Judge Kerry Birmingham takes us back to the franchise that brought us the refreshing taste of Ecto Cooler.
Who you gonna call?
Spinning out from the 1984 hit movie, The Real Ghostbusters ("Real" added as a legal way around and a shot at Filmation's earlier franchise) premiered on Saturday mornings in 1986 and ran—on network, in syndication, and through several format changes—until 1991, by which point the blockbuster and its less successful sequel had run out of steam. A particularly strong tenure for Saturday animation made the cartoon Ghostbusters a staple of many an 80s childhood, providing the four-man team and comic-relief ghost mascot, Slimer, with a shelf life that went beyond the usual movie tie-in cartoon. Full of wit, humor, and some genuine creeps in between wisecracks and goofy monsters, The Real Ghostbusters retains a large, nostalgic fanbase, and it has been conspicuous in its absence from DVD shelves teeming with releases of undying series like Transformers and Thundercats. TimeLife finally collects the series in its entirety in a comprehensive, meticulously archived set.
Facts of the Case
Collecting all 167 episodes of the series (including the retooled and sometimes repeated Slimer-centric hour-long episodes), The Real Ghostbusters: Complete Collection picks up right where the movies leave off. There's Peter Venkman, wisecracking paranormal psychologist; Ray Stantz, child-like in his enthusiastic pursuit of the supernatural; put-upon everyman Winston Zeddemore; and the all-business brain of the group, Egon Spengler. With the aid of long-suffering secretary Janine and hungry ghost Slimer, the Ghostbusters keep New York safe from ghosts and other supernatural baddies.
The movie tie-in cartoon is not unusual in a world of corporate synergy and brand-building; it's all part of the merchandising, after all. And the original Ghostbusters film was nothing if not a money-making machine in the 80s prime of the blockbuster age. Most of these endeavors tend to be pretty shoddy affairs, poorly cobbled together, second-tier animation with little of the flair, spirit, or even resemblance to the property it's cashing in on. Business as usual. What is unusual is for one of these series to not only be a quality counterpart to the movie, but remain as relevant and well-liked-it's not as if, say, the Osmosis Jones spinoff cartoon was really clamoring for a definitive, canonical release. One of the few series that fits that criterion is The Real Ghostbusters. What should have been a fairly rote toy commercial (and it was also that) became instead a frequently clever, endlessly inventive serial that creatively expanded upon the characters' filmic world and embedded itself as a prime example of children's animation done with an intelligently adult sensibility. Despite a rocky start-the slapstick-heavy pilot, "Ghosts R Us," is an example of the episodes that don't quite balance the humor and the horror-the show quickly finds its feet. As juvenile as the plots could get-haunted roller coasters, lycanthropic chickens-the bulk of the episodes navigate the tenuous line between goofy snark and creepy, good-natured adventure that made the movie a hit.
Necessarily expanding the Ghostbusters' world to accommodate all kinds of supernatural oddities, the hapless team faces menaces from history, folklore, fiction, and mythology (if there's another cartoon that references Babylonian mythology, as in this show's "I Am the City," I've yet to see it). Elaborating on the central conceit leads to some the series' most clever episodes, such as the Dickens riff "XMas Marks the Spot," in which the time-traveling 'Busters must stand in for the accidentally captured Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future; the Lovecraftian "The Collect Call of Cthulhu;" and genre spoofs of Agatha Christie, superheroes, crime noir, and westerns. The show wasn't even above some meta-commentary, using both the making of the Ghostbusters movie and the long-running show's own evolving character designs as fodder for scripts (in "Take Two" and "Janine, You've Changed," respectively). Recurring nemeses occur in the form the Bogeyman, Samhain, and the Ghostmaster. The diverse list of their adversaries include banshees, trolls, valkyries, vampires, mermen, The Tooth Fairy, Moriarty (yes, that one), zombie farmers (in "Dairy Farm"), and an endless array of bodily possessions, mind swaps, deadly anthropomorphism, and conflict with each other. All of this takes the Ghostbusters from New York to Scotland, Paris, Detroit, Arizona, Massachusetts, and a list of vacations gone awry. The Ghostbusters put a lot of mileage onto Ecto-1, apparently.
It's a lot of fun, without the typical condescension that plagues a lot of children's programming-perhaps they just did it better in the 80s. Most of the credit is due to a lightning-in-a-bottle crew of writers, designers, and animators whose roster reads like a who's-who of modern animation, veteran names like Kevin Altieri, Michael Reaves, Everett Peck, Brad Rader, Keith Giffen, David Gerrold, Dan Riba, and J. Michael Straczynski who have gone on to work on well-remembered series like Batman, Spawn, and Duckman, among others, as well as in prose, screenwriting, and comic books. The talented crew goes a long way towards making the series palatable. Nearly 200 episodes over five years is a lot of ground to cover. Lucky for my typing fingers and my word count, this is a review, not an episode guide, so I'm spared having to encapsulate every one. And if they sometimes repeat some of the same tropes (how many things can possibly go wrong with the ghost containment unit?), it makes the series no less inventive for it.
Neither the series nor the set are flawless. For every genuinely creepy design, such as pumpkin-headed Samhain or the pale Grundel, there is a goofy, campy one that keeps many of the stories, no matter how novel or sophisticated, firmly skewed towards the youngest of viewers. Chiefly responsible for this is Slimer, whose role as well-intentioned comic relief grates (though you can't argue with results: He would, in the waning days of the series, not only get his own cartoon shorts, but his name above the title). The passage of time has affected this series in other ways: there appears to have been little to no restoration of these episodes, as there is noticeable dirt, blurring, and scratches on most episodes. From an adult angle, it seems strange to hear Venkman, who should sound like Bill Murray, be voiced by the same guy who did Garfield , and animation fans will easily identify voice actor Maurice LaMarche as Egon, doing a variation on his Orson Welles/Brain (of Pinky &… fame) voice (both Venkman and Egon would go through multiple voice actors). Coupled with the budget animation that persists in TV animation to this day, it's a disconnect exclusive to the overthinking adult viewer, but as difficult to acclimate to as the character designs that don't resemble the actors (a casualty of likeness rights). Setting aside issues of logic and plausibility is essential to enjoying this with the same level of enthusiasm as the Saturday morning crowd in 1986.
While the consistent quality of the series and soothing nostalgia would be enough to recommend this set, TimeLife's extensive complete-series packaging and extras make it about as exhaustive a chronicle of any animated series you're likely to find. Spearheaded by longtime entertainment journalist Andy Mangels, the set's bonus features are a dense mix of commentary, fetaurettes, and galleries. If there's such a thing as being TOO complete, it must be in having both an edited and an uncut version of a clip show. There's an abundance of material here: Most episodes have at least one introduction, typically by one of the writers or animators, which range from pointless recapitulation ("This episode is called…") to quick one-liners and actual behind-the-scenes information. The visual commentary gimmick on many episodes, featuring Mangels moderating a discussion with various writers, producers, actors, and animators over Bluetooth headsets, are a mixed bag: for every commentary full of camaraderie and trivia, there's one burdened by hazy, 20-plus year memories and some old wounds (at least one commentator is alternately vague, bitter, and silent: a commentary-killing cocktail). Much of the time Mangels's extensive knowledge of the series is required to jog the memories of old men long since moved on to other projects.
Packaged in five multi-disc volumes in slick steelbook cases, each volume of the series concludes with a bevy of informative, theme-focused featurettes—characters, monsters, designs, and so on—as well as comprehensive galleries, plus DVD-ROM-accessible scripts and storyboards. All are engrossing material for fans, but of particular interest is the orphaned bonus disc, which includes the rarely-seen promotional pilot, little more than an extended vignette which incorporates some of what would be the opening title sequence, early character designs (Venkman and Slimer would get some tweaking), and some cruder animation, all set to Huey Lew-er, Ray Parker, Jr.'s classic movie theme. Not all the features are as engrossing—the gallery of title cards, white letters on black backgrounds, is hardly engaging—but as a whole the featurettes, galleries, and commentaries, along with the meticulous liner notes and the bonus disc's uncut cast and crew interviews, comprise an exhaustive (and exhausting) wealth of behind-the-scenes material. There are wars less well-documented than this cartoon. Housed in a cute replica of the Ghostbusters' firehouse (printed on the cardboard and, alas, not molded out of plastic) with lenticular-motion windows, the packaging is almost as impressive as the series.
While much of 80s animation falters under the weight of time unfiltered by nostalgia, The Real Ghostbusters overcomes minor problems to remain a potent mix of humor and horror that's not an embarrassment to the movie that spawned it. While not exactly timeless (dig Venkman's Billy Crystal Saturday Night Live shout-out), it's aged much better than its period counterparts and is just as funny and intelligent as you remember from your childhood. Like the best of all-ages entertainment, you will find things as an adult that you never caught as a kid but somehow never hampered your enjoyment. 80s animation fans, Ghostbusters fans, and lovers of clean yet intelligent family fare will all find something to enjoy here. Laden with bonus features in an attractive package, this is a "complete series" set worthy of the name.
Not guilty. To quote the aforementioned sage Mr. Ray Parker, Jr.: "Bustin' makes me feel good!"
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Scales of Justice
• Promo Pilot with Optional Visual Commentary
Review content copyright © 2008 Kerry Birmingham; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.