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Cartoon Commentary! #2



In preparing for this week’s Cartoon Commentary! post I think I may have bitten off more that I can chew in terms of the ground I’d like to cover. As I stated in the CC! preamble, I’d live to go through a cartoon series one DVD set at a time, which means covering about 30 episodes. At an episode a week this will take forever, so I figured I’d group them together, which seemed like a great idea at the time. Unfortunately I think it might mean some pretty long, picture intensive columns and I’m not sure how I, or more importantly the readers will feel about that. I guess I’m going to run with it for awhile though and we’ll just see how we can make it work.

So without wasting any more space, lets get back into Dungeons and Dragons. The cartoon debuted in the fall of 1983 on CBS alongside other shows such as the Saturday Supercade (with Q*Bert, Space Ace and Donkey Kong), Pole Position, the Muppet Babies, and the Get Along Gang.


The pilot episode, The Night of No Tomorrow, was written by Mark Evanier (who was hired to revamp the pitch and write the show bible), who jumped right into the story with no pauses for explanation or backstory, most of which was covered in the shows opening credits.



In fact, Evanier does an awesome job of setting up both the world and the characters in just the first few moments of the episode as the camera pans across a desolate mountain range with floating plateaus of earth, and then hovers over the group climbing a cliff. We get a nice shot of their costumes which firmly sets us in a fantasy environment, all of which is over dubbed by Hank saying the following, "Keep going; from up here we may be able to see which way to get home." This is pretty much all the info the audience needs to know that there is a group of kids trapped in a fantasy world and they’re searching for the way out. Pretty good for 20 seconds of footage.




The basic gist of this episode is that Dungeon Master sends the gang on a quest to find the town of Helix to attend a local celebration, but along the way they get side tracked when they discover Merlin’s castle floating in the sky. The group decides to drop in on the Arthurian wizard for assistance in finding a way home, but instead of helping them, Merlin offers to teach Presto all his knowledge of magic with the promise that he’ll stay with him forever.

The first inhabitant of the realm the kids come into contact with in this episode and the series is Tiamat the dragon, a five-headed female red dragon that is as much Venger’s enemy as she is of the gang.



In the ensuing fight we’re introduced to a concept that will continue throughout the series, which is that of side stepping battle with enemies and creatures by utilizing the gifted weapons the gang has as tools to avoid fighting. In this scene Hank uses his energy bow in a pretty straightforward manner to push Bobby out of the way of Tiamat. I’m not sure, but this sort of feels like a concession on the writer’s part to appease parents groups by limiting the number of times the kids resort to violence to solve problems, even when it’s defending themselves from attacking creatures in a strange land.



It’s also interesting that for the first onscreen usage of Shelia’s invisibility cloak Evanier made sure to focus attention on her foot impressions so that the audience would realize that she was invisible and not teleporting. I don’t think they do this again in the rest of the series.



Similarly, when Dungeon Master shows up to guide the gang on a new adventure he doles out some advice in being weary of Venger, which isn’t something he does in the rest of the series even though Venger pops up as the villain in the majority of the episodes.





Even though the pilot episode sides steps any sort of back-story for the series, it does manage to set up a number of repetitive occurrences, for instance the obligatory dragons. Once again, I’m not all that familiar with the role-playing game, but even though it’s called Dungeons and Dragons I doubt there are dragons hiding behind every corner in a campaign, but for the purposes of this series the various writers made sure to include a dragon in practically every episode in the series. In this episode, Evanier introduces us to the bane of the town of Helix, which is a plague of dragons set upon the town by Venger that is eventually dispatched by the wizard Merlin.



Another possible convention of the show also introduced in the pilot is Presto’s bumbling magic spells. He is the only character that can’t seem to get a grip on his weapon, his trusty magic cap, which is evidenced in this episode as he tries to produce food for the group and ends up summoning a milk cow. As the series progresses though this is dropped in favor of a similar convention where Presto’s magic appears to fail each time yet what ever he manages to produce from the cap eventually helps out the group in the intended manner (e.g. he’ll summon a birthday cake with candles alight when they need a torch or something.)



Though Dungeons and Dragons was an American made show, I believe Marvel Productions outsourced the actual animation to Asia, which resulted in a mixed bag of quality as the series progresses. From watching special features on other cartoon series it’s been made said that when you outsource the animation you have to be pretty damn specific in stage direction and such or else there will be a ton of errors. D&D has its share, one of the first popping up in this episode. As the gang is leaving to make their way to the town of Helix and Hank is giving his pep talk, both his and Eric’s mouths are moving in time to the dialogue.

I thought it was pretty smart of Evanier to introduce the character of Merlin in this first episode, as he is a pretty recognizable wizard with a broad written and filmed history, so the young audience would probably be pretty comfortable with the character. It’s just a sly way of getting the audience comfortable with the show and not alienating them off the bat with strange faces.



At first I was also impressed with the riddle/warning that Evanier wrote for the Dungeon Master to impart upon the kids warning them of Venger, and being able to recognize him by his white hair. That is until the gag was basically beat over the audience’s head with both a red herring (Merlin is wearing a white wig attached to his hat for some strange reason; well it’s not really strange, just a horrible way of stealing the focus from a character that is obviously Venger in disguise), not to mention the fact that Merlin is holding a white rabbit, or hare if you prefer. Honestly I don’t think there were too many kids fooled by this as Merlin/Venger himself even corrects Shelia by telling her that his rabbit is a hare. For all of the awesome shorthand of the opening title sequence and opening shot in the show, this was a pretty obvious little riddle that went on for way too long.

Another interesting aspect of the children’s weapons is that even though they tend not to use them as such, when they do they aren’t very effective. Though Tiamat is described as being invincible, it makes Hank’s energy bow seem pretty pointless as he fires volley after volley at the dragon with no effect what-so-ever.



I thought it was also neat in this episode that Eric straps on his shield like a backpack while running away from Tiamat, something that is very natural but it’s also something that you never see him do again in the rest of the series. I love little touches like this in cartoons, just because it lets you in on the writer/animator thinking about the scene more closely than just enough to get the story across. It’s also little touches like these that make the characters seem more real if only because they’re subtle, as cartoon are rarely subtle.



As the plot unfolds and Venger shows himself to Presto (who has since abandoned the group to study with ‘Merlin’) there is an awesome animation sequence with Venger morphing from Merlin into his more imposing appearance. This is certainly a benefit of having a show like this on DVD where you can pause and step through a quick sequence like this to see some great artwork.



Yet another aspect of the show that is introduced in this first episode (and only really explored in the first season of the show) is Venger actually getting his hands on one of the gang’s weapons of power (a goal that we are lead to believe will solidify Venger’s stranglehold on the realm and make him invincible.) This is actually a dynamic that doesn’t get bandied around all that much in the fiction that I’m familiar with. I’m more used to super hero stories or fantasy stories where a character’s special abilities are ingrained within them and even though the characters may be overwhelmed from time to time, they don’t actually lose their special powers. I suppose this is more common in role-playing games, or fiction that is heavy with mystical items (come to think of it, I guess the one ring from the LOTR series would be a great example of this.)



Speaking of the overseas animators, I think it’s funny how they chose to animate some key scenes in the series when characters were falling or jumping. In the below sequence as the gang is jumping on horseback to ride to Presto’s aid, there is a weird shot of Sheila jumping up onto a horse with her derriere pointed towards the audience. Since she’s wearing a skirt, and since I’m sure this wasn’t addressed in on the character model sheets, the animators chose to draw in a pair of white granny panties to cover Sheila’s woman parts. Later in the series they made sure to have her jumping and falling with her butt away from camera.



A little later as Bobby and Diana ride by, there is a weird paint error as Bobby’s vest flickers between it’s normal tan and the gray of his helmet.

The episode ends with an odd turn of events as Presto has lost his cap to Venger, and even though the evil villain is dispatched/chased off by Tiamat, the whereabouts of the cap remain a mystery. As the group is lamenting Dungeon Master appears with a new hat for Presto. I was kind of bummed out by this as this sort of goes against DM’s lack of hands on involvement with the adventures the kids are going on, and it raises questions about what he’d be willing to do to help the characters along. In the series bible DM is described as being like Yoda, who when you get right down to it doesn’t do much of anything in the original trilogy besides teaching Luke to concentrate and lift crap with his mind. Sure he doles out some nuggets of wisdom here and there, but that’s about the extent of it as he never goes mano-e-mano with the emperor or anything. So when DM produces a replacement hat for Presto it seems like he’s stepping out of his boundaries a bit too much and it begs the question, could he just zap these kids home if he wanted to?



I think I’m going to break this week’s column into three separate posts, so come back tomorrow for a look into the second episode of the Dungeons and Dragons series, The Eye of the Beholder.

Cartoon Commentary #1, A look at the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon…



I suppose I should start off this first Dungeons and Dragons Cartoon Commentary column by talking about where I was (nostalgia/memory-wise) right before I received this DVD set.  I guess this is sort of my first confessional about a basic lack of knowledge of the cartoons I grew up loving.  All I really remembered about this show was what the main characters (Hank, Eric, Diana, Sheila, Bobby, Presto, Dungeon Master, and Venger) looked like, the fact that it was a Marvel Productions cartoon (don’t know why that stuck with me), and that there was very little merchandising off of the show.  In fact it’s kind of weird that there was a toy line (produced by LJN) that was running concurrent to the cartoon that didn’t feature the main cartoon characters, only characters from the pen and paper game that were worked into the show (I’d only ever seen one set of German PVC figures that were molded off of the show characters at a convention in the 90s.)  I knew the basic plot, kids trapped in the D&D realm who couldn’t get home, and I had snippets of memories from a couple of episodes, in particular Quest of the Skeleton Warrior (I vividly remember Hank running up the disappearing stairs in the Lost Tower sequence.)

Add to this the fact that I’ve only ever played one actual session of the role playing game and hated it (I’ve gamed for years, but mainly using the Palladium and White Wolf systems), I feel like I’m pretty much a newbie to the whole cartoon experience, even though I remember it, I guess I don’t really remember it.  Heck, I’m not even all that fond of fantasy setting in books and movies, and all of this aside, I still have a very strong nostalgic sensation whenever I hear the audio to the show opening or see any stills from the animation.  It’s a very palatable and physical sensation that stirs, so there has to be something to this right?

So now that I have that confession out of the way, lets get into the show shall we?  As I stated above, Dungeon and Dragons was one of the shows produced by Marvel Productions, debuting in the fall of 1983.  Though Mark Evanier (who wrote both the series bible and the pilot episode over the course of a few days at the emergency behest of CBS) is often cited as the show’s creator, it was actually the brainchild of Dennis Marks (and also credited to Kevin Paul Coates in the end credits) who had been pitching the series under the title Swords and Sorcery (or something very similar.)  Evanier has some funny anecdotes about his introduction and involvement with the series on his blog, in which he mentions that he was hired to rework the concept after CBS picked it up the option to air the show.  Apparently the pitch, after passing through a lot of writer’s hands, had become quite unwieldy with way too many characters and ideas floating around.  Evanier said that it’s common for writers to want to add in the revision process and not delete any of the previous writers’ work.

Evanier cut away the excess, streamlining the concept into the 26 page series bible which introduced the main children that would go on to be in the show (Hank, Eric, Diana, Sheila, Bobby and Presto), as well as Bobby’s ‘pet’ unicorn Uni, Dungeon Master, the main villain Venger, and a red dragon named Rogull, which didn’t make it into the show and was replaced by the five headed dragon Tiamat.  He also outlined the idea of using the main title sequence as an opportunity to tell the origin of the gang’s entry into the realm of dungeons and dragons, most of which ends up as the final show’s credit sequence.  Here are the three pages out of the series bible that outline the main title sequence, some screen shots of the final credit sequence, and the opening title music so you can get an idea of what they were trying to achieve…






























I would have liked to include the actual animated sequence, but so far I’ve been less than impressed by streaming video compression over the internet, so I guess I’ll stick with screen shots for now.

There were basically two main differences between the bible and the actual versions, things that I think would have added just a tad of great characterization and back-story, which were the introduction of (I’m assuming) Venger as the D&D ride’s barker (as well as the closed for repairs sign that would have been a nice touch) and a stronger connection between the kids and their weapons/items.  It would have been nice to see the kids approaching the items cautiously, with Hank reaching out first for the energy bow.  I think it was a very subtle way of assigning leadership, and marking Eric as sort of a coward.  Since the main title sequence is already filled to the brim with back-story, I can see that it must have been a choice between slowing it down a bit to add more characterization or speeding it up to set the tone for the action and adventure aspects, which is what they ultimately went with.  At the end of the day I’m sure the studio is much more concerned with tone over character, as one typically points more toward money (audience share and for sponsors.)  Either way I find it interesting that they chose to cram the origin into a 1-minute reel of animation as opposed to dedicating an episode to it.  In fact I think this is quite common for cartoons in general, especially in the 80s (some notable exceptions being Thundercats and Transformers.)

Another thing that sets this show apart from other 80s cartoons is the choice that Hank Saroyan, the story editor and voice director, and the producers made, which was to cast some established actors with familiar voices for the children.  I suppose it was to cash in on some recognizable voices that the audience might not actually recognize, but might subconsciously relate to.  The first person Saroyan sought out was his friend Willie Aames (who had made a splash on the drama 8 is Enough, and who went on to play Buddy on Charles in Charge, and Bibleman, cough, hack, um, yeah) as Hank, the Ranger. Aames suggested his 8 is Enough co-star Adam Rich, who was then cast as Presto, the Magician.  Saroyan had also previously worked on the animated version of Happy Days (in space no less) and really liked the energy that Donnie Most put into his performance as Ralph "Mouth", so they cast him as Eric, the Cavalier.  The rest of the cast was rounded out with a few veteran character and voice actors Sidney Miller as Dungeon Master, Bob Holt as Shadow Demon, Venger’s second in command, Peter Cullen (the voice of Optimus Prime in Transformers as well as many others) as Venger, and Frank Welker as Uni and Tiamat (most famous for voicing Fred on Scooby Doo, but he’s also worked on practically every other cartoon ever), as well as some newcomers, Tonia Gayle Smith as Diana the Acrobat, Katie Leigh as Sheila the Thief, and Teddy Field III (son of Ted Field II, director of Children’s Programming at CBS’s entertainment division, who is the first to mention that he had nothing to do with his son’s casting) as Bobby the Barbarian.

Next week on Cartoon Commentary! we’ll take a look at the first three episodes of the series.

My hocus-pocus is out of focus…

You know, if there were an award for the best company producing and distributing DVD sets in North America I would have to say that hands down, BCI Eclipse deserves it more than goth kids who cut themselves deserve a barrel full of happy face band-aids. Out of all the 80s TV on DVD sets I’ve purchased (hell of any from any decade) BCI has consistently brought out fun shows in unique and beautiful packaging at a very low price point. Just take a look at one of the He-Man sets with their vibrantly colored foldout digipaks, high episode counts (at least 32 episodes per set), the small color prints included in each set, and all for about $25-$35 depending on where you shop. And that’s just the packaging. Their DVDs are also crammed full of trivia, documentaries, a slew of episode info, not to mention a few easter eggs here and there.

I recently received the complete Dungeons and Dragons cartoon DVD box set that was also released by BCI under their Ink and Paint imprint and it’s just more of the same. The set is really gorgeous and it’s chock full of everything you’d ever want from this cartoon. The set itself was designed to look like the core rulebook set from 1983, the same edition that came out when the cartoon premiered on American television. It’s also set up like a box set (think shoebox) instead of the more normal slipcase, but inside is the same sort of foldout digipak that BCI and most other slipcase DVD sets come with.

This set contains the complete cartoon series, with all 27 episodes from seasons 1-3, a 30 minute documentary with interviews from the show’s creative staff, a bunch of alternate footage (including the three different versions of the show’s opening credits), a fan film, as well as a special treat for fans of the show, a radio play recording of the never produced final episode of the show that gives some closure to the D&D cartoon story. The set also includes a cute little hardbound D&D role-playing sourcebook that has player info for all the characters and items from the cartoon.

It’s attention to detail like this that shows how much BCI cares about the fans and knows that at the end of the day it’s fans of the show that are going to be plunking down hard earned bucks for the set. Other companies tend to take a situation like that and flip it so that they can make the maximum amount of money off of the least amount of DVDs sold. Take for instance the DVD release of the Adventures of Brisco County Jr. from Warner Brothers. It was a short-lived show with a niche fan base, and therefore probably a small audience on DVD, so they put a very sparse set together that has a $100 MSRP. Rhino Home Video did the same thing with a number of shows including Get a Life, Jem, G.I. Joe and Transformers, all of which had outrageous price points and very little in the way of packaging or extras. At the end of the day, I think it’s because most companies produce product that they expect to sell to the general public, when they should have a more specific audience in mind.

Anyway, as far as the cartoon itself goes, I think it holds up rather well which is a credit to the creators and writers of the series including Mark Evanier, Jeffery Scott, Michael Reeves and Paul Dini. Like He-Man, this was one of the first shows that brought action elements back into Saturday Morning cartoons, which made it both fun and exciting. Its shows like this that would really pave the way for the more intelligent non-comedic action cartoons of the 90s and beyond like Batman and Justice League. If you’ve never had the opportunity to catch it, the show is about six kids who get pulled into the fantasy world of Dungeons and Dragons while riding a roller coaster of the same name at a theme park or carnival or something.

They each end up with special powers, armor or weapons that represent various classes from the Dungeon and Dragons world, the Ranger (Hank, voiced by Willie Aames of Charles in Charge and Bibleman fame) with his energy bow and arrows, an Acrobat (Diana, voiced by Tonya Gail Smith) with her resizable bo-staff/javelin, a thief (Shelia, voiced by Katie Leigh) who has a nifty invisibility cloak, the cavalier (Eric, voiced by Don Most of Happy Days fame) who has a nifty shield, the Wizard, (Presto, voice by Adam Rich of 8 is Enough fame) who gets a hat that he can “pull” magic out of, and a barbarian (Bobby, voiced by Ted Field III) who had a bitchin’ club and an almost annoying pet unicorn Uni (voiced by Frank Welker, the man responsible for voicing two of my all time best Transformers voices, Soundwave and Megatron.)

Together with the Dungeon Master, the kids are fighting against Venger (voiced by Peter Cullen, who voiced Optimus Prime on Transformers), an evil tyrant set out to ruling the D&D lands. I always dug Venger because he rode on a Nightmare and had that really disturbing single horn on his head. He always reminded me of another screen villain, the Source of All Evil from Time Bandits.

What I think is pretty awesome about this show is that it manages to capture a very specific feeling and area of pop culture from the 80′s, that of book and dice role playing as well as Saturday morning cartoons (which in the 80′s had a much different feel from the Saturday morning cartoons of the 70′s.) Like I said above, and can’t seem to stress enough, that the box set is beautiful and at about $35, is the perfect price for a nice nostalgia DVD set like this (end product gushing and pimping.)

Anyway, I saw this great picture of the cast from the show on Wiki, so I thought I’d pass it along here. From bottom left, Ted Field III, Don Most, Peter Cullen, Director Hank Saroyan, Katie Leigh, Willie Aames, Tonya Gail Smith, Adam Rich, Sidney Miller, and Frank Welker.

I’ve got a lot of fond memories of watching this show, most of which revolve around getting up early on Saturday mornings, feigning sick to get out of soccer practice, and then vegging out to this show with either a bowl full of Chef Boyardee mini raviolis or Capt’n Crunch with Crunchberries, dry because I hated the damn Soggies. I also remember being completely ignorant of the table top role playing game, though I did have a couple of the D&D action figures, namely the Warduke and Strongheart. I think in my silly little mind world, the Warduke figure was actually more at home in the Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome world than like a He-Man type world, what with his half on, half naked costume and evil red eyes. I don’t know.

Pretty soon we can also look forward to the BCI Ink & Paint release of Bravestarr which will hopefully be just as beautiful and chock full of extras.