The 1967/68 Cartoon Series
The Fantastic Four
Originally Aired: 9/9/1967-20/1/1968
Availability: Currently Unavailable
The original Fantastic Four cartoon by Hanna Barbera, and, on a personal note, my first real experience of the group. Technically it may be somewhat limited, but as a small child this was the only thing that would get me up before eight for its UK screenings. Seeing it for the first time as an adult and with the benefit of hindsight is a revelation, for The Fantastic Four is gloriously, wonderfully dated. The group stand in front of a background that glows purple and bright yellow, while a 60s bongo riff plays behind them. Still title inserts are given like on all the old cartoons (Yogi Bear, Scooby Doo etc.) and dull spots within the actual episodes are frequently backed up by a bit of lounge jazz.Menace of the Mole Men in particular opens with what sounds like a real crazy scene for all the hep cats out there. Sound effects are corny and familiar, dialogue is melodramatic and unnecessary exposition abounds - "We're falling" a particular favourite.
Best of all, the four voice actors to play the FF (Gerald Mohr as Reed, Paul Frees as Ben, Jack Flounders as Johnny and Jo Ann Pflug as Sue) are all superbly miscast. Reed's deep accented tones contrast strangely with Ben's higher, less affected speech and you feel that maybe they should have been reversed. Pflug, meanwhile (and imagine going to school with that surname) plays Sue as the put-upon girl from 60s sitcom, while Johnny sounds like his dad. All of them, as well as guest voices, deliver their lines in an inexplicably stilted, fragmented way. It's hopelessly kitsch, but in such an endearing fashion.
Surprisingly, what stands up the best is actually the animation. It may be static, but the 90s cartoon was hardly cutting-edge anime, so the difference isn't that marked. And what the 90s version - the first season, at least - lacked in charm, this one has in excess. Yes, you'll probably find yourself sniggering at the old hat nature of it all, but in an affectionate, loving way. It doesn't patronise its audience, despite the profundity of "laugh into the end titles" moments, and is remarkably faithful to the source texts. This strict adherence to the original material and brevity of episodes (20m each) means there's no need for painfully grafted comic subplots, as with the 1994 version.
The actual order of the episodes differ according to sources, with two half-length episodes (Klaws and The Red Ghost) usually being joined together and thus causing even more confusion. What follows is the commonly accepted running order, dig it, cats: Klaws, Menace of the Mole Men, Diablo, The Red Ghost, Invasion of the Super Skrulls, Three Predictions of Dr. Doom, The Way It All Began, Behold a Distant Star, Prisoners of Planet X, The Mysterious Molecule Man, Danger in the Depths, Demon in the Deep, Return of the Moleman, It Started On Yancy Street, Galactus, The Micro World of Dr. Doom, Blast Starr, The Living Bomb Burst, Rama Tut, The Terrible Tribunal and The Deadly Director. Small amusements can be gained by the inexplicable pluralising of episodes 1, 2 and 5, while Blaststar's episode seems to present him as Edwin's younger brother.
With the cartoon being made so long ago, details are extremely scarce, and with no onscreen guest cast credits, it's next to impossible to discover who voiced the various villains, though Ted Cassidy has been bandied around as a possible Galactus. Doctor Doom's voice and poor visual recreation mean that the four episodes that feature his character are weaker than most, as are Danger in the Depths and Demon in the Deep, two episodes that want to tell Sub-Mariner stories but without the Sub-Mariner. Then there's inevitably a couple of clips episodes, The Terrible Tribunal and The Deadly Director. Actually, to describe them as "clips" episodes - where a story is woven out of old footage to save cash, and a tenuous framing story is cheaply thrown together - is to do them a disservice. Both actually feature developed plots and less than 51/2 minutes of old stuff, meaning that both of them contain over 70% of new material. Tribunal quaintly sees Reed and Sue in separate beds, and displays a darker side to the FF, with their defeat of enemies looking almost sadistic when taken out of context to try them. Sadly, Director is nowhere near as good, coming over more as an episode of Dastardly & Muttley in Their Flying Machines - which is appropriate, as Paul Winchell, the voice of Dick Dastardly, is the only name I'd like to guess at as being a guest actor on the series. Generally though, despite some rough patches, the episode quality is consistent across the board. In all, it's a delightfully awful series that somehow succeeds in being genius.