Saturday, August 28, 2021

Blackstar: "City of the Ancient Ones"

In the first episode of the Filmation animated series Blackstar (1981) -- titled “City of the Ancient Ones” --the evil Overlord (Alan Oppenheimer) awakens the sorceress Amber from stasis in the temple of the Cave Apes. 

The villain hypnotizes Amber to believe that Mara (Linda Gary) and Blackstar (George DiCenzo) are her enemies, and then asks her to take him to the city of Tamborian, where he hopes to learn the secret powers of the Ancients. 

In particular, Tamborian is the home of the Sanctum of Wisdom, where secret scrolls are stored.

Blackstar and Mara -- who was once Amber’s close friend -- must put a stop to the Overlord’s quest, and contend with Tamborian’s giant robot guardian. 

When the Trobbits attempt to help too, Amber captures them inside her power ring…

“City of the Ancient Ones” sets the template for future Blackstar episodes. The Overlord hatches a plan that could give him supreme power, using the magic of a minion (in this case the brainwashed Amber), but runs straight into the muscular brick wall that is John Blackstar. 

The episode ends with order or the status quo restored and the Overlord foiled.

Much more intriguing than this cut-and-paste plot-line, however, are the little details of the story and characters.  

For example, Blackstar notes straight-up that he will “never get used to having such incredible strength,” suggesting that the gravity or atmosphere of alien Sagar makes him more powerful than he would be on Earth.  Flash noted the same thing of his strength on Mongo in an episode of Filmation’s Flash Gordon (1979-1981), but it was smart for Blackstar to get that explanation out of the way in the initial episode.

Also, I appreciate this episode because it suggests that Sagar boasts a long and interesting history. The object of the Overlord’s quest is a city where power awaits him, a city that only Amber knows the location of.  

We are left to ponder how Sagar went from civilizations like Tamborian to the relative barbarism we see in these 1 episodes.  Perhaps warlords like Overlord have plundered its treasures and squelched its freedoms for generations. This idea is implied in Mara’s dialogue. “I wonder if the planet will ever get back to the peacefulness of ancient times,” she muses.  So, like Altrusia on Land of the Lost (1975-1977), Sagar offers a civilization not on ascent, but in decline.

One sub-plot in “City of the Ancient Ones” that seems strange involves the fact that Mara apparently knows where Amber is trapped (in the caverns of the cave-apes), but has never sought to rescue her friend.  I like the idea, however, that a woman named “Amber” has a bejeweled ring that can trap enemies inside it.  The Trobbits are frozen, essentially by Amber, if not actually in Amber.

Friday, August 27, 2021

Guest Post: Jungle Cruise (2021)

Jungle Cruise: “Pirates of the Amazon”


By Jonas Schwartz


Disney’s latest theme park attraction to be adapted into a narrative film, Jungle Cruise, is derivative, paying slavish homage to many Disney programs, the Jungle Cruise attraction, and pretty much every cliché of the genre. Yet the filmmakers found a winning cast, some snazzy visual effects, and a storyline that harks back to the serials of the 1930s, to craft a delightfully goofy cotton candy of a film.


Two years into the Great War, the evil Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons), heir to the German Chancellor, stalks Lily, a pretty scientist (Emily Blunt), and her brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall), for an artifact that could win the war for Germany and lead to World Domination. Lily and MacGregor hire a boastful, con artist, Frank (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), to travel down the Amazon River with a German submarine in tow. But the psychopathic Prince is not the only danger. Ghostly presences with control of reptiles and insects, also want to steal the artifact, and the enigmatic Frank may know why.

It’s hard to keep track of the films from which Jungle Cruise pilfers. The two obvious, the Pirates of the Caribbean series and the Indiana Jones series, form both this movie’s structure. The opening even lifts a line directly from Raiders of the Lost Ark,when Plemons’ devious German repeats what Alfred Molina says in the opening of the Spielberg/Lucas film, only to quickly betray the hero. 


The setting and use of supernatural enemies who change shape harks back to Pirates 1: Curse of the Black Pearl. There’s also a clever early visual spoof of The Lion King’s “The Circle Of Life.” Director Jaume Collet-Serra and his writers Michael Green, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, must know they’re not inventing the wheel with this tale, but the serial shorts like Hopalong CassidyZorro, and Flash Gordon (movies that inspired Lucas to make Raiders in the first place) all reused the same stories over and over. The predictability becomes part of the fun. 


Johnson has made a post-wrestling career out of these smarmy, but loveable adventurers, and he’s at his winking best, charming the masculine pants off Emily Blunt or having a tender moment with Whitehall.  Blunt gets to be an action star. The film allows her to fight for herself and not wait for The Rock to rescue her. Her doctor is brainy, resourceful, and kind, which is refreshing for a film of this caliber. She doesn’t need to be a damsel in distress since that role is played by Whitehall as one of the first openly gay characters in a Disney family film. The way he comes out to Frank and expresses his dedication to his sister expresses nobility BUT the exasperated flibbertigibbet hits every stereotype that films had eternally been dishing out about the “sissy,” played by actors in the ‘30s like Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore. The fact that the unashamed MacGregor exists in this film is modern, but he’s carrying 20th Century baggage. In the baddie role, Plemons camps it up with Ming the Merciless-like glee. He lays it on thick but is obviously having a good time. 


Director Collet-Serra is a peculiar choice for light action fare, since he specialized in intense horror films, such as The ShallowsOrphan, and the film famous for skewering Paris Hilton in slow motion, House of Wax. He keeps the mood breezy and even though several characters have violent deaths, he doesn’t linger on those murders and keeps the film solidly PG-13.


Jungle Cruise will not be a long-lasting Disney classic brought out of the vaults every 10 years, but it’s a effervescent summertime fun bag.

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Blackstar (1981): Series Primer

“John Blackstar -- astronaut -- is swept through a black hole into an ancient alien universe. Trapped on the planet Sagar, Blackstar is rescued by the tiny Trobbit people. In turn, he joins their fight for freedom against the cruel Overlord, who rules by the might of the Power Star.  The Power Star is split into the Power Sword and the Star Sword.  And with the Star Sword in hand, Blackstar -- together with his allies -- sets out to save the planet Sagar….This is his destiny!”

-Introductory Narration to Blackstar (1981)

Our next Saturday morning blogging spotlight falls on another much beloved Filmation animated series: Blackstar (1981).

Blackstar is the tale of an Earth astronaut, John Blackstar (George DiCenzo) who unwittingly travels to another universe – hence a Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon figure -- and joins the fight against a tyrant much like Ming the Merciless: The Overlord.

Many viewers have noted the similarities between Blackstar and another animated program: Thundarr the Barbarian (1980-1982). 

John Blackstar, like Thundarr, carries a special weapon (the Star Sword rather than the Sun Sword), and is assisted by a beautiful woman with magical abilities (Mara [Linda Gary], rather than Princess Ariel). 

Both series also involve landscapes or terrains that seem fantastic, but have a strong basis in science fiction. Thundarr dwells in a far-future, post-apocalyptic world, and Blackstar does so in an alternate universe (and planet) of dragons and gnome-like beings, as well as sorcerers. Blackstar is also assisted by a kind of “resident” alien character, not Ookla the Mok, but rather Klone (Patrick Pinney), an elf-like shape shifter.

Unlike Thundarr, Blackstar faces off against a recurring villain, the Overlord (Alan Oppenheimer), and has a regular steed: the green dragon, Warlock.  Blackstar is also a man of color perhaps a Native American (forecasting Filmation’s Bravestarr [1987-1988]) or perhaps a Latino. The series’ Trobbits also have a reflection in Bravestarr: the diminutive Prairie People.

Many viewers of Blackstar have gazed at the series from the opposite perspective, and judged it a crucial influence on the much more successful, much more popular He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (1983-1985).  That series features a hero (Prince Adam) on an alien planet (Eternia rather than Sagar), who also wields a sword (The Sword of Power), and battles a recurring villain voiced by Oppenheimer: Skeletor.

Historically-speaking, He-Man is important to Blackstar for another reason. Blackstar ran for just one season of 13 half-hour episodes on CBS before it was cancelled. The runaway success of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, however, resulted in local stations showing reruns of Blackstar in syndication, and giving it a second life.  It was in that second life that a number of toys and playsets were released.

The stories for Blackstar are action-packed, and some are written by great genre vets such as Marc Scott Zicree.  Some elements are common. Overlord, for instance, often harnesses the power of a minion (like the “Time Lord”) to achieve his goals, but they are vanquished by the forces of good.

Similarly, John Blackstar often comes to the aid of the Trobbits (think Trees+ Hobbits + Smurfs), little pink-skinned, white haired gnomes. The Trobbits live in a big red tree, over which a purple rainbow hangs in the sky. Some of the prominent gnomes are named Balkar, Paul, and Gossamear. 

I watched Blackstar on its first run and loved it, though today I don’t believe it holds up as well as Thundarr does. One of the key delights of Thundarr is the “wreckage” of our world in the “fantasy” landscape of Thundarr’s world. Blackstar has no similar conceit that adds an extra layer of interest and meaning to the proceedings.

Saturday, August 07, 2021

Thundarr the Barbarian in "Prophecy of Peril"

In “Prophecy of Evil,” Thundarr, Ookla and Ariel are locked in combat with a powerful wizard named Vashtar at his futuristic castle.  The heroes have captured a special crystal that Vashtar believes holds the key to his defeat. 

In particular, the crystal, when activated, will reveal a prophecy that dooms the sorcerer.  When this comes to pass, both Thundarr and Vashtar learn the truth.  The prophecy state that Vashtar will be defeated by three women working together.  The women are named Valerie Storm, Maya, and Cynda

Suddenly, the fierce battle becomes a race against time as Thundarr attempts to recruit these three women, and Vashtar attempts to kill them. 

Vashtar travels back in time to the late 20th century and captures Valerie while Thundarr awakens a Mayan mummy, who becomes the beautiful Maya. Later, he successfully recruits Cynda, a warrior and misanthrope.

Together, the three women join forces with Thundarr to end the reign of Vashtar, but after the battle is won at the castle, all three women are zapped back to the 20th century.

In some way, the final episode of Thundarr the Barbarian (1980 – 1982) feels more like a back-door pilot for a new Saturday morning series -- one featuring a team of Charlie’s Angels-like women warriors of various powers and abilities -- than it does a closing chapter for the actual program.

No matter, “Prophecy of Peril” is fast paced, entertaining, and filled with dynamic female characters and a great villain, Vashtar.  The story works, and the visuals -- from the castle and the crystal, to Vashtar’s air ship - are as dazzling as we have come to expect from this imaginative series.

Still, I’m sad to see the series end with no resolution or change in format. It might have been cool for the program’s creators to pull a “Conan” here and end the series with Thundarr accepting the throne of a kingdom in need, for example.   

Also, there’s still a lot about this post-apocalyptic world -- and Thundarr, himself -- that it would be nice to explore.  The series never depicted any stories about the hero’s span in captivity, as a slave.  We know almost nothing about his family.  

The same is true of Ariel.  

In short, the series could have easily run for two or three more seasons assuming that it kept charging on with the inventive (and occasionally subversive…) visuals.

Re-visiting Thundarr the Barbarian, I can say that I have come to appreciate the visuals very much.  I love the series’ tactile sense of place, and its steadfast focus on revealing detailed, post-apocalyptic landscapes such as those in London, Manhattan, and Beverly Hills.  I have also enjoyed how the series plays lightly (and humorously) with these settings, and makes commentary about them that is couched in a future world yet relevant to our own.

If you’re endeavoring to undertake a mini-Thundarr retrospective, the episodes that I enjoyed the most – and which seem to best express the values I enumerate above -- are “Stalker from the Stars,” “Valley of the Man Apes,” “Den of the Sleeping Demon” (the playground of death!) and  “Trial By Terror.”

Sunday, August 01, 2021

Thundarr the Barbarian in "Trial by Terror"

In “Trial By Terror,” Thundarr, Ookla and Ariel arrive in Atlanta just in time to save Thundarr’s friend, Thorak from execution by the corrupt town’s sheriff and his pig-man deputies.  

Specifically, Thorak has been accused of stealing fuel needed by the local villagers.  However, Thorak disputes these charges vehemently and Thundarr believes his friend.

Behind the scenes, a wizard named Artemis -- who lives in a Southern plantation -- is pulling the sheriff’s strings.  Specifically, Artemis needs the valuable fuel so he can launch his fearful new weapon, a vehicle called a “death ship…”

What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate…

Actually, what we have here is another Thundarr the Barbarian (1980 – 1982) episode that functions -- in an under-the-radar fashion -- as a kind of social critique.  Specifically, the episode looks at the Deep South, and the corruption it imagines there.

“Trial By Terror” opens with beautiful, highly-detailed images of post-apocalyptic Atlanta, and then moves into such weird imagery as uniformed pig-people driving pre-holocaust police cruisers.  Now, this is where the commentary comes in, at least in a visual sense. These police officers are, literally, pigs.  Modern slang often associates police officers with swine in terms such as “pig” but also “bacon” and “Trial by Terror” actually literalizes the concept.

The pig metaphor works here, in large part, anyway, because the episode strongly creates the impression of corrupt law enforcement officials “feeding from the trough.” Even the human sheriff is fat, and resembles a pig.  Think Boss Hogg on The Dukes of Hazzard. It’s much the same idea here, only with actual pig-mutants serving as police.

Also, there’s a commentary in “Trial By Terror” on entitled aristocracy. Artemis is an effete, over-dressed wizard who lives in a plantation, far away from the ebb and flow of village life.  He wants to control the village, however, and so “buys” the sheriff and the police force, essentially, to make his wishes come true.  But, of course, he doesn’t stand a chance against Thundarr.

“Trial by Terror” features some of the weirdest visuals yet featured on Thundarr the Barbarian. One shot shows pig-man police officers attacking Thundarr while flying through the air on rocket packs.

That’s not something you see every day…unless you make it a habit to watch Thundarr: The Barbarian.

The Road Warrior (1982)

I first viewed  The Road Warrior  on a double bill with  Superman III  at the Castle Theater in Irvington, New Jersey. I was thirteen or fou...