For the young TV addict or overgrown child, there?s nothing quite as frustrating as a single-episode cartoon, a glimpse of a full-blown animated series that often never arrives. Sure, some adults think that CBS aired a complete season of Dragon?s Blood or that they spent many a Saturday morning watching the Computer Warriors cartoon, but they?re bound to discover that their fond memories are lies built around stand-alone animated shows. And in the case of Computer Warriors, that?s all for the better.
Yet we still need to salute some of these briefly witnessed animated specials. Eschewing full-blown movies and holiday episodes, we?re delving into the most striking TV cartoon one-shots from the past thirty years, in both ?this should?ve been a series? and ?OH GOD GET IT AWAY? categories.
5) Korgoth of Barbaria
Korgoth is a one-shot barbarian-fantasy farce and will remain so until Adult Swim actually turns it into a full series. We?re just bitter that they?re content to tease us with rumors and infrequent airings of the pilot. It aims to be a mockery of every stale swords-and-sorcery staple: the post-apocalyptic world that excuses all sorts of monsters, the wanton medievalized cultured, and, of course, the Conan-esque hero who murders his foes in the most creative slaughters this side of Brock Samson. It?s perhaps the closest we?ll ever come to an animated version of The Eye of Argon.
Then again, Korgoth also leaves room for improvement. The pilot episode gets off to an amusing start, but rapidly runs out of genuine humor after it leaves the tavern and makes us watch Korgoth?s would-be employer contemptuously spit his wine all over an uncooperative sex slave. It?s a scene that could?ve just as easily come from a zero-irony cartoon adaptation of those misogynistic Gor books. Perhaps a Korgoth series would be too much like every other Adult Swim series that wrings humor from graphic deaths, but we?d much rather get our gory laughs in a barbarian fantasy.
4) The Fluppy Dogs
You?ve got to feel just a little sorry for The Fluppy Dogs. Duck Tales, Gummi Bears, and most of Disney?s other TV cartoons from the 1980s, went on to land fat syndication deals, win critical praise, and run for over 50 episodes each. Fluppy Dogs got an hour-long TV special in 1986, and that was it.
Fluppy Dogs supposedly didn?t get good enough ratings, perhaps because the concept doesn?t stand out too much from countless other cartoons about adorable talking animals having adventures in human society. Not that it?s bad; like most of Disney?s TV projects, the animation?s decent, and the Fluppy Dogs? journey from one world to another is established through the visually imaginative means of finding hidden doors in open space (which predates a similar idea used in Philip Pullman?s repulsively smug His Dark Materials). The concept?s explored thorough as the dogs journey to the human world and enlist the help of a 10-year-old boy as they search for a way to their home dimension. It?s possible that kids didn?t like the Fluppies? appearances, as they?re distinguished only by color (which made things easier for the toy makers, at least). It?s also possible that kids didn?t see much appropriate menace in the Fluppies? boring nemesis, an animal-collecting billionaire who seems to be the only human to notice anything vaguely strange about multi-colored dogs that talk and wear clothes.
3) The Butter Battle Book
Ralph Bakshi didn?t invent adult-oriented animation; he just filled it with nipples and swearing and showed it to an entire nation. So it?s a pleasant surprise that Bakshi?s best material doesn?t have rotoscoped New York pimps or impossibly curved women shooting racist caricatures of civil rights leaders. It?s just a 1989 adaptation of Dr. Seuss? most Republican-angering work, The Butter Battle Book. And while everyone knows about the cartoon versions of The Grinch and The Lorax, Bakshi?s take on The Butter Battle Book is sadly neglected.
Bakshi?s TV special makes full use of Seuss? Cold War allegory, in which a race of blue-clad, vaguely birdlike people called Yooks utterly despise the Zooks, who are identical but for their orange outfits and their habit of spreading butter on bread upside down. In this Swiftian world of petty hatreds, the narrator?s grandfather finds himself caught in an arms race portrayed through musical numbers that Seuss himself wrote. Of course, this is Seuss, so the guns are loaded with bug limbs and clam chowder, and the atomic bomb?s stand-in is called the Bitsy Big Boy Boomeroo. In Bakshi?s hands, there?s a savagely mocking tone in the Yooks? patriotic anthems, and a creepy undercurrent to the weapon-waking process. It?s pretty much exactly what Seuss, perhaps regretting his more jingoistic World War II cartoons, intended in his original book.
As both a book and a cartoon, The Butter Battle Book?s refusal to completely vilify its Commie analogues upset right-wingers and narrow-minded PTA groups across the nation. Fortunately, that didn?t keep anyone from releasing it on DVD as part of a collection called The Best of Dr. Seuss. Buy two and send Rush Limbaugh a copy.
Cartoon Network?s What a Cartoon Show! was a breeding ground for many future animation successes, showcasing Seth MacFarlane?s Family Guy test runs and versions of the Powerpuff Girls who grind up and serve an enemy as hamburgers. Gramps, directed by future Fairly Oddparents creator Butch Hartman, was never optioned for a full series, yet it?s still one of the highlights from the clip show?s short life.
A simple tale of an elderly, oxygen-huffing man lying to his incredulous grandkids, Gramps runs through historical references, Twilight Zone riffs, and a few stabs at the sort of dark humor (note grandma?s unspecified fate) that Cartoon Network could get away with more and more as the 1990s ground down broadcast standards. Perhaps Gramps wouldn?t have worked as a full-schedule show (it drags a bit around the Monty Haul parody), but it fares just fine as a seven-minute short.
1) The Amazing Screw-On Head
Steampunk, that dirigible-riding Victorian cousin of cyberpunk, is often hard to pull off in a serious context, and that might be why Mike Mignola tried out The Amazing Screw-On Head as a mostly humorous comic. It made for an equally humorous half-hour pilot episode in 2006, when audiences were asked to vote online as to whether or not they?d want to watch an entire series about the titular head and his multiple bodies serving as President Lincoln?s secret force in a war against supernatural creatures and neatly attired zombies.
We can?t imagine audiences not wanting to see more of this, so we?ll instead blame the Sci-Fi Channel for opting to make another ten movies about nuclear sharks that eat third-rate European actresses instead of bankrolling a full season of The Amazing Screw-On Head. Perhaps the animation, which captures the look of Mignola?s comics perfectly, was a bit too expensive compared to Cartoon Network?s Hellboy animated series. Oh well. At least The Amazing Screw-On Head came out on DVD.
Dare you discover the animated horrors which await on the nest page? Well? Do you?
The three naked amphibian-men of Battletoads are best known for two things: their obvious attempts at usurping the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and their crushingly hard NES game. But no matter now many times that game smacked you into walls at 80 miles per hour or killed you for not having a unicycle race course memorized down to the last millimeter, it?s nothing compared to the Battletoads cartoon.
The half-hour Battletoads special opens with an intergalactic vulture and a bimbo princess on the run from the overdramatic hordes of the Dark Queen, leading them to Earth and to the introduction of the Battletoads-to-be: a nerd, a nerdy teenage punk, and a nerdy version of Moose from Archie comics. These high schoolers are transformed into Battletoads when the vulture and princess arrive in their hometown of Oxnard, California. The Oxnard setting is a frequent motif in the show and an in-joke by writer David Wise, who deserves better than to be judged by Battletoads alone (as he also created much of the Ninja Turtles cartoon canon and wrote that Transformers episode where a spoiled hotel heiress falls in love with Powerglide). It?s also the cruelest character assassination ever visited on an innocent So-Cal town. Say what you will about the Los Angeles slums, but they?ve never been the setting of a Battletoads cartoon.
With their war cries of ?cosma-riffic? and ?psychotronic,? the Battletoads are soon belting the Dark Queen?s goons around the fair streets of Oxnard. As they fight with hand-cymbals and other Looney Tunes props, the vulture remodels a classic car, and the princess?well, she doesn?t do much beyond sticking ice cream in her mouth and covering herself with jelly donut filling (had Battletoads become a full series, some fetish-driven animator wouldn?t probably had her sit on birthday cakes). Eventually, the toads face off with the Dark Queen at her phallic Dr. Seuss castle, with the cartoon?s already jarring animation reaching comical new depths. And then it ends and the Battletoads disappear back into the game industry, leaving TV cartoons to professional series like Stunt Dawgs and The Tom and Jerry Kids Show.
Among lines of girls? toys from the 1980s, Charmkins ranks way down beneath Keypers and those stuffed poodle-things with hairbrushes on their tails. It?s surprising that Charmkins even got a half-hour of airtime to sell itself to children back in 1983. We challenge you to sit through two minutes of it.
Though this was thrown together by the same people responsible for the My Little Pony TV specials, there?s no sign of devil dragons abducting ponies for unspeakable experiments. There is only the Tony-winning Ben Vereen voicing Dragonweed, a ginger-haired warlock who kidnaps the Charmworld?s (ugh) ballet dancer and, in a creepier-than-usual scheme as cartoon villains go, orders her to dance for him. Meanwhile, Sally Struthers plays a poison-ivy sorceress who sings her way into aiding the Charmkins. And just who are the Charmkins? They?re a bunch of unappealing, flat-faced moppets with names and dialogue capable of making the staunchest kitsch fan?s skin crawl. Even their toys sucked.
Ruby-Spears? Bunnicula mini-movie isn?t that much worse than the typical misguided book adaptations that clogged Saturday mornings in the early 1980s, before toy commercials and celebrity vanity projects took over. No, Bunnicula?s crime is being a banal treatment of a decidedly clever children?s book. James and Deborah Howe?s Bunnicula series is among the few simplified kids? novels that lose little when re-read by adults but the cartoon treatment changes too much and compensates with too little.
Gone is the simple premise of a vampire bunny innocently welcomed by an unsuspecting suburban family. Instead, the story?s mutated by a subplot about the family?s scientist father (a college professor in the book) facing the closure of his local plant due to mysterious accidents. Worse yet are the main characters: the gentle narrator dog is merely forgettable here, but the cat sleuth Chester, who was a manic, self-centered, conspiracy-minded antihero in the book, is now a limply written hybrid of Sylvester and Daffy Duck. Oh, and it turns out that Bunnicula, whose vampirism was halfway plausible in print form, can now grow bat-wings and move evil, accident-causing wolves (another cartoon adulteration) around with his mind. Like most mediocre animated versions of novels, the best this could?ve done is to convince someone to pick up the book. Yet after watching this, why would you?
2) The Faithful Wookie
The Faithful Wookie is often remembered as the best thing about the Star Wars Holiday Special, in the same way that a headache is the best thing about crippling diarrhea. Introduced as some weird metafictional TV show watched by Chewbacca?s hideous son, Lumpy, the ten-minute segment should have been a delightful blend of two things kids loved: Star Wars and cartoons.
Instead, it was a jarring foray through some bizarre late-?70s Candy Land version of the first Star Wars film. Luke, C-3PO and R2-D2 set out to rescue Han and Chewie from a planet apparently made of viscous gelatin, and they get some help from the mysterious Boba Fett, who, in his debut role, utters more lines than he does in the rest of the Star Wars films combined. For that, fans cut The Faithful Wookie a little slack, but it?s hard to like the short?s off-putting animation style, in which Nelvana mixes rigid Star Wars designs with the fluid, grotesque movement the studio used in The Devil and Daniel Mouse. All while Harrison Ford mumbles his way to a paycheck and the Y-Wing bomber gets some much-needed product placement. No wonder all the kids wanted the X-Wing that Christmas.
This is all your fault, Sonic the Hedgehog.
In this case, we?re not talking about the ongoing DeviantArt degradation of Sonic himself, but rather the explosion of ultra-hip, brainlessly irreverent mascot characters that have shown up in videogames since Sonic?s 1991 debut. Most of these hangers-on didn?t get cartoons. You won?t see any half-hour specials based on Radical Rex, Rocky Rodent, Awesome Possum, or Mohawk and Headphone Jack. You might, however, have seen the first and only Bubsy cartoon briefly on the air and in the PC version of Super Bubsy.
Man, check out Bubsy! He?s so smooth he kicks his breakfast dishes into the sink! He?s also a smart-aleck equipped with the new and exciting catchphrase ?What could possibly go wrong?? which we?re sure to see on t-shirts everywhere by the end of 1993! Or maybe they?ll just make shirts with big exclamation points on them! Anyway, Bubsy sets some record for being instantly loathsome. Even the Battletoads cartoon took a minute or two to fully repulse us, but Bubsy goes straight for the jugular of all that is appealing. And if that?s not enough, he has a niece and a nephew, who are just as insufferable as he is, and a neurotic armadillo sidekick who?s perpetually abused by everyone.
We hate Bubsy, and we even suspect that the people who make this alsohated Bubsy. There?s no better explanation for the obnoxious, mistimed sense of humor that permeates every scrap of Bubsy?s dialogue. Someone despised Bubsy and wanted him to fail. It took a few more terrible games before he did so, but this cartoon ended his shot at Saturday morning stardom.
Robert Bricken is one of the original co-founders of the site formerly known as Topless Robot, and its first editor-in-chief, serving from 2008-12. He brought the site to prominence with “nerd news, humor and self-loathing” as its motto, raising it from total internet obscurity to a readership in the millions, with help from his savage “FAQ” movie reviews and Fan Fiction Fridays. Under his tenure Topless Robot was covered by Gawker, Wired, Defamer, New York magazine, ABC News, and others, and his articles have been praised by Roger Ebert, Avengers actor Clark Gregg, comedian and The Daily Show correspondent John Hodgman, the stars of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Rifftrax, and others. He is currently the managing editor of io9.com. Despite decades as both an amateur and professional nerd, he continues to be completely unprepared for either the zombie apocalypse or the robot uprising.