"Conan the Adventurer" Season 2 Part 2: The Slow Rise of the Cimmerian
Season 2 Part 2 of Conan the Adventurer is an incremental improvement over the last volume, as the show begins using its own backstory to start constructing something bigger and better. Earlier episodes of the show often felt kind of like the animated fantasy equivalent of Gilligan’s Island, where any hope of advancement would vanish by the episode’s end and there was no sense of memory to any of the characters. In the 13 episodes included in this set, Conan the Adventurer pulls in seemingly throwaway plot elements as far back as season 1 and begins taking small but substantive steps towards advancing the plot. The end result begins to make Conan the Adventurer feel like a early forerunner of today’s action cartoons like Avatar: The Last Airbender or Young Justice, with their tightly plotted season-long story arcs, rather than like another perfect-for-syndication He-Man derivative where the shadows of a single episode almost never stretched beyond itself.
As before, the raven-haired, mighty thewed barbarian Conan has two quests: to free his parents from the Spell of Living Stone and to prevent the evil wizard Wrath-Amon from unleashing his dark master Set. He is aided by a motley band of heroes, including the circus acrobat Jezmine, the Wasai prince Zula, the wizard Greywolf and his siblings-turned-wolves Sasha and Misha, the Vanirman warrior Snagg, the winged warrior Falkenar, and the baby phoenix Needle. Their best weapons against Wrath-Amon and his Serpent Men are their Star Metal weapons, which can reveal Serpent Men disguised as humans and banish them back to the netherworld imprisoning Set. Most of the episodes on this set are decent but fairly forgettable, but even this is an improvement over earlier sets, since none of the episodes are quite as egregiously stupid as some of the earlier ones could be. The worst I can say of them is that two (“The Queen of Stygia” and “Nature of the Beast”) feel like the same story, as the sorceress Mesmira attempts to steal Conan’s Star Metal and his heart, and neither one is terribly good.
On the other hand, the very best episodes have echoes of Robert E. Howard’s muscular pulp sensibilities, with the more lurid and violent aspects toned down for afternoon kids TV. “Return to Tarantia” brings triumph and then tragedy to Jezmine as she learns the truth of her birth parents in an episode that ends on a surprisingly downbeat note. The episode which follows, “The Book of Skelos,” picks up a plot thread from one of the worst episodes on the previous set (“The Crevasse of Winds”) and turns in one of the best episodes the show has done so far, as Conan and his friends must win a magical tome from a demon whose major weapons are nightmarish visions of his target’s worst fears. As mentioned, the show is finally willing to make some visible progress in Conan’s quest, as he manages to free one of his relatives by the end of this episode. However, the show doesn’t always capitalize on this advancement, since some episodes that follow that have Conan continuing his search for a way undo the Spell of Living Stone when he already has one. Some of them even refer to the freed relative as still being a statue.
“Final Hours of Conan” is another of this set’s successes, as Conan is infected with a poison that will turn him into a Serpent Man under the thrall of Wrath-Amon, who offers Conan and his companions an antidote in return for their Star Metal weapons. It’s surprisingly effective, even if we know subconsciously that the curse will be undone by episode’s end. It also has an ending that feels appropriate to Howard, with a cure born of pain and ill-understood eldritch magics. “City of the Burning Skull” is probably as close as you’ll get to a kids TV adaptation of Howard’s classic “Red Nails” novella, as Conan and his friends stumble into a war in a mysterious subterranean city, with a sorceror who drains the life from his victims to prolong his unnatural existence. I don’t think it’s an accident that the best episodes on the disc are also the most potent nightmare fuel, and “City of the Burning Skull” is a whopper. Finally, “Son of Atlantis” brings the set to an epic conclusion, as Wrath-Amon uses a mystic horn to call all descendants of Atlantis (including Conan and his Cimmerian clansmen) to the black land of Stygia. There are several moments of true power to be found in this episode, such as when Zula summons a herd of wooly mammoths to hem in mind-controlled Cimmerians, Greywolf calls on the wizards of Xanthus and their great flying ship, and Conan must prove his mettle to the ghost of an ancient Atlantean king. Unfortunately, these moments are non-trivially undermined by the show’s marginal animation, to the point where I almost wish some current-day show-runner could lift these bits and redo them (or just about the entire episode) with more modern animation and liberal BS&P restrictions.
As with earlier volumes, Conan the Adventurer Season 2 Part 2 does the best it can with what seems to be extremely limited source material. The shows are in full-frame as originally broadcast with a 2.0 stereo soundtrack and a healthy number of chapter stops in each episode. There are no bonus features on the set.
From its unpromising start, Conan the Adventurer continues to improve and expand, to the point where I find myself wishing the show had a much larger budget, a much better animation studio, and a bit more freedom to capture the savage world Conan is supposed to inhabit. Even so, this next installment of the series turns out to be the best yet, filtering or removing the more insufferable elements and expanding on the good ones, while beginning to pull together into something like a more coherent, large-scale narrative.