The Mike Toole Show
Orbots Almighty

by Mike Toole,

Back in the 1980s, some folks at Walt Disney Televison Animation had a little saying. After the script, designs, and storyboards were finished up for an episode of something like, say, Gummi Bears, the next step would be to “send it to the 4th floor people.” But this didn't make any sense; the old animation building in Burbank was only three stories tall! So who were these people, up there on the phantom fourth floor? They were the folks of Telecom Animation Film, an affiliate company of Tokyo Movie Shinsha. Turns out that the 4th floor was in Japan.

Animation subcontract work is as old as TV animation itself, and it's now quite well-known that fare like the 80s GI Joe and Transformers cartoons were animated by stalwarts from Toei in Japan and Akom in South Korea. But TMS's approach to creating TV animation and its distinctly international outreach for much of the 80s was a little different. Just a couple of weeks ago, the folks at Warner Archive delivered one of its rarest and most impressive fruits: a thirteen-episode TV series called Mighty Orbots.

Mighty Orbots is a singular creation: an all-American super robot series, but still animated entirely in Japan. The show was created by TV producer Barry Glasser, who teamed up with legendary television programming chief Fred Silverman to get the show on ABC. Rather than a hefty, unwieldy “writer's room” of scribes collaborating on each episode, as was often done in comedy, most Orbots episodes were plotted by a single writer. The show's music was a heady cross-pacific collaboration, with theme songs by Steve Rucker and Thomas Chase Jones, and incidental music by Yuji Ohno, making the series sometimes sound an awful lot like Lupin the 3rd! On the Japanese side, Mighty Orbots is directed by the legendary Osamu Dezaki, who essentially gets the Space Adventure Cobra team back together for another intergalactic jaunt.

The show's sheer visual quality is why I still remember it, 34 years after it aired. Mighty Orbots has a searing, intense visual luster, which sometimes seems at odds with its broad, corny Saturday morning writing. But the fact is, it made damn near every single other Saturday morning cartoon of the time look like dog food in comparison. Part of this is because of the undeniable talent of its animation staff, but part of it is also because of the philosophy of the series producer for TMS, studio head Yutaka Fujioka.

Fujioka had originally founded Tokyo Movie in the early 1960s, in order to break into the world of TV animation. Previously, he'd been an accomplished puppeteer, and used his knowledge of visual storytelling to assemble his studio, dragging fellow performers like Tadao Nagahama along to learn the craft of animation. As the years passed and the studio earned milestone after milestone, something bothered Fujioka: the limited quality of TV anime that had been imposed on the medium by Tezuka's foundational approach. But Fujioka wanted to make more animation at 24 frames per second; he thought "full" animation was the way to go, expensive as it was. The studio soon sought out some ownership rights to the animation it produced, and in the 1980s, Fujioka started seeking out overseas partners to increase the scope and budget of his films and TV shows. Mighty Orbots was one of the earliest of those projects.

At least to some extent, this approach worked. Orbots looked great for its time, and relied on tricks like stock footage a lot less frequently than its TV rivals. You can even track the show's visual evolution by examining its 6-minute pilot, entitled BROOTS; in early planning, the five combining robot heroes sport simple, monochromatic designs, and series hero Rob and his little robot pal Ohno wear face-obscuring helmets in the cockpit, a reliable old cost-saving measure. Dezaki would later remark that having a lot more time and money on hand for the series meant that the helmets could be ditched.

This international approach didn't stop with Orbots. Saturday mornings were also colored by TMS's Galaxy High, a show developed for TV by a writer and producer named Chris Columbus. The show is still in print today, probably simply because TMS owns it outright and sells it ruthlessly, but it's got a charmingly bizarre sense of humor and a groovy theme song by Eagles guitarist Don Felder. The show even got its own novel adaptation! Could this be the first western light novel?! The answer is no.

“What is this show?” asked my wife, when the DVDs for Mighty Orbots first arrived. “Mighty Orbach?” “No,” I replied, “The anime starring Jerry Orbach was called Galaxy Rangers. But don't worry, it was still animated entirely by TMS!” Galaxy Rangers is another good example of Fujioka leveraging an international partnership to create a really good-looking show. TV producer and series creator Robert Mandel built an entire recording studio to create the audio for Galaxy Rangers, and spent freely in order to get the best animation staff and give the world the first daily animated TV series to use full-color 3DCG for special effects. The show's wild-west imagery is sometimes a bit trite and silly, but it has a wry sense of humor and some decent storytelling ambition; it's managed to stick around on DVD.

As the 80s came to a close, TMS continued to make weirdly good-looking cartoons for overseas audiences, like Bionic Six and the Gummi Bears, and here we get to the part where Disney staff are cheekily referring to the studio (along with their faithful animation affiliate TAF) as those guys on the 4th floor. Working with Disney also got Fujioka in the habit of asking for larger than usual fees, since the Disney people would naturally not share any distribution rights for the shows. His Disney partners always uncomplainingly paid up. Decades later, Disney has released the Gummi Bears on DVD, but jealously guards other old TMS collaborations, like The Wuzzles. I, of course, despise this practice, and will soon be starting an online petition to confront Disney's heartless parsimony with regards to their weird old cartoons. Release the Fluppy Dogs OVA on DVD, you cowards!

As the 80s made way for the 90s, TMS continued to churn out great animation for fare like Tiny Toon Adventures; the episodes that looked markedly better than usual (note: a lot of Tiny Toon Adventures episodes looked really bad) were almost always because of TMS, including the How I Spent My Vacation special. A young director named Yuichiro Yano honed his skills at TAF on shows like Batman and Superman, and of course, the Sylvester and Tweety Mysteries. TMS also teamed up with Italian broadcaster RAI, on both Soccer Fever, a celebratory World Cup series to commemorate the 1994 edition of the tournament, and a really neat 1991 TV series called Reporter Blues.

Ah, Reporter Blues, the tale of a daring young lady reporter on the trail of scandal in the roaring 20s. It's got some unusual character designs by Akio Sugino, who makes his heroine Toni look a lot more westernized than usual, it's got a story by the Pagot brothers, and it's got one of those great intro sequences guaranteed to make people in the room holler “Wait, what is that from?!?” Unfortunately, the show is one of those superb, accessible 90s joints that got dubbed in pretty much every major western language except English, and is a huge pain in the ass to find on video. Like Mighty Orbots was for so many years, I think it's a classic waiting to be unearthed.

While this whole business was happening and TMS dutifully turned out good animation for clients around the world, trouble was brewing. See, Yutaka Fujioka had a dream of conquering Hollywood, of creating a worldwide blockbuster based on a beloved children's story that would be animated entirely at TMS. The company was successful enough that he was able to put his dream in motion in the early 80s. He got the rights to Winsor McKay's Little Nemo comic strip, and enlisted Star Wars alumna Gary Kurtz and his Galaxy High pal Christopher Columbus to develop the story. The ever-reliable Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, who'd done impressive work for TMS on Lupin the 3rd, were brought in to get to work on pre-production and perhaps direct the movie. Other big names, like French comic giant Mobius and science fiction author Ray Bradbury, were also brought into the fold. But the production turned into a revolving door. Kurtz was out before production started. Miyazaki and Takahata soon left, with the former citing the experience as one of the worst as his career. Seemingly every animator in Hollywood at the time worked on storyboards or timing sheets for the film, but it was taking forever to get done.

I'll give Fujioka a lot of credit, because he simply refused to give up. Miyazaki was replaced with Yoshifumi Kondō, who stuck around long enough to make a beautiful pilot film. He left and was replaced by Osamu Dezaki, who also made a terrific pilot film. The Sherman Brothers, who'd written for famous musicals like Mary Poppins, provided songs for the film. Mickey Rooney was tapped to play Nemo's irascible pal, Flip, and production continued. Eventually Dezaki had to move on, and he was replaced by Masami Hata. The film's director credit eventually went to Bill Hurtz, but I say it's totally a Masami Hata deal. The movie ended up costing a whopping $35 million, and it came out in 1992, four years after its scheduled release of summer 1988. Worst of all, it was only kinda OK, a great-looking movie with a mediocre story and characters. TMS hung in there, but the experience depleted their resources and imperiled the studio. An apology would not be enough; Mr Fujioka, president and founder, fearless visionary, was obliged to resign his posting.

But let's put the ill-fated Nemo aside; how has Mighty Orbots aged, and what was the deal with that show, anyway? Most people I talk to have never heard of it, and it's easy to understand why. Mighty Orbots aired just once on ABC in the fall of 1984. In January '85, it was hurriedly yanked off the air because of a lawsuit filed by Tonka, who'd just spent a shitload of money turning the Japanese Machine Robo toy line into their own franchise called Gobots. The Tonka people thought that Mighty Orbots' combining robot hero was a little too similar to their toys, so they sued. A planned Mighty Orbots toy was scrapped. Was the show popular? It didn't matter; the lawsuit, which did name TMS as one of the defendants (here's the flipside of wanting to own your overseas collaborations!) derailed everything.

That lawsuit was filed in Minnesota, where Tonka was based, but was ordered moved to LA so the defendants weren't spending all of their time flying out to the Midwest. From there, the trail grows cold. I don't have law library access, so I can't see if Tonka pressed on, or eventually dropped the charges. In any case, Orbots was forced off of TV, the Gobots were soon eclipsed by this thing called the Transformers, and then decades passed. Mighty Orbots was something I always asked my pals at Discotek about, since they have a good relationship with TMS, but it never seemed to be available. Now, thanks to Warner Archive, we know why—Mighty Orbots, which was co-produced by MGM Television, was eventually acquired and folded into the vast Turner library. TMS's name is still right there in the copyright data, but it turns out that Warner Bros. have had the video rights for all of this time.

I saw a handful of Mighty Orbots episodes in 1984. In the 34-year interim, I've occasionally sought a few out, but they've invariably been plagued by bad sound or video glitches. Seeing the show again, even though it's a very basic dump from old master videotapes, is a revelation—this thing is run through with great production artwork and eye-popping animation. Dezaki doesn't lean too hard on his personal style here—the show is almost completely free of his classic “postcard memory” flourish—but it's still unmistakably his work. The show's hero Rob, an extremely handsome and dashing young man that we're supposed to believe is a nerdy, bashful scientist because he wears glasses and a lab coat, looks like nothing less than a young Cobra. The voice cast is also loads of fun, including luminaries like Gary Owens as the narrator and Barry “yes, that guy was totally the Quik Bunny” Gordon as Rob. Don Messick is also in the cast, and man, they basically let him voice every single villain. Messick was a great actor, but after a while, it starts to sound like the Orbots are constantly doing battle with either Scrappy-Doo or Astro.

The titular Orbots robot is also a thing to behold. Ostensibly created in America, it's still a robot drawn by Japanese artists used to doing mecha animation. The damn thing looks an awful lot like God Mars, the titular combining robot of a 1981 TV series by… yep, TMS. My favorite part of Mighty Orbots' Japanese legacy is the Japanese dub, which went straight to cable TV some years after the show aired in the US. Whoever cast the show immediately made the connection between Orbots and God Mars, and duly assigned Yū Mizushima, the voice of God Mars hero Takeru, to play Rob. Sadly, the Japanese dub isn't included on the video release—it would've made a great extra!

Ultimately, the guys on the 4th floor were exceptional craftsmen, able to elevate a simple, silly kids' cartoon to a sought-after cult hit on the strength of their visuals. It wasn't just Disney and Warner Bros. that benefited from TMS, either—they even worked on the Filmation Zorro cartoon! When I stumbled across this credit, I immediately assumed it was a mistake, because Filmation had a reputation for never, ever outsourcing their animation. It sure made for a handy excuse when people asked why their shows' animation was so cheap and repetitive. But sure enough…

The thing is, all of these international projects, even the duds, presage practices that still make TMS and TAF great, decades later. We have them to thank for the revitalization of Lupin the 3rd, with TAF turning in a pair of smart, great-looking shows co-sponsored by overseas partners. The studio has a large library of classics, but also their own modern hits like Yowamushi Pedal. And almost fifty years after their involvement in the great Tomorrow's Joe, TMS are pulling the strings on Megalobox, the currently-airing spiritual successor. Animation historians regard Fujioka's handling of Little Nemo as a blunder, but I still think there's a long list of shows to thank him for. What was your favorite? Was it Rainbow Brite, perhaps, or Visonaries? Maybe it was that ALF cartoon. Anyone remember that thing? Let us know in the comments! In the meantime, I'll continue to extend my thanks to both Warner Bros. (release Johnny Cypher in Dimension Zero on DVD, you cowards!) and TMS (release Reporter Blues on DVD, you cowards!).


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