It was announced today that the 24th film in the long-running James Bond series will be named Spectre, after the nefarious terrorist organization that antagonized Sean Connery in the 1960s.
With Sam Mendes back as the director, two-time Oscar winner Christoph Waltz playing the villain, and Daniel Craig yet again grimacing his way through the lead role, it seems certain that this will be yet another dour, realistic, thrilling entry in the series. This incarnation of Bond is a personal favorite of mine, and is a fine representation of the character as envisioned by creator Ian Fleming.
It wasn't always like this. There was a time when James Bond could go to space, dress up like a circus clown, have sex with Grace Jones, and fix his tie underwater for seemingly no reason. James Bond films have been over-the-top spectacles from the beginning, but after the camp excess of Diamonds Are Forever, the franchise took a hard right turn toward the cartoonish (with a few notable exceptions in the late 70s and 80s). In 1991, at one of the lowest points in the character's storied history, Bond became a cartoon for real.
James Bond Jr. ran for 65 episodes and arrived on television two years after the commercial failure of Timothy Dalton's last turn as 007, the gritty License to Kill. Not only was the series reeling from getting clobbered at the summer box office by the first Batman film, Lethal Weapon II,Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Ghostbusters II, but the film rights to the character were tied up in a quagmire of legal action involving MGM, Bond producers Danjaq, and the French conglomerate Pathe. In 1991, no one knew if there would ever be another Bond adventure on the big screen. To that point, the longest break between films was the three years from The Man With the Golden Gun (easily one of the worst entries in the series) and The Spy Who Loved Me (one of the best). With no new movie in sight, why not do a cartoon Bond on TV?
Well, for starters, James Bond might have turned into a silly character by 1991, but his origin in the literary world is one filled with violent sex that bordered on rape, alcoholism, chain-smoking, nihilism, and xenophobia. James Bond stories were written for adults. Without the hyper-sexual, colonialist fantasy elements of 007, he's just a guy with a raging case of syphilis and a cool car who mutters puns to himself. It's completely counterintuitive to make a Saturday morning cartoon out of a spy character who is constantly having intercourse with strangers and murdering people. Most children's entertainment looks bad from the perspective of adults, and we often need to temper our artistic expectations when watching that material. Still, there's something inexplicably wrong about watching James Bond Jr. For that reason, it's required viewing. It's just so damned strange.
There was precedent for adult films getting the animated treatment at the time. RoboCob, the Rambo series, and Police Academy were all R-rated movies that were sanitized for the sake of children who absolutely should not have seen those movies. RoboCop had a laser pistol, Rambo magically lost his Vietnam PTSD and joined some fake GI Joe adventure team, and absolutely no one got a blowjob underneath a podium in Police Academy: The Animated Series.
What's notable about these shows is that they took the characters we loved and made then suitable for Saturday morning consumption. James Bond Jr., on the other hand, introduced us to a brand new character—James Bond's nephew, who inexplicably shares his name. It's never explained why James Bond has a nephew, since he had no siblings, no children, and his parents died in a horrific mountain climbing accident when he was a kid. These sorts of continuity errors are meaningless to a child (unless that child is me, and he is a huge dork that has a room full of James Bond books) but if you have to do that much character gymnastics, it stands to reason that your project is wrongheaded. Just call the damn thing "Super Spy Kid" or something and leave Bond out of it.
Instead of that sensible choice, the show created unrecognizable pubescent versions of the beloved Bond characters who attend a prep school called Warfield Academy. Q's grandson (named "I.Q.") is a generic smarty-pants. Gordo Leiter is an unspecified relative of Bond's CIA buddy Felix Leiter. Less threatening versions of villains Goldfinger, Dr. No, Oddjob, and others were joined by cheeseball baddies created for the series with names like "Scumlord" and "Dr. Derange." I should mention that Dr. No looks like Fu Manchu mixed with the Geico gecko, because, you know... kids like green things?
James Bond Jr. is naturally the coolest kid in school, even though supervillains are consistently conspiring to murder him. You would think his fellow classmates would tire of being shot at with lasers, but they do their best to keep a stiff upper lip through the trying process of "kill or be killed." I guess Bond Jr. gets to do whatever he wants because he's a teenager who drives a vintage Aston Martin DB5, just like his "uncle." If I had an Aston Martin when I was 16, I might not have been a virgin until I turned 21. It goes without saying that James Bond Jr. didn't do a ton of hooking up, either. I don't even think he held hands with a girl for 65 episodes. I might be reading into it too much, but James Jr. had a bit of chemistry with Goldfinger's daughter, Goldie Finger. Yes, that was her name. Shouldn't it be Goldie Goldfinger, since her dad's last name is Goldfinger? You know, Auric Goldfinger, from the Bond films? No? OK.
After James Bond Jr. was canceled, it was another three years until the next Bond movie—GoldenEye, released in 1995, and starring Pierce Brosnan. At this point, I think the odds of there ever being another James Bond animated series are pretty slim, and for good reason. Bond will always be more at home in a grown-up, dark universe. Still, if you're a fan of the character, it's worth checking out James Bond Jr. for the pure curiosity factor of seeing Bond go to gym class.
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