Samurai Jack – The Premiere Movie (2001)
Phil LaMarr, Mako, Jeff Bennett, Rob Paulsen, Jennifer Hale, Kevin Michael Richardson
Enslavement by a demon god, colonization by aliens
“In the distant past, a Japanese samurai embarks on a mission to defeat the evil shape-shifting wizard Aku. Before he can complete his task, though, he is catapulted thousands of years into the future. He finds himself in a world where Aku now enjoys complete power over every living thing. Dubbing himself “Jack,” he sets out on a new quest–to right the wrongs that have been done by his enemy and to find a way back to his own time so he can destroy the evil for good.” – written by Alan Black on IMDb.com.
So we’ve covered a dark comedy about a surprisingly personable rapist, a movie about a group of soldiers traveling cross-country to witness the horrors of a post-nuke America, the biblical(ish) end of the world starring that jerk from Growing Pains, ultra-violent boner zombies, ultra-violent future football, and house siege-ing cannibals. That’s all rather depressing, let’s watch a fucking kids movie and take a breather.
When I sat down to compile a list of potential movies for this column I was surprised to find out how many movies ostensibly meant for children there are in this particular sub-genre. The apocalypse is a pretty huge downer and kids aren’t likely to understand or appreciate the headier messages a lot of these stories have. My second huge surprise was that pretty much all these movies are good (so far as I remember) and relatively successful.
For clarification, this column is reviewing the original movie which aired on Cartoon Network in 2001. The movie was later cut up into three seperate episodes for re-runs but this was the way it appeared at the time and served as part one in a promised trilogy which has unfortunately never been finished. I may tackle the rest of the season at a later date (I still haven’t decided on how I will handle TV shows or if I will at all) but for now this is just the “Premiere Movie” that was released on DVD.
Our eponymous hero is a nameless samurai whose homeland is enslaved by an ancient all-powerful demon known as Aku. He is sent across the world where he is trained to be the ultimate warrior by pretty much every group of historical badasses to ever exist, regardless of whether they should exist in this time period or not. He returns to claim his birth-right: a magical sword which can slay the otherwise invincible Aku and save the world from his tyranny once more. The demon and the samurai battle and the samurai has the upper hand, but before the killing blow can be delivered Aku sends the samurai through a time portal which drops him off in the distant future where he is all-powerful and rules the universe. It is in this strange future that the samurai adopts the name Jack (from a colloquialism used by the people he first meets) and embarks on his quest to travel back to his own time and stop Aku once and for all.
Samurai Jack remains one of the greatest all-ages properties ever created and it’s easy to see why. There’s a meticulous level of detail to every aspect of this movie’s production. It doesn’t feel like a cartoon photographed on paper, it feels like a sculpture hewn from raw imagination.
First lets talk about the art. This remains in the upper echelon of what can be done with traditional non-CG animation. The line work is simple and every scene has a deliberate slowness to it, but there’s a staggering amount of detail to each frame that’s reminiscent of the work of Richard Scarry (or to use a more contemporary example, Super Jail). It’s beautiful and rich while still being fairly simple and utilitarian.
The sound design is the perfect compliment to the art and animation. Phil LaMarr could have easily voiced Jack as a hushed badass, but he brings across a sense of zen and curiosity with just a hint of youthful arrogance and anger. There’s a childlike quality to Jack and LaMarr brings across a shockingly large emotional range. Phil LaMarr has long been an underrated actor in both comedy and drama but this is easily the pinnacle of his work.
Mako is kind of overkill for a character as underutilized as Aku. Aku is the ultimate goal of the show, the final boss as it were, so he tends to be more in the background rather than being a proper antagonist. Mako’s raspy voice complements Aku’s design which is equal parts generic and iconic, frightening and whimsical. He seems to have been drawn, at least a little, from No Heart, the genuinely frightening and tonally inappropriate villain of the 80s Carebears cartoon, right down to his ability to shape-change into different animals.
Then of course there’s the world where Jack lives. The future world is vibrant and chaotic, drawing on references to various forms of pop culture including anime, westerns, action movies, comic books, Hannah Barbera cartoons, and more. But there aren’t any set of rules or standards to the world, it operates on a loose sort of dream logic like Brian K. Vaugn’s Saga or Samurai Jack’s spiritual successor Adventure Time. Why did dogs evolve to walk on two legs and talk? Why does Aku have an army of giant robot scarab beetles? Why does any creature that Jack decides to use his sword on turn out to be a robot? Because fuck you, that’s why! It’s this element (except for the robot thing, that becomes irksome as the series creeps on) that makes Samurai Jack the most fun. It’s this feeling of “anything can happen” which keeps it fresh and fun and seeing Jack react to each new thing is often as fun as experiencing it yourself.
Also of note are Samurai Jack’s storytelling capabilities and how it can operate without words. There is comparatively little dialogue in this movie’s runtime. The vast majority of the story is conveyed through actions and montages.
Though it’s really no surprise considering the target audience, Samurai Jack has some pretty life-affirming themes. Fiction is filled with characters like Jack but they tend to be brooding angst-ridden emotional vacuums, Jack neither broods nor blames himself for his situation. Aku is stronger than he is and if he stops to feel sorry for himself then that’s all the longer it will take to complete his mission. He rolls with the punches and keeps trying.
The scene where Jack fights Aku’s army is one of incredible savagery for a kid’s show. Sure, they’re robots, but he’s still hacking them to bits, getting covered in their “blood” (oil), and murdering the ones that try to run away, that’s pretty hardcore. A lesser writer would have made this Jack’s permanent dispostion but writer/director Genndy Tartakovsky is better than that and makes it a particularly extreme (and thus, more exciting) moment for Jack’s emotional spectrum, which is typically more peaceful and contemplative.
This is still probably one of my favorite “first episodes” ever. I never imagined that Samurai Jack would hold up as well as it has but it immediately took me back to being 13 and watching it with fresh eyes. It even captured the attention of my 3-year-old, who typically only watches anything for about 5 minutes before losing interest. He was captivated with it. I love Samurai Jack and so should you. So if you have somehow not experienced it yet, or have a crotch fruit of your own that hasn’t seen it, then get on that shit posthaste.
Samurai Jack: The Premiere Movie is available on DVD through Amazon. Of course, since it was cut into the first three episodes of the series it can also be obtained on disc or digital through the purchase of season 1 (still no blu-ray unfortunately) but I prefer its flow as a continuous movie. The disc even comes with a bonus episode where Jack meets a fellow enemy of Aku (a large Scotsman with a machine gun leg voiced by legendary voice actor John DiMaggio) on an impossibly large bridge whilst running from bounty hunters.
NEXT TIME ON DOOMSDAY REELS
“No that’s not true it is my religion that is right!”