Cadillacs and Dinosaurs was an odd Saturday morning toon

I had reviewed Fish Police some time ago. In that case I wondered why this show, with a detective that looked like a ninja turtle, was something to show on prime time. Take out all the innuendos and it would make for a fine addition to the Saturday morning cartoon line-up.

With Cadillacs and Dinosaurs, I have the opposite question. The show features a stern looking man in the mold of Doc Savage driving a modified classic 1950’s Cadillac. He’s usually accompanied by an attractive midriff-baring woman who looks like Bettie Page. If, in the 1990’s, you were to depict a man going through midlife crisis, this is how that drawing would turn out.

Why in the world is this airing on CBS Kids?

I doubt even CBS knew why. Think back to the halcyon year of 1993, I can barely remember any promotion for this show. I was also in high school, though, so my attention may generally have been drifting from Western animation and toward anime.

I was a little familiar with Xenozoic Tales, the comic that Cadillacs and Dinosaurs is based on. Its covers were always catchy when browsing the shelves of the comic store. The series was often mentioned in the pages of Wizard magazine. In addition, the comic was highly respected. Xenozoic Tales netted seven awards (five Harveys and two Eisners) for creator Mark Schultz.

Which is to say that this was an odd fit for a line-up that included the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Beakman’s World, Marsupilami, All-New Dennis The Menace, and Disney’s The Little Mermaid. All of these series are generally less self-serious. But then again, CBS would also be the network that, one year later, would be airing WildCATs, the animated series based on Jim Lee’s comic from Image. Someone at CBS was really betting high on non-Marvel, non-DC comic book properties.

This is probably by necessity. All the Marvel and DC properties had already been signed on with the rival Fox Network. Debuting a year earlier as Cadillacs and Dinosaurs was the devastating one-two punch of Batman: The Animated Series and X-Men: The Animated Series. It wasn’t such a bad play, either. Jurassic Park was a hit earlier in 1993. Dinosaurs were the new hotness!

Except they aren’t called dinosaurs. Cadillacs and Dinosaurs is a show chock full of unwieldy terminology.  Here’s sample dialogue from the first episode:

“Your blood wakes you. You must trust the machinacho vitae. Trust the machinery of life.”

“But the Shivet! I have to destroy it! There’s no other way!”

At this point, the auto-generated YouTube captioning system turned in a letter of resignation.

“Shivet” is the term that these future people use for an Tyrannosaurus.  Also dinosaurs are referred to as “slithers”… but not all the time. “Dinosaurs” does get uttered at least once, but it may have been a slip-up in the script.

Mammoths are still mammoths, though. There must be some sort of mammal exclusionary clause.

 

I eventually caught up to the lingo when binge watching… but remember, this aired in a Saturday morning environment. Something you might watch sometimes once a week while dividing your attention between that and your bowl of cereal. There’s a reason why a lot of the famous cartoon intros lay out the the heroes, what the heroes do, the villains, and the general plot parameters. Chances are that the kids watching forgot already. (Note: Cadillacs and Dinosaurs barely has an intro sequence.) I can’t guarantee to you that, had I been watching this one random Saturday, I could tell you what a character was referring to when talking about a “herd of Macks.”

The odd terminology reminds me instantly of John Carter, and how the film version conformed faithfully to the book’s terminology.  Part of me wishes that they’d dropped it for their sake. If there’s anything kids know, it’s the names of all the dinosaurs. The real name of a “shivet” is, like, the most famous of dinosaurs. And one with a much cooler name! “Shivet”? Get out of here with that!

The impenetrable language, though, hints at a deeper mythos than the typical Saturday morning fare. Cadillacs and Dinosaurs takes place in the future where humanity have emerged from an apocalyptic event.  Old technology, like Cadillacs, are maintained by tech experts, like our hero Jack Tenrec, called the Mechanics.  Jack lives by a code that calls for the preservation of these dinosaurs above all else.  He’s something of a Jedi Knight. He lives separate from society in a gargantuan car garage that looks like a factory, but lays down the code of law when needed. His belief is that dinosaurs are harmless, and they only ever attack because they’re threatened by humans. He’s respected enough that the ruling leaders seem to have their offices open any time for this always angry-looking dude wearing an oily T-shirt and ripped up jeans jacket.

He is joined by Hannah Dundee, who hails from the city of Wasoon (the future name for “Washington, DC”). She is an ambassador. The role is a little vague. She has a form of diplomatic immunity, in that the rulers of the City By the Sea cannot imprison her for what seem like legal violations. What legal violations? Trespassing, generally. Petty theft, too. Hannah is also a scientist, and she often goes to places she shouldn’t in order to uncover pre-apocalyptic technology. (Wikipedia, by the way, tells me that the apocalypse in the Xenozoic Tales comic happens in 2020. Just be careful going outside, is all I’m saying.)

The City by the Sea is ruled by a trio who call themselves Governors.  One of them, a burly woman named Wilhelmina Scharnhorst, seeks to tame nature and bring glory back to the human race. For her, dinosaurs are either nuisances or tools to use in order to spread fear among the populace. The other two are fairly chill and tend to get along with Jack, though we don’t see that much of them on the show. It’s also a remarkably diverse group. Our leaders are two women and one African-American man. The woman not named Scharnhorst seems to be a woman of color. That’s a little surprising to see on a show created in 1993.

Meanwhile, creatures thought long extinct have returned, along with a race of telepathic humanoid lizard people called the Grith. They are obvious stand-ins for Native Americans. Jack lives by their code of co-existing with nature. He is one of they few humans they allow to travel through their lands unharmed.

Jack rides a “Mack”.

Hell of a premise, huh? When I learned that Mark Schultz would go on to write Prince Valiant, I wasn’t surprised. This sort of grounded mythmaking was right up his alley!

The downside: while Cadillacs and Dinosaurs trying to aim for more lofty mature fare, it’s handcuffed by its aim to be for kids. There were times when the storytelling beats seem to indicate that a character should have died. Yet they pull away before any potential gore or death can be shown onscreen. This hampers the potential moral of the story. “Someone could have been seriously hurt!” doesn’t pack quite the same punch.

Then there are the flat characterizations. Scharnhorst, for example, feels like she should be a far more multi-dimensional character.  She should see no wisdom in following Jack’s conservation rules because she believes in moving humanity forward.  Instead she’s seeking out killer robots and orbital death rays because she’s EEEEEVIL.  “We can destroy the TREES!” she sneers as he way of saying that she plans to develop the land.

In one episode, the “moles” (i.e. “miners”) are angered because her robots mean that they’ll be out of work.  I figured Scharnhorst could make a plausible counter-argument, albeit perhaps not totally sincere, that using robots to do mining operations would be a potential improvement in occupational safety. Instead, she’s like, “Yeah, you losers are going to be out of jobs. WHAT.” Gotta admire her honesty, at least. She also employs henchmen that look like the Dreadnaughts from GI Joe, lest you think that she’s on the up-and-up.  Being a kid’s show, you can’t give her any opening for the viewer to ever think she might be in the right.

But, sadly, not unbelievable. Between her appearance and her use of the phrase “drain the swamps”, Scharnhorst has a distressing resemblance to a modern political figure.

And Jack himself?  The show wants you to side with him… but he’s kind of an insufferable, self-righteous jerk. He’s the kind of guy who’s always right and expects you to do what he says. Then he gets royally pissed off when you do something different. He does this to his enemies, of course, but sometimes even Hannah gets the brunt of his righteous wrath. Want to study a computer system? Screw you, Hannah, ALL TECHNOLOGY IS EVIL. I can see why Scharnhorst is pissed off at him all the time.

There’s one episode where Jack encounters a former head of the guard who plans on deposing Scharnhorst because he sees her for the dictator that she is.  Jack scoffs and accuses him of plunging them into war.  Yes, Jack.  You’ve made it clear that Scharnhorst is a dangerous villain who may doom humanity.  But someone tries to remove her from power and in you think he’s just as bad?

Anyway, the rebel trying to depose the tyrant is also a deranged psycho because kid’s show.

Insufferable as he is, though, you do grow to respect Jack. The show does a good job of setting up the stakes, and how subjugating or killing the dinosaurs is actually the easy play. Jack’s devotion to his code despite the most obvious but less moral option staring him in the face? That’s chutzpah, friends.

I am going to present a theoretical scenario. I have no back up on this expect for my own twisty Wikipedia wormhole dives. Had Fish Police succeeded, would that have been the foundation of a primetime CBS animated block? I imagine would Cadillacs and Dinosaurs have been a contender in some sort of hour long indie comic stretch of shows. But since Fish Police failed, was CBS Kids the only option? The show’s animation style seems to suggest more adult fare. Nelvana handles the animation, and is it ever gorgeous.  This is anime OVA quality, which makes it all the more shocking that this was aired on CBS’ Saturday morning block.

Especially impressive is how they handled scale. There are several different size relationships at play. You have the humans, for whom most of the focus is on. Then you have to doom out to the vehicles. Real vehicles, too, so we know what a human looks like while driving it. Then you zoom out to hte level of the dinosaurs and the challenge of maintaining the consistency of that size versus humans and Cadillacs. They’re not all the same size too. Hence the Allosaur-… I’m sorry. Hence the Cutter has to maintain a consistent size disparity with the Shivet. But that’s not all! The story often takes place in a large city, whose towers dwarfs even the dinosaurs. Or sometimes the story is in the wild, where the dinosaurs are seen behind tall tree trunks. The discipline to which all scales are maintained, even foreshortened, is staggeringly scientific.

There are other great feats of animation. The early 90’s was a great time for background artists. No more painterly backgrounds that merely serve as backdrops. The line art, instead, lines up with the character designs, giving you a sense that everything is interactive and oftentimes is. Then there are the water effects. Above water, underwater, behind water… each is portrayed with realistic motion. Objects are portrayed with the proper gravity, so when vehicles collide you feel the impact. Nelvana… you knocked this one out of the park.

The voice work isn’t great, though.  Most of the  actors affect cartoonish performances, which doesn’t always synch up with the show’s high-mindedness. At times, it feels like Cadillacs and Dinosaurs is a foreign cartoon being dubbed for English-speaking audiences by VA’s who aren’t quite keyed in to the show’s tone.

But in their defense, how were you supposed to play this? It’s a show about a world of dinosaurs where people drive around in refurbished Cadillacs! And the main character has a pet dinosaur! And the show is called freakin’ Cadillacs and Dinosaurs! The concept screams campy fun! Or, if what you were going for was closer to Batman or X-Men, the should could afford to be less serious all time. Both those shows had their moments of levity, and they didn’t feel like you were getting lectured at on every episode.

Cadillacs and Dinosaurs isn’t a bad show, and it definitely deserves its small cult following. I will say that I did enjoy what I saw, mainly as a person who appreciates the art of animation. And yet, it’s a show in search of a tone, one that could have afforded to shed more of its Saturday morning trappings.

Basically, Cadillacs and Dinosaurs a show made too early that was in search of a Toonami slot.

(h/t to Johnny Friendly for the suggestion!)