Koch Vision // 2007 // 142 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky (Retired) // April 25th, 2007
"The present era grabs everything that was ever written in order to transform it into films, TV programmes, or cartoons. What is essential in a novel is precisely what can only be expressed in a novel, and so every adaptation contains nothing but the non-essential." -- Milan Kundera
Most of the time, William Hanna and Joe Barbera were interested in making kids laugh. They kept their cartoon offerings, from the days of Tom and Jerry to the many productions they did under their own banner, pretty simple. Budgets low, comedy high. And they built an animation empire this way.
There were moments when, like the "Classic Comics" of old, Hanna and Barbera had pretensions of being educational and even -- heaven forbid -- literary. They tried out a Three Musketeers serial during The Banana Splits Show. Later, they produced an ambitious and fairly successful feature version of Charlotte's Web. And periodically, they created one-hour adaptations of canonical summer-reading books.
Hanna-Barbera Storybook Favorites collects three of these television films. No Huckleberry Hound or Quick Draw McGraw or even Johnny Quest. Think of these as the Flintstone vitamin pill you have to take along with your sugary breakfast cereal.
* "Black Beauty" (1978)
A mild-mannered pony is taken away from his mother and must learn to work. His kindly master John treats him well and lets him play with children, but Beauty is sold to a neighbor with a mean stablekeeper who wants to break his spirit. He is sold again, this time as a work horse, where he learns all about "man's ugly world." Can he get over his memories of freedom in the meadow, find some nice man to take care of him, and discover how to serve his master best?
When our equine hero remarks, "If this is a man's world and not a horse's world, then I knew that I must do my best to please those men," it is hard not to read a lot into the story. Substitute the world "horse" with "woman" (knowing the book was written by a woman), or "non-white person" (he is called Black Beauty) -- well, you can see how this can be read as a story of Victorian-era submission. But that is probably a topic for another time. The fact is that Anna Sewell's novel is a beloved classic and an obvious choice for adaptation, since it has lessons about treating people nicely and bearing up under adversity. The issue here is more about how successfully this story has been translated to television animation.
The truth is, Black Beauty doesn't translate especially well. The sketchy backgrounds and stiff animation appear very dated. Most importantly, the script is stilted, as if formality is meant to convey the "classic" status of the story. In a weird move, the film does not have the horses move their mouths when they speak, perhaps to disassociate these "serious" talking animals from Scooby-Doo or Jabberjaw. Instead, they just look at each other and seem to communicate telepathically. There is much sermonizing and sentimentality (especially sick children) -- and a noticeable lack of humor or action.
* "The Last of the Mohicans" (1975) Mark Twain once described the writing prowess of James Fenimore Cooper as "splendidly inaccurate." Yet somehow Cooper's Natty Bumppo novels somehow still retain a place in the canon. In this most famous of Cooper's books, Bumppo, here called "Hawkeye" (played by Mike Road, the voice of Johnny Quest's pal Race Bannon), saves white people from sinister Indians with the help of his Indian sidekicks, one of which is voiced by Casey Kasem.
The original book displays some quite complicated racial politics and a good deal of violence. This cartoon version tries hard to avoid caricaturing its Indian characters, which fits Cooper's sympathetic (if paternalistic) view of the "noble savages." Although the script starts out reasonably faithful to the book (except that it drops a key supporting character), the story veers wildly off the page by the midpoint. Still, lack of fidelity to the original can be forgiven -- to a degree -- if the adapted story stands on its own. In this case, it really doesn't, mostly because the characters lack personality, and, since you can't tell the Indians apart, the plot gets needlessly muddled. By the end, where Uncas and Alice ride off together, the story has departed so far from the novel as to be completely unrecognizable. And the things that made the original novel interesting (its problematic racial politics, especially its difficulties coping with miscegenation; its brutal tendency to bump off characters right and left) are jettisoned, probably because the filmmakers thought those aspects weren't kid-friendly. The result is dull and wooden as a cigar store Indian.
Of the three movies in this set, The Last of the Mohicans has the most realistic art design -- or at least it tries. The backgrounds are flatly colored photographs, often nearly monochromatic, kind of like what Ralph Bakshi might have used during the same period. Maybe the lifeless artwork was meant to parallel the lifeless story.
* "Gulliver's Travels" (1979)
This is the only one of the three films in this set that I recall seeing repeatedly when I was a kid. Of course, Jonathan Swift's original novel is a sprawling tour to a host of strange lands, from the floating island of Laputa to the Land of the Houyhnhnms, filled with assertive satire and twisted humor (including scatological jokes). So how much of this do you think is going to translate over to a children's television movie from the '70s? What, you don't think Gulliver is going to be peeing on any castle fires?
Yep, you guessed it. Just the "giant Gulliver versus the big and little people" stuff from Books I and II of the novel. Still, since this is the most overtly comic of the three novels adapted by Hanna-Barbera, the adaptation is probably their most successful. The residents of Lilliput and Blefuscu are sufficiently cartoony, while the Brobdignag section is played more for thrills, with Gulliver in more overt danger. The edge to the satire (the jabs at British parliamentary politics in Book I and the critique of human physical vanity in Book II) have been completely eliminated. The increasing bitterness of the novel (especially present in Book IV) is also missing, but, as usual, that probably isn't something you would expect them to stress in a television cartoon.
The animation reflects the same budgetary restrictions of the other two films: awkward drawing of the human figures and ugly backgrounds, but the errors in human anatomy are covered by the less serious nature of the plot. Overall, this is the most successful adaptation of the three films, since it sticks close enough to the original that its departures appear less poorly conceived (unlike Mohicans) and its more humorous tone makes its artistic flaws fit the exaggerated tone of the story (unlike Black Beauty). Still, there are better adaptations of Swift's novel out there. And there is always -- gasp -- the original novel. You can even download it for free!
You have to give Hanna-Barbera a few points for trying to make literature palatable for kids. But really -- this was the same studio whose late-'70s burst of creative energy also included Scrappy Doo and Laff-a-Lympics. In trying to be serious, these films mostly expose the shortcomings of Hanna-Barbera's cartoon factory of the late '70s. Maybe if they had not tried to be so educational and weighted by gravity, these Hanna-Barbera Storybook Classics might have soared a bit higher.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Vision
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 142 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* IMDb: Black Beauty
* IMDb: The Last of the Mohicans
* IMDb: Gulliver's Travels