The Cartoon Network's new series raises the bar for animation art on TV, says Ken Tucker

By Ken Tucker
August 14, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

”Samurai Jack” isn’t just for kids

The work of cartoonists and comic book artists are all over the pop culture landscape right now, from the deft movie made from Daniel Clowes’ ”Ghost World” to the literary accolades rightly bestowed upon Chris Ware’s ”Jimmy Corrigan” graphic novel. Film director Kevin Smith is writing the bestselling comic book in the country, ”Green Arrow.”

And now the Cartoon Network is premiering the year’s most eccentric yet enthrallingly engaging animated series, ”Samurai Jack.” The first episode, airing Aug. 10 at 7 p.m., is the work of Genndy Tartakovsky, who also created ”Dexter’s Laboratory” for the Cartoon Network. I could take Dexter or leave him, so the originality of ”Samurai Jack” was startling. The series uses a basic martial arts film premise — young man studies with wise warriors and returns to his ravaged village to save it — but immediately veers off into intriguing territory.

Turns out the series is set in the future, where the world has been overtaken by Aku, a huge, all powerful, shape shifting creature. Once our young hero decides to combat Aku’s devastating effects on the world, he journeys to blighted urban centers featuring flying cars and loud techno music.

The animation style of ”Samurai Jack” is what really distinguishes it from anything else on TV. Tartakovsky cannily uses the minimal animation style that reached an artistic height 40 years ago with the animator John Hubley and a low a couple of decades later with the Hanna Barbera factory (”Huckleberry Hound,” ”Yogi Bear”). In Tartakovsky’s hands, the style becomes something new. He uses the TV screen itself as a canvas across which he scatters square action panels, like a moving comic book. He deploys stylized backgrounds (vertical brown slashes for leafless trees, watercolor blue mist for the sky), and uses close-ups as abstract imagery — we see a slab of white streaks across a black background, for example, and when Tartakovsky pulls back, we realize it’s Jack’s sword being pulled out of the scabbard.

At once beautiful and exciting, ”Samurai Jack” has put art back into animation in a way TV hasn’t seen for a very long time.

What’s your favorite animated show on TV?

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