So, a little while back, in a K-Mart of all the places (I know, I know, right? Like people actually still shop there?), I found a little gem in a pile of mismatched DVDs. This find was the full series of the Dungeons and Dragons Animated Series, the one from the 80s that parents wouldn’t let their kids watch because, y’know, D&D was still totally the Devil back then. Ah well, no accounting for bad taste.
Anyway, being a child of the 90s and growing up with Pokemon and Digimon and all that kinda stuff, I had never gotten a chance to enjoy the animated series. Mostly I’d heard it sucked, and since it faded into obscurity the instant it was canceled, it was mostly under my radar.
Not for my brother, though. He flipped.
So, we got the box set and over the course of the next couple weeks, we watched it, several episodes at a time. What I got… wasn’t really what I expected.
Before I dig into the meat of this, though, I want to pontificate on something else entirely. Lead-up, if you will. I’d like to talk about the “older-kids” cartoons of the 1980s (by this I mean that I’m excluding the Hannah Barbera cartoons and trying to stick to action shows).
80’s Cartoons are divided into three categories, but really only two, since the third category is “things that don’t fit into the other two categories.”
The first category is cartoons that sucked a whole lot. These were the programs like Silver Hawks, ones that were just so stupendously bad that you didn’t even think they were any good back then. The animation was slow, choppy, and re-used, and the voice acting moved so amazingly slowly that you could fall asleep before a character finished their sentence.
The second category is cartoons that you thought were great at the time, but actually also sucked (just not as much). This included the shows like Thundercats and He-Man and the Masters of the Universe – yeah, we thought they were the bomb back then, but try to go back and watch them now? Whew. I dare you to even make it past the first time Snarf opens his mouth.
As stated above, the third category is the small minority of shows that didn’t fit into the above categories, the ones that actually held up for some reason or another. And, as you can likely assume by now, this is the category I’m going to put the Dungeons and Dragons animated series in.
Who knows, maybe I’m biased. But I think you can all agree by now, if you’ve been reading the Dungeons and D-Listers column, that I take my nerdery very seriously and am not afraid to drop the axe on programs I consider unworthy, especially if it screws up something I hold dear.
Now, while the animated series did clearly have a few small deviations from the source material (which was, in this case, 2nd edition D&D, which was a good bit different from the later editions both in mechanics and flavor) on account of it being for kids, it stuck with it as hard as it could. Familiar faces like Lolth and Tiamat show up from time to time, monsters straight out of the manual like faerie-dragons and bullywugs roam free across the land, and while some of the action is, er, “non-lethalized” (made that up) for kids, the characters use their equipment as well as they can, or at least as well as the script dictates.
The animation, while it does suffer from a few of the glitches and slowness of 80s programming, is remarkably strong and fluid, with a style that seems like it took a very minor influence from early anime. Similarly, the voice acting is distinct and also fluid, lacking the extreme slowness of the voice acting at that time (Seriously, what was with that? Are children’s brains supposed to function at 20% speed? How did this even come about?). It features a pleasant mix of light-hearted and serious stories (becoming more balanced in the second season) and even has a crazy little thing called a continuity.
That’s right! A continuity!
Starting out watching the first season I was sure that this wouldn’t have any sort of continuity, but rather jump from episode to episode of the kids trying to find a way home (yeah, these are real-world kids who were trapped in the D&D world). I was right and wrong – the storyline does generally focus on the kids trying to find a way home, but each step of the way involves sub-plots or useless diversions impressed upon them by the Dungeon Master. They have a few recurring villains as well, such as the sorcerer Venger (who pops up in almost every episode to screw with the kids and try to steal their equipment), or more “classical” D&D entities (mostly Tiamat).
So yeah, while the overall goal tends to remain the same (getting home), each episode offers something new. The second season has a few more offbeat episodes, involving other one-off characters, random quests, or even very serious episodes such as when they decide to put an end to Venger. The second season also brings in more continuity, such as Uni’s ability to teleport (done once or twice after it was shown that he could), or Eric’s decision to memorize the Dungeon Master’s cryptic riddles (which he consistently follows through on after saying he will).
The characters keep things fresh, interact well with one another, and remarkably, they actually develop a bit over time. Let me give each one a bit of attention – I’ll list them in order from my least-favorite to my favorite.
Presto / “Magician”: Presto consistently comes off as a useless character, an incompetent wizard who pulls off random “spells” with his hat, that generally fail. His personality is dominated by his incompetence, and his character-focused episodes tend to end with him realizing that he needn’t suck as much as he does. By the next episode, of course, he forgets all about that and continues to suck just as much as before. He’s supposed to be funny but he generally… well, isn’t. His annoying voice doesn’t help.
Hank / “Ranger”: The “leader” of the team and one of the oldest kids, Hank has the best weapon (an energy bow that resembles a Green Lantern ring in how flexibly it can be used) and rarely uses it to its fullest effect. He constantly takes the helm and leads the kids, and seems to do a decent job until things actually get serious. When push comes to shove, Hank rarely takes responsibility for his actions and has shown that he is not as efficient a leader as Eric. Yet, still, he insists on taking the forefront.
Bobby / “Barbarian”: Bobby’s the youngest of the kids. He’s also the most impulsive, has the worst temper, uses his (pretty awesome) weapon to almost no effect, and is often extremely hostile at the smallest slight. Despite his shortcomings though, the little guy has heart, and he really comes through from time to time (especially when Uni’s involved).
Diana / “Acrobat”: One of the show’s two female characters (hey, that was good for back then!) and the only person of color, Diana is the oldest of the kids sent into “The Realm.” While her weapon is by far the worst (literally just a stick that gets longer and shorter) she is the most competent and badass among them by a longshot, to the point that when the team was depowered and without their weapons, Diana managed to fight off a group of greater salamanders on her own, with just a stick she grabbed. Yeah. She’s also the snarkiest of the group (except for Uni), and often spends her free time dissing the hell out of Eric.
Eric / “Cavalier”: In the first season, Eric is nothing but a great big douchebag. He’s cowardly and unpleasant, whines and bitches about absolutely everything, is callous and rude, and basically acts like a spoiled rich kid (which he is). However, he also undergoes by far the most character development – not only do we learn that his childhood was a miserable one, spent with an absentee dad who didn’t care about him, we also saw more and more that when the chips were down, Eric was among the most reliable on the team. He comes through in a pinch, and is brave despite being afraid. He’s man enough to admit his shortcomings when nobody else is, and during a time when Hank was absent, he showed that he was a far more competent leader. The only reason he hadn’t been leader from the get-go was because he didn’t feel like it.
Sheila / “Thief”: Sheila’s such a goofball. She has the best “weapon” – a cloak that makes her invisible when she pulls the hood up – yet she barely uses it. She always takes the hood down as soon as possible and never uses it as much as she should. Despite that, she has by far the most charming personality: She’s playful and kind, gentle and affectionate, sensitive, and generally adorable. She always looks out for her little brother (Bobby) and is never one to mock and deride her teammates. Also, if her relationship with Venger’s sister is any indication, she is most likely the show’s only LGBT character (ahh, so before its time!).
Side characters include Dungeon Master, an omnipotent, omniscient, and insufferable guide to the children; Uni, a bitchy and cacophonous baby unicorn; and Venger, the show’s primary villain whose awesome voice and commanding design outweigh his mysterious number of front teeth.
So, honestly, yeah! I enjoyed the show! While I was a little concerned at first about how it would be, it caught me quickly and by surprise. Watched the whole thing and don’t regret a minute of it. I would have appreciated a more “final” final episode though (it just kind of… ends, without much of a climax, presumably it got canceled for being too violent). Would I recommend it? Well… yeah, I think I would, if you like fantasy. Being able to geek out about the source material isn’t really required to be able to get into the characters, and some of the episodes are really well-written.
In fact – a few episodes in the first season were written by a then-unknown Paul Dini! So take that!
I’d also like to give a special shout out to Alexandre Salles, whose art I borrowed for this column.