Review by KC Carlson
Dragon’s Lair began life in 1983 as a revolutionary arcade video game. Developed and published by Cinematronics, its key feature were the lavish cartoon graphics produced by ex-Disney animator Don Bluth (An American Tail, The Land Before Time). The mechanics were clunky, since the animation was provided on a laserdisc inside the machine. Gameplay between scenes of the animation was frequently slow, as the internal laser had to find the selected scene on the disc, leading to delays. The appeal of the game, though, was the gorgeous animation, the character design by Bluth, and the actual “story”, which included much action, adventure, and great humor. I wasn’t much of an arcade rat in that era, since I didn’t like the pixelated shooting games, but I pumped a lot of quarters into both Dragon’s Lair and its follow-up, the Bluth-designed animated Space Ace. I’m still the proud owner of one of the original laserdiscs from the latter (and yes, I still have a working laserdisc player).
In 1984, Dragon’s Lair debuted on Saturday morning television on ABC. 13 episodes were shown (over and over again) from September 1984 to April 1985. It was produced by Ruby-Spears Productions, probably best known for the 1988 Superman series and Fangface. The company also produced a lot of Saturday morning fare based on movies (Police Academy), TV shows (Happy Days — in space with a cute girl alien), and other games (Rubik the Amazing Cube).
Joe Ruby and Ken Spears got their start writing for Space Ghost and The Herculoids for Hanna-Barbera, and they were involved in developing Scooby Doo, Where Are You? When Ruby-Spears Productions changed hands many times between the late 1970s and early 1990s, it wasn’t a big surprise that their shows eventually ended up grouped together again with Hanna-Barbera, when the Turner Broadcasting System started collecting animation companies, eventually ending up at Warner in 1996. Which — in a long roundabout way — is how Dragon’s Lair came to be recently released by Warner Archive as a MOD (Manufacture-on-Demand) release under the Hanna-Barbera Classic Collection label.
Dragon’s Lair: The Complete Series includes all 13 episodes on two DVDs. Like most Warner Archive sets, the material has not been remastered, and no special features are included with the set, but the episodes are generally in great condition, with bright colors and good sound and picture quality.
Dragon’s Lair didn’t survive its transition from arcade game to Saturday morning unscathed. Most obviously, Don Bluth’s lush animation is not evident in the TV series — nor could it be, under then-TV budgets. The animation quality is simplified and limited compared to the original video game. Also, much of the charm of the original had to be sucked out of the Saturday morning version.
One of the best things about the arcade game was the many humorous (and occasionally gross) ways that the hero (Dirk the Daring) “dies” — frequently screaming in horror (albeit humorously)! Since violence was not allowed on Saturday morning, due to stringent watchdog groups, Dirk doesn’t so much “die” in the show as simply fall into some mud or something equally benign. (He does frequently fall off cliffs, but we never see him actually falling — or landing.)
The choices of actions to take from the original game is included in the show — usually in the form of a decision that has to be made just before the show cuts to a commercial break. When the show returns, we are shown the consequence of making the wrong decision (aka falling in the mud) before the correct decision is shown and the adventure continues. I’d imagine that parent groups of this era probably found that very educational. For the rest of us, it was just pretty lame. Here’s a studio-provided clip that shows it:
Another thing that didn’t survive the transition from the arcade game to Saturday morning TV was sex appeal. In the arcade game, Princess Daphne was quite gorgeous (although not bad — she was just drawn that way), with long, flowing hair and sexy, partially see-through clothing, exposing much cleavage. (For good reason: the Bluth studios reportedly couldn’t afford live models, so Daphne was supposedly inspired by photographs from Playboy magazine.) For the show, Daphne was redesigned as wearing a long pink dress and hair that seldom moved at all. Also gone was the kinda flirty/cute adult bantering between Dirk and Daphne. In the show, it almost seemed like they were brother and sister.
A number of supporting characters from the arcade made the transition to the series, but most were adapted into kid-vid clichés, including the kid-appealing identifier character Squire Timothy and the Giddy Goons as comically inept lackeys. The stories themselves were occasionally lacking. Of course, there was an episode where everyone was turned into babies — which ironically was a gameplay consequence in the arcade follow-up Space Ace (which also became a Saturday morning cartoon).
But none of this really matters if you were a kid and loved Dragon’s Lair: The Series. Despite its shortcomings, it’s still a huge nostalgic hit — which is the main reason for its recent DVD-MOD release. People have been clamoring for its release on DVD for years, and now their wishes have been answered. It’s great for kids of today as well, if they love adventure animation shows. (The studio provided a review copy.)