It's strange to think that not all that long ago the movie-going public was actually treated to a show when they went to the theater. As late as into the 1970s and 1980s, if you got to the theater early enough you got to see any number of animated short films prior to the trailer reel ahead of the main event. Today, all you get is a prolonged commercial hyping up bad television shows that need a PR push. Back in the day, the DePatie-Freleng provided some solid, if not culturally insensitive, pregame entertainment with their animated shorts featuring a variety of colorful characters. One such character was the starving snake The Blue Racer and his ongoing quest to capture and digest a wily Japanese beetle.
Containing 17 episodes that last a little over six minutes each, The Blue Racer hasn't exactly aged all that well. Forty years is a long time and the stereotypes contained within each episode can be cringeworthy - but still oddly entertaining. When it comes to a cartoon series like The Blue Racer it's important to keep in mind that DePatie-Freleng knew exactly what they were doing when they concocted the Japanese Beetle. Harkening back to the terrible yellow-faced caricatures of films from the 30s, 40s, and 50s, they purposefully set out to offend while they entertained. As found in some of their other creations like Tijuana Toads, Roland and Rattfink, and even the Clouseau animated shorts The Inspector, there are any number of slightly uncomfortable stereotypes played up for laughs - usually at the main character's expense. Such is the case with Blue Racer's quest to finally catch and eat Japanese Beetle.
That said, the Japanese Beetle caricature is particularly tough to hold onto. He's bright orange, slant-eyed with big square-rimmed glasses, stutters out Confucius-like tidbits of wisdom, and to complete the picture is bucktoothed. Various shorts feature Japanese Beetle doing a variety of Asian-stereotyped activities - the worst of which is flying about with a camera slung around his neck and taking pictures of every single thing he sees. Even for a DePatie-Freleng short, this material goes a bit past being comfortable to generate laughs.
However, these shorts aren't a complete loss as the plotting is generally quite funny. Like your average Tom and Jerry episode, each Blue Racer short features some sort of chase element. Blue Racer is trying to find food of some sort and inevitably his crazy plan for nourishment is thwarted if not directly by Japanese Beetle than by an associate of the orange bug. It's a pretty traditional cat and mouse game (or snake and bug in this case), and the plans Blue Racer congers up rival even the most hair-brained scheme of Wile E. Coyote. If it hadn't been for the uncomfortable stereotyping of Japanese Beetle, these shorts of The Blue Racer would be comedy gold that you'd want to watch whenever you should need an easy laugh. As they stand, they're still funny but as previously stated - more than a bit uncomfortable.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Blue Racer arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber Animation. Pressed onto a Region A BD-50 disc, the disc is housed in a standard sturdy Blu-ray case and features reversible cover artwork. The disc loads directly to a static image main menu with traditional navigation options. Each short can be accessed individually or can be played in one big 109-minute chunk.
The Blue Racer slithers onto Blu-ray with a pleasing if slightly inconsistent 1.33:1 1080p transfer. It's difficult to judge the presentation as a whole because each episode comes packed with its own share of faults. Some feature a bit more print wear and tear than others while some episodes are notably softer with less defined details. Colors are also somewhat inconsistent as Blue Racer himself can shift from a bright primary rich blue to an almost navy/purple tone. But really those are only slight quibbles as the presentations are more than satisfactory. As an overall experience, colors are rich and bright with great primaries. Details are strong allowing you to appreciate the animation work on screen. Print wear is manageable with only slight speckling and a scratch here and there. Again, these aspects can shift slightly from episode to episode but nothing so drastic to be unpleasant or to ruin your experience.
The English DTS-HD MA 2.0 mix provided for each episode of The Blue Racer simply gets the job done. Dialogue is clear and can easily be heard, but there isn't too much emphasis of creating an atmospheric event. Sound effects tend to be muffled and only burst through to highlight something painful happening to one of the characters - usually at Blue Racer's expense. Scoring also is unremarkable as the simple orchestration is used to highlight the moment without any genuine theme. Hiss (not from the titular snake) is present throughout most of the episodes and there are some occasional pops here and there. Nothing terrible, but again, nothing remarkable.
The Blue Racer comes packed with a nice little assortment of bonus features. Some of the shorts have a nice commentary track from various participants while the featurettes take a look at various production aspects of the shorts as well as various animators' contributions to the series.
"Support Your Local Serpent" and "Little Boa Peep" features film historian Jerry Beck
"Little Boa Peep" also features archival audio from director Bob Balser
"Wham & Eggs" features cartoon writer William Hohauser
"Punch & Judo" and "Blue Aces Wild" features author Mark Arnold
"Fowl Play" features filmmaker Greg Ford
Art for Art's Sake (HD 19:47) This feature is a pretty cool look at the work of Art Leonardi within the DePatie-Freleng crew as well as the many feature film opening credits sequences he produced.
Range Rovers (HD 20:52) Featuring interviews with Art Leonardi, Jerry Beck, Mark Arnold, Will Friedwald, and Barbara Donatelli share their memories of working on The Blue Racer and Sheriff Hoot Kloot shorts. While there are a lot of clips of scenes that interrupt the flow, the group of movers and shakers provide plenty of great information and memories about working on these shorts that this featurette becomes a terrific look into the process of bringing these creations to life under tight budgets and deadlines.
While The Blue Racer does sport some genuine hilarity at the painful expense of the titular snake, the shorts themselves are undermined by some very dated racial stereotyping. While certainly "of an era" many of these racial gags are so rough they can grind the humor to a dead stop. The series is at its best is when we're left to enjoy a traditional cat and mouse game with the carefully conceived plan goes off the rails. It's certainly watchable and still somewhat entertaining. Kino Lorber Animation brings The Blue Racer to Blu-ray in good order with a solid and serviceable A/V presentation and a few worthwhile bonus features. Fans of the DePatie-Freleng animation stylings will want to add this to their collection. Newcomers should tread lightly as this one may put folks off their Saturday morning jam and toast. Worth a look.