Before I start, I apologize to aurienne if this didn't make her laugh.
If I were to select a crown jewel of the dung heap, a modicum of a shining turd nugget among the crap buzzing with the flies of Kellogg's sugared cereal commercials, it would have to be "Superfriends." Hanna Barbera was a virtual shit mill churning out some of the cheapest animation since "Clutch Cargo" and slapping it up against the sugar-glazed eyes of America's youth early Saturday morning. They sat in the glow of a console TV, in their jammies, watching what was to be the "ultimate collection" of worn-out comic book heroes, reduced to speak lines that made Valley Girls look like students of Socrates. Too bad they didn't market Superfriends as "Laff-a-Lympics," because that would have been more believable.
The main title begins with a horn section intro like the thrill of a Herb Albert piece from a Guatemala News Channel; an introduction more worthy of "Sabado Giagante" with a deep voice and butch lilt that sounds like a gay Don Pardo over AM radio. I like to imagine the narrator in chaps and mirrored sunglasses reading from a mechanical bull while his bushy mustache still drips with the glistening mint of a cool and fresh Mohito. He describes the scenery with the focus of a whore during a routine job, asking, "You like that? Oh boy. Uh huh. You the man. Yeah..." while she does her nails. He describes a plot of loosely written, it makes me wonder how many writers changed their names when the season was over, shamefully walking back home to their wives, pretending they work in Hollywood as a producer who will be somebody someday.
Wife: How was work, hon?
Man: I gambled away our life savings and snorted cocaine off an underaged stripper's tits.
Wife: Don't lie to me, you write for Superfriends, don't you?
Man: I am so ashamed!
Wife: Start packing!
"The Man-Beasts of Xra," it's called. Maybe because they couldn't think of a name, and so they just borrowed the first three letters from the word "X-ray," which sounds vaguely scientific.
These shows contain what I would barely call a plot. At least with Sid and Marty Kroft, you can say, "It was the drugs," but the banality and lack of care in the creation of Superfriends stories defies even the most basic of short stories written by 6th graders. You could call it a plot, because it has the basic elements of protagonist against problem who then solves the problem. But apart from that, it must have cost too much to try and make it rise from the cesspool of banality. Let's take an episode I watched the other night, which had the grotesque appeal of a road accident.
It would seem that someone was stealing animals from the New Orleans Zoo. The butch announcer didn't even try to pronounce the home of the French Quarter as "New OR-lee-anz." Not "Nawlins," "New Or-lenz," or even the Yankee, "New Or-LEENS." New Or-lee-anz. But the zoo was having severe security problems, and no wonder; the entire time they showed the zoo, there wasn't a guard, zoo keeper, or even tourist to be seen. Batman, Robin, and Superman were on the case.
The dynamics of these characters was as animated as the people that drew them: stilted and over-rehearsed. First of all, putting Superman with Batman and Robin seems a little unbalanced, don't you think? Especially Robin. If I were Superman, I'd make him go fetch us coffee. Yet there he is, stating the obvious like he's mildly autistic, punctuated with exclamations of surprise in the form of some pathetic attempt at self-referencing puns: "Holy unlocked gates, Batman! Those animal have been let free and are missing!" Note he addresses Batman in person, perhaps subtly snubbing Superman, who could burn him alive with a dot of heat ray vision on Robin's polyester clothing. No, not "Jumping kangaroos, Superman! They sure hop high!" No, because Superman would probably snap and say, "You know what? No shit, Robin. Damn, Batman, is the sex worth it?"
Anyway, as they look at the cages, it would seem that someone is letting the animals loose. Part of how this is possible is made apparent when a shadowy figure, walking like he's on a Nordic Track, shuffles to a lion's cage and opens it to the tune of a tape loop of several french horns and tubas. Apparently the only thing keeping the lion from mauling visitors is a simple unsecured L-shaped slide bolt that opens from the front. The lion jumps out and follows the figure, who meets up with another figure, who has similarly captured what I would call "the stereotyped zoo combo," which consisted of an elephant, an ostrich, a giraffe, a rhino, and now the lion. Got forbid they toss in an anteater, gazelle, or wombat. "I don't know how to draw a wombat," said the former illustrator of the show, who used to work for the companies that make discount coloring books you get at the Dollar store. He's the guy that also draws all grocery bags to have a loaf of French bread, a can of tomatoes, and celery sticking out the top.
Somehow this menagerie is not stopped by our crime fighters, or any other constabulary, and walk down a seemingly vacant French Quarter to a mansion where half of the exposed basement wall slides aside without adversely affecting the structure of the 125 year old mansion on top of it. Ah, a subtle lighting trick exposes the shadows as half man, half animal. This revelation is punctuated by a trumpet section, and I realize that nearly half the soundtrack consists of percussion and brass only, with the odd vibrato flute when something is quiet... TOO quiet... I bet the people who made the soundtrack loops were pressured more by the kettle drum and trumpet union than the America Flautist Union, or People for the Advancement of Oboes and Bassoons.
The Man-Beasts of Xra have somehow put these animals in identical cages. The illustrator, faced with the zoo stereotype, inflates or deflates the bodies of the animals to fit neatly in the identical jail cells, and then adds a gorilla to round out the stereotype. Then he hits the giraffe, which he solves by having its head stick out of the top, where it does nothing because it saves money making the backgrounds as still as possible. In fact, some of Hanna Barbera's shortcuts are so obvious, you can tell what objects are going to move in the shot simply based on color. You can see the jaw of the Dr.'s assistant a different color, which changes to another color again when it moves.
Dr. Xra, by the way, is a woman. The cartoons from this era (the credits said copyright 1977) come from a more enlightened time when some busybody in the plot department tried to add more psychological enlightenment to the cartoons. This is also carried over in the following episode where the Supertwins and Gleek confront racism (I am not kidding). Sadly, even though they tried to add more women and non-Caucasians to the screen, they still rely on rather obvious phsycial stereotypes. Xra is shown as a mad and power-hungry woman with a curvy figure and blue anime hair. She looks like a prototype of "Team Rocket" from Pokemon. Her eyebrows carve her head with double arches that, if on a real person, you would have wondered if they had been kicked in the head by a horse. Apparently she is a brilliant geneticist, or so her meek assistant claims. But she's on a quest for power of making animals into upright and bipedal creatures who seem to do little than steal other animals. I would have done a villain who was portly, probably with messy straw-like blond hair, broken glasses, and wearing tee-shirt and jeans. She would wear a dirty lab coat, and all her notes would be stuffed in a faded canvas tote bag she got free at some genetic research seminar. She'd be quiet, possibly have Aspinger's, and only be quick to temper when things didn't go her way. A gal into mad scientist work will not be doing makeup or wearing uncomfortable costumes, I assure you. She will probably care less about her appearance than most, unless she's the PR for the whole lab and their staff. But this woman looks right out of a pulp cover from the 1950s, with a kind of "Grand Moff Tarkin" twist. I imagine the person who drew her secretly thought a woman like that would also be holding a whip and telling him he'd been a bad, bad boy. On top of that, she's an evil scientist, which may be incidental, but I wonder how many men thought a woman in power surely must be a cold steel bitch, too. The meek male assistant, who seems to have hints of moral qualms, represents an emasculated male, possibly representing the artist as well.
Behind her is a lab where a lot of condensing is going on. Most of her lab seems to consist of Erlenmeyer flasks with stoppers and coiled glass tubing connecting one another. Once in a while you see an unconnected burette or graduated cylinder, but the bulk seemed to be flasks with colored bubbling liquid going into a second flask. Generally, in such an arrangement, this suggests that evaporates from flask 1 is condensed in the cooling glass tubing, filing flask 2 with a liquid. I am not sure how this has to do with anything genetic, but I will assume that it's something to do with extracting hormones from boiling urine or something. There is also a large computer, which is made of 8-10 double-stacked panels with various large lights, and once in a while things resembling analog multimeters are on other panels. If I didn't know any better, I would sweat it wasn't a computer like they alluded to, but some kind of power grid component.
Well, wouldn't you know it, Batman and Superman come in and end the party. I forgot how it all ended, but I can assure you that the doctor fought badly. Many animals were used to fight the foes, and in the end, the hybrids were all changed back to animals, which made me wonder if that was ethical. Did they have self-awareness? Did they want changed back? Who did they hire to do that? Can you imagine reselling that mansion?
I had more to write on this, but my memory of the cartoon is fading, and I wanted to put this up before Thanksgiving.