Review by Roger Ash
TV animation of the 1980s seems to split most animation fans into two camps. On the one side are the fans who love it. These are often people who were kids in the 1980s, and they grew up watching the adventures of He-Man, The Thundercats, Transformers, G.I. Joe, and others. There’s even a magazine, Cereal Geek, devoted to animation of the 80s. These fans are passionate about their favorite shows.
On the other side are those who feel that watchdog groups like Action For Children’s Television and the American Family Association took the fun out of television cartoons in this decade. Anything that could be repeated by a child with bad results was forbidden, which saw the end of Road Runner-style slapstick comedy. The shows had to teach the viewers a lesson, so from the stories to the animation, they became bland under the restrictions. It was this state of affairs that Ralph Bakshi and crew were rebelling against when they unleashed Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures on an unsuspecting public in 1987.
You can decide for yourself how you feel about the debate with the Saturday Morning Cartoons: 1980s DVD. This two-disc set collects eleven animated series. A quick aside –- I fall firmly into the second group described above. I was in ninth grade in 1980 and was not the target audience for most of these cartoons. But I was, and am, an animation fan. I wanted to like them, but that wasn’t the case. So, knowing that, let’s proceed.
All the cartoons in this set were produced either by TV animation giant Hanna-Barbera (Yogi Bear, Scooby-Doo, Jonny Quest, etc.) or Ruby-Spears. Ruby-Spears was founded by Joe Ruby and Ken Spears, who were former employees at H-B. It is no surprise that their cartoons have some similar qualities to those of H-B. And why not? H-B were television animation pioneers, and Ruby and Spears learned from the best.
The set opens with a little known Ruby-Spears cartoon, Goldie Gold and Action Jack. Goldie Gold is the world’s richest girl, and Action Jack is a daredevil reporter. Together, they get into all kinds of scrapes. In this episode, it involves Incas and the villainous Crystal Skull. Watching this episode reminded me of later Roger Moore-era James Bond films in that no matter what spot they found themselves in, Goldie had some gadget that was just the perfect thing to get them out of it. This ruined any suspense for me, as I knew they would easily escape any predicament they encountered, and neither of them has the charisma of Bond. Johanna recently reviewed this show and has a higher opinion of it than I do.
Goldie Gold and Action Jack also has a quality that I find in many of the action/adventure animated series of the 80s, including others on this disc. The action seems to move at a snail’s pace. It’s hard for me to get into the moment when the bad guys are running so slowly that our heroes could easily outrun them. Or in the time it takes for the bad guy to throw a chair, the hero could have constructed a wall in front of themselves for the chair to smash against harmlessly.
Real People Cartoons
The next show on the DVD brings us to our first cartoon standby of the 80s –- cartoons based on real people. In this case, it’s Chuck Norris: Karate Kommandos (misspelled Commdndos on the DVD menu). Chuck and his Kommandos face the Claw, Super Ninja, and Angelfish as the villains attempt to take over a sea lab from which they can create tidal waves. Chuck spends most of the episode with sumo wrestler Tabi, and their supposedly witty banter usually revolves around how much Tabi eats. The show is bookended by live action sequences with Chuck Norris telling the kids what the message of the show is. In this episode, it’s “don’t give up”. Chuck may have counted to infinity twice, but I wish he had made a better animated series.
Also in the “real people-based cartoons” category is Mister T. This show is also bookended by live action sequences of Mr. T. In the show itself, Mr. T is somehow involved with a youth gymnastics team. His connection to the team is not explained in this episode. While there is a certain camp appeal to the show, as Mr. T pities fools right and left, I have no desire to see any more episodes for two reasons. First, the animation is the weakest of any show in the set. Second, the members of the gymnastics team come across as real jerks and I don’t want to spend any more time with them. Johanna also reviewed this episode, so make sure to check out her review for another opinion on this series.
Before you think I can’t say anything nice, let me tell you about the final real person-based cartoon in the set, The Completely Mental Misadventures of Ed Grimley. Ed Grimley was the creation of comedian Martin Short. This very pleasant fellow with a love of the triangle, Wheel of Fortune, and hair product first appeared on SCTV; later, Short brought him to Saturday Night Live. This series is really fun and captures the manic stylings of Ed Grimley, due in large part to Short providing the character’s voice. Other SCTV alums, Catherine O’Hara and Andrea Martin, also provide voices for the show. The series has a nice, cartoony look and is truly funny. My favorite sequence in the episode brings back SCTV favorite Count Floyd, as Joe Flaherty continues his attempts to tell kids very scary stories that end up not being scary at all.
But this show also has to teach a lesson, and in this case it’s about gravity. Just as a piano is about to fall on Ed, the scientists, the Gustav Brothers, interrupt the action to tell us all about gravity. One of the brothers, Roger Gustav, is voiced by the great comedian Jonathan Winters. This is a funny and informative sequence, but it feels out of place. However, that’s a minor quibble for a show that was very fun. If Warner Brothers is looking for a show to spin out into its own set, The Completely Mental Misadventures of Ed Grimley gets my vote.
Another 80s cartoon standby is represented on the first disc –- adolescent versions of adult characters. The earliest version of this that I’m aware of is the baby versions of the Muppets in The Muppets Take Manhattan. The Muppet Babies eventually got their own series, as did many others. In this set, we’re treated to Flintstone Kids. In addition to the main feature, there are three shorts starring Captain Caveman and Son, Dino, and Wilma.
While the kid versions of adults worked in some cases, I don’t think it works here. For me, the heart of the Flintstones are the character’s personalities; gruff but loveable Fred, Wilma who can stand up to anything Fred throws at her and come out on top, gooney and loyal Barney, and Betty, his long-suffering but good-natured wife. Aside from Fred saying “Yabba-Dabba-Doo” and Barney cracking jokes, none of those personality traits come through. The creators tried to give the adults in the series some of those traits so we could see where they came from, but it didn’t work for me. Also, Fred’s mom looked kinda like what you would think the adult Fred would look like if he dressed up as Betty. It was very odd.
The disc is rounded out by a documentary on Thundarr the Barbarian, which I found odd as the Thundarr episode is on the second disc. There is some interesting information about the creation of Thundarr and on the process of limited animation, but the rest of the piece is rather self-congratulatory. “Look what a great show we made!” I would have loved to have seen interviews with people who were involved with making the show aside from just Joe Ruby and Ken Spears.
The second disc begins with two examples of another 80s animation standby –- the group of extremely cute characters. In this instance, it’s the Biskitts and the Monchhichis. The Biskitts are the world’s smallest dogs. They live on Biskitt Island, where they protect a treasure from the evil King Max. In this episode, they’re aided in their efforts by a caterpillar and a mole.
The Monchhichis are based on a Japanese animated series as well as a popular toy line. The Monchhichis are very cute monkeys who supply happiness to the world with their Happy Works. In this episode, the Tickle Crystal in the Happy Works breaks and they have to get a new one but are impeded by their enemies, the Grumplins, who look like the Monchhichis, except they’re blue. This show was so cloyingly sweet, I quickly found myself rooting for the Grumplins. A child of five or under may enjoy these shows, but I’d be surprised if anyone older than that got into them.
Time for Adventure
Galtar and the Golden Lance is a nice, straightforward sword-and-sorcery story. Galtar, along with the Princess Goleeta, must defeat the evil Tormack and return Goleeta to her rightful throne. Yes, Galtar and Goleeta look like they could have stepped out of an episode of Masters of the Universe, and the dialog is stilted, but I enjoyed the story, and the animation was better than most of the adventure shows in the set.
This is followed up by a very bad adventure show, Dragon’s Lair. This show is based on the then-popular video game by former Disney animator Don Bluth. The main characters from the video game are all here –- Dirk the Daring, Princess Daphne, and Siege the Dragon. However, the animation pales in comparison to what was used in the actual video game. Add in a lackluster story and poor voice acting, and you’ve got a forgettable show.
It was often laughable how they tried to incorporate the video game into the show. For example, at one point, Dirk is trying to cross a dangerous chasm. The voiceover narrator pops in and asks the viewer what Dirk should do, offering three options. After the viewer is given ample time to decide, you’re shown what would have happened if Dirk had made the wrong choices. He then makes the right choice and the story continues.
Now we finally get to the show I’ve been waiting to see –- Thundarr the Barbarian. Thundarr is the one show on the set I watched when it was on, and I enjoyed it. Unfortunately, reality didn’t live up to my memory of the show. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fine show, but it’s not as good as I remembered. I don’t know if I found it outstanding at the time compared to the other shows that were on, or if this wasn’t one of the stronger episodes.
When the show debuted, there was a lot of talk in the fan press about all the comic creators who worked on the series, including writer Steve Gerber and artistic legends Jack Kirby and Alex Toth. Their influence can be seen as the villain Gemini looks like he could have stepped out of one of Kirby’s Fourth World comics.
The series is a fantasy epic set on a future post-apocalyptic Earth, caused by a runaway planet passing between Earth and the Moon. Barbarian Thundarr, Sorcerer Ariel, and the monstrous Ookla the Mok battle evil on this future world. The influence of Star Wars on popular culture is felt here as Thundarr’s weapon, the Star Sword, is quite like a light sabre, and Ookla could be a first cousin of a certain Wookie. This is another series that Warner would be well served to collect.
An Historical Nod
The set concludes with a show I really wanted to like, The Kwicky Koala Show. First, it was a return to Hanna-Barbera’s roots, as the show was a comedy made up of three short cartoons. Second, and most importantly, Kwicky was created by animation legend Tex Avery. At Warner Brothers, Avery directed the cartoon that included Bugs Bunny uttering his classic “What’s up, doc?” for the first time. The same cartoon included the first time Elmer Fudd uttered, “Shhhh. Be vewy, vewy quiet. I’m hunting wabbits!” But it was at MGM that Avery’s genius blossomed and he created some of the wackiest cartoons ever made. Droopy Dog was his most famous creation from his time at MGM. So, to an animation fan, a new creation by Avery was a reason to rejoice. Sadly, Avery passed away before the show aired, and his particular brand of craziness never really appeared in the cartoons.
The show is made up of four segments: interstitials starring the showbiz dogs, The Bungle Brothers; a Kwicky Koala short featuring the villainous Wilford Wolf, who sounds like Paul Lynde; Crazy Claws, a wildcat who sounds like Groucho Marx; and Dirty Dawg, a dog bum who sounds like the late sportscaster Howard Cosell. The main problem with the show is that it isn’t very funny. Oh, the creators try, but the only segment that made me laugh at all was Crazy Claws. As I said, I really wanted to like this show, but it doesn’t quite work.
Technical Issues and Final Thoughts
Let’s look at the discs themselves. The cartoons look OK, but there is a disclaimer stating that these were taken from the best sources available. One thing that I found really annoying was the setup of watching the episodes one at a time. If the show features a full-length cartoon, there’s no problem. However, if there are multiple shorts, such as in The Kwicky Koala Show, you have to watch each short individually, and in Kwicky, that’s six segments! The only way to watch it as a whole is to use the “play all” feature.
Something that I find both funny and sad is a warning on the back of the DVD case. It states that “Saturday Morning Cartoons – The 1980s is intended for the Adult Collector and Is Not Suitable For Children.” Really? These cartoons, with the possible exception of Thundarr, were created for children! Biskitts and Monchhichis are extremely kid-friendly. How are these not suitable for them? I really have to question if the people who put this together know anything about the cartoons in the set.
So, we have two discs of cartoons made by people who had done well-received work in comics, including Steve Gerber, Martin Pasko, Mike Vosburg, Frank Brunner, Alex Toth, and Jack Kirby. You have a new creation by one of animation’s greats, Tex Avery. As a whole, we get one really enjoyable show, two that are OK, and the rest are pretty forgettable. I think that speaks volumes to the restrictions the creators were working under at the time. The talent was there, but the ability to use that talent to its fullest wasn’t.
Roger Ash lives in Wisconsin where he works for Westfield Comics. He also does some freelance writing, including interviews with Louise Simonson, June Brigman, and Jon Bogdanove about Power Pack in Back Issue #38 and a Flaming Carrot article in Back Issue #39. We’re always pleased when he’s able to share his animation expertise with us.