Saturday, March 24, 2012

Nostalgia Theater: Highlander: The Animated Series -- Yep, This Exists

As promised last time, this week we continue our exploration of the many avenues and side streets of the much-abused Highlander franchise. While it suffered its share of ignominy on the live action side, surely the weirdest of brand extenders came in the form of 1995's Highlander: The Animated Series, which found a way to take a story about a race of people who fight each to the death by beheading, and spin it into a weekday morning cartoon.

Sure, on the scale of inappropriate source material for kiddie shows, it's not necessarily this, or even this, but it still has to rank way up there. In order to force the square peg of the already-unwieldy premise into the round hole of TV animation, the producers (primarily Marc Du Pontavice, who oversaw the show for the folks at Gaumont and Peter Davis & William Panzer) came up with a conceit that actually makes sense given the content restrictions they faced. Think of it as Highlander meets Thundarr the Barbarian (which I'll get around to covering one of these days...)

Here, I'll let the opening narration explain it to you:

The short version: Following a global disaster that leaves humanity on the brink of ruin, all immortals decide to forego their fight -- the Game -- in order to assist mankind in reclaiming their lost civilization. Thus, throwing down their swords, they become "Jettators" (from the French word for "to throw away"), but one immortal, Kortan (continuing the strange tradition of major Highlander villains having "K" names) decides that he will instead use this opportunity to rule.

When the animated Connor MacLeod (a.k.a. Movie Highlander) tries to stop this, a brief swordfight ensues, Connor loses his head (discreetly, mind you, this is still a kids' show, after all), and Kortan takes his Quickening (that's the electric light show that happens when an immortal does the chop-chop to another). This sets the stage for the title character, new, teenaged immortal Quentin MacLeod, to make his prophesied entrance several hundred years later, which is when the action is set.

Questing across the shattered Earth alongside his kid sister and Ramirez, the immortal tasked with training him (presumably he's not the Sean Connery "Ramirez" from movies one and two, but who the heck knows), Quentin spends every episode trying to evade capture while tracking down the various immortals who will give him their power willingly (instead of via beheading) -- and after accruing sufficient power and knowledge, he will face down and eventually defeat Kortan.

Premiering as part of the USA network's "Cartoon Express" lineup for its first season in fall of '94, Highlander: Animated made the transition to first-run syndication the next year, and accrued a not-bad forty episodes in toto by the time it ended its run. I caught a handful of installments during that time, but only recently got to watch a plurality thanks to it recently becoming available for cheap on DVD, and for instant viewing on Netflix.

As these things go, and within the strict confines of TV kidvid, Highlander: The Animated Series isn't bad. Certainly, it looks considerably better when compared with some of the truly terrible entries in the Highlander canon. The stories were slightly more mature than the usual animation, and it didn't come off as a total betrayal of the brand. Heck, the execution alone makes it a far, far cry from those other cartoons based on "R" rated movies I linked to up-top. It also lead to a brief (very brief) merchandising boom at the time.

But this wasn't Highlander's last sword-swing at animation. In 2007, Davis-Panzer teamed with studios Imagi and Madhouse for Highlander: The Search For Vengeance. Although its far future setting is similar to the previous animation, that's where the similarities end. This story of yet another immortal MacLeod (Colin, this time) and his centuries-long quest to find the man who murdered his wife, was most assuredly not Saturday morning fare, with its ridiculous amount of over-the-top violence sending the franchise screaming back to its hard-"R" roots. Here's trailer:

Believe it or not, that's probably the best movie since the first one in '86.

As we've seen over the last two weeks, Highlander really is the little franchise that could, with neither internal logic nor relative appropriateness stopping it from extending into all manner of media. Even today, the brand still maintains its legions of patient, patient fans who somehow find a way to tolerate the near-total incomprehensibility of how each new iteration connects with the other. After all, who ever said there could be only one, right?

1 comment:

Chris Lancaster said...

Based on America's treatment of anime up into the 1990s, I always have to wonder if something like The Search for Vengeance was actually a Japanese Highlander tie-in or if the American distributor found something that closely resembled Highlander and decided to re-brand it, a la Voltron.