Godzilla animated

A brief history of Godzilla cartoons, from educational to terrifying

Contributed by
Jan 30, 2018

The name “Godzilla” immediately evokes screaming actors, rubber suits, and crumbling miniatures, but little in the way of animation. Much of Godzilla’s appeal is rooted in that practical element, of these things happening, ostensibly, before our eyes; the original film was famously an atomic bomb allegory, with director Ishiro Honda shooting for newsreel-caliber authenticity to emphasize the destruction, as well as its human cost. Though the series has often abandoned those darker origins in favor of super-heroics and merchandising, the techniques remain, leaving the audience as witnesses to tangible tragedy and/or hard-won triumph.

That sort of feeling isn’t easy to capture in animation, which might explain Godzilla’s sparse history with the medium (as well as the fact that of the three which stick relatively close to the source, two are American). But as short as that history is, it’s about as weird as Godzilla entire six-decade filmography, spanning brooding anime antiheroes, obnoxious mascots, Americanization, and addition problems. Here’s a brief overview of the cartoons the King of the Monsters could call his very own, including the latest on Netflix.

Godzilla: The Hanna-Barbera Series (1978-1979)

You can tell a lot about a Saturday morning cartoon from its theme song, and the one for Godzilla at least seems promising. Sure, it says he breathes fire instead of atomic death and the intro animation displays both a lack of detail and a faint broccoli color, but the song is catchy. It's a foreboding, urgent chant that fits a creature who, even in his heroic incarnations, has a rather close relationship with collateral damage. But once the singer says "Godzilla" a few times, he moves to a higher pitch to name what will be the bane of the next 20-plus minutes: "and Godzooky."

If the sillier Godzilla movies hold some camp appeal, the inherent goofiness of stilted Hanna-Barbera animation should be a natural fit. Adopting a similar approach to the studio's own Scooby-Doo and Jonny Quest, the show follows the scientists who crew a boat called the Calico, sailing around the globe with comic relief in tow: the miniature, flying relative of Godzilla, Godzooky. Each week, the Calico crew presses the red button on a belt-mounted "Godzilla signal" when they run afoul of a giant monster. But also each week, a blonde, bowl-cutted boy who's part of the crew for some reason screeches Godzooky's name as the little green pest inevitably gums up the works.

Wide swaths of the show are dedicated to the shrill antics of Godzooky and his dull owners (he is, essentially, the pet kaiju and even voiced by Scooby's Don Messick), but even if you manage to stomach them long enough to get to Godzilla himself, the toothless fights aren't much better — they clearly struggle to cram the more violent source material into the family-friendly format. The cast cheerleads from the sidelines, watching Godzilla wrestle or slap things with his tail, or, yes, use laser vision, all while some poor soul (Ted Cassidy) growls and gurgles into a microphone to approximate the monster's roar. The show played for two seasons, later paired up with other series in hour-long rerun blocks titled things like The Godzilla-Globetrotters Adventure Hour and The Godzilla-Hong Kong Phooey Hour.

Godzillaland (1994, 1996)

Nearly two decades after Hanna-Barbera's half-measure for family programming, Godzilland plays directly to schoolkids. Although some of the films targeted younger audiences to some degree (often through an unfortunate child character), Godzilland is outright educational. Squat, big-eyed, chibi caricatures of the usual monsters learn about friendship and face their most fearsome enemy of all, across any Godzilla incarnation: math. It's the sort of time-tested format that includes songs to sing along to and lessons that leave plenty of room for kids at home to yell out the answers, all delivered by highly marketable mascots with squeaky voices.

Based on animated segments from a similarly-titled trivia show, Godzilland's appeal is probably limited beyond Japanese children learning to count and write, but the direct-to-video shorts make for an adorable novelty. Mothra functions as a patient schoolteacher shepherding around her class of child monsters, in particular the perpetually hungry Godzilla. Meanwhile, a lonely Mechagodzilla plays the occasional villain, kidnapping various characters to force them to be his friend. When confronted, he throws on a suit and gives Godzilla a math quiz before apologizing and playing together with the others. It's all very pleasant and friendly, right until you hit the faintly nightmarish live-action segments that pair a human girl with someone in a regular (but people-sized) Godzilla costume.

Godzilla: The Series (1998-2000)

Despite being a spin-off of Roland Emmerich's terrible 1998 film and the source material for two terrible video games, Godzilla: The Series is anything but terrible. It keeps the Emmerich design yet adds more traditional Godzilla elements like his upright posture and atomic breath (colored green, but still). The show also quickly establishes that it lacks the Hanna-Barbera content restrictions by showing the military viciously gun down Emmerich's original monster inside the very first minute of the first episode. In truth, the title creature is the only remaining child of that Godzilla, which imprints upon the Matthew Broderick character from the film, Nick Tatopoulos.

From there, things veer a bit Hanna-Barbera; Nick and his crew have a boat of their own, though they're based in New York, and each week they find a giant monster for Godzilla to fight. The differences, of course, are key. For one, the fights are more than good enough for a Saturday cartoon, using this Godzilla's agility to stage dynamic confrontations even when they lack the destructive element. There's no sign of Godzooky, either, and the various crewmembers all have enough personality to carry the human-centric portions of each episode, even if their comedic banter doesn't always hit. The series also maintains some light continuity that leads to aliens, a version of Monster Island, and a take on Mechagodzilla that's built from the remains of the original and called "Cyber-Godzilla" because we used words like "cyber" in the late 90s.

Maybe in anticipation of a more enthusiastic reception to Emmerich's movie, the cartoon carries over multiple characters and a few of its actors, all the way down to the Mayor Ebert created as a shot at the renowned film critic—Jean Reno's character, however, is replaced by a stylish goth Frenchwoman. The series suffers from some hyperactive pacing and a regrettable affinity for acronyms (Nick's team H.E.A.T. tangles with S.C.A.L.E. and the D.R.A.G.M.A.s while maintaining the robot N.I.G.E.L.), but it's undeniably impressive just how much Adelaide Productions — who worked on other properties such as Men in Black: The Series, Extreme Ghostbusters, and Jackie Chan Adventures — salvaged from the movie to make a totally respectable cartoon.

Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters (2017)

For all the cutesy charm of Godzilland and all the unexpected quality of Godzilla: The Series, there has still never been an "authentic" cartoon version of history's other greatest monster. This is where Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters is supposed to come in, the first of a CG anime film trilogy built to offer the most faithful depiction yet: classic design, blue atomic breath, destructive tendencies.

It's also far and away the most serious and ambitious of these animated incarnations, with a three-film story arc conceived by big-name scriptwriter Gen Urobuchi (known for such works as Puella Madoka Magic, Psycho-Pass, and Fate/Zero). Urobuchi often goes dark in his storytelling, and as if to make up for all the friendly animated Godzillas of the past, he depicts a creature so monstrous that it has driven humans from the Earth entirely. When the joint human-alien mission to colonize a new, Godzilla-less world fails, they journey back to Earth 20,000 years after the creature's conquest to fight back.

It's sprawling, epic sci-fi that should, as described here, be pretty good. But Planet of the Monsters leans harder than usual on the characters and the sci-fi trappings, hoping to launch the series on their backs. Problem is, that new focus doesn't leave room for much else and also doesn't guarantee they deserve the spotlight — you can barely see the characters beneath their archetypes, and the film practically drowns in the endless exposition (some of it repeated!) that comes with the world-building. Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters is an empty, achingly dull exercise in excess that accomplishes remarkably little over its running time, to the point where those sequel promises sound more like threats. It's bad enough to make you wonder if, rather than faithful recreations, Godzilla was better off forging his own weird path into animation after all.

Bambi Meets Godzilla (1969)

It goes the way you think it does.