It’s funny, having just written a piece riffing on the idea that I don’t “go in” for many modern takes on nostalgic properties, I find myself getting pulled into and won over by stuff left and right. In fact, the latest nostalgic callback I witnessed this past week was so good it honestly almost brought a tear to my eye, and it was, of all things, a car commercial. That’s right, this past month Renault Brasil (the Brazilian arm of the car company) announced that it was working on a new ad campaign for one of their 2019 (2020?) SUVs that would be utilizing the characters from the short-lived Dungeons and Dragons cartoon that originally ran between 1983 to 1985. I’m sure there are at least 1,000 articles on nerd-centric sites all over the internet talking about this commercial, and like with my Cobra Kai piece, I guess this piece will be 1,001.
This idea of bring 80s era cartoon characters into live action modern commercials isn’t anything new. There are a whole series of odd Masters of the Universe commercials in the Netherlands, as well as a fairly popular Radio Shack ad that leaned on 80s-era pop culture personalities, and there were even a series of modern Honda ads that made use of 80s era toys like He-Man, Skeletor and Strawberry Shortcake. Most of these advertisements though bank heavily on the meta use of these characters, playing directly on the nostalgia in a way that feels like forced audience targeting. Like some ad executive was handed a sales demographic for thirty-something’s and then they googled “popular 80s things”, saw pictures of Masters of the Universe figures and then handled off the project to someone in creative with a note that said, “sell cars, use toys”. It’s not as if I was every expecting anything more from a nostalgic commercial mind you, but none of these really grabbed my attention in any interesting way. I get it, they know I like Skeletor and they want to sell me a car. Insert sad trombone here.
So when a picture from a photo shoot of the Renault SUV ad started making the rounds a couple weeks ago I was pleasantly surprised. For one, it was leaning more towards the live action MOTU ads from the Netherlands, which though still silly, are vastly more interesting than any of the American nostalgic commercials. For another, the property that Renault chose to bring back to the screen after 34 years just happened to be one of my favorite under-appreciated gems of 80s era animation, Dungeons and Dragons. The still photo featured the main cast of heroic characters posing for a behind-the-scenes snapshot, and honestly, if that had been all that was released I would have been pretty stoked. Like perfect cosplay, the photo was spot on and servicing a fandom that doesn’t get a lot of play these days. Maybe it’s just me, but I fell like outside of homages to Warduke in modern toy art, we just never see much love for Dungeons and Dragons. I know that there wasn’t a lot of merchandise back in the day, at least cartoon-specific releases, and that can tamp down nostalgic resurgences as there just isn’t old stuff floating to the surface to be discussed.
I was pretty shocked to see how accurate the costuming and casting was from just the one photo, and I couldn’t imagine what lay ahead. As is par for the course these days, there’s a lot of hype built up around advertising campaigns like this, and shortly after the still photo was released the company followed that up with a teaser trailer for the commercial as well as a spoiler-free making-of video showcasing some select shots and sequences from the project. There was also an announcement that the full commercial would debut on youtube in two weeks on May 23rd. There was a lot of speculation following this release, a of it centered around who and what else we’d like to see pop up in the finished commercial. I saw a lot of folks hoping to scope a shot of Uni, Bobby’s adopted unicorn, as well as hopes for a scene with the eponymous Dungeon Master, but a lot of people were holding out hope for the rogues gallery of villains, in particular Tiamat (the composite five-headed dragon), Warduke and the ultimate scoundrel, Venger. I was surely hoping for the latter and was also hoping that the production managed to seek out Peter Cullen to provide voice-work for him if he appeared. Of course I wasn’t holding my breath for either.
When the 23rd rolled around it was a pretty crazy day for 80s era pop culture. Not only was this new car commercial debuting, but the Coca Cola Company also opened their store for a limited run of New Coke as a promotional tie-in with the coming new season of Stranger Things on Netflix. That promotion crashed the Coke store and my afternoon was spent refreshing my browser in two windows, one for the chance to snag some New Coke and another with the Youtube page of Renault Brasil. After what seemed like an eternity of refreshing, the video popped up for the commercial and I quickly clicked on the play button.
Of all the things that I was hoping to see in this 2019 Renault SUV commercial, the one thing that really blew my and that I was 100% not expecting, was that the filmmakers would use this project as an excuse to provide some story closure to a cartoon 34 years after it ended. The who premise of the cartoon is six teenagers fighting for their life in a mysterious fantasy world after they are transported there while riding a carnival ride. For the complete run of the series, all 27 episodes over 3 short seasons, the kids are constantly hoping that the next adventure is the one that will lead them home. And for the entire series they are consistently denied their return. It was very rare that Saturday morning cartoons featured so many bittersweet endings, and even rarer when the producers and writers of a series are given the opportunity to truly “end” the story. There is always that hope that the production will be picked up for another season, and thus it’s always left opened ended (though there are some syndicated series that are exclusions to this rule, namely the New Adventures of He-Man and the Adventures of David the Gnome.) Fans of Hank, Shelia, Eric, Diana, Albert (aka Presto), and Bobby never got a chance to see the cadre defeat Venger and find their way back home. Even though there was a script written for a 28th episode by series alum Michael Reeves that potentially provided a path home, but the episode was never put into production and the series was cancelled in the winter of 1985. So having the opportunity to watch as the group finally escapes the world of Dungeons and Dragons and ends up back at the carnival at the end was a legitimate and welcomed surprise.
As I sat and watched the commercial projected onto our living room television I felt for a brief minute and forty five seconds like I was transported back to the mid 80s and like I was adventuring with these characters yet again. The whole commercial is very fast paced, and even with our current technology I’ve only been able to snag the grainiest and blurriest of screenshots, but I was really amazed at how much they managed to squeeze into that short runtime. Every major character is represented and gets a moment to shine utilizing their various powers and weapons (Diana’s illuminated bo staff, Hank and his energy bow, Bobby and his club, Sheila and her invisibility cloak, Eric and his Caviler’s shield, Presto and his lack of skill using his magic hat, and even Uni looking scared and discombobulated as usual.
In addition to the heroes and their powers, we were also treated to scenes with both Tiamat and Venger, both of which were translated faithfully and awesomely into live action. Tiamat opens the commercial, attacking the gang in a cave before being trapped under a mound of falling rubble. A really great sequence with a couple of spectacular featured shots of the five-headed dragon in action.
By far, and in my opinion, the coolest inclusion was Venger, who is one of my all time favorite cartoon villains with a really rad character design and backstory (if you dig into the series bible of the cartoon.) The shots are so quick that it was impossible to get a clear screenshot. I really hope the producers of this commercial release some stills of his design as it really looks outstanding. He’s even riding his trust nightmare steed when attacking the children from the sky…
The compressed storytelling in this commercial is supurb. It’s clear, concise, and packs in all kinds of fun. There isn’t a wasted frame in the entire runtime. The writers/production team even manage to add one of Dungeon Master’s trademark appearances/disappearances, where he suddenly appears with the Renault Kwid Outsider to help the kids escape Venger. It’s these little touches, that really showcase the love for the original series that the production had while crafting this mini masterpiece.
What’s even better than the fact that we finally get some closure with the kids all getting back home to Earth, is that the commercial ends on a cliffhanger, again, just like the original series, but not one that is bittersweet in the slightest. Instead it has me excited that there might be a sequel to this commercial, a statement that no one in the history of time has uttered without sarcasm.
The best compliment that I can give this commercial is that it’s made me want to go back and re-watch the entire series again and finish breaking down and discussing all of the episodes in a revamped edition of my Cartoon Commentary column here at Branded. Who knows, I might just do that even if it’s just for myself. In the meantime, here’s hoping there are more Dungeons and Dragons commercials on the horizon.