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"Saturday Morning Cartoons: The 1980’s Vol. 1" – The Cartoon Equivalent of Mullets

by on June 4, 2010

Has aged like fine wine. That's turned into vinegar.A very wise man once said on the Internet:

Nostalgia asks us to model the present on the golden past. It beckons us to look to yesterday, but to look through a veil of delusion that clouds our vision and robs us of our critical faculties. Nostalgia doesn’t want us to remember this simple fact:


Suck has always been with us, and always will be with us. Just because something was made in the forties or the sixties doesn’t automatically make it not suck. For as long as man has been on this earth, he has produced stuff that sucks ass, and sucks it hard.

Unfortunately, Warner Home Video’s Saturday Morning Cartoons video series survives solely on this hazy, idealized vision of the past, hoping that fond childhood memories will allow us to gloss over the many objectively bad TV shows offered up on them. The two volumes each from the 1960’s and 1970’s (read Toonzone News’ reviews of 1960’s Vol. 1, 1960’s Vol. 2, 1970’s Vol. 1, 1970’s Vol. 2) already showed a disturbingly fast rate of diminishing returns, and unfortunately, that trend is not reversed in the latest volume, Saturday Morning Cartoons: The 1980’s. This DVD is disastrously weak; out of 11 different shows, there is only one home-run winner and one more that looks interesting. The rest have aged about as well as leg warmers, parachute pants, and mullets. Animation fans may find the closing credits more entertaining than the shows, since they include many prominent names in contemporary animation as they were working their way through the industry.

Pants apparently being a hard-to-find commodity in 3994The best show on the set is Thundarr the Barbarian, with the title character slashing and smashing his way through a post-apocalyptic Earth 2,000 years in the future, aided by the sorceress Ariel and the brawny Ookla the Mok. Other than the limited animation and slightly outdated writing style, it feels like a show that could do well on TV today. It possesses the same kind of muscular sensibilities (toned down just enough for Saturday morning cartoons) that elevated Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories and the first Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan novel above the disposable pulp trash that surrounded them, and those sensibilities do the same for Thundarr. On one level, it is little more than a pastiche of Howard and science fiction like Star Wars and Mad Max, but the execution is lean and fast enough to be quite enjoyable. Thundarr himself is remarkably similar to Howard’s Conan, with a bracing brashness and certainty in his own abilities that would be arrogance if his deeds didn’t match his words.

Courtesy of Warner Home Video’s YouTube Account

A solid second place goes to Galtar and the Golden Lance, another fantasy cartoon with a lead character dispensing justice in a lawless land with the aid of a magic weapon and a babe (in this case, the deposed Princess Goleeta). Like Thundarr, this series is a pastiche of lots of other fantasy/sci-fi works, with the plot and much of the dialogue sounding like a plot-coupon-driven dime-store fantasy novel or role-playing game scenario. The execution isn’t quite as strong as Thundarr, although the clear overarching plot, the striking visual style, and a likable set of characters is certainly intriguing, and I wouldn’t mind seeing more of it. The source of the intriguing visual style becomes clear when one sees the likes of Frank Brunner and Walt Peregoy in the art crew, and Mary McDonald-Lewis gives Princess Goleeta the same spunk and scratch that she gave to G.I. Joe‘s Lady Jaye.

The rest of the set is utterly forgettable fluff, although a few shows have undeniable kitsch appeal today. While Thundarr and Galtar are straight-up adventure fantasy series, we get two adventure/comedies (which, sadly, are a little light on both) in Ruby-Spears’ Goldie Gold and Action Jack and Dragon’s Lair. With its odd-couple pair of heroes, Goldie Gold and Action Jack attempts to mimic the kind of gender war sparks of 1930’s screwball comedies, pre-dating the same sorts of antics on 1980’s TV shows like Moonlighting and Remington Steele. Unfortunately, like many of the cartoons on this set, the episode sampled on this release doesn’t do much more than remind you of other, better movies and TV shows. It has some energy and creativity, but not enough to make it really distinctive. It doesn’t help that Action Jack fails to live up to his name almost completely. Ruby-Spears’ Dragon’s Lair follows the laserdisc-based video game animated by Don Bluth’s studios, distinguishing itself only with sequences that emulate the video game by showing the lead character Dirk the Daring meeting horrific ends at a few key decision points. It’s also a bit of a disappointment to see Dirk and friends go from the smooth, full animation of the Bluth studios to the far more limited animation of Ruby-Spears, but budgets were tight.

To paraphrase the man, this is as good a cartoon series as he is an actor.It seemed like the 1980’s were a period where any celebrity could end up with his own cartoon, as demonstrated by three selections on this set. Chuck Norris: Karate Kommandos combines the sensibilities of the martial arts star’s movies with superhero cartoon sensibilities, making him the leader of a martial-arts strike force battling the evil forces of the Claw, his sinister henchman Super Ninja, and the traitorous femme fatale Angel Fish. It’s surprisingly accurate to American martial-arts movies of the time, right down to the cheesy synthesizer music, but the series was too early to be able to do anything like realistic martial-arts in animation, and way too limited by the budgets and skills of the Ruby-Spears studios even if they could. It’s value today is purely as kitsch, and even then only for those who think the Chuck Norris Internet meme is the funniest thing they’ve ever heard.

I never quite understood why Martin Short’s Ed Grimley character was supposed to be funny, and the episode of The Completely Mental Misadventures of Ed Grimley on this set doesn’t do a lot to change my mind. If you did like Ed Grimley, I suspect that this show will be a lot funnier, but it mostly comes off as the kind of show that Looney Tunes, or even The Flintstones, had done better before. The relentlessly unfunny live-action kids show that’s dropped in the middle section doesn’t help, although to be fair, it seems like it’s supposed to be a relentlessly unfunny live-action kids show. However, since you can’t even laugh at it (vs. laughing with it), it’s just falls down with a big, heavy thud.

Still more anecdotal evidence that Hollywood thinks it can take any popular not-white thing and improve on it by making it white.The last celebrity cartoon we get is Mr. T, and I must admit I can’t decide if it’s just plain awful, or if it’s so mind-bendingly stupid that it becomes funny and awesome. The Scooby Doo rehash puts the mohawked actor in San Francisco to fight crime with the help of a band of teenaged gymnasts (inviting the question of why 80’s icon Mary Lou Retton never got her own TV show where she fought crime). Among Mr. T’s gaggle of juvenile assistants is a short white kid Mr. T wanna-be, who has the wardrobe and the speech patterns but stops short of the haircut, which goes instead to Mr. T’s pet dog Bulldozer, and I only wish I could make all of that up. It has the same kind of modern-day kitsch appeal as Chuck Norris: Karate Kommandos, although moments like Mr. T punching out a shark is exactly the kind of hilarious awfulness that makes a show like G.I. Joe fun to watch as an adult. There just don’t seem to be enough of those moments to push it over the top.

Can I get a 'Yabba'? Anyone?The rest of the cartoons are stereotypical Saturday morning “comedies.” The best is probably The Flintstone Kids, which takes the modern Stone Age family back to their lives as kids at Bedrock Elementary School. “Best” is purely used as a relative term to the rest of the comedies on this set, though. It’s not bad, but it’s not even as enjoyable as the original show, and I think it would be even more unremarkable if it weren’t for the residual emotional connections one might have to the original characters. Nobody would care about this show at all if it were The Caveman Kids and used the exact same script. A step down in quality brings us to The Kwicky Koala Show, the last cartoon that can claim a Tex Avery credit. While it’s not quite as tragic as Raul Julia’s last screen credit being the Street Fighter movie, Kwicky Koala still only reminds us of Avery’s much better earlier work. This is partially because the mannered, borscht belt jokes are so threadbare, and partially because the limited animation of Hanna-Barbera just can’t muster the same manic energy as Avery’s best cartoons. Falling into the “Smurf Wannabe” category are the episodes from The Biskitts and Monchhichis, with pint-sized heroes outwitting opponents much stupider than they are. Neither one manages to be terribly funny or memorable, and neither can hold a candle to The Smurfs.

Courtesy of Warner Home Video’s YouTube Account

I don’t believe any of the material on this set has been released on DVD before, although watching the shows is a pretty convincing argument why the overwhelming majority of them probably shouldn’t be. Both discs start with a disclaimer that not all of the shows had the same quality masters, but apparently this just means that some cartoons are composites of multiple segments rather than the original aired versions. The restoration seems to clean up these cartoons pretty well, with no wild quality swings from one show to the next, and one can’t complain too much about the mono soundtrack since that may be all that Warner has to work with. Warner Home Video also addresses one of my pet peeves about TV on DVD, placing a generous number of chapter stops within each episode. The only bonus feature is a look at Thundarr the Barbarian titled “Lords of Light!” It’s a solid piece, if slightly self-congratulatory, with comments by the likes of Joe Ruby and Ken Spears and quite a bit of behind-the-scenes artwork.

There were decent cartoons in the 1980’s, but they really seem to have been the exception and not the rule. The Saturday Morning Cartoons: The 1980’s collection inadvertently provides an accurate picture of the cartoon landscape of the period: a whole lot of dreck with a few gems that still stand out today. This collection is strictly for the blindly nostalgic, and even they’ll have to work overtime on that veil of delusion to find much of value.

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