Saturday morning cartoons have rarely been “good” exactly, but they were especially miserable in the 1980s, as animation companies like Hanna-Barbera and Ruby-Spears pumped out an obscene amount of shows designed expressly to promote toy lines, create ancillary revenue streams for existing franchises, and exploit trends in popular culture. Prime examples of each appear on the two-disc, five-hour Saturday Morning Cartoons 1980s DVD set, and though the shows themselves are often excruciating to watch (with a couple of key exceptions), the set’s a useful cultural artifact, archiving some of the worst of a terrible era.
For the worst of the worst, head straight to The Biskitts and Monchhichis, two post-Smurfs sensations about mini-societies of adorable furballs. There’s a touch of Robin Hood to The Biskitts, as cute lil’ canines pester an evil king, while Monchhichis concerns a magical world where fuzzy tree-dwellers stave off attacks by The Grumplins. The two shows range from the inane (as evidenced by Biskitts dialogue like “you really saved our tails”) to the cloying (as evidenced by a Monchhichis plot that has the little monkey-things trying to retrieve the “Tickle Crystal” that runs their “HappyWorks”), but they do effectively sum up what a large chunk of children’s entertainment was like in the ’80s. Equally on-point and almost as awful: The Flintstone Kids, part of an insidious ’80s trend toward infantilizing existing franchises by making well-known characters freakishly small. The jokes here are lamer and the animation cruddier than the original Flintstones; the show’s lone saving grace is that it lacks a laugh track.
The set’s samples of early ’80s sword-and-sorcery come off much better. The pre-He-Man Thundarr The Barbarian—which featured behind-the-scenes talents of Jack Kirby, Alex Toth, Steve Gerber, and other comics heavyweights—looks too stiff, but its post-apocalyptic premise smartly combines elements of Conan, Kamandi, and Star Wars, making it a good sampler of the era’s geek-culture. Galtar And The Golden Lance (technically a Sunday afternoon cartoon, part of the syndicated Funtastic World Of Hanna-Barbera package) offers more conventional fantasy storytelling, but is at least visually imaginative. Then there’s Dragon’s Lair, which has the dubious distinction of sporting animation worse than the videogame on which it’s based. Dragon’s Lair takes a lighter approach than its fantasy-toon contemporaries, and makes some amusing attempts to reflect its source material, by ending each act-break by asking the audience to decide what the hero should do next.
Continuing in the “extending the brand” vein, Saturday Morning Cartoons 1980s contains one episode each of Mister T and the syndicated miniseries Chuck Norris: Karate Kommandos, both of which place iconic action heroes at the head of a team of a team of young adventurers. Mister T has the edge in kitsch value here, if only because of its mohawked dog and “Listen up, kids!” life lessons. Neither show though is as endearingly nuts as Goldie Gold And Action Jack, a free-associating mix of Matt Houston and Richie Rich that recounts the adventures an obscenely wealthy blonde bombshell and the investigative reporter she employs. From the jumbo jet with a domed swimming pool to plots that have Goldie Gold escaping Incan warriors by hopping in her space shuttle and flying to her satellite mansion, GG&AJ is just about crazy enough to merit a full-season DVD release.
And then there are the intentionally “wacky” shows, represented here by Kwicky Koala and The Completely Mental Misadventures Of Ed Grimley. The former is one of legendary animator Tex Avery’s final projects: a Droopy rip-off that demonstrates—depressingly—how hard it is to make Avery’s loose-limbed gags work in limited animation. The latter, however, is a minor gem, taking Martin Short’s manic SCTV/SNL character and running him through a string of bizarre, often tongue-in-cheek slapstick scenarios, with frequent breaks for messages from live-action horror-host Count Floyd and educational scientists The Amazing Gustav Brothers. The problem with most of the cartoons on this set is that they ignore the limitations of their form, trying to do full-scale comedy or full-scale adventure in spite of the static images and dim color of early ’80s TV animation. Ed Grimley, in keeping with Short’s career-long fascination with showbiz phoniness, uses what it has, going self-consciously corny with its gags and letting language and voices carry the comedy. It embraces the silliness.
Key features: A borderline-pretentious 18-minute look back on the creation and legacy of Thundarr.