I thought I knew my Hanna-Barbera. Not just The Flintstones and Jonny Quest and the other big guns, but all the Scooby knock-offs that filled my Saturday mornings in the 1970s – Clue Club, Funky Phantom, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kids. I can banter on The Hair Bear Bunch, discuss the finer points of Devlin and name each member of the Chan Clan.
So it was humbling when, last year, I discovered an H-B series that I had not only never watched, but never knew existed.
The New Adventures of Huckleberry Finn debuted in 1968 on NBC, airing Sunday nights at 7pm. Canceled after 20 episodes, the series was rerun as part of The Banana Splits Hour in the 1970s.
That’s the part that confuses me because I watched the Banana Splits as a kid and remember several of the features between the Splits’ skits, like The Three Musketeers (who could forget that annoying pissant, Tooly?), Arabian Nights and the wacky serial Danger Island. But if I had watched Huckleberry Finn I would remember, because bizarre concepts like this one are hard to forget.
For those as oblivious to its existence as I was, here’s a brief introduction. Mark Twain’s iconic literary characters Huck Finn, Becky Thatcher and Tom Sawyer (all played by real actors) are chased into a cave by the villainous Injun Joe. They emerge on the other side and become lost in an ever-changing world of Hanna-Barbera animation.
For the remainder of the series, the three young friends wander into jungles and deserts and pirate ships and frozen wastelands, surviving various escapades while always trying to make their way back to Hannibal, Missouri.
I found it all rather ridiculous on first viewing. Why these characters, and not three present-day teenagers with whom young viewers could more easily identify? Perhaps the idea was to leverage their built-in name recognition (this was the era before Huck Finn was banned from school libraries). But while it’s more enjoyable to read Twain than most novels assigned in English class, I doubt there were many students eager to follow Tom, Huck and Becky into more adventures.
The cast was unable to convey the same qualities that made the characters memorable in the books. Michael Shea’s Huck is not the crude outcast Twain envisioned, but a wide-eyed, easygoing country boy given to exclamations of “Criminy!” while fleeing from Mongol hordes or Egyptian mummies.
Lu Ann Haslam’s Becky is sweet but not as clever as she had to be in the book to catch Tom’s eye. Here she’s given little more to do than cheer on the boys as they deal with the villain of the week (“Hurry, Tom!” “Watch out, Huck!”). Only Kevin Schultz’s Tom Sawyer retains some of the mischievous wit and heroic streak he had in Twain’s novels.
The blend of live-action with animation was uncharted territory for Hanna-Barbera, though audiences had certainly seen this trick before – most famously perhaps in Mary Poppins. It’s handled well here, which is surprising as the H-B studio has never been synonymous with technological wizardry.
The young leads do their best to react to hand-drawn backgrounds and characters, with inconsistent results. In “Menace in the Ice,” you would think barefoot Huck might look a little more uncomfortable after walking across miles of snow.
So, not a great show, though I will understand if I hear opposing views in the comments from those who grew up with it. Nostalgia certainly makes it easier for me to happily overlook the flaws in Wonderbug and The Secrets of Isis.
But against my better judgment, I do enjoy it. There’s irresistible comfort in watching H-B animation from this era, and hearing the familiar voices (Don Messick, Janet Waldo, Daws Butler, Paul Frees) featured in all of the company’s shows.
And just when you think you’ve got its formula figured out, The New Adventures of Huckleberry Finn will surprise you. In an episode called “The Gorgon’s Head” there’s a quiet moment when Huck and Becky talk about how long they’ve been away, and how summer has turned to fall back in Hannibal, and about the people that must be missing them. You’d never see that kind of raw emotion in Speed Buggy.
I also really like the theme song, another H-B asset (sometimes their songs are better than the shows!). It plays over a live-action closing credit sequence set on a Mississippi steamboat, which makes me wonder if it takes place before the characters got lost, or is meant to be reassurance that they eventually do find their way home. It’s the only time you see the three friends really happy.
Sadly, there was no final episode to provide any resolution. But how great would it have been if Hanna-Barbera characters had been included in 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit? When Eddie Valiant drives into Toon Town, we might have glimpsed Tom, Huck and Becky, now in their 30s but wearing the same clothes, still trying to find that elusive cave that will take them back to Missouri.
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