As I mentioned in my review of the recently released DVD set, 1998’s Godzilla the Series makes a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, turning the underwhelming American movie into an enjoyable “monster of the week” action cartoon. The two-part premiere figured out a way to make Godzilla into one of the good guys without ever making him feel quite as tame or safe as many of the later Japanese films, the monster design is quite creative, and the character dynamics among the humans is entertaining more often than not.
The opening credits begin with hints at Godzilla’s tremendous size and the fear he instills: the birds taking sudden flight (a nice cinematic shorthand for danger just out of sight), the enormous shadow he casts, the reactions of the panicked populace (all of whom have to crane their necks upwards to look at him), and finally the gargantuan foot just missing TV journalists Audrey Timmons and “Animal” Palotti. The ominous rumbling of the music reinforces that sense of dread, shifting to a low-register repeating figure as Godzilla is finally revealed crossing the East River alongside a car (who, in typical New Yorker fashion, is completely unfazed by a 300-foot tall lizard keeping pace with him). The music reinforces an insistent feeling of danger as Godzilla stalks through the city and takes up residence on top of a skyscraper, announcing his presence with his familiar roar. This entire sequence is surprisingly well-animated, especially the extreme reactions when the crowds see Godzilla off-screen and their smooth movement as they run away.
The intro sequence cuts quickly to introduce the members of H.E.A.T., starting with Dr. Nick Tatopoulos (and to be honest, he looks like kind of a creep with that leer he gives to the camera), moving to the computer hacker Randy, then to Dr. Elsie Chapman and French spy Monique DuPre, and finally to Dr. Mendel Craven and his robotic assistant NIGEL. The character designs are quite effective at communicating each character’s role on the team: Nick is a classic, square-jawed hero. Randy’s more casual clothing signals that he’s the group’s renegade. The distinction between the two women is summed up by Dr. Chapman’s long hair and frumpy sweater, vs. the Monique’s sleek, efficient clothing and haircut, and the fact that Elsie is reading a thick bound volume. Mendel’s lab coat and the fact that he’s fussing with NIGEL signal he’s the big brain. It’s a bit quick to catch all that in the five seconds they’re on screen, but the designs are all good enough that it is possible to take all that in quickly. Notice how the music changes again; still ominous, but less overtly so, signaling that the people we’re looking at are the ones we’re supposed to be rooting for.
Now is as good a time as any to point out trivia bits like the fact that creature designer Patrick Tatopoulos’ daughter is supposedly the namesake for Dr. Tatopolous. Godzilla’s prominent jawline was also inspired by Shere Khan in Disney’s The Jungle Book. In a way, Godzilla the Series is a nice return to animation for a character at least partially inspired by a famous animated screen villain.
With the introductions out of the way, the opening credits close out with a lot of good old-fashioned mayhem, set to a building crescendo as the threats become bigger. The military swoops in to attack Godzilla first, signaling how most of the world views the monster as a threat (and also giving us a glimpse at Major Hicks, the last of the series’ regularly recurring characters). The shift to different monsters attacking Godzilla (all in footage recycled from early episodes of the show) tell us that there are more of these monsters out there. These two threads are tied together neatly in the closing images of Godzilla standing in the wreckage of the World Trade Center towers, prepared to defend himself against the Army helicopters buzzing around his head and the crowd of monsters converging on him. The message is clear: Godzilla is the biggest and the baddest of them all, and ready to take on all challengers. The closing title card neatly ties together the entire cast, including Godzilla. The last grace note is the tolling bell under the “developed by” and executive producer credits, which neatly evokes funerals and other bad omens.
These opening credits fall between the coherent short story of G.I. Joe or Batman the Animated Series and the purely impressionistic imagery of Batman Beyond or Cowboy Bebop. This seems fitting, since Godzilla is both the hero and the antagonist of his own story, which is much more difficult to sum up in a minute than the black-and-white, good-vs-evil narratives of G.I. Joe or Batman. I think creatures like Godzilla (and dinosaurs in general) also have staying power, especially among the young, because our fascination is balanced by the strong, primal fight-or-flight reaction triggered by such an obviously fearsome animal. The opening credits manage to incorporate all of the above by splitting the difference between narrative coherence and emotional reaction. It’s the first look at the way the series manages to balance the same elements harmoniously.