Friday, August 05, 2011

Return to the Planet of the Apes (1975)

I sometimes mistake reboots and re-imaginings for a recent phenomenon. In fact, one of the earliest reboots that immediately comes to mind when I think of the concept is Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes. That’s certainly not true though. I mean, look at all the Tarzan movies. How many times have they rebooted that franchise? And Tim Burton’s not even the first to reboot Planet of the Apes. That would be Friz Freleng and David H DePatie.

I mention Friz Freleng first because he’s the one I’m most familiar with from his work on Warner Bros’ classic Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons. That I’d never heard of DePatie before says more about me than him. He was the executive in charge of Warner’s cartoon studio when they closed it down in 1963. He and Freleng then formed DePatie-Freleng Enterprises and went on to create the Pink Panther cartoons, What’s New Mr. Magoo, and all those Dr. Seuss specials from the ‘70s. So these are guys who knew what they were doing. There was no reason for Return to the Planet of the Apes to suck. It must have been the director’s fault.

To be fair, Doug Wildey was no slouch himself. He’s best known as the creator of Johnny Quest, but he was also an artist for Atlas Comics (Marvel’s precursor) and several other comics publishers in the ‘50s. So if he’s a decent writer and a none-too-shabby artist, what went wrong with the Planet of the Apes cartoon? I’m guessing it has something to do with budget. The ‘70s were filled with cost-cutting, crappy animation and Wildey knew something about that. His only directing credits outside of Return to the Planet of the Apes are for those barely-animated Marvel “cartoons” from the ‘60s. The ones that everyone rightly compared “motion comics” to when those tried to get off the ground. I’ll come back to this later, but the cheapness of Return to the Planet of the Apes was its chief creative failure.

I’ve spent a lot of time in this series writing about reconciling timelines and building a dependable continuity, so it’s maybe a little odd that I’m not bothered by the extreme inconsistencies presented by Return. Rich Handley makes an attempt to bring it together with the live-action versions in his Timeline of the Planet of the Apes, but even he admits that that’s just for completeness. Writing about the most immediate, glaring difference between Return and the others – the apes’ advanced technology and culture – Handley says that sometime during the events of Beneath the Planet of the Apes the apes had to either experience a major technological growth-spurt or somehow stumbled across an un-ruined human city and moved in. In the same breath, he admits that this is extremely far-fetched, that there’s simply no time for it in Beneath, and that he’s grasping at whatever straws he can. Return, he says, is simply incompatible with the movies and earlier TV show.

There are other examples too. Brent’s experience on the Planet of the Apes is completely different than it is in Beneath. In Return, he landed on the planet when Nova was a young girl and it was he – not Taylor – who named her. Shortly after that he either got lost in the desert or became a hermit on purpose (I was losing interest by then and didn’t pay close attention) and didn’t even learn about the apes until years later when three new astronauts – the main characters of Return – showed up and found him again. Cornelius and Zira are also out of character from the movies, and the show replaces Beneath’s General Ursus with the live-action TV show’s General Urko. The mutant culture from Beneath has also been dramatically changed into a group of robed people called the Underdwellers. In short, Return gets extremely close to its source material, but changes important details to the extent that it can’t be considered part of the same timeline. It’s got to be a divergent timeline or an alternate reality.

And that’s okay. Once I accepted that this wasn’t my Planet of the Apes, I was ready to judge Return on its own merits. And there are some nice things about it. Some of the still art – the backgrounds and other elements that aren’t required to move – is really creative and lovely. I imagine that Wildey may be responsible for that with his comics background. The writing isn’t half bad either. Having not only excused, but also learned to enjoy the drastic changes that the writing staff made to the characters and their world, I was also able to appreciate the stories filled with giant spiders and sea monsters and other things impossible on a live-action budget.

Unfortunately, that’s where the positives end. What the animation staff did with those scripts is unbearable. Literally, because I didn’t even finish the series. The voice actors – if you can call them that – read their lines in monotone; even Austin Stoker, who plays one of the new astronauts and was also MacDonald in Battle for the Planet of the Apes. Stoker’s the only PotA veteran in the cast, but one other voice was recognizable: Henry Corden (General Urko), who’s been the voice of Fred Flintstone since the ‘70s. Actually, Corden did a pretty good job. It’s just hard to tell once the other actors have lulled you to sleep.

The biggest crime though – as I said earlier – is the animation, but it’s not just that it’s cheap. Like I also said, the ‘70s were filled with cheaply animated cartoons, but many of them were awesome. I’m a huge fan of Filmation, Hanna Barbera, and Ruby-Spears and none of those guys spent a lot of money. Return’s sin is that it’s boring. The good ‘70s cartoons recycled animation all the time, but at least it was exciting animation. Return shows action by having static characters move across the screen in some kind of equally-static vehicle, then draws the scene out by showing you that sequence over and over and over again until you’ve been watching it for what feels like an hour-and-a-half and your eyes are so glazed over they’re forming cataracts. I watched about eight of the thirteen episodes before I realized that I spent most of the last two playing on my iPod instead of watching the show. After that I just gave up.

Fortunately, this isn’t where the series ended. Early next week I’ll talk about Tim Burton’s attempt at a reboot and then the following week I’ll discuss Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which comes out today. I’m hoping Rise is worthwhile, but I’m also eager to see Burton’s version again. I haven’t seen it since it was in theaters and my distaste for the ending is all I really remember about it. Now that I’m prepared for that ending, I’m curious to see how I feel about the rest.


Ed Catto said...

Great rundown, Michael! Many thanks!

Mike D. said...

On a regular basis I watch these cartoons ( I have the DVD's ) and will watch hours on end. Sometimes I fall asleep because of the pacing of the story and some of the sound effects seems soothing. But I just Love hearing FRED FLINTSTONE's voice as he shouts " We must capture those humans!" It's awesome. Dougs work was very good on this series in my opinion and the animators did a fair job keeping things Wildey....I have no buts to add. It is what it is a cartoon kid freindly version of the POA...Something about it though...has me mesmerised everytime I watch it. The music? The scenery? The voices? I can't tell maybe it's a combination of them all.

JM Bell said...

Read the book - the apes having advanced technology came from their desire to do something more like the book.

The thing I liked about the ending of the Burton version (the only thing as it doesn't make any sense) was it offered a glimpse of what a proper version of the book might look like.

Which isn't to say I don't love the original series of movies, I do. The book is more a satire than science fiction or action.

I also like the cartoon series though, yes, for the most part it's crap. The 70's were to animation what Disco was to music

Michael May said...

I recently read the book, so I should revisit the cartoon with that in mind. Especially now that I have some distance from the other versions. Though I suspect I'll still have problems with the pacing and cost-cutting, maybe I'll like it better as It's Own Separate Thing.


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