May 5, 2006
Many people think that the 1980s Saturday-morning cartoon landscape was a wasteland, remarkable only for the sheer amount of badly animated and badly written shows that made it to air. I happen to be one of those people, but I admit there were a few gems out there, and none had quite the delightful playfulness and visual flair of 1984's Mighty Orbots.
Long before the "American anime" of Invasion: America and Gargoyles, Mighty Orbots was the real deal: conceived and written in the US, directed and animated in Japan, and with a production crew from both sides of the Pacific.
The Orbots were five robots built by young scientist Rob Simmons in the service of his boss Rondu of the Galactic Patrol, who also happens to be the father of Dia, the object of Rob's affection. (Rob's got a Superman/Clark Kent thing going; aside from Rondu, no one knows he's Mighty Orbots' commander.) When the five robots join together, they form the giant Mighty Orbots, who can lay the rock-'em, sock-'em hurt on big baddies—like the biggest, baddest of them all, the evil Umbra.
In some ways, Mighty Orbots offered little that was new. The plots were instantly recognizable to veterans of 1980s animated adventure shows: bad guy poses threat, team tries (and fails) to eliminate threat separately, and in the final minutes they come together as Mighty Orbots and, by dint of superhuman effort, save the day. Cue final joke and end credits. Most of the characters themselves were also archetypical: Bort is the gangly nervous wreck, the short and tubby Crunch eats everything in sight, and so on.
What Orbots lacked in originality, it made up in craft. The character designs, layouts and colour design were tighter, and the animation more dynamic and crisper, than just about anything else on TV, and there were plenty of the lighting effects and insanely dynamic camera moves that distinguished the anime of the time. Storywise, the show constantly walked a tightrope between straight-up action-adventure and a certain goofiness, embodied by Gary Owens's earnest voiceovers. The classic example comes from "Devil's Asteroid," when Mighty Orbots' escape route is suddenly cut off by a blast door. "Uh oh!" exclaims Owens. "Not even Mighty Orbots can break through the prison space-lock!" Two seconds and one thundering crash later, he sheepishly recants: "I guess I was wrong."
Silly? Sure. But it only works because the voice and the image combined totally sell the idea that Mighty Orbots can't break that door. In its own tongue-in-cheek way, Mighty Orbots was always that convincing. The show lasted only one season on ABC, but its look and attitude were a breath of fresh air.