My '80s Redux Five

The ‘80s were a great time for those of us who spent the bulk of our childhood in that decade. Many of us never left, not completely, which may be why we're bombarded with so many remakes, likely made by folks from our own generation trying to cash in on a little nostalgia. Knight Rider, V, The Karate Kid, The A-Team, and A Nightmare on Elm Street are all remakes of 80s TV shows or movies, some better than others. And of course a few days ago, I linked to an article about a Thundercats remake. That's not the first ‘80s cartoon to get a sequel or a new spin, and may in fact be the only major one that hadn't made a comeback. While almost all ‘80s cartoons were thinly disguised half hour commercials for action figures, they were still awesome shows with awesome accompanying toys. And among those that have resurfaced in the last 20 years in various forms, some more than once, a few were actually good. Here are My Five picks for the best sequels or remakes of ‘80s cartoons:

1) Show: Beast Wars (1996)
Based on: Transformers (1984)

I was a huge Transformers fan in the ‘80s, but was always disappointed with the way it ended. Only 3 episodes of the fourth season aired before it was canceled, and the preceding season wasn't as good as the first two, with a lot of animation flubs and weak storylines. Apparently a full fourth season was animated and aired only in Japan, but I only learned of this a few years ago and have only seen a few clips. So when the first new Transformers show in over a decade was announced, I was excited, especially when I found out it would be entirely computer generated. Due to the costs and constraints of doing a digitally animated show at the time, there was a much smaller cast. These were all new characters too, descendants of the originals, who were much smaller and changed from robots to animals. It aired at odd hours, usually early on Sunday mornings, and I didn't really get into it until the second season. By then, they tied it cleverly in to the original series with a few great twists involving the world the two warring factions were stranded on. I ended up catching up on the episodes I missed, and in hindsight I realize now that Beast Wars was LOST for Transformers fans. There were strange monuments, and evidence of other aliens, and the plot was heavily seeded with clues that all led to some pretty amazing twists. And since it was retooled and aimed at older fans, there were actual character arcs and a few deaths. Most importantly, Beast Wars told a complete story, and had one of the best series finales of any television show, animated or otherwise. It's a shame that a follow-up series, Beast Machines, kind of ruined the franchise, marring about 3 or 4 of my favorite characters in the process. Beast Wars ended so perfectly, that it set the bar very high for any continuation by other writers. Still, it proved that there was still interest in the Transformers franchise, opening the door for new animated series and toys, and eventually a live-action movie based on the ‘80s show, something I only dreamed about in elementary school.

2) Show: TMNT (2003)
Based on: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1987)

I was one of those out-of-the-loop kids who only knew the Turtles from the goofy animated series, and didn't find out until high school that it was based on a much darker black & white comic book series. Still, the cartoon had a good run, and made the franchise and its creators successful. In 2003, a new series debuted, one with some echoes of the original series, but a lot more faithful to the comics. Gone were some of the unrealistic antagonists. The Turtles no longer wore initialed belt buckles so you could tell each of the four brothers apart. And they were actual ninjas, sticking to shadows rather than casually walking around in broad daylight and hanging around pizza parlors. On the surface, they still had the same basic character traits, only exaggerated: Leonardo was the focused leader, always focused on training to perfection; Donatello was the brains of the group, solving problems through technology though more realistically than with the made-up gizmos his 80s counterpart used; Raphael was the brooding loner, clashing with Leo and often taking off on his own when he needed to cool off; and Michelangelo was the least serious of the group, now more of a comic book geek than a pizza-eating surfer dude. The show proved it wouldn't pull any punches when one of our heroes beheaded a major villain, and this later led to a clever spin on something from the original series, while tying in to some comic book continuity. Characters would die or get injured, and this would carry through from episode to episode. It wasn't unusual to see an arm in a cast for a few episodes after one of the Turtles got hurt. For at least a season, Leo was walking around with a chip missing from his shell, after a battle in which they all almost died. It wasn't until Fast Forward, the sixth season, that they strayed from their darker roots and tried to make it “kid-friendly”, sending the Turtles in to the future for 26 episodes. In doing so, they skipped Ninja Tribunal, the fifth season, which was produced but not aired until much later as a “lost season” and eventually released on DVD. Season 7 brought them Back to the Sewer and their proper time, and the show reached its ultimate conclusion with the epic Turtles Forever, in which both the 1987 and 2003 series were revealed to be alternate universes within a multiverse of Turtles, that included every incarnation in every form of media. It was a pretty bold concept, and showcased the different ways these characters have been portrayed, while underscoring the improvements that were made in the latest version.

3) Show: He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (2002)
Based on: He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (1983)

Honestly, and this may be blasphemous to some of my friends, the original show didn't stand the test of time. When I was 9-years-old, I learned all about morality and good and evil from this series, and loved the toys. But when I watched it again on DVD a few years ago, I found some of the dialogue and plot to be a little simplistic, even formulaic. Often, the same animation of a character running or throwing a punch would be reused, sometimes with a different background cel slotted in. I've made it through most other ‘80s shows that came out on DVD, but I think I stopped buying this one after the second boxed set that was released. I'll always have fond memories of it; I just can't watch it as an adult. The 2002 remake, of which I've only seen the first 13 episodes, also has simple, kid-friendly dialogue. But the animation was superb, and the character redesigns are amazing. More importantly, the origins of both the good and evil Masters are fleshed out, and there are some great and obvious connections that were never shown in the original series, perhaps only implied or hinted at in accompanying comics. It still has a basic good guys on one side, bad guys on the other, battle until the bad guys retreat formula, but they do mix things up. And considering things best forgotten like 1990s New Adventures of He-Man which involved time travel and a new supporting cast much like TMNT: Fast Forward, or the live-action Masters of the Universe with Dolph Lundgren, the 2002 show is easily the best of the bunch.

4) Show: Justice League/Justice League Unlimited (2001)
Based on: Challenge of the SuperFriends (1978)

I'm cheating a little bit on this one on two counts. While Superfriends continued well into the ‘80s, Challenge begins two years before that decade. And the original Superfriends debuted in 1973, one year before I was born. More importantly, beyond date semantics, Justice League isn't a direct remake so much as a show with most of the same heroes and villains because it draws from the same comic book source material. But Justice League, which became Unlimited in the third season when the cast radically expanded to include nearly every hero from the DC Universe, paid a lot of homage to that particular version of the Superfriends, not only with their own updated and deadly serious version of the Legion of Doom, but also with the Ultimen, a group of characters inspired by those who were original creations in the Superfriends, including The Wonder Twins. Making the Wonder Twins look cool takes genuine talent. JLU's significant use of Darkseid in key episodes, including the phenomenal series finale, also gives it something in common with 1984's SuperFriends: The Legendary Super Powers Show, and further justifies its inclusion in this list.

5) Show: G.I. Joe: Resolute (2009)
Based on: G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (1985)

G.I. Joe is often paired with Transformers, since they aired back to back, were both produced and animated by Sunbow, and shared many of the same voice actors and music cues. What worked well in one show didn't work as well in another, and while G.I. Joe was entertaining, their archenemies in Cobra often came up with some truly absurd plans for world domination, ranging from weather manipulation to heavy metal bands to giant plants. The Marvel Comics series written by Vietnam veteran Larry Hama, was a different story. His first-hand knowledge of the military allowed him to take a more realistic approach to things, while preserving the diverse uniforms and colorful characters. As with any war, there were casualties, although fatalities were limited to supporting characters and original creations for the first hundred issues or so, before actual Joes started seeing their demise. In the show, both sides fought with color-coded lasers, no one ever got shot, and pilots were always shown parachuting to safety after ejecting from an exploding aircraft. In his 155-issue run, Hama had a perfect blend of humor and tragedy, and even when tasked with working in ridiculous characters who wore bird costumes or Hawaiian shirts, he found a way to make it all work within the universe he was crafting. I always wondered what a more “Hama-esque” cartoon would be like, and the 1990 follow-up to the Sunbow cartoon went in the opposite direction. Bad animation and more garishly dressed, cartoony figures are not what G.I. Joe was about. Valor vs. Venom, a 2004 computer animated DVD was a little closer to the mark, while 2005's Sigma Six took a more animé approach and focused on a smaller unit. From what I've seen of Sigma Six, it was similar to the extreme designs of the 2002 He-Man. It wasn't until last year's Resolute, which aired as a series of webisodes, that they finally captured the essence of the Hama series. It didn't hurt that they got another legendary writer, Warren Ellis, and gave him carte blanche. No longer limited by the constraints of children's programming, or having a line of action figures to promote, he could do whatever he wanted with these characters. At least two major ones die in the first episode, setting a tone of real tension and peril. The animation was very sharp, too. I'd love to see it become a full series, but would even settle for a sequel set of webisodes.

Enough of me rambling on about cartoons; what are your favorite sequel series or updates?



Blogger Kev said...

Great list! Beast Wars was good, and I agree had a great finale. I actually enjoyed Beast Machines, but I definitely see the fans reasoning behind not liking it as much. GIJoe Resolute was fantastic! And I wish we still had JLU airing new episodes. That show was brilliant.

6/12/2010 9:50 PM  

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