Something to think about. There has been four different animated series based on Marvel’s first super heroes, the Fantastic 4.
For starters, there was the original series produced by Hanna-Barbera, with designs by Alex Toth, back in 1967. Then in 1978, NBC sponsored DePatie-Freling for a second series. This one was infamous for not including the Human Torch for fear of children setting themselves on fire. Later evidence says this is not the case, but it did introduce H.E.R.B.I.E. In 1994, Marvel self-produced a half-hour F4 block as part of its Marvel Action Hour. Surprisingly, it’s the only one of these three series available on DVD, through Disney.
Then there’s this fourth incarnation. It’s an interesting story in itself. Thanks to Fox we Americans can finally see the entire series the way it was supposed to have been seen from first episode to last, including eight episodes that never aired here in the U.S.
The origin of this latest animated incarnation is simple enough. Even before the film was released in 2005, the first true (don’t count the Roger Corman effort, okay?) live action theatrical version of Fantastic 4 was drawing tremendous buzz. At the same time, Cartoon Network was enjoying some success with a French animation company called Taffy Entertainment. Taffy also owned a studio, Moonscoop, which was making its bones in the U.S. with the series Code: Lyoko.
Not that animated spin-offs from hit superhero movies are anything new. Just say Batman: The Animated Series for starters. Put two and two together, and before you knew it, CN was in co-production with Marvel Entertainment, Fox Entertainment (who were producing the live action film) and Moonscoop/Taffy for an animated version of Marvel’s original superheroes.
Spearheading the project were supervising producers Benoit and Christophe DiSabatino, who founded Moonscoop. The supervising director was Michel Frank. Although Americans Bob Forward (X-Men: Evolution, Beast Wars) and Joshua Fine (now working on Wolverine & The X-Men) contributed nine scripts, the rest of the production was kept either in France or Canada (for English dubbing).
In this just released boxed set, Frank and his cohorts openly admit their main influence was Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s original run. They loved just about every detail of that legendary run, and if you pay attention weren't afraid to cop a cover or frame or three. Yes, they modernized the art. In particular, they incorporated their signature mix of Western and Japanese character design and color schemes.
Also they made their unique use of traditional and CG animation less obvious than they had with Lyoko. In part, one could say this was because they were two completely different shows. For Lyoko, traditional animation was used to signify events happening in the “real” world while CG was for the virtual world the kids in that series would visit. For F4:WGH, trad was primarily used for living characters while CG was applied to tech like the FantastiCar. The thing though is the CG was also painted on top of the modeling, making it integrate with the surroundings much better. I’m not sure about the backdrops, but I have a feeling it was also painting on top of CG. The Baxter Building sure liked it had its share of CG running through it.
They also updated the characters, coming up with much easier-to-animate white-and-blue uniforms instead of the F4s usual monotone blue jumpsuits. In fact, most of the characters got similar alterations, including Victor von Doom, Moleman and Namor.
As for the characters personalities? H.E.R.B.I.E. was now the computer system running their HQ in the Baxter Building. They also updated Johnny and Sue Storm a bit, but Reed Richards and Mom Grimm’s ever-lovin’ blue-eyed boy were pretty true to their originals. In fact, one would be hardpressed to see any character from the F4 universe straying that far from their origins. Namor still had his justified, deep and abiding hatred of land dwellers. Doom was appropriately maniacal and unceasing in his quest to get revenge. The Skrulls and Kree were also appropriately menacing.
What also was pretty cool is the guys at Moonscoop weren’t afraid to throw in guest appearances by other Marvel heroes. Throughout the first season we would be entertained by a knock-down, turf tearing, no holds barred battle between The Thing and The Hulk. Iron Man, Ant Man and She-Hulk also made memorable appearances.
Overall, Cartoon Network appeared pretty jazzed at what they were seeing. They gave the series a prime slot for its debut, Labor Day Saturday 2006 at 8:00 p.m., as the lead-off for their Toonami block.
And after seven episodes the series was pulled with very little explanation or comment. CN would air an additional eleven episodes the following year, as part of their Saturday morning block. This was most likely done to coincide with the release of the F4 sequel, Rise of the Silver Surfer. After that, the series was again pulled with very little fanfare. Eight of the 26 episodes never aired in the U.S.
As to why the series was cancelled is up to speculation. This was the period CN was jettisoning its superhero shows, including JLU and Teen Titans. Some insiders said it was simply ratings.
What I think is the show never got the support it really deserved, from fans to pros. I say this because I remember seeing ratings of the series in Europe, where this version of the F4 apparently did exceptionally well. Maybe the show was too “European” in its stylings to work with American tastes, but that’s just a thought, period.
Quite frankly, as this boxed set readily proves, this series was probably the most loyal of all the attempts ever made. Maybe not in details, but in spirit. You didn’t need Stan Lee opening each episode or Dick Clark making a cameo. The action timing was tight, the color scheme appropriately bright, the jokes Johnny and Ben would constantly play on each other in theme. Most important, as dictated in the last episode of the series, no matter how tough the going got, they stuck together as a family as much as a team.
The set includes three main extra contents sections. While there are no interviews with the voice cast, a number of others, ranging from Marvel Entertainment’s Craig Kyle to a number of the production people in France do have their say. Some of their thoughts on the matter are quite interesting in their own right, particularly when it comes for their love of Lee and Kirby.
Hopefully, now that the complete series is out, Fantastic 4: World’s Greatest Heroes will get the props I personally believe it deserves. I know I had a nice time looking over the episodes in their proper order and unedited. It might have been interesting to see where they would have gone on. While I doubt Galactus would have made his presence felt thanks to the Surfer movie, it would have something to see Black Bolt and company, the Kree-Skrull War or some other things that have never been done.
Maybe when there’s a fifth series. If history is any pattern, I wouldn’t be surprised if there is.