What would you do if someone stole your priceless, first edition copy of “The Complete Works of William Apespeare?”
Not a typo. This week’s excavation of the bizarre history of television cartoons is Return to the Planet of the Apes, the only animated entry in the illustrious simian franchise if you’re not counting the CGI accomplishments of Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Only one season was produced, 13 episodes that aired on NBC in the fall of 1975. Then it was canceled and relegated to the dustbins of cartoon history. This was two years after the final installment of the original film series and one year after the equally short-lived Planet of the Apes TV series. The cartoon was the last gasp of the franchise before its revival in 2001, more of a farewell than a homecoming.
But now, thanks to the marvel that is the Internet, you can watch all of it on Hulu for free!
Despite the title, the protagonists of Return to the Planet of the Apes are new arrivals. They’re a fresh batch of astronaut heroes, arriving on the planet in the first episode without any real expectations. The apes they encounter have a staggeringly advanced civilization, complete with lasers and televisions and cars. Some faces are familiar, like Zira and Dr. Zaius. Others are new, like the malevolent ape General Urko, who wants to destroy everyone who doesn’t look like he does. The tension between the benevolent and scientific warmth of Zaius and the fascistic warmongering of Urko is one of the central themes of the series.
As for its style, Return to the Planet of the Apes is something of an odd duck. It was produced on the cheap by DePatie-Freleng Enterprises, the studio founded by producer David H. DePatie and legendary animator Fritz Freleng, to whom we owe Porky Pig. The animation isn’t terrible so much as it barely exists. Nothing moves unless it absolutely has to. Making up for the lack of kinetic energy, however, is the art. The production was led by cartoonist and animator Doug Wildey, the brilliant creator of the original Johnny Quest series. One can recognize his handiwork in the dark, detailed backgrounds and the peculiar architecture that dominates the landscape of the planet. The haunting, almost violent opening credits sequence also evokes the style of his earlier triumph.
Equally interesting are the scripts. These episodes, most of them self-contained adventures, are often surprisingly compelling. The above conflict between peaceful scientific pursuit and fascist ignorance is certainly a good example. Beneath these larger themes, however, there’s a great deal of much less high-minded creativity. Perhaps the most entertaining episode on this front is “Invasion of the Underdwellers,” the penultimate episode of the series.
The “underdwellers” are a race of hooded, subterranean figures who are even more scientifically advanced than the apes. General Urko wants to exterminate them, as is his wont. He has his men disguise themselves as underdwellers and then loot the city of the apes, framing the mysterious people for the crime and inciting his people to violence. The human astronauts, the leader of the underdwellers and Dr. Zaius all must collaborate in order to prevent mass destruction.
All of this is well and good, but the high point of this episode isn’t the overarching theme of inter-species communication but rather the looting itself. Urko’s henchmen steal a first edition of “The Complete Works of William Apespeare,” the “Ape-a Lisa,” and a whole bunch of other hilariously “aped” works of classical art. There’s even a simian version of “The Thinker.”
Return to the Planet of the Apes has an excellently silly approach to its own world, one that may have seemed a bit too tongue-in-cheek for the 1975 audience steeped in the original feature film series. Today, almost forty years later, it’s something of a misunderstood triumph of low-budget, slapdash charm.