Love that dirty water.
Years before Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom pirated it up in the Caribbean and Kevin Costner drank you-know-what in Waterworld, Hannah Barbara offered its own brand of fantasy/sci-fi high seas adventure with The Pirates of Dark Water. The show ran sporadically throughout 1991, and is now resurfacing on this four-disc set from Warner Archive.
It’s your basic hero’s journey: A young lighthouse keeper named Ren (George Newburn, Father of the Bride) discovers he’s the long-lost son of a king, and he has an important duty to his planet. An oil-like substance called dark water is devouring all the 20 oceans of Ren’s home world. Using a magic compass once owned by his father, Ren must find the missing thirteen treasures of Rule, powerful artifacts that can ride the world of the dark water plague.
Ren is joined on his quest by thieving pirate Ioz (played alternatively by Hector Elizondo, Chicago Hope, and Jim Cummings, Darkwing Duck), barmaid turned adventurer Tula (Jodi Benson, The Little Mermaid) and a comic relief flying “monkeybird” named Niddler (Frank Welker, Futurama). Meanwhile, sinister pirate Bloth (Brock Peters, To Kill A Mockingbird), the man who killed Ren’s father, is after the treasures as well.
The Pirates of Dark Water was a minor media sensation in its day, spawning action figures, video games, and comic book spinoffs. It caught young viewers’ attentions because of the colorful action and otherworldly designs, but also because it was a (mostly) serialized show. In other “ongoing quest” cartoons, the quest itself is merely a setup, an excuse for the main characters to go from place to place. In The Pirates of Dark Water, however, the quest actually goes somewhere, as we actually get to see some of the thirteen treasures, as well as the ongoing positive effects the treasures have on their world as they are collected. It’s a big event every time one of the treasures shows up, and the show keeps you guessing because you never know when or where the characters will come across one.
The look of the show is one of the big selling points. An insane amount of work no doubt went into the visuals. It really does feel like an alien world. The ships, backgrounds and creatures are all varied and colorful, creating a huge, expansive environment for the characters—and viewers—to explore. Bloth’s massive, city-sized ship is made up of the bones of giant sea monsters, and it certainly makes for an oppressive sight on the horizon as it pursues our heroes. A more subtle touch is that Ren’s weapon of choice is a broken sword. It’s an interesting image, representing how his whole world is “broken,” and how he’s fighting for it.
Another bonus for the series is the interaction between the main characters. Although working together, each of our heroes wants something different, which leads to a lot of great interplay among them. Ren is the stalwart good guy, hoping to help others and make a difference. Ioz, on the other hand, has the whole pirate thing going on, in it only for whatever gold he can swipe along the way. Niddler is of course the comic relief, cowardly shrieking when danger approaches and always hoping a delicious meal is around the next corner. A few episodes in, however, it’s revealed that his fellow monkeybirds are treated as slaves by a bunch of evil scumbags, and suddenly Niddler’s goofball behavior makes more sense given his background. The creators play it more subtly with Tula. At first, all we’re told is that she’s seeking adventure. Then, episodes later, when she risks all their lives by attempting to steal some ancient scrolls, we get our first hints that there’s more going on with the character.
The show was ambitious for its time, but is there such a thing as too ambitious? The characters and settings look great, but the movements are often slow and clunky. I’m sure the animators did the best with what they had to work with, but the lack of fluidity prevents the action from being as thrilling and pulse-pounding as it should be. The pseudo-synth music doesn’t do the show any favors, either. I know full-on orchestras for TV cartoons are rare and highly expensive, but if any show deserved one, it’s this one.
This four-disc set contains all 21 episodes of the show’s run, in full frame picture and mono sound. The visuals are at marred with spots and scratches, and the colors are at times soft when they should be bright and vibrant. When the show first debuted, it was as a five-day “mini-series” merely titled Dark Water, with the first five episodes as one continuous arc. These had an opening which promised an epic and possibly dark tale. When the show went to series, the opening was replaced with a lighter, simpler version. Also, Niddler was originally voiced by Roddy McDowell (Planet of the Apes), only to be later replaced and redubbed for repeats by Frank Welker. No hate against Welker, but he played up the character’s manic comedy, while McDowell provided the otherwise silly Niddler with some depth. Allegedly, these changes were done to make the show less serious and more “kid-friendly.” The bad news is none of that original material from the first five episodes is on these DVDs. All we’re getting is the reedited versions. For that matter, there are no extras of any kind.
The show is a mixed bag. On the one hand, you have writers, artists, and animators letting their creativity run wild, and that’s a good thing. On the other hand, the final result almost but doesn’t quite meet their lofty aims, which is a bad thing. I’ll label this one as “for hardcore fantasy fans only.”