"Conan the Adventurer" Season 1: By Crom, What a Disappointment!
It’s a pleasure to report that there is at least one Saturday morning cartoon out there that manages to capture the untamed, muscular sensibilities of Robert E. Howard’s famous barbarian swordsman, Conan. Unfortunately, that cartoon is Thundarr the Barbarian. Beside that one, 1992’s Conan the Adventurer is only the palest of shadows of Howard’s original, sharing little in common with the black haired Cimmerian other than occasional place and character names. However, even on its own merits, the episodes in its first season have not aged terribly well. It’s not a horrible show, at least by the standards of the early 1990’s when it was produced, but it’s also one that will require tempered expectations for those raised on action/adventure cartoons of more recent vintage.
Conan the Adventurer pits the famed barbarian against the evil serpent wizard Wrath-Amon, who seeks begin a new dark age on Earth by releasing the evil god Set. Their paths cross when Conan and his grandfather see an asteroid impact on their lands in Cimmeria and Conan’s father forges weapons and tools out of the mysterious “Star Metal.” The Star Metal turns out to be exactly what Wrath-Amon needs to get his master to Earth, but it’s also the only substance effective against him and his serpent-men minions. Any serpent-man disguised to look human will be revealed after being exposed to Star Metal, and being struck by it will fling them back to their home dimension, conveniently allowing lots of swordplay without violating afternoon and Saturday morning restrictions on violent content. When Conan’s father refuses to aid Wrath-Amon, the wizard curses him, his wife, and Conan’s grandfather with the Spell of Living Stone, turning them to statues. This provides the impetus for Conan to take up his father’s Star Metal sword and go out adventuring for another 12 episodes, seeking to either defeat Wrath-Amon or find a way to restore his family to life.
I will give the show some credit for being able to establish all this plot in its first episode. The next few introduce several of Conan’s allies, including the Wasai Prince Zula, who can communicate with animals; the circus acrobat Jezmine; the wizard Greywolf and his siblings Sasha and Misha, both turned to wolves by Wrath-Amon’s magic; Falkenar the winged warrior; and the too-broadly comic Vanirman/Viking Snagg. Unfortunately, Conan also obtains the assistance of Needle, a colossally annoying baby phoenix only a network executive could ever love, with his childish speech patterns and annoying habit of serving as a deus ex machina mostly to justify his existence on the show. He’d have ended up roasting on a spit in one of Howard’s novels, but surprisingly, Needle is not the most annoying character on the show. That dubious distinction belongs to the appropriately named Dregs, a Naga servant of Wrath-Amon who is just like Needle except for being whatever the opposite of a deus ex machina is, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory repeatedly because of his own gross incompetence. There are even scenes with one or the other (or, heaven help us, both of them together) that use those exaggerated, slapstick sound effects that you’d find in something like The Flintstones when someone runs into a wall. It’s the second-most effective method the show has of stripping away any sense of drama. (We’ll get to the first in a moment.)
The 13 episodes that compose season one of Conan the Adventurer follow a loose continuity, sitting between Sunbow’s G.I. Joe (with no continuity to speak of) and The Transformers (with heavy continuity, for all the good it did them). They are all average Saturday morning swords-and-sorcery adventures, with few managing to be especially good or bad. Among the former are “The Terrible Torrinon,” notable for a sharp twist early on and then an extended con game afterwards; and “Windfang’s Eyrie,” which provides a tragic backstory for one of Wrath-Amon’s minions and possibly sets up a betrayal somewhere down the line. Among the latter are “Shadow Walkers,” which pits Conan vs. ninjas wielding astonishingly awful fake Asian accents; and “The Claw of Heaven,” which can only fill its 20+ minute running time by making everyone involved a complete idiot. The rest are just decent, but cover extremely well-trod ground and definitely offer nothing that would satisfy someone seeking Robert E. Howard’s original. Conan himself mostly fits his popular image as a musclebound clod, rather than the lithe, crafty savage of the original novels and stories. The closest the series ever comes to Howard is in Skulkur, a genuinely creepy living skeleton warrior who can raise up skeletal minions to battle for him. Of course, this means he’s ultimately undone by Dregs’ idiocy in this series, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they wrote him off the show after only two or three appearances because network executives freaked out over him and said he was too scary.
Like Shout! Factory’s other Hasbro TV show releases on DVD, Conan the Adventurer doesn’t seem to be working from especially well-preserved masters, looking a bit worse for wear considering how relatively recent the show is. Also like those earlier DVD releases from Shout!, the commercial lead-out/lead-in bumpers are included as well, which showcases the unfortunate decision to have the show’s characters serve as announcers in character. It probably shouldn’t matter, but having the characters talking about how they’ll destroy their enemies right after this commercial ends up being the most effective way the show can strip itself of a sense of drama. Still, the episodes have been cleaned up as best as could be expected and presented in full-frame with a healthy number of chapter stops within episodes. Unfortunately, there are no bonus features on this 2-disc set. Reportedly, the major retailers aren’t ordering 4-disc kidvid DVD sets without proven brand-names attached, so if this set seems a bit disappointing in comparison to some of Shout’s earlier releases, the fault does not lie with them.
On the one hand, it’s not really fair to try and compare this show to its pulp fiction forerunner, given the restraints on Saturday morning animation at the time it was being made. On the other hand, if you’re going to try and ride a brand-name, it would help to hew closer to what made it a brand name in the first place, and Thundarr managed to feel a lot more like Howard’s Conan, despite appearing in an even more restrictive time and place. It’s hard to see Conan the Adventurer as anything more than a disappointment, and its dated nature makes it a pretty tough sell to modern audiences.