Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Pirates of Dark Water

Right from the first frame, this cartoon is still striking. The colorful backgrounds, swashbuckling music and totally unique character designs draw you in immediately. Created by David Kirschner, The Pirates of Dark Water is a well-written and highly polished cartoon that enthralled me as a kid. Unfortunately, the high production values that made it such a joy to watch were also its undoing, as it was canceled after two short seasons with its overarching storyline not even close to completed. Twenty years have passed since then and unless some Kickstarter project comes along, those of us who remember it will never know how it ended. Needless to say, that made revisiting the series on DVD somewhat bittersweet, although I still had a great time.

The series takes place on the alien world of Mer, which as its name suggests, is mostly ocean. The planet's ecosystem is threatened by a mysterious substance called "Dark Water" that destroys everything in its path. The only solution appears to be the Thirteen Treasures of Rule - mysterious artifacts that make the toxic substance dissipate upon contact. Ren, prince of the fallen kingdom of Octopon, has a brief meeting with his long-lost father and receives a magical compass that will lead him to the treasures. Voiced by George Newbern, Ren is very compassionate but sometimes hopelessly naive, and it's clear that he needs a crew with some street-smarts. His allies are the cranky pirate Ioz (Hector Elizondo), bartender turned powerful ecomancer Tula (Jodi Benson, who played Ariel in The Little Mermaid) and gluttonous "monkey bird" Niddler (legendary voice actor Frank Welker). The crew is relentlessly pursued by the feared pirate Bloth (a great performance by Brock Peters) and his two lieutenants, Konk (Tim Curry) and Mantus (Peter "Optimus Prime" Cullen).

It's quite a formidable cast and the actors really get some juicy material. One of the most memorable elements of the show is its collection of unique swear words. The one most people remember is "Noy Jitat!" which seems to be the equivalent of "God damn it" and even has an adjective form ("Jitaten"). Another one that comes up all the time is "Chungo Lungo," which is used so often and in so many different contexts I can only assume it's their equivalent of the F-bomb. Other ones that pop up regularly are "kreld-eaters," "skut pongo," and "Naja Dog." The characters drop these at least a dozen times per episode, making them real potty-mouths by the standards of their own world, but no kid was ever going to get grounded for running around shouting "Noy Jitat," just weird looks.

One of the great things about 80s and 90s cartoons was that a lot of them opened with huge multi-part story arcs to establish the premise. The first five episodes of Pirates of Dark Water are one of the finest examples of this - they are epic and powerful, with perfect pacing and outstanding animation. The rest of the series never quite matched up, but that's not a complaint. The show simply went from "great" to "good." Some of the more familiar cartoon tropes began to set in (there's even a Freaky Friday body-switch episode) and it obviously doesn't help that the series ends abruptly after 21 episodes with only 8 of the 13 treasures recovered. A terrible episode called "The Little Leviathan," in which Ren befriends a googly-eyed pink sea serpent, is an embarrassment. Thankfully, that's the only episode that deserves harsh criticism, and the rest of the show is consistently entertaining.

Unlike some other stuff that has been featured in this series, this cartoon doesn't address real-world issues head on...or so I thought. I had an epiphany during one episode that showed some dark water seeping out of a crack on the ocean floor. It looked strikingly similar to footage from the 2010 BP spill and I said out loud, "Oh my God, the dark water is oil." (Perhaps I should have busted out a "Noy Jitat.") This is obviously a lot more subtle than something like Captain Planet and as a kid it went completely over my head, even though this show debuted only two years after the infamous Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. As an adult, I really enjoyed that subtext and it helps preserve that same sense of seriousness I enjoyed as a youngster. What can I say? I like my cartoons with a bit of bite.

So what's next for Nostalgia Series? Well, if those chungo lungos at Disney ever release the rest of Gargoyles, we'll do that. But until then, I think the next installment will be our first live-action entry, the short-lived Heath Ledger show Roar.

I also want to do another more in-depth series soon, like I did for Iron Maiden and Satoshi Kon's films. Any ideas?

No comments: