Judge Dennis Prince says the kung-fu crime fighting isn't near as impressive as the fact a dog is actively holding down a job as janitor at a metropolitan police station.
Number one super guy!
Somewhere around the mid-1970s, the charm and appeal of Saturday morning cartoon fare was on its shaky last legs. Unduly hamstrung from an earlier assault by feminine-fueled ACT (Action for Children's Television), the once-beloved cartoon cavalcade was limping along with poorly conceived scripts that attempted sanitized action and inane humor. As children of the day became confused by the lack of identifiable animated icons, they were duly test-fed what would become the beginning of cartoon extensions, movie and TV tie-ins, and shameless product promotions. When it was deemed that Sebastian the cat (from Josie and the Pussycats) couldn't be plopped into a plate of spaghetti for concerns young viewers might attempt the same on their unsuspecting puss, it was clear that cartoons' heyday was about to end.
Although not the strongest entry in the faltering cartoon canon, Hanna-Barbera's Hong Kong Phooey was perhaps the last of the recognizable 1970s animated heroes. A bumbling police room janitor by day, Penrod "Penry" Pooch successfully obscured his hidden identity as the karate-chopping, crime stopping Hong Kong Phooey (voiced by the inimitable Scatman Crothers). No question, the show was riding in the wake of the martial arts fad driven by the legendary Bruce Lee, by television's introspective Kung Fu, and barely preceding one-hit-wonder Carl Douglas's ditty, "Kung Fu Fighting." Martial arts were "in" and dropkicking dogs were no exception.
Headed by longtime Hanna-Barbera veterans Iwao Takamoto (Producer), Willie Ito (Layout Unit Manager), Marty Murphy (Character Designer), and others, the show was a labor of love for the team. Employing deliberately simplified settings and rendered in watercolor to subtly suggest an Asian influence, the show featured the titular hero confronting a stream of ne'er-do-wells, armed with his mystical manual, the Hong Kong Book of Kung Fu. In actuality, HKP's success was largely the result of intervention from his sidekick, a striped cat named Spot. Whether rescuing our hero from the jammed filing cabinet where he makes his identity change to giving appearance that the kung fu chants are truly liberating the gi-clad canine from sticky situations, Spot can only roll his eyes and sigh, ever the unsung hero-behind-the-hero.
When he's not chasing down criminals, Penry's back at the police station serving as unwitting foil to Sergeant Flint (Joe E. Ross, Help! It's the Hair Bear Bunch), usually tripping up the officer with a mop, a bucket, or a poorly repaired office appliance. Meanwhile, switchboard operator Rosemary (Jean VanderPyl, The Flintstones and sometimes Kathy Gori, Inch High, Private Eye) is busy taking calls while dreamily imagining spending time with none other than Hong Kong Phooey. But when trouble calls, Penry springs into action, leaps into his Phooey-mobile, and is fast—albeit it fumbling—off to track down crime where it happens.
As stated, the show isn't a true milestone in the annals of animation but still features one of the more memorable characters to come from the 1970s. Credit Scatman Crothers himself for giving the character—and the show—a resonance. His proved to be the perfect voice for the lop-eared hero and his vocalization of the theme song itself has caused it to stick in the minds of kids of yesteryear (not to mention attracting the attention of today's youngsters). The 30-minute episodes featured two 11-minute adventures that were largely unchallenging and never bogged down by logic. Stripped of any violence, it came on as a madcap caper where the hero accidentally succeeds in thwarting the villains. Kids of the day enjoyed the show since they felt they were in on the secret of Penry's true identity, incapable of understanding how a dog with the same voice could so simply disguise himself with a mere eye mask and red gi. It didn't matter then and doesn't matter today since the show is generally harmless fun (but it struggles to entertain anyone over the age of six or seven). Nonetheless, it is an artifact of the Seventies and has found a fondness with erstwhile curtain climbers.
Presented in this two-disc edition, here is Hong Kong Phooey—The Complete Series from Warner Bros. Home Video. The set features all 16 original episodes (billed as 31 given the two-up format of each show and factoring that the final show was an extended single adventure). Each show is presented in full length (21 minutes) and includes complete with opening titles and end credits. Presented in their original 4:3 broadcast format, the episodes are crisp and colorful and feature an energetic Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono track that emanates from your center channel similar to your folks' Admiral console TV speaker from way back when. The digital image does result in clearly visible cell animation artifacts common to the process and consistently resident on other such DVD releases. As for extras, there are three episodes featuring commentary by Takamoto, Ito, and cartoon historian Scott Jeralds. Unfortunately, these are far too quiet as the troupe is lulled into viewing the shows rather that actively speaking to them (and an appropriate wagging of the finger goes to Jeralds for not having his moderating material prepared here). The best of the three commentaries accompanies the final episode which featured very little of Hong Kong Phooey in deference to attempt the launching of two new cartoon capers that would feature western characters the Mighty Maverick and Posse Impossible, neither of which got greenlighted. Then there's an interesting 12-minute documentary, Phoo-Nomenon, in which Takamoto, Ito, Jeralds, and Murphy give some backstory to the production. Lastly, there is a complete storyboard that outlines the "Batty Bank Mob" adventure and plays over/under with the completed cartoon (a rather fun way to watch the episode).
At the end of show, it makes for good nostalgic fun of the sort Hanna-Barbera has long been revered for. Grab a bowl of Cocoa Puffs and have a seat in front of the TV. It's a nice slice of days gone by, milk not included.
Case dismissed…and a rinky-dinky-doo to you too!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Episode Commentary
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