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THE MYSTERIOUS CITIES OF GOLD

Region 2 (UK) Edition from Fabulous Films

Review by Matt West

"A rainbow is worth more than all the treasures in the world."

I bought my first DVD in what must've been around 1998 when there were only about eight discs available in the UK and about a hundred in the US. Since then so much has been released that my interest in coming attractions has waned considerably: everything that should've been released, had been released. 

One empty space on my DVD shelf was the one set aside for 80s animated series The Mysterious Cities of Gold (a.k.a. Taiy no ko Esteban). Rumoured for a French release for several years and supposedly available in a French language only version (I could never find it) and with a thousand-and-one Korean VCD pirates on eBay; it became received internet wisdom that there were all sorts of rights issues surrounding it. One rumour, a rather persistent and worrying one, was that the original English dub masters no longer existed anywhere.

When Fabulous Films announced their set a little less than a year ago it seemed unlikely the release would get any sort of thorough treatment other than "film-on-disc". This is no sleight to Fabulous Films, as their track record is rather impressive, more that with something like this - a Japanese / French co-production with Canadian post-dub for English-speaking territories - it seemed unlikely that any sort of extras package could be achieved.

What Fabulous Films have managed however is remarkable indeed - lavish in fact.

So what is The Mysterious Cities of Gold? If you grew up around the 80s then this will be wholly familiar - otherwise it's a series which provokes blank looks from most people. Running for an epic thirty-nine episodes, the series is from the same people who bought us Ulysses 31 and other later the likes of Inspector Gadget, He-Man, She-Ra and M.A.S.K.

At thirty-nine episodes it would be foolish of me to attempt to summarise the plot from start-to-finish, instead I can make good use of the opening dialogue to every episode:

"It is the sixteenth century. From all over Europe, great ships sail west to conquer the New World, the Americas. The men eager to seek their fortune, to find new adventures in new lands. They long to cross uncharted seas and discover unknown countries, to find secret gold on a mountain trail high in the Andes. They dream of following the path of the setting sun which leads to El Dorado, and ... The Mysterious Cities of Gold!"

Cue music.

The theme tune to The Mysterious Cities of Gold is a Shuki Levy / Haim Saban creation. Anyone familiar with 80s cartoons will know those names well. You name it, they did it. This theme, dubbed Children of the Sun on the soundtrack release, is one of their various best and will always stir up remembrances of the series from those who had seen but forgotten it.

So, anyway - we follow (eventually) three kids: Esteban, Zia and Tao. They are "Children of the Sun". I'm not going to spoil the plot for you or tell you who or what Children of the Sun are. They find themselves embroiled with, among others, Mendoza - a navigator - who is trying to find The Mysterious Cities of Gold. With them are the Artoo and Threepio of this world, Sancho and Pedro, who are generally the comic relief. There are bad guys, Gomez and Kalmec among them. They basically want to get to the Cities of Gold before them. This isn't an intricate plot by any means. But it's both engaging and exciting - more so to an eight-year-old than to a cynical thirty-one-year-old as I am now. I still enjoyed it - but I was more aware of the dubbing than I ever was as a child. Shot in French (well ... drawn), and later redubbed into English, it doesn't help that sometimes a much needed full-stop falls by the way and sentences can be blurted out with major plot or character information in them and missed quite easily. But it's all part of the charm.

Unfamiliar to UK audiences, but included on these discs, are the short documentaries which close each episode. I have no recollection of these being shown on BBC1 and it's not hard to see why! Insightful and fascinating as they are, I wouldn't expect Children's BBC to show a live chicken being sacrificed at 4.30pm. I'm even more surprised the BBFC cleared the scene with a PG, albeit with the following disclaimer - "Contains a scene of chicken slaughter and mild cartoon violence".

The aforementioned bootlegs and pirates were doing the rounds for some time, especially when home DVD burning became a relatively costless practise. These discs, remarkably, seem to have provided the template for this official release. So much so that their main creator is one of the documentary contributors.

Shuki Levy

Shiraz Adam (Esteban)

THE DVDs

Each disc features around seven or eight episodes and bonus features. Each episode, when picked from the menu, gives the viewer the option of viewing any one of the preview, review, main feature, documentary or closing title sections independently. Not only that, Fabulous Films has even lobbed a text episode synopsis with each episode as well!

So how do they look? They look bloody good actually! I still had three off-air VHS episodes from the 80s and these DVD episodes look far better than those. There's more picture information, it's sharp and relatively dirt-free. The only downside is how much the picture can jump around - but this is no fault of the restoration process and instead a side-effect of the relatively basic animation process. It's especially evident on the second episode. It's a minor niggle. Animation isn't an easy thing to translate to DVD as many companies have proved in the past. Here Fabulous Films show up Ascent Media's video and audio restoration efforts admirably. Steve Warren and Richie Hornett have done some sterling work.

The bitrate averages around 6-7mbps for the main features, though the documentaries and bonus features are given a little less, coming in around 4mbps. This really isn't an issue and is only noticeable on the original broadcast mini-documentaries which are in quite a state and rather noisy.

THE BONUS FEATURES

On the subject of the special features - let's go through them disc-by-disc:

DISC 1

This contains episodes on to seven,  which are accessible from a rather pleasant CG rendered menu depicting a somewhat mysterious city. Made of gold. Fabulous Films have taken the quite sensible step of spreading the bonus features across all the discs, rather than presenting them on a single disc. This offers the viewer a chance to break up their viewing as they go and means that items like the production artwork are more clearly defined than if they were a single menu choice on one disc.

Series synopsis is little more than the opening spiel over three text-based pages.

Deleted Scenes. These are an oddity. The first three are from Episode 1.

Scene 1 - This section opens with a live video sequence of a ship in a storm, the same footage can be found in one of the original documentaries. It then dissolves into the map of Spain before eventually, with the help of some on-screen Japanese text, continuing where the first episode takes off. (50s)

Scene 2 - A shot of Esteban running. I ain't kidding, folks! This is TWO SECONDS! At first I thought this was fairly pointless, but then I realised it's entirely illustrative of the level of attention given to this set. (2s)

Scene 3 - Barely a second. Move on. (1ns)

Episode 4 - Scene 1 - this is a meatier offering which covers our heroes bailing from the stricken ship and travelling on the life raft. (2m) (mute)

On several of the discs are REALTIME STORYBOARDS. These are presented the same way on each disc. An A4 design sheet on the left of the screen and a live video feed to the right show the storyboards in real-time. Rather self-explanatory. (2m)

ORIGINAL PRODUCTION DRAWINGS - these litter the discs and are absolutely fantastic. Often showing a single character or object from several angles it shows the detail that went into what at first glance is a very basically-animated series. These are presented as menu items There's close to forty on this first disc - I must be honest, I lost count and didn't go back to check!

DISC 2

Features episodes eight to thirteen.

The main feature on this disc is an interview with the English language dubbing cast, shot in 2007 in Montreal. This is a fantastic feature, lead mainly by the dubbing producer Howard Ryshpan. Ryshpan, who also voiced Mendoza, explains in detail the production side of dubbing a series on this scale. But he's not alone. Impressively producer / director team Richard Walker and Robert Starks have also tracked down and interviewed Shiraz Adam (who voices Esteban), Janice Chaikelson (Zia) and Adrian Knight (Tao). All three are enthusiastic and, in the case of Shiraz Adam, suspiciously youthful! It's an informative documentary which covers the intricacies of dubbing thoroughly which makes the viewer appreciate the rather spluttery delivery a little more. Also contributing to this feature is fan and bootlegger Tim Skutt. I'm rather surprised that Fabulous Films, regardless of the help they received from the guy, were willing to promote internet DVD piracy in such a positive light. (29m - 16x9 -  however 2m of this running time are a reprise of the opening titles AGAIN!)

Dubbing recreation - This is fantastic. Picture-in-Picture and other techniques are used to show the original cast reunited and dubbing a scene live. All four cast members do a fantastic job with Ryshpan especially hitting that black line spot on every time. (1m48s)

Dubbing cast list - this is a list of the dubbing cast.

Real-time Storyboard for episode 13. For some reason the audio level on this feature is exceptionally high, and scared the living daylights out of me as I struggled to find the remote control. (2m)

Character biogs - These are very thorough text biographies for each character. They cover not just the main characters, but the supporting characters as well. Even Kokapetl!

Original character drawings and voiceover cast biographies round off this packed disc.

DISC 3

Features episodes fourteen to twenty.

We open with a text interview with Japanese producer Mitsuru Kaneko. It's a very brief Q&A covering several screens, but is interesting nonetheless.

Realtime storyboard sequence episode 19 (2m)

Episode stills gallery - I'll never understand these. I have a perfectly functional pause button on my remote control - so why would I want to look at stills as part of a DVD menu?

Opening sequence gallery - aaah but this is different to the above. This features just the characters from the opening titles and not the backgrounds. A nice, if brief, collection.

DISC 4

Features episodes twenty-one to twenty-six.

This is the second big-daddy documentary on this set; THE STORY OF PRODUCTION packs so much into its relatively brief running time that a second viewing was in order almost straight away. Jean Chalopin leads this documentary, and while at times he's a little tricky to understand owing to a heavy French accent, the documentary makers have thoughtfully dropped the occasional caption in to help us out. Chalopin, who wrote and produced the series, explains every detail from start-to-finish regarding the production. Anything he doesn't cover is tackled by director Bernard Deyries. Once again, I'm in awe of the interviews Fabulous Films managed to acquire for what is essentially a relatively little-known series. And just when you think things couldn't get any better - SHUKI LEVY! THE Shuki Levy! I was so thrilled to see an interview with this guy, as he and Haim Saban, between them, had more of an impact on Children's television than anyone else throughout the 80s and 90s. What is rather odd though is that Levy's interview for some reason, rather than illustrating the music, instead illustrates his words with a battle scene. And, just when you think Chalopin can't get any more French, he spends the last five minutes of the interview swigging a glass of wine. Lovely documentary, chaps. (36m)

Production crew biographies, Original Drawings (this time machines and props) and an odd gallery titled "Various Images" round off this disc's extras.

DISC 5

Features episodes twenty-seven to thirty-three.

A Deleted Scene from episode 32 - (1m17s) kicks off this disc's special features. Apparently retrieved from a third or fourth generation off-air VHS, one can see immediately why it may have been cut. It mixes murder and comedy a little too freely.

Original episode production drawings, and original French Sales Brochure (2 pages) and the original Japanese Sales Brochure are also included. The Japanese one, even if you could read Japanese, is sadly so small on the screen as to be unreadable. It might've been nice for these items to be included in PDF format.

DISC 6

Features episodes thirty-four to thirty-nine.

One more real-time storyboard this time from episode 35 is shown here. (2m)

Original episode production drawings are again included, as is a Karaoke Video (2m) of the opening titles. Relatively pointless, but it's filler.

Finally we get an off-air clip of Phillip Schofield back in the Broom Cupboard days of CBBC singing along to the closing titles. It's an oddity, but not something you'll come back to again and again - unless you like seeing really badly ordered fields on a twice standards converted video clip!

This entire set is an absolute delight. Ascent Media, Richard Walker and Robert Starks have served up an excellent package here. Oh yes! The packaging!

At present this is an HMV exclusive, though I understand it'll be going on general release in the near future [it's currently scheduled for release in June 2008]. Whether or not the packaging will change before then I don't know. The HMV set includes six colour postcards and an episode guide booklet. The discs feature full-face artwork of each of the main characters - even Kokapetl gets his own disc. These fold up into a sleeve and here's where there's a bit of a problem. As the episode guide doesn't sit flush it catches on the top of the sleeve when you take it out. To get around this, squeeze the sleeve hard as you pull the box out. Good advice in any situation actually. Finally they've also included a small poster.

The RRP for this set is 59.99 and, although it's 42.99 in stores and 39.99 on HMV's website, the 59.99 price tag is a little steep at 10 per disc. If this could have been reduced by disposing of the poster and booklet and maybe opting for more basic packaging it may have made this set more of an impulse buy for nostalgic shoppers. As it is it's price at a premium for a market saturated with 2.99 80s cartoon DVDs.

Pricing aside, this is a gem. Fabulous Films - you are stars.

 

Adrian Knight (Tao)

 
 

 
     
 

Jean Chalopin

 
  A boat. Durrrr.  
 

Janice Chaikelson (Zia)

 
 

 
     

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