YouTube Cinema: Robotix

March 16, 2009

Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6
Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11
Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14 | Part 15

FROM JASON’S ROBOT AND DINOSAUR OBSESSIONS — Robotix was to LEGOs what MASK was to Hot Wheels. It had a limited release, an oh-so-brief flare of popularity, and then collapsed into obscurity when marketing agents turned their backs on it.

A product of Toei Animation — the Japanese studio that gave rise to both Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata — Robotix was a typical 1980s cartoon enterprise in that it was a blatant vehicle for a toy line.

The “Motorized, Modular Building System” made by Milton Bradley was comprised of interlocking blocks, gears, differentials, winches, tires, and sci-fi accouterments. It was a worthy antecedent to the far more successful LEGO Mindstorm franchise, and is surprisingly still sold today (though by a different manufacturer and distributor). Every set made is still backward-compatible to the original 1984 systems.

Those systems were the byproducts of a 90-minute movie which aired just once in 1985 as part of the syndicated Super Sunday. The Marvel Entertainment block ran several serialized ‘toons, including Jem, Bigfoot and the Muscle Machines, and Inhumanoids. It split Robotix into 15 six-minute shorts. Jem and Inhumanoids became popular enough to warrant full-length treatments, but at the end of their respective runs, Bigfoot and Robotix got stomped into cartoon purgatory.

I was five years old, living in Oregon at the time, and happened to see a couple of those episodes. Like any true 1980s man-cub, I was captivated by the Eastern animation idea of mecha; I was equally caught by the magnetism of GoBots, Transformers, and RoboTech, Exo-Squad, AT-ATs and AT-STs, Centurions, and of course Voltron.

So I was stupidly happy when a family friend (I believe it might have been a sometime babysitter) purchased a Robotix kit for me that Christmas. Certain clickable pieces, which themselves resembled smaller red-and-chrome robots, remained in my possession for years, finding an out-of-place life in the ol’ LEGO bucket.

They may still be there, hidden away in my parents’ attic, held hostage along with some action figures and comic books until such time as I give my parents some grandchildren.

Some awesome person posted the full Robotix series on YouTube two years ago, and it has yet to be yanked down on any kind of copyright claim, which is excellent because the ‘toon is only on DVD in the UK.

Helmed by Wally Burr, voice director of G.I. Joe the Movie, it’s rendered in the same detailed anime style of the 1980s’ most memorable 22-minute-long toy commercials. It’s also got some of the most interesting pulp plot elements: Stars going nova, lizardmen, giant robots, benevolent supercomputers, suspended animation, alien spirits transfered into machines.

And it seems as though Burr tapped some of his old Joe buddies — who geeks will recognize as some of the biggest names in the voice business — to star. There’s:

  • Peter Cullen, who was Pincher from GoBots, Zander in G.I. Joe, Optimus Prime in Transformers, and Cindarr in Visionaries.
  • Frank Welker, known for playing Scooter from GoBots, Megatron in Transformers, Torch in G.I. Joe, and Slimer in The Real Ghostbusters.
  • Pat Fraley, aka Marshall Bravestar, Krang on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Max Ray on Centurions, and Ace in G.I. Joe.
  • Corey Burton, who was Spike in Transformers, Tomax in G.I. Joe, and Dale from Chip & Dale’s Rescue Rangers.
  • Michael Bell, who had big roles as Duke in G.I. Joe, Lance in Voltron, and Prowl in Transformers.
  • Arthur Burghardt, who was Devastator in Transformers, Destro in G.I. Joe, and Turbo in GoBots.

Robotix also had narration by Victor Caroli, who did the same type of voice-over for Transformers: The Movie in 1986 and several of the television series’ episodes.

That, and many stylistic choices (such as the rock-anthem theme that’s one-half “who you gonna call” and the other half Max Hedroom), made it obvious Marvel was trying to capitalize on the Transformers craze and hoping to spur a similar sales frenzy.

Sadly, it didn’t work.

It’s a shame, because as such things go it wasn’t a bad story line, boasting a bit more complexity than most children’s adventures of the day. Of course, Robotix had the normal, innocent lack of moral ambiguity as most shows; the bad guys were determinedly evil, the good guys irreproachably ethical. But it also cooked up some interesting Cold War metaphors, and served them on a plate of techno-imagination to a pre-computer-literate audience.

Oh well.

I guess I pine a little too much for these old-style cartoons. They seem so much more detailed and rich and imaginative than the line-and-paint-bucket-fill computer-aided works aired today by Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network. And believe me, I’m tired of the modern “burps and farts are funny” and “wacky, zany people doing anti-social and ludicrous things” mentalities.

I wish we could go back to blasting through the universe in spaceships that look like oversexed submarines with fins, and exploring the jungles of exotic planets filled with dangerous and mythical inhabitants.

YouTube Cinema: G.I. Joe the Movie (1987)

December 15, 2008

“Behold the culmination of centuries! The ultimate fruit of hypergenetic manipulation, a weapon which no enemy can withstand… The pods will bear spores, and those spores will degenerate all organisms they touch, mutating them into mindless incompetent life forms!”

Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9

FROM JASON’S VCR — Back in the mid-to-late 80s, there were plenty of cartoon-promoting-toy franchises for a young kid to buy into. Every morning before school, I tuned into M.A.S.K.; after school were Gobots, Silverhawks, and Thundercats. Jayce and the Wheel Warriors and Voltron aired back-to-back on Saturday mornings, with Centurions, Visionaries, and RoboTech getting their share of my attention, too. Lucky kids with cable could even catch Robotix.

But just like every kid knew McDonald’s was the burger champ, there were two animated shows that all snot-nosed boys knew held top-billing: Transformers and G.I. Joe. A few kids might get their dirty little fingers on Battle Damage He-Man or a plastic Sword of Omens, but everybody had at least one Robot In Disguise or a few Joes.

So it was no surprise for any bright-eyed first-grader when Transformers the Movie hit screens in 1986. Sseeing it in the theater is one of my first film memories (Return of the Jedi was my first, and The Care Bears Movie my second, and then Transformers). I remember in third grade all the kids, fresh off the shell-shock of Optimus Prime’s death, were spreading rumors about an upcoming G.I. Joe movie.

This was big news. This was almost as big as the rumors that would spring up in ’89 about real-life hoverboards when Back to the Future II was released.

But the Joes never made it to the big screen. After all the hype, and after Transformers fell flat with a measly $5.85 million take, Hasbro broke the film into five parts and ran it on television. On one hand, that meant watching it on a 25-inch television; on the other, it meant seeing the flick for free.

What we got was pretty damned good, I thought, but it split my classmates into two camps: There were those who liked the new baddies (we’ll get to them in a minute), and there were those who were angry that G.I. Joe toys had gone to being somewhat “realistic” (if you can even call it that) to complete sci-fi fantasy.

Sure, Destro’s face was made of metal. People shot lasers, and flew person bubble-craft, and there was one guy who was kind of a snake. None of my friends thought any of that was too out-of-left-field.

But the movie transmogrified Cobra from a robotic-themed evil terrorist force to an organic one by introducing Cobra-La, an entire race of monstrous baddies based on old hollow Earth and reptilian myths.

After failing to capture the Joe’s newest gadget, the Black Entertainment Television Broadcast Energy Transmitter, Cobra’s forces under Serpentor’s command are beaten back into the polar ice. Cobra Commander leads them into the gates of Cobra-La, an 40,000-year-old race of hominid reptiles that retreated underground and left the Earth to humans. It’s revealed that Cobra Commander was really a 14th century nobleman and scientist who found a strange plant, and was transfigured into a reptilian when the plant’s spores exploded in his face.

This was no accident — it was the master plan of Golobulus, ruler of Cobra-La, who wanted Cobra Commander to wage war on the human race so Cobra-La could re-emerge as the planet’s dominant civilization.

Hundreds of years later, Golobulus is severely pissed at the lack of progress. He explains that exposure to the spores devolves mammals; he wrathfully uses them to fully change Cobra Commander into a talking snake, and reveals his plan to launch million of the spores into orbit. Once there, the plan is to use the BET to incubate the plants so they release spores into the atmosphere, falling to Earth and devolving everyone below.

Forget G.I. Joe for a minute.

Did you know there are really people today who believe in some of this malarkey?

Cobra-La is a not-so-subtle reinvention of Shangri-La, a fictional utopian valley in turn based on the Buddhist mystical city Shambhala. Both names have been mixed up for about two centuries now with a spectacular kind of pseudo-scientific nonsense that theorizes the Earth is actually hollow, with entrances at the polar caps that lead through an 800-mile-thick crust to interior rings where entire civilizations lives. Many of these folks believe there is even a miniature sun at the center of the Earth that powers the civilizations, drawing on the theoretical concept that the whole planet could be a Dyson sphere.

Believe it or not, there’s more.

These people actually, truly believe that gravity works differently the deeper into the Earth you travel, allowing ginormous plants (like the film’s spores) to grow. Supposedly, they are tended by a technologically and culturally superior race (or races) — and the theories crackpot hypotheses lacking any evidence suggest these subterranean dwellers are everything from the 10 lost tribes of Israel (Mole Jews) to snake-people (A.K.A. “dinosauroids”). Oh, and they fly UFOs.

Rodney M. Cluff, a Mormon crackpot (sorry for the redundancy), is even collecting funds for an Artic expedition that would supposedly take place in 2009, with the goal of finding the entrance to “Inner Earth” and visit “cousins of the Lost Viking Colony and the Lost Tribes of Israel.”

To explain away the scientific refutation of the Hollow Earth hypothesis, Cluff and his gang sub-intellectually molest the concept of S- and P-waves, and say 3D imaging of the Earth’s interior are faulty because of a mysterious “shadow zone.”

My answer to her is that scientists claim the outer core is liquid.
This is because S seismic waves do not pass through the outer core.
But neither can they pass through air or space. The P-waves that they
claim are passing through the Inner Core, are not. They bend around the
hollow core, like sound waves around a corner. The hollow core causes a
shadow zone on the opposite of the earth from the epicenter in both types of
waves. The shadow zone is caused because neither type of wave pass
through the hollow core of the earth. It’s all in the interpretation.

In a recent update to his site, Cluff writes:

We have eye witnesses that have been to the hollow
earth and have confirmed that the earth is hollow.

So maybe they’ll find Cobra-La. But I doubt it.

Back to the Joes.

What I haven’t mentioned so far is the cast. We’ve got Don “Sonny” Johnson as Lt. Falcon; the late Burgess “Mickey” Meredith as Golobulus; Peter “Optimus Prime” Cullen as Zandar and Nemesis Enforcer; wrestler Sgt. Slaughter as a glorified version of himself; and Frank “Megatron” Welker as Torch and Wild Bill.

A lot of the other cas tmembers may sound like no-names until you read through their IMDB bios. Then you realize they are still the backbone of the voice-over profession.

Corey Burton alone has 235 acting credits to his name, including Zeus in the upcoming God of War III, Dooku in The Clone Wars, and roles in Batman: Gotham Knight, Transformers: Animated, Justice League, Legion of Superheroes, Planet Terror, Bleach, Knights of the Old Republic II, Kingdom Hearts, Final Fantasy X-2, Samurai Jack, Batman Beyond….

Charles Adler has provided voices for Transformers (2007), Psychonauts, Johnny Bravo, Rugrats, Hey Arnold, Fallout 1 and 2, Rocko’s Modern Life, Timon and PumbaSonic the Hedgehog (TV), SWAT Kats, Tiny Toon Adventures….

Michael Bell has been in Ninja Gaiden Sigma, Cars, The Batman, Metal Gear Solid 3, Age of Empires III, Six Feet Under, Doom 3, the Ratchet and Clank series….

You get the picture.

This movie was everything it should have been: Overblown, cheesy, dragging in all of the old characters and giving us new ones. There were fortresses and traps. There were laser guns and monsters (check out the two Dune-ish worms in the Cobra-La climax). There was a romance, a death (or nearly. It depends which region copy you watch), character growth. There was a lasting impact on Cobra Commander (although he was partially transformed back into a reptile-man by Baroness later in the series).

Excuse me, I’m going to call my mother and have her ship my G.I. Joe toys to me for Christmas.