Friday, April 27, 2012

Nostalgia Theater: Cartoon Conan -- The Bloodthirsty Barbarian's Animated Antics

This week we look at what may well be the culmination of the very long line of kids' shows derived from questionable source material. That's right, it's the animated incarnation of author Robert E. Howard's legendary literary hero, Conan the Cimmerian. However, unlike Cartoon Rambo and Cartoon RoboCop, Cartoon Conan was actually...not bad! While the very notion that Howard's looting, thieving, and plundering anti-hero could possibly be a positive role model is just too bizarre to even think about, somehow the show found a way to make the tenuous balancing act it embodied work, lasting for two seasons and sixty-five episodes.

Created by Sunbow (they of '80s Transformers and G.I. Joe fame) and premiering in weekly syndication in fall of 1992, Conan the Adventurer took its barebones cues from director John Milius' insanely-violent (and insanely awesome, natch) 1982 feature, but swapped out the head-choppping and dismembering for something a little more palatable to the ten-and-under set. Thus, instead of being orphaned by the worshippers of a snake cult and embarking on a blood-soaked trail of vengeance, Cartoon Conan is trying to restore his family after they're turned to stone, all the while armed with a mystic "star sword" that sends the various snake men he comes in contact with into another dimension. No muss, no fuss, and more importantly, no blood, no guts.

The similarities to He-Man are obvious, and while longtime aficionados would rightly blanche at their beloved hero not partaking in the orgies of violence he was known for, anyone who tuned in to a cartoon expecting this was in for a rude awakening anyway. Inherent limitations notwithstanding, the series, developed and story edited by comic and animation vet Christy Marx, still mixed in enough high stakes derring-do with the kiddie-fied elements that the necessary need to neuter its subject matter wasn't made too painfully obvious (although I could've done without the baby phoenix that served as Conan's sidekick and comic foil). By the time it went daily with its second season, Conan the Adventurer had even garnered enough ratings success to spawn a tie-in toyline from Hasbro:

While I have plenty of kind words for the show that inspired them, these toys may actually be the worst action figures ever made. Seriously. Ever.

Anyway, another measure of how successful the Conan animated show became was that after two years in syndication, CBS took it to network for a short-lived Saturday morning spin-off series in 1994. With network standards & practices at play, it was already a safe bet that the watered down Adventurer would be be even further so, and the new show's title, Conan and the Young Warriors, removed any doubt. Picking up where the previous series left off, this had the wayward barbarian making like Cartoon Mr. T, as he played nursemaid to a group of precocious youngsters with magical powers. It was exactly as awful as it sounds:

Needless to say, the Young Warriors iteration didn't last nearly as long as its predecessor, disappearing after a scant thirteen episodes. I mean, kids are dumb, but they're not that dumb. In the interim, Cartoon Conan has largely disappeared from most people's radars (as has the character himself, at least if the box office receipts from last summer's Conan the Barbarian reboot movie are anything to judge by). Nonetheless, the entire first series has recently come to DVD, and at a price that makes it worthy of a look. Conan the Adventurer may not necessarily be what's best in life, but you also won't hear any lamentations about it from me.


Christy Marx said...

Zaki,I appreciate the nice review, but I need to correct one thing: the toys came before the animation series, not as a result of it. In fact, while I was developing the series in tandem with the toy development, I ended up naming characters, therefore gave names to some of the action figures.

Zaki said...

Hi Christy -

Thanks so much for the clarification. My comment was based on my own recollection of seeing the toys at retail much later than the premiere of the show, but I may simply have misremembered.

Also, I'm honored that you found my post! Can you share any stories about bringing the show to the screen, and how that process went down?

BrianH said...

I'm with Zaki, I'd love to hear about the process of developing a hard R rated film into a children's cartoon.

And another great write up, Mr. Hasan!

Taranaich said...

I'm actually impressed by the number of references to the original stories in the cartoons. The first episode alone has more nods to Howard's stories than every cinematic "adaptation" combined.