Tools of the Imagination

Tools of the Imagination – Ripley

Space Marine Lt. Ellen Ripley
by Kenner, part of the Aliens toy line, produced 1992

The Cart Before The Horse

(Image courtesy of

Aliens is one of the best movies ever made.
It’s an intelligent action movie. It’s an ambitious visual tour de force. Good acting. Great sets and special effects. Nominated for everything from Academy Awards to passing the Bechdel Test. Pretty much, the question is just ‘how much does someone like aliens’. It’s never a matter of whether or not they do like Aliens.

In the wake of the 1986 film, the franchise had become a staple of science fiction, especially comics. Dark Horse Comics had produced a slew of titles for years, each more popular than the last. With the 1992 third installment, it seemed the franchise was going to heat up all over again, and so it’s little surprise that merchandisers would want to get in on it.

What is a little surprising is that those merchandisers would include children’s entertainment.


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Tools of the Imagination

Tools of the Imagination – Return of the King

The Return of the King
directed by Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin, written by Romeo Muller, music by Maury Laws, released 1980, available on DVD by Warner Brothers

Cartoon violence by the same people who brought you Christmas!

(Image thanks to Nighthawk News)

Finishing up our tour of the pre-Jackson Lord of the Rings series, we have Rankin & Bass’ the Return of the King. At the same time a sequel to the Hobbit, a sequel to the Ralph Bakshi Lord of the Rings, and also a top-down reboot of that same movie, Return of the King is a very fractured film. Rather ghastly violence, surpassing even most anime, is depicted with very cartoony characters. Stirring songs are found only scenes away from some truly terrorizing imagery. All in all, this is not the nigh-flawless masterpiece of the Hobbit but a truly ambitious and spectacular movie all its own.

Stories abound of how the mantle of the finale of The Lord of the Rings ended up in Rankin & Bass’ hands and not with Bakshi to finish. Given how different the Return of the King is from The Lord of the Rings, it is easy to forget that Ralph Bakshi’s take on the Tolkien legend was a commercial success. Never the less, his sequel was never realized and Rankin and Bass got to follow-up the Hobbit.

Bringing back the vast majority of the cast and crew from the Hobbit, this film feels much like a sequel to that movie, but with a far darker tone. This is a movie about war, genocide, and supernatural extermination. And while the makers of half the Christmas cartoons you know and love handled it as tactfully as possible, there is no getting around the rampant deaths and endless carnage on full display.

Story – 3 out of 5
Unlike the Hobbit, which kept close to the original narrative, and The Lord of the Rings, which took liberties but remained mostly true, Return of the King makes severe narrative changes. Rankin and Bass actively sought to reference the events of the Fellowship of the Ring and the Two Towers as little as possible. Aside from a very brief flashback at the beginning of the film, there’s no explanation of why Frodo is in Mordor or how he got captured or how Samwise has the ring. Likewise, there’s little explanation as to who Aragorn is or why he’s returning to Gondor.
Whole characters are eschewed as well. Gimli and Legolas are entirely absent from the film, while no mention is made of Boromir. While Pippin has a few scenes, Merry is little more than a cameo.
Overall, the story is there but so many ‘small’ changes have been made, it almost feels like a different tale.

Art – 4 out of 5
Much like the Hobbit, the art in the Return of the King is rich and gorgeous. The backgrounds and architecture are beautifully drawn and the character art is distinctive. There is some monotony to the backgrounds, especially in Mordor but that seems to be more a stylistic choice than a flaw in the attempt.

Animation – 4 out of 5
While the animation isn’t amazing, it is just short of it. The characters move smoothly and naturally. There are a lot of great scenes and ambitious cinematography.

Characters – 3 out of 5
There are really only two characters in this story: Gandalf and Samwise. Both are vividly depicted and portrayed, but no one else gets nearly the screen time. Even Frodo is almost a supporting character to Samwise in this depiction of the tale, with no real character arc or development. Everyone else is just given too little time to flesh out. Aragorn has all of two scenes, Pippin and Merry disappear for whole sequences at a time, and anybody tuning in to see Eowyn will love the scene (because, man, she out-bad asses the baddest-ass that ever badassed) but there’s really no character to speak of.
The one saving grace, besides Gandalf and Samwise, is the music. As much a character as the individuals themselves, the movie has a great soundtrack and score. ‘Doom’, with the accompanying narration by Gandalf, is one of the most haunting songs ever heard. ‘Where There’s A Whip’ and ‘Retreat’ are two stirring and catchy songs that will stay with you long after the film is over.

Acting – 4 out of 5
The acting in the film is touch and go. Some of the performers are trying their hardest but just don’t seem to be hitting the mark (I’m looking at you, Casey Kasem, god rest your amazing voice). Theodore Bikel as Aragorn is doing his best but he comes across as less ranger badass and more King David. Orson Bean as Frodo doesn’t sound wounded and exhausted so much as just kind of whiney.
The saving grace to the film are Roddy MacDowall and John Huston. MacDowall plays Samwise and his performance is as distinctive as it is excellent. The performance is a little melodramatic, but what about this movie isn’t? John Huston, however, really shines as Gandalf. This is an amazing performance that underscores the white wizard’s uncertainty in his private thoughts but his need to be outwardly in control. And his scene with the Witchking (played by the underrated John Stephenson) is legendary in every sense of the word.

Overall – 4 out of 5
Were it not for this film’s pedigree (as family to the superior Hobbit and the ambitious Lord of the Rings), it might be more-easily forgotten, but between its intermittent excellence, fantastic music, and its willingness to confront the horrors present in the story, it deserves some real credit. It’s easily the weakest of the three animated Tolkein stories, but it’s still head-and-shoulders above most of its animated peers.

Tools of the Imagination

Tools of the Imagination – Transformers

produced by Hasbro and Sunbow Productions, originally aired September 1984 to November of 1987, available on DVD and Blu-ray

More Than…The Sum Of Its Parts

(image thanks to

Transformers is a fascinating case-study on art, economics, fandom, and merchandising. Few other franchises, save maybe Star Wars, have faced the same artistic scrutiny as Transformers, due to it being essentially a commercial for toys.

And yet, unlike many of its 1980s brethren, Transformers still stands the test of time (to one degree or another), living on something more than nostalgia and schlock value. Within the origins of this franchise, we see a uniquely successful series that has endured, in some ways in spite of itself.

With the release of the fourth installment of the live-action Transformers film series, it seems like a good time to go back to where it all started by evaluating the first two seasons of the show (the third season, taking place after the 1986 movie, is too different to compare in the same breath).

Thirty years ago this September, Transformers would air in most markets across the country. While it wasn’t the first cartoon series to benefit from the perfect storm of cable deregulation, broadcast deregulation, and overall 1980s culture, it would be one of the first big successes and one of the – if not THE – most successful.

To understand the appeal of Gen-1 (short for Generation One, the fandom for the first animated series and it’s related media), you have to recognize the appeal on three levels. The first and most obvious is the simple visceral appeal of ‘alien robots that turn into cars and planes’. Right off the bat, that’s a recipe for something interesting.

Beneath that, however, are two deeper qualities which most of Transformers peers lacked. The first is a simple pulp sci-fi narrative aesthetic, as opposed to the overly cheesy Saturday Morning Cartoon plots of its peers. The plots of most Transformers episodes had more in common with the likes of Bradbury, Verne, and Asmov than they did with Scooby-Doo or Richie Rich. While certainly not the strongest of narratives, they still had a character and strength that tried to challenge the viewpoint and assumptions of the audience, like all good sci-fi should.

The third quality is one that we see less and less of as the franchise has continued, which is the nature of the Autobots and the Decepticons. In Gen-1, the Decepticons represented the warrior-class of their home planet Cybertron. Whether true military combatants or pit-fighters, pretty much all the Decepticons came from a fearsome and violent background. Counter to that, the Autobots came almost exclusively from either worker or intellectual backgrounds. They were scientists, artists, and common workers. This mismatch of roles makes the set-up of Gen-1, more or less, a group of construction workers and college professors engaged in a guerrilla war against a squad of Marines and UFC fighters. There’s almost no way that’s not going to be compelling.

Story – 4 out of 5
Transformers episodes can be hard to rate narratively because the plots are sometimes a bit mediocre when compared to sci-fi and other ‘grown up’ series, but they’re light years ahead of most of their cartoon peers. Some episodes are definitely hammy or just flat-out silly (“Kremzeek”, “Hoist Goes to Hollywood”) while others are truly stellar (“Secret of Omega Supreme”, “Fire In the Sky”). The best episodes have their problems, but the worst episodes are at least entertaining.

Art – 4 out of 5
The Autobots and Decepticons are very four-colors, no doubt. The polarized color scheme (purple and green for the Decepticons, red and yellow for the Autobots) only helps to underline that fact. Yet, the figures that were illustrated in the show were very heroic reimaginings of the toy line from which they were created. The awkward Bumblebee was remade into something a little more active without sacrificing the character and Megatron was turned from a rather cumbersome form into a daunting and intimidating figure.
The crown jewel of the show, though, goes to the Seekers (the jets, which was initially just Starscream, Skywarp, and Thundercracker). The original toys were rather narrow and straight but the show reimagined them as truly dynamic designs that were almost angelic. One of the major successes of the show could easily be just how badass they made the Seekers look.

Animation – 3 out of 5
The animation in the series was plagued with problems. Lip-sync was a huge issue, characters were miscolored all the damn time, and don’t even get started on size consistency. The show had a huge problem with consistent animation, from one episode to the next, from one scene to the next, even to one shot to the next. A good example of this is “Microbots”. One shot will be woefully subpar while literally the next shot will be some of the best animation on US television to that point. This inconsistency balances out and maybe even tilts the show towards the better end of the spectrum but mediocre is still the best it can rate.

Characters – 4 out of 5
Like the stories, the show unfairly dominates when compared to other cartoons while it is a little lacking when compared to comparable sci-fi of the time. Most characters in the show are one-note figures who have an accent and a singular persona but they rarely evolve from there. While Optimus Prime grows some character in season two, he never really ceases to be ‘robotic John Wayne’. Some characters even de-evolve as the show goes on. Starscream starts as a dangerous and intelligent (if impatient) foe who, in later episodes, is almost turned into comic relief.
That said, the ‘one note’ of each character is played perfectly, which is largely attributable to the acting (more on that below) and the voice directing. Some characters do grow as well. Sky fire and Omega Supreme are given some amazing stories, and the humans are likewise dynamic (few people even remember Raoul, Carly, or the wheelchair-bound Chip Chase).

Acting – 4 out of 5
The voice acting might be the single strongest element of the show. The cast list reads like a who’s who of some of the best voice actors in the 1980s. Peter Cullen may have played Optimus Prime but the likes of Jack Angel, Michael Bell, and Casey Kasem are not to be ignored. And, simply put, any show with the legendary Frank Welker will be the better for it.
The actors did their part, but the voice directing and production also deserves a nod. These are some of the best-sounding and best-executed performances around. Whether they knew had the money to get the good microphones or what, the voice performances are beautifully captured.

Overall – 4 out of 5
Transformers is a cornerstone of modern animation and, honestly, sci-fi itself. This is a high concept show that delivered more than promised and succeeded more than it failed. And even if you want to dismiss the interesting characters, fascinating world, and energizing stories…did you miss the part about the alien robots that turn into cars? Cause come on!

Tools of the Imagination

Tools of the Imagination – Gargoyles

produced by Walt Disney Television Animation, originally aired from October 1994 to February 1997, previously available on Youtube (but seems to have been taken down)

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles meets Batman the Animated Series

Gargoyles was a remarkable show that is the product of a time and a place in not only the culture of the company that produced it but also the culture of the country at large.  Born smack-dab in the middle of the 1990s, it was a strange mutant TV show from Disney, but with decidedly non-kiddie sensibilities.  Whole books could be written about where Disney was in the 1980s and 1990s as a company, but suffice to say that this show was not Mickey Mouse or even Goof Troop, but more like the darkest episodes of Duck Tales fused with Batman the Animated series (which this show was specifically intended to compete against).  It was a show that seemed to really committ to the idea that not only were kids worth talking UP to (rather than down at) but also that just maybe kids weren’t the only ones who liked animated shows.

Gargoyles often gets lost in the discussion of classic TV shows and cartoons, largely because it came about in a time when entertainment was shifting.  Programming blocks during the afternoon, and the once-mighty Saturday morning, were beginning to lose their sway as national interests were replacing regional programming.  Video games and computers were starting to replace toys as the primary commodity for children, while comic books had ceased to be ‘just for kids’ and were now seen as viable investment options.  Everywhere you looked, the very face of entertainment was changing and in the wake of the 1980s cartoon explosion, many titles fell through the cracks.


In 994, in Scotland, Castle Wyvern is beseiged by vikings but protected by gargoyles – mythical humanoid beasts that turn to stone during the day, but live during the night.  A complex betrayal causes the last surviving gargoyles of the clan to be stuck in their stony form until ‘the castle rises above the clouds’, a prophecy not fulfilled for a thousand years until billionaire David Xanatos buys the castle and has it flown to New York City where he sets it atop his skyscraper.  The gargoyles awaken to discover themselves in the 20th Century.

Betrayals and intrigue set the stage almost immediately as Xanatos uses the gargoyles as pawns in a powergrab.  This theme of manipulation and usage will be repeated often throughout future episodes and stories.

The ‘Manhattan Clan’ as they come to be known befriend a NYPD detective named Elisa Maza who becomes 20th Century mentor as well as love-interest for the leader of the gargoyles, Goliath.  The story initially focuses on the gargoyles coming to understand the 20th Century and deals with their multitude of foes (both new and old), but soon begins to take a turn towards the magical as the Clan – and then specifically Elisa and Goliath – begin to have dealings with faries and other denizens of fairy tales from around the world.

The first two seasons were considered only moderately successful (commercially anyway; fan and critical acclaim were steady), especially when compared to Batman the Animated Series (against which the show was meant to compete).  A third season was produced by ABC after Disney cancelled the show, but many (including the show frontrunners) have generally disavowed it.


Story – 4 out of 5
Gargoyles’ stories are often a cut above the rest.  Some of them are a little hokey, with morals that are a little forced (see Lighthouse in the Sea of Time, Outfoxed), while others are quite simply masterpieces of the genre (see Deadly Force, City of Stone).  There are really no episodes that can be considered ‘bad’, while more than a few can be seen as sterling examples of writing.

Art – 3 out of 5
The art in Gargoyles is underwhelming but more than adequate.  Given that the show comes from Disney – who literally pioneered animation – especially when it comes to the use of color and visual texture, the show can feel a little underwhelming.  It’s not bad at all, but when you compare it to the lush backgrounds of Ducktales or Tailspin (which were contemporaries of Gargoyles), the show looks a little flat.  It clearly is trying to be Batman TAS and, while not an innoble goal, it’s just trying too hard and, as a result, it doesn’t take advantage of the wider and more vibrant color-palatte its siblings enjoyed.

Animation – 4 out of 5
The animation is hard to score because it varies from episode to episode.  The pilot ‘Awakenings’ is gorgeously animated with smooth movements unlike anything seen outside of the best anime of the time.  A few episodes later, ‘Enter MacBeth’ is disjointed and uneasy, like the later episodes of GI Joe.  There’s never any truly bad animation, but some episodes are just merely adequate.  Meanwhile, other episodes (often episodes focusing on the ‘evil’ gargoyle Demona) are shining examples of what good animation can produce.

Characters – 4 out of 5
The biggest weakness of Gargoyles is the cast of the Manhattan Clan.  Goliath and the rest of the ‘main characters’ are really not very well developed.  Oh, they’re developed well enough.  Adequately.  But Goliath is the strong and stoic leader and that’s about the end of his character most of the time.  Lexington is the nerd, Broadway is the glutton, Hudson is the generic old man, etc.  Most of the gargoyles never really get the chance to (pardon the pun) spread their wings.
This is fine because while the heroes are mostly one-note staples of the genre, the villains are excellent.  David Xanatos is not some money-grubbing, mustache-twirling villain; he’s simply an extremely ambitious man for whom morally has turned to shades of grey.  He’s far closer to Thomas Crowne than Mr Potter.  Likewise, Demona – who initially seems evil for the sake of evil – is revealed to be a truly tragic figure who has struggled for years without end to keep her people alive against the increasing greed and selfishness of the humans she now dispises.  All of this, after the apparent loss of her love, Goliath.
The heroes aren’t poorly done at all, but they pale compared to the villains, who are the true stars of the show.  Each villain after the next is, more often than not, expertly written so that while they may be the antagonists, they really aren’t ‘bad guys’.

Acting – 5 out of 5
Everything about Gargoyles is above average, or at least oscillates into the stellar.  But where it truly excels is in its voice acting.  Keith David leads the way as Goliath, turning an unremarkable Batman knockoff into a sympathic and charismatic leader.  Pretty much all of Goliath’s personality ultimately comes from David’s excellence on the mic.  Every other character is the same way.  Ed Asner as Hudson sounds like a comfortable old chair, indicative of the character.  Jonathan ‘Will Riker’ Frakes makes Xanatos a colorful mirror universe version of Tony Stark.  Salli Richardson as Elisa Maza is nicely understated, seemlessly merging the hardboiled cop with the caring friend.  Every character is beautifully voiced.
The stand-out, though, is Marina Sirtis who may have missed her calling as a voice actress.  Her performance as Demona is truly inspired and will stand as one of the finest voice acting performances in animation, cartoon or anime or any other.


Overall – 4 out of 5
While this show is not without its problems, and not without it’s less-than-impressive episodes, it is none the less one of the best animated series ever.  No, I won’t qualify that with a specific decade or a country of origin.  This truly is one of the great shows that any fan of animation, or TV in general, should take some time to watch.  The second season is definitely long and nobody’s going to blame you if you don’t care for the third season.  But without a doubt, Gargoyles stands the test of time in narrative, in animation, in characters, in every way.  This one is not to be missed.

Tools of the Imagination

Tools of the Imagination – Phormo

When all else fails, use a giant gun
Playmates, Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad, 1994

Most toys about combineable superheroes have a linear progression: five individual robots become one giant robot, who maybe is then joined by another (or others) to become even more powerful.  But rarely do you see diverging paths of combining sets, where the heroes can choose between two equally powerful combinations.  It is in this way that the Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad may have broken the mold.

With Xenon’s individual parts (Borr, Tracto, and Vitor) combining with our main hero Servo to become the super-powerful Synchro, Drago’s two parts (Jamb and Torb) joined with Servo to become the arguably more powerful Phormo.  Actually, Jamb really didn’t combine; it just sort of become a giant gun.  Torb did all the combining.  And while there’s much speculation among fans of the show as to which combination is the most powerful, there is one issue not up for debate: Phormo may very well have the biggest fun of any toy mech ever made.


Appearance – 5 out of 5
Perfect.  Spot-on.  Almost a direct replica, it’s so close to what is presented in the show.  Aside from lacking a little bit of color complexity compared to the character in the show, this figure looks directly proportional.

Construction – 5 out of 5
While all the toys from this line are surprisingly sturdy, this combiner is the roughest of them.  More sturdy and reliable than Synchro, it’s probably the most rugged of all the toys – combiners or no.  You could set a box on this toy and it won’t break.  The only way it could be stronger is if it was made out of metal.

Movement – 3 out of 5
The toy suffers a little in the movement department, largely owing to the Servo toy’s own limitations.  That being said, it’s still capable of more movement and taking more poses than just about any combiner or giant robot toy ever.  The only thing keeping this from being a four is the lack of head movement.

Extras – 1 out of 5
While it is true that Phormo can hold Servo’s weapons, it doesn’t change the fact that it doesn’t come with any toys or weapons on its own.  This is especially disappointing when you consider the giant gun that is Jamb has plenty of room for storage, or just firing a foam missile or something.  Of all the toys in the line, this one suffers the most from its lack of accouterments.

Packaging – 3 out of 5
Just like Synchro, Phormo was not sold as a set and therefore can really only be judged by what appeared on the Drago and Servo packaging.


Overall – 4 out of 5
Phormo is a masterful toy and deserves mention among some of the greats, especially in the combiners/giant robots avenue of toys.  It really only falls short of being a perfect five because of A) its lack of additional weaponry or tools or any other types of extras and B) it’s inability to combine with Xenon.  The lack of a truly masterful super-combination of Servo, Drago, and Xenon would have elevated this entire toyline to a new level.  But as it, this toy – much like the toyline that produced it – remains a quiet and unsung work of art.