HotWired Jonny Redux Review
The following appeared on HotWired.com, the internet's first commercial magazine. It was recovered from the Wayback Machine here.
More than three decades have passed since Jonny Quest first hit the airwaves in ABC's 1964 prime-time lineup. During that time, action-adventure cartoons evolved from Superfriends to X-Men to Reboot, while the real world sped into the digital age and spawned virtual reality. But like thousands of fans, I think that the adventures of Jonny - a cartoon whose detailed, realistic style redefined action-hero animation - are timeless. The 26 classic episodes ran for an unusually long time on all three networks (CBS, 1967-70; ABC, 1970-72; and NBC, 1978-80), and have been aired on cable channels across the United States. And now, Jonny's back - a little older this time, and exploring cyberspace, to boot.
This fall, Hanna-Barbera is launching The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest, a new animation series that first aired on 26 August, and shows 21 times per week on the Cartoon Network, TNT, and TBS.
To figure out what the new incarnation is like, and how it compares to the old one, I watched several new episodes and revisited some of my favorite oldies. Here are my notes and comparisons.
The old Jonny Quest series is still one of the finest escapist fantasies ever created for TV. Here's why:
1. The premise hooks you immediately. Boy-hero Jonny Quest lives on a private island with his father, a famous inventor. The Quests are accompanied by Jonny's friend Hadji, CIA bodyguard Race Bannon, and Jonny's faithful dog Bandit. The group's sole purpose in life is to jet around the world in search of adventure and mystery. The boys are never bothered by school (Race tutors them on the beach) or girls (there are no female characters). Instead, Jonny's world is full of futuristic gadgets, including Dad's Hovercraft and minisubmarine. This show is James Bond minus the bikinis and Martinis. It's the stuff of every boy's dreams.
2. Jonny's world was real. Before Jonny Quest, television cartoons were, well, cartoonish. Jonny Quest was the first to be drawn in a more realistic style. The vehicles and locales it featured were meticulously researched and always believable. (And most of its futuristic devices - including videophones, VTOL jets, and remote-controlled robots - have since come to fruition.)
3. Jonny's creator, Doug Wildey, understood the power of fairy tales. The virtuous heroes always defeat the villains (commies, evil geniuses, mummies, etc.). Like the best fairy tales, Jonny Quest has a subversive undertone. Dr. Quest is a very unconventional parent who gets his son into life-threatening situations on a regular basis. Beneath his conservative veneer, Dr. Quest teaches the virtues of risk-taking, independent thinking, and openness to new experiences.
Although the classic episodes have temporarily been taken off the Cartoon Network to focus attention on the new show, they are available on video. I recommend:
"The Invisible Monster"
Dr. Quest receives a distress call from a colleague who is experimenting with electromagnetic energy on a remote island. When the Quests arrive, they find the laboratory destroyed. Jonny, Race, and Hadji strap on their cool rocket packs and go exploring.
They soon confront a strange monster searing its way through the jungle. Jonny and friends can run but they can't hide, and Dr. Quest must find a weapon before the monster kills them all. This suspenseful episode scared the bejesus out of me when I was a little kid. Preying on our universal fear of the unknown, it stacks up against the best episodes of The Twilight Zone.
"The Mystery of the Lizard Men"
Two ships are destroyed in the Sargasso Sea by a frightening red glow. As the team investigates, Jonny and Race are kidnapped by green-clad frogmen who are preparing to shoot down America's moon rocket with a laser beam. The first episode ever aired, it includes imaginative artwork and plenty of derring-do.
"The Robot Spy"
The team is staying overnight at a military base, where Dr. Quest is perfecting an energy-draining cannon. A strange craft lands nearby, carrying an inert black sphere. The Quests haul it back to the base for study. Later, the sphere opens and a spidery robot emerges to steal the plans for the weapon [movie: 1200Kbtyes .mov]. Will the robot succeed? Who's behind it? The story takes place at night, which enhances the atmosphere of intrigue.
Now and Then
The new Real Adventures of Jonny Quest stays true to the globetrotting, mystery-adventure premise of its predecessor. Here's how the old and new versions of the characters stack up.
Then: A brave, curious, but nonetheless ordinary 11-year-old. He never said anything harsher than "Gosh!" even when menaced by giant crabs. His black turtleneck was a timeless fashion statement. (Voice by Tim Matheson, better known as Animal Houses Otter and Fletchs Alan Stanwyk.)
Now: Jonny's 14 - the age, Hanna-Barbera president Fred Seibert says, "where you think you can solve problems like an adult, but you may go get yourself into trouble." Still adventurous, Jonny is growing up into a combination of Indiana Jones and MacGyver. (Voice by J. D. Roth.)
Then: An 11-year-old orphan from the streets of Calcutta, unofficially adopted by Dr. Quest. A yogi-in-training, Hadji levitated objects by chanting "Sim sim sala bim!" [movie: 812Kbytes .mov] and hypnotized bad guys with the jewel on his turban. (Voice by Danny Bravo.)
Now: Hadji Singh is into Sikhism and Buddhism, but his paranormal powers have disappeared. At 16, he serves as Dr. Quest's assistant. Hadji's accent and comic timing make me think that his long-lost father might be Apu from The Simpsons. (Voice by Michael Benyaer.)
Dr. Benton Quest
Then: A scientific genius employed by the US government to investigate strange happenings. When the good doctor said, "Well, Jonny..." viewers knew he was about to launch into the week's science lesson. (Voice by John Stephenson and Don Messick.)
Now: Like his former cerebral self, Dr. Quest is a consulting phenomenologist funded by his clients and the proceeds from his many inventions. (Did he, too, lose his government funding?) He's a single dad who loves his son but gives him a long leash. (Voice by veteran actor George Segal.)
Roger "Race" Bannon
Then: An intelligence operative assigned to protect Dr. Quest, Race was an all-American Cold Warrior. He flew jets and Hovercrafts, taught Jonny karate, and was a weapons expert. Race's creators were influenced by John Wayne and pulp hero Doc Savage. (Voice by Mike Road.)
Now: Still a stud. He retired from the CIA because of his moral qualms about the agency's illegal drug programs in South America. In a live-action feature, Race should be played by NFL commentator/Broken Arrow star Howie Long. You da man, Race! (Voice by Robert Patrick, Terminator 2's evil T-1000.)
Then: Like Lassie, he occasionally seemed to understand human speech. Useful as comic relief. (Barks by Don Messick, the voice of Scooby Doo and Astro.)
Now: Still a good boy. Probably taught the retriever in Independence Day everything he knows. (Barks by Frank Welker, the voice of Cujo.)
The new kid. Race's daughter is more intelligent and emotionally mature than Jonny. Some longtime fans fear that she's designed merely to attract female viewers, but Fred Seibert says the writers requested her as a way to create conflict with Jonny. Although Hanna-Barbera would deny the possibility, we have to wonder if sparks of teenage yearning fly between Jonny and Jessie when they're off stage. (Jessie's voice by Jesse Douglas.)
Jonny Gets Wired
One of the biggest challenges for the producers of The Real Adventures was making Jonny technologically hip. "We have the same problem that James Bond does now," explains Hanna-Barbera president Fred Seibert. "When you look at even his newest gadgets, they're somewhat quaint."
Searching for inspiration, the creators dove into the cyberpunk novels of William Gibson and Neal Stephenson - especially Stephenson's famous Snow Crash. What they came up with is Questworld, a virtual reality invented by Dr. Quest as a place to perform scientific simulations. Like Star Trek's holodeck, Questworld can generate almost any imaginable setting. Jonny, Jessie, and Hadji co-opt it as a place to play games [movie: 672Kbytes .mov].
Questworld footage, which will appear in about 40 percent of the episodes, was created digitally. The animators began by creating computer simulations of wire-frame models of the characters. Faces were added separately by scanning sculpted clay busts. Then each character's features were detailed using a digital ink and paint program, and manipulated on-screen by the animators.
Hanna-Barbera also used the newer motion-capture technique, in which an actor's real-time movements are recorded with a sensor-studded cybersuit and translated to a character on-screen. This technique is best reserved for recording broad movements, says Sherry Gunther, the senior vice president of production, because the technology is still a little crude. When smoothed out with additional digital manipulation, the resulting animated movements can be very lifelike.
Not all of The Real Adventures relies on digital technology; the majority of footage is cel animation, hand-drawn in a detailed style influenced by Japanese anime. In total, however, the first season will feature more computer-generated animation than Toy Story. Questworld is evidence that such technology is growing increasingly affordable.
Of course, it will take more than visual sophistication to hook today's viewers. It's too early to say if The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest will live up to the original show. Either way, it's good to see Jonny and company again.