Tuesday, August 29, 2006
REVIEW: Flash" Back: Filmation's Best Returns to DVD
[Article written for Toon Zone News: 07-26-2006]
With little reverence to thirty years of journalistic tradition, I will not begin this review on The New Adventures of Flash Gordon with any attempt to slip in the famous shill cry of “Flash! Ahhhhh.” [Real elegant. -Ed]
For those as vaguely acquainted with Flash Gordon as the mainstream media, a little background seems appropriate. No matter the opinion of pub culture, the campy, creative and oh-so-colorful Dino De Laurentiis movie of 1980 starring Sam J. Jones, Max Von Sydow and most infamously, Brian Blessed, was not the first version of our blonde hero.
Flash Gordon came to life as a news strip in 1934 thanks to the creative juices of artist Alex Raymond. Flash is an American Polo player and athlete who, along with Dale Arden and the (at first) evil scientist Doctor Hans Zarkov, travel to planet Mongo to fight the imperious forces of Ming the Merciless.
The news strip spawned movie serials, TV shows, radio plays, books and, of course, even more news strips, all of which propelled space adventurer Flash Gordon through many battles with the evil minions of Ming.
Not only did the concept endure, but it was a major influence on contemporary science fiction, with George Lucas citing Gordon as inspiration for the style of Star Wars.
In 1979, Flash Gordon missed becoming a live action TV film by around $30 million. Too expensive to make with actors, Lou Scheimer instead moved towards animation. The end result was an acclaimed feature-length cartoon that was then edited to form the first chapters of the animated serial The New Adventures of Flash Gordon. Its Saturday morning run created a new generation of Flash Gordon fans.
The New Adventures of Flash Gordon was made at Filmation studios, home of the likes of Tarzan, Space Sentinels and, more famously, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. The show was a two-season affair; the first season was a half-hour weekly serial that played faithfully to the original news strip, the second broke each episode into two parts and moved away from Raymond’s vision to create a more child-friendly format.
There is a lot to be said for this version of Flash Gordon—both as a faithful translation of Raymond’s news strip and as an animated venture. Naturally by today’s standards, the animation does lack pace and versatility, but the show has a lovely blend of such three-dimensional techniques as rotoscoping, hand-painted stop animation footage and moiré effects (the three-dimensional laced energy backgrounds many will remember from He-Man and She-Ra). The combination of colorful backdrops, rotoscoped human movement and rolling vehicles helps create a good Gordon ambience, and atmosphere was a vital ingredient for this cartoon as a great deal had been invested into making it feel like the original strip. As with the news strip, each episode has cliffhangers. Visually, character, vehicle and costume designs mimic the original artwork. On top of this, a lavish score reminiscent of 30s cinema is laced into the show.
So while the animation is indeed slower and less ambitious than that of the show's predecessors and successors, it fits the title perfectly. Much of the original artwork includes realistic proportions and static tableaux, turning the limited animation into something of an advantage. The blend of gentle rotoscoping, colorful geography and careful attention to aesthetics makes this still one of the most authentic adaptations of the original strip.
In plot, too, the first season hews very close to the illustrated tales, significantly raising the standard of the show. “A Planet in Peril,” “Blue Magic” and my favorite from the original news strip, “Tournament of Death,” are some of my personal recommendations from season one. Favorites aside, I don’t feel there is a single episode of the first season that truly lacks luster. The consistency of pacing and quality atmosphere throughout this first season is extremely strong. While all the character designs stay close to the original Raymond strip, one should take special note of the women. In infamous Flash Gordon style, the animated heroines and villainesses of Mongo are faithfully alluring.
The voice casting carries some of Filmation's standard crew: Robert “Tarzan” Ridgely as Flash, Melendy “She-Ra” Britt as Princess Aura, and of course the magical Alan Oppenheimer as Ming the Merciless, a clear precursor to Alan’s later infamous role as Skeletor in He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. The cast—as in most Filmation cartoons—do a variety of voice roles and do a fine job in capturing the spirit of Flash Gordon.
With a mix of faithful stories, solid acting and colorful visuals, Flash Gordon’s first season is very much a family affair—far more so than the second. For a Saturday morning cartoon, it’s surprising how directly these early episodes confront death—though it is the poor minor players who suffer. The poor Hawkmen soldiers seem to get on particularly poorly vis-a-vis constant disintegration.
Yes, the show does rely heavily on stock footage. Be prepared to see reuse of body movements, action scenes and vehicles. I find spotting these instances rather endearing.
Stock footage was also a key element of the old film and television serials, so the budgetary constraint on the animation is in fact accurate. But it is possible to have too much of a bad thing, which brings us to Flash Gordon's second season.
The second season loosened its ties to the original adventures in a play for the children’s market. Afraid another season-long story arc, with week-long gaps between episodes, was economic suicide in an age of syndication and decreasing attention spans, the studio opted for self-contained adventures instead. Episodes shrank in length to two 11-minute segments each, and budgets also dwindled. Occasional repeated footage become reuse of locations and story elements from the first season. As in He-Man and others, this is part of that ineffable Filmation charm, but it does erode the quality of the overall production.
To add insult to injury, season two marks the arrival of a new character. In a ploy used many times before and since, the studio introduced a quirky beast for gratuitous comic relief, named Gremlin. Yes, if the cartoon capers of Scrappy Doo, Godzooky and Orko weren’t enough to fossilize your funny bone and wear out the fast forward button on your remote, Gremlin is here to further the mission to madden. In some ways, Gremlin is the worst of all his kin. At least Scrappy was a dog like Scooby, Godzooky was a dinosaur like Godzilla, and Orko was hardly out of place in a world of spells, magic and blue megalomaniacs who drew the short straw when it came to both fashion and dermatological aesthetics. But Gremlin is not even a Gremlin. He’s a pink, “cute” baby dragon. Sure, Mongo had some weird beasts, some resembling dragons. However, none that I recall were pink, squeaky and astoundingly annoying.
To make things worse, Gremlin gets a firm spotlight in nearly every episode of the second season, a real problem for a cartoon based on a well-established story. For fifty-odd years Flash Gordon had got on fine without a pink dragon, particularly one so infuriatingly springy.
Despite the new format, the pink dragon and the cheaper production values, it is possible to enjoy season two on a simplistic level. Season one is far superior, but in a way, the second season offers a glance at what happens after an epic. In cartoons, it’s rare to even get to the end of an epic before cancellation can wield its unyielding axe. With The New Adventures of Flash Gordon we get more rather than less.
Season one covered much of Raymond’s original concepts and had a great finale. Season two is a lighter affair—aimed at a younger audience—but it has a friendly vibe that is lacking from season one. Season one never stops; it’s non stop action followed by a cliffhanger followed by non-stop action. Sometimes you just wish our heroes get a break from the risks and danger. Well season two offers the audience a far more settled Mongo. Sure, there are 11 minute disasters on occasions, but it’s a fight taken on by a community settled in Arboria rather than a group of fleeing rebels.
I certainly wouldn’t pretend season two is brilliant—or even above average. Its budget is decidedly poor, the inclusion of Gremlin remains intrusive and of course, some of the episodes are insultingly childish. “Micro Menace” is the biggest mess, “Flash Back” strays too far from the source material and “Sir Gremlin” starts well but ends up as a substandard version of season one’s “Blue Magic.” But to counter that, there is a lot of fun to be found in “Gremlin’s Finest Hour,” “The Freedom Balloon” and “Royal Wedding.” Don’t expect any of the stories to stand out—especially compared to season one, but there is a childish simplicity to them that I found rather endearing and it is a chance to see our heroes for just a little longer. Take season two as a bonus; just don’t think too hard about it.
The DVD itself is a treat. It's a beautifully packaged with a nice set of four picture disks. Even the simplest features are very in-depth. The character profiles offer images and model sheets along with a scrolling biography for pretty much the entire cast of the series.
The “Blasting off with Flash Gordon” documentary is interesting enough, offering commentary from a variety of sources. There is some rather blatant promoting going on in this segment, but it doesn’t get in the way too much.
If you are an art fan, there are some nice storyboard-to-footage comparisons for several stock moments. There is also a further set of storyboards as DVD ROM extras as well as scripts and series bible in easy to access PDF format.
On top of all that, there are three commentaries. The season one commentary lands on the first episode and has Executive Producer Lou Scheimer and Assistant Animator Darrel MacNeil. It’s not quite as insightful as I hoped. Much of the background that they explain in this episode is in the DVD documentary. While there are some slightly more in-depth explanations of some of the animated processes used at Filmation, it’s a fairly dry affair.
The second and third commentaries are from season two and are unfortunately done by episode rather than show—meaning each commentary is just eleven minutes long! Writers Tim Ruegger and Michael Reeves explain the details behind the stories for “Sir Gremlin” and “Gremlin’s Finest Hour” respectively. Unfortunately, there isn’t a great deal to be said about season two episodes. They are okay to watch, but the stories are not very complex and often have so little to do with the original Flash Gordon characters that there is very little to talk about. The commentaries as a whole are a little disappointing, but nevertheless there are little tidbits in the three episodes you won’t find on the documentary.
And if all those features weren’t enough to tickle you pink as a Gremlin, there is a bonus feature: episode one of Defenders of the Earth! It's a surprising addition to the set. Yes, the Defenders are lead by an older Flash Gordon, but he’s a very different one to the character presented in The New Adventures of Flash Gordon or the Raymond strips themselves. In fact—shocking as this may be—Defenders of the Earth is even less faithful to Flash Gordon than season two of The New Adventures of Flash Gordon. It even goes so far as to kill Flash’s wife (which we presume is an unnamed Dale Arden) and takes him away from Mongo entirely! It is, however, a fairly faithful slug of eighties cartoon formula. You have your silly comic “Gremlin” variant, the terrible electric eighties score, generic models and a terrible set of protégé children that are attached to the team.
Defenders of the Earth is not nearly as authentic to Raymond’s Flash Gordon, as New Adventures, but some may find it a bit of retro fun and it does make season two of New Adventures look classy in comparison.
Overall this is a great set. Even the DVD’s inlay has individual episode synopsis—and the set even comes with some individual collector cards, just to win over those who are for some reason, determined to keep their money in their wallet.
The stories hold up well, the DVD is neatly packaged and showered with special features that cover every aspect of the show. The quality of the episodes is quite palatable, international fans will be pleased to hear that some of the odd episode coloration seems to have been lost on this region one set.
Be it an introduction into the authentic world of Flash Gordon, a curious glance at a different version of the hero, or simply a worthy addition to a Flash fan’s collection, this is a virtually faultless product that has been put together with thought and care.
In the words of the great Brian Blessed (or was it Vultan? I can never distinguish the two)—“Gordon’s alive!” If you wanted proof, you could fare no better than this great DVD set of Filmation’s best.