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Running Time: 298 minutes
Starring the voices of: Phil Lamar, Mako
Directed by: Genndy Tartakovsky
Studio: Warner Brothers
Retail Price: $29.98
Specs: 1.33:1 Full Screen, English Dolby Surround Stereo, French Dolby Surround Stereo, Spanish Dolby Surround Stereo, English Subtitles, French Subtitles, Spanish Subtitles, English Closed Captions, Episode Selection, Two-Disc Set
Released: May 4th, 2004
Debuting on cable's very popular Cartoon Network in August 2001, "Samurai Jack" was backed by massive hype and a lot of pedigree. This is not your average cartoon show for a number of reasons. While certainly children can enjoy it, it's one of those shows that breaks all age barriers. This show can be enjoyed by any age for any fan who likes good storytelling. Though if you're really into film and animation, you'll probably get the most out of this show as it has a lush, epic feeling to it.
The first three episodes of the series were strung together as the "premiere movie" and helped launch the show on Cartoon Network and sets up the show's plot and characters quite nicely. From these episodes, the origins of our hero is told. It begins with the villian Aku, thought to be banished, re-emerging from his his own locked depths, wrecking a certain village where a young warrior and his family lives. He is saved from his mother and trains in various locations and learns many different skills.
From there, he returns home and receives a special sword from his mother. This warrior frees those enslaved in his wrecked village and goes off to fight and finish Aku off. But before he can, Aku transports our hero to the future. There, he gains the nickname Jack, help talking dogs gain their freedom from working in mines and goes to war with insects sent by Aku to attack the dogs and Jack. From there, Jack went on ten more adventures in the first season. His journeys had him help scientists, attempt to get to a wishing well guarded by powerful archers, do battle with a clone-like version of himself, looking for a time portal, working with a warrior on a very long bridge and even becoming a Chicago gangster, among other things, to get try and get back home and face Aku.
"Samurai Jack" is the brainchild of Genndy Tartakovsky, who also created another excellent and successful show for Cartoon Network, that being the marvelously witty, whimsical and fun "Dexter's Laboratory" (which was spun off from one of his original shorts). There's no denying the wide range of talent Tartakovsky holds, not to mention his love of popular culture and storytelling. It's impossible to compare the two series, since they are quite different visually and in their own styles. Still, I think they're held in common by one thing: the art of simplicity to give off great effects.
All of this is perfectly balanced and reflects quite well in this excellent series. There are so many things that make "Samurai Jack" really special and really worth checking out. The plots and writing are original and quite sharp, perfectly blending epic feels with unique characters with their own charms. The whole series is quite imaginative, quite entertaining and quite breathtaking all at the same time. There truly hasn't been anything like "Samurai Jack" ever, and it's hard to say if there ever will be again.
What really adds to it though is how each episode is told. You have wide angles and glorious ways to show off the strong visual aspects of the show. But the visuals in the show are something special; they are bold and have interesting colors which give off assorted different moods and feelings. You really have to see the show to really know in what a careful manner it's told, not to mention the stunning manner. The animation may not be entirely complex, but its designs give off fine effects and fit really well with the story being told. This is one of the best animated shows I've seen visually. The sound effects and music also fit in perfectly. Tartakovsky has a knack for this sort of thing as he's shown in "Dexter's Laboratory," and the sounds in the show sound natural, smooth and very real. They can be magical, eerie or just plain cool at any given moment and give off some undescribable sense. A sword clash can tell more than words and expressions combined.
Despite the massive fanbase for "Samurai Jack," there are a lot of people out there who dislike the show. I personally think the show's harshest critics don't quite understand what the whole thing is about, and don't see everything the show offers as far as beauty, scope and details. Like I said in my opening of this review, "Samurai Jack" really isn't your typical animated program. It's not exactly what people think a cartoon should be, and once again, it is another series (in my opinion) that breaks new ground.
The film and cultural inspirations and references in "Samurai Jack" are quite fitting, nice and skillful. Yet what I think turns off some viewers is that the main aspects of the show are about patience. There are long stretches without dialogue, but only incredible, detailed and wonderful animation that is so rich in its tapestry and gives you a whole epic sense and feeling inside. "Samurai Jack" is a saga that is one of a kind. Yes, each episode has a plot, but as a whole, they are simply steps toward the bigger picture.
A certain amount of attention and patience is needed to reap the benefits of this series, as its beauty always unlocks itself throughout and slowly hitting your subconcious and thoughts. There is some great and powerful stuff here that certainly had me in awe, and the fact that is so unique, creative and risky makes me a fan of the show and appreciate it even more. "Samurai Jack" may not be for everyone, but if you like great entertainment and great visuals, all wrapped in fine storytelling, this is certainly one DVD set worth checking out.
Presented in their original 1.33:1 full frame aspect ratios (just as they were aired), this transfers perfectly capture and show off the beautiful visuals that are a strong part of the series. Other than some slight noise and shimmering at times during the episodes, everything else is pretty magnificent. Black levels are strong, detail is great and the overall image quality on each of the thirteen episodes are very sharp. But as I've said, this show is quite visual, especially with it's excellent use of colors and that's where these transfers shine. Hues and shades look very appealing, while color saturation looks excellent by fitting right in to the scheme of things. The colors are bold and vibrant, and don't even bleed. Be it the reds of Aku, the whites of Jack's standard outfit, the bleak purples of the future or the more subdued colors of Chicago... all of the episodes are beautifully realized in this set. Well done.
The episodes are presented in glorious Dolby Surround Stereo (where you get to take your pick of English, Spanish and French, plus subtitles in those languages and English closed captioning). Overall, these are good sound tracks even if they do have their limits. The show does have its fair share of action, and these tracks certainly take charge and show off an ample amount of power with some good imaging and directional effects. The show has a lot of sound effects, small and large: snow gently falling down, gunfire, echoes of Aku in his cave, whip cracks, the always fun clutter of footsteps and of course, plenty of action when it comes to swords clashing and banging. The show has some strong sound design, and certainly immerses you with Jack as he goes on his quests. The dialogue sounds quite crisp and is never muffled, while the show's fine musical score also sounds very nice through the channels.
However, I do have a complaint. What is most disappointing about the set is that there is a lack of Dolby Digital 5.1, and if any show needed it, this is one of them. What makes this such an issue for me is that early in 2002 Warner released the first three episodes of the series on DVD ("The Premiere Movie"), and those episodes were remixed in Dolby Digital 5.1 and sounded spectacular. While it would have been nice for all the episodes to have 5.1 sound, couldn't at least the first three episodes have them as an option? Personally, I think the absence of that option hinders the set a bit since those mixes were probably readily available. So if you still have that original DVD, you'll probably want to hang onto it.
Being labeled as part of a "Collector Series," I must say I'm surprised that there isn't too much offered. The first disc has some Trailers for three other titles, but the big draw is the Audio Commentary with Creator/Director Genndy Tartakovsky and Storyboard Artist Bryan Andrews on the seventh episode (and last one on the first disc). This is an excellent "creator commentary," and I really wish the duo made more commentaries for the set (with or without other participants). Actually, from the way Tartakovsky sounds, it sorta seems like he could one do one commentary (or had time for one). No matter, this is a must listen for fans of the series even if it's a bit technical in nature. The two offer a lot of praise for the crew, and while they offer specific details about the episode as far as its production goes and what they wanted to do with it, but there's also a bit about the series in general. Tartakovsky and Andrews talk about their own influences, and what they exactly wanted to incorporate into the series (oh, and Andrews namedrops his brother quite a bit as he also works on the show). What also can be taken away from the commentary is what working on the show is like, as far as storyboards, sound designs and the crew working together. The two seem really proud of the series and their accomplishments, but also that they have a lot of fun. Extended kudos for the duo for talking constantly and not letting any real dead air getting in. A very fine track indeed.
The second disc houses the rest of the extras. The main thing on this is definitely The Making Of Samurai Jack. Driving it are interviews with Tartakovsky, Andrews, storyboard artist Paul Rudish, art director Scott Willis and toward the end, we hear from Jack himself (Phil LaMar). Combining footage of episodes, the crew working and various stills, it's an interesting featurette but comes up way too short at a little over seven minutes. Things are more or less touched over here, and if this was longer, things could have been more in-depth. Much of this focuses on the show's mood and visual style, and just how unique it is and what brings out the best in its creators. A little of it is focused on the character of Jack too, but that's about it. Nice if slightly fluffy.
Original Animation Test is a little over two minutes and is of completed animation showing off the show's visual style. Finally, Original Artwork is a montage lasting around eight minutes of various artwork that includes concept art, storyboards and all sorts of designs played against original music of the show. If this looks familiar, this same exact thing was actually on the "The Premiere Movie" DVD. That DVD also had a few other features not here, so if you have it, there's another reason to hold on to it.
"Samurai Jack" is a one-of-a-kind show that ignites the senes. As great as the episode transfers are, I was a little miffed about the lack of extras and 5.1 Dolby Digital (this is a "Collector Series" after all). However, the retail price is incredibly fair and you get some bang for your buck, so fans of the series should not hesitate to pick this first season up. And if anything I wrote sounded the least bit interesting to you, then you owe yourself to give an episode of "Samurai Jack" a try. This a decent start for the series on DVD, but there's plenty of room for improvement. Here's hoping that Season 2 will be even better.