Sunday, May 11, 2014

Nostalgia Theater: Godzilla Comes to Cartoons!

Warner Bros.' much-anticipated Godzilla reboot flick hits theaters this week, and I should have my review up no later than Wednesday, but in the meantime I thought I'd use this week's Nostalgia Theater entry to look back at the very first time the iconic monster from Japan's Toho Productions made his way to American kidvid. First, a little context might be helpful: For all its schlocky "guy in a suit" production values, the first Godzilla in 1954 was meant to be a dark reflection of Japan's wounded sense of self in the immediate aftermath of Hiroshima.

But as the movies continued into the mid-'70s, the character became a kiddiefied anti-hero of sorts, serving as humanity's defender against other rubber monsters like Ghidorah and Hedorah and Gigan (oh, and King Kong, natch). With fifteen films under his belt by the late-'70s (1975's Terror of Mechagodzilla marked a decade-long halt in production), the folks at Hanna-Barbera calculated that the time was ripe for Godzilla to come to TV via an animated offering that aired twenty-six episodes on NBC between 1978 until 1981. Check out the intro:

Produced by Doug Wildey (who also did the animated Planet of the Apes), the premise of Godzilla was that the research vessel Calico, crewed by Captain Carl Majors and a team of scientists and explorers, would encounter various giant creatures (i.e. giant insects, rock monsters, etc.) that could only be handled by Godzilla, who they had on speed dial thanks to a handy-dandy signal device. No matter where in the world they were, the Big G would show up on demand, dispatch said monster, wash, rinse, and repeat. That was the rundown for every episode, without variation.

I missed Godzilla during its original network run, as I was  minus-1 years old when it premiered, but I watched it regularly when it aired in Saudi Arabia in the mid-'80s. This was my very first exposure to the Godzilla character, so naturally my sense of what he was all about was kind of messed up. And if you're wondering how exactly a group of humans could just summon a population-destroying monster at the drop of a hat, that's because they were also taking care of Godzooky, Godzilla's baby nephew. Kind of the Scrappy Doo of the operation, basically.

That might sound idiotic to you, but my kids are watching an episode even as I'm typing this, and they're laughing uproariously whenever Godzooky does anything goofy, so clearly the intent behind his inclusion worked out. Another big change was the absence of Godzilla's trademark roar. That sound was actually owned by Toho, and for whatever reason they didn't license it to HB (they also didn't license any other monsters, which is why we didn't see Rodan or Mothra). Thus, the producers had voice actor Ted Cassidy provide some very-non Godzilla roars (Cassidy also provided the roars for TV's live action Hulk, FYI).

The show is currently available on both home vid and is streaming at Hulu and Amazon. Seen through the prism of adulthood, it's hackneyed by the formulaic stories and subpar animation, but there's no denying that I loved it as a wee one, and there's also no denying that my kids love it today. Although the series (which aired as part of the Godzilla Power Hour) ended its network run in '81, that wouldn't be the last time Japan's biggest export would become part of the Saturday morning landscape. I'll talk about the other animated Godzilla (or should I say, "Godzilla") next week.

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