Four mummies are resurrected to protect a young boy who is the reincarnation of an Egyptian prince. When there’s Egyptian golems in your neighborhood, who ya gonna call? Mummies Alive!
Despite having a superstar producer, Mummies Alive! only lasted one season. It was canceled due to low ratings. Dreams, perhaps, of strong toy sales withered and shriveled like some sort of corpse buried beneath hot desert sands. More like Mummies Deceased, amirite?
The Chicago Tribune featured this scathing review:
Produced by Ivan Reitman (“Space Jam,” “Ghostbusters”), this new direct-to-video animated feature is a prequel to the syndicated children’s series “Mummies Alive!” … But Reitman’s presence fails to elevate this generic, violence-laden cartoon to the top of the kids’ show pyramid. Wrap the Power Rangers or Ninja Turtles in bandages, and you’ve got the Mummies.
Now that’s hardly fair. There’s a bit of Gargoyles, too. Wikipedia tells me that Eric and Julie Lewlard, the writers and co-producers of Mummies Alive!, were also head writers for the third season of Gargoyles. This was the season that Disney had canceled the show, ABC picked it up, and rebranded it Gargoyles: The Goliath Chronicles. Animation duties were handled by Nelvana. I think this may have been the season that fans like to pretend doesn’t exist. Like, I didn’t even watch Gargoyles that much. That last season is a creature of legend that lurks in the shadows of memory.
Reitman was no stranger to producing animated features. He had previously produced the Beethoven (the dog cartoon) and would go on to produce the Evolution animated series. But, surprisingly, he was not a producer on The Real Ghostbusters. So why would Reitman be interested in a story about a four person team who have a sweet car and battle supernatural beings? Maybe he was looking at the merchandising sales and realizing that he wasn’t getting a big cut from all those units of Ecto-Cooler sold. There’s only one thing that I know with any degree of certainty: mummies made him feel good.
Speaking of that sweet ride…
The car is especially baffling. The first episode establishes that these mummies have no idea what a car is… and also that they don’t know to drive. A small child is almost murdered in a hit-and-run because one of these mummies decided to take the wheel. The kid is only saved because one of the mummies shot a grappling hook to nearby street lamp to steer the car away, Batman-style. But what if there were no street lamps in the vicinity, Mummies Alive? What price would you have paid for your hubris?
And then by the second episode, they’ve built their own drag racer. We’re told it’s electric, too. So in the few days that they’ve woken up in modern times, they’ve not only mastered engineering… but managed to develop an electric car that proved so elusive to so many carmakers in the 1990’s? Now, I do understand that the ancient Egyptians were excellent engineers, but I suspect that their grasp of wiring and programmable controls were rudimentary at best. This is the same episode where they’re baffled that a bulldozer isn’t an actual bull.
The car is soon joined by other delightfully named vehicles. There is a powerboat called the “Nileator.” The mummies also can soar the skies in a flying craft named the “Skycophagus.” And then they develop a motorcycle cleverly called … the “Jetcycle.” Look, they can’t all be winners.
These are not the most observant mummies. In the first episode Nefer-Tina, reveals that —- gasp! —- she is a woman! Women were not allowed to drive the chariots in Egypt. This is something none of the other mummies ever realized! “”No wonder he never went swimming in the Nile with us,” one says, apparently never noticing that she was the only mummy with a bare midriff. Mulan she is not. Also her name is Nefer-Tina, which should raise some red flags even in ancient Egypt. In a flashback episode it’s revealed that young Prince Rapses knew that she was a woman all this time. I think that’s supposed to make him seem smarter than everyone else, but instead it makes everyone seem dumber than a bag of hammers that they didn’t notice something a little boy could figure out.
“Prince Rapses,” by the way, is my hip-hop name.
Like their gargoyle, turtle, or biker mice brethren, each of our mummies (who are referred to as Guardians) has a field that they specialize in. Ja-Kal is the stern and fatherly leader. Don’t let that canine name fool you; his power armor is falcon-based. He is the stalwart Captain America of the Guardians. Nefer-Tina is the show’s daredevil and stunt driver who has a chip on her shoulder because she’s treated differently once they find out she’s a woman. She is involved in romantic plots, often with a muscular half-man/half-snake named “Pep”. Armon is a paraplegic who is a big bruiser and who likes to eat. He has a metal arm when he gets his armor on. More like Arm-off, amirite. And Rath does machines.
Our mummies make their base in a recreation of a Sphinx that was built to house a temporary Egyptian exhibit. It’s a a little ostentatious, and is frankly taking up some valuable real estate. Fortunately, Presley Carnovan —- our young kid hero who is also the reincarnation of our young prince —- successfully stages a protest that keeps the building intact. To be fair, San Francisco is pretty well known for accumulating eccentric architecture.
Meanwhile, our villain makes his base in a building that looks somewhat like the Bass Pro Shop in Memphis, Tennessee.
Our villain, Scarab, needs to extract Presley’s soul in order to maintain his immortal life… which is kind of the much beloved Vandal Savage plot in DC’s Legends of Tommorow. In short order, he figures out that he needs to catch that kid. Until then, Scarab has to find some workarounds — such as draining the life out of homeless people. In the meantime, he lives a double life as Harris Stone, a millionaire philanthropist. He is as untouchable in his public guise as he is as an immortal sorcerer.
So yeah… Scarab is distressingly the most realistic character on the show.
Fortunately, our mummies are more than up to the task. They have the aforementioned vehicles and power armor. They also have the ability to Large Marge their faces into monster faces, something they deploy mainly to freak out the normals. Then there’s their most devastating weapon in their arsenal: their nearly limitless supply of mummy puns. Do you have a favorite mummy pun? One that conflates “mummy” with “mommy”? I guarantee you… it’s on this show.
And it’s a good thing that these mummies have scare powers, because if their existence is discovered they will face a world that fears and hates them. Or rather… a human populace that is convinced they’re space aliens. This is the 90’s of the X-Files, after all. Gray visitors from outer space where on everyone’s minds back then. While I haven’t seen every episode, I half expect at some point a drunk wino sees a mummy, then tosses his liquor bottle over his shoulder while muttering, “Never again!”
The wiki mentions that originally that this was meant for an older Gargoyles-centric audience, but during production they decided to make it for younger kids. By that, I imagine that they mean that they dumbed this show way the heck down to, like, Paw Patrol levels. No wait… that’s a great disservice to the complex plotting and nuanced characterizations of Paw Patrol. For example, there’s one episode where the mummies are pushing around a gurney where their friend is covered under a blanket. The accidentally hit another gurney where someone else is covered up. (Neither are dead, by the way, so I have no idea why their heads are covered.)
Oh no! They don’t have time because they’re being chased by the bad guys! What do they do?
Literally every kid watching this show is screaming, “Take three seconds and pull down the sheets of one of the patients to see who it is! You don’t even have to check out both! Just one!” But nope! To ratchet up the tension even more, the mummies take a blind guess and grab one of the beds. (Armon even does a comedic “Eenie-meenie-mynie-mo” and it’s like, if you had time to do that why didn’t you just pull one of the covers down!) This is so, so dumb.
Compared to the other hero shows of its generation, a lot of the action of Mummies Alive! takes place in broad daylight. This leads to two separate conundrums. The first is that no one ever seems to talk about them. You’d think battles of heroes and villains in power armor would always be making the news. They are, instead, often ignored and hardly commented on… even as rumors. They can tear up a mall in the daytime it’s just a regular occurrence for these jaded San Francisco natives. Secondly… this is a weirdly empty city. The Golden Gate Bridge is a favorite set piece, and whenever they’re there you don’t see any traffic. It’s an odd complaint… but with the Ninja Turtles you could reconcile that the ninja teens coexisted in a bustling city.
That said… I do enjoy Egyptian mythology. Despite this show’s cheesiness, I do like seeing Egyptian gods and goddesses rendered in the modern day… and through the lens of creating something that’s got kid appeal (and merchandise appeal). There’s actually a lot more I would love to talk about and snark on —- how Scarab transforms into a 90’s kid and puts on a backwards cap; how Nefer-Tina regains human form and is naturally hotter than any supermodel (and how each of the male mummies try to creepily peek into her sarcophagus to see how hot she is); the time when Scarab summons a dangerous goddess because he can’t deal with the common cold; how there’s a recurring paranoid police officer character who goes from fearing the mummies to realizing that mummies are his friends thanks to a clip show (the series ender!) —- but I only have so much time in the day and I already spent multiple paragraphs talking about the damn car. Like… I really want to devote a whole piece on the muscular snake-man alone.
Overall, it is entertaining. Trust me: I tried to watch some of its contemporaries: WildCATs, Ultraforce, Skeleton Warriors…. Mummies Alive! was by far the most watchable.
The Chicago Tribune piece goes on to criticize the animation. “True, the main protagonists are mummies, but all the characters move as if they have rigor mortis,” says writer Harlene Ellin. “Mouths flap open and shut when delivering dialogue, giving the film a primitive look, as if it, too, were more than 3,500 years old.” I wasn’t paying much attention to Western animation then, as I and every other person of my generation in the late 90’s had moved on to anime. However, I was pretty impressed by the quality. Everything just looked crisp and fluid. I was especially surprised to learn that this came from DIC Animation, who had provided some stilted-looking cheap cartoons in the early 90’s. Mummies Alive! is one of their most visually appealing efforts.
It’s also unique that this is a late 90’s cartoon where the protagonist isn’t a white kid. Presley has darker skin, befitting his Egyptian heritage. The mummies themselves are gray, but in flashbacks they are also similarly olive-skinned. It’s a small victory and insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but it’s still heartening to see this representation on a show that never hid its primary mission to shamelessly sell as many toys as possible.
Heck… was it really that long ago when we were bemoaning that the Avengers seemed really, really White?
(H/t to LoveWaffle for the recommendation)
Check out all the previous classic animation reviews under the tag #MADE ANIMATED!