1993: Norfin Trolls: Castle of Doom

After the success of Care Bears and Strawberry Shortcake, people spent the 80s and early 90s trying to turn everything into a multimedia licensed property - it was sort of a precursor to how they make everything you've ever heard of into a bad movie nowadays because they assume there's a built-in audience. Sometimes the results were decent - it was a little before the boom, but Raggedy Ann's Halloween special was really quite delightful. The Pound Puppies show had sharper writing that it probably deserved. The 80s revival of Alvin and the Chipmunks yielded a few above-the-curve shows. 

Then, of course, there were things like The Scrabble People, where VHS tapes of really bad cartoons sitting in bins in flea markets and the dark corners of ebay are all that remind us of a half-assed attempt at turning something you've heard of into a multimedia licensed property. 

Somewhere in the middle sits this Norfin Trolls: Castle of Doom. I remember that those Troll dolls with the big hair and the naked butts had sort of a moment long about 1991 (though I had no idea until a reader told me about this cartoon that they were called Norfin trolls), and it only made sense for the people at Norfin to turn it all into a cartoon, as well as picture books, Nintendo games, and trading cards. 

Unfortunately for all of us, they didn't try very hard. The video games, cards, and books didn't make much impact, and, while their "Castle of Doom" Halloween cartoon isn't necessarily offensively bad (certainly nowhere near as bad as The Scrabble People: Pumpkin Full of Nonsense), you don't get the impression that a lot of effort was put into this. Oh, the backgrounds are pretty nice, and the animation isn't as bad as the worst of these shows, but, while they've got trolls in different outfits, little attempt was made to let the viewer know anything about the characters. Outside of the twisted bad guy, who has got some sort of key that will let him into a part of the Castle of Doom that will bring him untold power, the characters have no particular personalities. 

The result is a nearly forgotten show so obscure it doesn't even seem to be on IMDB. I had a hard time even finding out when it was made. The VHS release date comes up on amazon as 1997, though it looks more like 1980s animation.  The copyright info on the back says 1993.

You could use this as a lesson for teaching writing students, I think. When you write up a cartoon, even a one-off special, viewers should get a sense of who the characters are and how they'd react to a given situation and how they're different from each other. I sometimes hold up the contrast between Backyardigans and Muppet Babies. Backyardigans was a pretty good show with some excellent music (now and then), but outside of their different looks and names, the characters didn't have paricularly distinct personalities. If the Muppet Babies were acting out, say, a version of Dracula, there's a different way that each of them would play any given role. The Backyardigans were more-or-less interchangeable. Even with, say, the Smurfs, you knew that Brainy and Smurfette and Vanity would all react to a given situation in their own way.

The Norfin Trolls take this interchangeability to another extreme - "Castle of Doom" seems like they took a rejected first draft of a Smurfs script and just divied up the lines evenly, so some of Brainy's lines went to one troll, some went to another. Now, the fact that the characters aren't that distinct isn't necessarily a mark of doom for a cartoon (Backyardigans was entertaining enough that you didn't really notice this most of the time), but here the jokes don't land, the timing is bad, and the plot is a little hard to follow. The timing is the worst of it. Cartoons are hard to make, and this Norfin adventure gives the impression that the makers are still figuring things out.

 Now, maybe I'm being too hard on the Norfin Trolls. The show isn't really offensively bad or anything, and the little kid target audience would probably be entertained by it just fine. But even if you're making a cartoon strictly as hack work or strictly to sell more toys, you can still find a way to make a sharp, quality product. I'm reminded of He-Man writer Paul Dini's interview with He-Man.org - when asked what he said to people who thought He-Man was just a half hour toy commercial, he said, "He-Man was a 1/2 hour toy commercial... Selling the product was the sole reason for doing that show. Though occasionally we could slip in a good story and made the characters more interesting for a strictly non-kid audience." 

 That's not really what happened here, and I'm not exactly surprised. I've been running versions of this page since 1998, and I hadn't even heard of this one until just this year. If a show has escaped my notice for this long, odds are that it's not gonna be that memorable. Still, from my end, it's nice just to find a new special every now and then that I hadn't heard of, and, really, just cueing up a VHS tape makes me feel nostalgic these days, and if you liked this show as a kid, it'll bring back memories now. The show has never been on DVD, and only the intro is on youtube (see below). VHS tapes run around a dollar.


Unknown said...
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Anonymous said...

Thanks for this review! I look forward to your 2016 review!


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