REVISITING THE ANIMATED PLANET OF THE APES
Planet of The Apes remains one of the seminal sci-fi achievements of cinema, the 1968 original still remaining endlessly quoted, imitated and respected. Spawning more sequels than the average modern film franchise, it's initial run on the big screen concluded in 1973 with the lackluster Battle For The Planet of The Apes, before a maligned reboot courtesy of Tim Burton. A favorable return to form came about with the recent reboots using stunning advances in motion captured performance.
One place the Apes series continued was on the small screen with a short lived live action series, featuring film series regular Roddy McDowall. More of a curiosity however was the even briefer animated TV series 'Return to the Planet of the Apes' that debuted just over 40 years ago. Made in conjunction with 20th Century Fox, the series was made by DePatie-Freleng Enterprises, one half being the legendary animator, cartoonist, director, producer and composer Friz Freleng, whose most notable work was the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies series of cartoons from Warner Bros.
'Return' followed similar narrative tropes from the film series, involving another group of astronauts that crash land on a future earth controlled by Apes (one would think by then NASA would stop sending these missions to space). Deviating from the Ape societies of the film and live action series, the animated adventures featured a more technologically advanced race, which put it at odds with the timeline of the film. Characters such as Dr. Zaius , Zira and Cornelius (as well as General Urko from the TV series) who lived in relatively simple civilization devoid of technology in the initial film, exists here alongside a Simian culture that has evolved to use television, electricity and a modern urban aesthetic including apartment buildings. A curous aspect was the NBC, the network that aired the series, stipulated that there was to be no violence that could be imitated by a child. This resulted in Apes that, although rather vicious to their human subjects on the big screen, couldn't actually use any weapons or inflict harm on anyone.
The series featured a highly simplified look. Animation of the era often relied on reusing cells and backgrounds to flesh out stories, but Return seemed to constantly recycle complete sequences throughout the series, coming across as poor production value. Voices felt monotone and droning at times, lacking urgency. Nova, the female human character who appeared alongside Charlton Heston's 'Taylor' in the original film, here is almost laughably bad with whimpers and shrieks that sound almost like a joke amongst the voice actors. However underneath the surface lies a very impressionistic and clever visual aesthetic that when viewed in retrospect, appears as a stroke of genius. The talents of acclaimed comic book artist and cartoonist Doug Wildley were employed for the series, whose previous credits included classics like Johnny Quest and other Hanna Barbera TV greats, as well as comic book work including Journey into Unknown Worlds, Marvel Tales, Mystery Tales, Mystic and Strange Tales. The limitation on budget and production forced the shows animators to become sparing and economical with their output resulting in a range of often bizarre backgrounds and stills images. A sequence in the forbidden zone in the premiere episode relied on heavy brush strokes of white and yellow for a scorching sun, rough sketched lines for the harsh terrain and even two-color still images of characters in peril with lighting effects laid over to heighten the implied danger.
The titles sequence too featured a rather jaunty swinging tune synonymous with the music tastes of the 70s coupled with what appeared to be production illustrations edited into a fast paced introduction. Continuity was carried throughout meaning the story itself had to be viewed sequentially, an interesting move for the series makers as animated features of that time, Grape Ape, Hong Kong Phooey , Pink Panther and spin offs like Peebles and Bam Bam, shunned an ongoing serialization of story. The resolution of the astronaut's fate never coming due to the series' cancellation.
Although the pace may plod at times, Return to The Planet of The Apes is a curiosity of the Apes phenomenon, and worth tracking down the restored episodes on DVD.