‘A magical, vibrant, fantasy world’: the joyous kids’ TV show revolutionising disability onscreen
Eight years ago, I was sitting at my desk, pondering some significant questions. Could I come up with a children’s television show that would burst onto screens like a colorful candy store of imagination? One that would be cheerful, delightful, and amusing, capturing the enchantment of play and the boundless potential of young children to escape reality and enter their own imaginary worlds? Could I challenge the norms of children’s programming – which had previously neglected 150 million disabled children worldwide – and draw from my own experiences as a disabled person to create a world so vivid that little hands would yearn to reach through the screen and hold the adorable stop-motion characters in their grasp?
The creation of Mixmups was inspired by these questions. It is a 52-part series following the adventures of three friends: Pockets the bear, Giggle the cat, and Spin the rabbit. They are joined by their guardian, the humorous trunk-beaked Lucky Loover Bird. In each episode, the friends come up with a playful idea, such as going to space for a moon cheese sandwich, finding a library where books can talk, or capturing a lost dream in a jar to remember forever. They use a blue mixing box, add sparkles, and mix up the magic with their magical wooden spoon before embarking on their adventure inside the box.
This program, supported in part by the BFI’s Young Audiences Content Fund, celebrates children’s love for play and the creativity of imaginative transformation. However, it also addresses important issues surrounding the portrayal of disability in media for young audiences.
In 2015, while organizing my children’s bedroom, I realized that their toys did not include any representation of disabilities. Upon searching on Google, I only found pirates with one leg or grandparents in grey wheelchairs. I questioned why there was a lack of creativity in incorporating disability into toy design and why these figures were confined to the sidelines.
After noticing the lack of representation for disabilities in the toy industry, Karen Newell and I, along with my experience in children’s responses and research for Teletubbies and being a mother to a visually impaired son, founded the Toy Like Me campaign. Our goal was to encourage the global toy industry to improve their representation of disabilities. I began revamping toys and sharing the images online, which gained attention when a picture of a Tinker Bell doll with a bright pink cochlear implant went viral. This sparked a demand for the toy from parents and a wish from deaf adults that it had existed when they were younger. As a result, a global toy brand approached me to consult for them. However, after extensive discussions, I received designs for a blind character with stereotypical black glasses, making me realize the cycle of disability misrepresentation was ongoing. In order to break this cycle, I needed to think outside the box and create something entirely new. My solution was to develop an appealing format that did not mention disability, and then add disabled characters to enhance and deepen the concept.
I started by questioning: what is something that all children share? The response was an inherent feeling of curiosity and a drive to engage in play. Play is how children make sense of the world. I delved into the study of play theory, discovering play schemas – the fundamental elements of exploration for young children – and realizing how much they learn from simple activities like spinning toy wheels, putting objects into containers, pushing toy strollers with baby dolls, blending paint colors, and connecting Lego pieces.
Later, I discovered a mentor in Joyce Dunbar, a writer of books for children. She showed me the importance of being open to creativity and how our inner critic can be our biggest barrier. When children are very young, they freely express themselves through painting and drawing without any reservations or concern for the final result. However, as they grow older, around the age of five, they become aware of the opinions and judgments of others. This can stifle the uninhibited joy of creative expression that toddlers possess. Joyce taught me to let go of self-criticism and tap into the carefree mindset of a three-year-old when creating.
Over time, I developed the ideas and concepts for the Mixmups universe and their stories. I drew inspiration from various ways that children play to create each character, such as the organized and tidy Pockets, the imaginative and resourceful Giggle, and the energetic and active Spin.
At The Children’s Media Conference in Sheffield, I brought rough sketches and incomplete stories. Through luck, I met the individuals who would later form the main production team for Mixmups. Each of them had personal experience with raising a child with a disability or providing care for a family member with health issues. I began collaborating with Mackinnon and Saunders, known for their puppet work in Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox, and Rastamouse.
I started conversing with children who use wheelchairs and expressed their desire to see characters walking short distances and transferring to the couch. They wanted to demonstrate that a wheelchair is a means of empowerment, not limitation, and that the ability to walk is not a binary concept. Together, we refined the idea of “magical access,” where the world would adapt for the characters, with cupboards sliding down to the appropriate height and everything easily reachable.
The kids requested to see characters with non-perfect bodies, so the puppet creators incorporated a curved spine into the character of Giggle. Her movements and mannerisms are modeled after the physical abilities of one specific child, as each person who uses a wheelchair is unique.
After constructing Giggle’s physical form, we crafted a wheelchair that was tailored to her specific needs. We then went on to create the world of Mixmups, ensuring that it was completely accessible. Drawing inspiration from the playful structures commonly found at British seaside destinations, we designed a house with a helter-skelter and included amenities such as a lift, automatic doors, wheelchair-friendly swings, and a twirly cups roundabout reminiscent of Great Yarmouth in Norfolk, which holds personal significance for me as it is near my childhood home. The outcome is Mixington Valley, an imaginary space where all barriers are eliminated and everything is inclusive for everyone.
For the character Pockets, who shares my partial sightedness, I crafted Yapette to serve as a loyal guide dog. Our animation team received training on the foot positions and hand signals used in working with a guide dog, as well as the subtle body language of a child with a visual impairment. This is why we see Pockets’ small paws reaching out to feel her surroundings and using a miniature white cane to check for obstacles. However, similar to the visually impaired children we consulted, Pockets does not use any mobility aids at home.
The production design intentionally maintains a clean and vibrant aesthetic, using bold contrasting colors and shifting sky colors to reflect the emotions of the characters. The voices of Pockets and Giggle, along with Spin who is not disabled, are provided by disabled children, some with acting experience and others new to the field. Their lisp and mispronunciations add a charming sense of authenticity. The role of the adult character Lucky Loover Bird is played by Gillian Dean, a visually impaired actor who delivers a brilliant comedic performance in her first role for children. The writing team all have personal experience with disability and a deep understanding of play theory, which drives the simple yet relatable storyline of each episode for young viewers.
As Mixmups gets ready to launch after a seven-year journey, there are days when I feel like I’ve been dragging an elephant up a hill by its tail – I would be lying if I said it was easy. While the landscape of children’s industries has changed over time – with products like a Barbie with hearing aids and Lego with limb differences now readily available – Mixmups remains a unique brand created by individuals with disabilities. I believe that its combination of humor, warmth, and playful creativity, coupled with a thoughtful approach to moving disability representation out of the sidelines and into a fantastical world, will inspire a new generation of viewers – both disabled and non-disabled – to grab a wooden spoon and “Mix up the magic!” with the Mixmups.