Before the Disney Channel’s Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur even introduces you to its eponymous kid supergenius and her time-displaced reptilian pal, a haunting, soulful tease of the show’s infectious theme song is one of the first ways it clues you into how it isn’t just any old superhero cartoon. When Raphael Saadiq first signed on to Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur as executive music producer, he knew that he’d be writing songs for a project generally aimed at a younger audience. But Saadiq also understood that kids’ shows are in a unique position when it comes to being vehicles for dynamic, robust scores that take viewers by surprise with how much thought actually goes into their production.
Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur isn’t exactly a “musical” in the traditional sense, where characters regularly burst into song to express feelings they can’t simply speak aloud or the kind of show where characters expect young viewers to repeat things back to the screen. But when I spoke with Saadiq by phone recently, he told me that programs like Sesame Street — those designed to expose kids to pop culture — played an instrumental role in inspiring him to become a musician as a young boy, and he hopes that Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur is going to do something similar for a new generation of artists-in-the-making.
“When I watched cartoons as a kid, there was a lot of serious orchestration,” Saadiq told me. “A lot of funk, a lot of R&B, and a lot of soul — all kinds of different styles of music. I wanted that for Moon Girl, too. Every episode was a challenge — which I knew it was going to be — because they were pushing me to do very different things week in and week out.”
Set in a beautifully diverse chunk of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur tells the story of how 13-year-old inventor extraordinaire Lunella Lafayette (Diamond White) becomes a vigilante after she accidentally transports a humongous red tyrannosaurus (Fred Tatasciore) from the Cretaceous period to the present day. Though Lunella always means well, keeping a dinosaur as a pet / partner-in-crimefighting makes her life more complicated than it already is between her difficulties making friends at school and feeling a duty to work at her parents’ skating rink.
Saadiq wasn’t initially sure what to make of Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur co-executive producer Steve Loter when he showed up at an autograph signing at Amoeba Records with an idea and a question. But as Loter pitched him on the idea of a series about a brilliant Black girl secretly cultivating a new identity with natural born powers that people around her can’t fully comprehend, Saadiq felt a kind of kinship with Lunella and thought elements of her story could be reflected a show’s musical DNA.
“I sort of grew up in my room figuring out how to play bass, and when I’d come out of the house, my friends didn’t know that I played music,” Saadiq described. “I connected to Lunella because that’s what she does. In the beginning, nobody really knows what she can do or who Moon Girl is. Moon Girl’s character, her sensibilities — it’s all there in the instrumentation and the emotion of the music.”
While there’s an undeniably pop-y throughline to much of Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur’s music, Saadiq wanted the score to make you feel the intensity of Lunella’s emotional highs and lows by skating seamlessly across genres and speaking to his different influences.
“It’s almost like listening to a concert, and there’s variations of a Bill Withers — the emotions of a Stevie Wonder and a little Prince,” Saadiq said, describing the show. “But sometimes the emotion’s more like Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young, or you’ll hear drops of A Tribe Called Quest and just hardcore SP 1200 hip-hop.”
Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur’s musicality is often tied to its narrative momentum, but the show never feels like an over-serious lesson in musical history as Lunella’s singing her way through battles across New York City. Kids (and, to be honest, some adults) watching might not really grasp the depth and breadth of what they’re hearing. But Saadiq wants Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur to be the kind of show that introduces its audience to his musical sensibilities as their own are evolving.
“When I was growing up, I was listening to The Spinners or Thom Bell & Linda Creed,” Saadiq said. “There was emotion in those songs — emotions my parents were picking up on because that was their music. Kids can sort of put those things together and carry the experience through life. That’s how music should work.”
Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur debuts on the Disney Channel on February 10th and will be available on Disney Plus shortly after.