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"Mysterious Cities of Gold" Complete Series: Adventure! That's the Life for Me

The 80’s were an odd period for animation. Public opinion on the subject is divided into two factions: those who view the shows nostalgically, and maintain that campy means good and that new cartoons suck; and those who’d like to forget the 80’s even had any cartoons.

I’m not sure where I stand on the issue, but at least Mysterious Cities of Gold lacks all the tropes generally associated with the decade. It was not made to sell toys. It does not use soon-to-be-outdated slang. Its villains can be fumbling and ineffectual, but they are often also genuinely menacing. And yet, despite all this, the show is still (in a good way) a product of its time. Its swash-yer-buckle atmospherics, for instance, would have a difficult time getting through today. Take, for example, the character Mendoza, a fortune-seeker with a cape, who bravely faces down sharks and panthers and can take on the entire Spanish army in a fistfight without breaking a sweat. He should be unbearably corny. But the show is so sincere about the whole thing. Once that cape swishing actually started to look cool to me, I knew the show had done something very right.

The plot, roughly, is this: Esteban, a young boy living in sixteenth-century Spain, is believed to have the power to control the sun. His guardian, the father of the local church, dies, and he is promptly whisked away by the sailor Mendoza, who claims to have saved his life as a child. Mendoza reveals that he is part of an expedition to find the titular Cities of Gold, and that he believes Esteban could help him on his quest. Other allies accumulated include two buffoonish Spanish sailors, Sancho and Pedro; the young Inca girl Zia; the Indian boy Tao; and Tao’s parrot Kokapetl. Enemies include greedy Europeans (most notably Francisco Pizarro, who gets bonus points for being a real person), crocodilians, large cats, savages (but surprisingly few; this is not a racist show, not by any way of reckoning), sharks, snakes … in a phrase, the usual suspects. Detailing the entire plot would consume my word quota; it’s not complicated, but it is extremely long-winded. It clocks in at thirty-nine episodes, and during this time we explore a good deal of Central and South America. The show ends soon enough that it doesn’t really bother the viewer, but it could’ve have gotten ugly if it had gone on much longer.

Several different story-telling styles are used throughout the show. The earliest episodes have a vaguely Robert Louis Stevenson feel to them, while some of the middle episodes that deal more with exploration smack of Arthur Conan Doyle. The later episodes, particularly those dealing with the Vulcan-like Olmecs, are undoubtedly H. G. Wells. (I don’t know why I’m flashing back to Victorian/Edwardian authors here, but I am.) It’s a crazy-quilt of different genres, but it all works out surprisingly well; even when the series is at its looniest (submarines built out of canoes?) it still maintains a firm sense of reality (a by-product of having the show take place in South America during the sixteenth century, I suppose).

The characterizations and voice-acting are a more mixed bag. The trio of children who make up the main cast, for instance, are rather poorly realized. The strongest of the three, Esteban, gets points not for his voicing (in an interview the actor shamefacedly admits that he had trouble keeping up with the script, never mind putting emotion into the voice) but for his writing. He has several personality quirks (fear of heights, impulsiveness, love of nature), and these quirks are actually apparent throughout the entire show, instead of simply being mentioned once and quickly forgotten. More important is the fact that Esteban is a child, and we are never drawn to think otherwise. This is a hard characterization to perform correctly (think Bill Watterson, and you’ll be on the right track), and it’s refreshing to see it done so well. Unfortunately, the other two children, though they feature superior voice acting, tend to fall into well-worn clichés. Zia’s entire personality could be summed up with the word “girl,” while Tao is “smart”. It is to the show’s credit that it often shows all three children behaving like, well, children, so perhaps Zia and Tao simply do not get enough screen time.

Then we have the adults. Mendoza, the aforementioned swashbuckler, is a triumphant piece of work, voiced magnificently by Howard Ryshpan. In a nice bit of moral ambiguity, the series is never quite clear about Mendoza’s motives; greed is obviously a factor, but somebody who’s got such an awesome cape can’t possibly be all bad. His sycophants, Sancho and Pedro, are the same pair you’ve seen in innumerable other cartoons (Jessie and James from Pokemon pop instantly to mind), with a twist; the buffoonish duo is now firmly on the side of good, despite some questionable thoughts about the Cities of Gold. Ryshpan also voices Pedro and does a good job, but Terrence Labrosse’s stuttering Sancho can become tiresome rather quickly. (But faking a stutter and not sounding annoying is nigh-impossible, so I’ll give the guy some slack.) I can’t forgive Vlasta Vrana’s work on the parrot Kokapetl, though. If the plot didn’t require it, I’d really rather he didn’t speak at all. The villains, as I’ve mentioned, are surprisingly menacing. Most effective are the duo of Marinche, a cruel Indian woman, and the European Doctor Fernando, who are another great exemplar of moral ambiguity. The Vader-esque Pizarro is also pretty nice, though he could use some more screen time. Last but not least are the strange, almost alien Olmecs, who are genuinely creepy.

The character designs are an interesting mix of Japanese and Western styles; the show’s producer notes that he wanted it to be widely accepted in English-speaking countries, which was why he opted for more American designs. This works very well; without being told, you certainly will not recognize Mysterious Cities of Gold as being of Japanese origin right away (though the trained eye might pick up on a few Eastern traits). The show lacks anime’s traditional bright color palette and extensive surface polish, but this allows it to focus more on environment and “monster” visuals, which work quite well. The soundtrack is suitably adventurous, though I would note an annoying tendency to use the same tune to indicate several different things.

If Mysterious Cities of Gold has one flaw, it is the quality of the dub. The script is actually quite competent, but it suffers due to what is essentially a double-dubbing: the show was originally broadcast in Japanese, then translated to French, and then translated to English. It shows: there are plenty of awkward pauses that go on for far too long, plenty of lines that don’t make much sense, and plenty of badly timed jokes. It hurts the show, though not so badly that it becomes intolerable.

There are a bunch of extras on each of the show’s six discs: artwork, interviews (all of which are very informative), scene re-enactments with the now grown-up dub cast (why?), and, finally, a mini-documentary that accompanies each episode. These are about as much fun as would be expected, but it’s a nice gesture, I guess. The DVD set also comes with a rather pointless “collectors edition” booklet that includes an episode synopsis for every one of the thirty-nine episodes, and (at the very end), some two- or three-sentence character profiles.

Mysterious Cities of Gold is not a deep, philosophical, or particularly moving show. It is, however, some of the most fun you can have watching cartoons. You probably won’t want to re-watch it, but that’s hardly a reason to condemn it. A hearty thumbs up.

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