Dungeons and Dragons: The Complete Animated Series (DVD)

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Ranger, barbarian, cavalier, magician, thief, and acrobat.

A fan favorite, fondly remembered by many — including yours truly — Dungeons & Dragons was something a little different when it debuted on Saturday mornings in 1983. The fact that it was based on a successful role-playing game gave the show’s creators a wide variety of settings, creatures, and adventures to mine throughout the course of three seasons. Also, the writers added generous amounts of character development, as well as numerous dark, serious moments, making the cartoon seem a little more “grown up” than the others of the time. This, in turn, struck a chord with many young people.

The time has finally come to throw away all your faded bootlegs, because Dungeons & Dragons: The Complete Animated Series is now here on DVD, with all 27 episodes in one five-disc package, along with an orc-sized helping of bonus features made with the show’s fans in mind. This is an amazing set, and if anyone disagrees with me, I have a +2 great axe that grants its wielder a +4 strength enhancement, so watch out.

At a theme park, six young friends go for a spin on the “Dungeons & Dragons Ride.” While they enjoy the mechanical beasts and ghouls inside, something goes wrong, and the kids’ roller car goes way, way off the tracks. In a flash of light, all six end up in a strange and dangerous world filled with unnatural creatures and magic. Almost immediately, these six meet three notable individuals: Uni, a baby unicorn, Venger, a evil and intelligent being with a hunger for power, and Dungeon Master, an old man with great magical abilities, who provides the kids with supernatural weapons and who acts as their guide through this alien world.

Meet the cast:

* Hank, the ranger, armed with a bow that fires arrows of pure energy. He’s the leader.

* Diana, the acrobat, armed with a magical javelin staff that enhances her own gymnastic abilities. She’s the cool-headed voice of reason.

* Presto, the magician, armed with a wizard’s hat, from which he can cast sometimes useful and sometimes unpredictable spells. He’s the nerd.

* Sheila, the thief, armed with a cloak that can turn her invisible whenever she wants. She’s the shy girl.

* Bobby, the barbarian, Shelia’s little brother, armed with a simple-looking club capable of causing mass destruction. He’s the bratty 10-year-old.

* Eric, the cavalier, armed with a griffon shield that can protect him and his friends from harm. He’s the wisecracking coward.

Relying on their bravery, their wits, and their new weapons to survive, these youngsters become heroes — righting wrongs, helping those in need, and exploring uncharted territory, all while searching for a way home.

As a TV series, Dungeons & Dragons originally started life as a knock-off of the famous role-playing game, until someone had the smart thinking to go ahead and option the game itself. Several writers took a stab at a pilot, each one adding more and more characters and gimmicks. It wasn’t until veteran TV and comic book writer Mark Evanier joined the project and thinned the concept down to six core characters that the series became a reality. Other writers, including Paul Dini (Batman: The Animated Series), Steve Gerber (Marvel Comics’ Howard the Duck), Buzz Dixon (Thundarr the Barbarian), Jeffrey Scott (Muppet Babies), Kathy Selbert (Conan: The Adventurer), and Michael Reaves (Gargoyles), picked up where Evanier left off, opening up the overall world of the series, as well as the characters and their interactions.

Typical episode: In the midst of their adventuring, our heroes run into Dungeon Master, who gives them an objective that could lead to a way back to Earth. He also leaves them with a riddle to solve, before he mysteriously disappears. Along the way, the six kids make friends with some locals before exploring a foreboding terrain or a dark castle. Venger is always at their heels, in the hopes of securing their magic weapons for his own use. At the end, just when it looks like all is lost, Dungeon Master’s riddle becomes apparent in an unconventional way. The young friends save the day, help out the locals, and vanquish whatever evil is afoot. But in the course of all the action, the way home is lost forever. Dungeon Master then reappears with a few encouraging words for the heroes, who, although discouraged, maintain hope that someday they will return home.

In adapting the game into a series, several liberties had to be taken. The most obvious of these is that the main characters all come from Earth, instead of calling the D&D world home. Although this doesn’t happen in the game (that I know of), it’s a necessary shortcut in making the characters relatable. It pays off in a big way. For newcomers not familiar with the game, the characters are reacting to this strange world in much the same as viewers. When, say, giant ants start chasing the kids across the countryside, Eric might cry out something like, “There are giant ants now? What kind of crazy world is this?” That’s pretty much what anyone might think while being chased by giant ants across an alien landscape, and that makes all the craziness on screen accessible to casual viewers.

That being said, there are tons of nods to the game for those who are familiar with it. A variety of creatures, spells, and weapons from the game show up throughout. The second episode is about a beholder, one of the most popular creatures from the game, simply because of how freakin’ weird it looks. Gamers know that there are different varieties of dragon, and not all of them breathe fire. For example, green dragons breathe poisonous gas, black dragons breathe acid, and desert-dwelling blue dragons breathe lightning. Fortunately for the collective psyches of gamers everywhere, these little details are maintained. This makes it fun for game fans, and it adds a lot of nice visual touches for viewers in general.

With such a vast resource to work from, the writers and animators were free to cut loose and be as creative as they liked. If an ancient skeleton warrior wants the kids’ help to retrieve a magical device from an enchanted tower so he can eventually gain his own redemption, then hey, why not? There are monsters that can turn into smoke, huge underground burrowing worms, a giant map made of lasers filling the entire night sky, a massive fortress suspended over an active volcano with chains the size of bridges, and much more. Our heroes might find themselves as a giant’s playthings in one episode, pursued through swamps by rotting zombies in the next, and transformed into hideous bogbeasts in the next. You never know what kind of outrageous adventure is waiting right around the next corner.

Despite the tons of creativity on display, episodes tend to repeat themselves in other ways. Although the characters do their share of treasure-hunting and princess-rescuing, their real quest is to get home. In almost every episode, a way back to Earth — usually a mystical portal of some sort — presents itself, only be lost in the last few minutes. What we’re looking at here is the Gilligan’s Island phenomenon (or, if you prefer, the Star Trek: Voyager phenomenon). On one hand, it makes the characters look like failures, by continually getting them this close to their goal, only to have them lose it over and over. On the other hand, they’re usually given a choice, such as whether to take the doorway home or help someone in need. Being the heroes that they are, the kids use their magic weapons to make the unselfish choice, forcing them to seek the way home elsewhere.

That brings to mind one of the most intriguing aspects of the series. There are all kinds of hints dropped as to a “bigger picture” going on in the series. Was it merely an accident that brought these six kids to this strange world, or do the kids have a specific destiny to fulfill? What does Dungeon Master know that he’s not telling? Is he just their guide, as he says, or is he more of a manipulative puppeteer, planning everything out far in advance? One episode, “The Box,” begins with the kids in the middle of an earthquake, which uncovers an ancient box. This box leads them on an adventure in which the kids free one of Dungeon Master’s old friends. That leads me to wonder, was that earthquake a random event, or did Dungeon Master cause it, setting up the entire adventure ahead of time? All this is reading between the lines of course, but the fact that a Saturday morning cartoon lends itself to these questions shows how it is so far above other kids’ shows of the era in terms of story and character.

As the group’s leader, the blonde, blue-eyed Hank is the staunch “good guy” of the series. Aside from the fact that his energy-firing bow is cool as hell, he can sometimes come across as boring. Fortunately, the writers do give him some examples to shine. The episode “The Traitor” had me worried at first, with its emphasis on cute, fuzzy Ewok-like creatures, but then it got very serious when Hank was put in the position of selling out his teammates to Venger’s forces, breaking the others’ hearts. The episode “The Dragon’s Graveyard,” considered a favorite by many, has the pressure getting to Hank, to the point where he turns his back on Dungeon Master and instead decides to take an offensive against Venger. Although it’s never said, you can tell he’s so filled with anger that he intends to go the distance and murder Venger. Here we have the show dealing with some dark, serious themes. Even though you know in your heart that Hank will still be on the right and true by the end, you have to give the writers credit for putting him through the wringer like that.

Diana is the character with perhaps the least amount of development over the course of the series. It’s not until the 21st episode that we get a script with her in the spotlight. Mostly, she’s the cool-headed voice of reason. When the others don’t want to head into some dangerous cave or dungeon, Diana is there to remind them of the importance of what they’re doing and why they are there. She also has a sharp wit, and she usually has a comeback ready for any of Eric’s sarcastic quips. As far as her powers are concerned, her javelin staff is mostly used to help her cross great distances and reach otherwise unobtainable heights, but not as an offensive weapon. This is true of the weapons in general. The kids use them in defensive ways, almost never to directly harm anyone else. Part of this is no doubt because of standards and practices, but it also reinforces the characters as heroes. When Diana uses the staff to jump across a crevasse to separate her from an enemy, instead of using it to whop her enemy on the head, it shows what kind of person she is.

The shy, quiet Sheila is clearly the “heart” of the group. While the others might spring to action or make with the jokes, she’s the one who genuinely cares about the various side characters the heroes meet in their travels. Her kindness and her willingness to trust others sometimes leads to trouble, but Sheila is usually one that the others can rely on to do the right thing whenever needed. During those few times that she sheds some tears, you know just how serious the stakes are. As for her powers of invisibility, they act as a metaphor for Sheila’s personality. She’s the shy girl, so it’s fitting that she would disappear. But she is never so withdrawn that she becomes a liability to the group. She gains confidence through her friendship with the others, and because of that she is a valued member of the team.

Like Sheila, Bobby’s powers are also a metaphor. Impetuous and headstrong, Bobby tends to charge into battle without thinking. Because this is based on a role-playing game, each of the kids is assigned a “role” by Dungeon Master along with their weapons. So of course Bobby ends up in the barbarian role, able to cause enormous amounts of property damage with a single swing of his club. Although he’s the smallest of the six adventurers, he shows great bravery in the face of seemingly unbeatable odds. His attitude is, “Seven-headed dragon? No problem. Let me at ’em!” But despite his courage, he’s still a little boy in over his head, and the creators don’t let us forget it. There are times when the pressure of being so far from home gets to be too much for him. Fortunately, his connection with his sister and her friends help him through these tough times, as does his “Timmy and Lassie” companionship with Uni.

Moving onto the group’s comedy relief contingent, Presto provides plenty of laughs through his unpredictable magic. With a hastily-rhymed collection of magic words — often with a few 20th century phrases thrown in — Presto reaches into his hat and pulls out…who knows what. The creators do a great job of keeping viewers guessing as to what will come out of that hat. Sometimes, it works perfectly, while other times it’s something worthless for the sake of a cheap laugh. Presto’s best moments, though, are when he pulls out an object from his hat that seems useless at first, but saves the day in a surprising way. It’s interesting that the other characters always have to suggest Presto use his hat, instead of him thinking immediately thinking of it. Like Sheila, Presto has to work on his self-confidence, and we get the idea that if he believed in himself a little more, he could pull off spells much easier.

And then we have the hapless cavalier, Eric. He’s the show’s big “love him or hate him” character. Some viewers have felt that Eric cowardliness and goofy antics are way too silly and over the top, contrasting with the serious tone the show adopts at other times. But I say if Dungeons & Dragons were constantly dark and gloomy, then it would have been hard to watch. For the overall “high adventure” feel the creators are going for, it requires laughs to go along with the thrills and the drama. I have to admit there was once or twice when Eric’s slapstick got to be a bit much, but I found myself laughing along with him quite often. He pokes holes in the show’s seriousness just when needed. Whenever Dungeon Master offers another riddle, Eric is right there to remind audiences just how loony the whole riddle-solving setup is. With that out of the way, viewers don’t question this element of the plot when it comes up again later, because Eric has already done so. Eric’s shield is another weapon that acts as a metaphor. Because he is so cowardly, it’s only fitting that his weapon is something to hide behind. And yet, despite his lapses into selfishness, Eric never hesitates to use his shield to protect his friends. It’s also worth noting that Eric matures significantly as the series progresses. In the third season, he’s less buffoonish and much more confident. In the episode “Day of the Dungeon Master,” Eric becomes Dungeon Master for a day. At first, this is played for pure silliness, as expected. But as the episode continues, Eric starts to take the role seriously, and he actually becomes a capable Dungeon Master, if you can believe it. So, even though he is the cheesy comic relief, there’s a lot more going on with the character.

Rounding out our group of heroes is Uni, the cute little unicorn. What can I say? Animal sidekicks are a part of the “language” of shows like this. And, yes, the creators cut to a Uni reaction shot a little too often. But it could be a lot worse. Uni is never shoved in our faces as if to convince us that she’s the “star” of the show, which creators of other kids’ shows too often do with cute animal sidekicks. Also, Uni does more than just stand around and be cute. She shows some intelligence, she can teleport once per day, and her horn can cut through both ropes and demonic spider webs. Uni also represents the fact that not everything in the Dungeons & Dragons world has to do with monsters and evil. Goodness, beauty, and innocence are a part of this realm as well, and Uni gives our heroes an emotional connection to that part of their new home.

Heroes are only as good as their villains, and Venger makes for an ominous, threatening adversary for these young do-gooders. Venger’s primary motivation is to steal the kids’ weapons, to gain their power for his own use. Seems simple enough, but this is where questions about the “bigger picture” of the series come into play. During the few times when he actually succeeds in getting his hands on the weapons, Venger immediately heads off to battle his rival, a six-headed dragon named Tiamat — a character taken directly from the game, by the way. What is the unspoken history between these two, and why is there such bitterness between them? We’re never told the full story, but it does give Venger a little more to his personality, instead of being just another power-mad would-be world conqueror. Later episodes, and the unaired final episode (more on that below), reveal even more hints about Venger’s past, and his connection to Dungeon Master.

On the technical side of things, the animation is a little hit or miss. During scenes of exposition or humor, the visuals get slightly flat, with jerky movements, limited facial expressions, and an overall static look. But once the action kicks in, the animation improves greatly. Suddenly the characters have smooth, fluid movements. There are all sorts of eye-popping lighting effects, and the explosions and destruction show amazing detail. The collapsing bridge seen at the end of the episode “Hall of Bones” looks like something you’d expect to see in multi-million dollar feature animation. It seems that the creators saved all their big visual flourishes for the action and perhaps cut a few corners elsewhere. If you’re unimpressed at first by the animation in any given episode, chances are that will change during the episode’s finale. As far as the DVD goes, the episodes have been remastered nicely, with bright vivid colors being the standout. There are a few scratches and grain evident, but not enough to distract from the overall presentation. The 2.0 stereo is good, not as thrilling as a full-blown 5.1 surround track might have been, but it does its job nicely.

You’d have to look long and hard to find a DVD box set that has this many extras made specifically with the fans in mind. The most exciting of the extras is a “radio show” reading of the unaired final episode, “Requiem,” which was written during the third season by Michael Reaves, but never storyboarded or animated. The script has been a source of much speculation and mystery among fans for years, and to have it recreated this way is probably as close as we’ll get to seeing it fully animated. The creators even recruited original series voice actor Katie Leigh (Totally Spies) to reprise her role as Sheila. Do the kids make it home? Do they finally defeat Venger? What is the real reason they were brought to the realm? Reaves has crafted a fitting ending to the kids’ adventures, knowing when to provide answers, and when to keep things mysterious.

For other extras, there are two commentaries, with producers, writers, and network executives, going over the creation of the series, as well as specific ideas behind certain characters or scripts. The documentary similarly discusses the origins of the series, as well as everyone sharing their thoughts on their favorite moments and episodes. The animated storyboards are also of interest, depicting the characters as slightly more “cartoony” than they appear in the in the final product. Then we get to see Sean Kennedy’s live action fan film, Choices. It’s about Hank having a crisis of faith, and Sheila helping him through it. It’s one of the more polished fan films I’ve seen, and, as always, you have to admire the ingenuity and determination of these fan filmmakers for getting these things made. The interactive game is a text-based story you play with your remote, in the “Choose Your Own Adventure” style, where, in certain parts of the story, you’re given a choice that splits the tale in two directions. It appears pretty deep, as I played for about an hour and only found one of the six magic items I needed to get to the end. From there, we’re presented with 50 profiles of not just characters, but creatures and artifacts from the series as well. A collection of alternate and rate footage gives us looks at various versions of the show’s opening and closing credit sequences, and two series promos. Plus, there are still galleries of storyboards and merchandise. On DVD-ROM, there are more scripts, storyboards, and the original series bible. Oh, and be sure to check out the chapter selection screens, because they include some nifty trivia notes for each episode.

There’s one more extra included, and it’s a good one. The Dungeons & Dragons Animated Series Handbook is a 30-page hardcover game guide with official profiles of all the characters from the series, making them playable in the role playing game. After years of speculating about the characters’ “stats,” here they are. All six heroes are represented, as well as Uni, Venger, and Venger’s evil sidekick, Shadow Demon. The book also contains a quick, four-level dungeon adventure to run the characters through, as a prequel to the episode “The Dragon’s Graveyard.” If you don’t already have some basic knowledge of the game, though, you probably won’t understand a word of this. But you’ll have no problem enjoying the original artwork inside.

Dungeons & Dragons actually had two opening credit sequences during its three-year run, but all the episodes here feature only the first one. To see the second opening, you have to access it from the “Alternate/Rare Footage” extra on disc five. It’s something of a disappointment that the second opening couldn’t also have been remastered, so we can see the episodes as they originally aired.

The extras contain thoughts from producers, writers, artists, and even network executives, but the voice actors are not heard from. Some notable names were a part of the cast, including Willie Aames (Eight is Enough, Charles in Charge) as Hank, Adam Rich (also of Eight is Enough) as Presto, Donny Most (Happy Days) as Eric, and veteran voice actor Frank Welker (Scooby-Doo) as Uni and about 800 other characters. Were none of these folks available to comment about their involvement? They got Katie Leigh to perform in the “radio show” but she couldn’t do an interview?

If there’s any other nitpick I can make about this set, it’s that it ends too soon. After going through all the episodes and all the extras, I wanted more. Anyone with even a casual interest in lighthearted adventure stories will find something to enjoy here.

Lost can bite me. Dungeons & Dragons: The Complete Animated Series is the best TV-on-DVD release of the year.

The Verdict

I just asked Dungeon Master for the verdict, and he said, “In a time of great darkness, you must look to the heart of the dragon, locked in a cage that is both above and below the sky.” I’m pretty sure he means, “Not guilty.”

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