Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law: Volume 1 (DVD)

Did you get that thing I sent you?

In 1967, Hanna-Barbera introduced Birdman unto an unsuspecting world. Every week, the winged hero would take off from his hidden volcano hideout, after being called into action by secret agent Falcon 7. Then, with the help of his sidekick eagle Avenger, Birdman would save the day with energy powers derived from the sun.

But that was then. These days, the former hero has a new superpower—the power of attorney. When cartoon characters of various eras, styles and genres are in need of legal help, they turn to Harvey Birdman, attorney at law. With his faithful office assistant Avenger, his visually challenged boss Phil Ken Sebben, and his deviant law clerk Peanut, Harvey fights for law and order in the courtroom. Or at least he tries to.

We should all be very, very thankful that some brave person within Ted Turner’s organization gave permission to a group of misfit animators in Atlanta permission to tinker with some classic animation from the Hanna-Barbera vaults. First, they reworked Alex Toth’s Space Ghost into a virtual talk show, Space Ghost Coast to Coast. This led to the formation of Cartoon Network’s trend-setting late night “Adult Swim” block, where our favorite winged attorney eventually debuted.

Reusing visuals from classic but limited animated series of yesteryear, the creators of Harvey Birdman have us looking at favorites such as Fred Flintstone, Scooby Doo, and Johnny Quest in a new light, while putting the spotlight on more obscure characters such as Devlin, Inch High Private Eye, and Dingaling. But there is more than just nostalgia at work here. The retro characters face some pretty heavy legal issues, such as child custody, copyright violation, personal injury suits, and more. This leads to comedy gold as cartoon characters take standard courtroom drama dialogue and turn it on its ear.

Although he’s most often played as a buffoon, Harvey’s not against making a passionate speech before a jury, or reverting back to his superheroic ways for a quick laser battle against his rival Vulturo. Even more buffoonish is Phil, the boss, who is the master of random weirdness. Peanut, who appeared as “Birdboy” on the old series, is a social deviant, sinking to any low just so he can score a few bucks or a lovely lady. Even some members of Birdman’s surprisingly large rogue’s gallery join the fun. Fellow lawyer Reducto is a conspiracy theorist with a fetish for anything small. Mentok the Mindtaker sits in as a judge, impressing everyone with his mental prowess and tossing barbs back and forth with a deadpan bailiff. And then there’s X the Eliminator, an old enemy from back in the day, who either wants to kill Harvey, or just buy him lunch.

The 12 episodes on this two-disc set are not only packed with jokes, but with story as well. The creators make the most of the 11 minutes they have to work with. There are more laughs and more plot to be found in any given episode than in most half-hour sitcoms. Although it helps to be in on the joke, the creators give the guest stars enough of an introduction that newcomers can follow along. If you’ve never heard of Apache Chief, for example, you’ll likely get to know him here just as you would from watching him on Super Friends. Although the classic characters are brought out for laughs, they do get to keep their dignity…somewhat.

As fans of the series already know, there was a long break between the airing of the first six episodes and the rest. Those first six were repeated many, many times from 2002-2003. And then they were repeated some more. The episodes that followed, while not without their high points, were not quite up to the standard set by the first six. Instead of spoofing courtroom dramas, the later episodes try to turn the series into a workplace comedy. This opens the door for more weirdness for weirdness’ sake; but sometimes, that can be too much of a good thing. The humor becomes aggressively random, with strange gags filling up the backgrounds for almost no reason. This was a fairly nonsensical show to start with, but at least by keeping the craziness confined to Harvey’s office and the courthouse there was just enough structure to keep the audience from getting lost. The later episodes get too silly for their own good.

But those first six episodes? Some of the finest work Adult Swim has to offer. Jokes fly fast, perceptions are challenged, and there are cameos galore. It’s here that we see a custody battle for the kids from Johnny Quest, Boo Boo Bear showing some radical new sides to his personality, Fred Flintstone’s real occupation, and the historic formation of the Multi-Culture Pals. In later episodes, meanwhile, we see a two-parter in which Harvey is accused of murder, an old assassin returns for revenge and lunch dates, an all-too-familiar looking chase on the L.A. freeway, and even a little romance for our hero. Along the way, an aging motorcycle hero stumbles out of retirement, and the often suspected truth about Scooby Doo is finally revealed.

Are you an aficionado of classic TV animation? Did you grow up marveling at the adventures of the Hanna-Barbera library of characters? Do you have absolutely no sense of humor? If you said “yes” to these questions, then this might not be the show for you. The direction in which the creators take some of these characters is pretty far removed from the original cartoons. If these are cherished childhood memories for you, then you might not care for how they’re treated here, no matter how tongue in cheek it all is.

For a low-budget series, the visual quality is very good. Colors are bright and vivid, and few defects can be seen. Some of the reused footage from the old cartoons appears grainy or scratched, but one commentary track reveals that they were actually digitally treated to look older. The Dolby Digital 2.0 sound is hardly reference quality, but does its job just fine. Subtitles are in English, French, and Spanish.

Kicking off the bonus features are five commentaries with the show’s producers, which alternate between joking around and offering genuine behind-the-scenes information about voice actors and animation. “The Devlin Made Me Do It” has a second commentary, with representatives from the network’s censors and legal department. This reveals the amount of work and thought that goes into making each episode “safe” for broadcast. Other features are four deleted scenes, a pencil test version of one episode, a slideshow of behind-the-scenes photos, a look at how Harvey would have been different with other voice actors, a faux movie trailer, a live action version of the opening titles, and other live action footage.

The Verdict

Hey, where’d that bear come from?

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