Tag Archives: Toei

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…

Man, I miss Steve Gerber…

I found some time this weekend and scanned another Thundarr the Barbarian article.  This one comes from an issue of Fantastic from 1980, though for the life of me I can’t remember which month.  It was written by Adam Eisenberg and makes a nice companion piece to the Fangoria/Buzz Dixon article I posted before, though it centers on more of the limitations and censorship the series had to overcome because of the imposed network standards and practices…

I know I tend to go on and on about this idea time and again, but I think it’s interesting to note just how important the 1980-1983 timeframe was for modern action animation.  In the piece Steve Gerber talks a little bit about the collective intentions to bring the “action” back to action/adventure cartoons while creating Thundarr with Joe Ruby (of Ruby Spears.)   First off, though he was already working in animation doing production design for Hanna Barbera, Jack Kirby was probably hot on Gerber and Ruby’s minds because of what he brought to the table for Marvel and DC comics.   I think it’s really cool to see an animation production team playing to the strengths of their contracted talent instead of trying to force them to bend in another direction, which doesn’t always bode well in network/studio environment.

At the same time, Gerber admits that even while shooting for the stars in terms of creating a thrilling action oriented cartoon they still had their hands tied to an extent where their barbarian hero couldn’t “…throw a punch or…even hit anybody.  He can do all kids of acrobatic things, but he can’t even trip anyone.”  This kind of over protective standards and practices is equal parts infuriating and incredibly flooring.  Whereas it’s frustrating to watch a cartoon that centers around a barbarian that you just know wants to knock the block off of every douche-bag wizard that he runs across (they are enslaving humanity you know), these limitations opened the door to exploring another heroic archetype, the strong non-violent hero (think He-Man.)  Though I know it’s really easy to bag on the He-Man ideal for being too goodie good and unrealistic, this kind of storytelling is not always about focusing on the visceral and gritty realism.  Sometimes it’s about fables and though I know this is obvious, morality.  This is what’s really cool about a great creative environment, that there is room to explore both paths (and more), so you can have something more fist in the face like G.I. Joe, something more moral like Masters of the Universe, and something inbetween like Thundarr.

So this short period in animation is so interesting to me because it marks the beginning of the end of 10 long years of anti-integrity self-imposed studio censorship…

Similarly Gerber and Ruby found themselves challenged by another aspect of depicting violence in cartoons in that they weren’t allowed to have any kind of traditional barbarian sword for the Thundarr character.  According to S&P there could be no sharp objects like knives or swords.  Though it could have hampered some of the design aesthetic on the show this limitation pushed them to create something interesting and new in Thundarr’s Sunsword.   Trying to sidestep riffing too much off of Star Wars the sword was designed to have a blade forged from a bolt of lightning.   Again, even though they were hampered by network S&P the crew ended up treating this as a chance to bring something relatively new to the table, or at least they used it as an opportunity to tie in a different set of influences than a barbarian fantasy cartoon would normally lean on.  It’s less Conan and more Norse god in look and design.  Again, this is certainly playing to the strengths of Jack Kirby who brought a taste of his work on characters such as Thor and the various 4th World creations for DC.

   

Here’s another Gerber quote from the article that I love…

“The big thing that we’ve had to overcome is that the censors tend to treat children as if they’re not just morons, but lunatics, potentially dangerous creatures.”

 

Cartoon Commentary! G.I. Joe Episode 5 A Stake in the Serpent’s Heart




Finally getting around to finishing off the Cartoon Commentary! series on the 1st G.I. Joe mini series (A Real American Hero).  This final episode, titled A Stake in the Serpent’s Heart, was first broadcast on September 16th, 1983, and it was the last taste kids would get of the cartoon series until the following year when the second mini debuted.  I’ve said this a number of times recently, but it bears repeating, these first five episodes go a long way in defining the series, and bowing only a week after the first syndicated episodes of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, it also helped to define the next decade of television animation.   1983 really was a banner year for action in cartoons as we also saw the release of Dungeons and Dragons on Saturday mornings, and between these three shows TV animation, at least when it came to action, was free for the first time in over a decade.

Granted, there were shows that flirted with action premises, Super Friends, Blackstar, the Lone Ranger, Thundarr, and Spiderman & His Amazing Friends just to name a few, but all of these shows were just not quite there in terms of bravery.  Even He-Man, for its revolutionary first run syndication, and breaking the ice in terms of injecting action back into cartoons, was still taking a very moral stance on depicting violence.  But G.I. Joe burst onto the scene like Duke amid a group of Cobra Troopers, punching and kicking everything in sight.


So, getting back to the episode at hand, the story picks up from the cliffhanger where Destro and Scarlett are plummeting in an escape pod towards certain doom.  Of course, in the "coming next time on G.I. Joe" segment at the end of the previous episode we clearly see Scarlett running down a Cobra compound hallway, letting all the air out of the opening sequence of this episode…





Where this sequence fails as a cliffhanger, it succeeds in bookending the mini series as Destro leads Scarlett off of the escape pod at Cobra headquarters.  Just like Duke, and with an impassioned fit of feminism from the writers, Scarlett proves herself to be quite the "Woman of Action" as she breaks free and takes on a platoon of Troopers.  It’s another example of that never-say-die attitude exhibited by the Joes, and a more subversive example of imbedding a sense of morality into the show.   In He-Man for instance, this morality would be worn on the show’s sleeve so to speak, and we’d more than likely be treated to an insightful yet, borderline obvious quote from a character.  Here this sense of always doing the right thing and never giving up is written into the action.  It’s still a bit over the top, but much more natural.





One thing that I love about the Sunbow cartoons is their weird villain relationships.  You tend to get a lot of characterization out of these villain characters while watching them bounce off each other.   Like the Starscream/Megatron relationship in Transformers, there’s a weird back and forth between Cobra Commander and Destro.  Whereas Starscream always talks big, he usually backs down to Megatron (except when Megs is at his weakest in the 1986 Movie, but that’s a story for another time.)  On the one hand, Destro seems independent, the head of his own arms dealing organization, yet on the other he’s always vying for and temporarily taking control of Cobra.   Unlike Starscream though, Destro is the more physically imposing in his tête-

Cartoon Commentary! G.I. Joe Episode 4 Duel in the Devil’s Cauldron




One of the things that I find endlessly fascinating about cartoons in the 80s is the tonal shift that a lot of the shows took.  Throughout the 70s child advocacy groups like A.C.T. (Action for Children’s Television) were having a huge impact on the production of Saturday Morning cartoons, in particular pressuring studios to self-censor content.  So most action and adventure was stripped from new shows, and generally humor ruled the day.  In the 80s though, with a new president in the White House who had an eye on freeing up TV regulations, some studios took the opportunity to bring back action and adventure, while at the same time doing their level best to also make the shows a little more educational.  Some studios were more heavy handed than others (Filmation for instance based most episodes around a moral quandary), while others were sort of sneaky about the "good for you" content.


For the most part Sunbow was a bit sneakier about it.  Sure there were the "Knowing is half the battle…" PSAs, bust as far as the content in the actual episodes, it seemed like pretty straight forward storytelling.  This is sort of the genius of the writers, at least in terms of knocking down the wall between educational and exciting & fun television.  Instead of knocking kids over the head with a moral, they injected little subtle ideas here and there that didn’t draw all that much attention.   That was one of the first things that caught my eye while re-watching episode four of the original G.I. Joe mini series, Duel in the Devil’s Cauldron (which was originally broadcast back on September 15th, 1983.)





In the cliffhanger from the episode before, the Joes have been mostly knocked out by a noxious gas emitting from a Cobra canister that Snake Eyes used to bring back some of the eradiated crystals for the M.A.S.S. Device.   The canister was also set to explode, but with some quick thinking on Covergirl’s part, she manages to get the bomb out of the hanger they’re all in.  What caught my eye was when she breaks a beaker of water and then uses a hanky to soak up the liquid.  This makes an impromptu gas mask that she uses to keep from passing out.  Granted it’s not a huge deal, but it’s a little fact like this that’ll sit in the back of a kids brain and one day might come in handy.  I mean education doesn’t always have to be about algebra and world history.   This sort of stuff was peppered all throughout the series, and in my opinion is the way to go when educating kids with television.


Anyway, getting back to some of the visual tropes of the show, one of the main differences between the action figures and the cartoon were the weapons.  While all the toys were outfitted with a menagerie of different kinds of weapons, from handguns and shotguns, to Uzis and rocket launchers, the cartoon was a little more toned down.   Instead of realistic weaponry, most of the characters (good and evil) carry laser rifles and guns.   On the one hand it works toward the branding of the heroes (red laser fire) and villains (blue laser fire), but it also puts the show in that fantastical near-future with advanced technology.





While I don’t mind the laser fire in place of bullets, I always thought the standard issue Joe rifles were a little boring.  They didn’t have a ton of character like other weapons design, and they were typically beige with silver trim which isn’t all that visually exciting.  I always wondered why they didn’t vary the designs a little more…





So this episode has the Joes globetrotting on down to South America for their crack at the third catalytic element, the meteor chips that can only be found in the Devil’s Cauldron.  Like Kevin Cross mentions in the second half of the Saturday Supercast, this has got to be the one location that got all the child viewers excited.  What kid doesn’t love lava?  I mean seriously, what kid didn’t play the "The carpet is now lava and we have to only walk on the furniture…" game when we were young?


The other thing I dig about this sequence is that it’s another great example of backlit animation with the lava.  It’s such a great technique that’s lost in modern cartoons because most, if not all of them, are now drawn digitally.  God bless the popularity of Tron for ushering in 10 years of backlit techniques into cartoons is all I have to say…


I also love the next sequence in the cartoon, if only for its blatant commercialism.  I love G.I. Joe, and I’ll defend its merits to the death, but sometimes the product placement/30 minute commercial aspect to the show was insane.  When Stalker signals the surrender of the Joe army to Cobra via a super secret transmission, the whole thing is a ruse to buy time for the team to get to the meteor.  The gag transmission is being filmed using miniatures on a soundstage that are obviously the Hasbro toys.   I have to agree with Gung Ho, they are pretty darn cute and I for one was never a fan of electric train sets….





Talking about product placement, like the Cobra Moccasin in the second episode, I thought it was pretty interesting to see an early version of the Cobra Rattler, the jets that could take off vertically because the wings would pivot at the hinges.  It wasn’t part of the toy line yet in 1983, and they don’t quite have that nicely finished vehicle design look to them (a bit rough around the edges), but they’re certainly there in concept.  Again, I wonder if this was a case of something being developed for the show that Hasbro thought might make a cool toy.  I wonder how often that happens?





Too bad no one at Hasbro ever got a bug up their butt to design one of the awesome floating battle stations that Cobra used throughout the series…





I’m sure the logistics of creating something that would approximate that would be insane.  Even the 5-6 foot long U.S.S. Flagg was way out of proportion to the Sky Striker toy, and there was no way a kid was going to be able to pick-up a Flagg sized airship.  Still though, it was a cool vehicle reminiscent of the one S.H.E.I.L.D. used in the Marvel comics…





One thing I didn’t really care for in this episode was the retrieval of the meteor.  The sequence with the Joes using the Dragonfly helicopters and the huge magnets was kind of fun, but the idea of playing catch with a net strung between two Sky Strikers was kind of silly…





That’s alright though, because directly after we get a really fun fight scene involving a bunch of Joe strapping on their trust jetpacks and flying over to the deck of the Cobra floating battle station.  Weirdly enough, even though I didn’t care for the previous meteor catch scene, I thought the gag with Timber jumping out of a Dragonfly after Snake Eyes was kind of fun.  Silly fun, granted, but fun none-the-less.





One aspect of the advanced technology available to the Joe team that I never understood is the portable laser prison cells.   I get how it would be both visually fun, and an easy thing to write into the show when it comes to taking a bunch of Cobra Troopers captive during the show, but it seems kind of insane.   How exactly would it work?  Heck, maybe it’s just a regular portable prison that’s seriously electrified.





The last hing that sort of stuck out to me was both how well this episode ended with a riveting cliffhanger, yet at the same time it was totally ruined by the "Coming Next on…" segment.  There’s a bit where Scarlett, tied up and taken prisoner by Destro, manages to finagle her crossbow to fire with her feet, taking out the control panel of the escape ship that Destro is piloting…





The whole idea of them plummeting to their sure death was a great way to end the 4th episode…





But just as we cut to the coming attractions, there’s a scene of Scarlett running down a hallway.   How anticlimactic is that?


Tomorrow I’ll be back with some more G.I. Joe fun, a little surprise that will hopefully break-up all these Cartoon Commentary! posts.   Again, if you’re curious about listening to the Saturday Supercast where I talk about the original G.I. Joe mini series with co-hosts Jerzy Drod (of MLaT comics, the Art & Story podcast, and Sugary Serials) and Kevin Cross (of the Big Illustration Party Time podcast, not to mention a heck of an illustrator), then head on over to the podcast page at Sugary Serials.  The show spans over episodes 19 and 20, for a total of almost 3 hours of G.I. Joe conversation.



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Cartoon Commentary! G.I. Joe Episode 3 the Worms of Death…




I don’t know how obvious it is, but I’m really excited to be podcasting again.  As some of the long time readers might remember, this site started at a platform for a podcast I was doing on my nostalgia memories, but what I discovered pretty quickly is that I had a difficult time getting across the type of info I wanted without having to basically write the whole thing out as a one man monologue show.  Though I talk to myself all the time, the act of sitting behind the mic to record it by myself feels pretty damn weird.   I’m no Spalding Gray, and I have absolutely no yearning to do stand-up, so finding that comfortable place to podcast from is hard.


At the same time though, I love listening to podcasts, and I really want to give a little back to the community, particularly when I see a niche that needs to be filled.  I really think the Saturday Supercast is going to go a long way in filling that whole, which is a deconstruction of cartoons (as well as some other similar fare, but that’s for later.)  There are a lot of fun shows out there that focus on a particular cartoon franchise, but most don’t stray too far past "OMG" and "It’s so cool when…".  Granted, it’s hard not to, with any interest in a subject, this is typically the first sort of gut reaction, but it’s only part of the equation.  Anyway, I just wanted to say again, that I’m having a lot of fun with the new show and I hope some of you take the time to download an episode or two and can get into it.


As I mentioned on this past post, we released the second half of the G.I. Joe discussion, so I thought I’d spend the rest of the week talking up G.I. Joe.  Though I was weaned on He-Man and Star Wars, G.I. Joe was the main franchise I grew up with.   I collected the toy line throughout most of the 80s, and it was the main cartoon that I ran home from school to watch.  There were a lot of other similar shows, and I’m pretty sure I watched most of them, but they were all second choice to G.I. Joe A Real American Hero.  This first mini series is a great example of what the show had to offer, in particular in the second half.  For this column I’m going to focus on episode 3, the Worms of Death which debuted on September 14th, 1983…





One of the things that G.I. Joe did very well was keeping the action and adventure thrilling in the episodes by ending each act break, and sometimes episodes, with a cliffhanger.  When we left off in the second episode, Snake Eyes had shut himself off in a chamber filled with radioactive crystals to save his teammates.  This episode picks up with a still breathing yet, glowing Snake Eyes plodding on.  Honestly, I have no clue what true radiation exposure might lead to (besides burns, sickness and death), but my guess is it doesn’t involve glowing pink (red if you get the new color corrected DVD set.)  Even so it makes for a great visual, and an interesting tête-

Cartoon Commentary! G.I. Joe Episode 2 Slave of the Cobra Master…




So the Saturday Supercast Jerzy Drozd, Kevin Cross and I recorded recently was pretty mammoth.  We ended up talking about the 1st G.I. Joe cartoon mini series for well over two hours and it was decided to break the show in half to make it easier to consume.  This worked out pretty well for me, at least in terms of spacing out these Cartoon Commentary! posts to coincide with the podcasts.   In the first episode we cover a lot of the basic stuff involved with the mini series as well as diving into the first two episodes.  For this column, I’m going to concentrate on that second episode which originally debuted on September 13th, 1983 and was titled Slave of the Cobra Master.





Again, it’s hard not to get wrapped up in the massive amount of Cobra branding that was thrown in for this first mini series.  Above is a nice example of some of the background artwork used to illustrate the Cobra temple.  Not only does that snake make for an awesome temple topper, but it’s also a conduit helping to direct the energy bursts from the M.A.S.S. device.  Also, it’s kind of interesting how intertwined snake imagery was with action entertainment in the 80s.  The cold blooded reptile’s use in G.I. Joe is pretty obvious, but it also served as the design for the obviously named Snake Mountain, Skeletor’s castle in He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.  Then there are the intertwined snakes in Mumm-Ra’s headpiece on the Thundercats show, and of course I was a huge fan of both the first Conan movie and Clash of the titans, and the duo of James Earl Jones’ Thulsa Doom and Harryhausen’s version of Medusa terrified me.   Anyway, it’s just a thought…





One of the reoccurring themes in the Joe universe is Cobra Commander’s megalomaniacal Caesar complex (written into the Writer’s Guide), which is illustrated quite well in the first two cartoon mini series’ with the Cobra gladiatorial arena fights.  In the A Real American Hero mini, the fight takes place between two mind-controlled opponents, the captured Duke and the slave giant Ramar.   Again, this is interesting, at least to me, in that it works in fun action, a couple elements of the fantastical, and even a bit of world history, though that last one is a stretch.   Either way, it’s fun and again it works to define the character of Duke who never backs down, not even when the odds are stacked against him.





In fact Duke’s smarts and tenacity are even admired by Destro.  Cobra Commander and Destro are each controlling one of the combatants (Destro has Duke and CC has Ramar), and in mid battle Destro relinquishes control over Duke knowing that he’ll be able to handle Ramar better under his own control.  As a kid I was never all that fond of Duke’s character, though a lot of that could be contributed to his bland character design (and granted it’s only really bland in comparison to the outlandish Joes that would follow and what made up most of my collection.)  Now that I look back at him I think that his simple (in terms of not being flashy) design works perfect for the type of character.  Just goes to show the differences in the two mindsets…





What’s also kind of weird in the Joe universe is that Cobra’s infatuation with world domination and wealth often takes the form of an accumulation of gold.  When CC and Destro make a bet on the arena battle the spoils are pieces of gold (which is also what CC uses to pay off the Dreadnoks in the second Joe mini series.)  I wonder if this was a purposeful way to avoid talking about money in the cartoon, like maybe the producers or story editors (Steve Gerber and Buzz Dixon) wanted to avoid as much real world strife as possible.  We also see gold used as the ultimate coveted element (a very fairy tale like quality to the writing) in its use as a way to escape the mind control devices.  When we’re introduced to Selena, the save girl with a heart of gold (oh geez, bad turn of phrase I know), she gives Duke a thin stick (think bubble gum stick) of gold that will allow him to shirk the headband’s power.  I’m also reminded of an episode of Transformers where there is a pool of gold liquid that when bathed in makes robots invincible to laser fire (great Beachcomber episode to boot.)





When Duke decides it’s time to use the gold strip to break the mind control it unfolds in a very odd way.  I was expecting Duke to be free to do what he wants, which is essentially what happens, though it comes in the form of redirecting the energy used to control the headbands into laser like beams that knock the controllers out of Destro and CC’s hands.  It’s more visually interesting, but it’s also one of those weird leaps in logic that the show is famous for.  To be honest, even as an adult I don’t mind these leaps.





There’s another subtle moment (like in the previous episode where the Baroness in disguise fingers her earring) in the sequence where Selena is helping Duke to escape via the Cobra Viper Glider (one of the few times in this mini series where the writing feels like it’s pushing the toys.)  As they’re talking his Joe class ring glimmers a couple times.  He eventually gives the ring to her so that she can both remember him and so that he’ll remember to come back and save her and the rest of the slaves.  It’s also another sequence to show off his lady’s man side (by the end of the series he’ll have both Selena and Scarlett hanging off him.)





In a weird turn of events, the Joe team rescues the scientist (Dr. Vandemeer) that unwittingly helped Cobra build their M.A.S.S. device.  He helps them to build their own M.A.S.S. device, which is sort of a odd way to combat the original problem on a couple of different levels.  On the one hand it doesn’t seem like a likely answer unless the goal is to use their device to steal Cobra’s device.  I mean they’re matter transference machines, not weapons.   Also, as Jerzy brought up in the Saturday Supercast, it sort of breaks the unspoken rule of using the enemy’s weapons against them, a concept highlighted by the plight of Frodo in the Lord of the Rings series.   It points to the idea of corrupting one’s self to combat corruption, which is pretty self-defeating in terms of a winning end game strategy.   On the other hand, this conceit opens up the plot of this and the following two episodes as both teams race around the globe in search of the rare catalytic elements that power the M.A.S.S. devices.  It’s not just a matter of trying to stop the other side, but scoring these elements for your own team in the process.  It helps set the tone of the series as a whole and it makes the mini visually stunning for all its environments…





The first location explored is the dreaded Sea of Ice in the Arctic Circle where the pink radioactive crystals are located in a cave guarded by Cobra.   I love this sequence because it features some of my favorite Joe team members from the 1st two waves of figures from ’82 and ’83.  Putting myself back in the 1983-4 mindset, I wasn’t all that fond of the basic green fatigue-wearing Joes.   I hadn’t read the comics yet, and I wasn’t paying attention to the file cards yet (and I think at the time my parents were still giving me figures already out of the packages so I didn’t even realize there were file cards to clip), so the characters that stuck out to me were the ones that had interesting visual cues.   First and foremost there was Snake Eyes, who completely decked in black stood out the most of the early Joes.  Then there’s Tripwire and Flash, both of which had cool-looking helmets (with the coveted visors), and the grey and red highlights (respectively) to the basic green fatigues that made them aces in my book.  Scarlett has always been a cool character, and for me she fell into that group of figures I never managed to get my grubby hands on, so I wanted her all the more.  And last, but certainly not least, Snow Job, who was one of the first Joe action figures I distinctly remember receiving (right before meeting up with my Dad after he got off work at a local Florida Red Lobster.)  The sense memory of a mound of empty King Crab leg shells acting as a stand-in for a snowy peak that Snow Job could ski across is burned into my memory.


Anyway, it’s in this set of scenes that we’re first introduced to the Polar Battle Bear snowmobiles, and the evil Cobra Snake Robots





Animation-wise, the scene when the group of Joes enter the cave has some really nice choice camera angles, not to mention some nice shading and shadows (which always tend to make the art look so much richer.)  As a funny side note, it’s kind of odd that Snake Eyes carries a walkie talkie with him seeing that he’s practically mute and all.  I will admit that it’s been pointed out that walkie talkies do have Morse Code buttons on them, and I realize he can listen in, but it’s still kind of oxymoronic.





Something else that caught my eye while watching this episode is the dynamics of telecasting Cobra Commander to the world during one of his maniacal world domination rants.   There are a couple of shots which showcase some of Cobra’s finest troopers running the TV camera.  I guess either Cobra has one hell of a cross training media department, or they’ve spent some time recruiting out of the various A/V clubs in high schools around the country.  It leads to the obvious question, is there a brigade of sanitation troopers roaming the various temples and the Terror Drome in full gear?


Also, even though it isn’t really that much of a miraculous bit of precognition on the writer/designers parts, I thought it was kind of cool to see a quick shot of a suburban home with a flat screen the size of a coffee table on the living room wall.  We’re pretty much living in that age I guess.  Now where’s my personal jetpack and standard issue tan & silver laser rifle?





I’ve mentioned it a couple times in these past couple of columns already, but I thought it was really interesting that the story editors make it a very clear point in the writer’s guide to stay away from using real world U.S. antagonists as enemies in the cartoon.   Instead, the unspoken guideline (I haven’t seen it stressed in print) was to show other countries as allies against Cobra. In this first mini series Cobra’s second major target of their M.A.S.S. device attack is Russia.  Cobra burgles an entire battalion of their tanks and soldiers, teleporting them to the temple base.   I do have to stress that I thought it was odd that this army didn’t put up any fight when they arrived, unlike Duke who practically took on the entire Cobra army by himself twice by this point.





Ron Friedman is the man responsible for the heavy lifting on the writing duties in this mini series (as well as the other three Joe Minis and the G.I. Joe & Transformers movies), and if there is one reoccurring theme that I kind of dig, it’s his inhibition when it comes to potentially offing or downplaying beloved characters.  Granted I’m sure these were decissions that the entire writing staff disscussed, but they tend to occur in his contributed episodes.  Of course his most famous coup in this department is killing off Optimus Prime in the Transformers flick, but he also intended to kill of Duke in the Joe Movie (changed after the animation was finalized and the reactions were coming in to Prime buying the farm), he helped Buzz Dixon depose Cobra Commander in the Arise, Serpentor, Arise! mini, and in this episode basically left Snake Eyes for the soon to be eradiated dead.  Honestly, the show hadn’t been on long enough to really garner Snake Eyes the "beloved character" status, but it was still a gutsy cliffhanger in my eyes.  I mean, unless you’re James Bond or Ursula Andress in Dr. No, there really isn’t any coming back from radiation poisoning so bad your entire body beings to glow.  The "good bye" scene with Scarlett was pretty touching too, with nice shot of Snake Eyes slowly backing up into the radiation cloud.





If the show was every going to be accused of product placement, it’s probably in the scenes involving Duke’s crazy escape from the Cobra compound.  First Selena insists that the only way out is by stealing a Cobra Viper Glider, which Duke of course does, and then proceeds to go on a wacky trip with a bunch of Cobra troopers in tow.  I say wacky because not long after Duke is airborne, he crashes into a tree, and then falls directly into the waiting cockpit of an idling H.I.S.S. tank.  He then speeds away in the tank, through a nearby swamp where he again crashes into an embankment, and then ends up falling into a pit of quicksand.  It’s daring and exciting, but a little bit too Benny Hill for my tastes.


Something interesting I noticed during this chase sequence was another (almost) product placement in the form of the Cobra Water Moccasin.  For a brief second while in the water we see a white Moccasin speed by the frame…





…which is kind of interesting in that the toy hadn’t been released yet.   Most everything that ended up in this first mini series, from characters to vehicles, was already available in the 1982-1983 toy line (with some exceptions like the Baroness, the S.H.A.R.C. which will show up in the next episode, and Duke – who was only a mail-away at the time.)  There was also an appearance of a Rattler-like jet which shows up in the fourth part of the mini, but my guess is that wasn’t tied in with Hasbro.  So the Moccasin showing up, in a different color no less, seems to point to the idea that the writers/designers of the cartoon had access to upcoming vehicle designs.   Either that or their rendition of the water craft struck a nerve at Hasbro who then put it into production.





Anyway, like I mentioned above, the last we saw of Duke he was all but drowning in a pit of quicksand.  What I love about this sequence, and it’s something I never would have thought to watch out for if it hadn’t been for Mark Rudolph’s description of camera angles and blocking in the original Star Trek show (on an episode of the Art & Story podcast), is how interesting it is when a scene is framed by close-up objects in the foreground.   I love the shot of the two Cobra troopers with their legs framing either side of the screen and Duke breast-deep in quicksand.  Not only is it visually interesting, it gives the scene a menacing tone with the soldiers towering over duke and being so close to the "camera" that viewers get a feeling of being too close to the enemy.  It’s a little thing, but it’s a nice touch.


What’s really weird about this sequence though, and what makes me wonder if there is something missing in this segment of the episode is Dukes sudden memory loss and almost death.   Honestly he seems to be playing possum until the Cobra troopers leave, and in the next scene he’s on a gurney being attended by Doc and all of a sudden everything is tense.  If nothing else, why exactly does Duke forget about the whole affair in the Cobra fortress?  It seems like a very weird cliffhanger ending to me.




In the final episode of this mini series there is a segment where Doc is trying to help Duke remember in some sort of sensory deprivation chamber (that looks an awful lot like the bacta tank in the Empire Strikes Back), and his memories are projected onto a screen.  In this sequence we get a glimpse of Duke’s childhood and young adult years where he’s fighting off bullies and being a football hero.  When we talk about this in the Saturday Supercast Jerzy recalled the fact that this sequence of Duke’s younger years was cut on the copy of the official FHE VHS tape for the miniseries.   It points to the idea that there are different versions of the episodes floating around.  I’m pretty positive that there are differences in the original broadcast episodes and the later syndicated ones, if only because as the years go on the restrictions of cutting in commercial time get harsher.  So I’m sure there are a lot of episodes that are missing segments and I have to wonder is Rhino, when they were putting together this mini series DVD might have gotten an edited set of the masters that was missing something.  It’s just a thought.


Anyway, this commentary brings us up to date with what we end up talking about in episode 19 of the Saturday Supercast.  Also, we should be posting the follow-up show, episode 20, in which we discuss the next three episodes as well as touching on some of the more modern incarnations of the franchise, namely the new live action film set to debut in August, the Rise of Cobra, as well as the lead up cartoon even that debuted this past spring called G.I. Joe Resolute.  Also, and I’m sure you’re tired of hearing me mention this, the season 1.1 DVD set of the original G.I. Joe cartoon (featuring this very episode) hit store shelves yesterday and is current available on Amazon for only $17.  Alright, pimp mode off.



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Cartoon Commentary! #14, Presto the giant killer…



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

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



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

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



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



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



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



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



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

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



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



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

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



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



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

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



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



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



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

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



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



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

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



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



…and oddly enough the giant as well.



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

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

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

Cartoon Commentary! #13, D&D in space, or more likely the other way around…



It’s funny how life gets in the way of website content updates. I was supposed (I say supposed, but that’s so self-imposed) to have this posted last week (as well as the 13th commentary on the D&D cartoon), but it had to wait until today. Hopefully I’ll have the next on up later, probably on Wednesday, and then it’s on to another show for awhile; something much, much different, say a comedy set in space for instance. Today though we’re going to keep trudging along with the dragons, fantasy, and underwear jokes. Wait, I think we are blissfully devoid of underwear in this episode…

The title of today’s show is The Lost Children, which originally aired on December 3rd, 1983, and was yet again written by Jeffrey Scott who took a stab at really pushing the envelope as far as some of the story elements go. I would have to call this the de facto Star Wars reference episode as we get everything from almost direct quotes, creature name dropping, similar plot points, and above all else a mixture of fantasy and science fiction.



The basic gist of this episode involves the gang, on instructions from a very oddly animated Dungeon Master (he appears very mischievous, almost evil at times), going on a quest to find a ship that can take them home. The key to finding the ship lies with a group of lost children, aliens from another world, who are also on a quest (to find their elder Alfor, who is being held prisoner by Venger.) Together they set out to free Alfor and, who they hope can use his spaceship to get everyone home.

Like I mentioned above, some of the sequences with DM at the beginning are weirdly animated, so much so that he also appears to be sort of villainous…



After the gang sets out to look for the lost children, they very quickly get their wish, though it takes them completely by surprise as the ‘children’ are a strange alien race that appears to be some sort of amalgamation between Willey Kit and Willey Kat from the Thundercats, and the Lost Boys from Peter Pan. At first I figured the kids were painted up in some sort of tribal war paint, but I believe that this might actually be their real skin…



So one of the interesting aspects of this episode is the mass amount of more modern technology that shows up, the first bit of which is a blowtorch used by a mystery prisoner of Venger. What struck me as kind of odd is the design of the device, which was very fantasy influenced (the tip of the torch is shaped like a dragon.) I’m wondering how much this was thought out in the script? We later learn that the mystery prisoner is Alfor, the elder of the lost children, so he’s obviously from another more technologically advanced planet and could very well have brought the device with him on his spaceship. Yet since it looks so fantasy oriented in it’s design, I’m wondering if it’s something Venger conjured up to assist his prisoner in fixing his ship. This question pops up again later as well…



Along with all of the weird technology in this episode, we also get a look at Castle de la Venger (mark IV.) His castle was shown again in the last episode, though I didn’t mention it because it was again one of the hanging stalactite abodes from before. Why he keeps castle hopping is beyond me, unless he really does like to spread himself out among the realm, maybe to keep all the indigenous people in line.



Another thing I noticed is that either Scott, the storyboard artists, or the animators decided to do the whole "see the footsteps of the invisible Sheila as she walks" gag when she decides to sneak into the castle by herself to free Alfor. I didn’t realize that they did this again in the series…



So getting back to the oddly advanced technology, Sheila stumbles upon a trap along one of the halls of Venger’s castle, a hanging cage that will fall down on top of you if you step through a laser tripwire. I mean, this is straight out of Mission Impossible or something (well maybe not the cage part), and it’s very out of place in the world of Dungeons and Dragons. Like the blowtorch, it begs the question of where it came from. Are these enhancements that Alfor has been forced to make on the castle, or is this simply the work of Venger? Personally I’d like to believe that Venger made Alfor install this stuff as it would really enrich the story and not come off as convenient writing.



Speaking of convenient scripting, when Sheila makes her way down to the dungeon to try and free Alfor (she has no idea what he looks like) she instead finds a guy who just happens to be Venger in disguise. How in the heck did he know to hide in the dungeon like that, or that she’d even come to the particular cell? It makes for a dynamic reveal (as most of Venger’s transformations do), but it really doesn’t make all that much sense…



Again, like in episode #8 (Servant of Evil), I though the obligatory dragon of the episode was going to have to be something that really stretched the concept of dragons in every episode, like the tip of the torch (or the prison gate locking mechanism in SoE), but again I wasn’t let down as a little while later we get a true dragon appearance. This one is pretty cool as it’s possibly another reference to the Lord of the Rings series (something we get surprising very little of in D&D) in the form of the steeds of some very Ring Wraith looking fellas.



Seriously, besides their one glowing yellow eye, they are very Ring Wraith-ish and very awesome looking minions of Venger. I don’t think we ever see them again in the series, which is sort of a shame as I’m insanely curious about their origins and I’d love to see a little more characteristics as they end up being dispatched in a very odd way (well actually in a very unseen way.)



Right about the time that the episode cuts for a commercial, the plot all of a sudden gets all wiggy. The Ring Wraith-like riders end up besting most of the kids, and it’s left up to Presto to literally pull something out of hit hat to save them all. Well, nothing comes out of his hat and then the episode fades to black to go to a commercial. This is very common in the series thus far, usually fading to black on a villain as they trudge towards the kids, and then as it fades back in it sort of backs up a couple seconds to pick up where the episode left off. In this episode though, the timeline jumps forward about ten minutes with the gang having defeated the riders, and are now posing as them (in the rider’s garb) to sort of Trojan Horse their way into Venger’s castle with Bobby and the Lost Children as prisoners. It’s a very Star Wars thing to do by the way, though it’s also a trick as old as time itself. There is pretty much no explanation as to what went down, only an off hand comment by Presto that he couldn’t believe that his hat saved everyone (or something to that effect.) Though it bugs me that there is a gaping plot hole like this, it’s also sort of a fun allusion to the way such cliffhangers were handled during the serialized movie shorts of the 30s and 40s. In a lot of those serials the hero would be in a very dire position as the episode ended, and then when it picked up next week the situation was re-written to be a little more in favor of the hero so that he could escape, triumph, etc. Probably not intentional in the D&D cartoon’s case, but I still found it a little neat.



Apparently, I opened my big mouth too soon as far as stating that the phase of having zombies pop up in the cartoon was over. There are just no more purple-ish zombies with white hair. In the next sequence as the gang smuggles themselves into the castle Presto mistakenly opens the wrong cell and a zombie-like creature jumps out and plays pro wrestler with him for a bit. There’s also a bit of anime-esque animation to the scene, what with the odd art on Presto’s teeth as he’s being lifted for the beat down.



The kids find the correct cell and release Alfor, who at first bore a striking resemblance to Ookla the Mok from the Thundarr the Barbarian cartoon…



…but upon closer inspection looks more like the lost older (more hairy) brother of Lion-O from the Thundercats. Eric also drops another Star Wars reference here, referring to Alfor as a wookie.



Alfor leads the kids to his ship, which turns out to be a spaceship with a design that reminds me of a cross between the H.G. Wells time machine and the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea sub from the Kirk Douglas Disney movie. It’s pretty snazzy in a 50s sci-fi sort of way, though very unrealistic as it has more holes than a block of Swiss cheese. I have to admit that I really like the whole romantic notion of space craft that have open canopies (or ones that lift up so that the crew can just jump out), it’s very much in line with the 60s Hanna Barbera adventure cartoon, or comic books from the same time.



There’s yet another Star Wars reference as Alfor explains to Eric that he needs to fix a bad motivator on his ship ("Hey Uncle, this one’s got a bad motivator…"). I’m not a technically inclined type of guy, but I’m pretty sure that this is just some weird techno babble from Star Wars.



Apparently it’s completely kosher to feature violence against the lizard men in the D&D cartoon (as far as standards and practices go) as this is the second episode to feature a direct energy bow bolt hit from Hank (there was one in the Servant of Evil episode as well.)



I wonder if this is sort of a double standard because there are obviously no real lizard men, they’re more like monsters and therefore it’s cool to have violence directed at them. It’s sort of like the robots on Samurai Jack, or how all of the blood and guts where allowed to be every color except red in Evil Dead 2 to avoid an X rating. I noticed a similar scene in the film adaptation of Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess’s Stardust, where a character had his throat slit yet the blood was blue…

One of the rumors that has followed the cancellation of the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon around to this day is that it went off the air because of the supposed ‘demonic’ content or the evil connotations that the tabletop game has been accused of having. A scene that a lot of people point involves Alfor’s ship as they gang and the kids pile in to escape from Venger’s castle. There’s a set of engravings on the ship which could be mistaken for three sixes, the sign of the devil, but I think that this is really reaching…



As the ship takes off, there is an odd reference to a port hole in the room (one which Venger brings to life with two sets of chomping teeth) as a garbage masher, which again seems to be a reference to Star Wars if only because a ‘wookie’ is flying them out on a spaceship with a bad motivator, blah, blah, blah. Add to this the escape (in the garb of the enemy) from the dungeon (read detention level) and it makes one wonder is Scott was watching Star Wars as he wrote the script…

To top all of this off, Venger ends up blasting the ship out of the sky, which appears to crash in a huge ball of flames…



When in fact the ship just sort of crashes nose first into a nearby swamp (an Empire reference perhaps) and every one is fine and dandy. Well, fine and dandy health-wise. I’m sure they’re all depressed and pissed that their ticket home is lying damaged in the swamp…



All in all, I thought that this was a really odd direction to take the show in, especially in it’s first season, as the writers hadn’t really yet explored the full potential of the fantasy themes and environments. Nonetheless it’s an interesting addition to the cannon and continuity.

Next time on Cartoon Commentary we’ll look at the episode P-R-E-S-T-O Spells Disaster.

Cartoon Commentary! #12, So many editorial wipes…



This week I’m going to tackle the last three episodes of the 1st season of the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon before moving on to a new show for a little bit. Today’s episode is titled The Box (a word that the movie Se7en has totally ruined for me as I find myself uncontrollably falling into the character that Brad Pitt plays, endlessly whining the phrase, "What’s in the box?"), which originally aired on November 26th, 1983 and was again written by Jeffrey Scott. It’s funny, though a couple other writers on the series ended up writing scenes where the kids almost get home, the two such scenes that Scott wrote both have the kids making it all the way back to their world, which I find both frustrating and amazingly interesting. In fact even though the series eventually ended with an episode that didn’t even address the plight of getting home, I’m glad the two which Scott wrote that tackled the subject weren’t at the end of the series because that would really have bugged me.

This episode follows the children on a quest to free a friend of Dungeon Master, Zandora, after they stumble upon a mystical box that belongs to her. After they free Zandora, she shows them the way home, though Venger is hot on their heels. Now back on earth, the gang has to make a hard choice about what they should do now that Venger is set to take over their home world as well as the D&D realm.



This episode opens with a very odd bit of background fun as Eric is washing his clothes after being sprayed by a creature with skunk like glands. It’s interesting to see his outfit separated out on the clothesline as you very rarely see cartoon characters out of ‘costume’ unless they have an alter ego or something. I mean when was the last time you saw the Sorceress in anything besides her multi-colored bird outfit? Of course, this is also another chance to see a D&D character in their underwear, which I swear is way too often for a cartoon that only lasted 27 episodes. There’s also a bit of a slight time warp in this scene as one second Eric is half naked and in a pond…



…and then he’s fully dressed and (I guess) aired out as no one brings up his stink again. The bit with the earthquake is kind of convenient, as the chasm that opens up just happens to be where a very mystical box is buried. Once again, I know it’s a cartoon and all, but this type of writing really hurts my head, and honestly it’s not relegated to the world of kid’s shows either. This sort of scripting is what ruined Spiderman 3 for me, as at practically every turn an amazingly coincidental event would occur, to a point where the plot became ludicrous. Anyway, that’s a bit off topic.



The box that is unearthed is called Zandora’s box, which is a play on Pandora’s box



Something odd that caught my eye in this episode are a couple of editing wipes that I hadn’t noticed in others. The first one is an iris wipe (an expanding circle which opens into a new scene) that happens as Eric stand dumfounded after Dungeon Master’s trademarked abrupt disappearance. Immediately after I saw this I couldn’t help but think of the original Star Wars flicks, as George Lucas is a notorious wipe enthusiast. Now that I’m thinking about it, placing a wipe like this in a cartoon is pretty counter-intuitive as wipes (I believe) are generally so stylistic as to draw the audience out of what they’re watching a little on purpose, sort of a nudge-nudge, wink-wink to reaffirm that what you’re watching is fiction. In an action cartoon, I’d think that the creators would want you immersed in the world as much as possible, trying to avoid anything that would break a suspension of disbelief.



After the gang sets off on their quest to free Zandora from her box, there’s a fun bit of character development as Eric is fed up with blindly following orders, and he sort of plants his foot, strikes a very heroic pose, and attempts to make his first coup…



As soon as some bullywogs show up though, he’s back to his cowardly self. It was funb to see a moment like this, which reminded me a lot of both Starscream from Transformers, and possibly Destro from G.I. Joe. When the bullywogs show they also bring either a commander or the king of the bullywogs with them as one is obviously in higher-ranking garb.



There’s also a nice moment with Venger in his castle dungeon, where he’s just frozen one of his minions in a block of ice, which is apparently THE villain thing to do in the realm. If I had a dime for every time someone is frozen solid into a block of ice in this series I’d have like $0.40 right now. Anyway, it’s kind of fun to see Venger venting over the disloyalty of a background character just sort of thrown in, instead of him writhing his hands in villainous glee over the next trap he’s laid out for the gang. He’s actually interrupted by Shadow Demon, and then is sort of reminded that he needs to get those kids. Refreshing to say the least.



Another nice bit of subtlety in this episode involves a map that Dungeon Master gave to the gang in order to find their way to the shadow of Skull Mountain (where they are supposed to open the box in order to free Zandora.) The group follows the map to what they think is Skull Mountain (which looks nothing like it did on the map), though it ends up being a trap set by Shadow Demon and Venger. What I find interesting is that later, after the gang finds the real Skull Mountain, it ends up looking exactly like is does on the map. This level of detail is awesome, and is a great example of what is missing from a lot of similar shows.



There’s a weird bit as the kids approach the fake mountain and are pushing the box into its shadow. As the kids get near the shadow, it’s moving very fast as if the planet were spinning much faster than normal, but as soon as the box is within the shadow, it stops. Just an odd bit of physics, which could have been animated in a reverse fashion with the kids moving and the shadow standing still (instead of both moving.)



The location design has been getting pretty weird in the last couple of episodes, branching out into almost Escher-like landscapes…



As the gang descends into box (into a trap) they end up falling through the checkerboard floor of the dimension they entered, which again illustrates and interesting bit of animation. As the gang falls, the animators (and possibly Jeffrey Scott or the production staff) made sure they all of the characters have their legs in position to cover they crotches. Now I may just be reading into this, but I think it could very well be to avoid any further panty shots. I’ll have to see if this continues along with the rest of the episodes. Also in this scene we get a chance to see Hank tolling up his energy bow once again, this time as a sort of grappling hook and rope. I honestly don’t think I would have been able to write such weird uses for a bow and arrow into the show had I been writing for the series. I think by this point I would have opted to have the bow replaced by something more utilitarian or something, but that’s just me…



As the kids find their footing in the weird environment, a giant wasp, yet another mainstay of the tabletop D&D game, very soon attacks them. I thought it was kind of weird that the wasp’s stinger appeared so tentacle-like or soft. I guess the producers wanted to shy away from implying the characters might be run through by a giant stinger at any moment.



After the kids make it out of the box to safety, there’s another fun editing wipe. This time the scene changes from Venger’s (who is angry) point of view to the kids, so there’s a variation on the iris wipe in the form of a burning hole through a map wipe. This time I didn’t care that it took me out of the show a bit as it was such a flamboyant editing decision, which instead of reminding of George Lucas, made me think of old westerns of all things (I’m sure there is a TV show or a commercial or something when there is like a hot branding iron which sets ablaze some piece of paper causing a wipe; actually I might be thinking of the opening to Bravestarr…)



Finally in the revel of how subtly detailed this episode can be, the kids make their way to the real Skull Mountain. Even for this though, the rest of the map doesn’t resemble the area at all (which is now subtly ironic.)



After the kids free Zandora from the box (who by the way looks suspiciously like Dungeon Master, which reinforced my conspiracy theory I’d been working on that all of these quests were just ways that Dungeon Master found to screw with the kids), she promptly shows them the way they can use the box to get back to their home world. This brings up a sad moment where Bobby once again has to face leaving Uni behind, though this time he seems to get over it a lot faster. Heck, maybe Uni was even getting on his nerves by this point…



I really liked the sequence where the kids get back home, as it echoes the opening credit sequence, reintroducing the roller coaster car and the wiggy portal. If and when kids did get home, I would hope that it resembled this moment.



In a very strange twist on the gang getting back home, Venger confronts Zandora, easily bests her, and then flies his nightmare steed right into the box, chasing after the gang (in a strange visual that Tim Burton would similarly use as his headless horsemen enters his weird bloody tree home.) This brings up a little bit of hypocrisy, which we’ll get to in a minute…



As the kids pull to a stop on the coaster, which has brought them back home, there is a slight change in the art style, almost as if another animation studio took over for a bit. The kids look a lot more cartoony and with a lot less detail, not to mention the opening of the D&D ride which looks drastically different than it does in the opening credits (not only that but the little trademark symbol that is on the ride marquee in the opening sequence is left off in this sequence…)





Anyway, back to the hypocrisy. So Venger has enter the gang’s world and he apparently is just as powerful, not suffering at all from leaving the realm (as we’re told in past episodes that this is the case, which is why Uni can’t cross over.) What’s weird though is that the kids are stripped of their powers, which in the end just comes off as a little bit unfair of Scott. In an episode with a good bit of subtlety and nice character moments, it kind of sucks that we also have to deal with such inevitable conventions like these. In fact, it’s these dichotomies that I think lead to wanting more out of cartoons, or any similar media like comic books. Kids grow up, become more aware of what’s possible and then they want to instill this in the media that they love. This is one reason why, I believe, that cartoons and comics have become more and more adult with each passing generation. Kids that don’t want to grow up, bring their arrested development issues into their work. Just a thought…



The kids, of course, forgo their homecoming to lead Venger back to their home world (as they’re afraid if they don’t, Venger will take over Earth). I found this a little weird as the ride ends up talking them right back to the realm (under who’s command?; the ride is closed after hours), and not only that but right back to where they escaped the realm (which is on a rock bridge in a valley.) Again, of course, as soon as both the gang and Venger is out of the box and it’s moved to safety, the rock bridge has to collapse, effectively stranding the kids back in the realm (as that was the only place the box could get the kids home from.)



Zandora does trick Venger back into the box though (by hiding the kids weapons in it and then moving the box), trapping him in another dimension. Another dimension that that just so happens to also contain Tiamat (who apparently dimension hops in her spare not-fighting-Venger time), an ending that was crying out for that silly want-waaaaa music queue…



At the very end of the episode we get another brief appearance by Dungeon Master who is reunited with his long lost friend (who looks so much like him.) I guess seeing them both on screen crushes my conspiracy theory, but it does bring up the idea of a race of small Yoda-like wizards wandering around the realm.



Next time we’ll take a look at the Episode titled The Lost Children in which we’ll get so many Star Wars references you’d think we were watching a really weird episode of Droids or something…

Cartoon Commentary! #11, The unintentional transformation episode…



I’ve been thinking a little more about the format of this column again, and I think I might take a break from Dungeons and Dragons after episode 13, which is the end of it’s first season as well as both the half-way point in the series and the point at which the writing shifts a little as Michael Reaves comes aboard to take over the heavy lifting for Jeffrey Scott (at least in terms of episode count.) I’m afraid that if I stick with just this show for another month and a half straight my commentary is going to get a little stale. So, I’m going to get through (at least) episode 10 this week, and then next week we’ll hit the last 3 shows before switching gears and talking a look at another show (I’m not sure which one that will be yet, but I’m thinking something else will a low episode count.) Anyway, on to today’s installment of Cartoon Commentary!…

Episode ten, titles The Garden of Zinn, originally aired on November 19th, 1983 and was again written by Jeffrey Scott. The writing in this episode is probably some of Scott’s weakest, relying heavily on clichés (in particular some very over done sitcom clichés), as well as a nauseatingly repetitive theme of secrets and transformation, which almost becomes absurd by the time the 22 minutes are up.



The episode opens with a small twist of convention, this time with a creature of the realm running from the gang instead of vice versa. It’s actually kind of interesting as the fracas involves the gang scrounging for food, a concept that is lost on most cartoons, and particularly in role playing games. I remember a few times when various game masters I’ve played with made things like eating, going to the bathroom and sleeping pretty big issues as they wanted to instill a sense of realism in the gaming environment, much in the vein of the various Sims games. I’m sure there are plenty of people on both sides of the fence on the concept of showing characters doing day to day things, but I’ve always been a fan of it, if only because it makes it all that much easier to suspend my disbelief of the world I’m being shown.



Of course, this scene also features the quickest appearance of our obligatory dragon, as the creature being chased appears to be a baby dragon (who acts strangely like a chicken.) The scene is also another example of madcap/Looney Tunes style humor, what with all of the fudging the bucket, head smacking, cloud-of-dust-raising hilarity that ensues. This is a style that comes and goes during the series, and to me it’s always out of place as the concept begs for a more serious tone. Sure it’s a cartoon aimed at kids, but that doesn’t mean the writers have to succumb to outright physical comedy, and again, this is just my opinion.

The sequence takes a turn for the more dramatic…well, it will, after a crazy sitcom convention, you know the one, where someone fishing has got a really big nibble and try as they might they can’t reel it in? Yup, that one. Well, the rest of the gang comes to the aid of Diana who is fishing, and together they manage to pull a huge Nessie-like creature out of the water. According to the DVD notes this is a dragon turtle, which because of the wording, gets a pass on the obligatory dragon thing.



In the scuffle with the creature, Bobby steps up to attack only to have his forearm scratched on one of the turtle’s fangs. This is the turn to the serious as the bite is more deadly than it at first seems…



Before we get to the ramifications of the turtle bite, I’d like to point out another crazy issue with one of the gang’s magical items, though for once it’s not Hank’s bow, but rather Diana’s staff. Her staff is already a little weird as it sort of has telescoping powers, as well as the ability to come to her hand (as seen in the first episode when she’s tricking Tiamat into a dungeon) much in the fashion of a Jedi willing their light sabers to their hand. Well, at one point the turtle grabs her up and is about to eat her whole like a Twinkie when she jams her staff in it’s mouth (ala Luke in the rancor pit in Jaba’s palace.) Just like the rancor, the dragon turtle chomps down on her staff, snapping it like a twig. After the monster is dispatched though, Diana, very off the cuff grabs the two broken pieces of her staff and just sort of puts them together, all good as new. You know, I would really have loved to have been in on the training sessions these kids must have gone through with Dungeon Master…



As Bobby falls ill from the turtle bite and the gang is lost with no ideas on how to help him, Dungeon Master makes his first appearance and surprisingly doesn’t really help the kids. Apparently his magic has no effect on natural occurrences, which seems like poppycock to me (effectively an excuse to have the kids go on a quest to help Bobby instead of DM just curing him.) It’s scenes like this that really make the character hard to peg in terms of his disposition and power. Is he strong enough to do things like cure Bobby and send the kids home? Is he just toying with the kids in an odd attempt to teach, or is he really so polar in what he’s capable of doing? I’m not sure and the writers never really give any concrete answers, again, a convention of writing for children’s television, but not one that I enjoy.



It’s as this point in the episode where the writing takes a distinct step towards becoming more of a fairy tale as the gang is pointed towards the Garden of Zinn in search of a yellow dragon (whose foot holds the curative powers that Bobby desperately needs.) The garden turns out to be the equivalent of your basic Disney magical kingdom



…complete with an evil queen bent of ruling the land.

The best part of this sequence is when the Shadow Stalker is introduced (there are actually two, but we don’t meet up with the second until the next sitcom cliché.) I really like the design and voice acting on the Stalker, the latter of which was done by Frank Welker  (who voices Uni) in a precursor to his voice work for Dr. Claw (from the Inspector Gadget cartoon.) I could so see the Stalker becoming the Boba Fett of the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon (you know, how like in Empire and Jedi, even though he has a pretty small part, he’s considered one of the coolest characters; see also Wedge Antilles)



The gang, stumbling on their way to find the Garden of Zinn, run into a very unassuming character named Solars, who bears a passing resemblance to an aged aardvark. He has them bring Bobby to his little hut where he’ll try and help the gang. Now almost all of the Disney fairy tale conventions are set into place (the last of which we’ll get to in a bit after some more sitcom conventions.)



The gang splits up leaving Sheila, Bobby and Uni with Solars, while the rest go on to find the Garden of Zinn and a definite cure for the turtle bite. Along the way their road forks, and while questioning the path to take Dungeon Master shows up. Or does he? Hank and Eric are suspicious, so they try and test him, which pisses him off. All of a sudden another Dungeon Master appears (will the real DM please stand up), bringing us into one of the oldest gags in the business, "which one is the real one". Seriously though, I think this has been in every single sitcom and cartoon since the beginning of time, and at this point it’s almost a cliché of a cliché.



The two fight it out and it’s only then that gang realizes who the real DM is, as one of the two merely defended himself instead of attacking. This introduces the first of a million transformations in this episode, as the false DM is revealed to be none other than the Shadow Stalker.



Of course, just as the kids are off on their way again with the new advice from the real Dungeon Master, we’re introduced to another bit of trickery as DM turns out to be a second Stalker. You know, if Hank was so wise to spot the first false DM (by noticing that he wasn’t speaking in riddles), I’m surprised that he didn’t notice the second, as he doesn’t mysteriously disappear after doling out the riddles like he always does. Oh well. This Stalker also has a transformation sequence, though it’s utterly pointless, unless you consider hitting the audience over the head with the fact that he’s evil beyond his Jack Nicholson-like sneer after the kids leave is purposeful.

Once again the gang come to an impasse, and for whatever reason we’re sort of forced to relive the last sequence as both stalkers take turns showing up as DM again. There’s more transformations (we’re up to four now) and deceit, though luckily it ends in a rather neat bit with the gang getting pulled underground by a bunch of crazy vines.



In the sequence that takes place underground we’re introduced to a staple of the D&D gaming universe, a giant Purple Worm (I’m pretty sure it’s a purple worm as it meets the description almost to a T.) Once again Diana gets a chance to show off her prowess (she did land a dragon turtle while fishing after all) by literally (though not very forcefully) beating the worm into submission with her staff, basically horse-whispering it to a point where the kids end up riding it up out of the cavern, back into the topside world.



Getting back to the fairy tale aspects of this episode, after the kids successfully face off against the worm, Queen Zinn decides that Eric is the perfect choice to be her king, a idea that sounds great to him after she basically plops down a ransom and buys his love. I can sort of see why Mark Evanier detests the character and possibly regrets having to leave him in; he really is played off as the fall guy for hammering home morality to the kids, but not necessarily in the best way. I mean, it’s always him versus the group, and that dynamic gets old after awhile, as if the rest of the kids are fallible or something.



Another this that this screen grab illustrates is the art style in this episode.  All of the characters look a lot more realistic and I think it’s a bunch of small details like the lines drawn under Eric’s nose, little things like that. 

Anyway, the Queen then takes the kids to the ‘yellow dragon’, which just happens to be a plant and not a giant fire breathing lizard. Not only that, but in a weird coincidence, the yellow dragon just happens to share almost the exact same color scheme as Eric, the Queen’s new husband to be. Just thought that was weird.



Back over with Sheila, Bobby, Uni and Solars, there is another slight animation error, a paint mistake that has Bobby’s hair color matching Sheila’s. This was sort of a fun error though as they are brother and sister and it would make more sense that they both have red hair, especially since it’s rather rare and genetic.



So in the true wacky (though I have to admit that it’s actually played off sort of subtly in this cartoon) cliché spirit, Eric is getting married to Queen Zinn by a very stuffy priest, yet the rest of the story is pointing to the fact that this union is going to be disastrous so the rest of the characters have to race against time to break it up. Pretty much you get everything except for the Queen hurrying along the priest. There are also some interesting backgrounds in this scene with a whole bunch of miscellaneous characters attending the funeral including a tiny green blob with huge eyes (which might just be a turtle), some dwarves and gnomes, and even an orc or two. Sheesh, you think the orcs would have tipped of Eric to the situation…



What I find the most interesting about this episode though is that we get to witness two characters dying (at least I’m assuming they’re dead, what with the charred out husks of their bodies looking the way they did and all), which is the first time in the series that this happens (not including the golems as they aren’t really alive.) Hell, maybe the Shadow Stalkers aren’t alive, but either way it’s a pretty disturbing scene, and it’s pretty interesting that it made it into the show considering how much the writers and producers seemed to care about such content.



So even though the Shadow Stalkers wouldn’t be transforming into Dungeon Master anytime soon, that didn’t stop Scott from writing in a ton more transformation sequences. The next involves Solars and Sheila, who after saving the kids from the Stalkers and helping her and Bobby, Sheila gives him a big teary hug. Well, in perfect Disney fashion, the grateful tears of Sheila just happen to be the one thing that can transform Solars back into the King that he truly is (we get a very obvious hint about this earlier in the episode when Sheila finds his cloak, crown and scepter.)



Of course, this transformation sets into action another, and of course it’s Queen Zinn’s spell firing back upon her. So we’re up to six now.



When Eric realizes that his bride to be is no longer the Leia-golden-bikini-wearing looker that he thought she was, he high-tails it out of there, complete with an insane double take sound effect (you know, the one that sounds like insane stammering, something like, "eyeyaeyeyaeyeyaeye".)

Of course, this wouldn’t be a complete transformation episode without Eric changing his shape as well, I mean hell why not at this point right?…



He gets his unintentional wish to be transformed into a blue-faced baboon while grabbing Dungeon Master (who had finally popped up for real.) Then the whole episode ends in laughter, and yet I was just sort of sitting there thinking, "Hmmmm, that sure was a wacky episode. I think I’ll go shape-shift into someone who enjoyed this episode…"

Anyway, next time on Cartoon Commentary! we’ll take a look at the episode, The Box, and ask ourselves, "What is in said box?"