1985 (DiC), Shout! Factory (August 9, 2011), 2 discs, 270 mins, 4:3 ratio, Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, Not Rated, Retail: $19.93


An elite team of counter-terrorism experts use their talents, power-granting masks, and transforming vehicles to battle the nefarious criminal organization VE.N.O.M.

The Sweatbox Review:

In the 1980s cartoon world, it was all about merchandising. Most of the best-remembered cartoons of that era had tie-ins with toy companies, who were usually involved with planning the cartoon version from the very beginning, so that the premiere of the series would be accompanied by a toy line roll-out. Sometimes things worked out beautifully (Transformers), and sometimes the synergy could be totally botched (Bravestarr), leading to neither the toys nor the show being successful. Each one of these programs had their gimmicks, with shape-changing vehicles becoming their own genre. In the interest of selling toys, each show had to have a large variety of characters, hardware, and vehicles, and M.A.S.K. covered plenty of those bases.

DiC Entertainment produced M.A.S.K. as an “official Canada-France co-production” (as it says in the end credits), in association with toy manufacturer Kenner. M.A.S.K. stands for Mobile Armored Strike Kommand, one of those annoying spelling compromises that occurs in order to create the cool (perhaps I should say “kewl”) acronym that the manufacturer is looking for. The show concerns a specialized task force led by Matt Trakker (kewl name, right?), who juggles world saving with being a single dad to a teenaged son and his pet robot. Trakker’s team of operatives utilize power-giving masks and shape-changing vehicles in their missions to thwart their rival organization, V.E.NO.M. The evil group has one thing going for it— its acronym actually makes sense, standing for Vicious Evil Network Of Mayhem. With a name like that, you don’t even need a mission statement; the moniker kind of says it all. “Mayhem” isn’t just a goal, incidentally it is also conveniently the name of the organization’s leader, Miles Mayhem. Mayhem is outfitted like a general, and loves to angrily bark orders at his lackeys.

Episodes are laid out in a very typical way. A mission comes to Trakker’s attention, and he asks his computer to select the ideal team for the mission, which is really a pretty easy job. In the early episodes, there are only a few recurring characters, so each mission team looks about the same, just like in TV’s Mission Impossible. As the computer lists each agent and their specialties, we see each one being summoned by a not-inconspicuous-at-all jumbly wristwatch, and dropping everything to go to Trakker. Whether working on a ladder, appearing in a rock concert, or just washing a car, these people take off immediately upon receiving the call, leading to moments that may or may not have been intended to be humorous— like leaping out of a moving car to run off into the woods, heading for M.A.S.K. HQ on foot.

Each agent each gets his or her own mask, actually a clunky helmet, which grants him or her certain capabilities. These abilities don’t really get spelled out too well, but seem to include such stuff as force fields and ray blasts. Though the helmets do differ in appearance, they still have the effect of having all the characters (even the bad guys wear helmets) blend together, mostly distinguishable by their awful put-on accents. The accents are also the extent of the characterization done on this show. M.A.S.K. is all about action, so forget about character arcs. Making matters worse, the helmets offer no opportunity to show characters’ expressions. I guess it did save on the animation expense of lip-synching, but it robs the audience of any chance to relate to the characters while they are wearing the helmets (which is only part of the time).

The plots are big and dumb. Ancient civilizations seem to be all around the town where the series is set, motivations are weak or not fully explained, scenes jump from location to location, Trakker’s son keeps wandering off and almost gets himself killed repeatedly, and there are lots of boring chases. In most episodes, V.E.N.O.M. steals something important, and M.A.S.K. has to get it back. These episodes hold some promise, as the stolen items often relate to a hitherto little-known civilization or an alien artifact, but the stories go by so fast there is little exploration of what could have been interesting storylines. Alternatively, other plots involve V.E.N.O.M. having a new weapon that must be destroyed.

The vehicles in the show are not sentient robots, by the way, but they do change shape to reveal militaristic capabilities. It isn’t clear why they really have to be disguised in the first place, though. Oh, right— it makes for cool toys. Prior to transforming, though, the vehicles are a fairly mundane assortment— jeep, half-ton truck, a semi, etc. Maybe it’s because I’m not a car guy, but these vehicles seemed pretty boring to me, even after they spouted guns, rocket launchers, wings, and what-not.

Admittedly, I’m well past the age of being the target audience for this show, and have no nostalgia for it since I never watched it when I was a teenager. Seeing it for the first time now, I’m at a loss to explain how it ever held any appeal, as I found watching it a mind numbing experience. However, I am aware that there is a group of people who have fond memories of the show, and I would never begrudge you the experience of seeing it again. (And, in fact, my four year old son seems to enjoy it well enough to ask to see more episodes.) But if you’re someone who loved Transformers and are wondering if this show measures up, I would say to keep you expectations in check. I’ve seen very little of Transformers in my life either, but it has personality that M.A.S.K. does not.

An initial 65 episodes were produced for first-run syndication, typically seen after school every weekday. A second season of the show lasted just ten episodes, and reflected additions and changes made in the toy line’s third wave. The first eleven episodes are included in this two-disc set. However, be aware that a “complete series” set was also put out on the same release day. (Note that the second season episodes are owned by another company, and do not appear in the “complete series” set. With all the changes made in the series for its second season, basically turning it into a racing show, many fans consider the second season to be a distinct show.) So if you really do love the show, you’d likely want to splurge for the larger set. If you just need a sampler, though, I suspect you’ll find these eleven episodes more than enough to get a taste.

Is This Thing Loaded?

This is a pretty barebones set, with no true special features. It should be noted, however, that the original public service announcements that ended each episode do appear intact. The commercial bumpers are also contained within each episode, making the M.A.S.K. experience fully complete.

The first disc has Trailers for Shout!’s DVD collections of Transformers, G.I. Joe, and Beast Wars.

We did not receive the complete series set for review, but you may be interested to know that that set does include featurettes entitled Unmasking M.A.S.K. and Saturday Morning Crusaders.

Case Study:

The two discs come in a standard-sized, clear Amaray case. Character profiles and an episode list are visible on the inside of the case, looking through the clear packaging. A swinging tray holds one of the discs. The package incorrectly gives a runtime of “approx 9.5 hours,” despite correctly touting the presence of eleven episodes, which each run about 22 minutes. An insert inside advertises other Shout! Factory DVD cartoon collections.

Ink And Paint:

The video quality is decent but not impressive. Transfers appear quite soft, colors are a bit faded, and expect to see the usual assortment of dust and scratches on a show that was hastily animated overseas. Video noise and aliasing are thankfully kept to a minimum.

Scratch Tracks:

The stereo sound is also quite unspectacular, but in keeping with the origins of the show. Ramping up the bass might have been fun, but it would also have seemed out of place. Basically, these shows sound like they always have, decent enough for TV but offering nothing more.

There are no subtitles provided, and no optional language tracks.

Final Cut:

Eighties nostalgia is a powerful thing, but there are better shows from the era out on DVD, including several other excellent sets from Shout! Factory. My first exposure to MA.S.K. left me unimpressed, as the whole enterprise seems hollow, with a pretty obvious agenda to sell toys. The stories are not particularly creative, nor captivating in the least. And with bland animation to carry it, MA.S.K. appears to strive for only mediocrity, and even then falls short. By all means, pick up this set as a sampler if you’re still curious, or the complete (first season) set if you are a fan from way back. Otherwise, stick to the superior Transformers or G.I. Joe.

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?