Tag Archives: DVDs

You Can’t Do That on a Fan Documentary…

“[There are] …so many shows out there that are pushing or peddling products, you know, hocking something or other.  Pretty much to make a cartoon nowadays you have to have a video game and a plush toy to go with it.  That was the […] beauty of “You Can’t”, we’re not trying to sell anything…”Adam Reid (You Can’t Do That on Television Cast Member 1984-87, Writer 1989-90)

Though the cast and crew of You Can’t do That on Television may not have been trying to hawk any useless plastic junk, I was buying; buying into the show, the comedy, and more importantly their ethos.  From 1979 to 1990, this little Canadian sketch comedy show helped warp the minds of a generation of children with clever, politically incorrect humor and absurd, trashy jokes.  The show, inspired by Monty Python, Second City and Saturday Night Live, brought an adult style of humor to the young Nickelodeon audience, while never conceding its core integrity or that of the viewers (never feeling “written down to” an adolescent level.)  YCDToTV was the flagship series on a network that evoked the feeling of “for kids, by kids”, featuring a rotating cast of mainly adolescents, one of which, Adam Reid, who would graduate from cast to co-head writer at the astounding age of 16.  There really was nothing else like this on television at the time, and with the exception of the similar Nick series All That!, there really hasn’t been anything as remotely ground-breaking for kids since.

As a fan of the show I feel pretty lucky that the tenure of You Can’t Do That on Television coincides perfectly with the golden years of my childhood; I literally grew up with the show from age three to thirteen.  This was also coincidentally the exact timeframe that my family spent in Florida, so on another level I can’t help but associate so many memories of my childhood wrapped around the series with a very specific sense of space and time.  Granted the show was produced and filmed in Canada, but I always felt a sense of hometown pride for shows on Nickelodeon because I lived just outside of Orlando, mere miles away from the Nick Studios.  Though it’s not logical on any level, growing up I felt like Kevin, “Moose”, Lisa, Adam, Alasdair, Vanessa, Doug, and Matthew were some of my friends.  Heck, in a way Les Lye’s “Dad” (Lance Prevert) and Abby Hagyard’s “Mom” felt like the parents I never had.  In my quest to acquire all of the television material that fuels my nostalgia for the 80s, the largest gaping hole in the collection are the 140 odd episodes of YCDToTV.  Sure, I have a handful of bootleg DVDs, and a nice selection of low-quality digital episodes backed up on a hard drive, but what I’d really love is a nice official DVD collection to sit on my shelf next to my Danger Mouse, Count Duckula, Hey Dude, and the Adventures of Pete & Pete sets.


That’s why I was so excited when I found out that Shout Factory just recently partnered with DND Films to release David Dillehunt’s 2004 fan documentary You Can’t Do That on Film in a nice 2-disc collector’s set!


Even though this film has been floating around the YCDToTV fan community for a few years, after getting the DVD this Christmas it was the first time I was able to view it.  So what’s on the discs?  In addition to the feature length documentary, there are also a bevy of special features including Dillehunt’s proof-of-concept pilot episode for a possible re-launch of the show, outtakes from the 2002 & 2004 fan conventions, and extended interviews with some of the cast and crew including the late Les Lye.


Watching the documentary was sort of bittersweet and a little frustrating in that so much of the footage is restricted to talking-head segments with the dozen or so former cast and crew members Dillehunt was able to interview (including stars Les Lye, Adam Reid, Lisa “Ruddy” Henderson, show creator and head-writer Roger Price, and writer/producer/director Geoffrey Darby.)  These are interspersed with personal on-set photos and VHS quality screen-grabs of the show, as well as some archival footage of an Alanis Morissette interview and some of the Q&A sessions with the cast and crew during the 2002 & 2004 fan conventions.  It’s understandable as to why, but unfortunately Dillehunt was unable to include actual segments or audio from You Can’t Do That on Television (licensing the material would have been beyond cost prohibitive for this fan-produced film.)  The documentary gets a lot of flack for this, which is reasonable, but you have to give Dillehunt credit for tracking down as many of the cast and crew members as he managed.


The truly frustrating aspect for me though was Dillehunt’s approach to the material and resources he did have.  First and foremost, this documentary is created by a fan for fans of the series, so it tends towards focusing on the anecdotes and nostalgia of the interviewees, and less on the overall story of the show.  Dillehunt does a really decent job of splicing together the interviews with Darby and cast members from the inaugural season to nail down the origin of the series, but the documentary really doesn’t delve into many of the aspects that made the show so memorable.  Little is mentioned of the format of the sketch comedy, the re-occurring characters, skits, or jokes; it assumes the viewer is so well-versed in the nuances of the show that it almost completely bypasses it.  This is an unfortunate trap of fandom, and how hard it can be to pull your perspective back far enough to see the material with fresh eyes.  Dillehunt himself was born five years after the show began its run in 1979, and thus was probably mainly exposed to the show in reruns in the late 80s and early 90s.  I’d venture to guess that it’s why it was easier to tell the story of the show’s origin, as he was learning about much of it himself during the process of interviewing the cast and crew.


Sure, I know that each episode was framed around a theme (for example personal hygiene, rumors, or nutrition), or that each episode would feature knock-knock style jokes with the cast asking questions of each other while in a set of multi-colored school lockers, but the fact these iconic aspects to the show aren’t even brought up is unfortunate.  No real mention of the Opposite sketches, the parody title cards at the start of each show, the fact that the show was itself a show within a show, or even talk about the various re-occurring characters played by Les Lye (bus driver Snake Eyes, Blip the arcade proprietor, the teacher Mr. Schidtler, the dungeon torturer Nasti, the camp counselor, the coach, or even the studio announcer get any mention.)  On top of this Abby Hagyard (who played the “Mom”, Mrs. Prevert, as well as the Librarian) isn’t even brought up at all.  There isn’t even a rundown of the more prominent child actors from the series.


Though there is a significant portion of the show ignored on the documentary, I don’t want it to come across as if I didn’t enjoy it.  In fact, it’s just the opposite, I really did love and appreciate all the passion that did find its way onto the screen.  For the record Dillehunt was only 20 when he put this together and I can honestly say that I don’t know of many people his age who would be willing to do the legwork it took get all of the interviews he managed to land.  There is a wealth of interesting anecdotes and observations (including the recipe for the original green slime) from the cast and crew that will add a little insight into the making of the show, which I’m sure fans of YCDToTV will appreciate.  This two disc set would make a great accompaniment to an eventual (fingers crossed) release of the show.  In the meantime I suggest heading on over to sites like YCDToTV.com or Barth’s Burgery to reacquaint yourself with the show, and then pick up You Can’t do That on Film on DVD.

Oh, I just wanted to say good-bye and remind you that the good guys always win, even in the eighties…

So, um, HOLY CRAP! While I’ve been working away on the upcoming Halloween fun for the site I totally missed the fact that the truly awesomely horrible movie, Megaforce, was finally released on DVD this past month. I missed this flick when it was originally released, which is a shame since for all intents and purposes Megaforce is the perfect 80s era live-action G.I. Joe movie, something I would have flipped my lid over if I’d managed to catch it on HBO or the Saturday afternoon movies on the UHF station…

I recently caught up with the movie via youtube, but ever since I’ve been doing double the amount of “it’s not on DVD” lamenting that a lot of 80s nerds have been doing for years. Well now the wait is over and we can finally catch what I assume is a better quality copy than the chopped up grainy version on youtube.

For those not familiar, Megaforce was originally released in 1982 and directed by the great Hal Needham (he of Rad, Smokey and the Bandit, and Cannonball Run fame.) The flick stars an impossibly confident and effeminate Barry Bostwick (with a penchant for wearing shiny skin-tight suits) as a character named Ace Hunter, the enigmatic leader of Megaforce an internal paramilitary unit consisting of the best of the best of the world’s military. Very G.I. Joe. They work in secret from a hidden fortress in the desert, developing state of the art weapons, vehicles and technology that enables them to combat ruthless terrorist organizations bent on ruling the world. Seriously, very, very G.I. Joe.

I need to do a proper review of this flick at some point, but lets just say that I had the same reaction after watching it as I did when I heard it was finally out on DVD. Both of which can be summed up by the below picture…

Did I mention that this flick has flying battle motorcycles?

If you grew up on G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero and you haven’t seen Megaforce, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy. It’s not the best movie ever, it’s just the best G.I. Joe movie made to date. And it has flying motorcyles. And Barry Bostwick does a lot of over the top heroic posturing, both figuratively and literally…

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!

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!

A ton of 80s cartoons finally coming to DVD!

The last few years we’ve been going through a relative drought of 80s cartoons on DVD.  Though I was super happy with Shout! Factory re-issuing Transformers (recently vastly encheapened) and G.I. Joe on DVD in the past couple of years, there are still some big holes in my collection that seemed would go unfilled forever.  Well some 80s cartoon god must have heard my laments because there are a ton of new to DVD titles coming in the next six months or so!

As you can see from the advertisement above, the Warner Archive (manufactured on demand DVDs) is releasing some great catalog titles including the Go Bots (shipping on May 17th), Mr. T (shipping today), and finally a complete set of the Herculoids (shipping on June 14th) on DVD!

In addition to these awesome WB titles, Shout! Factory is currently prepping releases of M.A.S.K. (shipping in August), the Japanese Transformers Headmasters series (shipping on July 5th), as well as a re-issue of Jem (to be announced officially soon) on DVD.

Still keeping my fingers crossed that the Warner Archive will release the second half of the Silverhawks someday…

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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