"Dungeons & Dragons: The Complete Animated Series" DVD Box Set Rolls a 20
The Joy. The Memories. Oh to be holding this box set in my hands. I was and still am a huge fan of this show, and finally after all these years, it has been compiled into a DVD box set and what a box set it is. Writing this review will be a pleasure.
First let me acknowledge that by contemporary standards Dungeons & Dragons: The Animated Series is crap. I’m not that nostalgic. A lot of it is typical of much of the fare that filled Saturday mornings in the Eighties. There will be little in this show to attract the interest of anyone born outside of the era before cable and when animation was largely confined to Saturday mornings. To appreciate this show and what it did it must be taken in context. As someone who watched and enjoyed Astro Boy when it debuted on US TV in glorious black and white back in 1963, I have seen televised animation come a long way. Children’s animation was in something of a Dark Age in the Eighties when parental groups exercised unprecedented power over the content of children’s television. As such, many shows of this era were toned down to a level deemed safe for kids. As a kid of the era, this had the effect on me of rendering many shows virtually unwatchable through the additions of pointless sidekicks (Batmite, Scrappy Doo, The Wonder Twins, etc.) who seemed to serve no purpose beyond taking screen time away from the characters you were actually there to see (Batman, Superman, etc.) while reducing whatever conflict there may have been to parody. Then in September of 1983 CBS dropped a hamburger into this ocean of pabulum.
D&D:TAS told the tale of six kids trapped in an alternate dimension called The Realm. The set-up was given in the opening animation of each episode. Hank, Eric, Sheila, Presto, Diana and Bobby board the Dungeons & Dragons ride at an amusement park and are transported to The Realm where the wizard known as Dungeon Master gives them appropriate clothing (if you can consider a fur bikini appropriate) and magical weapons. Hank becomes the Ranger with an energy bow. Eric becomes the Cavalier (though he is denied a horse) armed with an invulnerable shield. Sheila becomes a Thief with a cloak that grants her invisibility. Diana the Acrobat is armed with a staff much like Son Goku’s Nyoi-Bou (a.k.a. “Power Pole”) that can extend its length indefinitely. Presto becomes the Magician armed with a hat of spells that can produce anything requested of it from electric blankets to aircraft carriers. The downside is that Presto has no clue how to use it. Bobby, Sheila’s younger brother, becomes the Barbarian armed with a club that can annihilate anything that gets in its way and acquires a companion in the form of Uni, a young unicorn. The ultimate quest of the youngsters is to find their way back to their own world while having various adventures along the way. Dungeon Master serves as a helpful if frustratingly cryptic guide while their chief adversary is the one-horned, bat-winged wizard known as Venger. The whole experience is based on the ever popular Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game, and the animated characters have since found their way back into the game from which they sprang.
While on the surface this can describe countless action-adventure shows targeted towards children, D&D:TAS ventured where few other shows of its era dared tread. For one thing it was dark. The youngsters dealt with wizards, demons, ghosts, undead, zombies and a whole host of other horrors on a regular basis. There was no attempt to soften the threat of these confrontations. Be it a bar full of hostile patrons or the dragon Tiamat, it was always clear that the youngsters were in very real and very serious jeopardy. Also, not all the enemies the youngsters faced were from without. Many times their lives and quest were threatened by their own inner demons of doubt, fear, guilt and despair. In something thought unthinkable in children’s shows of that era, the youngsters openly discussed killing Venger after he frustrated yet another attempt to get home. The enemies they faced were not just purposeless minions of evil. The villains had their own stories and agendas including Venger himself. Dungeon Master’s cryptic line regarding Venger, “There was good in Venger once. A long time ago. We all make mistakes. Venger was mine.” suggests that there’s a relationship between the two. Whether it was father and son, mentor and protégé or some other connection we will never know as the show was canceled before that issue could be officially explored. I am an anime fan, and I enjoy it for the depth of characterization it is capable of; D&D:TAS showed much of that very same depth of characterization though in a much more restrictive time.
D&D:TAS retains a very strong fanbase even to this day. At the very least, we wanted to see a resolution to the youngsters journey. We wanted to see them make it home safely after all they’d been through. With the arrival of the internet many sites sprang up dedicated to the series, collecting speculation, analysis, fan-fiction and even a live action fan film. The series was briefly revived to coincide with the release of the first Harry Potter movie. It later returned again, and is now a regular part of Toon Disney’s Jetix block. It is that continued fan interest which ultimately produced the DVD box set I am reviewing. Dungeons & Dragons: The Complete Animated Series will be released by BCI Eclipse on December 5th, 2006, and this box set is aimed squarely at the D&D fanbase: no expense was spared stuffing it with every available scrap of information about the show. The box itself is beautifully crafted in red with “Dungeons & Dragons” embossed across the top in the show’s original font. The cover art is a glossy print of our heroes girding for action with Tiamat the dragon in the background. Inside the box are five DVDs in a fanfold case the cover of which has a reproduction of the original promotional poster for the series. Inside the fanfold is art of one of D&D’s many foreboding castles. Each disc has a portrait of one of the main characters though Bobby and Sheila share a disc. The inner fold of the case has design art of Venger while the back has a map of The Realm. The first four discs contain the 27 episodes of the series while the fifth contains bonus materials. The bonus materials are:
- The 30 minute documentary “Entering the Realm of Dungeons and Dragons.”
- Episode commentaries for “Night of No Tomorrow” and “The Dragon’s Graveyard” (These are with their respective episodes).
- A radio play reading of the script for the final episode “Requiem” which was never filmed but detailed the youngsters return home.
- Profiles of the characters, artifacts and creatures of the show.
- Alternate openings and end credits and collected rare footage.
- Animated storyboard for episode 14, “The Girl Who Dreamed Tomorrow.”
- A Dungeons & Dragons interactive adventure: “Kelek’s Crystal.”
- Live action Dungeons & Dragons fan film “Choices” by Sean Kennedy.
- Art Galleries.
- Additional DVD-ROM content containing scripts, storyboards and the series development bible.
The show itself has been remastered and while there are limits to what you can do with Eighties era animation, the show looks beautiful. Audio is two channel stereo. The menus on each disc not only list episodes and chapters, but give detailed information on each episode which includes the writer, original air date and synopsis as well. The chapter menus further include interesting bits of trivia about the episodes covered. The discs also restore the original opening sequence complete with Dungeon Master’s narration. This was removed and replaced with music for D&D’s current run on Jetix. The original ending credits have been restored as well. The goodness continues with an illustrated handbook to the series bound in the manner of the D & D game manuals and includes a mini campaign featuring the show’s characters and based on the episode “The Dragon’s Graveyard.” Full stats are given for each character and their weapon in addition to an illustration of each character. Stats are also included for Venger and Shadow Demon. A pamphlet detailing the episodes on each disc rounds out the extras included in the box.
While BCI Eclipse could have simply bundled the episodes onto some discs and sold enough to desperate fans to recoup their costs, they instead they chose to go above and beyond in producing a release of archival quality. It’s very unusual treatment for a show many might regard as obscure. As a fan of this show I am glad to see a release of this quality. I say to fans of other obscure shows that have yet to see the light of DVD: Start talking to BCI Eclipse.
Kyle Pope is a columnist and a convention reporter for Anime News Network.