I am the lost son of the land you have pillaged!
I love animation in very nearly all its forms. I love the old-school Chuck Jones shorts. I love some of the Disney classics (but not as many as you’d think). I love Japanese anime. I love well-done computer animation, like the Toy Story movies or Monsters Inc. or Shrek. Lately I’ve taken quite a shine to “Spongebob Squarepants.” And I really love the work of Genndy Tartakovsky, the creator of Samurai Jack. His earliest work (credited at the Internet Movie Database, at least) is a cool little short-lived cartoon called “2 Stupid Dogs.” He became quite well-known as the creator of “Dexter’s Laboratory,” and became a star of the cartoon world as a producer and director of “The Powerpuff Girls.” In 2001, Warner Brothers’ Cartoon Network, for which he had already brought so much success, gave him the opportunity to create a pet project, a show with a unique artistic style and that consisted almost entirely of action. That show was “Samurai Jack.” It debuted with much fanfare, and now the premiere movie is available on DVD.
In ancient Japan, a righteous emperor defeated the evil demon Aku with the help of an enchanted sword. However, the demon was imprisoned for only a time, and soon reawakens and overthrows the emperor. The only hope is the emperor’s young son, who is sent away to learn the martial arts so he can one day defeat Aku. When he returns to take on Aku with his father’s sword, Aku opens a time portal, thrusting the warrior into the far future. The future is hellish, just as it has been imagined in science fiction, but here the “hell” part is quite literal, as Aku has enslaved Earth for the thousands of years the warrior has been gone. There the locals dub him “Jack,” and he vows to return to his time and defeat the evil once and for all time.
The Japanese have known something for a very long time that I think the American media conglomerates are only beginning to understand: Animation isn’t strictly for children. Granted, there is something inherently appealing to kids in the simple artwork and entirely imaginary-fabricated worlds, and perhaps it’s the because they appeal at that childlike level that they still appeal to adults. My pretentiousness has a point, I promise.
“Samurai Jack” is like the best parts of most cartoons distilled into an entire series. Genndy Tartakovsky wanted to make a series that orbited around its action, so that’s mostly what you get. Cartoons by nature are more visual than most cinema, but in “Samurai Jack” there’s even less dialogue than usual. The story is secondary as well — the fan would never want to see Jack defeat Aku once and for all, for that would sound the death knell for the series. Its melding of old-fashioned Japanese culture with a techno-pop futuristic world is almost surreal, but not in an overly weird David Lynchian sort of way — it’s much more accessible than that. The animation is hyper-kinetic, which is one of the strengths of its art style but also perhaps the series’ greatest weakness. “Samurai Jack” uses every stylistic trick in both the American and Japanese animation books. There’s different aspect ratios, split screens, freeze frames, slow-mo, and so many more gimmicky tricks that it at once creates a unique look, but it also can be mentally draining processing the images flying at you — and this is coming from a lifelong hyperactive kid. Backgrounds are almost surreal, very two-dimensional and anachronistic, and are all drawn by hand and hand-painted. Unlike most animation, the characters are drawn without outlines, giving them a more fluid look.
The pilot film presented here has to establish the story, but it’s not like that drags down the action. You meet Jack as a child, but there’s no fat here — immediately Aku attacks his village and Jack is whisked into hiding for his training, presented in a long montage that takes him across the planet. Then, we are thrust into his showdown with Aku that, were this a “real” movie, would be the moment that leads from the first act to the second, the point where the hero is put up a tree and must work his way down. In this case, it’s when Jack is cast forward in time. In the future, he finds himself very much out of step, though it would be a grave mistake to call him frightened or confused. He finds unusual allies in dogs…talking dogs. The world is oppressed and dominated by Aku, and he knows he must right the wrongs. Very nearly the final third of the pilot movie is a climatic battle against throngs of robotic bug drones — and that’s what the entire series is all about. Not robotic bug drones, but action. It’s pure adrenaline — straight, no chaser.
I would be reticent if I did not mention the voice work. For a show with limited dialogue, the voice talent is first rate and adds greatly to the overall show. Phil LaMarr voices Samurai Jack. He’s done a variety of live-action and animated work, but the role most people will remember him for is the ill-fated Marvin in Pulp Fiction. He’s worked on a variety of animated series, such as “Futurama” (he’s the voice of Jamaican bureaucrat/limbo champion Hermes), Nickelodeon’s “Invader ZIM,” and the Cartoon Network’s new “Justice League” (he’s the Green Lantern). The all-powerful Aku is voiced by the mono-named Mako. He’s had a long and distinguished career, but sci-fi and fantasy fans will remember him for only one role: the narrator and wizard of Conan the Barbarian. The other voice talents have extensive résumés, like Rob Paulsen (voice of Yakko Warner and Pinky the lab rat on “Animaniacs“), Kevin Michael Richardson (numerous cartoons and video games, but my favorite of his credits is “Cop #2” in Bound), Jeff Bennett (the eponymous voice of “Johnny Bravo“), and Jennifer Hale (she voices Ms. Keane and Sedussa on “The Powerpuff Girls“).
I’ve collected Warner Bros.’s “Powerpuff Girls” DVDs, and their quality has been quite good. Samurai Jack: The Premiere Movie continues the trend. Video is presented in its original 4:3 aspect ratio. There is some pixelization in some scenes, though it’s not distracting. I noticed no edge enhancement, which can sometimes plague animation on DVD. Colors are vibrant and natural, and blacks especially are deep and rich. It’s a perfect presentation of the show’s amazing artwork.
Audio is standard stereo. The packaging says it’s mono, but somehow I doubt this because there is noticeable separation in the front channels. I don’t normally use my receiver’s sound processing features, but for this disc I tried the enhanced modes to simulate surround sound, and it was very effective. As noted, there is nice separation between the channels, and the frequency range is remarkable, giving your speakers a workout on both the high end and low end.
For extras, there’s a making-of featurette, a “Samurai Jack archive,” a bonus episode, and a preview of the “Powerpuff Girls” movie coming to theaters the Fourth of July weekend this summer. The making-of featurette, titled “Behind the Sword,” runs about 10 minutes. It may be succinct, but it is thorough, showing interviews with many involved parties and looks at the storyboarding, scoring, and voice recording processes. The archive is an 8-minute reel of concept art and storyboards accompanied with music and sound from the premiere movie. The “Powerpuff Girls” preview is only two minutes long, but to my knowledge is the first information released on the movie’s plot, which apparently is something of a prequel to the series showing how the superpowered little tots turned to crimefighting. The bonus episode is the series’ eleventh episode that originally aired in October. It’s better than the premiere movie, in my opinion, and shows exactly what makes the series great. It starts off very quietly, using only sound effects to accentuate the silent setting. Jack finds a never ending bridge shrouded in fog, and sets off to cross it. Halfway across he meets a cantankerous Scotsman who refuses to allow Jack to cross. The two battle, only to find they both are wanted by Aku and have bounties on their heads. They are accidentally chained together, and the action never lets up.
If you’re a fan of the series, Samurai Jack: The Premiere Movie is a must-own, especially for its under $20 price point. If you’re not a fan, by all means give it a rental or tune in to the Cartoon Network and see what you’ve been missing.
I nearly forgot to mention that Genndy Tartakovsky (who was born in the Soviet Union) graduated from CalArts. The southern California school was founded with financial assitance from Walt Disney, and is quite the training ground for animators and filmmakers. The alumni list is a veritable Who’s Who list — David Lynch (The Straight Story), John Lasseter (Toy Story), Brad Bird (The Iron Giant), Craig McCracken (“The Powerpuff Girls“), Pete Doctor (Monsters Inc.), James Mangold (Girl, Interrupted), Henry Selick (Monkeybone), and of course, my favorite director, Tim Burton. Somehow you just knew I’d work him into the review somehow…