USA Cartoon Express – Monster Bash (1993)

The USA Cartoon Express broke a lot of ground in the 1980s and 90s with its approach to a kids block. Tucked away on the then-still-nascent cable giant lived a one to two hour block, depending on where it was scheduled, that was all for kids.  The block was a full takeover of the network, a show of its own, a train ride where the network was the conductor and the cartoons were the passengers.

The USA Cartoon Express was a showcase for an impressive variety of cartoons; the Hanna Barbera library was a staple of the block, as were He-Man, Transformers, Alvin and The Chipmunks, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. In between those heavy hitters were more obscure titles like Mighty Max and Savage Dragon. In between those shows, in addition to the train bumps, were shorter pieces created specifically for USA.  In a Minute segments featured real life and real kids answering real questions. The USA Network Kids Club gave viewers a chance to interact with the network and sometimes get featured on the block. All of this, all of this could warrant its own post but since we’re getting into spooky territory here now that it’s October let’s look at a series of custom shorts called Monster Bash.

The idea of all of the different types of monsters getting together and hanging out isn’t necessarily a new one, but Monster Bash brought a (then) new idea: Dracula owned a hotel with all of the other monsters and the difficulty of maintaining a hotel with all of those other monsters made for a handful of entertaining 30-second situations.

The staff are a weird mixture of adult monsters and child monsters.  The guests are never shown; the stories typically center around some aspect of hotel management that the staff has to resolve, with a minimal ‘monster’ layer thrown in.  They’re pretty good gags, all in all.  Check them out here!

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Let’s Get Warty – Battletoads (1990s)

Despite being an awesome yet punishingly difficult NES game (and later SNES, Genesis, and more), Battletoads always had the stink of a late-to-the-party reaction to the runaway success of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  Teenagers turn into green animals who fight to save the day from weird-looking enemies.  There were a few points of differentiation that would probably hold up in recess-court: they were amphibians, not reptiles, and instead of a specialty weapon they could sort of morph into whatever tool they wanted to use. The humor was a little bit cruder, the characters were a little less cool, and the rogues’ gallery was way undersized, but the biggest disconnect between the two franchises was one of tone.  The story of the Battletoads didn’t feel relatable, unique, or even terribly interesting. It’s the premise of Turtles meets the adventure of Mario meets the difficulty of Contra and all mixed together and diluted with water into a bland ’90s property.

The cartoon pilot is proof of this;  even with TMNT writer David Wise on board it’s an uninspired cash grab.  This sort of effort may have had a better chance in the ’80s when there was more of an appetite for any show related a product regardless of quality, but the market was saturated with this sort of thing by the ’90s. The pilot aired during Thanksgiving weekend in 1992 and, despite Gamepro magazine’s assertations, never turned into an actual series. There are inspired moments to be found in the pilot, but you’ve really got to be looking for them. It aired as a “special”, the chance to see the origin story of these heroes from the video game, the story of how three unpopular nerds transformed into three somehow-already-named gigantic toads with superpowers.

It starts (after an annoying surf-rock intro song) with Professor T. Bird and Princess Angelica under pursuit by the Dark Queen. The Dark Queen’s command center is one of those unintentional inspirations, a set barely detailed, lazy in its way but still beautiful in its minimalism and color design.

Anyway. Cut to Earth, where three extremely unlikable and exaggerated stereotypes find themselves in trouble with the Principal and are forced by the Principal to never hang out with each other.  That’s a thing?

Back to space where the Professor and the Princess retrieve a serum that turns those who drink it into Battletoads, a race sworn to protect the royal bloodline.  The Dark Queen and her minions descend upon them, the Professor pulls some science, and they escape to Earth.

They run into the unlikeable kids, and the Professor basically tricks them into taking the serum. They don’t know they’re (permanently) turning into giant toads.  This is a major violation of the teens’ rights, a glaring infraction that calls into question whether the Professor and Princess are truly “the good guys”, but the cartoon raises a minor kerfuffle about it and quickly moves on. The Dark Queen shows up and the Battletoads are called upon to protect the Princess.


Let me be clear: up to this point the cartoon has been awful.  In whatever world exists where this story needs to be told, the events up to this point have been more or less necessary.  Everything past this is just hot garbage –  senseless battle scenes with props that don’t actually do the damage that they’re doing , enemies that appear out of appliances, and a hot pink convertible that serves as a spaceship.

Oh, and there’s also a final attack from the Dark Queen herself that involves a sawtoothed spaceship that cuts into a mall. Soooo California.

The Battletoads defeat the Queen (this time), and the day is saved. The kids redeem themselves in the eyes of the Principal, and everyone is ultimately okay with the permanence of the body morph that the teens have been put through without their consent. And that’s Battletoads! Tune in next week.

Except not. It wasn’t picked up. Are you surprised?

But, like I said, the games are good.  Go to those to get your Zitz, Pimple, and Rash fix.  Ugh. That’s your counterpunch to Renaissance artists’ names?

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Killjoy Was Here! – US Air Force Training Film (1950s)

It’s comforting to know that the higher-ups in the Air Force were concerned enough about troop etiquette during their off-duty shifts that they commissioned this animated short illustrating the proper way to behave.  That sounds sarcastic, but I’m serious!

It seems there was no expense spared, either. This cartoon is gorgeous and flawlessly (albeit simply) animated.  Simple, but not crude.  The cartoon focuses on Archie, an enlisted man sent to a new base as a result of his promotion.  Good news for Archie but what he doesn’t know is that Killjoy, an amalgam of less humble servicemen before him, has tainted the town’s image of the Air Force with his macho imperialist swagger.

Beach life, night life, business and landlord dealings all find  poor Archie at a disadvantage thanks to Killjoy.

The cartoon doesn’t really offer any specific tactics to correct this other than “don’t be a jerk” and “it’s not all about you”, two points that are made over and over in the back half of the film.  The resolution does do a good job of expanding the scope of the effect of Killjoy’s actions to demonstrate how this sort of behavior erodes our overall relations with other countries.

A lesson as true today as it was then.

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The Monster In Your Living Room – Anti-Pay-TV PSA (1970)

While not an apples-to-apples situation, there’s still a strong psychic tie between this 1970 PSA against the oncoming Pay TV juggernaut and our modern-day Net Neutrality fight.  The dawn of Pay TV was an undeniable game changer for just about everyone on Earth, and we’re still seeing the ripple effects of that shift in a world where media bills aren’t just accepted, they’re expected.

I’m not sure who specifically was behind the creation of this PSA, but both the movie theater industry and Network television had obvious interests in keeping Pay TV out of their consumer’s home.  The PSA played in theaters and has a real “Let’s All Go To The Lobby” feel to it, so I’m going to assume they led the charge.  Let’s have a laugh at it.

The message is clear: these other people who want to charge for entertainment are monsters.  Let’s set aside the ethicality of whether the guy on the left is more justified to charge for entertainment than the guy on the right and instead focus on their examples of “monsters”.

Triceratops?

An Octopus?

Doctor Frankenstein’s Gentle Yet Misunderstood Creation?

Indeed, it seems that past the toothy, metallic, Pay TV Monster itself, the only supporting monster is that Dracula guy who’s strangling a woman.  Monstrous on two counts!

What’s not monstrous is the idea that the consumer has a say in how they receive their media and their entertainment.  Win or lose, that’s a conversation that started long before this PSA and continues even today, and it’s a beautiful thing.

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Mini-Munsters (1973)

I’m not really sure what happened here. I wanted to share something from ’70s television with a spooky vibe, and then I stumbled across this, and while I can describe it and comment on it, I’m just not sure what exactly it is.

Originally broadcast as a one-hour “movie” on The ABC Superstar Saturday Movie, “Mini-Munsters” re-aired as a thirty-minute episode in the ’80s – presumably as a cartoon test slot.  That half-hour cut is the version in the link below.  I can assume the hour-long version puts things into a more distinguishable container, but I can’t imagine that helps things much.

Past the ‘it’s the Munsters in cartoon form’ angle, there’s not a ton that’s different about the family.  Well, except for the voices – Al Lewis is the only character to stick around to voice the cartoon version of himself. Eddie’s a teenager now, and forms a rock band with his cousins Igor and Lucretia – the titular “Mini Munsters”.  Herman’s not a fan of the kids’ music, and gets them to play it elsewhere. He buys the Mini-Munsters a Hearse haunted by the ghost of a funeral director, for some reason, and Grandpa invents a device that makes the Hearse run on music. For some reason.

The device becomes a hit and upsets some gangsters who own an oil company, who then challenge the Munsters to a race and then steal their pet dragon Spot when they lose the race, holding him hostage in an effort to get Grandpa to destroy the device. The Mini-Munsters get the dragon back and the gangsters are thwarted. Okay!

I know that it was the trend in the ’70s to take any popular sitcom that might have appealed to kids and make an animated version of it – The Brady Kids and The New Adventures of Gilligan come to mind – but even the worst efforts at this sort of thing make more sense than Mini-Munsters.  Was this really the fully-baked version of this idea? Was this hamfisted plotline where a rock band accelerating a Hearse through its tempo really the strongest way to premiere this presumably fully baked version of this idea? We’ll never know for sure, but I think the answer is yes. Yes, it was a flimsy cash grab that shouldn’t have happened, a dish cooked by dispassionate chefs that would have been best left on the kitchen floor.

Too harsh? Happy Halloween.