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The Murky Depths of the Hanna-Barbera Universe

Weirdest_of_Hanna-Barbera

Hanna-Barbera Productions is such a sprawling enterprise that it’s a wonder we don’t talk about it more often. Hanna-Barbera is a bit controversial among animation fans. On the one hand, you can’t deny that cartoons like Scooby-Doo, The Flintstones, Yogi Bear, and Space Ghost Coast to Coast are beloved classics with generations of fans, with continued airplay on Cartoon Network to this very day. These shows have helped shape the landscape of popular animation.

On the ooooother hand, you also can’t deny that Hanna-Barbera’s main forte is the equivalent of cheap cartoon Spam. Pioneers in the field of limited animation, Hanna-Barbera never met a corner they couldn’t cut. Their rock-bottom production values enabled them to produce an unbelievable amount of content, while also having a production quality that has prompted critics to dismiss their works as “illustrated radio.”

Hey, and many have said even worse. “Did Hanna Barbera Really Have Bad Animation?” “Is Hanna-Barbera The Worst American Cartoon Studio EVAR~?” “Why Does Every Hanna-Barbera Movie Suck?” They even have their own category on the Terrible TV Shows wiki, which I just discovered exists.

Well, we’re not here to pillory the studio too badly. Their gems have earned their own fanbase and every kid can attest that they’ve at least enjoyed a few hours with Hanna-Barbera. And let’s face it: They sure aren’t the only cheap cartoon studio.

But we are here to explore the unplumbed depths of the HB vaults. We’re going to examine the weird, oddball works that you never heard of, and perhaps uncover some new gems to explore. Fun stuff? Hey, that’s what we’re here for!

Alice in Wonderland or What’s a Nice Kid Like You Doing in a Place Like This?

We start out as far from Scooby-Doo as possible. First you’ll no doubt be surprised that HB did their own adaptation of Alice in Wonderland as a TV special in 1966. Next, watch that clip: The is the Rat Pack legend Sammy Davis, Jr. singing as the Cheshire Cat. And a pretty catchy tune it is, too! This all-star production also has Zsa Zsa Gabor (Queen of Hearts), Mel Blanc (various roles), and Harvey Korman (Mad Hatter). In typical HB style, they pretty much thrashed the source material in the name of forcing Fred and Barney into a couple roles, and other shenanigans. Still, it’s a bizarre bit of pop culture Zen that makes for a heck of a period piece.

Inch High, Private Eye

This was just so typical of Hanna-Barbera insanity. Inch High, Private Eye was one of the (estimated) ninety-umpteen-trillion crime-fighting comedy shows that the studio spewed out on Saturday morning like a firehose of mediocrity. While the opening is clever, the gimmick of a tiny man being a detective was the sole feature to distinguish this from a thousand other HB shows exactly like it. Also, HB had a noticeable fetish for comedian Don Adams (Get Smart), hiring the closest impersonator when they couldn’t get Adams himself.

Laverne & Shirley in the Army

And this was just typical of Hanna-Barbera randomness. Mayhaps, watching the above episode from the YouTube channel devoted to just Laverne & Shirley in the Army (current subscribers: 12), you have a few questions? Why were they adapting an animated version of the live action sitcom spin-off of Happy Days? Why did Laverne and Shirley join the army? Who thought kids would even watch this? Why is there a space alien? Why is there a little pig in an army uniform? Why was the first episode called “Invasion of the Booby Hatchers”? How did King Kong get involved? How did they actually get Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams to sign on for this? How did this last 2 seasons? Why are we here? It’s possible that Hanna-Barbera just made up shows with a Mad Libs notepad, which would explain a lot. Anyway, here’s all 13 episodes, you just sit back and enjoy.

Pac-Man

This was the very first cartoon series based on a video game, and you’d better believe that Hanna-Barbera executives would face a blood battle in the Thunderdome for the rights to produce it. Pac-Man lasted 21 episodes across 2 seasons, existing for no other reason than to cash in on the video game fad. You’d think that a game about a circle eating dots in a maze while evading ghosts would be tough to wring a story out of, but since when did lack of logic ever slow Hanna-Barbera down? They just tossed in a bald villain name of Mezmaron, who wants to rule the world by owning all the power pellets. Doubtless the producers arrived at this story by the same means that its protagonist functions: by gobbling lots of pills.

Capitol Critters

By now, you’ve completely exhausted the “WTF???” center of your brain and you’re just ready to let the endless tide of babbling insanity that is Hanna-Barbera Productions wash you out to sea with Cthulhu’s laundry. So you’re ready for Capitol Critters, a short-lived 1992 show that was one of many attempts to dethrone The Simpsons as the number-one prime time animated show. So of course they came up with a show about cockroaches, rats, and mice living within the basement, walls, and air vents of the White House in Washington, D.C. Oh, they didn’t cheap out on voice talent; they got Neil Patrick Harris and Bobcat Goldthwait, plus guest appearances from the likes of Tim Curry, Linda Gray, Helen Hunt, and more. The villains of the show were a couple of cats who were parodies of then-President George H.W. Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle. You know the drill by now, just smack your forehead and move along.

Hägar the Horrible: Hägar Knows Best

This is where we get the very rare occasional payoff for ransacking the Hanna-Barbera archives. Hägar the Horrible is a surprisingly well-done 1989 TV special based off the newspaper comic strip about a Viking family in ancient times. For once, Hanna-Barbera quit fooling around and put in some effort. There’s some actual funny lines here and there, a reasonable story, and no aliens or other nonsense. The animation for once even manages to look better than construction paper cut-outs. Isn’t it baffling? So of course, out of all the cannon fodder HB splattered out for decades, this was the one pilot they never developed into a series.

Partridge Family 2200 A.D.

Finally, we turn back to one of the series that showed everything Hanna-Barbera did to earn their reputation as the kings of bland, processed, extruded cartoon product. Partridge Family 2200 AD checked the maximum possible cheap and lazy boxes on the HB bingo card:

  • A musician family – Because a song per episode means seven minutes less dialog to write, and performances can be animated with the same looping animation
  • A laugh track – The ultimate insult to a cartoon
  • Recycled from a popular franchise – For God’s sake, don’t take a chance on something without a focus-tested market
  • Recycled from an earlier series – The Partridge Family had already shown up as characters on the HB series Goober and the Ghost Chasers
  • Recycled IN SPAAAACE! – Literally the trope namers
  • Recycled IN TIIIIME! – Absolutely no explanation how they ended up in 2200 AD, we must have just cloned them from toenails
  • Replace the original with an impersonator – Shirley Jones and David Cassidy were not on board, so they found voice impersonators; later cast members leaving saw the same fate
  • Stiff stick-figures and nodding heads – The cheapest possible animation quality
  • Self-plagiarism – Notice any similarities to an earlier long-running show?

I mean look at that opening! It’s the Jetsons‘ flying cars, city on stilts, same technology – they even used the same sound effects from The Jetsons! Even the dog, Orbit, was just a robot version of the Jetsons’ dog Astro. On top of these other indignities, the show has nothing that made the original Partridge Family memorable, least of all its clever writing. This puts it in the running for being an insult to not one, but two beloved franchises. Partridge Family 2200 A.D. routinely makes the “worst-of” lists.

That was a rough ride!

Like I says, we don’t come to kick HB around, just show the weirdest extremes – and it was such a tough list to pick out! There was so much more to the Hanna-Barbera surreal neverland. Just assume that for every show on this list, they made a dozen more that varied little but were equally cross-eyed goofy.

It’s really not accurate to say whether the studio is hated today. As we pointed out up top, Hanna-Barbera did produce some great hits that are fondly remembered. But then they produced a megaton of raw sewage, too. I guess if you just fire semi-automatic cartoons from double hot barrels for four decades plus change, you’ll accidentally spit out a few hits just by the law of averages.

Oh, one of the biggest hits was The Flintstones, so we leave you with this:

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