Godzilla: The Monster Wars Trilogy (1998)

Godzilla: The Series is a kid-geared spin-off of the effects-driven Sony Pictures remake of 1998. While less flashy (and less entertaining) than its live-action counterparts, the ‘toon Godzilla harkens back to the Godzilla film series of yore, re-emphasizing the give and take between Godzilla and humanity.

The much-maligned American film (directed by disaster movie maestro Roland Emmerich) on which the series is based starred Matthew Broderick. In a 1998 Teletext sound bite, Broderick said of the then-anticipated film: “This guy who cuts my hair in New York, he’s Japanese; he’s really excited about the film. He says, ‘I like Godzilla because he’s a good man and a bad man. ‘King Kong is a saintly figure, whereas Godzilla is good and bad. He’s vicious but you feel bad when he’s hurt.” This cartoon Godzilla doesn’t have the primal appeal of the earlier man-in-a-suit version, which always lent the creature certain recognizably human movements. But even without a human performer inside of him, he remains both “a good man and a bad man.”

The series achieves this balance by moving beyond Godzilla’s origin story, toward his fabled battles with other, even more destructive creatures. The episodes now available on DVD are subtitled The Monster Wars Trilogy, and indeed, by the end of the first episode, no fewer than five new, non-Godzilla monsters have made their menacing appearances. Some resemble real animals (a bat; a bee) while others look like endless re-combinations of lizard and worm DNA.

Broderick’s scientist Nick Tatopoulos from the ’98 version is still center stage among the monsters, though (here voiced by 90210‘s Ian Ziering). He has gone through a curious reimagining, now tougher, even irritable, and yet noticeably chummier with Godzilla than his live-action counterpart, who felt sympathy for the rampaging creature but whose first priority was nonetheless to save New York.

That non-animated and wussier Nick would never be heard yelling, “Godzilla, attack!” as his counterpart does here.If the cartoon Nick is less endearing than Broderick’s, he is a more effective monster-wrangler. In the second episode, Tatopoulos’ fashionably flip (and forgettable) crew uses sonar to pit a giant bat against a “sea demon,” thus sparing themselves death (or at least wreckage) at the bat’s hands. Although these battles lack the curious immediacy of men in rubber costumes laying waste to vast cities of cardboard, they illustrate a basic understanding of the Godzilla mystique. The real tough guy, this series says, works with Godzilla, not against him; the goal is communication, not a hunt.

The rest of this “trilogy” is junky and convoluted, with an alien-related plot that seems torn from the midsection of Emmerich’s own Independence Day (1996). But when those aliens brainwash Godzilla, a tricked-out CyberGodzilla, a giant bee, a fearsome bat, and other less classifiable monsters — forcing them all to attack major cities as a prelude to an alien invasion — a glimmer of the film series’ circle of life appears. Monsters are awakened by a civilization, cities are only partially saved, and the lesser of two (or more) evils must prevail.

The difference here is that an alien civilization, not human, is conveniently to blame for Earth’s monster problems; Godzilla and his fellows are no longer our simultaneous punishment and salvation. This means that the aliens are not only a distraction, but interlopers in the human-monster dynamic. In the Japanese films, the monsters are not humans’ pawns, but neither are humans free from blame. The cartoon version is less shaded. But it does allow its most famous star some of that duality: when this Godzilla stops trashing Washington, DC (he appears to pay special attention to the landmarks Independence Day didn’t have time for, like the Lincoln Memorial) in order to pound on CyberGodzilla, he is a good man and a bad man once again.