A couple years ago, I reviewed every film in the Showa Era Godzilla series. From the 1954 classic all the way to the 1975 finale. And sometime soon, I plan to plow my way through the Heisei Era Godzilla films.
The point is that I love me some Godzilla, and that’s a matter of record. And now I’m going to give it to you straight: I ALSO love the often-mocked 1978 Godzilla animated series from Hanna-Barbera. Yeah, the one with Godzooky. And I’ll tell you why after I summarize the basic plot of the show.
Godzilla: The Original Animated Series (Hanna Barbera)
The cartoon follows the voyages of the research and exploration ship the Calico and its courageous crew: Captain Majors (Jeff David), scientist Dr. Darien (Brenda Thompson), assistant Brock (Hilly Hicks), youngster Pete (Al Eisenmann), and their pet monster Godzooky (Don Messick). For one reason or another, their voyages always seem to encounter the threat of a giant monster, and when that happens, they summon Godzilla (Ted Cassidy), the King of the Monsters!
Using a pager.
Yeah, that plot summary probably sounds like shit to anyone who hasn’t seen the show as well as to most of the people who HAVE seen the show. But hear me out.
Thanks to Ted Turner ruling cable boxes throughout the ‘90s, the Hanna-Barbera catalog of cartoons got a LOT of play; Godzilla among them. Episodes were included on TNT’s Godzilla-thon and on regular rotation on Cartoon Network. I remember one summer in the mid-90s, Godzilla aired in the early weekday afternoons in a block alongside The Centurions and G-Force. I would come inside, eyes still blurry from the sun and pool chlorine, quickly rinse myself off and get dressed just in time for Godzilla, a cartoon that was going on 20 years-old by the time I was getting around to it.
And I couldn’t get enough of it. I was already a Godzilla fan by that point and I was more than happy to spend every afternoon that summer watching his bafflingly off-model exploits via the kind of limited animation only the 1970s could offer.
But all saccharine nostalgia aside, I’ll tell you why everything everyone says is terrible about Hanna-Barbera’s Godzilla cartoon doesn’t bother me a lick. You want to do this in a bulleted list format? We can go there.
Okay, yeah, fuck Godzooky. He’s pretty bad.
But let’s try to exercise some context regarding his inclusion in the series. Despite being Godzilla’s nephew (that’s what they said in the show), Godzooky fills pretty much the same role as Minilla, the son of Godzilla from the Showa era films. Just like Minilla, Godzooky befriends humans and gets into trouble and blows smoke rings and acts as juvenile comic relief.
Heck, Godzooky even shares a similar dynamic with Godzilla as Minilla did in the films. Godzilla is a “hands off” sort of parent (or uncle, in this case) both in the films and in the show. He avoids or ignores Godzooky most of the time, only interacting with him when he’s in trouble and needs saving; otherwise, he really couldn’t give a shit about the brat.
Godzooky’s antics are annoying, but then, so were Minilla’s. The point is that the inclusion of Godzooky isn’t anything “blasphemous” to the Godzilla canon of the 1970s. Toho had already introduced a similar character and carried him through three films in the series. Godzooky’s just an extension of that, so you really can’t say that Hanna-Barbera fucked anything up; Toho was fuckin’ it up long before them.
Regarding the uncle/nephew thing, when I was a kid I tried to make “sense” of that, mainly because I looked for any excuse to think about Godzilla instead of homework. In the Showa films, the original Godzilla died at the end of the 1954 original, and it was a second Godzilla who stars in the series from Godzilla Raids Again through Terror of Mechagodzilla. So my head canon was that Godzooky was the orphan of the original 1954 Godzilla, being raised by the second Godzilla, hence his “nephew” status.
I’ve put more thought into Godzooky than you have. I’m not proud.
*Godzilla working with humans
And in that same vein of “Toho was doing it at the time, too”, we come to Godzilla’s status in the show as a heroic character who consciously works alongside humans to protect the Earth. While having Godzilla respond to what’s basically a pager and follow orders from a human team is really pushing it, he’d already cooperated with humans in the Toho films shortly before this series.
In Godzilla vs. Hedorah, he helps the scientists and military power up their heatwave machine to defeat Hedorah. And in Terror of Mechagodzilla, he helps the humans use a ray on Mechagodzilla and Titanosaurus in order to stop them. And so far as his status as friend of humanity goes, the general public had already come to view Godzilla as their savior by the films made in the ‘70s.
So while Toho has worked these past few decades to make Godzilla a scary monster that’s apathetic toward human life at best, in the 1970s he was uniformly characterized as a hero who cooperated with humans. The Hanna-Barbera show took it to an extreme, sure, but it wasn’t out of line with what Toho was up to.
Okay, so maybe Godzilla waving “good bye” like a visiting Aunt about to drive home after Thanksgiving wasn’t so cool…
And maybe his wagging a disapproving finger at Godzooky to shame him into staying safe was a little lame…
But let’s not forget about the times the Toho films did this…
So let’s be real: Godzilla being given silly human gestures in the cartoon was perfectly in-character with how the films of the era portrayed him.
*Godzilla’s laser eyes
So this one I can’t defend. Throughout the series, Godzilla shoots lasers out of his eyes just as frequently as he breathes fire. It’s weird, but apparently the Hanna-Barbera folks had to include it as a concession to Broadcast Standards & Practices.
BS&P has always been skittish about fire in children’s cartoons. Here’s a fun game to play next time you’re watching a cartoon or even a live-action show aimed at kids. Whenever fire appears, even a campfire or a lit candle, pay attention and you’ll notice that they almost never show the characters lighting matches or a flicking a lighter. You might hear the sound effect off-screen and then the fire is lit, but rarely will you see the characters starting the fire. Evidently, it’s to prevent kids from playing with matches and killing their families.
Well, BS&P felt the same way about Godzilla breathing fire. Godzilla still breathes fire frequently throughout the series, but the laser eyes were created as a compromise to appease BS&P. That way, whenever they sent back notes saying “no fire in this scene”, the writers wouldn’t have to rescript the entire sequence but could just change it to “laser eyes” and achieve the same results.
But regardless of any federal regulatory committee forcing changes on the show, we still have an incarnation of Godzilla who shoots lasers out of his eyes. That’s kinda dumb, but I never thought of it as a dealbreaker. Heck, Godzilla pulled new powers out of his ass in the films all the time. I already showed you a picture of that time he learned to fly in Godzilla vs. Hedorah, but what about that time he turned himself into a giant magnet in Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla?
And now that we’re out of the Bulleted List of Desperate Justifications, there’s something else I want to bring up. Hanna-Barbera’s Godzilla had its silly comic relief in Godzooky and its kid-oriented POV character in Pete, but the show was still presented with a bizarrely serious tone. Although there was comic relief, the series didn’t aim to be comedic and there’s always a firm matter-of-factness to the plots and threats as the characters race to find a way to stop each new monster. The “funny” shtick with Pete and Godzooky typically bookends each episode; everything in the middle is awkwardly grim.
Heck, you know what they say a lot in this show? “Thank God.” Yeah, with a capital “G”. And no, they aren’t talking about “Godzilla”. I know it seems like such a little thing, but frankly most kid’s cartoons avoid direct religious references and something like “Thank God” is treated like it might as well be an F-bomb. They’d occasionally utter it on super duper serious shows like Batman: The Animated Series and it always seemed like a big deal. I was a little amazed to hear it in a cartoon from the late ‘70s. Characters constantly thanking their Christian deity whenever they narrowly escape certain doom is part of that “awkwardly grim” situation I was talking about.
Although it only ran for 26 episodes (across two 13-episode seasons), there’s a great amount of variety to the monsters and conflicts. Some of them feel like analogs to Toho characters, like the Fire Bird from “The Fire Bird” might as well be Rodan and the Breeder Beast from “The Breeder Beast” (the titles were very on-the-nose) is essentially just Hedorah. The more original creatures, however, present Godzilla with interesting challenges.
The Cyclops from “The Horror of Forgotten Island” (hey, not a bad title) is one of the better enemies; an Ebirah-like lobster-monster that can become intangible and invisible and ultimately can’t be destroyed. The humans and Godzilla have to find a way to keep it trapped on the island since they can’t kill it. There’s also the Magnetic Monster from “The Magnetic Terror” (boooo) which is a giant seat turtle. So hey, it’s the closest we’ll get to Godzilla vs. Gamera.
There is a formula to the show and that can make it rather tiresome to watch in large batches. Basically, the Calico will be threatened by a natural disaster in the first few minutes of the episode, inciting Captain Majors to send the Godzilla Signal to summon Godzilla to save them (and establish the dynamic for any new viewers just tuning in). Then the humans will meet the monster of the episode and something will happen to keep Godzilla from defeating it before the second act. Either the Godzilla Signal will be damaged and they can’t immediately call him, or some contrivance will waylay Godzilla and prevent him from fighting the monster until the third act. But by the third act, Godzilla straight up murders the monster. Well, some of the time. Most of the time.
The formula is tiresome, but has its moments, at least when the writers have some extra fun with it. Frequently, the monster is too powerful for Godzilla to defeat with his usual skill set of wrestling and arson, so the plot will require the humans to divine the creature’s weakness. It keeps the story rolling for 22 minutes and we usually get a decent-length monster battle that takes up most of the third act, so I never felt gypped on any Godzilla action.
The human characters aren’t very vivid or interesting, alas. Since the show takes itself so damn seriously, no one has any overblown cartoonish quirks to make them stand out. The voice acting is very good, largely thanks to voice director Wally Burr (who also directed shows like G.I. Joe and The Transformers), but the scripts ensure that everyone stays as bland as possible.
The animation, too, is what you’d expect from a 1970s Hanna-Barbera production. It’s pretty weak. They reuse assets on all the primary human characters, so nearly every talking head shot or motion cycle of a main character is the same in every episode, just with different dialogue looped in. It certainly doesn’t help with that “bland” factor I was describing a paragraph ago.
On the bright side, since there’s a new monster in every episode, they CAN’T reuse any assets on them, so the monsters tend to get the best animation with the highest framerate and fresh action cycles. While footage of Godzilla rising from the sea or stomping through a city is typically recycled, all his fight scenes are newly animated for each episode. While they certainly look drawn on a budget, you can at least look forward to the promise of fresh visuals in each episode. It could be worse. It could be Filmation.
Look, *I* like the ‘70s Godzilla cartoon. I think we’ve established that. So I supposed the question now is, will YOU like the ‘70s Godzilla carton? Well, objectively, I don’t think it stands much of a chance appealing to modern viewers. It was already going on 20 years-old when I watched it, sure, but I grew up in an era of cable television when it was common to see practically nothing but syndication packaged reruns of ancient Hanna-Barbera cartoons on at every hour of the day. I had kinda grown a callus to them early on. I don’t think the children of 2016 have the patience for these kinds of shows anymore (though the average Adult Swim cartoon has decidedly worse animation than Hanna-Barbera shows from the ‘70s, and that’s even accounting for the Adult Swim cartoons that reuse animation from Hanna-Barbera shows from the ‘70s).
But for the Godzilla fans out there who have gone through all the movies and are looking for something else to keep them occupied, then I think you ought to give the cartoon a chance. Yes, it gets a lot of things “wrong” (Godzilla has a simplified character design that’s easier to animate, his fire breath isn’t blue, he lacks the trademark roar which is apparently licensed separately and Hanna-Barbera didn’t want to pay extra for it), but if you take the show in the CONTEXT of when it was made, you might find that it doesn’t get as much “wrong” as you think.