Review: "Godzilla the Series" is Monster Fun
There was little positive reception among film critics or kaiju fans for the 1998 American remake of Godzilla. The movie, produced by the minds that brought us Independence Day, was a drastic re-imagining of the classic Toho movie monster that stripped away any remaining metaphorical weight the character had left and replaced it with empty, big-scale CGI spectacle. However, the tie-in animated series, Godzilla the Series, manages to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear. While it may be extremely formulaic, it is also extremely entertaining and makes for surprisingly addictive viewing. Unfortunately, network scheduling shenanigans and the rise of Pok√©mon-and-its-derivatives led to the show’s cancellation after 40 episodes (2 of which were unaired). Thankfully, Mill Creek Entertainment has released the entire series in a budget-priced 4-DVD set to capitalize on the second attempt to import Godzilla to Hollywood.
The series picks up at the end of the movie and engages in a bit of creative revising, with Dr. Nick Tatopoulos (voiced by Ian Ziering) leading a search for any last Godzilla eggs or offspring in the ruins of New York City after the monster is finally killed. The last remaining Godzilla egg hatches almost as soon as Nick finds it, leading to the monster imprinting on Nick and creating a vague bond between them. Unfortunately, Godzilla was only the first of a growing number of mutated monsters popping up all over the world. By the end of the 2-part series premiere, Nick has created the Humanitarian Environmental Analysis Team (H.E.A.T.) from a motley assemblage: the smart-mouthed Dr. Elsie Chapman (Charity James); the renegade computer hacker Randy Hernandez (Rino Romano); the hypochondriac Dr. Mendel Craven (Malcolm Danare, reprising his role from the movie); Dr. Craven’s versatile robotic assistant NIGEL (Tom Kenny), who is repeatedly hacked by Randy before being destroyed in entertaining ways in every episode; and the laconic, lethal French spy Monique DuPre (Brigitte Bako), who also provides H.E.A.T. with equipment and a hydrofoil boat they dub the H.E.A.T. Seeker. Other semi-recurring cast members include Dr. Tatopoulos’ fianc√©e Audrey Timmonds (Paget Brewster), a rising TV reporter who is unfortunately just as annoying as she was in the movie; Audrey’s cameraman “Animal” Palotti (Joe Pantoliano); and Major Hicks (Kevin Dunn, also reprising his role from the movie but with a major demotion), whose military efforts to contain any mutated monsters sometimes includes Godzilla.
Godzilla the Series is a “monster-of-the-week” series, but if any TV show can justify using that formula, it would be one where the title character is a 300-foot tall mutated iguana who exhales nuclear fire. The formula is pretty simple, but also surprisingly durable: strange occurrences in some far-flung location are soon revealed to have a monster behind them, leading to the dispatch of H.E.A.T. and the eventual defeat of the monster through some mixture of human ingenuity and kaiju-scaled (but pointedly non-lethal) brute force. However, a formulaic show isn’t a bad thing by itself, especially when one like Godzilla the Series finds so many ways to play around with that formula and even have some fun with it along the way. The show seems pretty self-aware of what it is and what its limitations are, occasionally even poking fun at genre conventions or its own references (as when the setting shifts to Japan and a parent scolds her child by asking, “What would Godzilla be doing in Japan?”).
Godzilla the Series also finds a surprising number of variations within its relatively simple theme. While many episodes center on H.E.A.T. pulling off amazing scientific feats in the field, it seems that many others come down to sheer random chance events. There are several episodes where the human contribution is nearly non-existent, emphasizing how ineffective humanity is against these gargantuan mutated monsters. Sometimes the people can do little more than try and limit property damage and keep civilians out of the line of fire. These monsters are forces of nature that are barely understood and fundamentally uncontrollable, where the best humanity can hope for is containment and further study. This extends even to Godzilla, who appears and disappears without warning, demonstrates at least as much intelligence as a smart family dog, and even displays flashes of an occasional sense of humor. Throughout the series, H.E.A.T. manages only the most rudimentary communication, and several episodes hinge on the fact that Nick and his friends don’t understand what Godzilla is thinking.
Sometimes, the monsters are more human-sized, and these threats form the few plotlines that stretch over more than one episode. The devious tycoon Cameron Winter seeks ways to profit from the mutations, with his university rivalry with Nick making their conflict more personal. There is also a subplot incorporating telepathic alien invaders and their secret plot to conquer Earth, first appearing early on disc 1 and then popping up later in the series in a surprise plot twist. One sign of the show’s strength is that the plot twist that brings the aliens back as antagonists suddenly makes a lot of throwaway lines and tiny incidents in earlier episodes take on new meaning, revealing that the large plot was hiding in plain sight. Other human characters engage in more venal attempts to cash in on the mutations, like a sleazy tour operator trying to run monster tours to a promoter advertising monster Fight Club battles to 1-percenters. One of the show’s more clever conceits is the eco-terrorist group S.C.A.L.E. that thinks the mutated monsters should be the true inheritors of the Earth (even if the episode they appear in isn’t among the show’s best).
Even if you haven’t seen the original movie, the premiere episode makes sure new viewers won’t be lost and the series doesn’t rely much on continuity until close to the end. Nick Tatopoulos is a more traditional, square-jawed hero than Matthew Broderick’s take on the character, although his revamped role is largely thankless. Mostly, Dr. Nick exists to spout exposition and then holler orders to other characters; it seems that in every episode, he’s required to shout “Go! Go! Go!” to people and “Back away! or “Back into the water!” to Godzilla. Almost everyone else in H.E.A.T. gets to have much more fun. Dr. Chapman is endearingly sarcastic and often gets the snappiest one-liners, so it’s unfortunate that the series half-heartedly imported her seeming interest in Nick, even if it is amusing to see her tweaking Audrey’s sense of jealousy. It becomes even worse when the show begins alternating her vaguely defined affections between Nick and Mendel Craven. The way the show can’t make up its mind on which guy to pair her off with makes everyone look worse, even if the episode that cements her attention on Mendel is one of the better ones and finds an exceptionally creative way to express his previously unspoken feelings for her. Randy and Mendel form an amusing odd couple, and the friendship and bond that develops between the two as the series goes on is one of the more enjoyable long-running plot threads. Randy is undeniably annoying on his own, but even then it can be funny to watch him really getting on everyone else’s nerves. I also credit thoughtful writing and an excellent vocal performance in keeping Monique DuPre from being a cold fish of a character, and I was even amused by Randy’s largely unrequited crush on her.
The animation for Godzilla the Series is similar to Men in Black: The Series, the other movie spinoff from Columbia Tri-Star’s TV animation efforts at the time. The human characters tend to be a bit caricatured, sometimes in ways bordering on the grotesque, while the monsters are creatively designed and executed (with those designs credited to the movie’s Patrick Tatopoulos and Fil Barlow). General animation quality is a bit inconsistent, with some episodes looking quite well animated while others have numerous instances of choppy and recycled animation, characters going far off-model, and continuity errors (the funniest of which is a sequence where a weapon appears and vanishes in Monique’s hands multiple times in the span of about a minute). It’s a small thing, but I was impressed at the sense of place and realism to the series, which depicts several New York City landmarks and a lot of military uniforms and equipment quite accurately. It’s also fun to spot numerous familiar names in the credits, such as Jeff Kline (currently at Hasbro overseeing Transformers and the short-lived G.I. Joe Renegades), Sam Liu (All-Star Superman and Batman: Year One), Audu Paden, Marty Isenberg, Traci Balthazor (producer of Disney’s Planes), and many more. Given the quality of the people working for the show, its quality is much less surprising.
Like many of Mill Creek Entertainment’s releases, the DVD set of Godzilla the Series is pretty bare bones. The series is presented in its original full-frame format with a plain stereo soundtrack. Video quality seems to vary between episodes, sometimes significantly, but I’d believe the variation is from limitations in the source material rather than in the mastering. I could easily believe the episodes looked exactly as they do on these DVDs when first aired. There are no bonus features of any kind, not even trailers for other Mill Creek releases, although the two previously unaired episodes might qualify. On the plus side, that minimalism has the same benefit as the Warner Archive Blu-rays for Beware the Batman and other recent DC animated series: after the initial FBI warning, there is absolutely nothing between you and the material you want to watch, and the minimal menu system gets episodes running even faster. The advertising and animated menu nonsense that usually comes with home video releases is not missed. The packaging also stacks all 4 DVDs on a single spindle to keep everything in a standard width DVD case, and while the space-saving is welcome, it does make getting at the later discs a bit less convenient.
Some TV animation pushes boundaries and shows real innovation. Godzilla the Series is definitely not one of those series, but succeeds admirably at being pure popcorn entertainment. It might be highly formulaic, but that’s true of the kaiju genre in general and isn’t something I’m willing to hold against Godzilla the Series. There are a handful of loser episodes and the science and the physics are often highly problematic, but it’s an enjoyable romp overall that one hopes will find a more stable audience than it did when it was first on TV.