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"SWAT Kats": 90's Talking Animals, Japanese Turbo-Boosting

Jake and Chance, two rising stars in The Enforcers, have been forced to give up their careers when a botched mission results in millions of dollars in damage. Using their new junk yard jobs to fund their vigilante mission to defend Megakat City, they save the day with their Turbo Kat fighter jet (and a host of gadgets and rides) as SWAT Kats!

SWAT Kats is easily a franchise that could have been forgotten. One of the later productions of Hanna-Barbera, made before the studio became just a part of Warner Bros., it represented a novel turn for the company: instead of setting humanoid animals to interact with humans in goofy plots, it gave them a flat-out action scenario with modern or futuristic technology, and avoided even pointing out that the characters were different from the human viewers. The series was also created when sister network Cartoon Network was getting off the ground, and it was instead showcased on TBS alongside a certain other action series powered by Ted Turner’s own desire to save the world. Finally, the series got an unexpected cancellation, when Season 3 episodes were in varying states of production.

Much like the contemporaneously produced Batman: The Animated Series, it takes a few origin or establishing episodes of villains before it gets to combine and play with the elements. Unlike Batman, though, the origin episodes are actually weaker than the later efforts. The villains all fill tropes and themes traditional to the superhero medium (robot, time, chemistry experiments, etc.), and they tend to boil down to the standard criminal/generic evil class of villainy. So while Catwoman and Poison Ivy cry for redemption and Two-Face’s path is a painful one, there are no redeeming factors when your name is Dark Kat. Once you get the villains teaming up or squaring off, you get some real treats, such as the season one finale featuring enemies on both sides of the good/evil coin having to team up, resulting in the destruction of the Turbo Kat and a real sense of peril.

The second season tends to fix a few of the errors of the first; while it doesn’t fail to introduce new villains to fight (many of which, sadly, are just one-episode characters, such as the villainess love interest Turmoil and the “In The Mirror, Darkly”-esque Dark SWAT Kats), it does a fair amount with already established characters. Thankfully, the series abandons the civilian foils of Burke and Murray, the junkers constantly causing issues for the day-to-day personas of Chance and Jake, and adds Lieutenant Felina Feral, niece of origin-inspirer Commander Feral. Felina is as much of a hotshot as The Enforcers, ready to fly into battle with the SWAT Kats as allies instead of enemies. She is a rare, strong heroine; not to discredit the adventures and character of Callie Briggs, but the Deputy Mayor was definitely more meant for being saved than for being a savior.

The animation is excellent, due in no small part to the fact that a Japanese studio worked on the series. Surprisingly, it’s not TMS (as this reviewer and others believed), but Mook, a rather obscure animation studio. Repeatedly throughout the series, a very Japanese-inspired look will show up. It’s always welcome, but when extra attention is paid to the shading of metal, the lasers of blasters, the weight of a fighter jet, the fluidity of heroes, and the eyes of female heroines, the comparison of an otherwise Saturday morning cartoon seems nigh bipolar. At best, it reminds you of the glory days of ’80s and ’90s science-fiction cartoons from Japan, and at worst, it’s an above-average talking animal show from America. When tentacle monsters start chasing a deputy mayor around, you’ll either cringe or be disappointed that it doesn’t go down another, more familiar line of Japanese story-telling.

This quality animation is backed by great voice acting, ranging from Mark Hamill to the original Space Ghost, Gary Owens, and Tress MacNeille and, well, the obvious Jim Cummings, Rob Paulsen, and Frank Welker (obvious, because of their inclusion in pretty much everything from this era). They support Charlie Adler and Barry Gordon, who voice the leads.

This box set contains all 26 episodes, but not all episodes are created equal: Four episodes are really half episodes, meant to be played with another one, and the final episode repurposes animation from throughout the series to offer an at-times laughably bad in-series documentary on the exploits of the series. Most of the episodes are entertaining, but it’s not to say there aren’t a few goofs; an alien invasion is treated with levity and completely forgotten about in later episodes, and many episodes, oddly, feel like toy advertisements. True, there was a very limited SWAT Kats toy line, but every episode seems to feature a new type of missile, vehicle, gauntlet attachment, jetpack, etc. If it’s meant as a running gag, it works, but it seems too often that there were supposed to be toys associated with most of the absurdities.

SWAT Kats was rather inventive for its time, with an acceptable plot taking a back-burner to a beautifully animated and stylized look. Still, this a Warner Archive release, which means that there’s no such thing as extras or effort included; this is the straight set of episodes, and that’s it. Sure, they’re incredibly good looking episodes, but it’s a shame that only fans of the series will have any real cause (or claws) to check out SWAT Kats.

SWAT Kats can be purchased through Warner Archive.

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