Sunday, February 14, 2016

Nostalgia Theater: The Animated Rambo!

This past week I got the chance to interview Rambo creator David Morrell for the Nostalgia Theater Podcast, and while we covered a whole lot of ground in that chat, I asked him the one question that has been bugging me for thirty years: What were they thinking when they turned traumatized Vietnam vet John J. Rambo into an animated cartoon star for kids? You'll have to listen to the show to hear his answer, but let's take a moment to gaze upon the epic WTF-ness that is the animated Rambo: The Force of Freedom:

(Note how heavily that clip leans on Jerry Goldsmith's iconic music score -- in this case from the trailer for the second Rambo flick -- to give itself a credibility that it absolutely hasn't earned.)

Rambo: The Force of Freedom emerged after the record-setting success of 1985's Rambo: First Blood, Part II at the box office, and really is the primary exemplar of '80s consumerism run amuck. There's nothing in either of those two films that lends itself to kidvid, but clearly the rights-holders at Carolco saw an opportunity, and struck while the iron was hot and made a deal with animation purveyors Ruby-Spears to turn our man Rambo into a cartoon star.

As developed by writer Michael Chain, the resultant inexplicable TV show clearly draws inspiration from the good guy/bad guy dynamic of G.I. Joe, setting our hero and his team of specialists up against a Cobra-esque group of baddies called S.A.V.A.G.E., led by the fiercely generic General Warhawk. No great shocker here, but Sylvester Stallone naturally had nothing to do with this thing, lending neither his voice nor his likeness for the show to use.

Also, they needed to steer clear of trained killing machine Rambo actually killing anyone, so they'd mostly have him wrestling people to the ground and using other non-lethal tactics in hopes of making this square peg of a premise fit the round hole it was being pushed into. Needless to say, it didn't work too well. Debuting as a five-part miniseries in April of '86, Rambo turned into a weekly skein the following fall, running for a total of sixty-five episodes before getting canceled.

Of course, as soon as you've got a weekday afternoon kiddie show, you need toys to go along with it, and the toymakers at Coleco happily obliged with an assortment of Rambo figures, vehicles, and accessories. As it turns out, these things didn't meet with any more success than the 'toon, ending up in the remainder bins within a year of hitting the shelves (which is where I picked 'em up). There could be a lot of reasons for that, but I'd put the general ugliness of the figures near the top of the list:

The Rambo phenomenon burned white hot, and then it burned itself right out. By the time the sequel Rambo III hit theaters in 1988, the franchise had long since lost its place as a driver for children's merchandise, which only lasted for about a minute-and-a-half anyway (and should never have had to begin with!). While the cartoon is available in its entirety on DVD, you'd be hard-pressed to find any merch today that matches the madcap lunacy of the stuff in the '80s. I guess it really is over, John.

One Year Ago in Nostalgia Theater: Ultraforce -- It Came From the Nineties!

Two Years Ago in Nostalgia Theater: Hey Paisanos! It's The Super Mario Bros. Super Show!

Three Years Ago in Nostalgia Theater: The Pretender Among Us

Four Years Ago in Nostalgia Theater: America's Brief, Torrid Love Affair With ALF

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