Friday, September 07, 2007

Guilty Pleasure


Have I ever mentioned that I love the old 1980s Dungeons and Dragons cartoon? Probably not. I'm not proud of the fact. But I do. It's just exactly the sort of cartoon that I would have wanted as a kid. Contemporary heroes thrust into fantasy world must fight monsters and magic as they try to make their way home. Of course I wasn't actually a kid when it came out in 1983, unless you consider 21 a kid. (And these days I do, come to think of it.)
Anyway, in case you aren't familiar with the show, a group of kids go for a ride on a Dungeons and Dragons themed roller coaster in an amusement park which somehow actually transports them to another world. There they are given magical weapons and assigned character types that more or less mimic the player types in the D&D game. You know. Ranger, wizard, thief, etc. My favorite character is probably Hank the Ranger, voiced by Willie Ames, (Eight is enough. Charles in Charge. Bibleman.) though the annoying kid Bobby probably has the best weapon, a club that can smash just about anything. Other characters were voiced by Ames' Eight is Enough co-star Adam Rich (Presto) and Donny Most, (Eric) who played Ralph Malph on Happy Days.
The kids have a mentor who's kind of a cross between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda, called Dungeon Master. He shows up to give clues and advice and to sum up each story's moral message at the end of the show. The primary enemy is a Darth Vader type called Venger.
Anyway I recently picked up the DVD boxed set of the entire series and I've only gotten around to watching it this week. There are one or two episodes that I never saw in their original run, so it's kind of cool to finally be able to see them all.
The show holds up pretty well. Most of the animation was done in Japan and the show looks like some of the lower budget anime from the 80s. (Think Star Blazers) There are some nice motion effects and some surprisingly ambitious creature animation for a Saturday morning kids show. I think that the main thing that makes the show still enjoyable (and has generated quite a cult following) is the strong writing and the relationships between the characters. There's a surprising amount of character development in the show and the kids all have recognizable personalities, speech patterns, etc. They have arguments. They give in to despair. They get tired of the constant battles and disappointments. Fairly impressive for the time.
The episode stories are well written by folks like Paul Dini and Mark Evanier, who would go on to bigger things, and always have strong plots with well defined beginnings, middles, and ends. The governing bodies of children's television at the time required a bit of moralizing, but it's not too heavy handed on Dungeons and Dragons. And the writers managed to slip the occasional bit of real drama into the series as in the Dragon's Graveyard episode where the kids actually considered killing Venger.
My favorite episodes are The Girl Who Dreamed Tomorrow and The City on the Edge of Midnight, both which explore how the alternate world the kids are trapped in is connected to ours. Both these shows give the impression that no time has actually passed in the real world while the kids are in the D&D world. Some nice little science fiction-ish touches.
The boxed set has some decent extras. There are audio commentaries on two episodes by various people who worked on the series, a nice documentary about the making of the show, plus a ton of storyboards, character sheets and other art. All and all, a nice package.
I'm not a player of the actual D&D role playing game, so my review is based entirely on the merits of the cartoon. I've heard that a lot of hard core D&D types absolutely hated the show, though other gamers, like my buddy Brett, are fond of it. I just thought it an entertaining cartoon with a lot of imagination and a good bit of heart.
The show ran for two seasons and ended with no real resolution. A final episode was written but never filmed, but as I said, Dungeons and Dragons has something of a cult following, and there are always rumors of a movie sequel or a new series. So who knows? The kids may get home yet.

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