Thursday, November 12, 2020

James Bond Jr. (1991-92)

Saturday morning cartoons have always had a reputation for being cheap, ridiculous, and cheesy. But they always had a strong audience. Admittedly an easily entertained audience, at a time when the selection of TV was smaller than today (which feels like a lost calm), but for as much flack as these shows have gotten in the years since, they've seen a bit of a resurgence of legitimate popularity lately. Maybe people just decided to lighten up a bit, and part of it is these shows did have a genuine good quality, otherwise they'd never have lasted so long. Today I'll be looking at one such show, still unappreciated to an extent, but one worthy of reappraisal...

James Bond Jr., nephew of the world famous secret agent, is an eager student at Warfield Academy, where together with his friends I.Q., Tracy, Gordo, and Phoebe, he routinely cuts class to go save the world from whatever new threat is up in the air. No matter the danger, James Bond Jr. and friends are always there to stop the plans of S.C.U.M....

James Bond Jr. is everything you'd expect from both a saturday morning cartoon, and a kiddified version of 007. How does the property fare when the lead is too young for alcohol, and doesn't have a license to kill? Surprisingly well! The show is cheesy, but a lot of the Bond series' DNA is present here, from larger-than-life villains, to elaborate schemes, fancy lairs, and fun gadgets. While some 'adult movie to kids' cartoon' transitions may have been stranger than others, this feels pretty natural (and let's not pretend that kids don't watch James Bond anyway).

The writing is pretty cheesy. Patterns quickly emerge, like Warfield Academy sending its students on a seemingly endless series of vacations. The episodes have entertaining stories, and do enough different each time to not get boring.

The supporting cast is pretty strong. The nerdy IQ is responsible for supplying James's gadgets, and has a disturbing habit of making homemade bombs in his dorm room. Tracy is a typical good girl, while the homely Phoebe has plenty of spunk. Gordo is a sports nut and surfer bro, so it's to his credit that he's not too annoying. Then there's Trevor Noseworthy, a snooty brat who's usually causing trouble. Despite this, he is considered a friend(ish) by the others, and at times even earns it, if slightly.

Despite liking Tracy, James is often putting the moves on other girls (which is lampshaded hilariously at times by Phoebe, who holds a candle for him). Then there are jawdropping moments, like James's sunglasses trick on Tracy (if you've seen it, you know!).

We also have a large selection of Bond girls, with just about 1 each episode, often with ridiculous puns for names (some made me groan, and others made me giggle). This brings us to one of the weirder aspects of the show. James is a casanova, just like his uncle. As unusual as this is, the show is clearly on the know, and pokes fun at it at times, like the hilariously unexpected twist at the end of Fountain of Youth.

The villains have got to be a high point in anything Bond related, and the collection here is quite good, even if only for a simple cartoon. We have some classic foes like Dr. No and Goldfinger. The latter is unchanged (albeit with a somewhat shifting accent), while No receives quite a redesign! He has green skin and looks like Fu Manchu (always a plus, but a far cry from how he looked in the movie!). We also get an abundance of classic henchmen, from Oddjob, to Jaws, and Nick Nack. All have pretty radical redesigns, with Jaws having a literal metal jaw, Oddjob dressing like a 70s pimp/gym teacher, and Nick Nack has a bizarrely huge chin. And henchmen who used to be silent are now quite vocal.

Original villains include cockney henchman Skullcap, pirate captain Walker D. Plank, the Chameleon, Baron von Skarrin (and dog), Goldfinger's likeminded daughter Goldie, and most notably Dr. Derange. We also have a Blofeld replacement in the form of SCUM Lord. They are all varying degrees of entertaining, with Derange being the most polarising. He's by far the most cartoonish villain in the show, especially with his exaggerated French accent. He can be fun at times, though as the most frequent villain, it can be annoying when he keeps showing up, often a few episodes in a row.

One interesting thing to discuss is the villains that don't appear. None from entries like From Russia with Love, For your Eyes Only, etc appear, naturally being too adult and ill-fitting for an exaggerated cartoon. Then you've got antagonists like Max Zorin and Franz Sanchez, and you know why they never appeared! There is one concession in the form of Barbella, who feels like Mayday-lite, keeping her size and strength, but ditching her psychosexual nature. Overall I think the show did a good job picking which villains to appear and which to leave out. The only exceptions are Tee Hee and Baron Samedi! How great would they have been!

The references to the 007 movies are handled surprisingly well! There are your obvious once, such as "Bond. James Bond. Junior", but the series never rests on its laurels with these. For example, I missed one episode that mentioned Gordo's surname, and didn't realise till halfway through the series that he's Felix's nephew! Bond himself never appears, having a presence, but is never trotted out for a Very Special Episode. The show never clumsily namedrops elements or characters from the movie, and is comfortable being its own adjacent thing.

There are also lots of little references and easter eggs throughout that I got a kick out of. They're very subtle, enough that only a diehard Bond fan would even notice. Of course this does mean the possibility that these moments are only coincidences, but still!

Voicing the principal cast are Corey Burton, Mona Marshall, Jan Rabson, and Susan Silo, among others. They also pull double, triple, even quadruple duty in voicing many of the villains, working with a decent supporting cast every episode. They all do fine, if often exaggerated jobs. Their best work is as the main characters. Burton is a good lead, and for an American his British accent is commendably decent!

Of note is the presence of Simon Templeman. He does a fun (if occasionally inconsistent) job at voicing the toffee-nosed Trevor Noseworthy. What's surprising is that he's perhaps the most high profile voice actor of the whole cast, at least for gamers. If you ever played Legacy of Kain, you now know that the same thespian who gave life to that eloquent Shakespearean villain is also the goofy comic relief in James Bond Jr.!

The animation is good all round. It can be a little janky at times, but that's to be expected with these kinds of cartoons. As long as it gets the job done, and has a creative design, it's excusable. The heroes all look distinct, while the villains are designed well.

The music here is fun. We get an intro theme that sounds a little Bondian, with some fittingly goofy lyrics. There are various tracks throughout the show's fun, from adventurous, to tense, dynamic, and goofy (a few stings in particular).

James Bond Jr. only lasted one season, but as is typical for classic animation, had 65 episodes! So if you want to make its duration sound more impressive, you could say it had three, which is a pretty respectable run, all things considered. For as much extra attention I wish this show had gotten, I don't think it was ever shortchanged in terms of longevity.

James Bond Jr. is cheesy and silly, but in the best ways. It has some issues, some of which may detract, some of which might add to the enjoyment. Overall it's a fun show, and is a perfect antidote to the drought of 007 content we're currently in...

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