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"The Real Ghostbusters: Complete Collection" Is Terrifyingly Good

by on January 29, 2009

There are a few cardinal rules in the world of entertainment. One is the principle that adaptations between modern media almost always result in abject failure. Whether it’s movies based on video games or video games based on movies, movies based on TV shows or vice versa, something always seems to get lost in translation.

There are, though, at least two exceptions to this rule: one is Goldeneye for the N64, and the other is The Real Ghostbusters.

Adapted from the universally loved 1984 blockbuster, the cartoon manages to retain the essential elements of the film while remaining palatable to 80s Saturday morning sensibilities. And now, for the first time, the complete series—that’s all 147 episodes (including the 13 billed as Slimer! and The Real Ghostbusters—is available to buy exclusively through Time-Life.

This is one of—no, it is the—most impressive DVD box set I have ever seen. Little could have prepared me for it when it arrived. The outer packaging itself is a sight to behold: a cardboard version of the Ghostbusters’ HQ with moving hologram stickers of Slimer and the logo ghost on either side. Lifting the top of the old fire station reveals five metal tins, each adorned with tasteful artwork of the Ghostbusters and numerically titled according to volume; a fairly thick booklet; and a bonus DVD in a cardboard sleeve. It all fits together so neatly that it is almost a shame to remove one of the tins. But unlike certain other box sets of this nature, everything is very easy to put back. Each tin consists of five DVDs which fit snugly on plastic mounts. In terms of design and presentation, this set should be the new benchmark against which other DVD box sets must be judged. And I’m not just talking cartoons here. I mean period.

As in any long-running TV show, the heart of The Real Ghostbusters lies in the strength of its lead characters and their relationships with each other. The Ghostbusters are almost perfect conversions of their celluloid counterparts. Peter Venkman, voiced initially by Lorenzo “Garfield” Music (then Dave Coullier from season 3 onwards), is as dry, wise-cracking, sardonic, and nonchalant as Bill Murray; Ray Stantz, played by Frank Welker, has the child-like enthusiasm and homeliness of Dan Akroyd’s original; Egon Spengler, voiced by Maurice “The Brain” LaMarche, is as nerdy, straight-laced, obsessive, and no-nonsense as Harold Ramis, if not more so; and Winston Zeddemore, voiced for most of the series by Arsenio Hall (Ernie Hudson himself auditioned apparently), is, well, the “other one,” the everyman non-scientist who always keeps two feet on the ground. They are supported by Janine Melnitz (Laura Summer, then Kath Soucie from season 3 onward), their street-wise “straight outta Brooklyn” secretary. Finally, of course, there is Slimer, the greedy green ghost made of ectoplasm who is brought on-board basically to fill the obligatory annoying sidekick/ mascot role. Luckily, he’s not nearly as irritating as his counterparts in Scooby-Doo, Super Friends, He-Man, or Thundercats. He’s often used sparingly in the earlier episodes, and his basic character (a clumsy glutton who can’t help himself but whose heart is in the right place) can be genuinely endearing at times. The fact he doesn’t have any stupid catchphrase also helps; he just makes gurgly baby-like noises.

The key relationships between these characters form such a solid foundation that no matter how outlandish or absurd the plots get, it all just somehow works. Just to take Peter as one example: he trusts Egon but makes fun of his serious nature; he likes Ray but can’t help but look down on his one-horse-town mentality; and, most memorably of all, he claims to hate Slimer and constantly complains about him being around, but then in a quiet moment he might slip him a chicken wing to eat. It’s hardly Henrik Ibsen, but compared to about 90% of 80s toons, this is fairly complex stuff.

Much of the success of the show lies in the fact that, despite all the supernatural goings on, it is firmly set in the real-world New York City. As in the two movies, the sense that the Ghostbusters are running a business with bills to pay in a real economy is almost never out of focus. Janine is supremely aware that she is an employee of the Ghostbusters and never hesitates to quip about getting double-pay for going beyond the call of duty in her role. There’s something refreshingly unheroic and, fittingly, Real about the whole thing. Peter, for instance, is perhaps unique among 80s cartoon heroes in that he is supremely unenthusiastic about adventuring: he’d rather finish his coffee or stay in bed, and he remains remarkably unfazed by, and even sceptical of, the biggest and scariest of creatures. He’s the closest thing to an anti-hero that you will find in a Saturday morning show of this era. It is not as if Egon, Ray and Winston aren’t prone to odd sarcastic one-liner either.

The Real Ghostbusters is, then, the cleverest of the big mass market 80s cartoons, and its sense of cleverness permeates the show at every level. The plots abound with inter-textual references giving a sly nod to everything from the stories of Charles Dickens (“Xmas Marks the Spot”) and H.P. Lovecraft (“The Collect Call of Cthulhu”) to well-established figures from folklore including The Boogieman, The Sandman, and Samhain (a character based on the Celtic origins of Halloween). But there are also numerous sly references to people and places in the real world that would probably sail over the heads of the average eight-year-old. To give just three examples: one episode is called “Apocalypse – What, Now?”; another is called “Hard Knight’s Day”; another “Transylvanian Homesick Blues”. The dialogue is no less witty or laden with references. In “Take Two”, an episode in which the Ghostbusters go to Hollywood to oversee the production of a movie being made about their story, one memorable exchange goes:

Peter: Who’s signed up to play me? Redford?
Winston: Murray, Ackroyd & Ramis. What’s that, a law firm?

In “Revenge of Murray the Mantis”, Peter quips: “If Darth Vader is willing to lend us the Death Star, we might have a chance”. This sort of wry awareness of the world outside is simply not found in He-Man, Dungeons & Dragons, Thundercats, Defenders of the Earth, Mask, Transformers, or even Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. In this respect The Real Ghostbusters is a class apart.

The Real Ghostbusters is also probably the scariest American cartoon from this era. The ghosts, monsters and weird creatures featured in each episode veer from surreally comedic to horrific. Two of the very early episodes, “Mrs. Roger’s Neighbourhood” and “The Boogie Man Cometh,” are really impressive in terms of character design and artwork. The chase in the Boogie Man’s realm of never-ending doors, reminiscent of an M.C. Esher painting or the lair of David Bowie’s goblin king in Labyrinth, is one of the most memorable moments in the entire series. It’s surprising just how grotesque and weird some of the ghosts get; I can imagine younger children being absolutely terrified of Samhain.

So is it all good? Obviously, there is far too much material in this set for me to do it justice in the space afforded here. On the whole, the strong foundations of the show stand firm for longer than one would expect. The first two seasons (the first 78 episodes) are generally excellent save for the occasional clunker (for example, “Look Homeward Ray” and “They call me MISTER Slimer”). One of the best things about that first run of episodes is the careful attention to detail given to continuity. For example, in “Citizen Ghost” it is not only explained how Slimer came to reside with the Ghostbusters after the events of the film but also why their suits now come in different colours (as opposed to the all-cream outfits seen in the movie). It might not sound like much, but little things like that can go a long way in the loophole-riddled world of 80s cartoons.

Unfortunately, as with Thundercats, unwarranted long-term changes made in a bid to artificially extend the life of the show beyond its natural span ultimately hurt it beyond repair. The departure of story editor J. Michael Stratzynski and the subsequent, well-documented changes of cast members at the start of season three; substantial alterations to the tough-talking character of Janine; and a generally lighter tone—all served to really damage the show. The replacement of the perennially laid-back Lorenzo Music with the more up-beat Dave Coullier alone has a terribly negative impact on the show because many of the things that made Peter so great are lost in that transition. By the time the show is rebranded as Slimer! and the Real Ghostbusters, which bafflingly thrust the completely one-dimensional character Slimer (a ghost who, don’t forget, can’t talk) into the foreground, it has really “jumped the shark”. As Straczynski says in one of the bonus features, “a little Slimer goes a long way”. But this is nothing we don’t already know: studio interference and creative compromise always result in a decline in quality and eventual cancellation; they will never ever learn their lesson. However, don’t let the sad end to the show put you off getting this set. Even at its nadir—and overlooking the hideous “Slimer” shorts—The Real Ghostbusters is never awful. There are literally hours and hours worth of Ghostbusting fun to be had here, so who you gonna call? Time-Life! (Do note, though, that the company will not ship this set outside the United States.)

This set boasts … wait for it … twelve hours’ of bonus material, including five themed documentaries (on disc five of each volume), video commentaries on twenty-one episodes, and little introductions from cast and crew members on eighty-one episodes. On top of that there are seemingly endless image galleries, story boards, an (admittedly fairly redundant) “music track only” option on most of the episodes, scripts and a nice reference booklet which contains episode descriptions, info and trivia. And on top of all that there is also the jewel in the extras crown: a bonus DVD containing a never seen before promotional pilot, two hours of extended interviews with the makers of the show, and, perhaps most fascinatingly of all, PDF facsimiles of the original writers’ bibles for the series. And I still haven’t even mentioned everything!

Where to start? For me, the absolute highlight of all these extras is the extended interview with J. Michael Straczynski, who was the head writer and story editor for the first 86 shows. By all accounts, he was the creative heartbeat of that tremendously successful first run. He has many interesting things to say, including his thoughts behind writing the series bible, the differences between writing for network (ABC) and syndication and why he left the show. He pulls absolutely no punches and tells of how, despite being the number one Saturday morning show of that time, the network insisted on making certain changes. Among other things the studio idiots had an idea that kids wanted to see more kids in their cartoons (SHUT UP) and more Slimer! They said that Janine had to be completely changed to become more nurturing and that her glasses had to become round “because children are scared of sharp objects”. He also tells a fairly shocking story about how they wanted to make the Ghostbusters an organic unit: Egon “the brains”, Ray “the hands”, Peter “the mouth” and Winston—let us not forget he was the only black character—“the driver”! Straczynski did the right thing, stuck to his principles, and walked. He says it was “too painful” for him to watch the episodes made after he left and that they “decimated” the show. The other interviews are good too, full of interesting little things. The executive producer, Michael Gross, tells us, for example, that the characters’ suits and hair colour were changed so that children could easily distinguish between the toys on the shelf. I always did wonder why Egon had that blonde quiff in the cartoon.

What else? The PDFs of the writers’ bibles are a real god-send to genuine animation buffs, just fascinating. It’s very interesting to have access to that sort of document—to see the thought process behind the characters. The fact that their inclusion is just another incidental, a barely mentioned bonus of this set, is just testament its total and utter comprehensiveness. It really is just beyond any fan’s wildest imagination. The 86 individual introductions to certain episodes are a bit throw-away in truth, they only last about 30 seconds or so and nothing of much note is ever said in them.

Finally, there are the five featurette documentaries. Disappointingly, these mainly consist of snippets taken from the extended interviews on the bonus DVD, edited together on a certain theme with added comments from a number of writers who aren’t featured on those longer interviews. “Ain’t Afraid of No Ghosts: Creating The Real Ghostbusters” from volume one is the most disappointing because there is very little there that isn’t in the extended interviews. Volume 2’s “Animating The Real Ghostbusters” is more illuminating. It takes an in-depth look at the writing and animating process. However, there is still a lot of stuff taken from the extended interviews. Volume 3’s featurette is “Who you Gonna Call? The Heroes of The Real Ghostbusters“. This is my favourite of the five documentaries, not only because the framing device of looking at each character in-depth works but also because we hear a lot from the writers, character designers, and layout artists here, so there is much less repeated material from the bonus DVD. “Something Strange in Your Neighbourhood: The Creatures of The Real Ghostbusters” on volume 4 takes a look at some of the impressive, surreal, and scary monsters from the show; the range of influences cover everything from comic books to Salvadore Dali. There is much more from the writers and character designers here too, plus insightful fan comments from cereal:geek‘s James Eatock. Last, and probably least, there is “He Slimed Me! The Green World of Slimer! and the Real Ghostbusters on volume 5, which is worth watching if you want to know more about the god-awful Slimer spin-off show. Sorry guys, no amount of “we were trying to make an homage to 1940s Warner Bros. cartoons” will cut the mustard with me. Just admit that these shorts are just shockingly bad. Despite my reservations about repeated material, there is stuff in each and every one of these featurettes that even the most obsessive Ghostbusters fan will learn about. And don’t forget about the 21 episode commentaries on offer.

In terms of extras, I have never seen a set go the extra mile quite like this one. If I was prone to giving things ratings, I’d give it a 10/10 for packaging and a 10/10 for extras. In fact, I’d even give it 11/10. It is simply staggering.

Correction: An earlier version of this review referred to James Eatock’s magazine as “Geek Magazine.” It is “cereal:geek.” Toon Zone regrets the error.

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