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"Saturday Morning Cartoons: The ’60s": Retro Toons in a Retro Wrapping

by on May 25, 2009

The cartoons collected on Saturday Morning Cartoons: The ’60s come from a simpler time, when Saturday morning truly was the best time to watch animation. You could veg out in front of the boob tube for hours without a break. Of course, that was before cable came along to say, “Hey, you don’t have to be a slave to this narrow window of time. We’ve got cartoons 24-7!” In fact, that’s the era I grew up in; while I did watch some Saturday morning shows, such as Fox’s 1992-1994 line-up, it got stiff competition from Nick, MTV, Fox’s primetime, USA, and Cartoon Network, especially since they had cartoons at times other than the usual. So, it was interesting to take in this collection, as it is essentially intended to replicate the feel of watching (what else?) a block of Saturday morning cartoons from a time long before I was born.

Unfortunately, being a hodge-podge release, there is some overlap with other WB releases. For example, the Looney Tunes shorts “Often an Orphan” and “The Super Snooper” already appear in the Golden Collections, and the Top Cat, Flintstones, Jetsons, Magilla Gorilla, and Space Ghost and Dino Boy episodes are also repeats from other DVD sets. It’s also disappointing that the set didn’t have any episodes of The Bugs Bunny Show like originally planned. Still, there is enough material new to DVD, such as Peter Potamus, Secret Squirrel, and a bunch of lesser known characters like Precious Pup. The set also contains a curiosity: Marine Boy, a Japanese import. You thought the animation in modern day anime was limited? Think again.

Speaking of such, I won’t belabor the point that the animation in these cartoons is vanilla. This has been a constant criticism of Hanna-Barbera’s TV work for decades. As their budget was something like a tenth what their theatrical budget had been (not to mention they were learning how to deal with this restriction on the fly and they weren’t outsourcing them like today), lower quality was to be expected, so I won’t criticize it too much.

So do these cartoons make up for it in the writing? Well, it depends on the cartoon. While I was never big on The Flintstones, the episode included in here, about Wilma becoming a TV celebrity (and thus being unable to cook an agitated Fred’s dinners) is pretty amusing and offers some good facial expressions despite the low budget. The Jetsons gave me the chance to see the origin story of Rosey the Robot. (It’s a plot that ties in quite nicely with George inviting Mr. Spacely home for dinner, and the satire on how George is exhausted from pushing five buttons all day is even more true today than it was in 1962.) And I rather enjoyed Top Cat‘s “The Tycoon”, where the title character briefly strikes it rich. It has some clever wordplay throughout, and I’ve always liked Top Cat’s streetwise, authority-teasing demeanor.

Then there are shorts that don’t fare as well. The Impossibles is a wash, with its eye-rolling puns and dated batch of characters. The serious action cartoons haven’t aged well in numerous departments; in particular, Space Ghost is hard to watch without mockery, especially considering the reimagining that would take place in 1994 with the comedy-based talk show starring the same character. I’m hard-pressed to remember any of the visual gags from the one Magilla Gorilla short on the set. To be blunt, Hanna-Barbera’s TV output was at its best in the first three or four years; towards the mid ’60s, you can already tell they were going onto auto-pilot, and it would get even worse in the ’70s.

The two-disc set’s presentation isn’t too hot, though that’s largely due to the age of the source material. We often see grain on the image, and some cartoons have washed-out colors. However, the set gets credit for retaining various aspects from the Saturday morning airings, including “sponsored by…” messages. On the sound front, the background music is very hard to hear in the Looney Tunes shorts, sadly, being muffled and overpowered by dialogue. But the various Hanna-Barbera series sound fine, luckily, which is good because we can hear the catchy recurring stock music and Hoyt Curtin scores.

Though its audio and visuals are uneven, the special material helps. The “Wake-Up Call” videos are pretty pointless, as they’re just glorified ads for the episodes on the discs. But things improve with three featurettes on various subjects like Quick Draw McGraw, Herculoids, and Frankenstein Jr. We get interviews with various individuals in the animation industry (Jerry Beck, Paul Dini, Earl Kress, and Eddie Fitzgerald, to name only a few) describing their significance. My favorite of the three was for Quick Draw, as it talked about the transition from theatrical shorts to television, and how people like Mike Maltese (formerly at Warner Bros.) brought their writing styles to the new arena. These videos at least show they put some effort into the set, and that the studio didn’t just slap random cartoons on and call it a day. Rounding things off are some WB trailers.

Saturday Morning Cartoons: The ’60s showcases the often uneven nature of Saturday mornings. For every good cartoon, there was a mediocre or bad one. The only difference is that kids are less picky and will watch most anything, and likely that’s not the case for adult purchasers, who will be paying for some material they might not like. It’s even harder to recommend when some of the episodes on here are already available on DVD. Finally, the audience for this is pretty limited; older children and teens will likely find these cartoons too old-fashioned. But it might be a good bet if you grew up with these cartoons and want to introduce them to someone young, or are a cartoon buff and haven’t been collecting the other Warner Bros. cartoon releases.

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