Mr. Magoo is a crotchety old coot who gets into hilarious mishaps despite himself. He's nearly blind, but his ego is so bloated that he doesn't notice or care. In Magoo's world, a rock quarry is a day at the beach, a lion is as harmless as a housecat, and confound it why doesn't this telephone work? (Because it's a lamp, silly.)
Perfectly voiced by actor Jim Backus (he of Thurston Howell III fame), Magoo was an immediate hit from his debut in the 1949 short Ragtime Bear and continuing through dozens of stylish shorts produced by maverick cartoon studio UPA in the '50s. It wasn't until he moved to the small screen in the '60s that Magoo really took off, however. Perhaps it was the tiny character's kiddie appeal, or the idea of laughing at an out-of-touch old man struck a chord with the times. Whatever the reason, that segment of Magoo's illustrious career gets a thorough going-over with Shout! Factory's Mr. Magoo: The Television Collection 1960-77.
This set packs roughly 32 hours of Magoo cartoons onto eleven DVDs, highlighted with all 28 episodes of the Saturday morning favorite The Mr. Magoo Show (1960-61). Also included is Magoo's single-season shot at prime time TV, the historical romp The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo, which ran for 26 episodes in 1964-65. The beloved 1962 holiday special Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol is not included here, but its absence is kinda sorta made up for with the patriotic curio Uncle Sam Magoo from 1970. Rounding out this bursting box are all sixteen episodes of the rarely seen What's New, Mr. Magoo? from 1977. That's a whole lot of Magoo.
The Mr. Magoo Show kicks things off to a chaotic start. These half-hours were produced during turbulent times for the UPA studio. It changed ownership, and the move to TV meant that animators who had previously done a handful of shorts a year were now working furiously to fill a jam packed weekly schedule. Episodes follow a Rocky & Bullwinkle formula of short cartoons interspersed with frequently repeated intros. Magoo and his nearsighted mishaps rule, aided by a bevy of new and returning characters including Chinese houseboy Charlie, sad-sack nephew Waldo, Mother Magoo, uncle Tycoon Magoo and his scheming butler Worcestershire, and two kids, Wheeler and Dealer.
The Magoo Show episodes are quite fun in small doses, but the repetitiveness of the gags and the slipshod production quality really drags the show down. Lacking the subversive humor of Rocky & Bullwinkle or the vivid personality of The Flintstones, Magoo's mishaps coast along with contrived, samey situations and flat characters. It's a scattershot show, too; often within an episode you'll find a smoothly done episode sitting next to a shrill, badly paced one. There are a few things to enjoy about it, however. That modern visual style that characterized UPA's theatrical cartoons is still on display in the show's backgrounds and title cards (albeit on a more modest scale), and the voice work is capably performed by a handful of old pros - Backus, Bea Benaderet, Paul Frees, June Foray, and dialogue director Jerry Hausner (who played Ricky Ricardo's agent in I Love Lucy).
By the way, a sticking point with Magoo fans is that Charlie's totally un-p.c. "yes, bloss" accent got re-dubbed when the cartoons were reissued in more recent times. This set restores some of the original voice work, but annoyingly leaves other episodes (mostly on discs three and four) with Charlie's re-dubbed voice - which is terrible.
From this point, the Magoo story takes an out-of-left-field but welcome detour with the holiday perennial Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol (1962). The success of that special prompted NBC to commission a weekly series with Magoo as various literary and historical characters of yore, colorful entertainment with hardly any nearsighted gags. Scheduled on Saturday nights with Flipper as a kid-friendly lead-in, The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo enjoyed a 26-episode run in 1964-65. Faltering ratings prevented anything other than this single season, but the show itself is wonderful and the genuine find of this set.
Each Famous Adventures episode is framed with Magoo-as-actor introducing the role he's playing that week. Some stories take on multiple-episode arcs, with the four-part Robin Hood story being the most ambitious. The stories are concisely told with animation and production design several steps better than the rushed Mr. Magoo Show (indeed, some of the background designs here are amazing). They don't pussyfoot around on the violence/scariness issue, either - Magoo's Moby Dick is a true man-killer, and Frankenstein's monster has a frightening look more in tune with Mary Shelley than Boris Karloff. Some episodes work better than others (if you think Mr. Magoo and Dick Tracy would make for an exciting pair, you're wrong), but overall it's a delightful show that's ripe for rediscovery.
A disc note: the Famous episode with Magoo as Don Quixote cannot be played from the main menu, but can be accessed using the DVD's "Play All" feature.
The well intentioned yet short-lived Famous Adventures may have signaled an end for UPA and Magoo, but they rallied for one final bow with the 1970 special Uncle Sam Magoo. What an bizarre bit of Nixon-era patriotism this is! The show opens with Magoo-as-actor driving through Hollywood, singing a jaunty comeback song. He then drives into a deserted UPA studio (appropriate, since by 1970 UPA was an in-name-only business entity), complaining about hippies and the loss of true patriotic values that made America great. Donning an Uncle Sam costume, Magoo takes viewers on a Cliff Notes tour of Americana which ranges from Leif Ericson and Christopher Columbus through the Revolutionary War and current times, with long detours that include the gold rush, Mark Twain, Johnny Appleseed and Paul Bunyon with his blue ox, Babe. It climaxes in a photo tour of Beautiful American Scenery, set to stirring music that must have met the approval of the John Birch Society. Jim Backus does an excellent job in this otherwise strange curio.
Although Magoo went into hiding for much of the '70s, the character remained popular enough to warrant another go-round in 1977 with What's New, Mr. Magoo?. For this Saturday morning series, Backus returns as Magoo in (trite) storylines that harkened back to the "blind as a bat" old days. Magoo is now joined by his lookalike dog, McBarker (voiced by Bob Ogle), and his Shaggy-esque nephew Waldo (Casey Kasem) in various escapades. I vaguely remember watching this show in its original run (only the groovy theme song stuck with me), thinking it was another cheap Hanna-Barbera show. In fact, it was produced by the DePatie-Freleng studio in a style similar to their Pink Panther cartoons. Even if the scripts don't break any new ground, the production is more thoughtfully done than most Saturday morning fare.
The DVD Collection:
Shout! Factory has packaged Mr. Magoo: The Television Collection as an attractive slip-covered set with great retro-style graphics. The Mr. Magoo Show and The Famous Adventures come in normal width DVD snap cases, while Uncle Sam Magoo and What's New have slim width cases. Also included is a nice 20-page booklet with liner notes by animation historian Darrell Van Citters.
All of the series come with their original mono English soundtracks (except the re-dubbed Mr. Magoo Shows), with no subtitles or alternate audio options. The mix occasionally tends toward the shrill on the original Mr. Magoo, with the other content having a fine if unexceptional sound.
The picture quality on The Mr. Magoo Show episodes vary wildly from decent to having the look of an old VHS tape. Many episodes have a distinct blur, and the compressed video often results in outlines dropping out during scenes when characters are moving quickly. Famous Adventures fares much better in the image quality department, with nicely balanced color and little to no compression artifacts. Uncle Sam and What's New both sport a decent picture considering their '70s vintage.
Shout! and Classic Media has filled this set with an intriguing set of extras, not the least of which is the booklet containing episode details, vintage photos and artwork, and a cool mini-history of the Magoo phenomenon from author Darrell Van Citters. The 16-1/2 minute "Oh Magoo... You've Done It Again!" featurette is an entertaining tour through two decades of Magoo mayhem, with animation experts and former UPA staffers weighing in on Magoo's TV career. Informative audio commentaries from animation experts Van Citters and Jerry Beck - along with original Magoo artists Don Morgan, Bob Singer and Paul Carlson - fill in details behind all series except the Uncle Sam special. A photo gallery with storyboard art and animation cels rounds out the extras.
Despite reservations on the content and presentation of the Mr. Magoo Show episodes, this is a fine set which ought to keep Magoo fans in stitches. The Famous Adventures series is a buried treasure, while the dated hokum of Uncle Sam Magoo is worth a look (through non-blurry glasses, preferably). The 16 episodes of What's New, Mr. Magoo? are icing on the cake. Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.