Hanna-Barbera Classic Collection: Wacky Races Complete
A review by Matthew Hunter
The Wacky Races was one of the most unusual cartoons of
its time. Running originally from 1968 to 1970, it was an attempt by Hanna-Barbera
to break away from superhero adventures and sci/fi cartoons and go back to more
traditional gag-driven stories. They wanted to do a racing cartoon, but make it
funny. The network wanted to make it interactive, and so they came up with a
contest...someone who guessed the next week's winner would win a giveaway
Of course, they couldn't have a racing
cartoon without any characters or vehicles. The work schedule at the Hanna-Barbera
studio was very hectic at the time, and the creation of the vehicles and drivers
didn't take a few days or a few months...it took a startling TWO HOURS. Jerry
Eisenberg and Iwao Takamoto were given one simple task...design characters and
cars for a racing cartoon, and make them funny. It's amazing what they came up
with in the time allotted.
They came up with the Mean
Machine, driven by Dick Dastardly and his dog, Muttley; The Creepy Coupe, driven
by two monsters and a dragon inspired by the Addams Family; The Convertacar, a
car that could change into whatever item driver Professor Pat Pending needed;
The Arkansas Chugabug, powered by a coalburning stove and driven by Hillbilly
Luke and his pet bear, Blubber; The Crimson Haybailer, a clunky old World War I
airplane driven by The Red Max; The Compact Pussycat, in which Southern belle
Penelope Pitstop could do everything from cooking a turkey in the engine to
doing her makeup to actually winning the race once in a while; The Army Surplus
Special, a tank driven by The Sarge Private Meekley; The Bulletproof Bomb, an old-time car driven by a group of diminutive
gangsters called the Ant Hill Mob; The Buzzwagon, a wooden whatchamacallit with
sawblades for wheels driven by lumberjack Rufus Ruffcut and Sawtooth the Beaver;
and Turbo Terrific, a fancy dragracer driven by pretty-boy Peter Perfect. There
are also two cavemen, the Slag Brothers, who were originally supposed to be a
single caveman until Joe Barbera suggested they be twin brothers. The design was
the inspiration for Captain Caveman years later.
The characters themselves are rather one-note, with the
exception of the few that ended up in spinoff series, Penelope Pitstop,
the Anthill Mob and Dastardly and Muttley. Penelope and the gangsters starred in
the mediocre "Perils of Penelope Pitstop", and Dastardly and Muttley
had success in "Dastardly and Muttley and their Flying Machines", aka
"Stop the Pigeon". What makes them all work, though, is the
surprisingly clever gags they pull on one another to get an edge in the races.
Pat Pending's inventions are particularly interesting, and Dastardly is the true
star of the show with his schemes and cheat tactics. Peter Perfect is anything
but, with his car always falling apart, and he spends more time fawning over
Penelope Pitstop than worrying about the race.
quality of the show is very daring for a Hanna-Barbera cartoon in the late 60's.
The backgrounds are stylized and colorful, with a very UPA-esque look at times,
and although they are often looped behind the action, many are 5-field
backgrounds and remain interesting despite the limited buget that went into the
production of the series. The animation is also limited, but nice looking in
spite of it. The style is carefree and drawn in a humorous way, and the
character animation can raise eyebrows sometimes, because of the nature of them
being in a vehicle as opposed to them having to walk and run around, giving more
freedom of facial expression.
Still, the animation
is relatively limited, and this is overcome by wonderful voice work, including Paul
Winchell as Dastardly, Don Messick as the snickering, wheezy-laughed Muttley,
Mel Blanc as the Ant Hill Mobsters, Janet Waldo as Penelope Pitstop, and Daws
Butler as Red Max , Rufus Ruffcut , Peter Perfect , Big
Gruesome , and the Slag Brothers. Dave Willock, the narrator, made his debut as
an animation voice here, and is quite funny. The Tex Avery-esque breaking of the
fourth wall between the narrator and Dastardly makes for some funny banter reminiscent
of the Jay Ward cartoons.
It's no surprise that the gags seem similar to those of
the classic theatrical cartoons, particularly the Warner Bros. Road Runner and
MGM Tom and Jerry series. The writers include Michael Maltese, Tom Dagenais,
Larz Bourne, and Dalton Sandifer. Maltese, of course, wrote many of the classic
Road Runner cartoons with Chuck Jones. Dagenais started off in the final days of
Warner Bros. cartoons, writing on several of Rudy Larriva's Road Runner and
Speedy Gonzales shorts. Larz Bourne had a track record with Terrytoons,
Paramount/Famous, and MGM, where he worked on such memorable characters as Baby
Huey, Casper, Deputy Dawg and Tom and Jerry (with Gene Deitch). It's no wonder
Dick Dastardly's booby traps are so similar to those of Wile E. Coyote, Tom Cat
or the later Daffy Duck. Arthur Davis also shows up in the story credits, and he
directed some of the most brilliant Warner Bros. cartoons on the late 40's.
The head directors of the series
were no slouches either. Charles Nichols got his start at Disney in the mid
1940's, working mostly on Pluto and Mickey Mouse, but creating some very
memorable cartoons including "Pluto's Blue Note" and "Toot,
Whistle, Plunk and Boom". He then went on to Hanna-Barbera in the 60's,
working on the Flintstones, Jetsons and many more. William Hanna and Joseph
Barbera, in addition to being the founders of the studio and creators of Yogi
Bear, Huckleberry Hound, Quickdraw McGraw, and many others, were veterans
of MGM and created and directed Tom and Jerry, who won 7 Academy Awards.
The directors' resumes were just as impressive as the writers'.
The incredible talent behind this series is probably what
made it as good as it is, because it is easy to see how a formulaic series with
a lot of characters like this could fall flat-and it did in the late 1970's,
when a revival called "Yogi's Space Races" was created using Dastardly
and other, more recognizable H-B characters as Yogi bear, Huck Hound and Jabber
Jaw. Wacky Races, though, is one of the first shows of its kind and it has
become a cult classic for its hilarious gags and clever design.
So how does
the new DVD collection from Warner Home Video treat this series? Well, I went
into it thinking it was just another cartoon put on DVD, but it is actually much
better than I thought it would be. The episodes look nothing like the dull,
faded versions shown on Cartoon Network and Boomerang in the past few years.
They have been fully restored to reveal brilliant colors and crisp, clean line
art on the animation. The stylized backgrounds truly stand out, and the racecars
and drivers are a lot easier to see on DVD, the colors stand out ten times
better than the TV versions. The set is made up of three discs and includes
every episode of the series. The special features are not near as numerous as
those on other Warner collector sets, but what's there is interesting.
A retrospective documentary is included, entitled "Rear View Mirror: A Look
Back At the Wacky Races", and includes interviews with Iwao Takamoto and
Jerry Eisenberg, Janet Waldo, comic/cartoon writer Earl Kress,
cartoonist/cartoon historian Scott Shaw. The same panel provides commentary on
four episodes of the series. Takamoto and Eisenberg seem a bit fuzzy about which
one of them did what, but offer a lot of insight just the same. In the
commentaries, it's clear that Shaw likes the show better than Kress, but you get
the idea that it grows on both of them by the time they're done watching.
Another documetary feature takes a look at the spinoffs "Penelope Pitstop"
and "Dastardly and Muttley", and hints that both are coming soon to
DVD as well.
Also of note: Several previews for other Warner/Hanna
Barbera animation sets are provided on this set, including a look at the Tom and
Jerry Spotlight Collection we ALMOST got. Judging by the preview, the original
idea was to present the entire series chronologically, with the first volume
consisting of the earliest theatrical shorts. Instead they opted for a
"best of" collection, with some edits for content and none of the
cartoons involving Tom's owner, Mammy Twoshoes. Enjoy the preview presented here
and dream of what could have been...and while you're at it take a look at the
others, for the Looney Tunes Golden and Spotlight Collections and Flintstones
recommend watching this set a little bit at a time, though, because as good a
series as it is, it can get monotonous watching 34 Wacky Races cartoons in a
row. I wouldn't call this a flaw in the series, as it was designed to be seen
once a week as opposed to once every fifteen minutes. Monotonous, that is, if
you're trying to really pay attention to every detail...but if you want a fun,
clever cartoon to leave on in the background while you're doing other things,
it's perfect. If you are a fan of gag cartoons, an animation completist, or just
a Hanna-Barbera fan in general, this set is worth picking up. It's affordable,
it's the best this series has looked in years, and it gives a cult classic the
best treatment it can get. It serves its purpose as a collector set for sure.
Kids will enjoy its slapstick humor, animation fans will enjoy seeing some of
the later work of some theatrical classic cartoon veterans, and adults will
delight in seeing a cartoon they grew up with restored to its original glory.
Wacky Races has been dismissed by a lot of cartoon fans as being fluff because
of Hanna-Barbera's less than stellar track record in the late 60's/early 70's,
but a closer look through this DVD will show that it may just be one of the last
great Hanna-Barbera series. The fact that it's held up in the public
consciousness long enough to be considered worthy of a DVD release this well
done is proof of that in itself. It's not the greatest cartoon ever made, not
even close, but it's certainly worthy of praise for its creativity and
entertainment value. Good job, Warner Home Video! You win the race!
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