Monday, April 19, 2010

Jonny Quest: An Animated Action Series for the Young at Heart

Animated prime-time series were still a rarity on American television in 1964. The Flintstones was starting to wind down a successful six-year run. The Bugs Bunny Show and The Bullwinkle Show had enjoyed brief stints in prime time. The Jetsons lasted but one season in 1963. So, it was a bold move when Hanna-Barbera, who produced the Flintstones and Jetsons, set out to make a prime-time animated action series.

The studio’s original plan was to adapt the radio series Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy for TV. It enlisted comic book artist Doug Wildey to develop the show and give it a unique look. When the negotiations for the rights to Jack Armstrong stalled, Hanna-Barbera decided to create its own character: an 11-year-old boy who accompanied his scientist-father on adventures around the world. The young hero’s original name was Chip Baloo, but it was changed to the catchier—and more descriptive—Jonny Quest.

Though the original Jonny Quest series last just 26 episodes, it made a lasting impact on television animation. The key was that Wildey treated it like a live-action show. Characters didn’t fall from cliffs and bounce right back up with no injuries. The locations were sometimes exotic, but always realistic. The humor was natural, usually delivered by Jonny’s dog Bandit. The show’s terrific jazz score, composed by Hoyt Curtin, gave the series a unique sound (and perfectly accentuated the action). I even like how Jonny and his companions are introduced in the show’s credits, just as if they were real people.

Each character is concisely defined, which is essential in a half-hour action series where “character development time” is at a premium. Dr. Benton Quest, Jonny’s father, is a single parent who takes his son everyone (which is cool…but does place Jonny in dangerous situations). Hadji is an 11-year-old Indian orphan who is adopted by Dr. Quest (as shown via flashback in the episode “Calcutta Adventure”). Roger T. “Race” Bannon is the family’s bodyguard and a tutor to Jonny and Hadji. Finally, there is the aforementioned Quest family dog, Bandit, who gets into humorous trouble—but also rescues the family from some perilous situations.

The plots in Jonny Quest are an exciting mix of action with splashes of science fiction. In “Turu the Terrible,” the four adventurers encounters a prehistoric pteranodon that’s been trained to guard a mine containing a valuable ore. A circus acrobat-turned-thief poses as a gargoyle so he can steal a valuable formula in the atmospheric “House of the Seven Gargoyles.” The villainous Dr. Zin sends a nearly-indestructible, spider-like robot to spy on Dr. Quest’s experiments in the appropriately-titled “The Robot Spy.” Being an ensemble series, the “hero” varies depending on the episode. For example, in “The Robot Spy,” one of Dr. Quest’s inventions saves the day, while Jonny is the first one to spot a “living gargoyle” in “The House of the Seven Gargoyles.”

Without a large budget, Wildey had to limit the amount of animation in Jonny Quest. He maximized the use of static shots and moving backgrounds. And, as if to compensate for limited movement, he employed a rich palette of colors for drawing both characters (e.g., Jonny’s bright yellow blonde hair) and backgrounds (some of the night scenes are stunningly bathed in deep blue).

A young Tim Matheson provided the voice for Jonny. Matheson, who enjoyed a solid acting career in film and television, is probably best known as Otter in National Lampoon’s Animal House. Veteran voice actor Don Messick played Dr. Quest (in all but five episodes) and Bandit. If his canine sounds seem a little familiar, it may be because he also provided the “voice” for Scooby Doo and the Jetsons’ Astro!

There have numerous unsuccessful attempts at reviving the Jonny Quest franchise, starting with a new 13-episode series that ran as part of The Funtastic World of Hanna-Barbera in 1986. The USA Network broadcast a made-for-TV movie called Jonny’s Golden Quest in 1993 and TNT showed a sequel called Jonny Quest vs. the Cyber Insects in 1995. The following year, TNT launched a short-lived series called The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest, in which Jonny and Hadji were teenagers.

Every few years, there seems to be discussion of a live-action film version. In the meantime, one can enjoy the complete, original Jonny Quest series in glorious color on DVD.


  1. Rick, Thank you for a wonderful childhood memory. This was my brothers favorite show..

  2. Rick, I never watched this show. This probably had something do with not being alive yet and I never remember reruns being shown. Now, I do remember the Jetsons and Flinstones because they were shown in rerun. You do a great job of making the show sound interesting. Perhaps the show would have had a longer run if it had began in the Cable-age.

  3. Terrific write-up, Rick. Like Kim, I haven't seen this show, and for the same reason. I'll check it out some time from Netflix. They carry the original series, plus the 1996 version. Thanks for an entertaining read. I enjoy learning about TV shows and movies that I haven't seen.

  4. Rick, as you know, Jonny Quest has one of the all-time great big-band themes, recorded at RCA's (late, lamented) Music Center of the World on Sunset Blvd in Hollywood.

    My wife says it was one of her absolute favorite cartoons as a child, although she saw it mostly in reruns on Saturday mornings on ABC.

    We bought the DVD box set recently...the original dialog has been edited in spots to be more "PC".

  5. Rick, this is a great series and I really enjoyed your excellent article! I think the name change from Chip Baloo to Jonny Quest was a really smart decision. It is an intriguing series because Jonny and Hadji frequently find themselves in life-threatening situations but are able to emerge unscathed and often assist Dr. Quest and Race with their own challenges. Of course I think Bandit is the real scene stealer. Bandit also helps instill humor and does so without having to speak like a human.

  6. Cool!!!I too watched Johnny Quest as a kid in the 60's(I'm 51)and I always waited with baited breath to find out how Dr.Quest and Race Bannon would help Johnny,Hadji and Bandit save the world from(Pick one)Voodoo Witch Doctors/Pirates/
    Mad Scientists/Mormon Missionaries/Amway Salespeople/etal.!!!

    Now as to a live action version of Johnny Quest:
    Tom Hanks or Steve Carell would be pretty good as Dr.Quest and either Dwayne'The Rock'Johnson or Will Ferrell as Race Bannon.

    Now as far as Johnny and Hadji,who knows??

  7. What fun comments! KingBushwick, if Tom Hanks sported his beard from CAST AWAY, then I think he'd make a good Dr. Quest. Toto, the Quest team would have encountered mission failure multiple times if not for Bandit! Sark and Kim, JONNY QUEST was repeated on the Cartoon Network for a few years, but renting the DVDs is the way to go so you can appreciate the vivid color (Paul is right about the minor editing...though I haven't noticed at all). Paul, your wife has good taste and ditto for Dawn's brother. I'm old enough to have seen JONNY in prime time, but I watched the reruns multiple times on Saturday morning. I think JONNY QUEST is one of the few TV series to have appeared on all three of the major U.S. networks.

  8. I love Johnny Quest! I grew up on this series. I completely forgot about it until you did a blog on this! Thank you!

    Claires Dreams (TVM)

  9. Rick, I just saw this about Jonny Quest. I visited my brother today and he and I were just talking about this series. He was a bigger Jonny fan than me, but I liked the series. Race was pretty cool and so are the other characters. I always thought Jonny had it made because he wasn't in school. I guess he was tutored by his genius Dad. Enjoyed your article and I will tell my brother where I found this. He will definitely want to read it!

  10. Thanks, Anon. Your brother has good tastes! Race was supposed to the boys' tutor, but most of their education seemed to consist of traveling with Dr. Quest and Race.

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