played in over 180.)

If you had kids in the 80s, there’s little need to re-introduce the show’s characters; no doubt you remember them from family viewings with your youngsters. For those who may be visiting the Evergreen Forest for the first time, Bert, Ralph, and Melissa are a trio of quirky, lovable raccoons living in domestic peace. But their verdant domicile is constantly under threat by Cyril Sneer, a cigar-chomping aardvark with an anything-for-a-buck mentality. The Raccoons, then, was one of the first salvos in the war for environmental protection, a new issue at the time that has since become the world’s number one source of anxiety.

Bert, Ralph and Melissa are a trio of lovable raccoons.

“The environmental themes made an imprint on a lot of young people,” affirms Kevin. “I’ve read many comments online where people who grew up on The Raccoons have credited the series as their first introduction to environmental awareness and their commitment as adults to passing that responsibility on to their children.”

Small wonder that the show is still—perhaps even more—relevant. It’s also charming, amusing and looks better than ever.

The same can be said for Kevin. A successful career in the complicated world of television has done little to suppress his boyish vibe or sour his innately courteous disposition. Back in the 70s, the Ottawa-born government brat picked up a guitar and embedded himself in the city’s downtown folk music scene. Stints opening for Kris Kristofferson and Jerry Jeff Walker got him into the CJOH TV studios. There, he became the musical voice of Bruno Gerussi’s Celebrity Cooks. Next, he fronted his own weekly showcase, Bang! Bang! You’re Alive!

Here Kevin is Fixing audio in the restoration of the Raccoons, circa 2023.

Then came the brainstorm that would change his life: puppets.

“The original idea was a Christmas music special with Gerussi as a forest ranger, two young kids, three puppet raccoons, and a puppet dog. Writer Gary Dunford and I pitched it but there were no takers. So, I reshaped it as an animation property with a demo track of songs.”

Gillis took his revamped idea to another local hero, Sheldon Wiseman, the Ottawa lawyer-entrepreneur. Over Sheldon’s homemade potato latkes, the two struck a deal. Sheldon and Kevin brought in private investors, the CBC, and a New York-based syndicator. Eventually, the BBC hopped on board as well.

The introductory specials ensued, headed by the same animation team that would go on to service the series. The leap to a weekly show was prompted by a fateful phone call: the CBC rang Kevin up to inform him that one of the first shows had beaten Hockey Night in Canada in the ratings.

Cue an unprecedented sixty-five show run that kept Kevin, Ottawa’s animation pool and an eclectic mix of voice actors and musicians from across Ontario busier than Cyril Sneer engineering one of his ill-fated schemes. A song from the series, Run with Us (penned by Kevin, Raccoons musical director Jon Stroll and Cyndi Lauper’s songwriting partner Stephen Lunt), went on to become a cult hit.

Long after the series ended, Kevin began to get requests from maturing fans looking to share the show with their kids. With two grown offspring of his own and a grandson, he began to earnestly consider re-introducing his creations to new generations. During COVID, he gave all four specials and the entire weekly series a proper digital makeover, restoring the original 35 mm film prints to 4K. “It was time-consuming and expensive,” he reveals. “Thankfully, it worked.”

An understatement. CRAVE, the Canadian Cartoon Network, BritBox and the UK’s ITVX have picked up this new and improved The Raccoons. The old fans are back and a younger, growing demographic is enjoying the furry trio’s adventures too. Soon The Raccoons will be migrating to the US, Mexico and Germany.

“It ends up the forest where The Raccoons live was fittingly named,” says Kevin: “Evergreen.”