Meet George Jetson… in high definition!
DIRECTED BY WILLIAM HANNA AND JOSEPH BARBERA/1990
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: FEBRUARY 16, 2021/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
The summer of 1990 was an interesting time for cartoons on the big screen. The wave inspired by 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit was only starting to crest, and Hanna-Barbera’s Jetsons: The Movie, had staked its claim. Improved visuals of the world of television’s favorite family “that is truly ahead of its time” led the way. In early summer, Tonight Show guest host Jay Leno quipped that the makers of the new Jetsons movie were going to great lengths to make animation look realistic while Warren Beatty and company were going to even greater lengths to make their live-action Dick Tracy look like a cartoon. What a crazy mixed-up world it was back then…!
Grossing just over $20 million, Jetsons: The Movie didn’t exactly meet whatever cosmic hopes that Universal Pictures might’ve had for it, though the studio’s marketing department had definitely done right in promoting it. Not at all deviating from the animation modeling of Hanna-Barbara’s original 1962 television series (later revived in the mid-1980s), the feature presented itself as something of a good-natured retro throwback. Legends William Hanna and Joseph Barbera were even on hand as the film’s directors. (Iwao Takamoto was the supervising director).
Fans were happy to hear the original voices of George Jetson (George O’Hanlon), Jane his wife (Penny Singleton), their dog Astro (Scooby-Doo voice Don Messick) and Rosie the Robot (Jean Vander Pyl). Even the legendary Mel Blanc (Bugs Bunny) performed what would be his final recording sessions, reprising his role as George’s bossy boss, Mr. Spacely. Jetsons: The Movie also proved to be the final screen appearance of Singleton, who died in 2003, and of the ailing George O’Hanlon, who suffered a fatal stroke while recording his starring part for the film.
But even as nostalgia was the draw, Jetsons: The Movie turned out to be something very much of the late ‘80s/early ‘90s ethos. The film’s dominant theme of environmentalism is heavy handed in a Captain Planet kind of way, which, while not a poor message to bear, has caused the movie to age less well than it might have, had it simply stuck to its own proven formula of cartoony retro-futurism. It didn’t help that The Jetsons never previously functioning as a delivery tube for any such messaging.
Worse still, the original voice of teenage daughter Judy, Janet Waldo, was recast after the actress had recorded the part. The replacement casting of pop star Tiffany remains a sore spot for animation fans even to this day. For good measure, novelty comic and radio personality Rick Dees (“Disco Duck”) cameos as dashboard sky-traffic reporter “Rocket Rick”, no doubt intended as promotion for his then-current short-lived late night show, Into the Night with Rick Dees.
All of the of-the-moment elements, we’re told in the Blu-ray’s newly created bonus features, were absolutely intentional, as Jetsons: The Movie was always intended to be very much for the summer of 1990. For a film all about the future, it oddly had zero aspirations about its own longevity.
And sure enough, thirty-plus years later as it hits Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber Studio Classics, boy does it show. Perhaps most immediately universally agregious is the occasional implementation of CGI within the conventional ink & paint cel animation. At the time of the movie’s pre-release, the swooping camera reveals of the familiar cloud-houses rendered in 3D were a big “wow!” in its preview trailer. Nowadays, computer generated garishness is the main takeaway. For what it’s worth, the Blu-ray does a terrific job representing the movie’s bright palate and pop music soundtrack.
All that said, Jetsons: The Movie is not a bad film. Compromised, yes. Torn between being the send-off that it is and something hip and trendy for the younger set, yes. But no, it is not out-and-out bad. Which is more than can be said for so many other animated “The Movie”s that preceded it in the latter half of the 1980s. It’s almost as if Hanna and Barbera didn’t know to make a feature as anything more than a considerably longer episode of the series, so that’s exactly what they did. Then someone else came and added an eco-friendly plot to give it some gravity. The most satisfying bit of Jetsons comfort food arrives early with the classic opening sequence of the series, earworm song and all, only slightly modified for widescreen.
Following that, put-upon working stiff George is granted a promotion to Vice President at Spacely Sprockets. The problem is, unbeknownst to him, it’s only because he’s deemed an expendable patsy. Soon, he’s picked to head up a troubled asteroid mining scheme. And so, the Jetson family must pack up and move to deep space… tomorrow! Which is a particular blow to Judy, who’s scored a dreamy date for Friday with a hepcat cosmic rock star. Her life is ruined!
As George finds himself completely absorbed in his work on the mining asteroid, he misses his son Elroy’s (voice of Patric Zimmerman, replacing Daws Butler) big moment in his spaceball game. Meanwhile, Judy happens upon an intergalactic boyfriend named Apollo Blue (Paul Kreppel), and we eventually learn that the regular afterhours espionage is being caused by a super-cute race of colorful little teddy bear aliens who live beneath the surface of the asteroid. The bears capture our protagonist and tie him up. Will they eat George Jetson? The family is horrified to learn that George’s job is responsible for threatening their home with destruction. In between all of that, there are a few halfway decent musical montages set to Tiffany tunes. (“I Always Thought I’d See You Again” and “You and Me”, recorded for the film).
The resolution at the end stinks for the exploited space bears. Spoiler: they are granted jobs at the asteroid facility so that the drilling can continue, but safely and with them making some of the money. It’s a fitting off-kilter denouement for a blatantly tree hugging movie that doesn’t have a tree in sight. In a surprisingly stirring easy-to-miss moment, a sad Elroy laments that “leaving is hard”, to which George, replies “Believe me, I know”. Presumably, this is a goodbye acknowledgment voiced by O’Hanlon and not Jeff Bergman, who was brought in for extra dialogue after O’Hanlon and Mel Blanc died during production. For a film based upon such beloved light fare, the melancholy of the ending comes as something of an effective surprise.
Though in naive defiance of its own retro appeal in the summer of 1990, the nostalgia of Jetsons: The Movie has come full circle with this Blu-ray release. It is now an Earth Day-revival era artifact as much as it is a revival of early Hanna-Barbera. (Or a revival of the 1980s revival, for that matter). Film historian Lee Gambin does an enthusiastic job of covering significant details pertinent to the film on his audio commentary track. Gambin also interviews Jeff Bergman about being brought in as voiceover utility on the movie at the start of his career, which is a great listen. Anyone who digs classic television animation, particularly Hanna-Barbera fans, will not want to miss this new HD edition of Jetsons: The Movie.