The return of the (prime time) king

Ottawa’s Kevin Gillis’s animated drama series ‘The Raccoons’ explored environmental and climate issues in the ‘80s and ‘90s—and dominated Sunday night television in the process

A scene from ‘The Raccoons and the Lost Star’ (1983). Photo Courtesy Run With Us Productions


A popular Canadian animated series enjoyed by kids today—and beloved by their parents and grandparents 40 years ago— was inspired by the creator’s experience in the Ottawa Valley.

The National Capital Region continues to influence “The Raccoons” creator, director, writer and composer Kevin Gillis. “I think the proximity to and respect for nature appeals to my creative muses,” says Gillis, who recently moved back to the area from Toronto. “It certainly was an integral and inspirational part of the storytelling in ’The Raccoons’ specials and series.

“Ottawa has grown tremendously in the 32 years since we left. But its friendly and outgoing people have not changed.”

“The Raccoons”—still one of Canada’s highest-rated prime-time family series—saw a recent resurgence of popularity after Gillis took fan advice to make the show more widely available to heart. The five-season series, specials and never-before-seen extras have now been restored and remastered from the original 35mm to 4K and 8K and are available on several streaming networks. The restored and remastered Blu-ray and DVD releases are planned for later this year.

Original cel from the opening scene of ‘The Raccoons’ (1985). Photo Courtesy Run With Us Productions


An original cel compilation from ‘The Raccoons on Ice’ shows the number of poses required for each action shot. Photo Courtesy Run With Us Productions

“Judging by the response we are getting on our social media platforms, our cohort of young parents are thrilled to have ‘The Raccoons’ specials and series back,” says Gillis, “and we are delighted to have them present it to a whole new generation of young fans.”

The president and executive producer of Run With Us Productions, Gillis and his friend, writer Gary Dunford, came up with the character of Bert Raccoon in the 1970s. With the help of Ottawa entertainment lawyer and executive producer Sheldon Wiseman and Atkinson Film Arts (one of the area’s first animation studios) “The Christmas Raccoons” came to life in 1980.

“The journey of making the holiday special was so challenging and time consuming that I honestly never gave a thought to doing anything more,” says Gillis, whose credits also include “RoboCop: The Series;” “Atomic Betty;” the “Universal Soldier” television movies and “The Nutcracker Prince” with Peter O’Toole, Megan Follows and Kiefer Sutherland.

‘The Raccoons’ creator Kevin Gillis and Cyril Sneer. Photo Courtesy Run With Us Productions

He soon changed his mind, when they received news that CBC executives were “‘over the moon’ about the ratings,” Gillis says. “The BBC and our U.S. distributor also called to tell us about the magnitude of the ratings. It was shocking, in a good way. They wanted more.” Three more specials—“The Raccoons On Ice” (1981), “The Raccoons and the Lost Star” (1983) and “The Raccoons: Let’s Dance!” (1984)—and 60 half-hour episodes of “The Raccoons” television series (1985 to 1992)—followed.

“The Raccoons,” which ran on CBC in Canada, BBC in the U.K., the Disney Channel in the U.S. and in 180 countries worldwide, follows a group of friends—raccoons Bert, Ralph and Melissa and aardvark Cedric—who try to save the Evergreen Forest from Cedric’s father, millionaire industrialist Cyril Sneer.  

“Bert Raccoon was the first Canadian cartoon star,” says Gerald Tripp, the show’s Ottawa-based story editor, voice director, and post-production supervisor. “I think kids related to the courageous but naive eco-warrior going up against the nasty forces of injustice,” he adds. “It [had] great characters battling to save the environment, and it featured the Canadian lifestyle dream: what kid could resist the fun of living in the Evergreen Forest by a lake?”

“The raccoons were inspired by a family of raccoons that made their home in the chimney of my parents’ cottage,” says Gillis. “It’s natural that your own life experiences and interests end up being incorporated into your storytelling, whether by design or not,” says Gillis. “I had worked up north as a forest ranger with Lands and Forests where I observed the critical balance of forestry farming and reforestation. I was also heavily into songwriting and music.” (Gillis co-composed the show’s theme song, “Run With Us” with Jon Stroll and Stephen Lunt.) Both the environment and music figured strongly in the specials and series.

Gillis and Stroll saw music as an integral part of the emotional journey of every story. “We scored the shows with orchestras and songs and musicians and performers of the highest level from our very first special until our last episode of Season 5,” says Gillis. “No one else was doing that—especially in television.”

“The Raccoons” series was made at Hinton Studio—”right between the Parkdale Market and Carleton Tavern,” Tripp says—”which spawned the very vibrant Ottawa animation industry.” It was the last handpainted cellulose (cel) animated series made on film in Canada.

A who’s who of ‘80s and ‘90s Canadian talent, “The Raccoons” included the contributions of The National Arts Centre Orchestra (“a.k.a. The National Raccoon Orchestra,” Gillis says) musicians Moe Koffman, Bob Mann, Will Lee, Guido Basso and Rob McConnell, and performers Rita Coolidge, Lisa Lougheed, Rich Little, Leo Sayer, Rupert Holmes, Barbara Frum and Ottawa narrator, Geoff Winter. In addition, many of the show’s animation artists are now key players worldwide in the industry, Tripp says.

After Bell Media’s CRAVE expressed interest in acquiring the newly restored and remastered episodes, Gillis’s team sourced original film elements and audio tapes from labs in Canada—including some in deep freeze at the Cinémathèque Québécoise in Montreal—the U.S., and the U.K., They created new closed captioning files and led by Prime Focus’s Anthony Matt, one of the industry’s leading film restoration and remastering experts, began the 18-month process. “It was a technically and culturally satisfying journey,” says Gillis, to bring this series and the specials back to life.”

Kevin Gillis fine tunes the audio in the restoration and remastering of ‘The Raccoons on Ice.’ Photo Courtesy Run With Us Productions

Gillis continues to be amazed at the show’s impact on fans. For many, “’The Raccoons’ was their earliest introduction to the importance of the environment and climate change,” he says.


Where to watch ‘The Raccoons’

Bell Media’s CRAVE

Cartoon Network Canada ‘Boomerang’ Channel

Run With Us YouTube channel

ITVX and BritBox in the UK and Ireland


Did you know?

In the last season of “The Raccoons,” the episode titled “The One That Got Away” has Bert Raccoon and Cedric Sneer on an annual fishing expedition. The story holds special significance for Gillis, as it was inspired by childhood at a lake in the Upper Ottawa Valley where his parents first met.