There's no way you can tell Judge Maurice Cobbs that Penelope Pitstop GT didn't suck. No way at all.
"Hold it. Hold it! Hold it! What dastardly crime are you up to this time, Dick Dastardly?"—The narrator (Dave Willock)
Now here's a lesson in morality for you, kiddies. Dick Dastardly, number Double Zero in the Mean Machine, was obviously the superior driver—almost every episode would find him miles ahead of the pack, plotting some sinister scheme to thwart the other drivers. To be sure, cheating seemed to have been allowed by the rules of this Cannonball Run–like race—all the drivers had some sort of gadgets or gizmos to give them an edge—but Dick Dastardly took it to a whole other level. He would actually sacrifice his lead in the race to stop and attempt to pull off some hare-brained plot that was inevitably doomed to backfire on him and leave him in last place. If he'd only just kept driving, he'd have finished out the Races practically undefeated! Why did he do it? Was it acute low self-esteem? Some bizarre sociopathic aberration inherited from his ancestor, Snidely Whiplash—hemothymia, perhaps? Was he badly raised? Or was he simply predestined to be evil because of his name? I have often wondered if, in his old age, Dastardly took time to reflect on his villainous ways, or if he perhaps got himself into some sort of therapy. And changed his name to Gargamel.
Facts of the Case
And now, here they are! The most daredevil drivers to ever whirl their wheels in the Wacky Races, competing for the title of the World's Wackiest Racer! The cars are approaching the starting line…First is the Turbo Terrific, driven by Peter Perfect. Next, Rufus Ruffcut and Sawtooth in the Buzz Wagon. Maneuvering for position is the Army Surplus Special; right behind is the Ant Hill Mob in their Bullet-Proof Bomb. And there's ingenious inventor Pat Pending, in his Converta-Car. Oh, and here's the lovely Penelope Pitstop, the glamour gal of the gas pedal! Next, we have the Bouldermobile with the Slag Brothers, Rock and Gravel. Lurking along is the Creepy Coupe with the Gruesome Twosome, and right behind is the Red Max. And there's the Arkansas Chug-a-Bug with Luke and Blubber Bear. Sneaking along last is the Mean Machine with those double-dealing do-badders, Dick Dastardly and his sidekick, Muttley. And even now they're up to some dirty tricks. And they're off! To a standing start, and why not? They've been chained to a post by shifty Dick Dastardly…who's shifted into the wrong gear! And away they go—on the way-out Wacky Races!
Although you might well think that the reverse is true, Wacky Races is a cartoon version of such madcap movies as The Great Race. It's a splendid throwback to the days of pure slapstick, with the sort of smart but silly surreal comedy that cartoons today often attempt to capture but rarely succeed at. The show looks great, especially here—it would be hard to find cleaner transfers, I think. Just one of many signs that point to the pride that Warner Bros. has taken in bringing us this collection.
Certainly, one of the appeals of the show was the large and unusual cast of characters. Peter Perfect, lantern-jawed, barrel-chested driver of what just might be the most phallic vehicle in animation, the Turbo Terrific (which always seems to deflate, go limp, or otherwise fail him at crucial moments, especially when Penelope Pitstop was around—calling Dr. Freud?), never really resonated with me the way that some of the more bizarre vehicles did. Take The Red Max, whose Crimson Haybailer was an airplane. I mean, the guy drove an airplane like a car; it had machine guns and a propeller and everything! For whatever reason, he could only make short jumps in the Haybailer—the magnificent machine rarely actually attained flight, which is rather sad, because some of the other vehicles could, and did, on a regular basis. Or look at Professor Pat Pending's Converta-Car, which could literally turn into anything: a boat, a hot-air balloon, an airplane…a vacuum cleaner. Is Pat Pending somehow related to Hill Valley's Dr. Emmett Brown? I have my suspicions. After all, they both have a thing for seriously tricked-out cars.
And then there's beautiful Penelope Pitstop, glamour girl of the gas pedal. With her petite figure, sugary Southern accent, and winsome demeanor, she had little trouble charming her way out of trouble when disaster struck: even the sinister Gruesome Twosome couldn't resist using their Creepy Coupe to help Penelope out of a mudhole or across an impassable river. Penelope drove the Compact Pussycat (Dr. Freud! Dr. Freud!), which had shifter settings for lipstick, makeup, hairdryer—and vibrator. (It made her car shake. What were you thinking?) You always got the idea that Peter Perfect yearned for Penelope Pitstop. "Thanks, pretty Penny," said a wistful Peter during one particularly outlandish episode, "for almost being my bride." "Better luck next time, Peter!" Penelope replied, zipping off in her Compact Pussycat, cheerfully unaware. Then again, maybe she was.
But my favorites were the Ant Hill Mob, a group of seven diminutive gangsters who drove a '30s-style sedan called the Bullet-Proof Bomb. These guys were so cool; they all piled up in the front seat, and if something happened—like, say, the wheels should happen to come off—they could stick their little legs out the bottom of the car Fred Flintstone–style and keep on keepin' on. How cool is that? Plus, they were gangsters, which is just cool to begin with.
Part of the fun is the catchy, energetic theme from composer Hoyt Curtin—a swingin' little ditty that perfectly sets the stage for this madcap motorcade. You've also got some of the greatest voice actors in animation—like Don Messick (who gave Muttley his unforgettable trademark snicker), Janet Waldo, Daws Butler, and the legendary Mel Blanc—and the list of hysterical destinations across North America that were finishing points: Ball Point, Pennsylvania; Zippy, Mississippi; Crazy Creek, Kentucky; Wott-Will, Delaware; Deepinaharta, Texas; and Upsan Downs, New Jersey (I wonder if they ran into Auntie Mame up there?). All these elements combined to create a rather snappy half-hour. Years later, Hanna-Barbera would resurrect this premise for Yogi's Space Race, which had a smaller cast and more familiar characters but which lacked the manic charm of Wacky Races.
The appeal and history of the show is explored in a surprisingly in-depth documentary called "Rearview Mirror: A Look Back at Wacky Races," which features observations and remembrances from Hanna-Barbera personnel and veterans of the show, like the series creators Iwao Takamoto and Jerry Eisenberg. The first two episodes have fun pop-up style "trivia track" options that are as entertaining as they are informative. And Takamoto and Eisenberg also appear on commentaries for four episodes, along with animation historian Earl Kress and Hanna-Barbera historian Scott Shaw, making for a pretty classy and well-rounded package—far, far superior to the lightweight, silly extras featured on the Scooby-Doo: The Complete First and Second Seasons collection.
Wacky Races was successful enough to inspire three spin-offs (as well as toys, comic books, and even video games), and the other included featurette, "Spinout Spinoffs," explores two of them. The double-dealing duo of Dick Dastardly and Muttley found themselves on the highway to the danger zone as the leaders of a squadron of less-than-ace World War I pilots in Dastardly and Muttley in Their Flying Machines, while Penelope Pitstop found herself in mortal danger on a regular basis while she and the Ant Hill Mob faced the sinister machinations of the Hooded Claw on the aptly named Perils of Penelope Pitstop. Both shows are slated for DVD release from Warner Bros. next year (hooray!). The documentary makes no mention of the mercifully short-lived internet cartoon Penelope Pitstop GT, however, which has not been seen or heard from since it disappeared from Cartoon Network's WebToons—for which we may all be thankful.
Aside from the sheer…wackiness of the cartoon, there is so much pep and verve and creativity to be found here, as well as such excellent in-depth extras, that this collection should bring a smile to the face of even the sternest agelast.
Not guilty—except of course for Dick Dastardly, who is naturally guilty as hell.
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Studio: Warner Bros.
• "Rearview Mirror: A Look Back at Wacky Races"
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