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DC Super Heroes: The Filmation Adventures

Filmation Associates (1967), Warner Home Video (August 12 2008), 2 discs, 126 mins plus supplements, 1.33:1 original full frame ratio, Dolby Digital Mono, Unrated, Retail: $24.98

Storyboard:

The Atom, The Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, Superman, Speedy, Kid Flash, Wonder Girl and Aqualad – could there ever be a greater line up of classic, Saturday morning television super heroes to the rescue? Join them all in an assortment of 18 slices of superheroic action from the vaults of the Filmation Studio.

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The Sweatbox Review:

If there was one thing guaranteed by the stamping of the Filmation logo on the front end of a superhero show, it was that the action would always take center stage. The fledgling Studio’s first major success had been founded on the back of the biggest comic book hero of all time, Superman, in the 1966 New Adventures Of Superman, which picked up where George Reeves’ live-action series ended in the late 1950s. The stories had a lot to pack into their short segments, which made character arcs tricky things to pull off, so they leant heavily on the action aspects, cleverly using the limited animation techniques the low budget could only afford as a way of approximating a moving comic strip.

Never before had comic book cartoons actually looked and felt like the panels they were drawn from, and the approach – while forced upon the program makers by necessity – took advantage of both mediums to came up with a whole new style that other studios would quickly start to emulate throughout the decade. With Superman a big hit, National Periodicals (now DC Comics) naturally wanted more of the same, and The Superman/Aquaman Adventure Hour teamed two of their bigger titles (when there’s trouble under the sea, the Atlantian crime fighter Aquaman took action), also adding rotating segments starring other heroes from the DC Universe.

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Thus, when there’s a speedy solution needed, police scientist Barry Allen becomes fastest man alive The Flash, humanoid alien genius Carter Hall takes to the air as winged avenger Hawkman and, with his power ring, test pilot Hal Jordan defends space as the Green Lantern. Also joining the good fight is Professor Ray Palmer, a scientist who has harnessed energy itself as The Atom, while all of these crusaders join forces with Superman to form the Justice League of America, and a junior troupe of sidekicks Aqualad, Kid Flash, keen bowman Speedy and young Amazon princess Wonder Girl team up as the Teen Titans.

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It’s a fair indication that The Superman/Aquaman Adventure Hour has been seldom seen since its introduction in that I wasn’t even aware that there had been previous animated versions of the Justice League or the Teen Titans. Even back in the day, during my own childhood, these shows were quickly replaced with The New Adventures Of such and such a character, or broken up into different syndicated combinations: the Aquaman segments became the foundations of his own show, Superman went on to double with Batman before that caped crusader got his own program, and the various incarnations of the Super Friends series (such was their quantity and success that Filmation had to share production with their rivals Hanna-Barbera) eventually superseded all previous attempts at bringing the characters to the screen.

Although some of the individual segments got a limited release in a short-lived series of home video compilations in the 1980s, they mostly remained trapped in the vaults and, perhaps because of their old-fashioned animation style, never aired on television again; most new fans know only the more recent Bruce Timm-supervised Animated Series updates for Batman, Superman, the Justice League and Teen Titans, currently entering the next generation with the grown up DC Universe movies such as New Frontier, Gotham Knight and the return of Wonder Woman. Now, for both those nostalgic for some old time super-powered fun, and for those fans of the modern programs interested in comparing them to their original, somewhat more naïve versions, Warners has dug into Filmation’s past to present some of these long-lost adventures again!

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Disc One launches us in high flying style with the bonkers The Atom. Each character or team combination gets three stories a piece, with their backstory intros intact each time, although end credits for the main program have been moved to their own separate entry in the episode listings. What’s immediately apparent, even more so than last year’s The New Adventures Of Superman, is that it’s clear to see where the creators of such superhero spoofs as The Tick and Freakazoid! got their inspiration, both as kids growing up watching this stuff originally, and as a fertile breeding ground for showing up the aspects in animation, writing and character of which to lampoon most obviously. The Atom is a classic case in point, the adventures of an atomic physicist (naturally) whose power it is to shrink to the size of…well, not quite an atom, but close, retaining his human strength in super-concentrated form as a tiny titan.

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It’s a great concept but one that, as seen here, is ripe for parody, and one must wonder if their Filmation crew produced some of these segments with their tongues firmly in the cheeks! The tables are turned when The Atom faces some giant beetles in Invasion Of The Beetle-Men (all the titles from this period were usually as evocative as this!), he saves us all from a bizarre gardening accident in The Plant Master and, in The House Of Doom, battles alien-controlled killer robots (“If I reverse the polarity this thing will turn into a self-destruct bomb!” – of course!) intent on, you guessed it, taking over the world.

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We’re off to Central City in the company of The Flash next, for The Chemo-Creature (a radioactive giant ant!), Take A Giant Step (more killer robots!) with Kid Flash, and the revenge (presumably from a previous encounter not included here) of their extraterrestrial equal in the international escapade To Catch A Blue Bolt. Joined by his Venusian friend Kyro, the Green Lantern’s exploits entertain for the last trio of cartoons on the disc: Evil Is As Evil Does has the cosmic crusader using his power ring against the interplanetary lord of crime Evil Star, The Vanishing World sees the threat of escape, from a Phantom Zone-like alternate dimensional asteroid, of the most dangerous criminals in the universe, and in Sirena, Empress Of Evil, Green Lantern travels to the far off Planetoid Sargasso to save a fleet of Earth ships from, well, Sirena, the empress of evil.

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Disc Two is even more adventure packed as Hawkman starts us off, essentially packing in all the conventions into one: a super-powered alien humanoid in disguise on Earth, plus all the gadgets a hero needs, including a rocket ship, and a worthy sidekick in the shape of his faithful hawk Skreel, who comes high in the pecking order during the odd skirmish. I’m a little lost as to why Hawkman hasn’t remained more popular: not only do Peril From Pluto, A Visit To Venus and The Twenty Third Dimension contain more interesting villains and stronger writing, but they’re simply relentless actioners; perhaps Hanna-Barbera’s similar Birdman And The Galaxy Trio stole a little thunder?

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The combination of all the above heroes joined by Superman should mean five times the excitement and going by the numbers you’d be right. Now there’s even less screen time for each character, so the action in Between Two Armies, Target Earth and the exceptional Bad Day On Black Mountain remains fairly concentrated in trying to come up with situations to keep the heroes’ hands full. I’ve never found much in the appeal of the Teen Titans, and the three stories here didn’t do a lot to change that view. You’d expect the adventures of Kid Flash, Wonder Girl, Speedy and Aqualad to be younger aimed, but even with the addition of the ocean as a location, compared to the other cartoons in this set, the plots in The Monster Machine, The Space Beast Round-Up and Operation: Rescue (in which we curiously seem to stray into Johnny Quest territory) are overly simplistic. Unlike the Justice League, who split up to take on a problem, the writing doesn’t really give the Titans enough to do, and that there are only four of them means they’re often grouped in twos or more.

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What is pretty cool across all the segments is that Filmation were able to pack each seven minute adventure with a ton of action – it doesn’t really matter that characters don’t get any introspective moments or that logic is wacky and often flies right out the window, because there just isn’t the time to think about it! The pace is super-charged, setting up a situation, getting the hero’s alter-ego to switch to their costumed persona and end with a battle of strength and wits; meaning fairly unsophisticated plots, but ones that serve to tell a story in their allotted time and do so clearly with excitement and very respectable production values. In fact, things are so fast and often furious that the Filmation tradition of reusing stock shots often flits by without one noticing, even though they’re well in abundance, such is the stirring tone and speedy editing that gets the viewer wrapped up and engaged in the on-screen heroics.

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Sure, the basic premises and villains are goofy, running the gamut from the usual giant bugs and robots, to dinosaurs (every cartoon hero of the 1960s had to have a dino encounter!) and wannabe world-conquering aliens, and there are several diversions from the comics for those who want to nit-pick, but there’s plenty of nostalgic good clean fun to be had too. In the days before political correctness swamped everything with a play-nice blanket, The Atom is allowed to really clobber the bad guys, and The Flash’s clash with the Blue Bolt shows off some admittedly decent motion effects work. I was never a huge Green Lantern follower (save for the ultra-cool costume) but it has to be said that Hal Jordan’s adventures are the weakest here, with Hawkman’s exploits surprisingly solid. Particularly strong, as expected, are the Justice League shorts, though be aware that Aquaman’s appearance on the cover (and in the League intro) doesn’t mean he actually shows up in them, bizarrely, and that Robin is absent from the Teen Titans line up.

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With the complete character segments for The New Adventures Of Superman (1966), The Adventures Aquaman (1967) and The New Adventures Of Batman (1977) released last year, this collection of DC Super Heroes fills in a few of the gaps from those characters’ initial forays into television animation. Superboy is still notoriously missing due to copyright issues, but these may or may not have been resolved by now, meaning that hopefully we’ll soon see those adventures on DVD too: there’s still certainly just enough material of this vintage to fill another set, and if it’s half as entertaining as this one, that’d be Super!

Is This Thing Loaded?

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Even with what might be classed second tier releases in a niche market, Warners always nudges out the boat a bit more than most to usually include some extra goodness here and there, and often these are very generous supplements that surprise in their quality as much as they are welcome. And here we get something quite special indeed, an extensive 40-minute documentary, Animation Maverick: The Lou Scheimer Story that comprehensively looks at the life and career of the Filmation Associates co-founder (the associates of course being producer Norm Prescott and director Hal Sutherland).

This comes to DVD at the perfect time, as BCI slowly comes to the apparent end of their amazing run of bringing some of the most iconic Filmation shows to disc in wonderfully inclusive boxed sets, and as Warners continue to dip into the superhero Filmation shows they own via their DC Comics imprint. True, most of the stories will have been heard before, and at times the tone does feel as if we’re remembering Scheimer instead of celebrating him, but this is a wonderful tribute, and anyone with a passing interest in Filmation Associates should seek out this documentary for the extremely classy presentation, which features an uncountable number of rarely seen stills and personal photographs, footage from Lou’s Emmy award win, and a postscript that notes his 80th birthday this October 19 2008.

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It’s as much a discussion about the creation of the Studio and its work ethics as it is Lou’s personal story, and in the style of other recently surprising Warner Home Video documentaries it cleverly papers over any gaps in clip licensing, relying on some unique new imagery and simply letting the talking heads (Sutherland, daughter Erika, various crew members, Filmation expert Andy Mangels and naturally Lou himself among the many of them) relate their stories. It’s an homage to Scheimer, of course, so it’s an inevitably glowing account, but kudos to producer Michael Brosnan for not failing to spotlight the highs and the lows of Filmation’s output, including a look at the infamous stock shots. Though it does get very near to being sentimentally cloying, there’s no need for this piece to have been crafted to the length that it has been – let alone at all – and that it has been is both a true mark of respect and the resounding “must have” reason for owning this set.

Also, hidden at the tail of the episode title listings on each disc, are the Original “As Aired” 1967 Aquaman End Credits, which unfortunately don’t seem to play automatically when viewing the contents as a whole but which are there, easily marked, for those who care to check. Even though the stories retain their front-end character introductions each time, they have been selected from other programs on an individual basis and in reality had no specific end credits of their own. So it’s very pleasing to see that someone felt it was the right thing to do in making sure those who worked on them were recognised, and even as a stand-alone menu entry the chance to view these original titles is extremely appropriate.

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Warners’ weird, kitschy Wizard Of Oz anti-piracy promo plays at the start of the first disc, Scooby Doo And The Goblin King and Tiny Toons/Freakazoid: Volumes 1 are trailed on the second, with optional previews for animated and DC titles including It’s The Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown, Popeye And Friends Volume 1, Lego Batman and The Smurfs Volume 2 to hand on disc two.

Case Study:

Fair play to Warners for not overly promoting Superman on the cover here. Sure, the Man of Steel is perhaps the most primarily recognisable character from a casual point of view, but he’s correctly not oversold, at least to my eyes, since he only flies in for but three of the stories in the set. Front and center is Green Lantern, with The Flash and, ironically (because he’s a no-show), Aquaman probably more eye-catching. The dynamic artwork is reproduced on an embossed slipcase which not only pops the characters out a little more but won’t hurt it looking too out of place on the shelf with other DC Comics Classic Collection titles. Inside the keepcase, the double-sided sleeve lists each story and a fun Teen Titans in battle image. Stylistically, the characters may not look how we’re accustomed to seeing them today, but are perfectly on model for how they’re represented in the comic book styled animation on the disc.

Ink And Paint:

Now, it’s here that there’s a little bit to question, not specifically in the quality of the image, but in the amount of content on the discs. At just over two hours, one must wonder why the set has spread to two platters when, even with the bonus features, there’s less than three hours of content. While the indication of a double-disc set is attractive, that does seem to promise more content than is delivered, and I admit to wonder if the 1 in the 126 minute running time wasn’t a typo which should have been a 2. It’s quite possible that the creators of the disc reasoned that the amount of grain in the image might have severely cramped the presentation should it become overly compressed and so decided to provide enough space to house the episodes without compromise – even considering the limited animation, the encoded bits per second are well up over a respectable four or five for the most part and even head towards eight in some cases.

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The result of Warner Bros. being able to keep their archive in-house as opposed to the fate of other Filmation output that has seen master elements disappear, leaving only interlaced video dupes that the BCI sets had to settle with using, means that the Studio is here able to present a progressive transfer from original film components. While these shows do not seem to have undergone any extensive remastering, even a regular surge of light speckling can’t bring our heroes down and the image, as with the previous New Adventures Of Superman and Batman, is as fair as it gets for vintage material of this era and, though they’re not always the sharpest of lines, the comic-book style of the animation is well defined along with its lively coloring, always a Filmation hallmark.

Scratch Tracks:

Surprisingly for a show created in mono for television in 1967, these Super Heroes can pack a punch. Dialog, quite often in the form of loud, stern, seriously imparted Important Plot Exposition narration, is all important and is certainly pushed to the front of the mix, while the spot sound effects are brilliant, not only for the choice of which sound to use but also because you’ll have heard them countless times on other shows since! The music, mainly a selection of library tracks, is mainly background filler but can get one pretty connected to what’s playing out most of the time. It’s all pretty standard stuff for a 60s action adventure soundtrack, complete with funky theme tunes, but it’s all super-clear and a good lesson in how strong, economic sound can sell 50% of the picture. Warners is on some kind of Portuguese kick at the moment, hence subs and dubs in that language – fairly amusing as it turns out, as it seems the tracks were re-created from the ground up, using different effects and muzak which is often hysterically out of place!

Final Cut:

They’re campy, goofy, flat-out plain old-fashioned fun with a capital F, and those in a nostalgic mood will be in their element. The stories aren’t packed with the nuance of today’s multi-layered comics’ characters, and in a way that’s quite refreshing, coming from a more innocent time. They’re no less important for that, though, as the vehicles that brought these heroes to the animated screen and very much paved the way for the likes of Bruce Timm, Paul Dini and company to forge ahead with their new, more celebrated incarnations. These were just as big a deal back in their day, and fans of the modern stuff might have a grin discovering these cartoons. Setting them off perfectly is the Animation Maverick documentary, which easily tips the scales in favor of a purchase for anyone with a decent Filmation collection or half an interest in the Studio. It really is that good.

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

MAIN FEATURE
SUPPLEMENTS
VIDEO IMAGE
SOUND TRACK
OVERALL DVD

 

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