From 1965 until 1968, super heroes and action cartoons reigned on Saturday mornings. As a young child at the time, I remember the excitement of getting up early and sitting close to the TV to watch the adventures of Space Ghost, Fantastic Four, Spider-man, Birdman and the Galaxy Trio and Frankenstein Jr. I will even admit, now that over 35 years have passed, to watching Super President once or twice. (Yes such a show actually aired, and it was as bad as it sounds.)
Remember, this was before cable and all cartoon channels. Saturday mornings were the only time that cartoons were shown, and they had some great ones! Leave it to some adults to go and ruin everything though. I guess kids were having too much fun, because soon some groups started popping up saying that action/adventure shows were bad for children and lead to juvenile delinquency and violence. Just as similar groups had successfully eviserated comic books a decade and a half earlier, these groups wanted non-violent cartoons. They calculated a "violence quotient" giving equal weight to the cartoon violence of Wile E. Coyote's falling into a canyon and the more realistic violence of Spider-man punching a crook. These numbers were presented to show how damaging Saturday morning cartoons were. Whether watching violent cartoons actually causes violent behavior was debatable at the time, just as it is today. But with the social unrest happening in America, along with the assassination of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the networks found it prudent to remove the super-hero and adventure programs and replace them with comedy shows with watered down action.
One of the earliest of these shows was 1968's Wacky Races. This slapstick comedy was able to give the illusion of pulse pounding action and fast paced adventure without actually delivering either. (The children's advocate groups were still not appeased though. Apparently this new generation of tamer show still had too much entertainment value. The networks hadn't sucked out all of the fun, and that wouldn't do.)
For a late 60's cartoon, Wacky Racers is pretty good, though not nearly up to the quality of shows that were on even a few years earlier. The cartoon is an 'eternal race' show, where every week the same racers would compete on a new course. The Wacky Racers are strange characters in even odder looking vehicles. There is the inventor Proffesor Pat Pending in his Ring-a-Ding Convert-a-Car, the Ant Hill Mob, a bunch of midget gangsters in a 1920's sedan, the Bullet-Proof Bomb, the Arkansas Chug-a-Bug held the hillbillies Luke and Blubber Bear, and Cavemen Rocky and Gravel Slag were a throwback to the Flinstones riding in their foot powered Bouldermobile. There were a few more entrants, including Penelope Pitstop in her Compact Pussycat who would later go on to her own show, but the most visible member of the team was the only one who cheated: Dick Dastardly and his dog Muttley in their Mean Machine.
Each story lasts about 11 minutes, and the plots were all the same. The narrator would do some color commentary on the beginning of the race, giving the racers time to show their car's talents. Then Dastardly and Muttley would hatch a scheme to ensure that they won the race: blocking a pass, putting up a fake road sign, or something along those lines. This would invariably back fire, leaving Dastardly at the back of the pack. The narrator would then announce the end of the race.
These shows are very interchangeable. Not just the shows themselves, but even the scenes in them. There were several times when one car would be in the lead at the end of the race, and then not place when the race ended 30 seconds later. The show was roughly divided into three sections and nothing that happened in one effected what happened in the other two, which was quite discouraging if you were a young kid trying to determine who would win the race.
The highlight of the show was the puns and word plays that would pop up in every show, racing to places like Ballpoint Penn. for example. But the quality of the show just isn't that high. The animation was limited and very inexspensive with the backgrounds, and even the race scenes, being used over and over. (Not only was the animation cheap, so was the network. CBS ordered seventeen ½-hour episodes of Wacky Races and played those shows over and over for two years!) For a comedy program, it just didn't bring the laughs. While I liked some of the puns, the slapstick humor wasn't very funny. They didn't take time to set up a gag, they'd just jump into it, and very few of those made me even crack a smile.
This set presents the entire Wacky Races series on three DVDs. One odd thing this DVD set does is they spilt up the shows into two sections. When it originally aired the program was a half hour show that consisted of two races 11-12 minute races. On this set though they give each race its own opening and closing credits. As far as I was able to determine the show was never broadcast in that fashion, and it certainly wasn't aired that why when it first appeared on TV, so I have no idea why they chose to cut the shows up like that.
The DVD offers viewer the choice of English, French or Spanish soundtracks, all in mono. The audio has been restored and sounds very good. As you would expect from a 60's cartoon, there wasn't a lot of dynamic range, but the sound was clean without any hiss or distortion. There are subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.
The full frame video looks just great. The image has been restored and the colors are bright and vivid, and the lines are tight. There are some defects that were present in the original show, like when the color of paint doesn't quite match on two different levels of animation cells, but this is to be expected and not anything that restoration should repair. There was an occasional errant line or scratch, most of look like they were on the cells themselves, but these weren't distracting. A very good looking set of discs.
There were some good extras included with this set:
Spin-out Spin-offs: A ten minute look at the two shows that were spun off from Wacky Races: The Perils of Penelope Pitstop and Dastardly and Muttley in Their Flying Machines (the "Stop that Piegeon" show.) Clips of the show an an overview are presented.
Commentary tracks: Four of the races (12 minute ½ shows) have commentaries with them where several of the creators, Earl Kress, Iwao Takamoto, and Jerry Eisenberg, along with animator/historian Scott Shaw! (sic) talk about the show. These were okay, but not great. There were some behind the scenes type reminiscing, but a lot of the time they end up talking about which car they designed or what happened to various people who worked on the show. They also discussed how different producing cartoons are today as compared with how it was done in the late 60's. A lot of this isn't scene specific, because there just isn't a lot you can say about the different episodes of Wacky Races.
Easter Egg: If you highlight and select the tire on the Special Features page on the third disc you'll be taken to an unrestored clip that was used as a lead-in for commercials. Highlighting the can behind the bear will take you to an alternate lead-in clip.
There are also previews for other cartoon sets.
While I have very fond memories of the Wacky Races, and it still has a certain appeal, this show just isn't that great. Not only are the stories repudiative, there really isn't any plot to them. What happens at the beginning of the show has no effect on the rest of it. While my children enjoyed the show somewhat, even they were able to see the gags coming early and predict how Dastardly's plans would fail. If you enjoyed this show as a child, it is definitely fun to watch again, but the fun wears off in short order. This would be a good show to Rent.