Monday, April 4, 2011

LORDS OF LIGHT! It's the Greatest Cartoon Ever

It’s always nice to return to a series fondly remembered from youth and have it live up to the memory.  (Heck, after seeing reruns of Automan, sometimes it’s nice just seeing ones that don’t induce nausea.) There are surprises seeing what holds up and what doesn’t.  The original Transformers cartoon is still a great deal of fun, while the similarly produced G I Joe faired far worse.  I credit the ability of robots to blow the bearings out of each other without getting stopped by TV censors. Luckily the old Marvel G I Joe comic series is being reprinted so I can read quality stories with the cartoon voices in my head…as opposed to all the other voices in my head, which may explain my focus on old cartoons. The old cartoon that both my regular voice and the voices in my head quote more than any other is Thundarr the Barbarian.
Thundarr was my absolute favorite cartoon as a kid, with the Herculoids a close second.  Back before we had Boomerang around these parts, my sister (because she’s that cool) made me a tape of a bunch of episodes of those two cartoons that I worshipped as child.  The Herculoids held up fairly well (considering it’s short length and simplistic stories and animation) predominantly on the sheer insanity of its character design.  My opinion of Thundarr remains unchanged; thanks in no small part to the stellar collection of famous comics creators involved in it  (writers that brought us the comic book versions of Howard the Duck, Conan, Groo and others, artistic design by Alex “Superfriends, Space Ghost, et al” Toth, and Jack “darn near everything” Kirby.)  My daughter heartily agreed with my assessment, that Thundarr the Barbarian is, indeed, the greatest cartoon ever made. (Although I’m sure the fact that there's a "Princess Ariel" involved helped quite a bit.)  While not as big a fan of the Herculoids, she did love Gloop and Gleep and can do a pretty good imitation of them (he said full of fatherly pride).

A short while after watching the tape we got Boomerang here.  This allowed more treasured memories to return; some that only a kid can enjoy, like Hong Kong Phooey and others that held up well enough for us to view together, like Magilla Gorilla. (You should hear our duet of “Making with the Magilla”.) It also allowed the recording of every Thundarr episode, providing for a more detailed analysis.

The one detraction to Thundarr is, despite far better writing and animation than The Herculoids, it suffers from beyond G I Joe levels of censorship.  This is a barbarian who only uses his fabulous sun sword to deflect attacks, and to cut up robots.  The Herculoids, aired in the much freer and more violent in a fun way (or vice versa) sixties, would permanently dispatch enemies with regularity. In any given episode they can be seen blowing their foes up or at least dropping them out of the sky.  In one extreme case, Zandor obliterates the evil alien kidnapper with his slingshot energy rock, and then the family steals the alien’s ship and has a hearty laugh about the whole affair as they fly home.

Even within those constraints…no cartoon can hold a candle to Thundarr, and Ookla is still the Wookie clone named after U.C.L.A. (This is true.)  There are, however, some things about this glorious show that hit me now, which I may have missed when I was ten.

As dipped in pure awesome as he is, Thundarr is dumb…very dumb…far dumber than a bag of hammers…really dumb hammers.   Ookla tends to have more clue about what's going on than he does. But it doesn't matter because his sheer awesomeness allows him to triumph over everything he leaps at.

This is evident in every single episode, which can be summed up thusly:  The trio rides around till they find trouble, then Thundarr leaps into it yelling, where he usually gets soundly clobbered at first.  Ariel figures everything out and comes up with logical, practical, and well thought out solutions that meet with a fair amount of success.  Sadly, her ideas usually don’t completely vanquish the foe du jour, because of some unforeseeable circumstance.  This requires Thundarr to save the day by REALLY yelling a lot and leaping at stuff...It's a beautiful thing.

Despite her lack of predicting the unpredictable in her plans (which feature such wonderfully insane items like a train on stilts), Ariel is remarkably useful for a female character in a series like this.  As a more typical example, Tara on the Herculoids is almost completely passive, pretty much standing around most episodes, giving Dorno advice on keeping out of trouble (which he ignores), and getting captured.   Ariel saves everyone's bacon several times a show, both with magic, and being the only one with more than half of an idea what's going on.  She also plays the authority role, as the only one who shows any signs of maturity, acting more in a motherly role than as a girlfriend.  In fact, sometimes it appears that any romantic relationship in the show is between Ariel and Ookla. Thundarr acts much more as the leader, holding himself above all relationships, and only showing interest in adventure. (Though there was one episode where Ariel suggestively, and VERY briefly wraps her legs around Thundarr after he rescues her from a fall.) It’s just a guess, but I think the censors may have been watching closely for inappropriate behavior between Ariel and Thundarr, so there's more Ookla hugging her in relief scenes.

In doing research I came upon some disturbing other roles of the voice actors:

Ookla was the singing and later the speaking voice of Fred Flintstone. (In fact, many guest villains and allies sound distinctly Fredish when met by our heroes.)

Thundarr was the executioner in Blazing Saddles and Men in Tights, and frighteningly the flasher in High Anxiety. (Even more horrifying, he was the Peculiar Purple Pieman of Porcupine Peak, “Ya ta ta TA ta Ta ta ta TAAAA”, from the Strawbery Shortcake mythos.)

Ariel played "the Lone Stripper" in a Happy Days episode...which leaves me feeling equally turned on and kinda soiled at the same time.

One thing that really hits home about Thundarr now is what a horrendously bleak show it was. There was one episode where they go back in time to the present (1980) and meet a spunky, intelligent little girl who helps them find everything they need to return, as well as navigate the totally unfamiliar world they’ve found themselves in.  Afterwards, they thank her and head back to the normal time of the show, leaving her full knowledge that she will, in all likelihood, die horribly in her early twenties due to the loss of atmosphere, earthquakes, tidal waves, and volcanoes. (The network made a conscious decision NOT to set the program in a post nuclear war environment, as that would be unacceptable for a kids show...but a random unstoppable, uncontrollable space accident was hunky dory!!  Sleep tight kids, have nice dreams!)

With all the old shows being remade as big action blockbusters these days, how has this gem been overlooked?

Also, based on some of the filler 'toons between episodes of the original tape my sister gave me. I want...nay see a live action MIGHTOR movie yesterday. I also would love to try whatever was being smoked the day the writers came up with the Robonic Stooges.


Brian said...

OK Jeff, first: trying to assess intelligence concerning a cartoon about a barbarian is like trying to analyze a toddler's ability to avoid candy (or things that look like candy). He's Thundarr (arr!!), act first, think later.

Second: Thank you THANK YOU (and thank you), for pulling together a fairly superb assessment and contrast of Herculoids and Thundarr The Barbarian. The two shows, for a long time, sat mingled in my memory like some cel-shaded 70's stewpot of Beefaroni and SpaghettiO's. Nice to see the details flesh out and the differences come to the surface.

Third: I'm SO VERY PSYCHED to hear here about the strong links between Thundarr and Mel Brooks. Come on Mel! If anyone could do Thundarr on Broadway, it's you Gov! Do it!!

I'm done. Thanks!

Jeff McGinley said...

first: touche', my friend.

second: Glad to help. Both were similar and had Alex Toth designed characters. (and weird voice actor links...Tara was the voice of Norman Bates' mother).

third: Never thought of the musical ideas, that would be awsome. The Demon Dogs Aria a highlight no doubt.

Scott Conger said...

Not so outa reach anymore..

Jeff McGinley said...

Gotta love those "burn on demand" shows. It lets so much more be available. The old crazy live action Challenge of the Superheroes can also be gotten that way. That one's long overdue for a post.

thanx for sharing.