If there was a golden age for Saturday morning cartoons, it would have to be between 1960 and 1980. Before then, most underage programming was reserved for Captain Kangaroo, Romper Room, and various local live action shows. After, the networks realized the value in shoveling shinola to kids, and concentrated their proposed entertainment into 30 minute advertisements for the latest toy line. But right when everything about the culture was changing, the big three broadcasters discovered that they could create favorable Madison Avenue mating grounds by turning the early hours of the weekend's first day into a time for sugared cereals and pen and ink wonderment. Thus we got such classics as Scooby-Do, Where Are You?, The Groovie Goolies, and the head-scratcher known as the Hair Bear Bunch? Undeniably, the kings of the medium were Joseph Barbera and William Hanna, creators of many of the format's best. Unfortunately, the release of 1974's Wheelie and the Chopper Bunch by Warners Classic Archive argues for the duo's downward spiral. Unimaginative, cluttered, and overly simplistic, it illustrates the kind of cost-cutting cheapness that eventually led to the Greed decades' product placement decline.
Wheelie is a red Volkswagon beetle. He spends his days competing in famous races and putting on stunt exhibitions. In the evening, he woos the charming convertible Rota Ree. Though he can't speak, our mechanical hero lets his emotions show via symbols across his windshield. He also has a pair of mechanical hands under his hood that can produce any number of marvelous gadgets. This makes his arch nemesis, the mean motorcycle Chopper, extremely jealous. Not only is he angry at Wheelie's seemingly unstoppable streak of contest wins, but he wants Rota all for himself. With the help of his gang - Revs, Hi-Riser, and Scrambles, otherwise known as the "Chopper Bunch" - our evil motorbike hopes to undermine Wheelie and his winning ways. Of course, in the primary color canvas of the cartoon world, good always triumphs over bad. Throughout the course of three discs and 39 episodes (three per each of the 13 single installments), we get visits to the doctor, some kung-fu, a little camping, a trip to Hawaii, and even a journey within the City of Lights, Paris.
Wow is Wheelie and the Chopper Bunch a dated disaster. Oh sure, it's mildly entertaining, but so is watching a cat scratch itself. In the case of this frozen in unfunny animated adventure series, the on the inexpensive look and lack of endearing whimsy makes this a case for needed nostalgia only. This is a collection for the diehard fan only, if that. Newcomers arriving at Wheelie's destination hoping to find something as fun as Speed Buggy or Wacky Races will be sent packing and perplexed. This is animation at its most boring and basic. Line drawings have more depth and texture. The backdrops often look half completed and cobbled together, and the lack of credible motion anticipates the terrible assembly line hackwork of the mid-'80s by a decade and half. Clearly Hanna-Barbera believed that could pimp any kind of cell painted swamp water to the world's wee ones and get away with it (see Cattanooga Cats for proof). This time, however, the sheer lack of imagination and cleverness speak to a cynicism that is both bothersome and borderline offensive.
It's not just that Wheelie is a one note hero so overly optimistic and chipper that he makes the confidant depressed. It's not that Rota is about as fetching as a fender bender. It's not even the ridiculous noises each of the Chopper Bunch make to differentiate themselves from each other (they all sound like second hand crankcase Charlie Callases). No, the most troubling aspect of this animated series is its lack of overall enjoyability. Apparently, whoever Hanna and Barbera hired to oversee this stinker believed that a careful combination of absolute cacophony and almost inert action would keep the ankle biters at bay. This is one loud, chaotic mess. Whenever the Chopper Bunch roll along, mouth farting their way through another pointless car-pun conversation, the distortion is maddening. Add in Wheelie's desire to honk his way into any dialogue and we've got words as wasted sound. You will recognize some of the voice work here, yet no matter how hard he tries, Paul Winchell still sounds like Tigger (or if you're old enough to remember, Jerry Mahoney). and Frank Welker is his usual unknowable self. Thanks to the lame scripts, however, they provide limited relief.
This is the kind of show for developing fetuses, where nothing but interesting shapes and loud noises make up the majority of the visual stimulus. The storylines are standard (Wheelie enters a race, the Chopper Bunch tries to circumvent his efforts to win - lather, rinse, repeat) or just plain painful (Wheelie befriends a small mini-bike, who is actually spying for his enemies). Even the later attempts at horror spoofs ("Dragula" - take that, Rob Zombie) and lampoons like "Dr Cykll and Mr. Ryde" have no spark. Fans can argue over the specifics, or call this criticism an unfair post-modern standard for a simple throwback entertainment. But the problem is, Wheelie and the Chopper Bunch is not amusing. It's cold and calculated, following a particular pattern so recognizable that Hanna-Barbera should have been nervous about exposing such a telling trade secret. Indeed, when cartoons stopped being inventive and went back to gimmicks and tricks to get the kids attention, the medium started to die. While Wheelie and his bike friends didn't kill the classic era of Saturday morning cartoons, it surely signaled the beginning of the end.
With this direct to DV-R releases, there is no desire to remaster - or in some cases, technically revisit - the material. As a result, the 1.33:1 full screen image of Wheelie and the Chopper Bunch is faded in places, loaded with scratches and dirt, and overall resembles a 2nd or 3rd generation syndication transfer. There are times when the defects go away and things look good - if decidedly underdrawn and cheap - but for the most part, the picture is mediocre at best.
On the sound side of things, the Dolby Digital Mono is flat, tinny, overmodulated, and frequently distorted. The Hellsapoppin' sonic approach does no one any favors, and dialogue is often buried in the manic mix and impossible to understand. Oh, and there is a laugh track as well, guaranteeing that every bad automotive pun gets a round of unnecessary guffaws. Groan.
Granted, this review may seem a bit harsh, and no amount of negativity is going to dissuade the converted from running to their painted cell preaching. Some who would otherwise know better might even find a weird kind of time travel appreciation out of the clunky cartooning. In either case, the best this title deserves is a Rent It rating. While perhaps a bit ambitious (one imagines its being almost impossible to come across this set on Netflix), it does indicate the shaky nature of the substance. In an era of intelligent bruins, clever felines, melancholy mutts, and all manner of anthropomorphized objects, Wheelie and the Chopper Bunch is decidedly lesser kid vid. There are far better examples of the endearing genre than this. Sadly, there are also many much worse. Thus is the history of Saturday morning TV.