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"Saturday Morning Cartoons: The 1970s Vol. 2": The Nightmare Continues

by on November 4, 2009

I recently confessed to being a child of the 1970s, which in animation terms is like confessing to having grown up on a Nevada A-bomb test site. If you want to extend the analogy, that would make the sale and distribution of Saturday Morning Cartoons: The 1970s, Vol. 2 roughly equivalent to the sale and distribution of radioactive fallout. Don’t blame me if your eyeballs boil out of their sockets while watching some of the cartoons on this two-disc set.

To be fair, not all is doom and distress, if only because the networks of the day weren’t averse to airing material from an earlier generation. You won’t be surprised to learn that the highlight of this set is The Bugs Bunny/Roadrunner Show, the anthology series that taught budding toonophiles at an early age how to distinguish diamonds from dung. This particular batch features four Looney Tunes, including two Bugs Bunnies (“Duck! Rabbit! Duck!” and “Hare-way to the Stars”), a Roadrunner (“Stop, Look, and Hasten”) and a Pepe Le Pew (“For Scent-imental Reasons”). It’s a solid group, though somewhat diminished by the fact that only “Hare-way to the Stars” is new to DVD. The wraparound material (opening and closing credits) are drab and appear not to have been restored, but in at least one respect this material is blessedly inauthentic to the period: none of the actual cartoons have been edited, as CBS used to do back in the day.

Tom and Jerry are also represented here, but in their contemporary incarnation, in The Tom and Jerry/Grape Ape Show. The Grape Ape is a one-joke idea—an enormous purple gorilla who mostly says nothing but “Grape Ape! Grape Ape!”—but to my astonishment I found myself actually enjoying the three Tom and Jerry shorts. The show’s end credits only give William Hanna and Joe Barbera “executive producer” status, so it can’t be that “No Way Stowaway,” “The Ski Bunny” and “Stay Awake or Else” benefited from their hands-on involvement. But despite the simplistic, cheap animation, all three shorts actually have quite a bit of energy and even a little invention. I’d even go so far as to say that, spiritually, they feel closer to the classic MGM shorts than the more recent (and certainly more handsome) Tom and Jerry Tales shorts.

The only other pleasant surprise in this set is Valley of the Dinosaurs, an action cartoon I had completely forgotten about, but which came flooding back to me as soon as the opening credits started. The series premise—which also appeared in the live action/stop motion Land of the Lost—has a modern family becoming trapped in a lost world of dinosaurs and cavemen. In “Forbidden Fruit,” the modern family and the caveman family they live with become trapped in a cavern that is gradually becoming flooded. It’s a formulaic story, but it does work up a little suspense. Character designs are sub-post-Toth, but there are some evocative backgrounds, and detail work on the dinosaurs—which I’m sure was the series’ big selling point—is well done. Note, though, that the dinosaurs reflect the contemporary paleontological theory: slow-moving, tail-dragging behemoths.

Everything else is a reminder of just how depressing the decade was. Help! It’s the Hair Bear Bunch is a Yogi Bear cartoon as reinterpreted by a bunch of white-bread squares trying to make Yogi into a hippie, which means it is derivative, unfunny and misbegotten. Yogi himself appears in Yogi’s Gang, which puts him and all the other 1960s Hanna-Barbera characters on a flying ark and sends them off to have vaguely funny, vaguely moralistic adventures. (Here they have to battle a screwy baddie named “Mr. Bigot,” who uses a “Mind Bender” machine to turn nice people into … well, in this context I guess they’d be “speciesists” rather than “racists.”) Sealab 2020 (represented here by the episode “Deep Threat”) might amuse fans of Sealab 2021, assuming they can stay awake long enough. The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan (“The Mardi Gras Caper”) has Charlie Chan and his ten kids solving a mystery in New Orleans. It has a tenth of the comedy, a twentieth of the suspense, and a hundredth of the charm of Scooby Doo.

Scooby, by the way, led to a vogue of crime-fighting, mystery-solving shows in the 1970s, with The Chan Clan being but one. Inch High, Private Eye was another, a comedy/mystery about a dim private detective who talks like Don Adams and is only one inch high. It’s a concept which could have been inventive if it had concentrated on its hero and on what it’s like to be so small in a world built for much bigger people. Instead, “Diamonds Are a Crook’s Best Friend” spends its time on its putative mystery (the theft of a necklace) without once being legitimately mysterious.

But at least Inch High has a few visual jokes. The New Adventures of Gilligan and The New Adventures of Batman are almost completely static. That’s to be expected, since they were both from Filmation, which I believe spent no more than twenty bucks on each of their series. Gilligan is especially dull, which is a disappointment, since the live-action show had a lot of cartoony energy. Most of the live-action cast reprise their roles here (Tina Louise (Ginger) and Dawn Wells (Mary Ann) are the exceptions), and though their vocals are as sprightly as ever (especially those of Russell Johnson, whose Professor sounds like he’s trying to punch his way through the picture and connect directly with the audience), they are completely undercut by the unyielding cartoon images. I suppose it goes to show how much Bob Denver, Alan Hale Jr., and Jim Backus could amp the comedy by mugging and flailing in rhythm to their lines.

Batman, which features Adam West and Burt Ward as the Dynamic Duo, is another cartoon whose visuals and soundtrack are at war with each other. West and Ward sound like they’re back on the old Batman soundstages: hammy, but in a subtle, slow-cured way. The genius of the Adam West Batman, of course, was in the way its absurd characters took themselves absolutely seriously, even as the wonky costumes, settings, and camera angles screamed “Parody!” In The New Adventures of Batman, though, the visuals are relatively straight and sedate, and so West and Ward just sound corny. It doesn’t help that the episode here (“A Sweet Joke on Gotham City”) recalls The Simpsons’ brutal takedown of the West show by making the villain sound like Paul Lynde.

The remaining two programs are, technically, from the late 1960s. In Shazzan a teenage brother and sister are transported back to the days of the Arabian Nights, and are aided in their adventures by a giant, omnipotent genie (the title character). Design work was by Alex Toth, and it boasts his meaty, faux-comic book style. Each episode is divided into two formulaic stories: the heroes travel through a new locale, get in trouble, and must be rescued by the genie. In the set’s one extra, a five-minute featurette on Shazzan, such worthies as Mark Evanier and Paul Dini take turns making fun of this incredibly simplistic set up, but they do make the point that it has some appeal to kids in the audience: Who wouldn’t want a giant, omnipotent friend you could call up when you wanted to give your enemies a wedgie?

Finally, The Banana Splits Adventure Hour is a variety show that Hanna-Barbera put together, and which if nothing else proves that it’s a bad idea to mix flea-ridden animal costumes, hoary vaudeville routines, and lots and lots of LSD. The series is notable mostly for including a short action serial, “Danger Island,” that starred a very young Jan Michael Vincent and was directed by Richard (Superman, Lethal Weapon) Donner before he became famous and directorially competent. It also includes two short cartoons, “Arabian Knights” and “The Three Musketeers,” that at least have a little energy to them.

Visual quality is a mixed bag, but on the whole quite good. Most of the cartoons look good—and the Tom and Jerry shorts look practically brand-new—and only The Bugs Bunny/Roadrunner Show suffers internally inconsistent looks. Far and away the worst-preserved program is The Banana Splits Adventure Hour, but it might even gain a little by looking so awful. At least you can more easily forgive it for being cheap because it looks cheap.

Most of these, unsurprisingly, are new to DVD, and I doubt you’re likely to find them the shows they represent released to DVD any time soon. If you are hopelessly nostalgic you might find some small profit in picking up this set (if you can find it for a bargain). Otherwise, it will mostly only be useful for Generation X parents who want something to brandish in the faces of their ungrateful kids. “Why, when I was your age, we didn’t have SpongeBob. This was the crap we had to watch!”

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