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Genndy Tartakovsky, creator of the wondrous Samurai Jack, now entering its second vibrant season on Cartoon Network, recently remarked in an interview in DRAW! magazine, ”We don’t draw like this for kids.” Well, he does and he doesn’t. No way would Jack have the following it does if it didn’t appeal to both children and adults with an eye for art and an appreciation of the way pop culture can accommodate different cultural philosophies. Jack, a time-traveling samurai warrior straight out of an Akira Kurosawa epic, is in perpetual battle with Aku, a godlike monster with crackling flames for eyebrows. The plots are simple, elemental — in one of the new season’s episodes, for instance, Jack must conquer a tribe of half-human, half-animal hunters who have been promised a ”rain of priceless jewels” if they capture him. The half hour is one long, relentless pursuit, one that ultimately results in the tribe honoring Jack for his bravery and pluck (the series is suffused with notions of Buddhist honor and respect for honorable actions and thoughts).
Tartakovsky oversees an animation style that at first seems crudely simple: static backgrounds and simply drawn figures with a minimum of movement, much like old Hanna-Barbera-studio cartoons like Yogi Bear. But where Yogi and Huckleberry Hound looked cheerfully cheap, Jack is artful to the point of witty abstraction. One of Tartakovsky’s most arresting strategies is to begin a scene with a single slash of color that cuts diagonally across the screen — initially, you have no idea what you’re looking at. Then, he pulls back to reveal that the slash is, say, a close-up of Jack’s mighty sword, and as the slash of metal now glides out of its scabbard, and Tartakovsky pulls back even farther, it reveals Jack’s hand withdrawing the weapon in preparation for battle. Combine this with the lovely watercolor-style backgrounds and the show’s minimal use of dialogue (much of the time the soundtrack consists merely of the whistling forest wind or the soft chime of musical bells), and Samurai Jack becomes a beautiful, sometimes devilishly scary, dream of a cartoon.
By contrast, the other most exciting cartoon on the air right now is !Mucha Lucha!, the latest addition to the Kids’ WB! Saturday lineup. A gloriously frenetic project about Mexi- can lucha libre, or ”free fighting” wrestling, Lucha! follows the exploits of little Rikochet and his pals Buena Girl and the Flea: youngsters who live by ”the code of masked wrestling,” which the creators define by the slogan ”Honor, Family, Tradition, and Donuts.” (These kids like to eat after burning calories in the ring.) !Mucha Lucha! bursts with dazzlingly bright colors and nonstop action, but it’s not mindless — indeed, its wordplay is as delightfully rapid-fire and wittily convoluted as its wrestling moves. When a kid misses her school bus, she doesn’t just say, ”Oh, darn!”; she says, ”I refuse to live in the ignominy of tardiness!” (Any show that ups a young viewer’s vocab gets mucho points in my house.) The wrestling matches take place in the school, overseen by the Headmistress, a woman so intelligent her brain seems to be bursting the skin around her skull — that’s typical of the surreal exaggeration of the animation. At all times the kid heroes are encouraged to follow ”the lucha thing to do,” a Zen-like phrase meaning trying to figure out the right, proper way to live. Gracias for !Mucha Lucha!
Other new cartoons include Disney’s Fillmore! (ABC), whose concept is more novel than its execution. A parody of cop shows, its title character is Cornelius Fillmore. He’s on the safety patrol of his middle school, a job the series treats as if he were employed as a police detective. Aided by his crack partner, Ingrid Third, Fillmore investigates such petty crimes as the explosion of a stink bomb. Fillmore! is nicely, casually multi-culti: Fillmore is black; Ingrid is pale Goth white; Vallejo, their safety-patrol boss, is a Latino kid (voiced by Saturday Night Live’s Horatio Sanz) — but the capers are silly and the dialogue dull.
The latest addition to the welter of imported Japanese anime series (Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh!, etc.) arrives courtesy of — go figure — executive producers Bob and Harvey Weinstein. It’s Tokyo Pig (ABC Family), a wild, incomprehensible, but not unenjoyable mishmash about a boy named Spencer and his magic pig, Sunny. Where !Mucha Lucha!’s absurdism has a point, Tokyo features visuals that are at once frenetically busy and crudely drawn. Occasionally the action stops for musical numbers in which Sunny dances against a backdrop of disembodied pig snouts. (Yes, you read that right.) Typical bit of dubbed dialogue: ”What in the wiggly world have I created now?” I think I prefer the silences that fill Samurai Jack with meaning. Samurai Jack: A !Mucha Lucha!: A Disney’s Fillmore!: B- Tokyo Pig: C+