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GAC Cartoons: Video Reviews
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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 prize.

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.

The visual 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 Season 2!

I would 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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