Week of Cartoons – Day 7: Animal-themed superhero team grab bag

March 28, 2008

thunderhobbit.pngFROM JASON’S BABYSITTER’S HOUSE — In a production studio basement somewhere in America, animators were throwing darts at a board covered with animal names.

ThunderCats was a smash hit. SilverHawks saw modest distribution. What kind of animals could they mutate into man-shapes next? THWACK! That dart stuck straight into fish, and TigerSharks hit the air. Rankin/Bass might as well have made LightningDogs, PlatinumPumas, or RhinoWolves.

The dying animation company needed a hit, and it didn’t really get one in TigerSharks — except that it strung along a legion of bratty fans like me, who curled up in a bean bag chair at the babysitter’s house in Salem, Oregon, every day after school to watch the epic tales Rankin/Bass churned out.

It turned out ThunderCats had the greatest staying power (I see the logo on the t-shirts of overweight, balding, middle-aged men all over the place today). TigerSharks, unfortunately, only had a one-season run and that marked the death knell for Rankin/Bass.

It’s too bad, because the company gave us some of the greatest Christmas and geek movies of all time, including those old stop-motion favorites: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, The Little Drummer Boy, The Year Without a Santa Claus, Jack Frost.

Surprisingly, the very same production house that gave us Lion-O, Jaga, Tygra, Panthro, Cheetara, WilyKat, WilyKit, and Snarf also gave us the animated The Hobbit movie and its successor, The Return of the King. It also made The Wind In the Willows, the Jackson 5ive cartoon, and several Pinocchio and Oz incarnations.

But I’ll always love Rankin/Bass for those three legendary, formulaic, afternoon cartoons:


ThunderCats (1985)


Part 2 | Part 3

You know this one. Feline heroes tag-team to take on Mumm-Ra, the immortal Egyptian-ish sorcerer. At times, the animation is very darkly reminiscent of comic book panels, but at others it’s almost Hannah Barbara in quality. ThunderCats was more or less a He-Man clone — right down to the magic swords, mix of tech and magic, and demonic henchmen. There was also a huge roster of unique “manimals” populating Third Earth, some aiding and some attacking the ‘Cats.

The pilot/origin story are linked above, telling how the ThunderCats fled their home planet, Thundera, and crash-landed on Third Earth with the Mutants of Plun-Darr in pursuit. Lion-O starts as a young child, but after waking from a long cryogenic sleep discovers he’s aged and wards off his enemies with the Sword of Omens.

Awesomesauce.


SilverHawks (1986)

I love Batman Beyond, but I think DC was stealing character designs and tech ideas straight out of SilverHawks. Super-powered costumes with armpit wings, inhuman strength, and a host of gadgets? Sounds the same. What set the two apart was that Terry McGinnis was wearing a suit while Quicksilver, Bluegrass, The Copper Kid, Steelheart, and Steelwill were actually bionic beings who sacrificed part of their humanity for their new machine bodies.

Okay, so Mon-Star is a bit of a transparent “yeah, this is the bad guy” name. But the show wasn’t going for subtlety — just pure 80s buddy cop adrenaline and explosions. It slapped you over the head with its police-in-space mentality, going so far as to make one character more or less a Texas ranger wannabe.

Do I need to point out the R2-D2 whistles and warbles that Copper Kid used to communicate? No, I don’t think I do.


TigerSharks (1987)

This one was really obscure.

TigerSharks aired as part of The Comic Strip, which I could swear aired on the USA Network, though I’m not positive. It was a long time ago. I could only watch it at the home of the lady who babysat me on Saturday mornings while my mother was at work, and it shared a tiny fraction of a half-hour slot with three other short ‘toons (Karate Kat, Mini-Monsters, and Street Frogs) in a strung-together-serials kind of way.

There’s not much to say about TigerSharks, for a few reasons: 1) It was so unabashedly a re-skinning of ThunderCats, 2) there were so few episodes produced before it was canned (like tuna), and 3) the only depth it had was under water.

Basically, a bunch of human crime fighters could jump in a special tank that temporarily mutated them into mer-fish-people-guys (a mako shark, a walrus, a dolphin, an octopus chick… A SEA HORSE?!). Their submarine could leave the planet of Lion-O Spaghetti-O Water-O and venture into space.

I’ll let it go at that.

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Week of Cartoons – Day 4: Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors (1985)

March 26, 2008


Part 2 | Part 3

jayce.jpgFROM JASON’S DETACHABLE CIRCULAR SAW — From the golden vineyards of France came Jayce et les Conquérants de la Lumière. You probably didn’t see it, even when it was imported to the US and translated to English in syndication.

Imagine taking He-Man and Transformers, putting them in the Large Hadron Supercollider in Switzerland, and bashing them together. Ta-da. You’ve got Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors.

This is more than just a little coincidence. Executive producer J. Michael Straczynski was a former Masters of the Universe writer and went on to do The Real Ghostbusters and Captain Power. The ‘toon’s writers also had hands in Inspector Gadget, She-Ra, MASK, and Centurions.

The premise has some pretty familiar elements: In Eternia a universe where sorcery is used alongside interstellar travel and advanced battle machines, an experiment goes wrong and radiation from a supernova mutates plants into sentient beings known as the Monster Mind. The leader of the Monster Mind, Skeletor SawBoss, drives the plant people toward galactic conquest.

The only thing standing in his way are the Masters of the Universe Lightning League, led by Prince Adam Jayce. With help from a space smuggler known as Han Solo Herc, a wizard called Obi Wan Gillian, a telepath named Teela Flora, and a wisecracking magical robot living suit of armor named C3-PO Oon, Jayce tries to defeat the forces of darkness.

Opposing him are Saw Boss’ henchmen, who can Transform change into a tank, Megatron a giant gun, a flying flail, and an AT-AT a four-legged transport.

Luckily, Jayce and company have all kinds of cool vehicles to help fight the Monster Mind. And guess what? The toys were for sale! You could own them! I had four of them! Wow! Who’s ever heard of a cartoon that has merchandising tie-ins? It was revolutionary.

The toys were amazing, though. Their schtick was that they disassembled and you could switch the parts out — all kinds of wheels, treads, buzz saws, lasers, torpedoes, grappling hooks, drills — you name it. The more you bought, the bigger and cooler custom Wheeled Warriors you could build. Mattel executives, you are geniuses. The toys didn’t really morph, though; that was left to Transformers and MASK.


Week of Cartoons – Day 2: The Best of Marvin the Martian

March 24, 2008

marvin01.jpgFROM JASON’S SECRET BASE ON THE RED PLANET — Okay, so I’m cheating. There were only ever five original shorts made starring Marvin the Martian, so a “best of” list is really damned stupid.

Marvin was created by (who else) Chuck Jones in 1948 for Haredevil Hare, which I dislike intensely because the prototype for Marvin’s voice is horrid. It’s a stupid, almost meek voice — not the superior nasal condescension we’ve come to love. You can still watch that episode on YouTube, but I refuse to post it here.

Marvin’s never named in the old shorts; he was supposedly called Commander X-2 around Warner Brothers but his name changed when the company decided to start marketing him in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He had instant appeal to kids like me, who were obsessed with outer space and serialized sci-fi.


Duck Dodgers in the 24th 1/2 Century

Here it is, right at the top — the absolute best Marvin cartoon, and the only one starring Daffy Duck (and Porky, for that matter). The rest star Bugs Bunny, but I think Daffy’s righteous rage is awesome.

The Earth’s supply of Illudium Phosdex, the shaving cream atom, is dangerously low. It’s up to Duck Dodgers to go to Planet X and claim its resources in the name of Earth. The only problem is that Mars sends a certain conquerer as well.

Incidentally, the Martian flag is a red circle on a white background. This proves conclusively that Martians are Japanese. And at 5:53, is that an interociter?


Hare-way to the Stars

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This is the one that gives Duck Dodgers a run for its money. Bugs wanders into a rocket by accident and gets blasted to an Escher-esque world of glass pyramids, antennas, and zig-zagging red space platforms. By a stroke of good timing, he interrupts Marvin just as our Martian legionnaire is getting ready to use Illudium PU-36 to destroy the Earth (it’s blocking his view of Venus).

Apparently, Martians are very long-lived, because Marvin says he’s been working on PU-36 for 2,000 years.

This episode is all about futurist concept art depicted in a very 1960s World’s Fair style. It also features the just-add-water aliens on scooters, which is a priceless sequence.


Mad as a Mars Hare

Astro-rabbit Bugs Bunny is tricked into exploring the surface of Mars and runs into a stubborn native who doesn’t want the red planet befouled by Earthlings. Marvin gets the drop on Bugs but accidentally misfires his time-space gun, mutating Bugs into a Hulk bunny.


The Hasty Hare

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General E=mc² sends Marvin with Commander K-9 on a mission to bring back one live Earth creature to Mars. Bugs Bunny is once again his target and succeeds in the first minute or so in making Marvin say, “You have made me very angry!”

How Buck Rogers can you get, you ask? Well, Marvin and K-9 break out the ACME straight jacket-launching bazooka.

Also, I just want to point out that at the end, when Bugs offers to sell a flying saucer with only 3 billion miles on it, that means the ship has traveled 0.00051 light years. Of course, at its closest, Mars is only 36 million miles from Earth (or 250 million miles at the greatest gap in the planets’ orbits). That means that theoretically Marvin’s ship could have gone from Mars to Earth 83 times already.