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Cartoon Commentary! #10, Something Skeletal This Way Comes…

I ended up doing a bit of unintentional research on Dungeons and Dragons this weekend as I visited with a friend who is currently trying to perfect a competition chili recipe. While he was tinkering in the kitchen he let me look through some of the older (1983) D&D game books, in particular the Monster Manuel, and I started taking some notes on creatures that I remembered popping up in the cartoon series.  So sometime soon I’m going to have to put together an addendum post talking about these creatures, in particular the Griffon/Sphinx/Manticore from a few episodes ago, which has finally been identified.

This week’s commentary covers episode #9 of the D&D cartoon, titled Quest of the Skeleton Warrior. It originally aired on November 12th, 1983, and was written by veteran comic book and animation writer Buzz Dixon who has worked on everything from Thundarr the Barbarian and G.I. Joe to My Little Pony and Jem. I believe he began his career at Filmation, and then ended up working with Steve Gerber (who remember, wrote episode #7 of the D&D cartoon) and Jack Kirby on Gerber’s Destroyer Duck, before going on to write or story edit for a lot of the more popular cartoons of the 80s. Currently Dixon is spearheading a Christian manga comics company called Realbuzz Studios with partner Marlon Schulman. Quest is the only episode Dixon wrote for the D&D cartoon, but it’s an arguable fan favorite as Buzz ended up pushing the comfort boundaries a little by introducing more magic, as well as a frightful character, Dekion, who takes the form of a skeleton warrior.

This episode, like the last one, opens not on the children, but instead on a meeting between Dekion and Venger atop a mountain overlooking what we will soon find out is the Lost Tower of the Celestial Knights. Dekion informs Venger that he’s located the Circle of Power (the first of many possible Lord of the Rings references in this episode), which will (like the children’s weapons) no doubt give Venger the edge he needs to finally have complete control over the realm. The mysterious skeleton warrior cannot enter the tower though, so Venger sets him on a quest to meet up with the gang, tricking them into fetching the Circle for him.

We meet up with the gang crossing a perilous chasm on a rickety rope bridge in a scene where the animation appears to be very ‘off model’. In particular, Uni is drawn with huge flaring nostrils and an oddly almost forked tongue. Bobby also has a very anime influenced appearance with huge eyes and a very unrealistic oval for a mouth. The animation is also very different for Dungeon Master, who appears to actually look like Yoda, even more so than usual. In addition to being off model, the art is also very loose and almost sloppy at times.

On the flip side, as the children run into Dekion for the first time there is a very effective sequence which, when slowed down reveals the anatomy of a cartoon lightning strike in a very drastic way…

In particular I love that third cel, the one that looks like a piece of Frank Miller artwork. This is the cel that makes the whole lightning strike dramatic and amazingly effective. Man, I love being able to freeze these cartoon and look at them cel by cel, it’s really one of the great advantages of DVD.

In the next sequence we have another full on attack made by Hank, who sends an energy bolt directly at Dekion, who manages to snatch it out of the air and destroy it in his fist. I’m not sure if this is a strength of the character, or a weird reinforcement of the ineffectiveness of Hank’s energy bow in general. It seems like it’s only destructive in certain circumstances, and most of the time end up being pretty harmless.

Another aspect of the show that I’ve begun to notice as I’ve re-watched the series is the apparent lack of swords. Only a handful of characters have them, and those that do don’t really wield them (well, Warduke freezes both a tree and Dungeon Master in the 5th episode, and a few of the orcs have them in the 7th episode, though they are very quickly dispatched.) This episode is no exception as Dekion, instead of drawing his sword against the gang, removes it from its scabbard and throws it at Bobby with the apparent force of his own will. It comes off as odd when you think about it, I mean, practically, you could just pull it out and swing, but then that’s where I believe the dreaded Standards and Practices department comes swooping in with notes about ‘imitatable actions’. For the most part, the kids all have items that really don’t fall into this category, but even the ones that do aren’t showcased in a manner that would be harmful if imitated (like Bobby slamming his club on the ground; and as for Hank’s energy bow, most kids would probably remove the string if they could and pretend to fire it, since that’s what Hank is basically doing.)

In this same sequence, there is a slight animation error. After Dekion shoots his sword at Bobby, Sheila grabs it to face off with him, and you can clearly see that there is another sword drawn into the Dekion animation. In the next close-up shot it’s gone again.

As the quintessential example of odd art (not to mention being off model) for this episode, I present you with Eric, he of the amazing rubberneck family (cousins to Stretch Armstrong)…

There’s also a very distinct difference in style between the middle two cels and the fourth one, which you can really in both the level of detail, thickness of the line art, and the shape of the eyes. This entire episode flips between styles like this, so much so that I’m wondering if maybe more than one production studio did the animation. Maybe there was an issue with the original artwork and some scenes had to be quickly redone or something, I’m not sure. Either way, that’s one heck of a neck, even for a cartoon. It’s practically as long as his head is tall.

After Dekion tricks the kids into going into the Lost Tower for him, we get a chance to see a lot of new creatures which haven’t been featured on the show before, the first of which is a quick bit involving gargoyles. I’m not sure if these were added with the knowledge of the creatures existing in the D&D game folklore, but I’m betting it’s a possibility seeing as how many other more specific creatures from D&D were worked into the show.

Before I began watching this series again for the first time in 20 odd years, I pretty much had only one vivid memory from the show, which involved a sequence with Hank running up a set of stairs that were crumbling and vanishing behind him as he went, revealing nothing but the empty void of starry space. I was so excited to see that sequence in this episode as it both brought on a flood of nostalgia and reassured me that I did remember the show and hadn’t suffered from the odd effect of years gone by (where people tend to miss remember things, combining memories and such.)

Basically, the Tower functions as a sort of playground for fear, and end up acting a lot like the holodeck in Star Trek the Next Generation, where the gang is split up and seem to be in their own frightening world. Dixon wrote some of these sequences better than others (in particular Sheila’s fear of abandonment; she ends up in a huge flat expanse by herself), though all of them ended up pretty interesting in a visual sense.

Presto and Eric end up together, seemingly teleported outside of the tower into a nearby forest, where in a very weird turn of events a white sheet floating by covers Eric for a second and when it’s removed he all of a sudden has taken on the appearance of a donkey. This certainly seems to be a theme, at least in the first season, I assume to focus on Eric’s apparent vanity (much like in the Beauty and the Bogbeast episode.)

Also, and not to beat the weird animated sexuality into the ground with this series (I do believe the last of this is in this episode), but Eric’s transformation seems to also have been a, shall we say phallic one. Look at that schnoz?!? I probably wouldn’t have felt that it was as phallic as it appears if it weren’t for that odd indented ridge running underneath it. Hey, maybe it’s just me…

Just after Eric’s donkey make-over, we get a chance to see yet another set of creatures from the D&D universe, though I’m not sure whether they’re Vampires or Wraiths. On the one hand, they’re humanoid (as D&D wraiths are not) so they might be vampires, yet they also sort of have no legs and appear to float about like a wraith. Heck they might even be spectres, who knows. Either way they’re pretty cool.

In addition to the above creatures, we also get another odd beast that might in fact be either more zombies or possibly something new (as they walk through mirrors and stuff.) Maybe these are wraiths. Wraiths or Zombies, you be the judge!

In the last bit (I think) of odd sexuality in the D&D cartoon series we have a weird scene with Bobby and Diana looking into a funhouse mirror where the reflection shows the two characters aged in two very drastic manners (Bobby getting much younger, whereas Diana is very old; a scene that is also very much a reflection of a similar sequence in the 1983 film Something Wicked This Way Comes, though probably note a direct reference as the animation must have been in production at the same time the movie was being made.) In the mirror image of Diana we get to see what looks very much like her exposed breast, though I believe it’s not really the case, just a little bit of drooping detail that could very easily be taken as a nipple. I don’t know, I can see it as plain as I’ve seen Jesus in the wood grain of doors or the Virgin Mary in the texture of a pancake, but this is also a tendency that humans tend to have, projecting their own thoughts onto an image making them think they’re seeing what they probably aren’t, but again, you be the judge…

I do have to mention that Diana, in her extremely aged form, bears a striking resemblance to what I believe a combination of the two main creatures from the Dark Crystal would look like combined (the Skeksis and the Mystics), though I do realize that the two are actually halves, being split when the dark crystal shard was removed (they were known as urSkeks which look more like the gelflings than Diana above, but oh well.)

In the next scene we get our first honest to goodness Lord of the Rings reference in the D&D cartoon series in the form of a Palantir (or seeing stone), which Hank finds at the (I assume) top of the tower (along with the Circle of Power, which could be a reference to the One Ring, but it’s a stretch.) It’s even covered with a sheet, much like the ones that are revealed in the LOTRs books.

It’s at this point that Hank realizes that the Tower is putting the kids through tests of fear (this entire sequence also reminds me a lot of the scene in the Empire Strikes Back on Dagobah when Luke enters the marsh cavern to face off with his minds eye of Darth Vader) and he begins calling out to the gang through the Palantir, letting them know not to be afraid. In the sequence with Presto and Eric there is an animation error as the two realize they don’t need to be afraid anymore. As they two come to this realization they are transported to where Hank is, and just as they begin to teleport there is a cel (which has painted teleportation effects on it) flipped so that it looks like the kids switch places for a second before ending up with Hank…

The final showdown between Dekion, Venger and the kids takes place on a flat hilltop that has a very familiar set of ruins on it (Stonehenge anyone?)

Also, as the kids are about to hand over the Circle of Power to Dekion, Dungeon Master interferes, acting out of character, yet strangely like an actual D&D Dungeon Master might as he warns them not to just hand it over. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s always odd when DM steps in and changes things like this (or mysteriously blasts Venger from the sky for instance.)

During the ensuing battle with Venger, there is a very short bit of animation (taking advantage of the DVD format again here) in which he begins to transform Hank into a skeletal creature much like Dekion. The change is very slight (you can barely see it, even in the screen shots) but it’s a very disturbing image that I’m sure frightened younger viewers back in the 80s. This was a very common sequence in media entertainment in the early 80s, what with the end sequence in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the bathroom sequence in Poltergeist, and the water fountain sequence in Gremlins. Hey, wait a minute, they were all either produced or directed by Steven Spielberg!?! Holy crap, so he’s responsible for this onslaught of face melting in the 80s. Weird.

Again, the kids sacrifice a chance to get home for another character as they destroy the ring of…I mean the Circle of Power to free Dekion from Venger’s spell. There certainly a lot of transformation sequences in this cartoon series, at least six in these first nine episodes alone. I wonder is that’s a tendency in writing fantastical fiction or just a coincidence in this series?

After Venger is sucked through a tornado like portal, the now human Dekion summons his steed, a giant eagle (which could quite possibly be another LOTR reference considering there were possibly two others already in this episode.) Dekion makes a promise to return to the kids if and when he can find a way for them to get home, considering their last ticket was destroyed to ensure his return to human form.

All in all, Buzz Dixon, much like Steve Gerber, gave us a really memorable episode of D&D, one that was (or at least seemed) much more of the game’s world than we’d been seeing yet. I’m not sure if it was all of the side stories, but this episode just seemed a little more dynamic than the rest. Dixon also didn’t stoop to the obligatory dragon, and neither did the storyboard artists or animators, as there is nary a flying lizard in sight.

Next time on Cartoon Commentary!, episode #10, the Garden of Zinn, in which one of the characters actually gets hurt. Crazy!

Cartoon Commentary! #9, Where does Eric get all those wonderful toys?

So, moving right along, we’re going to take a look at episode #8 of the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon today, Servant of Evil. The episode originally aired on November 5th, 1983, and was again written by the most prolific contributor to the series, Jeffrey Scott.

The first half of this episode basically serves as a Bobby solo story as he’s left alone after the rest of the gang is taken prisoner during his birthday party celebration. Dungeon Master gives Bobby an amulet and send him on a quest to free his friends from the Prison of Agony, where he befriends a giant named Karrox and faces off with Venger and his lizard henchmen.

In a fun twist, this episode opens not on the gang, but instead on Venger’s Prison of Agony, in particular on a very disturbing shot of some depressing wraith-like creatures hanging onto some of the prison bars, moaning for freedom. This reminded me a lot of the scene in Beetlejuice when Alec Balwin and Gena Davis stumble upon the lost souls room. For a second I was hoping that these were more zombies, which is a possibility, though these look a little more in control of their senses…

The shot then pulls out to reveal the prison itself, which is pretty darn imposing for Saturday morning cartoon. The prison is suspended above an active volcano, which houses another one of Venger’s castles, up on top, on the edge.

The opening scene continues on, panning over to Venger, who is ruthlessly lording over yet another red haired slave dwarf. This time though, he urges a giant, Korrax, to be the one to throws the dwarf in the prison, as Venger is black mailing him to do his bidding. It’s a very disturbing scene, in which you can really see Venger enjoying his power, one of the rare times you see him with any sort of happy expression on his face.

The show switches gears then, catching up to the gang in the woods surprising Bobby on his birthday. Once again we see Eric with a strange Earthly item, this time a mask, and again it looks like it’s of Asian (Chinese in particular) origin. Where does Eric get all these wonderful things, stranded in this fantasy realm? Ah, unexplained, yet convenient writing to the rescue again.

Though the mask thing is kind of weird, it was pretty cool of Scott to bring in an element like a character’s birthday. The presents the kids dug up or made were pretty interesting as well, though a little on the wacky side, which is certainly an apt description for a good bit of this episode. For instance, Eric’s present to Bobby is a small box full of odd little creatures with two legs, no arms, and what appear to be large shiny olives for helmets…

It’s actually very much like anime in its execution (in particular I’m thinking of the work of Hayao Miyazaki and his penchant for placing weird tiny creatures in his films.) Now that I’m thinking about it, I wonder if some of these Asian details I’ve been noticing are because of the animation outsourcing? Like maybe these things were written into the scripts, but weren’t described in detail, so the animators threw in stuff that seemed normal enough to them? Hmm. See this is where my geek flag flies as well, because I’m interested in little details like this, yet I can’t imagine trying to contact Jeffrey Scott to ask such minutely detailed questions about cartoon scripts he wrote 25 years ago. Heck, maybe he’d appreciate it, but another larger part of me believes he’d probably think I was obsessed, like some sort of American version of an Otaku or something. Ahhh, fandom.

Anyway, as Eric’s creepy little olive hated things bound off into the forest with Bobby in tow, a bunch of new creatures, Venger’s awesome lizard men, show up to attack the kids. In fact for some reason these guys remind me a lot of the Snake Men from He-Man, but I’m not sure why exactly as I can’t remember what most of them looked like.

Possibly taking a cue from Steve Gerber, Scott has the gang take on the creatures in a more natural, less weapons as tools, sort of way. Hank even manages to bull’s-eye two of the lizard men with a double shot from his energy bow…

I’m wondering if there is a little bit of footage cut from this segment, in particular the scene with Sheila crouching to let Hank shoot the two lizard men. While I was looking online for D&D cartoon stuff, I came across this Spanish website with season 1 episode annotations, and for this scene the webmaster posted the following: "Cuando Sheila se agacha para que Hank pueda atacar a los hombres-lagarto vuelve a enseñar su ropa interior (esta vez es rosa)…", which roughly translates (via Bablefish) to: "When Sheila crouches itself so that Hank can attack the man-lizard returns to teach his underclothes (this time is pink)…" Granted, it’s a really rough translation, but it looks a lot like the site is claiming that either Hank or Sheila’s underpants were showing in the scene, and they were pink. Now I’m going to take an educated guess here and go with Sheila, and not just because the undergarments in question were pink, but because other than Presto, the only underwear we get to see in the series is Sheila’s from episode one, which were white, so I’m actually playing off of the "…(this time is pink)…" part. By the way, now I think I’m a crazy American Otaku, and I want to smack myself. Anyway, the rest of the notations the person made on their site, even translated horribly, seem to be spot on, so I’m wondering if there is maybe a different edit of the show in Europe (as it was released over there years ago, way before it saw a release here), or if they’re working off of memories from when the show originally aired in the 80s. I did notice that it was very hard to get a screen shot of the bolts connecting with the lizard men as it lasts for only a fraction of a second, which possibly speaks to the footage getting cut back a little, perhaps to cut out some rogue pink panties. Now I’m going to go hit my head against the wall until I stop writing dissertations on cartoon characters underpants.

As I mentioned before, this episode is full of super wackiness, including Looney Tunes-esque physical/sight-gags like the following…

I have to assume this was Presto’s present to Bobby, a present that apparently would have scared him right off his feet. Once again, I’m curious where this sort of gag comes from, the writer, the storyboards or the animators? Only Jeffrey Scott can answer that question and I’m not going to bother him with it, so it shall remain a mystery. Actually that’s not true, I’m sure a lot of people can answer it, but they’d all be bothered or think I was crazy.

As I stated above, this episode is sort of a solo Bobby adventure (at least in spirit), so when Dungeon Master finally makes an appearance, it’s to him alone (in fact he only appears to Bobby in the entire episode for once.) DM also gives Bobby a little bit of special consideration, I would assume because he’s the youngest of the group, in presenting him with an amulet that will protect him from Venger. The amulet also serves as a stand in for future DM appearances as he talks to Bobby through it, much the same as Ben Kenobi talks to Luke in the first Star Wars flick after Vader slices him into an empty crumpled cloak on the Death Star.

Another interesting thing I noticed in this episode is a tendency for the main characters to get angry when faced with danger or problems. Typically characters seem to express emotions like surprise, astonishment, determination, or fear (or honestly they just keep a straight face) but there seem to be more and more times (like when Bobby was frozen and had to watch Uni have her horn removed) when characters just get downright pissed. It’s odd to see heroic characters showing anger, at least it seems out of place to me, in terms of what seems appropriate (not by my standards, but by those imposed on children’s programming.) I think that’s why I love movies like the Goonies, where characters (and the actors playing them) seem to be freer to be honest, and when they get pissed, they get pissed. I think this is why I like the worlds Steven Spielberg helps to bring to life, because they seem so damn honest, whereas other flicks, and especially cartoons try to either sugarcoat things or force characters to react in non threatening ways that seem off.

For all of you who ever wondered what Sheila would look like with jet-black hair, there is an animation error as the gang is lead into the Prison of Agony by Karrox…

Also, at first I thought that this following gate lock on the prison was going to have to serve as the obligatory dragon for this episode, but luckily there is an appearance later on in the episode of a more or less real dragon. It’s still a really nifty lock though.

Here’s a shot of what Venger’s castle (version 3) looks like. I really dig the idea of having it balanced on the precipice of an active volcano, it’s really dramatic and seeming the perfect place to go about planning cruel deeds to play out on a bunch of hapless kids from another world…

There’s another odd moment in this episode, which features Eric with a real world item that isn’t explained. This time it’s a Spiderman comic book, which is actually sort of an in joke as the show was one of the Marvel Productions cartoons, and thus was probably free to reference some of the marvel properties (sort of like Man-Thing’s appearance in the last episode.) Where does Eric get this stuff? I can’t even attribute Presto as the source as Venger confiscated his cap before they were tossed in the prison. Just sort of weird.

There’s also another bit of subtle character development in the prison segment, where we catch Hank and Diana sharing a moment. I wonder is this was improvised or specified?

This episode also introduces us to another hero of the realm (in addition to Karrox that is), Strongheart, who once again had an action figure in the D&D line of toys produced by LJN. This was another figure that I owned as a kid, though I didn’t care for him all that much, probably because he wasn’t as cool as the Warduke figure (and I have to admit that I think I had a soft spot for all of my villain action figures because they always looked cooler.) I’m not sure if Strongheart is a character in the table top game, but his action figure comes with different accessories than what he ends up with in the show, so I’m betting that this is another reason why the line of toys was separate from the cartoon.

There’s a weird bit of background detail on a barrel in the prison that’s marked "Santory 1855". I’m not sure if this is supposed to be something reflected from our world, or if this is a date marker for the realm. I did a Google search, but I couldn’t come up with anything. I was thinking in might be a type of wine or something.

There’s an interesting four-armed monster that the lizard men set on the kids during an escape attempt. He sort of reminds me of Ray Harryhausen’s design of the Kraken from Clash of the Titans…

Getting back to the wacky, there’s a weird little bit as Bobby is crossing a small lake on a raft when he’s sighted by one of Venger’s lizard men. There’s this really out of place spring sound effect (think like a goofy "boing" noise) when the lizard man has a glint in his eye. The thing that kills me about this is that this must have been done by the American crew, as they would likely be in charge of the sound design in the cartoon. Actually this isn’t the only out of place sound effect in this sequence. When Bobby first gets on the raft there is a moment when he’s running where you can hear a sort of Scooby Doo scramble (you know that noise when the characters start to run and their legs are just going at like a hundred miles an hour.)

When Bobby frees his friends and Strongheart, we find out that he has a magical weapon too, a golden hammer. Unfortunately, we never get to learn what its power is, though I’m willing to bet it’s up the alley of Bobby’s club. In this scene we also get to see the character’s trademarked feathery helmet (well I say that, but I’m totally going off of the figure here.)

In one of the coolest segments of the episode, Venger has his lizard men take the children’s weapons to use against them. It’s interesting that they can use them (not to mention a while heck of a lot better) than the kids…

Okay, here’s the obligatory dragon, a two-headed lava dragon summoned by Venger after the kids more or less get into an equal stand off with the lizard men…

This episode once again jumps into wacky territory, though now it’s sort of super wacky as we get a very anime influenced expression of fear from Presto, and then a crazy Looney Tunes/Hanna Barbera floating eye gag. I’m really curious to know how this episode received such an insane comic twist, especially when you consider the overall theme of this particular episode is very dark and depressing.

It does revert back into a more or less serious tone when Karrox steps up to put a hurtin’ on Venger. First they get into a struggle in which Venger teleports them outside of his castle, and then in a very common sequence for this series, he tosses some magic at the giant only to have it bounce directly back at him (via the amulet that Dungeon Master gav to Bobby, which he then gave to Karrox.) This causes him to fall off of a cliff into the molten lava below, though he oddly teleports at the last second averting a certain doom.

Even though he appeared to teleport away at the last second, there is yet another crazy scene as Venger turns into a giant spire of smoke, though again, it’s very cool and well animated. This is one convention of the series that I am full force behind because it’s so pretty…

This sequence again illustrates the very anime influenced quality of the animation, something that shows like this and G.I. Joe (which was also animated overseas I believe) could certainly have stood for more of.

All in all this is another example of some really decent writing on the part of Scott, and one of the more interesting episodes of the series.

Cartoon Commentary! #8, Here comes Man-Thing!

With today’s Cartoon Commentary!, wherein I take a look at the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon, episode #7, Prison Without Walls, I may start showing my weirdly anal fanboy side a bit as I try and get some facts straight on this episode’s writer, Steve Gerber. See, part of the reason I started this column was to start connecting the dots, creator/producer/writer-wise for a bunch of the shows I grew up loving, but in order to do so all I have to go on is a few sources of information, namely IMDB, the DVDs themselves, Wiki, and the handful of people involved who have personal websites/blogs, or fans that have put up websites, all of which can be questioned to one degree or another on how accurate the information provided is. Lets take IMDB for instance. How many times have you done a search on say a television writer and some of the entries for a particular series list one episode written when you know for a fact that they wrote at least 12 or something.

There are similar inconsistencies with Wiki, and the reason for both is that a lot of this information is largely user supplied, and not by the actual writers/what-have-you. Personal and fan sites are great, but again, there are often inconsistencies or a lack of information. Of course there are also the credits on the cartoons themselves, but these are often not nearly in depth or specific enough, and seem to cover the entire season (if not the series) instead of crediting episode by episode (for instance, it’s common to see like 30 or so voice actors listed when there were only maybe 10 different characters or creatures in an episode.)

I’m bringing this up because I’m not positive on a few of the things Gerber is credited with. So lets start with some concrete stuff, shall we? Prison Without Walls originally aired on October 29th, 1983, was written by Steve Gerber, and is the only episode in the series where he received a writing credit. Gerber is the creator of Howard the Duck and has written a lot of stuff for TV and comics (including story editing the Transformers and G.I. Joe cartoons, as well as a run on the Man-Thing comic, which will come up in a bit.)

According to his website, he also served as chief story editor on Dungeons and Dragons, though it didn’t mention if it was for a particular season or the entire series. Hank Saroyan is the only guy I know for sure who was a story editor on the series according to the DVD set, but I’m also not sure exactly how writing for or being a story editor in a cartoon series really works. One the one hand it seems like some writers go off by themselves and bang out episodes, while at other times (based on interviews and stuff) it seems like it’s more of s team effort with the editor serving as a captain.

Either way, this episode certainly benefits from his years writing comics, as it’s one of the few to feature past continuity (if only for a minor detail.) Gerber also continued the theme of showcasing enslaved little people, though in this episode’s case, gnomes are playing the part instead of red haired dwarves.

The basic gist of this episode involves the gang questing to free a village of enslaved gnomes from Venger, who is using them to mine mystical gemstones for him. The kids quickly learn that they must track down Lukion, a spellbinder who has the power to free the gnomes from Venger’s grasp, but who is also himself a prisoner of Venger. By freeing Lukion, they believe that he will also be able to point the way home.

In the opening sequence, there is a slight animation error. After the gang hears a strange noise, Presto makes a statement, but both his and Eric’s mouths are moving to the voice work.

When the kids first stumble upon the gnome mining camp we get our first glimpse of the (more or less) obligatory dragon for this episode in the form of a giant stone statue.

Bobby, noticing how badly the gnomes are being treated by their orc captors, runs blindly into the camp to help them, which kicks off one of the more impressive fight sequences of the series, which also happens to be the first honest to goodness club on sword fight.

Also in this segment you can see that there must have been different animation houses working on the series as a lot of the quick moving or background stuff has a very classic anime appearance to it, which is more or less lacking from a lot of the shots in the series.

The rest of the gang follows Bobby’s lead, and even though Hank doesn’t connect with his shots, it still feels like he was trying to in the animation.

Even Diana gets a little more connective, as she vaults up and smashes some swords with her staff. All in all it’s a really dynamic fight scene that feels very honest to the world and for once doesn’t feel like it was creatively written around the interests of parents groups or any other standards and practices issues.

Heck, even Eric jumps in, protecting others with his shield, a very out of character though brave moment for him. It’s not until Presto tries his hand that we sort of see the action pulled back a bit, but then again it is Presto we’re talking about.

To round things out in the fight sequence, even Sheila takes down an Orc leader instead of her typical disappearing act that simple keeps her out of the way. I hate to dwell on this fight, but it really is a shining moment for the cartoon, and perhaps another benefit of having had a writer that is used to writing action in super hero comics.

In a nice establishing shot, we once again get to see Venger’s castle, this one a variation on the first, though much more streamlined which leads me to believe that it’s a separate castle (though obviously it could just be a side effect of a different animation house.) We also get to see that the realm (or planet) has four suns, each of a different color (which again, could be background info worked into the show, though it does play a specific role in this episode so who knows.) I like that they stuck with the hanging castle design, though I believe this is the last time we see a castle like this.

As far as Dungeon Master appearances go, this episode takes the cake with four separate scenes. There’s also a weird trend set up where DM sort of appears from out of nowhere when the kids aren’t paying attention (which could be a way of showing the audience that he’s always there with them, as sort of a comfort buffer; it’s also weirdly described in the series bible as him "popping up out of nowhere, or maybe he doesn’t…"; it keeps describing him doing something one way, than countering with "…maybe he doesn’t…"), and for once this is done very effectively as he begins talking to the gang and then emerges out from inside a log that Eric is sitting on. So far the writers have handled his disappearances much better than his appearances, but this one was pretty cool.

Speaking of Dungeon Master, the animators really upped his Yoda-ish influence in this episode, to a point where he even sort of waddles around like the master Jedi. Actually, his movements also sort of reminded me a little of E.T. with his hands sort of limp out in from of him and all. I wonder if this was in the animation notes, or what?

As far as new creatures go, the first thing we’re introduced to in this episode are some pretty strange and vicious violet mushroom-like things with freakish red tentacles. They’re actually very violent little fungi.

We’re also introduced to a second more impressive creature who comes to the gang’s aid; a giant lumbering plant-like monster who bears a striking resemblance to Marvel Comic’s Man-Thing

So, on the DVD there is a small trivia section that accompanies each episode (in the select a scene menu), and this one mentions that Steve Gerber created Man-Thing for Marvel, which makes this creature kind of an in joke of sorts. When looking up the character on wiki though, I found that he wasn’t created by Gerber (instead he’s credited as being the creation of Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, and artist Gray Morrow as he appeared in Savage Tales #1 in 1971), though Gerber would begin writing for the character in Adventure into Fear #11 (through #19) and would go on to writer his 22 issue solo series after that (becoming his most prominent writer.) Here’s a picture of the Marvel comics character for comparison to the creature in the episode…

There’s a much more obvious bend in the anime direction of the animation in this sequence where Hank ends up mistakenly ‘feeding’ the creature. Specifically in the top screen shot, Eric has a very classic anime appearance.

Though the kids aren’t all that sure about the monster as it seems to be just as likely to help them as to attack them, they are reassured that they’re on the right track by yet another appearance of Dungeon Master.

So, as promised in the Warduke episode, here are more sweet ZOMBIES! This sequence was more like an early 80s horror film than a fantasy adventure show as the gang finds an abandoned cabin in the swamps while looking for Lukion, the savior of the gnomes. While inside the cabin, zombies begin bursting forth from every imaginable hiding place (from behind curtains, from holes in the floor, from underneath the bed even), grabbing the kids, and I imagine frightening the bejesus out of all the kids watching at home. I especially love the shot of the Bobby-stalking zombie in this last screengrab…

Just as the kids think their number is up, Man-Thi…I mean miscellaneous swamp monster comes to their aid, knocking down the cabin and presumably destroying the zombies with it. Sadly, this is the last we see of any zombies in the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon, but heck if they weren’t awesome while they lasted. You know, now that I’m thinking about it I think the proposed third Ghostbusters movie (that’s reportedly being shopped around Hollywood as an animated feature) could do with a New York zombie infestation that the GBs have to take down.

There’s another pretty transformation sequence as the kids realize that the swamp monster is Lukion, trapped in a form where he can’t speak or perform magic (i.e the Prison Without Walls.)

From here on out the episode sort of takes a down turn for me as the gang and Lukion race back to the slave-mining camp to free the gnomes. Lukion places the heart of the dragon (a pulsating violet crystal gem) into the giant stone dragon right as the realm’s four suns align into what looks like the cross section of a giant glowing gobstopper. The suns cast a ray of magical light down upon the heart of the dragon, which in turn separates the ray into many beams with again reflect off of the gemstones in the mining camp. What we don’t realize at the time is that at every beam crossing there are directions to a portal into another place or world, one of which is the way for the gang to get home.

Of course, this is just as Venger pops up, throwing an energy bolt that destroys the junction at which the portal to the kids home world is.  The battle that ensues is kind of wacky, with Presto providing most of the solutions.

Gerber also uses some of the giant golems in this episode (like in the last one), as a battle breaks out…

During the fracas one of the golems scoops up Uni, at which point Bobby urges her to teleport (a small, yet very nice bit of continuity carried over from the Valley of the Unicorns episode.) I’m wondering if Gerber read some of the previous scripts, or if this teleportation deal was written into the model of the character? It sure wasn’t in the series bible, so I’m thinking it was either a notation on the character after the Valley of the Unicorns episode, or the writers had access to other writer’s scripts. Either way it was pretty cool.

After the battle, and after the kids are told about the destruction of the junction that would point to their portal home, the kids seem more depressed than usual. Of course there is the last appearance by Dungeon Master to try and pep them up, but it really doesn’t seem to work this time as the kids leave the camp dejected with heads hanging. I’m not positive, but I believe this episode holds the record for the number of times DM pops up (four, and not considering the episode where he’s kidnapped, as that’s not fair.)

Though I joked around about the Man-Thing-like creature, it was a pretty cool addition to the show, as was Gerber’s script for this episode. Actually, I guess I’m glad that it was a variation on Man-Thing rather than Howard the Duck that ended up in the show. Gerber also manages to make Hank, who is the leader by default, actually act a little more like a leader, as he’s giving commands and trying to solve the situations more like a commander than just the guy with the bow.

Next time on Cartoon Commentary!, we’ll take a look at episode #8 of Dungeons and Dragons, Servant of Evil.

Cartoon Commentary! #7, Cawamung-a dude!

Well, I missed this episode last week, but who’s really keeping track of a schedule right? It’s kind of weird actually, how I try and box myself in to themes and schedules, which helps to keep me focused and relatively prolific, yet it takes all the spontaneity out of blogging. Anyway, on with the show…

The episode we’re going to take a look at today is titled Beauty and the Bogbeast, which originally aired on October, 22nd, 1983, and was again written by Jeffrey Scott, the man who, by the way, has sort of written the book on how to write for animation (well, maybe not the book, but certainly a book, a well received book at that.) Like I mentioned last week, Scott has a nice record of long stints writing on the same show, which is sort of rare in animation, at least it appears that way.

In a fairly funny twist on the typical opening sequence (not the credits sequence mind you) where the kids are usually running for their lives, this episode opens on the gang on the offensive, stalking an invisible entity through what appears to be an area with a ton of lava. I’m not sure if this was unconscious or an attempt to sort of pick up from where the last episode left off (where Dungeon Master fought off Warduke and his minions by summoning an eruption of lava.) It was sort of jarring to see the gang working as a team, with all of their weapons/items glowing and ready as they surround the entity (which they’ve tracked via a series of foot prints), as they’re more apt to fight with each other than to work together. Turns out that it’s just Dungeon Master, but it was nice to have an episode start off differently for once.

DM’s guidance in this episode is very dynamic, much like in the first episode, with interesting visual aids (rivers running skywards and such), a practice that I believe is sort of rare throughout the rest of the series.

This is also one of the first times when the group splits up at the beginning of the episode (well, Eric storms off in the last episode for his mini adventure in the swamp, but that was more of a temper tantrum than the group splitting up.) It’s sort of weird now that I think about it because of the circumstances in the realm, what with the kids essentially being lost and all. It’s not like they could easily meet up at a destination or something. I’m wondering, though, if maybe I’m just projecting my own fear of getting lost on this situation. I think maybe it’s easier for other people to split up like this knowing that they could double back and wait at the last place they were all together (I mean is this common sense?) I don’t know, but again, later in the series you don’t see the gang split up all that often. The one thing I did like about the split was that it broke up the linear plot of the episode and made viewing a more interesting experience.

After Hank, Sheila and Bobby split off they run into a pretty cool metal giant…

After messing around it for a bit, the giant comes to life and attacks the kids, scooping up the brave Bobby and Uni. Right before he crushes them Hank once again ends up using his energy bow as a tool (and once again to get Bobby out of danger), in this case as a sort of flying carpet/witch’s broomstick, which Bobby and Uni ride to safety. I still find this incredibly weird in terms of trying to get a handle on the ‘rules’ regarding the energy bow usage. Does Hank have some sort of telepathic link with the bow in which he can switch it from being harmless (in terms of the arrows being constructed of energy) to dangerous (as we’ll see in a minute)? Or is there something more going on as he draws back on the ‘bowstring’ where he has control over what exactly will propel from the bow? I know it’s just a cartoon, but it fascinates me none the less.

At least after he saves Bobby, Hank uses his energy bow as a tool in a way that makes more sense as he fires a bunch of volleys between the giant’s feet, basically soldering them together so that he’ll trip and fall.

Granted, the giant/golem is constructed out of metal and might not technically be a living creature, but this is the first being that the gang willfully destroys, again, something of a rarity in the series, as well as cartoon in general.

Elsewhere, the rest of the group stumbles upon a river, though it’s not the one prophesied by Dungeon Master. Instead, we get to the gist of this episode as Eric, against the cryptic warning of DM, sniffs a flower, which ends up turning him into a frog-like bog-beast.

It’s kind of interesting when you consider the character of Eric, who is almost the opposite of the rest of the main cast. While everyone else is more or less heroic or brave, Eric is conniving, rude, self-centered, and basically a whiner, but more importantly he’s actually trying at times to do what the entire group wants to do, which is to get home. What’s interesting is that when refining the show and writing the series bible, Mark Evanier was basically told to leave the character in the show, as he would be the key to inserting the moral lessons which were rampant in 80s cartoons. Evanier talks about this on his blog (it’s close to the bottom of that link’s entry), and he has a really interesting point, that when you boil it down this is sort of disconcerting. See, this type of character will often be the voice of decent in the group and by the end of the episode ‘learns’ the right way to do things, which is basically what the rest of the group wants to do. As Evanier writes, it’s basically saying that you should follow the majority, which doesn’t necessarily come off as all that bad in these cartoons as the seemingly ‘right’ decision is written to be the view of the majority, but it’s still a bad way of thinking about things.

Getting back to the episode, it’s at this point where we get a second visit from Dungeon Master to sort of keep the kids on the right path, as Eric’s transformation is only half of what they are to encounter on this quest. It also possibly shows some of the limitations of his power as he explains that since he did not have a hand in the magic that changed Eric, he can’t undo it (as well as getting a self reliance message across.)

Though it’s a quick segment, there are a couple of small flying dragons that could count towards the obligatory dragons for this episode…

Of course, so could this serpent like dragon creature that Presto, Diana, and Eric meet up with in a swamp…

We’re also introduced to a whole village of bog-beasts, which look pretty freakish, what with their concentric circle eyes, and stuff. I think the females throw me off the most. It’s the long hair that does it.

There’s a second giant in this episode as well, Cawamung, who rules over this underground area and who is trying to drive the bogbeasts out of their homes. He seems to derive his power from his magic amulet, which I found kind of funny, as it’s a yin and yang symbol. Though in the end it fits, what with how the episode plays out, it’s still strange to see Chinese iconography in a fantasy setting, something that’s actually pretty pervasive throughout science fiction and fantacy.

Again, we see the slaves of choice are dwarves, predominantly red haired dwarves.

For a third time in this episode we see Hank uses his bow as a tool, in this case mimicking the action of a boomerang.

Unfortunately, it’s all for naught as Cawamung displays his real, hidden talisman/amulet. Seems kind of pointless to go to the trouble of animating such a weird usage of Hank’s bow when in the end it was all a waste (and pretty much a pointless one, as there’s no real reason that the end sequence had to flow the way it ends up anyway.)

Villains seem to freeze stuff a lot in this show, what with Kelek freezing the kids in the unicorn episode and Warduke freezing Dungeon Master in the previous episode.

I did like the gang pouring it on and basically realistically attacking Cawamung in the end. Hank actually uses his bow correctly (though he misses all his shots) and Diana does a little one on one physical combat with Cawamung’s head. Maybe it’s because I’m an adult now, or maybe it’s just that I’ve seen too many violent movies, but this just seemed like it was more of how the show is supposed to feel.

To top everything else off, the Gang actually makes it home, if only briefly. Though they saw the way home through a portal in the Eye of the Beholder episode, here they who group actually makes it back to the theme park (Uni curiously included and not appearing to be effective by the regular world.) Eric, though, isn’t returned to his normal self, and the rest of the gang is still in their realm wear, so it’s pretty obvious that it’s too good to be true.

Eric, returning to the realm because he can’t bear to live as a bog-beast, leaves the rest of the gang in a very tough spot. Do they abandon their friend and stay home, or do they once again sacrifice their desire in order to do what’s right?

I’m also kind of confused on the ending a bit as Eric changes back to his old self as the rest of the gang returns to the realm. I’m not sure if it’s because he gives up and accepts his bog-beast status or if it’s because he returned to the realm (which is what he hates the most, and what was in DM’s riddle at the beginning of the episode.) If it’s because he chose an option that he hated, e.g. staying in the realm, than this whole moral is sort of twisted. I think I’m sticking with his coming to grips with his vanity, as it just sounds better.

Again, as in the last episode, Dungeon Master makes a third appearance, this time to share in the happiness of the gang because Eric was changed back to normal. I think I enjoy this type of ending much better than the style where DM would pop up away from the kids and sort of gloat from afar.

This is the first episode that doesn’t feature Venger at all, again, another convention broken by Scott’s tenure on the show.

Next time we’ll take a look at episode 7, Prison Without Walls written by the guy who created Howard the Duck.

Cartoon Commentary! #6, with 30% more Dungeon Master!

So with episode 5 of the D&D cartoon, In Search of the Dungeon Master, we finally start getting into the show a little deeper as Dungeon Master becomes a little more active, and we’re introduced to screenwriter Jeffrey Scott, who ended up penning a third of the series, with 9 episodes under his belt. Scott, the grandson of Moe Howard, actually wrote for a lot of cartoons over the years, but more importantly he wrote a lot of episodes for each cartoon he worked on, which so far from my research is pretty rare. Typically it seems like writers get credited with a few episodes on a series, or they’ll have one series where they contributed a lot, but practically every show Scott’s worked on has been for 8 or more episodes, and in some cases entire seasons (Super Friends, Spider-Woman, and according to IMDB the Trollkins, though it also credits Mark Evanier on that project as writer, so I’m not sure if this is trustworthy.) For most of Scott’s tenure on the show he managed to push the boundaries a little past the basic conventions of the series, providing more back story, putting characters actually in harm’s way, or looking outside of the realm for inspiration. Of course he also penned the questionable Teddy Bear episode (episode 17), which is probably influenced a bit too much by Star Wars and the Ewoks.

This episode begins a little different than normal as the imposing Warduke, as a means of bartering with Venger, kidnaps Dungeon Master. This leaves the gang directionless with only the odd ramblings of a fairy to hopefully lead them to DM. Along the way they end up seeing how evil some areas of the realm can be as they try and help a band of Dwarf slaves.

Actually the gang is sort of on a quest at the beginning of the episode, looking for a talking tree, which hopefully will have the wisdom to tell them the way home. This is sort of a red herring though, as this quest is abandoned pretty quickly.

At the beginning of the episode we also get a quick glimpse into the world of Dungeon Master when he isn’t dolling out his Yoda-esque cryptic witticisms to the kids. Apparently he likes to spend his afternoons on leisurely snail rides while having some good conversation time with high pitch voiced fairies. We also get a chance to see him facing off with a bunch of bumbling toad creatures before Warduke shows up to abduct him.

I was surprised to see Warduke in this episode, as I have a bunch of fond memories of the character from childhood. Though I haven’t played the tabletop game (I’m not even sure if Warduke is a character in it), I did have the toy which I loved to death because he was so gnarly and evil looking. I’m not sure exactly how I came about getting him as a kid, but there was something awesome about his beady read eyes sunken deep with his winged helmet that I used to love. He also reminded me a lot of the weird villain goons from the two Mad Max sequels.

Where the toad men bumbled ad failed at getting a handle on Dungeon Master, Warduke simply sweeps in, chucks his huge sword into a tree where DM is escaping, and freezes him in his tracks. Apparently Warduke’s sword acts as a sort of freeze ray (maybe it’s the evil icy cold touch of death or something.)

Like E.T., we can clearly see that DM is still alright as the gemstone on his tunic is still glowing red.

The slightly annoying fairy from the beginning of the episode (who is voiced by Frank Welker doing a precursor to his voice-work for Slimer from the Real Ghostbusters) runs to get the gangs help in aiding DM. By the time they get to the area where DM was abducted, all that’s left are the crazy toad men. There’s also a couple of animation errors right after the fairy comes to fetch the gang, one where Diana’s hair is discolored red (actually more of an orange, Sheila’s hair color) for a second (though I forget to get a screen grab), and a seond one where Bobby and Presto’s voices are switched.

In the ‘fight’ that ensues, there is some more crazy bow work from Hank where he manages to use his energy bolts as fireworks to make the toad men flee. It’s kind of funny, I have to keep asking myself why I am so anxious to see the kids use their weapons in a violent manner instead of being so weirdly creative with them. It’s not like I’m a really violent person, or that I want to see the kids actually harm someone, but there’s something I find disconcerting about having weapons like a bow or a club introduced and they are almost never used the way they are intended. I guess it’s a lot like watching the Star Wars flicks, except instead of seeing Luke cutting off phantom Vader heads he’d be constantly making his light saber into a sort of light lasso or light whip. What if Obi Wan, instead of cutting off Walrus Man’s arm, switched on his light saber, sliced into the floor in front of Walrus man and a series of fireworks popped up that made ‘ol Wally run like the dickens? It’d be weird wouldn’t it?

At Least Diana seems to be using her staff correctly in the scene, at least in terms of how one would use a bo in a fight.

There’s another instance in this episode where Eric reaches under his clothing to produce a real world item, in this case a wad of $100 bills. Again, I realize that this is used as a sort of one off gag, but it’s really distracting from an otherwise sort of serious show.

There’s a nice quick scene involving Warduke sending Shadow Demon off to fetch Venger so that he can barter Dungeon Master away. It’s kind of cool to know that there are independent forces of evil at work in the realm as Venger has been the main villain, or the boss of the main villain in every episode so far.

This episode also features some mysteriously helpful winged lions (now I know these have a name and I was thinking of either manticores, sphinxes, or griffins, though none of these really fit the bill.)

Much like the scene in the first episode where Sheila is jumping on a horse and you get a weird panty shot, we also get a confirmation on what type of underwear Presto prefers. For the record he’s a striped boxer sort of guy…

There are a couple of other paint errors in this episode as well, one small one (that wasn’t worth getting a screen grab of) on the cliffs where Sheila and Eric’s eyebrows aren’t filled in, and a second where Eric’s glove mysteriously disappears for a second.

Jeffrey Scott sure as heck wasn’t holding back on the amount of new monsters and creatures in this episode. In addition to the Toad Men, the Warduke, the giant snail, a fairy and the winged lions, we are also introduced to this huge rock creature (with cool gem eyes I might add.) Also, it’s kind of hard to see but those white blades on his hands aren’t his fingers (though they sure look like ’em), they’re more like Wolverine claws extending from it’s knuckles.

With the introduction of a creature character like this, I guess Scott felt more comfortable having the kids fighting it directly, as for only the second time in the series Hank fires a few volleys of energy arrows directly at the rock creature. I’m wondering if the less humanoid the creature, or the more obviously it isn’t made of flesh and blood, the easier it is to do direct damage to it, sort of how Genndy Tartakovsky found himself replacing human villains with robots in Samurai Jack to appease the censors and parents groups, or how all of the gallons of blood in Evil Dead 2 were a variety of colors, except for red of course, so that they could avoid an X-rating.

If all of the creatures above weren’t already enough, than we also have a more starring role for the Orcs, which were introduced in episode three. Apparently they are the go to henchmen as they work for both Warduke, and later Venger.  The thing that struck me the most about the Ocs was their likeness to the Gamorean Guards in Return of the Jedi, what with their build, their horns (even if they’re on the helmets), and their piggish snouts.  Star Wars has a great deal of influence over this series as it was at the height of it’s popularity in the 80s, not to mention merchandised to the gills and back.  Hooking kids in with similarities is a no brainer and more or less to be expected of cartoons of the time.

Scott wasn’t done though; he is apparently a lover of all things creature, as we also get a quick snippet of some sort of tentacled swamp creature…

…as well as the most awesome thing ever for a Saturday morning cartoon, ZOMBIES! The Zombies will feature more prominently in episode seven, but it was so cool to see a lone creature of the undead wandering around the swamps of the realm.

Scott also introduces another long running convention of the series in this episode, which is featuring an establishing shot of Venger’s castle. Almost every time it’s shown from here on out it looks completely different and I’m not sure if it’s because it wasn’t described on a model sheet, so it was left up to the animators, or if the producers and writers were trying to get across the idea that Venger held residence all over the realm in many different abodes. Of course, a lot of the forthcoming castles are also destroyed, so that’s another reason right there.

I really liked the design on this castle, sort of like a huge stalactite. You don’t seem to find to many castles that are built to hang, almost more like a hive or a mud dobber (what is the correct name for a wasp’s nest?)

Red haired dwarves are common slaves in the realm, as we’ll see in further episodes. In fact if it isn’t dwarves, it’s halflings. Short folk get the crap end of the stick in the Dungeons and Dragons universe.

What’s that? You say that Scott didn’t throw in enough new creatures in this episode? Well then here’s a giant swamp turtle to tide you over.  Actually for all of the creatures showcased in this episode, I’m surprised that it also doubles as the first episode not to feature any sort of dragon.

In yet another scene where the gang uses their weapons like tools, it appears that Hank’s energy bolts can also be fashioned into a lasso. I suppose this means that he has some sort of psionic control over the bolts, as he seems to make them into whatever he pleases, not to mention as harmless as he pleases, as Bobby has ridden them before. Hank does have a cool moment a bit later when he shoot Warduke’s sword out of his grasp.

As the kids free Dungeon Master we get to really see him in action as he has a short fight with Venger in which he totally owns him, and yes, once again Venger is dissipated, though unfortunately not into some sort of cool towering visage. Makes you wonder Dungeon Master doesn’t just kill the guy off you know?

Anyway, this is the first instance where Dungeon Master and Venger are on screen together (well except for the opening credits, but does that really count?)  If Scott can be credited with anything as far as the series goes, it’s breaking out of the confines of the normal story structure that was set up in both the series bible and in the first four episodes.

Right after he’s done with that and the kids free the dwarf slaves, DM makes quick work of Warduke and his cronies as he causes the mines where Warduke made his hideout to fill with lava (I guess it was a dormant volcano or something.) It was kind of cool to see DM really letting loose with the destruction, though on another hand it’s also inferred that he let himself get caught (for the benefit of the kids coming to rescue him I guess), so that takes away from it a little. Either way it was a pretty dynamic episode, and one that would set the tone for the rest of the series.

Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at episode six, Beauty and the Bogbeast.

Cartoon Commentary! #5

Getting back into the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon this week, I’m going to pick up where I left off last time by taking a look at episode four of the series, titled Valley of the Unicorns. This was the last episode with input from Paul Dini and the first to feature a writing credit from the series producer Karl Geurs. Geurs would end up writing, co-writing, or coming up with the story for five episodes over the course of the show’s three seasons.

Valley of the Unicorns is the second episode to sort of feature a specific character (as the pilot episode featured Presto), in this case Uni, Bobby’s pet unicorn (possibly one of the least liked characters in the series as she’s voiced by Frank Welker with a sort of a high pitched braying.) The episode centers on a wizard, Kelek, who is hunting down the last herd of unicorns to steal their horns so that he can usurp their magic and become the most powerful wizard in the realm. After the gang comes to the aid of the leader of the unicorns, Sivermane, who is battling a pack of giant wolves, Kelek unicorn-naps Uni, thus leaving the gang to side with one of their greatest enemies in order to get her back.

This is the first episode which doesn’t open with the gang running away from attacking creatures; instead it opens with Silvermane being chased down by a pack of large wolves.

Uni apparently has some level of telepathic connection with the other unicorns as she reacts to the attack on Silvermane and end up leading the gang to the fray. Before that though there is a quick bit of subtly in a short scene that has Eric up on a rock cleaning out one of his boots (is it still a boot if it’s metal?) It’s little stuff like this that really adds a bunch of realism to a cartoon as there is no point in animating it, and we are talking about Saturday morning cartoons which are known for their economical storytelling, so it’s nice to see little things like this added in.

Anyway, I’m not sure if he was a character in any of the actual table top games or novels, but this episode introduces us to Kelek, one of the few characters appearing in the show that was actually part of the 1983 LJN toy line. I’m wondering if the producers of the show were given a list of the toys to possibly use in episodes as a way of cross marketing, even though the toy line was not produced off of the cartoon or vice versa.

When the gang joins the fight to help free Silvermane there are some scenes showcasing some creative usage of the kid’s weapons that don’t feature them used in a directly violent manner. For instance, instead of Bobby running up to the pack of wolves and busting some up the mangy mutts, he instead stops way shot, slams his club on the ground, which creates a mini chasm that the pups fall into.

Similarly, Hank’s aim is a little off with his energy bow and all of his shots seem to just miss the wolves, but to hit the ground at their feet causing them to fly up into the air and away from Silvermane. Diana is the one who uses her weapon the closest in a violent manner, though even she seems to sweep the wolves away more than striking at them. It’s getting a little closer to actual weapon usage, which I think is pretty cool for a Saturday morning cartoon.

In this episode we also learn that one of the focuses of the unicorn’s magic is the ability to teleport, an ability that is what draws Kelek to attack and capture them, as he wants the power for himself.

Uni hasn’t mastered the art of teleportation yet though…

This episode also features a kind of weird slight of hand where Eric manages to produce, it seems at will from out of no where, an object from his home world as he reaches behind him to pull out a note pad and pencil. Once again, I know this is certainly letting my nerd flag fly, and I do realize that stuff like this is fun to write for funny character beats, but not fun to explain in the actual episode. We end up seeing this a lot with Eric in particular as he ends up with everything from a wad of cash to comic books in future episodes. I wonder why it wasn’t written so that Presto is the one producing these items at Eric request? Maybe this is supposed to be inferred.

The one thing I really thought made Kelek a cool character was the manner in which he hides and calls forth his castle on command, raising up his arms to clear a spot in a huge briar patch, and having the castle burst forth from the ground. Really flashy, though after awhile I’m sure it would just get annoying.

There’s a sort of disturbing scene where Kelek reveals his ultimate plan for the unicorns and he ties Uni down and magically removes her horn, steal not only her magic but apparently her will to live as well. She loses all her color and is left a dull gray color. This sort of reminded me of the scenes where the Skeksis drain the life from a series of terrified Gelflings in the Dark Crystal.

Things get pretty emotional as Bobby and the rest of the gang are frozen in place, forced to watch the de-horning of Uni. I thought that this sequence was pretty intense as we watch waves of sadness and vengeance roll over Bobby, strong enough that he’s able to break through the magic that’s frozen him.

I also though that the layout of this following scene was really nicely done, as the kids are shot from afar walking to the secret area where the unicorns live, and Kelek and his wolves are show in close-up framing the right-hand side of the cel. Pretty dynamic for an 80s cartoon.

In this episode we also get to see just how powerful Eric’s shield is as it forms an energy barrier large enough to protect the whole gang from a ton of falling rocks. Makes me wonder what the extent of the powers are, and if given enough time would they have evolved at all (as say characters powers do in long running comic book series.)

This is also the first episode where Dungeon Master pops up a second time to give the gang more clues on how to achieve their goal. It’s the beginning of a short series of episodes that feature him as a more prominent character in the story, though if this was for the ease of writing (as DM is basically a walking deux ex machina) or to develop him more as a character is beyond me.

Also introduced for the first time in this episode is the concept of teaming up with Venger against a common foe, which is surprisingly quite common in this series. When I think back on all of the cartoons I watched as a kid and how repetitive all the situations and plots were, it’s sort of interesting that we’d end up seeing a team up with a villain as often as we do in D&D, as I think it was a lot rarer in other series, especially when you consider most other shows had four times the amount of episodes. I might just be remembering this wrong (which is why I’m writing these Cartoon Commentary! columns to begin with), but it seems like a much more common plot device nowadays.

There is a pretty fun wizard battle as Venger shows up in the nick of time to take down Kelek (and it also infers either a hierarchy of evil wizards or poses the idea that Kelek works for Venger), and essentially wipes the floor with him. Of course, in beating Kelek Venger also brings about the destruction of Kelek’s castle, which again furthers the idea that any large dwelling like this will ultimately be destroyed after Venger enters it.

As in the last episode, there is a brilliant display as Venger is dispatched in the crumbling ruins of the building, though this time instead of forming a giant spectral Batman symbol, it’s a tower of smoke shifts and changes into his likeness, which is forthwith blown away. I’m not sure exactly what happens to Venger in these scenes, but it sure as hell happens a lot over the course of the series and never really seems to do much other than keeping him away from the kids for a day or two. At least these displays are eye candy.

At the end of the episode as all the unicorns are returned to their mystical selves, and gather in their little colorful grotto, I was actually hoping for the gang to make a comfortable split with Uni, and not because she can be annoying. In the second episode, as the kids are on their way home the idea is brought up that Bobby won’t leave the realm without Uni, who in turn can’t leave the realm because she won’t survive outside of it. This effectively traps the kids in the D&D world as long as Bobby won’t budge on Uni and immediately puts the kibosh on them getting home in future episodes. Well with this episode there’s all of a sudden this wonderful Valley of the Unicorns that would be an awesome place to ditch the little brayer. The gang actually does leave her behind, which is sad for Bobby, but I was cheering nonetheless. Of course, adhering to the confines of the natural rhythm of a kid’s show, Uni has to burst forth from a multicolored waterfall to re-join the gang on their adventures, leaving behind her home and kind for the main characters. A touching scene to be sure, but horrible for the overall plot.

In this episode we’re also treated to a third appearance of Dungeon Master, though he stay hidden from the children to sort of gloat over what he’s accomplished. This is one of, if not the last time DM is portrayed in this manner.

Cartoon Commentary! #4

So I think I like the pacing of covering 3 episodes a week, though only 1 a day or so, pacing for the Cartoon Commentary! column. It’s also doing wonders for my ego in terms of output on Branded. Anyway, though, lets get back into the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon where we’ll be taking a look at the 3rd episode titled The Hall of Bones, which was written by a guy I’m actually a little familiar with, Paul Dini (he of Batman, Superman, Batman Beyond, and Justice League fame, not to mention the fact that he worked on shows like He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Ewoks, and Jem.) He also posts regularly to his blog, King of Breakfast, which I read every now and then. Dini worked on two episodes of the D&D cartoon, this one and the 4th episode, Valley of the Unicorns, which he co-wrote with Karl Geurs.

The Hall of Bones originally aired on October 1st, 1983. The episode centers on the gang’s weapons faltering, and the quest they are set upon by Dungeon Master to recharge them in the Hall of Bones. Venger, of course, takes full advantage of the now relatively powerless kids and manages to capture all of their weapons along the way.

The episode opens with the gang under siege by a flock of winged monkey men, which at first seemed really odd. Having never read any editions of the D&D Monster Manuel I can’t say for certain, but winged monkey men don’t strike me as the type of creatures that inhabit the realm, but heck, why not. They’re pretty intense in the opening scene, and frankly I guess I can typically give anything with a monkey a pass. I think I initially balked at the idea of winged monkeys because it felt so Wizard of Oz, and that wasn’t a vibe I was getting off of this show, probably because the kids are so proactive and not as bumbling as Dorothy.

Of course then I read the D&D Cartoon series Bible that Mark Evanier wrote (which is very keenly featured in the DVD Rom content of the series on DVD by the way), and it all became a little clearer to me. In the second line describing Venger in the bible it states that,"“[Venger] … is personified in this sinister version of the Wizard of Oz." Okay, I get it, Venger (who we quickly find out is the one behind the attack of the winged monkey men), though not based on the Wicked Witch of the West, is sort of the evil doppelganger of the Wizard (or more appropriately how the wizard was portrayed before the curtain was pulled back – I’m thinking movie here, not the book by the way), so it seems as if Dini drew a little inspiration from the bible and put in the flying monkey men.

So anyway, after the monkeys attack and the kids successfully hide in a pond (with handy reeds for breathing underwater) we are treated to another moment in which the animators either goofed up, or were trying to secretly sex-up the character of Sheila. As she climbs out of the pond, lifts and begins to wring out her cloak, she is revealed as being skirt-less (and panty-less even) in some subtle, but wholly inappropriate footage.

Seeing as this was only the third episode and we’d already been treated to two oddly sexual moments, I was expecting the series to be a secret breeding ground of psuedo-porn (um, not that I’m remotely excited by that, seriously), but there is only one other scene that falls into this category and it’s not sexual at all, cross my heart, so I guess either the animators were given a talking to or it was honesly just a few mistakes.

This episode also marks the first appearance of Shadow Demon, who would pop up through out the rest of the series as the loyal, sort-of second in command to Venger, always ready to spy on the gang.

There are a couple more production errors, as Dungeon Master appears to explain the situation to the kids and to set them on the quest to recharge their weapons. The first involves an incorrect mouth animation that has Hank’s character throwing his voice out of Eric’s mouth, which is sort of common in the first season of the show. The second error is a miss-painted cel which features Dungeon Master sporting much more hair than usual…

BTW, I realize these errors are common and sort of run of the mill, but I found them interesting while watching the show, especially later on in the series when they became less frequent, so I figured they’d be worth mentioning here in the commentary.

As the gang sets out on their quest there’s a sort of interesting couple of sequences in a town, which by and large seems pretty rare in the cartoon. Actually there are quite a few towns I guess, but it seems as if the gang doesn’t really spend time in them as much as being rushed out of them, or passing through so quick that you don’t really get a feel for the other inhabitants  and places of the realm. In this episode though, they spend a decent amount of time in the town, which is actually an odd place mostly peopled by various creatures and monsters which reminded me a lot of the cantina sequence in Star Wars (a movie series which consequently had a huge effect on the production of this cartoon as we’ll see in future episodes.)

There is a plot tangent that finds Eric and Presto playing street performer, having some gold piece thrown at them, which Eric promptly collects to use in a nearby tavern (probably for food not beer or mead or anything.) The tavern is full of rough trade (ala the cantina scene) and Eric quickly finds himself on the receiving end of an angry mob of orcs and creatures that want his gold. For the most part I really liked this tangent as it helps to flesh out the world a bit, but unfortunately it ends on a sour note as Hank, trying to save Eric, produces a heavy bag of gold (actually bottle caps) to lure the monsters away.

This kind of bugged me because it isn’t explained where the bag came from, and though I could guess it was Presto, I’d rather not, seeing as it would be an example of Presto producing exactly what he wanted out of his hat, which isn’t how the character is set up. Of course this is getting kind of nit picky, I mean it is a cartoon, and there is a ton of condensed story-telling involved in writing for a 22 minute show, but like the paint errors I thought it was interesting enough to mention. This sort of thing pops up from time to time in the series, and considering the kids are supposed to be trapped in a fantasy land it sort of sticks out, like as say a sack full of bottle caps would. Also it’s the perfect example of a Deux Ex Machina, which I’m not very fond of outside of absurd comedies.

So what would make up for a bad plot device like a bag full of bottle caps you ask? Well the introduction of a badass villainess with an awesomely dynamic character design like Loth, Demon Queen of Spiders, which the kids run into after escaping the tavern.

I really dig how Loth’s design is quite complimentary to Venger’s, with the addition of a bright yellow that, depending on her form speaks to either her being alluring and possibly friendly (beautiful female form), or sickeningly poison (as in her full on spider form, much like the red hourglass markings on a black widow inform on it’s toxicity.)

This sequence of the Loth capturing the kids in her web is also the first full on successful attempt made by Venger to capture all of the weapons of power, which is a feat I believe he only manages a couple more times in the series.

As another twist in the possibly influence that parent groups might have had over either CBS or the production of the show, Loth, in spider form, spins her webbing not from spinnerets on her abdomen, but from the tips of her claws. The only reason I wonder this is because she was shown in both human and spider form and I know that there is a convention in television for productions to avoid showing anything going in or coming out of people’s butts. Seriously, I believe this even extends to language as actors can say they put something on an ass, but not up an ass.

Shortly after the kids escape Loth (and once again after they avoid actually battling her and instead wait around as she basically defeats herself, well with Uni’s help), and after Venger has stolen all of their weapons, there is a continuity error as Presto, in close up outside of Loth’s cavern, is seen sporting his wizard cap.

There’s also a voice issue, as Hank’s voicework in this scene isn’t done by Willie Aames.  According to the special features on the DVD set there was an issue with Aames being able to make all the recording sessions, to the point where he actually called into the stuidio a couple of times and had his lines recorded over the phone in Grand Central Station, so it isn;t surprising, though a little weird.

In the next scene we see another bit of background plot unfold as Tiamat suddenly attacks Venger, which is a running gag during the series. Venger, who isn’t aware that the weapons of power have run out of juice, tries to use them, as sort of a conduit for his own power I guess, against the five headed she-dragon (who also serves as this episode’s obligatory dragon as she isn’t really important to the plot.) Since the weapons failed him he very quickly and pointlessly chucks them aside as if he could care less about these weapons that more or less have been driving him as the goal to his ultimate conquest. This was a departure in the episode that felt kind of weird as the kids scramble to get them back and take them to the Hall of Bones.

Honestly, I don’t know why they couldn’t have just followed Venger to the Hall instead of him all of a sudden losing interest in them, especially when you consider the next sequence in the story where he disguises himself as Hector the halfling (who fulfills Dungeon Master’s prophecy to lead them to the Hall of Bones.)

This is also the continuation of another convention of the show in which Venger disguises himself as another character to get close to, or to capture the gang. It’s actually only used once more, but it was used enough to seem like it was part of Venger’s M.O. It’s weird in this episode though considering he just threw the weapons away so easily a moment ago, but is now in full on spy mode to once again capture the weapons. Like I said, I don’t understand why Dini even bothered to have this portion of the story play out like this as it just seems like padding.

This episode makes one last odd turn of events as the gang, lead by Hector/Venger, enters the Hall of Bones, places their weapons inside of a giant energy radiating skull, and then are urged by a bunch of ghosts in the Hall to also enter the skull after Venger reveals himself. The gang does just this and they are teleported out of the Hall of Bones to safety…

…as the ghosts fight the battle with Venger for the kids. I thought this was really odd because it seems like the gang is sort of secondary to the episode, almost serving as Fed-Ex deliverymen for Dungeon Master to transport the weapons to the Hall of Bones. I’m not sure what they’ve learned or what trials they’ve really prevailed in as they didn’t really have a hand in doing anything but looking scarred a lot.

On the other hand the battle between Venger and the ghosts is pretty cool, culminating in an awesome sequence where the Hall of Bones is destroyed (a common theme with buildings that Venger enters) and the spirit/what-have-you of Venger emerges from the rubble in a most impressive manner (even mimicking the Batman comics logo a little.)

Next week we’ll take a look at the next three episodes in the series which will introduce us to the writing of Jeffrey Scott, a mainstay on Dungeons and Dragons and the guy who wrote the book on the subject of writing for animation.

Cartoon Commentary! #3

So jumping back into Dungeons and Dragons today, we’ll take a look at the second episode which first aired on September 24th, 1983 and was titled The Eye of the Beholder.

This episode was co-written by Mark Evanier (who was providing his last bit of input into the series as he did not stay on after the initial launch of the show), with help from Hank Saroyan, who also served as the Story Editor and the Voice Director on the cartoon, and Kimmer Ringwald, who is probably most known for his producorial (yeah I know that’s not a word, but I like it anyway) work on the Baywatch series. This is also the only episode credited to either Saroyan or Ringwald, though I’m sure Saroyan had plenty of input on further episodes since he was a Story Editor.

In this episode, the gang meets a wandering knight, Sir John, who boasts of great deeds though in reality he’s a coward grasping for his last chance at being an honorable knight. The kids are sent by Dungeon Master to find a creature called the Beholder, who when defeated will provide a portal back to their home-world, so they enlist the help of Sir John, who has some dubious ulterior motives of his own.

This episode sets the tone for the majority of the series by opening with a bang as the kids are immediately fleeing for their lives as a giant multicolored scorpion chases after them (after being woken by a annoyingly curious Uni.) As in a lot of the future episodes openings, the gang chooses to flee instead of holding their ground to fight, which makes me wonder if this is rooted in story structure or pressure from parents groups. It smacks of the Scooby Doo syndrome, just will less bubblegum pop music and much larger creatures.

Very soon we’re also introduced to the obligatory dragon for this episode, an imposing bipedal blue dragon that seems to be more interested in the scorpion than the kids.

In the scuffle we’re also introduced to Sir John who is obviously a coward as he curls up into a ball, butt in the air, hiding like an ostrich from the two creatures. If you watch closely there is a quick paint error in the animation as John stands up and brushes himself off, his glove/gauntlets seem to disappear as they become flesh colored for a second.

There’s another error, this time in the photographing of a series of cels as the gang is walking through a field of mushrooms. The bottom right of the screen shows that the cels were shifted enough so that Diana’s legs disappear and you can see the edge of the frame.

This episode is jam packed with various creatures and background characters. Besides the giant attacking dragon and scorpion in the beginning, there are also a group of slug/snail creatures, the eventual Beholder (which is taken from actual D&D mythology), and an entire town of people that Sir John is supposed to be defending.

Once again, when confronted with the slug/snail creatures the gang chooses not to fight, though they attempt to parry and block against the monsters’ assaults. It’s almost a theme for this episode as at every turn, when faced with danger, the group is written almost as victims for Sir John to try and save. Unfortunately, because he’s a coward, or trips into saving the gang, it sort of comes off as weird and unbalanced, especially later in the series as the group whole heartedly takes on the like of Venger or Tiamat without batting an eyelid. I think part of this is due to the series being new, and as I’ve mentioned before, I have a hunch that there was possibly pressure to limit the aggression and violence of the main characters.

This non-attacking theme is carried on through the battle with the Beholder as the gang blocks, parries or ducks for cover. By this point I was really getting tired of all this running and hiding, and it really began to feel like the characters were acting more like pawns of the writers than characters. On a separate note, the Beholder in this episode is kind of interesting in that it’s quite different from how they’re portrayed I the D&D role-playing game, at least according to wiki. I’ve never been fond of this sort of flying blob with eyes type of creature, but they must have been popular as they pop up in other places like the Doom computer games, as well as in Big Trouble in Little China (and to an extent Slimer from Ghostbusters.)

Though I didn’t really care for this episode all that much, I really liked the scene between Sir John and Venger (who is holding John’s son hostage to get him to lead the kids to the Beholder.) After John dumps the gang off to their doom he meets back up with Venger who is evidently an evil villain who keeps his word as he returns John’s son to him with no strings attached. It was rather refreshing to see a scene play out like this since this situation typically turns out sour for the person who ‘sells their soul’ as the villain typically doesn’t keep their end of the bargin. I think this is one of the reasons why I really dig Venger as a villain, and later on it’s moments like this that really show how well developed of a character he is.

This episode also marks the first time when the gang actually manages to open a window home to their own world, though it also sets up the pattern of having them make the hard choice to stay and help someone in the D&D realm, sacrificing their chance to get back. There are actually two reasons why the gang decides to stay in this scene, the first being Uni. Bobby, who is basically Uni’s guardian, doesn’t want to leave him behind even though I believe it’s sort of accepted that Uni wouldn’t be able to survive in their world. This is sort of a weird situation because at the end of the day it isn’t going to change as long as they keep the annoying little unicorn around as a mascot/pet. The second reason the kids decide to stay is to help Sir John, who in the end came back to rescue them, and is now being attacked by Venger.

Once again we see the kids, on the offense and to the rescue even, not really fighting Venger. In fact the only time he is even fazed is when a bolt he shot at Eric is reflected back upon him. To top it all off, he’s dispatched by a mysterious red bolt of energy that more or less remains unexplained, though we get the idea in the end that it came from Dungeon Master, who is laughing himself silly where the group can’t see him. This just raises the question again about how involved is DM, and what is he capable of doing interference-wise.

Since the show is based on a table top role-playing game I’d have to say that Dungeon Master should really only be the type of character that describes settings and gives hints, like the real world counter part he’s acting as, though it is common for the Dungeon Master/Game Master/Story Teller to play a character in their own campaigns, which has always sort of bugged me as a player. As we’ll see in the next few episodes this dichotomy is addressed further, though later on, in the 2nd and 3rd seasons DM takes on a more classic guide-like position, stepping back from the group a little. Again, I think this is more of a stumbling at the beginning of the series as the editors and writers are feeling their way around the world they’re creating.

Tomorrow, the Hall of Bones.

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.