Film Discussed: Jetsons: The Movie
“Man is born crying. When he has cried enough, he ries” – Scooby-Doo
Elroy was dead to begin with. The people at Hanna-Barbera had wanted to make a Jetsons movie for years, but kept putting it off, only beginning pre-production a few months after voice actor Daws Butler had succumbed to a heart attack.
For a show that had first aired in 1962, the Jetsons had a remarkably available cast, Elroy excluded— in animation, it didn’t matter that Janet Waldo, voice of Judy, was pushing 70 as long as she could still raise her pitch enough to sound like a teenager. Penny Singleton, only nine years older than her screen daughter, returned as “women be shopping!” housewife Jane, and Don Messick put on the same “all r’s” dog voice he had done for characters like Scooby-Doo and came back as Astro. George O’Halloran was of course brought back as patriarch George Jetson, and so maybe Elroy was dead, but the family was more-or-less intact, and, really, you can recall the dog’s weird speech impediment before you can even begin to remember what Elroy sounded like, so maybe none of the kids would notice.
After Janet Waldo had recorded Judy’s entire part, the producers wondered if they could increase the film’s appeal to the youth of the day by casting an actual famous teen, and so Waldo’s performance was trashed in favor of pop singer Tiffany. Three songs were added, both to take advantage of the new star and to pad the film’s running time (the movie stops dead in its tracks three times for Judy/Tiffany music videos that honestly look fantastic, like Bill Sienkiewicz directed the “Take On Me” video).
Tiffany was a legitimate big deal when she recorded her lines in 1989, having released a four-times-platinum debut the previous year. Her sophomore record sold fewer units, but still went platinum.
As consolation for losing a role she had played for 20 years, Janet Waldo was allowed to voice “Robot Secretary.” There’s an episode of Black Mirror where a man replaces one woman he’s been with for years with a new woman he finds more appealing, and he ends up shoving the first woman’s consciousness into a robot body with limited speech capabilities. I hope Janet Waldo’s estate gets royalties.
But production went on, and George and Jane Jetson were still on board. And then George had a stroke in the recording booth. Already blind and nearly immobile from a previous stroke, O’Halloran would be escorted to the studio for an hour a day to repeat lines fed to him by the recording director. The second stroke killed him, and another actor was brought in to finish the job. Officially, there’s some of O’Halloran in Jetsons: The Movie, but, to my ears, it all sounds like the same person, which is to say it sounds like a younger man who wasn’t recovering from a massive stroke. Mel Blanc, as big a star in the voiceover world as there’s ever been, also returned to The Jetsons as cranky, Hitler-mustached boss Mr. Spacely, and also died before he could finish recording. In many ways, this was the last Hanna-Barbera movie.
[Interestingly, Daws Butler and Mel Blanc’s roles at Hanna-Barbera and Warner Bros. were eventually taken on by the same actor, Greg Burson, who had a healthy career in voice work until he took his roommate hostage at gunpoint in 2004. According to Animation World Network, a responding police officer was quoted as saying “He was so drunk, we couldn’t tell if he was trying to do one of his voices or was just slurring his words,” which has to be one of the weirdest things you’ll ever read.]
The big Jetsons reunion was ultimately just between the mother and the dog. Adding insult to injury, Jetsons: The Movie was delayed a year to get out of the way of Disney’s gigantic The Little Mermaid and was released after Tiffany’s star had fully cooled (during the film’s recording, Tiffany left for a tour on which she was replaced as headliner, as openers New Kids on the Block blew up, and things only went downhill from there). The soundtrack didn’t go anywhere, the gambit to draw tweens was blown and Judy Jetson was voiced by a 17-year-old girl who somehow sounded less like a teenager than the part’s original 69-year-old had. Tiffany’s hopes of starting a film career off of Jetsons: The Movie were crushed, though she would eventually appear in the great 2008 documentary I Think We’re Alone Now, about two of her obsessive mega-fans and their competing, unwanted attempts to get closer to the singer.
In 1990, though, she was just trying to stop Spacely Sprockets from killing a race of Swamp Things. George gets a promotion and moves the family to a green planet whose resources are being sucked dry by the drilling process behind sprocket creation. FernGully would cover this environmental ground two years later with a Tiffany for a new generation (Tim Curry).
The actual movie looks off in the way other updated cartoons of the era (i.e. Space Jam) did, and this is sometimes difficult to put your finger on, but mostly comes down to shading. It sometimes feels like the extra budget afforded a film meant the animators at Hanna-Barbera could afford the full 64 color Crayola box after previously only working with the 12 pack. Modern Simpsons, with its move to HD years ago, suffers the same fate to my eye. If you’ve seen a recent Tom Cruise movie on the big screen, you may have experienced the same uneasy feeling: This thing looks like I remember it looking 20 years ago, but the longer I stare at it, the more details I notice, the less this looks like the thing I used to like. It doesn’t look bad, just different:
There is, for sure, an unsettling quality about Jetsons: The Movie that has nothing to do with its visuals— if Hanna-Barbera couldn’t make a success out of a decades-late, feature-length film based on a repetitive sitcom itself created only because of the popularity of another repetitive sitcom, what chance do any of us have at making true art?
Author: Alex Rudolph
Alex is from the Bay Area and has lived in Philadelphia for three years, though he is trying to find a way to transport into the Squand commercial that always played early in the morning on Nickelodeon (with a summer place in the Crossfire ad). If you want to talk about Dan Clowes comics and Merzbow, he will sit here and talk about Dan Clowes comics and Merzbow all dang day. He is also the founder of the popular websites AV Club, The New York Times, Harpo Productions and Bitcoin. Follow him on Instagram.