Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Fine Art of Sequential Credits :: DePatie-Freleng's Return to the Planet of the Apes (1975)

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"They're apes! They can speak?!"
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After Warner Bros. boarded up Termite Terrace in 1963, officially bringing an end to its legendary animation department, two of these lay-off casualties, David DePatie and director Friz Freleng, landed on their feet, forming DePatie-Freleng Enterprises, which almost immediately bore fruit when Blake Edwards asked them to do the credits for his new film, The Pink Panther (1963), and its subsequent sequels. And so pleased were they by the end-results of this new frisky feline character, United Artists commissioned them for a series of theatrical shorts; the first of which, The Pink Phink, won an Oscar in 1964. In 1969, these shorts were repackaged and sold to NBC, which began airing them along with some new material as part of there Saturday morning cartoon line-up.

Meantime, 20th Century Fox had there own series that was slowly making its way from the big to the small screen with The Planet of the Apes franchise. And as the 1970s progressed, with the studio seeing diminishing returns at the box-office (-- coinciding with the decreased budgets. Coincidence? I think not --), it was apparent after the fifth (and destined to be the final) installment these films were running on fumes. Turns out a live-action TV series wasn't the answer, either. But while these efforts were floundering to find an audience, Planet of the Apes merchandising was going through the roof: toys, playsets (the Mego line was fantastic), model-kits, books, trading cards, lunch-boxes, t-shirts -- you name it, and 20th Century Fox was asking you to 'Go Ape' over it. And needing something, anything, to anchor it, the studio turned to DePatie-Freleng for an animated version of this future gone completely bananas to milk a few more months out of this toy-aisle bonanza.

Unfortunately, their efforts failed to live up to that amazing pop-art opening credit sequence. Seems there wasn't much of a budget for Return to the Planet of the Apes, either, which went a long way in explaining why it, like the live-action series, only lasted one season. You'd think the freedom of animation would really open things up in adapting Pierre Boulle's La Planète des singes (The Monkey Planet); and while there was a token attempt to expand and engage, the series seemed merely content to rehash the plot of the first two films, with three more time-lost astronauts getting their The Fugitive on from their ape tormentors (Bill, Jeff and Judy), cast adrift in the 1970s era of non-violence and "Can't we all just get along" cartoon malaise. Most of the ape players return -- Dr. Zaius, Cornelius and Zira, and a great, new villain in General Urko (voiced by Fred Flinstone himself, Henry Corden), as well as humans Nova and Brent, who wasn't quite as dead as we thought (-- I know he got shot in the head, I know it doesn't make any sense, just roll with it... ) And those underground mutants are still around, too, causing all kinds of trouble.

The animation itself was done on the (dirt) cheap and on the cheat, with static shots and minimal animation that was recycled over and over again. (I think the camera moved and zoomed more than the cels did. And notice how all the dialogue is nearly always read over someone else's reaction to it so the mouth wouldn't have to be animated.) The only thing the series had going for it, really, was Doug Wildey, who oversaw the production and did the best he could with what little he had. Wildey was the brains behind (and did the designs for) Johnny Quest (1964), the greatest animated series of ever, and the Apes cartoon definitely echos that series' look -- a pale, low-toner Xerox copy, sure, but at least they tried. The backgrounds were really quite amazing, and just begging for a proper exploration. (I dug it, anyways.) Alas, it wasn't meant to be.

Wildey also made the apes more advanced, both culturally, architecturally, and militarily. His ambitions were for even more hardware but he ran up against the network's Emulative Clause, which required him to eliminate anything a six-year old child could imitate, which is why the Apes are armed with rifles, but never use them, and a ton of vintage military equipment that only shoot nets -- except for the howitzers, which the networks allowed for some reason. Another plus is the music by Dean Elliot, which incorporates Goldsmith's horn and percussion-heavy beats to great, menacing effect.

I honestly don't remember if this cartoon, or the Power Records, or one of those Go Ape marathons was my first exposure to this franchise, which holds a fond place in my heart. I remember enjoying it when I was a kid, and a recent revisit through the complete series boxset was fairly enjoyable as things really went off the rails as the thirteen episodes progressed, with the dragon, the airplane, the laser cannon, and, yes, in reverence to the forthcoming King Kong remake, a giant gorilla even shows up to fight that dragon in the final episode. You definitely get a sense that there was a lot of potential there for something truly special. They whiffed it, sure, but it's still worth a look for all my fellow Ape completists out there. And if nothing else, it's definitely better than that steaming pile of crap Burton burped-up for the first and rightfully aborted franchise reboot in 2001.

Return to the Planet of the Apes (1975) DePatie-Freleng Enterprises :: 20th Century Fox Film Corporation :: National Broadcasting Company (NBC) / P: David H. DePatie, Friz Freleng / AP: Doug Wildey / D: Doug Wildey / W: Larry Spiegel, John Barrett, Jack Kaplan, Bruce Shelly, John Strong / E: Allan R. Pottet, Rick Steward / M: Dean Elliott / S: Austin Stoker, Philippa Harris, Henry Corden, Richard Blackburn, Claudette Nevins, Tom Williams

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