Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Toon-arama: Jonny Quest (1964-1965)

Jonny Quest is an amazing cartoon. Everything about it works, from its realistic, comic book drawing style to its fast plots to its intriguing storylines to its cool characters. This is every young boy’s fantasy. Too bad they only made 26 episodes. Sigh. Still, the ones we have are fantastic.

Jonny Quest is ostensibly the story of Jonny Quest, the son of Dr. Benton C. Quest, a multi-field scientific genius who is considered one of the top scientists in the world. In truth, however, the story is really that of Race Bannon, a special agent and bodyguard hired to protect Jonny from falling into the wrong hands, which would compromise Dr. Quest.
Bannon is the ideal masculine image. He’s tall, strong and athletic, and comes from a good mid-western family. He has incredible skills, everything from being a pilot to being trained in a variety of weapons to being a judo expert, and when it comes to hunting, skydiving, scuba diving, skiing, aerial combat, defensive driving, he’s done it all. He’s clever, active, and afraid of nothing. In a very real sense, Bannon is an American James Bond. Unlike Bond, however, Bannon never loses touch with his responsibilities, which are to protect Jonny and Dr. Quest.
The people Bannon is protecting Dr. Quest and Jonny from are first and foremost, Dr. Quest’s nemesis Dr. Zin. Zin is a cartoon version of Dr. No and his organization is similar to James Bond’s SPECTRE. Zin and his group are constantly trying to steal Quest’s inventions or sabotage them. Zin also does things like trying to launch a rocket. Apart from Zin, each episode Dr. Quest and Jonny run into someone who has it in for them. This could be anyone from a scientist friend turned to evil, a monster created by accident, an old Nazi hiding on a mountain top, or angry natives.

Accompanying the group is Jonny’s friend Hadji, an Indian orphan who performs a few magic tricks and is generally a little more responsible than Jonny... but not much. He’s been unofficially adopted by Dr. Quest. Also along for the ride is Jonny’s annoying dog Bandit – Bandit is a smart and capable dog, but his bark is rather annoying as a sound effect.
The story is episodic and encompasses 26 episodes in total. In those 26 episodes, Jonny and his father and Race and Hadji travel the world to all the cool places kids read about in adventure stories: the mysterious Orient, the Egyptian ruins, secret mountaintop castles, India, Nepal, Africa, jungles, the Caribbean, etc. They reach these places in Dr. Quest’s private jet and, in each location, they fight a villain or a monster of some sort and prevail.

Unlike other cartoons of the era, and indeed unlike cartoons even today, the show was rather violent. People were constantly being shot and killed or fed to giant lizards or something. The bad guys were genuinely bad and thought nothing of enslaving a village or killing it off, and the good guys shot first and asked questions later. This made for a fast-paced, exciting cartoon that brings to life all the old adventure books that so many generations of young boys loved. This isn’t Tin Tin.
Moreover, the show was unique on television. In an age where cute, stylized characters were the thing, the characters here were drawn in a more realistic comic-book style. To supplement this, they avoided using the never-ending scrolling backgrounds whenever possible. They directed these like real movies with cutaways, scene-to-scene dissolves, and reaction shots. Nothing else really looks like this because of that. In effect, this was an early animated action show rather than a cartoon, something I normally do not like, but which fits the storylines perfectly here as these stories were in no way cartoonish.

The writing was unique too as it was noir style writing, i.e. short impactful sentences and limited dialog overall. No other cartoon used this style of dialog. The soundtrack too wasn’t your standard pop or classic soundtrack found with most cartoons. This show used a big-band jazz theme which was heavy on the percussion. This again makes the show stand out.

All told, this was really top notch stuff.

Of course, you can’t have something good without the permanently offended trying to take it away. Because of the violence, Jonny Quest was shown in prime time rather than during kiddy hour. The show was both a critical and ratings success, but was cancelled after one year after it became a target by the parental whiner group Action for Children’s Television who lamented the onscreen deaths, the murder attempts, the use of guns, and the moments that scared their pathetic kids.

After cancellation, the show went into syndication and continued to do really well until it was finally taken off the air in 1972 because of the whiners.
Attempts were made to re-edit the show to remove the “objectionable” material. In fact, they refocused on the dog and tried to make him the center of each show as if this glorious action adventure had been a comedy about a barking dog. This resulted in lots of stupidity as villains would seemingly drop dead without a single shot ever being fired and things would happen for no apparent reason.

In the 1980s, they created the New Adventures of Jonny Quest. These were a waste. They tried to be more kid-friendly and in the process lost everything that gave the originals life. Skip those.

Anyways, if you get the chance, check these out. They are fun, intense and interesting. The characters are strong, as is the writing, the drawing style and music and direction are all stupendous, and it’s just a great adventure.


Tennessee Jed said...

a fun review. I remember the name of course, but can't ever remember seeing it. Probably had to do with my age etc. at the time it came out

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Jed. This is a fun one. It's what people think of when they talk about "the old adventure stories" -- exotic locations, fantasy storylines but yet believable, spies around every corner. This cartoon more than anything I can think of captures that spirit.

tryanmax said...

I've never seen the original Johnny Quest. I saw some of the 80s ones, saw they were crap, and never sought further. Now that I've been set straight...

tryanmax said...

BTW, the stills look incredibly crisp. If the animation is fluid to match, they should be joy to look at besides the stories.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, This is very different from the 1980s ones. The best I can describe the difference is this: the 80s version feels like adults talking down to children: "This is what you children like." By comparison, these are pure action. These are more like adults talking to adults through the language of the fantasy adventures they had as kids.

You also don't get the schmalz. You don't get the toy sales. You don't get the "and that's a good lesson, kids" moments. Instead, you get fun and excitement and tension and smart storylines.

In terms of the animation, I love the animation. First, I love the style. This isn't typical for cartoons, this is typical for old-style comic books. I've never seen that used in animation before and it really stands out. And yes, it is fluid.

Secondly, the animation is rich. This isn't The Flintstones where a single tree or wall is meant to represent a house or jungle. The background is just as interesting as the foreground. Moreover, they use lots of "film" shots to tell the story, i.e. the kinds of shots you see in live-action movies but don't in cartoons. That gives this a very real-life feel and it's easy to forget that you're watching a cartoon.

Finally, let me add that there is NOTHING liberal about this show. Jonny's father doesn't whine about making weapons (he makes many), there is no guilt, no doubt, no lack of patriotism. They don't make the primitive they encounter into noble beings. They don't preach about other cultures being better. And there's no doubt that good must prevail.

shawn said...

I watched it as a Saturday morning cartoon in the early 70s, great show.

AndrewPrice said...

Shawn, I hadn't see it until recently because I saw the 1980s stuff first and really didn't care for it. I'm really glad I decided to give this a chance. :)

Backthrow said...

Great review of a great, great show, Andrew.

Though now I have to get pedantic and correct a few things stated in the latter part of the piece, because whoever wrote the Wikipedia entry you used for Jonny Quest background info, got sloppy with some of the facts... probably some whippersnapper who didn't know any better.

1.) It wasn't put in prime-time (originally) because it was too violent for the kiddie hour. It was always intended to be a prime-time show, because that's what Hanna-Barbera was aiming for back then, due to the prime-time success of The Flintstones (followed by Top Cat and The Jetsons). And because it was a prime-time show (7:30 pm, the earliest slot in prime-time), there was a bit more leeway as far as violence and peril was concerned, though that kind of stuff was generally more permissible in kids' shows back then, especially in syndication. For instance, Speed Racer never aired in prime-time in the 1960s/1970s, and had about the same level of violence. Space Ghost and The Herculoids were nearly as violent. Amazingly, the live-action, syndicated Johnny Sokko and his Flying Robot (1969) was more violent than JQ. The real crackdown on network TV violence (especially on network kiddie programming) was in 1968, in light of the RFK and MLK assassinations. This is why The Wild, Wild West got cancelled after Season 4.

2.) Action for Children's Television, as stupid and lefty-lame as it was, can't be blamed for JQ's cancellation in 1965... because that group didn't exist yet; it was founded in 1968. The real reason why JQ was cancelled was because it became too expensive at the time to produce, especially since it was airing on ABC, which was still considered the 'kid brother' network to CBS and NBC, always in 3rd place and without nearly as many hit shows as the two dominant networks, at that point in time, so they had less money to bankroll moderate hits; though popular, JQ didn't crack the Neilsen Top 20 in 1964-65, which was the first year ABC started getting a bit of traction with their shows, namely Bewitched, The Fugitive and Peyton Place.

3.) Action for Children's Television did eventually whine about it (along with just about any other worthwhile cartoon or kid's show), but JQ wasn't completely taken off the air in 1972. It ended its 2-year Saturday/Sunday network morning run on ABC in 1972 (probably due in part to ACT's whining, but it had previously run on Saturday mornings on CBS, for 3 years, so maybe ABC's license had just run out).

4.) Starting (not ending) that same year, 1972, JQ began airing steadily in syndication for the first time, and would do so throughout the 1970s (I first watched it in 1974-75), and it was still, by and large, uncut.

5.) JQ got cut/mangled/Bandit-centric when NBC brought it back to Saturday mornings in 1978, as filler for part of The Godzilla Power Hour/Godzilla Super 90 cartoon show, though it continued for a couple of years by itself, after the Godzilla cartoon finished its single season. This was at the same time when the networks started to really edit violent gags out of The Bugs Bunner/Roadrunner Show, truly a nadir for presentation of good cartoons. Yet, JQ was still uncut in syndication (up through 1979), and returned to syndication in the early/mid-1980s (in a package with a bunch of other H-B 1960s adventure cartoons), just before the crappy New Adventures of Jonny Quest were produced.

Non-criticisms coming later, after some sleep.

tryanmax said...

Backthrow, all I have to say is that I'm glad to be too young to have endured the era of mangled "power hour" style segment shows. The most I had to contend with was The Bugs Bunny and Tweety Show which left most of the shorts untouched, but had a penchant for running certain shorts with undue frequency.

Jason said...

Even if Action for Children's Television wasn’t around originally to complain about Jonny Quest, you can never take too many shots at that organization. Their idiocy plagued some of my childhood favorite cartoons, particularly He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, a show that featured virtually no death and mixed in a lot of comedic pratfalls in its action.

KRS said...

I remember watching Johnny Quest on Saturday mornings as a boy. That, and Wild Wild West were our two favorite shows. I had also loved Star Trek, but Mom hated the scantilly clad females.

Andrew, your review is spot on and revives a lot of great memories of what TV was like before wusses got hold of it in the seventies.

My daughter is disgusted by the fact that she knows more about cars than the boys in her circle and keeps warning me to make sure her brother doesn't grow up like them. I'm doing my best with scouting, sports, working on the cars, teaching the alternate history of the United States (translation: the original history we were taught as kids). But, I'm always looking for good media and you've inspired me to hunt this down and get it for The Boy.

AndrewPrice said...

Backthrow, Ok.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, In the 1970s, there were a lot of those where they combined multiple cartoons into one show and then mixed them up or even treated some of the cartoons as series. If memory serves, HB was big on that because I suspect they had a lot of characters who didn't have enough appeal to get their own show. The problem was that you never knew what you would get with those shows and you had to sit through a lot of things you didn't like to get to the ones you did. It was not my favorite format.

AndrewPrice said...

Jason, Two thoughts. First, those people ruined cartoons. He-Man is a great example. How can you do a show about violence that is ultimately violence free?

Secondly, it's funny that the same leftists who blamed cartoons for causing violence today refuse to believe that Hollywood is responsible and instead attack gun makers.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks KRS! This was a great cartoon aimed squarely at the hearts and minds of boys. They don't make them like this anymore. Now everything is aimed at girls or selling toys. This is old school too... very physical.

I loved The Wild Wild West growing up. Ditto on Star Trek.

Backthrow said...

The big difference between JQ and other action cartoons, as evidenced by the storytelling techniques Andrew describes (cut-aways, dissolves, interesting/dramatic framing of the characters, etc), was that JQ largely employed live-action writers (though some of them went on to write for other cartoons, like The Flintstones, Space Ghost, The Super Six and Super President), rather than the usual stable of cartoon writers that worked on the other shows. They wrote JQ episodes like any live-action adventure show, and the artists would have to work to that template, which they had never done before.

Bandit was added at Hanna-Barbera's insistence, to give their animators a quasi-'funny animal' to work with (since that was their comfort zone), and as a "cute" hook, though thankfully the creative head of the show, Doug Wildey, made sure it acted (most of the time) like a real dog.

The animation in the show is fluid, but is still largely TV-style limited animation (as opposed to Disney or Looney Tunes full animation). But where this is an obstacle to most cartoons, JQ used it very effectively, and was designed to play to its strengths. There is a lot of very effective economy-of-motion. If a thug in a 'Lizard Man' wetsuit is about to throw a dagger at Race Bannon, he's shown already in the hunched over pose, ready for action, and only the arm holding the knife is animated, which is done in a quick flick-action. As a result, the rest of the thug's body can be a single drawing, with nice detail and deep black shadows, like a comic book drawing, also matching very nicely with the lavish background painting of the scene he's in. Vehicles are largely shown in profile, and are single drawings (almost like cut-outs) so are also nicely detailed and shaded, while cel-animated spinning wheels, exhaust, propellers, splashing water, etc are used to bring them to life. Also, in a chase, if a vehicle has to do a U-turn, it's done off-camera with a sound effect --so the viewer does that part in their imagination-- returning to the screen, again in profile, facing in the opposite direction. Pretty ingenious.

But then, there are really nice short bits of full animation here and there, usually cycled movement, like the slithering snakes and walking mummy in "The Curse of Anubis", the spider-bot in "Robot Spy" and the dog-sized lizards on leashes in "The Dragons of Ashida".

The character drawings on the show are incredible. People sit and stand in poses that look like real people... slumped in chairs, weight shifted to favor one leg instead of the other while standing, subtle facial expressions, a variety of unique faces (nothing too generic, and often ethnic), etc. This is thanks to Doug Wildey and Alex Toth, both of whom had recently came out of comic books to work in animation, and both had styles very heavily influenced by comic strip great Milton Caniff (Terry & The Pirates, Steve Canyon).

AndrewPrice said...

Backthrow, More in a moment, but did you see that the DVDs of Jonny Quest actually removed Doug Wildey's name? Apparently, they also cut out some of the dialog which they deemed offensive. Jerks.

AndrewPrice said...

In terms of the style, the fact that this was meant to be an animated show in the nature of a live-action show is obvious at first glance. This isn't a cartoon in any sense compared to other cartoons of the era. Even the more live-action cartoons today still feel cartoony by comparison. Everything in Jonny Quest feels real -- the people, the way they move, the action, the backgrounds, the proper physics. This gives the show a very realistic feel, which makes it easy to see these characters existing.

The backgrounds are really important too. They are very rich and fill in the visuals perfectly. The provide a lot of depth in the sense of you wanting to explore what's out there.

Backthrow said...


Yup, though one episode does have his credit, on "Double Danger" (and that episode's end credits are actually from "Curse of Anubis", so a double-wrong!).

What happened is that Warner Home Video (the Family Division, which shows less care and more meddling than the main home video division) took one episode's end credits, from "Pursuit of the Po-Ho" (which, inexplicably, never had his credit on it, even in 1964, even though he worked on it), and slapped them on all but one of the other 25 episodes, so there are several voice actors and crew members that worked on non-"Po-Ho" episodes of JQ who are now uncredited on the DVD set, and that misinformation later filters down through places like Wikipedia and IMDB.

Why did this happen? Who knows... probably laziness or some attempt at a little cost-cutting from the DVD division. I doubt it was to bury Wildey's contributions, since he's fully credited in the behind-the-scenes feature in the DVD set, unless it was some legal thing that denies residuals to his estate or something.

The dialogue cut out for P.C. reasons is minor (a couple of lines in two episodes, one of them "Po-Ho" (again!), the other being "Monsters in the Monastery") but needless and annoying. Fortunately, all the action and violence is still intact in the set. : )

Kit said...

I guess I'll have to give it a look some day. I vaguely remember it coming on when I was a kid in the 90s.

Backthrow said...

Info on what they left out of the JQ DVD set.

Still a great set, and well worth having/watching, but a shame they muffed these bits mentioned.

Backthrow said...

Aughhh, they won't let you direct-link the specific page, so go to the blue sidebar on the left, click "What's New" >>> "2004 updates" >>> scroll down to "June 30th 2004" and click "artifacts>videos>DVD", scroll down to "DVD Comments" and click "Follow this link for all the details".

What a way to run a railroad! >_<

Backthrow said...

I'm in the minority that never much liked Tiny Toons/Animaniacs/Pinky & The Brain/etc, but they did do a half-way brilliant JQ parody, Toby Danger, a one-off filler segment of Freakazoid, I think. I'm sure they are all JQ fans, and got pretty much all the elements (especially visually) down pat. I love the celebrity cameos sprinkled through it... sort of like an animated Mad Magazine piece.

PikeBishop said...

Awhile back I think it was TV Guide who did a special "Mother's Day" tribute and Race Bannon was named one of the best mothers on tv. It wasn't done as a joke either.

AndrewPrice said...

Backthrow, It doesn't look like they cut much, but it's still annoying. That's interesting about Wildey. Interesting link too, thanks!

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, I highly recommend it.

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, That's funny.

Outlaw13 said...

Harvey Birdman Attorney at Law on Adult Swim also did an awesome bit regarding Race suing Dr, Quest for custody of the kids.

This cartoon was nothing but awesome. Thanks for the review.

AndrewPrice said...

Outlaw, You're welcome. Agreed. This was a great cartoon.

Rob S. Rice said...

Hope... and Range...

One of the best things about that show--and if you're going to complain about something, the HINDU character is named 'Hadji?' Er... Was that THE GOOD GUYS' STUFF WORKED. What the bad guys had was dire. But the Good Guys would come up with something to counter it, even in the opening credits, when Zin's terrifying Spider Robot (resurrected in 'The Incredibles,' n'est pas?') attacked Dr. Quest's lab... Got hosed down with heavy machine gun fire... and FLINCHED when the Pershing opened up on it. Zin would take a round, or two... Race would come in, and then whatever Quest was working on... Got unleashed. And... IT WORKED.

Hope. And Range.

whitsbrain said...

I own the DVD set and it is definitely worth the money. I first saw them during their 1972 run. My favorite episodes are "The Invisible Monster" and "The Robot Spy".

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