Cartoon Commentary! #14, Presto the giant killer…


By Shawn Robare



So here we are at episode 13 of the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon. I just wanted to remind anyone who cares, that next week I’ll be switching to a different cartoon for a bit to take a rest of dragons and underpants. Hopefully the change will turn out all right, as it’s been kind of weird switching gears to another show, from action adventure to comedy, from a fantasy setting to science fiction. Maybe it was a bad idea, too drastic a change, but we’ll all soon see.

Episode thirteen, titled P-R-E-S-T-O Spells Disaster, originally aired on December 10th, 1983, and if you guessed the prolific Jeffrey Scott wrote it, then you’d be correct. This episode serves as the last for the first season, though I’m not sure exactly how these were produced or in what order. Scott was also responsible for writing two episodes that aired in the second season. So far, judging by the 7 episodes that he contributed so far, I’d have to say that Jeffrey Scott tends to fall back on a lot of tried and true story conventions, particularly plots from fairy tales in his scripts. There are a couple of exceptions, in particular the episode Servant of Evil, but for the most part it seems as if he was more comfortable placing the characters into comfortable situations to see how they would react. It reminds me of the work of a lot of sitcom writers in that you tend to see a lot of repeated plots (snowed in at a ski lodge or cabin, trapped in a store after hours, a recipe was mixed up and the wrong ingredients added, and in all cases hilarity ensues.) This seems like it would make sense as Scott has written a book on writing for animation. Stands to reason that he must have some sort of system in order to have dedicated an entire book to it.



This episode basically serves to highlight Presto as a character, in particular focusing on his self esteem issues by having his magic backfire in a much larger way than normal. While trying to escape an attack by a bunch of orcs, Presto casts a spell that whisks away the rest of the gang (sans Uni) to a castle in the sky, leaving him alone to try and find a way to get his friends back. The story ends up being a loose re-telling of the Jack and the Beanstalk fairy tale, only with a lot more dragons and a lot less golden chickens.

Hearkening back to the beginning of the series, the episode opens on the gang running away from a giant beast, though in this case it was a very odd in that they are running from a stegosaurus. Color me surprised, but apparently it’s not uncommon to find dinosaurs roaming around in the Dungeons and Dragons realms, which is a convention of fantasy that’s always sort of bugged me. It seems a lot of the time that fantasy worlds are more or less made up of a sort of mish-mash amalgamation of events and cultures of our own world, becoming fantasy by default because it technically never existed. Though I’m sure this is a perfectly viable definition of fantasy, I can’t help but have a much more traditional ideal stuck in my head, most of which is informed by Tolkien’s worlds. I guess I have a hard time defining what fantasy is for myself, not knowing whether to concentrate on themes, settings, or what. It’s like trying to fit Star Wars into a specific genre. Is it Sci-Fi (set in futuristic space) or fantasy (the hero’s quest, swords and sorcery), or honestly does it even matter? I guess stegosauruses in D&D just feel weird to me…



Though I think we’ve seen one before (in the Man-Thing episode I believe) we get another chance to see one of the higher-ranking orcs, probably a captain or something. I’ve always been fond of this sort of helmet design, what with the spread out bat/dragon wings (it’s one of the aspects that makes the Warduke character so appealing.)



The scene in which Presto mistakenly whisks away the gang with his magic hat is kind of weird when you consider how the episode plays out. In fact his magic hat is very odd to me. He never seems to have any control over what comes out, even if 99% of the time it’s helpful if not exactly in the way expected. They way the power is written it comes off very much like a Deux Ex Machina, or if I were to really stretch it, as a way for Dungeon Master to screw with the gang. In this episode DM pops up after Presto wigs out a bit and he sets Presto on a quest to find his friends, and like usual he very cryptically lays out how the rest of the episode will play out. Now is this because he has the power of premonition or is it all his doing? I mean it becomes very coincidental later when characters have exactly what Presto needs in order to find his friends, coincidental unless DM made it that way. Wow, I’m really reaching here.



After Presto sets off on his quest there is another oddly out of place editing wipe, this time a more traditional straight line across the screen wipe. I wonder if these are in past episodes and I didn’t notice them before? I mean I guess it’s not that weird, I mean look at Transformers for crying out loud, how crazy and obvious of a wipe is a giant Autobot symbol flipping to reveal a Decepticon symbol as the episode shifts focus to the enemy? I think I’ve just noticed them a lot more in the D&D cartoon because I’ve been trying to subconsciously pick out all of the Star Wars references (of which wipes are a possibility.)



The sequence where the gang finds themselves transported into a glass cage in the giants castle reminds me a lot of a similar sequence in the movie Time Bandits, where that group ends up on a giant’s ship (which is actually strapped to an even bigger giant’s head), and pretty soon afterward they also come across a ‘force field’ that is actually made of glass. It’s too bad Venger wasn’t in this episode, because then it would almost seem as if Time Bandits might have been a more direct influence, though it’s not out of the realm of possibilities…



Both in the glass age, and then after they get outside of it, the kids run into a very familiar creature (the prison guard beast from the Servant of Evil episode), who in this episode is identified as a slime beast named Willy. The giant decides to have some fun by watching his ‘pet’ chase after the gang, so he sets them all loose and waits for the slaughter.

The giant by the way (who might be voiced by Peter Cullen, but I’m not sure) has a very odd, almost New York-esque accent, which comes off very funny. The performance reminds me a lot of how Junior Gorg was played on Fraggle Rock, a very common theme in cartoon/muppet giants, very manic, almost friendly, but in the end sort of a bumbling evil.



In the scene where the gang is scrambling to get away from Willy, there’s a bit with Eric getting stuck under the door where his neck has a very weird animation line drawn in that closes off the two sides and makes him look very awkward…



On a completely unrelated note, I really like it in cartoons when the main characters are either very small or are shrunk to a tiny level because by default the backgrounds become a lot more detailed. In order to make the door look as big as it is for instance, the artists have added a lot of wood grain detail, and since it’s part of the background it’s got a nicer, more textured look to it. Same goes for the rock on the wall, you get to see all the little divots and cracks and stuff. It’s an effect I’ve noticed in a lot of Don Bluth’s work, in particular The Secret of Nimh and An American Tail (because the main characters are mice and rats in a human sized world.)

So another thing that I’ve begun to wonder about is the design work on all of the background characters that pop up in towns and such throughout the series. In this episode, when Presto stumbles upon a town trying to find three people that’ll help him find his friends, he runs into a weird, yet cute sasquatch looking guy, as well as some odd Star Wars cantina-like characters sitting around a pub. What I’m wondering is if the storyboard artists are contributing these designs or if the overseas animators are. A lot of these characters end up being really weird, and very un-fantasy (there goes my weird misconceptions again), take for instance the heavy set looking gentleman sitting closest to the foreground in the second picture below. He looks like a cross between ALF, Batman, and Norm from Cheers. Who comes up with these guys?



Eventually Presto finds the man/men he’s looking for (though he doesn’t realize it) in the form of a big three-headed, three-card Monte playing bruiser who really wants Uni in trade for some magic marbles (read magic beans.) In a silly twist Presto refuses to trade Uni for the marbles, and instead is forced to play a round of three-card Monte with roughly the same stakes of the trade.



This gag has been done so many times in movies, sitcoms and cartoons, that it has almost become the TV equivalent of the Aristocrats joke (made more public by the film of the same name.) How many different ways can the mark get screwed by entering into a game of three-card Monte? I don’t know, but add one more…

This is when the episode really kicks into Jack and the Beanstalk mode as Presto storms off after losing (and losing Uni to the Monte triplets no less.) All he has to show for his trouble is those three stupid magic marbles, so like any good Jack clone would, he chucks them in the dirt…



Of course a gigantomungus tree immediately starts to grow, which not only knocks off Presto’s hat in a moment of shock and awe, but also reveals the realm’s worst case of hat hair ever. It’s actually kind of funny how the animators drew his head sans hat. I wonder if this is one of those instances where the story boards weren’t explicit enough and the animators took a quick drawing too literally?



This is where the episode gets a little wiggy, if only because it would be hard to stick to the traditional telling of the beanstalk story considering Jack doesn’t get his cow (Uni) back. There’s a quick scene as Uni escapes the triplets, runs to Presto and both of them quickly run into a newly open door in the tree (which abruptly traps them inside.) Inside the trunk of the tree is a huge set of spiraling stairs that the duo decides to climb, urged on by a growl and a freakish face at the foot of the stairs…



What’s weird is that there is a creature in the tree (what will soon be revealed as a very large and angry dragon) so it’s kind of weird that Scott (or the storyboard artists) decided to add an odd layer of evil face-age to the tree’s interior. Honestly, I think the growling noise would have been sufficient.

While patiently waiting for my first dragon to pop up, I again was tricked into thinking I was going to have to settle for some dragon iconography in the form of a weird Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots: Dragon Edition play set (that the giant forces Eric and Sheila to play on)…



…but again, I am rewarded with an actual dragon. A cute baby golden dragon to boot. There’s an interesting moment in the sequence (when Presto goes out on a limb, Looney Tunes style, to save the baby dragon), where Uni ends up taking Presto’s hat and manages to cast a much better, more accurate spell, even in muffled whiney Uni speak…



I think so far everyone who has used the hat besides Presto has done a better job, even the Lizard Men. What’s weird is that I believe this is a turning point for Presto and his hat. Later when he attempts a spell again he has much more confidence, and honestly the only thing I can trace it back to is him witnessing a baby unicorn out magician the group magician. I think this is a really odd way of trying to get Presto to believe in himself. In fact, logically I think it should have the opposite effect…

Anyway, after the baby dragon, we also get the mother, a nice large golden one. Not only that, but for once it’s a good dragon, though we really don’t find that out until the last few seconds of the show for what it’s worth. Honestly it was a nice curve ball in a realm filled with non-stop evil, cryptic mentors and a bunch of slave dwarves…



So a little bit later, after the group has been ‘saved’, and we’re to the part in the Beanstalk story where the gang has reached the ground and the giant is about to come down after them we get a really weird twist. Presto, now much more sure of himself and his abilities whips out one heck of a lumberjack spell, and zaps the living heck out of the tree…



…and oddly enough the giant as well.



The spell that Presto used was meant to shrink the giant, but from what I can gather it killed him, zapped him right out of existence, becoming nothing more than thin plume of smoke rising from what will seconds later become the new nest to a Golden dragon and her two pups.

I’m a little confused by the standards and practices department on the show now. Honestly, it’s not like the scene bothered me, it’s more of a weird double standard that seems to deem it okay to use magic from a hat to kill a lumbering giant, yet Hank (for the most part) can’t fire his bow at people in a threatening manner. Bobby can’t thump an orc over the head. Eric can’t…well, Eric is on defense, but you get the point. Even in the Garden of Zinn episode, the two shadow Stalkers are turned to lifeless rock by a secondary guest character, but Presto’s actions are a whole different ball game. I find it kind of odd.

On that note, I’m gonna officially take a break from D&D for a bit, but next time on Cartoon Commentary! I’m going to try and turn my microscope on a show that I’m pretty sure I caught every episode of when it originally aired, Galaxy High. To tide you over until then, here’s the theme song by Don Felder

  • Jay

    I think the guy you were referring to in that picture was, ALFBATNORM, he was actually a character from A New Hope’s cantina scene. You were right! Kenner produced a ton of figures of him and I must’ve had 3 or 4 of them with different uniforms by ’83. ALFBATNORM in skiff guard was the coolest. Who did come up with those guys in that picture? lol. Also I like the evil face inside of the tree. Actually I