Sunday, March 15, 2015

Pilot Program Subject Five: Battletoads (1992)

The Pilot Program is a look at various merchandise-centric cartoons that were released as specials in the 80s & 90s; while they were clearly set up to go to series, they never did.  Every entry will look at a new show, who made it, what it was selling, and whether it would’ve made a good series.


SUMMARY: Morgan, Dave, & George are the biggest losers at Oxnard, CA’s Waldo P. Oxnard Junior High; they’re deemed a bad influence on each other, and at the principal’s insistence, they try & fail to find new social circles.  After failing miserably, they retreat to the Stop-N-Scarf to play games; suddenly, the screen glows and out come Princess Angelica & her friend, Professor T-Bird.  Their entire galaxy has been conquered by the vicious Dark Queen, who wants to steal the Galactical Amulet Angelica wears to gain more power.  After asking the boys for help, he sprays them with “the genetic essence of the ancient Battletoads” who guarded Angelica’s ancestors; thus, they become Zitz, Rash, & Pimple and defend their new friends from the Dark Queen’s minotaur sidekick, General Slaughter, & various unnamed minions.  With the help of Mr. Thorpe (their favorite teacher), they find them a home and suggest that Angelica get a job to help out (as they point out, it’ll be easier for her than T-Bird since she’s not a humanoid chicken), ultimately winding up at a donut shop.  Slaughter & the rest attack the Toads again, but this is just a distraction to allow the Dark Queen to kidnap Angelica.  With the teleportation wand T-Bird used to get to Earth broken, he fixes an old car the guys gave him into a rocket car and flies them into space to the Dark Queen’s hideout.  The Toads rescue Angelica & destroy her generator base, robbing her of much of her power.  They return to school & get in trouble for revealing their powers in an attempt to stave off suspension; however, the Dark Queen shows up in her Whipsaw ship (a UFO with a rotating saw blade on it) & starts attacking the city. The Toads trick her into blowing up her ship and are hailed as heroes by both Angelica & the people of Oxnard.

MISCELLANEOUS: This is where I note various things I observed while watching, usually in bullet format.
  • The writer for this special is David Wise, who was one of the head writers for the 1987 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series.
  • The three Toads/guys fall into a sort of Three Stooges pattern – Morgan/Zitz is a nasal nerd (whose voice sounds like a cross between Shaggy & Larry Fine), Dave/Rash is a punk artist who’s the unofficial leader, and George/Pimple is a big dumb lug whose dialogue is largely newly-coined Valley slang.
  • The guys can transform back & forth by shouting either “Let’s get warty!” (to turn into the Battletoads) or “Let’s get normal!” (to turn back into humans).
  • Princess Angelica is described as “the last star-child of the blood”. This doesn’t really factor in anywhere, but it’s a very comic book-ish turn of phrase.
  • The Amulet Angelica wears briefly flashes the Battletoads logo.
  • The theme song to this is a great example of an “origin story” as theme song. Those save a lot of time that would otherwise be spent on repetitive exposition.
  • While the Toads can do the giant-fist/giant-boot attacks like you saw in the game, they can also transform their limbs into various tools, which as far as I can tell is new. It actually makes them kind of overpowered.
  • Besides being a damsel in distress, Princess Angelica is apparently here to keep the dads in the audience entertained.  There’s an extended point in the middle where she’s licking on a popsicle, and her outfit at the donut shop is a low cut micro-mini. The Dark Queen’s design is from the games and was always cheesecake-y, but what’s the excuse for this?
  • There are some cute, cartoony sight gags in this that appear at random.  The best are a little ghost rising out of a broken teleportation wand and a dizzy star splashing a bad guy with water to revive him.
  • One of the things that I noticed was that this special has the most diverse background characters out of all of the ones I reviewed. And they’re pretty memorable, too, especially the guy who refuses to look up from his magazine during the fight at the Stop-N-Scarf.
  • Near the end, the kids at the junior high act like the worst thing possible is letting the Dark Queen destroy the local mall.  Coming from what will be remembered as the Golden Age of Dead Malls, I found that very 90s and very Valley.
  • Can anyone tell me why the donut shop owner has a Yiddish accent?
  • It's worth nothing that the Battletoads had a different origin provided in Nintendo Power via a comic insert (please note that pages 6 & 7 have been reversed in order). In the comics (credited only to "Valiant"), they were three adult computer programmers turned into the Toads via a virus & brought into the Dark Queen's dimension by a jealous colleague; also, they are aided by T-Bird because he is the Dark Queen's ex-boyfriend.  The *ahem* geniuses at TV Tropes thought that this origin was darker & more mature, but it's really just a different level of goofiness that's a lot more straight-faced.  Also, someone apparently asked the artists to cover up the Dark Queen, so she's always holding her cape like Ed Wood's chiropractor.
  • Turns out Oxnard, California is a real town.
PRODUCTION COMPANY:  It’s our old friends at DiC again! When we saw their work with Poochie, that was relatively early in their history. This special is arguably from the high-point of DiC’s existence, when they had a lot of shows on both network Saturday mornings & in syndication.  This is just one of their many video game tie-ins, coming just after shows such as Captain N and The Super Mario Super Show and contemporary to the two Sonic the Hedgehog series.  This feels similar to the syndicated Sonic show in tone, and I wonder if that’s why DiC opted not to take it to series.

VOICE ACTING SPOTLIGHT:  I honestly can’t really spotlight anyone. I don’t really know enough about Canadian voice acting to say anything about any one actor.  All of them do a good job, even if the Dark Queen’s minions all sound interchangeable. 

THE MERCH: Having ventured into the Nineties, we move from cute girly toys to video games.  This special was based on Rare’s memorable NES game, which I largely remember renting & returning because it was one of the hardest, most frustrating things I played (and as you’ll see, I was from that era when you didn’t know a game was good until you played it & even then, you tried to convince yourself it was great). A game being hard doesn’t make it bad, though, and there were awards, sequels, crossovers, & even the super-rare conversion of a home console game to a bigger arcade version. It’s still fondly regarded today, with people losing their sugar over Rare’s Phil Spencer wearing a shirt with a Battletoads logo on it for an XBox event as a sign towards a potential revival. And of course, lots of nostalgic t-shirts, licensed or otherwise, are out there as well.

Hardcore Gaming 101 (the place to go for historical gaming information) has a fresh, newly written retrospective on the series.

COMMENTS:  When I first chose to review this special, I thought this could go one of three ways – a rip-off of TMNT, a parody of TMNT, or a comedy that just happened to have giant toad-people.  It turned out to be the latter and be very, very silly.  This isn’t a bad thing.  I’d much rather watch a show that’s energetic & blissfully stupid than dull.

The Toads themselves are likable heroes – they’re just cheesy enough to be funny, and each has his own personality that’s well-delineated in the special.  Angelica is super earnest, and T-Bird is probably the best, since he’s the archetypical wacky inventor figure.  But he gets to look all smug at the villains when they meet the Toads for the first time, and he quotes Doc Brown at one point, so he’s the one that stands out in my mind.  The Dark Queen is good overly theatrical villain, but her minions (including General Slaughter) are all pretty interchangeable.

The music in here is a big improvement over the scoring DiC did with Poochie.  The Toads have their own theme, which sounds like surf rock & fits the wacky-action tone of the show well. The Dark Queen has one as well, more of a pop or jazz number that I can’t find an analogue for in the game’s soundtrack.  However, it’s definitely inspired by the game.  Compared to the “looping theme used in any & all situations” scoring DiC had done previously, this was a huge improvement.

The special is not without its problems.  The biggest is that DiC really didn’t put any money or even attention into the animation.  The movements of the characters can be very jerky & awkward, while the backgrounds are non-existent.  There are various places where action is taking place against a white void with only a prop or a thinly-drawn sign for any indication of place.  It’s distracting and gives off the distinct feeling that DiC just didn’t care that much about the end result.

This is a show that knows exactly what it is, which is cheerily stupid, and that’s perfectly fine.  When you’re basing a show off a game where a foot can grow into a giant super-boot for an extra hard kick, you really don’t expect or want much seriousness.  Every ounce of logic says I should hate this because it definitely is low-quality, but dammit, it knows it's low-quality, like some weird Roger Corman cartoon.  I can't hate that.

WOULD IT WORK AS A SERIES:  Hmmm, this one’s hard. This show would have to target itself at two particular audiences: younger children and stoners. A show this frenetic & goofy could work – and DiC actually did it with the syndicated Sonic series. So while it might be too redundant, it has been proven that there is an audience for this. But this begs the question if that audience had already been tapped for this kind of series.  I guess if they wanted a more action-oriented show along similar lines, then this would work as a regular series.  They’d just need to use actual backgrounds.

Next time, wish me luck, we’re looking at Bubsy.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Pilot Program Subject Four: Fluppy Dogs (1986)

The Pilot Program is a look at various merchandise-centric cartoons that were released as specials in the 80s & 90s; while they were clearly set up to go to series, they never did.  Every entry will look at a new show, who made it, what it was selling, and whether it would’ve made a good series.


SUMMARY: The Fluppies are dogs that talk like humans, can switch between being bipedal & quadrupedal, and come from a land of ice with a perpetual aurora borealis (a “rainbow sky”, as they put it).  A band of five, however, have been pulled from their home and are stuck bouncing around dimensions.  Using a crystal key & Ozzie’s ability to sniff out the doorways, they eventually make their way to Earth.  Once there, they are caught and taken to the pound, where their leader Stanley is adopted by a woman.  This woman, Mrs. Bingham, is getting her son Jamie a dog for his birthday, but Jamie is disappointed that his new dog isn't “tough, like a police dog”.  However, after Stanley saves Jamie from an accident at a construction site, the two become friends & Jamie realizes he doesn't have a normal dog.  And then they discover that petting Stanley’s head gives off a magic glowing dust that makes things float, such as Jamie’s bed.  In other words, magic dandruff.  Jamie convinces his teenage neighbor Claire to adopt one of the Fluppies & start helping them get out of the pound.  Meanwhile, the town’s resident rich-asshole-trophy-hunter-who-controls-everything, J.J. Wagstaff, plots to steal a Fluppy for his captive menagerie of exotic animals.  After a false alarm with a door in Jamie’s house letting a gentle giant creature called the Lumpus loose and Jamie having some disputes with his mother because he can’t just tell her what’s going on, the Fluppies finally find the door home by the town library.  Unfortunately for them, their crystal key is starting to burn out and will eventually stop working; worse, thanks to the light from their aurora borealis, Wagstaff is able to find them & kidnap Ozzie.  The kids, Fluppies, and the Lumpus go to rescue him, get captured, and then use the magic dandruff to rip the upper floor of Wagstaff’s mansion off, free the animals, and drop it by the library.  The Fluppies run off to get home, with the Lumpus shoving Wagstaff & his butler in along with them.  After a flash forward to winter, the kids are reunited with the Fluppies, who have now brought all their friends along to enjoy Earth with them.

MISCELLANEOUS: This is where I note various things I observed while watching, usually in bullet format.
  • This is another one-hour special, and more so than Star Fairies, this feels padded to reach that time.
  • The Fluppies are “mythical creatures that can walk and talk like humans” according to Wagstaff’s guides.  Our band consists of Stanley (blue, the cheerful leader), Tippi (pink/purple, the girliest and most determined to get home), Ozzie (green, the one who can sniff out the doors to other worlds), and twins Bink & Dink (yellow & red, respectively).
  • The Lumpus looks like a cross between one of the Wuzzles and the dragon from Pete’s Dragon, while one of the dogs in the pound (the one the Fluppies try to converse with) resembles hound dogs seen in movies such as 101 Dalmations and The Fox and the Hound.
  • The producer & director of this special is Fred Wolf, one of the founders of the Murakami-Wolf-Swenson Studios (a.k.a. Fred Wolf Films).  It’s probably best remembered for the 1980s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series.  This is the first I've heard of the founder of one studio doing work for another, unless this meant that Disney outsourced the actual making of the special to MW.
  • As someone who works with a dog rescue, I appreciate that this show portrays Mrs. Bingham adopting her son’s dog from a shelter instead of buying one from a pet store.
  • Why doesn't Jamie tell his mother about their magic blue dog?  Because Stanley urges him not to.  Why?  Story reason is “they’ll think we’re freaks”, meta reason is to pad out time and justify some forced wackiness & drama with Jamie’s mother.
  • So...  I guess we should just assume Wagstaff and his poor, poor butler just froze to death in Fluppiland?  We never see them again.
  • This is the only show I have ratings info on, and it was the lowest rated prime time program for the week of Thanksgiving in 1986.  Sadly, I’m not surprised.

PRODUCTION COMPANY:  Oh, c’mon, you know Disney.  This was one of their works in the 80s, when the then-new management of Eisner & Wells started to expand into television.  They had other successful specials such as Mickey’s Christmas Carol (the second-best version of the tale) and a successful TV show with The Wuzzles, which was reportedly only cancelled because one of the lead voices, Bill Scott, passed away.  This special aired while Gummi Bears was still airing and pre-dates the seminal Ducktales.  For more information, as usual, please see this database for a breakdown of Disney’s still-thriving TV work.

VOICE ACTING SPOTLIGHT:  There’s a few actors I want to talk about here, but let me get to one of my favorites of all time first.  Lorenzo Music is so incredibly underrated.  He never needed to do voice acting (he’d made more than enough from producing), and he didn't have a vast range, but it was the work he loved doing the most.  Probably best remembered as the voice of Garfield until his death, he was also featured in numerous ads (most memorably as one of the Crash Test Dummies) and will always be the definitive voice of Peter Venkman in my heart thanks to Real Ghostbusters.  His work here as the dependable Ozzie is no less charming than any of these.  When he wasn't voice acting for fun, he was volunteering to help others at suicide hotlines, and his friends in the VA field all talk about him as the kindest man ever.  I still use his sweetly laid back voice as a basis for characters in my work to this day, and I wish I could’ve met him.

As usual, the other VAs warrant a mention for their work as well.  Amusingly, Marshall Efron was Music’s costar as the villainous Synonymess Botch in Twice Upon a Time and does a charming job as Stanley.  Hal Smith, best known as Otis the Drunk on The Andy Griffith Show and both Flintheart Glomgold & Gyro Gearloose in Ducktales, provides solid work as Dink (the boy twin) and hapless butler Hamish.  Finally, this makes our third straight show to have Susan Blu in a featured role.  It’s a voice actor hat trick!

THE MERCH:  I owned a Fluppy Dog.  It looked like a stuff doggy with black shiny-button eyes and yarn hair; yes, it was as cute as you’d expect, and I wish I still had it.  Craft companies even sold sewing patterns for making them little clothes.  Fluppy merchandise is weird – none of the dogs have the same names or design conceits across the different kinds of merchandise (for instance, Ozzie was “Green Flup” or “Cool Flup” in books & on packaging).  Also, the art was a lot softer & (for lack of a better descriptor) cutesy on books, lunch boxes, and the like.  Even the name of the toy line was different – outside of printed materials, they were originally called Fluppy Puppies.  As usual, Ghost of the Doll has a great guide to the line.  Even the origin and number of Fluppies is different in the toy-verse.  Only the four-pack of story books appears to take its cue from the TV show.

Maybe the reason the interest level for this wound up being so low is that Disney actually didn't quite know how to synchronize the merchandise and creative arms like they do now.  It’s hard to believe now, given they’re so ubiquitous, but back then was when they were just starting on the strategies we now see.  I can imagine kids who watched this & wanted toys from it being a bit baffled.  It’s worth sharing this quote from the Wikipedia page on the special: “Based on these designs it would appear that the Fluppy Dogs were originally targeted to young girls, and by the time it reached post-production, the focus was changed dramatically, but it was not enough to form a concrete target audience, which might explain its failure to become a regular series.”  Pretty much spot on, Wiki author.

COMMENTS:  This special made me sad.  There were so many things I like in it – a solid VA cast, magical doggies, tied to a toy line I actively liked.  But as I said on Twitter, my disappointment in it was so tangible that I could adopt it as a pet.  There were just so many things that didn’t gel in this and took what good elements there were down with them.

Let’s start with the plot.  There is just not enough plot to sustain the length of this special.  We have five chase scenes, only two of which are plot relevant; we have visits to three dimensions - one before reaching Earth that’s unnecessary, one where there’s just a lot of water, & the one with the Lumpus; we have the unnecessary “you must lie about our abilities to your family for... reasons” subplot with Jamie and his mother.  Each of these is drawn out to the point where it stops being interesting even with plot relevance, and the padding is excruciating.  At least in Star Fairies you got a vague sense of world-building and a traditional fantasy quest, and that had a similar if less noticeable feeling of being stretched thin.  And stuff just doesn’t get explained.  The magic dandruff is justified by Stanley saying, “Yeah, this happens sometimes when we’re in other dimensions”.  It feels like stuff kept being changed mid-production and no real effort was made to patch the seams.

The characters are likable enough, if a little bland.  The villains are the only ones with personality, and sadly, those personalities are “generic rich jerk” & “poor put-upon sidekick”.  Worse, there aren’t really any jokes that work except for two – Ozzie’s subdued “Oops, wrong door” reaction as they’re launched in a geyser (which I credit entirely to Lorenzo Music) and the expression on Wagstaff’s face after it’s crushed by the Lumpus’s butt.  Stanley has the most personality of the heroes as a perennial seeker of adventure, but he’s really it from the heroes as far as unique personality traits.

The animation is, as you would expect, fluid & vibrant, and the Fluppies are well designed.  The humans, however, have an oddness to their designs that I have trouble placing.  Jamie & his mother look pretty grounded, Wagstaff & most others look really cartoony, and Claire has eyes way too large for her design, making her look like an early attempt at mimicking anime.  They all have solid black irises that blend into their pupils as well.  Also, like I mentioned in the Miscellaneous section, some of the ancillary designs feel like they were borrowed from bits & pieces of other things.  And the score is worth mentioning, since it really doesn’t fit.  A wacky chase in a grocery store is scored like a majestic battle, while a scene of the Fluppies cleaning Jamie’s house has music more suited to footage of a mountain climbing expedition.  When you’d expect music, such as the Fluppies’ farewell, there’s silence.

I’d love to know more about what happened with this series behind the scenes.  There’s a weird, disjointed tone to it that makes it feel like the plans were changed at least once during production.  I doubt anything is out there, though.

WOULD IT WORK AS A SERIES:  This is the first time I have to say that it wouldn’t.  Everything that would make for an interesting series – the hopping across dimensions, meeting the inhabitants, having an adventure – happens before the opening title screen.  The ending just offers an Earth where humans now hang out with dogs who have magic dandruff.  Unless it was a prequel series and really played up the light adventure aspects, it wouldn’t be strong enough.  While the Fluppies have solid enough bases for personalities, the kids are kind of bland and Wagstaff is a dull one-note villain; worse, a lot of the drama & humor would come from one of those execrable “I must keep this a secret just because” plots, like we saw with Jamie & his mother here.  It would need some serious tweaking to make for a good ongoing series.

Next time, we have a shift of focus away from pilots based on girl-targeted toys as we head towards the Nineties. So... Battletoads.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Pilot Program Subject Three: Star Fairies (1985)

The Pilot Program is a look at various merchandise-centric cartoons that were released as specials in the 80s & 90s; while they were clearly set up to go to series, they never did.  Every entry will look at a new show, who made it, what it was selling, and whether it would’ve made a good series.


SUMMARY:  Princess Sparkle lives in the land of Wish-Come-True; from her home at Castle Wishstar, she receives every wish desired by a child who has ever wished on the first star of the evening (you know, the “star light, star bright” rhyme).  However, she’s getting overwhelmed from the sheer volume of requests, so she petitions the Wishing Well for a helper.  It directs her to Mount Wishmore to make her own wish with her magic wand on a shooting star; the magic from the wand then turns into five new helpers for her – Spice, Jazz, Nightsong, Whisper, and True Love.  Each sets out to help a child with their wish, and all but Spice succeeds quickly.  Spice has been saddled with the prematurely cynical Hillary, who thinks that nothing worthwhile or exciting ever happens in her life.  The other Fairies shrink Hillary to their size & take her to meet Sparkle for help, only to discover that Sparkle’s wand has been stolen by the local pesky elf population & all kinds of chaos is afoot.  Their efforts to find the Wishing Well and retrieve the wand sent the Fairies (with Hillary in tow) on a journey to the far-off & dangerous Land of Twixt-and-Tween; happily, creative use of their skills leads them to succeed.  They finally reach the elves & retrieve Sparkle’s wand, only to have the land start tearing itself apart because of the misused magic.  The Fairies combine their magic to restore everything to normal and send Hillary home with a newfound appreciation for life.

MISCELLANEOUS:  This is where I note various things I observed while watching, usually in bullet format.
  • Each of the Star Fairies has a specialization hinted at by their names: Spice brings excitement to people (she’s stuck with Hillary, more on her later); Jazz is into music & creativity (she helps a teenaged girl meet her pop idol); Nightsong helps with sleepless nights & overcoming fears (she helps a little boy cope with his fear of the dark); Whisper is a keeper of secrets (she grants a boy the too-embarrassed-to-tell-others ability to fly, then gives him an R/C airplane when that goes as well as you might expect to apologize); and True Love helps people connect socially (she gives a lonely girl whose family moves a lot a puppy so that she’ll always have a friend).
  • Hoyt Curtin did the music on this, from the earworm theme song to the new wave music one of the wishees enjoys to the action scene scores.  It’s solid as ever, but I’d expect no less from H-B’s composing mainstay.  Odds are if there’s a theme song from an H-B show that gets stuck in your head, he’s the guy to thank.
  • At first, I thought the elves were trolls.  Since their whole motivation is “pester Sparkle and steal her stuff when she tells them to knock it off”, you can see why I made that mistake.  Also, the playground they live in (which the Wishing Well describes as “squalor”) is basically Action Park.
  • Speaking of the Wishing Well, in its first appearance it looks like a smooth fountain in a sleek temple-like locale.  But when the Fairies head off to Twixt-and-Tween to rescue it, it looks like an old-timey well with a little roof.  It’s either due to different studios animating different halves (which is otherwise unnoticeable) or just plain forgetfulness.
  • I might be wrong, but the heads on the two-headed dragon both sound like they’re doing Ed Wynn impersonations.
  • Maybe it’s because of my magical girl obsession, but the Fairies combining their powers to save Wish-Come-True at the end really reminded me of similar techniques used in the genre.  You could make an argument that this could fit into the genre, albeit it would be a tricky one.
  • This is the first special that was designed for an hour-long broadcast slot.  As such, it’s a bit more plot-heavy than the previous two subjects.

PRODUCTION COMPANY:  Good ol’ Hanna-Barbera.  If you don’t know them, then you’re either (a) rather young or (b) just got out from under that rock.  Founded by MGM directors Bill Hanna & Joe Barbera in the 50s during the infancy of television, they’re credited with popularizing the use of limited & stylized animation for television.  (Contrary to popular thought, they neither created limited animation – that was done by UPA – nor created the first animated TV program – that was Jay Ward’s Crusader Rabbit.)  They made a ton of shows, and odds are at least one thing they produced probably made you smile at some point in your life.  Animation historians tend to poo-poo their work, as they do with most TV animation studios, but most TV viewers have at least one thing they remember fondly from H-B.

This special comes at an interesting time in their history – they had lost their borderline monopoly on Saturday morning animation and were starting to send their animation overseas, a practice that would become commonplace (largely thanks to a botched union challenge – I highly recommend reading Tom Sito’s Drawing the Line to understand the Runaway Wars & their aftermath).  This shift was not without speedbumps; one of the anecdotes in Bill Hanna’s autobiography details how a whole series had to be animated twice because the overseas studio decided that Gary Coleman should be white.  You can really see it here with Hillary’s nightgown sleeves, which vanish three times, and with some unnecessary looped scenes near the end. 

VOICE ACTING SPOTLIGHT:   Since we’re talking about Hanna-Barbera here, we need to talk about Don Messick.  This is law.  The work he does here as Bungleboss, King of the Elves, isn’t the most distinct role he’s done (certainly not on par with, say, Scooby Doo or Papa Smurf), but he does a good job as a blowhard comedic villain.  He’s a personal favorite, not just because he voiced Dr. Quest but because he’s just done so much & always swung for the fences in the roles.  The “celebrity” voices are worth mentioning this time, though.  A young Drew Barrymore does Hillary & handles her cynicism well, and Didi Conn does a great job as the enthusiastic Spice.  Billy Barty is good the troll who hates his job but tries to hide it.  And Jonathan Winters, who was already doing quite a bit of voice work for H-B at this time, makes a good showing as the Wishing Well who speaks in rhyme.

THE MERCH:  I can actually tell you all about this line because I have it!  Sadly, it’s still in storage from my move, but I still have it!  Tonka released six regular dolls of the fairies, numerous fashion packs with swappable wings to match, a castle, a carriage, a swan boat, and a unicorn.  There was also an alternate version of Princess Sparkle released as Royal Sparkle in a fancier purple gown.  And like so many other girly 80s properties, there were paper dolls, stickers, and such.  It’s a small line, but it appears to have gone up in rarity/price enough that it’s not as easy to collect now as it was even only 10 years ago.
Once again, we have a super-handy write-up from Ghost of the Doll detailing the history of the line as well, with the figures apparently being recycled from a failed 70s line of garden-themed dolls.  Ties in nicely with the last subject.

COMMENTS:  Hearing the theme song to this special was an instant flashback.  This aired on TV, and my parents taped it for me to watch again & again.  So I have some fond memories of this.  If I didn’t, I wouldn’t own the dolls.  Rewatching it as an adult was... interesting.

One of the first things that struck me was the dichotomy in the designs.  The Star Fairies themselves are very grounded designs and rather pretty (to be expected – the designer was Iwao Takamoto, H-B’s resident “pretty lady” designer), while the rest of the cast is pretty cartoony.  The children are largely an in-between level of stylization, while the elves & the various magical creatures are extremely cartoony.  One of the main elves is just a bearded round head with two spindly legs.  And there’s a puppy who looks like Captain Caveman without his limbs or cape, which is disturbing.  It’s an interesting conflict, since it makes the heroines stand out in the more comedic scenes or look odd next to the more cartoonish designs. 

The characters themselves are largely very likable.  Sparkle is a level-headed leader, Spice is all enthusiasm & cheerfulness, Nightsong is gentle & caring, Whisper is super honest to the point of being a smidgen blunt, Jazz is jokey & clever, and True Love is a hair away from being a magical girl thanks to her unwavering faith in love & friendship.  The elves are funny enough (they’re a classic comic trio in some ways), and the 90% sincere apology they offer at the end is quite nice.  Even most of the kids are cute in their wish-granting scenes.  The two-headed dragon is kind of annoying, though, and we need to talk about Hillary.  This kid has the burnt-out cynicism of a 40-year-old, and until she’s used to scare off a bullying giant, every single comment out of her mouth about a land of magic & wonder is a sarcastic complaint.  It sounds like she’s just depressed at first, but it quickly becomes this sort of nastiness that’s really hard to like.  Her attitude change is literally like someone flipped a switch to make her not cynical, and it kind of bothers me, because stuff like that is still being mistaken for good character development & not just hasty writing (*coughCureFortunecough*).

It might just be nostalgia talking, but I still sort of like this one.  Yes, the art split is much more noticeable as an adult.  Yes, Hillary needs counselling more than a magical adventure which she only belatedly appreciates.  But the title characters & the universe are charming enough to negate that for the most part.

WOULD IT WORK AS A SERIES:   Making for a hat trick... yes, it would!  You’d need to rework the villains – I don’t think the elves would be enough to pose a continuous threat unless they were revamped to be more threatening & less fun, which would be a disappointment.  But the Fairies themselves have unique personality hooks, and their mission is open-ended enough to allow for telling everything from the fantastic journey we say in the second half of this special to the smaller-scale wish-grantings of the first half.  Hell, if anyone can figure out who owns the property, call me and I’ll reboot it as a magical girl series!
Forget I said that.

Next time, Fluppy Dogs.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Pilot Program Subject Two: Rose Petal Place (1984)

The Pilot Program is a look at various merchandise-centric cartoons that were released as specials in the 80s & 90s; while they were clearly set up to go to series, they never did.  Every entry will look at a new show, who made it, what it was selling, and whether it would’ve made a good series.


SUMMARY:  A long time ago in a Victorian mansion named Rose Petal Place, the owner’s daughter cried over her beloved garden and wished her flowers could live forever despite her family’s impending move away from the mansion.  Her tears brought the flowers that they touched to life as little pixie-like girls, with their leader being Rose Petal.  Thanks to Rose Petal’s magical voice, the garden continues to thrive even though the mansion itself is falling to pieces.  However, an evil spider named Nastina wants the garden to wither & die so she can take it over.  She first tries to kill Rose Petal & her friends during their rounds by crushing them with a bird bath, then tries to flood out a concert they’re holding for the local bugs.  Finally, Nastina decides to take away Rose Petal’s voice.  She arranges for her sidekick Horace to feign reformation, then kidnap Rose Petal, trick her into drinking the potion to rob her of her voice, and finally lock her in a lightless tower.  This is especially bad, since Rose Petal will die without light.  Her friends stage a rescue and manage to escape Nastina, even though she’s taken to bombarding her own lair with rocks to crush them.  Rose Petal is revived & healed by her friends’ tears, much like how she was created, and she goes on to helping the garden thrive through song.

MISCELLANEOUS:  This is where I note various things I observed while watching, usually in bullet format.
  • In what turned out to be a pleasant surprise, this was also a musical.  Rose Petal has two songs (one of which is reprised at the end), and Nastina gets a villain song.
  • Rose Petal’s friends include Sunny (a tomboyish sunflower girl), Iris (a somewhat shy girl), Lily Fair (a ballerina), Daffodil (who doesn’t have a defining trait here), and Sweet Orchid (a fussy Southern Belle, which is amusing for anyone who has ever tried to take care of an orchid); she also has animal sidekicks Pitterpat (a kitten), Tumbles (a hedgehog), and a caterpillar (whose name was unintelligible) who acts like a coach & wears what look like Converse One-Stars.
  • When a flashback shows how Rose Petal came to life, the show goes into a live-action segment with a young actress playing the girl who created her.
  • Horace is supposed to be a fly that dresses like a 30s hobo, talks like a 20s gangster, and has a somewhat unfortunate facial design that reminds me of Al Jolson in blackface.  I don’t know if this was an unfortunate choice or a case where the producers clashed with an overseas studio who altered the designs for the worse (see the below interview).
  • In the most “toyetic” moment of the special, during the live-action flashback, the girl’s tears fall on a tin car, and this becomes Rose Petal’s car.  This could only happen because someone at Kenner specifically told them to include the car.
  • Finally, this and Poochie are both written by Malcom “Mal” Marmorstein.  Mr. Marmorstein has written many family friendly movies and for several soap operas.  More details are available from his Wikipedia page.  Interestingly, these two specials & Pete’s Dragon are his only animation-related credits.

 PRODUCTION COMPANY:  Ruby-Spears was founded by Joe Ruby & Ken Spears, writers who co-created Scooby Doo along with artist Iwao Takamoto.  According to a great interview they gave on Stu’s Show (to be precise, show 306), they were partially funded to start their own studio by Fred Silverman, who was not exactly happy with the output from Hanna-Barbera at the time.  They created a series of specials before starting to do regular series such as the 80s version of Alvin and the Chipmunks, Saturday Supercade, and Thundarr the Barbarian.  Around this time, their company became part of Taft Enterprises & thus a sister company to their old Hanna-Barbera colleagues.  Ruby-Spears became defunct in 1996, but both founders still work in animation production to different degrees.  I recommend visiting this database for a list of Ruby-Spears’ many productions.

VOICE ACTING SPOTLIGHT:   This is the first, but not the only, example of a show using a “celebrity” voice to get attention – in this case, because it’s a musical, Marie Osmond, who does a pretty good job & doesn't come off as the dreaded "bored celeb reading lines" that I usually associate with "celebrity" voices.  But I want to use this to showcase actual voice actors, so let’s talk about Susan Blu instead.  Fans of Jem will probably best remember her as the voice of Stormer, but she has done many, many roles.  She’s also known as a skilled voice director and currently works as a teacher & mentor for future voice actors.  In this special, she does Sunny and Daffodil, and I’m still trying to figure out if she also voiced Nastina.  Either way, she’s a national treasure in the field.

THE MERCH:  Kenner put out a toy line consisting of Rose Petal & her friends, along with a car that is said to have borrowed the mold of the Rockin’ Roadster from Jem and a figure of Nastina for all of your crime-scene-reenactment needs (surprising to me, since doll lines rarely released villain figures unless they could be used as fashion dolls, such as the Misfits from Jem).  There were also three picture books.  A second special was planned around the second unreleased wave of dolls, but nothing online indicates it ever made it to air other than a synopsis indicating the new line of dolls would have appeared as characters.  As for the second wave of dolls, they’re highly sought-after collectors’ items to this day.  This guide to the line, along with a later line called Bubble Belles that reused elements of Rose Petal Place, is quite thorough and a good indicator of the push Kenner gave this property.
After the initial draft/scheduling (as these are done in advance), I discovered an invaluable resource for these first four subjects - Ghost of the Doll.  Here is the Rose Petal Place write-up, along with photos of the unreleased second wave of dolls (as of this writing, the picture of the main line isn't showing up correctly).  I actually would like the Marigold doll...

COMMENTS:  This is the first of this series that I do not recall ever seeing as a child.  I don’t think it was ever made available for home airings on video, even though the YouTube rip seems to suggest it was.  Nothing I can find online says anything concrete.

I have to say, one of the things that surprised me the most was how much darkness in this otherwise bright & colorful special.  Nastina tries twice to straight-up murder Rose Petal and her friends, and the show makes it 100% clear that she is in mortal danger in the last act.  Rose Petal even directly says, "I'll die without light!"  After the last subject, where no one was really in the wrong, this was a pretty stark difference.  I’m not someone who’s prudish about mortal threats in animation; I just didn’t expect it from a show with these bright, cute trappings.

Rose Petal herself is a good heroine – she’s very positive and determined to carry out her mission of keeping the garden growing no matter what threats she faces.  Her most developed friends turn out to be Sweet Orchid (because the “fussy Southern Belle” archetype is pretty well-defined on its own) and the caterpillar (whose gym coaching demeanor is vital to saving the day).  The other heroes just feel sort of blandly pleasant, but that might be due to the lack of time to develop them.  The villains are solid, if rather straight-up evil, although credit where credit is due – they really staged it as though Horace wanted to reform & dissented from Nastina’s plan until the very end of his conversation, when it became obvious it was a trap.  So congrats, you fooled the mom in the audience.

Since this is a musical, it’s worth discussing the music.  Ruby-Spears must have used a regular orchestra or band, since I can hear proper instruments in the BMG.  There’s violins, at one point there’s a groovy bass guitar line, and there’s an actual organ.  Along with the solid backscore, there’s also the three songs; all three have catchy melodies and lyrics that fit their singers’ personalities quite well.  It’s clear that the producers put a lot of thought into how to get the most of their set-up and give it a worthwhile soundtrack.

This is a surprisingly good special, and I’m actually sad that I missed out on it when I was younger.  I’d probably have a whole line of the dolls or something now that I’m old & bad with money.  It’s definitely worth a look.

WOULD IT WORK AS A SERIES:  It would actually make a pretty good series.  The other flower girls don’t get much development, so having a regular series could give them some spotlight.  Also, it has a built-in set-up for conflict, and it could go into what would happen if someone bought the abandoned mansion to start fixing it.  You could even have a new spotlighted song every episode.  They’d just have to tone down some of the death in this.

Next time, Star Fairies.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Pilot Program Subject One: Poochie (1984)

The Pilot Program is a look at various merchandise-centric cartoons that were released as specials in the 80s & 90s; while they were clearly set up to go to series, they never did.  Every entry will look at a new show, who made it, what it was selling, and whether it would’ve made a good series.

POOCHIE (1984)

SUMMARY: Poochie is a pink doggie who is owned by the mysterious EG, owner of World Now magazine who is so reclusive that no one’s sure if he’s a missing person.  While the staff thinks that the owner is so fond of her that he has named his super-popular advice column after her, it becomes apparent that she actually is the one giving advice.  From the penthouse “central command” office, she receives & answers letters with help from her translator & assistant Hermes; while most seems like typical Dear Abby-type stuff, every so often Poochie gets an “urgent” letter.  This time, she gets a letter from a boy named Danny Evans who is staying in Cairo & whose father has vanished while exploring a new pyramid.  After rescuing Danny, they find themselves falling through a series of trap doors into an underground city built around the tomb of the lost pharaoh Nikniknatun.  His subjects, the Nikkites, decree that the intruders be sacrificed to protect the tomb from being defiled, but the high priestess Khum would prefer they use the Forgotten Flower to give them amnesia (especially after she realizes one of the intruders is a child).  After arranging a jailbreak, Poochie gets Hermes to help her stage a vision from the gods to convince the other subjects that Khum’s plan is the right one.  She has the Evanses use the Forgotten Flower, but even though they’ll forget all about the city, she sends Danny off with a pendant as a gift.  Poochie & Hermes return home, as she writes her advice column again & waits for another urgent request.

MISCELLANEOUS:  This is where I note various things I observed while watching, usually in bullet format.
  • One thing that bugged me was that Osiris is referred throughout the episode as a goddess.  Look, I know this was written before the age of Wikipedia, but libraries have encyclopedias, are usually free, & would’ve helped you avoid this error.
  • Poochie herself isn’t anthropomorphic; she runs on all fours, and unless Hermes is around to translate for her, she barks like a normal dog.  She’s also able to talk to other dogs, which is how they find the way to the pyramid.
  • Hermes is 100% a clone of C3PO of Star Wars fame.  His non-disguised design is literally C3PO with a more human face & two colors; his whiny, cowardly nature is not only cribbed from the character, but he is also voiced in a blatant impersonation of Anthony Daniels.  It’s just shameless.  Her other, lesser robot assistant, Zipcode, is kind of generic in design, but his habit of reading her letters out loud by eating them like corn on the cob is kind of funny.
  • I love how toyetic Poochie’s vehicles are, from the plane with her face on the tail to the dune buggy that turns into a little rocket thingie. 
  • Because the nature of this plot reminded me of Jonny Quest so much, my notes are full of moments wherein I hold Dr. Evans up against Dr. Quest and find him wanting.  From wearing jorts to letting his son use the Forgotten Flower before him, he’s not the best adventurer-parent.
PRODUCTION COMPANY:  This is one of the earliest creations of DiC Entertainment, a company best known for shows like Inspector Gadget, The Real Ghostbusters, Where On Earth Is Carmen Sandiego?, and the dueling Sonic the Hedgehog cartoons of the 90s, along with the original dub of the first two seasons of Sailor Moon.  Since they were founded by Andy Heyward & Jean Chapolin as an intentionally cross-continental company, they had more European and Japanese style influences than were typically seen in cartoons at the time. For a more thorough look at DiC’s productions before they were swallowed up by Cookie Jar Entertainment in 2008, please see this database.

VOICE ACTING SPOTLIGHT:  I’d be remiss in my status as “loser Jonny Quest fangirl” if I didn’t talk about John Stephenson.  Dude was the original voice of Dr. Quest, and while I’ve encountered him in different roles (usually in Hanna-Barbera series, as either Doggy Daddy or an authority figure such as Fred Flintstone’s boss), he never made much of an impression; but at the end of the day, he was the first voice of a personal favorite character in all of fiction & for that I salute him.  I could pick out his voice as the de facto leader of the Nikkites almost immediately.

THE MERCH:  The line of Poochie merchandise from Mattel covered a wide array of material, from clip-on earrings to paper dolls (where she was usually anthropomorphized) to plush toys.  But one of the things that seems to be unique to the line is the large number of stampers.  There were even DIY stationary kits with markers, stampers, & Poochie envelopes.  Even the toy sheets on sale have a tendency to be for stationary sets (as seen with this eBay auction) than for dolls.  The sheer dominance of stationary in marketing Poochie might explain why DiC decided to build her adventures around writing & sending letters.
After the initial draft/scheduling (as these are done in advance), I discovered an invaluable resource for these first four subjects - Ghost of the Doll.  Here is their Poochie write-up, including the more-odd-than-cute anthropomorphic lines, Baby Poochie & Poochie Pals.  No idea why, but they kind of bother me, especially the card art.  There's something wrong about it.

COMMENTS:  It seems I chose an interesting one to start this series with and not just because it was one I remembered renting on VHS as a kid.  I liked it and was surprised that there weren’t more Poochie tapes.  Looking as an adult, I can see why, but I can also see potential.

I mentioned Jonny Quest a lot while writing this, and that’s because this kind of story really felt like a reworked JQ script.  It obviously wasn’t, but the writer may have been inspired by the series.  It’s a nice throwback to the sort of globe-trotting adventure stories that have largely fallen out of favor, and it’s one wherein the players are all interesting & never dehumanized (an unfortunate tendency for the genre).

Poochie herself is a very likable character.  She’s shown to be kind-hearted, sensible, brave, and genuinely interested in helping others.  The “villains” of the episode, the Nikkites, are never portrayed as openly malicious; they really want to protect their pharaoh’s tomb from robbers and only refuse to use the Forgotten Flower because they’re afraid it’s lost its effectiveness.  Khum is sympathetic because of her efforts to navigate the gulf between her duties & her personal mores.  Even the Evanses, even if they’re a bit bland, come off as fundamentally decent people who are more interested in the educational potential of the lost city than in any wealth.  But then we get to Hermes.

Plagiarism aside, Hermes is the weakest link of the show.  I probably liked him as a kid, but now that I’m at parent age, I found him super, super annoying.  He is basically C3PO without the clenched teeth bravery and with the comic relief elements ramped up to eleven.  Within the first ten minutes, his running gag of saying “I’m not programmed to [insert action here]” is established and exhausted.  Most of the problems in the show come straight from his “wacky” bumbling, and he does only one genuinely cool thing (a flying leap into a runaway wagon) before he immediately goes into whining mode again.  If you’re over the age of nine, he wears out his welcome really fast, and that’s before you get to the sheer unoriginality of the character.  I know DiC was just starting out, but C’MON!

The animation in the “special” itself is solid – the stuff that needs to be exaggerated is, and the character designs have a bit of an anime-esque element to them that is very appealing.  However, the background music is awful – most of it is a tinny keyboard loop of the theme song that doesn’t always fit the scenes where it’s being used.  There are no less than two “wacky” chase scenes, and the last 90 seconds before the credits is all reused footage with narration about further adventures pending, which they weren’t.

It’s not a bad special by any means, even with its flaws, and if you want a solid old-school adventure with a side of cuteness, it’s a good choice.

WOULD IT WORK AS A SERIES:  Honestly, with only one glaring flaw, this could work.  “Poochie answers pleas for help & advice” is a surprisingly open-ended concept, with her using her wits and kindness to help with everything from the globe-trotting adventure we saw here to more of a life-lesson type of tale.  And if you needed an ongoing hook that wouldn’t bind the show continuity-wise but could still bring in viewers, the mystery of where Poochie’s owner EG went & why are pretty solid.  However, DiC would’ve seriously needed to rework Hermes; annoyance levels aside, he was so unoriginal and his inspiration was so obvious that LucasArts would have sued them senseless.  So really, all they would have had to do to take it to series was rework the sidekick, who was already the weakest link.

Next time, Rose Petal Place.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Magical Girl Obsession: The Princesses Are Here!

Yes, the leaks for the new Precure season, Go! Princess Precure, have been revealed via a candy company, quickly followed by an official debut on the next Precure All-Stars poster.  Here, see for yourselves.

Now, this is another Shibata season, so I'm not super optimistic.  But I just wanna put this out here, since it's apparently a minority opinion - I love these designs.  About the only thing I don't like is the mascot, who looks like 80s Poochie got lost trying to infiltrate the next season of Jewelpet (even then, I'm happy to see a mascot that's specifically a dog).  Here's a quick bullet point of the stuff that I like:

  • The Pink Cure (no official name yet) looks younger & less mature than her teammates, which sounds like a potential plot point.
  • In a nice break from a minor tradition, only one Cure has an eye color that matches her theme color.  This started with Yes! & sort of became an unofficial rule, but a break from this feels like a nice change of pace.
  • The girls' hair continues the proud Precure tradition of being kind of bonkers (see the hair-flower the Pink Cure is sporting) but still looks pretty stylish.  I especially like the hair streaks that each girl has framing her face, but I'm a sucker for two-toned hair.
  • The designs themselves have an old-school-shoujo vibe to them I really like.  Pink Cure in particular reminds me of Honoka from the very first Precure season.
  • I like the fact that the girls' dresses all look unique.  Granted, we haven't gotten much of a look at the lower portions of their outfits, but I like the differences in the uniforms.  Again, it reminds me of the first season, where Nagisa & Honoka had their own looks but still complimented each other.
Basically, all the stuff I like is the stuff the people on Tumblr & PCLJ hate the most.  All I've heard is "The dresses don't match!" or "The hair's too big!" or "The designs are too fussy!"  But these same people hated the vested-uniform look of Happiness Charge when it first showed up, and now they're holding that up as a pillar of good design in direct comparison to these.  Both are solid designs (except Cure Tender's secretarial skirt, but that's minor), and I look forward to seeing more about these characters once Toei officially announces them.

Now if only our inevitable fourth member will turn out to be green Cure instead of the usual purple...

EDIT: Of course after I write this Toei does the official announcement.  So now we have official names & official pictures:

So we have Cures Flora (pink), Mermaid (blue), & Twinkle (yellow) and their mascots Puff (Jewelpet Poochie) & Aroma (the bird).  I still love their dresses - in fact, I adore how they apparently switch between magical girl style & ballgown style.  And apparently, this season isn't totally set on Earth.  Hmmm... This might be as interesting as HaChaPre decided to become once Dark Cure Tender showed up.  I can't let this optimism run unchecked, though.

Friday, December 5, 2014

An Update

Shockingly, this blog isn't dead. I have had an exceptionally hectic private life right now, so I spend time off catching up on necessary things instead of doing fun stuff like blogging.

I have a special thing planned for next year called "Pilot Program", a look at the unsold pilots for merchandising toons that aired in the 80s & 90s as "specials" but never went to a full series (although the subject planned for the finale is sort of a special case).  But that won't be ready until after the holidays.

I don't anything I feel is worthy of doing a year-end wrap-up to discuss.  The same things that annoy & disappoint continue to multiply, and the handful of happy things can probably be predicted if you've read enough of my ramblings.  Smarter folks out there have sung the praises of Ms. Marvel and Guardians of the Galaxy (and its amazing stinger guest star), so it's better to just read them.

In magical girl news, the new Precure season hasn't been legitimately leaked or officially previewed, and Happiness Charge continues to be a handful of great ideas emersed in a rancid gelatin mold of incompetence, so there's nothing really worth addressing there, either.  In fact, the only Precure thing I can discuss right now is that the new manga adaptation of every season looks good & I hope someone localizes it.  Sailor Moon Crystal is... good, not the best thing ever but also not the ruiner of childhoods so many say it is.  It just kinda feels... there.  I am looking forward to the new Madoka spinoffs being localized, even if Suzune Magica isn't among them at this time.  And in not-really-magical-girl stuff, I am now addicted to the feel-good world of Aikatsu! and I hope Daisuki localizes more episodes.

Western animation is still as frustrating as ever.  The usual reasons, of course - I don't feel like repeating them.  I am hoping that someone does an English version of Lolirock, as the French subs have  shown it to be Marathon's most solid show yet, and I'm excited to see Star Vs. The Forces of Evil next year, since it looks like a mix of the current style of comedies with magical girls.

Lastly, I'm hoping to resume the Omnicommentaries after the Pilot Program is finished. They aren't exactly well-read, but dammit, I'm gonna do 'em.  Alas, X-Men 2099 will be on hold until the line's mass creator walk-off can be confirmed or denied in a solid, non-hearsay way.

This... wasn't my most productive year, again for private life reasons.  Hopefully that will change in the future.