When we last left Judge Maurice Cobbs, he was trapped with his back to the wall while fighting seven ninjas, three Nazis, and two chimpanzees from Mars. Or maybe it was just the ticket line for Episode III.
"I'll get you, Penelope Pitstop! Bwah-hah-hah-hah-hah-hah-hah-!"
One of two spin-offs of the wildly popular Wacky Races, The Perils of Penelope Pitstop followed the further adventures of everybody's favorite glamour girl of the gas pedal. As we were reminded at the beginning of each thrilling episode, Penelope Pitstop (the incomparable Janet Waldo, also the voice of Rocky the Flying Squirrel and Judy Jetson), heiress to a vast fortune, is in perpetual peril from her fortune-seeking guardian, Sylvester Sneekly (Paul Lynde), who unbeknownst to her is really that villain of villains, the Hooded Claw! But foiling this fiend's foul plots are Penelope's ever-present protectors, the Ant Hill Mob!
Penelope Pitstop is a great character, and the fact that she earned her own spin-off is no great surprise (another popular character from Wacky Races, the double-dealing do-badder Dick Dastardly, starred in his own spin-off—also available on DVD as Dastardly & Muttley in Their Flying Machines: The Complete Series); but Perils doesn't quite manage the level of rapid-fire comic madness that Wacky Races achieved on a regular basis. To be sure, the premise—a throwback parody of silent-film melodramas like The Perils of Pauline—is a good one, rife with comedic potential, but I sometimes feel that the show's creative staff never really made the most out of it. This is not to imply that Perils is not a good show; quite the opposite is true. If nothing else, The Perils of Penelope Pitstop offers up something that is seen less and less in children's animation these days: good, silly fun. How can you not like this li'l ol' Southern belle? What is it about her that makes her irresistible—is it her syrupy Southern accent? Her innocent ignorance of the true identity of the Hooded Claw? The way she calls the narrator "sugah"? Or her perfectly pink fashion sense? Who can say?
The notorious Ant Hill Mob (presented here as a cross between the Keystone Kops and the Seven Dwarfs from Disney's Snow White) have traded in their inanimate Bullet-Proof Bomb from Wacky Races in favor of the more personable Chugga-Boom, voiced by cartoon legend Mel Blanc, who also provided the voices of Sneekly's henchmen, the Bully Brothers, and divided voice duties for the Mob with Don Messick (most famous as the voice of Scooby Doo) and Paul Winchell (the indelible voice of Tigger). Although the members of the Ant Hill Mob have appointed themselves Penelope's protectors, for reasons on which we can only speculate (well…she is really cute), more often than not their efforts to rescue her result in their having to be rescued, most often by Penelope herself.
Like Dick Dastardly before him, the Hooded Claw always seemed to favor needlessly complex schemes to accomplish his goals; in this case, the goal is disposing of Penelope. To that end, the Claw concocts a series of deathtraps that would put Rube Goldberg to shame. One devious device placed the bombshell blonde beneath a swinging razor-sharp pendulum, attached to a platform, atop which were situated three hogs eating corn. As more corn was delivered to the hogs via a chute, the more they'd eat and the heavier they'd get, sinking the pendulum lower and lower, eventually turning "got-it-together" Penelope into a bifurcated beauty. Another trap had Penelope tied to the minute hand of Big Ben. When the hand reached the six position, she'd slide off—but not to her death: to a trampoline, which would bounce her off to the side so that she'd land on a plunger detonator, which was wired to a bundle of TNT, which was strapped to the underside of the London Bridge. The TNT explodes, London Bridge comes down on top of Penelope's head, and the Claw opens his new bank account. But he always leaves the winsome heiress more than enough time to escape using her native ingenuity and resourcefulness. Granted, he'd have gotten the job done if he'd just used…oh, I don't know…a gun…but where's the fun in that? Part of being evil is enjoying what you do, and the minute it become a grind, there's no point.
Two very nice commentaries have been provided, on the episodes "Jungle Jeopardy" and "The Treacherous Movie Lot Plot," with Janet Waldo, Gary Owens, animation designer Iwao Takamoto, and animators Scott Awley and Scott Jeralds. The commentaries offer a nostalgic view of the show and are stuffed full of funny anecdotes and behind-the-scenes information, and they are both quite enjoyable. This DVD collection also has the distinction of presenting the most pointless featurette that I have ever seen in my entire life: "The Players In Peril." It is a sort of montage of clips of the various characters in various predicaments, with no narration, no commentary, no explanation. Why was this even put together? Was there just extra space on the DVD? The retrospective featurette, "Penelope Pitstop's Spinouts," is better, although some of it appears to have been culled from the Wacky Races DVD set; still, there is some new information here and it's worthwhile, if brief. It features Waldo, Paul Dini, animation historian Erik Kress, and others reflecting on the show and its place in animation history.
The episodes are in fine shape, with nice crisp video and rich sound—as is usual for the Warner Bros. releases of the classic Hanna-Barbera animation. The colors are vibrant, and the show probably looks better than it ever did on TV. I can't wait to see what they've got coming up next: Captain Caveman? Help! It's The Hair Bear Bunch!? The Funky Phantom? The Three Robonic Stooges? Beats me—but I'm looking forward to it. The extensive catalogue of Hanna-Barbera characters represents some of the most memorable and enduring in TV animation, and I for one would like to see them all get their time in the sun. Not guilty.
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