So I think I like the pacing of covering 3 episodes a week, though only 1 a day or so, pacing for the Cartoon Commentary! column. It’s also doing wonders for my ego in terms of output on Branded. Anyway, though, lets get back into the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon where we’ll be taking a look at the 3rd episode titled The Hall of Bones, which was written by a guy I’m actually a little familiar with, Paul Dini (he of Batman, Superman, Batman Beyond, and Justice League fame, not to mention the fact that he worked on shows like He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Ewoks, and Jem.) He also posts regularly to his blog, King of Breakfast, which I read every now and then. Dini worked on two episodes of the D&D cartoon, this one and the 4th episode, Valley of the Unicorns, which he co-wrote with Karl Geurs.
The Hall of Bones originally aired on October 1st, 1983. The episode centers on the gang’s weapons faltering, and the quest they are set upon by Dungeon Master to recharge them in the Hall of Bones. Venger, of course, takes full advantage of the now relatively powerless kids and manages to capture all of their weapons along the way.
The episode opens with the gang under siege by a flock of winged monkey men, which at first seemed really odd. Having never read any editions of the D&D Monster Manuel I can’t say for certain, but winged monkey men don’t strike me as the type of creatures that inhabit the realm, but heck, why not. They’re pretty intense in the opening scene, and frankly I guess I can typically give anything with a monkey a pass. I think I initially balked at the idea of winged monkeys because it felt so Wizard of Oz, and that wasn’t a vibe I was getting off of this show, probably because the kids are so proactive and not as bumbling as Dorothy.
Of course then I read the D&D Cartoon series Bible that Mark Evanier wrote (which is very keenly featured in the DVD Rom content of the series on DVD by the way), and it all became a little clearer to me. In the second line describing Venger in the bible it states that,"“[Venger] … is personified in this sinister version of the Wizard of Oz." Okay, I get it, Venger (who we quickly find out is the one behind the attack of the winged monkey men), though not based on the Wicked Witch of the West, is sort of the evil doppelganger of the Wizard (or more appropriately how the wizard was portrayed before the curtain was pulled back – I’m thinking movie here, not the book by the way), so it seems as if Dini drew a little inspiration from the bible and put in the flying monkey men.
So anyway, after the monkeys attack and the kids successfully hide in a pond (with handy reeds for breathing underwater) we are treated to another moment in which the animators either goofed up, or were trying to secretly sex-up the character of Sheila. As she climbs out of the pond, lifts and begins to wring out her cloak, she is revealed as being skirt-less (and panty-less even) in some subtle, but wholly inappropriate footage.
Seeing as this was only the third episode and we’d already been treated to two oddly sexual moments, I was expecting the series to be a secret breeding ground of psuedo-porn (um, not that I’m remotely excited by that, seriously), but there is only one other scene that falls into this category and it’s not sexual at all, cross my heart, so I guess either the animators were given a talking to or it was honesly just a few mistakes.
This episode also marks the first appearance of Shadow Demon, who would pop up through out the rest of the series as the loyal, sort-of second in command to Venger, always ready to spy on the gang.
There are a couple more production errors, as Dungeon Master appears to explain the situation to the kids and to set them on the quest to recharge their weapons. The first involves an incorrect mouth animation that has Hank’s character throwing his voice out of Eric’s mouth, which is sort of common in the first season of the show. The second error is a miss-painted cel which features Dungeon Master sporting much more hair than usual…
BTW, I realize these errors are common and sort of run of the mill, but I found them interesting while watching the show, especially later on in the series when they became less frequent, so I figured they’d be worth mentioning here in the commentary.
As the gang sets out on their quest there’s a sort of interesting couple of sequences in a town, which by and large seems pretty rare in the cartoon. Actually there are quite a few towns I guess, but it seems as if the gang doesn’t really spend time in them as much as being rushed out of them, or passing through so quick that you don’t really get a feel for the other inhabitants and places of the realm. In this episode though, they spend a decent amount of time in the town, which is actually an odd place mostly peopled by various creatures and monsters which reminded me a lot of the cantina sequence in Star Wars (a movie series which consequently had a huge effect on the production of this cartoon as we’ll see in future episodes.)
There is a plot tangent that finds Eric and Presto playing street performer, having some gold piece thrown at them, which Eric promptly collects to use in a nearby tavern (probably for food not beer or mead or anything.) The tavern is full of rough trade (ala the cantina scene) and Eric quickly finds himself on the receiving end of an angry mob of orcs and creatures that want his gold. For the most part I really liked this tangent as it helps to flesh out the world a bit, but unfortunately it ends on a sour note as Hank, trying to save Eric, produces a heavy bag of gold (actually bottle caps) to lure the monsters away.
This kind of bugged me because it isn’t explained where the bag came from, and though I could guess it was Presto, I’d rather not, seeing as it would be an example of Presto producing exactly what he wanted out of his hat, which isn’t how the character is set up. Of course this is getting kind of nit picky, I mean it is a cartoon, and there is a ton of condensed story-telling involved in writing for a 22 minute show, but like the paint errors I thought it was interesting enough to mention. This sort of thing pops up from time to time in the series, and considering the kids are supposed to be trapped in a fantasy land it sort of sticks out, like as say a sack full of bottle caps would. Also it’s the perfect example of a Deux Ex Machina, which I’m not very fond of outside of absurd comedies.
So what would make up for a bad plot device like a bag full of bottle caps you ask? Well the introduction of a badass villainess with an awesomely dynamic character design like Loth, Demon Queen of Spiders, which the kids run into after escaping the tavern.
I really dig how Loth’s design is quite complimentary to Venger’s, with the addition of a bright yellow that, depending on her form speaks to either her being alluring and possibly friendly (beautiful female form), or sickeningly poison (as in her full on spider form, much like the red hourglass markings on a black widow inform on it’s toxicity.)
This sequence of the Loth capturing the kids in her web is also the first full on successful attempt made by Venger to capture all of the weapons of power, which is a feat I believe he only manages a couple more times in the series.
As another twist in the possibly influence that parent groups might have had over either CBS or the production of the show, Loth, in spider form, spins her webbing not from spinnerets on her abdomen, but from the tips of her claws. The only reason I wonder this is because she was shown in both human and spider form and I know that there is a convention in television for productions to avoid showing anything going in or coming out of people’s butts. Seriously, I believe this even extends to language as actors can say they put something on an ass, but not up an ass.
Shortly after the kids escape Loth (and once again after they avoid actually battling her and instead wait around as she basically defeats herself, well with Uni’s help), and after Venger has stolen all of their weapons, there is a continuity error as Presto, in close up outside of Loth’s cavern, is seen sporting his wizard cap.
There’s also a voice issue, as Hank’s voicework in this scene isn’t done by Willie Aames. According to the special features on the DVD set there was an issue with Aames being able to make all the recording sessions, to the point where he actually called into the stuidio a couple of times and had his lines recorded over the phone in Grand Central Station, so it isn;t surprising, though a little weird.
In the next scene we see another bit of background plot unfold as Tiamat suddenly attacks Venger, which is a running gag during the series. Venger, who isn’t aware that the weapons of power have run out of juice, tries to use them, as sort of a conduit for his own power I guess, against the five headed she-dragon (who also serves as this episode’s obligatory dragon as she isn’t really important to the plot.) Since the weapons failed him he very quickly and pointlessly chucks them aside as if he could care less about these weapons that more or less have been driving him as the goal to his ultimate conquest. This was a departure in the episode that felt kind of weird as the kids scramble to get them back and take them to the Hall of Bones.
Honestly, I don’t know why they couldn’t have just followed Venger to the Hall instead of him all of a sudden losing interest in them, especially when you consider the next sequence in the story where he disguises himself as Hector the halfling (who fulfills Dungeon Master’s prophecy to lead them to the Hall of Bones.)
This is also the continuation of another convention of the show in which Venger disguises himself as another character to get close to, or to capture the gang. It’s actually only used once more, but it was used enough to seem like it was part of Venger’s M.O. It’s weird in this episode though considering he just threw the weapons away so easily a moment ago, but is now in full on spy mode to once again capture the weapons. Like I said, I don’t understand why Dini even bothered to have this portion of the story play out like this as it just seems like padding.
This episode makes one last odd turn of events as the gang, lead by Hector/Venger, enters the Hall of Bones, places their weapons inside of a giant energy radiating skull, and then are urged by a bunch of ghosts in the Hall to also enter the skull after Venger reveals himself. The gang does just this and they are teleported out of the Hall of Bones to safety…
…as the ghosts fight the battle with Venger for the kids. I thought this was really odd because it seems like the gang is sort of secondary to the episode, almost serving as Fed-Ex deliverymen for Dungeon Master to transport the weapons to the Hall of Bones. I’m not sure what they’ve learned or what trials they’ve really prevailed in as they didn’t really have a hand in doing anything but looking scarred a lot.
On the other hand the battle between Venger and the ghosts is pretty cool, culminating in an awesome sequence where the Hall of Bones is destroyed (a common theme with buildings that Venger enters) and the spirit/what-have-you of Venger emerges from the rubble in a most impressive manner (even mimicking the Batman comics logo a little.)
Next week we’ll take a look at the next three episodes in the series which will introduce us to the writing of Jeffrey Scott, a mainstay on Dungeons and Dragons and the guy who wrote the book on the subject of writing for animation.