Animation Trails
March 22, 2023 posted by Charles Gardner

We, Robots! (Part 21): More Bits, More Bots

A final group of odds and ends, as we attempt to wrap up coverage of TV animated robots in this installment. We’ll deal with the last of the Disney product first, then briefly overview several miscellaneous studios’ productions not previously covered.

First up is Disney’s “Aladdin”, continuing the Arabian Nights adventure where the feature and direct-to-video sequel left off. Getting the Bugs Out (2/6/94) introduces Mechaniclees, the self-styled “Greatest of the Great Greek Geniuses.” His existence is first learned of beginning with a happenstance purchase by Jasmine in the marketplace of a mechanical toy dragonfly, found abandoned in a canyon by a local merchant. Jasmine takes it back to the palace as an addition to her father’s collection of curiosities. The Sultan cleans away sand residue stuck in the gears, and adds some oil. The miniature begins to flitter and fly – then reveals razor sharp daggers as stingers! Genie and Carpet are called on by Aladdin, and stop the device by Genie transforming into a reasonable facsimile of Casey at the bat, and socking the metal bug into Carpet’s grip for a long fly out. The Sultan, however, lays praise of Aladdin, who rolls with it to get in good with Jasmine’s father, rather than share the credit with Genie and Carpet. Together with Abu and Iago, Aladdin, Jasmine, Genie, and Carpet investigate the canyon where the device was found, and discover a small community within which is under siege by even larger mechanical beetles, who are systematically destroying the town. The townsfolk are cowards, and look for anybody to take charge. Genie and carpet perform more feats of daring to smash the beetles, only one of which manages to make a retreat. Again, praise is heaped on Aladdin, who falls into the habit of selfishly accepting it alone, while Genie and Carpet wonder if they should get a new agent.

Meanwhile, the lone surviving beetle staggers its way back to a hideout fashioned in Grecian columns, where Mechaniclees putters around trying to keep things tidy like a neat freak. He is distraught when the beetle bursts in, leaking oil all over his freshly-cleaned floor. The beetle draws an image in oil on the floor of Aladdin, Genie, and Carpet destroying his kind. Mechaniclees sees no threat in Aladdin, but believes Genie and Carpet could be trouble. He sends out two large robot flying beetles, who hold inside an extra secret – mechanical spiders, who trap Genie and carpet in nets. Genie escapes the net, but is caught again anyway through an extra vacuum attachment in one of the beetles. Fortunately, one of the beetles leaks a small trail of oil through battle damage, allowing the rest of the cast to track it to Mechaniclees’ lair. Despite Mechaniclees’ threats to destroy them while proclaiming his intent to take over the world, the gang soon catch on about his fetish for neatness, and upset his apple cart by distracting him through making messes throughout his headquarters. Carpet and Genie are found, and the cast make an escape. But Mechaniclees is not done, and attacks in a giant dung beetle robot (or is it a scarab?), piloted by himself. The villagers cower as out heroes and heroine set for the battle. Aladdin asks for a reminder as to what the Sultan had found wrong with the original dragonfly robot, and Jasmine responds about the sand and lack of oil. Aladdin commands Genie and Carpet to whip up a sandstorm, while he infiltrates the robot’s abdomen, in search of its oil supply. Jasmine and Iago manage to lasso the dung beetle’s nose-horn, but it does little good when the post they tie it to is uprooted. Aladdin spends a harrowing few minutes being thrown about in the clockwork gears inside the robot, narrowly avoiding being chewed by the gear teeth through jamming his sword in the gears (after a slash at the oil line which begins exhausting the robot’s supply). A tornado spin by Genie provides the sand, and Mechaniclees is forced into a tactical retreat. The villagers, willing to join in at the last possible minute and take credit for the victory, grab hold of the rope tied to the robot’s horn, and pull the beast backward, toppling it over until it crashes. Aladdin finally shares credit with everyone else for a team effort. But Mechaniclees escapes to fight another day, through a cocoon and butterfly escape pod, making a checklist to get revenge, and clean the oil off of the escape pod’s wings.

True to his word, Mechaniclees would be back, still with his fetish for mechanical insects, but branching out into somewhat humanoid territory as well, in I Never Mechanism I Didn’t Like (9/26/94). Our scene opens in chaos, as Agrabah is now under attack, much like the village in the previous episode but on a grander scale, as Mechaniclees commands an army of huge robotic scorpions who not only lay waste wherever they sting, but have the power to breathe flame. Mechaniclees commands the army personally from a central “mother ship” robot. The good guys manage to topple Mechaniclees from his command perch into Carpet, who wraps him inside to hold temporarily harmless while Aladdin and Genie try to figure out the mother ship’s controls. Genie pulls a few wrong levers, adding to the general destruction around him, then tries making things slippery for the robots with an oil slick, forgetting that oil is flammable – allowing the bugs to set the oil on fire. Aladdin finally gets Genie to stop and listen, and suggests the old one of producing a rainstorm, which Genie performs by transforming into a cloud. The bugs are halted by rust, but Mechaniclees escapes with “Plan Bee”, as a large mechanical bee intercepts Carpet and carries Mechaniclees away. Genie apologizes for his ideas gone wrong, and promises he will trust Aladdin’s judgment in the future and do anything his master says.

Mechaniclees fumes at his hideout, declaring Aladdin the one variable in his plans that ruins his equations. If only he would be cooperative. Then, the latest idea hits. The idea isn’t really new at all, but a lift from the original feature – the power of hypnosis. Mechaniclees sends the Sultan a surprise package labeled as from the ruler of an unknown country, containing a somewhat roly-poly robotic manservant named Gregarious (Greg for short). Much in the maner of Jafar’s previous snake-staff, a few whirls of the robot’s spiraling eyes, and not only the Sultan, but the entire court, including Aladdin, Jasmine, Abu, and Iago, are under the robot’s commanding influence. The Sultan proclaims Greg’s judgment of such a superior level, he vacillates between appointing Greg Vizer or abdicating his own title to him. Under Greg’s influence, the palace is transformed into a sculpture of weird angular geometric shapes, while all of Agrabah’s populace is subjugated to making the place spic and span to satisfy Mechaniclees’ neatness passion. Only eyeless Carpet, and Genie (who is magically immune to hypnotism) don’t get it, and suspect foul play. But no one else will listen to them, and Genie feels promise-bound to follow the lead of his insistent master, who instructs him to show respect to Greg. The ball drops, however, when Greg invites his “friend” to enter Agrabah – Mechaniclees. Genie’s patience breaks, although everyone else acts like everything is perfectly fine. Genie transports Aladdin for a little side-conference – into outer space, far from Greg’s reach. There, he figures out that Aladdin is under a trance, and manages to snap him out of it, at least long enough to return to Agrabah with Aladdin temporarily in control of his own marbles. But despite an attack by Genie on Greg (in the guise of a beautician intending to give Greg a total makeover), Greg gets his eyes whirling again, and almost re-mesmerizes Aladdin. To make matters worse, Mechaniclees sends all of Aladdin’s friends to act as an angry mob against him. Genie and carpet bail Aladdin out by safely rounding up Iago, Abu, Jasmine and the Sultan where they are harmless and out of immediate danger, then square off against Mechaniclees and Greg. Greg getts Aladdin’s eyes whirling again, but Genie miniaturizes and takes care of things as an inside job, entering the robot and transforming his own hands into mallets, to smash up gears everyplace. The trance is broken as Greg falls, allowing everyone to revert to normal. But Mechaniclees returns to his scorpions which he has parked at the city’s edge, taunting Aladdin and the Genie with the news that he has rust-proofed them this time. Aladdin apologizes to Genie for not listening to him while under the trance, and gives Genie free rein to decide the next attack himself. Genie decides the bugs need an “attitude adjustment”, and multiplies himself into a team of mechanics, who begin attacking the scorpions with wrenches and screwdrivers, removing a stray part or two from each bug’s mechanisms. The bugs cease to follow the commands of their master, and turn their destructive powers on him. Mechanicless flees, and Genie comments that if what next happens seems painful to him now, “Wait until he gets my bill!”

Less impressive, not well thought-out, and considerably more preachy, is The Love Bug (11/22/94). Mechaniclees’s latest plot is the senseless decimation of the world’s rain forests by miniature mechanical termites (a goal which seems to have no well-reasoned object of gain for the inventor, making the story line seem artificially forced and revealing of its underlying eco-friendly message). Some strange ideas get batted around, such as Genie re-seeding the rain forest using magic beans of the variety used by Jack (a little too easy to get any message across as to any lasting harm done). Furthermore, the writers inconsistently forget that Mechaniclees should have already learned to waterproof his robots from the last adventure (something that would seem particularly useful if you are sending them to a rain forest!), as they allow Mechaniclees, encased in a bug-megasuit constructed from the amassing of his termites, to be knocked into a river, emerging only to rust solid. Can we say, rushed through production a little too hastily?

The series, “Gargoyles”. Disney’s answer to Batman, the Animated Series, started off well enough, although one could tell in an instant its visuals and atmospherics were a direct copy of the W-B “Dark Knight” look. It was clearly derivative in its origins, but the characters’ personalities were reasonably engaging. That is, until storylines quickly became so convoluted, you always felt like you were coming in somewhere in the middle, and could get as quickly lost as your attention span. So few episodes were self-standing, it became routine to hear each episode prefaced “Previously on Gargoyles” – except the recaps never seemed to provide enough information to really bring you up to speed. Additionally, its constant “nothing is what it seems” slants on every story with Xanatos (which accounted for the vast majority of scripts) gave the project an overall complexion of unsettling, with our heroes never apparently achieving any satisfying victories – so we forgot how to cheer (something that could not be said of the more memorable, even if temporary, triumphs of the Caped Crusader). Despite state of the art action graphics and smooth execution, I ceased to follow it somewhere in season 2.

At least two episodes involved robots. The final chapter of the 5-part Awakening (10/28/94) premiere has Xanatos collecting data on the creatures of the night he has resurrected through reconstructing a Scottish castle atop a skyscraper far above the clouds to break a 1,000 year-old spell. When he realizes that Goliath, leader of the Gargoyles, has learned through his friendship with a police woman that Xanatos’s intentions and schemes are not on the up and up, he concludes that the Gargoyles have outlived their usefulness – and sends in a team of robotic replacements to eliminate the originals. The robots are made of steel instead of mere flesh, do not turn to stone by day, and best of all are 100% obedient. The battle, however, is fairly quick and without much in the way of surprises or tricks, substituting crashes, explosions, and flame for genuine writing ingenuity. Xanatos is temporarily jailed, and the Gargoyles pledge to independently keep a watch on the city to protect it from danger.

Leader of the Pack (9/4/95), opener of Season 2, extends a considerable deal beyond levels of plausibility. A group of super-hoodlums which Xanatos had secretly organized, known as The Pack, are sprung from prison by the wall-climbing feats of what appears to be a human in partial battle armor and full metal mask, calling himself the Coyote. His golden armor is equipped with spiked climbing claws, missile launchers in his arms, electric shock devices to repel attackers, and a sonic hypno-ray that gives its victims visual hallucinations before a disabling knock-out. Plus, the armor provides super strength – enough to enable bending steel bars, smashing through stone walls, and even ripping the prison gate off its hinges. Curiously, the gang’s previous leader, a comely female named Fox, resists accompanying the rest of the gang during the breakout, and even defends a prison guard from one of the other gang members’ efforts to finish her off. The rest escape to a ship, where one of the gang members insists upon seeing who is behind the mask of their rescuer. They are surprised to see none other than the face of Xanatos, who claims they will all get their chance to take revenge on the Gargoyles, whom he is certain “will find us” before long to fall into a trap. Eventually, the predicted battle occurs. Most of the gang are easily subdued, but Goliath cannot seem to neutralize Xanatos, despite unmasking him. Bronx (the Gargoyles’ dog-like member) leaps in to defend Goliath, and chews at Xanatos’ face. To everyone’s shock, half of his facial skin comes off, revealing a full metal skeletal framework. It is not Xanatos at all, but a robot. (Amazing advances at Xanatos industries within one year, graduating from voiceless automaton Gargoyles to a fully artificially-intelligent duplicate of Xanatos, which has interacted conversationally and fluently with each of the characters throughout the episode, without any sign of remote control or voicing.) Now that it is realized he is not human, one of the Gargoyles is able to turn one of the gang’s super-weapons intended for the Gargoyles’ destruction against the robot, blasting its head off without remorse. Subsequently, at the prison, Fox receives an early parole for her good behavior in defending the guard and resisting the escape. She leaves the prison, to be picked up by the limousine of – Xanatos, who expresses his romantic interest in her with a powerful kiss. His dialogue is enigmatic, unclear if stated to inform Fox or merely fill in the audience that he staged the whole jail break to make her look good and get the early parole. (So, did she know of this in advance of the jail break? Or was Xanatos merely so confident of her better nature than the rest of the gang, that he predicted the result?) And, it gave him an excuse to test the prototype of the robot, which he considers totally expendable, as he can make dozens more – laying aside the severed head of the prototype in the car as he continues his passionate romancing of Fox. A strange wrap-up, that seems all too neatly tied in a bow to be believable.

Oddly, the half-face reveal of the robot, and the shipboard-based climactic battle, potentially give indication that W-B may have engaged in a little reverse-plagiarism in the authoring of Superman’s “The Way of All Flesh” episode for Metallo discussed in an earlier article, borrowing ideas from Disney in retaliation for Disney’s borrowing of series concept from W-B. Tit for tat!

Buzz Lightyear of Star Command (Disney, direct to video 2000, and series 2000-2001) was far more enjoyable. Following the adventures of the “space ranger” after whom the toy Buzz known to the fans of “Toy Story” was modeled, the adventurous captain of a space cruiser and member of a galactic alliance of good guys is surrounded by a new crew including an oversized but good-natured space alien called Booster, a blue-skinned Princess Mira Nova with the power of “ghosting” through solid walls and even into the skulls of others to read their minds, and a renegade robot named XR (short for “Experimental Ranger”), who was blown apart on his first mission and hastily re-misassembled by the Little Green Men (those cuddly three-eyed creatures who worship the Claw in every Pizza Planet), so that he now possesses an attitude somewhat screwball, with a touch of Phil Silvers as Sergeant Bilko, looking for a loophole in regulations wherever possible to satisfy his own personal ends. His design is a short, squatty replica of a ranger’s spacesuit, with head consisting of a floating brass cylinder resembling a flute, encased in a dome of glass. He is loaded with random attachments to fit the situation, much as Dyno-Mutt or others before him, though perhaps not to the extreme of Frankenstein Jr. While XR appears in almost every episode, making comprehensive coverage beyond the reach of this article, a few highlights in his robotic career include XL (10/4/00), in which he meets up with his larger, extremely destructive and evil-bent prototype (distinguishable not only by size, but by his head unit being red instead of brass with mismatched eyes), who has been re-activated from Star Command mothballs by Emperor Zurg’s emissaries to wreak havoc. Also notable were the episodes NOS-4-A-2 (10/8/00), introducing a sinister robotic energy vampire who sucks energy out of anything electronic with its bite (including out of XR), and Wirewolf (10/28/00), in which NOS-4-A-2’s bite on a human space-ranger proves to have a Wolfman’s curse effect, transforming the ranger by moonlight into a robotic, energy-devouring wolf (with XR the bait once again).

Disney robots would continue into years generally past the time frame typically covered by these articles, including in the first episode of “Kim-Possible”, “Crush”, in which Dr. Drakken steals an entire Japanese video-game factory to convert its hi-tech assembly line into a super robot, and “Big Hero 6″, a spinoff from a successful animated feature which will be separately discussed as to its feature in a subsequent article.

We turn next to non-Disney endeavors. The Mighty Orbots (MGM/UA-TMS, 1984) is the oldest leftover not yet discussed in these articles. It is another of the “join-up” type of robot shows similar to Voltron, with multiple smaller robots or cyborgs combining to form one king-size robot when needed to battle an intergalactic crime syndicate known as Shadow. Animation is downright poor, resembling something left over on the cutting room floor of Filmation. All dialogue is overplayed and entirely lacking in sincerity, much in the manner of several early adventure series of Hanna-Barbera. Just to make the resemblance to such product stronger, Gary Owens provides over-the-top narration as if he were voicing an episode of “The Perils of Penelope Pitstop”, and Don Messick also provides voicing similar to Benton Quest. Two female youths of the squad might as well have stepped out of “Josie and the Pussycats”, and a larger hulking robot bears more than a passing resemblance to Frankenstein Jr. Supporting characters in one episode even resemble the Star Wars Ewoks. The operative word is, derivative. As if the show didn’t appear to be suffering from enough problems, it was driven out of existence by a lawsuit from Tonka, who felt it was causing product confusion with their own GoBots toy franchise. After 13 episodes, it quietly passed away. There was probably little weeping.

EDITOR’S NOTE: I interrupt this post to throw in my two cents. In 1984, Mighty Orbots was quite an eye opener. I watched it at the time – and it was noticeable that the animation was fuller and had more personality than any other adventure cartoon on US TV at the time. The scripts were great, the voices, character design… I was a fan! – Jerry Beck

Robotech (1985) is one for the books. As if “Voltron” hadn’t had enough trouble attempting to fold two entirely separate Japanese animated series under one banner umbrella, this one tries to combine three series into one, excusing the differences as if set in a series of three successive wars. Little was available for research, and what descriptives exist in the web seem so complicated, I got lost just reading about them. My colleague James Parten once related a conversation overheard on a bus between two teenage boys at the time the series was in first run, in which the two youthful viewers not only concurred that they were unimpressed with the product, but that its scripts played more like a telenovella than an animated series. This may be a more accurate sum-up than any author can write in retrospect.

Robocop: the Animated Series (Orion Pictures, 1988) can only be described as lame. I can’t imagine how even die-hard fans of the live-action original could be engrossed in it – or even tolerate it. Another tale of a “Six Million Dollar Man”, this time a cop who falls in the line of duty. Unlike others who changed form from human to cyborg, this guy seems to have lost all semblance of his humanity in the operation, and talks like a robot, walks like a robot, and even seems to think like a robot, giving him no side of warmth or human appeal. Plots and dialogue are strictly by-the-numbers, with both cops and villains mechanically uttering exposition plot points with no degree of wit or personality. One wonders who was supposed to be the target audience, as the lines are so structured as if spoon-feeding the plot and who is good fut versis who is bad to a younger audience like so much pablum – yet the violence meter is off the charts, with pistols, machine guns, and ray guns blazing every chance possible. I classify the entire affair as unwatchable.

Straight out of the videogames were Sonic the Hedgehog (1993-94) and Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog (1993), both concurrently produced by DIC, from two entirely different animation units. The difference in production staff is quite evident, with the former series (aired on ABC) having a dark palette and detailed, modeled animation, while the latter (aired in syndication) is loose, sketchy, and often off-model in style, with sparce, gaudy-colored backgrounds. Story style also differs dramatically, the former series taking itself rather seriously, almost like an animal “Star Wars” resistance of freedom fighters against an intruder, while the latter series treats everything light, silly, and often toonily goofy, more like one might expect of a Toontown sequence in “Bonkers”. Though cinematically the former series is superior, qualifying as action/adventure, I think the latter better suits the mood of the original video game, which seemed toony and silly to me in the first place, and offers more opportunity for laughs, if you can get past the animation style.

Both series featured the video game’s arch nemesis, Dr. Robotnik, a mad inventor of robotic creatures bent on Sonic’s destruction. However, again the change in mood results in Robotnik being an ineffective comic nuisance rather than a real threat in the second series, allowing Sonic to have more fun with him. Robotnik is also assisted in the second series by two of his creations who serve as his bumbling henchmen, Scratch (a robotic chicken) and Grounder (a robotic mole-type with tank treads for locomotion and attachments for drilling). Scratch has a high-pitched, clucking type voice, while Grounder is deep-voiced and quite dim-witted. Situations are traditionally chase-oriented, with Sonic depending for his own backup on his more juvenile friend Tails, a two-tailed flying fox (his twirling appendages providing helicopter locomotion). An exemplar episode of the second series is Robotnik’s Rival (9/30/93), where Robotnik meets up with an unexpected stranger named Dr. Quark, who happens to turn an energy beam on Sonic at the same time as Robotnik is attempting to capture him with a magnetic ray, each ray cancelling out the effect of the other, and allowing the hedgehog to escape. Dr. Quark, not knowing of Robotnik’s reputation, has decided that the same planet as Robotnik is ripe for capture, in order to convert its society into a homage to himself – the same life goals as Dr. Robotnik. The two take an instant disliking to one another, both as competitors and as a nuisance in interfering with each other’s battle machines. Quark shows the after-effects of a failed experiment, where his lower torso and feet were transformed into the appendages of a duck, so Robotnik persistently mispronounces his name as “Quack”. Quark also has robotic assist, in the form of a traditional monolithic automaton who prides itself on efficiency and being practically perfect in every way, making Scratch and Grounder look humiliating by comparison. Quark’s robot also has the power to transform into a thousand different forms and objects, also belittling to Robotnik’s assistants. Deciding that the planet isn’t big enough for the both of them, the respective Doctors put the capture of Sonic on a competitive basis to determine who leaves town. Typical hijinks and cut-throat cheating ensue. Things get complicated when Sonic and Tails are imprisoned in a dungeon, their wrists chained above their heads, while heavy metal balls dangle from chains upon their feet. Sonic pulls a fast one on ignorant Sctatch and Grounder when they patrol to inspect the prisoners, claiming that he and Tails have already escaped, and what they are looking at are merely holograms. Scratch and Grounder grab them up to inspect if this is true, allowing our heroes the chance to struggle and escape for real. Quark’s robot also arrives at the jail, and Scratch and Grounder attempt to cast the blame on the robot for the escape, pretending that the two heroes just zoomed by him when he opened the cell door. The robot is totally confused and guilt-ridden, having never made an error before in his robotic life, and nearly malfunctions with worry. Ultimately, in a moment of need, Quark’s robot deserts him, deciding the whole affair is a bad scene, and converting into the form of a surfer dude, to make an exit on a self-produced wave. Quark curses himself for making his robot too perfect, and Robotnik gets to gloat that he surrounds himself with robotic idiots which makes himself look good. Cornered by Sonic, Quark himself decides to exit, by finally making use of his duck mutations, and joining up with a passing flock to fly South for the winter.

Also from video games was Earthworm Jim (Universal, 1995-96), which arguably could be said to fall into the category of a series about a robotic cyborg. A stray super suit falls upon a common farm, landing upon a common earthworm. Though the worm has no appendages, it is able to control the limbs of the suit, and also develops super brain power, becoming an anthropomorphic fighter of evil. And evil he gets, including from a cat of the same name (yes, Evil the Cat), a feline Satan who spreads badness from his lair in Hades, as well as other colorful villains including Queen Slug-For-a-Butt, named for obvious reasons. Assisting Jim (for reasons largely undisclosed) is a sidekick named Peter Puppy, who has the uncontrollable ability to “Hulk out” whenever angered. The series aimed for broad humor and mild satire, and was generally entertaining despite being over-the-top. Jim’s suit was decked out with plenty of firepower, including missiles and laser cannons, and other assorted gadgetry. One of his most surprising signature moves (surprising in that he would ever cause himself to endure it) was for the suit to pull Jim’s fleshy body entirely out of the collar, then, under its own power, snap Jim at full length against the villains like a whip. Jim was typically the worse for wear after resorting to this maneuver.

Big Guy and Rusty (the Boy Robot) (Columbia/Tri-Star, 1999-2001), originally aired on Fox, did not look notably appealing in its promotional commercials, causing me to avoid it entirely in its original run. Upon investigation for this series of articles, it really isn’t all that bad. Based on a comic book, it is presented as more-or-less straight adventure (despite its title leading one to believe it is merely something silly), with only a light sprinkling of dialogue humor. In the premiere episode, Creatures, Great and Small (12/18/99), we learn that “Big Guy” is a nickname given to what appears to be a military robot, many stories tall, who is transported to dangerous situations via military cargo jet, and has about a decade-old reputation for saving the nation time and again. He spouts occasional one-liners that sound like red, white, and blue patriotic hogwash, but is primarily for P.R. purposes to impress the populace and set a role model for the tiny tots. The “robot” in actuality conceals a secret. Inside it, piloting the whole affair, is a single, battle-trained military officer, and the machine has no independent operating abilities nor artificial intelligence at all. The prototype was in development for a fully-intelligent legit robot when the project commenced, but problems had arisen keeping its inventor from achieving a working model. Meanwhile, a military crisis had arisen requiring immediate action, so, rather than admit failure, the military opted for what Big Guy’s pilot refers to as an “expensive tank” with a human pilot at the helm, never letting on to the public that it was not fully automated as planned. The secret has remained safe, but now the firm that developed Big Guy wants to put the “suit” in moth balls in favor of their latest invention – a finally perfected, fully automated, artificially intelligent robot capable of learning and fighting on its own. There is one unfortunate drawback, however – the new robot is not yet capable of being produced on the scale of Big Guy, and is no larger than a small boy. Military officials are not impressed at the robot’s debut, where he is named “Rusty”, and fail to see how the as-yet untrained boy will ever be capable of replacing Big Guy. Rusty’s design is not exceptionally original – looking like a cross between Astro Boy rendered in color, and Pinocchio. (For that matter, Big Guy sort of bears a resemblance to the Michelin Man.) But Rusty is aware of Big Guy’s existence, and looks up to him as his idol, hoping somehow he can be like him one day. He longs to be Big Guy’s sidekick, but when a new crisis arises leading the military to call the pilot officer back to active duty, the officer (inside Big Guy and unknown to Rusty), states “I work alone.” Rusty neverthelerss tags along for the action, and Big Guy ultimately is thankful for same, as his own powers prove to be inferior to his current foe. When it looks like Big Guy may go down for the count, the officer runs a scan on Rusty, noting many new weapons built into him that the boy robot still does not have the training or know-how to properly use. He grabs up Rusty in one robotic hand, and plugs the entire boy robot into an interface with his own circuitry, now able to shoot Rusty’s weapons as if he were holding a pistol in his hand. The extra firepower saves the day. “Thank Henry Ford for compatible parts”, says Big Guy. At the recommendation of the military brass, and following his own similar instincts, Big Guy’s pilot decides that perhaps he can use a sidekick after all, and accepts responsibility for the boy robot’s training. The overjoyed Rusty rides happily on Big Guy’s shoulder as the pilot episode ends. I have not yet had the opportunity to determine how or if Rusty ever discovers the identity of the man within Big Guy, and how their relationship handles it, but the initial premise appears to have provided a reasonable foundation to build subsequent episodes upon – at least, for the relatively small number that were actually committed to film.

There have been at least three modern-day adaptations of Frank Baum’s “Oz” franchise in varying forms, each of which has at least featured the Tin Woodman. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was a Japanese anime version which aired from 1986 to 1987. Its graphics were exceptionally bland and juvenile-looking, as was its writing, and fails to impress. Its main distinction was an attempt to follow story arcs paralleling four of the Oz books closely – and perhaps including the first animated renderings of Tik Tok. DIC would try its hand in the franchise with The Wizard of Oz (1990), a version that, while attempting to stay close visually to the 1939 film, seemed chronically dull in plotting, and definitely lacking the “heart” in its character portrayals. One episode, The Marvellous Milkmaid of Mechanica (12/10/90), is set in a land where everyone is made of tin. The series lasted only a mere 13 episodes. More interesting, though considerably modular in design, is WB’s Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz (2017-2020), in which the scripts get a sort of Tiny Toons/Animaniacs kick in humor and one-liners, and several new characters are introduced in addition to old Baum favorites (including a comic-relief pair of talking flying monkeys, and the Wicked Witch’s niece, an apprentice witch in training who doesn’t take her evil responsibilities seriously). The series also includes some roles for Tik Tok. As for the Tin Man, he too seems to have more personality here, including both a penchant for talking out situations in a “heart to heart” manner, and an added ability of being a carry-all for any needed tool or device his friends may need, contained in a compartment inside his empty tin abdomen (much like the versatile Kowalski of the Penguins of Madagascar). Final reference should be made to two Tom and Jerry feature-length projects, beginning with Tom and Jerry and the Wizard of Oz (WB, 8/23/11), which, while placing no great deal of emphasis on the Tin Man, wove a clever backstory behind the scenes of recreations of sequences from the 1939 original, showing how Tom and Jerry ultimately assisted in the events leading to the Wicked Witch’s downfall. A follow-up, Tom and Jerry Back To Oz (6/21/16), failed to similarly distinguish itself, except for being notable for including the first completed screening of a visual to go with the deleted musical number, “The Jitterbug”.

A final nod is given to the long-running Spongebob Squarepants (Nickelodeon). One would think that the underwater community of Bikini Bottom would be an unlikely place to look for robots. But not if the writers have anything to say about it. First, it was evident that in order to be a formidable foe against Mr. Krabs, the minuscule Plankton would have to beef himself up with massive technology to even raise an eyebrow of his old nemesis. Thus, Plankton was among the first to gear up with massive robotic suits, and technology which included a “computer wife” who is essentially a monitor screen on a wheeled main frame of pipes and joints, often performing the menial work for Plankton while he ponders his next scheme to obtain the Krabby Patty recipe. But the technology doesn’t stop there. Following the adage that a picture is worth a thousand words, a video montage embedded below tracks the checkered history of automatons’ appearances in Bikini Bottom, showing up in some of the darndest places, including a radio-controlled spatula provided to Spongebob by Plankton to infiltrate the Krusty Krab kitchen. Anyone desiring to provide any specific information on the episodes from which these clips derive is welcomed to contribute. It’s just a darn good thing someone down there has perfected waterproofing of electronics, or one short-circuit might result in the entire cast being served-up deep fried.

A couple of series are bypassed here, which will be discussed in terms of their predecessor features in our finale feature wrap-up commencing next week, including “The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius” and the aforementioned “Big Hero 6″. We’ll also bypass various revivals of previously-discussed series, such as “Transformers”, “8th Man”, “Mazinger Z”, and the like.

Robots back on the big screen, next time. You can already envision the flashing glint off their metallic teeth in their close-ups.


  • Clearly opinions differ on “The Mighty Orbots”. I never saw it, but I hope others will weigh in on the controversy.

    I wouldn’t have thought to include “Earthworm Jim” here, much as I loved the show, as Jim’s super suit couldn’t function independently like a robot but could only be activated by the wearer. Be that as it may, I was a huge fan, to the point where I can still remember the queen’s full name — Queen Pulsating Bloated Festering Sweaty Pus-Filled Malformed Slug-for-a-Butt — without having to look it up. Evil the Cat (“A minor setback!”) was my favourite villain, but I also liked Professor Monkey-for-a-Head. And speaking of monkeys, one Disney Channel cartoon that most definitely deserves to be included here is the immortal….


    As the hero intones in the opening of each episode: “While exploring the outskirts of the city, I discovered an abandoned super robot. It was then that my life was transformed by the mysterious Power Primate. The robot monkeys were awakened, and I, Chiro, became their leader. Our quest: Save Shuggazoom City from the evils of the Skeleton King.” That tells you pretty much all you really need to know, and it leads directly into the show’s super catchy hyper theme song, which is bound to go spinning around inside my head all night tonight:

    “Super Robot Monkey Team Hyper Force GO!
    Super Robot Monkey Team Hyper Force GO!
    Super Robot Monkey Team Hyper Force GO!”

    And so on.

  • Now that we’re approaching the end of the Trail, I can’t resist sharing this. Back in the late 1980s, my best friend and I used to watch all the stupid cartoons of the day on TV and come up with ever stupider ones of our own. One of my stupid ideas was ROBOT BEACH, which was about, you know, the beach where all the robots hang out. Came up with a theme song and everything. I envisioned it in a sort of DePatie-Freleng style, and as in the American International beach party movies, the main characters were named Frankie and DD, pronounced “double dee” for obvious reasons. I thought up a few storylines, like a body-building contest where the robots literally build bigger and better bodies for themselves; a robot shark that menaces the swimmers; and a very special episode about an oil slick polluting the beach. After a series of protests, the chairman of the oil company (himself a robot) comes to the beach and announces a multi-million-dollar cleanup effort, which gets a big cheer from the crowd. “But before we do that, let me just remind you of one thing.” The chairman leans forward and pointedly says: “You’re ROBOTS! You LIKE oil!” After a pause, one of the robot surfers slaps himself on the head and exclaims: “Dude! I like totally forgot I was a robot!” And then they all hit the oily surf for a happy ending.

    I still think it would have been better than 90% of the cartoons that really did make it to air in the late ’80s.

  • Ugh, Mechaniclees. That was my least favorite recurring villain in the Aladdin series.

  • I am a die-hard fan of the original Robocop movie and I had no idea they ever tried to make it into a cartoon. It’s a bit of a head scratcher that they would’ve ever tried to turn one of the most violent movies ever made into a kids’ show.

  • Do you have an opinion on “Robotboy”? It used to be on Cartoon Network back in 2005. It made me laugh quite a bit.

  • Controversy? I remember back in the day I was watching The Orbots for the design and animation, very much less for the writing. Which brings up a sudden memory that I tracked down on the internet to be “Runaway Robots! Romie-0 and Julie-8″(1979) from Nelvana, which I may be mixing with clever parts of a Thanksgiving holiday special.

    Robotech was part of a trend moving those giant fighting robots away from self-motivated creatures such as the Orbots to simply vehicles. In this case the “robots” were mainly vehicles, explicitly so when in the form of fighter planes, but still when transformed into humanoid shape, or more rarely, a shape in between. The show does have a touch of robots, though: roving vending machines in the park of Macross City (don’t ask about the city), you could flag one down, and, depending on type, it would sell you a drink, or take a photo of you and your friends, or whatever. There were even public phones that would chase you down with an incoming call! That prediction sure makes up for not foreseeing cellphones!

  • Nickelodeon’s “My Life as a Teenage Robot” (2003-2009) follows the adventures of XJ-9, or “Jenny”, sort of an Astro Girl with spiky pigtails and rocket go-go boots, as she saves the world while having to navigate all the usual pitfalls of adolescence. I had high hopes for this series, thinking it could be the next Powerpuff Girls, but it didn’t hold my interest.

  • Did we already go over the Batman: The Animated Series” episode, “His Silicon Soul”? I don’t recall going through the show in this column.

  • I’m happy to see SpongeBob on Cartoon Research!

  • One show you missed was “OK KO: Let’s Be Heroes”, a charming Cartoon Network show set in a world based on anime and video games. Our heroes are the young staff of Gar’s Bodega, which supplies all the needs of the city’s heroes. There’s KO, an enthusiastic kid with a spiked hairdo similar to Young Goku from Dragonball; Radicles, the laid-back alien stockboy; and Enid a sarcastic ninja who works the register. The villain is Lord Boxman, a parody of Dr. Robotnik who runs Boxmore, the company that makes all the evil robots used by the villains. Every day, Boxman sends his robots, whom he treats as his children, to fight Gar’s Bodega. The robots include Darrell, who’s clumsy but eager to please; Shannon, who has the personality of a bratty teenage girl; Raymond, the flamboyant Latin lover type; and Jethro, a tiny guy on tank threads who can only say “I am Jethro.” Among the good guys, there’s Mister Logic, a robot who was originally made by Lord Boxman but who switched sides and is now a hairdresser.

  • Disney’s “Lloyd in Space” (2001-2004) featured the occasional robot, as you’d expect from a science fiction cartoon set in the distant future. One time Lloyd built an android duplicate of himself to help with his busy social calendar, but the robot proved to be much more popular than Lloyd himself. On another occasion, he lost all his money to a robot in a poker game.

  • You wouldn’t think the world’s most famous beagle would ever have to deal with robots, but that’s exactly what happens in “Snoopy’s Robot” (Lee Mendelson/Bill Melendez, The Charlie Brown and Snoopy Show, 28/12/85). Charlie Brown and the gang head off to computer camp, which, like everyplace else in the Peanuts universe, is totally devoid of adult supervision. Ignoring the KEEP OUT sign on the door, Snoopy and Woodstock enter a room containing an experimental robot, and before long they have it waiting on them hand and foot. But when the robot gets its mechanical hands on the remote control, Snoopy’s ears pick up the signal from it like an antenna, and the tables are turned….

  • Two lesser known series from the ’90’s involving robots:
    The Bots Master, produced by DiC alum Jean Chalopin’s C&D {Créativité et Développement):

    Cybersix produced by NoA in Vancouver and based on a comic strip series created by Argentian authors Carlos Trillo and Carlos Meglia:

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