Nov 12, 2007

DVD Review: Dangermouse

From the same studio that brought you the Danger Man megaset on DVD comes another dangerous megaset: Dangermouse: The Complete Series. Dangermouse, billed as "the world’s smallest secret agent," is a white mouse in a white monogrammed sweater with a Nick Fury eyepatch, a John Steed accent, a Derek Flint mastery of any situation and a Sid James sidekick, a dim-witted, cockney hamster named Penfold. He operates out of a red London postal box, and reports to an oft-befuddled superior with a bushy RAF mustache named Colonel K.

Dangermouse was the pro-duct of British animation studio Cosgrove-Hill (who also pro-duced the popular spin-off series Count Duckula), and ran intermit-tently throughout the ‘80s, on Nickelodeon in the Unites States, if memory serves me. Prior to watching the DVDs, I harbored vague (but positive) childhood memories of this series, but my mind had tricked me into recalling a slightly darker show. Now I remember why: as a child, I spent much of my Dangermouse-watching time trying to figure out how he had lost his eye, a grisly contemplation that’s sure to color any impressionable imagination. Fortunately, that was just my own morbid curiosity; the series itself spares us any such details, and today I’m capable of accepting the patch as a cool design element and nothing more. (Thank good-ness!)

While Dangermouse does serve up plenty of spy parodies throughout, the basic secret agent set-up is pri-marily used as a platform from which to branch off in all sorts of directions, sending up everything from Sher-lock Holmes to Indiana Jones, from sci-fi to superhero to horror. The animation itself is definitely "on the cheap," often reusing the same backgrounds, reusing entire repeated sequences each episode (DM and Penfold exiting their flat by couch elevator), or offering a camera move to substitute for actual motion within the frame, but the gang at Cosgrove-Hall actually use these limitations to their advantage, crafting a unique look for the show. One of the other things that stayed with me from childhood about Dangermouse is the unique, retouched photographic cityscapes (primarily London) that serve as backdrops to the adventures of DM and Penfold, and cheap though they may be, there’s an undeniable artistry to these backgrounds. They look good! Another favorite money-saving trick of the Dangermouse team is having the lights go out. It seems to happen at least once in every episode–and sometimes quite a bit more–and when it does, all you see is two sets of eyes. (At least until the inevitable third set of eyes opens, belonging to some terrifying lurking monster and unerringly leading to some Abbot & Costello antics!)

During the first season, Dangermouse’s adventures are all shorts, about seven minutes long. Later, half-hour adventures are divided up into four or more short segments, so that each short ends on a serial-style cliffhanger and resumes with a narrated recap. While this may have worked well with commercials when originally airing in the United States, or stripped together with other cartoon shorts, it is a little bit annoying on A&E’s DVDs to have to sit through (or fast forward through) closing and opening credits, as well as recaps, at least four times during a given episode. Luckily, in later seasons, full twenty-two minute episodes are presented without interruption. I’m not sure if that’s because that was how they aired, or if A&E merely decided to omit the annoying interruptions, but either way it’s a welcome omission.

One of the most original things about Dangermouse is its willingness to break the Fourth Wall. It’s a very postmodern cartoon. For example, in one episode the narrator himself (whose often erroneous voiceovers remind me a lot of those on Little Britain) becomes a character when everything he says comes true on the screen, much to Dangermouse’s annoyance. In another, DM actually runs off the side of the "filmstrip," past the sprockets into a white void of nothingness where he’s stuck until he can find a way to get himself back into the picture. These absurdist episodes may have been a direct result of the show’s overriding penny-pinching edict, but they are very creative. As the show progressed into its final seasons, with full half-hour episodes, the plots became more straightforward. At the same time, the budget clearly increased, and Dangermouse relied far less on still frames and more on real animation. The show may have lost a touch of originality at this point, becoming just another animated comedy adventure, but I actually prefer these episodes. The characters are still as engaging as ever, and the off-kilter (and ever-so-British) sense of humor remains intact. (I do miss the photographic backgrounds, though.)

Throughout all his adventures, psychedelic and nonsensical or efficient and somewhat trite, DM is accompanied by Penfold, who despite his many displays of cowardice, always stands by his "Chief." If Dangermouse is somewhat unsympathetically flawless in his Flint-like perfection, Penfold is a bundle of ostensible flaws: lazy, timid, not in possession of the sharpest of wits (to put it kindly), and good-hearted and loyal to a fault. He’s Nigel Bruce’s Watson to Basil Rathbone’s Holmes. As in those movies, the humor in their relationship comes generally not at the expense of Penfold’s stupidity or DM’s arrogance, but in the collision of those two personalities, and the (usually) good-natured banter between them. They’re a good team, which is essential for a cartoon duo.

Their primary nemesis is the villainous frog Baron Greenback, equal parts Moriarty and Blofeld, who strokes a fuzzy white caterpillar named Nero. Greenback is the villain in almost every episode, and frankly Dangermouse would have benefited from a larger rogues’ gallery. Greenback’s horse voice, repetitive plans for world domination and total lack of motivation (perhaps I expect too much from a cartoon villain, but even Gargamel was driven by a manic compulsion to capture Smurfs!) get old fast. It’s to his credit, though, that the archvillain never wavers in his belief in his own superiority, that this time, he’s sure to crush Dangermouse! Lesser villains might be discouraged by the 88th failure.

Standout episodes include an excursion to a booby-trapped New York skyscraper more fiendish than "The House That Jack Built" (and Emma Peel endured) so surreal that they don’t even bother to give it a proper ending, the Indiana Jones-inspired globetrotting race against Greenback for "The Great Bone Idol," the Bondian spy farce "Dangermouse on the Orient Express," and any episode with the vegetarian vampire Count Duckula, who’s always a welcome alternative to Greenback. And perhaps I was right after all in my eyepatch-obsessed memory of the show as being dark; it may be the only children’s cartoon ever to end its final episode (a rare Greenbackless affair) with the total destruction of London, obliterated into a post-apocalyptic wasteland around Dangermouse’s unscathed mailbox headquarters!

A&E offer some good extras on their 9-disc Complete Series, too. There are two episodes of Count Duckula, each as enjoyable as the best Dangermouse episodes. There are suites of incidental music from the series, and the unaired pilot, which is actually better than most of the first season shorts, and telegraphs the more plot-oriented direction in which the show will eventually go. The most fascinating aspect of this collection is the ability to watch the series mutate and evolve over the course of 89 episodes of varying length and absurdity. Dangermouse has its share of misses, but they’re ultimately outnumbered by the hits, and hitting "Play All" on one of the discs is a great way for an animation-oriented spy fan to spend a Saturday afternoon. It’s certainly easier to recommend than other kid-friendly spy cartoons like Cool McCool, because it offers genuine entertainment on top of historical curiosity!

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