Best of British… Sort Of! Cartoons That Were Big in the UK! Parte Uno!

I’m always getting great suggestions in the review comments for shows to write about, although a curious point came up yesterday – British cartoons rather than American cartoons. Britain as a dramatic giant probably goes unrivalled, but we haven’t really had an animation industry in the same way North America has. When you get past a lot of the whimsical shows that are instantly accessible for kids before they even hit school, you then have shows like Bananaman and Danger-Mouse and Count Duckula where there’s an element of action and adventure, but it’s comedy first because they starred guys like David Jason and Terry Scott and the Goodies, who were all comedy (and dramatic, in Jason’s case, even inside Only Fools and Horses [Rodney’s wedding, for instance]).

But, Britain loved importing shows, and there were a couple of shows from all over the world that were big hits here but not so big in America, so they’ll act as a substitute for now.

Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds – Dogtanian’s Journey

Talk about a show that hit big and a theme tune that’s still remembered today. Dumas’ The Three Musketeers is played out with dogs (and cats and foxes and mice and bears) as the cast. In quiet Gascony, Dogtanian duels with other kids in the village such as his longtime enemy Francois with the dream of being a musketeer. When a real musketeer arrives looking to recruit someone to the forces of Monsieur de Treville in Paris, Francois thinks it’s going to be him, but it’s actually Dogtanian’s family he’s come to visit. We find out that his father is a retired musketeer and peer of Treville, an old friend.

This episode still has the same emotional impact on me that it did when I first saw it when I was five, as I used to dress up in boots and a hat with a sword and pretend I was Dogtanian. The realisation comes later in the episode that Dogtanian is the one destined for greatness, but not without a long road to travel to get there. Dogtanian’s mother is caring and concerned, while his dad is somewhat more relaxed about things, training his son discretely so that he can carry on in his footsteps. However, when Francois plans an ambush of Dogtanian (with his “brave men” hiding in the bushes, as noted by the sarcastic narrator), which is promptly foiled, he turns up to show the young lad what real fighting is about, giving him a real blade to duel with him. The blue sky turns grey immediately in a frightening scene, with the sun covered by clouds and a wind and storm whipping up. Dogtanian thinks his father has been possessed as he fights him for real, to test his skill. The dad wins, but marvels privately at how good is son is.

With confidence in his son, he sends him off to seek his destiny. The mother will obviously miss him, as will his dad, but the latter realises he would be holding him back if he didn’t accept the invitation to send him to train in Paris. He gets a horse to ride, the goofy Sandy, and his father’s sword and a simple red uniform, plus a vague ointment “that will heal any wound” from his mother. At this point in the episode the first time I watched it, I was crying as Dogtanian leaves his home, with his parents in tears, then even old nemesis Francois coming down with his buddies to wish him the best. One of the very best opening episodes of a cartoon in my opinion, with terrific direction, acting and writing, even in the adaptation from Spanish and Japanese to English.

Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds – Dogtanian and the Blue Falcon

This isn’t the next episode, instead the 20th episode of 26. By this time, Dogtanian is not a full musketeer, but is a trusted compatriot of musketeers Athos, Aramis and Porthos. He has a love interest, Juliet. A companion, Pip, a mouse with a gravelly voice courtesy of awesome voice actor Steve Kramer. We also know his enemies, the conniving Cardinal Richelieu, the oafish-but-dangerous Captain Widimer, mysterious stealth artist Milady, and the honourable enemy Count Rochefort (known sometimes as the Black Moustache!). But, this episode introduces a new enemy.

It’s a peaceful day in Paris, but suddenly an armourer runs out of his gun shop and raises an alarm! He calls upon one of the royal guards, who runs to his store, observes the store has been looted, and reads a note:

“Watch out tonight! Danger is near, for we have come to Paris! The Blue Falcon!”

The Blue Falcon is the most dangerous criminal in Europe, so the city goes into lockdown (a musketeer rides through the streets crying out “The Blue Falcon is here! Lock your doors! Shutter your windows! The Blue Falcon is in Paris!”). Then, just as suddenly, with only Athos, Aramis and Porthos patrolling the streets, the story changes after the Blue Falcon has secretly infiltrated the city. A drunken Widimer is called upon by an old wretch, who reveals a secret to him – a treasure map is hidden in a mirror in Paris. Widimer could be rich and powerful if he finds it, so with Rochefort’s support, he sends all of his soldiers out to steal all the mirrors in Paris.

As Widimer’s men steal all the mirrors, you can definitely hear the Japanese prog-rock influence on the score. It turns out the mirror they need is the possession of the Queen, so the scheme develops. Rochefort and the old woman get the map and work out the location of the treasure, with Juliet and Pip seeing them as they leave. Pip heads after them, losing everything but his underwear as he clings onto the underside of Rochefort’s horse as they head into the countryside. Then, Rochefort’s horse starts to flag, dropping down. The old woman reveals why – she has poisoned the horse. Rochefort is enraged and tells the old woman to slow down, which she refuses to do. She then reveals her plan to get the treasure for herself! A big argument kicks off, as Rochefort questions who she really is, leading us to:

“WANT TO KNOW WHO I AM? LET ME INTRODUCE MYSELF!”

The voice shockingly turns from female to male with that exclamation, which scared me to death when I was a kid, with the face being pulled in a dramatic reveal – the old woman is truly the Blue Falcon! He fends off Rochefort, with Pip now attached to his horse. Dogtanian tracks them down just as the Blue Falcon finds the jewels he seeks, with Pip knocked out by his riding crop (Pip: “Goodnight… sweet prince… and flights… of angels… sing thee to thy rest!”).

This is just a terrific episode, my favourite one of the series, with many great ones, and it would be followed up with the Blue Falcon and his men finally being brought to justice. I loved the excitement and the twists and turns. There’s also something with the inherent weirdness of the show that aids it even further.

Around the World with Willy Fog – The Wager

An anthropomorphic adaptation of Around the World in Eighty Days, from Spain, dubbed by American and British actors including Cam Clarke (Leonardo from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), with Willy Fog (not Phileas Fogg) a gentleman lion (and seemingly played by an English actor). He awaits former French acrobat Rigodon, filling the role of Passepartout from the novel, for an interview as his butler. Inside Rigodon’s bag, his former circus partner Tico, an Italian hamster who makes up for Rigodon’s shyness with his volume and outspokenness.

Being dubbed from original Spanish, the voice actors have to speak with a noticeable rapidity of speech and there’s a lot of improvisation and narration to make up for where the mouth movement does or doesn’t match. A lot of recurring music as well. Even though the dialogue is quite speedy, the storytelling is still quite relaxed and there’s not the normal tripartite structure of an American show. Also, it’s a story told in 26 parts over 26 episodes.

We start to meet other characters too, like policemen Inspector Dix and his dim-witted compatriot Bully, and the antagonistic Mr. Sullivan, head of the recently robbed Bank of England. At the Reform Club, a wager is made regarding the ability to now travel around the world in eighty days, with Fog accepting the bet from Sullivan.

It’s an interesting and curious episode to revisit, because it’s basically three scenes (interview with Rigadon, introduction of the policemen and the possibly implication of Fog in the bank robbery, then the wager at the Reform Club) with almost all talking and character development, but before you know it the episode is over, so engrossing it is. Some foreshadowing of drama to still unfold, which is picked up in the next episode.

Around the World with Willy Fog – Bon Voyage

Fog prepares to depart London on his lightning tour of the world. Rigodon and Tico get a musical number that’s clearly dubbed over a totally different Spanish original. Then Rigodon finds out about the world tour and starts pulling his hair out, as he’d hoped at last after years of travelling to be settled in one place permanently. Sullivan begins to show his bad nature, living up to his lupine appearance by meeting up with master criminal Transfer, a sinister guy whose left pupil glows red before the entire eye glistens and has an incredibly cool voice, to delay Fog as much as he can. Another complication is Dix and Bully seeing Fog’s face on the front of the newspaper and reckoning that he is the man matching the profile sketch for the bank robber, so they secretly trail him as well.

The tendency for comedy is more evident in this episode than the last, but it still works hard to stay faithful to the drama and tension of the novel. This is a show that would get really dark at times too, including Fog having to foil a sacrifice to the goddess Kali. It’s why you’ve got Dix and Bully as well as Transfer, who already shows off his disguise abilities in a scene set in darkness. His removal of a female mask is played in quite a freaky way. The series showed quite early the ability to switch from funny to scary rapidly depending on the scene.

Tomorrow: Back with some more shows that were big in the UK and still remembered today.