Circa 1969, “Dastardly & Muttley in Their Flying Machines” obviously worked. Having gained much fame and popularity in the beloved “Wacky Races” TV series also from Hanna-Barbera, this scheming villain/henchdog combo meant a lot to audiences. Dick Dastardly was dastardly enough and a real dick to boot, while Muttley became as well-known as Astro of “The Jetsons” thanks to the voice efforts of Don Messick who gave the snickering mutt his snicker. In fact, Messick performed all the voices and sound effects in “Flying Machines”, a stupefying feat, while Paul Winchell was Dastardly and the General, never seen and always with his off-screen mouth to the phone, ready to give Dastardly a real kick in the ear for all his failings.
This show failed plenty, and it’s evident throughout all the episodes featured on this three-disc set. It was fine in 1969 but today, constantly leaning on the same plots, the same goals, the same character traits and the same exact cries for help from Dastardly, there’s no way that it fits at all in the way the Hanna-Barbera pantheon is seen today. The only mission during each and every show was to catch Yankee Doodle Pigeon, who delivered messages back and forth between war lines invisible and unheard of to us. The planes were the main attraction of the show, sporting playfully outrageous designs that rightly defied the gravity of the cartoon universe, right down to Dastardly and other characters walking on air and not realizing the gravity of gravity until they looked down. In order for 22 or so minutes not to be one long episode of nothing but chasing and grumbling and attempted catching, “Flying Machines” also was filled out by some extra cartoons, “Wing Dings” for one, where brief jokes were tried and a good portion inevitably flop today. Muttley was also a daydreamer, evidenced by “Magnificent Muttley” where there was always some girl to save or somewhere to be that allowed him to assume a different persona, to be a hero that wasn’t afraid to be heroic, a dog less like him.
Two new characters, Klunk and Zilly, were around for the antics too. In keeping with the sameness of the show, Zilly was always afraid of going out there to catch the pigeon and more accurate than clockwork, Muttley was dispatched to retrieve him. Klunk, the inventor of the too-confidently named Vulture Squadron, popped and squeaked with sound effects as his planes were built crazier and crazier, more eccentric designs that were the basis for the appeal of the show, but never went beyond that. Sometimes the show’s format changed. Instead of one cartoon and then the “Wing Dings”, then “Magnificent Muttley” and finally another “Flying Machines” cartoon, two of the main attraction would be grouped together, followed by the rest, though it didn’t matter much. No creativity, no big beans. The voice performances have that big enthusiastic tone that’s expected from Dastardly and Muttley, but there’s no bearing on it from the rest of the series. Of course, who’s to argue when sugar cereal is all the rage back then on Saturday mornings during cartoons? That and whatever was being smoked among hilariously happy people at the time.
Being part of the obvious “Hanna Barbera Classic Collection”, a few extras are permitted on this DVD set, a disappointing bunch at best because while Jerry Eisenberg, a character designer and consummate food lover, is an amusing personality in the audio commentaries and the all too brief documentary, a lot of the same information is repeated to much dismay. Commentaries on episodes 11 and 15 feature Eisenberg and fellow designer Iwao Takamoto, and Scott Awley and Scott Jerald currently of Warner Bros. Animation. Eisenberg manages to remember a fair amount of information, reasonable enough since 1969 is far enough away from 2005, while the rest have a rollicking good time with everything they see. Some of the same facts are recalled in the second commentary on 15, and then there’s not much else said later. A highly useful featurette on disc 1, entitled “The Vulture Squadron’s Greatest Misses” contains everything to know about the show without actually watching the episodes, as there’s enough footage from every facet to prevent actually having to sit through any it. Clips of Dastardly, Muttley, Klunk and Zilly, and the planes abound, and it’s more the wiser to go through this.
An unfortunate accident of a brief documentary is on disc 2, “Dastardly & Muttley’s Spin-Offs” which, by the nature of its interview format, would suggest that more time could have been allotted for research, thereby allowing a more fulfilling stack of goods that give a more well-rounded view of the show. Nope. Simple explanations of the varied features of “Flying Machines” are given by the same commentary participants, though it’s exceedingly odd that some of them lack proper name bubbles to identify them. Nothing here fills out the DVDs that hasn’t been filled already. A bunch of trailers end the set, clips of more satisfying fare such as the third season of The Flintstones and the second season of Samurai Jack. That’s where television animation has gone today to thrive and expand in entertainment value.
Dastardly & Muttley still are irresistible characters but there’s only so much of them that can be tolerated. The reason “Wacky Races” could hold them in such high esteem is because they weren’t the only characters on that show. Spread among Penelope Pitstop, Peter Perfect, and Rock Slag, they were the supreme foils for those races. With just airplanes and a never-ending mission, they became slaves to a dreary, tiresome concept.