Monday, April 20, 2009

X-MEN – The Animated Series on DVD

The folks at Disney were kind enough to send me review copies of the first two volumes of the ‘90s X-MEN cartoon, which is finally out on DVD April 28th. Since the series debuted a few weeks after the widely canonized Batman: TAS cartoon, it’s often viewed dismissively amongst comics fans, which isn’t entirely fair. Bruce Timm’s stripped down, expressionistic designs bore little resemblance to the accepted look of action cartoons at the time, and while they might’ve been hard to swallow at first, it’s clear that he created a look that’s influenced animation for over ten years now. X-MEN, however, didn’t look much different than G. I. Joe, which was already getting close to ten years old when the show debuted (and X-MEN unfortunately didn’t have access to some of the higher quality Japanese animation studios Joe used in the ‘80s).

Everything about the look of the show goes against accepted animation design theories today, but in Fall 1992 this really didn’t seem that strange (if anything, Batman: TAS looked like the odd man out). The animators looked at the X-comics of the early ‘90s and faithfully recreated every detailed muscle line, strand of hair (and, boy, do Storm and Rogue have a lot of it), cheek bone, belt buckle, and fold of clothes imaginable. It really is a Marvel comic brought to life. It’s unfortunately too faithful to work with the abilities of overseas animation studios, though. The animation in the early episodes is often stiff and clumsy, and it’s not hard to spot the recurring continuity errors. However, things do improve as the first season progresses. By “Days of Future Past”, the characters have lost a bit of their stiffness, and the overall animation is much more consistent. It’s still not up to the standards of what Warner Brothers was doing with television animation at the time, but the show’s visuals are no longer a distraction and actually help to sell the stories by the end of the first season. (The two-part Season Three opener “Out of the Past” actually has remarkably fluid animation, which makes me wonder why this specific studio only worked on a handful of episodes).

The stories themselves are often faithful adaptations of the original source material, so it’s hard to fault the creators for giving Marvel what they obviously wanted. Some of the dialogue is a little clunky, but most of the X-Men’s personalities are effectively conveyed, making the show an easy introduction to the characters and concepts of the original comics. Each episode leads directly into the next (even if it’s just a last-minute cliffhanger that’s tagged on at the end of a complete story), mirroring the ongoing soap opera that brought so many fans into the comics during the ‘80s and ‘90s. The stories try to find a balance between entertaining kids and adults, and while the show obviously errs on the side of the kiddies, the material itself is rarely dumbed down. The show doesn’t shy away from death, as Sabretooth is rather unambiguously labeled a murderer, Magneto describes watching innocent women and children die as a child, and Morph bites the dust in the opening two-parter (he of course comes back, but that’s due to a fidelity to comic book style storytelling and not a squeamishness over death). Some of the episodes seem to drag on for too long, some are just silly (the less said about the Juggernaut/Colossus episode the better), but the majority of them are pretty entertaining. I always thought the final three episodes of the first season were particularly good, and was pleased to see that they hold up very well. The vocal performances are all over the place, which can occasionally distract from the storytelling. Some voices, such as Cal Dodd as Wolverine, are almost perfect, while other major characters rarely seem able to deliver a credible line of dialogue (the show could never get Cyclops or Storm to sound right).

The DVD sets contain sixteen episodes each, which means you get the first season plus the first three episodes of season two with Volume One, and the second season plus the first seven episodes of season three on Volume Two. (Despite the appearance of Dark Phoenix on the Volume Two cover, those episodes aren’t covered. It actually finishes with the original storyline that transforms Jean Grey into Phoenix, so she’s not “dark” yet.) I imagine the episode count was done solely for accounting reasons (probably to give the buyer a decent amount of episodes for around $20-$25 a set), because there’s no real reason for the first volume to end three episodes into an extended storyline with no resolution. Make no mistake that these are barebones releases, as there are no special features that I can find. You’re getting the shows as they originally aired and nothing else. It would’ve been nice to have a few interviews or audio commentaries, or perhaps even the “rough” preview version of the first two episodes that aired with numerous animation blunders, but the sets don’t seem to be aimed at the more hardcore audience that pays attention to those things. Since numerous fans were brought into comics through this series, I imagine just the nostalgic appeal of seeing the episodes again is enough to warrant a purchase for many. I was already a fan before the series aired, but I can’t deny that seeing my favorite comic so faithfully translated into an animated series was a thrill. Looking back on the cartoons of your youth is always dangerous (Thundercats didn’t seem to induce narcolepsy as a child, oddly enough), but X-MEN has its moments, even if the styles have moved on.


Morgan said...

I have a rather strange question about one of the episodes.
Phoenix Saga Part 3: Cry of the Banshee, when this originally aired the voice to Gladiator was nice and deep.

For some reason they changed this and some of the music to this episode when it was re-aired for the last decade.

I even have the original Phoenix Saga DVD that came out maybe ten years ago and even that version has the not so deep sounding Gladiator and different music.

The music is also different for the next two episodes The Starjammers and Child of Light.

Im curious to know if the Phoenix Saga on these new DVDs has the original version of these three episodes?

G. Kendall said...

I couldn't say without hearing a comparison of the voices. I'm pretty sure these are the same versions that air on Toon Disney/Disney XD.
I know that the actress who took over the role of Storm in the second season redubbed the first season, but it certainly sounds like the original actress is present in a few of these episodes.

Morgan said...

@G. Kendall

I assumed as much, ill still be buying this set regardless.

I know Gambit and Storm had different voice actors for season 1, yet I did not know that season 2-5 Storm redubbed the first season, interesting. I wonder if Gambit did the same.

Also you mentioned the "Out of the Past" episodes, the reason for the higher quality animation is that those two episodes were a prime time special aired at 8pm in the summer of 1994. Marvel and Fox were really trying to get new people interested in the upcoming Phoenix Saga episodes.

And for some useless information.
It was around this time Capcom hired the X-Men TAS cast do do voice over work for them in their X-Men arcade games. Everyone reprised their roles except for the females in which they had the Jean Grey voice actress do all the voices for the females in the game.

Jean Grey also became the voice of Jill Valentine in Resident Evil 3. And Jubilee has always been the voice of Claire Redfield in the Resident Evil series.

Very cool of Disney to send you preview copies. Im almost jealous. =P

jim said...

So guess this means you have hit the big time now, Mr. Disney-is-sending-me-preview-dvds.

Matt said...

That business about Gladiator's voice is interesting! I was watching some episodes on Toon Disney a couple of years ago, and I noticed that Gladiator was voiced by Richard Epcar, who's known primarily for ADR (automatic dialogue replacement -- dubbing voices to already-existing animation, such as imported anime). I found this very odd, since X-Men was recorded in Canada. Why would an L.A.-based ADR guy randomly do a voice on the show?

But if he had a different voice originally (I certainly don't remember -- it was a long time ago that I saw those eps first-run), then it makes complete sense that if for some reason they needed to re-dub him, the would use a guy with experience matching existing "lip-flaps."

This doesn't answer the question of why they replaced the original Gladiator's voice, but it certainly clears up a little mystery I'd been wondering about for a couple of years!!

G. Kendall said...

For what it's worth, I just checked that episode and Richard Epcar's name is not in the closing credits.

Anonymous said...

Being a huge fan of Jean Grey/Phoenix I recorded the Phoenix Saga and Dark Phoenix Saga back on its original air date when I was a kid. I still have the VHS. and watch it a couple times a year. Last Night when I watched Cry of the Banshee on my newly purchased DVD's I nearly fell out of my bed, that was not Gladiator's voice as I knew it! The original actor was so much better, this guy is crap! Boo to you disney!

Niels said...

I just got the X-Men DVD series for Christmas and just watched the Phoenix saga. I was sooo bummed to find out that Gladiators voice was different and it sucks!!

It threw me for a complete loop as I thought I could now throw the VHS version I taped when it aired.

Guess not.

And the introduction for the "Child of Light" episode is way less dramatic then it was on air also. On the DVD the music is blah and the sfx too.

Man the only episodes I really wanted to be as I remember them was from the Phoenix saga. In the end, I gaurentee it all comes down to money and distribution rights. arrrhhhhhh, for the love of animated art!!!

Kristopher said...

Gladiators voice is definitely different and I have no idea why they changed it. Probably some legal issues with the original voice actor I'm guessing.

Anonymous said...

They never changed Gambit's voice, but it aggravates me to no end that they changed Storm and Gladiator's voice. I recorded the originals on VHS, so at least i have those.

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