Saturday, April 29, 2017

Hanna-Barbera Productions

Hanna-Barbera Productions got its start as an animation company in 1957 when former Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer animation directors WIlliam Hanna and Joseph Barbera, both of whom had created Tom and Jerry, and live-action director George Sidney teamed with Screen Gems, a TV unit of Columbia Pictures. It operated in this way until 1966 when it was purchased by Taft Broadcasting (yes, it has connections with our 27th President of the United States) and became its subsidiary. In its hey-day, Hanna-Barbera Productions created some of the most recognizable characters in TV history, including The Flintstones, Yogi Bear, Scooby-Doo,The Jetsons, and The Smurfs. The pair of Hanna and Barbera over the years won seven Academy Awards, eight Emmy Awards, and even a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Their fortunes would eventually shift in the 80’s when more focus was on weekday afternoon programming and less on Saturday morning cartoons. This problem has come to full fruition in the last couple years as most major networks have completely abandoned Saturday morning programming. There was that sweet spot when I was a kid, when there was plenty of quality programming at both times.

Hanna-Barbera cartoons were starting to lose their staying power in the 80’s compared to the 60’s and 70’s. Their output had slowed incredibly with their only hit being The Smurfs. In 1991, Ted Turner purchased Hanna-Barbera Productions, mostly to fill up programming for his new network, The Cartoon Network. Hanna and Barbera stayed on as consultants. It was also around this time that the company’s cartoons kind of went in two directions: one going for renewed nostalgia, and another into the edgier side of things. My childhood was filled with these cartoons. You had the newer versions of classic cartoons, most of which went with the “kid” versions of their classic characters. These were: A Pup Named Scooby-Doo, Yo Yogi!, Tom and Jerry Kids, and The Flintstone Kids. Lots of animation companies employ this with their characters. Some cartoons are very much of their time and it’s harder to get the new generations to watch them, so they just take their characters and put them into new situations or present them in a different fashion (other examples: Muppet Babies, Goof Troop, Quack Pack, and Tiny Toon Adventures). You still see it today to a lesser extent. Movies are being made on old cartoons instead (Smurfs, Transformers, and The Chipmunks are recent ones), though that’s been happening since the 90’s, too (I’m looking at you, terrible Flintstones movie). The other subset of new Hanna Barbera cartoons were the edgier ones aimed at an older, more 90’s mentality group of kids. Pirates of Black Water, SWAT Kats, and The Real Adventures of Johnny Quest (also a reboot, but EXTREEEEEME!). I had no scruples as a child, I watched most anything you put in front of me. Turner eventually would merge with Time Warner in 1996 and the studio became a subsidiary of Warner Bros. Animation. I’ll get to Warner Bros. later, so don’t worry. Hanna-Barbera exists in name only, used in marketing for their characters. Their characters are still used and are in productions for kids, though only their most famous, such as The Flintstones, Jetsons, Smurfs, and Scooby-Doo. Scooby is by far Hanna-Barbera’s most successful character. There has been almost no lull in output for this character, with either a TV show, TV-movie, or film happening in most years. He’s by far my favorite Hanna-Barbera character and to me it's no wonder he’s been so successful.

Hanna-Barbera Productions created seven movies altogether over the years. Not all of them were using their characters either. That was not the case for their first two productions, Hey There, It’s Yogi Bear! And A Man Called Flintstone. Yogi came out in 1964 and was their first try at a theatrical film. The film did reasonably well at the box office and critically, with critics enjoying seeing something other than Disney films. A Man Called Flintstone was meant to the be the series finale of the show, and a parody on James Bond films. Coming out two years after Yogi, it was also a decent hit for not being a Disney film. Hanna-Barbera decided to adapt a book instead of using their own characters for their next film, Charlotte’s Web. They received permission from the book’s author, E.B. White, and were told by the author what parts that had to stay and what could be potentially changed. In the end they made the movie a musical and partnered with Sagittarius Productions. E.B. White hated that all those annoying songs got in the way of his story and ultimately regretted letting Hanna-Barbera adapt it. Released in 1973, the film was a moderate hit both critically and financially (noticing a trend?), but it really paid dividends 21 years later. It was released several times on VHS, but its 1993 release caused it to be one of the best-selling titles that year. Go figure! I know that this was definitely one that I rented a bunch of times as a kid, so maybe it was just a thing with 80’s/90’s kids? Also, this movie is legit sad, so hope you aren’t already feeling depressed before you watch it.

Besides live-action film C.H.O.M.P.S., Hanna Barbera took it easy with theatrical films until 1982’s Heidi’s Song. I’m actually a bit surprised that I had never heard about this film until now. We had a collection of some very obscure animated movies and TV shows (all recorded on blank VHS tapes, of course), so it’s a wonder this one wasn’t one of them. This one actually did better than any of the other Hanna-Barbera films so far, so that was a good thing, but I couldn’t really find anything about its critical reception, and considering that it took me this long to learn about it (I’m a crazy person when it comes to animation, as evidenced by this series), I’m going to guess it was a run-of-the-mill cartoon movie. If anyone has seen this one and loved it, let me know in the comments! Transformers competition/rip-off GoBots even got its own movie in the form of GoBots: Battle of the Rock Lords in 1986. Unfortunately the movie came out the same time as Transformers: The Movie and ultimately only pulled in a little of a million dollars, with Transformers pulling in 6 million. That being said, Transformers budget was almost 6 million, so they didn’t do too hot either. I have never seen GoBots or anything about it, really. It was a little before my time, honestly.

Hanna-Barbera did something a little weird with The Jetsons. Its original run (1962-1963) lasted a little over six months and then ran on re-runs from then on. It was brought back for new episodes in 1985 and lasted two seasons. Not everyday that a cartoon gets brought back as the same exact show, not a reboot, twenty years later. With the renewed interest in The Jetsons, Hanna-Barbera decided to make a movie starring its futuristic family. The Jetsons Movie came out in 1990 and served as the last Jetson product until 2017 (it was a WWE tie-in, so yeah) mostly because the main voice cast passed away shortly after the movie, including the great Mel Blanc. The advanced age of the cast caused issues with the production, the first being that the voice of Elroy, Daws Butler, died before production could start. George O’Hanlan, voice of George Jetson, passed away right after recording his lines. Blanc also died during production, and they had to have Jeff Bergman fill in some of the lines for all the actors that had passed away. What everyone remembers about this film, however, was the casting of Judy Jetson’s voice. Janet Waldo, who just recently passed away, recorded all of her lines for the role, seeing as she was the character’s original voice actor. Hanna and Barbera had the bright idea that to really draw the kids in, they had to get a “star” to fill out a role. The hired teen singer Tiffany to be Judy and all of Janet Waldo’s recordings were erased. Legendary voice director Andrea Romano (she is connected to just about every Warner Bros. project) was so appalled with the decision that she had her name removed from the movie. The movie was released to terrible reviews, some focusing on the plot, others on Tiffany’s performance. It did reasonably well at the box office despite the awful reviews, making over $20 million theatrically. It would go on to make much more through video sales/rentals. I distinctly remember watching this quite a few times as a kid, but I think I knew at the time that it wasn’t that good.

Last of Hanna-Barbera’s theatrical films was 1993’s Once Upon a Forest, based on the Furlings characters created by Rae Lampert. Hanna-Barbera partnered with animators from all around the world to pull this movie off and billed it as a “new masterpiece” from the creator of An American Tail. Said creator was not Don Bluth or Steven Spielberg, but David Kirschner, who served as Executive Producer on An American Tail. Many found this to be a bit misleading, but how many times have you seen something like that advertised at the top of movie posters? Even with the recently popular environmental story-line, the movie was a box office bomb, grossing just $6.6 million against a budget of $13 million. Ouch. No wonder this was their last film. Hanna Barbera animation teams were spun off into Turner Animation and later into Warner Bros. Animation. Hanna-Barbera fared better than most studios through its long history, and its characters still live on today, which is more than can be said for Fleischer Studios and UPA. Yes, Betty Boop and Mr. Magoo are still recognizable to most generations, but when was the last time you saw them in anything? Who Framed Roger Rabbit? And the Mr. Magoo movie? I think what Hanna-Barbera learned from their theatrical ventures is that original movies or not, they were very capable of making decent films or very, very bad ones.