Mad Jack the Pirate shows that even the funniest cartoons need to have more going for it to be something memorable.
I decided to check out Mad Jack the Pirate after finishing up Eek! The Cat. Bill Kopp, who co-created Eek, conceived of Mad Jack after working for Disney with The Schnookums and Meat Funny Cartoon Show and part of Toonsylvania. His work on Eek was strong enough to warrant following, and while I’ve heard mixed things on Schnookums and Meat and Toonsylvania, I’ve heard nothing about this one-season show about a pirate’s constant failure to find treasure. I’m also fascinated by under-the-radar cartoons, so getting a whiff of one from Kopp’s mind made me crazy curious about it.
There are a lot of brilliance to Eek! The Cat, with appealingly goofy characters and an absurd world that mixes nutso humans with even mosre nutso talking animals, all couched in various permutations of satire, farce, and parodies. As insane as the world is, it is at least grounded in elements that the writers and animators could build off of, utilizing witty dialogue and well-timed visuals. “Paws” for example had a lot of fun with its characters within a Jaws parody, but also played stupid-fun with the kiddie-pool locale re-imagined as a deadly, endless ocean. Everything came together with confidence; even its weaker episodes were committed to its narrative and characters.
Mad Jack the Pirate is… less so. There’s either a budget issue or a general creative malaise to this show. With networks slowly moving away from Saturday morning animated content, it may quite possibly be both. There are a lot of potential ideas here, and there a quite a number of genuinely funny moments, but there’s a sense that the show doesn’t want to explore anything past its most basic of premises. It’s a show that can be extremely funny, but it’s also extremely unsustainable.
There are three reasons for this. The main problem is the lack of commitment to the world that’s been created. I don’t necessarily mean the internal, in-show world per se; there’s just this really odd, half-assed approach to everything that occurs on the screen. It’s often funny at times but it’s not “correct.” Eek! The Cat’s Metropolis was an absurd but vibrant world where characters could be anything and encounter anything. I can’t even remember the name of the “world” that Mad Jack explores, which is a just a bunch of islands, and the occasional random location, like Megamouth Studios. It’s not that anything here is bad, since these locations are built mainly to put Mad Jack and his partner Snuk through the ringer, but they’re perfunctory, and only a few of them feel worthwhile.
Maybe it’s less the locations and more the lack of dynamic characters. The second main problem? The cast is boring and non-existent. Mad Jack desperately needs a diverse, comedic crew – a cast of semi-regulars to bounce off, characters that can produce multiple viewpoints to this world around them. It seems like the pilot episode, “The Terrifying Sea Witch Incident,” is leading to that – a talking, arrogant chicken ranting about his “mascot” role in the show; three random crew members with potential to be unique and interesting; the arrogant “hero” prince Flash Dashing, who talks like William Shatner taking the role of the “hero-antagonist” to Mad Jack’s “villain-protagonist.” Even the crow in the crow’s nest, while an obvious dumb joke, has potential as a character:
But looks what happens – the chicken is presumably eaten and the crew just runs off (the show ends with an elaborate tag where the chicken rants about not being killed, which tries to come off as a smart-ass putdown on executive meddling, but really comes off as the writers forgetting about him in the first place). Flash Dashing is only used in one other episode and the crow is recycled in a later episode again without any other lines. When all is said and done, the show is solely a Mad Jack and Snuk affair, and it’s a dynamic that really goes nowhere. It’s cute, sure, but with Mad Jack constantly shitting on, abusing, and otherwise exploiting Snuk, it’s a one-sided affair that doesn’t lead to anything palpable.
As the examples suggest, the show also engages in a darker, more vicious tone; there are a lot more explicit descriptions of murder, violence, and sex than one might expect from a cartoon. Mad Jack, in fact, is not a pirate with a heart of gold (not at first), but a criminal through-and-through, who cheats, lies, and steals with little to no shame. This creates a lot of comic moments – there’s a lot of hilarity in putting criminals in lead roles, only to watch them fail miserably and constantly – but without some kind of redeeming factor, it’s particularly hard to stand behind him. In fact, in “The Strange Case of Angus Dagnabbit,” Mad Jack straight-up kills the guy he’s trying to rob. It’s a startling event, and the show kind of glosses over it when the murdered Dagnabbit comes back to haunt Mad Jack, but there’s a difference between redemption and revenge; both can be funny, but the latter leads to dwindling audience support, while the former shows the character’s willingness to change, which is more dramatically interesting. “Darkness” in and of itself is neither a hit for or strike against the show, but Mad Jack’s lack of progress as a character is another example of the show’s lack of dynamics.
The third and final issue against the show is the lackluster staging and art direction. It’s something more people wouldn’t recognize in a cartoon until you watch it and find yourself… bored by something, but struggling to say what exactly. Mad Jack the Pirate has the appearance of a visually interesting cartoon, with its vibrant colors and potentially interesting locales, but the actual direction is bland, with most scenes animated straight on full shots, with characters walking left-to-right or right-to-left. There’s very few dynamic zooms or close-ups, creative montages or audacious dream sequences, or even simple visual cues like running toward or away from the cameras. Eek! the Cat had a lot of unique views, so it’s disappointing to see Mad Jack, rich with potential, fall so short in the animation department.
Combining all three issues – lack of world exploration, character dynamics, and directorial diversity – leads to a show brimming with potential but constantly falling short. The “pirate world” premise with wacky/absurdist trappings feels undercooked and random, and while there are funny moments, it never feels committed. I laughed quite a bit at “Lights, Camera – Snuk,” where Mad Jack, in a desperate attempt to show a film producer how real pirates live, constantly gets hurt after every showcase, and ends with him eaten by a dinosaur. Every set piece ends with him eaten by a dinosaur, which is part of the “hard-to-pull-off” gags of repetition, but it works up to a point; beyond that gag, there’s no “uniqueness” to the approach, narratively or visually. It’s less “how many funny ways to be eaten by a dinosaur” and more “we don’t know how else to do this bit”. There’s no real satire to the movie-studio parody either, so there’s nothing else going on here except the one gag, which dies as soon as the episode is over.
That “funny but bland” aesthetic continues throughout the show. “Happy Birthday to Who” is just Mad Jack getting abused at a carnival (after a bit about Mad Jack wanting to go to a brothel, which is part of the show’s dark edge without doing anything with it). “The Horror of Draclia” is a flat tale that pits Jack and Snuk up against a lazy Dracula parody (which also forgets about about a separate monster in the woods that essentially kills a guy). The show does kind of picks up around episode thirteen (which, as I’ve mentioned before, is usually when cartoons are retooled for the better) in “The Case of the Crabs,” which pits Jack and Snuk up against a civilization of hostile underwater sea creatures. Part of the uptick is they introduce a new character, Chuck the Imitation Crab, who’s easy-going characterization brings a fun dynamic to Snuk’s push-over vibe and Mad Jack’s cruelty. It helps, too, that Jack’s cruelty has been toned down a bit here, with the pirate opting to actually help Chuck escape as well. It also helps that this underworld of Crustacia has vibrancy and energy that the show’s other locales lacked.
Later episodes have a bit more going for it, but they never feel complete. Flash Dashing, Dagnabbit, and Chuck all return in other episodes, who are all fun characters, but because they’re never really part of the main cast, they feel perfunctory and underused. I also think the vague, overarching plot of Mad Jack needing to pay off a vicious debtor Sharkface Willie to his ship the Sea Chicken is a sound idea; some kind of constant threat would give the show a more grounded edge. Yet we don’t see Willie until “Mad Jack and the Beanstalk,” a bit that’s tossed aside as a Godfather parody and nothing else. Broad “parodies with nothing else” become the show’s bane; “Uncle Mortimer” could’ve been an exciting pot-shot at Hanna-Barbara cartoons (the plot is about delivering a dog named Scabby Doo to the Isle of Hanna Barbarians after all), but it’s stuck with a predictable Scooby-Doo, “guy-in-monster-costume” story. The fact that they don’t even have fun with HB’s limited animation bit goes to the show’s uninteresting visual style. I wonder if that’s the issue though; the lack of a B-story, or a B-anything, to give the show some kind of narrative or visual heft. The few times it does have them, like in “The Case of the Crabs” and in “Jack the Dragon Slayer,” where a dragon and a princess humorously connect at a platonic-then-romantic level while Jack figures out how to slay the dragon the the behest of the princess’s father, the show improves immensely and starts to utilize the full extent of the show’s premise.
Unfortunately the show rarely feels like it wants to. I’ve learned via Wikipedia that Mad Jack the Pirate is more-or-less a parody of Blackadder, stealing lines and dialogue wholesale from the British show. This is nothing new, really; TaleSpin cribbed from Tales of the Gold Monkey, and Bonkers is a clear rip-off of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Yet Mad Jack the Pirate feels like that’s the only thing it’s really interested in, because only rarely does it seem as engaged in its cartoon world as it does in copying Rowan Atkinson’s infamous program. Had Mad Jack the Pirate put more effort in building a dynamic cast, a developed world, a creative direction, or some kind of narrative rhythm, it could’ve been special, a one-season wonder with a more adult bent. As it is, though, it’s a show with a lot of mature comic standing, but lacking anything else to stand on.