Hero High: the Complete Series (DVD)

Grade “A” super powers.

Back in 1981, when Saturday mornings were the best time for kids to gorge themselves on cartoons, NBC had a runaway hit with its Shazam! animated series. Hoping to build on that success, producers dreamed up an hour-long series, something of a rarity in kids’ programming at the time. During this hour, the heroes of Shazam! were paired with another set of cartoon heroes, ones with a less adventurous and more comedic style. That’s all well and good, but what really made the new show stand out among the highly competitive Saturday morning market was its live action segments. The voice actors from the cartoon donned their characters’ costumes, told jokes, and sang rock songs for a live studio audience. Shazam! became The Kid Super Power Hour with Shazam!, and these crazy new characters were from Hero High.

Roll call:

* Captain California (Christopher Hensel), who zips through the sky on “Wipeout,” his flying surfboard.

* Glorious Gal (Becky Perle, Not of this Earth), who has the powers of flight, super strength, and long blonde hair.

* Misty Magic (Jere Fields, Aesop’s Fables), a perky spell-caster whose spells don’t always go as planned.

* Weatherman (Jim Greenleaf, Tag: The Assassination Game), a, uh, non-skinny hero who can control the weather while floating around on a small cloud.

* Rex Ruthless (John Berwick), who can fly, but whose real power is causing trouble for the other heroes with his pranks and his conceitedness.

* Dirty Trixie (Maylo McCaslin, Superstition), who stores all sorts of strange gadgets in her bag of tricks, and who acts as Rex’s sidekick during his sneaky schemes.

* Punk Rock (Johnny Venocour, Entourage), a Mohawk-adorned hero who can create destructive sound waves with his rockin’ guitar.

These are our main characters (a.k.a. the ones who also appear in the live action footage). They’re joined in the cartoons by their teacher, the appropriately-named Miss Grimm, and the aging but still buff Coach Sampson. Other heroes that show up from time to time include Bratman, with the ability to throw “super tantrums,” Lil’ Sumo, who is exactly as his name describes him, and AWOL, who can make various parts of his body disappear.

Finally, several episodes have a running gag with a hyena wearing a blue sweater chasing a penguin wearing a yellow trench coat. I have no idea who these two characters are, where they came from, or what they have to do with anything else on this show.

I’ll admit it. I used to watch this show back in the day. My young self really dug the idea of seeing the heroes in their tights and capes in the live action footage followed by their animated adventures. There was so much that I thought was cool, like a flying surfboard, a guy floating around on a cloud, a magic girl, and a punk-themed superhero (a fairly new concept at the time). Even though the purpose of the show was to build up Shazam!, I hardly remember that cartoon. I was all about Hero High.

Watching this on DVD in the present day is a different experience. I want to build a time machine and go back to ask my childhood self, “What do you see in this show, exactly?” These are basic gag cartoons. Each one has a skeletal plot, such as the heroes having to spend the night in a haunted house, or being challenged by a pint-sized martial arts champ. These are simple set-ups for slapstick pratfalls and stomach pain-inducing puns. On the plus side, each cartoon is short, so the characters never outstay their welcome, and the tired humor never gets too annoying.

This two-disc set features all 26 episodes of the animated series, but only 20 minutes of the live action footage — about two episodes’ worth. The packaging describes this footage as “rare,” so perhaps this is all that has survived. Either way, it’s quite the surreal experience. The bonus features call the live action segments “Laugh-In for kids,” but a better description might be, “Laugh-In for kids, as re-imagined by the makers of The Apple.” First of all, let’s take a look at some of the so-called jokes told by the actors, like this one:

Rex Ruthless: “Hey, Weatherman, how much is 5-Q plus 5-Q?”
Weatherman: “10-Q.”
Rex Ruthless: “You’re welcome!”

Or this one:

Glorious Gal: “Tell me, why are elephants good travelers?”
Punk Rock: “Why?”
Glorious Gal: “Because they always carry a trunk!”

That’s the level of sophistication we’re dealing with here. And yet, the all-kid studio audience suspiciously screams with laughter at each one of these jokes, even more than the Friends audience used to howl with laughter at unfunny jokes. (Hey, after writing a line like that, maybe my superhero alter ego should be “Cheap Shot.”)

If all this wasn’t surreal enough, wait until they start singing. That’s right, these superheroes aren’t just lame joke-tellers; they’re also a band. This set features two of their live musical performances, “You” and “Jimmy Popcorn.” These are substance-free pop songs if there ever was such a thing. For the record, other songs from the show’s run had titles like, “Doo Doo Doodely Do,” “Fun Sun Summertime,” “Goodie Goodie Goodie,” “I’m on the Radio,” and “Saturday Sunday Monday Funday.” I guess they were saving their cover of Iron Maiden’s “Number of the Beast” for season two.

Trivia time: one episode has the Hero High kids squaring off against a diminutive villain named “The Brain,” and his dimwitted partner, “Tiny.” This episode was written by Tom Ruegger, who would later go on to write for Animaniacs in the 1990s, where he reintroduced the characters in a different form, as “Pinky and the Brain.” Narf!

And in case you wondering, no, it isn’t just you. I also thought names like “Captain California,” “Glorious Gal,” “Dirty Trixie,” “Misty Magic,” “Coach Sampson,” and “Lil’ Sumo” sound like they could be adult film stars.

All kidding aside, this cartoon is mediocre at best, but you’ve got to hand it to the hard-working folks at BCI Eclipse for hitting another home run with this DVD set. BCI really is the Criterion Collection of cartoons. The visual restoration is nothing short of amazing. The colors are bright and vibrant and there’s not a scratch, speck, or bit of grain anywhere to be seen. The 2.0 stereo is a little less spectacular, but it does its job with all the dialogue, music and slapsticky sound effects coming through with clarity.

Aside from the above-mentioned 20 minutes of live action footage, the highlights of the extras are a collection of interviews with voice actors, producers, and animators. Everyone’s enthusiasm and love for the show is palpable, and their fondness for it might help you see it in a new light. There are two commentaries, one for an animated episode and one for part of the live segment. Voice actors John Berwick and Johnny Venocour dominate the track. It must take a certain personality type to be a cartoon voice actor, that type being “nutso.” It’s hilarious listening to these two guys ramble on while producer Lou Scheimer and moderator Andy Mangels try to get a word in. Other extras include art and photo galleries, trailers for other BCI releases, and five scripts and a very nice storyboard gallery on DVD-ROM.

Hero High‘s real value is as a nostalgia item. It’s a pure time capsule of early ’80s kids TV. If you’re looking to relive the past, then this is the DVD for you. But if you’re seeking more from your superhero stories than centuries-old jokes, make this one a rental for the extras, and then spend the bulk of your cash elsewhere.

Remember, kids, Punk Rock says: “Staaaay cool.”

The Verdict

Not guilty, heroes.

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