4 out of 5
Directed by: Genndy Tartakovsky, various
Samurai Jack has a classically 80s cartoon waaaay complicated and yet super simple setup: a nameless prince’s village is attacked by the demon Aku; he’s sent off into the wilds to be cared for, picking up all the training he needs along the way to come back and kick ol’ Aku’s patoot. Alas, when he returns to do just that, Aku whammys him with a spell that sends him into the future… a future in which Aku rules over everything. Thus must our nameless prince – now a samurai, nicknamed Jack through happenstance – find a way to return to the past and save the future.
AKA each week Jack hears of something or other that will allow him to time travel, and either Aku, his minions, or his own sense of morals and justice prevent him from being able to do so.
…And if you happened across the first three episodes – perhaps by accident, perhaps as a fan of Genndy Tartakovsky – which comprise an initial Samurai Jack “movie” and cover the background, the jump forward, and the first amazingly rattling future-world battle with one variant of Aku’s army – you’d have sworn you’d found the greatest cartoon of all time. Genndy’s simplified, highly stylized figures – all angles and big, geometric shapes – belie the man’s (and his crew’s) compositional intelligence: every frame of the series is visual poetry, underscored by James L. Venable’s thrilling and quirky music, and choreographed with perfect action and comic timing, something the opening trio makes ample use of. As things go on, and we sink into the rinse-and-repeat setup, some of the show’s forward momentum is admittedly lost, especially when the series just tries on different suits of the same general fit (e.g. Jack and the Gangsters casts Jack as a mobster; Jack in Space exactly what it sounds like). And season closer Aku’s Fairly Tales is very clever in having Aku try to win back favor in the future by casting himself as the hero (and Jack as the villain) in fairy tale proxies he tells to a group of kids, but it’s also somewhat disappointing in that we don’t get something that tries to move the needle ahead; the bar is set so high by Jack’s greatest hits that the average episodes can’t help but make ya’ mutter aw shucks.
Thankfully there are more moments of awesomeness than just those in the movie: Jack and the Three Blind Archers repeats episode III’s trick of a mostly dialogue-less event for fantastic excitement; Jack and the Scotsman introduces a hilarious character (voiced by John DiMaggio) who rightfully gets several sequel episodes over the years. Which is something that enriches later seasons and isn’t, of course, apparent in season one: a building cast of characters. As landmarking as our intro to Jack is, and as great as a good chunk of the season is, we have no idea how much weight we should give anything, especially as the show spins its wheels on the “back to the past” setup.
The blu-ray edition of this (speaking as someone who owned the DVD version and viewed it repeatedly) is fantastic; all of the same bonus features – one commentary; one making-of feature – are included, but the bump in fidelity, allowing the show to look fantastic on our standard large screen TVs, and the bump in sound quality – Venable’s music is really consistently awesome – make it worth it.