Judge Paul Corupe dreamed his life would be like Jonny Quest's, but somehow it keeps ending up like Hong Kong Phooey.
"Sim sim sala bim!"—Hadji
Few animated shows can stand the test of time. Yet, through reruns and sporadic video releases, Jonny Quest has been entertaining kids and adults for more than 40 years. The crown jewel in Hanna-Barbera's animation vaults, Warner's long-awaited release of the complete series on DVD makes for a set that will please old and new fans alike.
Facts of the Case
World-famous scientist Dr. Benton Quest spends his days and nights working on new inventions to benefit mankind. The government knows that if any of his brilliant innovations fell into the wrong hands, the consequences would be grim indeed. That's why they have assigned secret agent and bodyguard Roger "Race" Bannon to prevent evil forces from getting at Dr. Quest through his children, spirited 11-year-old Jonny and his adopted brother and best friend, the Calcutta-born junior mystic, Hadji. Joining them on their many adventures is Jonny's miniature bulldog Bandit, who provides a bit of comic relief when things get too serious.
Each episode of this classic animated series features the Quest team visiting an exotic locale for action and adventure, as they guard Dr. Quest's secrets from international spies. Whether there's a mystery to solve, an evil plot hatched by their arch-nemesis Dr. Zin to thwart, or natives to befriend, Race, Jonny, Hadji, Bandit and Dr. Quest are able to combine their unique talents to save the day.
When everyone's favorite Stone Age fam-a-lee The Flintstones premiered in 1960, producers William Hanna and Joseph Barbera found they had a surprise hit on their hands. New possibilities for prime-time animated series suddenly became very real, and Hanna-Barbera went into production with two series based on older sitcoms, Top Cat, and The Jetsons. Finding mixed success, they decided to do something very different for their fourth shot at a prime-time series.
Johnny Quest premiered in September 1964 on ABC. Hanna-Barbera's newest series was not a comedy, but an action-adventure show that featured realistically drawn human characters. While critically lauded, the show didn't make much of a splash in the ratings, and lasted only one season. In 1967, it reappeared on Saturday mornings, where it finally clicked with a nation of kids high on sugary cereal. Johnny Quest quickly became a favorite of many, offering something the other cartoon shows rarely seemed to achieve: a convincing sense of danger and intrigue.
If The Flintstones was a riff on the The Honeymooners and The Jetsons a takeoff on Blondie, then Jonny Quest owes its pedigree to pulp adventure magazines of the 1930s and '40s. Lost treasure, corrupt foreign agents, and ferocious animals were all staples of the countless stories and paperbacks churned out during the golden age of pulp fiction. Enormously popular characters like Doc Savage and Dr. Fu-Manchu stretched the limits of science in foreign settings designed to inspire the imaginations of their readers. Jonny Quest's brand of two-fisted action draws from all of these themes, updated with a strong undercurrent of cold war science. As this exciting adventure stars a globe-hopping 11-year old who is equally at ease flying in a jetpack as he is delivering viscous judo chops to evil henchman, it's not difficult to see why Jonny Quest was a bigger hit in its new timeslot.
• "Mystery of the Lizard Men"
• "Arctic Splashdown"
• "The Curse of the Anubis"
• "Pursuit of the Po Ho"
• "Riddle of the Gold"
• "Treasure of the Temple"
• "Calcutta Adventure"
• "The Robot Spy"
• "Double Danger"
• "Shadow of the Condor"
• "Skull and Double Crossbones"
• "The Dreadful Doll"
• "A Small Matter of Pygmies"
• "Dragons of Ashida"
• "Turu the Terrible"
• "The Fraudulent Volcano"
• "Werewolf of the Timberland"
• "Pirates from Below"
• "Attack of the Tree People"
• "The Invisible Monster"
• "The Devil's Tower"
• "The Quetong Missile Mystery"
• "The House of the Seven Gargoyles"
• "Terror Island"
• "Monsters in the Monastery"
• "The Sea Haunt"
If cheaply animated shows like The Fantastic Four and The Superfriends were frequently cited as examples of Hanna-Barbera's poor commitment to quality, then Jonny Quest was at the other end of the spectrum entirely. Jonny Quest creator Doug Wildey was looking to create as realistic a show as possible, and although the distinctive character illustrations are simple, touches like shadows and fine detail including scattered debris from exploding objects have made this series a showpiece for Hanna-Barbera. Looped backgrounds that repeat over and over behind moving characters were minimized, as was the tendency to recycle footage in multiple episodes to cut costs. Instead, Jonny Quest employed the most meticulous and complicated background paintings of the time, and the animation itself features much better articulation than any of the show's contemporaries. More than any animated series in the history of TV, Jonny Quest really did look like 1960s comic book come to life.
Raised on G.I. Joe, a cartoon in which heavily armed soldiers expend thousands of bullets and explosives without actually hurting anyone, I was more than a little surprised to see the forces of evil in Jonny Quest often killed for their misdeeds. In the first several episodes, vehicles full of bad guys would often explode or crash, and although it wasn't specifically pointed out, the show seemed at least to infer that they had met a grisly end. By the end of the season though, scenes of Race Bannon brutally shooting down faceless henchmen were just as common as ubiquitous exploding boats. Jonny Quest definitely has violent elements, but again, this was a feature that no doubt attracted many of the show's original fans.
Art and visceral thrills aside, the real key as to why Jonny Quest continues to work so well for audiences is that it defies expectations by bouncing between science fiction and science fact. Dr. Quest really breaks it down for Race in the "Monsters in the Monastery" episode, explaining that "Sometimes, native superstition is just as powerful as scientific proof." Beyond the basic formula of the Quest team arriving in a strange country and the all-too-frequent kidnappings, you never know what might possibly happen in any given episode. One show might strictly concentrate on plausible science, such as a laser, while another will feature a fantastic molecular energy monster. Likewise, the supernatural monsters in the show can sometimes turn out to be a villain in a costume scaring people away (an obvious precursor to Scooby-Doo) or, it just might be real!
Warner has done a nice job with this presentation, and Jonny Quest looks pretty remarkable for a 40-year-old cartoon. As with the other collections in Warner's "Hanna Barbara Golden Classics" line, source damage frequently pops up, but generally speaking the remastering job looks great, with bright colors and solid blacks. The mono sound is surprisingly good, although Bandit's shrill bark sometimes confirms the limitations of the track.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
So far, the "Hanna Barbara Golden Classics" box sets have generally disappointed on extras, and while Jonny Quest is clearly an improvement, it still feels a bit meager. Ignoring the requisite trailers for the other recent animated box sets, first up we have a commercial for P.F. Flyer sneakers, starring Jonny Quest and Race Bannon in a mini-adventure—a nice inclusion. "The Quest Files" is the "Double Danger" episode done "Pop-Up" video style. Light on facts, it gently pokes fun at some of the artistic inconsistencies of the show, and should probably be viewed only after you've watched all 26 shows. "The Jonny Quest Video Handbook" is a series of two-minute segments on each of the principal characters, as well as the locations and gadgets featured in the show. They're fine, but you won't learn anything from these clip compilations that you wouldn't discover from actually watching the show.
The most important extra is "Adventures in Animation," a 15-minute overview of the show featuring interviews with current comic artists and animators like Brad Bird (The Incredibles). First of all, I appreciate what Warner Brothers have tried to put together here. The brief "documentary" on the recent Scooby-Doo: The Complete First and Second Seasons box set featured interviews with average people (who all appear to be Cartoon Network employees) answering such deep probing questions as "Who is your favorite character?" This is a much more in-depth extra, which does a great job explaining the appeal of the show. However (and this is a big however) these interviews amount to little more than fond reminisces. It's obvious that most of the interviewees haven't seen any Jonny Quest episodes recently, and one even seems to be referring to Dr. Zin as Dr. Sin! Another claims that Bandit is obviously the inspiration for Scooby-Doo, and while I'm certainly no expert on animation history it seems to me that anthropomorphic pets like Astro and even Dino have much more in common with Scooby than Bandit does. Finally, the legal troubles of the show, which was originally to be an adaptation of a radio show called Jack Armstrong are completely glossed over. As a result, this is only a fair documentary with very little in the way of actual specifics. I would have liked to hear from people originally involved with the show (such as Tim Matheson, the voice of Jonny) or any experts who could offer some better insight and history.
One more nitpick: Warner Brothers is surely missing an opportunity by calling this set the "Complete First Season." This implies that collectors will have to dole out for multiple sets, as they will if they want the entire run of The Flintstones. Warner should instead be playing up the fact that there was only one season of the original run of Jonny Quest (although it was followed by two vastly inferior updates, the first of which didn't appear until 1986). Just as more Scooby-Doo boxes could have sold if they had been advertised as "The Scrappy-Free Episodes," rightfully titling this release as the "Complete Classic Series" would certainly guarantee more purchases from casual fans and help justify the hefty price tag on this set.
In recent years we've seen similar kid-friendly spin-offs of other modern pulp heroes like Young Indiana Jones and James Bond Jr., but Jonny Quest manages to combine elements of both in an original character. As the series was originally conceived to entertain adults as well as children, those wishing to revisit the show will find it still holds up-perhaps even better than they might expect. Hopefully, Jonny will finally get his due with this mostly excellent package from Warner Brothers.
Because the parties he has sworn to protect are subject to perpetual kidnappings, Race Bannon should be reassigned and replaced by a more qualified agent, Secret Squirrel. Furthermore, Warner Brothers is to submit to this court a 250-word essay explaining the difference between memories and facts. Turu the Terrible commands it!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Quest Files: Fun Facts & Trivia
Review content copyright © 2004 Paul Corupe; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.