G.I. Joe, Transformers, He-Man & The Masters of the Universe, Voltron, Rainbow Bright, My Little Pony, She-Ra The Princess of Power, both versions of The Ghostbusters, the list of classic 80s cartoons goes on. The 80s was the first decade that animation companies partnered with toy companies and figured out that there was no better commercial for new toys than to incorporate an endless stream of new shows and new characters. This idea was eventually taken to an illogical extreme in the 90s, with shows like Pokemon that featured thousands of characters, but in the 80s this concept produced some of the best cartoons of all time.
As they approach their thirty year anniversary, let’s take a look at some 80s cartoons that got lost in the shuffle and deserve a second look.
Defenders of the Earth (86-87)
Even after his 1980 live-action movie was a critical and commercial flop, Flash Gordon remained a hot commodity well into the 80s. In 1986, he led the Defenders of the Earth for a few seasons of endless battles with his arch enemy, Ming The Merciless. Flash’s crew included Mandrake the Magician, The Phantom, and his own son, Rick Gordon.
The most enduring of these characters has turned out to be the purple-clad Phantom, who eventually went on to be played by Billy Zane in the ’96 Defenders of the Earth movie. The movie, however, was not much of a hit. Apparently, by the mid-90s, audiences were uninterested in a grown man in a purple leotard, riding a horse with the tag line “Slam Evil.” The failure for The Phantom movie to find an audience pretty much spelled the end for The Defenders of the Earth series.
Gilligan’s Planet (82-83)
It all started with “A Three Hour Tour” and turned into one of the most beloved live-action television shows of the 1970s. Even if you are too young to remember the show’s original run, chances are you remember the reruns from sick days or breaks from school. The cast of the show was so popular that producers eventually decided to combine the characters with America’s new Star Wars-inspired fascination with space. They stranded Gilligan, The Skipper, a millionaire and his wife, a movie star, the professor and Mary Anne on a new planet instead of on an island.
The show was unabashedly goofy, and replaced the tropical island high jinx from the original show with updated plots about space travel, aliens, and monsters. While the cartoon never attained the same level of cultural impact as the live-action show, it was an entertaining diversion for a few years in the early 80s.
The Completely Mental Misadventures of Ed Grimley (88-89)
After attaining notoriety on both SCTV and Saturday Night Live, Martin Short brought the awkward, celebrity-obsessed, and undeniably entertaining Ed Grimley to the world of animation. The show was ahead of its time on two fronts. First, it was one of the initial cartoons intended to be funny for both adults and children, predating shows like Family Guy and Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim by over a decade. Secondly, it started the trend of giving comedians cartoons that had been dormant since Bill Cosby’s Fat Albert in the 70s, and was soon followed by John Candy’s Camp Candy and Howie Mandel’s Bobby’s World.
“Completely Mental” was a great way to describe Grimley’s misadventures, as each episode started pretty tame, but eventually spiraled out of control in increasingly absurd scenarios that were entertaining to both young kids and adult fans of Martin Short. The show had a very short run, but is still a cult favorite nonetheless, and talked about in comedy circles decades after the last episode aired.
Following the runaway success of The Smurfs, Hanna-Barbera was furiously looking for the next cast of adorable critters to spring on America’s youth. It turned out the best way to piggyback on the popularity of The Smurfs was to move the entire show under water and give the characters snorkels built into their heads. The Snorks were clearly influenced by their blue, forest-dwelling predecessors, but the characters were adorable and the stories were fairly entertaining.
Mr. T (83-86)
Leader of The A-Team. The man who beat up Rocky Balboa. Frequent talk show guest. Breakfast cereal inspiration. Professional wrestler. Guest star on Different Strokes. Few stars owned the 80s like…First name “Mister.” Middle name “Period.” Last name “T.”
Mr. T’s cultural domination of the 1980s was cemented with the debut of his own cartoon in 1983. The show featured live action segments of Mr. T, setting the scene for each episode and giving a moral-of-the-story at the conclusion of each episode. The animated segments consisted of a team of teenage gymnasts coached by the title character, and a dog with a mohawk solving mysteries and stopping crimes. Most of these missions involved feats of strength and/or agility in some capacity, and could only be performed by the team or Mr. T himself.
Mr. T is one of the most enduring symbols of the 1980s, and this cartoon is a great example of 80s cartoons and why this decade may have been the golden era for kids watching television on Saturday mornings.
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