Cartoon Network (2000), Turner Home Entertainment/Warner Home Video (April 12, 2005), 2 discs, 154 mins plus supplements, 1.33:1 original full frame ratio, Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround, Not Rated, Retail: $29.99
Yesterday’s hero is today’s lawyer-with-wings. Retired superhero Birdman now makes a living representing other Hanna-Barbera stars whose fortunes have taken a turn for the worse.
The Sweatbox Review:
First Space Ghost, and then Birdman! Is nothing sacred to the folks at Cartoon Network??! Can they not leave yesterday’s icons of noble justice alone? Worse yet, this new Birdman show not only despoils Birdman himself, but also drags the names of several other Hanna-Barbera favorites through the mud. Why, I was so upset watching these shows, that I… well, split a gut laughing! I hate myself for it, but I found this show darn funny.
Yes, despite the innocent, nostalgic part of me raising an eyebrow to this show’s naughty use of old Hanna-Barbera characters, I could not help finding this show something of a riot. Like other original [adult swim] shows on Cartoon Network, Harvey Birdman, Attorney At Law has a penchant for nonsense, but its stories are actually fairly coherent on their way to savagely spoofing the characters I grew up with.
Birdman originally appeared on a 1967 NBC Saturday morning cartoon called Birdman And The Galaxy Trio. This was the year after Space Ghost And Dino Boy became a Hanna-Barbera hit for ABC (along with Filmation’s New Adventures Of Superman), and H-B rode the wave of popularity these adventure cartoons were having. For each of the 20 episodes of Birdman And The Galaxy Trio, Birdman had two 7-minute segments, and The Galaxy Trio had one superheroic outer space adventure. Birdman was Ray Randall, granted special powers by the sun god Ra, including flight and the ability to fire solar rays. It was serious superhero action as Birdman, not to mention his trusty sidekick Birdboy and the eagle Avenger, fought such baddies as Dr. Millennium, Morto the Marauder, Nitron the Human Bomb, the Brain Thief, and Reducto. The show just lasted the one season, but thanks to its appearances on Cartoon Network over the years, the character has been kept in front of modern audiences.
Of course, that did not seem sufficient for Michael Ouweleen and Erik Richter. In 2000, they began producing Harvey Birdman, Attorney At Law for Cartoon Network’s [adult swim] block, offering plenty of bizarre humor that makes fun of law shows, sitcoms, and yes— beloved old cartoon stars. You know, part of me wants to be offended by the bastardized use of these timeworn characters; but it’s all so absurd, I can’t take it seriously enough to get upset by it.
The pilot for the show was shown in late December 2000 as an “Adult Cartoon” and was so well received by Cartoon Network that they decided to elevate it to a regular series. Like Sealab 2021, the pilot was made by the “Williams Street” studio in Atlanta, before production was taken to Allied Arts and Science for three episodes, and later Cartoon Network Studios (info courtesy of TVtome.com). The second episode would not air until the following September.
Harvey is not the only one from the old series that shows up. Birdboy now appears as Harvey’s sociopath assistant Peanut, his eagle Avenger is still around, and his old eye-patched boss Falcon 7 becomes known as the law firm’s founder, Phil Ken Sebben. An agent of the notorious crime organization FEAR shows up as a bartender, and even the Galaxy Trio appears in the episode Trio’s Company.
The show’s graphics are at their best in the opening, which is a tour de force of graphic design and time-honored clichés. The episodes themselves are well-drawn, but sparsely animated. Although the cost benefit of the show is in using animation recycled from old Hanna-Barbera shows and previous episodes, each episode remains fresh enough to prevent viewer fatigue, and the limited animation only serves to make the jokes punchier. One must also credit the artists for their adherence to re-creating the looks of older shows, like Jonny Quest, Super Friends, Scooby Doo, and more.
There is a definite sense of the absurd present, but it holds together better than some of the other [adult swim] shows. Each episode has a real story, to go along with the other insanity and various running gags, like “in his pants” and that odd bear that keeps showing up.
This two-disc set offers up 13 of the first 14 episodes (just under a quarter-hour each), taking us up to episodes from 2004. For some reason, it skips Blackwatch Plaid. This was the Secret Squirrel episode, where Secret is accused of exposing what lie beneath his trench coat. The shows that do appear here, though, are plenty funny enough to make up for Secret’s no-show.
Bannon Custody Battle – Race Bannon, bodyguard for Jonny Quest and Hadji, tells Dr,. Quest that he doesn’t just want to be the boys’ “second father”— he wants them all to himself! As Bannon is far more macho than Dr. Quest, he thinks that Dr. Quest can do nothing to stop him. That’s where Harvey Birdman comes in.
Birdman always faces off against one of his old foes in the courtroom, beginning here with Vulturo, while the judge in this and several other episodes is the prehistoric hero Mightor (from Mighty Mightor). There are other clever cameos here by several of the Quests’ adversaries, making this a must-see episode for Jonny Quest fans with an off-beat sense of humor. The implication of a more tender relationship between Dr. Quest and Race, Dr. Quest’s inability to even remember the names of the boys, and Race’s apparent betrayal make this one a tougher sell for those Jonny Quest fans that don’t want their show messed with.
Very Personal Injury – Super Friends fans can enjoy a lampoon of their own, as Apache Chief sues a coffee shop over a spilt cup of burning coffee that has left him unable to use his superpower. His ability to grow is given a sexual connotation, and there’s enough innuendo in this one to prevent you from showing it to the kiddies for sure. Nevertheless, it’s reeeeaally funny. Finally, we get to hear what Black Vulcan thought of the name he was given by the more whitebread Super Friends. This episode introduces the wonderfully bizarre Reducto to the cast, as the opposing attorney who keeps trying to shrink people.
Shaggy Busted – We all knew it would happen someday. Shaggy and Scooby, in a Cops-style roadside pullover, are arrested for possession. Fred (played by his “real” voice, Frank Welker) hires Harvey Birdman to defend his friends, but it’s hard to convince anyone that Shag and Scoob aren’t high on something. In case you’re wondering which episode has the weird live-action Birdman Tab commercial, it’s this one.
Death by Chocolate – I really have mixed feelings about this one. Yogi and Boo Boo are tear-gassed in Jellystone Park by the FBI, who arrest Yogi’s little buddy for being the domestic terrorist known as…. wait for it… the Unabooboo. The story is plenty funny, despite sadly exposing Yogi’s shame of illiteracy. We also see Harvey’s assistant Peanut begin to truly show his eccentricities, and there’s a neat cameo by Dick Dastardly, but the somewhat perverse ending left me wishing it had ended a couple of minutes earlier. It’s a disturbing epilog, even if it is a funny movie parody. As usual, though, the whole cast shows up at the end to laugh it all away.
Shoyu Weenie – Jabberjaw and the Neptunes are sued by the Japanese band Shoyu Weenie for stealing their song. That’s only a loose plot structure for an episode that also features a stirring rendition of “I Feel Shrinky” by Reducto, and some fine theatrical moments by the conceited Judge Mentok.
The Dabba Don – The Sopranos and The Godfather get spoofed as much as The Flintstones as Fred is accused of being a mafia boss. It’s a tough call, but this is probably the very funniest episode in the set, probably because the whole case against Fred is made so darn believable, bolstered with actual Flintstones footage. The are so many great mafia gags in here that I won’t highlight each one, but suffice it to say that the world of The Flintstones (and Hanna-Barbera in general) has rarely been used to such comedic effect. Ever seen a can opener testify at a criminal hearing? Also, Peanut plays the mafia lackey, and Mightor is knocked off to allow Mentok to be the ongoing judge— a wise move, as Mentok is a much more delightful comedian, what with his super telepathic powers and all.
Deadomutt, Parts 1 and 2 – Blue Falcon is reinvented as Blue Falcone, a Latin fop who joins the law firm to become a partner, thereby preventing Harvey from becoming one himself! Birdman’s jealousy appears to have led to the murder of Dynomutt, but can this be true? Meanwhile, fellow firm member Peter Potamus gets lucky.
X, The Exterminator – Oh, this is another good one. X the Eliminator picks up an old contract to kill Birdman, but that extra fifty pounds he’s packed on just isn’t helping. Peter MacNicol, from that other lawyer show (Ally McBeal), is hilarious as the super villain with the inferiority complex. Marvel at how easy it is to get access to the law office when you say the magic words: “I’m here to kill Birdman”. Also, Phil hires Birdman to represent him after a wee car accident; but Harvey has a bigger battle, with the gastrointestinal effects of a sloppy joe.
SPF – Peanut gets Harvey hooked on tanning cream after Harvey swears off the sun to prevent cancer, and the rest of the cast holds an intervention. The legal case in this episode sees Dingaling (Hokey Wolf’s pal from their segments on The Huckleberry Hound Show) hiring Harvey to win use of his own name back from a smutty website. Plenty of other obscure Hanna-Barbera characters with lewd names show up to testify.
The Devlin Made Me Do It – A young admirer of the motorcycle daredevil Devlin (yes, there actually was a Devlin show, back in 1974) has a horrible accident when he imitates one of Devlin’s stunts. Naturally, an aging Devlin (accompanied by his totally skanky girlfriend) finds himself in court.
Trio’s Company – The Galaxy Trio returns!! It seems that Galaxy Girl (known here simply as “Gigi”) is the gym slut, and Harvey is the only one that can’t make a connection with her. That doesn’t stop her from moving in with him, though. Too bad she brought Vapor Man and Meteor Man with her. I was so excited about seeing the Galaxy Trio again, that I almost forgot that this episode also has Inch High Private Eye suing for discrimination when he’s fired for being too small. Inch’s tiny-ness totally freaks out Reducto, too!
High Speed Buggy Chase – Speed Buggy is arrested for his driving and a subsequent chase, and Harvey has to handle the case with a string of inadequate avian helpers once Avenger quits. Meanwhile, The Funky Phantom is denied the opportunity to make a will (since he’s already dead), but he does get a montage showing Peanut how come he is known as funky. After seeing it, you will agree that he is the funk daddy.
Is This Thing Loaded?
Audio Commentary on five episodes can be chosen after selecting that particular episode. The commentary for Very Personal Injury reveals this one as a personal favorite for the creators, although it was a tough show to make partially due to the difficulty in re-creating the look of an older show; and the origin of “The Bear” from the series is revealed, as well as the fact that they got the original voice of “Zan” to appear in the cartoon. The track for The Dabba Don discusses how easy it was to turn Fred into a mafia don, and confirms the appearance of Thundarr The Barbarian in the episode. Should someone maybe tell them that Thundarr is NOT a Hanna-Barbera character?! SPFs commentary talks about the new Flash production method, and the infrequency of new episodes. It is on the track for Trio’s Company that we learn about the format for the original Birdman And The Galaxy Trio, and that Harvey Birdman was nearly Stanley Vaporman.
The Devlin Made Me Do It gets two audio commentaries. The creator commentary discusses how they find this episode too fast since they tried to do too much in it, and also talk a bit about the original Devlin show. Then, you may listen to a Standards and Practices/ Legal commentary, which actually has members of those departments talk about what is and is not acceptable on television; this one has some gaps, but is handled both seriously and humorously to make for an interesting addition.
Deleted Scenes from Deadomutt (0:37 of brief snippets) and Trio’s Company (four animatics totaling about 3 minutes) add minor value to this set.
Of the following extras, each has its own humorous text intro that may in fact be more worthwhile than each extra itself. Nevertheless, it’s nice to see Warner taking a real stab at providing some bonus content, even if it’s a bit fluffy.
Live Action Opening (0:50) is… just what it says. Produced by Atlanta’s Primal Scream, the producers of the sharp-looking cartoon opening, the opening to Harvey Birdman has been playfully re-created with the wonder of film photography and live actors. Harvey Birdman, Attorney At Law Movie Trailer (1:28) takes things a step further, again with the live actor hook, using some of the same footage as the live action opening. Casting What Ifs shows how two other voice actors sound as Harvey, Stephen Colbert (1:10) and Todd Barry (1:02). Pencil Test (0:52) from Shaggy Busted compares the pencil test with the finished footage side-by-side. There is also the surreal Tab Can Redux, With Lyrics (1:18)— in Ukrainian, no less! The Wind Beneath His Wings (0:53) finishes things off with a montage of cast & crew pictures.
Following in the footsteps of other [adult swim] DVD sets, this one has a digipack with slipcover, all made out to look like an old law book. It’s clever, it’s fun, and it’s functional. I like it.
Ink And Paint:
The 4:3 image is pretty crisp and bright, and devoid of physical artifacts, but there is a jitteriness to it at times that prevents it from getting a better rating. This is one of those shows that it’s hard to get clean screenshots from since the image is “unstable”. At regular speed, though, it’s a minor quibble.
The 2.0 sound is quite adequate. As a sitcom, there is little need for spectacular effects, but there is some distinct separation at times. There is only an English audio track, but there are subtitles available in English, French, and Spanish.
The voice cast for this show is pretty solid. Gary Cole nicely handles Birdman, Stephen Colbert gets delightfully silly with Reducto and Phil, and John Michael Higgins is a hoot as Mentok. As I mentioned, Peter MacNicol is a standout guest star as X. It is Maurice Lamarche who is the show’s real hero, though, wonderfully re-creating many of the famous voices of beloved Hanna-Barbera characters, including a solemn Apache Chief and aping Lennie Weinrib’s rendition of Don Adams for “Inch High”.
If you’re in the mood for a little animated sacrilege, have I got the show for you! Put aside your stuffiness, and enjoy the mayhem. This is my favorite [adult swim] original program, packed with genuinely funny gags and wacky characters. I found all the episodes worth watching, while a few were real gems. Old-time Hanna-Barbera fans will get the most out of it, but anyone who likes the oddness of Space Ghost Coast to Coast but craves more lucidity should also find this appealing.