Noy Jitat! It’s back to the 80s for another cartoon review – or at least, it feels like it, but Hanna-Barbera at the time were always a little behind the curve. Pirates of Dark Water feels and looks very much like an 80s series in the vein of Mysterious Cities of Gold or Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors, but it actually aired from 1991 until its premature demise in 1993.
I remember seeing it as a child, possibly as repeats, but took little away from it. I remember it had a pretty-boy lead character, and hearing his name was the first time I thought ‘Wren’ sounded pretty cool – though in fact it’s spelt ‘Ren’. I decided to give it another try as an adult partly because of those memories, and because of how often the series is raised as a bit of a cult classic and even Hanna-Barbera’s finest moment.
Honestly, I think the old rose-tinted glasses have a big effect on this. I found Pirates of Dark Water to be a clumsy, very ugly, repetitive and highly derivative attempt to jump on a trend five years too late.
In a fantasy world of swashbuckling pirates, alarming mutant creatures and way-before-Avatar-tried-to-pretend-it-did-the-dual-species-thing-first animals like the monkey-bird, the young Prince Ren uses his father’s magic necklace to track down the Thirteen Treasures of Rule, which will save the world from Dark Water. Helping him are the sassy ecomancer
Tula and the gritty, selfish Han-Solo-type Ioz,
along with their comic relief monkey-bird Niddler. But standing in the way of
the heroes is the hulking pirate Bloth and his massive warship the Maelstrom.
Along the way, the crew save many innocent lives, liberate enslaved
monkey-birds, swap bodies with the evil pirates, get into barroom brawls and
gambling dens, and even find a cutesy little monster that is a living Treasure
of Rule and can reverse the effects of the Dark Water. As soon as they do,
though, the series suddenly ends – presumably cancelled – and the rest of the
adventures go untold.
I do give Hanna-Barbera credit for trying something different – something epic and continuous – even if it’s only because so many other successful series were that way at the time. And while I also applaud their attempts to keep things relatively in-house by not shipping out the animation work to
Japan, the fact is that this series is ugly.
It’s really not nice to look at, and though the character designs are
appealing, they’re obviously too much for the animators to deal with, with
faces and bodies constantly going off-model and looking terrible. The motions
are very clunky and often feel very off rhythmically, and for a series with so
many fights, the animators really don’t get how to make impacts convincing or
characters seem to have weight. Probably most distracting of all, though, is
how they don’t seem to be able to deal with characters’ pupils/irises, with the
characters’ slanted eyes meaning that when they look in different directions,
the animators often put the pupils at the edge of the eye – meaning they are
pointed in completely different ways and look absurd.
It also doesn’t help that the stories are often very, very dull. Some new island has some new madman and the heroes eventually win out with some clever plot that relies on their adversaries being stupidly unobservant. It just doesn’t work far too often and comes over as a repeat of the worst parts of Ulysses 31.
On the flip side, the series does benefit from excellent voice acting and the extremely memorable way that it makes up swearwords and uses them endlessly. Transformers stalwarts Peter Cullen (Optimus Prime) and Frank Welker (Megatron) have fun with atypical roles for them, and the silly little villain sidekick Konk probably gets a rather unexpectedly expanded role because, well, if you have Tim Curry on the cast you give him plenty to do. Jim Cummings does that uncanny thing he does of listening to someone else’s performance and then being able to seamlessly replace them when they leave, and Sisko from Star Trek makes a great villain. It’s slightly jarring to know that cheesy do-gooder Ren now voices Sephiroth in all major English dubs of Square Enix properties (when he’s not voiced by a Backstreet Boy, anyway), but that’s voice acting!
But the cast being excellent and having obvious fun doesn’t save the piece as a whole, and it’s too hurt by being ugly and boring to live up to its reputation. Which is a shame, as it seemed like something I’d very much enjoy.