Animation Block: Mighty Max

This series will focus on various animated series of the past which are still highly enjoyable even by modern standards. It’s my hope to help bring some of them to DVD, as I’ll focus heavily on shows that have never been released and are at best cult classics. As someone whose childhood was partially shaped by these series, I feel I owe them that much.

A common and not entirely unfair criticism of American animation in the 80’s and 90’s is that many shows were designed as cynical, cash-grabbing toy commercials. Several shows that are today still well-thought of because of nostalgia are actually pretty bad to the eyes of an adult looking for actual story and character. Despite this, there is no reason that making a show the advertisement for one’s toys is mutually exclusive with a quality series, and one show which proved this better than most was Mighty Max.

Mighty Max was originally the male version of Polly Pocket, with all manner of objects (usually heads or scary creatures) which opened up into realms where Max could fight monsters and have adventures, instead of Polly’s makeup kits. From what I can gather, the toy line was not extremely successful, partially due to the small size being a choking hazard for children, and the toys themselves are now quite rare. It would seem that making an animated series to promote such a show would be madness, would it not?

And yet, series developers Mark Zaslove and Rob Hudnut took this simple idea and turned it into a series about destiny, free will, history, mythology, friendship, heroism, and evil in a way that few shows of its era (or since) ever could. For those unaware (and too lazy to skip over to Wikipedia), the series revolves around the adventures of Max, an adolescent boy with a quick wit and love of adventure, who receives a mysterious package in the mail which tells him that he is the Mighty One, and gives him the Cosmic Cap, a piece of headgear that allows him to open portals between various locations around the world. Upon using the Cap, Max meets Virgil, an ancient Lemurian scholar who resembles a humanoid chicken (though he insists he’s a fowl), who serves as Max’s stuffy, overserious teacher, and Norman, a powerful warrior with a dry sense of humor, who serves as his bodyguard. Virgil tells Max that it is his destiny to destroy Skullmaster, a warrior-sorceror of incredible evil, currently banished to the center of the Earth. During his ongoing struggle with Skullmaster, Max also faces various monsters throughout the world, from ice aliens to werewolves to living Cyclops eyes to unkillable sabretooth tigers. Though Virgil’s knowledge and Norman’s combat prowess are great, it is usually up to Max to find clever, lateral solutions to the various threats they face.

The writing, voice cast, and characterization took what could have been a rather generic concept and propelled it to greatness. Rob Paulsen portrayed Max as a rare child protagonist who was in no way annoying or cutesy. He was genuinely funny, solved problems on his own rather than getting into trouble and making the adults save him, and had a real conflict at the core of his being over his desire to be a normal kid and knowing first-hand just how bad the world could become if he gave up on his destiny. The late Tony Jay portrayed Virgil’s mix of wisdom, pomposity, and guilt with subtle grace, and Richard Moll (who most remember as Bull on Night Court, but I remember as Two-Face from the Batman Animated Series) gave Norman a real laconic charm, and the ability to deliver lines like, “I eat yetis for breakfast,” with a straight face. Many veteran voice actors, including Frank Welker and Tress MacNeille, did well creating a rich and fascinating supporting cast. Of course, the character that shined most for me was Tim Curry as Skullmaster, but more on him in a minute.

By the standards of the era, Mighty Max was a rather mature show. Characters were often killed, though no blood or gore were ever shown, and though the series did strive to be educational, as many animated series were mandated to do, rather than saccharine morals about brushing one’s teeth or crossing the street after looking both ways, the lessons at the end were often facts about history, science, or myth. The series also referenced literature on several occasions. Virgil in particular noted that destiny was a mix of “chance, free will, and necessity,” a direct reference to Moby Dick, and later on, calls on Yeats’s Second Coming when he notes that “things fall apart, the center cannot hold, mere anarchy is loose upon the world.” Obviously these likely went over the heads of many younger viewers, but as someone who grew up to study literature in school, this only made me enjoy the show all the more.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about the series is its villain. While I find the protagonists enjoyable and entertaining, Skullmaster is fairly unique among cartoon badguys. A superficial reading of the character might give the impression that he is simply a poor man’s Skeletor, as he is indeed a warrior and sorceror who has a skeletal face. Nothing could be further from the truth. In contrast to most villains of his type (and Skeletor in particular), Skullmaster was not incompetent. In fact, he won on more occasions than he lost against Max and company, and even their victories against him were mixed at best. Where most villains of his type threw their enemies in dungeons or put them in easily escapable traps, Skullmaster MURDERED PEOPLE. Just about anyone who came across him or his legions of evil died, and the show states that he not only slew everyone in Atlantis by stealing their souls, but raised their bodies as his personal army of the undead. He was smarter than Virgil (at least most of the time) and stronger than Norman, which led the viewers to truly wonder how Max was ever going to defeat him. Most of all, Skullmaster had style, and is to this day one of my favorite villains.

The show wasn’t exactly perfect, as there were small continuity blips here and there, minor inconsistencies of logic and power, and the writers did seem oddly obsessed with skull-based villains (besides Skullmaster himself, there were Cyberskull, Talon, and the cyclops) but on the whole, just about all the episodes were fun, exciting, and edifying. A few, like “The Maxnificent Seven” were actually touching. And the music of Cory Lerios and Jon Dandrea is always original and exciting in a way most shows of the era (or even now) are not.

The series is not available on DVD, as I suppose the ratings were never good enough to justify it, but it is easy to find most of the series on Youtube. Give Mighty Max a chance. You won’t be disappointed.