I have a pretty decent memory for cartoons that ran throughout the mid- and late-80s. Like most people my age, some major story arcs from Thundercats and He-Man (with which I was unhealthily obsessed at a very young age) are burned into my memory. Even parts of shorter-lived shows like The Inhumanoids, The Centurions, and Silverhawks have managed to stick with me.
Before watching The Best of Bravestarr DVD, my recollections of that show remained comparatively vague, and looking at the show a few decades after its original air date, I see there are several reasons for that. The Best of Bravestarr DVD evinces that a combination of the creators misjudging the audience and some uncontrollable marketing mishaps kept the series from approaching He-Manian heights of popularity.
Bravestarr was: the last Filmation cartoon series to see the light of day before the production company folded. The show ran from 1987-1989, and depicted the adventures of Marshall Bravestarr, the sheriff of a lawless futuristic planet named New Texas. Planet New Texas is populated by simple (albeit quite tech-savvy) cowfolk, and a race of Ewok-inspired humanoid dwarves who speak in an irritatingly cutesy timbre, making their speech almost indiscernible.
Bravestarr himself is Native American, though it’s tough to know if he should be referred to as such, given the fact that he most likely hails from a planet upon which America doesn’t exist. Bravestarr, being the “good guy”, deflates the traditional Old Western dichotomy of Cowboys vs. Indians, though that’s not to overstate the show’s ability to shatter age-old stereotypical depictions of Native Americans or anything, I mean, the guy does derive his power from “spirit animals”.
Throughout the series, Bravestarr and his crew of oddly conceived heroes prevent a gang of outlaws from stealing Kerium, an ore around which The New Texan economy revolves. Bravestarr’s main sidekick is a robotic horse named Thirty/Thirty with whom the hero both speaks to and rides. The power-dynamic of the duo is slightly more perverse than, say, the one seen between He-Man and Cringer, though, because Thirty/Thirty is capable of walking as a biped. Bravestarr is also helped by a few other characters, all who fit perfectly into the roles of Filmation archetypes.
The bad guys are led by Tex Hex, who looks kind of like if Skeletor were portrayed by Lee van Cleef, which is probably the look the creators were going for. Tex’s story is ever so slightly more complex than that of your average cartoon villain. Having left his beloved ex-girlfriend and made a deal with the ultra-evil Stampede to get his hands on some Kerium, Tex frequently bellyaches about his simpler, pre-outlaw days; certainly not the kind of nonsense you’d expect from, say, Mumm-Ra. Tex is teamed up with a host of villains who are pretty much the mirror images of the heroes.
The Best of Bravestarr DVD contains five episodes determined to be the best by the show’s fans, presumably in some sort of internet voting contest. It also contains a full-length Bravestarr feature which, as is discussed in the disc’s commentary track, was intended for theatrical release at the series’ start, but never quite made it to the big screen (meaning that the show didn’t get the initial burst of hype for which the show’s creators were hoping).
Stymied big-screen aspirations, though, aren’t the only reason why the show didn’t take off, and the commentary track gives some insight into the other reasons, as well. You get the feeling, listening to the commentary track, that the creators of the show really expected it to take off, and at least according to their approximations, were really pushing the limits of what was going on with animation at the time. They point out rotoscoped references to the “Man with No Name” trilogy, as well as other, non-spaghetti Westerns, inserted into the cartoon to add to its old West atmosphere. In these comments, the main problem of Bravestarr is revealed; the creators overshot their audience, on either side, by a few decades.
With He-Man and She-Ra being the flagship titles of this era of Filmation’s history, it’s safe to say that their target demographic was action figure-hungry elementary school-aged boys with overactive imaginations; the type who would pour all of the cereal out of the box to get their grubby hands on the cheap promotional toy buried within. I was the Platonic Form of this demographic, and Bravestarr‘s Western theme was pretty much lost on me. Sure, plenty of cartoon fans ended up respecting the oeuvre of Sergio Leone, but not until they were much older.
By the late-‘80s, the days of kids, or anyone, digging Westerns was far in the past. For context; Bravestarr came out roughly around the same time that director Kathryn Bigelow couldn’t get funding from anyone to make a Western, and tried to fluff the genre by introducing a family of hayseed vampires, resulting in the quite novel and amusing 1987 train wreck, Near Dark. Westerns, to the youth of the late-‘80s, looked like someone else’s nostalgia, regardless of the planet on which they took place.
The aesthetic of a Western, even if it’s set in outer space, is restrictive, especially to a pre-adolescent mind already accustomed to the boundless mysteries of He-Man’s Eternia. Bravestarr’s gunslingers may be two-headed cyborg bird creatures, but they’re still gunslingers, and there’s only so far that the series could possibly deviate from that. Some of the Western archetypes that show up in the series just don’t have much of a place in a sci-fi cartoon. The mustachioed bartender, Handlebar, not only looks half-drawn, he’s silly. Set against earlier Filmation fantasies and the other cartoons of the time, Bravestarr just looks like an antiquated game of Cowboys and Indians.
Still, the five episodes featured on the disc contain some of the more heavy-handed and entertaining (meaning totally bizarre) moralizing of late ‘80s action animation, and that’s saying a lot. In episode “Eye of the Beholder”, a blind Kerium mine heiress ends up befriending Tex Hex, not realizing he’s a bad guy but seeing his inner good. At the end of the episode (the “moral” section), the audience is addressed by Bravestarr, who informs us that “because a person’s blind, doesn’t mean they can’t hold down a job” and that “blind people don’t want our sympathy, they just want a chance to show that they can make it on their own.”
The crowning jewel of The Best of Bravestarr DVD is the requisite anti-drug episode “The Price”, which numbers among the grittier anti-drug cartoons of the era, namely because the character who gets hooked on drugs actually overdoses and dies. The episode finds Jay and his friends playing in their robotic fort when an anthropomorphic dingo clad in pimp’s clothing rolls into town like the apocryphal dealers who staked out the elementary school playgrounds of your youth. He’s hawking a drug called “Spin”, which glows and shimmers beautifully even in the daylight, making you long for its sweet caress to carry you away from all of your problems. Jay’s friend Brad bails (though not before promising not to inform on him) and the dingo-dealer drops a taste of the day-glo liquid into Jay’s palm.
About 45-seconds after Jay’s first trip, he’s skipping dinner and ripping off Kerium nuggets from his own mother’s purse to score his next fix from the dastardly dingo. The next Brad sees him, Jay is sitting in their fort, itching like the addict he is, and babbling about “pink smiling flowers” and a bunch of other hippie-dippy bullshit no red-blooded New Texan would be caught spouting. Later, Jay becomes a Spin casualty and Brad learns that it’s important to always snitch on his friends. Predictably, the conceptual parallel between Jay’s drug addiction and New Texas’s capitalistic “addiction” to Kerium nuggets is never explored (despite the fact that New Texan society is clearly in need of an overhaul if bandits are attacking every weekday.)
Ironic nostalgia is no doubt the main selling point of The Best of Bravestarr DVD, but the special features make it more worthwhile. Like the rest of the current crop of Filmation DVD re-releases, the special features on this set are produced by Andy Mangels. If the creators of Bravestarr misjudged what their audience wanted in the ‘80s, Mangels knows exactly what that audience is looking for now. To the kids who were watching them, ‘80s cartoons seemed to just appear out of nowhere, with no visible creative entity behind them. In terms of putting a cartoon like Bravestarr in context, you can’t beat the rare live-action rotoscoping footage and audio commentary from the reunited Filmation creative team, who cared very deeply about the project and whose take on the cartoon, and its place in the history of animation, is fascinating to hear.
The attractive DVD packaging makes what would otherwise be a fairly ephemeral blip on the cartoon radar / half-hour commercial for action figures seem like the most important show in the history of television. If you jones for obscure ‘80s cartoonery like it’s a precious vial of Spin, but aren’t insane enough to buy the whole 65-episode run of Bravestarr when it comes out, this might be what you’re looking for.