Fantastic Four: The Complete 1994-95 Animated Series Review

Any comic readers who sat down to watch Pixar’s The Incredibles, probably experienced a major case of deja vu. The film itself was royally entertaining, but it wasn’t anything original. Take the core concept: a family of superheroes, who must put their troubles aside, and fight evil together. While Pixar’s output has been consistently excellent, with some unique approaches to well-worn archetypes, it was clear to any comic aficionado that The Fantastic Four were being ripped-off. It was blatant, but that was largely the point. Created by Marvel legends Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, FF depicted the adventures of a family of superheroes, who must put their troubles aside, and fight evil together. Sound familiar? Of course, it doesn’t matter that The Incredibles used this concept - it was a brilliant and bang-on spoof of comic literature - but audiences who pay to see Fantastic Four this month, might feel cheated. But I assure you, Marvel’s heroes were the first to combine family life with super-heroics. They’ve been doing it since 1961.

So, who are they? There’s Reed Richards, a gifted scientist and all-round genius; his intelligent girlfriend Sue Storm, and her impulsive brother Johnny. Rounding out the quartet is pilot Ben Grimm, a good friend of Reed’s, who agrees to fly them into the cosmos to document an unexplained space phenomenon. Naturally, they don’t return to Earth the same - the ship is struck by cosmic rays, and after crash-landing, they soon realise they’ve changed for the worst. Or is it for the better? Reed can stretch his body any way he wishes; Sue can turn invisible at will; Johnny can transform his entire figure into a living flame, and Ben? Well, he draws the short straw - the rays have turned him into a hulking mound of rock, with unparalleled strength. Upon returning to New York City, their home, they set up shop as superheroes - dubbed “The Fantastic Four” by the press - and enjoy the fame that comes with their strange gifts. Yet, does having super-powers make family life any easier?

With a concept that amusing, it’s hardly surprising that Lee and Kirby’s work has been targeted by animators on several occasions. The 60’s version was a lot like that era’s Spider-Man - cheap, cheerful and not terribly good. It wasn’t until the 90’s variation on the material, that we finally got a worthwhile cartoon out of The Fantastic Four. But it got off to an awful start. The initial slate of 13 episodes (first broadcast in 1994), were marred by terrible writing, exaggerated voice-work, patchy animation, and weak story arcs. In fact, the first season included in this box set is almost unwatchable. Producer/screenwriter Ron Friedman seemed to abandon much of what made the comics work; substituting quality for mediocrity.

It’s a shame, since the first season includes a great deal of famous characters, and landmark stories, that simply go to waste. The troubles begin with the two-part origin story, which bypasses the usual linear approach. Instead, Reed (Beau Weaver), Sue (Lori Alan), Johnny (Brian Austin Green) and Ben (Chuck McCann), recount their adventures on the sofa of Dick Clark’s television show. Through flashbacks, we discover how they gained their powers, but Friedman keeps cutting back to the present for some ill-judged humour. The “superhero as celebrity” concept is still pretty fresh in the genre. In fact, it’s a relief to watch characters that don’t care about revealing their powers to the public; giving the material a welcome dose of social satire. Yet, the first season of the show squanders this aspect of the comic too. It’s just poorly-executed.

Therefore, the sight of fan-favourite baddies Dr. Doom (Simon Templeman) and Galactus don’t cause a stir like they should. The scripts are simplistic at best, and never once do we feel like the FF are under threat, since every adventure is tied-up neatly. The animation just about works. It’s colourful and pleasantly retro, and the character designs are faithful to Lee and Kirby’s vision. But the direction seems to spoil that too, and it’s clear from every episode that the series was put together hastily (and for very little money). The final nail in the coffin, was the absurd opening titles. Combining an horrendous theme song with trashy visuals (it ends with the Four’s faces across Mount Rushmore), it was a joke that no one seemed to get...

So, you might be wondering: why give the series a 6? Well, season two was everything the first wasn’t, and more. The show was re-tooled in every way imaginable. From the get-go, the improvements are obvious. The titles are actually good, setting the tone for the show impeccably, and the animation is much stronger. It seems to pulsate with a new life, like it’s a different show entirely. And the reason for it’s upsurge in quality? The sacking of Friedman, probably. His replacements provided stronger scripts, with story arcs that did justice to each of the characters, and kept you entertained. The first step to making the show more involving, was to make the characters more likeable. In fact, I’ve always considered The Fantastic Four to be the most human of Marvel’s universe. Like Spider-Man, they have to deal with a flurry of real-life issues, that even children can relate to on some level. Ben must deal with his horrifying visage (which Reed feels guilty for); Johnny feels lonely, and the relationship between Reed and Sue is often put to the test, as the strains of juggling family life and saving the innocent begin to take their toll.

The highlight for me, was “The Inhuman Saga”, a three-episode arc that deals with The Human Torch - by far FF’s most enjoyable character. It follows the comic events pretty closely, and surprisingly, packs some emotional resonance. Johnny finds his true love (introduced earlier in the season), only to lose her in a tragic chain of events. Yet, it isn’t all gloomy. The Fantastic Four has always revelled in it’s light and frothy atmosphere, and most of these episodes are pure fun. In one instalment, they team-up with the underrated Thor (a third-tier Marvel entity, who might be making his way to the screen), and there’s a welcome appearance from Daredevil; who aids the Four in yet another tussle with Dr. Doom. However, most comic geeks will love “Nightmare in Green” the most, in which The Thing and The Incredible Hulk come to blows. Need I say more?

The second season of Fantastic Four is so solid, you might forgive the atrocious 13 episodes that begin the set. It certainly improved in leaps and bounds, and is one of the better representations of a Marvel comic to date (yet, due to poor ratings, the show was cancelled). Unfortunately, Buena Vista’s box set includes both incarnations, so you’ll have to sift through the crap to get to the gold. For fans, it’s an easy purchase; especially if you’re looking forward to the film. Advance word hasn’t been pretty, but even a bad movie won’t be enough to kill-off The Fantastic Four - they’ve stood the test of time...

Will The Incredibles fair so well in 20 years time?

The Discs

Released prior to the Fantastic Four movie in the US (which has sprinted to the top of the box office chart), this four-disc set made perfect marketing sense. While it may seem like a cynical studio cash-in, it’s a respectable debut for the series, and we’re unlikely to get anything better. It’s a no-frills affair, but thanks to Buena Vista’s careful treatment, fans should be satisfied.

The Look and Sound

All 26 episodes are presented in their original full-frame (1.33:1) versions, and they look pretty great. Colours in this type of fare are very important, so it’s good to see such a bright, clean image. Grain and print damage never appear throughout the set, and while the animation is rather jerky in the first season, it improves drastically for the second run. However, it was difficult to ignore the prevalent aliasing, which is evident in every episode. Some instalments have a soft appearance too, yet the level of detail is sufficient; and the flaws never spoil one’s enjoyment. Ultimately, the FF are a very photogenic bunch...

Audio is pretty basic, but that was expected. The Dolby 2.0 tracks showcase the series in the best way possible - it’s churlish to complain about the aural aspects of an animated TV series; since surrounds are out of the question. Yet, the show is transferred in a clear and defect-free manner. Dialogue is never hard to catch (unfortunate, if you’re watching the first series), and the sound effects are rendered well. An above-average presentation, overall.

Bonus Material

There’s little here that die-hard fans would crave, yet the studio resist the temptation to pimp the feature film. Instead, we get the short “Stan Lee’s Soapbox”, in which the legendary New Yorker recalls the creation of the comic book, and his opinion of the team. For long-time followers, this is largely redundant, but it’s always interesting to hear Lee talk about his craft.

The only other ‘extra’, is a series of Episode Introductions by the man himself. He mostly talks about the plot of the episode in question (with some spoilers!), which will amuse the first time, but never be seen again. Disappointing then, but the excellent transfers may persuade fans to part with their hard-earned...

The Bottom Line

Only time will tell if British audiences can warm to the Fantastic Four’s cinematic outing. Until then, this Region 1 box set is a good primer to the characters, but it’s a series of two halves. The first run is practically unwatchable; enlivened by an excellent second series. Fans of the source material, and trashy animation, may appreciate Marvel’s cartoon. Now, Mr. Lee, could you release 90’s Spider-Man please?

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