Thursday, October 22, 2009
Jonny Quest: It'll Scare you Spitless
Yeah, the comic interplay between Scooby and Shaggy (the Cheech and Chong of Saturday Morning Kiddie Kartoons) still holds up, and I sorta had dual crushes on Velma and Daphne. But in the end, every monster in the Scooby Rogue's Gallery turned out to be some greedy hoaxster schmuck in a costume, faking monster-dom in an attempt to get at a pile of treasure or to close down some old motel. Even as a tyke, I felt a little gypped. But Jonny Quest never let me down.
Jonny Quest was a vigorously-syndicated 1964 cartoon show also produced by the brains behind Scooby-Doo, William Hanna and Joe Barbera. In decided contrast to Scooby's slapshticky shenanigans, Jonny Quest ran in a world of excitement, danger,...and scary stuff that frequently turned out to be chillingly real. It only lasted one season, but it grew legs in syndication and ended up inspiring a whole generation of animators, including Pixar's Brad Bird and Christopher McCulloch (AKA Jackson Publick, creator of the hilarious Quest spoof The Venture Brothers).
The title character was a precocious blond kid whose dad, geniuser-than-genius scientist Benton Quest, built everything from supersonic jets to massive laser cannons. The Quests investigated all manner of strange wonders and skullduggery with the help of Jonny's snake-charming Hindu prince buddy Hadji and the Quests' personal assistant/jet pilot/asskicker Roger 'Race' Bannon. Oh, and Jonny had a spunky, pugnacious little dog, Bandit.
The series took lumps from bluenoses because of its violence (killjoy parents...Grrr...) and some of the racial stereotypes (never mind that the show actually shows an Indian boy being treated with respect by his fellow adventurers). But it still stands as one of the coolest animated shows on TV, with a distinctive pulp-comic look courtesy of creator Doug Wildey, an indisputably great horn-punctuated Hoyt Curtin theme song, and a merciless edge decades ahead of its time: The good guys threw punches and kicked ass when necessity dictated, bad guys frequently displayed complex political motivations, and people actually died...Sometimes very violently.
Most of the time Jonny Quest traversed James Bond-style pathways, and many of Jonny's and Hadji's provided a lighter touch, but a few episodes veered squarely into nightmare territory. In "The Curse of Anubis," an Egyptian professor steals a sacred relic from one of the ancient Pyramids in an effort to unite his people against foreign interests (pretty heady stuff for a kid's cartoon). He ends up re-animating a massive, very frightening mummy who crushes the Egyptian prof to death in a cave-in. Elsewhere, a giant robotic spider, single red eye glowering, tears up a military base in "The Robot Spy".
There were spooky voodoo inferences ("The Dreadful Doll," which sports a scarily-wide-eyed mesmerised little zombified girl), carnivorous giant reptiles barely contained by a bald, bug-eyed villain ("Dragons of Ashida"), and a people-disintegrating energy beast straight out of Forbidden Planet ("The Invisible Monster").
But the most terrifying episode of Jonny Quest, and one of the creepiest animated half-hours you'll ever see, is "The Sea Haunt." Jonny and company land their super-plane on a deserted freighter, only to discover that the crew's either been picked off by (or fled from) a giant aquatic dinosaur-man. Dr. Quest reads passages from the captain's log, describing the monster's vicious path of mayhem in gruesome detail. Then the monster smashes the jet, marooning Jonny, Dr. Quest, Race, and Hadji (along with an admittedly un-PC Chinese cook) in the middle of the Java Sea. The giant monster's scary as hell, and Curtin's score really rattles the nerves in places. If Aliens director James Cameron denies having ever seen this as a kid, he's a bloody liar as well as an egotistical twinkie.