"The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack" Needs a Weird Infusion, Me Hearties!
The one indisputable truth about Cartoon Network’s new series, The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack, is that the animation quality is stylish and top-notch, from the stop-motion animated opening credits to the mishmash of artistic styles that are used in each episode. Cartoon Network’s Chowder mixes quick stop-motion interstitials and puppets with its 2-D hand-drawn animation, but The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack gleefully mixes and matches hand-drawn and paper-cut animation with stop-motion, all done in a visual style that mixes up modern art, woodblock prints, and scrimshaw to produce something that’s fascinating and delightful to watch. The animation is textured and substantive, and is enough of a reason to check out the show all by itself.
Unfortunately, it seems that once you get past the beautiful animation, the rest of the show is found wanting. Created and voiced by Thurop Van Orman, the title character of the show is a young boy living in the seaside town of Stormalong Harbor. He embarks on grand adventures with his two best friends: the crusty old sea dog Captain K’nuckles and the maternal talking whale Bubbie. Ostensibly, the trio are adventuring in search of Candy Island, although from the two screener episodes sent to us, you’d only know this from the opening credits. The premiere episode is split into two halves: “Several Leagues Below the Sea,” where Flapjack, K’nuckles, and Bubbie are challenged to a race with a mechanical whale; and “Eye Sea You,” which is supposedly about the sins of spying on your friends but is actually an exercise in vaguely structured silliness.
There’s nothing awfully wrong with Flapjack, which is ultimately what’s really wrong with it. Despite the anarchy on screen, there’s a strange sense of restraint throughout the premiere episode. The environment and many of the setups suggest that we’re in for gleeful madcap anarchy, but that anarchy never comes. The gags are all played disturbingly straight and obvious, making Flapjack a slightly above average sitcom, but not much more than that. This sense of restraint is all the more frustrating when we get the briefest flashes of something wilder and crazier under the surface straining to get out. The giant mechanical whale that’s powered by the angst of juvenile delinquents should be a laugh riot, and in the hands of a show like Ren & Stimpy or The Tick or Sam and Max it would be. In Flapjack, it’s tossed out as a gag that’s all potential and no execution.
The second segment is slightly better than the first, but still doesn’t ever manage to really take off the way you hope it will. All the while, you feel like you should be laughing yourself into an adult undergarment, but you don’t ever really get much more than a titter or two. In short, this is a show that really, desperately needs to be a lot weirder and further out there than it is. Even the first episode of Chowder managed to pull off a moment of memorably sublime insanity with its Bob Fosse musical number, and the show remains watchable because they clearly aren’t afraid to splash crazy around the room with a firehose. You may just be laughing because the gags are so random, but the fact remains that you’re laughing. If Chowder is aiming to belt pitches out of the park, The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack feels like it’s just bunting to get on base. I’d rather see them swinging for the fences, even at the risk of the occasional strikeout.
It doesn’t help that Flapjack himself is such a bland character. Just looking at the set to the relatively recent animated comedy icons of Cartoon Network, one finds a brace of memorable characters, from the nerdy and nebbish Dexter, the trio of the Powerpuff Girls, the neurotic straight-man Mac and his imaginary friend of unrestrained id Bloo, or the wildly energetic Chowder. This is to say nothing of the heavy hitters like the ultimate wiseacre Bugs Bunny, the sweetly dim SpongeBob SquarePants, or the pair of eediots Ren and Stimpy. In contrast, Flapjack is just a nice boy, perhaps a little on the slow and naive side with little to make him stand out. Captain K’nuckles is little more than bits and pieces of every stereotypical crusty old mentor you can think of. The only character who really shows a hint of personality is Bubbie, with the sassy and saucy delivery by Roz Ryan being reminiscent of Queen Latifah in her best roles. Unfortunately, she is a supporting character who ends up supporting precious little.
It’s hard to be critical about The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack, especially when it’s so clear that it’s trying so hard (as is the network, at least judging by the awesomely cool press package they sent out). It could still manage to pull a rabbit out of its hat and turn up the energy to become Cartoon Network’s own SpongeBob SquarePants; the raw material all seems to be there. Unfortunately, until it gets that infusion of weirdness and gleeful anarchy it needs, The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack is a show that’s all dolled up, but has nowhere to go.
The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack premieres tonight, June 5, 2008, at 8:30 PM (Eastern/Pacific).