The Mysterious Cities of Gold Review
The year is 1532. We begin our journey in Barcelona, where a young orphan boy named Esteban lives in the central church under the care and guidance of Dean Father Rodriguez. All over the city Esteban is known only as “The Child of the Sun”. due to his strange ability at being able to beckon the sun at any given moment. But Esteban is somewhat sceptical of his magical ways, profusely arguing with others who seek to exploit his power. However, the young boy carries with him a crescent shaped symbol - one half of a medallion that he has little knowledge of…until today.
When Rodriguez passes on after bestowing words of wisdom and secrets of his heritage to Esteban, the child decides to search for his long lost father. That very day a Spanish navigator by the name of Mendoza, joined by companions Sancho and Pedro, enters the city. Mendoza tells Esteban that many years ago he saved the boy from an almost certain death, as Esteban’s father’s ship was in great peril during a trip across the dangerous Magellan seas. When Mendoza took Esteban from his father’s arms he also pocketed the sun part of his medallion, and now shows it off as proof today. He tells Esteban that he believes the medallion is the key to an unknown Incan city located somewhere in The New World which is laced with unimaginable riches, and that he believes Esteban’s father is still alive and could well be charting the same place. Mendoza successfully manages to coax the boy along and smuggles him onboard his galleon: The Esperanza.
It is onboard the galleon that Esteban befriends a young Incan girl named Zia. She was forcefully taken from her priest father and sent to Spain as a servant for the queen. But she herself has a skill that’s ready to be exploited; an ability to read Quipu - an extraordinary communication device made up of specially tied knots which was developed by the Incan empire. Governor Francisco Pizarro of the Spanish empire seeks to find the mysterious cities of gold and he needs Zia in aiding his conquest of the New World - The Americas. But with Zia now in the care of Mendoza, who has broken away from Spanish rule, Pizarro orders his generals to retrieve her. His Lieutenant Captain of the Guard Gaspard and Commander Gomez head an army into the Americas and will stop at nothing to see their job done successfully. As Mendoza and his crew set sail, seemingly free from danger, they touch upon a quiet land which is inhabited by a young boy named Tao. He’s the only surviving descendant of the Hiva/Mu empire - a city that sank beneath the seas hundreds of years ago. He’s a proud and intelligent boy; a skilled inventor and above all protector of his heritage. By his side his friendly parrot Kokapetl, who has been with him ever since the death of his father. With not much else for him to do, and with the newfound knowledge of the mysterious cities, Tao joins Mendoza and the children in a bid to learn more about his descendants. The crew is now complete, the destination is charted and our travellers make their way across the Magellan seas, through Peru and into the mountains of the Andes. Danger awaits them at every turn and mystery is all around. But their spirit and determination pushes them onward, some hoping to find loved ones and others eager to lay their hands upon riches far beyond their wildest dreams.
The collaborations between European and Japanese animation studios around the tail-end of the seventies, through to the early eighties sparked off an interesting amount of cultural diversity, which lent itself to some of the most intriguing series ever made at the time - many of which still hold up today phenomenally well. 1981 for instance was an incredible year for such output: Spanish studio BRB Internacional, in association with Japan’s Nippon Animation enjoyed some success with Dogtanian and the Three Muskahounds and Around the World with Willy Fog, while around the same time France was crossing overseas to produce such epics as D.I.C./ Tokyo Movie Shinsha’s Ulysses 31 and M.K./Toho’s Belle and Sebastian. These shows wouldn’t reach our shores until the mid to latter part of the eighties, where they soon became embraced by those of us who were more accustomed to the predominantly action-oriented fare. The reason that the shows I’ve mentioned above are quite so departed from many others, however, is that they were simply selling adventures and not merchandise. Most were governed by a single, captivating narrative, eschewing the episodic structure that many cartoons of the time conformed to. They provided wonderful journeys for us to go along with, allowing us to steadily invest our time in their characters and become wrapped up in their rich worlds. And as you can no doubt tell, they all shared one particular thing in common: They were based on popular writings and beliefs.
The Mysterious Cities of Gold hit Japanese television screens in 1982, with France following up one year later. Based upon the 1966 children’s novel The King’s Fifth by Scott O’Dell, it was the brainchild of animator Mitsuru Kaneko. Writing a story treatment, he made slight alterations to O’Dell’s concept and proposed the idea to major broadcasting company NHK, who then after some consideration struck a deal with C.L.T. France, with whom it co-financed production. Kaneko subsequently showed his ideas to French producer and friend Jean Chalopin, who, through his D.I.C. group, had just enjoyed success in Japan with Ulysses 31. He agreed to script a full series, and under the directorial control of partner Bernard Deyriès, soon teamed up with Kaneko’s M.K. and an impressive team of animators over at Studio Pierrot. A total of 39 episodes were commissioned, fitting in line with Japan’s 39 week school year.
MCoG is a very ambitious production indeed. Though not without some light-hearted humour it’s a considerably mature tale which is built upon solid foundations; the Spanish conquest of the South American continent and popular cultural beliefs forming the basis of a rich and detailed story. The series is somewhat experimental, playing with various genres, but because of its well grounded nature there’s little need to question the direction it’s heading in. Overall MCoG is meticulously written and superbly researched. There’s archaeological aspects as the travellers head across South America, which creates a firm sense of belonging, and even when the series begins to go throw in heavy anachronistic touches such as the Solaris - a solar-powered ship created by the ancient Mu people - and the Golden Condor we instantly buy into the science fiction angle. It’s not too much of a stretch to believe that a once technically advanced nation could have devised such masterful vessels. This adds a considerably more fantastical aspect to the series, especially with its keen use of the sun as a instrument for all creation.
Of course it does take other liberties, after all this is a entertainment series. On occasion it goes a little wild as our crew face many a peril, from deadly swamps and scary rapids to tribes of giants and abnormally huge animals. Mendoza often finds himself safeguarding the lives of his friends in many a battle, by fending off birds of prey, tigers, sharks and crocodiles - and he’s so awesome that he dispatches them with relative ease. There’s even a tribe of Amazon women that they stumble across who help them dispatch a giant river snake! Yet it’s all thoroughly entertaining and manages to stay on the rails for the most part. Progressing, the series becomes a little darker in tone as the atmosphere becomes more and more foreboding and the storyline focuses itself on the clear goal. It’s the final stretch that proves to be the most challenging, not only in terms of actually having to reach a fitting conclusion, but so too in testing viewer’s patience. The final ten episodes or so is the only time that MCoG ever feels like it could well potentially stumble and fall. This is primarily for two reasons: the first being that our adventurers begin searching for several pieces of a manuscript, which entails little more than some repetitive cave touring, and secondly, and more notably the Olmec arc which is dragged out just a little further than perhaps necessary.
|The following text contains spoilers. Click and drag over this box to view.|
|Strong vibes suggest that the series is heading way out into alien territory, generating a sinking feeling that it’s about to step over the mark. Thankfully the results are a little more closer to home as it instead focuses more on the evolution of man, which works considerably well in tandem with the series’ overall ideals and philosophies.|
But whatever concessions it does make it’s the characters and interactions that lend much of the series’ charm and who are of course the entire driving force. Naturally MCoG exhibits a culturally and mentally diverse cast, which means that there‘s always somebody to relate to or root for even. Given that we‘re expected to invest ourselves whole-heartedly in these people, Chalopin ensures that there is enough trepidation amidst high adventure; that the stakes are made clear from the start and that the threat surrounding them is ever present. It goes without saying that several characters are archetypical, such as the buffoonish Pedro and Sanchez, who are here primarily for comic support, or the antagonistic duo that is Gomez and Gaspard, but even these people have enough personality to go with their role. There isn’t a single character who isn’t passionate about his or her quest. Of course ideally we should be just as interested in Esteban’s search for his lost father as we are about the journey to the golden cities, and sure enough we’re drawn into his initial plight. Evading the warring backdrop of Spanish intrusion we see young Esteban and Zia search valiantly for their respective fathers, with all but a single clue at hand. Similarly Tao follows his own path as he seeks to learn more about his ancestors; his enthusiasm for other cultures and technological advances, coupled with his own natural gift for scientific understandings makes him a key figure as events unfold. And it’s through the wide-eyed innocence of these youngsters that most of the series takes its cues from; seeing how the world is perceived from their standpoint as they’re forced to take on adult responsibilities, while in contrast the elders’ themselves provide a far more distilled and cynical outlook.
With the three youngsters well established the adults enter the picture and provide the means for the series to channel the darker aspects of humanity as everything they stand for steers toward greed and treachery; in their own way their goals are likewise sincere enough, but for all the wrong reasons. We’ve Mendoza, the aforementioned sidekicks and Pizarro and his ruthless soldiers; Dr Fernando Leguerra and his Indian guide Merinchè and last but not least the subterranean Olmecs - each one gunning for the top prize, and some of course who are based upon actual historic figures and lore. However it’s Mendoza himself who instantly becomes the most beguiling character in the series on account of having an extraordinary amount of depth in relation to the rest of the cast. Certainly for most of the first half of its run there’s a feeling of “Will he, won’t he?” as we can never be too certain as to what his next plan of action will be, or just how long he intends to string along these naïve kids. But he’s a loveable rogue, a master swordsman and a true saviour. This also serves the entire group dynamic rather well, as the series isn’t without its share of internal bickering and divided loyalties; it’s a state of affairs which gradually improves over time, which in turn creates a believable atmosphere, through which respect needs to be earned. In not allowing us to over-familiarise ourselves with certain characters the series benefits from heightened tension and ambiguity. Fuelling antagonism it does deal to some extent with discrimination as cultures inevitably clash and prophecies foretell of cities being destroyed by white men. It’s therefore quite easy to assess any messages the series might ultimately contain. While its creator certainly doesn’t profess to deliberately sending out vibes it nonetheless stresses the futility of war, man’s overall greed and ultimate disrespect for the very things he creates.
In accordance with NHK’s broadcasting regulations, being that their service was to provide educational programming, MCoG had the added burden of providing some form of factual documentation in support of the historical content littered throughout the series. As such each episode ends with a mini doc, lasting for approximately three minutes and narrated by a soothing Vlasta Vrana. These were financed by NHK and shot on location specifically for the series. Of course they hold tremendous value, and even more cleverly each one is inserted in perfect relation to a particular episode’s theme. Subsequently these lend the series far more weight and credence, providing strong and above all fun educational aspects. It’s almost hard to believe, then, that when shown by the BBC during the mid to late eighties these were excised, presumably on account of containing certain imagery that would be considered non-pc. Heaven forbid a few bare-breasted natives and skeletons should upset child and parent. It goes to show the shoddy state of censorship at the time, although The Children’s Channel, which I remember seeing the show back on cable, had the good insight to show the episodes uncut. Removing these is removing an integral aspect of the series that simply isn’t the same without this form of contextual support. And it’s absolutely incredible as to how much detail the producers managed to cram into these small segments. They literally do cover everything we need to know, correlating perfectly to the events portrayed. We learn of sea faring which also includes various dedications to the Spanish and Portuguese trade routes; Columbus’s discoveries and the Magellan Straits, not to mention subsequent discoveries by the Spaniards of Mayan civilisations. Significantly still it delves into religions and myths pertaining to specific cultures; looking at the Incas and their legends, their treasure and their agricultural habits which has since gone on to be a part of other tribes’ existences. It provides a look into the Amazon, Guatemala and South American lifestyles; observes astronomical charting and explores the mysterious surroundings of once great civilisations that continually bamboozle scientists today. It tells us of historical figures such as Hernán Cortés and recites the tragedies of foreign invasions and the bringing of other religions. Really I could go on and on, but you get the point. This is a remarkable feat unlike anything else I’ve ever seen in a children’s show since. What better way for youngsters to learn about geography and history than to wrap it all up in a fascinating adventure.
And sweeping us up in all of this is Shuki Levy and Haim Saban’s incredible score. It’s undoubtedly the crowning achievement in their careers as composers for children‘s animation, though I get the impression from the bonus material that Levy was a lot more hands on with the writing process. The soundtrack feels like there’s a lot of inspiration behind it; the themes are distinct and apt to each and every locale, while characters have their own unique signature tune. Haim and Saban thus create some epic and sprawling movements, along with pleasant ambience which compliments the majesty of the narrative. Clearly though the entire score is one to enjoy more in the confines of one’s home, as there’s a great deal of repetition during the series’ plentiful heroic moments, while some of the more incidental music is used in moderation. Some of the show’s themes such as “L’aventure d’Esteban” for example are a tad overplayed, however they’re so stirring that it’s difficult not to get goose bumps every time you hear them. And who really can forget the classic opening? Not many, which is part of the reason as to why MCoG has remained so firmly etched into people’s memories since it originally aired more than two decades ago.
While I didn’t get sent the box in its entirety I was kindly given some of the bonus packaged material. Included in the six-disc collection is a nice mini poster featuring our heroes, six attractive postcards and a detailed booklet which offers synopsis (and major plot spoilers) for every episode, along with character profiles for just about every character.
The first sign you get that Fabulous Films have put their all into this release is with the specially created menus. These are nicely animated and replicate the interiors of the Incan temples, though each disc contains the same animation.
The story goes that the original negatives for the series were tragically lost in a fire. All that remained, then, were various broadcast tapes, which the folks at Fabulous Films have sourced and remastered to some extent. It looks like for the most part they’ve transferred the picture from French analogue, which is evident in the closing titles, while they’ve presumably acquired the original English dub from another local source. Given the problems, then, MCoG looks pretty good. It’s certainly colourful and detail is about as good as can be expected, though the former is largely bogged down by a fluctuating colour balance. Throughout the series various tints, brightness and contrast levels tend to disrupt the consistency of the show’s look, though I put this down to being similar to series such as Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors, which I reviewed recently. Best I can figure is that the DVD episodes come from several different sources. Additionally general wear and tear and slight telecine wobble can be clearly seen. However, the odd speck of dirt and so forth does little to distract, merely highlighting the age of the material. The good thing is that there are no obvious signs of tape wear. When it comes to the actual authoring though it still leaves little to be desired. The series has what appears to be an overall coat of grain - which ordinarily I wouldn’t argue with - but one more deceptive in nature in its disguising minor compressions artefacts. These tend to effect outlines mostly, exhibiting not only ringing but plenty of dot crawl. Additionally aliasing proves to be another deterring factor, and it’s during some of the faster moving animation that these stick out more predominantly. Still, I managed to happily sit through the series, and I’m sure most people buying it off the street will be more than happy with how things look here.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 English track, which contains the original Canadian dub we all know and love is equally flawed, but doesn’t provide too many hiccups. The most noticeable problem is the slightly warped pitch which directly affects the music score and is no doubt simply down to a very worn source. Otherwise dialogue is fine; it has a hollow sound at times, which is easy to forgive as we’re still talking about a show that’s 25 years old, but all the charm of the voice acting is still there. Like the transfer mentioned above it won’t blow you away but it’s a more than serviceable.
But I’m afraid that I can’t be overly praising here, for the simple reason that Fabulous Films has fallen slightly short of making this an almost perfect release: The lack of subtitles or Close Captioning. While it’s something I tend to mention in reviews I don’t often go to great pains to voice my disappointment, but with a series as utterly fantastic as this one I find it a huge shame that so many children or adults hoping to see it again won’t be able to get caught up in such an epic adventure.
Starting things off is a relatively light Series Synopsis, which simply appears in text form. Following on from this are four Deleted Scenes. The first three are taken from the very first episode, while the last one comes from episode four. These are very short in length, merely seconds, with the fourth scene lasting approximately 2 minutes. There is no sound to accompany any of these, though judging them we’re not missing a great deal of anything as the animation is used in the episodes we see anyway. These are ever so slightly extended with some very minor cuts, but nothing that particularly leaps out.
Real-time Storyboard Sequence is a brief, but decent addition to the set. Here we have two sequences: one for episode one, and the other for episode two. They last for approximately 2 minutes each. To the right of the screen we get a small window which plays out a scene, while to the left we have the storyboard in view. Rounding off this disc are Original Episode Production Drawings. There are 95 detailed drawings in total, ranging from character concepts and final stages to various architecture and instruments used throughout the series.
The content starts to get a whole lot more interesting from here on in. Recorded in Montreal, Canada in 2007 Interview with the Dubbing Cast (29.30) starts off by introducing us to English Dub Director and voice of Mendoza - Howard Ryshpan. He’s a very charming man who speaks enthusiastically about working on the series. He talks about starting out on the project and how the French scripts were adapted by Kelly Richard (series narrator) with additional input from himself, and explains as to why Canada was chosen as the series’ dubbing home. Additionally he talks about his role of Mendoza and how he came to voice the part, while in terms of other actors he stresses his personal desire to use children in the roles in order to elicit a far more natural quality. There’s even a little technical insight as he explains the recording and editing process, while jokingly he lets out a secret or two. We’re also joined here by the three other principal cast members: Shiraz Adam (Esteban), Janice Chakelson (Zia) and Adrian Knight (Tao). They are interviewed separately but seem to follow similar lines of questioning. They talk about how old they were at the time and auditioning for their parts, which saw Adam and Knight go head-to-head for the role of Esteban, while also delivering a few nice anecdotes. When they get past the early line of questioning each participant offers their own little story; they speak of working with scripts, or lack of, and how following the story was nigh on impossible in light of the series not being dubbed in chronological order. They explain the difficulties in trying to emote on account of a tricky dubbing process, which would also see to it that some actors would slightly overstep a mark. But it’s all fun and they’re clearly proud of their work; Shiraz Adam is certainly the most animated (pardon the pun) contributor who seems to be more than in touch with the fans, speaking of which there’s additional input from fan Tim Skutt, who would readily distribute DVD copies to other fans - but not any more I’m sure! Those involved express a great interest to revisit their characters should a sequel ever get made. Let’s hope it does.
Afterward we get a Dubbing Scene Recreation. It’s only a couple of minutes in length, but it’s quite fun as the four main cast members re-enact a scene from the series. The material then starts to mirror that of the first disc. There’s a text-based Dubbing Cast List; Real-time Storyboard Sequence for episode 13; Character Biographies; Voice-Over Cast Biographies and finally Original Character Drawings which is made up of 68 stills featuring artwork for the main cast of characters.
Here we get a text-based Interview with Mitsuru Kaneko - concept creator. He explains how this series differed from most other animation he had previously worked on, in addition to the appeal of the subject matter, the science fiction leanings and the characters. Next is a Real-time Storyboard Sequence for episode 19, followed by Episode Stills Gallery, which contains a whopping 256 pieces of gorgeous cel art. Finishing up we have 12 cels which belong in the Open Sequence Gallery
More meatier extras as this time we’re treated to The Story of Production (36.29). Despite a relatively short length this is an exhaustive look at the making of the series, as told through various production members. First up Jean Chalopin, the series’ key writer and producer explains of his involvement, having been approached by friend Mitsuru Kaneko with an idea based upon a famous novel. He’d already had a working relationship with M.K., but it would be a first that he’d work with NHK. He talks about how NHK came to co-finance the series and how it needed some educational aspects. Then he mentions how the Japanese and French teams came to work together, while later director Bernard Deyriès explains how they needed to overcome the language barrier and define the roles of each team, not forgetting that this is was one of earliest examples of such a co-production which had to put aside battling egos. Chalopin and Deyriès then provide various bits and pieces between them, giving us a fuller idea of how the entire process worked, from designing the aesthetics to scripting loosely from Scott O‘Dell‘s novel, and subsequently seeing the documentary aspect added for NHK’s pleasure. After they get the technical stuff out of the way they talk about the characters and the historical realty of the series; how they sought to create an unbalance between the children, while throwing in valued science fiction elements. There’s a little talk on how the editing between the French, UK and Japanese versions slightly differed, as did the dub and the score. This brings to the table composer Shuki Levy, who speaks of his inspirations in searching for character themes and coming up with a soundtrack that was quite removed thematically from what he’d done before. Chalopin fondly reminisces, speaks highly of the fan adoration and to this day he still wishes to continue with the story. We learn that multiple series were intended, that would see the children go after the other great cities, which would have taken then all over the globe. He still believes this will happen one day, along with a possible movie adaptation. It’s difficult not to believe him when he seems so adamant.
Production Crew Biographies provides info on Jean Chalopin, Bernard Deyriès, Mitsuru Kaneko, Hisayuki Toriumi (Chief Animation Director), Toshiyasu Okada (Character Design), Hiroshi Kawabata (Animation Supervisor), Mitsuki Nakamura (Art Director), Composers Shuki Levy and Haim Saban and Author Scott O’Dell. Original Drawings - Machine Props contains 10 pieces of art which look at the Solaris and the Golden Condor. Various Images holds promotional art material and miscellaneous cel art.
Deleted Scene for episode 32. This is of very poor quality, from god knows what generation of tape, but this time there is at least a soundtrack in accompaniment. The scene is largely the same as the one we see in the finished series, the only major difference here being a spot of extended violence. We then get 56 Original Episode Production Drawings. These show various designs taken from episodes 29-33. Also included is the Original French Sales Brochure and Original Japanese/English Sales Brochure. It’s a shame though that there’s no option to zoom in on them, as they’re otherwise impossible to read.
We have another Real-time Storyboard Sequence, this time for episode 35, while Original Episode Production Drawings features 50 pieces of art pertaining to episodes 34-39. The Opening Theme Karaoke really isn’t very good at all. This contains computer generated English subtitles, but they manage to miss out all the “Ahhh” bits. Next, however, is a Phillip Schofield Clip. Joined by Gordon the Gopher, young Schofield sings along to the main song, and it’s quite cringe worthy while providing a bit of fun. Finally we’ve DVD Credits to finish the whole thing off.
If I were to make any negative criticisms then I’d say the final ten episodes which deal primarily with the Olmec arc tend to drag out proceedings a little, whilst the treasure hunt itself during this stage consists of more than a few repetitive moments as the explorers stumble upon cave after cave, manuscript after manuscript, yet I honestly can‘t fault it as an overall piece of entertainment. The Mysterious Cities of Gold offers a rich and gripping plot with strong characterisation and complexities, enhanced by pleasant animation and fun educational aspects; the sheer scope and breadth of ideas on display is staggering, making it feel every bit an epic production. In the accompanying interview on disc four Chalopin, Deyriès and Levy touch upon this being a passionate production through and through, and I have to say that every frame shows as much. In the end I love it and just can’t bring myself to give it any less than a perfect score. It’s the type of series that all children should be actively watching, but sadly they don’t make them like this anymore. I’ve adored going back to it and I hope I can show it to others soon as I truly believe that it’s one of the greatest animated series of all time. I also wish Jean Chalopin and his team the best of luck as they strive to make a second series and a feature length film.
Fabulous Films has done a superb job with the set overall. The extras are way beyond the call of duty, being very insightful and as thoroughly entertaining as the series itself. My only caveat is the total disregard for subtitles. I think it’s a great shame that a large majority of children will be missing out on such a wonderful series. I hope in the future, what with the company having announced several other fan favourites, that they rectify this problem.
10 out of 10
6 out of 10
7 out of 10
9 out of 10