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80's Cartoons: An Animated Discussion

Animation in the 80’s was all over the place in terms of quality. I’m sure plenty of cartoon creating studio executives were heard to say, “Kids will watch anything, they don’t know the difference”. Well this kid did and if it was crap, it didn’t make it into my Saturday Morning/Weekday Afternoon rotation. What follows is a discussion of the artistry (or lack thereof) presented in cartoons that were foisted upon me through TV antennas in my youth. Everyone has their own favorites, so this won’t be a complete list, but it will be controversial. Let’s get this show on the road!

I’ll start off by saying that this is not so much an examination of the storylines present in my childhood cartoon viewing, as it is actual character designs I found appealing. Also, I do have a bias against animation styles that include wildly exaggerated features and proportions. It’s easy to draw wild shapes, it takes amazing skill to replicate real world proportions and features. As strange as it sounds, when it comes to cartoons, the more realistic the design and movements, the better. I think for this reason, I have always had a fondness for the cartoon shows that came out of a company called Ruby-Spears.

Where Hanna-Barbera was known for just ripping off the mannerisms and voices of decades old entertainers and dropping them into stiffly animated new characters (ex. The Flintstones = The Honeymooners and Jabberjaw = Curly from The 3 Stooges) Ruby-Spears actually made their mark by bringing formerly printed, pixelated or live action stars into the world of cartoons for the first time. From Punky Brewster to Rambo and The Forces of Freedom, this prolific studio made memorable what Hanna-Barbera cheaped out on with lackluster shows like Gilligan's Planet or Laverne & Shirley In the Army. (Apparently Hanna-Barbera ran over my puppy as a child…a lot of bitterness there.)

For example, did you know that anti-jibber-jabber advocate Mr. T had his own animated adventure show where he teamed with a group of teenage gymnasts to thwart the evil deeds of dastardly villains? Yeah, I don’t get it either. Look, I didn’t say the premise of shows were great, but when you tuned in to Mister T with your bowl of his cereal, it was clearly everybody’s favorite gold-jewelry-wearing tough guy punching a shark!

The same goes for the short-lived animated series, Chuck Norris Karate Kommandos. The man, the myth, the legend and his butt-kickin’ mustache were on full display while he battled such baddies as The Claw and winner of the best bad guy name ever, Super Ninja. Ruby-Spears didn’t just focus on movie stars either, they reached into the pages of our favorite comic books and brought legendary super heroes to life.

One program that always had a special place in my heart was The Plastic Man Comedy Adventure Show. Plastic Man predated Reed Richards from the Fantastic Four in the comics, but had the same ability to morph his body into any shape imaginable. “Plas” as he was called on the show, was sent on missions by a sultry woman with a white streak in her hair called The Chief and had a Hawaiian sidekick named Hula-Hula (who sounded like a dumber version of Barney Rubble, if that’s possible). Also in the mix was his breathy, blonde girlfriend named Penny and eventually Baby Plas, their malleable offspring. This could have easily been a cheap show for a mostly unknown character, but each time “Plas” transformed into a spring or speedboat it looked great and the background layouts were always very detailed.

What really set Plastic Man apart from other shows were the interstitial live-action segments hosted by a wise-cracking actor taking on the role. He would make terrible jokes then transform himself into a basketball or a paper/plastic airplane before sending you back to the cartoon. It was goofy as heck, but I found it so fascinating as a kid. Mark Nobleman did a pretty inspirational interview with the actor who brought me so much joy at this link. Really, anytime a comic book character had a decent interpretation I was glued to the TV. Such was the case with the Ruby-Spears Superman cartoon.

I don’t know that I’ve ever been more impressed with television animation than I was with this show. Coming at the tail end of my fascination with the Super Powers line of action figures, this Superman cartoon blasted onto the Saturday morning scene in 1988 with the bombastic John Williams score and clean-lined character designs that seemed like they had just leapt off the comic book page. Every punch to an alien invader was fluid and every ripple of the cape was mesmerizing. This was the way Superman was meant to be viewed! No disrespect to Christopher Reeve, but no other version live or animated has embodied the character more perfectly than this Ruby-Spears production.

Before you start accusing me of owning stock in Ruby-Spears, let me mention some other notable cartoons that are certainly worth revisiting. Denver, the Last Dinosaur was the wacked out story of prehistoric egg that hatched in the late 80’s, giving birth to a teal-tinted dinosaur who was taught how to become radical by an eclectic group of teenagers. Aside from the unforgettable theme song, the solid design work that preserved the 80s through ink and paint was really quite good. The dated fashions of the characters (what was up with that red Foreign Legion hat?) and backgrounds were fully rendered in such a way that you would never know that this was the same company that brought Voltron to American shores just a few years earlier.

While we’re on the topic of Anime, I should also disclose my aversion to most Japanese animation (except for The Guyver, I love that guy!). So everyone in the universe is a skinny, white high school freshman with saucer eyes that fights or collect demons/monsters of some sort? I know I’m generalizing, but tell me the percentage of anime characters that fit that description is below 50% and I’ll eat my hat! That being said, Japan based Sunbow Productions was responsible for arguably the 2 most iconic cartoons of the decade: G.I. Joe: Real American Hero and Transformers, which I watched a ton of. I’ll even throw Jem in there because I dig the fashion on that show. But the distinction of creating cartoons that defined a decade comes with a caveat.

You see, the character designs were definitely toned down for American audiences, with smaller eyes and bulked out bodies. If Duke or Destro had been designed to look like any character from Robotech or Battle of the Planets, their toughness would have been in question for sure. Even Jem which is just one degree away from becoming Anime with all the neon-colored hair, had more subtle facial structures and bodily proportions to keep our western sensibilities happy. So I guess what I’m saying is that much like the American Chinese Food I prefer over traditional cuisine from that region, westernized Japanimation is what I connected with as a kid.

I know I’ve mainly talked about the action based cartoons so far, so let me give some props to everyone’s favorite anthropomorphic singing rodents, Alvin & The Chipmunks. Like an animated version of KIDS, Incorporated, where else could a kindergartner get access to the pop hits of the day without shelling out big bucks for vinyl? “Uptown Girl” by Billy Joel? Check. “Beat It” by Michael Jackson? Check “Footloose” by Kenny Loggins? Check and Mate! I’m also man enough to admit that I had a little crush on The Chippettes, so spunky.  Aside from the great tunes, Alvin & the Chipmunks also featured my favorite cartoon crossover of all time.

Well, look who’s back, it’s Mr. T! Yep, bullies steal Dave’s gold pocket watch and The Chipmunks are looking for some muscle to help get it back. As luck would have it they find Mr. T casually dining at a local restaurant and recruit him to help save the day. During the negotiations Theodore tries to steal a french fry off Mr. T’s plate causing the mohawked one to shout, “Hey, you can’t eat those fries!”  Shocked, the chubby chipmunk whines, “Pleeeease, Mr. T”, who shows his playful side by finishing his comment, “…without ketchup!” Awww, that’s a true hero. No wonder we love him so.

I’ll bring this article to a close with praise for cartoon studio DIC. I’m sure you’d remember their tag from the end of your favorite cartoons. They had several that were brightly colored and featured the star of the show, but I always remember the one from 1990 and beyond. It’s the one with a little kid sleeping in his bed next to an open window with a starry sky outside. The camera zooms out and kid’s voice says “DIC”. OK, sounds kind of innapropriate when you explain it. Either way, they were involved in some major league stuff like Inspector Gadget, Heathcliff, M.A.S.K., Dennis the Menace and one of my favorites, Dinosaucers. What? You don’t remember Dinosaucers? It was awesome!

Warring factions of humanoid alien dinosaurs in tech suits crash on Earth and continue their war for supremacy. The Dinosaucers/Good Guys recruited a team of teenagers to be their Secret Scouts, while the Tyrannos/Bad Guys opted to rely on their own abilities. The coolest part was that the aliens could “Dinovolve” by smashing an emblem on their chests and transform into their pure dino-forms to battle, which was always exciting. I also applaud the fact that they gave each dino-warrior a distinct costume, when they could have easily given them the same uniform to save animating time. To me the show was like a mash-up of Transformers and Captain Planet, since the Secret Scouts had magic rings that gave them powers, but didn’t take itself nearly as serious as Optimus and the gang. 

That about does it for now. I hope you've enjoyed my exploration of the many animated appearances of Mr. T...er, I mean, television animation. Feel free to share your opinions, battle my point of view and share a few of your favorites in the comments below. DO IT, FOOL!

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AceNThaHole Posted on Dec 03, 2014 at 02:46 AM

They pretty much single handedly removed the whole "combine two halves of the sword" gimmick as being important at all. A kid in the 80's might wonder why the heck they manufactured He-Man and Skeletor with to half swords.

Hoju Koolander Posted on Dec 02, 2014 at 08:28 PM

@Vaporman87 You are right, even though their animation was pretty limited and recycled on He-Man, they did create the backstories we know and love for the characters. Connecting Man-At-Arms, Teela and The Sorceress? Making Queen Marlena an Earthling Astronaut? That was some pretty cool stuff. Reading the mini-comics, you realize how different it could have been

Vaporman87 Posted on Nov 28, 2014 at 04:28 PM

@Hoju - That was something that I was glad Filmation did with He-Man... make his show more than just a half hour advertisement. Mattel probably would have settled for anything as long as they were getting time on tv for their property, but Filmation cared about these characters and took time to delve into their backstories, world history, relationships, struggles, etc. and they did it on a very limited budget and with very limited time. They were expected to pump out 65 episodes a year! How do you do that and still manage to make all those elements work? Ask Filmation, because that's exactly what they did. Mattel didn't place "By the Power of Grayskull" in our vernacular... Filmation did. Filmation made He-Man just as much as Mattel.

Hoju Koolander Posted on Nov 28, 2014 at 03:01 AM

@Vaporman87 I said it would be controversial, didn't I? The Filmation omission was definitely on my mind. I figured since I was already trashing H-B, focusing in Filmation's faults would be redundant. Bravestarr and Ghostbusters were B-Level favorites of mine whose animation quality did improve a lot over He-Man, but the associated toys were always better than their cartoons.

@pikachulover The Disney cartoons deserve an article all their own. I almost added The Wuzzles to the list, but they were cut for length. I actually thought the G1 My Little Pony TV movies were OK animation wise, but they had pretty scary villains terrorizing the ponies.

@Fulton4V Glad get some support on Dinosaucers. One of the creators, Michael Uslan was a producer on Batman '89 and a lifelong comic book fan. He talks about developing the show in his book, "The Boy Who Loved Batman".

Fulton4V Posted on Nov 27, 2014 at 04:58 PM

Im glad to see you mention Dinosaucers here as that was one my favorite shows as far as cartoons go. I was a nice show with good art work.

pikachulover Posted on Nov 27, 2014 at 09:23 AM

Cartoons on tv by Disney like the Gummi Bears, Ducktales, and Winnie the Pooh. With Disney you know you are going to get a good quality animated cartoon.

I think my first anime was either Robotech or Voltron. I didn't get into anime until the 90s with Sailor Moon.

My Little Pony G1 Sunbow cartoons were pretty poorly animated too. They were usually the wrong species or like Vapor said the pony was the wrong color or had the wrong hair color.

Vaporman87 Posted on Nov 26, 2014 at 07:37 PM

Awww yeah. This is what I'm talkin' 'bout Willis.

Sooo much good stuff in this article. I loved about all of these shows, and I agree with every point you make regarding the styles of animation.

I pretty much disliked any and all anime growing up. I didn't like the style, as it was too simplistic and crazy looking. Not to mention that dubbing them over made for some really strange interactions between characters. Unlike traditional American animation dialogue, you would have the weird moments where the characters talk over each other, or say things that really make no sense, or don't flow with the conversation.

It is funny how now I can tell just by the style of animation, which studio pumped out a particular cartoon. Look at Dennis The Menace and Heathcliff. You could interchange the characters in those shows and nothing about the character design or animation would need to change at all. The same goes for Sunbow and Filmation.

Speaking of Filmation... they get no love here!!! Really? C'mon Hoju! The animators of He-Man himself! BraveStarr? Ghostbusters (the non-Bill Murray led team)? Filmation was really good at taking movements from actual film footage and changing them to animation, then reusing those same animations while fitting in different characters. These animated sequences were repetitive, but also very smooth. I loved Filmation's style.

Looking back now at cartoons from Sunbow, it's easy to see that some segments were well done, and some were just dreadful. This was especially true of Transformers. There would be times when a character was not colored properly, or missing a mouth or eyes or some other detail. Times when the animation was so choppy it was as though they had run out of frames and needed to cut a few. Yeah, Transformers could be pretty bad looking at times. I never really noticed it as a youngster, but now I can see it doesn't hold up well sometimes.

Great breakdown of 80's classics Hoju. I loved this one.

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