Looking Back: The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack
Yesterday, I looked at the Cartoon Network series Chowder and its rocky history, both on and off-screen. Today, I’m tackling a fellow Cartoon Network show slated to end this month, The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack. While the show may not have always gotten the respect and recognition it deserved (as seen by Cartoon Network’s recent shafting of the show’s final episode), it’s still a very solid effort that any fan of animation should check out.
Despite premiering only three years ago, Flapjack has been in the works since the beginning of the decade. First pitched in 2001 and then re-pitched in 2003, the show would not see the light of day until the summer of 2008. By this time, a sea change had swept through Cartoon Network’s management and the network was going through a transition. Although it was sometimes seen as Chowder‘s second banana at times, the show had a decent run with a decent following. At the time, everyone was still riding the wave of buzz Chowder had brought to the network, and Flapjack had a lot of expectations hoisted onto itself. After all, Chowder was a tough act to follow. Could this show continue the trend?
Like most shows, Flapjack had a rocky start.
One big problem for me was the marketing of the show. Most of the ads portrayed the show as a super-bouncy SpongeBob-esque maritime adventure, and as the show would unravel, this was not the case. As time went on, the series began to resemble the gross-out humor and black comedy of Ren & Stimpy and Invader Zim than SpongeBob, and it’s a shame the network never tried to capitalize on that. That’s the most insidious thing about this show: on the surface it looks like a tame, regular cartoon, while a close inspection reveals some very dark, disturbing stuff just below the surface. That’s one of my favorite things about the show, and something the creators would thankfully develop as time went on.
The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack stars the titular boy, a gleefully naive kid who wants more than anything else to be an adventurer. Unfortunately, he takes his advice and lessons from a bad role model: Captain K’nuckles. A captain in name only with more prostethics than real body parts, he tended to pay more attention to getting drunk off maple syrup than the well-being of Flapjack. Most of the series focused on Flapjack’s relationship with K’nuckles that would change from blind submission to a role reversal by the end. Luckily for Flapjack, he has Bubbie, a caring mother-figure that happens to be a talking whale and makeshift shelter. Bubbie’s motherly instincts tends to butt heads frequently with K’nuckles’ selfishness and callousness towards the boy. The three live in Stormalong Harbor (which is not really much of a harbor but more of a giant dock), one of the toughest towns in the sea, populated by gruff sailors, odd merchants, and pockets of high society in what seems to be a 19th-century setting. Flapjack and K’nuckles don’t like to think of Stormalong as their permanent home (especially K’nuckles, who holds resentment for the townsfolk who often mock him for his lazy ways), as they set their eyes on the fabled Candied Island, a shifting and mysterious candy wonderland that always seems to elude sailors. Bubbie is a bit more satisfied with Stormalong; while it may not be the best or safest place to live, it’s a lot more stable and safer than the possible perils on the way to Candied Island. As the three continued to find the island (even getting close enough to taste it), Bubbie’s reasoning for staying would ring true.
While Flap and co. never quite made it to Candied Island, it’s a bit fitting with the title and origin of the show. The inspiration for Flapjack was based off of series creator Thurop van Orman’s personal experiences as a child. As a kid growing up in Panama City Beach, Florida and later Salt Lake City, he longed for a life of adventure and decided to make those dreams a reality when he saved up enough money to go back to Florida and live off the land on an island in the wilderness. The “adventure” went awry soon after coming ashore to the island, and he soon came back to civilization, starving and embarrassed. In spite of all his failures, he realized that people enjoyed hearing about his missteps than triumphs, and he began to look at the low points of his life as “misadventures”. That outlook forms the main motif of the show, that while Flapjack and K’nuckles aren’t perfect and may never reach their goals, they can have fun anyway and roll with the good times as well as bad.
One of the most striking and memorable parts of the show is the animation and visuals. The animation style is probably one of the best in the last decade, in that there is none. Flapjack is very heavily storyboard-driven, meaning that the show is “written” almost entirely by artists. The show was luckily blessed with a lot of talented artists that all brought their different art styles to the series. While a big drawback was the lack of any visual consistency, the end result was a wild and entertaining show rarely seen in this day and age.
This variety was so striking that one could tell who storyboarded an episode without even looking at the credits. Some of the more noticeable artists were Pendleton Ward (of Adventure Time fame) drew the characters with a super-simplistic, uber-rounded style and Dan James (aka Ghostshrimp), a freelancer who often gave the show a very stylized, off-model look with chunky shapes and a huge usage of lines. Other artists, like Kent Osborne, stayed very on-model. Wild and conservative artists would sometimes be paired together to storyboard episodes (like Pen Ward and Alex Hirsch), creating a very jarring difference
between scenes. Coupled with extensive use of live-action and stop-motion (produced by Screen Novelties, who also made Chowder‘s stop-motion segments), Flapjack pushed the boundaries of what animation can do with a television budget.
While vibrant and interesting characters are all nice and dandy, they are nothing without talented voice actors to back them up. In another coincidental link with Chowder, Paul Reubens (who voiced Chowder‘s cleverly-titled Reuben) was supposed to play the part of Flapjack. In a twist of fate, Reubens never showed and series creator Thurop van Orman decided to voice him himself. In a way, Thurop is Flapjack. Not only is his voice disquietingly similar to that of Flapjack’s, but it also seems fitting that he should be able to voice his own character. For a sugary sweet character like Flapjack, a voice can easily straddle the line between cute and irritating. Thurop hits all the right notes, making Flapjack sound adorable but not too laughable (See “My Guardian Angel is Killing Me” for a great dramatic portrayal of the character). Brian Doyle Murray does a great job as K’nuckles, with a voice that sounds equally gruff as it does fatigued. It may not have been the first time Brian has used that voice, but I can’t help but to picture K’nuckles every time I hear his voice, no matter the role. Roz Ryan is an all-around talented actress who also painted Bubbie in two contrasting lights: that of a loving mother and a stern protector. Jeff Bennett and Steve Little do various voices in the show, but are probably most recognized as Peppermint Larry and Doctor Barber, two sides of an insane coin. Bennett’s Larry is gleefully obsessed with candy (to the point of marrying a candy wife) but doesn’t seem to recognize his obsession with sweets as anything out of the ordinary. On the other hand, Little’s Barber knowingly takes delight in his obsession with surgeries, with each glance into his life showing something a little bit creepier behind the surface, eventually culminating with the excellent Halloween special “Fish Heads”.
The score fit the Victorian-esque setting well, with eerie sea shanties setting the mood for the dangerous world of Stormalong. One fun thing the Flapjack crew did with the music was that they put a different piece of music over each episode’s credits, ranging from 70′s blaxploitation to atmospheric instrumentals to live or extended versions of the show’s musical numbers. I definitely recommend that any fans of television scores in general track those credits down. They are great gems for anyone willing to hunt for them. But the most memorable part of the score is the “singing”. One of the show’s signature running jokes is the chorus of background singers that sing and embellish objects and events from the show at random, for no reason at all. Not only is it hilarious to see where the chorus will pop up, but their micro-songs are pretty catchy as well.
My favorite episode of the entire series would have to be “K’nuckles and his Hilarious Problem”. Not because it’s hilarious (and it is), but because of what it represented to me. The episode is Flapjack at the top of its game: incredibly, incredibly wrong, disturbing, and grotesque, without somehow going over the line. The episode takes a look at the show’s parallels between candy/syrup and alcohol, and takes a shockingly real approach of K’nuckles overdosing on too much candy, being put into rehab, and going through withdrawal. Afraid of being subject to Doctor Barber’s “candy surgery” straight out of the pages from a gruesome horror movie, he begrudgingly accepts Flapjack’s help to kick his addiction. K’nuckles gets increasingly desperate for a taste of candy, even chewing it on the street as a doormat, and the art style matches his downward spiral. At first grotesque and pitiful, the captain begins to look like a sinister demon in a wheelchair as he goes through extreme lengths to get candy. Ghostshrimp’s wonderfully deranged artwork really makes this episode what it is, and I could probably watch it on mute and still be dazzled if just for the animation alone.
As season two wore on, the show began to shift in focus. Flapjack went from the misadventures abroad to the misadventures at home, with episodes becoming more low-key in humor, with a focus on Stormalong and its inhabitants rather than the never-ending quest for Candied Island. The artwork also became a bit more conservative in tone as well. This was because at the time, Flapjack was starting to wrap up production and most of the talented artists that made season one a visual treat had left for other projects at the network. Many, including Pen Ward, Ghostshrimp, and Thurop himself went to Adventure Time, while creative director J.G. Quintel got a shot at his own series, Regular Show. ALl that was left behind was a skeleton crew doing the best they could (heck, one of my favorite Flapjack storyboarders, Sean Szeles, was part of that crew) While there were plenty of mediocre episodes from that time period, like “Please Retire” and “Under the Sea Monster” (which were so bad that even Thurop admitted that they added laugh tracks to them to make them seem less horrible), the show never had a serious dip in quality, and the adventure-less episodes had a greater purpose. While season one explored the world, season two built upon it and added complexity and depth to Stormalong and the characters, both minor and major, that resided there. It was different, but it was needed. And to be fair, one episode entitled “Lost at Land” probably contained one of the biggest “adventures” in the show. I honestly wish the spent a full half-hour exploring the possibilities of Flapjack and K’nuckles exploring a continent for the first time.
Thurop would later come back to oversee the final season of the show, which I think had the best mix of wacky animation, epic adventures, and character development: the best of both worlds. The final episode of Flapjack was called “Fish Out of Water”. I personally thought it was pretty good for an episode of Flapjack, yet underwhelming as a series finale. It figures, as it feels like the ending of the show was tacked onto a regular eleven minute episode that seemed to fin into how Thurop and co. wanted to end the series. In the episode, Flapjack and K’nuckles’ candy-eating ways catch up to them, and they both turn into mermen and are forced to leave Stormalong by a freak-hating mob. They eventually learn that they had an entirely unrelated and completely curable case of the fish flu, and turn back to normal. Dismissing the horror stories of eating too much candy as old wives’ tales, they continue to chug candy until they turn into the biggest freaks of all: human beings, like you and I. Along with a live-action Bubbie, the lifelike trio are chased out of Stormalong again, this time for good. They decide to look for misadventures elsewhere, wherever life takes them. While a bit bittersweet in that no other towns make take them in, they have all their lives to face the unknown and devote their lives to accomplishing their goal of finding Candied Island once and for all.
Cartoon Network shafted this episode at the last minute, but despite all the missteps the network took in managing the show, Thurop takes it all in stride. And that’s the show’s lesson at work: no matter how bad things can get, you have to learn to laugh at the danger and regrets in your life every once in a while, you have to treat them as misadventures and float on. That’s a life lesson that extends way past any canceled show, and it’s one we can all take to heart. Instead of fearing cancellation, maybe the road that ends in heartbreak is better than thought of what could have been.
Float on, Carl. Float on, Thurop. I’m out.