Friday, December 09, 2011

Nostalgia Theater: Animated Apes Edition

In the lead-up to the theatrical release of Rise of the Planet of the Apes last August, I spent a week's worth of posts taking a fond walk back through the misty history of the original Apes film and its many theatrical offspring, but I only briefly touched on the ways those damn, dirty apes made their mark on the small screen. Well, with Rise making its home vid debut come Tuesday, this installment of Nostalgia Theater offered the perfect opportunity to re-revisit one of those selfsame small screen excursions.

By 1975, Planet of the Apes' time as a dominant force in pop culture was beginning to wane. The movie series had wrapped two years prior, and while a live action show premiered with a lot of hype behind it the previous fall, a combination of unambitious stories and overambitious scheduling doomed the series -- starring Apes movie icon Roddy McDowall -- to a here-and-gone 14 episode run. Still, though the primetime version died a quick death on CBS, that didn't dissuade NBC from taking another shot, this time in cartoon form. Thus was born the final entry in the original Apes onslaught: Return to the Planet of the Apes.

Seriously, is that creepy or what? I was eight years old when I first saw that intro. It scared the crap out of me, and I loved it. Although I was already somewhat familiar with the barebones concept of the film before then, it was this 'toon that served as the entree to an entire lifetime of immersion in Ape-dom for me. It may have been hobbled by too many too-obvious animation shortcuts, but here we are twenty-four years later talking about its impact, so clearly it did its job on me.

Following generically bland astronauts Bill Hudson, Jeff Allen, and Judy Franklin after they're flung 2000 years into the future and crash land on a mysterious yadda yadda where they eventually find a group of yaddas who are hunted by talking yadda yaddas, Return didn't bother to stray too far from the template, right down to the inclusion of characters like Cornelius, Zira, and Dr. Zaius, with the major exception (other than the mute humans being referred to as "humanoids" -- not sure why they did that) being that the apes' society was significantly more advanced than the one in the films, with cars, televisions, telephones, etc.

Produced by the animation house of DePatie-Freleng (creators of the Pink Panther, the Inspector, etc.), the show was plagued by its low budget and, consequently, severely limited animation, but it did benefit from some nice storyboards and designs by Jonny Quest creator Doug Wildey, and a fairly mature storyline (considering the audience and the era -- and notwithstanding the dragons, sea serpents, and one King Kong-sized gorilla). Also, unlike the other TV show, the animated Apes actually saw its status quo change through the course of its run, practically unheard of for kidvid...which may also explain why it didn't really last very long.

Return to the Planet of the Apes premiered in September of '75 and aired thirteen original episodes until the next fall, so while it did manage to outlast its TV predecessor in terms of time aired, it still came up one short as far as actual episodes produced. While the broader arc of the whether our astronaut heroes' would ever make it off the apes' planet and return home was never resolved, the series did come to a reasonable conclusion that saw its plot threads pay off to satisfaction, and it's definitely a worth entry in the canon of Apes entries -- certainly far worthier than the '01 revisitation that flamed out even faster than this one.

Return to the Planet of the Apes is currently available on DVD both as a standalone two-disc set, and also as part of the big ass monkey head I wrote about here (and ended up buying anyway, despite all my protestations to the contrary). If you're coming into the series cold, you may want to pass on that big head in favor of the cheaper option before giving it a go. It's got just as much "hit" as it does "miss," but depending on where your headspace happens to be at, you may be surprised how much you end up enjoying it. Maybe.

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