If ‘80s cartoons like ThunderCats, Transformers, G.I. Joe and He-Man can be said to have one thing in common, it’s that none of them withstand objective scrutiny. If you can still claim to enjoy these or most any other animated series from the ‘80s on anything but the most ironic level, then your nostalgia is far more durable than mine.
To be fair, though, the aim of such shows was simply to sell toys, and in that regard they were indisputably triumphant. Not a single show among them was produced with the expectation that stunted weirdos like me would still be pondering their legacies two decades later; no writer or animator could have possibly anticipated such artistic accountability while preparing the latest episode of Silverhawks.
Still, to cite ThunderCats again, while no reasonable person expects an anthropomorphic lion in a powder blue unitard to seem as cool in 2009 as he (inexplicably) seemed in 1985, I know that I am not alone in feeling disappointed that even the animation in these old shows now seems clunky and inconsistent and mostly embarrassing (He-Man is something of an exception, in that Filmation cut so many corners and relied on stock poses and the like to such an extent that the animation, though minimalist, remains fluid and organic to some degree).
I recently went digging through the vast, numbing archives at YouTube, and I found that most elusive of relics: a beloved cartoon from the ‘80s that isn’t completely embarrassing today. Its dialogue is often silly, sure, and the attempts at humor elicit more groans than chuckles, and the plots are asinine and nonsensical, yes, but if nothing else, Bionic Six features animation that is just as attractive, consistent and inviting now as it was in 1987.
Looking back at most animated series from the 1980s, you might be stunned at the brilliant animation during the opening credits sequence, but once the actual episode begins, you can tell that another animation company was at the helm: a lesser animation company. Occasionally, provided there was an adequate budget, the pilot episode of a given series might have animation that matched or nearly matched its opening theme song montage in quality. After that, the goal clearly became to produce the show in question as cheaply as possible.
But while the episode of Bionic Six that I recently chose to watch was in fact its pilot episode (“Valley of Shadows,” which first aired on April 19, 1987—my tenth birthday), I also recently tracked down the episode I’d cited as my favorite twenty years ago: “That’s All, Folks!” (airdate: November 12, 1987). I didn’t know this when “That’s All, Folks!” aired, nor when I decided to find it online, but according to Wikipedia, it was the Bionic Six series finale, and I for one have never known a company to pour extra funds into the final episode of a cartoon ostensibly designed to sell toys. Therefore, I can only conclude that if the premiere episode and the final episode of a series feature equally inspired animation, then everything in between must have been roughly equivalent. And honestly, the animation in “That’s All, Folks!” is better than the animation in “Valley of Shadows,” and when I suggest that it might even be the greatest animation from any single episode of any 1980s animated series, it is not hyperbole.
The stories in Bionic Six are fun, too. It’s not that the show boasts astoundingly high-quality writing, ‘cause it’s (mostly) just as silly and ham-fisted as you’d expect an old children’s cartoon to be. But it’s also surprisingly energetic, with an unexpected pulp sensibility. Dig the premise to the first episode, courtesy of Professor Amadeus Sharp:
“Five years ago, Brent Hallworth disappeared in Africa on a quest to discover the mythical Valley of Shadows, a legendary African Shangri-La whose inhabitants have supposedly achieved immortality.”
Sounds like the plot to an Indiana Jones story, and it’s treated with the same gee-whiz sense of humor that Spielberg brings to Indy’s adventures. At one point, IQ says to his giant robot gorilla, “You know, Fluffy? This is scientifically impossible.”
Better still, “That’s All, Folks” whisks our heroes and their evil nemeses off to an alternate dimension. A cartoon dimension. That’s right: cartoon characters turning into cartoon characters. Heady stuff! But what makes it the greatest episode from the entire run of Bionic Six is that it was clearly a labor of love and mourning on the part of writer Gordon Bressack. The plot pays tribute to the golden age of animation: forced into retirement by a focus group-obsessed studio, legendary cartoon creator Flub Fleming (a nod to Friz Freleng?) first bristles at the implication that “nobody wants to see my kind of cartoons anymore”, then tells the studio head, “you haven’t any idea what cartoons are all about” before announcing to an awards show audience, “I’m going to a place where children have something to laugh at”.
Then, he casually opens a hole in reality and disappears into a cartoon dimension.
Soon, Karate-1, Rock-1 and IQ are there, too, along with villains Scarab, Mechanic and Klunk. All six characters immediately transform into bulbous, dynamic, misshapen versions of themselves, and they spend the rest of the episode struggling to navigate the perilous and anarchic landscape, learning firsthand the physical laws and limitations (or lack thereof) of a world where you never fall until you notice that you’re walking a mile above ground.
The animators seem to have enjoyed themselves, too; the switch to a Looney Tunes style of animation is a delight to behold. Still, credit for the giddy triumph of “That’s All, Folks!” goes to Gordon Bressack; the episode’s first line of dialogue (discounting the “Sammy Skunk” short that starts things off) is “they don’t make them like that anymore”, and indeed, they don’t make them like Bugs Bunny or Woody Woodpecker anymore.
They don’t make them like Bionic Six anymore, either.