Original Series Run: 1983-1985
DVD Release date: August 25, 2009, Mill Creek Entertainment
Every episode opens at the carnival with the six kids hopping onto a Dungeons & Dragons ride, which inexplicably opens a portal into another dimension. The children (and I do mean children; the oldest of the group is probably a high school freshman, and the youngest still in elementary school), are wearing sweet adventuring gear suitable to their class instead of their normal clothes. They find themselves in a strange land, right in front of the five-headed dragon Tiamat. But never fear! They have a guide, known as Dungeon Master, who gives them mystical energy-based weapons that they somehow know how to use, and escape certain death. Oh, and Venger is there too, but we’ll get to him later. And so their journey begins.
Each reluctant adventurer has a different job within the group:
Eric, the Cavalier, is given a shield that produces a force field. His role is as a protector, which juxtaposes his temperament as a complete douche. It’s hard to be sympathetic towards a character that laments the absence of his daddy’s limousine.
Hank, the Ranger, is the leader of the group. He carries a multi-purpose energy bow that he uses for just about everything; his imagination is his only limit. He tends to give the benefit of the doubt to the creatures the group meets.
Sheila, the Thief, is given an invisibility cloak, which is an interesting coincidence since she has an undetectable personality to go with it. Since Dungeon Master designated her the thief, I have a sneaking suspicion she might have had a bit of a shoplifting problem back in her home world. She is also Bobby’s older sister.
Bobby, the Barbarian, is an impetuous kid that isn’t afraid of a fight, ‘cause you know, he has an oversized stick as his weapon. In all fairness, it is a magical oversized stick that can really wallop just about anything, he only needs to get close enough to hit them, something I’m sure any fourth grader could manage. This kid also looks like he might have a mutation in his myostatin gene because he is jacked for a nine-year-old.
Presto, the Magician, was evidently hated by his parents, hence his name, which likely contributed to his disposition as the quintessential insecure nerd. The Dungeon Master gave him a pointed hat that, when he waves his hand over it and speaks gobbledygook, something magically appears. Sometimes it’s what they need, and sometimes it’s a cow.
Diana, the Acrobat, has a staff that she uses to pole vault and crack some skulls. Like Bobby, she gets up close and personal with her foes by using her feet to jackknife them in the face, though I’m not sure if the fur bikini is the most practical asskicking choice.
Uni, is a mewling Unicorn foal that tags along for the ride, and forms an immediate bond with Bobby.
The adventurers’ main adversary is Venger, a powerful wizard, described as “the force of evil” in this particular realm. He aims to take the adventurers’ weapons to defeat Tiamat, the only rival he fears. Interesting to note, Venger is voiced by Peter Cullen, probably best known for his work as Optimus Prime. So yeah, it’s pretty much the same voice for both cartoons.
The artwork is typical for the era, and uses the “limited animation” technique, which is essentially reusing parts of, or even all of, an entire frame, which meant animators didn’t have to redraw all the elements in a scene. This method was utilized by studios to cut down on the overall production cost of cartoons, and made it easier to crank out a massive amount of content on a weekly basis. While it was effective in saving money and meeting deadlines, it made for a shoddy product with several mistakes worthy of an eye-roll. For example, in one scene, it’s Hank’s voice we hear, but it’s Eric’s mouth that’s moving. Othertimes, we see the wrong colors used on a character.
It reminds me of how much animation has evolved with today’s artists using 2D and 3D software (among other things, I’m sure), which has resulted in the more visually slick and dynamic shows that we’re accustomed to now. Despite the middling animation, the style of Dungeons & Dragons made me nostalgic, and it had me reminiscing about my early Saturday mornings, wearing pajamas, and eating cereal while watching cartoons. However, the animation is only part of the attraction to these shows.
I can forgive the visual gaffes and illustration methods of the time—they have their own charm—but when it comes to the story, I adhere to a firm policy that it shouldn’t suck. This is where the cartoons of the 80’s fail us. The audience was children, therefore, the studios felt no need to develop interesting storylines or three-dimensional characters. The episode plots of Dungeons & Dragons are painfully formulaic, and several of them follow this format:
- Dungeon Master appears to the group stating he’s found a way for them to get home, but it’s not easy. Then he speaks a few riddles and disappears.
- The group is ambushed by some random baddies that they must fight while on their journey.
- They find a person or a group of people in desperate need of help.
- They fight some more baddies.
- The adventurers are faced with a choice. Their portal to home opens, but there is a grave consequence should they go through it, such as a village will perish or they have to leave one of their group members behind.
- They stay in the realm, because apparently, they’re too young to have developed a sense of self-preservation.
In the episode Quest of the Skeleton Warrior, the characters get close to achieving a semblance of depth when faced with their worst fears: Hank fears failure, while being abandoned and alone terrifies Sheila. Bobby and Diana have similar fears of physical vulnerability, though his manifests as being a helpless baby, while the show reveals hers as growing decrepit. Eric is afraid of being an object of scorn, and lastly, Presto’s is losing his glasses; apparently he’s legally blind without them. Oh, and uh, this happened:
Yet, this doesn’t achieve the kind of compelling characters that more recent shows like Justice League Unlimited and Star Wars: The Clone Wars offered me. Eric is the closest thing this series has to an interesting character, and you almost overlook it because he’s so damn annoying. But what makes him appealing is that he’s the only one that questions whether they should be listening to Dungeon Master. And really, should they? He’s a stranger, an old gnome that continuously dumps them into extremely dangerous situations with a few riddles to decipher to help them along.
In The Girl Who Dreamed Tomorrow, Dungeon Master admits that some of his previous students had actually died attempting to complete one of his missions. That’s not even the end of his sketchy track history: in The Treasure of Tardos, the Dungeon Master reflects that Venger was his greatest mistake, even referring to him as “my son” in The Dragon’s Graveyard. This suggests that Dungeon Master is responsible for unleashing the greatest force of evil upon the realm.
Plus, there’s evidence to suggest he’s powerful enough to get them home without the deadly obstacle course, so why do they keep agreeing to put themselves in danger at his behest? But no one listens to Eric, and even worse, some of the other members of the party criticize him on a pretty regular basis. They make quips about him being dumb or a jerk. Sometimes it’s deserved, but other times, it’s because he is an easy target. It kind of freaks me out a little. I loved this show as a kid, which means my spongy child brain was absorbing this herd mentality crap. Only assholes challenge the majority, and if you want acceptance, then conform with the group. If you don’t, then you’re an obnoxious turd, like Eric.
Another disturbing bit of dialogue can be found at the end of Prison Without Walls. Presto wonders if they will ever get out of this realm, and Dungeon Master pops out of nowhere with this bit of encouragement, “You will one day, Magician. With each brave deed you grow more worthy. You will be rewarded in time.” They need to be worthy to go home? We’re talking about children here, that were kidnapped, probably by Dungeon Master! Unless they tortured smalls animals or were members of Hitler’s Youth, they should be worthy enough to go home to their families.
I’m not sure if the writers and producers were intentionally creating these “lessons” for kids or if it was the result of the parental and censorship advocacy groups exerting their influence (someone needed to prevent American youth from becoming commie satanists), but I’m disturbed by some of the messages the series put out there for my young self to consume.
I am no stranger to binge watching television, to the point of Hulu passing judgement on me by pointing out the hours I’ve logged staring at a screen (no, Hulu, I don’t want to go outside). Despite that, I was looking for excuses not to watch this. I’d tell myself, “It’d be good to get through a few more episodes, but I really should clean my bathroom.” And I did. That’s right, the cartoon I loved so much as a child is now a worse option to scrubbing the tub. I went into this really wanting to like it; there was a part of me that even expected that I would, which makes it even more disappointing for me that I didn’t. I can only hope that a studio decides to reboot the Dungeons & Dragons animated series, and give it the quality narrative it deserves.