Wacky Races: the Complete Series Review
"And now here they are! The most daredevil group of daffy drivers to ever whirl their wheels in the Wacky Races, competing for the title of “The World’s Wackiest Racer!” The cars are approaching the starting line. First is the Turbo Terrific driven by Peter Perfect. Next, Rufus Roughcut and Sawtooth in the Buzzwagon. Manoeuvring for position is the Army Surplus Special. Right behind is the Anthill Mob in their Bulletproof Bomb. And there’s ingenious inventor Pat Pending in his convert-a-car. Oh, and here’s the lovely Penelope Pitstop, the glamour gal of the gas pedal. Next we have the Boulder Mobile with the Slag brothers, Rock and Gravel. Bursting along is the Creepy Coupe with the Gruesome Twosome and right on their tail is the Red Max. And there’s the Arkansas Chugabug with Luke and Blubber Bear. Sneaking along last is that Mean Machine with those double-dealing do-badders Dick Dastardly and his sidekick Muttley. And even now they’re up to some dirty trick…”
I have a theory about Dick Dastardly. Watch any random episode of Wacky Races and you’ll begin to notice a rather odd pattern emerging involving this supposedly most villainous of all villains. Time after time he, together with constantly sniggering sidekick Muttley, somehow manages to get so far ahead of the other competitors in the race that he has time to stop, mastermind and then execute an elaborate trap to ensnare those that are behind him. This beggars two questions. One: why does he do it? He’s so far ahead, why doesn’t he just get to the finish line and claim the win that always eludes him? and Two: where does he get all the equipment for his evil schemes? Items such as cranes and helicopters are not readily available in high street stores, let alone the wildernesses the racers career through.
I sense there’s a bit of chicanery going on. I think Dastardly is a mole, put in by the organisers of the races as a bit of light entertainment, some comic relief designed for the audience to love to hate, akin to Wolf from Gladiators or The Critical One from umpteen wannabe pop shows. Together with Muttley, he is briefed on the race beforehand while the equipment for the so-called traps he lays is supplied and left at the appropriate place for him to set up when he gets there. And he gets there because he either takes a short cut or is helicoptered ahead by the production team – how else does he get so far ahead? The Mean Machine can't be that much faster. The traps are then rigged so that they don’t work until after the racers have safely passed, and everyone can cheer as Dastardly is once again hoisted by his own petard, chortling along with Muttley at his incompetence. And, of course, if he’s working for the company, by rights he should always come last to preserve the integrity of the race, which he does – how likely is it otherwise that out of thirty-four races he wouldn’t win a single one? It’s the only explanation that meets all the facts and, as a famous detective once said, once you have eliminated the impossible whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.
I think I may have been watching too much Wacky Races and yet it becomes extremely addictive. One certainly doesn’t watch it for the plot, as every episode is exactly the same, just in a different setting. The race sets off, Dastardly is foiled a couple of times, a few of the other racers encounter some problems, various laws of physics are broken (including that old chestnut of a character running off the edge of a cliff, looking down, realising what they've done and only then plummeting) before a completely random person wins. As there’s no real coherent narrative running through it, it’s very much in the old style of cartoon making of, as Homer Simpson says, just a bunch of stuff happening. And yet it’s very moreish, almost lulling the viewer into a trancelike state – pretty apt for the time it was made in, the psychedelic backgrounds and fast moving colours no doubt appealing to those who spent the rest of the time handing out flowers and informing people about Bob Marley.
Produced in 1968, the show was another huge hit that made the 1960s Hanna-Barbera’s most successful era. Yogi Bear, The Flintstones, Top Cat, and The Jetsons, all appeared in this decade prior to the start of this show, and Scooby Doo was only a year away when the adventures of Penelope Pitstop and co debuted. Although its primary inspiration is said to have been Blake Edward’s 1965 movie The Great Race, it riffs on many aspects of popular culture for its characters. The Creepy Coupe is an obvious amalgamation of the Munsters and the Addams Family, the Army Surplus Special from Bilko and its ilk, the Ant Hill Mob The Untouchables and so on. The animation, in keeping with much of the output of the time, was simplistic but effective enough for what was, at the time, disposable TV. That famous element of Scooby Doo, when backgrounds are looped so the same tree, house and plant appears time and again as characters run past, is fully in evidence here, but adds to the charm, while there is also plenty of stock footage re-used through the course of the series. If we see Penelope Pitstop use the make-up lever in her car once we see it a hundred of times, and Dastardly and Muttley’s asides to the camera are nearly always the same. These are only really noticeable, though, when watching a lot of episodes close together – if you’re a relatively sane person, restricting viewing to one or two at a time (when originally broadcast, two episodes were shown back-to-back) makes these shortcuts unimportant.
As with all cartoons, only a handful of actors provide all the voices, but it’s noticeable that those voicing the most distinctive characters – namely the Narrator, Dick Dastardly and Penelope Pitstop – are used sparingly. The remaining characters are nearly all voiced by Daws Butler and Don Messick, both Hanna-Barbera veterans (Butler’s most famous role being the voice of Yogi Bear and Messick’s probably Scooby-Doo) and their characters don’t have as distinctive tones as the three mentioned. Narrator Dave Willock, in particular, is very good. A newcomer to cartoons, he throws himself into his commentator’s role with gusto, probably glad that the part was rather different from the cowboys that had made up the majority of his career. Janet “Judy Jetson” Waldo, meanwhile, gives Penelope an annoying, Dolly Parton-esque Southern twang that suits the character perfectly and annoys me beyond belief while Paul Winchell’s work as Dastardly was a major contributor to the popularity of the character.
Each of the characters have their own quirks, and, for those that enjoy that sort of thing, there’s a fine drinking game to be played with the show. Take one drink every time any one of the following happens: Blubber Bear shakes nervously, the Creepy Coupe employs dragon power, Peter Perfect's car falls apart, the Ant Hill Mob are forced to dress in some humiliating disguise to escape the long arm of the law (take two if it involves a reference to their small size, like scouts or little leaguers) - the list can go on. The most annoying of these is traits is Penelope Pitstop's – far from being the heroic, all-American gal she pretends to be, she is actually a brazen hussy, using her feminine charms to get ahead. Watch how, when she gets into trouble, she flutters her eyelids at the others passing, crying “Hay-elp” and “Poor little old me,” only to drive off when some valiant competitor (usually Peter Perfect) comes to her rescue, stranding them with the same trouble she had. (Not that I'm taking the show too seriously or anything).
But of course, the stars of the show are the occupants of the Mean Machine, Dick Dastardly and Muttley. Inspired by those moustachioed villains of silent film who used to tie girls to railway lines so they could steal their estate, he follows in a long line of cartoon villains forever to be thwarted from their aim of stopping some (generally annoying) character, from Elmer Fudd on, although he’s most similar to Wile E Coyote (unsurprisingly, given that one of the writers, Mike Maltese, worked on both shows). I always felt a bit sorry for Coyote – Road Runner is such a smug git with his mocking beep-beep that I always hoped against hope Coyote would splat him one day, and I have a similar sympathy for Dastardly. If my above theory of his being a ringer is incorrect (and I highly doubt it) life must be a constant exasperation to him. Not only do all his plans fail, but the race seems heavily biased against him – whenever someone like Professor Pat Pending moves ahead via some mechanical aid (usually in the Professor’s case by some sort of robotic legs) the race commentator applauds him, but when Dastardly executes any similar manoeuvre he gets accused of dirty tricks and foul play. And then there’s the Muttley problem. Muttley is a bit of a suck-up and seems to secretly rather resent Dastardly – when Dastardly sets up a plan he sniggers, but when the plan goes awry he sniggers even harder. He’s such a poser too – I think he hangs around Dastardly solely for the publicity, a hanger-on who sees a chance to get his face on TV, always playing to the camera, while not really giving a fig about his cohort - in one episode, Dastardly is caught on a water fountain and Muttley, when his cohort calls down to him to “do something!”, breaks into a jolly dance for the benefit of the viewers.
It’s not complicated stuff by any means, and in a way it’s hard to recommend to anyone over the age of about ten who doesn’t have an interest in cartoons of this era. And yet… it’s great. Perhaps it’s just because I watched all thirty-four episodes in three days, but the characters all raise a smile, the episodes zip along, and if you’re in an indulgent mood there’s a lot of fun to be had from it. As an example of the sort of work Hanna-Barbera were producing it’s perfect, and it’s an understandable choice for the first of their Classic Collection releases. Although not amongst the very best of their work, it’s certainly in the upper tier of the second league, and retains much of its appeal over thirty years after its first broadcast. Well worth a visit to the racetrack. (Just don't bet on the Mean Machine - it's rigged, I tell you, rigged).
The complete series is presented on three DVDs, coming in an extremely attractive box set. An outer envelope holds a fold-out case that contains artwork from the show. The first two disks hold twelve episodes each and the third ten, and each disk has a Play All function. Each disk’s menus are the same, and have the same illustration of Dastardly and Muttley on them. The extras are spread over the three disks – the on-screen commentaries on the first disk, the retrospective look at the show on the second, and the featurette about the spin-offs and four episode commentaries on the third. All episodes are subtitled, but none of the extras are.
A very nice transfer in that the cartoons themselves are crisp with no sign of digital transfer problems. Unfortunately the prints themselves are quite dirty, with lots of specks on them popping up at regular intervals. Watchable, but the brightness of the pictures themselves show these flaws up more, and remind the viewer constantly of the age of the series.
An understandably unexciting track, the sound is clean but undramatic, exactly what you would expect from a thirty year old cartoon.
The commentaries feature a mixture of those who worked on the series (designers Iwao Takamoto and Jerry Eisenberg) and modern cartoon historians, as well as people who work at Hanna-Barbera now. Four episodes have tracks, evidently recorded consecutively at the same time, and aren’t especially illuminating – those who worked on the series have only misty memories of who did what when, and we don’t hear anything about the techniques used to bring the cartoons to life, nor of the history behind the show. That said, there’s some pleasure to be had from listening to them in the way it’s always good to hear from people reminiscing, however vaguely, about the work they did, but these are not as informative as they could have been.
Rearview Mirror: A Look Back at Wacky Races
Decent featurette that covers the history of the show. With contributions from those featured in the commentaries as well as Waldo, this is a nice if unremarkable look at the series.
Spin Out Spin-Offs
Ten minute look at the two shows that had characters originally in Wacky Races, The Perils Of Penelope Pitstop and Dastardly and Muttley in Their Flying Machines (the one with the sublime “Stop the Pigeon” as its theme). Features the same contributors as the retrospective above, this is good primarily as a chance to see clips from those shows (although I’m not sure I could now stand a whole show about Penelope Pitstop on her own).
On Screen Pop-Up Factoids
Fun facts about the series, ranging from statistics about how many times each racer won through to sources for the cars, these are found on the first two episodes on Disk One. They reflect well the tone of the show.
Trailers for the following releases: Tom and Jerry Spotlight Collection, Looney Tunes Golden Collection Vol 2, Looney Tunes Spotlight Collection Vol 2, The Flintstones Season 2 and Top Cat: the Complete Series, all of which look very tempting. No trailer for the promised Jetsons release though.
Wacky Races is what it is, a product of its time. Unlike today’s cartoons, there’s no subversive element, no underlining message, just a collection of cartoon gags strung together for the simple amusement of its viewers. Populated by fun characters, it is a memorable show that is still regarded with a high degree of affection to this day, and rightly so. This DVD release does it credit and it is almost churlish to say that the extras are lightweight, given the show they support – they do enough to be enjoyable to fans of the show. And I still think I’m right about Dastardly.