Can the Western work in animation? It never seemed that popular of a genre to tackle, even during its heyday in film. The limitless possibility of animation seems more suited to the fanciful flights of science fiction than the grounded, grungy world of the Wild West. For every Yosemite Sam there seemed to be a Marvin the Martian or a Duck Dodgers.
If anything, it seems to be a more challenging setting these days. Can an animated Western work that isn’t about anime space cowboys? Or mutated bovines who live on a mess untouched by humans? Or living toys who coexist with … spacemen?
Enter The Legend of Calamity Jane.
Calamity Jane is based on real life frontierswoman Martha Jane Canary. She’s most famous for being an associate with Wild Bill Hickok. Everything else about her life cannot be proven. Her life story was detailed in an autobiography that is often inaccurate. She claims that she got her name during a skirmish with the Indians.
We were ordered out to quell an uprising of the Indians, and were out for several days, had numerous skirmishes during which six of the soldiers were killed and several severely wounded. When on returning to the Post we were ambushed about a mile and a half from our destination. When fired upon, Capt. Egan was shot… I lifted him onto my horse in front of me and succeeded in getting him safely to the Fort. Capt. Egan, on recovering, laughingly said: “I name you Calamity Jane, the heroine of the plains.”
An army captain at the time mentioned that Jane never fought with them, so whatever. Print the legend. Besides, she really was a notorious daredevil who was famously generous. An embellished autobiography only seems on brand. And frankly, potentially not being involved in a lynch mob to quell a Native uprising only helps your rep in the modern day.
It also gives you license to make up whatever story for her as well. After all, if we really don’t know how the real Calamity Jane grew up, that means her origin story is now carte blanche. Which is exactly what The Legend of Calamity Jane does.
First off… let’s dispense that whole thing in her autobiography where she quelled a Native American uprising. That’s not going to fly in this era of Disney’s Pocahantas. Rather… Calamity Jane was now raised by Native Americans herself! Also we’ll make a point where she bristles at the term “Indians” and corrects the White man when they use that term. She’s a modern woman, after all.
Second, she’s now grim and taciturn. She’s basically a gender-flipped version of The Man With No Name. This is a complete 189 of the real life Calamity Jane, who was known for being a boisterous And gregarious drunk who earned that name “Calamity Jane.” This one… she’s kind of a “Cold and Calculating Jane.”
Third, rather than the more stocky Martha Jane Canary, animated Jane looks less like Ellen Barkin in the Wild Bill film and more like Jennifer Jason Leigh. I only mention this because Leigh was the original voice of Calamity Jane. Scheduling conflicts, though, forced the show to recast Barbara Scaff as Calamity Jane’s voice. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s name was still used in a lot of the advertising, though.
I imagine real Jane was more of a markswoman and a bruiser. Cartoon Jane has to do a lot of acrobatic action sequences. To its credit, it looks great. She’s also rendered as a sickly white. Whiter than even the White people. This makes her seem more like a ghost who wanders the plains. Or a time traveling 90’s Goth who ended up in the Wild West.
It does make me wonder why they didn’t just go with a totally original character. Still… it’s hard to top having a lead with the name “Calamity Jane”. Gonna put it out there: it’s the best Wild West name of all time.
Her Native American upbringing does make Calamity Jane uniquely suited to traveling the frontier. The army usually hires her out to travel areas where Native populations are prevalent. Jane is a bridge between two worlds… several worlds, in fact. The Legend of Calamity Jane exists accurately where racism is common. (And also chauvinism.) Both sides only need a small excuse to wage war on the other side. This invites villains who are willing to frame one side or the other for destroying crops, stealing cattle, or burning down small outposts. The US Army may not be fully convinced of the guilt of any party but have to go into action when local governments complain about their livelihoods being destroyed.
Racism isn’t the only uncomfortable truth of the past that Calamity Jane forces its viewers to confront. There are times she gets assaulted by aggressively horny men. It’s rated Y-7, but it’s still disturbing. There are the light-hearted parts, where the other desperadoes constantly refer to Jane as “girl” and she has to menacingly glower and sneer, “Never call me ‘girl’.” But then there are tougher moments. In one episode, Jane is attacked from behind while getting water from a well as a hulking brute sneers that they should “get to know each other better.” In another episode, Jane has to protect a man whose orders to his wife is not not speak unless she’s talked to. It’s a cold splash of water of the face.
The solutions to such systemic issues can sometimes feel a little to convenient, given the gravity of the issue. Most of the episodes rooted in racism will invariably end with a simple “it was all a big misunderstanding” moral, with maybe no one really learning about how bad the racism was but won’t shoot guns at each other neither. Jane inspiring another woman to be more assertive leads to none other than General Grant offering the emboldened woman a position in his Cabinet. I don’t know if that was a thing that was done in the 1870’s… but hey, this was a show for kids. It’s not the medium to dwell on things really were pre-19th Amendment.
The animation was handled by the departments at Canal+ and France 3. I reckon the intro is meant to resemble the animated sequence that introduces The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. It’s hard to watch it and not see another potential influence… it looks an awful lot like the beginning of Cowboy Bebop. There, though, it was a stylized rendition of the show. With Calamity Jane, it’s more like the mission statement. Several impressive key scenes contrast the light with the darkness. Figures are heavy blocks rendered in shadow. They dare the viewer to observe the fluid movement within a scene.
The Western setting is impressive. It’s the best depiction I’ve seen in animation. Scenes go wide to show you the extent of the frontier. Often the characters are tiny dots in the vast swaths of plains, deserts, and mesas that make up the world of Calamity Jane. It made me wonder how far Jane’s jurisdiction extended. It seems that she’s everywhere from Montana to New Mexico. (One episode takes her all the way to Philadelphia, so she does travel a lot.)
I will say that the variety of authentic looking settings makes the show stand out from even live action Westerns, which were often shot on the same set in Utah.
Another great element: things blow up real nice. Billows of smoke just pour out into the sky and cast thick shadows. It’s a lovely thing to see animated… and things explode a lot. Trains fly off of tracks and into ravines. Bandits throw sticks of dynamite into jail cells. The animators consider the explosions an art form, like they’re the Michael Bays of the animated world.
The worst thing I can say about this show is that animated Jane is far less compelling than real life Jane. Give me a boisterous, gregarious frontierswoman who dresses up in men’s clothes over a Luc Besson heroine, I say. (Which basically means my ideal animated Calamity Jane is Tallulah Black from DC’s All Star Western.) There’s really nothing interesting about animated Jane. I don’t want to know more about her because everything is so surface level.
Scaff is also not a great choice for voicing the hard-edged Jane as portrayed on this show. Calamity Jane always sounds a little bit hoarse, like she needs to take a break and suck on a lozenge for a bit. Fantasy voice casting here: Susan Eisenberg, the voice of Wonder Woman from Justice League Unlimited. Or perhaps Jennifer Jason Leigh. I’m not too familiar with her work, but she brought an appropriate amount of frontier menace in Hateful Eight.
Jane is not the only one miscast. A lot of the side characters are all wrong for their voices. One episode features a racist, sexist pioneer, and his delivery is so sleepy that I felt myself subconsciously twirling my fingers to tell the cartoon man to get on with it. Scaff is the one with the monumental task of carrying every single episode, though.
However, there are some standout familiar voice actors in the cast. Jane is accompanied by an old feller by the name of Joe Presto (voiced by animation legend Frank Welker). He’s her trusty sidekick who can’t move like he used to. He’s also sort of her comic counterpart, lightening up the mood when Jane goes full Batman. She also gets some assistance from real life friend Wild Bill Hickok, here voiced by future Lex Luthor Clancy Brown.
So what ended the Legend of Calamity Jane… in the US, at least? An alien who came to Earth as a baby, was raised by a kindly family from Kansas, and fights for truth an justice. After three weeks, Calamity Jane was supplanted by Superman: The Animated Series, a far more familiar legend to contemporary viewers. It’s also more fun in general that doesn’t ask the viewer to contemplate the uncomfortable truths about life. At least Clancy Brown could continue to draw a paycheck.
Kids’ WB mentioned that Calamity Jane would return at some point… but she never did. The rest of the series aired overseas, but it would never be seen again in America. At least that’s what Wikipedia tells me. I seem to recall catching a later episode on television, so I think they did end up showing all the episodes. That don’t matter none, though. As a wise old cowpoke one said, “When legend becomes fact, print the legend.” A new sheriff had rolled into town, and she had no choice but to ride off into the sunset.
Check out all the previous classic animation reviews under the tag #MADE ANIMATED!