Category Archives: Buried in DVDs

I’m going on The Quest!

One of my favorite pastimes since creating this site is seeking out old magazines from the 80s looking for hidden gems from the decade that I think are worth talking about.  Be it old advertisements for forgotten food like the Frankenstein’s monster-influenced, chili-stuffed hot dogs (Frank’n Stuffs), or insane ads for Back to the Future-themed Power Wheel DeLoreans, there’s always something fun to uncover.  Recently while flipping through some old issues of Billboard magazine I stumbled upon an advertisement for a kid’s movie that I’d never heard of before.  Now I’m not the end-all be-all encyclopedia of everything 80s, but I did experience my fair share of what the decade had to offer kids, in particular film-wise.  With the exception of a handful of made-for-TV flicks here and there, I think I’ve seen most of the kid’s flicks from the decade.  Or I thought I had, until I saw this awesome advertisement for The Quest

Why did I never stumble across this VHS cover while combing though the various video rental joints of my youth and teenage years?  The flick star’s E.T. and Cloak & Dagger’s Henry Thomas as an orphan living in the Outback with relatives after his parents pass.  Emboldened by the local legends of a lake monster named Donkegin, Thomas gears up and goes on the hunt for the creature.  Right now that’s about all I know about this flick (well, that and that The Quest is the American title for this Aussie flick which was originally known as Frog Dreaming.)  I’ve found this flick in various forms on Youtube and I’m super excited to watch it asap.

I’ve never really done this on the site before, but I thought it would be fun to try and share the process I go through while looking for content to write about.  In this instance, I’ve found a badass advertisement for an unseen flick from the 80s, and I’ve tracked down a copy to watch.  I wanted to share this portion of the excitement, which is mostly the unknown and potential for finding another awesome kid’s flick from my youth.  Will the movie live up to the potential and hype of this ad, or will it be an utter let down?  Some of you have probably already seen this flick and know that answer.  But I’m about to find out, and hopefully I’ll be able to share my thoughts next week after watching The Quest.

I mean come on, it’s Elliott with a shotgun hunting the down-under equivalent of the Loch Ness Monster!  How can this not be awesome?

Boys, Avenge Me, AVENGE ME!

Recently Brian over at Cool and Collected posed the idea that a bunch of us like-minded writers, toy-fanatics, bloggers, and collectors should come together once a week or so and all write separate articles with a singular topic.  This way we can all get some inspiration to write and to be inspired by the collective’s output.  A League of Extraordinary Bloggers as Brian put it.  I can’t promise I’ll be hitting this up every week, but I’ve had a lot of fun doing this sort of thing in the past with helping to run and contributing to the Countdown to Halloween, and Zartan Zaturday was a blast a while back too.

The first assignment has been sent out and it concerns a go-to, Saturday afternoon comfort movie from our childhood that we watched a bunch on TV or VHS.  I took in a metric ton of movies on Saturday afternoons, both on cable and on our local Fox affiliate back in the 80s, and at first I wanted to pick something really obscure that might be a hidden gem for those who missed it back in the day.  Something like The Million Dollar Mystery with Tom Bosley, Eddie Deezen, and Rick Overton, or The Heist with Pierce Brosnan and Tom Skerritt.  I also considered talking about Near Dark as it’s one of my favorite films as both a kid and an adult.  But no matter how many times I find myself browsing my nostalgia DVD shelf, I always come back to the same film.  It was something I watched countless times on HBO, and was one of four films (including Rad, The Monster Squad and Transformers the Movie) that I religiously rented from video stores every weekend.  Most importantly, it’s a film that I never tire of and one that I’ve never discussed on Branded before. That film is Red Dawn.

I’m sure there were a lot of folks back in the day that dismissed the flick as just another one of those Brat Pack films filled with young stunt-casting, but as an impressionable 8 year-old who was really into G.I. Joe and spent the better part of his childhood daydreaming about defending my backyard from terrorists and megalomaniacal warmongers, Red Dawn is the perfect escapist fantasy.  Set in the then modern day, the film plays off of the palatable fear of a World War III due to all of the nuclear weapons grandstanding during the waning days of the cold war.  Communism was still the number one threat to our borders (it seemed), and the idea of a war whose main front was being fought on our own domestic soil was pretty darn scary.  In fact, the image of the Communist paratroopers all of a sudden floating out of the sky still kind of haunts me to this day.

For those who haven’t seen it, the film centers on a group of teenaged kids who manage to survive a paratrooper assault on their high school and town.  Led by brothers Jed (a young Patrick Swayze) and Matt (Charlie Sheen), this rag tag group starts off as 6 friends (including C. Thomas Howell, Darren Dalton, Brad Savage and Doug Toby), but by the middle of the film it grows to include a couple girls (played by Jennifer Grey and Lea Thompson) and a grizzled veteran fighter pilot played austerely by Powers Boothe.  This band of young patriots brand themselves the Wolverines (their high school mascot), and they proceed to strategically attack the communists, engaging in guerilla warfare tactics in an effort to save townsfolk from being executed and to try and make a dent in their forces in the hopes that the U.S. military will eventually come to their aid.

Again, the dizzying high I got from this flick as a kid was equal parts awe and horror as it acted as a sort of wish-fulfillment for my playtime daydreams.  It sounds a little weird to say that I sat around hoping we’d be attacked by Commies so that I could “play” G.I. Joe for real, but I’d be willing to bet that in the climate I grew up in a lot of kids probably had similar thoughts.  Another aspect that I loved about this flick was the dead-serious tone that director John Milius brought to the production.  He managed a similar feat with the first Conan film, both of which had scripts that could easily have gone way too over the top to stay believable and engaging.  Don’t get me wrong, I love films like Commando and Rocky IV as much as the next red-blooded American, but even in the day it was clear how much they came across as campy, patriotic propaganda.  Red Dawn is grounded in the story of the eight kids, their bonds of friendship and loyalty, and it’s heart-wrenching when some of them get killed in action.

For a crazy conceptual 80s war flick, Red Dawn still holds up pretty darn well.  Even crazier, it manages to provide an opportunity for C. Thomas Howell to play a geek turned into a sawed-off-shotgun-toting badass with absolutely no irony whatsoever.  That is not a feat to be dismissed lightly.  Also, as everything from the 80s is apparently rebootable these days, there is also a new Red Dawn film destined to hopefully frighten and inspire a whole new generation almost 30 years after the original.  I’m pretty curious to see if the writers/producers/director can nail the same serious tone of the original or if it’ll just deflate into yet another crappy remake that has barely a 10th of the heart of the original.  Time and an invasion from some strange evil nation can only tell…

You can find some of the other participants of the League below:

TL, Flashlights are Something to Eat, talks about Poison Ivy

Christopher Tupa, Tupa’s Treasures, talks about The Goonies

Fiji Mermaid, Sideshow Cinema, talks about Fright Night

Jeff, Siftin’, talks about Superman II

Justin, General Joes, talks about the 70s Live Action Spiderman

Paxton, Cavalcade of Awesome, talks about Back to the Future and the Star Wars Trilogy

Stacey, Pendragon’s Post, talks about Temple of Doom

Getting Along with the Littles on DVD!

As I’ve mentioned numerous times over the past year, there are really only three or four outlets left for find 80s animation released on DVD.  Of those companies, Millcreek has really been making strides to pick up titles that have fallen out of print or to produce low cost releases for some cartoons that have never seen the light of day on DVD.  In addition to picking up a number of titles from the now defunct BCI Eclipse (Bravestarr, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Defenders of the Universe, and Dungeons and Dragons), they’ve also struck up a distribution deal with Shout! Factory to release some of their catalog that was previously released or only available from their MOD program (namely C.O.P.S., and Best Of releases of Transformers and G.I. Joe.)  They also have a partnership with Cookie Jar which gives them access to a very large library of titles.

Well, a couple weeks ago they started shipping a trio of releases that I’m pretty excited about.  First up, they’ve released an updated version of the Littles, the Complete series in a three disc set which for the first time features all 29 episodes, the feature film (Here Come the Littles), and their one television special (Liberty & the Littles.)  Though the series have been released on DVD in the past (by Cookie Jar themselves), you could never get all the 80s era content in one package…

The best part?  This set is only $13, and can be found online as cheap as $9!  Like most Millcreek television releases, the discs come sheathed in individual paper sleeves which are housed in a snap-in section of the DVD clamshell cases, but at only three dics this is hardly an issue.  The video/audio quality of the discs is also the Millcreek norm, which is decent, but not quite as good as past releases.

Millcreek also released a 10-episode Best Of disc for those of us they don’t need the full series and just want to get a taste of nostalgia on the cheap.  Basically a repackaged version of Disc 1 from the Complete series release, this set includes the episodes: Beware the Hunter, Lost City of the Littles, The Big Scare, Lights-Cameras-Littles, Spirits of the Night, The Little Winner, A Big Cure For a Little Illness, The Rats are Coming-The Rats are Coming, A Little Fairy Tale, and Prescription For Disaster.

Though it’s cool that Millcreek is keeping the Littles in print on DVD, the release that I am really excited about is the Best Of the Get Along Gang!

I made a pledge to myself 10 years ago that I’d try and track down at least one episode of every cartoon I watched as a kid (and considering I grew up in the 80s, that’s a tall order), so I always get floored when a series is released on DVD for the first time ever.  The Get Along Gang is truly one of the staples of Saturday Morning Cartoons from the 1980s, and it bridged the gap between action fare (like Dungeons & Dragons or Mr. T) and the more “good for you” content of PBS (like Mr. Rodgers or Sesame Street.)  Originally created for a series of greeting cards (much like another anthropomorphic set of critters, the Shirt Tales) and stationary, these characters made their first jump to the small screen on Nickelodeon back in 1984 in a single pilot episode created by the Nelvana company (which you can catch on youtube, part 1, part 2, and part 3.)  When the show was picked up for a series it was brought over to DiC Animation and then aired on CBS for three seasons consisting of a total of 13 episodes (each with two 11 minute segments.)

The series centers around 6 main characters, Monty (the moose), Dotty (the dog), Woolma (a sheep), Zipper (a cat), Bingo (a beaver), and Portia (a porcupine) who hang out in a train caboose clubhouse and have adventures around their town.  Each episode typically features a moral of good behavior, as well as a run-in with the town bully Catchum (an aligator) and his toady Leland (a lizard.)  Going back and watching some of the episodes for the first time in almost 30 years I was surprised at how well they hold up.  Sure, they’re a bit hokey and stress the “goof for you” aspects of children’s programming, but there was much more adventure than I was expecting/remembered.

The one thing that really bugs me about this release though is that Cookie Jar/Millcreek decided to only put out 10 of the 13 total episodes.  I’m having a hard time getting my head around the logic behind holding back three episodes.  Generally the price of production would pop up as a reason why, but when you compare this release with that of the two Littles DVDs, money really doesn’t seem to be a factor.  Even if they would have included a second disc I doubt it would have inflated the price point much, I mean the difference between the Complete and Best of Littles sets are only $3 (and that represents 19 additional episodes and 2 feature films.)  Though they might release a second disc in the future, I have a feeling we’re never going to see it.  I’m not sure if there was an issue with the master tapes on these cartoons, or if there is some other reason why they chose not to release these three episodes.  Personally I really think they dropped the ball on this release.

On a positive note, I have copies of the Littles DVDs to give away this week.  To enter for a chance to win a copy of either the Complete Littles DVD set (1st place winner) or the Best Of disc (2nd place winner), head on over to the Branded in the 80s Facebook page (like it, if you haven’t) and leave a comment/response on the discussion board under the Littles DVD Contest thread with the name of your favorite Littles character. I’ll be picking a winner at random on Monday, August 8th at 2:00pm est.  Remember, these are region 1 DVDs, so if you’re an international reader take note. Good luck!

Wanna win the first 33 episodes of the original Thundercats on DVD?

**UPDATE**  The winner of this set has been picked!  Congrats Mark H.  I’ve notified you via the Facebook messaging system.  Stay tuned next week for another DVD giveaway!

With the new Thundercats revamp set to launch on July 29th on the Cartoon Network I thought it would be a great time for a new contest!

I’m sort of psyched to see where new production team takes this new series even though I’m a pretty big fan of the Rankin/Bass original.  I’ve always been impressed by how insane the Rankin/Bass animation villains were in shows like the Thundercats and the Silverhawks, and it would be really cool to see if this new series can match that old intensity.

Anyway, back to the contest, I happen to have an extra copy of the Warner Bros. original season one, Volume one DVD set, which contains the first 33 episodes (including the episodes that form the pilot movie)…

So, to enter for a chance to win this copy of the Thundercats Season One, Volume One DVD set, head on over to the Branded in the 80s Facebook page (like it if you haven’t) and leave a comment/response on the discussion board under the Thundercats DVD Contest thread with the name of your favorite Thundercats character.  I’ll be picking a winner at random on Thursday, July 28th at 2:00pm est.  Remember, these are region 1 DVDs, so if you’re an international reader take note.  Good luck!

The Complete Bravestarr on a Budget!

**UPDATE** The winner of the DVD has been picked, Jody Y., and has been notified via the Facebook messaging system.  Thanks to everyone who entered and keep an eye out for some more cartoon DVD give-aways on Branded soon!

I’ve been lamenting a lot about the downturn the cartoon-on-DVD industry seems to have taken in the past couple of years, but lately all that gloom and doom has been forgotten as a metric ton of new-to-DVD and catalog titles have been announced.  Leading the pack is Shout! Factory, who have managed to snag some of the more popular franchises in the last few years including G.I. Joe and the Transformers.  Having just announced the impending release of the complete version 1 of M.A.S.K. and the Japanese Transformers – Headmasters series, as well as the long-awaited re-release of Jem, Shout! is making fans of 80s era cartoons very happy.

As happy as I am to see these titles released, I’ve also been keeping a close eye on the folks over at Millcreek Entertainment who have also been very busy with a slew of re-releases of out-of-print Filmation classics as well as a bunch of other slightly more obscure cartoon releases.  In addition to picking up a bevy of the oop BCI Eclipse titles like He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Defenders of the Earth, and Dungeons and Dragons, Millcreek has also partnered with Cookie Jar to start releasing some great new-to-DVD titles (including the stop-motion Paddington Bear shorts and the Get-Along Gang) as well as some other re-releases such as C.O.P.S. and The Littles.

I’ve been on the fence about how I feel about Millcreek’s sets.  On the one hand they’re one of the last few DVD production houses bothering to license and release older cartoons, but on the other they’re concentration on slimmed-down budget releases leaves a lot to be desired at times.  Today I’m going to take a look at one of their newer re-releases, the Complete Bravestarr 7 disc set

First thing’s first, the term “complete” is pretty relative.  For fans of the Filmation Bravestarr cartoon, complete doesn’t just refer to the 65 syndicated episodes of the series, but also the theatrical film, Bravestarr: The Legend.  Back when the series was first released by BCI Eclipse, the film was included as an extra on the Best Of Bravestarr release.  While at the time it seemed like BCI was doing a little double dipping on the Best Of set (knowing that real fans of the show would re-purchase those episodes when the complete series was released later that year), the inclusion of the movie made it fully worth the purchase price.  As for the Millcreek re-releases, I’m not sure if we’re going to see the movie included or not.  In addition to the Complete Series set, they’re also releasing two slimmer volumes, each including 20 episodes of the series.  I’m wondering if they’re planning on following this up with a third volume with the remaining 25 episodes and the movie, but time will only tell…

Though I’m a bit bummed that the movie wasn’t included in this set, I do have to admit that at around $30 you’re certainly getting your money’s worth.  Millcreek has kept to their budget, stacked-sleeved DVD keepcase design, but with this set they’ve brought up the quality a bit both in terms of aesthetics and value.  The cover artwork is a variation of the same great art used on the BCI version of the sets, and for the first time that I’ve noticed they’ve included a handy episode guide that fits right in with the stack of DVDs.  With a lot of their past complete series sets Millcreek didn’t include guides which made flipping through a stack of 5 to 20 DVDs a nightmare for trying to find specific episodes (in particular, their 21 Jumpstreet set really suffered from this.)  Like the cover art, the guide contains episode synopses and trivia culled from the BCI sets (and written by James Eatock of the wonderful Cereal Geek magazine.)

This set also includes a handful of the documentary interviews Andy Mangels produced for the original BCI sets that include conversations with Lou Scheimer, Pat Fraley, Tom Sito, and Tom Tataranowicz, as well as a commentary track on the episode “Eye of the Beholder”.

As far as the visual/audio quality of the set goes, it’s pretty good.  It’s not as crisp and clean as the BCI release (especially the audio), but when you consider the price of the set it’s more than adequate and should please casual fans of the series.

Now lets get down to the contest!  If you missed out on the BCI release of Bravestarr, and would like to win this very full review copy of MillCreek’s Complete 65 episode series set, then head on over to the Branded in the 80s Facebook page (like it if you haven’t) and leave a comment/response on the discussion board under the Bravestarr DVD Contest thread with the name of your favorite Bravestarr character.  I’ll be picking a winner at random on Thursday, June 9th at 2:00pm est.  Remember, these are region 1 DVDs, so if you’re an international reader take note.  Good luck!

Animatronic ROCK!

After reviewing the documentary, Candyman: The Dave Klein story, the film (and Hillary Buckholtz over at I’m Remembering) reminded me that I had yet to talk about another flick that I’d been meaning to write about for a while, The Rock-afire Explosion.  The two documentaries are very similar in that they focus on genius inventors who have been all but forgotten by their chosen industries and have gone under appreciated in the pop culture they helped to shape.  I popped the flick back into the DVD player this weekend though and decided it’s time to share my thoughts…

All the world’s a stage and history is apparently nothing more than a collection of script revisions.  Whether it’s the question of who invented the Jelly Belly jelly bean, or who designed and built the first Whac-a-Mole, the truth isn’t always what’s recorded.  In the case of the Whac-a-Mole, a quick Google search leads to the company that “originated” it, Bob’s Space Racers.  The website describes how it all began “…in 1976 when the crew at Bob’s Space Racers, Inc. developed the first working game for a customer who wanted to try the new concept at a carnival midway…”

What the site neglects to mention is that what they “developed” was reverse-engineered from a prototype they purchased that was designed and built by a guy named Aaron Fechter (who was developing it for a carnival that ended up selling it to Bob’s Space Racers.)  Fechter even came up with the name for the game, Whac-a-Mole.  Very similar to how Dave Klein was written out of the history of Jelly Belly, Aaron Fechter was dropped from the story of the Whac-a-Mole.  But that’s not all there is to Fechter’s legacy, and the anecdote about the famous midway game is only a segway into a much more interesting story, the rise and fall of America’s most famous animatronic band, the Rock-afire Explosion!

For most kids growing up in the early 80s there was only one place they wanted to go for birthday parties and celebrations, Showbiz Pizza Place.  It’s where a kid can be a kid, at least it was if you bought the pizza chain’s tag line, and from the ages of three to ten I was drunk on that company’s Kool-Aid.  From Skee Ball, what seemed like hundreds of arcade games, ball pits, and the afore-mentioned Whac-a-Mole, to tiny completely-carpeted rooms lit by strobe lights under the main stage, game tickets, prizes, pizza, soda by the pitcher, and a little animatronic band called the Rock-afire Explosion, these were the ingredients for legendary birthday parties when I was a kid.  I’ve podcasted and written about my love of Showbiz Pizza and Chuck-E-Cheese at length before, and how it’s almost impossible, even with some remaining C-E-C franchises still open, to get back that feeling of what it was like to dine and play in these establishments as a kid.  Though I was lucky enough to grow up less than 30 miles from Walt Disney World, I can only imagine that for kids that lived in other states, Showbiz was like a mini Disney theme park.  Sure, there weren’t any roller coasters or dark rides, but who cared about those when you had a band full of animatronic, anthropomorphic animals belting out great music from the 60s, 70s and 80s at your birthday party?

When I first started Branded in the 80s back in 2006, one of the first bits of obscure childhood bliss that I wanted to talk about was the Rock-afire Explosion.  So when I discovered that there was a documentary detailing the rise and fall of the Showbiz Pizza phenomena, the band’s creator Aaron Fechter, and how a handful of fans have been striving to bring back the magic I was ecstatic…

Produced and directed by Brett Whitcomb, the film starts with a tone setting awkward pause as Aaron Fechter is gathering his thoughts about the legacy of his creation.  Honestly, these first few seconds were a bit unnerving for me as I was afraid of the direction the film would take.  If there’s one certainty about 80s era fandom, it’s that people either love it or mock it, and usually people just love to mock it.  Though I personally find the sarcastic mean humor that’s rife with 80s homages boring and overdone, it’s the route that most people take, and when all is said and done this documentary walks a pretty precarious tightrope act, only dipping it’s toes into smarminess a couple of times.

The flick is comprised of a series of talking head interviews with Rock-afire Explosion creator Aaron Fechter (and his significant other Kerry), super-fans Chris Thrash, Mike Scherpenberg, Damon Breland, as well as showbizpizza.com head honcho Travis Schafer, intermixed with old vhs video footage of Showbiz commercials, local news clips, company tapes, and some vintage behind the scenes footage of Creative Engineering.  Basically, we follow the story of Fechter, a genius inventor who graduated college at the age of 19, and Chris Thrash, a fan so dedicated to the Rock-afire Explosion that he sought out Fechter so that he could purchase his very own animatronic band.  In a way, Thrash can be attributed with a lot of the recent fan-fair of the Rock-afire nostalgia as his desire to own a copy of the band, and through a series of youtube videos where he programmed them to play some current music has breathed new life into the property.

   

   

“I believe that you should be a child at heart and don’t be ashamed of it. Y ou know if there’s something you dreamed or you wanted to do when you was a kid, then do it.  You dreamed it for a reason.  And I dreamed to have this, and I had it.  Some people like it, some people don’t, but I don’t care, it’s mine.” -Chris Thrash

As a kid, one of the coolest aspects of the band and stage show at Showbiz Pizza was that it was like seeing Sesame Street, the Muppets, or Pinwheel live, right in front of your eyes.  In the film fan Mike Scherpenberg really puts in context what it was like for a kid when he says, “If you didn’t grow up with it, then you can’t understand what it meant. It was like meeting a real celebrity…”  And it was. Even growing up in Orlando and having the opportunity to mingle with all of the “characters” at Disney World, seeing the Rock-afire Explosion was so much cooler because they talked and blinked, and ironically just felt more real.  It was truly like seeing a cartoon character coming to life.  Subsequently I probably would have flipped my lid had I realized that I lived so close to the home the Rock-afire, Creative Engineering in Orlando…

   

Looking back, one of the things I really respect was the amount of thought and back-story went into each of these characters.  Whether it’s good-natured country bumpkin Billy Bob (the face of Showbiz), Fatz Geronimo (piano player and leader of the band), fan-favorite Dook Larue (the astro-dog who played some mean drums), Beach Bear (the resident cut-up, surfer, guitar playing polar bear), Mitzi (the slightly ditzy cheerleader mouse and only female on the stage), or even Rolfe & Earl (the Don Rickels of animatronics), each of these characters was unique and well thought out.

   

   

With that in mind, the filmmakers managed to address some odd aspects of this kind of fandom by cutting in both vintage footage of the Creative Engineering workshop with exposed endoskeletons of the various characters in production, as well as current bits with Thrash, Schafer, and Breland grooming their animatronics.  It’s a not-so-subtle way of reminding the viewer that this fandom, as well as most fandom of fictional characters, is a little hollow and can be very strange the closer you get to it.  There’s a bit where Thrash recalls pulling back the curtain once at a show and climbing on stage coming face to face with the frozen robots.  It reminds me of Will Wheaton taking about his experience “meeting” the Muppets back in the 90s at the peak of his Star Trek popularity.   As he watched the puppeteers open a series of drawers and pull the lifeless bodies of these characters out it sort of ruined the magic of the shows and movies.  Personally, this is the sort of touching awkwardness that I can totally relate to, and I think it addresses an honest harshness of fandom, in particular this sort of extreme fandom.  In fact, there’s a bit in the film that shows Mitzi Mozzarella being decommissioned as Showbiz was being integrated into Chuck-E Cheese, and there’s a quick shot of her right after some workers lifted off her cheerleader’s uniform.  I actually gasped a bit at seeing the animatronic’s bare breasts exposed.  What’s left of the kid in me found that weirdly obscene…

   

Where the documentary falls apart a little for me though, is when it strays away from this honest representation of fandom and wanders into more voyeuristic territory.   Everyone has a little weird in them, and it’s no secret that geeks, nerds, dweebs and dorks typically have more than their fair share.  The flick gets a little uncomfortable for me when it unfortunately starts to focus more on the quirks of the fans and of Aaron Fechter. It starts to feel like its taking advantage of them for entertainment’s sake, working in aspects of their lives that aren’t that important to the narrative.  There’s a bit around the 25 minute mark where Thrash starts talking about his habitual Mountain Dew drinking, and you can feel the film shift away from a celebration of Showbiz Pizza and the Rock-Afire Explosion to his lifestyle as a person outside of the fandom.  Similarly there are moments with Fechter and his relationship with super-fan Kerry that gives the impression that he’s kind of a creepy old man.  I question whether this benefits the story the filmmakers are trying to convey, or if it sort of undermines any celebration of this nostalgia.

   

Lucklily these uncomfortable bits don’t go on for too long, and in the end the film gets back on track, digging into why Showbiz Pizza and the band are so interesting.  I was glad to also get an opportunity to see some of the performers behind the characters as there’s some footage shot during one of the recording sessions that’s pretty interesting and features glimpses of Aaron Fechter (who voiced Billy Bob), Shalisa James (Mitzi), Rick Bailey (Beach Bear), Duke Chauppetta (Dook), and Burt Wilson (Fatz) performing.  The music in the film is also great with some songs by the Super Furry Animals, and overall a great score.  It’s also fascinating to see the extent that some of these fans go to, to reclaim a bit of their childhood.  Purchasing whole shows (as the set up off all the animatronic characters are referred to in the documentary) for god only knows how much money and setting them up in specially constructed garages and rooms just blows me away.

   

   

All in all, there’s a lot to love about this documentary, and I wish there were more flicks out there like it shining the spotlight on some obscure but awesome bits of what it was like to grow up in the 80s. 

As a last bit I thought I’d share two of my favorite pictures from celebrating my birthday at Showbiz as a kid.  Though I look less than thrilled in the group photo (that’s me in the back on the right), I really did love that place…

Marmalade, a Duffle coat, and a bear from darkest Peru…

Well, even though the market for classic cartoons on DVD seems to be unfortunately drying up, there are still a handful of companies taking the chance to release some great shows.   One in particular is Millcreek Entertainment.  Though they typically seem to concentrate on public domain material, in the last couple of years they’ve been actively acquiring licenses and partnering with other studios to act as the DVD production and distribution house.  In fact they’ve begun re-releasing a lot of the cartoons that BCI Eclipse was putting over the last ten years (stuff like Dungeons and Dragons, Defenders of the Universe, and even Bravestarr.)  They’ve also recently teamed up with Cookie Jar, the company that rose out of the ashes of Cinar Films and DiC, to start releasing a bunch of their cartoons on DVD.  One of the these titles I was really happy to see is the complete Paddington Bear, which is coming out on DVD today, February 15th

I have a ton of fond memories watching the Paddington Bear shorts (including the awesome theme music) during Pinwheel on Nickelodeon back in the 80s.  In fact I still feel very lucky that my parents popped for cable because I was introduced to a lot of imported shows and shorts from all over the world, almost all of which came to me through Nickelodeon.  Simon in the Land of Chalk, Danger Mouse, Count Duckula, Belle & Sebastian, the Little Prince, Bunny in the Suitcase, the Hattytown Tales, and of course that adorable marmalade-eating, stow-away bear from the darkest reaches of Peru, Paddington.  The UK series originally aired between 1975 and 1978, and had three follow-up specials that aired in 1980, 84, and 86.  I vividly remember watching it during Pinwheel sometime between 1982 and 1987…

Paddington is based on a series of books written by an ex-camera operator for the BBC named Michael Bond.  He began the adventures of Paddington in 1959 and is still writing them to this day.  As far as the series goes, it was produced by a company called FilmFair, and was directed by the wonderful stop motion animator Ivor Wood.  The series was shot in a very interesting variation of stop motion that blended puppetry with hand-drawn paper cut-outs which gave the show a very convincing storybook look. It didn’t hurt that the series was also narrated by a single actor (the sweet dulcet voice-work of Michael Hordern), so it added a book-on-tape sort of feel to the production.

The gist of the story centers on a chance encounter in a train station where the Brown family happen on a little bear in a clunky over-sized hat and a duffle coat who secretly immigrated to the UK from Peru.  The family decides to adopt the bear and name him Paddington after the Paddington station where they found him.  He might as well be a propber British bear as he loves his marmalade sandwiches and always has time to take tea with family and friends.  Of course in the process of exploring his new hometown he gets himself into all sorts of unfortunate situations, but such is the life for a little brown bear.

  

One of the aspects that I love about this series is the interesting take on the animation.  In the series there is an odd style which mixes puppetry and miniatures with paper cutouts.   Basically, Paddington and the immediate area surrounding him is typically shot in miniatures while all of the characters and environments not directly in contact with him is done as drawings on paper, though they aren’t combined in post production, but instead all short together on film.  It makes for a very distinct look and tone, not to mention some crazy jump-cuts where a paper figure will hand a paper prop to Paddington that becomes a miniature after the jump.

  

The Millcreek/Cookie Jar set is (I believe) the first time that the complete series has been released on DVD with all 56 episodes.  It also features the three later specials that I remember also watching on HBO on Sunday mornings during their kid’s block of programming.  These specials have a slightly different look where Paddington sheds his black hat and dark blue duffle coat in favor of a light blue coat, a yellow hat and little yellow rain boots. These specials also updated the look of the paper-cutout animation, increasing the number of “frames” and getting rid of any extra white paper halos around the figures.  They look a lot cleaner and much less clunkily animated than the original series, but all of it is gold in my book…

  

This set also features a bunch of bonus episodes from two other FilmFair UK stop motion series, five episodes of the Wombles (1973) and ten episodes of Huxley Pig (1989)…

  

I’d never seen these series growing up, but they’ve very similar in look and tone to Paddington.  I’m secretly hopping that Millcreek and Cookie Jar will see fit to also put some episodes of Hattytown Tales on DVD in the near future (please, please, oh please!)

As far as this set goes, it’s super affordable at $16 for the whole shebang, which honestly is what Millcreek does best.  The packaging is in the new style (discs housed in individual sleeves that snap into the clamshell case) that I’m not a fan of (see my review of the Complete 21 Jump Street for pictures), but at only 3 discs it’s nowhere near as frustrating as some of their other sets.  The picture quality is a little jumpy and grainy, but at this price it’s really a non-issue.  All in all, if you grew up with the British and Canadian programming available on Nickelodeon then this is a must have set that will bring back all sorts of fond memories…

In life you only need to be a genius for 15 seconds…

I never questioned whether or not history was written in stone until I had my eyes opened by a cheerleading coach in my senior year of high school.   No, I wasn’t in the cheerleading program, Coach Gordon also taught World History at my school.  During the one semester I spent in that class there were a couple of things he really opened my eyes to, one being the definition of the word usurp, and the other was the concept of revisionism.  Mr. Gordon was the only teacher I knew that ever questioned the content of the textbooks we all had to use, and at one point he taught us that the content of these books, especially ones centered on history, are written with a point of view and an agenda to impart specific teachable facts.  He wasn’t a complete conspiracy nut, he was just trying to open our eyes to the idea that there’s more out there to learn and that just because something is passed off as a fact doesn’t mean it’s the full truth, it’s just the version that was put to paper.

With that in mind I’d like to ask a question.  Who invented Jelly Bellys?  Well, I don’t know about you, but the first place I’d look for the answer would be on the Jelly Belly website, and more specifically on the company history page.  Go on, check it out and I’ll meet you back here in a few minutes.  Alright, according to the official company history it seems that the man responsible for bringing the world Jelly Belly jelly beans would be Herman Goelitz Rowland Sr.   Well actually the history lists Rowland and an unnamed marketing guru, but really Herman seems to have been the man with the plan.  Well that’s that, right?  Well, maybe not…

Most of us have heard the fairytale about Jack, his cow, and a bag of enchanted beans, but it wasn’t until this past week that I first got a chance to experience a real life variation of the story about a man named David who, instead of selling a cow, sold his bag of magical beans.  Candyman: the David Klein Story is a documentary about the eccentric genius who invented America’s first gourmet jelly bean called Jelly Belly.  Directed and edited by Costa Botes (co-director of Forgotten Silver), the film features David Klein and his son Bert (an animator for Disney and the Simpsons) as they take a look back at the Klein’s life, the creation of the iconic confection that was championed by none other than former President Ronald Regan, and how Klein was more or less erased from the legacy of Jelly Belly.  The documentary follows David on a short tour around a lot of the southern California locations where he worked and developed his passion for making and marketing candy.  The journey is peppered by interviews with friends, family and industry professionals (including some super funny witticisms from Weird Al) reflecting on Klein, Jelly Belly, and his love/obsession with making people happy at any cost.

What really struck me was Klein’s son Bert (who also produced the film with his wife) and how he was sort of using this documentary portrait of his father to set the record straight, not so much to stick it to Jelly Belly, but to validate Klein’s legacy and passion.  David Klein had the idea to take the ordinary maligned jelly bean (brilliantly described as Easter basket packing material by Weird Al Yankovic in the doc), and transform it into a natural, high-quality, great-tasting candy.  He got the ball rolling, contacting the Goelitz Candy Company and getting them to manufacture his ideal bean, and then took to the road telling everyone that would listen about his creation.  There were local publicity stunts, visits to national TV talk shows where Klein was truly decked out in the part of the proverbial candy-man, and zany photo-shoots, all in the hopes of getting the world to notice these amazing Jelly Belly beans.  It was as if he stepped out of the pages of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  For four years Klein was the face of Jelly Belly and is a huge part of the candy’s success.

  

Costa Botes does a wonderful job of shinning the spotlight on Jelly Belly, Klein and his family, touching on the sadness of the tale without getting too mired in the ennui of corporate shenanigans and unresolved family issues.  The documentary is as much about celebrating Klein’s eccentricities and ideas as it is about being written out of the history of a pop culture phenomenon.  From his use of paper plates as notepads (hard to lose and easy to throw), to his later insane confection creations (my favorite being yellow liquid candy sold in urine sample jars), Klein has led a wacky and truly interesting life and it makes for a very entertaining film.  All in all I think this portrait is the perfect way to remind us that there is always more to the story.

  

I wanted to mention that though I did receive a copy of this documentary on DVD for review purposes, I’ve also purchased one with my own funds that I’m going to give away here at Branded.  I’m certainly not biased because of an access to review materials, but I also want to put my money where my mouth is, so to speak, and I enjoyed this film enough to do just that.  So if you’d like to win a copy of Candyman: the David Klein Story, send me an email with the subject line “Candyman DVD” and a description of your favorite flavor of Jelly Belly jelly beans by February 17th at 12:00am est.  I’ll pick one e-mail at random to win a copy of the DVD.

The film is currently available via the Indiepix website on DVD, On Demand, or to Download.  You can also see a trailer for the film at the above link.  If you’re curious about what David Klein is doing these days, check out his candy company Sandy Candy!

Lords of Light and Demon Dogs rejoice!

After the disappointing release of the Warner Brothers Saturday Moring Cartoons: 1980s earlier this year, I’ve been in kind of a cartoon on DVD funk.  Included on that set was a single episode of the series Thundarr the Barbarian, which though I had fond memories of watching it as a kid, I didn’t realize just how damn cool that show was until rewatching that one episode.  Because Warners was moving away from full series and season on DVD in favor of cheaper anthology releases, I figured I’d never get a chance to see the rest of the episodes in a format that I really love.

Well, I’m really happy to say that my funk has been broken because the Warner Archive Collection, the company’s print-on-demand arm, has announced that the complete Thundarr the Barbarian will be shipping starting today, September 28th, 2010!

I was excited a year or so ago when the WAC first launched as I was hoping to secure copies of some out-of-print flicks on DVD, but I didn’t hold out any hope that they’d start releasing TV boxsets, let alone of classic cartoons.  But last month saw the WAC release of long overdue series on DVD from the 90s, Pirates of Dark Water

…and from what I’ve gathered from the WAC twitter feed, it looks like a slew of other cartoons are also headed to the POD format…

“We have only just begun to delve into the animation library!  We’ve got a few more series in 2010, +/- 2/month planned in 2011″

Also slated for release are Josie and the Pussycats in Outer Space and the 1973 Addams Family cartoon.   The idea that they’re also planning on around two additional releases per month next year is fantastic!  Do I hear releases of the Herculoids, Grape Ape, Speed Buggy, Frankenstein Jr. and the Impossibles, and Mr. T on the horizon?  I sure hope so!

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You’re friends will be there when your back is to the wall. Well except for Johnny Depp. He hated this show…

I recently had the opportunity to take a look at the Mill Creek re-issue of 21 Jump Street on DVD and I have to say that I was both a little excited about the set and a little bit bummed out.  First off, I have to make it clear that Mill Creek provided a review copy of the DVD, so I didn’t purchase this set.  I am, however, a fan of the show, and I already own a few of the seasons that were previously released by Anchor Bay on DVD.  So for whatever it’s worth, I’d like to believe that my opinions on the set and series are unbiased.

Part of the reason that I wanted to take a look at this set is that I feel like we’re entering an unfortunate stage in the life of DVD as a medium, and Mill Creek is leading the pack into the future.  After living through the first home video boom during the 80s and 90s with VHS, I knew the life cycle of DVD would be relatively short in the grand scheme of things, lasting around 20 years.  Introduced to the public in 1997, I think it’s safe to say that we’re now entering into the last stage of life for the format, its twilight years.  The signs are all around us with discount $3-$5 DVDs available in stores like Big Lots and Wal-Mart, and with a slight improvement of the medium already on the market (Blu-Ray.)  Pretty soon we’re going to see a shift in the releases of films and TV shows as some will only be available on blu-ray or for download, and only the most popular and profitable releases will garner DVD distribution.

So why is Mill Creek important in this scenario?  Well, in the last few years super discounted DVDs have usually consisted of old, discontinued or overstock titles that companies are trying to liquidate to recoup production costs.  Mill Creek on the other hand is leading the charge on first run releases in the budget format, so instead of getting an affordable price on a nicely manufactured set, we’re getting lower quality sets at great prices.  After years of releasing budget public domain fare, Mill Creek is now licensing TV series that other companies have discontinued releases for, as well as picking up the rights to some shows that have never been released on DVD.  One of their first big coups was in acquiring the library of Stephen J. Cannell productions including such shows as Hunter, the Commish, the Greatest American Hero, and 21 Jump Street.  All of these series have been released before, but not at budget pricing.  In addition to these well-known series, Mill Creek is also releasing a lot of Cannell’s lesser known series such as Ten Speed and Brown Shoe, Booker, and Cobra which have never been on DVD in North America (except Cobra which was released in Canada.)  I think this is going to become a trend for the medium in the face of rising music rights costs, especially for TV on DVD, and I’m kind of sad to see it.  I think if it’s successful then it’s going to prove to DVD distributers that subpar sets are perfectly acceptable.

So what about this new 21 Jump Street Complete series DVD set?  Well, being a budget release, the set is attractively priced between $60-$70, which isn’t bad for five seasons of television.  The original five sets released by Anchor Bay in 2004 would have easily set you back $150, so right off the bat we’re talking a 50 to 60 percent drop in price.  But this price reduction also comes with a drop in quality, both in the packaging, features, and in the video quality as well.  First off, the quality of the transfer is pretty close to the original DVDs, at least displayed on a regular player on a non-HD television, but there is a higher compression as there are more episodes per disc on this new set.   The original source material was rough to begin with though, and there’s only so much you can do to pretty it up.

My biggest complaint though is with the packaging which is just medium to subpar.  Though the sets are packaged in clamshell-style cases, the DVDs themselves aren’t housed on individual pegs or spindles.  Instead they’re individually wrapped in plain black paper sleeves which stack together and sort of snap into a frame on one side of the case.  That means that when you want to pull out DVD #17, you have to pull them all out and sift through the sleeves, which can be a pain.  With a smaller set it’s not that big of a deal, but with these complete series sets it really gets to be a pain.

There are also no liner notes and no DVD booklet.  You want to know which episode guest stars Brad Pitt?  Go to IMDB and find it that way because you’ll be searching forever on the DVDs.  Again, with a smaller or season set this wouldn’t be that big of a deal, but with a complete series set it’s really a pain in the butt.  This is also a bare bones, no-special-features release (unless you count the single episode of Booker included in the set.)

Unfortunately, as with the original release of the series on DVD, most if not all of the original music was also stripped from the episodes because of high song licensing issues.  This is the biggest setback for TV on DVD, and in particular with a show like this because the music helped to define the tone, and it provided a boost to the overall quality of the show.  Without the music the series feels so much more cheesy than it was when it originally aired and honestly it’s just a shame.

Talking about the series itself, 21 Jump Street is an example of Stephen J. Cannell at his most playful.  Starring Peter and Michael Deluise, Holly Robinson (Peete), Dustin Nguyen, Steven Williams (the X-Files), Richard Grieco, and of course a young Johnny Depp in his break-out role as Officer Tom Hanson, the show was sort of like the older brother to Saturday Morning cartoons in the 80s.  Usually centered on some hot-button topic of the day, the series was a fun spin on detective shows that gave the actors a lot of range to play all sorts of characters in their undercover roles.

The series is a snapshot of what the Fox Network was like during its inception as well, and helped to define a slightly hipper alternative to the normal programming on the main three networks.  It works best as a time capsule of late 80s television and features a plethora of up and coming and established actors in guest spots like Brad Pitt, Pauley Shore, Mario Van Peebles, Kurtwood Smith, Jason Priestley, Mindy Cohn, Bridget Fonda, Sherilynn Fenn, Josh Brolin, Christina Applegate, Vince Vaughn, John Waters, Shannon Doherty, and Thomas Haden Church.

 

All in all, for the price, the set is probably worth picking up if you’re a fan and don’t already own the series, though I would wait for a sale.  Right now Best Buy actually has it for the astounding price of $38.

To me the series will always highlight the bittersweet experience of moving on from middle school to high school, and leaving the 80s behind.  It was the beginning of the end for the type of television that I grew up on, and it made the transition into the 90s a little less rocky.  You can pick up this set on July 27th, 2010.