Jonny Quest: The Invisible Monster & Less is More

I’ve been recently re-watching the original Jonny Quest cartoons from the sixties.  I haven’t seen many of them since I was a kid, and some hold up fairly well, while others . . . ehhh.  There are more than a few dated and embarrassing ethnic stereotypes.

Anyway, one of my favorites is “The Invisible Monster”.  A scientist on an isolated tropical island accidentally creates an invisible energy creature.  The monster seeks out all energy around it and consumes it–including the energy in living bodies.  You only know it’s around by a weird, alien cry it makes and the burning footprints in the dirt.

This creepiness, by the way, is in what was intended as a kid’s show.  Adult themes are nothing new to JQ.  The creators (most prominently Doug Wildey, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera) intended it that way.  They succeed rather admirably in several episodes, including this one. 

The episode follows a fairly standard monster movie formula.  The protagonists (Doctor Quest, Race Bannon, Jonny Quest, Hadji and Bandit the dog) are radioed by the luckless scientist.  His creation kills him before he finishes explaining.  They rush to the island and discover the invisible monster.  Dr. Quest (being the prototypical heroic scientist) figures out what happened and comes up with a way to defeat it.

Despite a run time of only 25 minutes, the episode does an excellent job of building tension.  The monster isn’t seen until near the end, with only its destruction to portray it.  When finally seen, it’s not quite as frightening.  The animators did a decent job of creating an inhuman blob of energy, but it comes across more as an angry scoop of ice cream.  Limitations of animation budget.  Plus I assume they didn’t want to scare the crap out of the little nippers.

Even with these limitations, the episode scared me as a kid.  It was my first encounter with the “less is more” approach to horror and tension.  William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist, one said that “Horror is watching something approach”.  A good summation of the concept here.  Something you don’t see is much worse than what you do.  Even when I encountered this in my youth, I realized the power it possessed.  Other ‘golden age’ examples are The Thing From Another World and Forbidden Planet.  Less is more.

A concept so simple that a children’s cartoon can encapsulate it.

Here’s a link to watch it online.  Enjoy.

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Television that Needs More Love: Mighty Orbots

In the primeval year 1984, I ran across a keen animated show called Mighty Orbots on ABC.  It only ran for a single season before disappearing without a trace.  Years later when describing it to others, skepticism arose.  No one else acknowledged its existence.  At times I wondered whether or not I had hallucinated the entire series. 

Then came the wonder of the internet and–voila!–it turns out to have existed after all.  Although I didn’t know why it disappeared.  It was vastly superior to the other animated shows at the time, especially the shows it derived from–namely Voltron and Transformers.  With superior animation, better characters and decent writing, the show should have been renewed for several seasons.

Unfortunately not.  My suspicions leaned towards poor marketing, but a lawsuit by Tonka was the real culprit.  Tonka accused the show owners of ripping off their GoBots franchise.  For those of you unfamiliar with GoBots, those were a toy line that basically ripped off Transformers and had its own animated series Challenge of the Gobots (the animation was weak, however the writing wasn’t terrible.)  GoBots has since faded into obscurity and I wouldn’t expect to see a big screen adaptation anytime soon.  Anyway, Tonka torpedoes Mighty Orbots and we only get a single season.  Pity.

The basis for the show is familiar.  Six robots with individual powers merge to form a more powerful robot.  Nothing new there.  However, the robots all have unique powers.  Tor is a super-strong brute.  Bort is a skinny ‘geek’ that can shape shift.  Bo is a ‘female’ Orbot with the ability to control the four elements (earth, air, fire and water.)  Boo is another ‘female’ Orbot with light and illusion powers.  Crunch is a ‘fat’ robot that can eat anything and transform it into energy for the rest.  Ohno is the last Orbot, and she’s a tiny ‘child’ robot who is necessary for the other Orbots to merge into “Mighty Orbot”. 

The leader and leader of the Orbots is Rob Simmons, who is your standard Nerdy Scientist Hero archetype.  He actually has a secret identity when he isn’t working with the Galactic Patrol (which is exactly what they sound like.)  They fight the obligatory evil organization SHADOW in the far future.

The tone of the series was light-hearted and much closer to an American superhero team than either Voltron or Transformers.  The Orbots have ‘superpowers’ instead of a bunch of guns and unlike Voltron, are actually pretty competent and interesting individually.  Also unlike Voltron, this wasn’t a simple Japanese import.  They produced this show specifically for American audiences and it feels like it.  The animation is first rate, especially for a television series.

I watched a couple of episodes recently and, yes, it’s a kid’s show and a bit dated, but still not bad.  Despite having only a single 13-episode season, it also does what few other franchised animated shows do: has an ending.  At the end of the only season, Mighty Orbots fight and defeat the ‘big bad’ leader of SHADOW, a supercomputer critter called Umbra.  So you can watch the only season and still get a satisfying conclusion.

Go check it out. 

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