Hanna-Barbera (1977), Warner Home Video (January 8, 2008), 2 discs, 323 mins plus supplements, 1.33:1 original full frame ratio, Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono, Not Rated, Retail: $26.98
The Justice League adds alien teenagers and their pet space monkey to the team.
The Sweatbox Review:
Hanna-Barbera first adapted DC Comics’ Justice League Of America concept in 1973, in a fairly lacklustre show called Super Friends. The show, saddled with contemporary parent concerns about violence on Saturday mornings, could muster little action and about as much interest from viewers. The odd addition of cartoony teenagers Wendy and Marvin, as well as a dopey dog in a cape, all supposedly heroes-in-training, did little to add any spark to the program. The show faded away, apparently to be little more than a barely-remembered show from the Saturday morning wasteland. But then a funny thing happened, proving that timing can be everything in the success or failure of a television show. ABC decided to give the show another chance in 1977, as primetime series like The Six Million Dollar Man and Wonder Woman had captured the imaginations of kids and teenagers at the time. Those same older kids and their little siblings tuned into Super Friends this time, and its stronger ratings led to ABC ordering a new version of the show, with an all-new format.
The All-New Super Friends Hour debuted in the fall of 1977, bringing back core members Superman, Batman & Robin, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman. The boring teens of the previous incarnation were jettisoned in favor of more superhero-ish Jan and Jayna, super-powered twins from the planet Exxor, along with their pet space monkey Gleek. Supervillains and violence were still fairly taboo at this point, but something about this version really clicked with viewers. Whereas the original show had lengthy one-hour stories that ran out of steam by their ends, this new series broke down the hour into more easily digestible segments. Each episode had four stories— one that teamed two of the Super Friends (seven minutes), a “teaching” segment that featured The Wonder Twins (4 minutes), a half-hour full-team story, and lastly a six-minute story that saw one regular team member teaming with a special guest star. In addition, the hour was peppered with smaller segments that saw the Super Fiends handing out advice and safety tips. This proved to be a winning formula, helping to ensure the presence of Super Friends cartoons on television for the next decade.
This is also the version of the show that I best remember from my childhood, so I am glad to see it finally being released on DVD, as the jumpy nature of Warner’s Super Friends release strategy has left something to be desired. It would have been nice to see Super Friends getting released starting with the first season years ago, but alas that initial season has yet to arrive, despite the presence on DVD of most other versions of the show. But back to The All-New Super Friends Hour… You know, I had been trying to remember what it was about that version that endeared itself to me so many years ago. I remembered that each hour had a few stories, with various team-up stories, but I had forgotten all about those other sections: the health and safety tips, the crafts, the decoder clues. This show had a full package of stuff! Yes, most of it is pretty cheesy to see now, but as a kid I thought seeing Wonder Woman warn against the dangers of petting a strange dog, or Aquaman telling how to make a fun musical instrument, was kind of fun.
The stories themselves, of course, left something to be desired. It is ironic that just as comics were entering their most grown-up, “relevant” phase yet, the cartoons were becoming more childish and certainly less relevant. I was prepared, though, to like them a lot less than I ended up liking them. Yes, all the violence has been stripped out of the conflicts, and the heroes do some ridiculously impossible things with their seemingly magical powers (and bat-gadgets), but this absurdity comes out feeling innocent and yes, even charming. You can make fun of this endlessly, but I challenge you to not enjoy it on some level.
This is a review, of course, so I do have to criticize it a bit, even if it seems like kicking a puppy that simply didn’t realize he wasn’t supposed to chew on your comic books. As mentioned, the writing is unreasonably earnest, punctuated by too many “gollys” and “gees;” and the solutions to problems tend to involve scientifically implausible uses of super powers or gimmickry. The animation is limited, the drawing is often plain bad, and there are animation errors aplenty— the paint people never seem to be able to keep straight which part of Batman’s emblem is black or yellow (as if a yellow bat makes sense!), and animated pieces of characters (such as eyebrows and limbs) appear and disappear at will. There is exactly no characterization whatsoever, as all the adult heroes have interchangeable one-dimensional characteristics. At least they all have different powers! And, naturally, it was the powers that made us love this show as kids, right?
But speaking of powers, I would be remiss if I didn’t comment on Zan and Jayna, the Wonder Twins, who debut in this series. I’ll let Jayna off the hook, as her power to transform into any animal does prove to be quite useful. Plus, she always looks so darn cute, with her hips cocked in that classic pose as she touches her brother’s hand in order to activate their powers. But then there’s Zan… poor, poor Zan. Oh, he seems to be an okay guy, though his best feature is having a hot sister, but those lame, lame powers! I mean, please! Zan transforms into things made of water, which I suppose with a little imagination might actually mean something; but with his adolescent mind, the best he can come up with is stuff like “pail of water” and “ice sled.” I always figured the Super Friends only kept him around because Jayna’s powers didn’t work without him.
Of course, this is not a show meant to be watched with adult eyes. It is, however, a great show to share with one’s kids, and certainly a terrific way to re-live one’s past. I credit this show with helping me to develop a moral code, with its straight-shooting, unfailing heroes, and the messages they taught are still valuable to me. Yes, the simplicity in this program does not reflect the real world, but it was never intended to. It was actually designed as a refuge from the turmoil in the real world, and on that level it still functions quite well, thank you.
As for the details of what are on these two discs, there are seven episodes, shown in a somewhat random order. You can easily tell they are out of sequence, since the “coming next week” tags at the ends of each one simply do not match up with the forthcoming episode. It’s a small quibble, however, as continuity is otherwise a non-issue in these stories. Here is a brief summary of what you can find on these discs:
1. Wonder Woman and Batman take on artificially-advanced scientist Dr. Cranum, who wants to do the same to Earth’s population, in The Brain Machine. The Wonder Twins save a couple of teens taking a plane for a Joy Ride. The whole team fights off an Invasion Of The Earthers, who are causing calamities by taking bedrock from underneath human-built structures. Aquaman and Black Vulcan assist a ship with a reckless captain in The Whirlpool.
2. Batman, Robin, and Aquaman fight off the Invasion Of The Hydronoids. The Wonder Twins teach kids not to Hitchhike. The Super Friends chase after a City In A Bottle, ending up on a frozen world. Wonder Woman, Hawkman and Hawkgirl attend to a Space Emergency.
3. Superman, Batman and Robin go after a scientist’s secret plans, necessitating an encounter with The Marsh Monster. The Wonder Twins address the problems of The Runaways. The whole team answers the question Will The World Collide? Superman, Hawkman and Hawkgirl travel 2000 years into the future for a Time Rescue.
4. Superman and Wonder Woman chase down the dirigible-travelling Doctor Fright. The Wonder Twins take on the issue of teens who like to Drag Race. The Super Friends face the Day Of The Plant Creatures. Batman, Robin and Rima respond to a forest Fire.
5. Superman and Wonder Woman battle a Frankenstein-like problem in The Monster Of Dr. Droid. The Wonder Twins teach a lesson to Vandals. The team goes to the undersea world of Oceana and fights itself in Super Friends Vs. Super Friends. Batman, Robin and The Atom have to save innocents from an uncontrollable Energy Mass.
6. Superman, Batman and Robin foil the plans of The Secret Four. Zan and Jayna must capture a Tiger On The Loose. The Super Friends battle aliens they come to know as The Mysterious Time Creatures. Wonder Woman and Apache Chief take on a giant cobra in order to find The Antidote.
7. Wonder Woman and Aquaman (not Superman as the narration suggests) travel to a mysterious jungle island to deal with The Enforcer. The Wonder Twins teach about water safety in Shark. The whole team finds itself on the Planet Of The Neanderthals. Aquaman and Green Lantern go deep underground to rescue trapped workers caught in a Flood of Diamonds.
Is This Thing Loaded?
All the special features are found on Disc Two, which begins with a preview for Justice League: The New Frontier. There are then two featurettes, the first of which is One-Dimensional Goodness: The Super Friends And The Good Old Days (14:34), which offers a fair assessment of the appeal and limitations of the Super Friends show. Comic writer/DC historian Mark Waid is joined by animation writers and historians such as Alan Burnett and Jerry Beck, who all talk about why the show was so simple yet appealing, and writer John Semper discusses how the key political assassinations in the United States in the 1960s helped lead to a backlash against violence being portrayed on television, particularly in children’s programming. While they do address why the show couldn’t portray violence, they do stop short of explaining just why Zan was so lame. They also gently poke fun of the show’s educational component, whimsically asking why the World’s Greatest Super-Heroes were spending their talents making crafts and giving decoder clues.
The second featurette is Origins Of The Guest Stars (8:30), which goes into some detail about the guest heroes on the show. Specifically, they discuss Hawkman & Hawkgirl, The Atom, Green Lantern, and Rima. The part on Rima is the most interesting, as she was only a DC Comics character for a very short-lived series in the 1970s, and actually began life as a character in a Victorian-era novel.
There are also trailers for Warner Bros. Academy Award Animation Collection, Space Ghost/Birdman/Droopy, Challenge Of The Superfriends, and the game Flat Out Ultimate Carnage.
Warner Home Video once again uses the ultra-slim digipack within a slipcase packaging for these releases, doing what they can to conserve our shelf space while frustrating all those who hate overlapping disc designs. The inner digipack and the slipcase share the same cover artwork, but there are enough other images to make it a nice-looking set.
Ink And Paint:
The transfers here are typical for 1970s Hanna-Barbera cartoons, providing good compression while keeping all the faults of the original materials fully intact. This means you will see every smudge and bit of dust that was part of the original camera negatives, just as it should be. The elements are in decent shape for their age, but you will still see some defects such as horizontal lines, variable color timing, and the odd scratch. Overall, though, I was reasonably satisfied.
The audio is a little uglier, with the show’s theme song in particular suffering from noticeable distortion. Aside from the music, though, it all sounds basically okay. The mono comes fully from the center speaker, therefore offering zero dimensionality—- just as it was in 1977.
This show meant Saturday mornings to me back in the day, and as such its appearance on DVD is welcome. One can quibble with the episode order, and the condition of the transfer elements, but really this is about as good as one could expect, with the welcome addition of a couple of nice featurettes. I’m just glad to have the chance to see the show again. Its innocence and the inclusion of educational segments does come off as hokey, but is refreshing all the same. The format of the show recalls an earlier era, and I’m glad it’s all intact on DVD. For certain, they just don’t make ’em like this anymore!
Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?