Saturday, 4 May 2013

Saturday Morning Cartoons - May The 4th Be With You!

Happy Star Wars Day! What an exciting time to be a Star Wars fan! There's a new movie on the way! It's the 30th anniversary of Return of The Jedi! And I have a bunch of Star Wars cartoons for us to sample! So help yourself to a bowl of Double O (or double roe?) and join me. Together we will rule the Internet. It is your destiny.

Our first cartoon comes from the largely disowned The Star Wars Holiday Special, which aired only once on CTV and CBS back in 1978. Most of the segments and songs(!) are themed to Christmas, which is apparently called Life Day in the future. But it was no gift to anyone. People hated this weird and awful piece of space junk. George Lucas buried it in the basement of his ranch, and has refused to release it to home video or any other format. Internet or bootleg are your only viewing options. But George recently lightened up a bit when it came to the 10-minute cartoon about Boba Fett contained within, which was added as an Easter egg to the 'The Complete Saga' Blu-Ray that came out in 2011.

The cartoon, which was produced by Canadian animation house, Nelvana, is pretty underappreciated. Considering it was the first foray into a format outside the just-introduced film universe (at that time), it was surprisingly true to the franchise-to-be. It was the first appearance of Boba Fett, who hadn't even been in the movies yet. His design was based on preliminary character sketches done by Joe Johnston for The Empire Strikes Back.

I enjoy the rubbery movements of the droids and the very liberal use of creative license when it came to character design for the humans. Especially Han Solo, who looked more like a present-day Mick Jagger.


Even if you don't like the look of the cartoon, if you're a Star Wars fan it's still super-cool to hear the voices of the original voice cast, including Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Anthony Daniels and James Earl Jones. It also introduced a continuity to the series, by setting up Boba Fett's appearances in later films. This would become more and more prevalent as the Star Wars universe expanded.

Nelvana was also the studio behind the Saturday morning Star Wars cartoons of the mid 1980s - Ewoks and Droids, which aired on ABC. They aired back-to-back from 1985 to 1986, but only Ewoks was picked up for a new second season. Both shows ran as repeats for a lot longer here in Canada, where it was considered CanCon.

Star Wars: Ewoks revolved around the adventures of Wicket W. Warrick and his tribe, before the Battle of Endor and other events from Return Of The Jedi. The series was originally intended to be as mature as Saturday morning standards and practices would allow, which wasn't very much. It still somehow became even more kid-friendly in its second season.

Paul Dini, who would later become famous for reviving superhero cartoons, was a writer at the time. In an interview with "Star Wars Insider" magazine, Dini spoke of an episode he wrote called 'The Starman', where an Imperial pilot has a moral crisis as to who to help in battle, after crash-landing on Endor and being nursed back to health by Ewoks. He said the network censors rejected his script for being "too Star Warsy".

Considering the other poodoo being released at the time, I think Ewoks still cut through the clutter. At least the theme song by Taj Mahal did.

Speaking of cool theme songs, the intro to Star Wars: Droids ('Trouble Again') was written by Stewart Copeland of The Police.

Did you see the return of a special guest star in that above episode? Droids was more successful (albeit only once to my recollection) in tying the cartoon to the movie mythology. Having the voices of Anthony Daniels and R2D2 (the for-real R2D2!) didn't hurt. Also, employing Ben Burtt, a famous Star Wars sound designer, as a writer on the series was a smart way to keep the cartoon connected to the official Lucasfilm camp.

Although both Droids and Ewoks didn't last long, they were still popular enough to inspire short-lived toy and comic book off-shoots. Legendary Marvel artist John Romita, Sr. was a cover artist and penciller for the Droids comic.

The legacy of Nelvana and its relationship to Lucasfilm is well-known to both cartoon and Star Wars fans. The makers of Star Wars: Clone Wars (2003-2005) paid homage to the studio when Anakin and Obi-Wan were sent to find General Grievous on Planet Nelvaan among the enslaved Nelvaanians. In commentaries for Clone Wars, series creator Genndy Tartakovsky said he also paid homage to Nelvana by giving his version of C3P0 expressive eyes, similar to how Nelvana animated them.

Genndy Tartakovsky was an interesting choice to helm what would be the next (and best in my opinion) Star Wars animated series. Genndy came from comedic roots, working on funny shows like Dexter's Laboratory and The Powerpuff Girls. But his work on Samurai Jack proved he could handle action as well, without losing his trademark cartoony flair.

Clone Wars had appealing and colourful character design, great stories and numerous nods to the Star Wars universe. It's an example of why I'm so excited for the new movies. Because people like Genndy and J.J. Abrams are fans of the films, but they're also gifted filmmakers. I have nothing but respect for the world that George Lucas created. But while George is a visionary, Genndy is a storyteller, who expanded upon that universe with respect and care, but not at the expense of good ol' fashioned entertainment. And he routinely did it in just 3 minutes. Impressive. Most impressive.

Star Wars: Clone Wars ran for 3 seasons and 25 episodes on Cartoon Network. The first 2 seasons consisted of 3-minute "micro" episodes, while Season 3's were expanded into a 15-minute length. The series bridged events between feature films Episode 2: Attack of The Clones and Episode 3: Revenge of The Sith. While introducing some new characters, most of the series was comprised of heroes and villains from the prequel trilogy, although none except C3P0 were voiced by original movie actors. Some of the storylines paralleled plot points from the film series.

Continuing this trend on Cartoon Network was Star Wars: The Clone Wars, which was basically a CGI extension of Tartakovsky's show. This too introduced new characters, settings and storylines within what was already established in the Star Wars prequels. But it even furthered its film connections by featuring voices of some of the movie actors.

The TV series was set-up with a poorly-received theatrical feature film in 2008, which featured Samuel L. Jackson (Mace Windu), Christopher Lee (Count Dooku) and Anthony Daniels (C3P0) reprising their screen roles.

Jackson and Lee didn't appear in the TV series, but work-horse Anthony Daniels did. The show also featured guest spots by movie returnees like Liam Neeson (Qui-Gon Jinn) and Ahmed Best (Jar-Jar Binks), alongside new celebs like Simon Pegg, Seth Green, Ron Perlman, George Takei and Jon Favreau.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars completed its fifth and final season last March. Apparently there are episodes that have yet to air, but a sixth season cannot be confirmed - especially now that the Star Wars franchise is owned by a new rebel alliance.

The Clone Wars was hit-and-miss with me. The look of the show wasn't as fun as Tartakovsky's 2D version that preceded it. A CGI-sore, if you will. But I appreciated the scope within the material that connected it to the films. There are frequently well-written episodes to be found, especially later in the series. I do hope the unreleased material still sees light of day.

In addition to the straight-ahead and serious-minded Star Wars, there's also a wealth of animated Star Wars parodies out there, some of which were officially blessed by George Lucas himself, who became a pretty good sport in his later years. I guess he had no choice after the public mind-choking he received for those movie prequels.

Muppet Babies did it before they were officially owned by Disney. In fact, every week the theme song featured live action footage of a Tie Fighter. There are occasional Star Wars references throughout the series, but a full-fledged parody was featured as part of 'Gonzo's Video Show' in 1984.

The creators of Family Guy received Lucas' blessing, and full use of his sound effects library for their Star Wars parodies, starting with Season 6's 'Blue Harvest' (a nod to Return Of The Jedi's original mock working title), 'Something, Something, Something, Dark Side' in Season 8, and Season 9's 'It's A Trap!'. These shows have their moments, but are marred by the fact that they're still episodes of Family Guy. There are about 8 jokes per 44 minutes of rambling, unfunny filler. Comparatively, there are usually 0 jokes per rambling, unfunny 22 minute regular episode of Family Guy.

Cuter and far more clever were Cartoon Network and LEGO's Star Wars specials, which original fans love as much as their kids. It started with a short released in 2005 called 'Revenge of The Brick', and since then has averaged one special per year since 2009. The last one, 'The Empire Strikes Out', aired in September 2012, and was dedicated to original Star Wars designer Ralph McQuarrie, who passed away last year.

Robot Chicken released 3 Star Wars-themed specials. There were funny bits throughout, but perhaps most impressive is that George Lucas himself (the for-real George Lucas!) left his ranch to do a guest voice in the first installment. Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, Ahmed Best and Mark Hamill also turned up over the course of the "trilogy".

Speaking of Mark Hamill, he should not only get our respect as a Jedi Master, but should also be given another Medal of Yavin for his voicework contributions to the cartoon industry. Check out this guy's IMDb page! Garfield and Friends, The Ren & Stimpy ShowPinky and The Brain, Fantastic Four, Cow and Chicken, The Powerpuff Girls, Johnny Bravo, Samurai Jack, Dexter's Laboratory (for more on that appearance, check out my blog from St. Patrick's Day), Harvey Birdman: Attorney At Law, Spongebob Squarepants, The New Woody Woodpecker Show, The Boondocks, Family Guy, The Cleveland Show, Phineas and Ferb! And that's only a few of the shows you've probably seen!

Hamill is of course most celebrated for his portrayal of The Joker in Batman/DC projects from the past 20 years, both in cartoons and video games. He can certainly be both frightening and funny - but he also has a lovely singing voice, as heard in Season 10's 'Mayored To The Mob' from The Simpsons.

So show some respect, you scruffy-lookin' nerf-herders!

I could probably do another entire post about Star Wars references in The Simpsons.

But it's a beautiful day and I think it's time for us to Force ourselves off the couch and go outside. You can go about your business. Move along.

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