Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Yabba dabbo doo times

In memory of animation pioneer and producer Joseph Barbera, who passed away on Tuesday at the Methuselahesque age of 95 (some sources suggest he was actually 97), here are my fifteen all-time favorite Hanna-Barbera cartoon series. They're listed in alphabetical order, because it's just too difficult to rank them otherwise.

The Flintstones. They're the modern Stone Age family. The current generation may not remember Jackie Gleason's The Honeymooners, on which The Flintstones was modeled, but everyone knows Fred, Wilma, Barney, and Betty. Yes, the incessant "rock" and "stone" puns and anachronistic sight gags wore a bit thin at times, but lest we forget, this was all fresh back in 1960 — an innocent era when you could sing, "We'll have a gay old time," and no one would snicker.

The Harlem Globetrotters. At the time (1970), a weekly animated cartoon with a largely black (and relatively stereotype-free) cast was unheard of. Heck, it's 36 years later, and there haven't been many since. I draw the line, though, at the spinoff in which the Globetrotters become superheroes. Don't mess with success.

The Herculoids. This show was awesome. A space-age Tarzan, Jane, and Boy (okay, their real names were Zandor, Tarna, and Dorno, but anyone could recognize the inspiration) living on a distant planet with their five pet monsters: Zokk, a flying dragon who fired laser beams from his eyes and tail; Igoo, a King Kong wannabe made of solid granite; Tundro, an eight-legged triceratops who spurted fireballs from his horn; and Gloop and Gleep, "the formless, fearless wonders" — essentially, bug-eyed blobs of sentient Jell-O. No one ever explained how all these creatures existed when there was only one of each kind (or two, in the case of Gloop and Gleep, but they could multiply by division at will), but the Herculoids were so cool, we didn't ask questions.

The Hillbilly Bears. This was my father's favorite television show during its original run. Essentially The Beverly Hillbillies, if the Clampetts had remained in the Ozarks, and were of the ursine persuasion. Paw Rugg muttered unintelligibly in a hilarious growl provided by an otherwise unknown actor named Henry Gordon. Hanna-Barbera never seemed to tire of characters who mumbled.

Hong Kong Phooey. Maybe the last really good idea for a series Hanna-Barbera delivered, before decades of repetitious decline. Designed to cash in on the martial arts craze, this 1974 show starred a humble police station custodian who was really a kung fu kickin' superhero. Made eminently watchable by the enthusiastic voice performance of veteran character actor Scatman Crothers in the title role.

The Jetsons. For all practical purposes, The Flintstones in outer space. Painfully dated now, but in the '60s, this was what most of us actually thought the future would look like. And you know you want to sing the song: "Meet George Jetson! His boy Elroy! Daughter Judy! Jane, his wife!" I always wondered why Jane came last. I'll wager that Jane wondered the very same thing.

Jonny Quest. Not only one of the great cartoon series, but also one of television's great adventure series, period. As I look back on it now, I suspect that Jonny's dad Professor Quest and his hunky sidekick Race Bannon might have practiced the love that dared not speak its name. Of course, in 1964, that would have been a whole other kind of show.

Josie and the Pussycats. Long tails, and ears for hats. The Runaways in leopard print leotards. They came in three flaovrs, so whatever your taste in pussycats, either Josie, Valerie, or Melody could be your dream girl.

Secret Squirrel. At the height of the James Bond craze of the '60s came this animated espionage caper comedy. Derivative, sure —' but then, so were I Spy, Get Smart! and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. If you're going to steal, steal from the best.

Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? Often imitated, never equaled. Hanna-Barbera would spin off dozens of riffs and thinly disguised fascimiles of Scooby and the gang, but the original series of Scooby mysteries were classic television. (The live-action film version, however, was perhaps the worst big-budget, major-studio motion picture I have ever seen. That travesty cost me brain cells that I will never regenerate.)

Sinbad Jr. Not one of Hanna-Barbera's bigger hits, but this swashbuckling adventure series was one of my favorites as a kid. When Sinbad (who was the son, I think, of the Arabian Knights legend) tugged on his belt, he bulked up like a seagoing Adonis, and gained super-strength. A young Tim Matheson provided the protagonist's voice. Too bad H-B didn't produce more adventure series like this and Jonny Quest, because when they did, they usually did them well.

Space Ghost. If The Jetsons were The Flintstones in outer space, then Space Ghost was Batman in outer space. Best known to the current generation for his self-mocking "talk show," which came decades later. A masterwork of character design by the legendary comic artist and animator Alex Toth.

Top Cat. Largely forgotten today, but this Guys and Dolls-flavored gangster parody, like The Flintstones, originally ran in network primetime. Featuring memorable voice work by the great Arnold Stang in the lead role of T.C.

Wacky Races. A show that spawned legions of imitators — many of which came from Hanna-Barbera themselves — Wacky Races was a true classic. How could you not love all of those bizarre characters and their tricked-out race cars, and try to guess who would finish first, second, and third at the end of each episode? Being something of a science geek as a kid, I always rooted for Professor Pat Pending and his Convert-a-Car. (Both of the Wacky Races spinoffs, Dastardly and Muttley and Their Flying Machines and The Perils of Penelope Pitstop, were good as well — something that can't be said for most Hanna-Barbera sequel series.)

Wait 'Til Your Father Gets Home. One of the few Hanna-Barbera series specifically targeted at adult audiences. At the time, an animated take on All in the Family (although cranky dad Harry Boyle, voiced by Tom Bosley of Happy Days fame, but in retrospect, a spiritual forerunner of The Simpsons and King of the Hill. I'm sure it would look and sound dated now, but it was surely the first TV cartoon to deal (albeit heavy-handedly) with issues like civil disobedience, pre- and postmarital sex, and workplace equality for women.

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1 insisted on sticking two cents in:

Anonymous Tom Galloway offered these pearls of wisdom...

You're not the only one to think that about Dr. Quest and Race Bannon. One of the first episodes of Harvey Birdman, Attorney-at-Law featured a custody battle over Jonny and Hadji between Benton and Race, making it pretty clear they considered themselves married.

8:18 PM  

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