Review by KC Carlson
I was 8 years old when the original Jonny Quest premiered on a Friday night in the fall of 1964. I had been seeing the preview commercials for weeks, and I couldn’t wait to see the globe-trotting adventures of a boy roughly my age, his odd friend Hadji, his cool dog Bandit, his very-cool scientist dad Dr. Quest, and family bodyguard and tutor “Race” Bannon.
Problem was, my family and I went to the local VFW club every Friday night for dinner, and since this was way before the era of video recorders and DVRs, I was seemingly destined to NEVER see the show! I was crushed! My 8-year-old-life was over!
Luckily, Mom, who somehow put up with my weird little obsessions, like comic books and cartoons, suggested that there might be a TV somewhere downstairs at the VFW club in their “rec room” (where I was not allowed to go alone). So the following week (which was also the night that Jonny Quest premiered), Mom took me downstairs to check out the “rec room” — which I discovered was really a bar, although 8-year-old me had no idea what that was yet. And yes, there was a TV (a color TV!) at the end of the bar.
Mom made me go up to the bartender, a kindly old guy, and politely ask if I could watch Jonny Quest at 6:30 on the TV. Amazingly, he said sure and turned the channel to Channel 13, the local ABC station. As I hopped up on a barstool, Mom talked to the guy (I assume to see if it was OK that I was down there alone) and gave him a small amount of money. Subsequently, an ice-cold Coke was plopped down in front of me.
For the next half-hour, I was oblivious to the rest of the world as I watched Jonny and his family take on the sinister “Lizard Men” in the Sargasso Sea. For all I knew, there could have been an entire room of dogs playing poker behind me or hookers setting themselves on fire, and I wouldn’t have noticed. I was wide-eyed entranced with the fact that Jonny was using Judo moves (as taught by Hadji) and throwing GROWN MEN over his shoulder! What a show! Later that night, after I got home, I looked up the Sargasso Sea in the encyclopedia. Later, I wrote a report about it for school.
After that, every week I was given some money for Cokes and was on my own going into the bar, always being very polite to ask the bartender (Joe — really!) for permission to watch the show. Occasionally, some of the other “patrons” might be upset because Joe would switch off some basketball game or other sporting event, but if there was ever an argument, Joe would quickly shut it down with a gruff “Ay! ‘Da kid’s watchin’ his show! OK?” and they would grumble and go back to shooting pool. I felt very special.
It didn’t take long for other kids to find out what I was doing every Friday, so within a couple of weeks, pretty much ALL the patrons at the bar were 6-12 year-old kids, watching Jonny Quest and sucking down Cokes or 7-Up. I hope Joe was amused at this turn of events. I imagine it would have been pretty tough explaining the situation if any police had happened to wander in.
Anyway, here’s a long-belated tip of the hat to Joe, for his unwitting encouragement of my love of cartoons, and for his kindness to children — something that you would be hard-pressed to see in this day and age. Thanks, Joe!
The original Jonny Quest series ran for one season in prime time and was later moved to Saturday mornings, where it ran afoul of the various parents’ groups of the late 60s and 70s, when the original shows began to be edited for content. Somehow I completely missed the additional 13 episodes produced to be added to the original episodes for a syndicated package in 1986-87 (but from what I understand I didn’t really miss much as the new episodes were much more ‘kid-friendly” than the originals).
However, there was no missing all the hype surrounding the launch of the “new” series in 1996, as it premiered almost simultaneously on three different Turner-owned TV Networks; TBS, TNT, and Cartoon Network. Entitled The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest, the series went on to become one of the most-over-hyped, derided, and criticized cartoon shows ever. The first 13 episodes are now on display in this new 2-disc DVD set from Warners.
The development and production history of this show was seemingly quite torturous and far too complex to relate in depth here. For more details, I recommend the well-sourced article at Wikipedia. Here’s some highlights:
* Production of the series began in the early 1990s. The original creative team was dismissed in 1996, and new producers were hired to complete the episodes with less than a year before the first airdate.
* Part of the problems encountered during production related to the decision to use CG (computer-generated) animation techniques. One of the focal points of the new show — QuestWorld — was a virtual reality-like simulation where it was originally planned that many of the adventures would take place. It was much-hyped (and reportedly much-hated by the production team) and HAD to look good, something that was difficult to do with the still-emerging technology and the steep learning curve needed to master it.
* If things went bad in the production of the show, it could not be delayed due to the huge number of media and promotional tie-ins to the show, including connections with Dark Horse Comics, Campbell’s Soup, Pillsbury, Pizza Hut, and General MIlls. There was a video game launch (Cover-Up at Roswell) and soundtracks and an audio-adventure with Kid Rhino. In addition, the show was scheduled to appear in 40 countries in 14 different languages. Plus there was talk of a live-action film to be directed by Richard Donner (which never came together). Hanna-Barbera declared 1996 “The Year of Jonny Quest” following successful re-launch campaigns for The Flintstones and Yogi Bear.
* The corporate Powers-That-Be decided to mess with the basic formula, always a bad idea with a project so beloved in the first place. This is where they lost me as a viewer and a fan. I’m not necessarily opposed to change; there were just a few TOO many changes for me to remain interested.
Not all of it was their fault. More than 30 years had passed since the original series. All of the voices had to be changed, and that’s always a problem with long-running characters. Secondly, times had changed, and the original series had gotten away with murder (sometime literally). The original Jonny Quest was riddled with “danger points” for the parents’ groups and other PC-watchdogs now monitoring children’s programming, so gone was the gratuitous violence (especially that involving children), gunplay (no more guns for Jonny), and death (although the new show did manage to “off” some bad characters off-screen, although it was never explicit). Basically, everything that made the show exciting! Finally, I was now an adult — the creators of the show weren’t all that interested in keeping me interested in it any longer. They were looking for the next generation of Jonny Quest fans.
And, astonishingly, they were looking for girls. Not that there’s anything wrong with that: Girls should have just as many great adventure show opportunities as anybody. But the original Jonny Quest was SO boy-centric (and not in the usual “No Girls Allowed” way, it was just a guys-being-guys sort of thing). The right girl being placed into the Quest mix probably wouldn’t have been that big a problem. Except Jessie (Race Bannon’s daughter) was not the right girl for this mix.
The documentary for the DVD discusses this a little. Jessie needed to have the same qualities that Jonny had, yet also contrast and counter-balance him. Unfortunately, the creators went too far, and Jessie comes off as being more mature and smarter than Jonny. So good going, guys! Why would little boys (especially those with annoying sisters!) want to watch their hero getting shown up by a girl?
Further, by making the characters slightly older (although not that old) there are more chances for possible romantic entanglements. The producers deny this, yet bring it up anyway in the documentary, as well as admit that they never really found the perfect voice for Jessie. Besides, if Jessie were really smart she’d hook up with the much cooler and more mature Hadji, although that probably would have caused even more problems back then…
One other thing that probably didn’t work in the show’s favor: the characters were all redesigned to be more anime-influenced, a gambit which probably would have worked several years later with the big anime boom in American animation, but the Real Adventures jumped the gun by a few years. The re-designs weren’t all that successful either. Dr. Quest, now with black hair and beard (instead of red), now just looked sinister or evil — or both.
One last thing. The name of the show drove me crazy. The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest indicated to me that the previous series wasn’t Real — a real backslap in the face to this beloved series. I realize that the producers were using that title since it was part of the new show’s goal — “real adventures in a realistic world” — but the unfortunate wording was just another thing about this show that wasn’t thought all the way through, as well as not being entirely true due to the large amount of time devoted to the virtual reality of QuestWorld.
Now that many years have passed and the initial hype for the series has subsided, it’s interesting to see this series being brought back on DVD. Obviously, the series didn’t (and doesn’t) live up to its hype, although what could? Occasionally criticized as an train-wreck, I think that The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest is more of a runaway train, careening down the winding mountain pass with no way to stop it once it gets going. There were a lot of attempts to stop and fix it. In the second season, they re-cast most of the voices, made the kids a little bit younger, changed the focus of most of the storylines, and brought back more of the original flavor of the series. I hear it’s not bad. But it was just going so fast that nothing could stop to fix it completely.
Time has made the rudimentary CG animation more quaint than laughably horrible (although there are a couple of ….) Watching it now is kind of like walking through a living museum of early CG. And the theme song — a symphonic version of the original jazzy Hoyt Curtain theme — is powerful and theatrical. (The opening title sequence, however, is not. Listen to the theme with your eyes closed.)
Jonny Quest: The Real Adventures is not my Jonny Quest — but it wasn’t designed to be. I can see where it might have been some other 8-year-old’s favorite cartoon back in the day, and favorite bit of nostalgia today. And who’s to say it won’t be some current 8-year-old’s new favorite. Hopefully, she or he won’t have to watch it in a bar.