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Rediscovering ROBOCOP: THE ANIMATED SERIES

Back in my post a few years ago about my enduring fondness for the 1994 RoboCop: The Series, I talked briefly about how none of the other film and TV adaptations of RoboCop had really worked for me. I mentioned the 1988 animated series from Marvel Productions, which I had little memory of beyond an impression of it as “decent but nothing special, notable mainly for being unusually dark for a Saturday morning cartoon.” I wasn’t able to find it on video anywhere, so I couldn’t assess it beyond those vague recollections.

But today, I discovered that all 12 episodes of RoboCop: The Animated Series (or just RoboCop, as it was titled onscreen) are available on YouTube, and since that’s only a bit over 4 hours of content, I was able to get through it all in one day. I’m afraid it doesn’t hold up as well as I remembered. It is pretty faithful to the premise and approach of the original movie, as filtered through ’80s Saturday-morning cartoon sensibilities — lasers instead of bullets, no death, lots of robot fights, the occasional heavyhanded moral message. It’s not quite as dark as I remember, and not that unlike the live-action series in its storytelling approach. Unlike R:TS, though, it actually had the rights to all of the movie characters: Robo/Murphy, Anne Lewis, Sgt. Reed, the Old Man (by that name), etc. It also makes prominent recurring players out of several minor characters from the original film. Lt. Hedgecock, head of the SWAT team that tried to kill Robo in the movie, is his recurring foil in the series (voiced by Len Carlson), shown as a capable officer who’s blinded by his bigotry toward RoboCop as a cyborg and resentment at being upstaged by Robo’s superior police work. Dr. Tyler, the brunette woman in large glasses who was seen in the POV montage of Robo’s construction, is retconned as RoboCop’s actual designer, a stern woman who sees Robo as merely a piece of hardware. And oddly, Dr. McNamara, head of the team that failed to control ED-209 in its disastrous boardroom debut, becomes a cyborg-armed nemesis to Robo; he champions the ED-260 project (no word on what happened to the intervening 50 models) and is willing to hire criminals to attack or discredit RoboCop in hopes of getting ED approved as his replacement.

Robo himself is characterized pretty well, a logical and disciplined officer with an undercurrent of humanity, rather than the cartoony wisecracking action hero the second animated series (and the awful Prime Directives miniseries) turned him into. Dan Hennessey (the voice of Chief Quimby on Inspector Gadget) does a fairly good job playing him, echoing Peter Weller’s performance pretty well. However, R:TAS somewhat modifies Robo’s nature in a way that presages the 2014 reboot. Rather than being killed and having his brain used as a component of RoboCop, this version of Murphy is more like a quadruple amputee with robotic replacements for his missing parts. He’s capable of human things like eating normal food and catching a cold, and at least in the first 2-3 episodes he’s able to remove and put on his helmet as if it were just a motorcycle helmet, rather than something bolted to his skull. Also, for some reason, they reversed the order of his second and third prime directives, putting “Uphold the law” second and “Protect the innocent” third.  I find that rather disturbing. For all that OCP is an amoral, greedy corporation, one thing they got right in RoboCop’s programming is that protecting the innocent should be a higher priority than upholding the letter of the law. Reversing that order implies a more ruthlessly authoritarian system. It never comes up as a plot point, of course, but the reversal rubs me the wrong way.

Lewis doesn’t come off very well here. She’s frequently a damsel in distress and Robo sometimes condescends to her, though she sometimes makes a good showing of herself and saves Murphy. But she’s very stridently voiced by Susan Roman (Callisto in the ’90s X-Men), who constantly delivers her lines as if she were shouting to someone in the next room. There’s also a disturbing tendency to hint at an unresolved romantic undercurrent between her and Murphy, rather than playing them as proper partners. She’s often trying to get him to confess to feelings for her or jealousy toward another suitor, which he denies, and at one point she even takes him on a date and is quite unprofessionally upset when he needs to go stop a crime. Basically, she was a rather annoying character. As for Sgt. Reed, he’s mainly just the guy bossing people around, although he does get one focus episode.

The stories are mostly pretty typical ’80s cartoon fare, but there are occasional glimmers of intelligence, such as an episode where Murphy and Lewis are at odds over how to deal with a Robin Hood-style vigilante who attacks OCP on behalf of the poor (although of course he turns out to be a corporate rival trying to ruin OCP). And there’s some attempt at the corporate and cultural satire of the movie, including an episode built around a sleazy journalist based on Geraldo Rivera (reminiscent of the live-action series’ Umberto Ortega, only more overtly villainous). But it’s just so ’80s-cartoon, and even writers like Rich Fogel and Marv Wolfman can’t elevate it much above that level. The finale is particularly weird. As I mentioned before, it retcons the movie so that Clarence Boddicker and his gang are still alive, and it does go kind of dark as Robo pursues Boddicker relentlessly and comes close to killing him in revenge. But I realize that Robo already faced that choice in the middle of the movie, when he busted Boddicker’s drug lab and chose his duty as a cop over revenge. So it’s kind of rehashing an old plot point, although, admittedly, one that most of the young viewing audience presumably wouldn’t have seen yet. (But then, why even bring back Boddicker?) Also, there’s no real characterization of Boddicker as more than a routine villain, and the story is mainly about chasing down Boddicker’s super-helicopter with help from the Ultra Police, a team of sidekick characters created for the toy line but mercifully only seen in this one episode. It’s an odd mismatch between the serious themes of murder and revenge and the blatant toy-commercial treatment of the rest of the plot.

I could cite other complaints, like the failure to research Detroit; a couple of episodes claim that Detroit once had a subway system, which it never has, and the Geraldo-esque reporter works for TV station KRUD, even though Detroit is east of the Mississippi and thus uses broadcast call signs starting with W. But the biggest problem I haven’t mentioned yet is the animation, done by Akom, which was probably the worst animation house that worked on ’80s and ’90s American TV, and yet one of the most prolific. (They did most of the ’90s X-Men series and several seasons of The Simpsons, as well as all of Exosquad and plenty of others.) Their animation here is their typical sloppy, ugly, jerky, error-laden work. Which is a shame, since there are some impressive names in the storyboard department, people who’d go on to do terrific work for Warner Bros. and elsewhere in the ’90s, such as future directors Boyd Kirkland and Frank Paur. Their talent must have been buried under Akom’s shoddy execution.

In sum, R:TAS is still better than Alpha Commando or Prime Directives, but it’s objectively not very good. It was a decent try in its way to be faithful to the concepts and style of the movie while adapting them to the needs of an ’80s kidvid show, but it isn’t really a good fit, and the quality of ’80s kidvid cartoons on the whole was not that great compared to the work that some of the show’s own staffers would do in the ’90s and ’00s. So it’s an interesting footnote, but not that enjoyable an experience.

Thoughts on the ROBOCOP reboot (spoilers)

February 25, 2014 1 comment

I’ve talked in the past on this blog about my fondness for RoboCop: The Series and my opinions about the movies, so it seems appropriate to post my thoughts about the new movie version directed by José Padilha and starring Joel Kinnaman. I’ve seen mixed reviews, but it seems to be more popular with audiences than with critics, at least going by Rotten Tomatoes, so I figured it was worth a try.

I was never opposed to the idea of a RoboCop reboot; if anything, the issues of corporate power and robotic law enforcement are even more relevant today, so it seemed like a worthwhile and timely idea to revisit the concept in a way tailored to 2010s concerns rather than 1980s concerns. I wanted a film that would not try to copy the original, but would instead take the core concept in a distinct and fresh direction. Now, the last remake I saw of a Paul Verhoeven film, Len Wiseman’s 2012 Total Recall, was a big disappointment in that regard, superficially attempting something new but ultimately too slavish in its imitation of the forms of the original without the substance. So what I heard about this film’s fresh approach was encouraging.

And in that respect, I wasn’t disappointed. Padilha’s RoboCop is a radically different take on the premise, a more serious and realistic film than the comedy-satire Verhoeven made — perhaps fittingly, since its premise of a cyborg enforcer in a decayed Detroit is far closer to reality today than it was in 1987. Its version of Alex Murphy (Kinnaman) doesn’t even die; he’s just horribly injured and retains his identity and memories. And the story focuses more on his wife (Abbie Cornish) and son, and on the scientist who creates and mentors him, Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), than on the criminals who attempted to kill him — although the machinations of the corporate executives led by Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) are about as prominent as in the original. It definitely meets the criterion of being a novel take. There are a couple of subtle nods, but they don’t get in the way of the new story being told: The Basil Poledouris theme is briefly heard at times; the original Rob Bottin costume design is glimpsed as a “combat mode” concept (and there are some nice echoes of Bottin’s classic work in the first version of Murphy’s armor); a character at one point says “I wouldn’t buy that for a dollar”; and there’s a variant on the original’s Directive 4, a program block prohibiting Murphy from turning on his corporate controllers, though it’s handled in a very different way (and Chekhov’s-Gunned in the opening sequence of the film). And the line “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me” is used, but in a way that cleverly inverts it and gives it new meaning. So even in those rare cases where it references the original, it doesn’t feel gratuitous or derivative. (Though I admit, I was a little disappointed that Murphy never said “Somewhere there is a crime happening.”)

It’s also a very well-made movie, with good designs and cinematography and convincing CGI, though a couple of the big action set pieces seem a bit video-gamey. The cast is solid and effective. (And as a fan of the TV series, I’m pleased that much of the location filming was done in Toronto, where R:TS was made.) I don’t get why they had to gender-swap Lewis (Michael K. Williams), but they also replaced Sgt. Reed with a female Chief Dean (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) and built up Mrs. Murphy’s role as well as giving prominent roles to Jennifer Ehle as Omnicorp’s legal executive and Aimee Garcia as Norton’s assistant, so I guess it balances out.

But is it a good story? I felt it was rather slow-paced in the first act, taking quite a long time to establish things that could’ve been handled more concisely. But I appreciated that increased level of detail when it came to delving into Murphy’s family life (in the original, we barely met him before he was killed) and into the mechanics of his rehabilitation and operations. Once it got into the meat of the story, it held my attention quite adequately through the end of the movie.

But after the movie, I began to realize some things were lacking. For a movie inspired by contemporary concerns about drone warfare and the surveillance state, it didn’t really do anything with those concerns. It set up a political conflict between a senator and his constituents who didn’t want unfeeling robots to wield deadly force on US soil and the corporation that sought to increase its profits by putting drones n the streets, but we never saw any actual negative consequences to individual liberty or safety once Murphy’s emotions were suppressed to let him operate in full-on drone mode. If anything, the movie presented ubiquitous surveillance as a pretty unambiguous positive, letting Robo track down bad guys in mere moments. (And it just now occurred to me to wonder, why couldn’t the rest of the police use the same tracking software?) The only people he endangers in emotionless drone mode are criminals and corrupt cops. The only negative consequences to Omnicorp’s progressive dehumanization of Murphy were the emotional consequences to Murphy himself and his family, and those prove pretty easy to overcome. So not only does the film not have much to say about the issues it superficially engages with, but it has little in the way of stakes. It tries to make Murphy the test case and linchpin for a national debate about drone warfare — played out through talk-show segments hosted by Samuel L. Jackson as the type of pundit of which Stephen Colbert is a parody — but it’s all just Greek-chorus exposition that doesn’t really connect to the small-scale story of Murphy and his family and doesn’t have any real payoff or impact. So the attempt at social commentary is all telling and no showing, and no clear point of view on the issues really comes across.

Also, Oldman’s Dr. Norton is somewhat unfocused as a character. He seems at first like a total do-gooder, but then is shown being willing to do some pretty nasty and dehumanizing things to Murphy in the name of Sellars’s profits, but then ends up on Murphy’s side once again in the final act. Maybe they were going for something about how easy it is for decent people to be persuaded to obey immoral orders, the Milgram experiment and all that, but Norton’s inner life isn’t examined enough for any such arc to become evident. It’s more like he’s just switching back and forth between two ethical states to serve the momentary needs of the script.

So in the end, I think all I can say about this movie is that it’s decent. It’s easily the second-best RoboCop movie, but only because the two sequels to the original were so weak. It’s an adequately well-told and extremely well-made story without a lot of substance to it. It’s nowhere near as good as the original — not because it’s different, since it should be different, but because it’s just not as interesting or clever or substantial. It’s worthwhile for the production values and the performances, and for the freshness of its take on the concept, but it had the potential to be so much more, potential that it never really embraced.

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