Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Filmation Presents: Bravestarr The Legend (#1)

In my time on the Internet, I've seen numerous insults hurled at old cartoons. One of the most frequent things I've read is that Filmation was bad at animation.

Folks, if you think that, you're either ill-informed or full of bull.

Filmation produced a lot of material. When we look at the impressive runs of material they made-hundreds of episodes of He-Man and She-Ra, for instance, enough that the two shows could be shown five days a week for thirteen weeks per season without a single repeat-it becomes clear just how much they could produce... With their single-building studio.

Filmation was a tiny company. That one building (though granted, I don't know what kind of building) housed everything. Filmation had little enough going for it that it had to fall back on something other than money-it had talent.

According to DVD commentary provided by former Filmation staffers, former Filmation animators would later go on to become important members of the '90s-era animation departments at Disney. Whether or not you care for the movies of that era, their animation was beautiful.

And now we come to what this post is about: Bravestarr: The Legend was one of Filmation's later productions, in fact among its very last.

The accompanying Bravestarr series was merely a somewhat above average Filmation show for much of its run, although it had a few fantastic episodes. Bravestarr: The Legend, however, is what I consider Filmation's crown jewel.

Functionally, it's an origin story for the character. Ultimately, you can tell that for its creators, at least, it was a bit more than that. Lou Scheimer, Filmation's producer, came up with the idea, and many of the former Filmation staffers who were called in for commentary for the DVD release called Bravestarr "the best thing [Filmation] ever did." It was probably a particularly personal work for Bob Forward, who seemed to be deeply involved in the character's creation, was one of the movie's writers, and was the physical model upon whom the character was based. (Note, though, that while Forward is ethnically white, Bravestarr is obviously of Native American descent.)

Anyway, without further ado, here I begin an extended analysis and review of Bravestarr: The Legend (after the jump).

This is probably going to be one of the most picture-intensive series I've ever done. I hope you appreciate that, readers, because I've had to do this bizarre back-and-forth jockeying thing between the old Blogger interface and the new one in order to get things where I want them.

Obviously, that's why this part is after the jump.

Filmation's greatest strengths were in its writing and artists. Knowing this, they had a distinct tendency to utilize long panning shots of their wonderful painted backgrounds to fill space in episodes, giving us beautiful vistas of space and the worlds they created.

They use a similar technique here, but without the corner-cutting to save money.

See that galaxy there? It's a fully animated rotating galaxy. Scientifically accurate? Heck no! Beautiful? Heck yes!

The camera pans past a few stars at close range.

They are alive with motion, and their motion relative to each other is smooth and beautiful.

You obviously can't really tell from a screenshot, but the surfaces of those stars are roiling.

Anyway, here we go! In media res time! Random spaceship!

Here we have a spaceship with a hawk-shaped prow rushing through space.

No, don't worry, we're not going to go into the obligatory "Oh, and here's an EVEN BIGGER SHIP CHASING IT!" opening. The enemy of the people in that ship doesn't use a spaceship.

Anyway, let's meet the first character to appear in the movie: Shaman.

I suppose I should make clear that a big part of the premise of Bravestarr is "Old West IN SPACE and with actual Native Americans, as out of place as that might seem to you." It doesn't really make much of Bravestarr's or Shaman's ethnicity, though, and I think that's to be commended. I suppose you could complain that the use of the imagery could be taken as disrespectful, but I don't know. It feels very right to me.

If nothing else, it has what I think is a positive message in it: There will still be people who are embracing that ethnicity and culture when humanity has spread across the stars and throughout the galaxy. Too many works of fiction pretend they don't exist now.

Anyway, as Shaman intones "The time... has come" in a way that still sends shivers down my spine even though I've watched this about a dozen times, it becomes clear that the ship is in bad shape.

Shaman narrates to himself for our benefit that the ship is approaching New Texas, where "evil" awaits, the same evil that destroyed "our people." We'll learn exactly what he means in a while, but suffice it to say he's not talking about a nice guy.

He heads into another chamber, where we see a young boy in what appears to be a suspended animation capsule.

That boy is Bravestarr, but he won't be the hero for a while yet. It's currently Shaman's act, and Shaman even says so himself.

Anyway, Shaman soliloquizes for a while longer, and as he does so, he very flashily uses his tremendous magic powers to operate various controls.

He states that he'll send Bravestarr to safety before the ship crashes, so that he and "the powers of your destiny!" will survive, as he doesn't know if he'll survive the coming confrontation himself.

To ensure that he and Bravestarr will recognize each other when they next meet, Shaman uses one of the oldest tricks in the book, the old split medallion ploy...

...though the old ploy is rarely quite this flashy.

The medallion half left with Bravestarr, he sends the boy away in an escape pod, which will let him be found by the Galactic Marshals, who are naturally the law enforcement 'round these here parts. Now it's time for Shaman to establish his credentials as a genuine, certified batman wizard.

As the ship passes through a convenient asteroid thicket, Shaman declares that now, the "evil one" can do his worst, but he'll protect himself by surrounding the ship in "walls of stone."

"And be warned, evil one, if I survive this crash, your reign of terror will be no more!"

This is among the more spectacular displays of magic I've ever seen in animation, certainly in terms of how they chose to animate it, if not in terms of what he does.

While the way that the space rocks are depicted being attached to the ship isn't especially spectacular, the visual effects that accompany it are wonderful. There's something about Filmation's visuals in this regard that has always struck me as the best way to do it. Perhaps it's only because of personal nostalgia, but they've always seemed to have a bit more jazz and energy to them than special effects like this in other animation.

While I'm not sure how well coating your ship in asteroids would really work if you were trying to survive a crash, it's certainly an impressive feat, and it's a clever way to have elemental powers be useful in space.

Then comes the crash. It's honestly kind of nuts, not least because, after skidding along the ground and bouncing (!), the ship hits the top of a mountain. There is of course a big explosion.

The smoke clears, and in a sequence that is more impressive that it probably has any right to be, the ship is revealed, and holy cheese look at the end result.

Shaman's stone-coated ship now resembles an enormous totem pole which also happens to have four animals (hawk, wolf, puma and bear-and no, I didn't even need to think about that to list them off) which are very important to the mythology of the series. What are the chances?

Inside the ship, Shaman, much changed by the feat of surviving, throws wreckage off and proclaims "I... live. Do you hear me, Stampede...? I LIIIIVE!" *cue dramatic echoes*

Who is Stampede, beyond being the "evil one" that Shaman was addressing before? That'll have to wait until the next post on the movie.

As his bellow echoes across the surface of New Texas, a bunch of tiny, chubby people pop up from underground relatively nearby.

These are the Prairie People, although we won't hear their name for a bit, if I recall. They look over at the new piece of the landscape as the sun sets.

And here's where I'll leave off for a while (we're maybe five minutes in, incidentally). Next time, we'll get to the initial introduction to the villains.

-Signing off.

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