Long ago on Cartoon Network, Genndy Tartakovsky, the creator of Dexter’s Laboratory, unleashed his magnum opus Samurai Jack. The story of a warrior who gets banished to the future by an evil wizard won so many Emmys for its silent story telling, cinematic animation and reality defying action, but unfortunately it was canceled before reaching a proper conclusion. 13 years later after a failed attempt to end on the big screen, Tartakovsky and crew set up production at Adult Swim where limitations were next to none. Now that the audience is old enough to play beer pong and recite the seven dirty words to a statue of George Carlin, can this deliver on a long overdue exit?
It’s been 50 years down the line. All the time portals are destroyed, the mystical sword is lost and Samurai Jack (Phil LaMarr) wanders the wasteland forever haunted by his deceased family (“Aren’t you tired? Wouldn’t it be great to be free of all of this?” argues his conscience). Even his wizard foe, Aku (Greg Baldwin filling in for the late Mako Iwamatsu) has given up after realizing the initial time travel has halted Jack’s aging process. But a small cult (Grey Griffin) gives birth to a special septuplet, deemed the daughters of Aku (Tara Strong). From birth to an accelerated adulthood, they’re forced to endure harsh combat training and absorb much discipline from their mother for one purpose: to kill the samurai.
(Left) Jack argues with his conscience on his place in the world (Middle) Aku after 50 years of failing to kill Jack (Right) The Daughters of Aku set out on their life mission.
The mature shift in tone and overarching story break many restraints from the vignette approach, feeling more like a three hour movie when binging from beginning to end. And the silent story telling is carefully crafted as a guide on what feels like a hundred year old bridge: there’s no knowing what’s going to happen on the way with every three episodes changing tone yet still blending together seamlessly. Never have I watched a season where the first three episodes score a turkey in high quality execution. Phil LaMarr had the split task of playing against himself for half the season and it really works in portraying an exhausted character that coincidently mirrors the fans who’ve waited since middle school for any sign of closure. Greg Baldwin as Aku is a little jarring at first, but easy to get used to after a while since Aku is a complete 180 on Uncle Iroh’s easily mimic able quiet voice.
There’s still its share of comedy with jazzy side-villain, Scaramouche (Tom Kenny). But the balance between light and dark is always in check. One minute Jack wrestles with his ever-morphing conscience, the next there’s a not so subtle observation of a creature’s phallic head. It’s so unpredictable and always on your toes that the Youtube community has a whole series dedicated to reacting to each episode. If only the ending lived up to the hype. There are some excellent set ups near the end, but because of time constraints, not much is explored or even given a smooth send-off by the time the finale hits. Since 2004, shows like Avatar, Gravity Falls and other animated series have extended their climactic episodes because 22 minutes isn’t enough to wrap a pretty bow on everything and watch it sail into the sunset. In a no spoiler observation all the ideas work, but without more time, say 45 minutes, they’re all clumped together like clay and rushed out the door.
Thankfully the animation hasn’t lost any appeal from showing off a world that feels strange despite having smartphones and its own version of Siri. Now in glorious widescreen and running at an even smoother frame rate, the creativity is off the charts. A new creature lurks around every corner in the foreground and background that could build an entire zoo and aquarium in any art museum. The locations, old and new, never cease to amaze in how they tell their own stories in design, sound and scope. And best of all, it intensifies the action, even when logic takes a back seat. There’s a bone chillingly grim atmosphere in a lime green graveyard and a phenomenal Mortal Kombat camouflage chase in a snowy forest. With all the freedoms, the blood is surprisingly restrained for story purposes rather than exploitation standing out much more for the very few moments when it gushes from stabs, cuts and decapitations. The quality is so high that it would feel more at home in an IMAX dome instead of on the wild unknown that is the internet.
Samurai Jack might’ve had a rocky send-off because of an important, overlooked detail, but it was a great final season to go out on. There’s still a lot of creative ideas thanks to the more adult take on the story and characters. The animation was completely upgraded with the passage of time as it tangos with action like it’s courting death. And even though it was rushed, the ideas for the ending do work in context of the scenario. The very fact that it didn’t end up as disastrous as the 2016 reboot of The Powerpuff Girls alone is enough to be thankful since it’s very rare to have the same team from long ago return to their roots. This is one of those comebacks that I hope will inspire other cliffhanging stories in all kinds of media, past, present and future, to pick up the pieces and finish what was left scattered and incomplete. Longtime fans shouldn’t delay unless you plan on purchasing the complete series collection coming out soon. Though it would be interesting to have a perspective on a new comer who’s only heard of the legend from their parents/older geeky family members.
Pros: Matured content, film quality animation, unpredictable story + world, comedic edge, cirque de sole action, strong voice acting, sporadic soundtrack
Cons: Condensed finale