I became a fan of Raiders of the Lost Ark -- and subsequent Indiana Jones films -- almost from day one, so it was with great enthusiasm that I pulled up a chair to watch the debut of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles as a college senior back in 1992. I remember the excitement I shared with my friends when George Lucas announced the project, and the unbearable anticipation as we counted down the days to series premiere. An Indiana Jones series!
I clearly recall that excitement just as clearly as I recall the growing horror I felt as I watched the pilot and realized Lucas had committed the one unforgivable blunder I'd never have expected of him: He made Indiana Jones boring.
So it was with mixed excitement and dread that I opened The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones: Volume One (the Chronicles title apparently discarded by Lucas, lover of revisionist history that he is). Was my college-aged self expecting too much? Had my tastes been jaded? Would my current self, a father and part-time history buff, find the show more to my matured tastes than I had during my initial disappointment some 15 years before?
Alas, such hopes were not to be. If anything, the opening sequence to "My First Adventure" was even worse than I remembered. For some unfathomable reason, the filmmakers introduce viewers to young Indy's life in Princeton, NJ, with an overlong, ponderous voiceover that conjures all the unbridled action of . . . well, an overlong, ponderous voiceover.
In short, they tell instead of show, breaking one of the cardinal rules of writing. In short order, Indy embarks on a trip around the world with his family, acquires a stern but understanding tutor, is stranded atop an Egyptian pyramid, meets Lawrence of Arabia and fails to thwart a robbery of one of the pharaoh tombs.
All the while, Indy is painfully passive, serving only to make such poignant statements as "Gee willikers, I don't understand," thus affording the sage adults a reason to hold forth long soliloquies on various historical facts. This pattern, it should be noted, repeats itself with painful regularity as Indy "Forrest Gumps" his way throughout early 20th century history.
I should point out here that fans of the original Chronicles aren't getting that series here. Not exactly. The original episodes were bookended by a very old Indiana (portrayed by George Hall) reminiscing about his childhood experiences. Those are gone. Don't even look for them as extras or bonus features, because you won't find them.
Also, originally the series featured paired episodes featuring young Indy aged 8-10 (portrayed by Corey Carrier) along with stories of an older, 16-20-year-old Indy (played by Sean Patrick Flanery). The stories were often written specifically to resonate off one another. For example, "Egypt, May 1908" was originally paired with "Mexico, March 1916" in the pilot, as artifacts stolen in the former were located by Indy in the latter, thus resolving the storyline in a timely manner for the viewer, even though many years had passed in series chronology.
For the DVD release, however, these episode pairings are broken up and instead rearranged in chronological order. What's more, episodes are paired into so-called movies ("My First Adventure" mashes together "Egypt, May 1908" with "Tangiers, 1908") that are somewhat disjointed and thematically incongruous. Far better for Lucas to present the episodes as originally shown, warts and all, than to attempt another ill-advised retroactive continuity change.
The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones isn't terrible -- although my disappointment at its falling short of its potential obviously skews this review to the negative side -- but it never quite manages the greatness Lucas is obviously striving for. The production values are top-notch, with great location settings, sweeping panoramas and richly detailed period sets.
Most watchable are the sequences featuring the older, Flanery version of Indy, if only because the high school-college aged character is more independent and proactive in his own life than the smaller boy who is far more dependent on adults.
"Mexico, March 1916" places Indy in Columbus, New Mexico in search of a brothel when Pancho Villa stages his infamous invasion of the U.S. A fairly muddled interpretation of historical events follows -- including a hilarious, if bizarre, run-in with George S. Patton -- but the wonderfully misplaced Belgian character Remy (Ronny Coutteure) is introduced here, and that makes up for a lot. From Mexico, Remy and Indy head to Dublin ("Ireland, April 1916") just in time to meet William Butler Yeats on the eve of the Poet's Rebellion. They then make their way to England ("London, May 1916") where they join the Belgian army, Indy falls in love and proposes to a British suffragette and almost gets blow to smithereens by the Graf Zeppelin which apparently making bombing runs right over the rooftops of London 20 years before it was even constructed.
While most episodes attempt to show Indy exposed to life- and world-changing events, some are just downright silly. In "Princeton, February 1916," Indy teams with his girlfriend, Nancy Stratemeyer, to solve the theft from Thomas Edison's research lab of plans for an electric car that would "put the oil companies out of business." Nancy is the fictitious daughter of author Edward Stratemeyer who created Tom Swift, the Hardy Boys and -- you guessed it -- Nancy Drew. So Indy is dating and solving mysteries with the famous girl detective. The goofy plot and anachronistic technology undermine any claims Lucas may have about the series being intended as a history lesson, but it is entertaining in a light and frothy way, and boasts a ludicrous high-speed Model T chase.
The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones: Volume One comes packaged as a 12-disc set. Since there are seven "movies" here (made up of 14 episodes from the original series), that leaves a lot of room for special features. And the discs are chock full of them. The only trouble is, few of the special features are actually the kind of special features fans really want.
As mentioned earlier, none of the George Hall sequences are here. Neither are any promo ads, television commercials or making-of features. Don't even bother looking for the commentary track. In one of the most baffling moves of all, the movies and documentaries come without chapter select options. Think about it -- there's no easy way to skip to "Athens, 1910" on the "Travels with Father" disc if you've already seen "Russia, 1910." Sure, you can skip forward -- there are chapter breaks -- but they're not indexed, so basically the viewer is flying blind. What so basic an oversight says about the overall mindset of the DVD producers speaks for itself.
What we have instead are documentaries -- lots and lots of documentaries. These are by and large low-budget affairs, with a couple of authoritative talking heads discussing some historical figure or event -- Pancho Villa, Theodore Roosevelt, Sigmund Freud -- coupled with public domain archival footage and photographs. The actual history is generally accurate and the facts are presented are interesting in and of themselves, but there's a sameness that creeps into the picture, giving subsequent documentaries viewed after the first a kind of monotone quality that saps them of vigor.
What's really missing here is any kind of engagement from Lucas himself, the mastermind behind the series and source of each episode's basic storyline. Why there are no five-minute introductions featuring Lucas in his trademark flannel expounding on why this particular event in history engaged him to the point of shoehorning Indy into that point in time is beyond me. This series was obviously a passion of Lucas' at one time, but now seems to be little more than an afterthought.
The Movie Itself: 6 out of 10
The DVD Features: 6 out of 10