Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The D&D Cartoon

So, thanks to friend Stan (hi Stan), the Saturday before last I got to see the D&D cartoon for the first time.

To quote Mr. Marlow: THE HORROR ! THE HORROR!

I've now finished watching the entire series, including the radio-play they recently made out of the unproduced final script* that was supposed to wrap up the whole series. And so I can say with the voice of experience that it's worse than the Rankin-Bass HOBBIT. It's even worse than the Bakshi LORD OF THE RINGS. (It's not worse than the Rankin-Bass RETURN OF THE KING, but then again, what is?)

Which makes it all the more interesting that a number of people involved in making the series, having I suppose paid their debt to society, appear on dvd extras. Rather than avail themselves of some witness protection program offering merciful obscurity for creators of bad shows long forgotten, they candidly discuss their role in creating this monstrosity and bringing it to the screen.

What can you say, really, about a show whose chief claim to fame is that it pioneering the my-career-is-over, I'll-do-cartoon-voices-now mode later perfected by Mark Hammill -- in this case, Donny Most, formerly of HAPPY DAYS (Ralph Mouth), who voices The Cavalier (i.e., a horseman who, bizarrely, doesn't have a horse -- no wonder he complains all the time)?

It's immediately obvious that no one involved in the show knew anything about D&D. None of them bothered to play it, or seem even to have talked to anyone who did. Aside from a few monsters and a skewed collection of character classes (Acrobat? Cavalier?), this is generic fantasy that has little to do with the name and 'property' slapped on it.  That's its greatest failure: a D&D cartoon that completely fails to convey any idea of what D&D is, or its appeal (the anime series THE SLAYERS does a better job on both counts). Gygax is listed as one of the producers, but he's not even mentioned, so far as I could tell, in any of the comments and seems to have had a nil impact on the results (aside from probably being the source of a few monster names, like Hook Horror and Bullywug).

There's plenty more to criticize, of course, from the inappropriate  panty flash in the early episode (no doubt courtesy of the Japanese animators at Toei) to generic annoying comic pet mascot (voiced by Frank Welker, best known as the voice of Fred on SCOOBY DOO) to the same plot being used in more than half of the episodes. And why does the bad guy look like Freddie Mercury on a bad day?

It's not a total loss -- the one episode where the characters get annoyed at being railroaded yet again and go off on an adventure of their own choosing is mildly meta, as is the one when one character says he cd do a better job as DM, and proceeds to show it's true. And we can see from this that one of the two great cliched plotlines re. D&D was already firmly in place: characters playing the game get drawn into the fantasy world (cf. Norton's QUAG KEEP)**   But on the whole it belongs in the Scrappy Doo heap of shame.

And here's a question to leave folks with: in the opening credits (which retell, every episode, the entire story of how the characters came to be drawn into The Realm***) there's a quick glimpse of someone who I think looks like Gary Gygax gone Hollywood. Just as the kids are getting on the ride at the amusement park, take a look at the figure in the background, with black goatee and sunglasses. Friends of mine who actually knew Gygax are skeptical, but I'm still wondering if it might be a tribute/parody of Gary G. that got worked in there.

--John R.
just read: THE LATHE OF HEAVEN [1971] by Le Guin -- great concept, overlong execution; wd have made a great short story.

*a kind of cartoon recasting of The Book of Job; strangely enough, full of continuity error re. the show it's supposed to wrap-up.

**the other is the MAZES AND MONSTERS plot whereby players go mad and think they're in the fantasy world when actually they're just wandering around in a daze.

***this has the advantage for the show's producers that they have ninety seconds less film to animate every week. throw in the thirty-second closing credits and they have two minutes' less work every episode.


Ed Pierce said...

My brother and I used to watch that when I was a kid; or at least the first season. In my defense, I was nine years old (although I don't even know if that excuses it). All I can really remember is that the kid with the shield was the comic relief character. I didn't like it nearly as much as Thundarr the Barbarian (whose sidekick, Ucla the Mok--basically a Chewbacca ripoff, and whose name was pronounced "Ookla"--I learned recently was named after the University of Southern CA), which was another staple of my Saturday morning cartoon laden youth.

John D. Rateliff said...

Hi Ed

Thanks for the comment.

I don't think anyone shd ever feel self-conscious over what he or she liked as a kid. What fascinates me is revisiting some of the same books and shows decades later and discovering that some really were as good as you remember (e.g., Dr. Seuss) while others leave you shaking your head and wondering why they once had such appeal (e.g. PICKLES THE FIRE CAT).

--John R.

John D. Rateliff said...

By the way, turns out I'm not the first to think that skeevy figure in the background might be Gygax: cf. the following thread from a few years ago, esp. the comments by "Darian Graey", "Ashe Ravenheart", and "Crimson Jester".



morgenstern said...

I wouldn't say it's entirely fair to characterize Mark Hamill's career as "my-career-is-over, I'll-do-cartoon-voices-now" -- for one thing, Hamill's voice-over work predates his breakthrough role in Star Wars, specifically, he lent his voice talents to the film 'Wizards', which was released prior to Star Wars, in 1977.

Further, Hamill gained considerable recognition and a fan following solely for his work portraying the voice of the Joker for 'Batman: The Animated Series', so regardless of whatever on-screen talent he may (or may not) lack, he has demonstrated an unwavering ability to bring his unique talents and work ethic to his voice-over work.

Given this, I don't really believe it fair or fitting to negatively compare the sum of Mark Hamill's work post-'Star Wars', which includes other animated series, numerous appearances on Broadway in various plays, as well as live action TV roles, with that of Donny Most, whose role as Eric the Cavalier perhaps lasted all of three seasons on the D&D animated series.