If you have fond memories of "Inspector Gadget," then chances are you haven't watched it lately.
The cartoon series, which ran for two seasons spread out from 1983 until 1986, was intended as a comic blend of "Get Smart," James Bond, Dynamutt, Inspector Clouseau, and "The Six Million Dollar Man." The titular character, voiced by the legendary Don Adams, was a bumbling bionic sleuth who would survive each adventure merely by sheer luck - and thanks to the interference of his brilliant niece Penny (voiced by Cree Summer, and later Holly Berger) and her dog Brain.
I was looking forward to revisiting this series, as I was one of many Gen-Xers to eat it up in my younger days. Through grown-up eyes, however, I see something else entirely: sloppy storytelling; broad, obnoxious, unfunny jokes; cheap animation; and a repetitiveness to every story that reveals a lack of imagination. Oh, what wonderful things could have been done with a bionic supercop, and oh, what a subpar cartoon we got instead.
Every episode followed the same outline. Gadget's boss, Chief Quimby, would pop up in impossible hiding places, like a mailbox, coffee pot, etc., and deliver Gadget with his assignment; the letter is a self-destructing message, spoofing "Mission: Impossible," and Quimby would always wind up exploding. (Considering how the writers felt it unnecessary to deliver even the slightest variation on this running gag, it is no surprise to see how quickly it grows tiresome.)
Anyway. Gadget would cluelessly embark on his mission, stumbling through whatever exotic locale he's visiting, failing to foil the schemes of the villainous Dr. Claw (a baddie modeled after Blofeld of the Bond series - like that character in the early Connery films, we never see Claw's face). Claw, meanwhile, does everything he can to kill Inspector Gadget, all while pulling off some heist or other master plan. Gadget survives simply by falling down a lot, which, I am told by my kindergarten-age daughter, is very, very funny. Yes, there are times in which Gadget gets to activate his robotic stretchy arms or springy legs or helicopter hat, but this is once again all part of the success-by-accident routine.
Claw is eventually defeated thanks to the hard work of Penny, who cracks the cases, and Brain, who is Penny's leg man. Brain is usually assigned the thankless task of following Gadget around and keeping him from getting killed - the fact that Gadget never recognizes his own dog (usually mistaking him for a human, sometimes mistaking him for a villain) is further proof that perhaps the world would be safer if Dr. Claw were allowed to off the inspector once and for all.
Each episode would wrap up with a bit of public service announcement, a safety tip tied somehow to the plot. An adventure in the desert would lead to advice about the proper use of sunscreen; a story set at the Winter Olympics gives us messages regarding how to ski safely. These are all well-meaning, of course, but at times the stretch goes a bit too thin. After all, how many kids need to be told to be sure they never fall asleep when driving a boat?
It's evident by the sheer number of episodes produced in such a short time frame that the "Gadget" series was a rush job, with storylines that never actually make much sense, jokes that fizzle with great frequency, and hand-drawn animation that looks rushed (and, in a few random cases, unfinished). This is the sort of short-attention-span early-80s cartoon that is built for kids who just want to watch somebody fall over a lot.
Granted, rewatching the series in its original order reveals that the creators were improving their product with time. While the earliest episodes are downright unwatchable, later shows did manage to develop more usable situations and storylines; even if the jokes were still shoddy groaners, at least the adventure side of things had become more tolerable.
Also of interest: the pilot episode gives us a Gadget with a moustache, which is a curious difference I had never before seen. It turns out that the character was originally designed this way, but a stern letter from the MGM legal department, complaining about too-close similarities between Gadget and MGM's Clouseau character, forced the series' creators to give their character a shave.
Shout! Factory has collected the first 22 episodes of the series in a four-disc set, "Inspector Gadget: The Original Series." Notice the absence of the word "Complete" in that title - I was expecting all 85 episodes, but I suppose that was my own fault. I'm not sure why Shout chose to stop at 22 (there's no season break there or anything), or why they wouldn't label this with a "Volume One" or some similar tag. (Note: I am reviewing an early press copy, so I do not know if the final box art will make mention that these 22 episodes are only a fraction of the series' original run.)
Also unclear is why the company opted to spread the set out over four discs, when these episodes could have easily have been condensed onto three discs with no loss in quality (and, perhaps, with a lower price resulting as well).
The episodes included here are:
Disc One: "Gadget In Wonderland," "Monster Lake," "Down On the Farm," "Gadget At the Circus," and "The Amazon."
Disc Two: "Health Spa," "The Boat," "Haunted Castle," "Race To the Finish," "The Ruby," and "A Star Is Lost."
Disc Three: "All That Glitters," "Movie Set," "Amusement Park," "Art Heist," "Volcano Island," and "The Invasion."
Disc Four: "The Infiltration,' "The Pharaoh's Curse," "Mad Trap," "Basic Training," and "Sleeping Gas."
Each disc offers a "play all" feature as well as the option to watch episodes individually. The episodes themselves have no chapter stops.
For a twenty-year-old low budget cartoon, the episodes here look pretty good. The image is soft and the colors are a bit muted, but they still look cleaner than I remember them, with no visible edge enhancement or other sign of restoration ruining what turns out to be a fairly nice presentation.
It should be noted for the purists that the original DIC logo that ran after the the closing credits has been replaced with the modern DIC Kids logo, which is a bit jarring (especially since it's not the last logo seen on screen, and therefore can't be passed off as a new tag). Also, each episode now begins with the title appearing on screen; I've read online that the episodes did not feature this during its original run.
Presented in the series' original 1.33:1 broadcast aspect ratio.
The mono soundtrack is about what I expected from a series of this age. It's clean but not impressively so. "Serviceable" is probably the best word to use. No subtitles or alternate language tracks are offered.
All extras are confined to the final disc. The only one of interest is "Wowsers!," a seven-minute interview with series creators Andy Heyward and Mike Maliani. The duo quickly runs down the show's history, detailing original casting ideas (Gary Owens was offered the title role thanks to his similar work on "Dynamutt") and the various changes the character underwent before the series made it on the air.
Also included is a three-minute gallery of character and vehicle sketches, which plays out rather slowly (I scanned through this via fast forward and missed nothing). It offers no peeks at prototype designs for the characters, and as such offers very little to anyone other than the most devout fan.
Finally, we get one of the most useless extras I've yet to see on a DVD: the results of a fan art contest held in 2005 by Animation Magazine. This is what you get: you click on the tab that says "winner," then you're shown a drawing somebody made of the characters. It's a very small image, it's not very impressive (sorry, winner), and we don't even get to discover the winner's name. Had there been more features on this set, then sure, toss it in, but considering the dearth of any noteworthy extras here, this contest thingy only sticks out as a bad idea.
I'm not sure which disappoints me more, the fact that the series is far, far worse than I remember, or that Shout, best known for high quality DVD releases, has delivered such an unimpressive set here. The video quality is commendable, but for the price, I would expect a whole lot more, either in terms of more episodes or more extras. Gen-Xers looking for a little nostalgia will be let down - and if their kids take to liking the series (like mine did), then as the obligatory repeat viewings start coming their way, that let-down feeling will shift to annoyance fairly quickly (like mine did). Plus, they won't be able to get that catchy theme song out of their heads for weeks. Wowsers, indeed. Unless you're absolutely convinced that your kids will go gaga over it (a single disc rental will help solve that question), then feel free to Skip It.